All I Know

Welcome to my world

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The Past in the Future

Like ripples in water, it's all connected.

Like ripples in water, it’s all connected.

I’m worried about future generations and how they will know the past. It’s no secret I’ve become obsessed with chasing down my ancestors and stories of my own history, but my concern is not all self-centered. I want my nieces and nephews to know these people, and I worry about how technology outpaces and even leaves the past behind in ways we seem not to notice.

What happened to all the newspapers that were placed in the microfiche program? And now that microfiche is antique, the machines old and clunky, how will we read those old newspapers?

Where are the record players to listen to the original recordings of Bessie Smith and Jimmie Rodgers? And the music that was distributed only on CD…do you still own a CD player?

By nature, I’m a reader and a keeper of “things.” Several years ago, I read an intriguing article about man’s first visit to the moon. Someone got the idea that with all the advances we have made in videography, it might be fun to apply some of those techniques to the video of Neil Armstrong’s first steps in 1969.

“It’ll be fun,” they said. “We can bring out details that couldn’ t be seen in the original material. Let’s do it.”

If you are old enough to remember that blurred, slightly ghostly image of Armstrong stepping onto the lunar surface, you saw history happening in real-time. Based on today’s GoPro, cellphone, and dashcam video technology, the fact you were able to watch on TV that historic event as it happened, was a miracle.

I’m not going to get all technical on you in this short rant, but here’s a brief description of how you saw that event.

The lunar module had limited bandwidth to send audio, visual, and medical data back to Earth. Remember, this was 1969. Reel to reel tape decks were cutting edge technology.

Westinghouse developed a special camera that recorded video at an extremely slow rate of 10 frames per second to be transmitted back to Earth. Three tracking stations, two in Australia and one in California, would receive the signals and transfer the video to telemetry tapes, still at the 10 fps rate.

Television broadcasts at 30 fps, so the video couldn’t be broadcast directly to television stations. What you saw was the result of pointing a TV camera at a monitor displaying the non-standard transmission. The original image was of reasonably high quality, but what we saw on TV had traveled through space, hopped across microwave and satellite transmitters, was routed through Houston, …and filmed as it played on a computer monitor.

And that’s the simplified version of what you saw. So, yes — finding, viewing, and enhancing the original tapes could be fun and also educational.

Step one: finding them. Thus, began a treasure hunt of epic proportions. In 2006, NASA announced it was looking for over 700 boxes of magnetic data tapes that had been recorded during the Apollo program. They might be at Goddard Space Flight Center…or maybe not…maybe somewhere else.

Step two: viewing them. In 2006 when the hunt began, there was only one piece of equipment left that could play the specialized tapes. Only one. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I read that the outdated equipment had been designated for destruction. One machine was finally discovered pushed into a corner of an obscure warehouse and covered in dust.

Step three: enhancement. This is a little bit longer story. I watched the transmission of the first step on the moon, and as a writer and a word person, I heard Armstrong’s words this way, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” That’s what I heard, and that was such a poetically strong statement.

What most people heard, though, was, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” No one else seemed to hear that he was talking of himself as “a man” making a leap for mankind. Armstrong himself claimed to have said “a man,” but his words have gone down in history as most people heard them.

In 2006, both audio and video tapes were rediscovered and analyzed. Only then did experts admit that it was very plausible that the tiny word “a” might actually be there.

Peter Shann Ford, a computer programmer, analyzed the audio and found a 35-millisecond blip between “for” and “man,” which was just enough time for the spoken “a” to have been uttered.

I choose to believe I heard the statement as it was meant. That “a” changes the meaning of the statement ever so subtly. It makes more sense to me that a man might feel so tiny and so awestruck to be making such a leap for mankind that he would speak personally.

When we go looking for the past, we may not find what we’re looking for, but we often discover what we never expected. The Rolling Stones got it just about perfect: “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try, sometimes you just might find, you get what you need.”

Let’s never forget that while looking ahead is important, what’s in front of us is only there because of what we see when we look over our shoulder. It’s all part of the same picture.

And that’s why I want to meet the family that came before me.

If you are interested, here are a couple of links:

https://en.m.wikiquote.org/wiki/Neil_Armstrong

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_11_missing_tapes

Old Love

New love, old love…it’s all good when it’s real.

Author’s Note: This is a little something for Valentine’s Day, traditionally a day to celebrate young love. But old love is important and we should celebrate that as well.

The old man sat rocking, clutching his cup of tea. He stared into the fire, glancing from time to time at the old woman who sat next to him. He tried to see the young girl in her, the young girl he’d fallen in love with, the young girl who had made him feel strong and fierce and brave.

He tried to see her dark brown hair that had brushed his cheek when he could get close to her. He tried to remember the bright brown eyes that looked deep into his own eyes as she told him what she wished for their future. He tried to remember how soft and smooth her skin was at night in the firelight.

But that girl wasn’t there. She wasn’t there because the boy who had seen her that way wasn’t there. He was old now, and all he could see was the old woman beside him. The woman who had been there for so many years. The woman who stood and sat and lay beside him for almost as long as he could remember.

He couldn’t remember before her because the time before her didn’t exist. He could only see everything she was, all the years of her, all the pain and joy and anger of her. He couldn’t strip away the days of their lives together to see what she had been before him because all he could see now was all she was to him.

He sighed, sat his tea mug down carefully, and closed his eyes. Suddenly, briefly, as he breathed his last breath, he saw her, the young girl, the woman, the old woman, all the same, all there beside him as she had always been, and he smiled.

 

Getting Closer to Home

The historic marker for Brashear’s Station shows the names Crist and Collings as early settlers.

Over the past few months I’ve taken you on a journey that often went into uncharted territory. When I decided to research my family’s roots, I never expected to find a journal that covered daily American life for 3 generations. I found stories of survival in the most extreme conditions and a story of utter despair as a family struggled to survive while all their sons fought in the Revolutionary War.

Now I want to introduce you to the major players of the story I originally came to tell, the event that started my journey down this path. Not to lead you on…but the biggest family story is yet to come.

William Edward Collings, my six times great grandfather, was born December 1724 in Pennsylvania. When he was 20 years old, he married Anne Elston, 21. Anne had been born in Middlesex New Jersey to Spencer and Mary Elston.

I can’t document exactly when William’s family came to America, but he was born here and it’s relatively safe to say his parents probably were as well. And last week, I told you about the Elston family, in America since the 1600s. My pirate ancestor, remember?

William and Anne were married in Pennsylvania, but apparently lived in New Jersey for a few years. We have church records that show them as members of the Scotch Plains Baptist Church in New Jersey around 1747. Scotch Plains is roughly near Middlesex, NJ, so they probably lived near Anne’s parents.

Son Zebulon was born in New Jersey around 1745 and second son Spencer appears to have been born there in 1750. By 1752, their third child, Elizabeth was born in Pennsylvania.

I’ve mentioned before how fluid state and county lines were in the 1700s, so all mentions of state names are subject to where and when and who was in charge of the area at the time, but I’ve used a couple of these place names for some reference.

I actually Googled a mapped route from Middlesex, New Jersey (where Anne was born) to Somerset, Pennsylvania (where her third child was reportedly born). In land miles the distance is 276 miles and would take a little over 4 hours to drive on good highways.

Google also very helpfully told me that should I want to walk the route, I could do that in something like 100 hours. Assuming one could walk 8 hours a day, it would take 12.5 days to travel between the two cities. That assumes, of course, good weather…no baggage…on straight wide roads as we know them, not meandering trails hacked out of heavily wooded areas. And, by the way, the route passes through the Allegheny Mountains.

This nearly 300-mile journey was the first move west for my Collings family.

Somerset in the western part of Pennsylvania, is south and a little east of present-day Pittsburgh. In the 1750s, this was frontier, nearly uninhabited wilderness. The governmental agencies of Somerset didn’t even come into existence until the 1790s. I also can’t find any recorded history of settlers to that area prior to 1760, so if this is where the Collings came, they may have come here through a series of moves that I cannot find in any documentation.

One key fact about the Somerset, Pennsylvania area is that it is drained by Coxes Creek, which empties into the Ohio River. This means that in the mid 1700s, my family relocated to the pioneer version of an interstate highway.

In the 1770s, there are several official records (okay, court records) of the Collings family in Yohogania Co., VA located near Somerset, PA

William Collings and his sons owned land, they were charged with maintaining roads near their property, they witnessed wills and incurred debts and even tangled with their neighbors and with the law at times. All told, they were active in the area for several years.

We tend to think our early ancestors had hard lives and died young, but consider this: in his mid-50s, around 1783 or so, William Edward Collings packed up his family and with his grown children and several friends traveled down the Ohio River from Pennsylvania to the wild and untamed territory that later became Kentucky.

As when leaving New Jersey, the Collings family moved from a place that was somewhat civilized, with boundaries and courts and government officials, into a wilderness frontier of danger and adventure.

This move was made after the Collings men…William Edward, his sons Zebulon, Spencer, William Elston and Thomas, fought in the Revolutionary War. William, the father, and the two older boys are reported to have served in the Jefferson County Militia under General George Rogers Clark in the Northwest Campaign.

I’ve actually seen an image of a payroll roster, dated 1782, for the company of Captain John Clark who served under General George Rogers Clark. This roster includes the name of Spencer Collings and also George Crist whose family name often appears in the Collings story.

For those of you not familiar with George Rogers Clark and his exploits during and after the Revolutionary War, you need to know at least this: The United States as we know it would look completely different on the map without his efforts. Almost entirely on foot, with a ragtag bunch of independent pioneers, woodsmen, and a few professional soldiers, young George Rogers Clark defeated the British regular army tasked with securing the western territory for England.

George Rogers Clark felt this Northwestern Territory that later became the states of Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Michigan was the key to the westward expansion of our United States. As we would say today, he nailed it.

When the battles were won and negotiations secured the boundaries, my family packed up and moved to claim their place in this fertile and hopeful new land.

A Sort of Review

No treasure, but maybe a pirate or two…

I think I’ve made clear that there is no beginning and no end to family stories, and this makes it difficult to follow a strict timeline in research. The beginning of a new year and a new decade seems to warrant a bit of review, but as usual, I discovered a sideroad…

In 1607, the first successful English settlement in “our” part of the continent, North America, was at Jamestown, Virginia. In spite of the difficulties the new immigrants encountered, the flow of newcomers increased steadily through the 1600 and 1700s bringing thousands of settlers.

At some point during that 100-year period a man named Collings came to America seeking something…land, wealth, freedom, adventure, something that he couldn’t find in his homeland. He came from Ireland or England or Wales, probably as a young man. I don’t know if he came with a wife and children, or if he came as a child himself.

I can’t truly document this family line beyond one William Edward Collings who was born December 11, 1724 In Pennsylvania. I can’t pin down his father, though I am fairly certain his father’s name was Zebulon. There are some records that this is the case and William named his first son Zebulon, which seems to back up that theory.

In 1744 William Edward Collings married Anne Elston (daughter of Spencer and Mary Elston) in Frederick, Pennsylvania. Their first two children, Zebulon and Spencer were born in New Jersey in 1745 and 1750 respectively. Three more children followed — Elizabeth in 1752, William Elston in 1758 and Thomas in 1760, all born in Pennsylvania.

There were a couple of accounts that William might have married a woman named Anne Nowlin, so that was one side road I got lost on for a while.

Tracing women in genealogy is a little trickier than tracing men, but I’m convinced William Edward Collings married Anne Elston. Naming conventions were fairly common in the day and William and Anne named their first son Zebulon (after his father), their second son Spencer (after her father) and their third son William Elston, (Elston being her maiden name).

Anne’s family, the Elstons (also spelled Elson, Alston and various other ways), have a long, long history, as detailed extensively in a book titled “The Elstons in America” that I found on Ancestry.com. Although not documented, there is some speculation that in England, a Peter Elston was part of a group responsible for the execution of King Charles II in 1649, which would surely have been a pretty good reason to emigrate to another country.

He wouldn’t have been the first immigrant. The earliest documented mention of an Elston in America is an account of a shipwreck in the “Annals of Salem,” Vol. II, page 210, Joseph B. Felt:

“1631, July 26, Winthrop relates, ‘…a small bark of Salem, of about twelve tons, coming towards the bay, John Elston and two of Mr. Craddock’s fishermen being in her, and two tons of stone and three hogsheads of train oil, was overset in a gust, and being buoyed up by the oil, she floated up and down forty-eight hours, and the three men sitting upon her until Henry Way his boat, coming by, espied them and saved them.’”

This same John Elston was described as coming over on the Winthrop Fleet as “probably one of Craddock’s servants.” And before you ask, I have no idea why you would transport two tons of stone, nor what “train oil” was, there being no trains in 1631. Those questions are two sideroads I avoided.

In 1698, one of the more interesting Elston men, gave an account of his adventures as a young cabin boy on what could only be described as a pirate ship. Claiming that he ran away from home and fell asleep on a ship, he awoke to find the ship (and himself) out to sea. He names the various ports the ship visited and the “encounters” they had with other ships. Authorities investigating his actions wrote:

Dureing the time of theire being on the Coast they tooke two shipps Danes and Sweedes Laden with Goods for the Guinea trade takeing as many men out of them as were willing to saile…turning the shipps a drift, that in the Acc’on they had a Dispute with said shipps for about halfe an hour looseing one man

Apparently, there was a little bureaucratic snarkiness going on at the time John Elston was being investigated. He and another young man (both aged 19 or 20) were “seized” by the Earl of Bellmont, but the Earl seemed to view their adventures as youthful hijinks. He wrote in a letter to his bosses, the Lords of Trade, that since the boys were so young at the time of the piracy (12 or 13), were merely cabin boys and did not partake or profit from any of the encounters, he saw no reason to hold them or send them to England for a trial, and that they should be released on bail.

The Governor of East Jersey, on the other hand, was furious. He wrote to the House of Commons (his bosses) that it was his duty to refuse bail but that the Earl of Bellemont “by pretended Admiralty power forced them out of your petitioner’s hands and set them at liberty upon insufficient bayle, to the great hazard and danger of your Petitioner.”

There was detail as to how these young men posed a danger to the Governor and there are no additional records about how this case resolved, but I have to say: I’m excited to have a pirate in the family, even if he was “sort of” innocent.

New Year_Same Story

Papaw with his dog Yogi.

The past couple of years have been a difficult time with the loss of too many relatives and friends, losses that seem almost too much to bear. As we start a new year, I find myself dwelling on memories of people I have known.

What we remember of a person isn’t the person. Our memories are 2D, but a person is 3D. It takes all the memories of all the people who knew this person and still that’s not the person. The person, the actual 3D person, is what dies. That whole person. That’s what we lose and that’s what we miss, that 3D person that we only knew in 2D. Everyone who knew that person in life misses a different person than we miss…but that’s what’s gone…that multi-dimensional person.

That’s why we tell stories. We try to round out the person that has gone, but all we ever do is make an imperfect copy to remember.

In this blog I’ve been telling stories of people I’ve never known. Still, I feel some connection because they are my people, the people who have become me, the people who have given me depth, make me 3D. I try to imagine how it must have been for them, how they felt as they tried to make it through their world.

This year I will continue to tell these stories, but I want to also share the people I have known. I’m aware that “young” people become frustrated with “old” people who are always telling stories of the past, but I’d like to remind those “young” people that we have more past than we have future. As their future is important to them, our past is important to us. No, strike that…our past IS us. It is what makes us who we are…it is our third dimension.

So today, instead of telling you more about my pioneer ancestors (don’t worry, they’ll be back), I want to tell you about my paternal grandfather. I called him Papaw.

These are my memories of him. There are others who can add to this picture, give depth to the man he was, but there can never get a true three-dimensional image of him because that would take the man himself standing in front of me.

I was little, he was big, well over 6’6”, he was thin and sinewy, and as I knew him, always old. I see him wearing overalls and a blue work shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Always the sleeves rolled up. Never down and buttoned. I know he dressed up. I have pictures of him in a suit, but that’s not how I remember him. Always in overalls and a work shirt.

This is the way Papaw always sat in a lawn chair.

He had a machine shop a few hundred yards from his house and I remember him there. When I remember him there are two images…on summer nights, after supper, he and my grandmother (Mamaw), sat in their metal lawn chairs on the back porch looking out over their property. The chairs were rocking chairs and while Mamaw rocked, Papaw sat leaning way back on the rockers of his chair, fly swatter in hand. With his long arms hanging down he could almost touch the porch floor. They sat from supper through twilight to darkness, and the murmur of their voices, the certainty that they were there, was the music of my childhood.

The other picture of him I have from my childhood is in their old house before they remodeled it, in a room that was all things. It contained the old iron, coal-burning stove, chairs pulled up in a circle around that stove, a table where we ate, a “daybed,” and a “sideboard.” Those are the names of the furniture I remember. This was the room where we spent our time, the living room.

On that sideboard, the top of which I was too short to see, were many wondrous things, tobacco pouches, small coins, safety pins, any small thing a person might need…and cough drops. My grandfather favored the Luden brand black lozenges. When he took one from the box, I wanted one too. I would call forth what I believed was a very convincing cough. Papaw always seriously offered me one from his box, but I learned early on that those black ones were horrible tasting. I pouted, shook my head, coughed again for good measure as he put the black box back and started to walk away. But then he would pick up another box, one that held red lozenges. I couldn’t read but I could recognize the box. He would ask me to be sure that was the one I wanted…not this one, holding up the black box? I pointed to the red and he shook one out in my little hand.

His profession was machinist and his shop was a wondrous place with tools that whirled and turned and drilled. I loved it. The shop smelled of oil and hot metal and work. Papaw would put on a big, black mask with a little window and make sparks fly like Fourth of July sparklers and when he took off the mask, two pieces of metal had become one forever.

There were bins of ball bearings and stacks of sheets of metal. He had one machine that cut screw threads into rods, shedding razor thin coils of metal shavings onto the floor.

The shop was a dangerous place for a child who walked barefoot through her young world. I knew the dangers from a very young age. I knew that by simply appearing in the doorway to his shop I could make him stop what he was doing and rush to pick me up and deposit me on the tall stool by his desk. The scolding I got for coming into the shop with no shoes was painless…the candy he handed me to make up for his scolds was priceless.

Other people knew other sides to the man who was my papaw. He was a son, husband, father, uncle, grandfather to more than just me. Some of you reading this knew many different dimensions of the man called Papaw, Shorty, Nick, Mr. Nicholas.

I really know very little of the man, but I never doubt he is in me.

Christmas, 2019

A couple of weeks ago my friend Eli explained the difference between happiness and joy and helped me better understand the very mixed feelings I get at Christmas.

Happiness is event driven and joy is a feeling that exists in spite of everything external. Joy is an emotion that comes from anticipation or expectation.

Christmas, said Eli, is not a happy time for some people. There is illness and loss and families that are far way or separated by anger. Christmas is a time when all that we do not have in our lives becomes painfully evident.

It’s not a happy time for everyone, but out of all the frustration and ordinary day to day struggles, out of the awe and fear of the responsibilities there is the anticipation of a fulfilled promise… joy.

There’s a real and human side to Christmas and we shouldn’t lose sight of that because it only makes the miracle of the season that much more joyful. That’s what I was trying to get at when I wrote the following, several years ago.

Every year I try to think what it must have been like that night.

Some say it was cold, maybe so. Since the country of Israel is subtropical, it wouldn’t have been cold as we in the Midwest know cold, maybe in the 40’s or 50’s. But of course, cold is relative, so it probably did seem cold to them, that young couple on that ill-timed journey long ago.

More than likely the weather was damp, and rain had been falling most of the day. That’s typical winter weather around that time, around that place. When you are road weary and wet, 50° would be cold…bone-chilling cold.

And they surely would have been weary. Twenty-five miles doesn’t seem far in a car, but try walking it…or worse yet, riding on the back of a donkey with your own back aching from a nine month pregnancy.

Of course, they were tired, but that wasn’t the worst of it. Young and newly married, they must have been a little dazed by the turn their lives had taken.

We all know the story. When the betrothed, yet unmarried Mary learned she was to bear a Child of God, she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, also miraculously pregnant. She may have been seeking some solace or trying to put some distance between herself and her well-meaning but skeptical family. The Gospels tell us she stayed with Elizabeth for three months. One can only wonder what those two women talked about late at night. There must have been some doubts and fears about how this could possibly work out.

While Mary was gone, Joseph must have wrestled with his own problems. Being betrothed to Mary was much more serious than merely being engaged. It meant Joseph had agreed to be responsible for Mary. The couple had already taken a sort of pre-marriage vow, and to learn that Mary was carrying a child must have been a tremendous blow to a man who knew he had honored his vows to her.

Joseph would have been perfectly justified in publicly denouncing Mary, yet after much consideration, he decided to very quietly divorce or step away from her with no public shaming.

I’m sure his family had a lot to say about that decision. I’m sure he had a cousin or a friend or someone who made sure to tell him just how foolish he would look by treating Mary with compassion. Still he stood his ground. He would not be cruel to this young woman he had known all his life, this young woman he cared for and had planned to marry.

Only after Joseph made this decision to quietly put Mary away from him, did God send an angel to explain everything. I wonder how long the angel had to talk. How quickly did Joseph grasp the significance? And did he do so with relief, or with some skepticism, or with patient resignation. Did he realize the responsibility of becoming the stepfather to the Child of God?

I bet his family had a lot to say about that, too, about the marriage proceeding as planned in spite of all appearances.

So, you see, the young couple had to be emotionally drained as well as physically exhausted when they got into Bethlehem. Newlyweds…Mary nine months pregnant…Joseph concerned for his young wife, worried and frustrated that on top of everything they had been through, he was expected to drag her out in this condition to fulfill the government requirement for a stupid census.

Imagine how frustrated, how angry, how helpless this young husband must have felt when he began to realize that there was not one room left in Bethlehem where they could relax.

Was the stable where they finally settled offered to them by some kindhearted soul who saw Mary’s condition or Joseph’s frustration? Or did a greedy innkeeper see a chance to make some pocket money by charging a desperate man for the only space available where a tired couple could pass the night relatively dry and safe?

We’ll never know for sure. All we know now, some two thousand years later, is that God’s Plan would happen. For in the night, in the stable, in the little town of Bethlehem, to an ordinary couple, road weary and far from home, a Child was born.

Every year I try to think how it must have been that night.  All the frustrations and human failures and problems, all the hurt and the sorrow and the pain, everything that was ordinary fell away, paled in the face of the miracle not just of birth, but Birth.

And if ever there was a time when the earth stood poised with all of eternity within our grasp, it must have been that night, when the angels sang to shepherds and a young mother cradled the Son of God in the form of a baby.

Every year, I try desperately to think how the world must have felt that night.

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!”

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