As a fifth-generation Idaho native dating back to its first permanent settlement (other than Native Americans, of course), I didn’t learn of my deep Southern roots until one day in the early 1950s.
When I first remember her telling me about this part of my heritage, I was a preschooler helping my paternal grandmother Adah tend to family graves in the tiny hill-top cemetery, above our ranch house with a view of the Tetons.
It was a bit of “commons” carved into that ancestral ranch stretching for 270 degrees around that hill. By then my grandparents had turned the place over to my parents when my Dad, their only son, came back from chasing down Nazis as they fled into the Alps.
Because of my insatiable curiosity, my dad gave me the nickname “windy,” but I have long wished that I had asked my grandmother far more questions such as the location of the 12 x 12 homestead shack where she and grandpa first lived.
It was before they moved into the ranch house down below the cemetery where a bend of the road cuts across Snow Creek. This is where my dad was born and where my parents first brought me and my two sisters home.
I wish I had been more curious about the abandoned house at the end of the meadow where my great-grandparents had lived and ranched and died, leaving it for me as a favorite place to explore and reflect.
I’ve carried the smells of sagebrush, my horse Gypsy, a fresh mown meadow and rain on a dirt road wherever I’ve lived since.
But it would be more than five decades after my grandmother’s revelation before I would find my Carolina roots, both North and South, dating back three hundred years and before the permanent settlement of either.
By 1860 when those roots first crossed up into Idaho Territory, and during their previous twelve years since crossing the Rockies, they had already helped create at least three other settlements including Fort Union and Fort Mendon.
My second great grandmother, Amanda Sarah Graham, had been born in 1843 near DeKalb in Kemper County Mississippi.
Her father Tom famously protected settlements from Grizzly Bears until he was mauled to death by one. He also was also a farmer, carpenter and butcher, as well as a saw mill operator where he fashioned ox bows and handles for pitchforks, rakes and hoes.
He was heralded for reportedly being able to spit tobacco across his cabin and through a latch hole.
Only 3% of first generation Mormon settlers were from the South and after crossing the Rockies, Tom freed slaves by the names of Isaac Green Flake, Aunt Hannah and Robert.
He set them up with land of their own outside Fort Union (rendered in the image above), at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon, named not for the land of cotton but for a type of poplar tree long-common along streams even in the arid west.
Cottonwoods later became known as “Mormon trees” because they mark where settlements were created along the Meridian of my DNA, stretching from the Salt River to my native Henry’s Fork.
Fort Union was in a ravine down the canyon from where Alta and Snowbird ski resorts are today.
Leaving instructions for his children to help their former slaves with the transition to freedom whenever asked, my Southerner third great grandfather headed further north along the Rockies.
During the migration west, Tom’s wife, my third great grandmother Sarah Ann, had died along the journey during childbirth near what became Winterset, Iowa two years later and now known for the Bridges of Madison County and as the birthplace of actor John Wayne.
My Graham great (3) grandparents had once owned plantations along both sides of the Tombigbee River.
The first was on three parcels above the Sipsey River, a free-flowing Alabama swamp, 50,000 acres of wetland Cypress, Cottonwood, Hardwood and Pine forests.
Today, this area is known for canoe and hiking trails, as well as game and tree preserves, but in the 1830s it was settled by all sides of Tom and Sarah Ann’s families including the Grahams, Bradfords, McCrorys and Gilmores.
They had fought, at times side by side in the same regiment, during the Revolutionary War and Tom’s father in the War of 1812, as well.
The McCrory’s who were Scotts-Irish immigrants, left North Carolina for Tennessee after the Revolutionary War with Andrew Jackson, a family friend.
Near Nashville is where my great (3) grandmother Sarah Ann was born.
Her soon-to-be husband Tom was born in the Kershaw District of South Carolina but my fifth great grandmother was at least second generation North Carolinian on both sides. Still they are not my earliest roots from here.
McCrory’s then migrated to western Alabama, probably down a military road through Mudtown, now Birmingham, while the Grahams and Bradfords preceded them by a few years, probably migrating down through what is now Greenville and Athens around the southern Appalachians and across through Mudtown.
There is no evidence that McCrorys ever held slaves but both my Graham and Bradford ancestors did generations before.
These migrations from the Carolinas were motivated by more than wanderlust. One reason was the political tensions following the Revolutionary War.
Even victorious, my patriot southern ancestors were in the minority.
A majority of North Carolinians and even more South Carolinians were either ambivalent about the Revolution or loyalists to the British Crown, known as “conservatives” following the war. They wanted a return to those values.
Another reason for their migration was soil depletion in the upper South. Landowners, especially plantations, viewed the soil back then as something to be cleared and planted in staple crops such as cotton, tobacco and even corn and wheat, until no longer useful.
Slavery and public land policies made it cheaper to move on to new lands than to manure and rehabilitate depleted soils.
Rare today in the Carolinas are clear waterways such as Mayo Lake where we have a place. Even here, when rains come after upstream harvests the “sheet” erosion overwhelms the ability of wetlands to filter the runoff, resulting in a temporary turbid invasion.
Southeasterners, especially it seems elected officials, who dismiss or undermine water quality standards have come to believe the waters in North Carolina are naturally muddy.
But southern soil historians such as Dr. Paul Sutter note that “a little more than a century of cotton culture…transformed the ecology, hydrology, and geomorphology of southern watershed in way that may last for thousands of years.”
On April 6, 1842, my third great grandparents Graham along with Tom’s mother, Jane, followed Mormon missionaries down into the Sipsey River to be baptized into the 12-year old, distinctly American restorationist Christian church.
In early 1846, after briefly owning plantations across the Tombigbee in Mississippi, the Grahams and their young daughter, Amanda Sarah, along with her older siblings and their three slaves loaded up wagons and headed cross state and up the Mississippi River past Saint Louis to where Mormons were already fleeing west.
Tom went ahead after his wife died crossing Iowa and then returned to bring his children across the Plains and over the Rockies.
When she crossed over the Rockies, my second great grandmother, Amanda Sarah, was about the age I was when my grandmother revealed my southern roots that day while tending graves in sight of the Tetons.
It was also the age my grandmother had been when she had briefly lived with and cared for her grandmother Amanda following a Trolley accident during a visit from Idaho to Salt Lake.
When I travel through these places of my roots and along the routes my ancestors took, I don’t romanticize as much as it probably seems to some readers.
I leave the traces in this blog as testimony to descendants through my two grandsons that the values found in our gene pool are complex and varied - a merger of many different backgrounds.
I often wonder, when judging my slaveholding Southern ancestors what we may hold common today that will be similarly revolting through the lens of future generations.
I suspect they will look back at our short-sighted “utility” economy and the havoc it is wreaking for future generations with similar disgust.
On a future visit, I plan to take my grandsons to visit the grave of Isaac Green Flake, one of the slaves freed by my southern ancestors, who was also from North Carolina, where I have lived for nearly three decades now.
Mr. Green Flake. who also elected to be baptized Mormon before the trek west, was born in eastern Anson County, North Carolina just east of Charlotte and just north of where my third great grandfather Tom was born in South Carolina in 1807.
But when their parents were born, there had been no such distinction between the Carolinas.
After Mr. Flake was given his freedom and land of his own, he worked for a time as a carriage driver for Brigham Young before also heading up into southeastern Idaho where his son had homesteaded Grays Lake near the mountains east of Blackfoot.
He also stayed in touch with the children of my Southern ancestors.
But he asked to be buried down at the old Fort Union cemetery in the shadow of the mountains he had crossed 60 years earlier and where he at last had become free.