My ancestors were thieves and scoundrels, near slaves and certainly slave owners. They were also ministers and soldiers, farmers and bankers, homemakers and lots and lots of teachers. They sharpened knives in England, made leather boots with Lewis and Clark as they hunted for the Northwest Passage, and fought on both sides of the Civil War.
They were an American complexity that I tried to figure out as I stood in a dry creek bank next to a dilapidated bridge, staring into the sunlight at two haystacks not a hundred yards away. This was the promised land.
“There where those hay bales are. That was where they lived. The road ran in front the house. It was a cabin. A log cabin. James and Sarah lived there first and then their son Benjamin. They are buried on that little knoll there, or that one,” said Monty Bryant, a local historian and an incredibly distant cousin I had met an hour earlier.
He stood at the creek’s edge and would go no further. A no trespassing sign was nailed to a tree above the moss-covered bridge, light showing through its cracks. I edged closer to the far bank. The current owner was in local parlance “not right.”
“Can’t I talk with him and see if he’d let us look closer. You know I’m good at talking to people,” I pleaded.
“He has a gun,” Monty replied. Even I know better than to trespass on a Kentucky landowner with a gun.
Our ancestor James Whitehouse was the first of our people to arrive in Kentucky. Born outside of London, his parents and most of his siblings died in an 18th Century tubercular epidemic that killed millions across Europe, “particularly amongst the poorer classes,” according to the Journal of Military and Veterans Health. James was at loose ends when his father, a cutler, died, and he joined what could only be called a gang. The Old Bailey Court records state that he and a buddy came across a woman carrying a silk gown in a bundle. He asked what a whore was doing with such nice things and smacked it from her hand. The clothes were found pawned. For awhile, he hid out at his grandfather’s house, but eventually turned himself in. He was convicted of theft, branded, and sentenced to transportation, 14 years working in Virginia. He was 15 years old.
Loaded with 94 convicts, the Tayloe set out in 1774. Capt. John Ogilvie was a cruel master, chaining prisoners in groups of six and rarely letting them out of the hole during the two-month slog. Somewhere out over the Atlantic, he shot a bird off the deck, who fell into the water. Ogilvie offered freedom for the man who could retrieve it for him. The prisoner who swam out to fetch it was attacked by a shark, lost an arm, and died just after returning with the bird. A sadistic captain wasn’t the only threat. Lightening destroyed the mast as it pulled into Chesapeake Bay, shaking the ship to the core. All this was recorded in the Virginia Gazette once the vessel landed. But, here is the odd thing about transportation: it likely saved James’ life. He either would have been hung as a thief or died from the White Plague had he stayed in England.
Records of what happened to James in Virginia and the end of his indentured servitude are unclear or lost. More than one historian believes his grandfather may have paid a bond to end his sentence early. Regardless, legal marriage for such men was rare and unlikely, and no matrimonial proof exists. We do know that James arrived in Kentucky in 1783 with a woman named Sarah whom he called his wife and their three children. We do know he served in the military and from that earned a land grant. They eventually settled along Scrubgrass Creek, the dry bed in which I was standing.
Some of their children would be literate. Joseph would write a diary of his account trekking with Lewis and Clark, though much effort was spent complaining about the experience. Monty’s ancestor Benjamin would marry into Abraham Lincoln’s family. My ancestor Joel would never learn to read and would bounce around Kentucky for awhile looking for land of his own before settling in the next county over.
James himself became a respectable and honored man in the community. He served as constable, sort of the law in that edge of the woods. By the time he died in 1819, he owned two horses, five cows, two mules, two pigs, two plows, a flock of sheep, and five yards of silk. A crop of flax was ready for market.
“I love these people, the Whitehouses,” Monty said. “They scrapped a life out of land that nobody wanted.”
Except of course the Shawnee who were driven off from here, but it seemed rude to bring that up. “They worked hard, so hard.”
James’ estate settlement lists a churn, table and chairs, his iron tools, his sundry old books. There would not be a high school for the children living along this road toward Forkland until 1927. Electricity would arrive in 1947. Cell coverage still does not reach this far.
And yet, the people buried over across this creek made the way for my grandfather to become a small town banker, for my father to become a minister, for me to become a college professor. The life they carved out made my life possible. They arrived here with nothing, not even good character. They rebuilt their souls and planted their very DNA into the ground. I had to come here, to see the spot where they settled, even if I had to stand in a creek bed to reach across time.