Even if I had been looking for a headstone, it would’ve taken me by surprise.
I’m accustomed to stumbling across signs of generations past while wandering the backcountry of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, and that includes headstones. But those headstones are usually crude, roughly chiseled fieldstone. This? A larger-than-normal, commercial headstone? In the middle of the forest?
I was so surprised to round a natural bend in the terrain and come face-to-face with the grave site that it was almost haunting, in a weird sort of way. Finding graves at former homesteads deep in the BSF backcountry is not unusual; that was a way of life, even in the late 19th century and early 20th century. You were born, you spent your life farming the land, then you were buried on it.
Even still, this headstone seemed out of place. I had roamed this land for years, passing within a few hundred feet of the grave site on many occasions, but I had never seen this stone. Tucked in the dense forest growth in the natural “V” formed where Laurel Fork Creek and Station Camp Creek meet on their way to the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River, the stone was within shouting distance of equestrian trails on either side.
It read simply:
HUSBAND OF NANCY
Six words, if you count the dates of birth and death. Thirty-three characters. But the stone was worth a million words.
Everywhere you turn in this backcountry, you find reminders of what was once a vibrant life here. Some are so obvious they smack you in the face, like the headstone of Elijah Smith, husband of Nancy. Others are much more subtle; you’ll miss them if you aren’t careful. But all of them have stories to tell — stories of when this land was settled by determined, gritty families who worshiped in churches here, sent their kids to school here, had their meal ground at the mill here — churches, schools and mills that have long since disappeared into the forest growth, which now appears as though white men never settled here at all.
By 1850, when Elijah Smith was a man in his late 30s, the U.S. Census says that there were more than 120 people settled along Station Camp Creek and Laurel Fork Creek in what is now the Big South Fork NRRA. The place even had a name: Elva, Tennessee. That name, like the community it represented, no longer exists. You can find it on the map, but the coordinates are in the middle of the wilderness. But back then, this place meant something to a lot of people.
In my writings about the Big South Fork and its people, I’ve often mentioned names like Armstead Blevins and John Litton — men who made this country. I knew, as I sat down to write the story (what little I know of it) of Elijah Smith that I would be mentioning those names again. Because in these communities of Station Camp, Parch Corn and No Business, everything was connected. The families relied on each other. And things always seem to have a way of coming right back to where they started.
Elijah & Nancy Smith
Not much is known of how Elijah Smith wound up in Big South Fork country, unfortunately. We know what became of his family once he was here, but we don’t know who his parens were, who his brothers and sisters were. We don’t know whether he migrated to the Cumberland Plateau or if he was born here.
What we do know is that Elijah and Nancy Smith settled on Laurel Fork Creek, which merges with Station Camp Creek about a mile west of the Big South Fork River. We know they had eight children, the oldest being daughter Sarah, born in 1836, and the youngest being son Harmon, born in 1855.
Elijah Smith was actually the grandfather of John “Hawk” Smith, one of the Big South Fork region’s most colorful and infamous characters. He was also the great-great grandfather of a man who would wind up being mayor of the Town of Oneida, Denzil Pennington.
John J. Smith, known to his friends and neighbors as Hawk, was the fourth of eight children born to Elijah’s daughter, Sarah. Sarah married Samuel Smith, who was the son of another group of Smiths who lived on Laurel Fork Creek — Anderson A. Smith and his wife, Sarah Slaven.
Sarah was the daughter of Richard Harve Slaven — a Revolutionary War veteran who was the first settler on No Business Creek, two valleys downstream from the Laurel Fork valley, and quite possibly the first settler in all of Big South Fork country. That distinction likely comes down to Slaven, who was granted land near the mouth of Tackett Creek because he was a Revolutionary War soldier, and Jonathan Blevins, who built the cabin that is now Charit Creek Hostel on the upper reaches of Station Camp Creek. It is said that Smith’s home was essentially a fortress, with rifle slots instead of windows.
It has been speculated that Elijah Smith was a brother to Anderson Smith. Some descendants of Elijah Smith even list Anderson Smith in genealogy records as his brother. They cite a U.S. census record as their proof.
Indeed, it would seem unlikely for two families of Smiths to live on Laurel Fork Creek and be unrelated. If Anderson Smith was, in fact, Elijah’s brother, that would mean that Sarah and Samuel — who wound up marrying — were first cousins. That would be unusual, but certainly not unheard of.
However, Anderson Smith’s descendants do not list Elijah as his brother. They have Anderson’s only sibling being a sister, Catherine Smith.
And speaking of Jonathan Blevins, who built the original homestead near the headwaters of Station Camp Creek, his grandson — Daniel Blevins — married Catherine Smith. Daniel Blevins was a brother to Jacob Blevins Jr., also known as “Jaky” and “Uncle Jake,” whose homestead is a culturally-preserved location along the headwaters of Station Camp Creek that is known as “Jake’s Place.”
Jonathan married Katy Troxell, who was the daughter of Jacob “Big Jake” Troxell and Princess Cornblossom of the Doublehead Cherokees. Big Jake had been sent to the Cumberlands during the Revolutionary War because he understood the natives — his mother had been a Delaware Indian from Pennsylvania — and the colonial army needed to make sure the Cherokees in the region weren’t recruited to join the fight on behalf of the British. Jake liked the region so much that he stuck around, marrying Cornblossom after her father — Chief Doublehead, who was one of the Cherokee chieftains who signed the Treaty of Tellico — was mistaken for a renegade and killed.
As for cousins marrying, it did happen. In fact, genealogy records seem to indicate that George and Eria Pennington — whose grandson, Denzil Pennington, was mayor of Oneida — were first cousins. However, it’s likely that they weren’t truly related. The way it works out is like this: George Pennington was the son of William P. Pennington and Margrette “Patsy” Smith, Elijah Smith’s daughter. Eria, meanwhile, is listed as being the son of Elijah Smith Jr., Elijah’s son. However, census records do not show Eria Smith living with the Elijah Smith Jr. family in 1900, when she would have been six years old. She has been tied to that family because her obituary, published upon her death in 1957, listed Elijah Smith Jr.’s surviving children as her siblings. A plausible explanation is that Eria Smith was taken in by Elijah’s family and cared for.
John “Hawk” Smith, whose great-aunt, Catherine, married the grandson of Jonathan Blevins, grew up to himself marry one of Jonathan’s descendants. John was born in 1866, three years after old Jonathan — who was 90 years old — died after being attacked by a swarm of bees as he walked to the mill (his grandson, Jake, operated a small grist mill on a tributary of Station Camp Creek, which is now called Mill Creek). Two years later, Polly Ann Blevins was born to Armstead Blevins — Jonathan Blevins’ son with his second wife, Sarah Minton, whom Jonathan married after Katy Troxell died. John Hawk and Polly Ann would grow up to get married, and moved their family upstream to the mouth of Bill Branch, where John made a name for himself through his hospitality, ingenuity and homemade moonshine at the place still known by locals as the John Hawk Smith Place.
Armstead, meanwhile, moved to and fro as he raised nearly 20 kids, but wound up returning to the region and settling near the mouth of Parch Corn Creek. In 1881, he enlisted the help of master cabin builder John Litton to build him a story-and-a-half cabin for a sum of $5.
John Litton, who had established a farm with his wife, Vianna, along the North Fork of Fall Branch (it’s still there today as The Litton Farm, accessible via the 5.9-mile John Litton Farm Loop Trail), was a seventh-generation American. His fourth-great grandfather, Caleb Litton, had migrated to the U.S. from England. His great-grandfather, James T. Litton, moved from North Carolina to the Big South Fork region and was Scott County’s first public school teacher.
Litton’s brother, Andrew Litton, married Nancy Jane Smith, the oldest daughter of Samuel and Sarah Smith and the granddaughter of Elijah Smith. And, seven years after John Litton built Armstead’s cabin, his daughter, Poppy, was born. At the age of 19, Poppy married Armstead’s grandson, Harvey Blevins.
Meanwhile, not everything was idyllic in the river bottoms. Far from it, in fact. There was plenty of tragedy to go around. Hawk Smith’s son, Anderson — the fourth generation of Smiths with an Anderson Smith; Hawk named the boy after his brother, grandfather and great-grandfather — died in a cave-in while working in a coal mine in Zenith at the age of 34. It was just one of several tragedies to befall the Hawk Smith family.
And Anderson Smith’s nephews — the sons of his wife’s brother, Absalom, the son of the Revolutionary War veteran, Richard Harve Slaven — were caught up in a family feud that ended in murder.
In 1872, Elias Meshack Slaven was arguing with his brother-in-law, Daniel Pennington. Pennington had married Meshack’s sister, Susanna Jane, and they set up house near Meshack. The argument became so heated that Meshack aimed his rifle and fired at Pennington, missing him. Pennington returned fire with his pistol, striking Meshack in the shoulder.
Pennington then left his home and hid out in the undergrowth nearby, probably fearing retribution. It wasn’t long before another of his wife’s brothers, Steward Riley, came along and shot Pennington. He died the next day, but not before telling his wife — who would later testify in court to implicate her brother in the killing — that he had seen Steward Riley running away.
Steward Riley fled Big South Fork country and never returned, but not before telling everyone that it was he and not Meshack who had fired the fatal shot. Steward and Meshack were both indicted, but never stood trial. A third man went on trial but was acquitted.
Dan Pennington, meanwhile, became the second person buried in the Slaven Cemetery at Chimney Rock, where John “Hawk” Smith had been born. The first was Angeline Moore, the 15-year-old orphan girl who was discovered brutally beaten on nearby Huckleberry Ridge.
Four months after his death, Dan Pennington’s son, William Marion, was born. The young boy grew up and left Big South Fork Country, eventually winding up in California — which, ironically, is also where his father’s killer, Steward Riley Slaven, wound up. Dan’s widow, Susanna Jane, remarried and left the region, as well, as did her brother, Meshack Slaven.
Time was marching on. The coal and timber industry came and went. With them they brought the region’s first jobs. When they left, the jobs went with them. The region was becoming increasingly remote. At the farm John Litton had built, which fell into a state of disrepair after he died in 1935, General Slaven and his wife, Mary “Did” Slaven, purchased the farm for $600, and moved in and restored everything. But they only made it to town twice a year, and the mud was so deep that their old International truck wouldn’t budge during the winter and Slaven carried his youngest daughter on his shoulders so she could get to school.
Folks were getting tired of the isolation. An exodus had begun in the 1930s. As the community’s young men went off to war in the 1940s, experienced the outside world, then returned to the isolated region afterwards, the exodus only intensified.
By 1960, the last resident at No Business Creek had fallen ill. It was Dewey Slaven, the great-grandson of Richard “Harve” Slaven, who had been the first settler in the Big South Fork region. Dewey hadn’t left home his entire life, preferring to stay at No Business even as his friends and neighbors abandoned their homes and moved out. But he had to leave to seek medical care, and died. When he died, Scott County Court closed the polling place they had left open at No Business for so long out of respect for Slaven, even though the precinct only served six to eight voters.
And while the descendant of the first person to enter the region back at the beginning of the 19th century had been the last to leave No Business, something similar was happening just upstream at Station Camp. All the farms had been abandoned, the families preferring to move out of the rugged gorge and closer to town. Just one family remained: At Jonathan Blevins’ old farm at Charit Creek, Barney Phillips’ family was living in the original cabin that had been build in 1815. They were the last family at Station Camp Creek, and up and down the valley, all that remained were the remnants of a life gone by — like, a couple of miles down the creek, the headstone marking the grave of Elijah Smith, husband of Nancy.
In Big South Fork Country, everything really does cycle right back around to where it began.