I had always hoped to discover some horse thieves or regicides in my ancestry. In research this past week on my family genealogy, I ran across some rather unpleasant things, in a story that has me seeing some connections, both good and bad with our current national situation. [The photo is looking south from Shenandoah Mountain, the general area where the history below took place. It’s the kind of place you can leave but that doesn’t leave you]
This diary is long. In it I’m making some personal and family historical connections to topics like racism, immigration, white privilege, Trump voters and rural America. It’s partly a meditation on the interconnections of family history, self and political present. Skip the text if you want and go to the end where I make specific connections.
Obviously everyone has lots of ancestors. Go back five generations and it’s in theory 32 direct ancestors; go back ten generations and it’s 1,024; go back fifteen, and it’s 32,678 direct ancestors. Go back a thousand years, call it 30 generations, and the total in theory is more than a billion, more people than were on the planet then. Everybody has ancestors that were royalty and everybody has ancestors who were serfs or slaves, thieves, murderers and saints. I went back six or seven generations for my surprises. Bear with me while I set the story up. I have not included my last name, but these names are real and it’s possible a reader or two will discover we’re cousins.
The story starts with one Baltas Click, born in the Palatinate in Germany in 1699 and died on board the ship Mary of London, in a transatlantic voyage from Rotterdam to Philadelphia in 1732. He would have been buried in the deeps. His wife Catherine (1703-?) was left with four sons: Michael (1721-1814), Jacob (1725-1813), Matthias (1729-1816) and Palser (1725?-1803). On that ship, a brig, as immigrants were 69 men and 122 women and children. The men would have had to sign an oath of allegiance to King George II and to the Proprietor of Pennsylvania (that is, the Penn family). Ironically George II was a native speaker of German (his dynasty came from Hanover, George III being the first to speak English as his native tongue).
Masters of ships were required to keep lists of passengers (now a treasure trove of information). There were rules masters supposedly had to observe, but these migrant ships were profit-making ventures. The Palatinate had been devastated by war with huge population loss—particularly the Thirty Years War and the many wars of Louis XIV—and tens of thousands of Germans from the area ultimately migrated to the colonies [some to New York, some to Ireland—a complicated and sad story—but mostly to Pennsylvania]. Note: The Palatinate was an area along the Rhine once ruled by the Count Palatine, who was one of the seven electors of the Holy Roman Empire—the remnant of the Empire, abolished by Napoleon in 1806, became the Hapsburg lands called Austria-Hungary after the 1860s.
The family would have had to sell everything, travel down the Rhine to Rotterdam, await a ship, then voyage seven weeks or so across the Atlantic, the total time would likely have been four or five months. Were they prosperous enough to pay for passage? Did they travel with a village group that could help one another? I do not know. I do know that a good portion of the Palatines were “Redemptioners,” who were auctioned off on arrival, for a period of time long enough to “redeem” (that is repay) the cost of passage. The Redemptioners were not slaves but more like indentured servants, for four or five years. So Catherine Click and four small sons, how did they do it? Unknown.
What I do know is that they settled in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where many thousands of Germans already had. They would have spoken some German dialect. Not knowing English would not have been a problem. Their name got Anglicized from Click to Cleek. There are about 2,300 Cleeks in the USA now, and so far as I know most or all stem from these four brothers (all of whom seem to have had large families). My ancestor is Jacob Cleek, who as an adult married and migrated down the Great Valley of Virginia, as many thousands did. He married Christina Croddy (1740-1840), and they had ten children. They lived for a time near Natural Bridge (only Virginians will truly appreciate that) and much later, moved to a newly formed county, Bath County (formed 1790).
I don’t know when they learned English, but the sons and daughters intermarried with Scotch-Irish families. The Scots-Irish migrated to the colonies in large numbers from Ireland, where thousands of lowland Scots had been transplanted, to try to Protestant-ize the place (fighting with the Native Catholic Irish had been frequent and gory). These people also included some English “borderers” descended from people living along the border between Scotland and England, for centuries a dangerous and violent frontier. The authorities (in theory, mostly non-violent Quakers) in Pennsylvania brought them to settle on the frontier as some protection from the Indians—wild Irish, wild Indians, same principle. These people would probably have spoken the Scots dialect (closely related to but not the same as English). Tens of thousands migrated down the Great Valley into Virginia and beyond.
Jacob settled in Bath County in 1792 and died there in 1813, at age 88. His wife died there in 1840, at a hundred, both ancient for that era. Bath County is named for the English city of Bath, because of many mineral springs thought to have healing powers, so the place has been a resort for Virginia’s rich for more than 200 years now. It’s rugged territory, incredibly mountainous and…well, it’s the place I dream about when I drift off to sleep, after many summers as a kid on my grandparent’s place just above the Jackson River. (Hold that thought, it’s not just an aside). The other three brothers continued the migration into the northeast corner of Tennessee. Another thought to hold for a moment: Bath County has fewer people in 2017 than it did in 1800.
Jacob fought in the French and Indian War, in the 2nd Virginia regiment in the 1750s. The campaign is where one George Washington won his spurs in battle, and where the French and Indians almost annihilated a British Army at Braddock’s Defeat near what is now Pittsburgh. Veterans were awarded certificates for land, and I think this is pat of what made Jacob prosperous. This is also where the bad stuff starts. In 1796 his household had 6 horses and one slave, whose name I do not know. I’m not sure of what the procedure was, but it relates to taxes for the county. Got that? The list for the old man’s household included horses and slave as main assets. This migrant from the poverty-stricken Palatinate lived to a ripe old age in country he helped take from the Indians, and somehow acquired a slave, perhaps taken from Africa or more likely descended from such a person. A slave, and horses—in my grandfather’s great grandparent’s household. Both were livestock in the eyes of the tax collector. His mortal remains are starting their third century in a cemetery on the side of a hill, where six or seven generations of my ancestors reside. I looked at it recently on Google Earth, a bird’s eye view—the regular rows are a little wobbly but it has something of the flavor of looking at Stonehenge from overhead. Around the edge are some stones that do not have names or dates engraved on them.
Jacob’s son Matthias (1782-1855) prospered. He owned land. He married into a fairly wealthy family, the Crawfords (which has been a middle name for some of the family sons for two centuries now). His wife was Elizabeth Crawford (1787-1852). They had seven children, among them another Jacob Cleek (1827-1900). Her father, Nathan Crawford (1787-1852), was a substantial citizen, but her grandfather, also a Nathan Crawford (1750-1819) was more substantial. It’s finding some details of his 1819 will that I found shocking:
Nathan Crawford dtd Feb 12, 1819. Wit: W. Sitlington, James Hughart and John Hughart
Probated Aug 1819 court Exec: John Lewis of the Cowpasture and son William
–Bequest: To beloved wife Jane “a decent & comfortable living on my plantation in the mansion house” for life, with services of Negro woman Jude, and one-seventh of the personal estate
–To son William, Negro boy Prince until he is 25, then he goes to William’s son Nathan; one-seventh of personal estate
–To son Samuel 150 acres on Spring Creek in Greenbrier Co., Negro boy Lewis, my clock, my cooper’s and carpenter’s tools, and one-seventh of the personal estate and Negro boy Bird
–To son Andrew the home plantation with its appurtenances, Negro boy Adam and one-seventh of the personal estate
—To daughter Elizabeth Negroes Lucy and Lila till they are 25, then they go to her two oldest children, and one-seventh of the personal estate
–To daughter Martha, Negro girl Rachel and boy Jack, a horse, one-seventh of the personal estate, and a “decent subsistence” at home while single
—To Samuel Crawford, son of William, Negro girl Sarah
Got that? To son Samuel, tools, his clock and two slaves. Tools, a clock, and two human beings.
This Nathan Crawford, my grand-6 generations back, in 1819 owned at least eight human beings, a woman Jude, boys Prince, Lewis, Bird, Adam, Jack and girls Rachel, Lucy and Lila, to be distributed among seven heirs. There’s no detail on whether this broke up a slave family, or anything about their condition. Lands were apparently in several places, but these were likely mostly household servants, and “plantation” hardly applies to the mountainous region. It’s likely this man employed a slave or two in his carpenter/ cooper’s trade. It’s also likely that everyone worked on the farms, mostly river bottom lands, with grazing on the slopes. [I deleted one heir not inheriting a slave because of discrepancies in the text]
Matthias Cleek and Elizabeth Crawford Cleek did rather well through inheritance and their own work.
Will of Matthias Cleek dated 31 Mar 1855, proved Sep 1855 Executor: son, William Witnesses: George Gillett, S. A. Porter
Bequests: to sons Samuel C. Cleek and Jacob Cleek – all my lands; they must pay my 2 sons William C. Cleek and Andrew S. Cleek $500 each
to son William C. Cleek – Negro man George
to son Samuel C. Cleek – Negro man Reuben
to son Jacob – Negro boy John and Negro girl Elizabeth
to dau Mary Jane Matheny – Negro woman Emeline and her child William; after her death, they go to her children if she has any, else to her brother and sisters to their heirs
to dau Christina Matheny – 2 good milch cows
balance of property to be sold and proceeds divided equally between my 5 children Andrew, William, Samuel, Jacob, and Mary Jane, except the household and kitchen furniture and farm utensils go first to sons Samuel and Jacob
This shocked me. This is my grandfather’s grandfather. And as I found, three generations of slave owners. My grandfather was a wonderful character, sometime editor of the weekly county newspaper, a man I’ve always thought was like the fictional Atticus Finch. I spent a dozen summers with them, and do not recall single mention of black people. The will mentions two black men, a woman and three children. There’s no indication if a family was broken up. It was quite common in the South for the death of an owner to have slaves scattered among heirs, or sold to pay debts, with no regard for their family ties.
There’s a bit more. Matthias Cleek’s son Jacob Cleek (1827-1900) married Margaret Thompson (1837-1925). He was a passionate Southerner, enlisting in the Confederate army in 1861at age 34. He served in Company K of the 52nd Virginia infantry and later in Company E of the 48th Virginia cavalry. I can’t track his individual service, but his units fought in western Virginia (which became West Virginia in 1863, the mostly Unionist part of the state. The units also fought with Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley (next door to Bath County) and at Gettysburg. On my father’s side of the family, a boy of 17 named Jeffrey Clouse was killed at Gettysburg. There are no family records I have seen, no family stories that I can remember about the war. I have seen photographs of the old couple, stiffly posed, he bearded and stern looking, the stereotype of a patriarch. They had twelve children, including another Jacob Crawford Cleek (1871-1956), my great-grandfather. So I’m a liberal who sees the Confederacy as treasonous, with a Confederate soldier in the attic.
I vividly remember this last mentioned Jacob Cleek. I was small and he was very old but he had a ready laugh. His wife was apparently a prohibitionist, so he had whisky bottles hidden in a number of places off the road. He’d hitch a ride, have the car pull over, walk into a field and reach into a hollow tree for a bottle and a swig. He was hit by a car when he was hitch-hiking, at age 85 (this is for real!).
So, what’s the point I’m trying to make? Aside from my personal shock and liberal’s guilt over discovering at least three generations of slave owners in the family, that is?
Bath County went for Trump, 69%. The county has fewer people in 2017 than it did in 1800. The biggest export is its young people, which is how my mother got to Ohio and brought me onto the scene. With a large and exclusive resort (The Homestead, which has roots going to 1766 or so) there is a constant job base, but not enough to keep people. There are plenty of Cleeks and cousins left, but the ancestral line of mine described here has all the children and grandchildren gone (although some come back to be buried). The county is 91% forested, much of that in the George Washington National Forest (and the Nature Conservancy has 6,000 acres). Hunting tourism is a big deal, with the public schools closed a week each fall for deer hunting season. Golf and fly fishing have been major factors in the resort from more than a century. Warm Springs, the county seat, has 300 people, the country library, the county historical society and such. The biggest center is Hot Springs, with under a thousand, but a touristy downtown. It’s not a place full of stereotyped hillbillies. The county is in some ways rather progressive. They spend in excess of $15,000 per year per student. I check best I can what’s going on there, and there are yoga classes, craft fairs, mountain music festivals, people growing organic crops for sale to restaurants, and some retirees—some of whom are quite wealthy. The high school with 270 students total manages to field quite a number of teams, and home football games are still a big deal.
I do not know why Bath County went for the Confederacy; West Virginia went Union, and the state line is only a few miles away. The county courthouse still has a statue of a Confederate soldier out front, and I can recall a vivid sense of Virginians feeling smugly superior to West Virginians (and to North Carolinians).
OK, so it went for Trump bigly, so what? Point one. Well, here I am, an aging leftist, with some unexpected family baggage. I can condemn racism, but can’t escape the history of slavery in the family. I can condemn the place giving a neo-Fascist clown a landslide, but I can’t escape the fact that those people are still my people. Part of the materials constructing white privilege come from the appropriation of land from the Native peoples, like Jacob Cleek did in the 1750s. Part comes from the prosperity created by the appropriation of slave labor, as at least three generations of my family did. I can attack white privilege but here I am, a lifetime beneficiary of it. In fact a six or seven generation beneficiary of it. There must be many hundreds of Cleeks and relatives scattered all over the nation, who are utterly unaware of this aspect of heritage, yet their privilege stems partly from it. And here we are as a nation, with some unacknowledged national baggage.
Bath County is in my bones and my people’s literal bones, more than two hundred years’ worth of bones, are there. Point two. Typical of Appalachia, the attachment to the place is extremely strong. The attachment to family is also extremely strong. The Jacob Cleek graveyard is still used, as it has been for more than two centuries. Everyone knows or knows of, everybody else, in a place with that few people.
Bath County is entirely rural. A point of wry county pride is that there are no traffic lights in the county (and probably few stop signs). The average age is 48. The unemployment rate is under 4%. The entry in Wikipedia says 92% of the population is white, 6.3% black. Applying percentages to the total population shows 282 black people, 16 Hispanics, 17 Asian and 10 Native American. 27.9% are evangelical Protestant, 23.5% mainline Protestant, 0.7% Catholic and one person is Baha’i. Surprisingly 47.9% are not affiliated with any denomination. Early settlers would have been largely Presbyterian and of many German sects. Point three. Appalachia far more diverse than anti-Trump people like me usually think. People there trust local government, and they are likely to know officials as family or friends. Median household income is $41,276, with 5.8% under the poverty line. This place is not poverty stricken Appalachia, full of inbred hillbillies and moonshine swillers who like to shoot at signs. But it is Appalachia, and we liberals need to be aware that it is a huge area with very wide differences. The county has a Democrat in the Virginia state senate and a Republican in the state house, and has a Republican in Washington.
Point four. Guns have been common and useful there for centuries. Most families have guns, for hunting, and a deer can provide a lot of meals. Hunting tourism is important. My family has hunted for generations. That’s not a comforting thought for an anti-gun liberal like me. But if we’re ever going to get places like Bath County to vote Democrat for a President again, we have to recognize that and be comfortable with it. (The county has gone Democrat for President a few times, for Johnson, Carter twice and Clinton once).
Last points. The Palatine Germans came over in their thousands generally not knowing English and only lightly screened for communicable disease. There was a sort of nominal oath of allegiance. There were no citizenship papers and only some pro forma bureaucratic details—except for those sold as indentured servants to redeem the cost of passage. The tens of thousands of Palatine Germans came as refugees from war and poverty and helped build the country. Seems to me that has some bearing on the present situation of immigrants.
The country they helped build was literally taken at gunpoint from the original owners. The country they helped build was partly constructed by the coerced efforts of the enslaved. The country they helped build is remarkably diverse and entirely innocent of awareness of the complexities of its own history or of the lessons that might hold. Discovering some of that history as I did in this story can be disconcerting but somehow, intriguing. There’s a lot more us to us than we usually think.
Oh, those stones around the edge of the Cleek cemetery? The family story is they mark the graves of slaves. No names or dates, no indication of human-ness. But in death in that mountainside place, all the bones alike have returned to the earth. In the amnesia of the hereafter all have become equal.
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