June 17, 2013 (Day 1)
After about 12 hours of driving, my sister and I finally arrived at our destination – Shelbyville, Kentucky. We came to Shelbyville for genealogy research (and partly because we both wanted a vacation). Sure, we probably could have called or emailed. The documents could have been sent to us in the comforts of our own homes. But there is just something wonderful about driving into the town that use to be the home of your ancestors. To see the documents, census records and old town photographs with your own eyes. And touch the gravestones that mark their finally resting place.
During a conversation with my grandma a couple years ago, I started asking her about her family. She began telling me a fascinating story about a man named Columbus. No, not that Columbus. Columbus Ballard, my 3rd great grandfather, was born and raised on a plantation near Shelbyville, Kentucky. At the age of 24, he packed all of his belongings and purchased a one-way ticket on a steamboat heading north.
He was the oldest of fourteen children. Columbus’ mother died years before he left, his father married Columbus’ aunt (the wife’s sister). Leaving was a way for Columbus to find his own success. Additionally, in my grandma’s words, he just did not want to share everything for the rest of his life. So on March 1, 1854, Columbus settled in Minnesota.
At the time Minnesota was a relatively new territory (formed on March 3, 1849). According to Columbus’ 1911 obituary, Minnesota was ” a wilderness which still echoed the war whoop of the Indian and the shot of the marksman which brought down big game. . . . The men who came here in those days were truly men of purpose and well defined ideals, who could leave well settled communities and face not only desolation and privation, but the slow rewards which came to him who depends solely upon the products that come from the soil.”
As I was talking with my grandma, I realized that much of this information was new to me. Through other family trees I knew that my heritage consisted of German, Norwegian and Swedish roots. Columbus, on the other hand, was of English descent. I asked my grandma when his family came over to America. She looked at me, leaned in as if revealing a secret, “They’ve been here a long time,” she emphasized long for, well, a long time. “My grandma [Columbus’s daughter] used to tell me that if they weren’t on the Mayflower, then they came shortly after,” she continued.
This was shocking to me since I assumed Columbus and his family were similar to my other lines who immigrated in the early to mid 1800s. Suddenly, everything changed. The branches of my genealogical tree doubled – obscuring my view. Branches I never knew existed prompted me to wonder how many more could not be seen from the bottom. So I decided to climb it.
In order to begin climbing, I had to find a foothold – Shelbyville. I was asked why I did not go back to their ancestry homelands. Frankly, I wanted to start with Columbus and work my way back. Shelbyville was the logical starting point. Not only was it the area of Columbus’ birth but also where his father James was born. My grandma did not know much about James besides the fact that he married his wife’s sister after her death. James’ parents were a complete mystery. I had an idea, through online searching on genealogical sites, of how everyone fit together but I wanted proof. So my sister and I slapped a “Shelbyville or Bust!” sticker on our parents’ van (aka “Big Cinnamon”) and began our journey.
As we drove into Shelbyville, our first stop was the library. We entered their genealogy room and asked the librarian how we go about this process. She asked what family name we were researching. I responded with “Ballard.” Her eyebrows raised, “The Ballards are an old family, so there are quite a bit of information,” she turned and led us over to a wall of filing cabinets. Opening one labeled “Family Names,” she reached in a took out a large file folder brimming with papers. She handed me the folder marked “Ballard” on the side. “This would be the best place to start,” she commented as she gave us an encouraging smile.
We sat down and started paging through all the papers. Halfway through we still had not stumbled across anything baring either Columbus or James. Worry began fighting for prime position within my stomach. What if we came all this way and did not find anything? Towards the bottom of the stack we finally stumbled upon a paper with not just Columbus’ name but that of his father and mother. It was a page that listed Columbus and his three other siblings (before his mother’s death). We found our foothold through which we could reach the other branches.
Four hours, a stack of copies and big smirks later, we left the library. Our first real attempt at family genealogy was quite successful. Suddenly the branches had names, births, deaths and marriages. No longer bare, their life’s leaves began to emerge. These branches were alive.
We drove out of Shelbyville to our campgrounds. The Kentucky bluegrass region was much different than I thought. Curvy hills with sharp turns that opened up into rolling valleys littered with horses and wild flowers (or weeds, I really do not know). I could not help but wonder. Did Columbus ride through this very same path? Did he ever stop and take in the beauty, thinking about what adventures the world held? Did he, in his later years surrounded by Minnesota’s rivers and fields, miss this and long for his youth? Was he happy with his decision?
I knew there would be no answers to my questions. I did know that once he settled in Minnesota, he was considered an important early settler in the area. He loved his children, God and his land. He was well liked and respected. While the idea of staking out his own land at the age of 24 must have seem daunting he did find success.
As my sister and I pitched our tent, I thought of all those who stood here before. Of the tribes that honored and respected the land before watching it be taken away. Of the early pioneers who broke their backs trying to do enough to survive. And of those who pass through to get to their destinations.
The answer to the question “Why don’t you go back to their ancestral homeland?” was clear. This is my ancestral homeland because it was, at one time, Columbus’ home.
Night has fallen. An abundance of fireflies have emerged even through it is raining. I have never seen so many as they meander about, ceremoniously blinking on and off as they fly about. With the pitter-patter of rain on the tent I can only wonder what else I will find as I climb.
Things I have learned on Day 1:
- Always, and I repeat ALWAYS, double check to make sure the tent poles are packed with the tent.
- When you absolutely need to find a Target, Walmart or even a K-Mart, you will have to drive at least 40 miles through sharp, weaving roads clutching the “Oh Crap!” handle (as my grandma calls it, but she uses a different word than “crap” if you get my drift).
- It just happens to be the only week tents are not on sale.
- Rain will show up at the worse time, in our case, as we attempt to assemble said new tent.
- If a tent says “Assemble in minutes” it really means “Assemble in maybe a half hour”.