Subscribe

* indicates required

From the Revolutionary War to Idaho Falls

Local historian finds hidden stories in a family heirloom

Published in the September 2022 Issue Published online: Sep 23, 2022 History
Viewed 117 time(s)

By Jeff Carr




BEFORE HE WAS EVEN BORN, Ammiruhamah Faulkner saved his mother’s life – and not in some sappy, sentimental way. She was pregnant in 1692 when she was arrested for witchcraft and taken to Salem. Her real crime, as far as history can tell, was being critical of the witch trials. That’s how witch trials go. After a coerced confession, she was convicted and sentenced to hang. Most of her fellow victims were executed, but Abigail’s sentence was suspended because she was pregnant. By the time the baby was born, the witch trials were over, and Abigail lived another 4 decades. She had given her older children classic English names, but Ammiruhamah was a Hebrew phrase: “my people have obtained mercy.”

Myrna Taylor first saw the ledger of John Comins, Jr., in 1995 in the basement sewing room of her mother’s Rigby home. A leather-bound notebook about the size of a VHS tape, browned with age, it had been passed down through her family for years. Passed down, but not examined.

Taylor remembers: “We’d pull it out occasionally, look at it, and say ‘we should do something with it,’ but we never did.”

Then 20 years later, Taylor read A Midwife’s Tale, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by Harvard historian—and East Idaho native—Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Taylor was moved by the first-hand account of a woman so familiar, and the way in which her unassuming life opened a window into understanding a whole society. Taylor pulled out the ledger and wrote to Ulrich, who invited Taylor to meet at a history conference in Utah. There, Taylor’s possession of a never-studied document drew the envy of many. She got to work. Until that point, Myrna Taylor’s fascination was focused not on the content of the faded ledger, but its journey—where it had been since Continental Army officer John Comins, Jr., her great-great-great-great-grandfather, penned its first entry in 1778. Taylor pored through records and deduced that Comins had given the ledger to his daughter Elizabeth, who joined the brand-new Mormon Church in Pennsylvania and followed its fellow adherents to Ohio, Missouri, and then fled back across the icy Mississippi River to Illinois.

Mississippi River to Illinois. Along the way, Elizabeth’s husband and son died. Her own end is a mystery Taylor is still working to unravel, but she has reason to believe Elizabeth died following an attack by an anti-Mormon mob. Elizabeth’s son Daniel trekked west with Brigham Young and settled in Utah.

When Daniel’s son died, his widow and children became some of the earliest settlers of Willow Creek, which was later renamed to Ucon.

One of those children, Emily, had a daughter who had a basement sewing room in Rigby. And she had a daughter named Myrna, who decided to be a writer at age 12, worked for the Post Register, the IRS, and General Motors, owned an antique shop on Park Avenue, and 7 decades later, has now written two books. One is Long Journeys, the story of the ledger’s travels from the Revolutionary War to Idaho Falls. And then there’s the ledger itself, which Taylor transcribed and annotated over three months with help from reference books and Falls Printing’s hi-res scanner.

As she worked on the notebook, Taylor began to recognize the treasure trove of stories within. The book’s keeper, John Comins, Jr., was only 24 when he started to track payments for goods he supplied to the Continental Army. For some brigades, he acquired horses, oxen, wagons and tools. For others, hay, corn, oats and mead, measured in bushels, pecks, and quarts. He recorded payments (in British currency) and signatures (often just Xs). After the war, Comins became a Justice of the Peace in rural upstate New York, and recorded the outcomes of his judgments—apparently rendered in homes, before a local courthouse existed.

“Part of the fascination to me is the wording and the way the court cases were done,” Taylor says.

It’s not as though Comins was famous, or some great wordsmith. He sometimes spelled the same words differently on different pages. But through these simple notes and transactions, much can be gleaned about how society functioned in that time and place— and how humans function in general. It’s this idea that animates Taylor, who never set out to be a historian, but who is now at 84, reading and writing, digging, fact-checking, traveling to archives, asking questions, and just doing a lot of things right. “These were all real people,” she says. “There are so many stories.” She is full of stories now. The life-saving gestation of Ammiruhamah Faulkner is one. That story doesn’t appear in the ledger. Faulkner’s son Ammi is simply one of Comins’s wartime suppliers. But Taylor wouldn’t have learned that story without the ledger, and without her own curiosity.

“People tell you not to get stuck in the rabbit holes,” she says. “But I think it’s important to veer off and explore things.”

Long Journeys and The Ledger of John Comins, Jr. are available for purchase at the Museum of Idaho, where Taylor will display the ledger and speak about her research on Sept. 15. Learn more and register at www.museumofidaho.org

Share

Send to your friends!

  • Like what you read?

    Get Idaho Falls Magazine straight to your door!

  • Subscribe Today!

    Sign Up