Fresh Eyes: Ancient ancestry

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Allenby Allen Broach

A few months ago my cousin said he wanted to have a Smith family reunion at one of the family’s former plantations, Vesuvius in Iron Station over in Lincoln County. It was just about 5,000 acres and one of the first iron foundries in North Carolina. Other than growing wheat and cotton on a large scale, they produced enough vegetables, fruit, chickens and beef to feed more than 60 people who lived on and operated the plantation. There was also a water-powered grist mill, a tannery and a sawmill. They made their own furniture and shoes. My great-great-grandfather, James Madison Smith, owned the plantation from the mid-1800s.  My great-grandfather, James Franklin Smith, sold it in 1904 and moved to Denver, NC, when the iron ore was nearly mined out.

When I was a child, my grandfather George Franklin Smith would often take me to Vesuvius. We would walk around the house and where the old furnace was and he would tell me about living there as a child and for several years after he married my grandmother, Nettie Howard King.

During the Civil War, when the Union soldiers came to Vesuvius, also known as the Furnace, they ransacked the place. Madison Smith’s life had been threatened because he was furnishing supplies and cannonballs to the Confederate army. When he heard that the soldiers were coming he hid in a shuck pen not very far from the plantation. Hettie, his wife, carried food to him as often as she could get away from the soldiers. They took over the whole plantation and stayed for a week. The officers stayed in the house. The soldiers took canned food. When they left they took a wagon of preserved meats, along with lots of other food. My great-grandfather, Frank Smith, 9 at the time, was crying when the soldiers arrived. When they asked him why, he told them that he was afraid they were going to take his horse that he had hidden up in the swamp. Of course, they took his horse and another 16 mules.

My grandmother was born on the second-largest plantation in the county. The community now known as Denver was called Dry Pond until 1873. Her father, James Allen King, whom I was named for, was born in 1863 and lived until 1952. Though I was young, I remember him well. It is strange to me to think that I knew a relative who was born during the Civil War. His father left for the war before he was born and died of typhoid a few months after, never seeing his only son.

I have had a tin box with old family papers for more than 20 years and had never looked at them until a few of weeks ago. Most were land transfers. The oldest one that I found was from 1787 and the transfer amounts were in pounds and shillings. There was my great-great-great-grandfather’s will, but the most intriguing were a number of letters from my great-grandmother’s brother William Howard from the battlefields throughout the South.

The letters were written in 1864-65. One side of the letter would be from my great-great-grandmother’s father, William Howard, and the other side was a returned letter from her brother. His unit was called the Dry Pond Dixies, credited with going the farthest to the front at Gettysburg. They suffered great casualties: 77 killed, 114 wounded and 206 captured. The letters back and forth told of the tough times and of the battles.

Aug. 8, 1864, Camp Near Maekfan Bluff Md.

Dear Father, I seat my self this morning to drop you a line. I am glad to her that you was all well. There was fighting at Petersburg on Saturday the 30th of July the Yankees turned under the ground and blode up A portion of hour breastworks. That was a ugly time. Father, you said something A Bout joining the cavalry Father I think it might be well if you are at home you no better than I do you must do for my family as you would for yourself.

Dear Mother, I feel to thank the lord that I am still in the land of the living. I am trying to live so as to get to heaven. Pray for me I do prey for my dear parents that when we all leave this world we ma meete in heaven.

My dear sister Milly, the lord is her for I no when I prey the lord hers mi preys and I feel Blest prey for me cis [kiss] Allen for me the lord bles and save him from sin.

I am in the hospittel for the hospittelis as good as the lines her father ther is sheling and scrumishing all the time her day and night.

Aug. 28 1864 Camp Near Petersburg, Md.

I seat mi self to drop you a few lines to let you no that I am well this morning. The times is stiring her now we have made new breastworks A Round Petersburg father out from the sitty and putting up forts. We had A fight the 25 on the rail rode towards Weldon some 12 or 15 miles from Petersburg on the rail rode they had good works we had them to charge. We drove them from their works we had too kild in our co and 4 wonded.  Father I was shuet on the left sholder but did not hurt me much it was a hand to hand fite. Some says as hard as has bin during the war. The yankeys trid to retake the works but could not. Father I have bin in 3 fight one the 28 of July then 24 and 25 of Augst. The lord has a hand on me so far we have bin living in line of Battle for 20 days.

WG Howard lived to return to Denver.

I have tracked the family back through Google to the real ancestors — all the way back to 1524 in England. My family history goes almost as far back as it gets in the US; The first Broach came to America in 1746. Both families have fought in every war since the American Revolution until Desert Storm. We have served this country proudly.

And in these ancient letters, my family found another piece of our shared history.