Thursday, July 29, 2004

Uncle Buddy Turner's Long Life

Lewis B. Turner lived a long life in Union County. Born in 1852, he was a child when the War Between the States raged.

In fact, it was his recollections of the hard times during that conflict that one of his favorite stories was based. He liked to tell how he was hanged twice in the same day and survived.

A Home Guard group went to the Turner home in the Dooly District demanding shirts and pants. Lewis’s father stood up to the Home Guard and said to them, “If there’s a gentleman in this group, you will return the clothes.” Their captain, not wanting to be mislabled “dishonest,” commanded his men to return the clothes.

Mr. Turner took them and after the Home Guard left, he hid the clothes in a safe place. Later some of the men came back and demanded of young Lewis Turner that he show then where the clothes were hidden. The lad refused to reveal the hiding place.

For his non-cooperation, they placed a rope about the 10-year old lad’s neck, threw it over a ceiling joist and began to tighten the rope. When he was almost choked to death, the ruffians let the boy down to his feet. Again they questioned him and demanded that he get the pants and shirts for them. He refused and they made a second attempt to hang him. They lowered him again after his adamant response that he would die before he told the secret hiding place of the men’s clothes. Finally the Home Guard went away and let the tough little fellow alone.

The Home Guard was hard on the Turner family because Lewis’s older brother had joined the Union Army. The whole family held Union loyalties. When his brother was attempting to come home on furlough, the Home Guard killed him.

In 1908 when Buddy Turner was 56 years of age, he founded the Lewner post office in the Dooly District. Needing a name for the new post office, he decided to name it for himself by taking the first syllable of his given name and the last syllable of his last name. The new post office was thus named Lewner. It was located about a mile from the Fannin County line alongside Dooly Creek. For thirty-eight years, until March 12, 1937, he was postmaster. He took care of the mail for about 100 families within the radius of the post office. He was succeeded by Miss Zelma Auberry who served for 18 years until the post office was closed February 15, 1955 and the mail was routed through the Loving post office in nearby Fannin County.

Buddy Turner was not one to travel far from his home. He was content to farm his acres and exchange the time of day and talk politics with his post office clientele. But the time came when Uncle Buddy had to go to the big city of Atlanta. It was the time of prohibition and the revenue officers were seeking to find and flush out the illegal whiskey operations hidden in mountain hollows and coves.

Buddy Turner was a witness to a case brought to trial for a man accused of producing moonshine liquor. The trial was held in Federal Court in Atlanta. Uncle Buddy had to go to Atlanta and give testimony. He didn’t tell whether the government or the moonshiner won the case. Life in the big city seemed foreign to the humble postmaster from Lewner, Georgia. He was glad to return to his mountain home following the trial.

Lewis C. “Buddy” Turner lived a life close to the soil. He delighted in seeing his gardens and crops produce well. He knew how to trap and snare animals. He hunted for deer, rabbits, squirrels and wild turkeys to help supplement his family’s farm-grown produce.

When he died August 12, 1949, he had lived though two world wars and could remember every war back to the Civil War that America had fought in. He lived to the ripe age of 96 and was interred in Oak Grove Cemetery in Dooly District not far from the place where he spent most of his life. The Lewner post office he founded continued to operate for over five years after his death. Those who went to Lewner to get their mail and post outgoing mail talked about the life and influence of Uncle Buddy Turner, a true mountain man.

c2004 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published July 29, 2004 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Rev. William Jasper Cotter, 1846

The Rev. William Jasper Cotter was assigned by the Methodist Episcopal Church South to a circuit-riding charge that included twenty preaching stations, with one in North Carolina, one in Tennessee and eighteen in Georgia. From Rev. Cotter’s autobiography finished when he was ninety-three years of age and published posthumously, we learn much of early history of Union and surrounding counties.

Rev. and Mrs. Cotter (her name was Rachel) set out for their Blairsville charge from Walker County, Georgia. He told of “unforeseen difficulties and dangers on the way, rivers to cross and mountains to climb.”

The Cotters had their household goods and personal effects on a wagon drawn by a single horse. At the ford of the Conasauga River, rains had evidently brought the river to near-flood stage. In trying to cross, the horse hesitated but finally got the wagon to the opposite side. The vehicle was full of water. Mrs. Cotter had to spread out their clothing and bedding on bushes to dry before they moved onward.

Taking the best road available, called the Westfield Turnpike, the Cotters moved on across Cohutta Mountain. A jolt from a rock outcropping in the road damaged a wheel. Night was coming on. They sought shelter in a crude cabin with a floor of dirt and puncheon. The woman there received them warmly and provided the best she had of food and a place to lie down. Rev. Cotter remembered that her husband came home drunk at midnight. He wrote later of her,

“The scene of the lone young woman there impressed me as partaking of the morally sublime.”
Seeing that his wagon was beyond repair, and with no machine shop available to assist him, Rev. Cotter went back to the White Path Gold Mine in Gilmer County where he purchased a carry-all. With that vehicle and their faithful horse, they were on their way again. That night they arrived at Morganton, Georgia where they were warmly received into the home of Elijah Webb Chastain, who at that time was a member of the U. S. Congress and was a leading citizen of the area.

They reached Blairsville the next day and were welcomed by a local preacher, the Rev. Thomas M. Hughes, who took the Cotters into his home until they could get their own dwelling outfitted.

A cabin which had not been occupied for some time was secured for the Cotters’ first house at the Blairsville charge. Rent was twelve dollars a year. Since the cabin was in need or reroofing, the owner allowed the first year’s rent to go for roofing, which Rev. Cotter did himself. (At that time, he would have made the roof shingles by riving them from felled trees, splitting the shingles off one by one from sections of the logs cut the same length.) He also rechinked and daubed the house to make it more habitable. Rachel Cotter was able to purchase some feathers and made a feather bed. With the other household goods brought with them, they settled into life at their Blairsville charge. He wrote of their first day in the cabin: “We moved in, took our first meal, established a family altar, and, being tired, a good night’s rest followed.”

The cabin was on two acres of land, and soon the Cotters planted a garden and a patch of corn which did well that first year and helped with their food supply.

It was in that cabin that the Rev. William Jasper and Rachel Cotter’s first child was born, a son whom they named Goudey Halliburton Cotter.

During that first summer of 1846, Rev. Cotter attended Camp Meetings and preached at them. They were at Young Cane, Hot House, Cherokee (in North Carolina), Fighting Town, Gaddistown and Choestoe. Outlaws were prevalent, especially along the state line. He sometimes feared his horse would be stolen and he would be harmed as he traveled. He reported that the camp meetings were attended by great crowds and during that first summer “one hundred and twenty-seven members were added to the church.” About mid-year, an able local preacher, Brother Elrod, was assigned to assist the Rev. Cotter.

He wrote of problems at the Choestoe Camp Meeting in 1846. “Gold mines had just been discovered,” he wrote, “and soon many people were settling in the area where gold was mined. There was no law nor order. Large crowds attended the meeting and gave trouble.”

He told of circulating anonymously among the crowd and hearing vile language and threats. The vigilance committee for the camp meeting had discovered whiskey on the grounds and broken a large jug. Of course, that action did not sit well with the naysayers.

Saturday came, the time for the Quarterly Conference at Choestoe. The Rev. Reneau, who was assigned to Choestoe, could not be there, and so the Rev. Cotter had to preside. The conference proceeded well. Afterwards, Rev. Cotter was left alone in the arbor which sat on a little rise with open glade behind it. He saw seven men walk down the glade and approach the tent. One took a pistol out, fingered it, and put it back in his pocket. The men walked away.

Later, at the time for services, Rev. Cotter saw four of the seven men enter the arbor (tent) and take seats on the slabs toward the back. Rev. A. J. Reynolds was the preacher for that service. His subject, delivered with typical ‘fire and brimstone’ passion, was about the woes that came upon those who desecrated the place of worship. He used as illustrations a desperado in the Revolution who killed a Baptist preacher and cut out his tongue. The perpetrator was found, tried and sentenced to death. He was offered the opportunity to confess and pray before his death, but his tongue could utter no words. Rev. Reynolds proceeded with other examples of people who had not escaped the wrath of God. Rev. Cotter wrote that “The power of the Spirit came upon the congregation. Sixteen were converted that night.” But not the four men who had come to scoff and maybe even to use a hidden pistol. Later, hearing of their demise, Rev. Cotter learned that one of the men was blown up on a steamboat, one was killed by lightning, one was stricken blind, and the fourth perished in a miserable death.

[Source: The Autobiography of the Rev. William Jasper Cotter. Edited by Charles O. Jones, DD. Published in 1917 by the Methodist Episcopal Church South Publishing House. A copy is in the Emory University Library.]

c2004 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published July 29, 2004 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

James Nix Settles in Norwood, Colorado

Young James Nix from Choestoe found work at various trades in the Western states. He rented acreage and farmed. He worked at sawmills in the great forests of Washington state. But he always felt the call back to Colorado. His Uncle Bill Souther and he got jobs with a land surveying group. At first they worked for $1.50 per day, but then the payment advanced to $50.00 per month and $5.00 each per month for two mules. The men and their mules were given “room and board,” albeit the “room” was in whatever encampment the W. H. Wheeler Surveying Company had on their work schedule.

James Nix wrote, “We started out from Placerville to Hastings Mesa, east of Dollar Mountain on Smeck’s Toll Road when we learned of President Garfield’s assassination.” James A. Garfield was shot July 2, 1881 and lived until September 19, 1881. On the La Plata River assignment, the Uncompaghre Ute Indians went through on their move to the Uinta Reservation. The Indian Chief, Ouray, died while the Indians were at the La Plata.

By August 1881 they were surveying the Gurley Reservoir area and Wright’s Spring. The areas they surveyed had only Indian trails and pinyon, cedar and sage flats. It was the “wild west” of broad unexplored, unsettled spaces.

It was about November, 1881 when James and his Uncle Bill Souther went to Disappointment Valley to locate claims they were making. The Disappointment Valley of Colorado, near Norwood, was to play an important role in the Nix and Souther settlements and for others who had migrated there from Choestoe in Union County, Georgia.

Then the uncle and his nephew tried their luck at trapping. They caught bear and other animals and sold the pelts. Winters were severe. Survival skills were in high gear all the time. At one time someone burned Bill Souther’s cabin and all their equipment and supplies for winter were lost.

James Nix’s sisters and mother married, thus relieving James somewhat of their care. His sister Martha Jane Nix married November 2, 1882 to Thomas H. Sullivan. He was another of the Choestoe men who migrated to Colorado. James’s sister Nancy Ann Nix married Alfred Lafayette Sullivan in 1883. James’s widowed mother married William John Bankston at Norwood, Colorado on March 11, 1884. She had been a widow for over nineteen years, having buried her first husband, James’s father, William Nix, who died at Choestoe on March 17, 1864.

James married Ione May Copp, niece of Mr. Henry Copp, on January 2, 1890. James and Ione met when she was visiting her uncle who founded the Norwood, Colorado post office and store. Ione May was from Missouri. They first met in April, 1888. It was love at first sight. James tells how he found many reasons to go to the store and post office after Miss Copp went to Colorado to live with her uncle and aunt. James writes about how he and Miss Copp and nine other young men and ladies took a ride up Baldy to Lone Cone for an outing and picnic. While there, a thunderstorm formed along Naturita Creek far below them. James Nix said it was the second time in his life he had been above a storm to view it. The previous time was before he left Union County in 1873. He and some young men had climbed to the top of Bald Mountain, and far below them, in Choestoe Valley, lightning flashed, thunder rolled and rain pelted, but on the mountain the sun was still shining.

James Nix built a two-room cabin for his bride at Norwood. It had a dirt roof and sod floor. Through the sagebrush, he dug down twenty feet into the soil to find water for a well. He worked for the Naturita Canal and Reservoir Company. James wrote that as their means increased, they built onto the original two-room cabin, made it into a large two story house, and added two rooms on the west. There nine children were born to them. Five lived to adulthood, but four died in infancy.

When James Nix died at the age of 88 on March 2, 1947, the Norwood Star wrote of him:

“Mr. Nix was one of the few remaining pioneers of Wright’s Mesa. He helped to settle a wonderful section of the west. His life, spent mostly in Colorado in the early days of struggle for survival of the fittest, stands as a monument to the ‘Carving of the West."
Those who read James Nix’s memoirs are inspired by the courage of a Georgia mountain woman who had a vision of a better life for her children, and especially of a son in his early teens when they left Union County who shouldered responsibilities for himself, his mother and his two sisters in a strange and daunting land.

c2004 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published July 22, 2004 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Young James Nix Settles Into Life in Colorado

Elizabeth Souther Nix Bankston (1834-1924) was the fifth child of John Souther and Mary "Polly" Combs Souther. As a widow, she traveled from Choestoe to Colorado in 1873 and settled there with her son James and daughters Martha Jane and Nancy Ann. Her brother, William Souther (right) was already in Colorado. On March 11, 1884, Elizabeth married John Bankston of Norwood, Colorado.

Elizabeth Souther Nix left Choestoe, Union County, on March 24, 1873. The widow of William Nix (1837-1864), she anticipated that a better life lay ahead in Colorado for her and her three children, James, almost 14, Martha Jane, 12, and Nancy Ann, 10. Her brother, William Souther, was already in Colorado, and he no doubt influenced Elizabeth to move west to what they considered the land of promise.

A record of the journey was made in the form of memoirs from James Nix who saw the move as a great adventure. Last week’s column covered their journey by wagon from Choestoe to Cleveland, Tennessee, and westward by train from Tennessee to Colorado, including their itinerary and the wonders James and his family saw along the route.

When they arrived in Denver, Colorado on April 8, 1873, only fifteen days after they had departed Choestoe, they received a cold welcome. Three to four inches of snow was on the ground. Seeing it spread across the prairie with herds of buffalo running in it was “a wonder” to the young lad. The story continues:

James Nix recounts how they took the narrow gauge D & R G train from Denver to Pueblo, Colorado. “It looked like a toy train,” he wrote. At Pueblo they hired mule teams and wagons and “pulled south to Apache Creek” where they camped for two days. From there they went northward to Muddy Creek to join other members of the Souther family. James got a job working at what he called a “mixture of ranching, sawmilling, and cowpunching.” His work brought the lad, the main breadwinner for the family of four, fifty cents a day and a soddy for them to live in. There they remained until about January of 1876.

The family’s next move was to St. Charles, Colorado, eight miles southwest of Pueblo. He hired out as a work hand on a farm there. They were at St. Charles when the Custer Massacre took place in the Black Hills on June 25, 1876. He noted in his memoirs, “Those were exciting times.”

The Atkinson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad extended its line to Pueblo, Colorado in March of 1876. Instead of the dinky line the family had taken three years previously from Denver when they arrived in Colorado, James wrote: “Now it seemed that Pueblo was connected to the world by a real railroad.”

The grasshoppers descended on the crops in late summer, 1876 and did so much damage that the farmers were greatly discouraged. His mother, by that time, had been able to purchase the land they lived on. But with the loss of crops from grasshoppers, they made the decision to move to “sunny Kansas.” With their team and wagon and sparse household goods, James, his mother and two sisters went down to the Arkansas River, to Los Animas, Granada, Fort Dodge, Great Bend, Hutchinson, Wichita, and Union Center. There a heavy snowstorm overtook them. He does not explain how they kept from freezing as they camped out in the storm, but they survived. After the storm abated, James looked for work. The family only had $5.00 remaining of the money they had when they left Colorado. He wrote, “We started out one afternoon after the storm lifted, hoping and praying to find work. But prospects looked dim.”

They came in sight of a nice two-story farmhouse at the Elk River. James asked the owner for permission for his family to camp by the river. Seeing that there were womenfolk in the wagon, the kind man invited them to the house where they were fed. They brought their sleeping rolls from the wagon and bedded down that night in the front room of the farmhouse. The next morning, the man, whom James calls only “Mr. Fred”, asked James and his family to remain and assist him with the rest of the corn gathering and husking. He even allowed the Nix family to live in his old house which Mr. Fred was then using as a place to store the gathered corn. They quickly moved the corn to a shed, cleaned out the house, and settled into it. James notes, “This was a bonanza. The house had a fireplace. You seldom saw a chimney on a house in Kansas in those days. Mr. Fred offered me fifty cents a day to help him with his corn crop.” When the corn was finished, he employed James to herd cattle, using one of the Souther horses.

In the spring of 1877, James rented eight acres from Mr. Fred down in Corley County, thirty miles south of where they had wintered.

But the summer of 1877 brought ague and fever to James and his sister Martha Jane. James recovered well, but his sister remained weak. He took her by wagon to Benton County, Arkansas where they bought a load of apples. They peddled the apples along the route back home and made more than enough money to cover their trip. The change of venue and the adventure of that trip helped Martha Jane get over her depression from the severe fever.

In the spring of 1878, James rented acreage from Isaac Todd. John Thomas, another Georgia transplant to the west, rented Mr. Fred’s acreage. It was in the summer of 1878 that his mother received $50.00 from Georgia (probably on sale of some of her land there). They bought cattle with the money and were successful with the crops that summer in Kansas.

“Uncle Bill Souther, my mother’s brother, came to visit us in the fall of 1878 and stayed over the winter. In May, 1879, we sold out what we had and started for the state of Washington,” James wrote. As they made their way westward again, they retraced the route through Wichita, Kansas and on to Pueblo, Colorado. They went up into the Greenhorn Mountains to visit relatives, James’s uncles, Bill Sullivan and John Thomas. These kin had gone west from Choestoe after the Civil War.

Elizabeth Souther was evidently not afraid of work. Nor was her son, James. By May, 1879, he was twenty years old. Since age 14 when his mother, two younger sisters and he had arrived in Colorado, he had been the major breadwinner for the family.

c2004 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published July 15, 2004 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 8, 2004

A Trip West in 1873 - From the Memoirs of James Nix

James William Nix pictured in 1881,
8 years after he left Georgia for Colorado.
Pictured beside him is his fiancée, Iona May Copp.
The couple married January 2, 1890 in Norwood, Colorado

Elizabeth Souther Nix had the spirit and determination of a true pioneer. She set out from Choestoe District; Union County, Georgia on March 24, 1873, nine years after her young husband, William Nix (1837-1864) died and was laid to rest in Old Choestoe Cemetery. That cemetery also contained the grave of her second born child, John B. Nix (1860-1862).

In her research of what we call “the western Southers,” Diana Lee Greagar found an invaluable document that lends much light on a young widow’s trip with three young children as they migrated west. The account is in the form of memoirs written by Elizabeth and William Nix’s eldest son, James, who was born December 26, 1859 in Choestoe and died in Boise, Idaho March 2, 1947. James was not quite fourteen when he, his mother Elizabeth, and his sisters, Martha Jane (1861-1949) and Nancy Ann (1863-1899?) left Choestoe going west.

Elizabeth Souther and her three children were in the company of others from Choestoe who were likewise heading west. Her brother, William “Bill” Souther had already gone west to Colorado. Evidently his letters home had put a spark of hope in his sister’s heart. Nine years after her husband William’s death, Elizabeth looked at the mountains surrounding the small farm on Choestoe where she had tried to eke out a living for herself and her three children since Will’s untimely death. Unknown lands beyond familiar hills and valleys seemed to beckon her. She hoped there was a better way to make a living than her small farm on Choestoe afforded.

Jim wrote in his memoirs: “Father and Mother lived on Town Creek in Choestoe District on a high knoll or ridge overlooking a small valley where brother and sisters and I were all born and where I put in my happiest childhood days. Our school house and church when we left that part of the country was named Liberty.”

James Nix had recollections of the Civil War as it affected Choestoe. He mentioned the “rallies” and the “mustering days” when able-bodied men volunteered for service, or, if opposed to joining with the Confederate forces, either hid out in the mountains to escape service or, if aligning with the North, went to Tennessee where they joined the Federal Army. Jim Nix does not write whether his father lost his life due to the war or through natural causes in 1864. James also remembered what he called “the miserable pilfering parties” that robbed Choestoe homesteads. “The Union Army ran them out near the end of the war,” James wrote.

The Nix family loaded their wagon with enough provisions to get them from Choestoe to Cleveland, Tennessee, several days journey over the narrow road along the Ocoee River Gorge then used to transport copper ore from the mines around Ducktown and Copperhill, Tennessee to the railroad in Cleveland. Since others from Choestoe were in the wagon train (unfortunately Jim does not name the other families in his memoirs), Elizabeth and her three children had some protection as they camped along the way.

In Cleveland, they “stayed for a few days,” (still camping out in the wagons) where they dickered with the railroad for fares west to Colorado. James wrote, “Finally, the different families, consisting of quite a number, got them down to $35 dollars a ticket and baggage free.” Think how long Elizabeth Souther Nix must have saved up to have that amount of money in 1873 for herself and three children to go west. Being an enterprising woman, she no doubt found a place in Cleveland to sell her mule team and wagon to add a little more cash for the journey west.

James Nix gives their itinerary from Cleveland, Tennessee: “We took the train for Colorado by way of Chattanooga, Tennessee, Mobile, Alabama, and Corinth, Mississippi where we lay over for a few days.” Layovers meant more outlay of cash for the young widow and her three children. They would have found lodging in a boarding house or hotel of that day. Meals would have been another cost, for it is not likely that Elizabeth would have had a means of preparing food for them. At Corinth they did some sightseeing. He wrote, “We looked over the breast works thrown up in the Civil War.”

Next on the rail stop was Union City, Tennessee and then on to Columbus, Kentucky. There they had to cross the mighty Mississippi River by boat, which ferried the railroad coaches across. Although James Nix writes only matter-of-factly about this experience, we can imagine the excitement felt by a fourteen year old lad and his sisters, Martha Jane, 12, and Nancy Ann, 10, as they saw the great river from the windows of their railroad coach as the ferry laboriously edged to the western bank of the Mississippi.

“Then we took the Iron Mountain to St. Louis, Missouri, where we stayed a day and looked it over, such as the piers and abutments of the Eads Bridge (to be),” he wrote. The Eads Bridge was under construction in 1873. James continues, “But only the telephone wire was stretched across it at that time, and that was a wonder to me.” He had not known telephones in Choestoe Valley in his childhood. Certainly that technological advancement would have been “a wonder” to the curious lad from Choestoe.

From St. Louis the next major stop was Kansas City. They had taken the Wabash Railroad. The Missouri River had risen from the spring rains and melting snow and a washout had occurred. The people, livestock and baggage had to be transferred from the train. “We finally got to Kansas City, Kansas,” he wrote, “and laid over again.” He wrote about “the main interest there” being a prairie dog on a chain used to entertain passengers. The animal could burrow under the side of the platform and was a diversion for travel-weary passengers, especially the children.

“We left Kansas City, as I recall, about ten at night over the Kansas-Pacific Railroad for Denver, Colorado. We traveled that night, the next day, and night.”

They arrived at the Denver, Colorado rail depot about 9:00 a. m. on April 7, 1873. Since March 24, when they had left Choestoe, the Nix family had been traveling fifteen days, not a bad record for that time. “It snowed about four inches the night we got to Denver,” James wrote. “After daylight we could see buffalo running across the rolling prairies from our train, which was a wonder to me.”

[To be continued.]

c2004 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published July 8, 2004 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 1, 2004

That Spirit of Independence of Our Forebears

July 4 is all about celebrating America’s independence from England. We read anew how the fathers of our country met in Philadelphia and poured over the terms of The Declaration of Independence drafted by Virginia’s representative to the Continental Congress, Thomas Jefferson, then aged 33 and among the youngest of the delegates. That paper is a highly valued document and one that still inspires present-day patriots to appreciate the spirit of independence that is a trademark of American democracy.

We note July 4 as the birthday of the Declaration of Independence. Actually, it was on July 2, 1776 that this resolution was adopted in the Continental Congress: “These United Colonies are, and of right, ought to be Free and Independent States…absolved of all allegiance to the British Crown.”

After review and some changes, the final version of the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress. Yet only two men actually signed it on the famed date, July 4, 1776. These were John Hancock, president of Congress, and Charles Thomson, secretary.

The Declaration was read publicly on July 8, 1776 in Philadelphia. Washington’s troops, then in New York, heard the document read on July 9.

Except for Hancock and Thomson, the remainder of the fifty-six signers added their signatures to the document on August 2, 1776. Great measures were taken to keep the identities of the signers a secret to prevent their arrest and even death at the hands of the British and the American Loyalists.

Life was not easy for those who pledged “their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor” because they believed in freedom. Several of the signers were chased from farms and homes and had their property confiscated. Other signers, along with their spouses, were imprisoned. John Martin of Pennsylvania died from mental anguish when former friends shunned him. Francis Lewis’s wife died in prison.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, a medical doctor and social reformer and one of the signers wrote in a letter to fellow signer John Adams: “The 4th of July has been celebrated in Philadelphia in the manner I expected…Scarcely a word was said of the solitude and labors and fears and sorrows and sleepless nights of the men who projected, proposed, defended, and subscribed the Declaration of Independence. Do you recollect your memorable speech upon the day on which the vote was taken? Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants? The silence and the gloom of the morning were interrupted, I well recollect, only for a moment by Colonel (Benjamin) Harrison of Virginia who said to Mr. (Elbridge) Gerry at the table: ‘I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.’ This speech procured a transient smile, but it was soon succeeded by the solemnity with which the whole business was conducted…Let us, my dear friend, console ourselves for the unsuccessful efforts of our lives to serve our fellow creatures by recollecting that we have aimed well.”*

We sometimes fail to relate the events of history to time lines in the history of our county and the state of Georgia. Union County was formed in 1832. America’s freedom had been declared only fifty-six years before. Westward expansion had sent aspiring men with a pioneering spirit to the American frontier to settle. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” meant freedom from cities that were becoming crowded to places where family farms could be carved from the wilderness. On new lands people could exercise their bent for independence and make their own niche in the annals of history. Many of us can trace our roots back to some of the citizens who were in Union County when it was formed. Our forebears, almost as much as the signers of the Declaration of Independence, were fired with the spirit of freedom and saw it available for the taking in lands opened up for settlement. Life was not easy. They faced the unknown and hard work. But then, is independence ever easy? Is freedom ever free?

On this 4th of July, it is a good time to remember and be thankful for our legacy of independence. Jefferson believed that given the right reasons, people could govern themselves and that educated citizens could and would safeguard democracy. These tenets are as important today as they were in 1776.

[*The letter of Dr. Benjamin Rush to John Adams is cited from David Colbert’s Eyewitness to America (New York: Pantheon Books, 1997), p. 84.]

c2004 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published July 1, 2004 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.