Natural Perspectives: Digging up some family roots

I have a confession to make.

I'm utterly addicted to tracing my family's roots. Vic says that kicking a heroin habit might be easier, but I have no intention of overcoming my addiction. I enjoy it too much.

I lay the blame on my mother and my Aunt Marcella. They spun fascinating tales of their Thomas grandparents going west in a covered wagon, leaving from Indiana.

One of my great-great-grandfathers, the Rev. Dr. William Joseph Thomas, lived with the Kaw Indians in Kansas. My aunt saved the letters that he wrote to his son β€” her grandfather Andrew Thomas β€” from the frontier in 1875. He wrote of the marvelous crops that could be grown on the prairies. He also reported how dishonest the Indian agents were and how they cheated the Indians.

In one letter, he boasted that he had cured an old chief when no other doctor could. He said that the chief killed a turkey and they had a high time of it. I can only imagine.

And that's what those tales did. They sparked my imagination and made me want to learn more about those days and my ancestors who lived then.

My great-grandparents, Andrew Thomas and his wife Louisa Caroline (Hedrick) Thomas, traveled to Kansas and then the Red River country in Texas around 1880. They, too, lived among the Indians.

When my great-grandmother had a baby in camp, she was too ill to nurse him. An Indian woman saved the baby's life by feeding him mashed pumpkins. The parents named their baby boy after the woman's husband, Charley Horse. That's how I ended up with an uncle Charley. My mother swore that was a true story.

My great-grandparents didn't like what they saw on the prairies. The ground was literally white with the bones of buffalo killed a decade or so earlier. The land was too harsh and dry for them, so they returned to the tall hardwood forests and lush cornfields of Indiana.

I love those stories. But it is the era of yet an earlier generation that has caught my fancy. I never grow tired of imagining the lives of my ancestors in the early 1800s, family after family who were the first farmers on their land.

I come from a long line of people who kept moving a few more miles west to find new land to clear. From colonial times in Virginia and North Carolina to the post-Revolutionary period in Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana, these people were pioneer farmers. I don't know if it is genetics, but I'm happiest when I'm working the ground to plant my crops. The farming gene is deep in my DNA.

The ancestor who fascinates me most is one of my great-great-great-grandfathers named Isaac Shirley. He was a farmer born in Kentucky in 1785, a contemporary of John James Audubon and frontiersman Davy Crockett.

A true frontiersman in his own right, Shirley was on the move constantly, claiming and clearing one patch of land after another. Most settlers stay and farm their land for the rest of their lives, but not him. As soon as an area had a few settlers and the farms were established, he left to find new land to clear. He moved from Kentucky to southern Indiana to Grundy County, Missouri, and then back to Indiana, where he died in 1859.

He and his wife had 12 children, who in turn produced 127 grandchildren.

Almost all of Isaac Shirley's descendants have an oral tradition that this family was part Native American. Ironically, Shirley was an Indian fighter, participating in battles against both Indians and British during the War of 1812.

When Shirley was born in the mid-1780s, many white settlers in Kentucky lived in log forts. They went outside the forts only during the day to tend to their livestock and crops. While their counterparts on the East Coast lived in fine brick, stone and frame mansions, the frontier families lived in one- or two-room log cabins with native rock fireplaces.

They enclosed their fields of corn and tobacco with split rail fences and were always on the lookout for raiding parties of Indians and marauding bears β€” even deer and raccoons that ate their crops.

Men on the Kentucky frontier tended to dress more like the Native Americans than like their white counterparts in the east. They wore fringed leather hunting shirts, leather moccasins and pants made of homespun linsey-woolsey or even leather leggings as the Indians wore.

They grew flax in the fields, which was thrashed and pounded to get linen fibers. The women spun the fibers into thread, which they then wove into cloth. They sheared their sheep to get wool, carded it to align the fibers and then spun it into yarn. The linen and wool were then woven together to produce the homespun linsey-woolsey cloth of the frontier era.

Buffalo and wolves still roamed the woods east of the Mississippi back then. Flocks of billions of passenger pigeons darkened the sky during migration. It must have seemed to the settlers that this bounty would never run out, but as we all know, it did. The last passenger pigeon died in 1914. Buffalo were shot nearly to extinction. Only by a miracle did a small herd survive in the remote wilderness of the Yellowstone country.

In 1820, Audubon lived just south of the Ohio River in Henderson, Kentucky, not far from where Shirley lived with his family. Audubon's writings provide insight into the rapidly changing landscape of that place and time. He wrote of rivers choked with logs felled by the settlers, the water the color of tea because of tannins from the logs. A lingering smell of smoke from burning stumps filled the air and the woods rang with the constant thud of axes on trees.

I like thinking about my pioneer ancestors who cleared land, grew crops, raised livestock and tended their gardens. I like emulating them by growing my own food, preserving it for future use, tending my hens and cooking delicious dishes from scratch. Like them, I try to get by on what I have instead of craving more and more material goods.

Modern life is stressful. We cope with a cacophony of sirens, barking dogs and overhead helicopters and airplanes. We fight frustrating traffic. We wait in lines. We worry about the economy. And those of us who are environmentalists are concerned about the specter of climate change that is hanging over our heads like the sword of Damocles.

My garden brings me peace in these troubled times. It connects me to my ancestors and to the land in wonderful ways that I am at a loss to describe. And so I continue to search for more information about my ancestral roots. Building a family tree is a project that has no end.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at

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