Historical Fiction: History hits home for young Cooleemee student

Published 1:27 pm Tuesday, May 23, 2023

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The following is a story by Marie Craig, which one first place in the Davie Senior Services SilverArts competition in the “Short Story-Historical Fiction” category. 

By Marie Craig

“Do I have to go on this dumb field trip?” Thomas asked his mother.

“Of course you do.  Now that you’re in the eighth grade you should know more about your county.  There is a lot of interesting history in Davie.”

So, here he was at a historic old home in his county that had become a museum. His history teacher had already assigned a project of writing a report on something special they experienced on this trip.  He couldn’t believe that in his county there was such a huge and fancy house with expensive furniture.  Thomas had very little interest in this field trip and was in the back of the group of class members who were selecting unidentified objects to study.  There was a stack of papers on the table, and Thomas leaned over to see what they said.  As he quickly read down the page, he saw lots of names of family history, a date of 1751, and the location of Cooleemee, Rowan County. “Why, that’s where I live!  This can’t be right. Cooleemee is in Davie County. Why do these pages say Rowan County?” Thomas asked out loud.

Then he remembered his teacher had explained to them that before 1836, there was no Davie County. In that year, the land in the northern part of Rowan County bounded by the two Yadkin Rivers was removed from Rowan and became Davie County. It had been known as Forks of the Yadkin before that.  She said that there wasn’t even a town of Cooleemee long ago. It was created when the cotton mill was built about 1890. He decided that this address of Rowan County was correct before 1836. He was glad he had remembered that. Math was hard for him because he wanted to know why he would ever need to know all those rules and ways of figuring, but he had a good memory for numbers and dates and could figure out math problems in his head.

Thomas had never heard about this family, except maybe something about a Pearson Family Cemetery, east of Cooleemee, and he wanted to learn more about them and his area where they had lived. He wondered where they had lived and what brought them there. He was a little bewildered after reading the papers much too quickly. He finally decided that this boring stack of papers might be interesting after all. The top line listed Richmond Pearson, born in Virginia in 1751, and the next was his wife, Sarah Haden, who died, leaving four children at home, a girl and then three boys. Then he realized there was a second wife, Elizabeth Mumford, who had six children, two girls and then four boys. He was amazed that this family had ten children. That was surely different from all the people he knew.

He used his index finger to point to each name, but when he touched the name Joseph Pearson, he immediately had a strong feeling that he was not totally in charge of himself. The surroundings dimmed and flashed and made buzzing sounds. Suddenly, he wasn’t at the house any more but was on a grassy, flat surface watching two men in old-timey clothes standing with their backs to each other with pistols ready to fire. Wow, where am I, he thought.

Thomas ducked behind a tree so the people wouldn’t see him. Nobody realized he was there. To his horror, as he peeked around the tree, he watched the two men walk away from each other, then turn, and at a loud voice saying, “Fire” they both shot at each other, missing. He remembered reading that in such a case, they could fire again, and so they did. One of the men collapsed on the ground holding his side. There were two assistants for each man, and one of them doctored the wounded person.

Thomas decided that he should leave as quickly as possible, but where would he go? He had no idea where he was or how to get back to the museum.  At first, he assumed he was watching the filming of a current movie with old costumes, but after watching all the people involved, he realized he wasn’t sure of the time period, and he didn’t see any cameras. As he walked from behind the tree, the man who was not wounded saw him and stopped him. “What are you doing here? You need to be with your family. You are not welcome here.” Thomas told him his name and that he was lost and very concerned since the man was still holding the pistol that had just shot a man. He started to answer with more information and found that he had lost his voice. He was finally able to ask the man to put the gun down. The man did, and said, “My name is Joseph Pearson, and I need to ask you if you’ve ever seen a duel before? We usually don’t let young people come to one.”

“No, sir, I didn’t know anybody still did that. Is that man going to be okay, and why did you shoot him?” Thomas was amazed that he could utter this many words.

“That’s the way we handle disagreements between gentlemen. My brother, Jessie A. Pearson, fought a duel also. This is what we do.”

“What was your argument about? Surely you could have settled it easier. Did you have a disagreement just recently?”

The man answered, “No, it was actually six months ago. It probably would have been settled easily, but the newspapers kept writing about it and trying to get us to become even angrier with each other. They won’t leave us alone.” Thomas decided that some things never change.

“I am a member of the Federalist Party and oppose war. My opponent today, John George Jackson, is a member of the opposing party, and he has a different idea about things. We are both members of the United States Congress and have been arguing since I started serving at the beginning of this year. I am from Salisbury, North Carolina, and he is from Virginia.”

Thomas was surprised to meet the man that he was just studying at the museum. He was interested to hear that Joseph was from Salisbury which was only about 20 miles south of his own home in Cooleemee. “I know where Salisbury, North Carolina, is. My home is in Cooleemee, north of there. So where are we now? I was in my county’s museum looking at some old papers that listed your family history, and the next thing I knew, I was here.”

“This is Bladensburg, Maryland, about seven miles northeast of Washington City. This is a dueling ground. How did you end up here, and where did you get those strange clothes? I don’t understand what’s going on that you seem so out of place.”

Thomas thought that Joseph’s clothes looked strange but he didn’t say that. “I don’t know how I got here. We toured a big fancy home and then were looking at some items in a separate building. I’m not even sure of the date. When I was at the museum earlier today, the year was 2020. What year is it for you?”

“I think you must be very confused or mentally deranged. Why, everybody knows the date — December 4, 1809!”

Thomas gasped and couldn’t believe it was that long ago. How had he managed to be so far removed from his time and his location?

He asked Joseph, “The capital of the United States is Washington, D.C. Is that the same as Washington City?” Joseph said he’d never heard of D.C. and wanted to know what that stood for. The boy and the man stared at each other in disbelief, but neither had any idea of what to do about the situation.

Joseph and his driver were preparing to depart the scene and head back in his horse and buggy to his home in Washington City. Thomas was feeling very alone and upset. Finally, Joseph asked Thomas if he wanted to go home with him. “I live alone except for servants, but you’re welcome to accompany me. Perhaps then we can figure out what to do for you.” Joseph bid farewell to his friends who were walking toward their own carriage rides home.

Thomas reluctantly climbed in for the ride to Washington. There was so much he wanted to know about Joseph and his family. “Sir, would you tell me about yourself, your family, and where you lived near me.”

Joseph decided to answer these questions to keep the boy entertained on their ride to his home. “I was born in 1780 in a big house that was on the banks of the Lower Yadkin River. My mother died, but my father, Richmond Pearson, still lives there with his second wife and many children.”

Thomas remembered from the papers at the museum that the oldest child, Betsy, married Colonel John Stokes. Stokes County was named for him. The oldest child in the second family, Sallie, married Isaac Croom. They moved to Greensboro, Alabama, where they had a huge plantation that was placed on the National Historic Registry. Their grandson was a hero in the Spanish American War.

He remembered reading notes about a male from the second family, Richmond Mumford Pearson who had been a North Carolina Superior Court Judge in addition to having a law school in Mocksville and later up in Yadkin County. There were lots of men with the name Richmond, and lots of women named Elizabeth. That must have been really confusing to all of them. A male from the first family was Jesse A. Pearson who was in the War of 1812 and a state representative.

Thomas realized he could say nothing about this to Joseph because these events hadn’t happened yet in his current situation. Joseph continued, “My father has a grist mill near our home that is powered by the river. That’s the reason he moved from Virginia. The river drops in elevation, and when he had a dam built there, he could use the water power for his mill. Our home, Richmond Hill, is nearby, on the river.”

“I went to school in Statesville, and then I got a law degree, and I have been a lawyer in Salisbury. I own many acres of land near my father and travel there to oversee the workers and the crops. My father has a big farm also. We sell crops all over the state and have a vision of developing the larger Yadkin River into a transportation system for delivering produce downstate, but it’ll take a lot of work and money to make the river navigable.” Thomas had crossed that river when they went to Winston-Salem, or farther south to go to Lexington. He didn’t remember ever seeing any boats in the river except for small fishing boats. So, it must not have happened. He didn’t tell this fact to Joseph.

“My father had a small role in the Revolutionary War and has the honorary title of Colonel. My brother, Jessie, is also involved in the military and hopes that we go to war again against England. I am against war and hope that we can prevent it.”

Thomas asked, “You said you live alone; you don’t have a family?”

Joseph sighed and told him, “I was single when I served in the House of Commons, North Carolina General Assembly for two years, during 1804 and 1805. Almost four years ago, on January 6, 1806, I married Nancy Anna Maria McLin from Craven County, North Carolina. This was when we lived in Salisbury. We were very happy and went to visit my family in the Forks of the Yadkin very often. We were married for only eight months when she died. She is buried at our family’s cemetery about two miles from our home. I’ve been single since then but hope to remarry someday.”

The buggy bumped and jostled along on the dirt road heading back to Washington City on their cold winter ride. Thomas had never gone on such an uncomfortable trip. He thought about his family’s car with air conditioning, heater, and smooth ride on paved roads. This reminded him of his family, and he wondered if he’d ever find them again. He began to wish that he’d been more appreciative of their concern for him.

After an uncomfortable silence, Joseph asked the boy, “What is your favorite subject at school?”

Thomas had to think hard because he really didn’t like to go to school. It seemed unnecessary and boring to learn all those things. He finally answered, “I don’t enjoy school. I don’t see the need to learn about things that happened a long time ago. My older brother is an A student and does everything perfectly. It’s hard for me to keep up with him. Sometimes I don’t even try. My parents fuss at me a lot and compare me to him. That makes me feel bad.”

“I bet you know more than you think. Let me ask you some questions. How many states are there in the United States?”

Thomas answered, “Fifty, sir.”

“That’s not correct. There are only seventeen now in 1809. I don’t see how there could be so many.”

“Nowadays, there are 50 states. We had to draw a map and learn all of them last year. I guess I still remember that. I like looking at maps. My mother says I use my smartphone too often for this and will ruin my eyes.”

“What’s a smartphone? I never heard of that.”

Thomas pulled his phone out of his pocket and showed it to him. He described all the many features of the phone and realized that his companion was speechless and impressed. “Where did you get this, and how do you know how to use it? I think you’re smarter than you think.”

Thomas realized that his cell phone wouldn’t work in 1809, so he put it back in his pocket because he didn’t want to exhaust the battery. He knew there would be no way to charge it in this distant place and time. As he thought about the situation, he realized neither the telephone nor telegraph had been invented in 1809. “How do you communicate with other people?”

“Why, we write letters by hand, of course. The post delivers them. Here’s a letter I received about this duel.” He pulled a piece of paper out of his coat pocket. He held it over where Thomas could see it, but he couldn’t read it. Joseph continued, “This is what it says, ‘The friends of the parties agree to the following Viz. Distance ten paces. To stand still until the words make ready fire. The pistols until the word fire, to be held pointing above the head or below the feet of the adversary. Time, to morrow morning 8 or 9 o’clock. A snap to be accounted a fire. The word fire to follow in 1. 2. 3. or 4 seconds after the word make ready. The parties shall not reserve fire, but fire immediately on receiving the word.’ As you can see, penmanship is very important so that others can read your messages. As a lawyer, I have to write down official documents.”

Thomas had trouble reading that note because he was not familiar with cursive writing. Almost everything they did in school was on the computer which certainly was not cursive. He thought, maybe I need to learn more about reading old forms of handwriting if I’m going to do any research of historic papers.

Thomas asked, “What does a lawyer do in 1809?”

“I help people write wills so that when they die, the family will know what to do with the belongings and money of the person. Without a will, there can be terrible arguments as people have disagreements about what they inherit. Sometimes there are even arguments if they do have a will. I also help to document how much land someone has and if they’ve bought it legally. I have over 6,000 acres of land in Rowan County, and I have deeds to prove that it’s mine in case someone tries to take it away from me. I travel back there several times a year to make sure everything is going well. Some people just need advice about their possessions or families. Our country would be in disorder if we didn’t have these formal documents. Copies of these papers are stored in the courthouse. They are public records for everyone to see.”

It sounded to Thomas like the role of a lawyer hadn’t changed much in those 211 years. They had had a career day at school that gave a quick summary of what many different professionals did in their jobs. He still had some years in public school before he had to worry about that, but maybe he needed to try a little harder to make good grades and prepare himself for an interesting career in the future. He wondered what he would end up doing, providing he found a way to get back to 2020. Right now, he felt unprepared for any career. His older brother was learning about various colleges and trying to decide what to do with himself in a few years. Suddenly, Thomas didn’t feel like a little boy anymore. He really hoped he would get a chance to go back to Cooleemee, so he could be a better student and not worry his parents so much. He would miss his good friend, Noah, if he couldn’t return. What was going to happen? He pondered this as he watched the slowly passing scenery. It was late afternoon, and he was getting very hungry. He hoped they’d get to Washington City soon.

Thomas asked his host about the two friends who had been present at the duel. Joseph explained that one man, Major James Stephenson from Virginia was his second, and the other man was Joseph’s personal physician who made the trip to Bladensburg in case Joseph was wounded or killed. Thomas asked, “What’s a second?” Joseph explained that he and Jackson each had a second who were their good friends and ensured that the duel was carried out under honorable conditions, on a proper field of honor, and with equally deadly weapons. Thomas thought to himself that a second wasn’t much of a friend if he assisted in a death. He hoped that his friends who went on the field trip with him were having a good time. Surely, his teacher would realize that he was missing and try to find him. He knew that she would be very worried. He couldn’t imagine what she would tell his family.

The scenery was changing from farms into small towns and stores. He almost laughed thinking about how funny it would be to see a big box store along this route of old-timey businesses. He tried to entertain himself by thinking of what was missing: motorcycles, electric wires overhead, cars, billboards, and the sound of motors of many shapes and sizes. He started to tell Joseph about his world in 2020, but he decided the man wouldn’t believe him, and it might worry him. He still wasn’t sure that Joseph believed that time travel instead of insanity was involved. There were so many things he could share about his world. Then Thomas realized that he had previously read the family history that listed the dates of births and deaths of the family. He had the power to tell Joseph of his death in Salisbury in 1834, twenty-five years from now. The boy shivered as he thought of the things he knew about the family in the future. He didn’t want this responsibility just as he didn’t want to know his own future. He decided to keep all that to himself.

As they entered Washington City, it was getting dark. They were happy to be almost home and looking forward to a good supper in a warm house. When they got to Joseph’s home, there were men from the newspaper waiting to interview him about the duel. His servant met him as they drove up. Joseph asked him to take Thomas around to the back door and not let the men see him. “Get Thomas some supper out of sight and then show him up to one of the guest rooms where he’ll spend the night. Don’t ask me or him any questions.” The servant did as told, and Thomas was soon enjoying the best meal he ever had because he was so hungry and so cold.

It was nice to be stopped and not be on that bumpy ride. He was glad to be on his own without having to answer questions. He walked up the beautiful wide staircase with the servant who went into the room and lit candles so that Thomas could see the room. When he entered, he automatically felt for the light switch and then almost laughed. It was cold in the room, but the servant started a fire in the fireplace, and Thomas was soon warm. He tried to pretend like he was a boy from 1809, but he could see questions in the servant’s face as he looked at his clothes and hair. With no words, the servant pointed to a chamber pot for him to use as though he knew the boy wouldn’t know what it was.

After he was alone, he walked around the big room looking at all the beautiful furniture and decorations. He kept his hands in his pockets so that he wouldn’t break anything. Evidently, Joseph and his family had a lot of money to buy all these wonderful things. It was like a museum just in this one room. Thomas wondered about himself and his own future. Would he have a career that would earn him a lot of money so that he could enjoy a big home and lots of possessions? At the same time, he remembered that Joseph didn’t have a family up here. He felt a little sorry for Joseph not having someone to share his beautiful home. Maybe it’s more important to have a family than expensive things. Thomas wondered where that thought had come from. He would never have thought of that up until now. He realized that as bad as it seemed to be lost and far from his family in distance and time, he had actually realized some things about himself.  IF he could get back to them, somehow he would be a better person and try harder.

On a shelf in that room, there was a book that caught his interest. He knew he couldn’t do any damage to a book, so he carefully pulled it out and opened it up in the center of the pages. He put the book down on a little table so the candlelight would help him see the words. He realized it was a book that had a lot of numbers and descriptions in it. It was some sort of bookkeeping of property. Thomas realized that Joseph used this room for his office. The book contained a lot of information about servants, land, crops, and money. He suddenly knew that he was reading some private facts about his new friend who had given him transportation, a meal, and a bedroom. He felt guilty about doing this and quickly turned to some other pages in the book that listed family information similar to what he’d seen earlier in the day. Of course, it had facts only before 1809. Thomas knew much more about Joseph’s family than that.

He told himself, put the book back right where you found it. In closing the book, he realized Joseph had written his own name in the very front of the book with beautiful cursive penmanship. He remembered what he’d learned today about the importance of writing clearly.

He whispered, “I wish I could write that well. Maybe if I just trace the words with my finger I’ll be able to write like that sometime.” He carefully held his index finger close to the book to practice his skills. When his finger touched the paper, he heard a strange buzzing sound and saw bright lights and felt himself whirling through space and time.

The next thing he knew, his friend, Noah, was saying to him, “Did you see what I saw? I was in the Civil War, but please don’t tell anybody.”

Thomas replied, “I went back fifty-six years earlier than that.  You won’t believe what I saw!”