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Home Features Hidden headstone provides clues about BSF's history

Hidden headstone provides clues about BSF’s history

In terms of what you would expect to see as you round a natural bend in the terrain in this forested part of the Big South Fork backcountry, a large, commercial headstone would be pretty low on the list. 

In fact, if you were searching for a large, commercial headstone in the middle of the backcountry, this would be a pretty unassuming place to find one. 

Grave sites aren’t uncommon in the backcountry. As the 19th century progressed, and especially as the 20th century began, well-established community cemeteries like the one at Chimney Rock were the norm in Big South Fork country. But before that point, and to some degree for as long as settlers carved out a life in the cragged valley encasing the river and its major tributaries, it wasn’t uncommon for family burial plots to be established wherever homesteads existed. Today, those homesteads have largely been reforested. So, it’s not uncommon to stumble upon graves in the woods. 

Coming across commercial headstones in the middle of the forest, though, is a pretty uncommon occurrence. More often than not, individual graves or even small groups of graves are walked past by the unassuming explorer, who doesn’t realize they’re there. 

That’s what makes stumbling across the head stone of Elijah Smith an unusual — perhaps even startling — occurrence. It’s within shouting distance of the nearest trail, an equestrian trail that runs the length of Station Camp Creek to Charit Creek. The stone was obviously made and placed many years after Smith’s death in 1873. And, yet, it’s as if no one has set foot there in decades. 

A Carefully Hidden Grave

There’s no trail, not even a faint footpath, leading to Smith’s headstone. It isn’t situated in a clearing — natural or otherwise — and the grave site isn’t maintained. Located inside the natural “V” formed by the merging of Station Camp and Laurel Fork creeks, the headstone sits within a stone’s throw of almost daily traffic from hikers and horseback riders, yet clearly is visited only rarely, if at all. In fact, stumbling across it almost seems haunting. 

Except for the commercial stone that was purchased at some point to replace what was undoubtedly once a roughly-chiseled field stone, the grave of Elijah Smith underscores the old homesteads that are so common throughout the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. Smith and his wife, Nancy, had a farm along Laurel Fork Creek. When they died, they were simply buried on their farm, before the land was passed along to their heirs and eventually sold. 

Wanderers can find these homesites throughout the BSF. And while it would be next to impossible to point out where the Smith home once stood — reforestation has erased many of the signs of human intrusion in these bottomlands; even the edges of where the fields once stood are being slowly scrubbed out by time — the headstone is a reminder of the life that was once made here, and how it helped shape the culture of this area for generations to come.

Who Was Elijah Smith?

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Naturally, stumbling across a grave site causes one to wonder who the people were who once made their lives there. This headstone is perfectly legible, unlike so many in the Big South Fork; except for a chipped corner, it could very well have been placed last week. Yet it offers no epitaph and few clues as to exactly who the person was whose grave site it marks.

Elijah Smith (1813-1873) was the husband of Nancy Smith. That’s as much as the headstone tells us. The rest of the story, or at least parts of it, can be obtained through genealogy records. 

Elijah was the grandfather of one of the Big South Fork’s most colorful and best-known characters — John J. “Hawk” Smith. He was also the great-great grandfather of Oneida Mayor Denzil Pennington. Yet little is known about how he and his wife wound up settling on Laurel Fork Creek, just a mile or so from the Big South Fork River’s Station Camp crossing. 

Elijah and Nancy had seven children — Patsy, Sarah, William, Erie, Margaret, Elijah and Harmon.

Sarah Smith was the mother of John Hawk Smith. She married Samuel Smith, the son of another prominent family of Smiths that settled in the Laurel Fork, Station Camp and Chimney Rock areas during that time. Hawk Smith was the fourth of eight children born to Samuel and Sarah. His siblings were James, Nancy Jane, William, Anderson, David, Elijah and Mary.

Elijah Smith, the son of Elijah and Nancy, married Thursa Ann Woods. The last of their 12 children was Eria Smith, born in 1894. She married George Pennington. The fifth of their seven children was Dewey Pennington, whose son, Denzil, would eventually become the mayor of Oneida.

A Family Connection?

While Elijah Smith’s descendants are clearly recorded, his ancestors aren’t. In fact, it isn’t known who his parents were, nor who his wife, Nancy, descended from, making it difficult to determine how they wound up in the Big South Fork.

There has been some speculation that Elijah may have been a brother to Anderson A. Smith, meaning the families were much more closely connected than the marriage of their children. In fact, some of Elijah’s descendants list in their genealogy records an Anderson Smith as a brother to Elijah, born sometime between 1800 and 1810. That fits the profile of Anderson A. Smith, who was born in about 1803. But Anderson Smith’s descendants do not list Elijah Smith as a brother. In fact, the genealogy information that is available lists only one sibling to Anderson A. Smith — a sibling, Catherine, who married Jacob Blevins, a brother to Armstead Blevins, one of the region’s best-known settlers.

The name Anderson Smith was quite common in that time and lineage. In fact, Anderson A. Smith’s father was also Anderson Smith. And Samuel and Sarah named one of their sons Anderson, as well. And John “Hawk” Smith named one of his sons Anderson, after the boy’s uncle, grandfather and great-grandfather, making four consecutive generations of Smiths from the Station Camp-Laurel Fork Creek area with an Anderson Smith.

The youngest Anderson Smith, known as Anse, was killed at the age of 34 when he was trapped in a cave-in at a coal mine in Zenith in 1934. It was one of several tragedies to befall the John “Hawk” Smith family.

A Colorful History

There are a number of stories involving the Smith lineage that began with Elijah Smith and Anderson Smith and helped shape the rugged Big South Fork community that was known for postal purposes as Elva. 

Perhaps one of the most colorful — and most tragic — is a family feud that resulted in the death of 26-year-old Daniel Pennington in 1872. Pennington was married to Susanna Slaven, who was around five months pregnant with their first child. For reasons that weren’t recorded in writing, Pennington wound up in a fight with his brother-in-law, Elias Meshack Slaven, Susanna’s brother. 

Amid the fight, Slaven fired a gun at Pennington. Pennington returned fire, striking Slaven in the shoulder. Perhaps fearing retribution, he left his home and hid in the underbrush nearby. It wasn’t long before another of his wife’s brothers, Steward Riley Slaven, approached Pennington and shot him. 

Susanna would later testify in court that her husband had told her, before he died the next day, that he saw Steward Slaven running away after the mortal shot was fired. Reports from the time indicated that Steward also told others as he packed up his belongings and fled the community that there was no need for the law to go after Meshack because it was he who had killed Dan Pennington.

Pennington became the second person buried at Chimney Rock Cemetery, which had been established with the burial of Angeline Moore, the orphan girl found brutally beaten on Huckleberry Ridge.

Meshack and Steward Slaven were both indicted for Pennington’s death, but neither ever stood trial. Another man, Anderson Lewallen, did stand trial but was acquitted. 

Four months after Pennington’s death, his son, William Marion Pennington, was born. William left the Big South Fork for Missouri and eventually wound up in California. Susanna left for Mt. Pisgah. Steward never returned and eventually died in California, while Meshack also left and later died in Missouri.

Steward, Meshack and Susanna Slaven were the nephews and niece of Sarah Slaven Smith, the wife of Anderson A. Smith and daughter of Richard “Harve” Slaven.

This article is the January 2019 installment of Our Back Yard, presented on the first week of each month by First National Bank of Oneida as part of the Independent Herald’s Back Page Features series. A print version of this article can be found on Page B8 of the January 3, 2019 edition of the Independent Herald.
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Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett.
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