Our family history was always something of a mystery.
We had a big, black family Bible sitting on a bookshelf as I was growing up. The cover was worn. Many of the pages were covered with handwritten notes Dad had made while reading and studying the old King James Version of the scripture.
I remember occasionally holding and reading the Bible as I grew up in Germantown. When I held that old, black book, it was like being in church. I felt like I should only whisper whenever I held it.
I enjoyed reading the Family Bible, but I was most impressed by what was written between the Old Testament and the New Testament. There I found the names of relatives: my grandfather, Ad Riley and his father, Alfred, were listed.
I had a vague memory of them. We have a four-generation picture hanging on the living room wall. It starts with me as a toddler and ends with Great-Grandpa, Pap Riley. He was nearly 100 years old at the time. His name was Alfred, but he was known throughout the hills of Breathitt County, Ky. only as “Pap.”
Pap’s father, Samuel, was the last name listed in our old Bible. We knew nothing about Samuel, except that his hillbilly nickname was “Meatskin.” We had no idea where that nickname came from. Maybe he was a hunter or worked with animal hides.
Many years after that picture was taken, my Uncle Willie (Dad’s younger brother) discovered the internet. As an air traffic controller in the Navy, he worked with radar and computers. So, moving to a desktop computer and the internet was not surprising. Soon, Uncle Willie started exploring our genealogy.
He contacted other Riley families online. Eventually, he was able to find other descendants of Great-Great-Grandpa Samuel, and Samuel’s father, Gentleman John Riley. He soon found documentation of Riley family members who fought in the Revolutionary War.
The information found by Uncle Willie was that our branch of the Riley clan left Antrim County in Northern Ireland during the time of the Penal Law. Those laws grossly discriminated against anyone who was Catholic and was not part of the official, legal church – the Church of Ireland.
Penal Laws prosecuted Irish Catholics. We must have been in that category because the Rileys of Northern Ireland left for the American Colonies sometime around 1700. The only information Uncle Willie could find about their exodus from Ireland was that they landed in Baltimore.
From there they followed other early frontiersmen and moved further west. They joined others who lived on the eastern slopes of the Appalachian Mountains, particularly in the hills of western Virginia.
That was where Daniel Riley was born in 1728.
Like most of the boys and young men growing up in the forests, valleys and rivers of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Daniel Riley grew up tracking wild game, hunting and shooting. They earned the title of frontiersmen. Knowing the frontier and knowing how to hunt and shoot kept them alive.
Daniel was well into his 40s when the Revolutionary War started. The scrimmages between British troops and our Minutemen at Lexington and Concord started the armed conflict that quickly led to Bunker Hill and the full-blown Revolutionary War.
Those early patriots showed honor, courage and loyalty to their new country and to each other. It did not take long for General Washington and his military leaders to realize that they needed experienced frontiersmen like Daniel Riley to battle the British.
Daniel Riley, his friends and family, soon joined forces with other like-minded people to fight for our independence.
Soon Daniel Riley found himself facing the British along the rocky banks of Brandywine Creek. That isolated spot in northern Delaware was between Baltimore and Philadelphia. Their goal was to stop the British from advancing into Philadelphia which was, at the time, our countries capital.
The battle was fought on September 11, 1777. It was a foggy morning, making it difficult to know exactly where the British were and which direction they were headed. For the first time in our history, the American Battle Flag was carried into conflict.
It was much different than our current red, white, and blue flag. There were stars and stripes in the top, left corner of the battle flag, but the main body of the square flag was a reddish color.
It might be more appropriate to call the flag a banner, since its shape was more of a square.
Regardless, Daniel Riley was there; 245 years ago, he saw the stars and stripes carried into battle for the first time.
This past weekend, our flag was honored throughout the United States of America as we celebrated our 246th birthday. It is important to remember that General Washington and his young troops lost the Battle of Brandywine Creek. But, our thirst for freedom has never been quenched.
That longing for freedom has expanded to include all people, regardless of their gender, race, or ethnicity.
The people of the United States should always stand with people who yearn to be free.
Randy Riley is a former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.