Wednesday, July 20, 2005

"Up Laurel"

There is an area close to where I live where the climbing, winding roads carry you into a seemingly endless path of breathtaking veiws, where the mountains seem to kiss the clouds and the faint sounds of bluegrass being played on the front porches of crooked little shacks makes your heart release a deep sigh for the kinfolk who walked these hills before us. Collectively the area is known as Shelton Laurel, with division names like Upper Laurel, Little Laurel, Big Ivy, Cutshalltown and Sodom. Before the arrival of European settlers, this was home to the Oconaluftee tribe of the Cherokee. Legends abound about the remote area, tales of a Civil War massacre, murders, moonshine stills, hidden silver mines and a race of dark skinned people called Melungeons. Even now, tourists and other "outsiders" are warned not to venture into those hills after dark, colorful locals fitting every stereotype enjoying the frightful looks their stories are able to instill. For generations, this has also been the home of my father's family, a side of my family I never really got to know, not until now.

Two years ago my daughter left home to attend college. I spent my evenings lost, not accustomed to the ear splitting silence and loneliness. We talked via instant messenger a lot, so I was spending most of my time in front of the computer and somehow I found my way onto a genealogical research site. I started doing searches with the little bit of information I had about my father's family and what began as a way to kill time has turned into a engaging hobby, bordering on obsession. I'd always assumed that because my grandmother's maiden name was Davis, we were decendants of European immigrants, farmers and laborors, with a tiny bit of Native American mixed in as explanation for my cousins' huge brown doe-like eyes and our odd colored complexions. Although it's only a small part of the story,some of our forefathers (or foremothers) were rumored to be Cherokee, one of which is the ancestor of probably three fourths of the current residents of Shelton Laurel.

There were two brothers, David and Roderick Shelton, who for reasons unknown, moved to the remote mountains of Western North Carolina in the late 1700's. Much debate has ensued over the years as to which brother was actually the first to settle there, depending on which one your family lays claim to be decended from. One legend says that David lived in the hollowed out trunk of a huge old tree until his cabin was completed, making him the first. Regardless of who came first, our family is from Roderick. When he arrived from Virginia, he had a woman with him. Some say she was his wife, others say she was merely his latest in a long list of "companions," a Cherokee woman who went by the name of Glumdaclitch.

I knew right away that "Glumdaclitch" couldn't be an authentic Native American name. Had it been "Weeping Waters" or "Running Squirrel", or even "Runs With Sharp Sticks and Pokes Eye Out" maybe I wouldn't have been as suspicious. I ran a search (when in doubt, Google it!!) and found that Glumdaclitch was the name of a character from Gulliver's Travels, the giant girl who took him in and kept him in a doll house (I never read the book, but I saw the animanted version once). One can only imagine that perhaps our Glumdaclitch was a tall woman in a strange land, thus earning her the name. The union of Roderick and Glumdaclitch, regardless of the legality or moral standard it embraced, produced children, but not my ancestors. Roderick enjoyed the company of a variety of women, our family resulting from his relationship with a lady named Ursula (although some people say Ursula was actually Glumdaclitch, but we could argue that point 'til the proverbial cows come home.)

Glumdaclitch, it is tactfully documented, "cohabitated with a number of gentlemen, producing several children with different last names." One of her children, George Washington "Rock" Franklin, the son of one Solomon Stanton, is my sixth great grandfather. Solomon remains a mystery, the only mention of him I can find is as the father of George. Glumdaclitch, who was at one time married, or otherwise promised to, a Franklin, took a liking to the name and kept it, thus explaining George's last name. If you drive "up Laurel" as it is called here, way back up in the hills and turn off on to an unpaved road, which really isn't much more than an old trail, you're lead up to the top of the mountain, through trees and past old homesteads where you'll find hidden among the laurel branches and briar thickets an old cemetary. A simple chiseled rock lies there bearing the name "George Washington Rock Franklin" and the date he died, 11/2/1886.

It seems that the Franklins, the Sheltons and eventually the Sams were prolific breeders, but being a remote mountain community with very little visitors from the outside, the only suitors available to them were those they'd known all their lives. It's common to hear people say you can't marry first or second cousins but "after third it don't count." It happened in my family more than I can accurately keep track of. I was more than a little shaken when I discovered that a one of George's grandchildren married one of Roderick's great grandchildren, who were the parents of my great great great grandfather Peter Franklin (does it even really still BRANCH at this point?) Peter went on to marry Martha Stanton, who's line dead ends with her father William. For this I am truely thankful, because I KNOW that were I to search beyond William, he would most suredly be of some relation to Solomon and then I would have to find the nearest cliff, of which there is no short supply here and promptly toss myself into the French Broad River to my certain death. That I am even able to walk upright is truly a medical mystery.
Granted, these matrimonial cousins were a few generations back, but it didn't stop there. My grandmother's mother and my grandfather's mother shared the same maiden name, Sams, and although the actual status of their relation is still unknown, if they weren't first cousins, they were at least related.

Before moving here 13 years ago, I thought the rumors of inbreeding in the mountains were a myth, a stereotype, something that may occur occasionally but not a common practice. Imagine my surprise. We have to keep in mind though, if these things hadn't happened exactly as they did, I simply would not exist. We have to believe that everything happens for a reason, even those things we don't understand. I'm not ashamed of my ancestors, I hear their whispers in the trees and their wisdom in my heart. Decisions they made in their lives which may have caused others to utter insults about them behind closed doors or made their lives more difficult had an amazing end result. All I have to do is look at my beautiful daughter's big blue eyes and I know my ancestors travelled these old mountain roads for a reason.