Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Wild Goose Chase



From the time I was a child, I heard stories about my grandfather, James Polk Salyer, a rough-and-tumble Kentuckian who played a mean fiddle and was half-Cherokee Indian. He was born in Salyersville in the 1880s and worked in a sawmill just outside of town, until there was an explosion that killed one or more of his family members. With the sawmill out of commission, he decided to leave Salyersville and head to Texas, where a building boom was underway and jobs were plentiful. That’s where he met my grandmother, a Texas belle of considerable wealth and education. Not many girls were college graduates, like my grandmother was. The family was prominent, and grandma used to talk about growing up with the Connelly children. I haven’t checked this out yet, but supposedly, she went to school with one of the Connellys who was related to the Texas governor, John Connelly, who was in the car with the Kennedys when both he and the president were shot by Lee Harvey Oswald.

The bottom line is that no one has ever done the family’s genealogy, though my late Aunt Maureen had visited Salyersville over a decade ago. She didn’t actually do any research, but was told at City Hall that most of the Salyer descendents live “up the canyon,” and that most were partially Cherokee Indians. Maureen never followed up, and I have been dying to know just how much Native blood my grandfather had coursing through his veins.

By the look of his portrait and few fading photos left from him taken in the 1930s and 40s, grandpa was definitely part Native American. The fact that my grandmother was disowned by her parents when she married him also fit into the story. After all, he was part Indian AND he was poor.

Grandpa died at a relatively young age – sometime in the late 1940s, I’m told. So, that was the sum total of what I knew about him. Surely, Rick and I reckoned, if we looked through the Census materials in Salyersville from the 1880s through about 1910, we would be able to find a reference to James Polk Salyer. We hit pay dirt at the Salyersville Historical Society in the tiny, aging town situated in the beautiful backcountry of Northeastern Kentucky. They have photocopies of the microfilmed Census Records and copies of miscellaneous records all the way back to the town’s founding in the early 1800s. There were Salyers there, all right, but (just as my Aunt Maureen had been told on her visit), most remaining Salyers lived outside of the immediate area in a place known as Royalton…further into the mountains in a canyon. Sometime in the mid-to-late 1800s, the Royal Bank of Canada bought up the forests in those Kentucky hills and opened a saw mill. Was that the SAME saw mill where grandpa had worked? Yes! There had been an explosion around the turn of the century, when a steam engine had blown up. The puzzle pieces began to fit together beautifully.

The historical research center ... lotsa history.

Magnificent Salyersville, Kentucky

We scoured through volumes of materials searching for James Polk Salyer and, much to our surprise, there was no mention of his birth. He wasn’t mentioned in the 1880 census, and together with all of the other town data, the 1890 census had been destroyed when the City Hall burned down in 1892. And then I found him! James Salyer, born 1885 in Royalton. And he was the only James Salyer in the entire census! We searched the death records, and his name wasn’t listed. Hooray! We had finally found him. His father, mother, and several other family members were interred in the Robert Salyer Cemetery located somewhere in the hills. We were given the GPS coordinates and headed for Royalton, about a 20-minute drive along narrow roads that wound through deep canyons and colorful deciduous forests. We followed the directions given by our car’s GPS deeper and deeper into the woods, until we dead-ended in someone’s front yard. There was no place to turn around—a steep cliff on one side of the skinny road, a garden on the other side.

The woman whose yard we had to turn around in was actually very nice and took time out from picking green tomatoes in her garden (as in, fried green tomatoes) to direct us to a burg called “Gypsy,” where she believed Robert Salyer and his wife and a couple of their children were buried. And yes, she was a Salyer! Rick inched the car between the sheer drop and the woman’s plants, finally managing to get turned around.

The crowded roads around Gypsy, Kentucky
Obviously, our GPS wasn’t working properly – as we discovered over and over again on our trip across country), so from here on, we would have to find our way around by stopping and asking directions. The people in the hills were actually very nice, albeit a bit curious about the small red car with California plates invading their very rural neighborhood in search of a Salyer burial ground. Amazingly, they waved at us!

We stopped several times to ask for help were directed to continue up a narrow road to a hillside, where we would park and walk another 1,000 feet uphill to the little cemetery. A man in a pick-up truck was soon following us, so we nervously turned around, thinking we had gone the wrong way. Turns out his name was Jerin Salyer, and when I told him what we were looking for, he said that Robert Salyer was an ancestor of his. “Me, too! I said, enthusiastically. “We could be distant cousins!” He was as excited as I was and offered to guide us the rest of the way.

About then, three men riding by in a small off-road vehicle stopped to see what was going on. We talked about the local history, the Salyers, and the Cherokee Indians who had lived in the area. They confirmed that most of the “folks in them hills” had Indian blood in them. They suspected they were all part Indian, though “back in them days, no one talked about them things.” Jerin told me about one of the Salyer family members, our great, great grandmother, who was buried in another area. The four of them decided to give Rick and I ride to all of the gravesites.

They told us to park nearby, and then Jerin asked, “Which one of Robert’s children are you related to?”

“James,” I answered. “How about you?

“James,” he said, obviously puzzled.

Huh? How could that be? If my grandfather and his grandfather were the same man, was James married to a woman BEFORE he left Kentucky? I was confused.

“Is YOUR grandfather, James, buried here in Kentucky?” I asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, matter-of-factly. “And he was the best damned stone mason in these parts.”

Rick and I exchanged glances. “Oh no,” I whispered. After getting all of these nice people involved in this hunt for what I thought was my great grandfather’s grave, we realized that there must have been two different James Salyers. Both had been born in Salyersville around the same year, in the same town. But my James is buried in California! What are the odds of that?

Rick and I apologized, thanked them, and slinked back to our car, tails between our legs, embarrassed beyond words. They had made such a big fuss over us, thinking we were all relatives. If there had been a hole to escape into, we would have gladly crawled inside.

I still don’t understand why there’s no record of my grandfather in the genealogical records in Salyersville. Rick came up with a possible solution – if he was born after 1880, he wouldn’t be included in the 1880 census. And if he had left Kentucky before 1900, he wouldn’t be in that census, either.

Our departure from the Gypsy area was very uncomfortable, and no one knew quite what to say. (Er, thanks anyway…. Er, sorry about that….) As we drove away, we noted the four men shaking their heads, puzzled no doubt by the crazy Californians who came to the hills on a fools’ errand.

With little else going on in that remote area, at least we gave them something to talk about!

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