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Worn memory quilt traces mountain family’s history

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JOHNathan CAPPS
Ellis County Press
In planning the story of the Hatfield-McCoy feud, I wanted to go a little beyond, to dig a little deeper, to avoid repeating of those twice told tales about the feud. Fortunately, I found stories so very old they were almost lost in obscurity.

Many of them are rich in charm and meaningful history. The best ones are truly spellbinding.

The search itself was a delight, because forces that shaped the people of that time and place began generations earlier and an ocean away. And as I examined the origins of the mountain people, I discovered I was also examining the roots of countless Americans.

I found both the Hatfield and McCoy families originally came to colonial Virginia from the borderlands of England and Scotland, home of moonlit lakes and icy streams and a charming evergreen shrub known as heather. The original name for ‘Hatfield' was ‘Heatherfield.'

The people of Appalachia

It is not an easy matter to examine the history of any people and determine the forces that made them what they are. After all, one definition of history is 'everything that ever happened to everybody.' But here's an a quick study of the mountain folk of Appalachia.

Perhaps these noble inhabitants of the mountains were an end product of a diverse heritage, yet in nearly each instance, that heritage is steeped in emotion.

Once it was a common practice in the mountains for a seamstress to put together a ‘memory quilt' from a variety of fabric scraps, each taken from material connected to an ancestor, family member, or friend. Each piece of the quilt was linked to a story , and in many ways it functioned as a family tree.

A century ago, a mountain woman known as Aunt Sally Cameron, a great-grandmother, had such a quilt. Frayed and worn, the quilt was passed down from her grandmother and with it passed a priceless oral history of a mountain family.

One of her ancestors was a young man named Seeb McLaughlin, and a raveling scrap of shriveled linen was once taken from his wedding shirt for use in the quilt. It is interesting that in an age of thrift and scarcity, this same shirt was also used for the weddings of other men of the family.

The story of Seeb McLaughlin involves many perilous travels and struggles. As a young man, Seeb lived and labored on an expansive English estate in Northern Ireland, and was a descendent of the English and Scotch sent there to take up and work the land, some as early as the Shakespearean era. Over the years, these Scots-Irish constantly fought the native Irish on one side and English tyrants on the other.

Soon over-population and politics convinced Seeb and many Ulster Protestants to seek refuge and opportunity in America. Some came in groups, others as singles or pairs. Seeb came alone. But Seeb was in love with a Scots-Irish girl named Mary who was considered a bit young for marriage by her cautious parents. Seeb reluctantly left with a promise to make his fortune quickly and summon Mary to America. He promised to build her a home by a stream and a beautiful mountain where she would soon join him to live in this blissful Eden.

The ship owners insisted on packing passengers in like herring for the two or three month sail to Philadelphia, but only after the anchor was raised for the last time did Seeb realize the misery he must endure.

Soon, the ship had more filth than any pig sty. The drinking water was black and thick with mud, the food was rotting, wormy, or mixed with salt. Body lice passed from one to another. Seeb experienced stifling heat and lack of air, but one night was almost frozen. He saw illnesses, both minor and major, among his fellow passengers.

Many didn't survive. The very young and the elderly were the first to die, then the expectant mothers. Upon arrival in Philadelphia, relief from the ordeal was delayed even longer while officials kept his ship away from the wharf because of stench and disease.

Is it any wonder many early settlers sought the frontier upon their arrival in America?

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