Why Did I Get on this Mitford Kick?

Why the Mitfords?? They are about as far as one can get from the settler-Indian wars of American Colonization and expansion. When I tire of reading about the Native Americans and settlers hacking each other to death for the very land I live on today, I revert to my other great love—-England and its Empire days.

My reading this past spring and into the summer has been about the Mitford family–a family of six daughters and one son, children of Lord and Lady Redesdale, he an English baron. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitford_family The children were born between 1904–1920. The oldest daughter was Nancy, writer of delightful satirical novels and later of historical books. I read some of her books back in my college days which is where I developed a fondness for the Mitfords, disguised in her books as the Radletts. Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love are semi-autobiographical satirical novels, funny and frothy, which depict the siblings’ upbringing by their eccentric father, a land owning minor aristocrat, and their rather distant, and somewhat eccentric but very proper, mother. In the 1970’s I read and admired Jessica Mitford’s book, The American Way of Death, but did not connect her with this British family. A few years ago, I read The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell, which whetted my interest in reading the other biographical books and autobiographical books about the family. One could hardly get any father from savage American Indians and colonists than the Mitford family, minor aristocrats whose adventures in politics and romance drew headlines in their time.

Nancy married late and had no children. Her marriage was not a success and her happiest years were spent in France after the war, where she enjoyed Society and wrote her most successful novels. Later she wrote successful historical books about Voltaire, Madame Pompadour, and others. She loved chat, brilliant conversation, Dior gowns and couture clothing, anything French, and elegant social life. The second sister, Pamela, was married to the scientist, jockey, and war hero, Derek Jackson. She loved to raise dogs, farm, cook, and garden and was totally uninterested in politics. The only son was Tom Mitford, a lawyer and musician who was killed in the war in Burma in 1945; he joined his sisters Diana and Unity in loving Germany and German culture and requested to serve in the Far East rather than be part of the occupation army after the defeat of Hitler. The third sister was Diana, Lady Mosley, wife of the British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley, both of whom were imprisoned by her cousin-in-law Winston Churchill during WWII for over three years. [Lord Reddesdale was a first cousin of Clementine Churchill, so Diana was Clementine’s second cousin and the age of his older children.] The fourth sister was the infamous Unity Mitford, who developed a fascination with Hitler and went to Germany at about age 20 where she became his friend and chatting companion. She was an emphatic and loud “Jew-hater” and a Fascist; the day the war broke out between Germany and England, she shot herself. Gravely wounded, she was taken home to England, where she lived impaired for some years and died when she was 34. The fifth sister, Jessica, was called “Decca”; however, in the US, where she emigrated, she was known as Jessica Mitford. She eloped with Esmond Rommily right before WWII began. He was the nephew of Lady Clementine Churchill, wife of Winston, and the rumored love child of Winston Churchill and his sister-in-law. He was a pilot and was killed returning from a bombing run over Germany. Jessica remained in the US and later married an attorney named Bob Trefhauf. Both were leaders of the US Communist Party. Eventually they left the party but continued to be active in labor and civil rights fights. She became an author, writing The American Way of Death, an expose of corrupt funeral practices, among other muck-raking books. The youngest sister, the only one living, is Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, famous for her magnificent restoration of the Cavendish family home Chatsworth and other family properties. She has written books about Chatsworth, its garden, and country life. The Duchess, pithy, pragmatic, fun-loving, a sportswoman, lover of horses, dogs, and chickens, a countrywoman at heart, held the far-flung sisters together through all the later tribulations and disasters.

The Mitfords, like many British aristocrats, were drawn to Fascists during the middle part of the 20th Century, their mother more than their father, as he, a thorough patriot, rejected Hitler and the Nazis when the war began. The parents lived separately after the war due to their political disagreements. Unity and Diana were the “Right” extremes, both confidants of Hitler and associates of the Nazi leadership. On the other end of the spectrum was Jessica, early drawn to communism. She and Unity shouted party slogans at each other as teenagers, from the poster-decorated bedrooms of their country home. Deborah, on the other hand, was uninterested in politics. She preferred riding, raising ponies, shooting, gardening, and restoring old homes. She often entertained her husband’s uncle, Prime Minister Harold McMillan, who at the end of his life lived with them at Chatsworth for months at a time. Married to a duke, who was also a member of the British foreign service, she and her husband moved in the top political and social circles. Her brother-in-law, Lord William Hartington, married Kathleen Kennedy, sister of President John Kennedy. Billy was killed four months after their marriage in 1945, leaving Andrew, Deborah’s husband, as heir to the dukedom. Deborah knew John Kennedy and his siblings in London when his father was the American ambassador before the war. Her friendship with John Kennedy, cemented by her love of and relationship to his favorite sister, continued until his assignation; she attended both his Inauguration and Funeral with the family. 

The Mitfords are an absolutely fascinating family with eccentric, aristocratic parents and brilliant, creative children, all going in different directions, but connected with their love of reading and writing. Their books and the biographies and analysis written about them create a detailed and informative view of upper class life in Britain in the mid-20th century. As they were growing up in the teens, 20’s, 30’s, the ideas about socialism and communism were sweeping across Europe and being discussed and argued by everyone from the working classes to the aristocrats. Communism took over Russia and socialism/fascism took over Germany, Italy, and France. These ideas were explored and discussed—and fought over. It was not illegal at that time to belong to any of those parties, though Sir Oswald was imprisoned in the war, along with many of his followers, mainly because it was thought Germany would invade and he would be Hitler’s stooge. Diana was a close friend and chatting companion of Hitler for some years before the war, which further incriminated the couple. To be disloyal was not Mosley’s intention, but Winston was forced by public opinion to imprison them, without charges, which later resulted in serious discussions in Parliament about war time powers and panic. [note to US citizens—-war is never the time to cast off hard-won freedoms]. Diana found Hitler a fascinating character and liked him as a friend, a point-of-view that repulsed most of Britain. She was not one to be deviated by the opinions of the masses.

So, I read all of this, which forms a framework for understanding the political issues of Western civilization for the past few centuries. In the Regency, the backdrop for my favorite novelist, Jane Austen, the British Empire is being developed and expanded. In Victorian times, Trollope’s time, the sun never sets on the Empire. In the two world wars Britain is threatened and during WWII bombed dreadfully, fighting for its very life. Its ally France is occupied. The British aristocracy sent its sons to fight in both wars and was decimated. Almost every aristocratic family lost sons—note that the Devonshires lost their oldest son and the Mitfords lost their only son. The Mitford’s claim on the baronetcy died with Tom and the title passed to a cousin. Thus, was the political landscape of Britain re-shaped. England is an ancient land and the cradle of American ideas about law and democracy. Americans, in contrast, are new to the world stage and very adolescent in behavior and thinking—brash, pushy, uninterested in history, prone to mass hysteria on issues flamed by an ignorant and callus news media, full of bombast, bluff, and hot air. The British Empire lasted some 300 years; the American Empire is crashing in flames as we speak, and power is shifting to Asia.

Articles about the Mitfords

Mitford books, by and about Mitfords, which I have enjoyed reading:

Books by Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire

Chatsworth: The House (1980; revised edition 2002)
The Garden at Chatsworth (1999)
Counting My Chickens and Other Home Thoughts (2002) — essays
The Chatsworth Cookery Book (2003
Round and About Chatsworth (2005)
Memories of Andrew Devonshire (2007)

Novels by Nancy Mitford

Highland Fling 1931
Christmas Pudding 1932
Wigs on the Green 1935
Pigeon Pie 1940
The Pursuit of Love 1945
Love in a Cold Climate 1949
The Blessing 1951
Don’t Tell Alfred 1960

Books by Jessica Mitford

Hons and Rebs
The American Way of Death

Books about the Mitford family

The House of Mitford, Jonathan Guinness (Hutchinson, London 1984)
Diana Mosley: Mitford Beauty, British Fascist, Hitler’s Angel, Anne DeCourcy, October, 2004
The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, Mary S. Lovell
The Mitfords: Letters between Six Sisters, Charlotte Mosley, editor, November 2007

Little House on the Prairie

When I was a girl, my mother gave me The Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the first of the “Little House” books, which were favorites of hers when she was a girl. I loved that book, and the rest of the series, dearly and read each book several times. It is my family’s story: all four of my grandparents were children of pioneers who arrived on the prairies of Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa in covered ox wagons after long treks across Indiana, Illinois, or Wisconsin or in wooded southern Indiana after long treks through Tennessee and Kentucky. I use the term “pioneer” here to mean “people settling and farming on land which had not previously been settled by Europeans.” The parents of my grandparents came from families who were in the Appalachian Mountains at the time of Daniel Boone and Lewis and Clark, frontiersmen who fought in the boarder wars before, during, and after the Revolution, early settlers of Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, and North Carolina. The family of my grandmother, Hazel Lewis Parsons, carried the story of their descent from the same Lewis family as Meriwether Lewis down through the generations and across the plains. I have not yet “proved” that fact, but old family stories often have elements of truth.

A couple of years ago, I purchased the entire set of Little House books and re-read them. I was astonished at what I understood from an adult perspective: a layer of sadness and failure grips the stories. When I was reading the books as a child, I was enthralled with the adventures and the sense of exploration as the family moved to new homes. As an adult, I saw the little family struggling to survive, to find success, to find a place to thrive. Pa moves the family from here to there, looking for land and work. A good carpenter, he is not a successful farmer. Ma grows more careworn as the years pass, losing a child [not in the books, but in real life] and coping with their daughter Mary’s blindness.The hardships they endure in South Dakota, Minnesota, and Kansas are so typical of pioneer families, including my own. Some thrive in the new settlements on the prairie, but others wither, crushed by hardships and deaths.

Like Laura’s family, all of my pioneer lines were farmers, farming land they received from the government in land patents for military service or bought after working/renting first. Very few had the cash to plunk down to buy a farm. They lived close to the land; it was their livelihood, their insurance, their inheritance. From the old pictures, the family farms are modest and neat, not hard-scrabble. However, the families who settled in Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and North Carolina at first lived in Abe Lincoln type log cabins, building more prosperous frame homes later.

In the Colonial days, some Old Virginia families practiced primogeniture, the land going to the oldest son; at first, German families followed similar practices. Quakers generally divided their inheritances equally. The old farm families followed the traditions of their native lands, but as the young democracy took hold and grew, dividing the land equally among the children became the common practice, or at least finding a way to make the inheritance equal became the practice, such as affluent fathers buying more land to help their children get started. With such large families, often 10-15 pregnancies in a woman’s lifetime, the older children had to strike out on their own, with one of the younger children staying on the “home” farm or perhaps a grandchild remaining to care for the family land and aging parents. Often, though, in my family, aging or widowed parents were taken along as the family migrated. The 1850 U.S. Census is the first to record everyone’s name, age, and birthplace, making it possible to see the migration patterns. It is interesting to see these practices in my family lines across many generations. Several of my mother’s family lines meet in Ohio–Patton, Marsh, Lewis–including one marriage in Hamilton, Ohio [now Butler County] in 1792–and other lines settled in Southern Ohio around 1800-1820. By 1810, the Indiana Territory is opened for settlement, and my mother’s Lewis, Starry, Patton, and Riner lines are settlers in the mid-to-late 1820’s. By 1850, the younger generation is moving on to Illinois and by 1870, many are moving on to Kansas. In 1848, my father’s grandfather, Davis Rogers Doud, D.R.’s mother Martha Rogers Doud, and several brothers, sisters, cousins, and spouses, migrate from Trumbell County in eastern Ohio to Illinois and settle in Grundy County. D. R. Doud and his two younger brothers were farmers and Methodist circuit rider ministers. After the Civil War, the younger generation in most of these families moved on to Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska. Interestingly, a Doud line lived right down the road from the Lewis-Riner families in Jewell County, Kansas, although no one knew the connection until I began researching. That Kansas Doud was a first cousin of my grandmother Harriet Doud Shafer, son of her father’s older brother Israel Doud, who settled in Iowa.

In re-reading the “Little House” books, I was also struck by her family’s isolation from their extended family. Reading the later biographies of Laura and her daughter Rose, I learned that was not completely true; the connections were just not included in the stories. Both of Laura’s parents came from large families and occasionally they visit with relatives or relatives stop to visit with them. Still, they did not travel in family groups the way earlier generations of my family traveled. When I studied the 1880 plat map of Burr Oak Township in Jewell County, Kansas, I was startled. Down two roads are farm after farm of Lewis and Riner cousins or siblings—Pangborns, Drakes, Skeels, Millers, Grubbs, Lewis. They came in small groups over a period of 10-12 years from Onarga, Illinois, settled, raised their families, and died; their bones rest in the beautiful old Burr Oak Cemetery. Earlier generations of these same families had traveled together in groups from Ohio and Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Illinois. Some in the next generation, like my grandparents, my mother and her sister, moved back east, while others of their cousins moved on to Colorado and California. Inferring the isolation of the Ingalls family made me sad, just as I have been heartened to trace the intertwined relationships of my Riner-Lewis families and their cross-country, multi-generation, migration with family and friends. Quite a few of us are still out here in the heartland.

Father Riner

One summer day in 1999, I decided to clean the upstairs closet where I had deposited boxes of my mother’s papers, as well as stored my college clothing from the early 1960’s and other treasures. The closet runs the depth of the house–22 feet–and is four feet deep; it holds LOTs of stuff. After my mother died in 1996, my father divided her papers and possessions, rather randomly, and gave some to each of the three children. My brother is the music teacher, but I ended up with her organ and piano music. However, I set the box of music aside and dragged out several boxes of old letters. As I examined each paper, slowly working my way through the large box, I came upon a large manila envelope from my great-aunt Mattie Lewis Grubbs in Kansas, postmarked 1974. Inside were two large cardboard pages, pasted front and back with newspaper clippings. I drew them out and casually read through to see if I recognized any names. Grubbs was the most familiar name, but what caught my eye was the yellowed obituary for “Father Riner,” which was centered on one page. Daniel Riner was born in 1796 in Harper’s Ferry, Berkeley County, Virginia and died in 1885 in Burr Oak, Jewell County, Kansas. The name tugged at the edge of my memory; my grandmother’s maiden name was Hazel Lewis and my grandfather was Ralph Parsons. The name “Riner” was not familiar—and yet, it was.

I laid the page aside and walked downstairs to find the Kansas trip pictures. I had taken my mother to Kansas in 1992, where we visited her cousins in Jewell County. We visited Formosa, the town where she was born in 1918 and Randall, the town where she grew up, as well as Burr Oak, where her mother Hazel was born in 1895 and where her grandfather Calvin Lewis had homesteaded in 1871 after the Civil War. We also visited the homesites of her father’s family, the Parsons. We visited several family cemeteries and I had taken pictures of the gravestones. Rummaging through the pictures, I found the one I was seeking: the gravestone of Mary Riner Clayton [1838-1889]—the grandmother of my grandmother Hazel Lewis. I took the picture and ran up the stairs to compare it with the news clippings. I could hardly believe what I saw. Daniel Riner had to be the father of Mary Riner. The room absolutely spun as I realized I had found the obituary of my grandmother’s great-grandfather—six generations from Daniel to me. I began to read the rest of the obits and down in the right hand corner of the page was an obit for Mary Riner Clayton, who died five years after her father. After I searched through my desk, I found the family tree I had written down on the Kansas trip. It did not go back to Daniel, but did identify my grandparents’ brothers and sisters, many of whose graves and former homes we had visited.

“Father Riner” married Mary “Polly” Starry in Berkeley County, Virginia [now WV] in 1826 and in 1829 they moved with her parents, Daniel and Hannah Smith Starry, and some siblings, to Warren County, Indiana, where Daniel Riner received a land patent and they raised a family of nine children. In 1850, the family moved fifty miles northwest to Iroquois County, Illinois where by 1867 Daniel owned 520 acres of land. Tragedy began to strike a few years after the move to Illinois as TB infected the families crowded in small cabins. The third son, Samuel, died in 1857, age 20. Then Mary Starry Riner died in 1861, followed a few months later in 1862 by the second son Daniel, age 29. Daughter Elizabeth Riner Kennison Kizer died in 1872, leaving a family of children. The oldest Riner son, Jacob, having served as a lieutenant in Company M, 9th Illinois Cavalry and having resigned six months later due to ill health, moved his family to Lebette County, Kansas in 1868, where his wife died in 1870, and he died in 1874, leaving three underage orphans who were cared for by their older brothers. Daniel Riner married his sister-in-law Rhoda Starry in 1862 and she died in 1867. Afterwards, he married Penny Wilcox in 1867 and divorced her several years later. On the 1880 Census, Daniel is living in Onarga with his granddaughter Martha Drake Duncan, next door to John W. Grubb, the grandfather of Mattie Lewis Grubb’s husband Homer Grubbs. Around 1883, the surviving children brought Daniel to Burr Oak, Kansas, where he lived with his youngest daughter Susannah Riner Skeels and her husband Robert. Daniel died in 1885 and the family took his body back to Onarga, Illinois where he is buried next to his first two wives, Mary and Rhoda Starry. The five surviving Riner children all died in Burr Oak: Mary Riner Clayton in 1889; Susannah Riner Skeels in 1892; Roseanna Riner Pangbourn in 1893; Hannah Riner Drake in 1899; and William Riner in 1907.

My grandmother Hazel had talked often of Onarga and a couple of years later, well into my genealogy research, when I finally looked up Onarga on the map, I had another head-spinning moment. Many times on my way home from visiting son Jim in Madison, Wisconsin, where he was in graduate school from 1993-2001, I had left I-39 and driven across Illinois on Highway 24, coming out north of Lafayette, Indiana and driving on down I-65 to home. Highway 24 goes through Iroquois County, Illinois. About two miles north of Onarga, the road jogs north and then goes through Watseka, the county seat. Every time I took this not-short-cut, I would wonder why, but I was drawn to drive across that stretch of land again and again. Years later, I understood. Unknowingly, I had been driving through the farms my family settled in 1850-1855. Onarga is directly east of Peoria on the eastern border of Illinois. To travel to Burr Oak in Jewell County, Kansas, one would go due west, dropping south a slight angle of less than fifty miles….i.e. point the oxen west and start out. Today the route to Burr Oak takes one on Highway 36 which is 20 miles south of the Nebraska border and runs parallel to the northern border of Kansas. Burr Oak, Kansas is twenty miles from Red Cloud, Nebraska, home of Willa Cather and the setting for some of her novels.

William Riner and his wife Jenny Lewis Riner were the first of Daniel Riner’s children to arrive in Burr Oak, coming in 1872. By 1882, Daniel’s daughters Roseanna Riner Pangbourn and Hannah Riner Drake had arrived with their husbands and children. The youngest daughter Susannah and her husband Robert Richland Skeels came in 1872, left in 1874, and returned in 1881. Mary Riner Hunt Clayton, my great-great grandmother, and her second husband Ben Clayton homesteaded in Franklin and Coffey Counties in Kansas in 1868, and later settled in Yates Center in Woodson County. Ben Clayton’s obit was on that cardboard sheet, as was that of George Fry, first husband of my great-grandmother Belle Hunt Fry Lewis. Ben and George died within a few months of each other in 1883-84. Their widows, Belle and Mary, mother and daughter, along with Belle’s two small daughters, soon moved to Burr Oak to be with Mary’s family. Thus, the five surviving children of Father Riner were living in Burr Oak in late 1884 when a family portrait was taken showing the white-haired patriarch surrounded by his four daughters and one surviving son.

In the spring of 1871, after his wife and son died, my great-grandfather Calvin Lewis, and his older brother Tom, left their home in Onarga, Iroquois County, Illinois and homesteaded in Burr Oak, Kansas. They were the third homesteaders in Burr Oak. The first winter they lived in a dugout along the creek, afraid to build a fire because the Indians would stuff grass in the stovepipe. In the fall of 1872, Calvin’s brother William Lewis and his wife Phebe Brown Lewis, Calvin’s sister Jenny and her husband William Riner [son of Daniel] and their mother Lydia Patton Lewis, along with their aunt Elizabeth Lewis Miller and her sons Thomas Miller and Washington Miller, came to Burr Oak from Onarga in a wagon train and settled on farms near Calvin and Thomas Lewis. William Riner, Calvin Lewis, Thomas Lewis, and William Lewis, along with other Riner cousins, had all served in Company M, 9th Illinois Calvary in the Civil War, fighting engagements along the Mississippi. Thomas and William Lewis were captured and spent 18 months in Andersonville Prison. After the War, the younger generation was looking for land and many families from Onarga saw their children leave to pioneer in Kansas and the West.

My great-grandmother Belle Lewis’s obit was not on those sheets and I later wrote to the Kansas historical society for a copy. Whoever wrote Belle Lewis’s obit, when she died in 1938, did not know the story of the second Lewis-Riner marriage. Of course, it took me several years to piece it together. In 1878, having homesteaded a few years in Burr Oak, Calvin Lewis married Sue Biggs. After having two sons, James and Earl, Sue died in childbirth with her third child in 1883, widowing Calvin Lewis for the second time. His sister Jenny Lewis Riner raised one son and Tom Lewis and his wife Lydia took the other. Belle’s obit states that she met Calvin while visiting her brothers in Iowa in 1886. Well……not really. On the 1870 Census in Onarga, Illinois, Calvin and his first wife Tillie Denning, and their daughter Hattie, are living next door to Daniel Riner. Belle, Daniel’s granddaughter, was born in 1861 in Onarga, and obviously would have known her grandfather’s next door neighbor when she was a child. Her family moved to Kansas in 1868, but since her uncle William Riner married Calvin’s youngest sister Jenny Lewis in 1867, the families clearly knew each other quite well. There were only several hundred people in Onarga in 1870. Odd how the stories are forgotten or confused by later generations. The U.S. Census is an excellent means of straightening out misconstrued family chronology.

When I took my mother to visit in Kansas, we visited the Burr Oak Cemetery, which is set on a hillside southeast of town. Over the years, evergreens have grown to surround the graves. It is a lovely place, a windswept hillside on the prairie. We visited Great-grandmother Belle’s grave, and that of her mother Mary nearby, and saw the tall monument erected for Belle’s brother Daniel who was electrocuted while serving in the Army in 1907. I still think about the visit to that cemetery where I heard the friendly spirits of the family call to me that day. A few dozen people buried in that cemetery are blood kin and I felt at home there, surrounded by many loved ones. I heard their call and pondered on it for some years, until the day I found Father Riner’s obit. Discovering Father Riner was a life changing moment for me. Within a few days I had bought a genealogy program and begun a serious family genealogy research project. I have traced many family lines, but the Lewis-Riner line that met in Onarga, Illinois about 1853 and pioneered in Burr Oak, Kansas in 1871 is especially dear to my heart. I hope the family spirits who called to me that day approve my bringing forth their stories for yet another generation to read.