One kind word

Author’s Note: West Virginia Writers, Inc. is a non-profit that has supported and celebrated Mountain State writers and their words since 1977. That was the year I gathered the courage, with my mom’s support, to attend the inaugural West Virginia Writers Conference in Charleston, WV and share some of my poems. I am so grateful that this group exists. Here’s a short memory of that terrifying yet exhilarating day at the poetry workshop, which I  recently shared with the current members on the WVW Facebook page. 

I owe West Virginia Writers a debt of gratitude. Back in 1977, which would have been the organization’s founding year and maybe the first WVW Conference, I stood onstage at The Cultural Center in Charleston, all of 18 years old, and read aloud in front of an audience for the first time several of my poems. I was terrified but my mother, who accompanied me to the conference, encouraged me to get my words “out there.”

Me at 18

Me at 18

One poem in particular received both criticism and a compliment. It was inspired by Langston Hughes’ poem “Dreams,” written about saying goodbye to a dear friend. It was short and sweet:

“Without you to share with,
my days will only fly
on half a wing.”

One audience member (or maybe two) quickly pointed out that my metaphor didn’t make sense. How can there be just half a wing?

And then a fellow West Virginia writer, sitting right up in front of the stage in her wheelchair, spoke up and said she completely understood the imagery. I have never forgotten her support that day. Sometimes just one kind word can inspire us to carry on with our writing. And I have.



Once a slave, then free, a beloved neighbor

Isaac Sims manumission letter on display at Nicholas County Courthouse

This is the letter that officially emancipated Isaac Sims, written by his owner James Sims in Nicholas County, Virginia (later West Virginia) in September 1836. It is still on display at the Nicholas County (WV) Courthouse in Summersville.

Author’s Note: Isaac Sims is one of the real people who inhabit Panther Mountain: Caroline’s Story, a historical fiction novel based on real events in my great-great-grandmother’s life. He is featured in Chapter Three.

A beloved community member

On December 9th, 1836–nearly 180 years ago this week–the Virginia General Assembly received a petition from more than 200 residents of Nicholas County, Virginia. The signers requested that a former slave be allowed to live in their community permanently.

Who was this man, and why was he so well-liked by hundreds of his neighbors that they wanted him to remain in their midst after he was emancipated?

His name was Isaac Sims.

The Sims slaves

There were not many slave owners in western Virginia before the Civil War.  According to David J. Emmick, author of Defending the Wilderness, “Slaves were not profitable in the back country farms.” Unlike Eastern Virginia planters who grew plantation crops like tobacco and cotton, the western mountaineer farmers generally tended their mountain and valley farms themselves, with help from friends and family.

James Sims was one of the few slave owners who lived in 19th Century western Virginia. Census records and legal documents from that time show that he and his family arrived from Bath County, VA with 18 slaves .

Isaac Sims was 14 years old when his owner settled on property in Kanawha (and later Nicholas) County along the Gauley River. Isaac’s brother Robert was also a Sims slave, according to published accounts. At some point, Robert escaped from the Sims farm.”Keeping his eye on the north star as he traveled at night, he reached Canada and freedom,” newspaper columnist Clarence Shirley Donnelly wrote many years later.

Isaac remained with the Sims family and, over the years, gained a reputation for being an excellent marksman.  His master, a gunsmith, allowed Isaac to hunt deer on Sundays and sell the skins. Isaac also sold boat gunwales he fashioned from chunks of wood.

Isaac, described as ‘dark, five foot five, and slender,’ married a woman named Emily who was owned by Joseph McNutt, another Nicholas County slaveowner. Isaac and Emily had a son and a daughter, George Addison and Harriet Jane, who were owned by yet another local master, Robert Neil.

Historic documents present a picture of Isaac as a man who was well-liked by the Sims family as well as others in the community. He was allowed certain privileges that other slaves at that time were unlikely to have. For example, he is listed as holding an account at a local store owned by M.J. Landcraft. And James Sims even decided that he would allow Isaac to buy his freedom with the money earned through sales of the skins and gunwales. The price: $150.

Free at last

Having met the terms of the agreement with his owner, Isaac was granted his freedom on September 26, 1836. He was 43 years old. His letter of “manumission,” as it was called, is still posted in the Nicholas County, West Virginia Courthouse today. [see above petition]

But there was a problem. Virginia assemblymen had enacted a law in 1806 that forced  freed slaves to leave the state within twelve months after their emancipation. The idea behind the 1806 act, which was called a ‘black law,’ was that slave rebellions might be triggered by the presence of free people of color living in proximity to the slaveholders’ homes and farms.

This meant that Isaac would have to leave Virginia and face possible re-capture in another slave state. His wife Emily had died by the time of his emancipation, but his children still lived in Nicholas County and he would be forced to live far away from them.

The people of Nicholas County were determined not to let this happen. Sims and other family members, with local judges’ permission, tacked a petition on the front door of the Nicholas County Courthouse at Summersville. People coming and going from court business were able to sign the petition, which by Virginia law was required to be posted for at least two months prior to application to the state’s General Assembly.

The petition reads:


To the Legislature of Virginia

Your Petitioners humbly represent that JAMES SIMS of the County of Nicholas has recently emancipated ISAAC a blackman who is desirous of remaining in the Commonwealth, your Petitioners represent that there are but very few slaves in the County of Nicholas not exceeding sixty — nor is there more than one other coloured person in the County who is free — your Petitioners further state the said black man ISAAC is an exceedingly honest industrious and useful man addicted to no vicious habits whatsoever, but peaceful & inoffensive & meek in all his intercourse & business with the country — your Petitioners would be truly gratified should this Legislature in its wisdom think proper to grant his application — your Petitioners are well convinced that no mischief can result to the country by doing so and as a precedent in this part of the state nothing of evil is to be apprehended.

More than 230 Nicholas Countians signed the petition. I found a few of my descendants’ signatures on Isaac’s petition, including my great-great-great-grandfather Joseph Backhouse and his sons, and a few of my Grose family great-grand-uncles.

The Race and Slavery Petitions Project lists two different petitions filed on Isaac’s behalf on December 9, 1836. Each petition lists the same 10 petitioners in addition to James Sims himself. However, one petition is listed as having three pages and the second had five. Even more curious, the first petition is marked “rejected;reasonable,” while the second is marked “no recorded result.”

This brings up a few questions. Why was the petition divided into two? Was the first rejected and the second accepted? Who was the person or persons who traveled to Richmond from Nicholas County to present the petition to the lawmakers?  I hope to find out someday and if I do, I will share that information with you. You can find a digitized copy of the Nicholas County petition in the Library of Virginia’s Legislative Petitions Database.

“We all thought a great deal of Isaac.”

We know from census records, land transactions, ledger books and newspaper articles that Isaac was, indeed, allowed to remain in Nicholas County and lived there until his death, which came sometime before June 9, 1875. Records show his children George Addison and Harriet Jane both died sometime during the Civil War.

In 1850, Isaac is listed in the census as living in the Mathew Hughes household. Mathew was the widower of James Sims’ daughter Margaret. Various records show Isaac buying tools and furniture from estate sales in the 1850s and ’60s. In 1860, we find Isaac living in his own home alone. Land records show that after he was granted permanent residence, he purchased 17 and a half acres of Nicholas County land on both sides of the Gauley River. His real estate value was $1000  that year.

In a 1961 letter to the editor of the Beckley (WV) Post-Herald, Mrs. E.C. Wicker of Hinton remembered Isaac. She was a Sims descendant, and her father Miletus welcomed Isaac into their home, where she says he sometimes spent weekends. “We all thought a great deal of Isaac,” she wrote.

You can find greater detail about Isaac and other Sims slaves in Cathy Meder-Dempsey’s blog, Opening Doors in Brick Walls. Cathy is a descendant of James Sims and her genealogy efforts have provided me with invaluable information about my own family. I am grateful for her intrepid, meticulous research.


Corned Beef and a Tip of the Hat to Irish Civil War Soldiers


Ballintubber Abbey, County Mayo, Republic of Ireland. Ballintubber means ‘local well,’ and it was here that St. Patrick baptized new Christians before he ascended a nearby mountain, known as Croagh Patrick.


It would not be St. Patrick’s Day in our house without a corned beef and cabbage dinner, a little homemade Irish soda bread and a Guinness or two. This year, I’d also like to celebrate the Civil War contributions of Irish immigrants to the Union cause (they won, remember?).

So here’s a little trivia for you concerning the Battle of Carnifex Ferry, Virginia, which was fought just miles from my great-great-grandmother Caroline’s home. I imagine she could hear the gunfire ringing out early on the morning of September 10, 1861.

The generals of this Gauley River firefight were William Rosecrans (Union) and John Floyd (Confederate), who was also the former governor of Virginia. The Union was heavily represented at Carnifex by regiments of the Ohio Volunteer Infantry, the 10th unit of which was made up largely of Irish immigrants who mustered in at Cincinnati and trained at Camp Dennison in Columbus.

Union forces took a heavy hit at Carnifex–17 killed, including a colonel, and more than 150 wounded. Although the Confederates suffered few casualties, the battle was a decisive victory for the Yankees and they retained control of the entire Kanawha Valley from that time on. It was a pivotal win early in the war.

William Lytle, commander of what was known as “the bloody tinth,” was wounded at Carnifex Ferry but went on to lead in other battles. He was also a nationally known poet and penned, among others, the poem ‘Antony and Cleopatra.’

Back to the corned beef in the crockpot. Smithsonian Magazine asks the question, is corned beef really Irish? Maybe not, but it’s the way we toast the folks from the Emerald Isle.

19th Century Recipes: Bread, Wine, Soap, Dye and Pantaloons

So you’re living in West Virginia in the 1860s and you decide to bake a nice Sally Lunn bread. You obviously need flour along with butter, sugar, salt and eggs. And yeast, of course. Where to get the yeast? If you haven’t any from the general store–let’s say you live many miles from the nearest town and are fresh out–where does it come from? You make it from scratch in your kitchen, of course.

Or so I’ve learned from this lovingly preserved recipe book. The cook noted this location and date on the page with a recipe for soft soap (page 83): “Springfield, Monroe County, West Virginia, 1867.” At that time, West Virginia would have been a state four years unto its own, broken off from Virginia during the Civil War in 1863.

Soft soap recipe from Receipts and Home Remedies, 1869

Soft soap recipe from Receipts and Home Remedies, 1869

This foodie treasure comes from Virginia Tech’s History of Food and Drink Collection and is one of several you’ll find on the library’s website. You learn from reading the handwritten recipes that the aforementioned yeast could be made from either hops or potatoes (as in the case of “Philadelphia Yeast,” page 58). The book also includes natural dye recipes, such as one for “turning wool brown.”

Pantaloons as Pastry 

There are many delightful finds in these pages, like the dessert named “Tangled Pantaloons,” which really has no modern equivalent in undergarments or desserts. This is not just a recipe book, though. Tucked in between recipes for corned beef and blackberry wine are inspirational quotes, like this one:

“May all your youthful days be spent in peace, prosperity and happiness. May not one single cloud of sorrow arise to mar your pleasures in this life. And when the evening of life draws near may all who know you be able to say of you, ‘None knew her best but to love her, none named her but to praise.'”

This is taken from a women’s periodical published by the Methodist Episcopal Church. Other verses found in the cookbook were commonly written in Victorian memory or autograph books. The combination of recipes and rosy sentiments gives the reader a peek into one Appalachian homemaker’s daily meals and meditations.

And of course you’ll want the recipe for Tangled Pantaloons…

Tangled Pantaloons (Page 15)

Recipe for Tangled Pantaloons from Receipts and Home Remedies, 1869.

Recipe for Tangled Pantaloons from Receipts and Home Remedies, 1869.

Link to “What’s Cookin’?”, the History of Food and Drink Collection blog.

Happy birthday, West Virginia!

Wheeling Constitutional Convention, June 1863, as  illustrated in Harper's Weekly

Wheeling Constitutional Convention, June 1863, as illustrated in Harper’s Weekly

Today marks the 151st anniversary of the day West Virginia officially became a state. In my book Panther Mountain: Caroline’s Story, I imagine how my great-great-grandparents Caroline and Frank and their children Adam and Lucy celebrated on June 20, 1863, the day they got the official word from the Wheeling Constitutional Convention that statehood was approved.

Caroline, June 20, 1863: An early summer rain washed the dusty streets of Summersville clean just in time. Crowds of people from all around the county came to celebrate our victory. Mountain voters spoke loud and clear at the ballot box, and the new state of West Virginia was born, baptized by President Lincoln and the U.S. Congress.

Hundreds of people gathered in town : ladies in bounteous hoop skirts, men in top hats, boys in knee pants and girls in calico dresses, hair tied with ribbons. The sharp lines of soldiers’ uniforms, mostly blue, cut fine figures around the perimeter of the crowd. Red, white and blue flags and buntings were everywhere – waving on sticks, adorning brick buildings and buggies.  A brass band provided music from the town square gazebo.

Pat Mullaney burst out of the telegraph office on Main Street waving a telegram high in the air. He ran to the courthouse steps, pushed his wire glasses up on his nose, adjusted his visor and cleared his throat.

“Ladies and gentlemen, here is the news from Wheeling,” he announced and began to read the telegram.

“Wheeling, West Virginia. June twentieth, 1863.

This day ushers into being the new State of West Virginia and adds the thirty fifth star to the constellation of the American Union. STOP.

The old Government goes out and the new one comes in. STOP. Today Governor Pierpont bids us a formal farewell and Gov. Boreman will be inaugurated as his successor. STOP. Today the Legislature of the new State meets for organization.”

The crowd burst into shouts. “Hurrah!” “Long Live West Virginia!” “God bless the United States of America!” “God bless President Lincoln!” Hats of all types flew into the air above Main Street.

Then other shouts came;

“Boo!” “We will not give up the fight!” “Down with West Virginia!” “God bless President Jefferson Davis!”

A group of men wearing work shirts and dungarees broke into song:

“Our Dixie forever!

She’s never at a loss!

Down with the eagle

And up with the cross!”

The chorus was drowned out by booing and shushing onlookers. Mayor John Jones and Pastor Murphy joined Pat on the courthouse steps as most people applauded.

My heart swelled as I looked around.  We had snatched our mountain home back from secession. I only wished that I could have cast a ballot for statehood. Maybe someday, I thought, when Lucy is grown she will have the right to vote just like men.

Suzanne came to stand next to me and we hugged. “The day we have waited for!” she said with a smile. “Now please God, let the war be over soon.”