All I Know

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Category: Family (page 1 of 3)

Blue

The Blue Fugates of Kentucky

One of the fun things about chasing down one’s ancestors is the numerous sideroads and detours one finds.

This week I’m deep into studies about my family’s role in the Revolutionary War. This is more difficult than I thought it would be, so I’m taking the week off to follow a side path into a curious family story that actually has nothing to do with my family…as far as I can tell, anyway.

Racism has been a dark part of our national story since before we began shipping in captured Africans to work on our plantations and farms. I can only imagine how it feels to wear the badge of your so-called “status” in such an obvious way as the color of your skin. As a so-called “white,” I can never claim that I’m not racist since I’ve never had to think twice about the instant judgment people make upon seeing my skin color.

In the early 1800s, in the eastern Kentucky Appalachians, there was a family whose skin color made them the target of fear and scorn. Strangely, they weren’t black…they were blue.

Yes, you read that correctly. They were blue like robin’s eggs, like an April sky, like the waters of the deepest lake. Blue.

The family of Martin Fugate, who had emigrated from France, came to be known as the “blue people of Kentucky.”

When I first heard this story, I thought it was one of those mountain myths, a story told by someone who heard that someone else had talked to someone else who had seen them. I thought it might be a story easily explained; maybe a coal miner’s skin absorbed the coal dust in a way that appeared blue in the light of day. Maybe it was a dietary aberration, much like too many carrots can turn your skin orange for a brief time.

Nope. This family was blue. I have seen a grainy photo of a crude painting of a family unit: a blue father and four blue children with a “normal” mother and three “normal” children. There is no doubt the artist was on his honor to render the family as he saw them. Public opinion would have roasted him if he had pictured them all as white; the family would have hunted him down if he had colored them all blue.

Of course, this family was much talked about and even feared as ghosts and “haints.” Women dragged children across the street so as not to walk past them on the sidewalk. Merchants laid the change from their purchases on the counter to keep from accidentally touching them.

The condition now has a name: methemoglobinemia, and it was discovered in the 1960s to be the result of a faulty gene. If a person has two of these genes, the levels of methemoglobin cause their skin to be blue, their lips purple, their blood to be a chocolate brown. If a person inherits only a single gene, they look “normal” but can pass the disorder on to their children.

Blueman Martin Fugate was an orphan who had traveled to Kentucky from France. He met and married red-haired Elizabeth Smith, who, as it turned out, carried one gene for the disorder. She and her husband had seven children, four of whom inherited the gene from each parent and had blue skin.

Being so visibly different, the family hid in the hills of Appalachia, attempting to hide their skin with long sleeves and bonnets and gloves during trips into town.

As a result of their social and geographical isolation, there was intermarriage between cousins and aunts and uncles, producing more “blues” as children were born.

Kim Michele Richardson has written a novel, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. I picked up the book because I was intrigued by the history of the ladies of the Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project. Richardson, however, chose to tell the story from the perspective of one young woman who happened to be blue, and I was quickly drawn into the story of the Blue People of Kentucky.

The entire book is based on fact, the story a fictional account of being a person, a real person with hopes and dreams and issues, but a person with the added difficulty of being “different.”

What is normal? And who decides? I’ve often wondered about that. I have a friend who says, “Normal is just a setting on the washing machine,” and we laugh, but it’s true that normal is a very fuzzy state of being.

It seems a shame that the color of our skin hides the person underneath, and an even bigger shame that what we see is all we ever know of others.

Why I Don’t Dress for Halloween

I was once a witch. Never again.

I was probably around 8 or 9 when my mom and her best friend decided to “help” me win the prize for best costume at the neighborhood Halloween party. They worked for days on my disguise, a witches outfit. I remember fittings for the black dress and one night of hat construction. It developed that it is difficult to roll construction paper to the correct point on top and still have the exact fit for my head. Like the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter, my witch hat was difficult to control once it was on my head.

As the big night got closer, the perfect mask was discovered. Like the hat, it also fit somewhat haphazardly on my kid face, often obstructing my vision. This made me walk with my head slightly tilted back which put the witch hat in a precarious position and also made it difficult to see where my feet were going.

I was not pleased with this outfit, but the obvious delight Mom and Alice were taking in its creation was hard to fight, so on the night of the party, I just meekly stood for my transformation.

You have to understand this was a small neighborhood party. Simply by process of elimination, it should have been easy for the adult sponsors to figure out what kid was dressed in what outfit. At least, you would have thought so.

Because they wanted no hints as to my identity, Mom and Alice drove me to the party, but let me out about a block away so no one would see the car that brought me. My last instruction as I carefully exited the car: “Don’t talk. They won’t be able to guess who you are if you don’t say anything.”

It was dark. My mask kept slipping down on my face and covering my eyes, but every move I made to correct it put my hat in grave danger of falling off. Somehow I made it to the door only to discover the party was in the basement…down steep steps. Somehow, with great care and very slowly I negotiated the stairs and entered the party.

That party was…well, I did not have fun. Turns out not being able to speak a word is very limiting. Did I want to sit down? Nodding was dangerous, so I didn’t say a thing.

Did I want red KoolAid or purple? Not a word.

Do you want to take your mask off and bob for apples? I just stared straight ahead.

I couldn’t join in any games that involved physical movement…or talking, so I sat to the side and watched (as well as I could through tiny mask eye-holes that kept slipping down my face.

At the end of the party, prizes were awarded for scariest costume, funniest costume, and the big one, the costumed person who could not be guessed. I won that one big time. Everyone was amazed when I finally agreed to remove the pesky, ugly mask.

When Mom and Alice picked me up after the party they were excited to find out how it went. Did I win anything? Yes, no one could guess who I was, so yes, I won that.

If there had been such a thing as High Fives back then, Mom and Alice would have done the whole bit with the explosion at the end. As it was, they were extremely proud of their accomplishment and only barely noticed my lack of enthusiasm when asked if I had fun.

“Yes, yes I did.” I answered.

And that’s why I don’t dress up for Halloween.

 

Down the River

Flatboat on the Ohio. Image borrowed from: www.peoplesriverhistory.us

Before interstate highways, before blacktopped state roads, before rough gravel county roads, rivers were the roadway of choice for travelers headed into the western territories. Overland trails were rough, one horse wide paths through overgrown forest. When a man wanted to transport his family, supplies and livestock to start a new life in the land of Kentucky, he built or rented a flat-bottomed boat and traveled down the Ohio River.

The Ohio River (the Indian name O-Y-O means “the great river”) is formed near Pittsburgh, PA, where two rivers, the Allegheny and the Monongahela come together. Flowing nearly 900 miles south and west, the Ohio forms a natural border for the states of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois before flowing into the Mississippi.

This river carried my ancestors to Kentucky sometime around 1780-83.

William Edward Collings and his wife Anne (my 6th great grandparents) were in their 60s when they moved to Kentucky. Several, if not all their grown children came as well.

Their son Zebulon was around 38 and unmarried

Another son, Spencer was 35. He and his wife Jane Jones had five children.

Daughter Elizabeth (Betsey or Besy) was 33 and married to George Heinrich Crist. They had three children.

William Elston was about 25, married to Phobe Hoagland (my 5th great grandparents) and at that time they had two boys, Richard and Zebulon.

Other family probably traveled with them, but these are the family members for whom I have the best records. These are the family members who will be present through the rest of my story.

They traveled down the river on flat-bottomed vessels, called Kentucky boats or Natchez boats, which were approximately 16 ft. wide by 55 ft. long. There was typically a pen at the back for livestock, boxes and barrels of supplies stacked in the center, and a small cabin in front where the passengers could sleep and stay relatively dry on rainy days.

As a woman, I can only try to imagine packing for such a trip. The men had just returned from war where they carried everything they needed on their backs. As a woman overseeing the move of an entire family, I’d have to make sure we had cooking utensils, bedding, food and medical supplies, candle molds, sewing materials, and clothing.

The items I would assume necessary for a family would have to share space with the men’s hunting equipment, tools to build cabins and plant crops, as well as seeds and cuttings, and livestock.

Travel on the river involved a special set of difficulties. Those traveling in this manner had to carefully choose (or build) their boat to ensure that it would survive the trip. A boat made of old lumber or not sealed well could spell tragedy halfway to Kentucky.

There were hidden sandbars that could ground a boat high and dry and the boats themselves were difficult to steer. For this reason, the boatman had to keep constant watch. They usually pulled into shore for the night to avoid hidden dangers that were even more invisible in the darkness.

The river itself was broad enough that Indians on shore were not usually a danger…until nightfall. Tied up on shore, the boat and occupants were vulnerable to attack. Well-built boats were like floating forts. The cabins had thick walls, no windows, only shooting holes, and one door which could be padlocked.

The trip from Pittsburgh to Louisville could take from 20 to 30 days, long days floating with the current, long nights waiting anxiously for daylight so they could push away from the shore and into the river again.

For mothers, the trip was a time of anxiety, worrying about children falling overboard, wondering if they had packed enough, wondering what they would find ahead…wondering if they would even make it to their new homes.

The Ohio River is extremely navigable. For nearly 700 miles between Pittsburgh and Louisville there were no impediments, but for travelers who planned to travel on to New Orleans, the so-called Falls of the Ohio near the tiny settlement of Louisville offered the first navigational challenge.

You could say the city of Louisville owes its existence to the Falls of the Ohio, because it became the custom for boats traveling to the Mississippi to stop at that tiny settlement. There the passengers disembarked and traveled by land to meet their boat a few miles downriver. Meanwhile the boatman navigated through the rough water of the “falls,” usually successfully but not always easily.

I’m not sure who called this part of the river a “falls.” It’s more rapids than falls, lacking the precipitous drop one would expect. It is a rather long stretch of rough water with sharp limestone ledges. The river surface drops some 24 feet but it does so over a distance of about 2 miles, so a skilled pilot could work his way through to smoother water.

At this spot in the river, in this tiny settlement of less than 100 small cabins, some travelers chose to end their river journey and travel by land to new homes in Kentucky.

This is how my family came to Kentucky. At Louisville, they unloaded the boat and somehow transported all their belongings to an area some 20 miles south. Here, at a settlement that came to be known as Breshear’s Station, they began their new lives.

For the men who had already seen and walked this new territory, responsible only for themselves and the man next to them, there was the new pressure of having their families with them. They knew the dangers and the work that awaited, they knew they had to build shelters and plant crops and find game to feed, but there was industry here along the salt creeks.

This was not a trip taken lightly. Their lives and the lives of their families…and even the lives of future generations…my life…was changed dramatically by the decision to make this journey and the choices they would make in the future.

This was my family. This is how we came down the river to Kaintuck.

Goin’ to Kaintuck

The Crist Journal has led to both questions and answers.

Even though I find areas of questionable information in the Crist Journal, for the most part, I believe the significant facts. For instance, in May of 1783, the journal reports: “Me, Henry, Nicholas and William and our families and Besy’s parents and their families along with many more it’s about three hundred in all are going to leave in two days to go to Kaintuck. More settlers in the Colony are going to come later.”

The William in that statement would be my fifth great grandfather, William Elston Collings. The Besy mentioned was Elizabeth, married to George Crist and sister to William Elston Collings. Their parents, as mentioned, are William Edward and Anne Elston Collings.

William Elston and Elizabeth were two of the five (plus or minus) children of William and Anne. Their children that I can most accurately document are Zebulon, Spencer, Elizabeth, William Elston, and Thomas.

Various statements and some documentation prove that William (either father, son, or both), Zebulon and Spencer Collings, all fought in the Revolutionary War. Family legend says they probably fought with George Rogers Clark during the rugged Illinois Campaign in the Northwest Territory.

Although the Americans had effectively won their independence from England following the British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781, sporadic fighting continued in remote areas until 1783.

The most remote and most critical western campaign was known as the Illinois Campaign or Clark’s Northwestern Campaign of 1778-1779. While the citizens of the Eastern states were fighting for their independence, the rebels in the western territory were struggling to secure vast areas of unsettled land.

Clark and a ragtag band made up of seasoned soldiers, and wild, wooly militiamen from Virginia were based in Kentucky. They took control of most of the territory we now know as Illinois. This allowed negotiators at the 1783 Treaty of Paris to demand from England the entire area known as the Northwest Territory, nearly double the size of the land offered by England.

Those were my guys, those ragtag, sometimes undisciplined militiamen. Their exploits were legendary, and James Alexander Thom wrote a riveting account of their exploits in his historically accurate, but fictional novel Long Knife.

Against great odds, these men slogged back and forth across what became the states of Illinois and Indiana, swimming icy rivers and crossing half-frozen, muddy marshland to defeat professional English troops. Some historians say the United States looks the way it does today due to the efforts of these men. In bold battles and with shrewd negotiation, George Rogers Clark secured lands that few of the politicians and generals back East had the vision to value.

After the dust of the Revolution began to clear, the men went home to their families and announced they were going to pack up and move to Kentucky, the land for which they had fought. Much of the area that became Kentucky was set aside for soldiers who wished to claim land and settle there.

Those were my guys who fought for the land, then claimed it and brought their families to tame it.

They came down the river Ohio on flatboats with what they could carry, some animals, some food, some household furniture, wives, and children. The journey was simple, but it was risky. Travelers brought what they needed, but needed more than they brought. And they made a life in this new country, this Kentucky.

Next, I’ll tell a little bit about traveling down the river and the places my family settled. The story is getting good now, trust me! We’re getting into documented family stories that include mundane daily life on the frontier, tragic weather events that disrupt lives, and the sheer terror of surprise attacks by natives of the area.

As they used to say on TV: “Tune in next time for more exciting stories!”

The Lists

Thousands of immigrants risked the dangerous ocean journey to the new land.

It’s been a long dry spell in my family search. Some days I feel as if I’ve seen all there is to see on the internet. Everything. I can’t seem to prove that the man I thought was my immigrant ancestor is really related to me. And if he is not, I can’t connect the man I thought was his son to any other person of record.

So I left that line of research and went on to the man and family members I could trace back to Pennsylvania/Virginia immediately before they traveled to Kentucky. Turns out, he didn’t do much that was worthy of record either.

Then one day, I stumbled onto a document that stopped me cold. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I love the stories I’m discovering whether they contribute to my family story or not.

So imagine my delight when I came across a publication (from 1874) with the fascinating title: “The Original Lists of Persons of Quality; Emigrants; Religious Exiles; Political Rebels Serving Men Sold for a Term of Years; Apprentices, Children Stolen; Maidens Pressed; and Others Who Went from Great Britain to the American Plantations, 1600-1700”

Now how could I resist? Of course, I quickly did a search to see if any of my ancestors were listed. When I found no family names, I couldn’t just leave it alone, I had to dig further. The lists were just too fascinating.

I can absolutely identify with the reason John Camden Hotten stated for pulling together all this data. In the introduction, he states:

“Of the history of the Colonies, and the eventual establishment of Independence, I have nothing to say. My object is simply and briefly to point out some of the causes which contributed to the early emigration of English families to America; and then to estimate the practical value of the contents of the present volume as a means of assistance in making genealogical researches in the mother country.”

Somehow, he knew that one day, it would be important to be able to read when, how, and why our ancestors arrived in this country.

And the “why,” of course, was both economic and political.

Sometime around 1625, Charles the First, King of England began levying taxes on the country without the permission of Parliament. Charles believed in the divine right of kings and was determined to govern according to his own conscience. As with all political acts by a leader, the lawmakers and citizens quickly chose sides. Some said he was the leader, and it was perfectly okay for him to do as he saw fit. Others saw his actions as arrogant, unlawful, and a dangerous precedent.

Strangely familiar, isn’t it? His acts triggered a civil war from 1642 to 1645, at which time he was defeated and in 1648 executed for high treason.

Through these years, those who strongly opposed his arrogance were very vocal in their resentment. It’s not a good idea to resist a king who believes he has a divine right because, after all, he does hold power.

One of the king’s critics, Lord Say and Sele stated: “I would rather lose half my estate than risk the impoverishment of my posterity by the establishment of so dangerous a precedent as a loan without the sanction of Parliament.”

This uproar set the stage for both voluntary and involuntary emigration to the New World “beyond the seas.”

The lists of people leaving for the New World and the notes made on the lists, while in no way complete, caught my attention for several days.

Probably of enormous interest to genealogists is the list of passengers aboard the Mayflower in 1620. The notes on these passengers are heartrending as the listmaker also recorded their fates. Here are some samples:

  • Mr. John Carver, chosen as the first Governor upon arrival, died during the first spring. Katherine, his wife, died a few weeks after her husband.
  • Roger Wilder, a servant, died in the “first sickness.”
  • William Butten, a servant, died on the passage.
  • Mr. Christopher Martin and his wife died soon after arrival, as did Solomon Prower and John Langemore, servants.
  • John Tillie and his wife both died soon after they came ashore. Their daughter Elizabeth survived and went on to marry John Howland.
  • Digerie Priest died in the “general sickness.” His wife and children came afterward. I can’t help but wonder if she knew her husband had died when she set sail to follow him. I imagine she came ashore expecting to see him and the home he had prepared for the family only to learn she was a widow with no resources.

It was recorded that there were 100 souls on the Mayflower. During the voyage there one child was born, and one passenger died, so 100 immigrants arrived on the shores of the New World.

Of those 100 souls, 51 died during the first year. Think about those numbers—over half the new citizens didn’t survive a year in the New World.

The writer of this particular list doesn’t mention any cause of death other than “general sickness” or “during the first sickness.” I didn’t see any accidents with axes or barroom fights or any other cause of death. One has to wonder if these travelers were prepared for what they had undertaken. Did they expect a paradise, a land of richness and gentle weather? Did they realize they would have to construct shelter and plant food crops very quickly? Did they even know how hard the journey itself would be? Did they know the passage would leave them weak from seasickness and poor nutrition at the time they needed to be at their most robust?

They fled political turmoil, ethnic and religious conflict, and poverty to come to a land that promised to solve all their problems. This New World may not have been the promised land they expected, but look at what we, their children, have accomplished.

Maybe that’s a bigger picture we should be trying to see today.

He Just Went Home

This is a pay card for one William Collings.

When you’re a writer, there is no acceptable excuse for not writing. A couple of weeks of not writing begins to create nagging thoughts that go like this: maybe I’m not a writer, maybe I have nothing to say, maybe I should give this up.

I’ve been struggling with a kind of roadblock in my family story. The things I believe, I can’t prove. The things I can prove don’t always make sense in the context of what I believe. And the fact is, my family is a very ordinary one. The records that exist about them are the standards…birth records, death records, cemetery stones with dates, occasional legal documents (both good deeds and bad).

I was lucky to discover the Crist journal. That discovery has made me a proponent of journals, even journals that do no more than record the daily weather or the mundane events of life. In later years, those daily proofs of life will be golden for some researcher who is seeking his or her past.

Here are the “facts” and here is where I am in my own search: I believe, but can’t prove, that the Collings branch of my family came to America in the late 1600s. Like every immigrant at that time, they landed on the east coast and perched there for a time, then began edging westward, apparently searching always for something better.

Without finding any solid proof of the journey, I can get them to western Pennsylvania in the mid-1700s sometimes as farmers, sometimes as hunters but forever struggling to make a life, always working for something more.

At this point, I am researching my family in the Revolutionary War. Family stories have the men of the family fighting alongside General George Rogers Clark, who was the historical hero of the Western Front of the War for Independence.

This has proven difficult to document because if they did fight with him, they did so as the rough and ready mountain men of Virginia and Pennsylvania, not as regular army.

I also found a vague hint that some of the Collings men fought at the Battle of Brandywine, so I’ve spent a few weeks chasing that story and found some intriguing records, a series of “pay cards” in the Revolutionary War Rolls collection of Ancestry.com.

Unable to prove that this William Collings is my ancestor, this is still a good story of a young man who, if he is my relative, would have been about 19 years old.

William Collings (the records sometimes spell his name Collins, sometimes Collings even on the same card) first appeared in of May 1777 as a Private in Capt. Gourley’s Company, 9th Pennsylvania Regiment. This soldier’s salary appeared to be “6 2/3 dollars” per month.

On the pay card for October 1777, Collings was noted to have been “wounded on September 11.” The Battle of Brandywine was fought on September 11-12, 1777.

The pay card for December also notes “wounded,” so presumably he was recovering in hospital. The January and February 1778, pay cards confirm this with the notes “In hospital.”

His May 1778 pay card contains the note: “Sick Yellow Springs.” I went to Google on this note and found that Yellow Springs was the only hospital commissioned by the Continental Congress. It was the first military hospital built in North America and was constructed in 1777-78.

There was a strange note on the June 1778 pay card: “Returned from Hosp. Left out of April pay roll through mistake.” Collings’ pay card for July of 1778 notes “returned.” In September of 1778, he was shown as “In Camp.”

William Collings’ last pay card, undated, is not a pay card at all, rather a “Depreciation on Pay of the Army” in the amount of £73 – 18p –1s” with a statement in the Notes section: “Deserted 17 Mar 80.”

Once again, to Google. How much did William Collings owe the new government of the United States?

Turns out there is no answer. The monetary system of the 1700s makes no sense to us today. Pounds aren’t dollars, shillings aren’t dimes, pence aren’t pennies. If this helps (for me, it did not), 12 pence equaled a shilling, and there were 20 shillings in a pound. I could not find a satisfactory answer to how many pounds equal a dollar. Every state used the pounds, shilling, pence designations, but they determined the value in each state. Conversion to dollars and cents just doesn’t work. I did find a statement that a teacher in 1759 could earn approximately £60, which very roughly (in 2000) would translate to about $4000.

Clearly, William Collings owed a lot of money to the government. That never comes up in any family stories, nor can I definitively prove that this William Collings is my ancestor…which is probably a good thing. I sure don’t want to have the government come after me for that unpaid debt, compounded over 300+ years.

But here’s what I think: I think he was still hurting two years after spending almost 10 months in the hospital recovering from wounds, and I think the War was over, and I think the young government was reluctant to dismiss the soldiers who had really only signed up out of patriotism, not as a career choice.

So this is what I think…I think he just went home.

The Other Day in Kentucky

The Canopy Walk of Bernheim Forest

I’ve told you about a couple of the days of events during my recent trip to Kentucky, but there was one more day…the “other” day.

I didn’t go to Kentucky with many expectations. I knew I was visiting the area where my ancestors lived just before they moved to Indiana. I didn’t expect to find a long-lost cousin or an old homeplace or log cabin. I just wanted to see the land, walk the paths, get a feel for the places in my history.

I got that and more. As I stood in the Collings Cemetery near the home of Brian B., I looked out over pastures and fields and woods. I could feel feeling the peace my ancestors must have felt when they chose this place to lay their loved ones to rest.

Walking along the banks of the Salt River, I imagined it as a roadway to a place that held a promise of home. Long, long ago it must have seemed to be all my ancestors needed to end their journey in this place…the rich mineral content of the earth, the bountiful hunting, the unoccupied land claimed only as hunting grounds for the natives.

But it was the “other” day in Kentucky that really painted the picture of this place for me.

On that day, we drove to Bernheim Forest, a vast privately-owned natural property that was purchased, developed, and donated into a trust for the people of Kentucky by Isaac Wolfe Bernheim.

This is not virgin forest. It is not the forest my ancestors knew, but it is a forest that can bring back to us images of how this part of the state must have looked at some time in the past.

Officially branded as Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, it is still fondly called the Bernheim Forest by locals. Bernheim Forest is dedicated to research and has close ties to the University of Louisville, as well as other institutions of higher learning. The Forest hosts public events featuring photography, fishing, plant identification, bird watching.

There are hiking trails for casual strollers and a 13+ mile trail for more serious hikers.

The visitor center opened in 2005 featuring construction from recycled materials and a “green” roof. I read that the parking lot was carefully located so that native mushrooms would absorb the exhaust contaminants of visiting automobiles.

We walked a more accessible trail that was clearly laid out for hikers but still gave the impression of being part of the forest.

The most memorable part of the visit for me was the overlook or canopy walk. This was a long wooden walkway that felt like a pier reaching out into the sky with a nearly 360° vista of tree-covered hills.

I was instantly reminded of the story of Henry Crist. With his severely injured foot, he struggled to crawl to the top of a hill, hoping to catch sight of the settlement of Brashear’s Station. When he reached the top, he saw only more trees and more hills as far as his eye could see.

It was that “other” day in Kentucky that helped me see the area as my ancestors saw it and to wonder as I always do: “why?” Why did they move on?

Past to Present

A small cemetery near Shepherdsville, Ky. brought my past forward just a bit. This must have seemed a restful spot to my ancestors. Photo by Dixie Carter.

At times, when reading about my ancestors and their world, I almost feel as if I have gone back in time. It’s easy to get lost in the history, the mystery, the discovery.

Of course, I know that we can’t go back, that the past is the past, but I found out this week that the past can sometimes come forward to you in unexpected ways.

This week we took a little road trip to the part of the country where our ancestors lived before they came to Indiana. We visited history museums and libraries, walked the banks of the Salt River, admiring the hills and the countryside.

More importantly, though, we randomly met some people, who in some way came to us because of our past and thus in some way made it come alive for us.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know the family line I am currently working on is the Collings family. Before they came to Indiana, they lived in Nelson County, Kentucky. At the time they lived there, in the 1790s, Nelson County consisted of approximately the eastern half of what we now know as the state of Kentucky. Over the years it has been divided into several smaller counties, Bullitt, Spencer, Jefferson, Nelson, to name a few.

My research has revealed that a thriving industry and community called Brashear’s Station (sometimes called Froman’s Station or the Salt River Garrison) grew up near present-day Shepherdsville, Kentucky, now Bullitt County.

Stations were small fortified areas that sprung up all around the area where early families settled, providing protection from Indians.

Our Colling’s ancestors have been listed among the early settlers near Brashear’s Station, and their name is listed on the historical marker that marks the spot of the settlement.

In the directions we found directing us to the spot to see the marker, our map also revealed a small cemetery named Collings Cemetery. Of course, we had to drive there, too.

GPS directed us down highway 44E, then off onto a paved county road, then off onto a gravel road, then onto what appeared to be a country lane with 5 or 6 mailboxes on a post.

Winding our way down the lane, we joked about finding the cemetery in someone’s back yard or off in a field, under a tree guarded by a mad bull, but finally we rounded a curve in the lane to see an attractive farmhouse to the right, far off the road, and next to the road, in the shade of a big tree, a peaceful little plot with about 6 or 7 stones.

Fenced off from a pasture and easily accessible to us, the plot was well tended and neat, with a pleasant view of the countryside. You could tell this was probably a spot much favored by the family who had chosen it as a resting place for their loved ones.

As we tried to decipher the names on the stones, most if not all of them very discolored but clearly bearing the name Collings, we saw a man leave the house and walk down the driveway toward us.

In the shade of an old tree, we explained to him our connection to the cemetery and why we were here. He told us when he bought the property, the graves and plot were in sad shape, the weedy and overgrown with broken and discolored stones. Over the years of his ownership, he had put fencing up, cemented what stones he could fix, taken down the weeds and encouraged the grassy, pasture surface.

We told him of our family, how they had come to Kentucky attracted by the opening up of the territory and the adventure, then moved on to Indiana, only to suffer from a devastating loss by Indian attack. From the dates on the stones, the people buried here were the ancestors that stayed.

The dates displayed seemed to be in the 1860s, which was about 50 years after the departure of our line of Collings.  Still, the names were familiar to us, having shown up in our research, probably as sons, daughters, nephews of the ancestors we met during our research.

As we talked, we discovered that Bryan B. is a middle school counselor who has taught history. He was very interested to hear what we knew about our ancestors, where they came from, where they went. He said he had often wondered about them as he worked on cleaning up their final resting place.

It also turned out, that he knew and was a former co-worker of a friend of ours from Scottsburg, Indiana, Reba J.

It never ceases to amaze me what a small, small world this is.

I was so happy to talk with Bryan and to thank him on behalf of my family and my ancestors for taking care of this place.

Over 150 years ago, my family walked these hills and fields. They lived, loved, and died here, or they went out from here to new lives in other places, but this spot is where they suffered loss and where they chose to bury their dead.

Bryan’s respect for this place and these remains, without even knowing who was buried here, struck me as such a kind and generous gesture.

Whenever the world seems like a hard and unfriendly place, I hope I remember the kindness of Bryan B. and how he brought my family’s past forward for me.

This Journey

What do you think of when you hear the word “journey?” Merriam-Webster defines it this way:

journey   a noun    jour·​ney | \ ˈjər-nē  \     plural journeys

1 : something suggesting travel or passage from one place to another

2 : an act or instance of traveling from one place to another : TRIP

Journey is not a word we use often, and I think that’s because a journey is more serious, more monumental than a trip or even travel. A trip is routine…a trip to the store, a trip to the doctor, etc. A journey is something we plan for and anticipate, something more calculated and purposeful.

A journey involves more serious consideration. How long will it take, what do I need to bring along, how difficult will this journey be, do I dare subject my family either by preparing them for my absence or by taking them along?

I don’t think the vast majority of people undertake a journey lightly. Journeys are usually something we consider necessary.

I’ve been thinking a lot about journeys while I do my family research. Everyone I know in my life is here because of a journey someone took years ago to reach this country, a country of freedom and opportunity. For the most part, those journeys were dangerous and difficult and involved leaving an entire existence behind to create a new future.

I seriously doubt any of those long-ago travelers just jumped on a tiny ship thinking, “What a lark this will be. When I arrive, all my troubles will be solved.”

I’m pretty sure they knew, or at least suspected, some of the dangers they were facing. I’m also pretty sure they looked at the lives they were living and the futures they were facing and made a hard decision that that sort of life was not what they wanted for themselves or their families.

Of course, there were always those few, a small percentage, who came because they heard the streets were paved with gold, or because they thought their past misdeeds would not follow them or because they thought this was a fertile new ground for lawless activities.

But that was not the majority. The majority was us, or rather those ancestors that paved the way for us. Those who survived the journey. We live in cities built by those survivors; we hold jobs at occupations that became possible because they came and created businesses or grew food and other crops or provided services necessary in the new country.

We are because they were, because they wanted a better life for their children, and because they took the risks, they journeyed, and they survived.

Why do we now assume that anyone who undertakes a similar journey today has not considered the risks? How can we forget that we are the children of immigrants who fled poverty and starvation and tyranny and injustice? All of us; each and every one.

Happy Fourth of July.

What I Love

I know that I’ve become annoying about my new favorite pastime, genealogy. It’s fascinating to me, and I wish I’d gotten hooked 20 years ago because in the years I have left I can never investigate, solve or even know, all the mysteries of my family.

Recently, frustrated with one family line that keeps running me headfirst into walls, I just started flipping through what is called my ThruLines on the website of Ancestry.com. As I understand it, people at Ancestry.com or the software they have devised, or some magic I can’t understand is triangulating information from other family trees to introduce me to potential ancestors I may not yet know about.

I very quickly met a maternal ancestor who had lived in the same community several of my paternal ancestors inhabited. Both sets of ancestors lived near each other in the 1750s, long before my mom and dad met and married in Indiana in the 1940s. It seems this was a very small world in the 1700s.

I met a potential ancestor (James Barrett) who was a farmer in Ontario, Canada. He was born there, lived there, and died there. I did not know I had family in Canada, and I do not know how they came to be the family I know in Indiana.

I met another potential ancestor (Arabrella Bailey) who was born in Maryland in 1707 but died in France at the age of 35. How and why did she go the opposite direction from all my other ancestors to end up in Europe? And even more puzzling, she is reported to have died on the very same day that her husband died…back in Maryland! There must be an amazing story there or some serious dating errors that need to be corrected.

There’s also a man named Nathaniel Burdine with the word “slaveowner” attached to his name. He was born in 1738 in Virginia and died in Tennessee in 1823. In that time and those locations, I have no reason to doubt he was a slaveowner, but why was his ownership so significant that he is listed in his family tree as Nathaniel Burdine Slaveowner? The same designation was given his son, Ezekiel Burdine, a title that was apparently as important as his other title, Reverend. I need to look into that, too.

And there is Elsbeth von Ochsner born in 1707 in Switzerland. She seems to be the Immigrant in that particular line of my mother’s ancestry, yet the dates are very confusing. She is shown as arriving in North Carolina in 1738…yet giving birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1739 and a son, Jacob, in 1740, both in Switzerland. Finally, daughter Anna was listed as being born in 1742 in Bucks Co., Pennsylvania. Either Elsbeth was a brave, two-way traveler (remember this was the 1700’s) or someone somewhere has made a grave error.

These are just a few of the mysteries I dug up in a couple of hours of flipping through possible ancestors that somehow link to my own. You see why I can’t stop looking?

I am planning a trip this summer to one of the areas where I know my ancestors lived before coming to Indiana. I don’t know what I’ll find there or even who I might find, and I’m not even sure what I hope to find. It might be enough to just walk along the river bank where I think they walked, to see the area where they worked the salt lick I know they worked.

I certainly don’t miss the irony of being able to reach the area in less than two hours by driving an interstate highway on a route that took them days to walk as they sought a new future in a new land that would ultimately cost them almost more than they could bear.

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