In the Valley of the Gilkesons

photo courtesy of ayako miki

Back in June, I served as the officiant in my dear friend Jess’s wedding. The ceremony took place in her parents’ backyard, a beautiful plot of horse-trodden land in Winchester, Virginia, at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley.  The Shenandoah is one of my favorite places in America.  It’s a place of incredible beauty, of rolling green hills and smokey blue mountains.  I’d been to the valley a few times, but I had never been to Winchester before Ayako and I drove in the afternoon of the rehearsal dinner. I had never been there before, but as it turns out, my family had been, centuries ago.  It turns out that on that hot  June day, I had come home.

Family histories fascinate me.  Aside from genetics, I don’t think they actually have much effect on the individual; contemporary culture and circumstance are much more influential than the location of whatever bog once’s forebears came from or whatever boogey man haunted them.  Culture is passed down, but it changes shape as it changes hands and we drop, or pick-up, as much as we carry.  But that’s what’s so fascinating, how we as individuals arrive out of, and distinct from, our own histories. And also, what of that history we chose to keep for ourselves, and what history is thrust on us.

Since I was little, I always romanticized my mom’s side of the family. I carry their name between my first and last ones, so I’ve always felt as much a Hearn as a Gilkeson.  And the Hearns were easy to romanticize.  The Hearns descended from English nobility.  They were knights and sherriffs of London, complete with a ruined castle in the wild north of England and a coat-of-arms (a red shield with three white herons, “Hearn” being the Old English word for heron).  They arrived on the shores of the New World before the Pilgrims. They followed the frontier line as it moved West and were active participants in every American myth, every American tragedy.  They fought as patriots in the Revolutionary War and rebels in the Civil War. Later, they became cowboys.  My great-great-grandfather was scalped by Apaches.  My own maternal grandfather, Granville Hearn, was an honest-to-goodness cowboy himself as a young man.  We still have his spurs.

The Gilkesons were harder to romanticize.  Their origins are murky and what little we do know is hardly romantic. Whereas the Hearns were English knights in the Old Country, the Gilkesons were Scotch-Irish.  The Scotch-Irish have been a marginal people for most of history, both literally and figuratively. They originally came from the lawless borderlands between Scotland and England and survived mostly as dirt poor farmers or violent raiders.  The Romans built Hadrian’s Wall to keep them out.  The English built a series of thick-walled castles to keep them in line (including, perhaps, the Hearns’ castle).  Centuries later, Scotland and England got rid of them altogether by shipping them off to Northern Ireland.  Shortly after starting a few civil wars there (which continued until the late 20th Century), they moved in mass to the New World. Tens of thousands boarded ships, hoping that on this new continent, their centuries of scraping out a living beyond the pale of the civilized world would come to an end.  For many, it did.  For some, it did not.

In the Old World, the Scotch-Irish were seen as violent, lawless, dirty bandits by the Romans, English, and settled Scottish alike.  There was no romance to them, no lofty castles or shining knights, no clan kilts or bagpipes echoing in sublime valleys. They just had muddy sheep farms carved out of muddier bogs, and wild raids against their neighbors and each other.

Many of the Scotch-Irish have not escaped this history.  Think of the Appalachian Mountains for a second.  Think of the people who live there.  Think of the image you have of them. DeliveranceThe Descent.  The Hatfields and McCoys.  A dark, dirty, lawless people, prone to incest and feuds.  Those are the Scotch-Irish, too, and we see them much as the Romans did when they laid down the stones of Hadrian’s Wall.  That is our image of them, that is the history they carry, willingly or not, to this day.

The Scotch-Irish of the Appalachians ended up on the wrong side of American history and so are stuck with it (though, being white, they were spared the slavery and genocide African-Americans and Native Americans suffered.  Being white, they were allowed a space to live and thrive, even if that place was once again beyond the pale of the civilized world).  I think that in America, the victors not only get to write history, they get to escape it, shed it like so much skin and start anew.  That’s the American Dream, after all.  The flipside, the American Nightmare, is having to carry the burdern of your history with you.

The Gilkesons, luckily for me, did escaped their history, which is why it’s been difficult for me to trace them.  From what I can tell, they arrived in Virginia in the 1730’s or 1740’s.  English families like the Hearns had claimed most of the coast and piedmont, forcing the Scotch-Irish toward the wild West.  A man named Henry Gilkeson, like many of his Ulster compatriots, pushed past the frontier and settled in the Shenandoah Valley.  His first stop was a small frontier town called Winchester at the northern end.

There his family stayed for a century, before moving West again.  It was a wise decision.  History had followed Henry across the Atlantic, but it got stuck in the dark hollows and deep dells of the Appalachians.  When my branch of the Gilkesons left the Shenandoah for the wide, open plains of the Midwest, they left their history behind with it.

So completely did they leave it behind that when I showed up in Winchester for Jess’s wedding, two centuries after my ancestors left it, I had no idea they’d ever even been there. 

But now that I know they were there, where they came from, I feel a deeper sense of kinship with the my dad’s side of my family.  They may never have had a castle or a coat-of-arms, but a long time ago they had a little piece of the Shenandoah Valley, and that’s romance enough for me.

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3 Comments

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  1. Billy Connelly, famous Glaswegian comedian, on the history of Scottish/Irish migratory decision making: “Hey guys, I know an even COLDER place where it rains ALL the time.”

  2. Ha ha ha, that’s awesome. And appropriately enough, it’s cold and pouring rain here in Chicago

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