A KIND OF HOMECOMING
by Stephen F. Hinchman
In my restless wanderings throughout our nation I have always compared myself to the early American pioneer, forever moving on, each of us following our own dreams. But I wondered exactly what our early ancestors were after, these people whose pursuit of happiness paved the way for the waves of 19th century immigrants.
Surely this early American Dream was not the power and profit of a Carnegie or the modern fast cars, fast women, easy money stereotype. Instead I imagine they fought for and dreamed of independence and a chance to live a free life with the bounty of the land, a hard but perhaps satisfying life. However, such simplistic dreams and hard labor seem unreal in this complicated and automated age and no solution to my own restlessness.
Little did I know that this summer’s migration had taken me on a path that my own ancestors had trod two centuries before. The route led this first generation of Hinchmans from the Maryland shore across the Virginian Blue Ridge and deep into the Mountains of West Virginia sometime in the 1780s, and would lead me to some well sought after answers in the 1980s. Those same West Virginian mountains now loomed close in over the dashboard and the Blue Ridge was still visible in the rearview.
I, myself, had come down out of Maine headed towards a new career in Colorado. Two cars and one month later I was only as far as New York City, having been forced to stop and earn some money on the way. Traveling on through the mid Jersey wastelands four weeks later I wondered cynically about the fabled American Dream. I was as free as the wind, but my wallet was thin and there was little in the land that I wanted to call my own.
A stay with a friend in Maryland lifted my spirits and I turned west to visit some old family friends in Princeton, West Virginia. With each rise in altitude and passing mile I felt both relief and excitement. The beauty of the land and undeniable power of the mountains made me forget all about my little self. I pulled into Princeton late, but my hosts, Dave and Ginny, and I stayed up past two with excited talk. They had found traces of my family history in the region and the place names jibed with my memory of my father’s research into our past. We planned a fishing and researching trip for the next day.
Dave, his son and I set out in the morning in his pickup headed toward Monroe County. The countryside was lovely, rising in mellow hills, green and lush, with long intense ridges running the length of the horizon almost blue in the hazy distance. As we neared the area I pounded everyone we met with questions, the game warden, the convenience store clerk, the gas station attendant …. and the land started coming alive with names and places familiar from old records. I found Nickell’s mill on the map (the Hinchman boys had a history of marrying Nickell girls) and there were still some Gwinns, our early neighbors, in the phone book.
We passed through the small towns of Union and Peterstown and through crossroads named Pickaway, Shady Grove and Wolf Creek, all names mentioned in the records. Adrenaline crept like ancient spirits into my veins. My eyes were glued to the land, and the hills rippled and rolled away from sight. A squall hit but the rain failed to dampen my spirits. Instead the water washed the roads clean and sharpened the already brilliant contrast between hill and sky. The truck wound through hollows, high on the ridge tops and deep along creek beds, past rotting trailer homes and ancient clapboard places with stone foundations and log outbuildings. It seemed as if every flat spot in those impossible hills held a home of some sort, in one or another stage of decay. Corn, soybeans and weeds grew in the fields and the creeks held promise of trout and smallmouth, but we had forgotten all about fishing.
Wolf Creek was but a general store, complete with rusted gas pumps, ancient ads tacked to the walls and antiquated notices, brown with age, in the windows. Three old boys and a hippie were talking up on the porch. As I stepped up I was met by toothless grins, gristled leather faces and long hair in beads. Even in the midst of all my excitement I couldn’t help wondering at this strange sight.
Nervous now, I asked the group if they knew if any of the Nickell or Gwinn families were still around. Dave and I had reasoned that any one of these families could lead us to the old Hinchman place. No luck, except for some distant Gwinn who lived far off.
“Well, do you know of the Hinchman people?” I asked. “That’s what I’m really looking for. I’m a Hinchman”
Toothless Grim looked up at the ceiling and poked at his face. “You mean old John Hinchman? John used to live here but he died a while back. I knew him well.”
The leather whiskered man nodded, “Luther too. I used to work with him. They lived over the hill by Creamery, ’bout eight mile distant.”
A wave of heat passed through me. Man oh man I thought, I found it. I really found it! “Where is it, how do I get there, what were they like?” Questions piled out of my mouth in one breath.
The old boys scrambled to answer my questions, giving out names, directions and memories all at once. In no time I was as confused as I was excited, while they were having trouble keeping their facts straight between them.
Finally Leather Whiskers led us to a back road that headed over the shoulder of Wolf Creek Mountain to the next valley over. He stopped his pickup at his gate and came over to my window to give us directions again.
“Stay on the hard road six or eight miles. Luther’s place is on the left before you crest the hill. You can’t miss it. John’s place is further down, left at the fork past the Creamery church. It’s a two storey white house. That’s the old Hinchman place.” He beamed down at me. “I knew John and Luther well. Worked with ‘em on the corn. They were as good a folk as I ever known. They was good people.” He shook my hand. “You come from good stock and you’re welcome here.”
So this old man, whose name I didn’t know, and who about made me cry, welcomed me home to a place I’d never been and made me determined to live up to all that he had said.
Dave grinned at me as we headed up the watershed. “You’re home now boy. This is where our people loved and lived.”
My eyes ablaze, I looked across the hills to Wolf Creek Mountain. It was just a wooded knob, but it commanded your attention. Ancient and gentle, it soothed my jittered nerves. Surely they called that mountain home, I thought, it was and is the central landmark. “Home,” I tried out the sound of it on my tongue. “Home.” I’d never felt any sense of belonging that tied me to a place. I’d never even seen the graves of my ancestors. Looking around, I thought about the blood in this land. I could feel the land rising in my blood. I felt a sense of pride that these early folk had chosen such a wild and beautiful land, and now the mountain beckoned to me. Here was none of the alienation and confusion of my suburban home, none of that temporary feeling of my travels.
We wound up and around, tortuously slow. The road was a single lane and it clung to those wild West Virginia hills banked on either side by wildflowers and wood fences. Yet we were still too high up on the ridge. The earliest settlers would have taken the bottom land down on the creeks off the river. Further on we passed Luther Hinchman’s farm, a modern place and of little interest. Finally, we came down upon the Creamery church, an old clapboard place with two doors, one for the men and one for the women. The original lead glass glittered in the sunlight, rough and hard to see through. No graveyard, but we were now back down in the valley where they would have settled.
On the bottom land past the church the corn stood tall and there at the end of the field was a two storey white clapboard house with porch and balcony, both graced with delicate lattice work. The house seemed ideally situated, but on closer inspection it looked crooked, as if one corner had slipped off the foundation, and in bad need of repair. An old man stood in the yard and I got out to meet him alone.
“Hi, are you the owner of this place?” I asked.
“No, I’m a guest of the owner,” he replied.
“My name’s Steve Hinchman,” I said, offering my hand.
“Oh. Well then, this is your place. Dr. Brooks bought it four years ago when the old man died. The estate had a thousand acres.”
I cringed. Four years too late. Damn!
“Yessir, sure is a beautiful place. I’ve even been back to see the grave in the wilderness.”
A grave! That’d be my eight great grandfather William, the one who came to America. Then this really was his home. I stepped back to look around. “No one in my immediate family has ever been here before,” I told the stranger. Suddenly my voice felt hollow, almost silent. “We never even knew it was still here.”
I wanted to go inside, but I jolted out of my excitement realizing that it was someone else’s home. A blonde woman came to the door and explained that her husband, who knew all the history, was not home, but we were welcome to look around and to visit the grave.
Dave and I roamed the farmyard marveling at what was once a very prosperous farm in rough country. Everything was made from hand hewn timber. The barn was a massive structure, two and a half storeys high and covering many square feet. The second level was held up by whole trees laid lengthwise across the ground floor ceiling timbers. The building was full of bailed hay and rusted farm implements. A head off a deer carcass hung on the back wall. Standing there we were awed by the labor that must have gone into the building. They would have been strong and willfull people.
We rode out to the dirt track that led to the back forty where William and his wife Elizabeth were buried in a little hollow that looked up to Wolf Creek Mountain. Their grave stands at the edge of a clearing under the shadow of a walnut tree. It was encased in cement with both the original head and foot stones perfectly preserved thanks to some unknown benefactor. I reached out to touch the stone and traced these words with my finger:
who departed this life June 20, 1814, aged 81 years
and Elizabeth Hinchman who was the wife of WH
departed this life the 1st May 1828 age 92.”
My mind drifted in time to the image of London, in the 1730s, a merchants house filled with squalling brats. William, one of the younger children, would have run away, as family tradition has it, around age twelve to be a cabin boy on a British ship. He started his drifting young and wandered for many years, restless and full of dreams, about like me. I grinned.
I tried to picture this ancestor of mine. By 1760 I know he was a boatswain on a British privateer in the Gulf of St. Lawrence at the siege of Quebec during the French and Indian War. He was in his thirties by then, probably a veteran of many fights. But this time he was wounded while at the helm, the boat captured and he was imprisoned in a French prison hulk. Luckily he was freed when a British Man O War captured the French ship. A happy reunion with his mates and then parting, for he was put ashore in Virginia, wounded and most likely with little he could call his own.
A new life in a new land, but he was not quite alone. An earlier branch of the family, perhaps some distant uncle, had settled in Dorchester Maryland at the time of the Calverts. William went to live in the same county. There he took Elizabeth to be his wife, she a person with no history in our records, but surely a hardy woman with dreams of her own. The couple had three children and cared for two orphan girls, but whether they farmed or fished the east shore of the Chesapeake I do not know. William took to the sea again during the Revolution, serving the state aboard the schooners Molly and the General Smallwood. Did he fight against his old comrades, I wonder, or was he a loyalist? On September 1, 1780 the council of the State of Maryland arrested William for “trading with the enemy” as probably many of the poor colonials had. From an Annapolis gaol three days later a repentant William petitioned the Governor and Council for bail and a speedy trial, claiming that “any declaration by him of his trading with them were made without any foundation in the truth, and in the hour of indiscretion and folly when the behavior, conduct and conversation of the company induced him, greatly intoxicated, to utter sentiments foreign from the truth, and to accuse himself of crimes which he is entirely innocent.” (Journal and Correspondence of the State Council of Maryland, v.5, 1779-1780.) Whatever he was, he was something of a brawling drinker, still full of fight in his late forties.
At age fifty five this restless man picked up his family and left his Maryland home of three decades to walk across the Blue Ridge and into the Wild Allegheny Front on the western frontier. Whether he left broken dreams in pursuit of a last chance to take the land for his own, or was run out, a loser of the War of Independence I can only guess. Whichever, it was an incredible venture to risk all or nothing at that stage of the game. They settled on Kellers Creek near Creamery in Monroe County with 175 acres. It was here, at their last resting spot where I now stood, rooted in contemplation.
It would not have been an easy life. Danger of Indians was past, but they would have had to carve out a home from the surrounding wilderness, covered in trees like those I had seen in the barn. Yet, it would have been their own, and finally, in the twilight of their years with children and grandchildren surrounding them an answer to their lifelong dreams.
Looking up to the crown of Wolf Creek Mountain I knew why the old man and his wife chose to lie here in this isolated West Virginian Valley. The power of those two people reach across the centuries and gave me the strength to dream my own dreams again, to find my own American Dream. They lifted me up to walk up the high knob which rose above their meadow.
On the way up I saw ripening hickory nuts, blackberries sweet on the vine and blue ridges sweeping across the sky. I realized that William and Elizabeth had no more claimed the land than I could now. It claimed them just as it was capturing me. How beautiful, I thought, to live and die here in this wonderful place.
I remember every moment of that day, every detail on the horizon, every beautiful breath in the excitement of the discovery that I really do belong in this land we call America. And I feel ever more strongly the urge to let my sweat and blood touch the soil, to recapture for myself William and Elizabeth’s American Dream of a sweet loving hard life in the bounty of the land.
NOTE: Stephen, the son of David and Hobey Hinchman, is a descendant of William and Elizabeth Hinchman of Dorchester Co., Maryland and Monroe Co., West Virginia through their grandson James of Rush Co., Indiana. “A Kind of Homecoming,” 6-23-1986, is used with the author’s permission. Stephen Hinchman, [email protected]