Somewhere nearby a baby is crying. A dog barks and the calls of birds ring out, rousing you gently from sleep just before the horn is sounded and dawn breaks over the valley. You rise, easing your old bones from the hard surface of the wagon, and begin your morning ablutions in silence as you contemplate the day before you, for it is the day that you are leaving the only home you’ve ever known, the home where you were married, where your children were born, where your husband is buried. Breakfast eaten, sermon rendered; hundreds of people quietly climb into their wagons and take their first steps towards Kentucky and religious freedom. Only the lone voice of a woman softly singing above the clatter of hooves and clank of harnesses can be heard.
The roads that you travel aren’t paved like the ones your descendants follow today, they’re rough and covered in stones and logs, and full of holes, dust, and often mud. You’re following the buffalo trace, the game trails carved out by the animals as they roamed the land from salt lick to grass and back, for thousands of years. Man also uses them now too, Indians as well as settlers. The journey is treacherous and fraught with threats– sometimes real, sometimes rumored– of Indian attacks. During the day, you are hot and tired. At night, you’re cold and tired and all of your bones and muscles ache.
At one point, the trail has narrowed and almost all belongings are abandoned, even the wagons, for now you must walk single-file, through the wilderness toward your destination. Your sons fashion tents for you and your family to sleep in at night, and sometimes you cradle one of your grandchildren in your arms, breathing in their sweet baby scent, dreaming of home and a place that is full of laughter and family and a hearth where you can rest your tired feet. When you’re sick, you’re without luxury or convenience of lying down, for you must carry on. Only the weakest and dying are borne on a litter, some of them left behind in a lonely grave, blessed by one of the many preachers in your caravan.
Several months have gone by, and the day of your arrival has come at last. You see your first images of Frankfort, take in the lush, verdant green of the land, the river that flows and swells so gently, and the deer that pause timidly in the distance, watching you as if to say, “Welcome,” before leaping away into the trees. You close your eyes and recall the last time you saw your home back in Virginia, its tall elegant doors shuttered tight as the wagon swayed over ruts and rocks, carrying you away forever, and you open your eyes again, feeling something blossom in your chest and you know that this place too can be home.
The imagined account above is based on information about my 6th great-grandmother, *Mildred Head Edwards (wife of*Uriah, of the Edwards Inheritance infamy). In 1781, she was rumored to have traveled with her sons and daughters into the strange and unknown territory of Kentucky, which was yet to be a state. This information, although still unverified, does seem like a possible explanation as to how Mildred and her family ended up there. Unfortunately, it appears that her husband, Uriah, was already deceased by the time the family left their home.
Mildred was from Spotsylvania County, Virginia, a place known for being the point of origin from which a group of 500-600 Baptists left to find freedom from religious persecution by the Church of England. This congregation of believers became known as the “Travelling Church” and was led mainly by the Craig brothers, Elijah and Lewis, who were both ministers, toward the fertile bluegrass region. So many ministers traveled into this territory at this time, that Kentucky was called “the vortex of Baptist preachers”. As the actual dates are unclear, it is possible that Mildred and her family came over at a later period since there were other groups of a similar persuasion who also made the trek to the same location. Whatever the case, Mildred spent the rest of her life in Kentucky and died there at the age of 88.
As I’ve conducted research on my ancestors from Kentucky and Virginia, I’ve noticed that the same families and surnames keep appearing between the two states and periods of time. In the Chambers file at the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort, I saw a handwritten note about my 6th great-grandparents, *Thomas and Rachel (Chisholm) Chambers. It mentioned that they were from Spotsylvania County and that Thomas was a preacher, although on this detail, it appears to be incorrect, as it claims he was an Episcopalian, while another record states that he was not only a Baptist, but a minister imprisoned alongside Elijah Craig on July 28, 1768. Unlike Mildred, it seems that Thomas never made the move to Kentucky, however, some of his children did. His son, Abraham Chambers, arrived there sometime after 1790, and went on to establish a prosperous farm about 4 miles west of Frankfort. It stands to reason that if Abraham’s father was a Baptist preacher in and around Spotsylvania County, that Abraham would have been drawn to Kentucky for the same reasons as those of the Travelling Church.
I later saw that yet another 6th great-grandfather, *William Hawkins, signed the Ten-Thousand Name Petition, which campaigned in support of separation of church and state. Many Baptists felt this was a necessary step to take in order to secure the right to practice their religion without constraint or persecution by the Anglican church, which not only incarcerated them for preaching and disseminating their beliefs, but obligated them to pay taxes directly to the Church of England itself. Baptists were regularly abused– being ducked under water, pelted with apples and rocks, bludgeoned, and whipped, to name but a few indignities. Fellow Virginians, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, took up the Separatists’ cause, fighting for religious freedom and eventually ratifying the Bill Of Rights in 1791 with a religious liberty clause.
Now I’m not a religious person, but I’m very proud of my ancestors who suffered at the hands of their persecutors, fought for their rights, sought their freedom, and were eventually instrumental in creating religious liberties for everyone in this country. After all, it’s the American way.
(*note how all of these people were of the same generation and came from roughly the same place)