Little Egypt Heritage Articles
Stories of Southern Illinois
© Bill Oliver
25 September 2005
Vol 4 Issue: #36
Osiyo, Good Evening Ladies and Gentlemen of Little Egypt,
How does one travel from cemeteries to the death mask of the French
Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte in one article? Well, by carefully changing
one letter at a time to form a new ‘trail’. That is the way this week’s
readings began and ended. A reader wrote to inform me that she had used
pictures of grave stones of her ancestors to mark the trail of migration
of her family. This rather intrigued me, so off I went to jot down some
notes to see where they led me. They eventually led me to just that –
the death mask of Napoleon.
First one has to find the correct cemeteries, which is not always as
easy as it might look. One looks for obituaries and death certificates
for clues. Also, consulting funeral home records will divulge the
answer. There might be a Card in a family Bible, used as a book mark,
which gives details of an individual’s vital facts – hatch, patch, and
dispatch – including interment.
Consecrated ground may not always be the safest place; thus care must be
taken when visiting cemeteries. Overgrown burial sites may be home for
snakes or other rather dangerous critters, even the possible two legged
variety. If the cemetery is on private land, the owner might be quite
unhappy about trespassers.
If one is to make a migration record by using photographs, then one
needs a camera. Then to get a clear readable picture, one has to
carefully plan the taking of the picture. Shadows aid in the reading of
inscriptions on a monument.
The tombstones of our ancestors were meant to be lasting memorials to
the lives of those buried beneath. Because we arrive at the resting
places of ancestors who died a hundred and/or more years ago, we may
find that headstones are not in their best condition – time, weather
(including ice), tree roots, turf, and vandals affect them. They may
have been broken or fallen over and are now buried beneath the ever
expanding turf. Hopefully, the stones have been recorded somewhere,
sometime, by someone.
Due to these things, we, the collectors, need to think about the access
to our information of other family members and future descendants. This
led me to think about the expenses of replacing or refurbishing
monuments, which in turn reminded me that headstones and markers are
provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs – at their expense – to
mark the burial sites of eligible veterans buried in any cemetery.
My McMAHAN-OLIVER families migrated from Virginia, to North/South
Carolina, to Kentucky to southern Illinois. However, 3rd Great Grandma
McMAHAN married an OLIVER in Kentucky. Recently it was discovered by
tracing them through census records that 2nd Great Grandpa OLIVER’s
father and mother were born in Alabama. That apparent [though not yet
proven] relatives who remained in Alabama served under Forrest in his
cavalry at the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads where another 2nd Great
Grandpa, who served in the Union Army, was wounded and in a few months
died as a result of those wounds. This records that kin opposed each other.
Alabama was on the migration pattern of another branch of my ancestry –
the CRENSHAWs. They also traveled from Virginia, into both Carolina’s,
through Georgia and some settled in Alabama. From there they migrated to
New Madrid, which was, at the time of a 3rd Great Grandpa’s birth, still
the Louisiana Purchase territory. This is the family which decided that
earthquakes weren’t much to their liking, thus, migrated then into
Louisiana has been in the news of late. The aptly named Sala Capitular
is considered one of the most prestigious rooms or setting for official
ceremonies by Louisianans. Maybe this is so due to the fact that the
final transfers of the Spanish Colony was transfered to France on 30
November 1803, exactly 107 years before the birth of my Father. Then,
twenty days later, it was the setting of the transfer of the Louisiana
Territory to the United States of America.
The Sala Capitular was a courtroom for the cabildo [city hall] from 1799
to 1803 under the Spanish Flag, and the superior court during the
territorial period of 1803 to 1812. Then it became the Louisiana Supreme
Court after the Civil War until 1910.
Had not the twelve-year revolt in the French colony of Santa Domingue
succeeded, France would have completed a bargain [The Treaty of
Ildfonso] which was to give Spain a kingdom in exchange for the return
of Louisiana to France.
The young United States wanted the territory around New Orleans to
protect its rights to sail the Mississippi River, as well as provide
territory to American settlers and merchants who were already settling
in the region.
In discovering the transfer of Louisiana from Spain to France the U.S.
began attempts to purchase the region. Due to the collapse of Napoleonic
plans - the loss of Haiti - Louisiana was no longer an asset, but rather
a liability. Napoleon sold Louisiana to Thomas Jefferson [the United
The Sala Capitular was host to the Marquis de Lafayette in April 1825.
Lafayette, who assisted the Americans in the War for Independence, was a
hero of the French Revolution. For this the Sala Capitular [The
Surrender Room] was converted into a lavish drawing room where Lafayette
could meet with various delegations during his stay.
During the time that the cabildo [city hall] was used for the Louisiana
State Supreme Court, two very famous cases were heard here and in the
Supreme Court of the United States of America. One, the case of Homer
Plessay established the doctrine of “separate but equal” which legalized
segregation for more than an additional fifty years.
The longest running lawsuit in the United States ran between 1834 and
1890. This was known as the Myra Clark Gaines Case that involved her
claims to her father’s estate. It was awarded to Ms Clark posthumously,
five years after her death. In suing for this, she spent her husband’s
fortune and died penniless.
Legends always contain some fact and are expanded by fiction. In the
memorabilia of things, Louisiana has the legendary death mask of the
French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. According to ‘legend’, Napoleon was
to be swept away from exile imprisonment on St Helena and brought to
Louisiana. However, Napoleon died three days before a ship manned by
Louisiana pirates was to set sail for the New World.
The legendary artifact [death mask] was displayed in the Cabildo. In
1853 it was moved to the offices of the City authorities when they
moved. It was lost or misplaced during the Civil War. In 1866, as the
story goes, a former city treasurer eyed the mask in things to be hauled
to the dump in a junk wagon.
The story ‘thickens’ – did the good citizen return the relic? No, Nelly,
he took it home to display it there. By the early years of the 21st
century, it was in the hands of the president of the Mexican National
Railroad, Captain William Greene Raoul. Upon reading about the missing
mask he offered it back to the city of New Orleans in exchange for
Today, it is displayed in the Louisiana State Museum.
Ah, yes, the Louisiana Purchase! And, that is how one can go from
cemeteries to death masks.
e-la-Di-e-das-Di ha-wi nv-wa-do-hi-ya nv-wa-to-hi-ya-da.
(May you walk in peace and harmony) and
Other sites worth visiting:
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