Wednesday, April 27, 2016

My Dunnings and the Great Flood of 1937

The Great Flood of 1937 hit the Ohio River Valley hard in mid-late January after 12 days of rain caused every tributary to over top their banks, flooding 70 percent of Louisville and 90 percent of it's sister city, Jeffersonville, Indiana. Things were so bad down river that Evansville officials declared Marshall Law. Upstream, things were nearly as dire for towns like Hazleton, Patoka and Wheeling, Indiana. The highest crest ever recorded in the town of Hazleton, situated at the mouth of Robb's Creek on White River, was in January 1937 at 31.7 feet, just for reference.

Gaylord, Elsie & Nancy Kirk
We'll get back to the flood momentarily, but first let me introduce you to my Aunt Elsie's family. That picture was taken around 1957 of Aunt Elsie with her husband and oldest daughter. Elsie was the first child born to my maternal great-grandparents, David and Ruth (McEllhiney) Dunning. 

She was born in 1909 on the farm of her grandparents, Thomas J. and Rhoda (Greek) McEllhiney. In fact, the attending physician mistakenly wrote her last name as McEllhiney on the birth certificate when, in fact, she was the first Dunning child born in Center Township, Gibson County, Indiana.

Aunt Elsie married Uncle Gaylord on Christmas Eve 1933 in Evansville. She had spent the better part of her life taking care of eight younger siblings, so having kids was not her first priority after marriage. Oldest daughter, Nancy Gayle, wasn't conceived for almost seven years. In the meantime, the young couple took up residence in a house near Hazleton, owned by the Ice family. The Ices were property owners north of Wheeling, not far from where Elsie grew up. The Dunning family farm was on Wheeling Road, north of Francisco. Anyway, Elsie's older cousin, Venita McEllhiney had married Charles Ice three years earlier, so we know the cousins were tight with Charles and his family. While living near Hazleton, Gaylord was a bus driver for the local school there. It wasn't long before they moved into the house owned by Gaylord's grandfather, John A. Kirk, elsewhere in Washington Township, Gibson County.

When they moved to Section 1, Center Township in Gibson County, they were living in the Netty Moore house very near where Elsie attended 7th and 8th grade at the Lawrence School, a single-room country schoolhouse before the consolidation of county schools in 1927. She never went beyond the 8th grade. That old schoolhouse, as well as the Netty Moore place where she was living, was on property once owned by her 3rd great-grandfather, a war hero, Joshua Stapleton, who fought the Native Americans at Tippecanoe (and I believe, also saw battle during the American Revolution). Joshua had lived there as early as 1820 and donated the land for Lawrence School. This was the best place they had lived since getting married in 1933 and it put Elsie much closer, within 2 miles, of her family home.

So that Gaylord could work his own farm, reaping more of his labor, they once again moved within Center Township. This time, they moved even closer to Elsie's family, taking up residence on the 100-acre Morrow farm on Wheeling Road in the Patoka River bottoms. It was late 1936 and they were about to experience one of the worst flooding disasters in Indiana's history. By mid January the next year, with the ground frozen and saturated by the Indiana winter, the rains began to fall, 15 inches in 12 days at Louisville fell from January 13-24th, according to the National Weather Service. As noted at the beginning of this post, it was a disaster of epic proportion for the entire region.

The land rented from Vesper Morrow began to fill with water. Unlike their McEllhiney neighbors across the road who had built their house on an elevated piece of land in the bottoms, the Morrow home that Gaylord and Elsie lived in was at ground level. The Patoka River flowed into the first floor of their farmhouse, but they had prepared by removing valuables to the second level and elevating furniture as best they could. Wheeling Road was impassable below the Dunning farm and the Kirk home on Vesper Morrow's farm was only accessible by boat until waters receded in February. The family had escaped in time and most of their valuables and sentimental items were spared.

It was still a mess and took some time to get back to where they were when they had moved in a few months earlier. Keep in mind, this disaster came on the heels of the Great Depression. As Uncle Les (Elsie's younger brother) reports, the financial crisis did not hit farm families quite as hard as they were more self-sufficient than ordinary homes. For instance, "they had their own wheat for flour, cows for milk and butter, chickens for eggs and meat, hogs and cattle for meat, their gardens for vegetables, enough crops to feed the livestock and sell for the staples needed. Eggs and cream were sold for salt, pepper, coffee, baking powder, soda, sugar and etc." ("The Early Life of Elsie Isabell Dunning/Kirk/McDowell" by Leslie Dunning.).

Elsie took the hardships of the flood without complaining and accepted the gracious help of friends and neighbors to recover, clean and set back up her home. In early 1938, she was dealt another setback, as her mother left her father at home with two children and another finishing high school. Elsie stepped in to help her grieving father take care of the house and the children, stepping back into the role she served as a teenager. 
Aunt Elsie

Her mother left with Elsie's Uncle Edward Williams and soon filed for divorce from David Dunning. This was quite a shocking development and David demanded that his ex-wife, Ruth, have no contact with their children, the youngest of whom, Carl, was only six. Two years later, Elsie became pregnant with Nancy, who was born in early 1941. By then, her brothers, Roy, Tom and Les were serving our country, Ginny was in high school at Francisco and Carl was in 4th grade.

Aunt Elsie survived the Great Flood of 1937 that claimed nearly 400 lives, fairly unscathed, and the personal tragedy at home of her parents' 1938 divorce. She was a great stand-in matriarch for the Dunning family all while trying to start a family of her own. She and Gaylord Kirk had two daughters who are still living in the area where their parents made their humble start. Speaking of humble beginnings, Elsie started her life in a one-room log cabin and grew up on the Dunning homestead, which still stands (in an updated form) on Wheeling Road outside Francisco, IN. She was my great-aunt and lived a great life of 96 years.

My family has now farmed Center Township in Gibson County, IN, for more than 200 years. I'll be posting more about our pioneer ancestors in the weeks to come to commemorate the bicentennial of the State of Indiana, admitted to the Union in 1816.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

My pioneer family and ties to Lewis & Clark

Today's pioneer history lesson takes us back to 1799 and Gibson County's oldest known settler, Keen Field. I was transported back in time when I first saw his grave, marked with a pioneer-era tombstone, a piece of slate with his name rough-etched into it. He's buried north of Patoka, Indiana, in a cemetery now known as Field-Morrison Cemetery, once maintained by my late Uncle Les Dunning. It sits at the edge of a corn field alongside the railroad tracks and CR 50 E. It is the cemetery where my Morrison ancestors from North Carolina are buried.

It is Rachel E. Morrison (1840-1917), my third great aunt, who ties me to the famous pioneer family. I say famous because Keen Field's wife, Anna Lewis, was kin to Meriwether of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition. Keen's brothers, Joseph and Reuben Field, were part of Lewis & Clark's Corps of Discovery. Anna (Lewis) Field gave Keen at least 10 children, some born in Kentucky before the move in 1799 to Indiana. Their grandson, Joseph Jackson Field (1831-1864), who died in a sorghum mill accident, was my Aunt Rachel's first husband, married in Gibson County 8 Jan 1863.

The Field and Morrison families were part of what became the Steelman Chapel neighborhood just north of Patoka. That area, first surveyed by the British when it was still part of the Northwest Territory, is laid out in 100-acre tracts running diagonally, SW to NE, known as Military Donations (land that was given to American war veterans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries). The Field family owned Military Donation 10, just south across Steelman Chapel Road, from where the pioneer cemetery mentioned above is located. The Morrisons took up farming just east of there and on the north side of Steelman Chapel Rd, sometime during the last half of the 1850's.

Aunt Rachel was married twice. After her first husband's accident, she married a Henry Barton, whose lineage I have not confirmed, as there were at least 3 Henry Barton's born around that time in Knox and Gibson counties. The headstone where he is buried at Shiloh Cemetery, not far from the original family farm, bears a birth date nine years later than his actual birth--a mistake on the part of the family or the gravestone engraver, I'll never know. I only have record of one child, Nancy Jane Field, being born of Rachel's first union. However, with Henry, she bore at least six children. She died 5 Dec 1917, at age 77, near Patoka and is buried near her parents, David and Jane (Swaim) Morrison, in the same cemetery as Keen Field.

Though not a direct relative, I took much time in researching the Field family from Virginia, who settled at the mouth of the Salt River, just south and west of Louisville, KY. I happened upon Lucie and Gene Field's research some years ago at, where they have painstakingly laid out the family history and retraced the famed steps of Meriwether Lewis and his intrepid group of explorers. It was with great sadness that I did not get to meet Gene and Lucie in person during their trip to SW Indiana in the Summer of 2011. Gene Field left this world two years later, leaving a great legacy to those of us who were connected to his family, either by birth, marriage or friendship.

I've been painstakingly tracing my roots back to the pioneers of Knox and Gibson counties for the better part of 15 years. My mom's lineage goes back to pre-Indiana statehood and pioneers from Maine by the English name, Mills. Since this is the state's bicentennial, admitted to the Union in 1816, I'm near the end of writing a book about that family, showing where we've come in 200 years, it's working title is "My Mills Family: 200 Years in Indiana." Stay tuned for more as I travel along in this quest.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Stewart Cunningham (1818-1903)

In keeping with my Indiana Bicentennial theme, here is the profile of another pioneer ancestor from my Scot-Irish roots on mom's side.

Stewart Cunningham was born in Edwards County, Illinois, and raised in southwest Indiana. The county maps of 1880-81 show that he owned a 75 acre farm in Decker Township, Knox County, Indiana, operating a ferry across White River between Gibson and Knox counties. His affairs were very much tied to Gibson County, where he was a commissioner as early as 1852, according to Gil R. Stormont (see p.91 "History of Gibson County...", Bowen, 1914), a post he proudly held, on and off, until 1866.

He was the son of either John C. or William "Buck" Cunningham, brothers who came with their immigrant father to the Wabash River valley from a Scot-Irish settlement in north Georgia. Stewart's grandfather (presumed), Andrew J. Cunningham (1776-1840), was born in East Lothian, Scotland, but married a Nancy Shields (1778-1840) in Ireland, 1797. They lived in County Donegal before joining other Scot-Irish immigrants and sailing to the Port of Savannah in Georgia. Also, Andrew's brothers, John, Joseph, and Stewart and sister, Jane (who married Edward Phillips in Gibson County, IN) were born in Scotland and came to American about 1800 at the Port of Savannah. They left Georgia and came north about 1803, according to Leland S. Cunningham (see his book "Early Hazleton"), but Dan Elliot has found a land record where Andrew deeds to Samuel his land in Clark Co, GA, in Sep 1805, so they may have moved before the winter of 1805 to Indiana.

Back to our subject, legend has it that he ran away from home in Illinois as a young boy, sometime after his mother's death in 1827, crossing the Wabash River at Mount Carmel, coatless and barefoot. He wound up finding shelter at a home in Gordon Hills, a bedrock rise near the mouth of the White River due west of Patoka, Indiana. He was but a teenager when he left there and took up residence with Smith Miller at Miller's Station, an old stop on the Evansville & Terre Haute railroad between Patoka and Hazleton. He was married to Susanna Robb, who undoubtedly introduced the young Stewart to her younger sister.

On the first day of February 1842, a 23-year-old Stewart was joined in marriage to Miss Georgianna M. Robb, whose father, James Robb, Jr., was also an early Irish immigrant to pioneer Gibson County, Indiana. They were married by Methodist minister, Rev. Samuel Stewart, who at one time also served as a judge in Gibson County. For their first home, the couple had but $400, so they borrowed money from John Brown to purchase Militia Donation 39, a one-hundred acre tract in White River Township, about a mile northeast of Miller's Station. They set up housekeeping in a small log cabin on the north end of the tract. I believe present day Steelman Chapel and Cunningham roads intersect near where his property was. The 1881 county map shows that he also owned part of Military Donation 26 giving him 150 acres of land in that township. From his land across the river in Knox County, it is said that he set up a saw mill and launched flatboats to carry farm products all the way to New Orleans. This is also where he ran the aforementioned ferry until automobiles and bridges made his service obsolete.

Every year, Stewart and "Georgie" celebrated their birthdays together on August 12th by providing a large meal for family and friends, of which they had many. That was Georgie's actual birthday. Stewart's was three days later. Known as very generous folks, they would take in orphans and the needy on a regular basis, per family sources. Their son "Doc" Cunningham (1844-1915) always brought several dozen watermelons for the occasion. And anybody who knows Indiana produce, knows that Decker melons are the sweetest and juiciest in the world!

The two-story home they built in the Steelman Chapel neighborhood from timbers Stewart razed from his military donation lands was burnt to the ground in December 1948. It had stood for more than a hundred years as an old pioneer landmark in Gibson County. The couple had been long since passed from this world, Stewart died in 1903 and his bride in 1915. They are buried in the cemetery that bears her father's name.

My connection to this pioneer couple is through my 3rd great-aunt, Gracie E. Morrison-Cunningham (1844-1921), who married "Doc" the farmer and melon-bearer mentioned two paragraphs above. She was born in the Surry/Yadkin County area of North Carolina, where my maternal great-great grandmother, her younger sister, was also born in 1854. Their family traveled by wagon through the Cumberland Gap in 1858 to escape policies they didn't agree with in the South, namely the institution of slavery. Arriving in southwest Indiana sometime before 1860, they took to farming the same area of Gibson County as the Cunninghams and Robbs. Gracie and Doc Cunningham raised a family of four children in that area and are buried in Patoka's Oak Hill Cemetery.

I've said it before, my roots run very deep in Gibson County, Indiana. This is yet another example of my pioneer roots in that county. I will continue to celebrate my rich Hoosier heritage throughout 2016, the Bicentennial mark of Indiana's statehood.