Sunday, November 06, 2011

Migration through Kentucky

Wolf Creek Dam on Lake Cumberland and the Cumberland River.

We recently had a program at our local society meeting on “Researching our Kentucky Ancestors.” After all, where did at least half of Indiana’s early pioneers come from or pass through to get to Indiana - Kentucky! The other half had to come through Ohio, the only two states bordering Indiana to the south and east. From Ohio it is relatively safe to assume that most came down the Ohio River to get to Indiana. That was the fastest and easiest transportation at that time. But this usually doesn’t come to mind when researching migration from Kentucky, a rugged and hilly land.

We took a map of Kentucky and everyone at the meeting put a pin in the counties that their ancestor had first settled in. Our thought was that we could share research resources and strategies in case two or more people had ancestors in the same area. We could share information on county records, where the local libraries were, etc. But when we put the map up during our discussion we all had an “a ha!” moment. All the counties that we marked fell in a distinct pattern. All the pins on the map started at the Cumberland Gap and almost all of them followed the course of one of two main rivers, the Kentucky River and the Cumberland River. Remember that the Cumberland Gap was the only trail that was passable for pioneers at that time coming into Kentucky from other states. Then something else occurred to us. What if you can’t find very much on your ancestor in the county you know they lived in? Then the next thing to try is the neighboring county that is directly down or upriver. This can apply to any state in the beginnings of our pioneer ancestor’s westward migration.

This is what happened to my Kentucky ancestors. I'm not an expert but it seems either the river was their principle transportation and/or the river valleys produced the best land for settlement. The principle area my Guffeys and Conners came from was the Cumberland River valley. Many of their stories came with some sort of reference to the river in their life. My mother was born on Indian Creek which is a branch off the Cumberland. My grandfather and her father, Alonzo Conner, applied for a job on the Rowena Ferry. I have his rejection letter saying they didn't need any help at the time. My greatgrandfather, Lewis Taylor Guffey's death record says he is buried in a River Grave. That's another mystery I may never solve.

Rowena Ferry at Burnside, Pulaski County.

I was talking to a cousin a few years ago about the whereabouts of the children of a great uncle and his wife that both had died prematurely - Claude and Ermine Guffey. She said she could remember the three children had been put on the ferry and were sent to live in Missouri with their other grandparents. All these references to the river in their life made me have a new outlook on my research. All these ancestors lives were directly or indirectly influenced by the river. Their lives were influenced by their environment. This had never occurred to me before. My ancestors were more than just names and dates. They did more than just live in a log cabin somewhere out in the wilderness. Environment had a profound effect on their lives.

I was contemplating why my great grand aunt, Rachel Terry, had moved to Burnside in Pulaski county. It just occurred to me after my research trip last week that the area they moved to was just down river from their home county. Burnside was a bustling river town at the time. They probably just hopped on the ferry and rode downriver to an area where the menfolk could get jobs. You know how experts say "historical context" is important in discovering your ancestors. I say the environment had a little more important effect on their lives. Whenever you can't find anything to round out a family history take a look at their environment. Collect information on local features, the local towns, the rivers and byways, was it mountainous or flat farmland. Did they live along the coast or in dry arid states and what was that like? Collect information on the invironment and you'll begin to understand what their life was like.

No comments: