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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

North Carolina Author: George Franklin McNeil (1934-present)

George Franklin McNeil, born in 1934 to Commodore Christa McNeil and Eva Green Clary, is my 5th cousin 1X removed and the 3rd cousin of my great grandmother, America Ann McNeil West.
Even though George McNeil has not written and published prose or poetry, he has compiled and published valuable documents.
George Franklin McNeil was married to Joyce Bessie Dancy, who passed away in 2003.  Together they worked diligently transcribing, abstracting, and indexing legal documents and recording cemetery data in Wilkes County, North Carolina.  In fact, according to Faye Jarvis Moran, the McNeils visited more than 768 cemeteries in Wilkes County and developed a database of more than 50,000 grave records.[i]  Their works, which are housed in the Wilkes Community College library, are valuable resources for professional and amateur genealogists.[ii]
I appreciate and thank George Franklin McNeil for the compilations completed by his wife and him and for the information that he shared with me this past summer.

Monday, December 26, 2011

North Carolina Author: John Foster West (1918-2008)

John Foster West, born on December 10, 1918, the son of John Wilson West and Fannie Elvira Foster, was my 2nd cousin 2X removed.  He was the grandson of John Witherspoon West and Catherine West and the great grandson of John Balus and Mary Ann Swanson.  My 1st cousin 1X removed (CALT) had told me about him.  Afterwards, I read about him on the Internet and discovered that he had passed away in 2008.  Later, my 2nd cousin (DFK) sent me an article that John Foster West had written about the West family.  This, my first encounter with any written evidence that Alexander West I was an early progenitor of my West family, was an article published in The Journal-Patriot on November 8, 1976.  In his article, “History of West Family Is Given,” John Foster West identified Alexander West I as the “deep tap-root” for many families still living in Wilkes County as well as across the country.
The 1920 Census indicates that John Foster West was living at Lewis Fork at the time that census was taken.  In 1941 he attended Mars Hill College.  There he met and later married Nan E. Love. From 1943 to 1945 he was in the Army Air Corps. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of North Carolina in 1947 and a Master of Arts degree in 1949.  In addition, he studied at the University of Iowa where he completed some work toward a doctoral degree.
During his 42-year career in education, he taught English and creative writing at Elon College in North Carolina.  He also taught at Old Dominion College in Norfolk, Virginia, and Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.  When he retired from Appalachian State University in 1991, he was named professor emeritus.

John Foster West published the following books: Up Ego! (1951), Cogito, Ergo Sum (1954), Appalachian Dawn (1973), Wry Wine (1977), Lift Up Your Head, Tom Dooley: The True Story of the Appalachian Murder that Inspired One of America’s Most Popular Ballads (1993), Summer People (2000), The Ballad of Tom Dula: The Documented Story Behind the Murder of Laura Foster and the Trials and Execution of Tom Dula (2002), Time Was (2002), High Noon in Pompeii: The Latter-Day Poetry of John Foster West (2004), and Going Home to Zion (2005).  In addition, he co-authored This Proud Land—The Blue Ridge Mountains (1974) with Bruce Roberts West and English Direct: Teacher’s Book Level 1 (1998) with Keith West.   Furthermore, he made numerous contributions to magazines, newspapers, and other periodicals.
His name was included in Who’s Who in the South and Southwest, Who’s Who Among American Scholars, Comtemporary Authors, and the Dictionary of International Biography.  He served as president of the North Carolina Writers Conference, the North Carolina Folklore Society, and Sigma Delta Chi, a professional journalism fraternity.
John Foster West died on May 2, 2008.
During his career he mentored many aspiring writers and will be remembered as a writer, a poet, a historian, and an activist for the preservation of ecology in the mountains of Western North Carolina.

Beall, Glenda Council. Netwest Mountain Writers and Poets (blog).

Friday, December 16, 2011

Poet’s Progress, Autobiography of James Larkin Pearson

A treasure that I must share—a treasure that will delight you, capture you, and take you back to a time when…   
In order to share this treasure with you, I, again, must digress from my discussions of the West patriarchs and the North Carolina authors.   This treasure is James Larkin Pearson’s autobiography, Poet’s Progress.  Not only does he describe his life, but he also provides a vivid picture of life in western North Carolina in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Not only does he present a microcosm of country life, but he does so with home-spun language and humor, and he does so with an apparent clarity of mind.
James Larkin Pearson began his autobiography when he was 15 years old.  He worked on it intermittently throughout his life.  Initially in this autobiography, he provides the disclaimer that the book does not progress chronologically, that it is quite personal—almost a confessional, and that by “beginning so late in life, the job must be done hurriedly and without much thought of literary style or poetic artistry.  To get it down on paper in plain language, without polish or adornment—that must be the first and main objective.”[i] 
With those thoughts, he set out to describe many things.  He tells about his humble beginning, his genealogy, his family, his friends, and his neighbors.  He describes the poverty in which he grew up, his minimal formal education, the religious and political environment, the countryside, social events, his work, his marriages, his adopted daughter, the floods, the cold weather, and more.   
He doesn’t hesitate to name specific individuals and tell humorous or poignant “stories” about them.  In fact, many names of local residents may be found in the autobiography.  I found his candid description of his relative and friends helpful to me since I am especially interested in the genealogy of my ancestors who lived in Wilkes County and any information that provides clues to their personalities and how they lived. 
One story that sparked my interest is the one called “The Long-Hair Fad.” It concerned the hair style that had become popular with the boys and young men.  This story involved Mai Triplett, my Great Aunt Nannie Lou West’s husband.   When Pearson was about 11 or 12 years old, the fashion for boys and young men was to wear their hair long—down to their shoulders.  Of course, Pearson was too young to participate in this fad, but he recalled some of the older boys and young men who adopted the style:  Bud Barlow, Hayes Walker, Ed Foster, Tom Hendrix, and Mai Triplett.  I know that some of you recognize the names of one or more of these young men!
Another story that Pearson told was one about his Uncle Milt, my 2nd great grandfather, who became, according to Pearson, “a lay-outer.”  Pearson said that his “Uncle Milt” avoided conscription into the Confederate Army by hiding out for the duration of the war.  Pearson’s mother, Louise McNeil Pearson, was his Uncle Milt’s sister.  She described to Pearson some of the hiding places that Milton McNeil often used.  Pearson indicated that most of the time his Uncle Milt was probably at the house with his family but fled to a hiding place whenever someone approached the house.  In a few years after the war, Milton McNeil became a respected leader in the community serving at one time or another as a “preacher,” the sheriff, the clerk of the superior court, and a state senator.  Milton McNeil’s reluctance to serve in the army may have been influenced by his older brother, Franklin “Frank” McNeil.  Frank was the only one of the three sons in that family who wanted to fight for the Confederacy.  He joined the army at the first opportunity and bade his family a sad good-bye, never to see them again.   He died at the battle of Spotsylvania on May 10, 1864.  In reflection, we must remember that Wilkes County was divided in its loyalties during the Civil War.
Throughout his autobiography, Pearson describes activities related to country life in those early years.  Many of the work-related chores were turned into social events.  I learned a great deal as I read about hog-killing, threshing, stacking fodder, lassy-making, harvesting wheat, and soap-making.
Pearson addresses approximately 372 such topics in the 466 pages of his book.  When I reviewed the table of contents of the book at, I knew that it was a “must-have” for me.  It covers such a variety of captivating information, some of which is specific to Pearson, but much of which is relative to many Western North Carolina descendants.  For those of you who want to understand the countryside, the culture, the customs, and the people of Western North Carolina, this book is a must-have.  For those of you who want to learn about your ancestors in Wilkes County, this book is a must-have.


[i] Pearson, James Larkin.  Poet’s Progress, Autobiography of James Larkin Pearson or the Life and Times of James Larkin Pearson, 1879-1981.  Wilkesboro, NC: Wilkes Community College, 2005.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

North Carolina Author: James Larkin Pearson (1879-1981)

James Larkin Pearson was my 1st cousin 3X removed.   He was born on September 13, 1879, to William Thomas Pearson and Mary Louise McNeil.  Mary Louise was the aunt of my great grandmother, America Ann McNeil, and the daughter of Larkin McNeil and Nellie Ferguson. Therefore, James and America were 1st cousins.  His mother, Mary Louise, did not marry until late in life.  For 20 years until her father passed away, she was his care-giver.  Larkin McNeil was severely crippled with arthritis during his later years and needed constant care.  Louise was not married, lived at home, and was the logical one to care for him.  She and her future husband, William Thomas Pearson, who was 14 or 15 years her junior, lived in the same area of Wilkes County and may have known each other.  He came to work on her family’s farm probably after Louise’s father died and worked alongside her in the fields.  Eventually, they married.  Their first child, Jimmy, was delivered by a “granny-woman” in a small cabin on Berry Mountain.  They had another child, John Milton Pearson, who was younger than James.
James “Jimmy” Pearson grew up in extremely poor circumstances.  His parents were tenant farmers who moved frequently to nearby farms in order to provide a better income for the family.  James grew up with practically no education.  According to his autobiography, Poet’s Progress, he probably had no more than 12 to 15 months of schooling which he received at the Whippoorwill Academy, a one-room, one-teacher, backwoods free school.   The school became known as the Whippoorwill Academy after, according to Pearson, “One day some smart wag, in a spirit of fun, called it Whippoorwill Academy, and the name stuck.”  At the very early age of four James demonstrated a talent for poetry when he composed his first verse.  He learned the alphabet from the large letters on the circus posters that, along with newspapers, papered the walls of his family’s home.  The first time he heard anyone read was when his mother read to him from a hymn book, which was likely the only book in the home.  James Larkin Pearson was definitely a self-taught man.
At an early age he became fascinated with printing even though he had never seen a printing press.  He knew, however, from his earliest days that he wanted to be a poet and a printer.  When he was 10 years old, he made his first trip from his home to Wilkesboro which was about 12 miles from his home.  This was, indeed, the longest distance from home that he had ever been at that time. While he was in Wilkesboro, he visited the office of The Chronicle in order to see how printing was done.
Until he was 21 years old, his life was spent working on the farm helping his family.  In addition, he learned the trade of carpentry.  He carried a small notebook and pencil with him, and, as he worked, his mind was busy working out a poem.  When he reached the end of the row that he was plowing or when he took a break from his work, he jotted those thoughts in his notebook.  All the while, whenever he had a chance, he was composing and printing on his home-made printing press in his small room in the family’s cabin.
He began his career in the printing and newspaper business when he took the position of editor and printer for the Republican Patriot in Jefferson, North Carolina.  The Republican Patriot was owned by his lawyer cousin, Bob McNeill.  Later, Pearson published a weekly newspaper, Plain Talk, which he renamed The Patriot.  He wrote for and later worked at The Yellow Jacket, a successful newspaper in Moravian Falls, North Carolina, a small community a few miles southwest of Wilkesboro.  He served as the Washington, D.C. correspondent for The Yellow Jacket.  Later he worked at The Charlotte Chronicle and The Charlotte Daily Observer where he met and worked with John Charles McNeill (no relationship), one of North Carolina’s most famous poets.  Afterwards, back in his home community, he wrote and published his own newspaper, The Fool-Killer, which grew in circulation to about 5,000 readers.  Of course, he included much of his poetry in The Fool-Killer.  After the death of his wife, Cora, he found he could no longer write The Fool-Killer.  At that time he published The Lucky Dog.
James Larkin Pearson and his first wife, Cora Ann Elizabeth Wallace, had a still-born daughter, Blanche Rose.  Later, at the Children’s Home in Greensboro, they found and adopted five-year-old Agnes whom they named Agnes Vivian Pearson.  After the death of his beloved Cora, he married Eleanor Louise Fox.  They lived in her family home in Greensboro, North Carolina.  After Eleanor’s death, he moved to North Wilkesboro and built a library-office-printing shop on the back of the property of the home of his daughter and son-in-law, Agnes Vivian Pearson Eller and Albert Eller, on Sparta Road in North Wilkesboro. He lived on this property until Agnes was no longer able to care for him.  At that time he moved to a nursing home in North Wilkesboro where he lived until he died in 1981.  In 2003 his home-library and Agnes’ home were torn down in order to widen Highway 18.  His adopted daughter, Agnes Vivian Misenheimer Pearson Eller Fox, had two sons, one of whom was Kenneth Eller, and one daughter, Catherine “Cathy” Eller Anderson.  Agnes’ maiden name prior to her adoption must have been Misenheimer.  At some point in time, she evidently married a second time to an individual named Fox.  Agnes, who was a poet in her own right, passed away in 2004.
Pearson’s poetry reflected a traditional style with regular meter and verse forms.  The themes for his works were based on his everyday life on the farm and his personal experiences.  He was profoundly influenced in his early years by the works of Longfellow.  The reaction of the local residents to his poetry was, according to Pearson, “a good deal of a joke.”  Isn’t this reminiscent of Jesus’ statement in Luke 4:24, “I tell you the truth, no prophet is accepted in his own country”?
While he was writing for The Yellow Jacket, his style was that of slap-stick journalism which included droll, humorous prose pieces.  He quickly realized that this style of writing, likely not his personal preference, was a way of making money. Therefore, he stated in his autobiography that “My writing was making oodles of money for R. Don Laws [at The Yellow Jacket] and I couldn’t see why it couldn’t be making money for me.”  After coming to that conclusion, he left The Yellow Jacket and started his own paper, The Fool-Killer.  The slogan of The Fool-Killer was “Make a man laugh right big and cram the truth down him while his mouth is open.”  Soon the publication had a circulation of 50,000 copies a month with money “rolling in from every state in the Union”!  During this period of financial success, Pearson built a nice home at Moravian Falls and employed at times 10 people in his printing shop.  However, with the coming of the Great War in 1914 and a drop in subscriptions, his business began to fail.  He sold his property at Moravian Falls and purchased land back near the old home place at Boomer, North Carolina.  Out in the back woods miles from the nearest town, he was able to rejuvenate The Fool-Killer.
About 1924 Upton Sinclair discovered Pearson’s poem, “Homer in a Garden” and published an article about Pearson in The New York Times.  He also included this poem in the New York Times’ article.  Sinclair called him “the cornfield Keats of America.”  His friendship with Sinclair continued throughout their lives.  Sinclair wrote about Pearson and included some of his poems in his books, Money Writes and The New Pamela.  In the latter novel, Sinclair described Pearson as “a fictitious poet” and identified him in the novel as Piers Plowman meaning Pearson the Plowman. In 1929, while Pearson was devoting most of his time and energy to caring for his invalid wife, Cora, Sinclair wrote in The New York Times that “ill health and poverty interfere with James Larkin Pearson’s work.” 
In addition to Sinclair, Pearson maintained contact with a number of other famous writers and individuals of his generation.  Some of these were Benjamin Sledd, Henry Jerome Stockard, William Thornton Whitsett, Josephus Daniels, Hight C. Moore, Clarence Poe, Joseph Pearson Caldwell, William Rose Benet, Hamlin Garland, Allan Nevins, Brand Whitlock, Clement Wood, Walter H. Page, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Louis Untermeyer, William Lewis Poteat, Paul Green, Archibald Henderson, Armistead Gordon, Charles W. Hubner, and John A. Joyce. He was personally acquainted with John Charles McNeill. 
During his life, Pearson published numerous poems. He considered his best to be “Homer in a Garden,” “Fifty Acres,” “My Love Lies Still Lies Silent,” and “Troubadour.”  He published six or seven books which included Castle Gates, Pearson’s Poems, Fifty Acres, Plowed Ground: Humorous and Dialect Poems, Early Harvest, and My Fingers and My Toes.  A book, Selected Poems of James Larkin Pearson, was published by two college professors.  He was not happy with the selections they included and indicated that he “had nothing to do with it.”  In 1965 he published his autobiography, Poet’s Progress, which he had started at the age of 15.  In 2005 the book was edited with the inclusion of additional notes by the editors and republished by Wilkes Community College as Poet’s Progress, Autobiography of James Larkin Pearson or The Life and Times of James Larkin Pearson, 1879-1982.
In 1933 he was included in Who’s Who in America.  In 1953, the governor of North Carolina appointed James Larkin Pearson as the first Poet Laureate of North Carolina, a position in which he served until his death in 1981.  On September 12, 1976, he was awarded an honorary degree, the Associate in Fine Arts, which was the first honorary degree to be awarded by Wilkes Community College.  On September 20, 1981, just seven days after Pearson’s death, the James Larkin Pearson Library opened on the campus of Wilkes Community College.  The college was about five miles from where he was born on the top of Berry Mountain.  His collection of memorabilia, books, and his printing press were housed in this facility.  In 2004 this building was demolished and replaced with the new facility which currently houses his materials and printing press.  The James Larkin Pearson Library, which is a combination library and museum housing his materials and printing press, is located on the first floor of the Lowes Hall Building on the campus.  Since my previous visits to Wilkesboro have been to research in the Wilkes County Court House and the Wilkes County Library and to visit the areas where my ancestors lived and were buried, I have not yet visited this library.  I certainly plan to do so in the spring.
James Larkin Pearson considered himself to be an independent thinker who adhered to no creed. He purposely declined speaking engagements because, according to him, he had an impediment of speech.  He declared the most important thing in life for him was “to be a good, honest, true and faithful human being—true to myself and all other people—and to my best understanding of a loving and merciful God.”
James Larkin Pearson's Obituary
Kingsport Times-News
August 28, 1981
Pierson died on August 27, 1981, just a few days short of his 102nd birthday having lived a full, but difficult, and amazing life.  He is buried beside his first wife, Cora, and their still-born daughter, Rose Blanche, in the Moravian Falls Church Cemetery in Wilkes County, North Carolina.  Incidentally, his obituary appeared in my local newspaper.
My Great Aunt Alice West was the first person to tell me about James Larkin Pearson and our familial relationship with him.  During her last visit to the East from her home in Washington State, she encouraged me to write and visit him.  In 1967, I did write him.  Not long afterwards, I received from him autographed copies with personal comments of two books, one, a novel, The Double Standard, by his wife Cora Wallace Pearson, and the other, a book of his poetry, Selected Poems of James Larkin Pearson.  Sadly, I never made the trip to Wilkesboro to meet him.  I must attribute this lack of conscientiousness on my part at that time to my age, a much younger age when one has the mindset that “there is plenty of time.”
Pearson, James Larkin. Poet’s Progress. Wilkesboro, North Carolina: Wilkes Community College, 2005.
Welborn, Ken. “Sometimes Treasures Just Walk through the Front Door,” The Record, Wilkes County’s First Worldwide Newspaper, February 15, 2006.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

North Carolina Author: Thomas Charles Land (1828-1912)

Thomas Charles Land, my 2nd great grand uncle, was known as “Tommy.” Because of his travels in the northwest, he also earned the nickname of “the rover.”  He was the son of William Thomas Land and Nancy Jane Carlton.  He was born and grew up in the Stony Forks area of Wilkes County.   He was educated in the old field schools which he attended a few weeks during the winters and at the old Beaver Creek Academy which he attended for a short time.   He farmed and taught school until the outbreak of the Civil War.  During his later years, he served as a member of the local board of education.
At the beginning of the Civil War he enlisted in the Confederate Army of America as a private and rose to the ranks of commissary, corporal, and lieutenant colonel.  He served in the 53rd Regiment of the North Carolina Infantry along with and as superior officer to his brother-in-law, Alexander Balus West, my 2nd great grandfather.  Some sources indicate that Thomas Land participated in 65 battles.  He was wounded in the Seven Days Fight around Richmond and returned home to recuperate.  During his absence-on-leave, he was appointed to the position of lieutenant colonel of the 53rd Regiment, a position that he assumed upon his return to the 53rd Regiment.  He was wounded again during the Battle of Winchester where Alexander Balus West was killed.  Thomas attempted to return to the military but found it necessary to resign.  As a result of his injuries, he could not fulfill his military duties.  He returned to his home in Wilkes County where he taught school and farmed.
In 1870 he moved to Oregon and lived there until 1884 when he returned to Wilkes County.  Again, in 1891 he returned to Oregon.  One writer indicates that he took his great nephew, T. D. Land, with him. In 1898 he returned home to Wilkes County.  While he was in Oregon, he was engaged in farming and mining and enjoyed hunting deer, bear, and elk.  When he returned to Wilkes County, he brought a highly-prized set of elk horns.
In addition to being a farmer, teacher, military officer, and hunter, Thomas C. Land was also a writer.  According to the Poet Laureate of North Carolina, James Larkin Pearson, an admirer of Thomas Land, Thomas enjoyed creating rhymes and wrote a great many letters, poems, and other prose works, some of which were published in a Raleigh paper, perhaps, in The Raleigh Standard.   One of his most widely-known poems was a mountain ballad written sometime during or just after 1868.  This ballad was about the murder of a young, Wilkes County resident, Laura Foster.  His first rendering of this poem, which, according to Pearson was “lengthy and crudely written,” was published in local newspapers.  He later decided that the ballad was too long and later wrote a shorter version which Pearson said was “catchy” and had better rhythm.  The ballads, which were published in the local papers, were sung or chanted all over Wilkes County.  They soon reached readers as far away as Virginia.   As Pearson stated, “The only reason the Laura Foster case has been remembered is the fact that a school teacher named Thomas C. Land was also the local poet who wrote songs or ballads about local happenings and whose mind ran to poetry and romance.”  Pearson also said, “The murder of Laura Foster was thus immortalized by a local poet.”
Today, we recognize this poem, in which a Wilkes County love-tryst and murder were brought to national attention in the song, “Tom Dooley,” as the one recorded by the Kingston Trio.   In that song, Dula’s name was changed to Dooley, but no mention of Laura was made.
Pearson recounted the story of Thomas Land’s poem and the wide publicity that it received in his autobiography, Poet’s Progress, but Pearson said he did not know if Land were the one who put the words to music.  At least, some writers credit Thomas Charles Land as the author of this ballad.  See
Thomas Charles Land’s original ballad consisted of three sections: The Murder, The Search, and The Resurrection and Inquest.  The full version may be found in James Larkin Pearson’s autobiography, Poet’s Progress. Land’s refrain, which I assume is from his shorter, revision, is as follows:

                Tom Dula, Tom Dula,
                Oh, hang your head and cry!
                You killed poor Laura Foster,
                And now you’re bound to die.

James Larkin Pearson considered Land among “the old people that I knew.”  Pearson said, “I have made some effort toward collecting his work, but his people seem unconcerned.”  In the appendix of Pearson’s autobiography, he has included three letters to him from Thomas C. Land.  These letters were mailed from Oregon in 1891.

Thomas Land never married, but, according to my 1st cousin 1X removed, CALT, he was a role model along with his other brothers for my great grandfather, Thomas Harvey West.  At the age of 5, Thomas Harvey lost his father, Alexander Balus West, in the Civil War.  Thomas Harvey and his mother, Nancy Land West, lived near her brothers in the Stony Fork community of Wilkes County. Thomas Land died at home in Wilkes County in 1912 and was buried in the Thomas Land Family Cemetery on the land where he was born and reared.
Revised 12-11-11, 12-13-11
·         Crouch, John. Historical Sketches of Wilkes County, 1902. New River Notes,
·         Pearson, James Larkin. Poet’s Progress, Autobiography of James Larkin Pearson or The Life and Times of James Larkin Pearson, 1879-1981. Wilkesboro, North Carolina:  Wilkes Community College, 2005.
·         “Tom Dooley” (song),”