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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.


  1. Charlotte,
    Thanks so much for this post about James Larkin Pearson's autobiography. I was not aware of it; I just checked it out on Amazon and ordered it. I'm his 3rd cousin, thrice removed. I'm researching my family one couple at a time. I'm currently researching my great-grandparents, George Thomas McNeil (1870-1930) and his wife, Clara Eva Hettie Ellen Jarvis McNeil (1873-1959). I'm very interested in the background of life in Wilkes County in the late 1800's and early 1900's. I can hardly wait for this book!

    --Barbara Disher McGeachy
    Raleigh, NC

    1. Hi Barbara,
      Thanks so much for your comment and interest. James Larkin Pearson was my 1st cousin 1X removed. Therefore, you and I must be "cousins," also. I have tried to trace your family in my genealogy but apparently don't have enough information to do so. My McNeil ancestry is as follows: America Ann (McNeil) West(b1863, my grgrandmother), Milton McNeil(b1846), Larkin McNeil(b1813), Joseph McNeil(b1769), George McNeil(b1720), etc. Perhaps, you can share with me how your George Thomas McNeil fits with my direct line.
      You will be enthralled by Pearson's autobiography and will learn much about your McNeil ancestors.
      I would love to have your e-mail address. You might try sending it to me through the e-mail link in my blog.
      Thanks again.

  2. Hi Charlotte,

    I just now saw your reply from April! I subscribe by email to your blog, but not to comments.

    I don't see where your email address is, so I'll just let you know here how I'm descended from Rev. George McNiel. My grandmother was Nora Bessie McNeil (1900-1992). Her father was George Thomas McNeil (1870-1930). His father was John G. "Blind John" McNeil (1832-1899). His father was George McNeil (1802-1878). His father was James McNiel (1763-1834), son of Rev. George.

    If my calculation is correct, you and I are fourth cousins, twice removed!

    Pearson's autobiography arrived and it is wonderful! I found some information about my ancestors. For example, on p. 457, "Married at 94 Years Old" is about my 3G grandfather, Allen A. Whittington! He lived to 98. But mostly I find Pearson's book to have lots of good background, since he was an observant citizen of the county.

    Glad to see you back blogging again!

    --Barbara McGeachy
    Raleigh, NC

  3. Barbara,

    It is so good to hear from you. I started a reply which became so long that I have decided to use it for a blog post. I hope to get it up in the next day or so. Thank you for the information and your kind remarks. After I entered your information in my Family Tree computer program, the program identified us as 6th cousins. I'll have more details in my next blog post.

    I'm happy that you have found Pearson's autobiography to be the wonderful book that I found it to be. He has left the best first-hand account of our families and life in Wilkes County in those early days that we will ever have. What a legacy!

    If you will send a reply to this comment with your e-mail address, I will not publish it. Nothing is posted until I "moderate" (publish) it in the blog. My e-mail is not provided in the blog. I would like to correspond with you by e-mail. Thanks so much.


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