The year 1988 will forever be a time to remember when I look back on my life. It was the year that my nephew, Elvin Perkins, Jr., called me on the phone with some interesting facts he had found about the Smith side of my family. 'Junior', as we call him in the family, had been working on his roots for quite some time in a quiet manner. He has always been a bright kind of guy that wasn't afraid of work and has a tenacious work ethic if it is something that strikes his fancy. Genealogy has obviously peaked his interest to a level of high importance in the local genealogy arena. He has written a book and is President of at least one genealogical society group. He is highly recognized as one of the best around when it comes to genealogy. He has been able to drag a lot of other people into the arena with himself in the process.
'Junior' must have known exactly how to give me a shot of genealogy by asking the right questions and giving me a little pinch of facts at a time instead of giving it all to me at once. It didn't take very long for me to get the bug and go to work running out leads for him. Once we were able to find the answers to a few of our questions the contagious genealogy fever had me in the midst of it all. Junior and I are not many years apart in age because he is the oldest son of one of my older sisters. We have always been buddies but we now had something to talk about instead of the Redskins or Richard Petty.
'Junior' gave me several leads that I was able to dig out from the past. The two of us were able to find a Civil War grandfather that went off to war and never came back. I found him buried in a prison cemetery because he was the victim of disease while being a captive soldier in Point Lookout, Maryland. One lead followed another and no matter how hard you tried to stop the madness with genealogy it still haunted me until another bit of information was found. It became a hobby and gave me something to talk to family members about on a regular basis. We found grandparent after grandparent and are still working on the entire project as I write this article.
The biggest obstacle in working with genealogy was my lack of eyesight. I am totally blind due to the effects of a disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa. All my useful vision had left me by the time I was 45 years old and I do all my writing on the computer with the help of a computer program called JAWS. It is a screen reader device that has opened a whole new world for thousands of us that have this degenerative disease.
Of course, the question in my life concerning my vision has always been there. What caused it and from where did it originate? The cause of the disease was answered by the Foundation Fighting Blindness in Baltimore and I knew the disease came from my Dad and his Mother. I knew the disease was of a dominant gene and it had to be passed down from at least one parent. There are several types of RP but I already knew that the family gene was dominant due to my father's blindness and the fact that his mother was blind before her death. There are numerous cases of RP in my family and we all became very interested in research and it's origin.
My nephew had given my oldest brother Ed a healthy dose of the genealogy bug a few years later. Ed has done extensive work on several lines of the family tree himself. One day Ed, my nephew and I went to Wilkes County, N.C. to check out a few leads and round up an old family cousin to my dad by the name of Ambrose Hincher. Ambrose was a delightful old guy with a memory like an elephant. He told us of places in the community where my grandmother lived while growing up in the mountains of North Carolina. It was exciting to learn about people and places that had personal family ties and it gave us an opportunity to make connection with some of the childhood stories we had heard during our younger days.
Ambrose was blind from the deteriation of RP and he knew all about the chain from which it came into our family. We had several opportunities to drill him about family folklore but the main thing I wanted to know was how the RP gene worked it's way down to me. Ambrose knew it came into the family through the Stampers during the early 1800's and he knew it came from a grandmother named Margaret Peggy Stamper. Our type of RP being of a dominant nature kept all of our family members knowledgable about the disease because most of us were still in the same geographical area for at least 200 years. Ambrose either knew some of the family members personally or had heard the stories that came down through the family to his parents and grandparents. Figuring out how it worked its way to me from Grandma Peggy was the easy part. How it got to Peggy was another task within itself.
About three years had gone by without any progress toward finding an origin of RP in the Stamper family. The disease could have come from Peggy's mother or father; or it could easily have come from another branch. One afternoon during the hot summer weather I was chatting with Junior's kid sister, Teresa. Teresa is a pretty good genealogist within her own right. The subject of the Stampers came up and she started playing with it on the computer as we talked. She typed in "Margaret Peggy Stamper" and all kinds of good information appeared before her. She went over it piece by piece until we found the right information that connected us with distant Stamper family members. Some of them had researched the family all the way back to 1640. Wow, this was a great find. Now if we can just talk to some of these people and see if there is any RP within the Stamper family.
Teresa's information turned out to be exactly what I was looking for in many ways. First, it traced my ancestry all the way back to Middlesex County, Virginia not long after the formation of the first colony in Jamestown. It is a possibility that the Stampers were part of that group. However, the real good stuff was yet to come. A Stamper family member from Tennessee gave me what I really needed to confirm the RP gene all the way back to a Jonathon Stamper born in 1719. His blindness was confirmed by Revolutionary War records about his son, Jacob. The army records described Jacob's vision problems as "night blindness and poor vision in the bright sun." The records reveal that Jacob inherited the disease from his blind father, Jonathon Stamper. Jacob was a brother to one of my grandfathers, Joel Stamper of Wilkes County, North Carolina.
It is not likely that I will ever find anymore concrete information about RP in the Stamper line. It could have taken another branch to a different family name at that point. At least I now have a good feeling about how the disease entered my family and how it had riddled so many of us with the blindness. There must be thousands of RP victims in this country and England that are blood relatives and suffering from the RP gene. I am so happy that I never gave up the chase because the information will be here for generations to come. Nearly three hundred years of poor vision and blindness are confirmed but it is probably just a drop in the bucket as to how long the disease has been around. Keep in mind that I am not a certified genealogist and I realize the documentation necessary to be factual. Even though my distant relatives were not diagnosed by a doctor, there is enough evidence from genealogist to convince me that I am on target with the information received by numerous books on the matter.
The Retinitis Pigmentosa connection:
Jonathon Stamper born 1719 in Middlesex County, Va.
I have several siblings, a daughter and a grandson with Retinitis Pigmentosa. Hopefully, there will soon come a day when it is a disease of the past and genealogist can report only the history of the disease. Blindness is not the worst thing in the world but it would sure be nice to know that the disease is simply a thing of the past.
Michael G. Jackson
April 8, 2006
Thanks for sending me your information. Just so you will
know, I live in Greensboro and am a decendant of Joel Stamper.
I am blind from a eye disease named Retinitis Pigmentosa which
I inherited from Joel. His daughter is Margaret Peggy Stmamper
and she was married to John Handy. Last spring, I placed a granite
monument at their graves on Cane Creek Church
Let me know if I can help in any way. I may possibly get to meet you at the Stamper reunion in Perry County this year. Also, I have passed your information on to other family members about the book.
Take care, Michael G. Jackson