Monday, June 23, 2008

I Have Roots?

I've never understood the fascination with family history.

I guess that is to be expected, since my mother was raised in an orphanage, and my father pretty much disappeared after my parents divorced, leaving more questions than answers on his side of the family. My stepfather adopted me (hence his O'Neill surname is not really my own), but he passed away 12 years ago, taking any semblance of family with him. Today, my family consists of my mother and myself (and my dog, of course).

Given this muddy family history, it's always seemed prudent to be content not knowing too many details. I knew, for example, that my mother's father was a coal miner in Kentucky, and I'd sometimes trot this factoid out at dinner parties, but otherwise I never gave it much thought. Until recently.

As I might have mentioned in one or two of these blogs, I'm writing a book, and in pursuit of this cause, I've been researching my mother's childhood in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky.

I've discovered, among other things, that she lived in a three room "house" provided by the coal company (they called them coal camps, and shotgun houses) with no electricity or running water—with her parents and six brothers and sisters. That's a lot of people "per room…"

Suddenly I'm enthralled with sites like Kentucky Coal Miners: Where They Worked and Lived, and blogs like Appalachian History. I spent the entire day scrolling through images in the Kentuckiana Digital Library, and reading archived journals with titles like "Mountain Life and Work" from the 1940's.

This, I gather, is what can happen when you are on sabbatical and can free up the space to focus on something other than job, commute, and daily stress.

I've posted a tab on my website titled "My Kentucky Family History" to start highlighting some of the interesting tidbits I'm discovering. Check it out and let me know what you think.


  1. See what happens when you hit the verge of 40? You come up out of the day to day foxhole and realize there's a long view to be had out there. Can't wait to see where your explorations take you. Happy meandering!

    Dave Tabler

  2. My family background is more about sod huts and coming from Germany, it's an interesting background but I like the future better than the past. :) Sheri

  3. I was conceived in Frenchburg, Ky., a small mountain community where my parents had gone after their graduation from Berea College in Berea, Ky., in 1941. My father, the oldest of nine children, had grown up in Frenchburg where my grandfather was the farm manager at a small Presbyterian mission school. His stepmother, from West Chester, Ia., was a teacher at the mission school. After a year at the mission school, my parents followed my grandfather and step grandmother who had gone to Iowa, where I was born in Washington, Ia.