"The trouble with Jeff is that he lacks the power of conversation but not the power of speech."

Tracing My Roots: The Files of Walker County, Alabama

Information, research, and data are wonderful things. They are, however, utterly meaningless unless they are interpreted and shared– just words on a page with no context, no meaning, no relevance. To that end, I’m beginning to undertake an endeavor to share the fruits of as much of my genealogical research as I can state plainly I am confident in its accuracy.

That’s a big point: Accuracy.
Anyone who’s bopped around a genealogy site for long can surely tell you about the haphazard research done by many (most?) of the amateur genealogists on there; haphazardness and errors magnified by copying of each others’ work with no verification or cross-referencing. Simply: The signal-to-noise ratio is ridiculous.  Because of this, I’ve been painstakingly careful to vet my references and sources as much as I rationally can. This naturally leaves a number of unpleasant gaps in my lineage that I’m still working on; and probably will, perhaps forever. Such is the nature of ill-documented times.

In any case, the first things I’ll be sharing are more of the sweeping, broad movements of my direct lineage than the smaller, personal stories I’ve uncovered. Context, and all. The first is from a leg of my pedigree that was very much in my thoughts last night, as I watched the horrible destruction in Oklahoma. I have descent from Oklahoma, you see, though they originated in Alabama…

Background: Walker County, Alabama through 1820-1900

Geographically and politically, the Walker County, Alabama is an isolated oddity. Nestled into the northwest corner of the state, it was a major byway of Native American trails– but well off the beaten path for European settlers. There was only one major waterway– the Warrior River (as the Black Warrior was known above Tuscaloosa), and that was not well- navigable. As a result, Walker Country was something of a backwater, and desperately poor. John Martin Dombhart quotes an 1819 journal in his own 1937 History of Walker County in describing the typical settler of Walker:

Passed through this place from Greenville District, South Carolina, bound for Chatahouchie; a man and his wife, his son and his wife, with a cart but no horse. The man had a belt over his shoulders and he drew in the shafts; the son assisted his father to draw the cart, and the old woman was walking, carrying a rifle, and driving a cow.

The more affluent settlers made their homes on the flat lands to the south, while the ‘hill country’ of Walker was

A typical Walker county building: Sam Houston’s 1848 law office

settled by the poor; along its meager creek bottoms and expansive hills. The living was difficult as the squatters and hard-scrabble farmers tried to desperately eek out a living along the hills. Albert Burton Moore described the typical Walker County home in his 1927 History of Alabama as a crude one with only a single door and window. The only light that would find its way into Walker homes was through cracks in the round logs that made up the walls. Glass was unheard of. Interiors were all rough and handmade– no one who settled in Walker could afford professionally made goods. There were no cooking stoves; and single pans and a few tin accoutrements of eating ware was all that was used. The farms themselves tended to be split between gardens for feeding one’s family; and those with the means also planted cotton or tobacco for trade. Output was scant.

A single toll road– “Byler’s Road”– serviced the county starting in 1822, costing a hefty 75 cents for a four-wheeled carriage; two-wheeled variants would cost 50 cents, and a man on horseback 12.5 cents. Squall Shoals north of Tuscaloosa complicated transit on the Warrior; though it did potentially allow crops to go to market without paying the exorbitant prices of Byler’s Road. In 1827, coal was discovered in Walker, and began to be the primary export of the area– or at least the most profitable. This spawned a new wave of settlers, and provided alternate means of living for Walker residents other than the challenging farm life; and some wealth as well. “Black diamonds and white gold” as Walker citizens called their exports of coal and cotton, became the lifeblood of the backwater in the 1830s.

Walker was staunchly in favor of Andrew Jackson during the Nullification Crisis of 1828 – 1832, and most of the populace stood against the prospect of secession from the union. As Walker moved into the 1840s and 1850s, this sentiment stood little changed– driven, no doubt partially due to the fact that there was little Walker County wealth tied up in slaves (Dombhart 42)– most Walker citizens were either independent business operators  or workers in coal mines, lumberman, or farmers; or they were descended from the original, poorer settlers; much like their northern brethren, and unlike the wealthy, slave-holding plantation owners that drove politics in the state, and the rest of the south.

In 1861, Walker sent Elder Robert Guttery as their delegate to the Secession Convention. Elder Guttery had been a minister in the Primitive Baptist Church since the 1820s, and was well-acquainted with the desires of the people in his county. Guttery not only battled on the floor of the convention against secession, he refused to sign the ordinance all together when it passed on 10 January 1861. While there were many locals that supported the Confederacy (notably John Manasco, a friend of Andrew Jackson, who led training efforts as a Brigadier

A typical ‘mossback’ cave; at Anderson Springs, Walker County.

General of Alabama militia; as well as Guttery, who while opposed to secession, none the less supported his native state), large swaths of the Walker citizenry stood opposed to secession, and to the war. Many of these who opposed the war in Walker fled to the hills to avoid the draft, gaining the derogatory nickname “Mossbacks” for their time spent hiding in caves. Others made it to Union lines and joined the war effort in opposition to their state.  Truly for Walker, the Civil War was a battle of brother against brother.

The war itself barely grazed Walker until March of 1865, when Major General James Wilson’s cavalry detachment from Sherman’s army raided into Alabama, ending with the seizure of Selma. Whilst riding through Walker, Wilson’s forces burned the courthouse, church, and a handful of disloyal businesses and homesteads. A hastily-assembled home guard was brushed aside with barely a notice, and local legend holds that only a single man actually stood to fight Wilson’s 13,000 cavalry.

More damage was actually done by Confederate loyalists to Walker’s ‘Mossbacks’ when they fled– post-war claims to the Federal government called for restitution to be paid to those whose families were harassed, and houses and crops burnt by pro-Confederate home guard seeking out draft dodgers. While not many were paid across the south, a disproportionate number were successfully claimed in Walker; owing to service given by Walker men to the Union cause.

The 1880s saw another great boom in Walker, with the population nearly doubling, spawned by a railroad coming through Jasper to access and bring to market the coal in the hills. Multiple land and speculation companies sprung up overnight, and by 1886 when the line officially opened, Walker with roaring with capital. This boom was short-lived, as the Panic of 1893 brought the economy and land values in Walker crashing to the ground– though the population continued to grow. It was from 1893 on that many of the Walker citizens– especially those from poor farm families– began to flow out of the area; many headed into the recently opened Indian Territory– and into some portions of the Indian Nations that were formally illegal to settle in, despite being along rail lines.

Mary Lockhart & George Spencer Files

The earliest member of the Files clan I’ve been able to confirm conclusively is my great-great grandfather George Spencer Files. By some accounts, he was born out of wedlock in Walker County, Alabama in 1865 to Mary Lockhart, whose own family immigrated to the area from Tennessee sometime in the late 1820s, during the coal boom.  Mary’s parents– Thomas and Dorcas– may have originally come to the United States via The Old Dominion in the years prior to the Revolution, but I have as of yet been unable to confirm this. Documentation of Mary is painfully scarce– she and her family were among Walker’s poor farmers before the Civil War; and Alabama’s being on the losing side surely did not help matters.

There are a number of conflicting accounts of George’s birth to Mary. Some accounts place him as the bastard son of Jeremiah Franklin Files; scion of a Virginia military family with descent from the sole Files survivor of the Monongahela Massacre. Other accounts dismiss the possibility of Jeremiah being George Spencer Files’ child– in some cases emphatically– indicating that there is simply no way (in their opinion) that Jeremiah would have had a bastard child. I find that argument unconvincing, but I cannot debunk it either. (I’ll address Jeremiah’s interesting history in a later post.)

The other story about George’s birth indicates that he was the son of a “Milas/Miles” or “Enis” Files; and half-brother of Milas’ other son, Manley Files. This story gets more traction with those that don’t want to see Jeremiah as a philanderer, but I see no more credibility to Milas’ wandering eye than with Jeremiah. Indeed, there is little-to-no evidence of a Milas/Enis even existing; but plenty of evidence for Jeremiah– and Jeremiah and Mary Lockhart lived very close together indeed– on the same road in Township 14 (modern Oakman) of Walker County. In any case, Mary Lockhart gave the “Files” name to little George and to Manley– it had to come from somewhere.

George lived with his mother until around 1886. The last appearance of Mary in the census records was in 1880, when she lived with George and his older brother Manley on her farm; listed as a widow (though no husband was ever noted.) In 1886, at the ripe old age of 21, George married neighbor girl Rebecca Maybelle Baker, herself one year his senior. They started a family of their own on their own rented farm; with Lonzo born in 1887, Martha in 1891, Clara in 1894, Spencer in 1899, and Cordelia in 1901. Likely seeking their own fortune on their own land, George, Rebecca and their children moved west sometime before 1910, settling in Talihina– a formerly illegal settlement in the Choctaw Nation that was made legal by incorporation in 1905.

The fate of George, Rebecca– and my great grandmother Cordelia Files continues in Oklahoma in the next installment… during the Dust Bowl.

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