Family History in the Present Tense
Kentucky was a treacherous border state during the Civil War. A genealogical research trip to Menifee County turns up Mason jars and a murder.
The Swamp Valley Museum outside Frenchburg, KY, was once the home of the author's ancestor (and his secrets)
Photo: Judy Owens
Frenchburg, Ky. — A museum in Menifee County, Kentucky, is named for one of my Civil War-era ancestors. Before I learned of John Poplin and the John Poplin Civil War Home, my family research usually led to Cumberland Gap in Claiborne County, in northeast Tennessee. My family farmed, attended Baptist or Methodist churches and stayed away from politics, except to register Republican, vote for Lincoln and fight for the Union.
We were the good southerners: hardworking hillside farmers who embraced the dignity of work, not like plantation owners who shoved a hoe and a plow into the black hands of people they pretended to own.
So who was John Poplin, and if he is kin to me, what was he doing in Menifee County, way up in northeast Kentucky?
With this nagging question, I asked my mother if she wanted to investigate John Poplin. My mother’s disposition is sunnier than mine, so she said yes with the same enthusiasm she would have for a trip to the mall. My mother doesn’t share my dread of the darkness that lurks in family history, poking out through the loopy script of census records or leaking though the syrupy formal language of old wills.
I steered off I-64 at Mt. Stering and started down US 460. This trip, where the bluegrass is engulfed by the looming mountains, actually started 12 years ago. I was divorced, living in an apartment over a storefront in the coal town of Hazard, Kentucky, and so depressed that the only organization I could muster the courage to join was the Daughters of the American Revolution. Even then, I was so despondent that I was convinced someone as low as me could not possibly have a Revolutionary War ancestor.
It turns out, I did. John Lynch Owsley of Claiborne County was a lowly private and something of a reprobate. I accepted him just the same and was proud to wear his name on my DAR ribbon.
Those Hazard DAR women rescued me as I floundered in the harrowing transition to mid-life. At the monthly meetings, some wore high heels, smoked pool-cue-length Benson and Hedges cigarettes, wore red lipstick, bright colors, stockings with seams up the back, coats made from the fur of endangered animals and big hair. They railed against neighbors who violated flag etiquette. They defied anyone who wanted to take God’s name off the quarter. Every Memorial Day they met at Hazard City Hall to lay a wreath at the monument of the county’s war casualties, pausing over the many names they knew.
In the years that followed, searches through homemade genealogy books, closeted vaults of crumbling court records and hours glued to the Internet revealed not only one Revolutionary War ancestor, but a lot of them. I found ancestors who fought in the War of 1812, who served in the Virginia House of Burgesses, who came to America on the Mayflower and who, incredibly, were surety barons on the Magna Carta.
The vast majority, though, never rose above the rank of private or the role of mother, and that goes for the Union soldiers in my family: Esquire Treece who served in the 1st Tennessee Infantry, Co. C. and Robert Henderson Hall, who was captured at the Battle of Sulphur Springs Trestle and served out the war at the Catawba Confederate prison.
Myrle Jones arrives at the John Poplin Museum, with an eye for Depression glass
Photo: Judy Owens
About eight miles east of Frenchburg, my mother spotted the rambling set of log buildings with John Poplin’s name still visible. It is now the Swamp Valley Museum. The museum consisted of a large log cabin moved from Poplin’s home place by Clayton Wells. Clayton collected old buildings and then filled them with miners’ caps and antique dolls; old buttons and black baby carriages; a 1930s Zenith Cathedral radio and a 1909 receipt for a wholesale delivery to Morehead Grocery.
While I scoured the walls lined with old pictures and flipped though Poplin family histories nailed to the wall, my mother was chatting with Gary Wells, Clayton’s son, about Depression glass, butter churns and the stunning collection of Mason jars outside.
There was a big picture of John Poplin and his wife, Mary Pollyanna Brown. Turns out, Clayton Wells was the one who knew the most about John Poplin and Clayton died a few years back. Son Gary isn’t too interested and doesn't remember much.
The Census records tell what Gary could not. In 1850, the Census showed John as a young man with his part-Cherokee wife, Pollyanna, and three little boys. Ten years later the census showed that John Poplin, Sr., of Stanley County, North Carolina, owned a single slave, a 50-year-old woman whose name was not listed and who was reported as a fugitive from the state.
I wonder about this woman, whether she was desperate and raging like Margaret Garner, who bundled up her little children and escaped from Kentucky across a frozen Ohio River, then killed her child rather than return her to slavery? Or was she like Harriett Jacobs, the Edenton, North Carolina, slave who worked inside and was taught to read and sew. The constant sexual advances of her master steeled her determination that even the best life a slave could have was not worth living. Harriett ran away, hiding in the cramped attic crawlspace of her grandmother’s tiny home for seven years before she could be ferried to safety and her children could be raised free.
Stanley County, North Carolina, where John Poplin lived, was not itching to go to war in 1861. The county first voted against secession. When the decision to leave the Union was finally made, though, six companies of local men volunteered to fight for the Confederates.
Photo: Judy Owens
Poplin served in the 42nd North Carolina Infantry, Company C. His son, John Jr., served in the same unit, and was killed in a battle to overtake Newport Barracks in 1864. John was captured in the battle of Wyse’s Fork and taken to an unidentified Union POW camp where he was relieved of the $5 he had in his pocket and was given a blanket and a pair of shoes.
What was it about this single, middle-aged black woman, and the life she represented, that provoked Poplin to sacrifice his son’s life and his own safety?
Back at the John Poplin Museum, the main thing Gary remembered was that John Poplin was dragged out of his house one night by a bunch of men and never came home again. His body was found near Rothwell, covered with leaves. A woman named Eliza Simpkins had something to do with his murder. There were also stories that Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s Raiders had a hand in it. A history in the local library said that Eliza confessed to being involved in John’s killing and asked that her grave be sealed with cement because she was afraid of John’s roaming spirit or his enraged children.
Along with baby carriages, button, and miners' caps, the Swamp Valley Museum holds a fine collection of Mason jars
Photo: Judy Owens
Morgan’s Raiders made their last raid long before John’s death. One expert on the Civil War in Kentucky told me Poplin could have died for any number of reasons. Some of Morgan's Raiders were cut off behind Union lines and started operating as guerrilla units. Some of these men were bitter against any Confederate deserters and hunted them down. Home Guard Units killed suspected Confederate guerillas or solders home on leave. The last year of the Civil War was a desperate, dangerous, complex place, especially in a border state like Kentucky.
The census shows that Eliza was in her early teens when John Poplin died. And, strangely, she was buried next to him at the Poplin family cemetery on Kendrick Ridge.
In this year of debate about the complexities of race and gender, there is a tendency to look back at history, even family history, for answers. Our ancestors speak to us, not about Yankees and Rebels, but about the high price of intolerance, the destructive power of sustained violence, and the danger of assumed righteousness uninformed by the truth.