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The body of this volume presents the Journal of Dr. George Follett Wilson just as he wrote it. Though over the years a few people had actually seen the Journal and fewer still had read it, in general it had not until now been available for reading or research. Since the early 1920's it was in the closely guarded possession of William A. Wilson and his wife, who upon his death in 1957 took up the vigil. There was much concern throughout the family about the final disposition of the Journal. At Eastertime 1983, however, his widow brought the Journal and presented it to Kenneth S. Wilson. It had been the most frustrating missing link in researching the beginnings of the Wilson family in North Carolina. Its return to availability has made possible the telling of the story of George Follett Wilson as had until now been impossible.
Reconstruction of the past is a slow and tedious process. Much of our history was created by improbably circumstances and has survived by tenuous threads. Documents that would be pulsing ties between generations are lost, sometimes through lack of concern and misjudgment but often through accidents of fire, water, and exposure. Official records that affected and recorded the personal lives of our ancestors (wills, deeds, marriage bonds, and birth and death records) lay in Court Houses that have burned in many counties in North Carolina, as in other states. All the early records of Branch County, Michigan, where the Wilson family eventually settled, were lost to fire. Many federal records including most of the original 1890 Census Records were burned. I have been told that a trunk full of Virgil Angelo Wilson's correspondence was not claimed by the family and was burned. Doctor Wilson records in his Journal that he spent many days writing. One wonders what happened to the large volume of writing that he must have generated. It has even been told that the Journal itself was snatched from a pile of trash to be burned when the home of an elderly relative was being broken up. By such slender turns of events, Fate chooses the records that will survive.
Each useful bit of information is an exciting discovery. It comes in may forms and usually in bits and pieces from many different sources. Each bit adds its dimension to the whole. A cherished picture of a relative of long ago preserves for us an image frozen in a moment of that life, but it alone helps very little in knowing the whole person. Official records of vital relationships, as important as they are in documenting the past, provide skeletal structure and very little flesh and blood feeling of the life. When we are fortunate enough, however, to have available diaries, letters, or journals such as the one written over a hundred and sixty years ago, we are able to pierce the veil of time and achieve the fullest and clearest understanding of past lives and events. As we read the entries in such documents, the words assume vitality and immediacy. We meet the man. We enter his world.
A diarist is very different from any other writer. Very seldom does he anticipate publication; therefore, the writing is spontaneous, unedited, unrefined. His thoughts flow in a torrent of words. He does write of people and events, but his observations are directly influenced by his own biases and moods. He sometimes uses his journal as a catharsis and pours out his feelings of despair or frustration, joy or self-satisfaction. Thus we are allowed to become acquainted with Dr. Wilson probably more intimately than any of his contemporaries. He is no longer a frozen image or a statistic, but a breathing personality.
March 28, 2010 - As I start the process of typing out this Journal for the first time, 182 years after it was written, a spring shower rolls into Salisbury, NC. I wonder if we will lose power and even think the crazy notion that not losing power would also be a sign from my ancestor, seven generations removed, that sharing his experiences and thoughts on life would be something he wanted to be shared, not only with his descendants but the rest of the world. - Geof Wilson
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His was an exciting world to have been a part of. George Follett Wilson was born less than twenty-five years after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the document which formally recognized our United States. He was less than two years old when the land area of the new nation was nearly doubled by the Louisiana Purchase. The War of 1812, our second war with England, had ended in a victory that created a great wave of national pride and emotional independence. The nation sensed its destiny. The first great struggle over the question of slavery had been quelled by the achievement of the uneasy peace known as the Missouri Compromise. History records in detail the momentous events and the names fo the great actors in the drama of the times.
Less carefully were the records preserved of those who played small supporting roles. It is of special interest, therefore, that we read the comments in the Journal on the issues of slavery, the involvement of the government in internal improvements in the new lands, on the establishment of a Bank of the United States, and the issuance of paper money. Especially timely was his observation that Congress was "wasting the taxpayer's money" by building the City of Washington for, he said, the center of the government will in twenty years be located on the banks of the Mississippi River. It was a prevalent view at that time.
Dr. Wilson continued throughout his life to be interested in community affairs. When the North Carolina Legislature designated Bethania a town in 1839, his name was first on the list of original councilmen. After the formation of Yadkin County and his removal to Yadkinville in 1853, he was a member of the commission appointed to plan for the improvement of the roads of the County.
There are two distinct styles of writing in the Journal. The first part relating the events of the journey from his home in New York to Bethania was actually recorded about nine years after the events. The entry for May 8, 1828 is somewhat more studied than the rest of the Journal because it is more carefully written from notes. In the latter part of the Journal even the handwriting changes. It is larger, almost a scrawl as he writes more spontaneously.
There is evidence that the Journal was written on sheets of paper which were later bound into a book. A letter written by him dated 10 November 1835 was among some old letters in Sadie Wilson's files. It supports that theory; written on the same paper, bearing the watermark of the Shober paperworks of Salem, it is folded to the same size as the pages of the Journal. The entry quoted above would actually have been written in 1837. The paper on which the Journal was written is probably the same paper he used for all his writing and record keeping.
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As each reader begins the adventure of meeting George Follett Wilson, it will be helpful to understand something of his background. He was born in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, in 1805. His parents, Reuben and Sabrah Follett Wilson, probably married there between 1795 and 1800, though no marriage bond has been found. Reuben Wilson was a carpenter and joiner, a vital trade in a time when everything from houses and barns to bowls and spoons were made of wood by hand. By 1819 the number of children in the household had grown to eleven. Judging from the accomplishments of the children of whom we have record, they were encouraged to acquire a good education, they were expected to be industrious, and they were risk-takers. They began learning trades when in their early teens and then each of them moved on to professional lives. The Wilson family belonged to the Congregational Church and the children were schooled in its tenets of staunch individualism and simplicity. Throughout his life, George F. Wilson adhered to an inflexibly high moral code and often throughout his Journal admonished his sons to set their own standards of behavior beyond reproach.
Pioneering was a tradition in his family. When he was a lad of six or seven years, his family left their home in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, and were among the early settlers of Ontario County, later Yates County, New York. It was and remains one of the most enchanting areas of all our land. It lies in the heart of the Finger Lakes Country, a land of deep blue lakes and tall, tall pines. Describing them in the Journal, Dr. Wilson says that the towering pines were so tall that it "took two looks to see the top."
The Yates County Historian recently reported that he found only one land record involving Reuben Wilson. He purchased 60 acres of lot 8 in the town of Milo on 27 November 1815. In Yates County for twenty years, Reuben and Sabrah Wilson raised their family. Most of the children had been born in Massachusetts, but Louis, Laura, and possibly one other were born in New York. Reuben Wilson sold his land 1 June 1835. It was time to move on.
The family arrived in Coldwater, Michigan, on 15 October 1835. Reuben Wilson entered 160 acres of government land later in 1835 and the family made permanent settlement in Ovid Township just outside of Coldwater.
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It is not surprising that, in the spirit of the pioneer, at the age of twenty-three years, George Follett decided that he should leave the paternal roof and seek his fortune in another part of the country. With his education completed and his license to practice medicine in hand, he turned his steps toward the South, "not expecting to stop short of South Carolina." Bethania was not a predetermined destination. But Fate stepped in in the form of a feverish illness and a serious depletion of funds, and he decided he would linger in the Moravian village, where he had found the people kind and recuperate. Also he could practice his profession until he had replenished his purse. In a letter dated July 27, 1945, Miss Adelaide L. Fries, who did such valuable work in translating the Moravian Records, sent Miss Sadie Wilson her translation of this entry from the Records: "on last Monday, the 26th of this month (May, 1828), two young men arrived from New York The one, named Wilson, plans to stay here for a while as doctor;..." Little did he realize that his temporary arrangements would stretch into nearly thirty years and that he would become in that time the highly respected physician of Bethania.
All did not go well with the young doctor in the beginning. He was at times overcome by homesickness for the familiar beauties of the country from whence he came and for friends and family he missed. At the very beginning of his Journal he wrote, "I (had) bid a final adieu to my Aged Parents, Brothers, and Sisters. And not with feelings of indifference or disregard, because they were all dearly beloved by me. No man could have more affectionate parents or those who wished better for the respectability of their children..." It took some time to gain the confidence and respect of the community professionally; and since he did not enter into the social life of the young people, which he considered frivolous and a waste of time better spent in studying and writing, he did not make friends easily. Whenever he was near despair he whispered to himself his motto, "Don't give up the ship." And in the end, he prevailed.
In 1916 Miss Emma Lehman, for many years head of the English Department at Salem College and in childhood a neighbor of the Wilson family, wrote a memoir about "Bethania in the Olden Time." She wrote, "Dr. Wilson came to Bethania as a young doctor and was said to have come from Michigan. I well remember his regular horseback and saddlebags practice. My latest recollection of him was as a stout, gray-haired man, who came to our house when my sister Sallie was born and ate supper then on that Easter Sunday evening.... Dr. Wilson had young medical students reading under him and living in his house several times. One of these was Dr. Sam Masten, who later became a dentist and lived here in Salem. ...Dr. Wilson had his office an Drugstore (for in those days, doctors had to furnish all the medicines; drugstores were unknown) in the two small rooms on the northside of his house, to the right of the passage as you entered the front door. To my childish eyes it was almost an enchanted realm....as our next door neighbors, that place was always interesting to me."
Dr. Wilson lived in the midst of the Moravian community through most of his life but never became a part of its traditions or church activities. His Congregationalist background separated him from their customs of church attendance and celebrations of religious holidays. His criticism of attendance-by-habit at church services and festival activities at Christmas and Easter, which seemed to him more social than religious, stemmed from his early training. He believed fundamentally that each individual found God as he understood Him and communed with Him in whatever place was most conducive to such worship. It need not be a man-made temple. It need not be a formal service. It need not be in company with other worshipers. No preacher was needed as a guide. He often recorded his feelings of reverence in the presence of the Divine in the beauties of nature.
He showed great compassion for the powerless, the infirm, the poor; but he was intolerant of the shiftless, the ignorant, and the extravagant. Wealth spent for pleasure and show indicated heartlessness and lack of a sense of responsibility, he felt. His standards of personal behavior were inflexibly high. Life, he said, should be governed by will and reason not by desire.
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Daniel, who was five years younger than George Follett, was a very young child when the family moved to Yates County, New York. He attended the public schools of Milo, the town where they lived. While still in his teens he commenced teaching and at the same time began the study of medicine. The teaching of medicine at that time was not highly structured as it is today and consisted largely of individual physicians teaching students chosen by them. He studied with a Dr. Spence of New York and later was under the instruction of Drs. Whitney and Huston of Yates County. He received his diploma from the Medical Society of Yates County. His biographer says, "he has been the beloved physician in many a household, where his presence has brought healing and all regard him as a safe friend and a wise counselor. He is a man of superior intellectual culture and rare strength and sweetness of character. He has often been called upon to fill important offices of responsibility and trust in the county and township... the people having such confidence in him that when the Legislature passed an act for approprating 5,000 acres for the improvement of highways, he was appointed to locate the land, sell the same, and expend the proceeds." Dr. Daniel Wilson, his wife, and son are buried in what is known now as the Sorter Cemetery, located in Ovid, Michigan, on the property originally settled by Reuben and Sabrah Wilson.
Louis T.N. Wilson was probably the last child born to Sabrah and Reuben Wilson. He was born in New York, 24 September 1819. He was only nine years old when his brother George left home. At fourteen years of age, he apprenticed to a Mr. Halstead, Coldwater's pioneer clothier, and learned the tailor's trade. While working there he affiliated with the Methodist Church and studied for the ministry with Rev. Philo H. Crippen of that church. He was ordained by the Official Board of the Methodist Church as a minister. Not long afterwards, he entered the law office of Lt. Gov. of Marshall, a town near Coldwater. He completed his study of the law under George. A. Coe of Coldwater. He was admitted to the Bar of Branch County. The following description of his work in the courtroom comes from the Coldwater Republican at the time of his death: "he loved the profession and followed it with enthusiasm. He loved its contests and its triumphs and could submit, under protest, to its defeats. He was a fierce fighter from the start to the finish of a trial, contesting every point in it. Having a remarkably retentive memory, with a quick perceptions, his thorough reading of the law rendered him a formidable adversary to cope with. He was quite familiar with all the weapons in the legal armory and could bring the most effective into service on a moment's notice. He was a brilliant forensic fencer and withal capable of handling the gravest and most important constitutional question arising, with the same facility he would a technicality. Impulsive, aggressive, and passionate - with strong convictions and the courage to follow them - he was very liable to mix up cause, client, and opposing counsel as all wrong and send them down together before his impetuous onslaught."
"His command of language was wonderful and the manner in which at times he would use invective, pathos, ridicule, and argument in a cause was marvelous. But under all this fiery outside beat a kindly, generous heart, quick to sympathize with those who suffered and even prone to heal the wounds he himself had caused."
In 1875 he moved to Minneapolis and was associated with Thomas Lowery in the practice of law. He returned to Coldwater in 1877. He died there April 26, 1887.
We know that there was communication between George Follett Wilson and his brothers Daniel and Louis. Virgil Angelo, George's son, spent some time in Coldwater studying law with his Uncle. Henry Clinton was there at the same time. (Letter of V.A. Wilson in Jones Papers Collection at the University of North Carolina Library, Chapel Hill, N.C.) In the Journal (entry 29 December 1829), Dr. Wilson mentions receipt of a letter from Coldwater, possibly from Louis, saying that Daniel had left home and their parents, no longer able to work, needed help. There is no record of George Follett's ever having returned to visit his family in New York or Michigan. There is no record of any of the family visiting in the South, though there is verbal tradition that Louis did one time visit in Bethania. Virgil Angelo's wife, Martha, told her granddaughter, Sadie Wilson, of the visit.
Just four years before his death, Dr. Wilson removed his family to Doweltown (now Yadkinville) to a lovely home which he named "Wildwood." The property adjoined that of Theopholis Christian Houser, his brother-in-law. Both homes still stand and have been well maintained through the years. Just to the West of the Wilson home is the family cemetery where Dr. Wilson and many of the family are buried.
George Follett Wilson, by his life of dedicated service, his personal example of exemplary character, and his dedication to the search for knowledge and understanding through independent thought and life-long study and reading, has left a goodly heritage. His Journal will bring into bright focus the true worth of this life lived over a century and a half ago.