Meditations on a weird and wonderful wilderness.
Lost Creek Ancestors: A State of Mind
Searching for ancestors is fun, especially now that there are internet resources. After all, you no longer have to drive hundreds of miles, only to find out that your idiot forebears burnt down the courthouse to spite the British, and now there are no records. You can find that out with a mouseclick or two. However, ancestor-hunting can be fraught: you may find things out you wish you didn't know.
I knew my grandparents were cousins of some sort. It's a common experience for people in the southern US whose folks migrated back in the 1600s. Back in the day, the place wasn't exactly hopping with eligible bachelors and bachelorettes, even when they intermarried with the local Cherokees. (And they did.) I had come to terms with that. But when I saw clearly from the chart that my great-great grandparents were related, I gave up.
'You know what I've figured out?' I demanded of Elektra.
'That you're lucky you don't have two heads?'
'Well, yeah, that. But also, that I'm related to pretty much a whole county.'
And that's what ancestor research is really all about. (That and finding out the definition of 'premature pedigree collapse'.)
The Magic of Lost Creek
Why is it lost? The creeks in the Upper Cumberland of Tennessee wander in and out of caves, appearing and reappearing. Hence 'Lost Creek'. The county it's in is magical, even today – but back in the years after the Revolutionary War, when those first veterans ventured out into the wilderness to see the land grants they'd been paid off with, it was like no place on Earth.
There was a river there with a section that sometimes flowed in the opposite direction for a while. (It's complicated, and involves sinkholes.) There was a cave with year-round ice. (In the subtropics.) There was (and is) a promontory from which you could see three states. There were over a thousand caves, one with a lake in it. The caves were full of stalactites and stalagmites and even minerals. The Indians knew which ones had saltpetre in, but they wouldn't tell. There were giant trees, eleven feet in diameter. And there were bears, and panthers, and snakes – but also pigeons whose formations blackened the sky, and who broke off tree branches when they roosted in such huge numbers.
Er, yes: the first settlers were given land as a reward for making Lord Cornwallis' life miserable. One of those was my fifth-great-grandfather, but he stayed in Virginia. However, his grandson and the rest of the people who became my complicated ancestors ventured over to the new state in the 1820s. The main reason was that Virginia was a hostile climate for Primitive Baptists. (Maybe Anglicans objected to the foot-washing? Who knows?)
These people were as strange as the land. They did things their own way. Although a licenced minister, my three-times-great-grandfather was illiterate. It says so on the 1840 US Census. Which means somebody went over to the cabin, asked, and wrote down, 'crw: can't read or write'. He wasn't ignorant, though, my three-times-great-grandfather. He built a calendar into his house that I'm too thick to understand:
On the outside upper facing of the door there are two rows of holes made with a very small augur. There are thirty-one holes in the upper row, and thirty-two in the lower row. By sticking certain pegs in certain holes he could tell the month for each quarter of the year.
Now, if anyone understands how that works, please explain it to me. I am in awe.
Telling Time in the Other World
Not only did they tell time by drilling holes in the cabin wall, they dated events in the old, traditional, almost Biblical way: by major events. What was a major event to you wasn't to them. They cared not a whit for 'the year everybody wore platform shoes', but they were big on 'the year of the Big Snow' (four feet in a night), or 'the year the stars fell'. That was 1833. It must have been a spectacular meteor shower: as late as the 1930s, elderly people were telling oral history researchers that they were born 'so many years after the stars fell'.
People in the county thought the world was coming to an end. They gathered and prayed. All except one old 'sinner' (meaning 'skeptic'), who calmly puffed away on his pipe.
'John, why are you not praying, don't you see it is the Judgment Day?' shouted his sister.
John remained unmoved. 'Be quiet, Sarah, no Judgment Day, or any other day is going to come and it night.'
Against such logic there is no reasonable defence. And those people were my collective ancestors. They were a nutty lot, but I'm kind of proud of them.