For most of my life I never really cared all that much about where my family came from. Oh, I knew that my mother grew up in Kentucky and my father in Georgia, but beyond that I neither knew nor cared from whence descended the family line. Maybe one branch on my family tree contained an English duke, who rode with Henry V at the battle of Agincourt and singlehandedly struck down the flower of French chivalry. Or maybe there was a German philosopher, a Spanish explorer or an Italian theologian hiding in our family woodpile. I would probably have found such knowledge interesting when I was younger, but not interesting enough to tempt me to do the heavy digging that would have been required to uncover those long-mouldering bones.
My extended family, you wee, was not long on harmony. My father joined the Navy in 1936 to escape from his father’s farm during the Great Depression. He met my mother near his first duty station in Virginia and after they were married the Navy decided that my Dad’s presence would best serve the Navy’s interests on the West Coast and in the Pacific Ocean area. That is how I came to be born and grow up in San Diego, California, about 2,000 miles from either of my parents’ families. San Diego in the 1950’s and 60’s was as close to being heaven for a kid as it was possible to be, and any trips back to Mom and Dad’s homes and families tore me away from the friends, beaches, perfect weather, absence of gnats, ticks, chiggers, water moccasins and a few dozen other noisome creatures, and threw me into the company of relatives whom I did not know and could not care less to get to know. Returning home after a summer month spent between Georgia and Kentucky with parents who bickered about each others’ families was a lot like getting released from prison.
So family origins meant little to me in the early 1980’s when one evening after returning home from work I opened the newspaper (that was one of the primary ways that people got news in those days) and read that a young man bearing my last name had bicycled from Maryland to San Diego. The article stated that this young man had found work at a nursery in Lemon Grove, a suburb of San Diego, not far from where I lived, and I resolved that I would try to make contact with him the next morning.
Accordingly, the next morning I arose and after breakfast and getting the children settled into diversionary activities I searched the Yellow Pages (that was how people found business phone numbers in those days) and located five nurseries in Lemon Grove. On try number four I hit paydirt and spent the next several minutes talking with a young relative whom I still have never laid eyes upon to this day. We compared notes and confirmed that we were indeed related. My last name is very uncommon outside of the South so it would have been extraordinary if we had not been related. In the course of our conversation this young man, Todd was his name, asked if I knew the story of the origin of my father’s family’s name. I told him that I did not, and Todd proceeded to tell me what he knew.
Durden, he said, was a French name, or began that way at any rate. The original Durden was a product of a union between a very minor aristocrat, a man who probably owned an acre or two of land outside of a town, and a young lady who lived with her parents in that town. A boy was produced from that union in the usual way and immediately became something of a problem. The boy’s father had no intention of letting little Jacques into the line of inheritance of his postage stamp domain, and would not confer upon his offspring the blessing of his name. The girl’s parents were similarly inclined, as to the name at least, since they had nothing in particular for anyone to inherit, and refused to give him their name as well. The young lady gave up the baby to the local church, which accepted our little cherub and then gave him back to the mother to raise for them. The parents were in no position to argue with the church and so little Jacques had a home, if not a name.
The town in which this drama transpired was in the northeast of France, near the Ardennes Forest on the border with Germany. Jacques began to look for a name as soon as he realized that, unlike everyone around him, he didn’t have one. He considered using his mother’s name anyway, whether her family liked it or not. Grandpa was a very large and very stern man however, and so there appeared to be little to be gained by using that name except for a beating every time he tried it. Next he considered the name of the town itself, but he had never received very much kindness in that town and did not wish to confer dignity upon it by adopting its name.
Finally it occurred to Jacques to adopt the name of the great forest to the east. The forest was a frightening and mysterious place, dark in many thickly wooded areas even in the height of the daytime. It was filled with wild animals which would not hesitate to make a meal of an incautious woodsman alone in its fastness, and bandits and gypsies were rumored to make their camps in there away from the prying eyes of the officials of church and crown. Yes, the forest would do very nicely for a name, and somewhere around his twelfth or thirteenth birthday Jacques D’Ardennes announced his existence to the world.
What the world’s reaction was to that announcement is not known. What is known however is that Jacques had no intention to fulfill any obligations to the church which had assumed a sort of official parent authority over him from birth. In fact, Jacques felt no sense of obligation toward his mother’s family or that town or anyone in it. A short lifetime of putting up with the taunts of the other village children and the blows of an unhappy grandfather, plus the eventual marriage of his mother to the town blacksmith, a hard man many years older than she who was willing to overlook her past for a pretty young woman to cook and clean and keep a warm bed for him, convinced Jacques that it was time to take his leave of everything he had known and try his luck in the world.
It’s at this point where Jacques’ history gets a little fuzzy. Nobody knows where Jacques spent his next five or so years. Some thought that he decided to take his chances in the forest which had provided him with a name. Once there he fell in with a band of gypsies or perhaps bandits; nobody really knows. All that is truly known is that at the stated age of nineteen Jacque D’Ardennes showed up in England, one step ahead of the police in France.
It seems as if Jacques learned the skills of petty thievery wherever he passed those lost years. A pickpocket, a thief of small items which could be sold in the next town down a dusty road, and other acts which would get you thrown into prison for a very long time in France apparently occupied Jacques’ time far more than did gainful employment, but he must have learned somewhere how to be useful on a farm because once in England he drifted from farm to farm, working mostly for room and board but occasionally being paid in hard money, because a couple of times his name appeared on the lists of one local constabulary or another, charged with ‘drunk and disorderly’.
Jacques’ inability or unwillingness to find steady work led to periodic arrests for vagrancy. Petty theft such as he had allegedly engaged in back in France would have gotten him hung in England, so I must assume that he either resisted the urge to fall back on old habits or was successful on such occasions when he plied his craft. There was also written the word “rogue” on some of his court documents, and one gets the sense from the the manner in which that word was employed that Jacques was not afraid to shower attention upon young English ladies, and one also gets the sense that his attentions were not entirely unappreciated by the objects of his interest.
Apparently Jacques pushed enough of the wrong buttons because in 1731 his name appears on a list of inmates in a debtor’s prison a few miles south of the City of London. Two years later James Oglethorpe was given permission by the Crown to take as many English debtors as wished to go and found a colony between South Carolina and the Spanish territory of Florida. Always a brown noser, Oglethorpe named his new colony ‘Georgia’ after the king, George II. Jacques D’Ardennes, his name now anglicized to ‘Jack Durden’, was among the first to sign up, and later lists and documents show that by 1736 he was the owner of a farm a few miles outside of Savannah. Jack operated a blacksmith operation in one of the rough outbuildings of his farm which served the needs of the many farms which surrounded that of Jack Durden.
Jack Durden married a Creek Indian woman and fathered several children by her. Five girls and three boys grew up and the family farm and blacksmith business prospered. Three of the girls married well and began families of their own, one died of a fever at the age of fourteen, and one remained single and was the de facto head of the family business whenever Jack was absent. The eldest boy was the titular head of the business but was essentially useless and drank himself to death before reaching the age of twenty five. The other two boys began farms of their own with generous help from the sister who was soon to be the matriarch of the growing clan.
Of Jack nothing is known after 1753. He and his wife simply disappear. There is speculation that they returned to the tribe from which she had come, but there is no real evidence of that. Others believed that they had been waylaid by bandits, robbed and killed, and their bodies fed to the gators. My thought is that Jack had learned enough in his old wild days to not be caught in that trap.
Ultimately, I don’t know if any of this is true or not. I only know that this is the story that Todd told me in a conversation over the telephone. I’ve seen no documents or had any other opportunity to verify this tale. And why should I bother? A story like that is a thing to be retold and left alone. Sometimes a too-critical historical bent is definitely not a virtue.