Monday, January 31, 2011

Where's Robert Robertson Graham?

I received a nice letter from Susan Venable, asking for help finding something about her ancestor Robert R. Graham, which I was unable to do. I told her I thought my readers (you), may be able to help.
Important note: Those of you who have any information or questions please address them to Susan Venable, At the following address,

I am trying to document the military service of an ancestor of mine who served in the US-Mexican war. I have a letter that he wrote from Matomoros, Mexico in July 1846 to his sister Isabella. I have included a transcription with this query.

What I know of this ancestor:
Name: Robert Robertson Graham
Born: no date known for sure but abt 1820
North Argyle, Washington County, New York
Father: John Graham
Mother: Jane Robertson Graham
Siblings: Elizabeth (Lamb) b. 1818, Isabella b. 1823, Jane b. 1825, Samuel b. 1827, Mary (Carey) b. 1831, John b. 1837
He was unmarried and had no children.

Died: March 1849 in Matamoros, Mexico of cholera – The New York Herald, Saturday, April 21, 1849, “From the Rio Grande”, published originally in the Brownsville American Flag on the 28th of March.

“Under the obituary head of the “Flag” we see announced the death of the following persons:. . . and on the 24th, Robert R. Graham, of North Argyle, Washington County, New York.”

Since Robert was born and died before the 1860 census when family members were listed I have been unable to document his birth. Of course, he is probably buried in a mass grave in Mexico, rather than with his family, so there is no cemetery record of him either.

I have searched the NARA files for regular and volunteer military serving during the US-Mexican war and have not found any record of R.R. Graham.

From his letter I have concluded he was already in Mexico when recruiting began for the war, so I believe he was part of the standing military. The fact that he was still in Mexico in 1849 after the war was settled, adds credence to that idea.

I’ve looked into military records preceding the war and the only military record I have found that may be his is an 1836 Muster Roll for the Marines, which shows a Robert Graham, but it doesn’t say where he is from and I can’t track his service beyond a few years.

I have tried to locate the ship he was on during the storm or where he might be buried without success.

I found Robert’s letter so wonderfully written, that he came alive for me and I want very much to document his life and place some memorial of him with his family in Prospect Hill cemetery.

There is a lot I don’t know about military records, such as how to locate Bounty Land records or the original service records. I don’t think I have enough information. I have tried to find payroll records too. I believe I will have to make another trip to NARA.

Any information on Robert or guidance on where to go next would be greatly appreciated.

Susan Venable.

Robert R. Graham letter to his sister Isabella.

To: Miss Isabella Graham
North Argyle, Washington County
New York

Matamoras, Mexico (during U.S & Mexican War)
July 20, 1846

Dear Sister,
Your kind favor of May 30th came to hand some time since and you may rest assured was not unwelcome it being the first intelligence rec’d from home (if any may dare use the word) since your previous one of Jan 22nd. Your delicate allusions to the joys, the hopes, and the bright imagining of past, but not forgotten years find in my heart a corresponding cord (sp) and awaken emotions kindred to your own: for despite the stern lessons of the world I yet relish the romance and poetry of life. The poetry of the heart whose cheering influence is confined to no “favored spot of Earth” nor chained exclusively to certain associations or circumstance, Its home is in every heart that can feel its beauties and appreciate its sublimity. Everywhere, and at all times may be found circumstances that awaken its emotions.

To answer one half your direct questions aside from several implied ones would fill a small volume: so I will attend to some of the most important and leave you to surmise the remainder. You wish me to describe a storm at sea: well, as I have taken a practical lecture or two upon the subject (not from professor Espy —but from higher authority) — I have no particular objection.

The first night on the blue water of the gulf we had a delightful sail with just wind & wave enough to impart to our craft sufficient motion to be agreeable. The moon rode high in heaven and was occasionally sufficiently obscured by fleecy clouds to checker the ocean scene (?)  and give it the semblance of a fairy world. The picture for I can call it naught else was enchanting. I was late when I retired with anticipation of a speedy and prosperous voyage — but how different the stern realities of the morrow’s morn from the fanciful scene of the evening. When I awoke the wind was blowing a gale from the north which soon increased almost to a hurricane. We could carry barely sail enough to manage the vessel and in the afternoon lost our rudder and were for the two remaining days during which the storm continued were completely at its mercy. Without scarce knowing whither it was driving us, our compass (?) having been injured by accident, and neither sun nor stars were to be seen during these three days the waves rolled mountains high and our frail bark was sped onward with a fearful rapidity: now climbing the mountain billow till it appeared to stand upon its snowy crest — now plunging in a deep chasm far beneath, the white surf foaming above and around us and again as some wave more impetuous than the rest would meet the vessel she would pause in her course & quiver till she would creak at every joint & again rust onward.

The scene was awfully sublime nor was it destitute of more delicate beauty. When the blue fathomless wave rises abruptly the hues of the rainbow are faintly discernable through its transparent silvery surface — such is a faint(?) picture of the feral storm it was my fortune to witness. But I experience another more awfully grand. It was a thunder storm at night. The sky was completely overspread with a black pall — the winds howled and whistled through the rigging of our craft, and peal after peal of deafening thunder rang through the vault of heaven, accompanied by lightning that seemed to blaze from one pole to the other, after which all would (be) dark except the foaming waves which shimmied(?) like sheets of living flame flitting across the surface of the ocean billows. Our situation at this time was indeed precarious as we were driven along shore & instead of being able to get seaward we were verging(?) towards the shore upon which we might be cast at any moment & dashed to pieces.

But serious as the occasion might seem I could not help indulging a laugh at one of my fellow passengers who was part owner of the vessel —  the gent had retired early — I at request of the captain (as my eye & ear were quicker than his own) was standing watch with him on deck. About eleven o’clock I was surprised to see the gent alluded to coming up out of the cabin with as woebegone a countenance as one could fancy could belong to a wandering ghost. I addressed him & asked what was the matter when he replied he could not rest & that if I had as much at risk as he had I would not feel easy either. My reply was, “Fool! Don’t you think I value my life as much as you do yours?” About an hour after this we could distinctly hear the breakers on our lee bow and we in spite of all our efforts approaching them: the wind at the time still blowing a severe gale. Every inch of our canvas was spread(?) to the winds as the only alternative. The masts bent and creaked under the immense pressure till they appeared almost ready to break: the vessel ploughed through the foaming surge as gallantly as we could wish & in half an hour we were safe. But another half hour of the same anxiety I do not care again to experience.

Point Isabel is situate upon a delightful emminance or rather kind of promontory near the mouth of Laguna del Madra (a channel between Padra Island and the mainland). The Ft. (? Fort) embraces 4 (garbled) acres & is surrounded by ditch that would not be easily crossed. May no enemy ever attempt it! The surrounding country is level & mostly prairie with here and there a wide scope of chaparell — by the way I would mention it as a curiosity a tree, or rather shrub that grows here whose only verdure is green thorns. Not a leaf or a bud ever appeared upon the bush. I have seen it of 10 feet in height and from the ground up such a complete matt of thorns that even a wren cannot fly through it. The Rio Grande at present not only overflowed its banks but a considerable portion of the country. A large stream now flows through Ravina del Palmas and where the dragoons made their gallant charge upon the Mex cannon is now 16 feet of water. I send you enclosed one of the old Continental bills. Preserve it as a relic of days that should never be forgotten. It will be safer in your hand than mine.

 But as my limits are nearly exhausted & my time not all my own I must close. Give my love to parents, sisters & brothers & say as many good things to my friends and you please & do not forget to write soon direct to Headquarters of the Army, Mexico, and tell me about where S.T. Harshaw(?) is. Tell me about all the toothless lions of Argyle & and how you think they would like the smell of gunpowder. I am respectfully your affectionate brother

R.R. Graham

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