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William Richard Coleman II

Christmas gifts come in all classes and these depend heavily on your point of reference. They range from a virtually useless (my reference point) piece of china to complete our pattern, to the truly thoughtful history of flight book my brother-in-law gave me, to the highly practical random orbit sander I received several years ago. And every now and then you unwrap something totally unexpected, something that is hard to classify with the industry standard holiday gifts. This year I received a small, thin, rectangular present and when the paper was removed it revealed a picture frame, a weathered-wood piece decorated with some shot shell brass, which would normally fall into the practical category. In it, however, was the photo below (or to the right, depending on where Diana placed it), which I figured was one of those "perfect family" shots that come with the frame until my mother told me that it was a photo of William Richard Coleman II, my great, great grandfather.

This was the first time I knew of someone on my father's side of the family who hunted. Given the number of them and the part of the country they inhabited, I'm sure there were more, but I'd never heard it mentioned and never seen any kind of evidence until this photo came along. I'm not claiming my affinity for the sport is genetic. Rarely does a gene reappear, and reappear with authority, four generations down the road. It's just comforting to know that I'm not the only one.

He made his home in Warren County, on the North Carolina side of the Virginia-North Carolina border. It was likely a full day's trip from Raleigh, which at the time boasted only about 10,000 residents. On Christmas evening as I looked at the picture more closely, I wondered whether he hunted birds for pleasure or out of necessity. And I'm assuming he's a bird hunter since I don't know for sure, since I don't hunt rabbits, and since it makes a better story to tell people that I hunt birds like my great, great grandfather did.

In a time when a trip to the store could involve saddling or hitching the horse and traveling rutted, dusty or muddy trails for hours in all weather, plucking the spoils of the homestead might be the easier option. It's accepted that wild game was a staple of many dinner tables for the first few centuries of this country's existence, a romantic notion until I consider how much thinner I would be if dinner depended on my shooting. Yet judging from the picture, this appears to be a man on a sporting jaunt. White gloves, a wool jacket with proper lapels, and a white shirt buttoned at the neck have an air of less work and more play. At the very least they lack the practicality of work wear. White gloves to handle muddy dogs and dead birds?

Oddly though, for a man out having a good time he doesn't appear very happy. I can't imagine a photo, a posed photo at least, of me with a shotgun and a dog in which my grin didn't stretch from one ear to the other. But times were different then and forcing a smile could have been a difficult proposition. The nation wasn't too long out of a civil war, a war that left the south and most of its residents less prosperous for several decades to come. I have no idea what this man did for a living. I do know that he had seven children and died short of his 38th birthday. I'm thirty nine and by the time this magazine goes to press my wife will have given birth to our first child. I can't imagine how different my view of the world would be if I walked in his shoes. He had a lot of reasons not to smile. Still, these cold, grim stares appear in nearly every 19th century photograph and it's quite possible he was jubilant at the time, wearing the serious expression as naturally as we say "cheese".

If hunting was a primary source of food, it would follow that a dog would be a tool to that effect, not much different than a gun or a pair of boots. In the case of the dog in the picture, I've a suspicion that this is more than a tool. He looks way too comfortable in a lap, and William Coleman doesn't seem the least bit put out by his presence.

The dog has the markings and the tail of a pointer, although it's hard to tell given the lack of clarity in the picture and could just as easily be a yard mutt. I'd like to think it's a purebred, but as any scholar of Archibald Rutledge will tell you, in those days mutts often did the work common to each and every species in their makeup. Deer dogs, rabbit dogs, pointers, retrievers, flushers, watchdogs and doorstops were all rolled into one, a Leatherman Tool of canines. I wonder what people in the 1800s considered a 'versatile breed'?

It's hard to see in the photo, but that is in fact a double-barreled hammer gun. My knowledge of vintage firearms being nearly nonexistent, I would welcome anyone who recognizes the make and model to e-mail me and give this boy an education. Without much doubt that gun would be one of my most prized possessions had it survived the generations between, enough so that I will take extra care to see that my firearms are handed down, at least as far as I can dictate, with the hope that a great, great grandchild might one day hold them in a collection. Touching a piece of your ancestry is as close as we've come to time travel.

There are a total of five William Richard Colemans in the family tree and I don't have a clue whether any of the other four hunted. At the end of the day, this photo is worth less money than a piece of china and will never get used as much as a random orbit sander, but it has its value in emotional currency. It is a piece of my past, a link to where I came from. Because of this it summons curiosity, respect, a touch of envy, and a sense that four generations and more than a hundred years aren't really that far apart.

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