October 16, 2020
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about finding election records for our ancestors. It’s a great idea, but for many of us, it’s not easy to put into practice. Since that time I’ve been thinking about other ways to find out about our ancestor’s political lives, and I realized that another way to do that is to dig out some of the stories and memories that have been passed down in our families.
In my own family, there’s a story about two roosters. Somewhere in my voluminous files on my dad’s family, I vaguely remembered a story about my great grand uncle who named two roosters after a couple of politicians, and this week I finally found the relevant file. It’s a simple story about two young roosters who constantly were fighting for dominance in the chicken yard, so my uncle decided to name them after the nominees for president in that year’s upcoming election. Thus, he ended up with a couple of chickens named Hayes and Tilden. According to the story, my uncle, like all of the Fernelius men (only men could vote back then) was a staunch Democrat, but he swore that he wouldn’t favor one rooster over another, even though Samuel J. Tilden, the candidate, was a Democrat and Rutherford B. Hayes, the other candidate, was a Republican. Supposedly, Uncle couldn’t bring himself to be totally unbiased, so Tilden, the rooster, got extra food and pampering on the sly. Nothing about which rooster won the battle of the coop has been passed down, but Rutherford B. Hayes won the presidential election that year.
That’s the extent of the story, but I wanted to know more about the election that my uncle was so interested in. A quick online search showed that Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden opposed each other in the election of 1876, when my uncle and my great grandfather were farmers in Meeker County, Minnesota. As lifelong Democrats they must have been disappointed by the results of the election. Not only did Republican Hayes become president, he also won handily in the State of Minnesota. The overall results of the election were not quite so straightforward; it remains one of the most disputed elections ever to take place. Democrat Tilden outpolled Hayes in the popular vote, and the first counting of the electoral votes showed him ahead of Hayes by 19 electoral votes with 20 votes still outstanding in several states. Those electoral votes were hotly contested by both parties. Eventually an informal deal was struck which gave all 20 of the contested electoral votes to Hayes, allowing him to become president, in spite of having lost the popular vote and only won the electoral vote by one vote. In return, the Republicans agreed to remove federal troops from the South, ending Reconstruction and ushering in the era of “Jim Crow.”
The 1876 election was hotly contested by both parties, and turnout was the highest ever seen in an American presidential election with over 80% of eligible voters casting their ballots. Two of those voters were my great grandfather and his brother, my uncle. Before I dug up the old story about the roosters, I had known nothing about the election of 1876 and its consequences for the United States. I had always known that my father’s family were Democrats, but I’d assumed that it was because the Democrats were the party of working men and women, which my relatives were. Instead, it appears that there may be a darker side to the story. The Democrats after the Civil War were anti-Reconstruction, and more inclined to be in favor of repressing voting rights and other rights for the recently freed slaves of the South. I probably should have known about this side of the story before, but it’s been a long time since my high school and college American history classes. I have to admit that I was a bit shocked and disappointed by my ancestor’s choice of political parties way back when. While it’s Important to remember that our ancestors were men of a different time and place with completely different standards than we hold today, it’s still interesting to dig out these old stories and follow up on them to learn more about how our ancestors thought and behaved, even if it turns out that those thoughts and behaviors are ones we wish they hadn’t had. It’s amazing what a simple story about two silly roosters can reveal.
Researcher/Director at Large