It struck me on a quick wedding-related weekend road-trip this month with friends, that I’ve lived nearly all of my six and a half decades along two divides.
The first four decades were spent on the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains or the western continental divide. My most recent two and a half decades have been along the eastern influences of the Appalachian Mountains or the eastern continental divide.
All but one line of my ancestors spent their lives in reverse, living a little more than two decades along the Appalachians before making their way up into the Rockies in 1840s to live the remainder of their lives.
I suspect the Appalachians defined my ancestors in the way that the Rockies do me.
This struck me during the round-trip from Durham, North Carolina to Birmingham, Alabama which is defined by ridges near the southern end of the Appalachians similar to ones I saw last summer in Pennsylvania.
In north-central Alabama, as they were in Pennsylvania and New York, these forested ridges are steeply dramatic, only a few miles long and narrow at the base. Geologists describe them as “folded.”
My quick turn-around in Birmingham didn’t include time for, nor did I realize that adding another 100 miles each way would have taken me past the last remnants of the Appalachians to a quiet place near the Old Bethany Church on the banks of the Tombigbee River as it cuts through the coastal plain south of Aliceville near the Mississippi line.
A hymn I heard sung during the wedding, which was held in the spectacular Presbyterian sanctuary in Birmingham’s historic Chestnut Hill, a craftsman and colonial revival neighborhood, persuaded me to complete this journey during one of my frequent cross-country road-trips to see family out west.
Come Thy Fount of Every Blessing, sung at this link by the Celtic-American folk group Fiddlesticks and Lisa Arrington was a favorite hymn sung along the trail as many lines of my ancestors crossed the Mississippi River with others who had become Mormons and headed west in March of 1846 from Illinois across southern Iowa.
The hymn had been penned 90 years earlier by Robert Robinson as the Baptist scholar and English dissenter converted to Methodism. This was near the time English Presbyterianism had its beginning, although Presbyterians were also among the Puritans who settled America at Jamestown and Plymouth.
The hymn was also written a year after my great x 4 grandfather was born in Northern Ireland. He emigrated to America as a teenager with his parents, settled in Guilford, North Carolina and immediately enlisted to fight the British under Generals Washington and Gates.
Receiving a land grant for his service, James McCrory migrated across and down the Appalachians before settling at their southern tip along the Tombigbee as it flows from its birth 75 miles northwest from a fork in Mississippi down across the Alabama line, collecting the Black Warrior before the 200 mile river flows into the Mobile.
Just before or shortly after the old soldier passed away in 1840, missionaries converted scores of Mormons along the Tombigbee including his daughter and son-in-law (along with his parents) and their 10 children, the 9th of whom would become one of my paternal great-great grandmothers.
Most Mormons along the Tombigbee then migrated up through Paducah and St. Louis to gather with others on the eastern banks of the Mississippi River preparing for the trip west.
However, one group of 43 converts and nineteen wagons from the Monroe County, Mississippi, headwaters of the Tombigbee, headed west instead in 1846.
They hoped to cross Mississippi, Missouri and Kansas and then intercept the more well-known vanguard company as it headed west through Nebraska along the North Platte River carrying three of my other ancestors, Harper and the Shumways, before then heading into the Rockies.
But when they reached the Platte River, the Mississippians learned that the first wagon train traveling along the North Platte from Council Bluffs had been delayed by a year. With the help of an old French fur trapper named John Richards, they retreated down the plains along the eastern front of the Rockies to old Fort Pueblo, a haven for a half dozen mountain men and their families to winter.
There, this small band of Mormons was joined by a detachment of sick soldiers from the Mormon Battalion which was led north from Santa Fe in part by another of my ancestors Sergeant Sebert Shelton and his family. Battalion Captain James Brown of North Carolina had them all build 18 additional cabins at the fort.
Together in the spring, they traveled back up to Wyoming to greet the vanguard train of Mormons at old Fort Laramie, after they had trail blazed east along the Platte through Nebraska.
Lesser known, this small group of Mississippi Mormons traveled much further and a year longer to reach the Rockies and were among the first over the western continental divide.
They were followed a year later by another wagon train carrying my Tombigbee ancestors, the Grahams, three of whom had died at various points along the trail through Iowa.
Taken together, this means six of my ancestors were among the first settlers into the Rockies that July and ten within that first year when a treaty with Mexico brought their new homeland into the United States.
Lapsed as I have been for more than 40 years, I am still transported back to those ancestors by hymns from that time, still sung today, such as Come Thy Fount and the iconic Come, Come Ye Saints, penned along the trail west.
The Mississippi Mormons were also unique because they traveled with slaves into the Rockies. It also wasn’t the last time they would cross paths with my ancestors.
The Mississippians soon settled along the Wasatch Mountains in Big Cottonwood (named for their homeland) near my great-great-grandfather Harper, a converted Quaker from Pennsylvania.
I can imagine some of their conversations considering Quakers were abolitionists.
When I first moved to North Carolina in 1989 from the western divide to the eastern divide, I mistakenly thought I was the first of my family to live in the south.
As family history has since illuminated, I had plenty of company.