LaFayette's Sherman Gibbs Remembers How He Came To Love Family History

Monday, September 18, 2017

I was born in 1950 in Southeast Kentucky. I grew up on a farm and we were dirt poor. Unlike what I have heard a lot of people say, “We were poor and did not know it ‘cause everyone was”, well, we were poor and I and my siblings knew it. Of that I could write lots, but the Waltons we were not and this is not the time for that.


My father was a workaholic and expected everyone else to be also.

The only day of the year he did not work was Christmas. He resented the time we took off from field working to eat lunch. We, like his family when he grew up, were expected to gobble all down like hound dogs so we could get back to work. Working so hard and eating hog lard daily eventually killed him. He died aged 96.


I cannot remember not liking history. I got this from my mother. We worked with her as the garden matured and dad would be off working at something else with crops ‘laid by.’ He usually worked logging after the last of the corn plowing. As we picked green beans or tomatoes and prepared them for us to eat...she canned about 800 quarts of fruits and vegetables every summer...she often talked history and family. (It takes a mountain of stove wood to can that much.) I grew up knowing the names of all of my great-grandparents and I think of my great-great-grandparents. I knew three of my great--grandparents. I missed one by months and a great-great-grandfather by a couple of years. His homemade self-built coffin stayed in the barn loft and was used to store dried beans.


In addition to knowing family names, I grew to love history and to read. I loved learning about Daniel Boone… my great-grandmother would talk of our ancestor Fanny Callaway being captured by Indians at Fort Boonesborough. I loved learning about the establishment of Jamestown and of the Pilgrims. I loved the Revolutionary War and then the Civil War. These people were always to me real flesh and blood people, not dried up dead people in some ancient history.


I always looked out at one section of hills from our pasture and knew that there was more out there for me than the cows and mules and plowing and milking and hog slopping. So it was off to college to Berea. There I majored in history and English (mostly for the literature). There I met my Walker County, Georgia wife. Never in high school when we studied Georgia did I think for a half second that I would live most of my life here. Two times did we ever acknowledge the place existed. That was with Oglethorpe and then the Civil War. And then it was Chickamauga, which my teacher could not pronounce, and the Battle of Atlanta and Sherman’s March to the Sea.


I moved to La Fayette in 1975 and not long after that my wife’s great aunt at a family reunion off the top of her head told my wife in my hearing that her grandfather was Julian, his father was Lee and his father was James Cicero and his father was Enos and his father was Joshua and he was the first Martin to come to Walker County. My mouth dropped and I thought, wow, a real Alex Haley type moment. (At Berea I had heard Haley speak for a couple of hours about his family story beginning with himself and ending when he discovered Kunta Kinte in Africa. This was several years before the movie. He received the longest standing ovation I experienced in college, lasting at least five minutes or more.) I thought, if she knows that about my wife’s family, I can learn mine. The next chance I got I found myself in the LaFayette Library where Doris Hetzler guided me into the how of genealogy. She had the amazing way of guiding a person into finding the next generation back without telling them. Me, I grow impatient in teaching others and tell them who it is.


When I started, I was a real novice, especially on my own line. The approach I took was all wrong, but with much searching it all fell in place and was like an avalanche of ancestors when it did.


That was about 1976 and I have been doing genealogy, mine and my wife’s, ever since, hers in North Georgia and mine primarily in Whitley and Knox counties in Kentucky. I have stomped all over cemeteries in North Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia and have visited state archives in Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Kentucky. I have been to dozens of courthouses and dozens of libraries. (Chattanooga Library has a treasure in its genealogy department.) Genealogy and history go hand in hand each helping the other. Knowing history goes a long way in genealogy research. Chester Martin considers me a county historian but I don’t see myself that way and my interest in Walker County has it limits and that primarily to the southern part of the county and even that to the families to which my wife can claim relation, from Rock Spring to Kensington and Cedar Grove to LaFayette and south of there to Center Post and down into Chattooga County. My wife has Indian relations and it took me forever to learn much of that line until a Poteet woman in Ringgold called me and told me I could find those relatives in the Indian Claims, which proved a gold mine. Sad to say my wife’s Indian relatives served as interpreters for Uncle Sam when the rounding up time came and passed themselves off as white people until the turn of the last century. Some of her folks were it seemed until a few years past ashamed to be part Indian.


I have learned a lot doing family history. None of mine nor hers have proven to be anything but common people, mostly farmers, a few preachers and a few teachers, and alas, on my side, a lawyer or two. They were just plain folk living plain lives, and this for the past several hundred years. Not rich, not famous. Just plain common folk. My wife’s various families hail from all over Europe. Mine are more concentrated, mainly from the British Isles including Ireland with a smattering of Germans. DNA says 98% British/Scottish and 2% Irish. Somehow the Germans I know were there did not make it to the DNA!


I helped with the Walker County Georgia Heritage Book back in the early 1980s. Part of my approach in it was to hope a lot of the more common folk, the ones who did not have the money to have their family history included in Sartain’s book, be included in the county history. It seemed some felt a division between the true bloods, meaning the ones who were the original white settlers of the county, and everyone else who came later. Later meaning after 1850. These are the Newcomers, or one could almost say, visitors. When we started the book on Walker County, a prominent Chattanooga female historian told us that there was no one in Walker qualified to write history.


I had hoped that a more recent historical endeavor would include first hand stories from people who had lived through the 1920s, the Depression and World War II before those people all died, but alas, the county settlement, Indians, and the first white bloods won out in another rehashing of LaFayette and Walker County, pre-Civil War.

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