What’s In A Name?

For most of my life I never really cared all that much about where my family came from. Oh, I knew that my mother grew up in Kentucky and my father in Georgia, but beyond that I neither knew nor cared from whence descended the family line. Maybe one branch on my family tree contained an English duke, who rode with Henry V at the battle of Agincourt and singlehandedly struck down the flower of French chivalry.  Or maybe there was a German philosopher, a Spanish explorer or an Italian theologian hiding in our family woodpile. I would probably have found such knowledge interesting when I was younger, but not interesting enough to tempt me to do the heavy digging that would have been required to uncover those long-mouldering bones.

My extended family, you see, was not big on harmony. My father joined the Navy in 1936 to escape from his father’s farm during the Great Depression. He met my mother near his first duty station in Virginia and after they were married the Navy decided that my Dad’s presence would best serve the Navy’s interests on the West Coast and in the Pacific Ocean area. That is how I came to be born and grow up in San Diego, California, about 2,000 miles from either of my parents’ families. San Diego in the 1950’s and 60’s was as close to being heaven for a kid as it was possible to be, and any trips back to Mom and Dad’s homes and families tore me away from the friends, beaches, and perfect weather, and placed me in the presence of gnats, ticks, chiggers, water moccasins and a few dozen other noisome creatures, and threw me into the company of relatives whom I did not know and could not care less about getting to know. Returning home after a summer month spent between Georgia and Kentucky with parents who constantly bickered about each others’ families was a lot like getting released from prison.

So family origins meant little to me in the early 1980’s when one evening after returning home from work I opened the newspaper (that was one of the primary ways that people got news in those days) and read that a young man bearing my last name had bicycled from Maryland to San Diego. The article stated that this young man had found work at a nursery in Lemon Grove, a suburb of San Diego, not far from where I lived, and I resolved that I would try to make contact with him the next morning.

Accordingly, the next morning I arose and after breakfast and getting the children settled into diversionary activities I searched the Yellow Pages (that was how people found business phone numbers in those days) and located five nurseries in Lemon Grove. On try number four I hit paydirt and spent the next several minutes talking with a young relative whom to this day I still have never laid eyes upon. We compared notes and confirmed that we were indeed related. My last name is very uncommon outside of the South so it would have been  extraordinary if we had not been related. In the course of our conversation this young man, Todd was his name, asked if I knew the story of the origin of my father’s family’s name. I told him that I did not, and Todd proceeded to tell me what he knew.

Durden, he said, was a French name, or began that way at any rate. The original Durden was a product of a relationship between a very minor aristocrat, a man who probably owned a couple of acres of land outside of town, and a young lady who lived with her parents in that town. A boy was produced from that union and immediately became something of a problem, since the details of that relationship did not include marriage.  The boy’s father had no intention of letting little Jacques into the line of inheritance of his postage stamp domain, and would not confer upon his offspring the blessing of his name. The girl’s parents were similarly disinclined, as to the name at least since they had nothing in particular for anyone to inherit, and refused to give him their name as well. The young lady gave up the baby to the local church, which accepted our little cherub and then gave him back to the mother to raise for them. The parents were in no position to argue with the church and so little Jacques had a home, if not a name.

The town in which this drama transpired was in the northeast of France, near the Ardennes Forest on the border with Germany. Jacques began to look for a name as soon as he realized that, unlike everyone around him, he didn’t have one. He considered using his mother’s name anyway, whether her family liked it or not. Grandpa was a very large and very stern man however, and so there appeared to be little to be gained by using that name except for a beating every time he tried it. Next he considered the name of the town itself, but he had never received very much kindness in that town and did not wish to confer dignity upon it by adopting its name.

Finally it occurred to Jacques to adopt the name of the great forest to the east. The forest was a frightening and mysterious place, dark in many thickly wooded areas even in the height of the daytime. It was filled with wild animals which would not hesitate to make a meal of an incautious woodsman alone in its fastness, and bandits and gypsies were rumored to make their camps in there away from the prying eyes of the officials of church and crown. Yes, the forest would do very nicely for a name, and somewhere around his twelfth or thirteenth birthday Jacques D’Ardennes announced his existence to the world.

What the world’s reaction was to that announcement is not known. What is known however is that Jacques had no intention to fulfill any obligations to the church which had assumed a sort of official parent authority over him from birth. In fact, Jacques felt no sense of obligation toward his mother’s family or that town or anyone in it. A short lifetime of putting up with the taunts of the other village children and the blows of an unhappy grandfather, plus the eventual marriage of his mother to the town blacksmith, a hard man many years older than she who was willing to overlook her past for a pretty young woman to cook and clean and keep a warm bed for him, convinced Jacques that it was time to take his leave of everything he had known and try his luck in the world.

It’s at this point where Jacques’ history gets a little fuzzy. Nobody knows where Jacques spent his next five or so years. Some thought that he decided to take his chances in the forest which had provided him with a name. Once there he fell in with a band of gypsies or perhaps bandits; nobody really knows. All that is truly known is that at the stated age of nineteen Jacque D’Ardennes showed up in England, one step ahead of the police in France.

It seems as if Jacques learned the skills of petty thievery wherever he passed those lost years. A pickpocket, a thief of small items which could be sold in the next town down a dusty road, and other acts which would get you thrown into prison for a very long time in France apparently occupied Jacques’ time far more than did gainful employment, but he must have learned somewhere how to be useful on a farm because once in England he drifted from farm to farm, working mostly for room and board but occasionally being paid in hard money, because a couple of times his name appeared on the lists of one local constabulary or another, charged with ‘drunk and disorderly’.

Jacques’ inability or unwillingness to find steady work led to periodic arrests for vagrancy. Petty theft such as he had allegedly engaged in back in France would have gotten him hung in England, so I must assume that he either resisted the urge to fall back on old habits or was successful on such occasions when he plied his craft. There was also written the word “rogue” on some of his court documents, and one gets the sense from the the manner in which that word was employed that Jacques was not afraid to shower attention upon young English ladies, and one also gets the sense that his attentions were not entirely unappreciated by the objects of his interest.

Apparently Jacques finally succeeded in pushing enough of the wrong buttons because in 1731 his name appears on a list of inmates in a debtor’s prison a few miles south of the City of London. Two years later James Oglethorpe was given permission by the Crown to take as many English debtors as wished to go and found a colony between South Carolina and the Spanish territory of Florida. Always a brown noser, Oglethorpe named his new colony ‘Georgia’ after the king, George II. Jacques D’Ardennes, his name now anglicized to ‘Jack Durden’, was among the first to sign up, and later lists and documents show that by 1736 he was the owner of a farm a few miles outside of Savannah. Jack ran a blacksmith operation in one of the rough outbuildings on his property which served the needs of the many surrounding farms.

Jack Durden married a Creek Indian woman and fathered several children by her. Five girls and three boys grew up and the family farm and blacksmith business prospered. Three of the girls married well and began families of their own, one died of a fever at the age of fourteen, and one remained single and was the de facto head of the family business whenever Jack was absent. The eldest boy was the titular head of the business but was essentially useless and drank himself to death before reaching the age of twenty five. The other two boys began farms of their own with generous help from the sister who was soon to be the matriarch of the growing clan.

Of Jack nothing is known after 1753. He and his wife simply disappear.  There is speculation that they decided to return to the tribe from which she had come, but there is no real evidence of that. Others believed that they had been waylaid by bandits, robbed and killed, and their bodies fed to the gators. My thought is that Jack had learned enough in his old wild days to not be caught in that trap.

Ultimately, I don’t know if any of this is true or not. I only know that this is the story that Todd told me in a conversation over the telephone. I’ve seen no documents or had any other opportunity to verify this tale. And why should I bother? A story like that is a thing to be retold and left alone.  Sometimes a too-critical historical bent is definitely not a virtue.

The Tale of Captain Henry Kershaw

“You never can tell who’s hiding in the woodpile.” That was my mother’s way of saying that we cannot help who our relations are or who our ancestors were, and you cannot always be sure about who you’re even related to. It was funny to me that Mom would actually have such a saying when for most of the years that I knew her she never showed very much interest in who her own distant family members were or might have been, and none at all about my father’s. That familial and generational ambivalence seemed to change a bit as she grew older and moved back to her home state of Kentucky in her retirement years, and on one visit I found myself one morning in a car headed east on the Bluegrass Parkway towards Lexington and the mountains further east of there.

Most of Mom’s immediate relatives had settled in Louisville Kentucky or across the Ohio River in New Albany, Indiana. She grew up however in the coal mining mountain counties of Eastern Kentucky. To be exact, a large part of her childhood was spent in and just outside of Hazzard, Kentucky. Mom used to laugh when we would watch the television show “The Dukes of Hazzard.” She called that show “The Dukes of Riverside” because the terrain in the television show looked a lot more like Southern California than Eastern Kentucky. I later found out just how right she was about that.

On this clear, warm Kentucky day we took the Parkway through low hills and broad fields of corn and tobacco and in an hour or two arrived on the outskirts of Lexington, where grand farms raising some of the finest horses in the world lined the road which narrowed as it neared the center of town. I don’t care much about horses one way or the other but I have to admit that the sight of a group of three or four of them standing regally under the shade of an oak or elm tree, with the white rail fences and ever-present arena and track, did stir the Kentuckian blood which runs through my veins.

We threaded our way through downtown Lexington, picked up the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway, and headed east. The flat farmland continued for about a half hour and then the road began to rise and twist through low hills that bunched together closer and higher until we knew that we were officially in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky. A bit further on we found the turnoff to State Route 30 which led to the town of Jackson, the seat of Breathitt County. After another half hour we pulled into Jackson, a picturesque mountain town with a downtown that seemed to be right out of the late nineteenth and early twentiety centuries. There was a lot of stone and brick, with diagonal parking in the street in front of the hardware store, the drug store, the dress store and so on. Jackson looked like the set of a movie and I would have probably not believed it to be real if it was not so much like Campbellsville, Lebanon, Bardstown and a host of other small Kentucky towns that I had already visited.

I parked our car in one of the diagonal slots in front of a large stone and brick building which housed the Breathitt County Library. My mother had a list of relatives whom she wanted to research and I was mostly along for the ride. We exited the car and walked up a short flight of stairs to the front door, which we found locked and sporting a sign which gave some reason or other why the building would not be opened that day until one in the afternoon. It was now barely ten thirty, and so Mom and I went back to the car to decide what to do next.

“We’ve already eaten breakfast” I said. “Do you want to walk around Jackson?” “No” she replied. “I don’t have any close connections here.” “Oh, really? I thought your family was from around here and that’s why you are using the library to look up some genealogies” “Some of them, yes, but only the more distant ones. I grew up in Hazzard, in the next county east.” I pulled out our Rand McNally atlas and saw that indeed, less than a hour further down the highway was Hazzard, Kentucky. “You want to go there?” Mom’s eyes lit up just a little but she said “I don’t know anyone there anymore.” “So what?” in asked. “We could just go and take a look.” Mom thought about that for just a minute and then nodded her assent. I backed out of the parking slot, nosed the care back onto U.S. Route 30, and we were quickly on our way to Hazzard.

As we drove deeper into the mountains I began to understand why Mom used to laugh at the television show. Breathitt and neighboring Perry County, of which Hazzard is the seat, are very vertical places. Steep, forested hillsides and deep valleys through which tumbled swift creeks and narrow, twisting roads were the order of the day in this broken, irregular landscape. The long, straight country roads that the Dukes piloted their muscle car down bore no resemblance whatsoever to the serpentine roads in this vertical land.

Mom and I pulled into Hazzard and quickly found ourselves in an older part of town. “Park here” said Mom, and I rolled slowly up against the curb. We exited the car and began to walk along the sidewalk in front of a row of usable but sad looking and run down buildings, some of which still contained struggling businesses but many of which were empty. Across the street was an old wooden pedestrian bridge which spanned two hills between which a narrow road came into town. “I used to walk on that bridge when I came into town as a girl” Mom said. “My best friend, Etta Boggs, and I would go to school or I would go to buy some small thing for my mother, and I would cross over that bridge. It came down to town just around the side of that hill”

I instantly became interested in this girl, Etta Boggs. What would she look like today?  What would she be like? Did they play with dolls, even if only paper ones? Did they fix each other’s hair and talk about boys? Could they ever see each other again? I asked Mom if she ever tried to find Etta Boggs. “No. I wouldn’t even know how to start looking for her. Etta married young to a man who worked at the mine office. He had a good job, as those things went back then. One day there was an explosion at the office; gas or coal dust, I don’t know what caused it. The explosion blew the office safe into the air and it landed on Etta’s husband. Squished him good. I left right after that and lived with the Browns in Newport News Virginia and never saw her again.”

This was a time before Google searches and the ancestry web sites, and I knew that Mom was right. It would require a laborious search of genealogy libraries with follow-ups of birth certificates, marriage licenses, birth announcements and perhaps a death record to hunt down the mysterious Etta Boggs. Mom didn’t seem interested enough to do the legwork to find Etta’s trail and so I let the topic drop.

We continued walking the sidewalks of old Hazzard, Mom pointing out where stores and homes and schools used to be when she was a little girl and I felt the mixed emotions of imagining her when she was very young in the 1920’s in a bustling town, and comparing that vision with the old, tired, down-at-the-mouth town through which we were walking. It seemed like Mom wore her years much as the town was wearing its own. We soon felt like we had killed enough time in Hazzard and reentered our car to begin the return trip back to Jackson. Mom was hungry but we decided that the fare in Hazzard did not look too tempting, so we gassed up and made our return to Jackson. To be fair to Hazzard, we did not go into the newer areas to the east of the old downtown. It might be a much more attractive place than what we saw. I also think that there may have been a ghost or two pestering Mom there; the boyfriend who didn’t work out, the cousin who drowned in the creek, poor old Etta’s squished husband and so on. In any case, we were soon heading west, slowly losing elevation as we rolled back down the road to Jackson.

In Jackson we stopped at a drug store which had a lunch counter that offered the usual southern fare. Burgers and fries, bologna and macaroni and cheese, or fried anything. We ate and left a tip which Mom thought was too generous and returned to our parking slot which was still available in front of of the big stone building. We were five minutes early and waited in the car until we saw the sign come out of the window and the doors open up. We slipped out of the car, made our way up the stairs, and then plunged into the cool confines of the library. We found the genealogy section right away and I left Mom to her research while I went throughout the library savoring its look and smell and feel, and daydreaming about the generations who had passed down those aisles and past those stacks of books, sat at the tables and perhaps flirted over by the section housing the history of the Roman Empire.

Mom was having success with her search and called me over to see what she had found. Mom’s maiden name was Cooper and her mother’s name had been Kershaw. She had always heard that a great great uncle, Captain Henry Kershaw, had been a bit of a rogue and had even seen him mentioned in an article in “Kentucky Magazine.” Mom was on a mission to set the record straight about her distant uncle. She had found a wealth of records including microfilm and microfiche which contained photos of news clippings, court entrees, sheriff’s warrants and the like and as we worked together the picture of that distant relative began to come into a sharper focus.

Captain Henry Kershaw, or “Cap’n Hank” as he was called, enlisted in the Army on the Federal side in the Civil War. Through his own skill, luck, and  attrition he rose to the rank of Captain by the end of the war. After Appomattox Cap’n Hank returned to his home near Jackson and began to farm and mine a type of near-surface coal, which gave him the funds to enlarge his land holdings. Kentucky had been a border state however, and the Confederate Army also drew units from that state. After Appomattox those soldiers went home too. This was not a good mix.

Amos Riesen had never liked the Kershaws anyway, and when Cap’n Hank bought the land next door trouble was inevitable. Cap’n Hank had a nice herd of swine and when he noticed that he was missing quite a few shoats, or juvenile pigs, he was certain that he knew who the culprits were so he set a trap. Cap’n Hank was waiting early one morning when the Riesens came to plunder his stock again and put a well-placed bullet through the heart of Cletus Riesen, Amos’ oldest boy. The other Riesens exchanged fire with Cap’n Hank and then fled, leaving the body of Cletus where it lay. Cap’n Hank secured the body to his horse and brought it to the sheriff in Jackson, who declared the homicide to be justified but would not swear out a warrant for Amos. That rascal would only deny that he had been there and in the end it wouldn’t be worth the effort.

As I suggested earlier, there were families and clans which aligned with either Federal or Confederate sympathies. The Federals were known as the Red Strings and the Confederates as – and I am not making this up – the Ku Kluxers. Naturally, Amos Riesen was a Ku Kluxer and Cap’n Hank was a Red String. So Amos gathered a few cousins and his remaining offspring and encircled the cabin of Cap’n Hank one dark night. When dawn came they opened fire on Cap’n Hank, and he and his wife and his young son were pinned down in the cabin.

After three days, his food and ammunition running low, Cap’n Hank crept out at night and put his young son on a horse and sent him for help. The boy got through and soon a dozen or so Red Strings were riding to the rescue. The relief column showed up and took the Riesens completely by surprise, killing three of them while the others took to their heels and fled into the forest. Cap’n Hank then led his men to the Riesen homestead, sent the women and children to walk to Jackson, killed all of the livestock and burned down every building on the farm to the ground. That was enough for the Riesens. Amos took his immediate family and moved to Tennessee, while the remaining family members gave Cap’n Hank a wide berth ever after.

For his remaining years Cap’n Hank was a peaceful man, more or less. His association with the Red String bunch placed him at odds with the Ku Kluxers, and from time to time and there were reports, unsubstantiated of course, of him being involved with assaults and shootings in connection with the feuds which wracked the county. But Cap’n Hank worked hard, increased his holdings and made a large family before one morning, when riding back with his youngest son from an inspection of some of his more distant property, he was ambushed and killed. The boy got away to report the event but nobody was ever charged or arrested. It was just not healthy for a sheriff to take a side in those feuds until well into the early twentieth century.

Mom and I were lost in time for almost three hours in that library, and when we were finished we looked up and saw that it was later than we had planned to stay. Dad was going to be cranky because we would not return home until nearly sundown, and he liked to eat earlier than that. We called him to let him know the situation and then hit the road west towards their home in central Kentucky. We chatted almost non-stop about all of the people and events that we learned about on that trip and made our plans to do it again soon. Those plans didn’t work out, but I at least have that one memory or Mom and her crazy Appalachian, feuding family. It is enough for me.