Could I do my ancestors’ jobs?

Gun Stock Milling Machine

Man, would I love to try! Ancestry.com posted a video (which is labeled as Episode 1 and hopefully will lead to a new TV series) shows a researcher who tries her hand at being a tailor like her ancestors. She works with a tailor shop to make a custom blazer for her father. If I was going to try one of my ancestors’ jobs, I might try:

  • Blacksmith (1780 or so)
  • Armorer (Harpers Ferry Armory, 1799-1862)
  • Armorer (Springfield Armory, Massachusetts, 1862-1920 or so)
  • Railroad Worker (Harpers Ferry, WV; Cumberland, MD; and points west, 1850-1950s)
  • Railroad Brakeman (Around 1875-1925)
  • Railroad Engineer (1875-1950)
  • Machinist (1900-1960)
  • Federal Reserve Bank (1940-1980)
  • I’m in my father’s line of work now, but let’s not talk about that.

So which one would I try? I have always been fascinated by the armorer jobs. Combining the blacksmiths and the armorers, I think all of them worked at the Harpers Ferry or Springfield armories, I suppose making gun barrels. The gun locks were for the more skilled metal smiths, but I think us Crowls were all about the barrels—hammering out two half-moon pieces of steel out of long rods,then welding them together, and drilling them smooth. It fits with our “Work harder, not smarter,” mantra, after all.

My earliest armorer ancestors might have been in town when Captain Meriwether Lewis stopped by in 1803 to purchase supplies for his expedition out west with some guy named Clark. He ordered muskets, of course, but also lots of other stuff, including a portable and collapsible boat. Might my 5th great grandfather have worked on these things?

My guys would have been in town during the John Brown raids in October of 1859 when he mounted an insurrection to take over the United States Armory as a means of highlighting the need to overthrow slavery. Brown’s gang holed up in the armory’s firehouse, nicknamed “John Brown’s Fort,” and was ousted by the forces of none other than Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart, among others, on my birthday.  

My Crowls worked at that armory until the Union burned it to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Confederates. The town changed hands between the Union and the Confederates multiple times in the following couple of years

Engineer Crowl with his Locomotive in Brunswick, Maryland. 

And then I think about my 3rd great-grandfather who started with the railroad as the trains came to Harpers Ferry in the 1830s. He’d probably be helping to lay rails out west to the Ohio River, which was the first big milestone for what would become the B&O Railroad. Imagine the pressure of trying to prove the effectiveness of the new “iron horse” against the proven Chesapeake and Ohio canal that was being built at the same time. I imagine that seeing these new things called “locomotives” might have looked to those townspeople as flying cars might look to us.

And then I wonder whether any of my ancestors might have been as fascinated with the machinery that was being installed and perfected in Harpers Ferry at that time. John Hall operated several of the mills and factories, and worked in partnership with the armory on the “1819 Hall Rifles” to find a way to make the pieces more uniform, enabling them to be interchanged between rifles for more efficient repairs.

Before then, all the parts were handmade. When I picture my ancestors, they’re all holding signs protesting these “new-fangled ways,” digging in their heels against these more mechanized processes. But surely, one of my clan must have peered through the dirty windows of the factory in the early 19th century and wondered how all those machines worked. That just might have been me.

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