Thursday, April 21, 2016


Hillbillies are found everywhere, not just in the mountains of the eastern parts of America.  And not all talk like Jethro Bodine from the Beverly Hillbillies.  Some are even educated.  Not all are rednecks—that’s an entirely different story.  Basically hillbillies are often not the most forward thinking lot much of the time; however, their wisdom and wit can be priceless.

For instance, a family was traveling to visit relatives down in the flatland when one of the kids asked, “When will we get there?”  “Well,” the dad replied, “like the dog said after he got his tail run over by a lawnmower, ‘It won’t be long now’.”

I was watching a show about genealogy recently where one of the people discovered several of their ancestors to be of less than perfection.  In fact, there were turncoats, robbers, grifters, and a few other rather interesting persons just a few generations back.  This caused some wailing that sounded like an alley cat convention, not to mention enough tears to float a battleship.

Not everyone has a perfect pedigree.  Usually there is a shady character or two every few generations.  Maybe there is a big difference between reality and family lore.  These genealogy programs often bring up at least one surprise proving no one is immune from the past.

For years I heard stories about my family that didn’t make sense to me so I ignored what I heard and just lived my life, but over time I grew curious about where I came from.  What I have found out so far is such a mixed bag, I may never completely come to terms with all of it.  I am descended from presidents, soldiers, slaves, doctors, thieves, farmers, inventors, somebodys, nobodys, and a lot of other stuff—but the one of the biggest discoveries is that I am descended from hillbillies.  Now it’s my turn to wail and cry.

The farther back I travel on the family tree, the greater the number of ‘anomalies.’  And it seems many of those ‘anomalies’ lived in the Appalachians.  Actually, I found it began long before the Appalachians became known to Europeans.  One branch of my family traces back to the Vikings (from the mountains of Scandinavia) that settled in the highland mountains and some of the islands of western Scotland.  A portion of that branch ultimately migrated to the mountains of Wales.  (I guess they were attracted to the mountains.)  In the 1650’s they moved to America and within two generations were counted among the founding fathers of hillbilly Appalachia, so I guess hillbillies predated America.

Another branch of my family were among the Puritans who arrived on the Mayflower.  It took about fifty years for them to start moving around, and they finally settled down, more or less, in what is now North Carolina where they intermarried with the previous batch of family and so were indoctrinated into the hillbilly lifestyle.  (Let’s see—mountains and family marrying family—hmm.  Banjos anyone?)  These hillbillies joined with other hillbillies, and over the years my fate was sealed.

For some reason, my family sought out the mountains and the solitude it provided.  But with that solitude came strange thought processes.  By the time I came along, I simply inherited many generations of strangeness.  I knew in school I was different from everyone else, but it wasn’t until I began to visit in the homes of my friends that I could see what made me different.  Actually, for a long time I thought THEY were the strange ones.

When I entered college my first major was music, but I moved on to psychology where I began to learn what was strange about everyone else.  It wasn’t until I overheard someone comment to another that I should use psychology to study myself that my eyes were opened to reality.  Well, enough of that. 

As a child I would spend some nights with my grandparents on their farms.  My dad’s mother would get up in the dark hours of the morning and start preparing breakfast, but at the first moment of light she would open the front door and deeply breath in the outside air.  She would always have me join her inhaling big drafts of early morning atmosphere, and she would tell me there is nothing else as wonderful as the good country air.  A few years later I realized this fresh country air was basically barnyard air.  There was nothing at all good about it.

I learned a lot of things from my family.  Farming was definitely the first thing, and leatherworking was a close second.  Canning, pickling, dry storage, smoking (food and otherwise), and of course some wine making.  There was a time when my grandfather showed me his method for making moonshine—the same method that got him arrested back in the ‘thirties.  Anyone for making beer in the bathtub?  How about stove-top distilling using a modified pressure cooker?

My great-aunt Emma taught me that smoking a cigar in a pipe allowed the entire cigar to be used up without any waste.  My mother’s cousin Carl grew a small patch of tobacco to make his own style of chaw.  I tried it once.  I will not, will not, make that mistake again.  My mothers’ mothers’ sister’s great-grandchild’s husband’s uncle’s cousin (who was also my mother’s father’s sister’s grandson) was a mechanic who worked on farm tractors until it was discovered the replacement parts and motors he was using had been pilfered from the sheriffs’ cars in a neighboring county.

Genealogy has taught me more than I really wanted to know about my family, but once I started the process I found it difficult to stop researching.  Recently I was contacted by a very distant cousin who found my name while involved in his own family search.  He was a relative of my mother’s father, and had discovered we were descended from gypsies (or Roma) from Romania, filtered through Bohemia, before arriving in America.  They may not have been actual hillbillies, but it’s pretty darn close.

We are all influenced by family traditions handed down through generations, but that doesn’t mean we are the people who handed them down.  And that doesn’t mean we have to accept the traditions offered to us.  But then again, some are downright interesting, such as the game of Bum Checkers.  Don’t ask.  I’ve said too much already.

I was researching how we moved out of the mountains and ultimately to Texas, and it soon became apparent it was all about elbowroom.  By the 1790’s there were just too many people living in the Blue Ridge Mountains, so one of my ancestors along with his Cherokee wife chose to move to New Orleans.  Go figure.  From there they moved into East Texas in the 1840’s.  (I suspect New Orleans was even more crowded than the mountains.)

Another batch of these hillbillies joined with Stephen Austin’s first wave of settlers to Texas in the early 1820’s.   At least one of my ancestor’s fought at the Alamo, another at Goliad, and another fought at San Jacinto (things didn’t turn out very well for the first two). 

Several of my ancestors arrived from eastern Tennessee starting in 1828, and the last group seems to have arrived shortly after Texas was readmitted to the Union following the Great War for Southern Independence.

Some surprises in the research were the family members that came from Mexico possibly in the mid-1500’s, and married into some the Native American tribes of East Texas.  Karankawa, Tonkawa, and Caddo were all a part of the mix.  In the late 1880’s to early 1900’s (some details are hard to pin down here), a Mexican/Cherokee joined the family.

Another surprise from the late 1700’s and early 1800’s was that one of my Cherokee ancestors owned slaves—black, white, and Cherokee—and through at least two generations my lineage includes African ancestry. 

It also appears the wife of one of my great-great grandfathers was Japanese of Anyu decent.

Yeah, I’m descended from hillbillies.  But I’m also descended from many other groups of fascinating people whose lives I will probably never understand.  It took courage to make many of their choices, but I’m glad they did.  And I’m proud of my very mixed up heritage.

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