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Middling Folk: Three Seas, Three Centuries, One Scots-Irish Family

Middling Folk: Three Seas, Three Centuries, One Scots-Irish Family

by Linda H. Matthews

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Telling the stories of those who quietly conducted the business and built the livelihoods that made their societies prosper or fail, this account shows how one Scots-Irish American family, the Hammills—millers, wagon makers, and blacksmiths—lived out their lives against the backdrop of the American Revolution, the Civil War, and westward expansion.


Telling the stories of those who quietly conducted the business and built the livelihoods that made their societies prosper or fail, this account shows how one Scots-Irish American family, the Hammills—millers, wagon makers, and blacksmiths—lived out their lives against the backdrop of the American Revolution, the Civil War, and westward expansion. Spanning three centuries from the shores of Ireland to the Chesapeake Bay Area to the Pacific Northwest, this saga brings to life the early days of the founding of this country through the lens of the middle class. From revolutions, uprisings, and economic booms and busts to owning slaves in the colonial South, these personal encounters through dramatic historical events depict the private dramas—tragic deaths, business successes and failures, love and loss—of the ordinary families who helped shape this country and managed to hold their own through turbulent times.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
From North Ayrshire, Scotland, to Northern Ireland to various locations throughout North America, a middle-class family named Hammill is documented with stringent attention to detail by Matthews, founder of Chicago Review Press and a Hammill family descendant. Weaving historical prose with mawkish (though clearly set-off) sections of “fictions of my own devising,” Matthews attempts to illustrate a multigenerational drama in order to convey the history of ordinary people. The best documented family history begins with John Hammill, who left Northern Ireland for Maryland colony in 1725, yet even here the author occasionally injects a personal note (“I hope that Lucretia rose above her housewife's dismay”). Matthews is at her best relating major events that draw on primary sources, such as the transcript of the post–Civil War trial of Virginian Hugh Hammill, charged with providing a boat to the Confederates, or the trek west made by William and Lucretia Hammill in the 1880s. Matthews succeeds in showing that “the Hammill family passed along its preferences” through several generations, yet fails to validate her dubious claim that “if more people... retrieved and told their family stories to see what they reveal—well, this would be a better world....” Illus., maps. (Nov.)
Matthews is a graceful writer, providing the necessary historical facts and documentations while keeping us squarely focused on the people and their stories . . . Simply splendid.
Kirkus Reviews
Chicago Review Press cofounder and former publisher Matthews traces her family history, uncovering an ordinary family's place in, and effect on, history. The author acknowledges that history is blurry and often imperfect, but she recounts the undisputed facts of her ancestry with a historian's precision and fills in the blanks and the probables with a novelist's imagination. Matthews charts an ordinary family, the Hammills, back centuries, as they made their way from southwest Scotland to Northern Ireland, then to the Chesapeake Bay region of North America, and finally on to the Pacific Northwest. In each setting and time period, the middle-class Hammills were literate and adaptable, comfortable with social structure and respected in their communities. As pioneers they seized opportunities presented to them. They were businessmen, clerks, lawyers, blacksmiths, wagon builders and lumber and flour millers. Matthews diligently follows them through historical and social events and shifts: mass migrations, religious persecutions, loss of ancestral lands, the American Revolution, slavery and the Civil War, westward expansion and economic depressions and booms. She illustrates how these major historical events affected the often-overlooked ordinary folk, and vice versa. As the family cyclically passes through the private dramas of births and deaths, weddings and funerals, hopes and disappointments, gains and losses, the author unassumingly taps into the natural rhythm of life and history, drawing numerous universal conclusions about family, ancestry and social interaction. A deeply felt, illuminating narrative, ranging from textbook historical accounts to personal reflections.
From the Publisher

"Matthews is a graceful writer, providing the necessary historical facts and documentations while keeping us squarely focused on the people and their stories . . . Simply splendid."  —Booklist, starred review

"A deeply felt, illuminating narrative."  —Kirkus Reviews

"A richly textured, strongly researched and documented, beautifully written family history that any student of Americana will find irresistible. The 'novelistic' inventions that punctuate Matthews's historical narrative are uncannily evocative. A wonderful book!"  —Christopher Herbert, Chester D. Tripp Professor of Humanities, Northwestern University

"An often poignant story that is both instructive and witty—and likely to impel many to take a closer look at their own family trees."  —Larry Lockridge, professor of English, New York University; author, Shade of the Raintree: The Life and Death of Ross Lockridge, Jr.

"Middling Folk examines generations of a middle class family and in so doing opens a window to a part of America's history that has long been missing." —Katherine Bateman, author, Kentucky Clay: Eleven Generations of a Southern Dynasty

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Middling Folk

Three Seas, Three Centuries, One Scots-Irish Family

By Linda H. Matthews

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2010 Linda H. Matthews
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-56976-380-3



THE PARISH of Beith in North Ayrshire, Scotland, lies ten or so miles east of the Firth of Clyde, where the River Clyde empties into the North Channel of the Irish Sea. From the bluffs above the Firth, at the town of Largs, one can look west across the sea to the isles of Great and Little Cumbrae, Bute, and Arran, and then to the chains of islands and Highland peninsulas that extend nearly to the northern Irish coast. The view is both spectacular and enticing. For countless ages, traders, warriors, evangelists, and settlers ventured back and forth across that sea. Often they left progeny in their wake, and sometimes other traces of their visits.

Cuff Hill, at 675 feet above sea level, is the highest point in the parish of Beith and in all North Ayrshire. From it one can glimpse Loch Lomond to the north and the sparkling Firth of Clyde to the west. At the hill's summit are the remains of a Neolithic chambered tomb and a great stone that rocked in place for tens of centuries, until meddlesome humans made it settle by digging under it to find its fulcrum. The tomb's builders chose their site for that remarkablestone and for the views around it, of forested landscapes with the Firth in the distance.

Ages later, the ancient tomb and the rocking stone brought Druid priests, called coiffs, to Cuff Hill. There they enacted their rituals, for long enough that the hill took their name. Eventually, Christian evangelists supplanted them. In the ninth century A.D., St. Inan came from the Scots island of Iona to bring the word of God to the pagan Scots. He too favored Cuff Hill for his ministry. He preached at an outcropping of rock near the tomb and the rocking stone, with the wooded countryside stretching out below. The faithful who flocked to hear him called the place St. Inan's Pulpit. Long after his death, the first church built in the parish of Beith was named St. Inan's for the Irish monk.

Among those who gathered to watch the Druid rites and then to hear St. Inan preach were some whose surname eventually became Hammill. They lived in the vicinity of Cuff Hill for numberless generations before and after they took the family name. After 1600, a group of them left Scotland for Northern Ireland and then America. Though these Hammills traveled thousands of miles over many generations more, they seem always to have carried the view from Cuff Hill with them. Its wooded hillsides with water in the distance gave them their vision of home.

Two happy accidents make it possible to locate the family so certainly at such a distant time. First, the Hammills of North Ayrshire were long associated with an estate called Roughwood in the parish of Beith not far from Cuff Hill. The nineteenth-century genealogists and historians who devoted themselves to tracing Ayrshire's long history included them, if only by mention, in their published works. What they have to say about the family takes on a rather hodgepodge quality, for by the early nineteenth century the Hammills were for the most part just a memory in Scotland. One has the feeling that these historians were scrambling to find and render up whatever they could. That they did so is the second happy accident. If they had not made the scramble, almost nothing at all would be known of the Hammills of Roughwood.

Just below Cuff Hill is Hill o' Beith, where the town of Beith has grown up in the last three or four centuries. Beith — it rhymes with Keith — means birch tree in Gaelic. At one time the hill, like the countryside surrounding it, was thickly wooded. Local placenames like Threepwood (wood of quarrels), Roughwood, Woodside, and Hessilhead (Hazelhead) tell the story. Those woodlands vanished long ago; now the hill o' Beith is crowned by the steep roadways and tall, narrow, picturesque buildings of the town.

High Kirk, square and steepled, built about 1808, commands the town's highest point and is named for its location, not its manner of service. A block or so downhill stands Auld Kirk, tiny and black with age, surrounded by a jumbled yard of toppling gravestones. Its bell, still in place, carries an inscription: "This bell was given by Hew Montgomerie, sone of Hessilhead, anno 1614, and refounded by the Heritors of Beith, anno 1734." Trinity Church, the newest and largest of Beith's old churches, was built in the middle of the nineteenth century near the western edge of town. All three churches are Presbyterian; all are built of stone. Most other buildings in town are stone as well. Beyond them, the countryside rolls away in a hilly, irregular patchwork of greens and browns, studded with low farm buildings and occasional fences.

Like its woodlands, most of the manor houses of Beith parish have disappeared. The ruins of Hessilhead castle came down just after 1960, leaving a low stone archway half hidden by undergrowth. The house at Roughwood was demolished to make way for a limestone quarry in 1954. Nothing remains at Bradestane but open fields with cattle and stone quarries to the north.Yet through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, families of the neighborhood lived in these houses and enjoyed their long histories. Often they were descendants of the families who originally built them.

Located a mile or two southeast of Beith Hill, the Roughwood estate in the mid-nineteenth century consisted of 160 acres in the parish of Beith and 85 acres in the adjoining parish of Dalry, 245 acres in all. The old house would certainly have been built of stone. Two or three stories high, with a slate roof and stone floors, it probably had four smallish rooms on each of the upper stories, and two bigger rooms, the hall and the kitchen, on the ground level. The few windows would have been shuttered against rain and wind, so the house was dark, damp, and chilly except right at the fireside or in the kitchen with its great open hearth. That is where the family gathered, and the cook and other servants, too. Not luxurious, maybe not even comfortable, with heavy oaken doors, great chests for storage, and not much furniture aside from beds, benches, and a table or two, it would have had little in common with the elegant country homes so often pictured in photographs and films. Roughwood was a frugal Scots gentleman's household — nothing less, and nothing more.

The historian George Robertson says that the Hammill family was "very ancient" in the parish of Beith, going back to the year 1371 and possibly a century before. Its coat of arms supports these early dates. One of its devices is a crescent lying on its back, signifying that at least one family member fought in a crusade. Another is a two-pronged, long-handled rake called a shakefork. The shakefork is the symbol of the Cunningham family, North Ayrshire's dominant clan from the mid-twelfth to the mid-fi fteenth century. The story goes that a peasant lad of the Cunningham clan once used a shakefork to hide the Scots Prince Malcolm in a pile of hay. In that way the prince escaped his enemies, and he raised that lad to the thanedom of Cunningham as his reward. The shakefork in the Hammill coat of arms shows that they were allied with the Cunninghams when the coat was created.

Accompanying the crescent and the shakefork are a five-pointed star, or mullet, signifying that the owners of the crest were knights, and also a fleur-de-lis. In a Scots coat of arms, the fleur-de-lis signifies an ancient alliance — the "auld alliaunce" — between Louis VII of France and William the Lion of Scotland against the English, their common enemy. That alliance dates back to the thirteenth century, more evidence of the Hammill family's long history in Scotland.

However, no one knows exactly when Roughwood was granted to the family, or who the first Hammill to live there might have been. Ancient charters suggest that the first Hammill to live in Scotland was William de Hameville or de Heneuile or de Hamule. All three of these names are attested at the turn of the thirteenth century, in the reign of William the Lion. William de Hameville witnessed a charter granting fishing rights on the river Solway, in Dumfriesshire at Scotland's southwest border, sometime around 1190. William de Heneuile witnessed two other Dumf riesshire charters between 1194 and 1214. In 1206, Walter de Hamule was granted lands in Lothian. Are these different men or the same one?

The Oxford Dictionary of Surnames says that de Heneuile is a variant of de Hameville. De Hamule is probably another variant. All three names would have been pronounced "de Hameville" and are best transcribed that way. As for the inconsistency between Walter and William, given names were abbreviated in the shorthand script of ancient charters. "Wm" could easily be misread "Wr." The historian George Robertson concludes: "Whether this family be derived from this early Anglo-Norman settler, there is no evidence to shew; only, it seems to be not improbable." The Oxford Dictionary of Surnames and most family historians and genealogists take a firmer stand, indicating that William de Hameville was the progenitor of the Hammills of North Ayrshire.

The next question, of course, is how "de Hameville" became "Hammill" as the generations passed. Pronunciation is one indication. In Ireland and Scotland, Hammill is pronounced Hommyl. A taxicab driver in Dublin laughed when I introduced myself as a Hammill, pronouncing the "a" as in "apple," the American way. "You mean Hommyl," he corrected me. "Up north where that family settled, they all say Hommyl." More evidence can be found in scattered mentions of de Hommyl, Homyl, and Homel in Scots documents throughout the Middle Ages. These mentions suggest that de Hameville might have become Hammill over time in what was, after all, a very small and lightly populated country.

If the first Hammill in Scotland was a knight by the name of William de Hameville and if the Hammills of Roughwood descended from him, then the surname is not Scots but Norman in origin. Norman! I was very surprised by this — actually, I resisted it. Those Normans were butchers. Moreover, there is no bore like the one who boasts of Norman forebears, especially when the descent cannot be precisely documented. But in fact the association helps to predict the family's social milieu and its religious and political preferences across many generations. In no time at all, intermarriage with local families would have made the Hammills Norman in name but Scots in habit. Eventually de Hameville lost its identity and became just another of the enigmatic surnames one simply takes for granted. De Hameville became Hammill. Who would have thought?

William de Hameville was a few generations away from the Norman named de Hameville who was discharged into England at the time of the Conquest in 1066 or who crossed the Channel to seek his fortune in the British Isles shortly afterward. Scotland welcomed quite a number of these knights and their descendants in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, giving them grants of land, the right to a family crest or coat of arms, and other privileges in exchange for armed service along disputed borders and between feuding clans. With the passage of time, some of these knightly families became rich and influential. Many more evolved or perhaps devolved into the minor gentry of rural districts. The Hammills were certainly among the latter. Still, as minor gentry they took their places in an emerging middle class, a tiny sliver of medieval society that acted as a kind of buffer between the great baronial families that controlled whole regions and the freemen and indentured peasants who far outnumbered everyone else. The Hammills held onto that middle-class status with amazing tenacity. They hold it to the present day.

Not much can be known about individual Hammills through the medieval period except what their status as knights can show. From an early date, the knightly class served their overlords not only as fighters but also as administrators, witnessing documents, sitting on juries, or providing service as ushers or stewards in great households. Increasingly they served as tax collectors, bailiffs, and sheriffs, for as locals they were less likely to antagonize the populace than the "foreign" officers who were appointed by the king.

The scattered mentions given earlier show Hammills in just these roles. William de Hameville witnessed charters around the turn of the thirteenth century. In 1260, John Homel witnessed at an inquest at Irvine, a town not far from the parish of Beith. Andreas Homyl served as bailiff at Roxburgh in the fourteenth century. Another John Hommyl was master of the Latin grammar school at Aberdeen in 1418. Yet another was bailiff to Sir John Montgomery in 1433. All the while, de Hommyls were keeping up their charters for Roughwood. Such scraps of documentation fix the family securely in its position as minor gentry with administrative responsibilities in their communities.

They also make two other important connections. First is the frequency of the given name John among the Hammills. Together with Hugh and William, John persists as a favorite for six hundred years and more, up to the present day. Hugh and John tend to alternate as names for oldest sons. William is a choice for a younger son, as records from the seventeenth century onward make clear. William de Hameville of thirteenth-century Scotland — was he a younger son, just like the nineteenth-century William Hammill of Washington Territory in the American northwest? I like to think he was.

The other connection to notice is John Hommyl's position as bailiff to Sir John Montgomery in 1433. This mention is the first I know of between the Hammill and Montgomery families, but it is not the last. The two families were closely linked for centuries, in Scotland and then in Ireland later on. Had they been connected even earlier? Montgomery, like Hammill, is a Norman name. The Montgomeries achieved a much higher rank in the British social hierarchy than the Hammills ever did; they may have held that status in Normandy as well. Did the Montgomery/Hammill connection go back so far? It is impossible to know. Still, the duchy of Normandy was sparsely populated, and its social groups clung together both by preference and by necessity. Maybe the two families knew nothing of each other before they lived in Scotland — and maybe they did.

The Montgomeries held several estates in North Ayrshire. The one most often linked with the Hammills was Bradestane (Broadstone), a property of about four hundred acres not far from Roughwood. Like every other landed family in Britain at the time, neither the Hammills nor the Montgomeries owned these properties outright. Rather, they were feudal tenants: they leased or "held" their lands from an overlord or the king, in turn subletting it to their own tenants, peasant farmers who paid their rent in grain or animals at first, and then, as time passed, in coin.

These peasant farmers were generally indentured to their masters in the early Middle Ages. They "belonged to the land," had virtually no civil rights, could not move without permission, and were protected only by certain vaguely defined customs under the common law. They made up the majority of British subjects for many centuries. Of somewhat higher status was the class of freemen, or yeoman farmers. They did have certain civil rights, and they leased their land for a term of years that varied from place to place and century to century, though it was often twenty-one or thirty-one years. When the term elapsed, the lessee could not assume that his lease would be renewed, even if he could pay the higher rent that was generally demanded when a new lease began. Thus even a freeman's leasehold was not secure.

But gentlemen's leases were "heritable." They could be passed down the generations as long as the family paid its rents and provided the services that its overlord required. Moreover, these leases were written not for a term of years but on three lifetimes. The lease on three lives remained in force as long as one named person was still living, and rents could not be raised for that term. People named grandbabies in them, or magnates of the realm, assuming that the very young or the very rich would live longer than anyone else, and indeed these leases sometimes remained valid for sixty years or longer. They were the precursor of the ninety-nine-year commercial lease that is familiar today.

Properties leased on three lives held the status of freeholds under the law. They represented estates of "dignity," and the gentlemen who held them were known as "heritors," "kindly tenants," or "tenants-in-chief" of the lord to whom they paid their rents. The "heritors" of Beith who refounded the bell at Auld Kirk in 1734 were the gentry of their neighborhood, and they were not too modest to say so.

In England, gentlemanly tenants enjoyed the privilege of voting in parliamentary elections. In Scotland, their privilege and duty was to actually sit in Parliament whenever the king called it into session. In practice, minor gentry like the Hammills rarely exercised the privilege. The trip to Edinburgh, only sixty or so miles away, was fraught with danger, and only the wealthiest and most powerful could afford the armed entourage that such a trip required. Even so, lesser gentry like the Hammills must have made the most of holding the privilege.


Excerpted from Middling Folk by Linda H. Matthews. Copyright © 2010 Linda H. Matthews. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This

Larry Lockridge
An often poignant story that is both instructive and witty—and likely to impel many to take a closer look at their own family trees. (Larry Lockridge, professor of English, New York University; author, Shade of the Raintree: The Life and Death of Ross Lockridge, Jr.)
Katherine Bateman
Middling Folk examines generations of a middle class family and in so doing opens a window to a part of America's history that has long been missing. (Katherine Bateman, author, Kentucky Clay: Eleven Generations of a Southern Dynasty)

Meet the Author

Linda H. Matthews is the cofounder and former publisher of Chicago Review Press. She is the coauthor of The Balancing Act: A Career and a Family and has contributed several articles to The Mill Racer, the monthly newsletter of the Occoquan Historical Society of Occoquan, Virginia. For more information, visit middlingfolk.com

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