Imagine you’re speeding down an interstate. You’re traveling at 55, 65 or 70 mph on you way to work, vacation or some other desired destination. You’ve had a pretty smooth trip so far, a little bump here and there. Along the way you’ve had to use a road map or atlas to help you find your way or direction. Then, just as the trip appears to have smoothed out, right smack dab in the middle of the road you hit a big, huge brick wall. Your vehicle would most surely suffer damage and you would suffer injury to body and soul. And most decidedly, your trip would be stopped dead in its track.
If you’re a genealogist, amateur or professional, you know there are genealogical “brick walls” and they can stop your genealogical trip and research dead in its track for years…at least on one line of research at a time. I would venture to say most of us who dig into our roots have experienced this some time or another. And, if you haven’t, consider yourself blessed indeed, for the genealogy fairies have truly smiled on you!
I’ve dealt with this frustrating phenomenon at least three times, but the one I’d like to discuss here is one near and dear to me…and the one I’ve been searching for the longest. My brick wall is the elusive mountain girl named Rachel…Rachel Henry.
Rachel was born in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains of east Tennessee, probably in Sevier or Blount County on 7 September 1830. When Rachel was born, the US Census Bureau didn’t enumerate the name of every member or person living in a household at the time a census was enumerated. Only the head of the household was enumerated by name…and that was usually a male. The bold move to list by name every member in the household on the census wasn’t made until the 1850 US Federal Census. As a result, there is no record of Rachel in a family on a census in 1830 or 1840.
By 1850, I find two references to a “Rachel Henry” in the east Tennessee area that would fit the general profile of my mountain girl. Both girls were born about the same time…and are found just one county apart. One Rachel can be found living in the Sevier County home of one Alexa. Bollinger, 88 and his family. For the time, Mr. Bollinger seemed to be a man of means because his worth was enumerated as $1,000. Was Rachel a servant…a friend or relative in this family? The other Rachel can be found on the Blount County census living in a home with what appears to be a widowed mother, Nancy, and several siblings. Living on either side are two more families that share the Henry surname, and one house down a Thomas family.
So, from the time of her birth until the time she married Abraham Hicks on 6 October 1859 in Blount County, Tennessee my Rachel’s life is a glaring mystery. I know nothing about her parentage and her life before Abraham. It’s almost as if Rachel was a wood nymph who walked out of the blue haze of the Smoky Mountains and started a life among mortals.
Whether Rachel sacrificed an ethereal life for a life of ease or a life of hardship is unknown, but I do know this much…Rachel’s son, Hughes T. (Thomas) Hicks was my great-grandfather and that makes Rachel my great-great- grandmother. Like Alice in Wonderland, Rachel’s story gets “curiouser” and “curiouser” in the circumstance of her first-born’s coming into this world. For you see, Hughes was born 3 October 1856 in Blount County, Tennessee. Yes, you did indeed read that right…1856…three full years before Rachel and Abraham Hicks were married.
Humm, you say…a hint of Appalachian scandal? Well, I’m not so sure, and yes, there has been conjecture galore I’m sure in the last 150 years plus since the said event. There are a few blanks I can fill in…and a few of the assumptions that were made over the years I can dispel.
First, when I started researching my paternal line, the Hicks family, I recalled hearing something about an adoption some generations ago…it was my granddaddy’s father I was told. I had no idea where that would lead me or stop my research…I was blissfully new. I managed to trace my roots back to my great-grandfather, Hughes Hicks, and was having a grand ol’ time doing it. And then, I came to his parents…whoa…it was not only head scratching time…it was brick wall time. The marriage of Rachel and Abraham and birth date of Hughes was the obvious place…the origin of the mystery…would no one claim Rachel because of this? Was it a scandal?
I discovered that Abraham had been married before Rachel and at first I was crest fallen. Had my great-great grandmother been a “scarlet woman” who had a child out of wedlock with a married man? My knack for the tedious hung in and with more digging I discover Abraham’s previous wife was Elizabeth Pence Blair. Abraham and Elizabeth married in 1832 and together had eight children. Some people believed that Hughes was Abraham and Elizabeth’s child, but this isn’t true because Elizabeth died 29 July 1854 of what may have been cholera, and that was almost two years before Hughes was born. So, Hughes’ birth was long after the death of Elizabeth, Abraham’s first wife…no foul there, as the kids say today.
A cousin once interviewed someone who said Hughes father was “one of those McMahan boys from Sevierville”. Is that or was that based on fact? Who knows? That statement was made years after the fact, but I can conjecture. Here are some ideas I have, but to date, that’s all they are…ideas and me just trying to fill in the blanks.
Rachel may not have been born a Henry. She could have very well have been previously been married before Abraham Hicks and Henry was her widowed name and Hughes could have been born to a previous husband. If that’s the case, then I still have a brick wall and Hughes’ biological paternal parentage is still a mystery.
The mountains and its folk were isolated from the rest of the world. That’s hard to imagine today. I can get in my car and be in the mountains in less than an hour…we can connect to the people who live and work there now by phone, and internet in a matter of seconds. In the 1800’s, it was a different story…it could take hours to go a few miles. The communities that were nestle in the nook and crannies and valleys of those mountains sometimes had to struggle to live. They didn’t have the amenities and luxuries of life we do today. We freak out if our cell phone signal drops…back then, once they DID get it, a whole community had to share one phone line. Churches were few and far in between. Many communities had to make do with a riding circuit preacher who made a route and came through ever so often to hold services and perform weddings, christenings and what not. It wasn’t unheard of for some couples to set up house “common law” style and make it official when the Reverend came through. I often wondered if this was the case of Rachel and Abraham and if Hughes was Abraham’s biological son. People had certain naming habits and patterns back then. Hughes’ middle name was Thomas…Abraham’s father’s name was Thomas. Was that a coincident?
Abraham and Rachel Henry Hicks had several more children. They were: (1) Adam born 1860 in Blount County, Tennessee; (2) Andrew Hicks, born 1863 in Blount County, Tennessee; (3) Tennessee Hicks, born 1865 in Blount Co., Tennessee; (4) Susan Hicks, born 1868 in Blount County, Tennessee; (5) Meshach Hicks, born 14 Feb 1869 in Blount County, Tennessee and possibly (6) Mason Hicks and (7) Nancy Hicks.
Whatever the circumstance, Abraham gave a mountain girl named Rachel and a toddler named Hughes a life. And as a result two of the most wonderful men who ever lived were born…my granddaddy, Jonas and my daddy, Oakley…and I’m alive and was born as a result of an act of kindness, and what I like to think of as an act of love. Right now, if I were to do a DNA test, I don’t know if the results would reveal a true Hicks link…or a Henry link…but I do know this…I am who I am…and it started in those mountains in east Tennessee…
Someday before I die, I hope to scale that brick wall and find what’s behind…
© 2007 Beverly Hicks Burch All rights reserved.