A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

From the river that runs alongside our house, my 7-year-old has pulled something seemingly volcanic: a lumpy and porous black clump the size of a baseball. “What is this?” I

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

From the river that runs alongside our house, my 7-year-old has pulled something seemingly volcanic: a lumpy and porous black clump the size of a baseball. “What is this?” I

Forging a Family Tree

The author and his son walk through one of the cemeteries near their family home in Henderson County.

From the river that runs alongside our house, my 7-year-old has pulled something seemingly volcanic: a lumpy and porous black clump the size of a baseball. “What is this?” I ask him, but mostly myself, as I turn it over in my hand.

We’ve been pulling skipping stones from the shallow water, tossing them across a flat section downstream. Upstream, the old house that is our new house waits on the bank, nearly hanging over this stretch of the South Fork of the Mills River. Beyond the house, mountains stretch into Pisgah National Forest, but not a single volcano stands among them, so I don’t know what to make of this glob that my kid has dropped into my hands. It’s not a stone for skipping, of that I’m sure.

“It’s iron ore,” Ezra says to me with all the confidence that youth and an active imagination allow.

“Maybe,” I say with all the veiled dismissal that parenthood allows.

What I don’t know, standing in that chilly water, is that Minecraft has made Ezra smarter than me. In the video game, Ezra plays a blocky miner out to collect resources and forge swords and escape zombies. So even out here in the three-dimensional real world, he knows the look of iron — and this thing in my hand is indeed it. What’s more, this chunk of iron has been waiting for us in this spot below our new home because my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather left it here. I don’t know any of that today, of course. All I know to do is stick it in my pocket and keep flinging rocks downstream.

• • •

It’s a dangerous deal when you marry someone who loves old houses as much as you do. You make all kinds of wild decisions. In our case, that meant buying this house without knowing much about it. Like, say, just how old it is: 1840, someone told us; 1870, someone else said. The story we later heard was that around 1900, the owners decided that they’d rather live along the river than up the side of Forge Mountain, so they lifted the thing from its foundation, set it atop some logs, and rolled it downhill to where it sits now, overhanging the water and, apparently, some bits of iron.

When we put down our offer, all we knew was that deer filled the fields in the afternoon and that sunlight cut through the trees and bounced off the water in a way that seemed magical. We knew we loved old houses, even if we didn’t know just how old this one was (or that it had, for example, tumbled down a mountain a century or so ago), so we packed up and moved in.

What I certainly didn’t know was that moving in meant coming home. I didn’t know that this deer-filled stretch with perfect light had once been family land, and that just upstream, my ancestors had run their iron forge to fashion shovels and axes, leaving behind slag for my Minecraft-educated kid to unearth 200 years later.

• • •

I came up on family land far on the other side of Henderson County from our new old house. As a boy, I could be let loose with a bag full of daylight and never leave home: My dad’s people owned 100 acres along Clear Creek; across that creek sat the land of my mother’s family.

From early on, I understood in a tangible way where I came from; the houses around me provided a kind of pictorial genealogy to trace: My grandparents’ house waited down the hill, my great-grandparents’ house farther down the dirt road, and my great-great-grandparents’ house above the barn. Across the creek, the same story of houses begetting houses played out in my mom’s family.

I can’t say that I thought much about the people who’d left those houses behind until I’d left myself. Living in parts of Central America and in far corners of the U.S. in my 20s and 30s, I began to wonder about the names in my family tree. Of course, what I was really wondering about was where I come from. Or, more to the point, who I am.

Faded photos of distant relatives — including Silas Sitton — delicate hand-stitched relics, and even a gnarled chunk of iron ore link the author’s family’s past to his present.

Faded photos of distant relatives — including Silas Sitton (bottom) — delicate hand-stitched relics, and even a gnarled chunk of iron ore link the author’s family’s past to his present. photograph by Derek Diluzio

So, as many of us do when we log on to Ancestry.com or open the results from 23andMe, I started digging to find myself. In blurry scans and scrawled longhand, I found hints of the lives of the people who had, for most of my life, been mere names, empty houses, and faint headstones.

I found a newspaper clipping of my great-grandfather Albert Prestwood telling tales of delivering the mail in the flood of 1916. From death certificates, I came to learn that his father, Asbury, had moved to our patch of earth in Fruitland not long after his own father and uncles had died in the Civil War. In a yellowed newspaper clipping pulled from a box in my grandparents’ house, I discovered that Asbury’s grandfather William had logged most of his 19th-century life in an invented code scribbled into dozens of volumes. I tracked down a deciphered transcription of the 50 years he’d recorded in those hand-sewn notebooks and found there his life amid lost loves, gold rushes, and the War of 1812. Further back still, I discovered a written account from his father, Thomas, about being shot after blowing up a bridge in Coosawhatchie, South Carolina, during the Revolutionary War.

I found men and women who’d carved out simple lives and abided in these mountains no matter what came.

These scraps began to stitch together, telling a story I could write myself into. These were my people: Their bodies had been coded into my skin, and their lives were opening before me on my computer screen. Surely there were lessons to find there about how to live my own life. I stared at their photos, searching their eyes and hairlines for hints of my future.

That’s all to say that I wasn’t entirely clueless about genealogy when we bought our indeterminately old house in Mills River. In fact, in a roundabout way, my search for ancestors had led us there, even if there was 20 miles from the family land of my youth. This love for old houses and the realization that I wanted to return to the North Carolina mountains after living in other places came in no small part from uncovering those far-off lives. Behind me, I found men and women who’d carved out simple lives and abided in these mountains no matter what came. I wanted to count myself one of them.

• • •

Not to brag, but not only can my 7-year-old identify iron, he also loves cemeteries. Ezra will sometimes ask on a Saturday to find one, and then he’ll stroll among the headstones figuring ages and imagining past lives. From our house, two cemeteries sit just across the river, so we set out one day not long after fishing for iron to find them. Both places, it turns out, are full of our kin.

My great-grandmother Azalee, who married the mail-carrying-in-a-flood Albert, came from Mills River. In the Whitaker Cemetery, Ezra and I find her parents, her grandparents, and her great-great-grandparents. The next weekend, we head in the other direction and climb the hill to the Sitton-Gillespie Cemetery. There, we find her mother’s parents and on back — all the way to Philip Sitton, whose headstone reads, “Pioneer Iron-Maker of Western NC.”

Philip Sitton headstone, Nov. 7 1770-June 19, 1843. Husband of Winifred Bradley; Pioneer Iron-Maker of Western NC

Father-son outings to Henderson County cemeteries turned up centuries-old connections to relatives who lived and worked and died in the same community that the Joneses call home. photograph by Derek Diluzio

Eventually, my hours of deed searches reveal that this Philip Sitton, my sixth-great-grandfather, sold our land to his son James in 1835. James, who owned the land until just before his death in 1886, likely built the house in which I sit writing these words. Who, exactly, rolled it to this spot is still a mystery, but it’s no small miracle to wake in the morning and consider that the wall I lean against while my coffee brews is a wall that one of my people raised up.

• • •

I recognize that it’s not everyone’s idea of a good time, this gathering up of iron slag and old deeds and headstone photos and census data. There’s a convincing argument to be made that none of it matters. Our new house will stand the same — which is to say a little crooked — whether or not I know about James Sitton.

Then again, I won’t be the same man amid that spinning. When I walk out my back door, I now think about how James Sitton walked out that back door on his way to the iron forge, where his brother Lawrence — my fifth-great-grandfather — would’ve been waiting, ready to work, and where I now stand with my boy and our smooth stones. I now know of Silas Sitton — my third-great-grandfather— who lit out at 17 to join the Union Army. When he came back, he set to farming. He married, ran a sawmill, served as postmaster and justice of the peace. In his obituary, recorded in the minutes of the church downstream, he’s described as taking “great pride in the building up of the country from his immediate community.”

Diving into the land surrounding the author’s home reveals lessons in history and his ancestors’ legacies. photograph by Derek Diluzio

If I’m on the hunt for lessons in my family tree — lessons on how to abide and who I ought to be — here is one: To make the world a better place, Silas Sitton worked right where he was, right where I am. He was “an ever-ready hand … when the call was made for help,” his obituary read.

I decide I’ll aim for that as I wake up in his great-uncle’s house and set to making breakfast for his great-great-great-great-grandsons: ever-ready hands. Because no matter what’s on the news, there’s always someone just up the road who could use a hand. My long-lost kin told me so. And they’ll tell me more still as long as I keep rooting around in the river and in the past, trusting the same dumb luck or providence that brought me home.

This story was published on Feb 26, 2024

Jeremy B. Jones

Jeremy B. Jones teaches creative writing at Western Carolina University. His memoir "Bearwallow: A Personal History of a Mountain Homeland" won the 2014 Appalachian Book of the Year Award in nonfiction, a gold medal in the Independent Publisher Book Awards and was a finalist for the Thomas Wolfe Literary Award. His essays appear in Oxford American, The Iowa Review, and Brevity, among others.