When I was a boy your conduct was not only judged on the basis of whether your actions were correct or incorrect, right and wrong were givens but to do the right thing for the incorrect reason or in the incorrect way was the subject of approbation, but almost as importantly it was judged on how it reflected on your family. One of the first questions that would be asked about any friend or acquaintance was, “Who are their people?”, and an incomplete or unsatisfactory answer would cause their exclusion. Despite all of the failures in the best regulated families you have only to compare the society that flourished under this system with today’s carnival of dysfunction to form an intelligent opinion of its merits. Since Margaret Edythe Young grew up at the high water mark of the system it is only correct to devote some space to her people.
Her father, John Young, was born in County Wexford, Ireland in 1853 and escaped the famine to come to this country and become a citizen in 1870. The 1900 census lists his occupation as a stevedore but that doesn’t quite cover it. He probably qualified as what was known as a Sharp Harp. Hard as nails and tough as hickory he started out as a longshoreman. Smart enough – and tough enough – to boss a stevedore gang he moved up. With an eye to opportunity growing westward with the nation he moved from St. Louis to New Orleans to Galveston where he completed his Americanization by being transformed into Captain Young, an English gentleman, who operated a stevedoring concern, owned lighters, dredges and was partner in a harbor towing company that still bears his name today.
As a commissioner of pilots, one of the founders of St. Mary’s orphanage, a patron of St. Patrick’s parish and a prosperous business man he was the epitome of respectability and the incarnation of American exceptionalism. He not only had a large house he had, again according to the 1900 census, a coachman, a gardener and a cook in residence on his estate. In a cosmopolitan city, like Galveston, he was at home. Not only was he at home but he used his business interests to bring more of his fellow Irishmen here as immigrants who arrived to find jobs and opportunity waiting. His business was integral to the port and with his stature in the community, a houseful of BOI children and over 50 years of service to the community had led to a level of acceptance and respect such that when he was buried all business in the port stopped, all flags were lowered to half staff and all ship’s whistles sounded at noon.
Much is made of the idea of portraiture. We have the La Gioconda as well as Graham Sutherland‘s remarkable portrait of Winston Churchill that was so devastatingly accurate that Lady Churchill had it destroyed. Where the talents of the artists are required for these effects the results of photography are somewhat different. Most 19th century subjects betray a discomfort in sitting for a camera that can not be totally explained by the fear of their retinas being singed by the explosion of the flash. For some the indulgence of sitting for a photographic portrait or even being “snapped” by a portable camera is offensive to their moral sensibilities – and it shows! Then again it is easier to live with an ugly picture of an ancestor than the narcissistic excesses of their descendents.
Her mother was born in 1859 and was certainly, based on the evidence of her picture, someone who did not like to have her picture taken. Hers was not an easy life. Born just as the nation descended into the maelstrom her father served with Hood’s Texas Brigade during the War of Northern Aggression and she would come of age in a South that labored under the military occupation euphemistically referred to as Reconstruction. Eloping at age 16 with John Young she would find herself on an island where fever was a constant danger – Walter Reed did not identify mosquitoes as the carriers of yellow fever until May of 1900 and Galveston did not have an underground sewer system until 1906. During her marriage she would give birth to 10 children – five would survive with one of those dying in a house fire in 1898. It is an irony that the census merely lists her by name – did not even give her the dignity of a homemaker as a profession – but her life was apparently full of work, of raising her children, of the numerous charities that women of her station undertook without recognition and of being a woman of faith in a time and in a place where it was not only a comfort but a necessity. When she passed the newspaper noted on the front page that she had died at the advanced age of 60 – it might have said that she wore out, she certainly did not rust out.
Margaret Edythe Young painted portraits of both her parents that were based on these photographs. Both have aged a bit and her father’s eyes show their blue and a hint of a twinkle that the camera could not catch. Her mother’s features have softened whether with care or by caring I am not sure but both pictures were done with love and still hang in the family home reflecting that same sentiment that has not dimmed with time.
Richard Brinsley Sheridan wrote, “Our ancestors are very good kind of folks; but they are the last people I should choose to have a visiting acquaintance with.” I understand him and I think I agree with him. The hardships that they endured and the lives that they built in spite of those hardships might make them look askance at us. The best we can hope for is that they might be amused. Although they might be incredulous at our world we are by no means certain that they would approve of it.