I spent this past week with my parents in Southern Indiana doing genealogy research on my mom’s side of the family. We were staying at Spring Mill State Park and doing some research in nearby Mitchell at the courthouse and the historical museum. Most of my time was spent in Lawrence County, although some of the cemeteries we visited were in Orange County as well.
This was the second genealogical trip I took with my parents. The last visit to Southern Indiana was just a year ago. I knew very little about my family at that time and now I know a lot. I find it fascinating, but I realize talking about family history is not dissimilar to telling someone about your dreams. Most people aren’t interested.
Anyway, let me explain why it fascinates me. I’ve been reading a lot of history in recent years. Most of it has been focused on the colonial and revolutionary eras of North America, but I’ve been studying all the history that led up to that and the larger context of events. On a smaller scale, I’m curious about my mom side of the family that is a mix of early immigrants who were mostly poor ethnic types (Germans, Scottish, Scots-Irish, etc). They weren’t English. They weren’t landed aristocracy. They were the desperate poor (mostly farmers, distillers, and laborers) who sought freedom and opportunity on the frontier as the frontier moved into Kentucky and then into Indiana.
Of course, someone of Native American ancestry or even of French ancestry would describe this very differently. My forefathers and foremothers took possession of land that was formerly occupied. And Indiana where my parents come from was the location of the last great battle where Native Americans tried to hold their ground. It’s a sad history all around, sad and fascinating.
My exploration of family history has been an exploration of my feelings about what it means to be an American. I’ve always identified as a Midwesterner which to me feels like ‘normal’, simply what America means. It’s the freaking Heartland. However, when I moved to South Carolina in 8th grade, I was sometimes jokingly referred to as a Yankee. I had no concept of what a Yankee was at that time. Even now living back in the Midwest for many years, I don’t think of myself as a Yankee. I’m a Midwesterner from the lower Midwest. This is the Midlands, the extension of the Quaker colony in Pennsylvania. This isn’t Yankiedom of Puritan origins.
Many of the lower Midwestern states are split between Midlands and Appalachia, the two regions immigrants traveled to at great risk in order to escape the competing powers of Yankiedom and the Deep South. My mom’s maiden name is Clouse which is Germanic and most German immigrants found Midlands to be the most hospitable, but the Clouses on my mom’s side instead first came to Kentucky and then moved to Southern Indiana (Sarah Sally Walters who married William Jr. Fain, the grandfather of William Edward Clouse who was the second generation born in Kentucky, and Sarah Sally Walters was born in Kentucky in 1801; in that family line, the Clouses, Walters, Fains, Hawks, Stogsdills, Randalls, Waddles, Ashy’s, Welchs, and Hansfords were all in Kentucky in the early 1800s and some going back to the 1700; also, some of them were already in Southern Indiana before the War of 1812). My mom’s family has largely adopted the Scots-Irish culture and mentality of Appalachia. Both of my parents, however, grew up in Northern Indiana where Midlands culture is strong. I only knew of the Scots-Irish aspects of my mom’s family from visiting them since I was a child.
My time spent in South Carolina and North Carolina has given me some understanding of Scots-Irish culture. In SC, my high school best friend was a typical Scots-Irish redneck. In NC, a summer girlfriend was from a typical Scots-Irish fundamentalist hillbilly family, actually living in a trailer on a lonely country road nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. My SC friend had Goff as his last name. I noticed that in early Kentucky records that there were many Goffs there. For what it is worth, the Scots-Irish are part of my family history and also part of my personal experience. I could judge that culture for all of its problems, but I do have a fondness for it that became most clear to me while living in NC. Besides, Appalachia is beautiful country, ticks aside.
In some ways, that culture is the complete opposite of Midlands culture and hence opposite of my Midwestern identity. On the other hand, there has been much mixing between the two cultures and they have shared the distinction of being the main battlegrounds of the American soul. I was thinking about this recently in terms of a radio show such as Coast to Coast AM which used to be hosted by Art Bell. You can hear all kinds of views on that show. Both my uncle Bob (my mom’s brother) and I have listened to it since the 1990s, yet we otherwise have little in common. He is a fundamentalist of Appalachian culture and I’m an agnostic of Midlands culture, but an interest in conspiracy theories and aliens creates a common ground. Coast to Coast AM is a show about alternative culture. The Midlands and Appalachia have always been regions of alternative culture. It is in these places that alternative religious and political communities often settled. That is what I loved about NC, the hidden pockets of odd alternative culture.
Visiting Southern Indiana brings all of this into focus. It is where my family shifted from Appalachia into the Midlands, always following where land and work could be found, generation after generation restlessly moving on in a drift Westward. All of my mom’s lines of family converged in Lawrence County (and the counties right around it, specifically Orange County and Dubois County). The Clouses and Hawks came separately and soon married, two of those marriages ending up in the Mitchell area right around or in Spring Mill back when it was still an operational mill, an infant of one of those marriages buried in the Hamer cemetery there (the Hamers being one of the rich families that moved into the area). At that time, Southern Indiana was attractive to alternative communities and many intellectuals, New Harmony being the most famous example (radical intellectuals from New Harmony would visit the pub at Spring Mill where some of my family lived and worked). It was this radical tradition of Southern Indiana that helped form the mind of Abraham Lincoln, specifically Lincoln’s being influenced by the alternative religion and politics (socialism, feminism, abolitionism, spiritualism, etc) being promoted by people such as the Owens family of New Harmony.
This was the frontier, but not the frontier as you learned about in school. People came to frontier communities for all kinds of reasons. My family would have lived amidst great cultural, ethnic, religious and political diversity.
My mom’s paternal grandfather, Willie Clouse, was born at Spring Mill. The family was still poor and at that time they were squatters. The water mill slowly died because of engine-driven mills made them obsolete. Willie married Inez Rosemary Edwards.
On that other side of the family, two lines of Edwards married and there was also another line of Edwards a few generations back from that point. Inez’s maternal great grandmother was a Toliver who lived more than a century after having come to Mitchel as a young child as part of one of the first families to settle there. She was interviewed a few years before her death and she still remembered her childhood.
It was interesting to read about that era. The Edwards and Tolivers (along with the Way and Evans families), unlike the Clouses and Hawks, went straight from North Carolina to Indiana (some of the family on both sides — Henry Sr Waddle, Elizabeth Morris, William Fain jr, Elizabeth Whicker, Catherine Cox, and Benjamin Hansford — came from Virginia instead, although some of these families were moving back and forth between North Carolina and Virginia, and a few lines came from elsewhere — Sampson Hawk from New Jersey and one line, the Cox family as I recall, can be followed back to South Carolina; my mom’s maternal side of the family is similar, but there are several lines that in the early-to-mid 1800s went straight from the ship docks to Kentucky and Indiana).
All of this research has made history more tangible to me. Spring Mill, the home of my family that is of my mom’s maiden name, is now a preserved historical site. It’s strange to visit my great grandfather’s birth place as a visitor to a park; my mom also visited it as a child and had her grandfather point out the building he claimed to be born in. History gets turned into a theme park. The mill has been fixed back up and they grind corn as a demonstration. They even have an old lady working on a loom and a blacksmith doing his thing. To be truly accurate they’d need people to represent my family as distillers and squatters.
After a few generations of industrial growth, Southern Indiana has returned to its origin in poverty. The difference is that early pioneers had land and many opportunities to better themselves, but the poor people there now are simply getting by or trying to. Southern Indiana once was a place that attracted intellectuals and industry. People like the Owens family sought to create a better world. Later on, many famous socialists and labor organizers came out of Indiana. The tide, however, has turned. No one seems to remember Indiana for the hopes and dreams people living there had for generations. You can’t understand the conservatism and fundamentalism of places like Southern Indiana without understanding this history.
Indiana makes for a useful case history. It is a place where the effects of the past are still visible. It is a place that has been in between, split between Midlands and Appalachia. It is one of the main states where the Midwest first took form as a separate culture from the East Coast states.
Like the ancestors of both my mother’s and father’s families, my parents moved on from Indiana, although their movement no longer coincided with a Westward movement. As a kid, I was forced to move around; but as an adult, I’ve chosen to stay put here in the same Midwestern town I grew to love as a child. Most of my mom’s family, unlike her, chose also to stay in the area in which they grew up in. In this age of globalization, a sense of place is taking on new meaning in context of community and family. For the average person, there no longer is a better life to be sought elsewhere. There is no new frontier land to be settled.