This blog is a reprint of my internet journal from 2001 to 2002 in which I documented my "vagabond" solo journey in a Chevy Conversion Van tracing my roots. I not only traced their paths and found their homes and final resting places, but I did extensive genealogical research in court houses, libraries, historical societies, genealogical societies, cemeteries, and talked to the local people. I traveled with a laptop to upload my notes and photos, and use e-mail. It was a fantastic journey which lasted two years. I had no other home except my van to sleep in...just a bed and video player. My household goods were put into storage for two years. My mail was delivered to me at general delivery when I phoned "MailBox, etc." and told them where to send it. At night I stayed in campgrounds, motels, friends' backyards, friends' homes, and those of the few living relations I've tracked down. As I traveled I collected so much genealogy information, that I had to get rid of items that I had originally thought essential to my travels (like a microwave oven). Between ancestral sites, I visited any tourist sites I could find and got to know alot about the USA. This was a trip of a lifetime and I'm still sorting through all the wonderful memories, photos and invaluable genealogical data I found. I will post to this blog as I can - one or a few days at a time of that journey from 2001 to 2002

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Ancestor Tracking - Richmond VA - 27 May 2001

I ventured into Richmond since it was Sunday and there wasn't much traffic.  I might have to change my opinion of Richmond, now that I am able to drive through it not be scared to death of the traffic.  I went to the Richmond Civil War  Visitor's Center for the Richmond National Battlefield Park System.  It was downtown near Robert E. Lee's home.  It was in what used to be the Tredegar Iron Works, an important factory producing iron products for the Civil War and railroads.  It was interesting in that I think there is a Tredegar Mines or Iron Works in Wales, land of my Rees ancestors.  It was also interesting because it has been carefully restored to be the home of the Visitor's  Center.   

Tredegar Iron Works
The visitor's center is located on the James River (the same that I walked over in the Blue Ridge Mountains. There are locks there and an impressive canal that was once 200 miles long. Now it provides a pleasant River trail - or even an opportunity to rent little motor boats for a fun ride.

James River canal at Richmond VA
I visited the Chimborazo Medical Museum where the main visitor's center used to be. The models showed it was a cantonment type hospital, much like Landstuhl Army Medical Center (whereI served  in Germany a few years ago), and many other of the Army Hospitals of only 20 years ago. That is, it was composed of radiating or staggered wards….the hospital was not one great big building, so as not to be totally damaged in a shelling, etc

Then I followed the route of the Seven Days' Battles of General McClellan's attempt to invade Richmond in 1862. These included the battles of Beaver Dam Creek, Cold Harbor, Gaines Mill, Glendale, Malvern Hill, none of which I had heard of before, but nonetheless very bloody and important battles. The confusing part was Cold Harbor which saw fighting both in 1862 and 1864. The battle I was interested in occurred in 1864 on Grant's march to Petersburg:

    The Akin connection to Cold Harbor--
136 years ago, a relative, Marshall Akins had been at Cold Harbor. According to the history: "The 36th Wis, one of Fox's fighting regiments, was organized at Madison,Wisconsin, from March 1 to 22, 1864, and mustered out July 12, 1865. It was commanded by Col. Frank A. Haskell, who was killed in action at Cold Harbor June 3, 1864, [after the Brigade Commander, Col McKeene, was killed]. Haskell was succeeded by LTC John A. Savage, who died of wounds received in action before Petersburg July 4, 1864.  LTC Clement E. Warner then took command, till mustered-out. The 36th was under fire for the first time at Spotsylvania, May 19, 1864, and became, during its service so reduced by death, wounds and disease, that it carried only 11 officers and 170 men into the fight at Ream's Station in which action it lost 134 men taken prisoners. It belonged to Gibbon's Division, Second Corps, and lost 157 killed, and 185 from disease, etc."      I found the above description of his regiment's history on an internet site, and at the Cold Harbor Visitor's Center I bought the battle maps that showed exactly where his Brigade was placed on each day of the Cold Harbor battle.
I knew Union soldier, Marshall Akin's son, Howard Akins, when I was a child.  He was my mother's cousin.  When he died in 1954 I received a box of his papers (see below), I guess, because I was the only one interested in them.  They were his father's Civil War papers, among other things.  His father, Marshall Akins was in the 36th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry when he was 19 years old. I wanted to see where he had fought at Cold Harbor and Petersburg.  I had read that he had been there from his application for pension written years after the war.    None of the photos were identified.  I can only assume that one of them was Marshall Akins.  The treasure box is below:

 These two tin-types were later found in a photo album of Marshall Akins

 On June 3rd 1864 in just one hour 6,000 Union men died.  In the two weeks of the Cold Harbor battle there were 16,000 casualties.  This battle changed the course of the War in the east from a war of maneuver to one of siege.  This was actually Marshall Akin's second enlistment.  In 1861 he enlisted with the 86th Pennsylvania  Volunteers at age 16.  He lasted only four months due to illness.   After that he moved to Wisconsin with his family and later enlisted there.   I saw the Cold Harbor battle ground today.   The Cold Harbor land is so different now, but the trenches are still there.  It must have been a terrible place to be in 1864. I walked the trails at Cold Harbor Battleground and viewed the same trenches. 
The trenches at Cold Harbor
As Grant went south to Petersburg there were various battles along the way as Lee tried to stop him.   I followed this trail in the van.  Finally at the James River there is a series of fortifications - earthworks - that are well preserved and offer interesting walks around them. I found another black snake.  This one was crawling around on the top of one of the Earthworks. 

I see on a map there is a monument to the 36th Wis on a road just north near the battle of Bethesda Church, I'll have to check that out tomorrow.   By now it was almost 7 pm and my thoughts were turning to the Western Sizzlin’ Restaurant.  So I headed back to eat and to call it a day.  It had been an exhausting day of beautiful weather and poignant thoughts.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Ancestor Tracking - Charlottesville to Richmond, VA - 26 May 2001

From Donna's Vagabond Journal of 26 May 2001:
Raining all night at the Charlottesville KOA campground, but I was nice and dry. Got up at 8:30 am and noticed the four tent sites next to me were either vacant or the occupants were in the process of leaving. I wonder if they are going to a dry motel, or further into the Shenandoah Mountains?   The camp bathroom was humming with activity, so rather than be seen heating coffee water in the bathroom, I was prompted to use my own resources to get hot water. I tested my Power Supply Battery to heat up water in my hot pot, but it took 400 watts, so just tried my hot coil, and at 100 watts it worked perfectly. Since I slept later than expected, I didn't pull out of the camp until about 11am.

I drove north in the direction of Orange, VA. On the way I stopped to view the Barbour Mansion Ruins, home of James Barbour an early governor of Virginia that burned in 1884. It was designed by Thomas Jefferson, and now has a popular vineyard and winery. Further on Hwy 20  I finally came to Montpelier, home of the 5th President of the US, James Madison and his wife Dolly. It is out of the way, and not highly publicized, but definitely an enjoyable estate to walk around. With a "AcoustiGuide" tape player you can hear about all the places you walk through.

Barbour Mansion Ruins


James Madison & model of Montpelier

View from the house to Montpelier grounds

Ready for dinner with James Madison and friends at Montpelier
The big house is full of history:  from the early 1800's through it's expansion when James Madison inherited it, with the entertaining done by Dolly Madison, and after Madison's death, with the sale of the estate and later purchase by a black sheep of the wealthy DuPont family of Delaware. If you go there be prepared to spend several hours enjoying the historic plantation.  The graves of James and Dolly Madison are on the grounds of Montpelier.

Graves of James and Dolly Madison
The two lane highways of Virginia, while picturesque, are narrow enough to make me hold my breath when oncoming trucks pass by. I headed back southeast and in an hour arrived at Richmond, VA. I reluctantly came to this city, but with the 3-day Memorial Day weekend, I figured a lot of the people had left the city and gone to the mountains, so I would get a motel room, use the internet, and be able to visit some of the Civil War battle sites that I had missed before. I got a room at Best Western for two nights, got a sandwich at Arby's and settled in for some serious internet exchange.  Although I had ancestors in Virginia, I wasn't sure just where they had lived.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Ancestor Tracking - around Charlottesville, VA - 25 May 2001

25 May 2001 Charlottesville, VA area  - KOA Campground

I slept late and well, then took off to find the Walton’s Mountain of the Walton’s TV show. Unfortunately I turned out of the campground in the wrong direction because I was thinking the campground was on the south side of the road – it wasn’t. So despite my very detailed map, I couldn’t find the right highway. I stopped at a rock quarry to ask directions, but the guy had to run and answer a phone. Finally I took out my GPS and it knew exactly where I was, and it agreed with the maps, despite my thinking the maps were wrong- sure. Heading in the right direction I drove through some really beautiful land. Very hilly and green, lots of trees. Beautiful, old, backwoods type area. I took some very rural roads, holding my breath each time I approached another vehicle on the narrow, nearly one-lane road. I haven’t gotten comfortable with the van width yet.
Walton  Mt Museum at Schuyler
 The home of Earl Hamner, the original “John-Boy Walton” of the TV show was raised in Schuyler, VA.  I was surprised his house was actually in the tiny town, and not up by itself on the way to Walton’s Mountain.  The town had prospered due to a soapstone quarry and works in the town.  Earl’s father worked there.  There were several old churches.  Ike Godsey’s” store, has now burned down.  The school is now made into a community center and museum for the Waltons.  Several rooms are made up to appear as the Walton’s home on TV looked. 
"Ike Godsey's Store"
"Walton's Living Room"
I watched a video and was amazed at how similar all the Walton kids looked like the real Hamner kids.  Earl Hamner helped with the original casting, and even chose Richard Thomas to play himself.  Ate next door at the Schuyler Family Restaurant, and enjoyed the lunch and down-home service.
Real and TV "John Boy" Walton / Hamner

The real Walton / Hamner home
Heading back to Charlottesville I took the tiny Rockfish River Road – quiet and isolated, each turn a picture of peacefulness.. The rain came again as I was getting back into Thomas Jefferson’s neighborhood. Reminded me of two years ago during Hurricane Dennis (?) how I slogged through the downpour to visit Monticello. Today I would visit Ashlawn-Highlands, the home of James Monroe, 5th President of the US, and good friend of Jefferson. Last time I only got as far as the parking lot, then due to a ticking clock, pulled back out to be able to get back to Ft Bragg, NC in time for work at the hospital. Well, no work schedule for me today.

Rockfish Road

Ash Highlands - home of James Monroe
A very modest home for ex-president Monroe back in the early 1800’s. He wasn’t of the new aristocracy as were Washington and Jefferson. The home, slave quarters, and overseer’s house were nicely kept, and maintained by the College of William & Mary. Next on the agenda, driving past Monticello, was a stop at Michie’s Tavern. Built in the late 1700’s as a home, it became a tavern and lodging place for travelers. The tour was different in that it wasn’t a regular home, and included a well, an outhouse or “necessary”, a spring house, curing shed, and grist mill. There is also no lack of souvenirs for the tourists to buy, but I was able to resist these, as my van won’t hold much.
Michie's Tavern

Room at historic Michie's Tavern
Back at the campground, there was a bustling of activity, as the Memorial Day Weekend has begun. All spots were filled except a couple tent sites. It’s kind of nice to see the kids playing and all the activity. I was happy in my van. It was still raining lightly. For dinner I finished the potato salad left from Walton’s Mt, and the remainder of the asparagus, plus some triscuits (my daughter’s favorite) with Apple Chutney (OK I couldn’t resist buying that). Used the van battery for a half hour of news on the TV and 45 minutes of reading lights. The test will be if the van battery starts in the morning. ??

Saturday, March 19, 2011

24 May 2001 – Thursday Harrisonburg – Charlottesville, Virginia

Surprisingly I did not sleep well in the motel. For $50 one would think I should sleep twice as good as at the $25 campsite. But I didn’t. I like the quiet campsite much better – and somehow the bed made of the fold down bench seat at the rear of the van is very comfortable, even if it’s just a little short.

I used my time in the morning to upload a bunch of pictures for my website. Next chance I get I’ll insert the photos into the text and make them into thumbnail pictures. I heard from my friend Alvin Wong in Hawai'i and he is clicking on each thumbnail picture to make it big and very clear. He has a high speed line, and can check up on me. Which reminds me, if you are reading this, why not send a little e-mail – you can do it right from the homepage and say hi. It can get lonely out here.

Well, at 11am I was out of the Day’s Inn at Harrisonburg and filled up with gas for $1.55/gal. I thought that was a great bargain, as it was up to $1.79 in Washington, DC. Too bad, just down the road gas was selling for $1.29!! I think the refineries have shifted into overdrive and are producing more gasoline. I hear city gasoline is higher because of the special formulation it has to go through, for air pollution control.
Birthplace of President Woodrow Wilson - Staunton, VA
I continued on down Interstate 81. Lots of big trucks on this road. But it was a beautiful day. I wanted to do as much as possible before the next rain – forecast for tomorrow. I arrived at Staunton, VA. Such a nice little town. I give it “Donna’s Four Pineapple Award” for it’s historic significance, its use of signs to find the visitor’s center, and it’s overall beauty. Downtown is the birthplace of President Woodrow Wilson. We don’t hear a lot about him, but since he was president when my mother was born (1914) I figured I should see the historic house. He moved to Georgia when he was 11 months old, but Staunton still claims him. I was the only person on the tour.

Scot-Irish Farm
 But what I really wanted to see was the Museum of Frontier Culture in Staunton, VA. I must award it “Five Pineapples” as it is so unique and such a labor of love. They have imported three farm houses from the 1700’s of Northern Ireland, Worcestershire, England, and the Palatinate of Germany and reconstructed them here. They represent the typical home of early immigrants to the Shenandoah Valley – the English, the German, and the Scots-Irish. Then they found an old log farm house, barn and outbuildings in Botetourt County, VA built about 1830, and reconstructed it here, showing how the descendants of these immigrants used methods and traditions of their ancestors from Europe. My Thornburgh, Polson and Harbison ancestors were Scots-Irish who travelled down this valley and continued around the time of the Revolution into Kentucky..

View from the Scot-Irish house out the beautiful window
This is a living history village, with people dressed for the period and actually working on their farms. I totally loved it. There were only about 10 other people in the place. But I imagine by Memorial Day weekend which starts tomorrow, their business will pick up.  I can't stress how wonderful this place is.

Kitchen at the English House
View from the window in the English House kitchen

Early American log house from Botetout County in the Shenandoah Valley, VA at the Museum
Sheep at the early American long house

At the Palatine German house - Museum of Frontier Culture, Staunton, VA
Finally I headed East to Charlottesville to the KOA campground I had made a reservation with using my cell phone. Quite a handy gadget, I'm glad I got one for this trip. But not to worry, the campsites were far from being sold out. I was the only person in the tent section, and not many motor homes. This campground is really in the backwoods. Very close to where Thomas Jefferson built his home, Monticello. Other homes of famous men built in this area of those of Patrick Henry, James Madison, and James Monroe.

I hadn’t eaten all day and had thought I’d first get my campsite and then go find a restaurant, but this campground is so far in the woods, I decided to try what I had. So I opened cans of asparagus and a can of chicken, then heated water in the camp bathroom to make instant mashed potatoes – and “wha-la” dinner for a van-person. I topped that off with ice cream from the camp store. This place has internet access, but I didn’t use it. There is a nice big swimming pool here. I found a tick on my neck when I looked into the bathroom mirror, so I decided not to go walking out in the woods this evening.. YIKES. Very few people here, like a ghost-town.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

23 May 2001 Wed: Harper’s Ferry, WV – Harrisonburg, VA

After three rainy days in the Harper's Ferry, WV campground, the sun came out and the weather was perfect for a camp -- so I am leaving... go figure! Well, I can't let the weather dictate where I want to go, and I decided to go back to the Shenandoah Valley and see some more of the great state of Virginia. I was possibly tracing the route of my Harbison, Thornburgh, Polson, Bryan, King, Haywood and Hope families before the Revolution as they moved south and eventually went throught the Cumberland Gap to Kentucky.  It was a fine day. The squirrels were out, almost coming into the van. Also the people began emerging from their big motor homes. There weren't any Appalachian Trail hikers. Too wet I think.

I wasn’t quite sure where I wanted to stay - but knew it would be at a motel, as I wanted to connect back to the internet and recharge all my batteries –the jump-start power battery, Video Camera, Cell Phone, and Laptop batteries. It was a beautiful day. Heading down south into the Shenandoah Valley I came to Winchester, I ate at Shoney’s breakfast bar and even got a discount for being elderly! $5.49 –I had eggs, bacon, hashed brown potatoes, strawberries, pancakes, French toast, chicken, mashed potatoes, I left all the nutritious food alone, I guess. I decided to travel further down and perhaps stay at Strasburg or New Market, but pushed on south to Harrisonburg. I needed to stay at a town that had a “local call access“ to dial up the local AOL access phone number for my internet connection.
I chose Harrisonburg's Day’s Inn because they advertised having data ports, free local calls, and refrigerators. Truth is, not all the rooms have data port phones or fridges, and there was a $1 phone access. I couldn’t get onto the internet in the first room I got, so insisted I change to a room with a data port phone. Then I called AOL and got some help, and connected with a new AOL access number – one with a slower speed I guess. Well, after all that work, I headed for the jacuzzi and got a wonderful water massage on my poor neck. Carefully watching the time, I was out of the jacuzzi for the start of the last episode of “Boot Camp” on television - now I can rest in peace, the girl, “Whitlow” won the $500,000 and I don’t have to watch any more evening TV. The TV in my van gets good receptions for some channels, but uses the van battery, which I want to be careful about – so I don’t drain it. I spent a couple hours online and answered e-mail and enjoyed hearing from friends.