Thursday, August 18, 2011


I often ask myself, when the work of the day has settled down and things grow quiet and still, how did I get there? How did any of us get there, to that river valley in eastern Kentucky and western West Virginia, scattered along those creeks and streams like so many seeds, sprouting wildly in the deep shadows of hollows that for centuries knew only the footfall of bear and fox and mountain lion, and for more centuries after that the occasional band of Shawnee hunters, passing through, building fires in the shelter of overhanging rocks? Perhaps as they slept they dreamed of their homes, along the Ohio River near Portsmouth, or west, in Clark County, the village they called Eskippakithiki, the Place of Blue Licks. They had other names that hide behind the places we know: Eskalapia, Tywhapita, Tyewhappety. Or the name they gave, when asked by English explorers, to the Kanawha River - Chinotahishetha, which means, roughly "He, the Shawnee, is guarding that which is his."

Then they were gone, defeated at the Battle of Point Pleasant, overwhelmed by history. Soon the land itself was neatly divided into tracts by Thomas Jefferson's Land Ordinance of 1785 and sold for as little as $1 an acre. After that, my ancestors came, Hatfield and Ball and Blankenship, Farley and Evans and Dotson, Runyon and May, McCoy and Smith, beginning, timidly, around 1810 and gaining momentum in the second decade of the new century. Hungry for land and, I can only assume, space, primal emptiness, they came, clearing back the virgin forest, building homes, planting things, naming things. By 1820, they had established themselves in the hollows of Pike County, from Buskirk on the banks of the Tug River, all along Blackberry Creek, Bluespring, Left Fork, Smith Fork, Calf Branch, Pond Creek, Pinsonfork, McVeigh. And there, despite the steep hillsides and narrow hollows, the thin soil, the difficulty of getting anywhere, the isolation, they survive. One might say, looking at the census rolls from 1820, 1830, 1840, seeing the number of children in their homes grow to 6,8,10,12, that they even prospered. Certainly, as William Faulkner might say, they endured.

From that point on, I can trace their comings and goings by way of census rolls, church records, the occasional deed or court document. I can watch them intermarry and mingle, see how their children spread out along the hollows, each generation carving the land into smaller (and less productive) portions, but at the same time note how the family networks grow more complex and intertwined. I don't really know anything about these people. They didn't leave much in the way of documents or artifacts. They are little more than names, dates scribbled in census books, birth records, death records, but something of them survived in their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren; in the songs my great grandmother might have sung to herself as she weeded her garden, in the stories she told about her great grandfather, in the knowledge my grandfather had of the hillsides around his house - where to find gingseng, which tree the squirrels came to feed at early in the morning, where the chestnut trees had been before the blight in 1933.

I know a few things for certain, though. They came and they stayed. They changed the land and the land changed them, individually and collectively, until at times it is difficult for me to tell which side, human or natural, was more profoundly altered by the other. I honestly can't say that I understand the forces that drove them to make the choices they made. What makes a man and woman load their children and all of their worldly belongings onto rickety old wagons and head out into a wilderness that only a decade before had been the hunting grounds of the Cherokee and Shawnee? I know that they came to Blackberry Creek and, after over 100 years of moving from place to place, from the Maryland coast to the wilds of Western Virginia, they stayed. It is common among outsiders, historians and cultural scholars, to see Appalachia as a kind of trap, a place where people came but were too poor or too stubborn or too stupid to leave. But as I look at the land records from the 1830s and 1840s and watch these original settlers and their adult children buy up every scrap of land on Blackberry Creek they can get their hands on, 50 and 100 acres at a time, I don't get the sense that these were people who wanted to leave. I get the sense, hard to prove but impossible to shake, that these were people who, after more than a century of roaming, had finally found a home.

So, no, I have no way, really, of knowing what drove their choices, but I can say without exaggeration that I am to a large extent the result of those choices. I cannot reach back across time to know for sure who they were or what they wanted or how they felt when they sat on their porches and looked out at the same Blackberry Creek where I grew up, or what they thought when they climbed to the same ridge tops that I've walked dozens of times and looked out across a seemingly endless stretch of blue-tinged hills. All I have of them are my own personal memories, the more tenuous memory of historical research, and, perhaps most importantly, the bone-deep memory of culture, which molds us the way the contours of the hillsides direct the path of the streams. But this memory, whether personal or historical or cultural, is important, since it is the one way that we can keep faith with them, with the Shawnee who were here before them, with the land itself - we too, in our stories and our songs and our boxes of old photographs and faded documents, guard that which is ours.  We tell and retell our stories, some new, some older than we have any way of knowing, and in those acts of retelling we define ourselves, we find ourselves, we come into our future by way of our collective past. 

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