The prompt for Week #13 of the 52 Ancestors/52 Weeks Challenge is DIFFERENT: What ancestor seems to be your polar opposite?
Preston Denton, 1811-1860, my 3x great grandfather
I had trouble deciding who to write about this week, since so many of my ancestors lived lives so different from mine. So many of them were pioneer farmers with little formal education. Or they were railroaders. Very few were city dwellers involved in academia. However, I like to think I got my work ethic from these people, so in some ways I feel a very bedrock identification with most of them. One of them, however, seems to stand out as different from the others. In fact, the question I have about him, a question I can’t imagine asking about 99% of my ancestors, is this:
“Was Preston Denton a Ne’er-Do-Well”?*
Preston Denton was born to Jonathan and Susannah Conlee Denton in Barren County, Kentucky on 4 Dec 1811. He was the ninth of fourteen children. The family moved from Kentucky to Madison County, Illinois in 1820 when Preston was nine years old. While Preston’s siblings would eventually settle, at least for the most part, in Shelby County, Illinois, Preston seems never to have taken root anywhere. In every decade of his life, he had a new home. Here’s what I know of his many moves:
- 1811 | Born in Barren County, Kentucky. The family was in Kentucky at least until 1816.
- 1820 | 9-year-old Preston was living with the family in Madison County, Illinois. Maybe the family stayed there until Jonathan Denton’s death in 1828.
- 1830 | 19-year-old Preston was in Montgomery County, Ill., still living with his mother and the younger children.
- 1835 | 24-year-old Preston married Elizabeth Traughber in Shelby County, Ill.
- 1836 | 25-year-old Preston bought land in Christian County, Ill. Shelby and Christian share a boundary line. His brothers Jonathan and Reuben also bought land in the area around the same time.
- 1840 | 29-year-old Preston and his family are still in Christian County. Maybe the marriage to Elizabeth stabilized his life somewhat. Their land was next to land owned by Martin Stombaugh, who was married to Catherine Traughber, Elizabeth’s sister. Unfortunately, Elizabeth died in 1848, an event which may have precipitated another move.
- 1850 | 39-year-old Preston was in Flat Branch Twp., Shelby County, Ill., married again but seemingly down on his luck, since the census shows him not owning any land of his own. His brothers, on the other hand, were prosperous landowners in the area. The census shows him living near his brother Reuben Denton, so I wonder if he wasn’t living on Reuben’s land.
- 1855| 44 year-old Preston and family were still in Shelby County in 1855, but shortly after the Illinois State Census was taken, Preston moved again, this time to Birdville, Tarrant County, Texas. Did he move there with other families? How long did he stay? I can’t answer those questions, except that I know he was back in Shelby County, Illinois again before he died in 1860. I’ve never found his gravesite, but there’s a good chance he was buried in Cemetery Unknown (Campbell Cemetery).
So why do I refer to Preston Denton as a ne’er-do-well? I don’t call him that just because of his many moves, although the moves are a part of it. The 1850 census gives a good snapshot of what seemed to be going wrong with Preston’s life.
At the age of 38, with nine children of his own and a very young second wife, Preston evidently owned no land, since the “Value of Real Estate Owned” box is left blank. When he died ten years later at the age of 48, he left only a small amount of household items and also left small amounts of money in debt, owed to various men all over the neighborhood. What had gone wrong in Preston’s life that he seemed to be so different from his prosperous brothers?
Preston was the ninth of fourteen children, so it was probably easy to get overlooked in a group that size, especially coming in towards the end. Preston’s father died when he was 17 years old. On my shelf is a book about Abraham Lincoln and his family that calls up an interesting comparison between someone like Preston Denton and Abe’s father, Thomas Lincoln. The book is The Young Eagle, by Kenneth J. Winkle (2001). Thomas, writes Winkle, seems to have had difficulties all his life with “getting on,” and he relates this to the fact that Thomas’s father died at a young age, like Preston’s.
[Thomas’s] holdings were modest compared to those of his father, whose early death had definitely taken the Lincolns down in the world.
Preston’s father, Jonathan Denton, much like Thomas Lincoln’s father, was only 54 years old when he died, and Susannah Denton, Preston’s mother, had five children to raise who were younger than Preston. At the age of 17, Preston wasn’t old enough when his father died to be established on his own, yet he wasn’t really young enough to be a dependent part of his mother’s household. He was certainly old enough to be expected to work to help his mother, but working for his mother would have only delayed his ability to go out on his own. His older brothers, already established when their father died, were expected to continue to work their own land. The only brother younger than he was, Reuben, cared for his mother as he got older and was the one who inherited the family farm. Winkle could have been writing about Preston when he wrote about Thomas Lincoln:
Lacking a father’s example, perhaps, Thomas managed his land holdings carelessly for the rest of his life. In short, Thomas devoted little, if any, attention to leaving his son Abraham a landed patrimony of his own.
In 1838 when Preston was 26 years old, married to Elizabeth Traughber for three years and with two children in the family, Preston bought 40 acres of land in Christian County, Ill., paying $50 cash. Elizabeth died ten years later, in 1848, and by 1850 Preston owns no land, according to the 1850 census. Land records have yet to be researched to see what happened to Preston’s 40 acres. Several of Preston’s brothers bought land around the same time. Unlike Preston, by the 1850 census all of his brothers who lived in the area had increased their land by hundreds of acres. In the agricultural society that was mid-19th century Illinois, the worth of a man was measured by his land holdings. By this measure, Preston was seriously lacking.
Another description of Thomas Lincoln in Winkler struck me as something that might help illuminate Preston’s life in a more helpful way:
One of the Lincolns’ in-laws, Nathaniel Grigsby, remembered Thomas Lincoln as ‘not a lazy man’ but a ‘piddler–always doing but doing nothing great.’ Thomas ‘had but few wants and Supplied these. He wanted few things and Supplied them Easily’ (135).
“Always doing but doing nothing great” seems to fit my estimate of Preston. He seems to have been rather restlessly on the move, which also fits Winkler’s description of the pioneer vs. the civilizer:
Pioneers took the land from the Native Americans, broke it, and prepared the way for the ‘civilizers,’ who built towns and brought refinement. Yet the pioneers lost their independent way of life precisely as the land they clear grew civilized . . . . they ceased to live a frontier life when the frontier moved beyond them. One solution was simply to keep moving (147).
Which is what Preston did–keep moving. He married a second time shortly after his first wife died, had more children, and then made a lateral move to Birdville, Texas, a move which evidently did nothing to change Preston’s luck. He was in his mid-forties when he moved his family to Texas sometime after 1855; he moved them back to Shelby County, Ill. before he died at the age of 48 in 1860. Another comparison from Winkle might be helpful in understanding what was in Preston’s mind concerning this move to Texas. Abe Lincoln’s stepbrother, John D. Johnston, made the same sort of lateral move that Preston made, going from Illinois to Arkansas, and his brother Abe had some harsh words for him:
My life upon it, you will never after, own a spot big enough to bury you on (147).
Lincoln’s words seem to have been prophetic. John D. Johnson died at the age of 43, leaving an estate valued at less than $56. Preston’s probate record shows him to be in similar shape, owning what seems like a pitiful few worldly goods for a man of his age, the bare minimum even for a subsistence farmer. He owned one lot of oats; one lot of corn in the field; a hoe and an ax; one sheep, one gray horse, and one two-year-old colt; a cow and a calf; one churn, one tub, one washboard; one wagon & harness. He also had three beds and bedding, six chairs, and one stove.
So was Preston Denton a ne’re-do-well? He seems to have been, compared to his brothers, and certainly seems to have been one of those people who just couldn’t quite get on in life. And yet maybe there’s another way of looking at Preston’s life. Preston seems to have had the pioneer mindset, as Winkler describes. However, I found a different, perhaps less harsh description of the pioneer in a book written about Isabel Paterson, an original and influential thinker who wrote the 1943 book, The God of the Machine. Remembering her own family’s covered wagon trip to their new home in Canada when she was a child, Paterson suggested that pioneer life had a kind of peacefulness and monotony “which we suspect is what the pioneers wanted,” quotes her biographer Stephen Cox in The Woman and the Dynamo:
They tried to get away from the hazards of civilization, its demand on their nerves and brains, of competing, adapting, and sharing. . . . on the frontier, where freedom to loaf was more highly prized than hard work and stern ambition (172).
Maybe Preston Denton was a man like this, someone who prized his freedom more than he prized “getting ahead”; someone who really didn’t give a damn about what other people “expected” of him; someone who was content to live and let live. If that was the case, then maybe in many ways I’m more like Preston that I thought.
I can’t know what was in Preston Denton’s mind and heart. He left precious little trace of himself. He can’t have been expecting to die at the age of 48. The 1860 census shows that Preston’s widow and some of their younger children had moved in with the family of Preston’s nephew, his young wife evidently not having a home of her own once Preston died. His legacy was to leave his family in perilous shape, as further illustrated by the fate of his oldest son. In the way that he was failed by his own father, Preston evidently failed to provide a patrimony of some kind for his eldest son, either land or education or skill. Preston’s son, Fleming Denton, never married, never had a home of his own, and died in the county poorhouse, a fact that seems to be an indictment of the father as much as it is of the son. Or maybe it’s no indictment at all, but is simply the way of the world, the luck of the draw. Preston had another son, Jonathan, my 2x great grandfather, who managed better than his father or his older brother–a story for another day.
Cox, Stephen. The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America. Transaction Publishers, Brunswick, New Jersey, 2004.
Winkle, Kenneth J. The Young Eagle: The Rise of Abraham Lincoln. Taylor Trade Publishing, Dallas, Texas, 2001.
*I’ve posted a version of this story at Ancestry.com, shared as “labwriter.”