On my supposed isolationist “hillbilly” roots: the Nicholson family in Madison County, Va., part 3

Posted on November 13, 2011 by


Sorry for the delay… busy week.

O.K., where was I? Oh, yes…

First, I need to say, this has been a very fluid set of posts, and all are subject to modification at this point (the beauty of blogs… they aren’t really “set-hard in ink”). I started off writing this with an idea of where I might go, but, the further I dug into the content, I wasn’t so sure. I’ve come to realize, there’s a bigger story here than what I can really capture in a series of posts… and more than I would really want to try to capture in a blog. Still, I need to finish my “walk” down this trail, as far as I can take it, given the short amount of time and space…

In the wake of re-reading Pollock’s impression of the Nicholson family, I remained skeptical of what he wrote. I didn’t necessarily doubt the truthfulness, but I do wonder if the story was something that he wrote about immediately after, or in years after. I’ve also often wondered if he was being honest in his representation of the family… after all, I have those letters, poetry, and multiplication tables that suggest something else. Granted, my branch of the family had moved from Madison, across the mountain, just under the western slopes of the Blue Ridge, but my third great grandfather, Garnett, remained back in the hollow, along with the bulk of the family. Were they really as “backwoodsy” as Pollock portrayed?

A glimpse, east, into the hollows around the Hughes River. Photo taken from the Skyline Drive, near Hughes River Gap.

My suspicion isn’t baseless, especially when considering what appears to be Pollock’s long-term intent… or was it a developed intent over time? In either case, what you read in that account is part of the beginning of the end for the people who were later relocated (recalling a recent post, I could interject more, here, from that episode from the Waltons… “The Conflict”… but that might complicate things, and make this overly bulky. Watch it, if you can, and then revisit this story, to see how it compares), to make way for the Shenandoah National Park. Understand, however, it’s not that I don’t have an appreciation for the SNP… in fact, I love the place… but I find the beginnings rather shady. Consider this passage, on the second page of Pollock’s book, Skyland

… it was that my father, George H. Pollock, told me about the 5,371 acre Stony Man Mountain Tract in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia… My father told me that he understands that native “mountaineers,” other “squatters” and Shenandoah Valley residents were helping themselves and selling to the tanneries of Luray and Sperryville large quantities of chestnut and oak tanbark from the Stony Man Tract. Finally, although the [copper] mine was worthless, my father suggested that the Tract might furnish excellent hunting and a visit to it on one of my collecting expeditions might be productive of financial returns.

Now, granted, Pollock’s work toward making the area a national park took time, but, I can’t help but wonder about all that he had in the back of his mind, in each and everything he did, in relation to the land, and the people there. As for the Nicholsons, following Pollock’s initial encounter with Aaron, in 1887, he doesn’t mention him again, until the fall of 1894.

Having set up a successful camp, over the years, Pollock, by this time, felt threatened by those who might “wrest” from him, the title of the Stony Man Tract. In fact, there were others, from outside the area, who were making claims on the land. Still, I clearly recall the division of the land, purchased (it appears) legally, in the 1790s, by the progenitor of the family, RevWar vet John Nicholson (remember part 1 of this series?). Who had real rights to the land?

At one point, Pollock offers the following, when challenged by a Judge Blakey, as to ownership…

Then I continued: “The only other person that I know of who pretends [cenantua’s note: take care in recognizing how Pollock used this word, suggesting that even he does not honor Aaron Nicholson’s claim on the land] to have claim on the property is Old Man Aaron Nicholson, the king of the squatters in this region. To really see the best portion of the Stony Man Tract, you will have to go down to where he lives in Nicholson Hollow and if you so desire, I will let my caretaker go along as a guide.”

The men then drew aside for a conference, saying nothing about coming into my building and seeming quite disturbed. At last, however, they started for Nicholson Hollow.

When they arrived there, Old Man Aaron asked the nature of their business and Judge Blakey spoke up: “Mr. Nicholson, I am showing these gentlemen the Stony Man Tract. They are thinking of purchasing it.” Then pausing, Judge Blakey said: “Who do you consider to be the owner of this land around here?”

Old Man Aaron’s face grew red with rage. By this time his three sons who loved in nearby cabins had joined him and thus backed, Aaron roared: “They hain’t no chance of you gettin’ any property here. This land belongs to me, as fur as you can see from peak to peak. [cenantua’s note: I think Aaron exceeded the limits of his real ownership in suggesting the “from peak to peak” thing, but…] It’s all mine!”

Judge Blakey then asked Old Man Aaron how he got title and the bellowed reply was: “I chopped the line around it myself, well nigh fifty years ago!”

Judge Blakey and his friends retired briskly, went home, and one week later Judge Blakey died from a severe case of pneumonia which he had contracted on the trip.

There’s really nothing further regarding exchanges with Aaron Nicholson, but Pollock does, at various points, mention the Nicholson family… even calling them intelligent… and yet, goes on to mention how he helped to establish a school in the hollow, for the benefit of the otherwise uneducated children there.

Enter the story of how Miriam Sizer came into the picture. Hired by Pollock to educate the children of the area, Sizer eventually brought in two sociologists who ended up asking her to study her students more carefully, and submit a report. This report remains rather controversial. Not only did it reek of the typical stereotypes of mountain people, but it also helped those who needed to justify the relocation of families, in the name of creating the national park. Today, as part of the Shenandoah National Park’s exhibit at Big Meadows, this is discussed further.

Close-up of the display panel in the exhibit at Big Meadows Visitor Center, further describing Sizer and her controversial report

Mandel Sherman, one of the sociologists who had tasked Sizer with writing the report, was responsible for the book, Hollow Folk, which was instrumental in justifying the relocation of the families…

One of the Park Service's displays suggesting evidence that Sizer, Sherman, and the book weren't exactly truthful...

The voices of those who knew better... those who would be impacted. These two pieces are also on a panel within the Big Meadows Visitor Center, and both were written by Nicholson family members...

While some, such as Russ Nicholson, son of Aaron, were given life-rights to properties, the Franklin Roosevelt Administration (the third and last administration that was involved in bringing about the park) finally put an end to the uncertainty for families… relocation became a reality. The Administration created seven communities for relocation… one of them being Ida, near where my Nicholson (the James Jordan Nicholson family) line had already relocated, some 50 years before.

Russ Nicholson, in 1935

A grandson of Aaron Nicholson, John T. Nicholson… son of Russ… wrote a poem about the relocation, in an effort to describe his 73-year-old father’s heartbreak at the thought. The 28-stanza dirge was published in the June 1, 1934, edition of a local newspaper, the Madison County Eagle. An article later written, in 1997 (the article was, it seems, titled appropriately… “Appalachian Trail of Tears“), described the piece such… “If it hardly qualifies as a work of art, the lamentation has a melancholy that Wordsworth, the great elegist of 18th-century rural England, would have recognized”:

In the old mountain home,

For six months more,

Where then shall I go,

Down in the valley,

To perish and to die.

It must be awful, you know,

Some who left, wept and mourned,

And said in words so sad,

I would rather go to my grave

Than to leave my mountain home.

Sad the thought to leave

A garden spot of paradise,

When one is old and feeble,

And cannot work any more,

Life will not be worth living,

When planted in the valley,

Where everything is different,

To the seeing and the hearing.

Now when the angels come

To take my soul to rest,

Hope they will find it in the park.

Then the old will be out of the way

While the park is progressing,

When the people out of the cities

Come to see the beauties of the park.

As it so happens, further evidence of wrongful stereotyping surfaced in the archeological digs conducted in the latter 1990s, following a forest fire that cleared much of the old hollows. While Pollock mentioned that the Aaron Nicholson family was unfamiliar with cameras, artifacts dug in the hollows indicate that the families there were exposed to more than Pollock realized… or, was it that they were exposed to more after Pollock’s initial contact in 1887? I think the latter, but, keep in mind that justification for removal took place in the early 1930s. At the time of relocation, were the families, in fact, being modernized, and was relocation, in the name of better lives, at that point, really necessary, or was it simply to complete the process to make the national park possible?

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation partnered with the National Park Service in the archeological digs. These artifacts were found in Corbin, Nicholson , and Weakley hollows, and demonstrate more exposure to the outside world than taken into account by Sizer... and yes, that is a ray gun that you see in the case on the left. At the end of this post, please take the time to follow links to two articles by Audrey J. Horning, who was a major contributor to more recent knowledge of the hollows, in the wake of the archeological digs.

I suppose I’ve strayed a bit from the title of these posts, and need to return to the question… do I have “hillbilly” roots? Primitive? Yes, I suppose to some degree, but compared to what? To that with which Pollock was familiar? I’m sure. After all, he had grown-up in the suburbs of Boston, and had gone to school at the Allen Brothers’ English and Classical School, in West Newton, Massachusetts. In fact, he had even called Luray, Virginia… the county seat of Page… a “very primitive and undeveloped” town. To him, I’m sure the Nicholson family was backwards… although he also referred to them as “intelligent”… I suppose that was when compared to those later referred to as the “poster children” of the stereotype that did, indeed, live in the Hughes River hollows. Isolationist? Perhaps, but maybe because they didn’t need the outside world, and learned to become happy with their own self-sufficiency.

In reflection on these people of the mountains and hollows, I’m quite pleased to have such roots. While some scramble to find ancestral connections to people of fame and high refinement, to me, these people are just as significant, if not, in fact, more accomplished. They add a spirit of character that not everyone appreciates. They cut out a living from what, to some, may have seemed the impossible… and, from the way I understand it, a better one than that portrayed by people like Pollock and Sizer. While their graves, in both the hollows of Madison and Page, are marked with nothing more than field stones, I don’t believe this a reflection of who they were, and what they did in life… but then again, maybe it does. Maybe it was a lack of funds to purchase stones, but, perhaps it is also a reflection of an unpretentious nature. They learned what they needed to know, in schools and on the rocky fields that made up their farms, and they survived, living what appears to have been a good life among kin and friends.

The James Jordan Nicholson family... JJN was the son of Garnett, and a nephew of the Aaron Nicholson with whom Pollock spoke. Neither James, nor his wife, Polly, have headstones to mark their graves, but... their ability to express themselves, in poetry, such as the piece shown below

The first page from a poem honoring Sudie Victoria Nicholson, one of James Jordan Nicholson's daughter. She died in 1897, just months after turning eighteen. One of her siblings wrote this, perhaps my great grandmother.

Further suggested reading: “Mountain Settlements” and “The Displaced“, by Audrey J. Horning (also, the book, In the Shadow of Ragged Mountain).