As the nation this Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of man’s first lunar walk, one group of people will have a unique reason to celebrate – and Jack Armstrong of Ahwatukee will be among them.
Those people are members of the Armstrong Clan, from which the late astronaut Neil Armstrong is among its most famous descendants.
Jack can tell you all about that clan.
He’s spent eight years so far researching the Armstrong Clan, tracing its centuries-old roots and collecting enough books, old photos, maps and other memorabilia that his house is home to what may be Arizona’s largest Scottish-Irish museum.
Though he is not related to Neil Armstrong – “People ask me that all the time,” he said – Jack does share the pride in and fascination with the clan that was the astronaut’s heritage.
So, to mark Neil Armstrong’s historic walk, Jack is holding an open house for interested people to look at his collection and hear his stories about the Armstrong Clan. Interested people can email him for details at email@example.com.
Jack has collected enough artifacts to create a micro-museum in his Ahwatukee home that traces the migration of his clan from a no-man’s land on the coast of Scotland called the “Debatable Lands” – a name reflecting the early inhabitants’ refusal to submit to either the king of England or the royal family of Scotland.
From there, clan members moved to Northern Ireland, where they became part of the Ulster Scots, and eventually to upstate New York.
And from there, the clan’s roots took hold in various parts of the country over 200 years, producing famous families like the Kennedys of JFK and Bobby fame.
Jack’s collection includes memorabilia dating back more than 300 years – and he’s eager to finally offer the general public a rare view of an intimate history of his clan and his family.
“We are hoping to connect with more people in the local Scots-Irish community,” said Armstrong.
His eight-year journey in time has yielded innumerable surprises.
“When I started eight years ago, I didn’t know anything,” he recalled. “I had no history. My father knew nothing.”
And what he has learned through visits to different places and a relentless search on the internet is something that he thinks anyone can do regardless of their ancestry: “There’s so much history out there and people would be amazed if they just peeled it back and started looking.”
Armstrong’s peeling-back began in Iowa, where he literally stumbled on the farm that his great-great-grandfather settled on in the late mid-1800s.
He recalled how he and his wife drove out to an area where he thought the Armstrong farm might have once been located, “thinking we’re just going to find a field.”
“We pulled up to a house and there’s a guy leaving and I said, ‘I’m looking for the Armstrong farm.’ And he says ‘this is it.’”
“It was like a time capsule,” Armstrong said. “The whole world of my great, great grandfather opened up.”
The man, Fred Henry, turned out to be a distant cousin of Armstrong whose father had lived in the house until he died in 1992.
Though uninhabited since then, the house retained a lived-in look with food in the pantry and items dating back to the 1800s simply stacked in the basement.
For example, he found a pair of tiny baby shoes that he now enshrines in his micro-museum.
“They were stuck in an old box,” he said. “So was a lot of this stuff. It was just forgotten. The cellar has stuff in there from the beginning. It blew me away. It still blows my mind.”
Between those items and Henry’s stories, Armstrong began piecing together the history of his family and the broader Armstrong clan.
He began making connections with distant cousins he never knew he had as he put together a continually deepening and broadening genealogical story.
“When I started putting it all together, I just found out this amazing history,” he said.
For example, he discovered the story of Thomas Armstrong, who became the youngest combat veteran of the Civil War after enlisting at age 13.
“A lot of the Armstrongs signed up for the Union army,” he said. “Some of our family were at Appomattox when Lee surrendered.”
Even more remarkable about Thomas is that his father enlisted at the same time, leaving Kate, the elder Thomas’ wife, worrying for several years about the fate of both her baby and her husband.
“They both made it out, but both were wounded,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong located Thomas’ farm, where the owner gave him permission to search the land with a metal detector. That search turned up a blacksmith chisel – Thomas was a blacksmith after he got out of the Army – and other artifacts that are now part of Jack’s museum.
He also learned that his grandfather served in World War I and was a machine gunner in one of its bloodiest battles, eventually forced to join a different division because his was decimated.
Jack’s own father also became a machine gunner, riding in the tail of a B24 Bomber in the Pacific Theater.
“These veterans didn’t talk much about their service,” Jack said. “But what I saw here in all this history was just an amazing amount of sacrifice – and not just the Armstrongs but all these border clans.”
Among his memorabilia is a letter written by Confederate General Stonewall Jackson on his death bed and instructing that his saber be given to General Robert Armstrong “to show my gratitude for his service and our friendship.”
Jack also has acquired over time a small library of books about the Armstrong Clan, some dating back 200 years. Some were written by Armstrongs while others were written about unrelated authors.
Jack continues his unrelenting search for artifacts and written works – he already has more than 120 gigabytes of digital records – as well as look for people.
His dream is to one day start a foundation and use his collection as the seeds for a far bigger and more comprehensive Scots-Irish museum.
“This is a huge part of American history and nobody’s doing anything on it,” he noted.
But in the meantime, Jack Armstrong’s micro-museum serves another compelling purpose in his mind.
“I have my own grandchildren and I want them to know this story, but I realized it’s hard to educate them just with stories. But if they see things, they touch things, then it goes into them. So, every time they visit, I want them to soak up this history – the history I never had growing up.
“I want other people who come in here to think, ‘Wow, what are we missing?’”