Have you ever been busy doing something to discover that one of your ancestors just gave you a really, REALLY unexpected, completely out-of-the-blue wink and a nod?
Of course, immediately you think that’s entirely silly.
I mean, that’s not possible. Right?
Yet, there you are…and whatever it was just happened.
An Unplanned Detour
I knew I was flying to a particular destination. I’ve flown there before. No big deal.
But this time, nothing seemed to go right. Flights that used to exist evaporated into thin air. Inexplicably, the flights that did exist were full – at least the day I needed to fly.
I could get a lovely, direct, flight into a city about 90 minutes distant from my destination. That was very confusing because normally it’s THAT city whose flights are typically full.
I couldn’t get there via the path one would normally travel, but I could get there, so I booked the flight.
You know the butterflies you get in your stomach when you head off for a huge life change? Even if you know it’s the right path?
A wedding maybe?
Moving away from anyone or anything familiar?
Any major life move.
Sometimes the butterflies start hatching a few days in advance and by the time you’re on the way, you have an entire kaleidoscope in residence.
Everyone’s coping methodology is different.
Some people get insomnia.
On this particular flight, I chose distraction because those butterflies were out of control.
I couldn’t concentrate enough to read, so I opted to watch an in-flight movie.
Except…I didn’t like either movie I started to watch, and by that time, If I had started to watch a different movie, the flight would have ended before the movie.
I flipped to the plane’s flight-tracker, and that’s when it happened.
Where Am I?
My window shade was closed. It was dark in the cabin. Most people were either watching something or sleeping.
I didn’t really think much about how to get from point A, my departure location, to point B.
However, I noticed on the flight tracker that the airplane was generally over a part of the country that seemed like it would pass near where my ancestors lived in Virginia and Tennessee, near the Cumberland Gap.
I enlarged the map to view the plane’s path.
Wow, it’s traveling east of Knoxville, near Claiborne County, Tennessee.
The map had an upper limit to how large one can make the map, and only the cities and larger towns were shown. Trust me, not one of my ancestors is from any place even resembling “large.” Not even medium.
I pulled my shade up, not that I expected to see anything that I would even remotely recognize from 30,000 feet in the air.
I was in for quite a surprise.
I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve driven those ribbon-looking roads home.
Where is home?
Home is where my ancestors lived. Where my Dad was born, and so were his parents and their kin for generations. Home was where I went to find them. When I first began that journey, I only knew one word – Tazewell. A town in Tennessee. According to my Mom, that’s where my Dad was from. I knew nothing else. Nothing about his parents or siblings. Nothing about his grandparents.
Nothing. Not one thing.
That was in 1978.
Oh my, what a long way we’ve come – me and my ancestors. I’ve been pushed, guided, and cajoled. I’ve had many fortuitous “accidents” and met the most amazing people. I found family I had no idea existed, and I’m very close to many of those cousins today.
I cherish those mesmerizing, life-changing trips where a dear cousin took me to stand where my ancestors stood, lived, and yes, were buried.
Uncle George was the first, and he’s been gone for almost 25 years now. We climbed in the cattle grate of his pickup truck for the trip up the mountainside in Estes Holler where our ancestors homesteaded.
After several years, the people you met decades ago have passed over, and the younger generation isn’t necessarily interested. Furthermore, you’ve found the ancestors who lived in that region and pushed the brick wall further back to a time before they settled there. In this case, back into Virginia and North Carolina.
Said another way that genealogists will understand, there just doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason to return again – especially if it’s a long distance with no one left.
I haven’t been back to the Cumberland Gap area in more than a decade.
That is, until today.
I looked out and saw the first of the mountain ridges rising in the distance, like pleats in the fabric of earth, or maybe ripples in the sea of time.
Are those the linear ridges that comprise the Cumberland Mountains, forming a 100-mile group of NE to SW ridges within the Appalachian Range that includes the Cumberland Gap?
Why yes, yes, I believe it is.
We can see these same ridges on this 1795 map that the early settlers would have used. We can see the Kentucky road and the Indian boundary line, just to the left of the road where the red color begins. That Indian boundary line ran right through my ancestor’s land.
A few other steep, treacherous, but passable gaps occur between the ridges, but not many.
I looked back at the plane’s path on the screen which was currently east of Knoxville and yes, sure enough, those mountains out the window are the beginning of the Cumberland Range of the Appalachian Mountains.
My family was from all over, down there.
Each individual ancestor’s journey eventually coalesced in Estes Holler, along Little Sycamore Road which follows Little Sycamore Creek, of course. To get there, you have to follow the valleys, along the Ol’ Kentucky Road, south out of Tazewell, then turn north again when you reach the crossroads called Springdale. You’ll know you’re there when you see the school, the gas station that serves pizza by the slice, and the church. Estes Holler is up yonder a bit.
It’s about 7 miles from Tazewell, unless you’re a crow, then it’s maybe 3. Of course, you could take the unpaved two-tracks across the ridges, but that’s not recommended unless you know where you’re going and what you’re doing.
If I was right, then out my window I was seeing Barbourville, where my Vannoy ancestor, John Vannoy’s son, Francis Vannoy (1746-1822) – Daniel Vannoy’s brother and Elijah Vannoy’s uncle resided. For years, we had no idea quite how Francis Vannoy was related to my ancestor, Elijah Vannoy who lived not terribly far away along Mulberry Creek in Claiborne County, the part that would one day split off to form Hancock County.
Francis Vannoy lived about 60 miles distant in Barbourville, Kentucky, over rough mountain trails. Regardless, we knew the families retained close ties because they intermarried. The Vannoy family, along with the McNiels and several others lived on what would eventually be called Back Valley Road. Back Valley, which is also called Rebel Holler in some places, and is reportedly haunted by the ghosts of Civil War soldiers, follows a holler just below the state line between Virginia and Tennessee.
Pineville and Middlesboro, Kentucky should be visible out the window soon.
When my grandfather, William George Estes, moved back to Appalachia after tenant farming in Indiana, he eventually settled on the highest part of Black Mountain in Harlan County, just 60 miles but almost two hours east of Pineville on hopelessly winding roads with deadly switchbacks. His grandson would die a tragic death on those roads one day.
My grandfather didn’t drive, although I have no idea why not. He rode a horse initially, and then rode as a passenger with others. Cars were scarce in the 19-teens and 1920s when he moved back.
By the 1950s, he would catch a ride down to Pineville, Kentucky, then take the bus through Middlesboro, Kentucky, across Cumberland Gap, and through Tazewell, Tennessee.
Today, there’s a tunnel, but back then, the only road went across Cumberland Gap. You can take a look here, although the road is abandoned today, and hear some of the country music of the hills too. Of course, the earliest pioneers walked the path along the Wilderness Road, which you can view here in a lovely, short historical documentary.
The bus or some kindhearted soul would drop my grandfather south of Tazewell at Springdale where he would catch a ride with someone headed down Little Sycamore Road to Estes Holler. No ride – no problem – he would walk.
His parents and family lived in Estes Holler, as had three previous generations. However, my grandmother, Ollie Bolton’s parents, and family lived on up Little Sycamore into Hancock County, on Wallen Ridge, along the Powell River where the only way across the range is across the river and through Mulberry Gap.
Michael McDowell settled Slanting Miserly and lived near William Herrell, James Lee Claxton, and Joseph Bolton when Joseph arrived from Giles County, Virginia in the 1840s. By that time, those other families had been established for 30 or 40 years – some longer.
Lazarus Dodson, a Revolutionary War veteran, lived close to Middlesboro, on the Tennessee side, just beneath the actual Cumberland Gap.
Civil War soldiers camped in his field, marked on a military map, which is how we located his original land. Lazarus Dodson’s land was sold to David Cottrell, and this map shows the location of the homestead.
In addition to the Dodson homeplace, you can see the corresponding roads today.
Lazarus Dodson Jr.’s wife was Elizabeth Campbell. Her parents, John Campbell and Jenny Dobkins, and grandparents, Jacob Dobkins and Dorcas Johnson lived on the Powell River, near where the river bends back on itself near the Hancock County border. Of course, there’s a family cemetery, as there is in many locations.
It’s difficult to see from this perspective, but I know my ancestors are all down there within view.
John Campbell who married Jacob Dobkins’ daughter lived right above Liberty Baptist Church. In fact, Liberty was built on what had once been his land.
Before the Campbell boys moved to Claiborne County, the Campbell family and the Dodsons lived at the old Warrior Path crossing on the Holston River near Rogersville where the TVA plant is located today, near Dru Hanes Road. Jacob Dobkins lived about 8 miles away, up to Bull’s Gap, near the Hawkins/Hamblen County line.
About 1795, two of Jacob’s daughters married Campbell brothers. About 1801, all three of those families, along with Lazarus Dodson and his family, moved to Claiborne County. Their son, Lazarus Dodson Jr. married Elizabeth Campbell, daughter of John Campbell and Jenny Dobkins.
Generation after generation of closely allied families were born in these hills.
Two decades later, William Crumley moved on from Greeneville to Blackwater Creek on the border between what is now Hancock County, Tennessee, and Lee County, Virginia, along with his adult son William, who had married Lydia Brown. The younger William’s daughter, Phebe Crumley would one day marry Joel Vannoy in Hancock County, Tennessee and they would move down Little Sycamore to Vannoy Holler, named after Joel, right across the ridge from Estes Holler.
You know where this is headed, right?
Rutha and John’s marriage was rudely interrupted by the Civil War, and never really recovered. She lived out her life in Estes Holler, but he walked on to Texas, establishing a new branch of the family there.
You know, I always wondered how Rutha Dodson, daughter of Lazarus Dodson and Elizabeth Campbell who lived plumb up to Cumberland Gap met John Y. Estes.
John Y. Estes lived in Estes Holler after his parents settled there when they arrived from Halifax County, Virginia, following his father’s service in the War of 1812. I figured it out when we realized Rutha’s mother died young and she was being raised by her grandparents, John Campbell and Jenny Dobkins who owned land right near Estes Holler, where Liberty Baptist Church is today.
You can’t marry who you don’t see – so two people have to be close enough to court.
Another branch of the family, the Reverend Nicholas Speaks and his wife, Sarah Faires left Washington County Virginia near Glade Springs about 1820 to found the Speaks Methodist Church in Lee County, Virginia.
The church is only 6 or 7 miles as the crow flies from Mulberry Gap. Of course, it’s 18 or 20 miles as the horse travels, through Mulberry Gap and then fording the Powell River at a low place – assuming there is a low place to be found.
Getting to church was not for the fainthearted.
Many of these families lived along or near the Powell River.
James Lee Claxton and his wife Sarah Cook left Russell County, Virginia near Honaker on the Clinch River around 1800 and settled on Claxton Bend near Slanting Misery on the Powell River where Michael McDowell tried to plow land that was more vertical than horizontal.
The Muncy men served in the forts in Russell County, Virginia during the Revolutionary War.
Agnes Muncy married Fairwick Claxton about 1814 in the part of Claiborne County that would become Hancock in the 1840s. They too lived on the Powell River on Claxton Bend, near what is today Camp Jubilee where they are buried on the old homeplace.
Elizabeth Vannoy’s grandparents, Joel Vannoy and Lois McNiel settled in Claborne County, the part that became Hancock, after leaving Wilkes County, North Carolina about 1812 or so. They weren’t the only people from Wilkes that settled among those valleys and mountain ridges along the Powell River. William Harrell, sometimes spelled Harrold in Wilkes County, and Michael McDowell, a Revolutionary War veteran came too, along with their families. The Hickerson line married into those families in Wilkes County, as did the Shepherd and Rash lines.
Wilkes County was located across the actual mountain range itself, not along its ridges or valleys. There was no easy way to get from Wilkes County, North Carolina to Claiborne County, Tennessee. Look at those majestic, and tall, mountains!
These hearty ancestors settled in this rugged terrain, between the ridges, in the hollers, near the tops of mountains, and along the cleanest part of the streams where their families would, hopefully, be safe.
Many families arrived in eastern Tennessee shortly after the Revolutionary War, and some, like Jacob Dobkins, even before. Countless more found their way to the westward frontier when the floodgates opened after the War of 1812.
Perhaps they were joining family members who had already staked a claim and built a small cabin.
Regardless of who they were, how they arrived, or when, over a span of a hundred years or so, 42 of my ancestors lived, loved, and made their lives in these rugged mountains. They came to love them and called them home. Eventually, those ancestors gave life to my father who passed that love of the mountains on to me.
Just looking at them, from the valley floors or from 30,000 feet in the air brings me peace.
I am a product of these hardscrabble survivors. Some of them didn’t even have houses, at least not at first – living in structures created from animal hides before they built small one-room cabins for their large families. Kitchens and bathrooms were both outside. They fetched and carried water from a stream.
Some were Native people who were none too happy to see the new settlers.
Many risked everything, either to fight to defend their land, this fledgling nation and to make the trek to settle the dangerous frontier.
Women plowed, farmed, and performed the work normally done by both men and women. Sometimes only when the menfolk were gone, but all too often that stretched into forever because their husbands never returned.
Today, I saw all of this in the span of a few minutes. Kind of like the panorama of my ancestors’ lives passing before my eyes.
More than two centuries of my ancestors’ blood and DNA waters the land below. Journeys that took months of hard work in muddy ruts, and cost some of them their very lives, slipped beneath my plane window in just a few minutes.
What would my ancestors have thought?
This unexpected birds-eye survey of my ancestors’ lives provided me with an amazing perspective.
I was able to appreciate their journey in a way they never could.
Observing their lives pass before my eyes spoke to my soul and buoyed my spirits.
I felt like my ancestors – all of them, as far as the eye could see – were cheering and waving me on to my future. Of course, that’s the future for the parts of them that I carry in me, too. By virtue of that, they accompany me.
I’m doing my small part to look to the horizon once again. Carrying on the wanderlust tradition.
I must be brave. Compared to what they faced, and survived, this is nothing. I can always fly home, or back to visit. I can text in an instant to someone who lives distantly.
They couldn’t even rely on letters to arrive. No notification if someone passed away. Women didn’t know if their husbands died in war, or hunting, or not. Were they a widow? Would they, could they, should they, remarry?
No modern medicine either. Childbirth was inherently risky, as was any infected cut. Appendicitis? You’re toast. Dig the grave.
My ancestors unquestionably understood fear – for themselves and their family members. It was part of their daily diet.
Yet, it didn’t stop them. They pressed on and persisted. That’s a good thing for me!
A Wink and a Nod
My unexpected, unplanned Appalachian tour that consumed maybe all of 30 minutes was indeed a wink and a nod from those ancestors. Quieted those butterflies right down.
I had my own personal cheering squad.
Silently wishing me well.
I heard them in my heart as I gazed down at their homelands. I can see the line of ancestors, their path extending back into Virginia, and beyond in the misty distance.
Frontiers have never been easy, but I see the horizon just over that next mountain. Just like they did.
Thanks Ancestors. I needed you today!
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