In Search of the Irish Past: Part 1
This blog is part of several that address the increasing presence of Ireland in my books. It is also a journey to discover and understand my ancestors when they lived in Ireland (both in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland), Scotland, and eventually, America. There has also been a Viking or two (or three) in my family’s history. Come with me as I discover their journey and give you an inside look at how close to reality some of them have been.
I didn’t understand the connection between the Neely and Harper families to Ireland until very recently. When I was growing up, I was told vaguely that my ancestors were from Ireland or Scotland or England or perhaps Wales, but there were never any details that brought them to life.
In the early 1980’s I had lunch with my mother’s brother and he mentioned that he had recently returned from Ireland, where he researched the Harper lineage and discovered their roots in the McCullough (or MacCullough) clan. I should have known then that the use of the word “clan” meant they went back further than Ireland, because Scotland is known for their clans but not Ireland.
We had more important things to discuss that day so his information was tucked away somewhere in the back of my mind, where it lay for the next three decades. Unfortunately, the information he uncovered that day was misplaced or largely forgotten, as no one in the Harper family seems to know of any European connection. I suspect he decided that no one was particularly interested. Perhaps the documentation was thrown away, lost in a move or is still somewhere yet to be located.
After my suspense books began to be published, my father suggested that I write the story of Mary Neely, a woman on his side of the family who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. When I began researching her story, the Neely family came alive for me—and so did their struggles as they searched for better opportunities, not only for themselves but for their children and descendents.
I know now that Mary descended from a man who left Europe in the early 1700’s in search of a better life in America. I will be traveling to Ireland in just a few weeks, and I’ll have much more information on that connection and what I’ve discovered.
But suffice it to say that in the early 1700s, a man’s fortune was tied to the whims of a monarchy. Taxes were backbreaking, opportunities were limited and a man’s fate was tied not to who he was or who he aspired to become, but his lineage.
Around 1720, three brothers left what is now Northern Ireland in search of opportunity in America. At this time, America was divided by European nations who had conquered parts of it; primarily, England, France and Spain. It was also the home to more than 500 Indian nations who were at war with these strangers who entered their lands and lay claim to it.
The brothers, by accounts I’ve discovered thus far, settled in Pennsylvania and eventually their families (particularly their children) moved further south to Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
By 1779, William Neely was enticed by John Donelson and James Robertson to move his family westward to Fort Nashborough, a beautiful area in the North Carolina Territory in the vicinity of the Cumberland, Tennessee and Ohio Rivers. William was already a successful farmer but I suppose he’d inherited his ancestors’ yearning for a better, brighter future so he agreed to move his family westward.
They sold everything they owned except a few sparse possessions that would fit on a small flatboat. Mary Neely, William’s daughter, and her brothers, sisters and mother joined Donelson on a river voyage that would take them through hostile Indian Territory at the height of the Chickamauga Indian Wars. William took an overland route that was supposed to be more dangerous. He was herding cattle westward while his family supposedly took the safer river route.
However, once they entered the area now known as Chattanooga, Tennessee, they were attacked repeatedly for hundreds of miles. Many in their group of 300 settlers were wounded. Some were killed, and some were captured, including two girls—one was Mary’s best friend.
They soon faced starvation, as they were unable to stop and hunt for their food as they’d intended, due to the ferocity of the Indian attacks. Small pox erupted on one flatboat, and frostbite claimed at least one life. By the time they reached Muscle Shoals, Alabama, they were navigating whitewater rapids that would tear their boats apart, losing all the possessions that at least two families had.
This river journey is the story told in my book, River Passage. It was determined to be so historically accurate that the Nashville Metropolitan Government Archives has the original manuscript in their possession for future researchers and historians. It was also the 2010 Winner of the Drama Award.
Four months after they left Virginia for Fort Nashborough, a ragtag group of settlers arrived with the harrowing story of their journey westward. And just four months after that, Mary Neely was working with her father William at the Neely Salt Lick (in Madison County, Tennessee) when they were attacked by Shawnee warriors.
William was killed and scalped along the riverbank. He was only in his early 40’s. Mary, only 19 years old, was captured and taken deep into Indian Territory, where she was held as a slave for three years.
After researching Mary’s story online, I took to the road with my father, retracing her footsteps from the point where she was captured to where she eventually escaped and made her way back home. A plaque is erected in honor of Mary near where she was captured, and I arranged to meet with historians in Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan—all the places where she was taken as the Shawnee tribe journeyed toward Canada.
Eventually, she managed to escape in Northern Michigan, made her way across Canada and into New York. The American Revolutionary War was at its peak and afraid she would be captured by the British, she remained alone on foot until she was rescued by an American soldier from Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania.
Her story is told in my book, Songbirds are Free. It is named that because her captors renamed her Songbird for her beautiful voice (she’d been singing at the Salt Lick when she was captured).
Her story was not difficult to piece together. I found out during my travels and again during the subsequent book tours that Mary is a legend in many parts of our country, particularly in the Tennessee school system where students were taught about her, and even in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I learned so much about the Neely family that it prompted me to look even further into the stories of my ancestors and all they endured. It would lead me not only to those in America, but it would eventually lead me to Ireland, Scotland and points north.
Next Thursday, I’ll talk about the true stories behind an Irish character in my book, Dylan Maguire, who made his debut in Vicki’s Key.