n the summer of 1980, my wife and I, my brother and my sister, Rosalyn, climbed into a four-wheel drive jeep driven by my nephew, David, and made a sentimental journey up to
the area of the scenes of my childhood. We drove up a rocky primitive road on the western side of the last ridge of the Alleghenies to about the 3,000 foot level. In the late 1800's and early part of the present century, the area had been the home of
about a dozen families. Now there is not a single log left of the dwellings they had built, and nothing left at all of the hundred or so acres they had cleared from the virgin forest.
About a mile below my boyhood homesite,
we passed the place where the first of these mountaineers lived. I recalled
again the stories my parents had told me about this black man, a former slave.
Today I begin a recounting of these stories, an undertaking I have always
wanted to do.
"Joshua, you'd best go north and find work. I know now that your Mas'r won't
come back from the war. There's hardly food left for me, and no money, so
you'd better go."
"But Missis, what'll you do?"
"Oh, I'll go to my daughter's in Richmond. The land can rest till later.
Maybe I'll sell it, if anybody has money left to buy it. You're a good boy,
Joshua, and a good worker. Somebody can use you. You'd starve here. I'm giving
you Mas'rs good suit. You're about his size, and a good appearance will help
you find work. There's an old duffel bag, and I've put you some food in a
sack. It'll last a day or so."
"But I hates to leave you, ma'am. You sure you'll be all right?"
"Don't worry about me, Joshua. I'll be all right. I'll do fine."
"If you says so, I'll go first thing in the mornin , ma'am."
Dust hot on thin shoe soles; July sun hot on his back. Cold glances and sneers
from white farmers in the wide valley. He had only a piece of corn pone left
of the food Missus had given, and not a dime to buy food in the town he was
approaching, a place named Staunton.
There were few people in the summer streets, mostly white folks on some urgent
errand. They ignored him completely. A few sad-looking blacks moved in the
narrow alleys off the main street. Some spoke, some didn't. One boy even
grunted at him. He could feel no welcome in this town. He walked as though
for a single purpose--to get as far away from the valley as possible. High
ridges lay ahead of him, and the turnpike under his feet of uneven Macadam,
with many stones loose and scattered by neglect. Even the roads seemed war-worn
and paved with weariness.
The sun fell rapidly below the mountain ridges. The valley he traversed now
was very narrow, the corn much shorter in the rows and the houses smaller
and poorly kept. No slave quarters, and workers in the fields were mostly
women and children. How many homes were fatherless from the war, he wondered?
The road led to the foot of a long hill, then wound its way to the top. From
observation and boyhood experience, Joshua knew he would find more leaves
on the east side of the crest. He climbed a rail fence, crept through the
bushes till he was away from the road sat down on a convenient stone and
ate the cold pone. With his spread fingers he raked the leaves into a pile,
then in the growing darkness, stretched his young body upon the improvised
mattress. He slept soundly, but awakened once in the night, chilly in the
mountain air, and raked some of the leaves over him.
Singing birds awakened him, and he lay for awhile, thinking. He was free!
Free as the birds singing in the tops of the scrub oaks on the hilltop! But
he was also hungry; hungry as only a late teen-age boy could be who had only
a bite of bread for supper. He sat up for a moment, then remembered he hadn't
prayed. The primitive black preacher whose simple gospel Joshua had believed
and accepted was able to show him the kind love revealed in the story of
Jesus, and a child-like prayer for forgiveness had given him peace. To the
other blacks on the plantation, he simply said, "Jesus is my friend."
"Thank you, Jesus, for walkin' with me. Help me today. Like you prayed 'give
me daily bread' Amen." He arose from his knees, parted the bushes and re-entered
the road, cooled now, and without the track of a single traveler through
the night. With the sun warming his back, he descended to a mountain hollow,
and a log cabin on the edge of a tiny stream. He knocked timidly on the rough
door, and a slatternly woman opened it.
"Ma'am, could I chop ye some wood for a bite of bread?"
"Got no bread for niggers. Now git!" The door slammed shut.
He wasted no time getting away from that house. At the next dwelling, a mile
or so down the road, he was driven away by two snarling dogs without a soul
in sight. Plodding on, he passed an old battlefield on the left of the road
the trenches already falling away and grass growing on the dirt behind the
decaying logs of the old embankments.
Crossing a swift river he came to a small settlement, the village of McDowell,
with some signs of a bit more prosperity. He deliberately passed by two pretentious
homes, then walked up a path bordered by summer flowers and knocked on a
cottage door. A tiny older woman came to answer his knock, and smilingly
said "Good morning." "Lady, do you have some work I could do for a
bite of bread?"
"Well, no, I just don't have a thing that isn't done, but if you are hungry,
I can let you have some bread and milk, and there's plenty of apples on that
early harvest tree in the back yard Just help yourself. I'll get you a bowl
for the milk. You can cat on the back porch. Lord knows there's plenty of
hungry folks around these days. I'm just glad the Lord provides me a little
Joshua walked around the little home, and found a chair pulled up to a small
stand, with a generous dish of fresh milk and several slices of white bread
alongside. As the woman watched, he sat down and bowed his head. "Thank you,
Lord, for hearing my prayer, and for this good woman, and this food" The
woman added a hearty "Amen."
Having eaten well, he helped himself to some of the many apples on the ground
under the trees. The woman wished him a good journey and he walked out to
the village street, feeling unusually happy, and somehow with a deeper faith
in his fellow-man.
Through the late morning and the hot afternoon he continued onward and over
two more mountain ridges, each higher than the ones he had passed. A faded
sign on the last summit indicated only a few miles to the next town, Monterey.
As he descended the mountain ridge and came around the last sharp bend in
the road, he saw a man sitting on a fallen tree trunk, his horse tied nearby.
The man was wearing a badge. When Joshua was within a few yards, the man
stood. "Where ya goin, nigger?"
"I wanted to cross the mountains," Joshua replied.
"I'm here to see that ya keep movin . We got enough niggers of our own to bother with."
The town marshal mounted his horse, allowing Joshua to walk a few steps ahead
of him. Joined by a few jeering boys and several barking dogs, the singular
parade continued by the harness shop, a general store and a small courthouse,
then on by several dwellings, up the western mountainside to the town limits.
"Keep a'goin you black bastard, and don't stop till ya cross the state line, if you know what's good for ye!"
Joshua needed no further encouragement, as his strong young legs carried
him rapidly up the long and crooked road to the top of the mountain. It was
growing late as he descended the western slope and made out a very small
village in the mountain valley.
Dreading what he might experience there, he nevertheless continued on. Nearing
the first house, he saw an old black man lead a horse into a field and close
'Evenin', brother," the old man said.
"Evenin' to you brother," Joshua replied. "You s'pose a man could find a bite to eat and a place to sleep somewhere near?"
"Might be. Old woman an' me ain't got much, but we might spare a little.
The boys took off for Ohio. You could lay in their bunk."
As they continued walking, turning down a path by a neat dwelling and on
to what had been slave cabins, Joshua learned something of the local situation.
The old man and his "woman" had felt too aged to start out on their own,
and their former owner, being a charitable man, had agreed to an arrangement,
not much above slavery, in which the blacks could work on the farm for their
rent and "keep," which was mostly corn bread and beans, and such fruit as
they could glean from old trees. This was supplemented by wild berries and
nuts which grew in profusion on the mountain sides.
"We sometimes gits extra when the neighbors hires us. They gives us twenty-five
cents a day," the old man explained. The woman seemed glad for a little company,
and put an extra tin plate on the sideboard for their guest. The food though
plain, was satisfying. Joshua's voluntary grace before the two meals he ate
with them, and his morning prayer were evidently not customary in the household.
Joshua left early, before the farm owner was stirring. He felt a deep warmth
in his heart for the two ancients, and was a bit reluctant to leave. His
road continued upward from the village to a very high ridge, which he later
learned was called the "High Allegheny" by the natives. A newly erected sign
said simply "W. Va. State Line." A few miles further on, he entered another
village, Durbin, and was given a back door handout of corn bread and "fatback."
Late afternoon found him on a very high plateau, with no houses along the
unusually straight highway. An abandoned Federal Camp, "Old White Top," lay
on the left of the road. It bore signs of a rather long occupancy. After
making a supper of wild raspberries growing nearby, he decided to stay in
one of the abandoned shelters at the old camp.
Night temperatures were very cool at that altitude, and Joshua had to open
the little valise and take out the almost new coat to the suit belonging
to his former master. In spite of the coat he was chilled during the night,
and was almost glad to be on his way without breakfast. Later he would pick
some more berries to partially satisfy the gnawing hunger he felt.
The plateau was wide, and it was late morning when the road led down the
western slope and along a mountain hollow out onto the valley floor. At several
places, coming down the mountain, he had sighted the valley farms as his
gaze led to the northeast, where the flat and fertile soil continued until
hid in the blue atmosphere of the mountains on either side.
He left the foothills and traversed the level valley toward a village on
the western edge, the town of Huttonsville. On the right side of the road,
two men were busy building a rail fence. From their resemblance he judged
them to be father and son. As he came near, they sat down on the log on which
they were working.
"Do you know where I could do some work and earn a bite to eat?" He asked.
The older man replied "No, I don't, sonny. But I'll tell you what. Were having
some trouble splitting this log because of a big knot. If you'll help us
do the job, I'll give you a sandwich out of our dinner bucket. Ma always
gives us too much," he explained to the son.
A slender pole lay by the side of the log, and the older man took another
limb from the downed oak and tapered the end with his axe. Then, using a
sledge, he drove the iron wedge into the split in the log, opening a crack
about two inches. Into this opening they inserted the two poles, and with
the son on one side and Joshua on the other, they pried the opening much
wider. The man used the axe to chop away at the knot, and with a loud report,
the log split open completely. Using the same procedure, it was easy to split
each half of the log, about 18 inches thick, into three rails.
The older man picked up the pail from under a nearby tree, and the three
of them sat down in its shade. A sandwich with a generous slice of fried
ham was passed to each.
"You mind if I pray?" asked Joshua.
"Not a bit, sonny. S'pose we all ought to be more thankful for what we got."
A jelly sandwich and a ripe tomato completed the meal. Joshua thanked them
heartily, then continued on his way. The road continued into the town, then
headed northeast down the valley. It was getting very cloudy as he passed
through two more villages, and black clouds in the northwest brought a summer
thunderstorm. A haystack in a nearby meadow had been eaten away by cattle
in the field. An overhang of about two feet promised shelter on the side
away from the storm, and Joshua hurried under this refuge. He concealed his
duffel bag in the loose hay, and leaned back close to the base of the stack.
The storm lasted about an hour, and it seemed best to remain in the shelter
for the night, rather than walk through the wet grass and on the muddy road.
He was used to going without meals, and as dark approached, he dug out a
hollow in the hay and had a comfortable bed for the night.
The morning dawned brightly, and the promise was for a warm July day. Joshua
decided it was time he had a bath. A double row of sycamore trees about a
hundred yards to the east marked the course of the river. Retrieving his
bag, he walked to the line of trees, and finding a place where the river
stood in a deep pool, he stripped and plunged into the cool water, soaking
off the grime and stain of the miles since leaving the small plantation in
After washing his shirt and meager undergarment, he stretched them on a nearby
bush and laid down on the yellow sand at the river's edge. When his clothes
were dry, he put them on and opened the bag, taking out the suit he had been
given. Greatly improved in appearance, he walked the three or four miles
into the town that was to be a part of his destiny. The name of the village
The first man he accosted ignored him, but the second told him that he might
earn a meal at the tavern, which was located where the turnpike left the
main street to make its way over the last range of the Alleghenies. Knocking
at the back door, (as a black man, he knew better than to go to the front,
or enter the tavern.) A teen-age girl, with brown hair and blue eyes, came
to the open door. He asked his usual question, and the girl called out, "Pa."
After a delay, the tavern-keeper came to the door. His first impulse was
to refuse the request for work, then he reconsidered, being impressed by
the black's neat appearance and clean-cut features, marking the man as being
quite intelligent. His business had been improving since the war, and some
new people had come to town, including a couple of lawyers hoping for business
from the courthouse. "Maybe I could use you, boy. We'll try you out and see.
I need someone to cut wood and to clean up around the place. Nancy, give
him something to eat if there's anything left from breakfast." The girl served
him some thick bacon, some leftover slices of bread and a cup of black coffee.
He had hardly finished the meal when the tavern-keeper came back to the kitchen.
'I want the floors swept, and you can take the spittoons down to the river
and wash them. Then there's fresh sawdust in the shed back of the kitchen
to spread on the floors. Then you can cut and carry in some firewood for
the kitchen." The girl, Nancy, gave him the broom and showed him where the
sawdust was stored.
Joshua was clean and thorough by nature, and hoping for a more or less steady
employment, he swept out all the comers, moving the home-made ladder-back
chairs and tall bar stools. The old sawdust he swept out the front door and
off the cut stone stoop, where it added to that of many such sweepings.
The spittoons were next. They were solid brass, and quite heavy, so he made
two trips, carrying them to the river's edge, just below the covered bridge
across the stream. He took a moment to admire the well-arranged heavy timbers
of the bridge. Later he learned that the man's name who had built it was
Chenoweth, not a certified engineer, but a practical one, and judging by
his work an excellent one. Joshua emptied and washed the spittoons thoroughly,
and taking some sand from the river shore, scoured and polished them till
they shone brightly. Carrying them back to the tavern, he first got a pail
of sawdust and sprinkled it from his hand over the floors, including the
kitchen. He then placed the cuspidors in their usual places. Nancy was serving
some customers at the bar. Her father came in, and glancing approvingly around
at the room said "You can cut the wood now."
When evening came, he was given a good meal, with beef and boiled potatoes,
summer vegetables and more black coffee. His employer told him he could sleep
in the barn, and since there was plenty of hay there, he slept quite comfortably.
He was awakened in the morning by Nancy's mother, coming to milk the two
cows. She was a quiet woman, seemingly only willing to speak when spoken
to. Joshua cleaned the stable area and spread fresh straw without being told
to do so. He was careful to clean his shoes thoroughly, so as not to carry
the odor from the stable into the kitchen when he went for his breakfast.
Nancy, her two younger brothers and her parents ate out in the dining room
across from the bar. Joshua kept his proper place at the small table in the
kitchen. The routine for his work was much the same as yesterday, except
that he was asked to take a scythe and cut some weeds around the tavern,
especially in the comers of the fence along the side yard.
Summer continued into fall, and nothing was said about Joshua leaving. His
work seemed very satisfactory, and when there was little to do, he was even
allowed to work a few hours for farmers at the edge of town, earning a few
meager dollars which he hoarded carefully against times of greater need.
The stagecoach arrived twice a week from the west, and twice from the east,
and if there were no overnight passengers for the rooms upstairs, the work
was easier, and Joshua could earn more from outside work.
The men in town who frequented the bar all came to know and like the pleasant
young black. One group seemed to hang around the bar almost continually.
They were five young Confederate soldiers, mostly from farm homes in the
valley*. They spent most of their time, especially when her father was out,
in conversing and flirting with Nancy. She was very friendly and, Joshua
felt, a very gullible person. On some days, when her father was away at his
mountain farm and her mother upstairs sewing or mending, Joshua noticed that
she and one of the boys slipped furtively into a back room, while the other
four kept watch. He shook his head sadly at what he was very certain was
dangerous conduct for the girl.
*The valley had strong ties to old Virginia, and the people were mostly sympathetic to the South.
As winter came on, Joshua was permitted to partition off a small room in
the barn, into which he built a bunk, a wall seat and a tiny desk. He had
been taught the rudiments of reading by his mother, a partially educated
"house wench." Knowing his devoutness, Nancy's mother gave him an old Bible,
dog-eared and with torn pages. This he cherished far above his other meager
possessions. On quiet winter days she also told him to bring his Bible to
the kitchen, and she would help him to better tears to read.
As the long winter came to a close and the windy March weather ended, it
became visibly evident that Nancy's indiscretions with the five rebel ex-soldiers
had their inevitable result; she was going to have a child. Her mother noticed
it first, as mothers always do.
"Nancy, you've been fooling around with one of those boys, haven't you?"
The girl began to cry, and the mother's heart went out to her. 'Never mind that. Just tell me about it. Which one was it?"
"Ma, I don't know, honest I don't! I---I--just did it with all of them! I didn't know-- a baby -- nobody told me---."
'Nancy, don't cry so. We won't tell Pa yet. Maybe he won't notice."
"But Ma, he'll find out! He has to! Then what?"
"Well---, I just don't know. But stop crying. Crying won't help."
It happened one April day. He came from the bar into the kitchen unexpectedly,
and Nancy was standing in the light from the window. He exploded in hot anger.
"Girl, what s.o.b. got you in the family way? Tell me, now! I'll beat his
brains out!" He grasped her shoulders and shook her. "Who did it? Tell me!
Tell me, or I'll whip it out of ye with a buggy whip!" His voice was wild
with desperate anger. It carried out into the bar, where the young men were
loafing. One of them came to the kitchen door. "Sir, could I have a word
He turned in confused anger and followed the other out of the room.
"We think we better tell you what we saw. You ought to know. Well, we saw
Nancy going out to the barn several times, and we got suspicious, so we went
behind it where that puncheon board is loose. We looked through the crack
and saw 'em, her and Josh, rollin' in the hay."
The father ran back into the kitchen. "Nancy! You and that black bastard--I'll kill him! I'll beat you to death!"
"Pa, Pa, it wasn't him! They're lyin', honest it wasn't him!"
"Listen to the girl, Pa, she's tellin' the truth," the mother cried out.
'No! They all saw it. They all wouldn't lie! Boys, come in here. Are you tellin' me the truth? Did you see 'em'?"
"Yes sir, we did," they all declared, "We'll swear it on the Bible it's true."
He ran to the back door and threw it open. "Josh, Josh you black nigger devil!
Come out of there! Come out, or I'll come and get ye!"
"But Pa, he ain't there. He went to cut brush for Crawford," his wife said.
By the time Joshua came back, the boys had all gone home, and the tavern-keeper's
anger had cooled down a bit. Perhaps a tiny whisper of suspicion had entered
his heart. At any rate, as Joshua came around the barn, he heard the harsh
voice of his employer demanding his presence.
"Josh, you black son of Satan, you got my girl fixed up. I ought to kill you!"
"Honest, sir, I wouldn't do that to Miss Nancy, I wouldn't hurt her! Besides,
she wouldn't- -She wouldn't even touch me! Lord bein' my witness, I wouldn't
do a thing like that!"
"Don't lie to me! All five of them boys saw you, they swore to it. You take
that slut and git! Git out of my house, git off my place, and don't you ever
By this time, both mother and daughter were weeping aloud, and great tears were rolling from Joshua's eyes.
"Pa, it's almost dark, they can't go now. They can't even see the road. Don't make 'ern go tonight, please!"
"All right, she can stay the night. But you, Josh, git the hell out of ny
sight!" And with these words, he plunged into the barroom, and pulling a
quart of rye whiskey off the back bar, he poured himself a water glass full,
and drank it down almost without a pause for breath.
"Nancy, your Pa won't listen to reason. There's no way hell take yours and
Joshua's word against them five boys. It breaks my heart, but you'll have
Both mother and daughter went upstairs, and started making preparations.
"You can take all of your clothes, Nancy. He won't want to see them hangin'
around. Lord knows you'll need 'em. She began rolling the clothing into a
bundle. She wrapped the clothing in two heavy quilts, dampening the roll
with her tears, while Nancy lay sobbing on the bed.
Meanwhile, the father had poured himself another glass from the quart of
rye, and was rapidly drinking himself into a stupor. As luck would have it,
nobody came that night to buy drinks, and they had no out-of-town guests.
He didn't even bother to light the kerosene lamps. After a while, he went
to the back room, and lay across the bed that had been the couch of his daughter's
It was hardly a night for Joshua to rest. Sleep was fitful, interspersed
with prayer for help and guidance. The boys had said nothing to anyone of
the scene in the kitchen, so the community had no word of it yet. As soon
as the general store opened, Joshua had gone there and purchased an axe with
some of his few hoarded dollars. Some sulphur matches and a waterproof box
for them, and five pounds of salt, completed his purchases, and he hurried
out the door.
Back at the barn, he gathered his duffel bag and the two old comforters given
him by Nancy's mother, and went to the back door of the house, where he found
the girl and her mother waiting.
"Nancy, you can't go out in them mountains without a gun. There's bears and
panthers out there. You can take the little muzzle-loader; it's yours anyway,
Pa gave it to you. He always uses the big one." She took the rifle from the
gun rack on the kitchen wall and handed it to Joshua, along with a little
cloth bag of bullets and a horn full of powder. I'll feel better for you
with that gun," she said quietly. "Josh, you take good care of my little
girl," she said, and began again to mingle her sobs with Nancy's. She seemed
to be unwilling to let the girl out of her arms.
"You can trust me to do that," said Joshua as he shouldered Nancy's generous
bundle on top of his own. He gave his little valise to the girl, who wouldn't
even look at him as they started away. A few steps away, she ran back again
to her mother's arms, crying aloud.
The village was beginning to stir as they crossed the covered bridge on their
way. Nancy's father would sleep for several hours, wearing off his hangover.
Joshua had the feeling that they should not stay on the main road, since
the difference in their skin color was so obvious. When, about a half-mile
from the ridge, a trail led off to the southwest along a stream, they turned
left along a narrow valley. Nancy was still very quiet, only occasionally
sniffling back the tears. She walked a few steps back of Joshua, feeling
a dignity of race that she would later lose. She considered Joshua a good
friend, but too much beneath her for even a hint of intimacy.
In late April there were no berries to assuage the noon-time hunger, but
his boyhood experiences came to their rescue. He raked under a large chestnut
tree, and found several nuts beneath the leaves. Nancy spoke her first words
then. "I didn't think the squirrels would leave any." she said.
"Guess there's just too many," Joshua replied.
After drinking from a little spring by the roadside, they plodded on. He
had hoped to shoot a squirrel or rabbit for their supper, but saw no living
thing except some small birds. In mid-afternoon they came to the head of
the stream, gushing from an unusually large opening in the limestone rock.
Drinking here again, they began a steep climb up the mountainside to the
west, reaching the top a little before sundown. The wind was quiet, and Joshua
knew that it would be several degrees warmer at the top than in the valley.
Down the western slope they found a very large log had fallen in the forest.
There Joshua built a fire about ten feet from the log, and began to pile
up the leaves by the tree side of the fire for Nancy a bed. She began unrolling
the covers from the clothing.
"Oh, look, Josh, Ma put in some meat and bread and a jar of jelly!" Her voice
had a little lilt of happiness. She was very hungry by this time, and the
food lifted her spirits. Her mother had been so confused and preoccupied
that she could think no further than a picnic lunch for her daughter and
her black protector. Nancy gave Joshua a sandwich of the meat and bread then
ate ravenously of her portion. They finished the meat by eating some of the
jelly on bread. Joshua did not forget to offer thanks to God for the food
the good weather, and His care. Tears came to Nancy's eyes as he prayed.
Nancy, after the sleepless night before, snored lightly through the whole
time of darkness. Joshua, wrapped in the old quilt, on the other side of
the fire, stirred several times in the night to replenish the blaze. Morning
found them both hungry and thirsty, since they had no water on the mountain
top. They hurriedly rewrapped their bundles and continued west down the slope.
They very quickly came to a small stream, and eagerly drank their fill. Continuing
down the wooded valley, Joshua turned to Nancy with his fingers to his lips.
Slowly he lifted the rifle and fired. A wild turkey that had been scratching
in the leaves flopped to the ground and Joshua ran quickly forward catching
it while it thrashed in the leaves, then decapitating it with the axe.
A mile or so beyond, the mountain hollow widened and a nearly level shelf
lay on the east side of the little stream, some fifty yards wide. From the
profuse growth, Joshua surmised that the soil here was rich. While the hills
were steep immediately on the left and right, the land seemed to level off
'Nancy, I have a feelin' this is a good place to stay."
Nancy didn't answer, but set her bundle down on the leaves, and found a seat
on a small log. With his pocket knife, Joshua split the turkey open and removed
the entrails, hanging the bird on a small branch he had broken nearby. He
then built a fire, and went to the edge of the embankment to the stream,
where he found a yellow clay outcrop. He gathered a double handful of this,
wetting it in the creek, then climbed back up the bank and proceeded to rub
the pasty clay into the feathers of the bird. Using a forked bush nearby
and a small pole with one end stuck in the ground, he improvised a spit over
the fire and impaled the turkey by the feet over the flames.
"Josh, you can do 'most everything, can't you?" Nancy exclaimed.
"Poor folks have to make do," he replied, putting more wood on the fire.
In about two hours they were dining on roast turkey, salted from Joshua's
sack he had foresightedly purchased the morning before. One slice of the
bread was left from the night before, and some of the jelly. Joshua refused
any of it, insisting that Nancy eat it.
After the meal, Joshua took the axe and cut two forked sticks about six feet
long and drove them into the ground about eight feet apart. He then cut a
pole and laid it in the forks, placing other longer poles with one end on
the ground and the other on the elevated pole. He had sighted some hemlock
trees a few yards down the creek, and he cut a generous supply of branches
and placed them on the frame of poles as a shelter. More hemlock branches
were used as a floor under the shed This would be their temporary home.
Leaving Nancy by the fire, he scouted the area, to see if he could find more
food. His first find was a lily-like plant growing through the leaves. He
pulled one, finding a small, onion-like bulb. It had a rather rank smell.
Joshua knew he had found ramps, a food considered a delicacy by the mountain
people. Marking the place, he continued to the more level area to the south.
There he found a swampy place, with a generous supply of cattails. Joshua
knew that the bulbous roots made a good substitute for potatoes, and the
young shoots tasted like asparagus. He gathered some of each, and returning
by the ramp patch took a few of these also. The turkey had some pleasant
supplements for the evening meal.
The next morning saw the beginning of a small pole cabin with one end open
for a fire. Much later, Joshua would build a conventional hewed log house
of yellow poplar near where the lean-to now was.
In a couple of weeks, Joshua knew he would have to go back to the town for
supplies. They had not provided for cooking utensils or dishes, and both
he and Nancy were hungry for bread of some kind. He dreaded what be might
experience in going back to the scene of their recent sorrow. He loaded the
gun for Nancy. She was somewhat skilled in shooting it, and he didn't want
to leave her defenseless in his absence. He started at daylight, and by early
noon reached the settlement.
Events were not nearly as bad as he had imagined. One of the five young men
had made the mistake of telling boastfully how they had victimized Joshua
and shamed Nancy, and someone told the tavern-keeper about it. Fearing his
wrath, the five had left the community. Sentiment for Nancy was rather deep,
and pity for both her and Joshua modified the attitude of the whole town.
Nancy's father had nothing to say about either of them, and the quiet mother
grieved in silence. As the young black passed the tavern, Nancy's younger
brothers had seen him, and saying nothing to their father, had followed him
to the general store, where he was purchasing his needs with what was left
of his meager savings.
"Josh, how's Nancy? Where's she at? You bring her with you?" The boys questions were eager.
"I'm glad to see you, boys. Me and Nancy are livin' over the mountain."
"Can we go back with you? We want to see Nancy."
"What'll your Pa say?"
"Oh, he won't know it. We'll ask Ma. She won't care; she'll be glad. Pa'll
think we went night-huntin'." They dashed off to whisper the news to Nancy's
mother and get her consent for the trip.
The men in the store, while not overly friendly, were not hostile. Joshua
made his purchases and started back. He was joined by the boys as he reached
the other side of the bridge. They helped him carry his load and they reached
the lean-to about dark.
Nancy's joy at seeing her brothers was a delight for Joshua to see. The boys
stayed overnight, sleeping in the leaves on the ground. The next day they
helped Joshua lift the poles to the higher levels of the cabin walls, and
then left for home.
"We'll be back. We had fun!" they said.
"Josh, what'll we do when the baby comes?" asked Nancy a few days later.
"I'll guess we'll make out," Joshua replied. "I've helped birth some pigs
and cows, and helped Ma when one of the girls on the plantation had a baby."
In mid-July the child was born, with Joshua the only help she had. She had
cried out a few times, and had acted very embarrassed that Joshua had to
see her so intimately. The child was, naturally all white, with very blond
hair. Up until he did the necessary ministrations, Joshua had not even touched
Nancy in any way. But when the birth was over, a new bond of trust seemed
to build between him and the girl. He washed the baby, wrapped it in an old
dress of Nancy's and placed it in her arms. It was evidently not well, perhaps
suffering from Nancy's poor diet.
Joshua had completed the three-sided cabin before the birth of the baby.
He laid poles across the single-slope shed roof. He found a small sapling
with a large knot near the ground. He cut the white oak off under the knot,
then left three feet of the pole at the top for a handle, making a serviceable
maul. With this, he was able to use the axe as a wedge and split off enough
puncheon boards to cover the roof. Having no nails, he laid heavy poles on
these to hold them in place. The child's birth was a kind of celebration
of finished work.
The next week, Nancy's brothers came again, and were shown the tiny baby.
They were so excited that they rushed home and blurted out before their dad,
"Nancy had her baby, and it is white!" The man began again cursing the five
boys who had sworn to a lie.
One night a little later, Nancy called out to Joshua, "The baby can't get
its breath! Ma always put lamp oil and turpentine in boiling water and let
the baby breathe the fumes, but we don't have any. They could only hold the
child in their arms and watch it die.
Nancy was almost hysterical with grief, and Joshua wept, mostly for her.
In the morning, he used his axe again and shaped a crude shovel. A few hundred
yards up the hollow, he found a level place in the forest, trimmed away the
brush, and dug a tiny gave in the rocky soil. He had to give up digging when
he struck the clay sub-soil, at about three feet. Using a board left from
the cabin roof, he cut six lengths as a rough casket. He gathered soft leaves
and covered the bottom board, and laid the last one aside for a cover. Nancy
sat on a nearby log, holding the dead baby and weeping. Joshua tenderly took
the child from her and laid it in the grave. Then, lifting his face toward
the sky, he prayed: "Dear Lord, we give this little child to you. You know
best why she had to die. Help Nancy believe it is for the best. Amen."
Placing the last board over the body, he began filling up the gave. When
all the soil was mounded up over it, he gathered stones and piled them over
the dirt. When it was finished, Nancy threw herself on the pile of rocks
and cried "My baby! My baby!" Joshua lifted her up, and for the first time,
she threw her arms around his neck, weeping aloud. He led her, sobbing and
crying, back to the cabin, and placed her on the bunk he had built across
the back of the one room. She refused the leg of squirrel meat he had warmed
for her supper. Finally, completely exhausted she drifted off to sleep.
Joshua sat down on the log seat he had hewed and placed along the wall near
the open end of the room, by the dying embers of the supper fire. He sensed
strongly the crisis they were approaching in their relationship. Nancy was
not a pretty girl, but she had regular features, a bit more rugged than many
women. He knew what was happening to him in his heart, and it frightened
him. He knew that state law would not let them marry and that if they stayed
together she would always carry the double stigma of living with a black
man and in what the community labeled fornication. He sat in agony for hours,
then began to pray.
Very late in the night, it suddenly came to him: They could be married in
the sight of God, without a license or clergyman! If he guessed rightly,
Nancy would soon be seeking an answer to the same problem he had faced. At
the first opportunity, he would offer her the solution he had found in the
Nancy awakened early, and lay on the rough bed, thinking. She recalled the
comfort of Joshua's arms at the grave and during the walk back to the cabin.
She had a deep respect for his religious faith, but could only guess what
he felt for her. She could walk away from him, hoping somehow to return to
the good gates of her father, or perhaps go elsewhere, hoping to find work
for her keep with some prosperous family. But as she considered that step,
she realized that she didn't want to leave Joshua.
Awakening in his bed on the dirt floor, Joshua arose and went to Nancy's
bed to inquire how she felt. Lying there awake, she suddenly smiled at him
and reached out to take his hand. "Josh, you're so good to me!" she spoke
softly. He knelt by the bunk, and she reached out to him with both arms.
"Oh, Josh, what'll we do?" she cried.
'Nancy, do you care for me?" His voice trembled a bit as he spoke.
'Josh, I've been lyin' here thinkin'. Yes, I do. I thought about leavin' here, but I know I don't want to."
"I don't want you to leave, Nancy, God help me, I've come to love you!" 'But we can't go on living together like this, can we?"
"Nancy, the law says I can't marry you. But there's nothing in God's law
says we can't marry! Get up and eat something now, and we'll talk about it
He stood and pulled her to her feet, and again her arms went around his neck,
and he pulled her to him with a stronger emotion than he had dared let himself
feel before. They ate breakfast, corn bread and hot water flavored with teaberry
leaves, and some wild plums they had found growing on the ridge above the
"Nancy, we can marry each other, and we don't even need a preacher. I'll
think of the words to say to you before God, and you can say the same things
to me. The Lord won't hold it against us if there's no preacher."
"Let me think about it awhile," Nancy said.
"Take all the time you want!" -
That night he left her in the cabin and walked for hours in the moonlight,
rehearsing what he would say, praying for help that he might restrain himself
in his desire for her. When he had the words, he went back, and found Nancy
asleep. He was thankful for this, and slept fitfully through the few hours
"Nancy, 'fore Almighty God, I take you for my wife. I promise to love you
and take care of you till we die, and be faithful to you."
"Joshua, I promise to do the same, and I take you for my husband."
"Lord, You heard these promises we made to each other. We made them before
you, and we ask you to help us be faithful to each other. We do thank you
we got each other, and our good health. Watch over us, Lord, we pray. Amen."
Joshua's time was spent weatherproofing the cabin. He filled the chinks between
the poles with moss from logs in the forest, binding it with clay from the
creek bank. Using the same yellow clay, he laid up a stone fireplace. The
mud would dry in the heat and make a good mortar. Using poles, he enclosed
the opening on one side of the fireplace, leaving the other side open for
a door. He chopped out an opening in the south for a window, hewing out a
slab from the same log he had used for shingles to close the opening in cold
weather. Later he would kill a bear, and hang the cured skin over the door.
Nancy's brothers came over later in the autumn and carried back the news
of the baby's death to her parents. They both felt a secret relief. A white
child in a black household would bring questions.
The first child came early the next summer. They named him Richard. The previous
fall, a lone hunter from the west side of the mountain stopped at the cabin.
From him they learned of a tiny village just four miles from them with a
small store. The storekeeper also bought furs, so Joshua found a new source
of cash in the hides of wild animals he would kill during the winter. From
a ten-foot section of a large yellow poplar tree, he hewed a deep trough
which he placed along the wall of the cabin. When the weather turned cool,
he shot a deer and a fat bear, and salted down enough meat in the trough
for the entire winter. They dried wild fruit and gathered nuts also. The
furs he sold to the storekeeper brought enough cash for the flour, meal,
sugar and other supplies.
After their son was born, Joshua began to think of the future. What about
the land where the cabin stood? Could he be evicted from it? He had cleared
enough space for a garden, and planted vegetables, but he also wanted pasture
for cows and sheep. They knew that Nancy had a first cousin who kept records
at the courthouse. The Homestead Act had just been passed by Congress, and
when Joshua walked the 13 miles once more to inquire about the land, he was
delighted at the good news. With the clerk's help he filed for 300 acres
on the east side of the small stream to the top of the ridge extending southwest
to include some of the level land where Joshua had found the cattail pond.
Nancy's cousin knew the whole story about the couple, and was sympathetic
to them. He said nothing to Joshua about the small filing fee, but paid it
himself. About a half mile up the hollow from the cabin was a large grove
of great sugar maples. Joshua had learned from white neighbors west of his
place that the sweet sap of these trees could be made into syrup and sugar.
He asked about the method of collecting the sap, secured a T-augur at the
general store, and was ready when mid-March sunshine called up the sap from
the maple roots. Since it was such a large grove, he developed it into what
would be his main cash source. His maple sugar was in high demand because
the people knew that he didn't add white sugar to dilute his product.
Another boy was born to Nancy and Joshua, and they named him Commodore. Two
girls, Belle and Delphia, and then a boy, Bernard completed their family.
With land in the valleys being rapidly taken, white families began to settle
on the rocky ridges. Four families built log homes on the ridge up the mountain
from Joshua's home.
Having completed his own large log house, he helped them build their homes
in the same method and pattern. His nearest white neighbors were named Brady.
Money from the maple sugar kept coming in, and Joshua saved it, dreaming
of the day when his children might go away to school. When four more black
families came to the hollow, Joshua sold them land and began, with their
help, to build a log school house, and began a "subscription" school. The
white families, spurred on by this action, also started a school just across
the road and black and white children played together at noon and recess
Joshua also realized another dream, and organized a small Methodist class
of blacks. The white people did not follow this example, but when the blacks
had revivals in the school building, the whites would attend.
When the boy, Commodore, had finished the grades in the little schoolhouse,
he was sent to the black school at Institute, W. Va. where he finished high
school and a year or two of college. There he met and married a mulatto girl,
and moved back to the new county seat town which was rapidly building along
the new railroad, six miles north of the old courthouse.
The oldest son, Dick, married a black girl from the valley. Joshua helped
him build a home just below the sugar camp. Dick contracted pneumonia while
still a young man, and died. Joshua took on the added responsibility of his
son's household. When an occasional traveler came up the mountain road, Joshua
would always insist that he stay for a meal. He would take a pan of water
and some soap and wash his hands in the presence of the visitor, saying "You
see, we's clean folks. The black won't wash off."
One incident will reveal something of Joshua's faith. The second Brady son
(my father) was sent down the hill to get Joshua to help with some heavy
task. Nancy told the boy that he was up at the cornfield. Arriving at the
field he stood behind the rail fence, waiting till the old man reached the
end of the com row. Every few yards Joshua would stop, lean on his hoe handle,
raise his face to the sky, his lips moving silently. A smile lit his black
"Who ya talkin' to, Josh," my Dad asked.
Startled the man answered "Huh? Oh, bless God, jes' talkin' to my Saviour."
Some fifty years later, Joshua's shining witness would help my father to
believe in that same Saviour, and to become a Christian.
My father, Walter P. Brady, finished the four grades in the white school
on the mountain. When he was grown and married, he moved back to the Brady
house on the hill. I was the oldest child, just six months of age. My mother
was in poor health. Joshua would often say to his daughters, Belle and Delphia,
"Girls, go up and clean Mrs. Brady's house for her, and do her washin’. She's
not well." When that work was done, the girls would often take me back with
them, keeping me the rest of the day, while my mother rested
When I was two years old Joshua died Mother took me to the funeral, and held
me in her arms as she looked down into the white casket. The sight of that
black face, surrounded by white suit and on a white pillow, burned itself
into my memory. The weeping, and the tenseness frightened me, and I began
to scream, and Mother had to carry me outside.
Years later, she was amazed to have me ask, "Mommy, did I ever see a black
face with white all around it?" It was my earliest memory.
All the other families, both black and white, had moved away from the poor
mountain farms to find employment in the valley. The railroad had brought
coal mining and other industries, and work was plentiful.
Joshua's youngest son, Bernard developed cancer of the face, and died soon
after his father, with his features horribly disfigured The girls, left alone
with nobody to care for the stock or make the maple sugar, moved to the city.
My family was the last one left of the settlement, finally leaving there
about nine years later.
Joshua had several grandchildren. Two of them became teachers, one in a college
and the other in a large university. Another grandson became a physician.
That summer day in 1980, as we drove back down the hill by Joshua's old homesite,
we could see only a few square yards of weedy grass left near the cold stream
that flowed from the spring at the edge of the old clearing. Trees, some
over two feet across, grew in the old fields.
And what of the graves where Joshua, Nancy, Dick, Bernard several black children,
and one tiny white baby are buried?. The tombstones are toppled, and almost
buried in the leaves and rotting forest debris. They will probably never
be located or visited again.
Should you reach Heaven some day, you will surely see a black face, shining
with holy joy, gazing at the one who said "I am the light," and if you ask,
"Who are you looking at, Josh?" We know his reply, "Oh, bless God, just lookin'
at my Saviour."