The Pot of Gold

Gold – it has the power to thrill or to kill.  Men have lost families, lives and all trace of common sense in the pursuit of this shiny rock.  Where is its value?  If you can’t eat, wear, or otherwise practically use something, value is assigned solely by trading worth.  After all, outside of our economy, those rectangular, green papers we carry around are useless. 

 I mentioned previously that The Cherokee traditionally placed no value on gold.  Despite having an incredibly rich supply of gold right in the middle of their Georgia hunting lands, they never mined it until the white man came and they saw the value he placed on the gold.  So the search for gold breeds many legends and today we explore another one.

This legend leads us to a beautiful and intriguing geological formation.  A natural bridge formed out of rock is always fascinating and it would seem people have been fascinated by this geological phenomenon for generations.  For it is under just such a structure that we find the key to today’s gold legend.  I’m including a picture looking up at this massive piece of rock with bright sunshine cascading down both sides. 

Today, this bridge is far from well-traveled roads, but it must have been on a native thoroughfare for underneath we find two Indian paintings.  The legend says it is a fox and he’s facing a pot of gold.  This was meant to be a marker that the fox is facing a gold mine. 

How does one authenticate Indian paintings?  Well, I suppose there are scientific methods, none of which have been applied to our painting, as far as I know.  However, the painting has always been there – back to the early part of the 20th century at least.  Don’t you just wish someone had written about it in the 19th century or before?

Local historian Luther Atkinson told that an aged Cherokee once came through the plateau and was asked about the painting and its legend.  He examined the painting and confirmed it was from his people, but instead of announcing riches for the taking, it warned of hunger.  What we’ve called a pot of gold, he said was an empty basket.  The painting was announcing this was a poor hunting-ground, there was no game to be had.  That’s the closest thing to expert analysis we’ve got but it hasn’t affected the legend at all.  I guess we’d rather hope for gold than mourn the missing wildlife!

As I stand awed by this incredible formation, I can’t help but wonder what my Cherokee ancestors would have thought.  Did they routinely pass by here?  Could this have been an overnight stopping point for them?  Can you see a young hunting party gliding silently over a leaf-strewn path that might be invisible to the untrained eye?  They stop under the cool shade of the bridge and listen for the movement of deer.  Then they see the sign left by earlier hunters, Don’t waste your time here, this is not a good hunting spot.  Move on.  A young man adjusts his quiver on his back, another shifts his bow to his left hand.  Cupped hands catch the sweet, cold water as it drips from the edge of the rock.  The leader looks to the sun; it is slipping westward and bathing the solid rock wall in warm light.  He decides they must press on; there’s no reason to camp where their brothers have already determined the land won’t supply the meat they are seeking.  The party slips on to the southwest, leaving little evidence of their passing.

Confederate Gold

The Horse Pounds are a lush, green, rugged mountainside.  My Grandpa would have said their purpose is to hold the world together, as he always said of property seeming unfit for man or beast.  This ridge line between The Baldwin Gulf and Wilder is hard to get to, difficult to navigate through and relatively untouched by human hand.  While there were a few small farms located on the top of the mountain, there are no real roads there, not even regular paths.  It’s the perfect place to hide something you don’t want anyone to find.

Legend has it that this rugged land was just where a Confederate detachment hid the payroll they were tasked with delivering.  Pressed by Union soldiers, we are to understand that the Rebs sought a safe place for the gold – and the legend does believe it to be gold.  They buried their goods and turned to face the enemy.  Unfortunately, as was happening throughout The South, the detachment was wiped out and never returned to retrieve the gold.  And there it’s been ever since.

Legends don’t often come with a lot of detail and this one is no different.  We don’t know what year these events took place.  That seems particularly relevant in considering Civil War legends (at least those involving gold) since the short life of the Confederate States of America and their limited gold resources would seriously confine the time period for gold movement.  Moreover, gold was needed for international purchases and would not have been used for troop payroll beyond the earliest months of the war.

It’s a bittersweet legend.  While it’s fascinating to think of buried treasure right here among the rolling mountains at the northeast edge of the Cumberland Plateau, I can’t help but apply historical precedent to this legend.

We seem to have a few legends floating around that incorporate Civil War soldiers into them.  And, there was a Confederate training ground in Livingston – 36 miles of very hard walking  from The Horse Pounds.  Of course there were no major battles in our area – you have to go to Chattanooga, Nashville or Knoxville to find a battle that even gets historical notice.  Of course, we had guerillas and mercenaries in operation (Tinker Dave Beaty was one of the war’s most infamous guerillas and he hails from Fentress County) so there were skirmishes among these bands.  But by and large, we were very much a border-land and a remote one at that.

I guess it would be at least possible that a detachment of soldier’s clandestine movements could have brought them out to our mountain.  At least the legend lives on after one hundred fifty years.  Of course, it isn’t so much ‘alive’ that we’ve all gone out and dug up the horse pounds. 

I have one more gold legend which I’ll discuss next week.  Do you know of one? 

Is there Gold on That Mountain?

M.F. Stephenson’s famous words, “There’s gold in them thar’ hills” are well known, although most people think he referred to California hills when in fact he was pointing to Georgia’s Appalachian foothills.  By the time James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill (in Coloma, California) in 1848, the eastern gold fields were already in full production. 

Charlotte, NC saw the first U.S. gold strike in 1799 when a boy found a seventeen pound nugget in a creek on his father’s farm.  Less than fifty years later, gold was found near Dahlonega, Georgia.  The first gold-rush town was established in Nuckollsville, Georgia about six miles from present day Dahlonega.

Legislation passed in 1835 established U.S. Mints in both Charlotte and Dahlonega.  The Dahlonega mint actually processed quite a lot of California gold until the San Francisco mint was opened in 1854.]

Gold Seam

Gold Seam

The wealth found in Georgia was a contributing factor to the Cherokee removal of 1838.  Unlike some of the native peoples in South America, the Southeastern-native Cherokee nation did not mine gold traditionally.  However, as the white man began to influence their society, Cherokees learned the value of this precious metal and began to work their Georgia homeland until the time of their removal.

Why all this talk about gold?  No, I haven’t made a strike on the Cumberland Plateau – don’t we all just wish?  But I do know of a legend or two…

You see, gold can be found in a couple of different forms.  There’s the naturally occurring seams of gold that must be mined and refined; then there’s gold coins or jewelry that’s been lost or left.

The first legend speaks of the mining kind of gold.

Sometime around 1909, Tom and Rhoda Norris bought a tract of land in Martha Washington.  Rhoda, born Rhoda England, had a brother named Luke England (known as ‘Uncle Luke’ all around) who was living in Muddy Pond.  While the two communities don’t seem especially close if you’re traveling by foot today, if you go the nigh way, it’s really not too far.  In fact, there is a possibility that the two farms joined on the northwest side of the Norris land. 

At this time, Luke would have been in his mid-fifties, not a young man in that day when the life expectancy was forty-nine.  But he still had small children at home that necessitated him hunting regularly to keep meat on the table.  And it was just such a hunting trip that took him across Hurricane Creek and onto his brother-in-laws farm. 

Now property lines were viewed a little differently in those days of no fence laws, roaming cattle and prolific hunters.  Tom would not have considered Luke poaching even if he hadn’t been kinfolk.  But allowing a man to kill game on your land doesn’t mean all the resources are there for the taking.  Can you imagine the surprise and excitement when a hunting trip seeking deer, or rabbit, or squirrel – really anything edible that you could drag home – produced instead a gold mine?  And that’s just what Luke reported finding!  

Of course, Luke went directly to his Tom and reported the find, but not the details of the location; he knew he had to make a deal before he told everything that he knew.  On the walk up to Tom and Rhoda’s house, Luke had quickly planned the necessary mining operation and he assumed he and Tom would split all their profits fifty-fifty.  Tom disagreed.

Tom was never known for being overly-generous and refused Luke’s offer.  He wanted two-thirds of all profits.  Luke refused.

Luke declared if Tom wouldn’t give up half then he wouldn’t get anything.  He walked away never divulging to Tom the location of the riches.  However, Tom and Rhoda raised twelve children and Luke talked to each of them in turn.  Each of them, mostly grown by this time, was told a slightly different story about what he saw and where he saw it; and each child at one time or another attempted to follow the clue their old uncle had given them, to no avail.

As this story was passed from one generation to another, the little details that Luke disclosed began to be compared.  It seems that he told everyone a slightly different story and we now theorize that had all of the Norris children gotten together with their stories, the gold would have been pinpointed.  Unfortunately, they searched independently and no one was successful.

The really good news in this story is that Luke and Tom seemed to have remained friends with no hard feelings about the failed deal.  Certainly the England and Norris families remained on good terms. 

Many years later, two of Tom’s grandchildren did locate a small seam of Pyrite, commonly known as Fool’s Gold.  They had is assayed and found it to be worth something like twenty dollars per ton.  It was never mined.

Next week we’ll talk about mountain legend of the other kind of gold – coins.

In the meantime, do you have a gold legend from the plateau?  I’d love to hear it.



Picture This

I have a few blogs that I try to read every week for education and inspiration.  This week one of them posted a very old portrait which inspired me to share two of my most prized possessions which are shown here. 

These portraits are my great-great grandparents, Andy and Polly Livesay. I don’t have dates on the pictures themselves, nor do I have a whole lot of information on the people.  However, I do know that their son, my great-grandfather, was born in 1876 and we believe him to have been the youngest child, therefore dating these pictures about 1875 seems reasonable.

Like almost all pictures from that era, these people have a very solemn, almost sad look.  It’s easy to reason that they had difficult lives, faced death and disease from an early age and had little reason to smile.  While those things are certainly true of life in the mid-19th century, that probably doesn’t account for all the serious expressions that are memorialized in pictures. 

The fact is that photography of that day required the subject sit, virtually motionless, for several minutes.  The photographer would tell you to relax your face because it’s just hard to hold a smile that long.  Then, to keep your head from bobbling about as we tend to do, he would affix a metal brace behind you – now, if that didn’t give you the shocked look we often see, I don’t know what would. 

Pictures were valuable in that day.  Most of us can still remember when taking snapshots required the purchase of film and then paying for developing.  Even those pictures were more costly than today’s digital media that allows us to snap a dozen shots of anything remotely interesting.  Sometimes the value of photos is easily forgotten since today we can pick, choose and edit our pictures so we give little thought to how many times we click the shudder.  In 1850 having a picture made was a pretty big deal.  It was reserved for special occasions and was prepared for as such. 

The family valued Andy and Polly’s portraits long after they were gone.  Family legend says that my great-grandfather’s severely impoverished family moved many, many times with their household goods packed in a wagon and pulled along unimproved roadways with much bouncing and shaking.  These pictures (along with a third portrait now in the possession of my second cousin) were the first things to be packed and were moved between the bed pillows.  Upon arrival at the new home, they were the first items unpacked and immediately hung up. 

Today they still hold great value to me.  Even with their near-scowling look, I am happy to have them watching over my family and reminding us that we have a history, we need only to learn it.  As I said before, I know very little about these people and the lives they led, but I always wish I could read the thoughts that must have been going through their minds as they sat perfectly still to create these images.  Andy would have been a young man during The Civil War, I wonder if he fought, or begged parents to allow him to go because he was just a little too young?  I don’t even know how many children this pair had, but it seems I can see great sorrow etched in the lines on Polly’s face – at a time when the infant mortality rate was something like 100 out of 1,000 live births wouldn’t survive, and when vaccines did not yet exist to prevent childhood diseases we’ve all but eradicated now, it isn’t hard to imagine how much sorrow she must have faced.

Surely there were joys too, though!  And yet the photographic technology of the day didn’t do a very good job of recording those.  Still, as I look closely at Andy’s eyes, it seems I can see a kindness there. 

As I look at other historical photos, the people often seem to be dressed so well, and surely everyone would have been photographed in their very best.  But Andy isn’t even wearing a tie / cravat or a vest – both of these were very much in fashion in the late 19th century.  It’s hard to see the cut of Polly’s dress, but there is a bit of lace around the neck.  Almost all lace was machine-made by 1900, but it still had to be a bit of a luxury to poor families.  The images have been hand-tinted so the details of her dress are a little harder to discern, and certainly the cut of the skirt which might help to date the style, isn’t visible in this head shot. 

Andy’s picture is framed in a very simple black lacquer frame, which I’m afraid has taken much abuse over nearly a century and a half, but Polly is framed in gold leaf.  This frame is also very worn, but would have represented a significant investment in 1875.  Surely the existence of the pictures and the quality of the frames tells us they were experiencing at least a period of prosperity.

People can stand before the art work of the masters for hours imagining his thoughts and intentions.  I find I can do the same with old photographs.  While I’m thrilled to simply have the two dimensional images, there is so much more of the story I long to know.  Maybe some details will reveal themselves through family research.  However, unlike histories of Washington or Lincoln or Lee, who were written about and whose writings were preserved, so much of these lives have been lost to history.   Now, we can only imagine… ah, is there a short story there?

I would love to hear about your old family photos, and if you’d like to share them, please do.  Just click on “comments” below.

Dinner on the Ground

For the past 26 weeks I’ve been posting an on-going fictional story.  Click here if you’d like to go to the beginning of The Lewis Story.

This week we return to weekly, topical stories as we look into the legends and lessons of The Cumberland Plateau.


Dinner on the Ground

Three siblings chat before the meal.  In the background you see the tables laden with food.

Three siblings chat before the meal.  In the background you see the tables laden with food.

It’s homecoming season – no, not football games, parades and beauty pageants – I’m talking about church homecoming.  This event is like a family reunion for your church family and like all reunions, it’s a joyous if somewhat bittersweet event.  You’ll get to see lots of folks you haven’t seen in a long time - at least since last year’s homecoming; the children have changed remarkably and there’s often a face or two missing for they’ve gone home to the ultimate homecoming celebration in heaven. 

Today, our churches have air-conditioned fellowship halls with kitchens to keep food hot or cold, tables and chairs to eat at and usually no flies or ants to share the meal.  But in years past, churches were thankful to have a decent building to worship in each week and no one ever thought of building a house just for fellowship.  Therefore, when a meal was planned (and let’s face it, this is The South and we’ll plan a meal for any occasion we can), so every family brought a dish (or two or three) of their favorite foods.

The morning’s service was honored by special music and a guest preacher.  Often, the sermon was delivered by someone who had pastored the church in years past before The Lord moved him on to other work.  As the preacher wound down and the end was in sight, many of the women would quietly step outside to begin spreading the food on tables fashioned from boards and saw horses. 

With a final song and a prayer of dismissal and blessings on the food, the service was dismissed to the yard and everyone immediately lined up at the tables.

As plates were filled with fried chicken, Cole slaw, thick slices of homegrown tomatoes and cornbread, you made your way to a blanket that grandma had spread on the ground or a stump shaded by a big oak tree.  Why is it that everything tastes so much better on a picnic?  Then there was a whole separate table for desserts!  From Apple Stack Cake to Banana pudding, fried pies to watermelon every taste was accommodated. 

As the congregation was able, and as they realized meals were going to be a priority, permanent tables were built and eventually covered to protect the food from the occasional rain shower as well as to provide some shade for those setting everything up.  In yesteryear, people would come from far and near walking, riding or driving with several generations in each vehicle.  The difficulty of the trip did not hinder and may in fact have made for a more joyous visit once they arrived.  No one was concerned that there were no cushioned seats or that the chicken and dumplings might not be strictly hot.  The purpose of the day was fellowship.  It wasn’t a difficult goal to attain; you started fellowshipping before you ever arrived because you were traveling – no matter how far – with your family.  An aging aunt who could not drive or cousins who couldn’t afford the trip were packed in with your own kids making the journey itself exciting as you anticipated who you might get to visit with this year. 

Dinner on the ground has never been confined to church congregations.  My own Todd family enjoys a family reunion each year that originated as an annual birthday celebration for my great-great-grandfather.  He had eleven children and thirty-two grandchildren.  It’s not hard to see that this party was far too large for anyone’s home.  Originally held at the home of his youngest daughter, Cecil Todd Hall, the lawn was covered with family, and friends.  Just like at the church house, makeshift tables were setup and the feast spread across them. 

That grandfather passed away in 1957 but we’ve maintained the tradition with the crowds reaching well over one hundred at its peak.  Much as the churches built fellowship halls, the reunion moved to a state park and enjoys a covered picnic shelter and all the amenities of the park.  But the spirit of a dinner on the ground lives on.

Do you have a memory ‘dinner on the ground’?  We’d all love to hear about them.  Please click “Comments” below and share.1