Saturday, October 24, 2020

Chasing Ancestors Across the Heartland - A Family History Road Trip: Part II

I hadn't seen my parents in more than a year due to the pandemic. In early October, I decided to escape my quarantine and drive across the country - a one way journey of nearly 1,700 miles.

With COVID-19 raging, safety was paramount. This wasn't a social road trip where I stopped along the way to visit friends and family. I was careful to limit interaction with people. I traveled solo. I packed a large cooler stocked full of food to limit the need to dine out. And, at each day's end, I walked into my hotel room with a can of Lysol disinfectant spray a' blazin'!

While I had minimal interaction with living people during the journey, I did indulge myself in family history. My roundtrip covered over 4,400 miles, traversed 13 states, and included stops at 22 cemeteries where I visited the graves of more than 70 ancestors and collateral kinfolk.

The trip began with stops in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri [see Part I].

Prairie Pilgrimage 

Leaving the lush hills of Missouri behind, I steered west and deep into the plains. My maternal line is heavily rooted in the Kansas prairie. In fact, my mom's people were among the state's earliest settlers. Mostly farmers, they subsisted off the land that today holds their remains. 

In October 2014, following the death of my maternal grandmother, I took a road trip with my mother and aunt. We traced their ancestry across Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma with stops at a handful of cemeteries to pay our respects to those who came before us [see Family History on the Road Day One, Two, Three, Four, and Five]. 

During that trip, I logged my first visits to the graves of my Kansas ancestors. But, six years later, I wanted to visit again and put eyes on their markers. My first stop was the Edwardsville Cemetery just outside Kansas City. I arrived early in the morning. No one else was around. I parked the car, grabbed my artificial floral offering, and started wandering the grounds trying to recall where Sophronia (Rogers) Dornon, my fourth great-grandmother, was buried. 

As I trudged back and forth, scanning the names on the stone markers, a car pulled into the cemetery. The man behind the wheel drove slowly around the ringed perimeter road and stopped in the distance. His behavior struck me as suspicious and suddenly I felt very aware that I was alone in an isolated rural location. As luck would have it, I stumbled on Sophronia just as my spidey senses kicked in. I sank the flowers' plastic stem into the ground, assessed the condition of her stone - still split in half with her name facing skyward - and hoofed it back to the car to make my escape. 

Not far from Edwardsville is the small community of Rossville just outside Topeka. Rossville's cemetery is the final resting place for five of my direct ancestors, including third great-grandparents Edmond and Iva (Haworth) Hawks. Their markers, pictured below, are near my second great-grandfather John Lumpkins (son-in-law to the Hawks) who died on his 38th birthday after slipping on ice and suffering a traumatic brain injury.


Edmond and Iva (Haworth) Hawks pictured foreground
Their son-in-law, John Lumpkins, pictured at right in background

I was surprised to discover that John's headstone had been nudged off its concrete foundation and sat askew. In the distance, the caretakers were cutting the lawn with a driving lawnmower, cruising up and down the line of graves at a quick clip. Perhaps they bumped into the memorial. I grabbed the stone - heavier than I anticipated - and lifted it back into proper position. 

The eastern end of the cemetery gently slopes upward to a hilltop where John's parents, William and Phoebe (Howerton) Lumpkins, are both buried. My return trip would include a visit to the Kentucky cemeteries where their parents are buried (stay tuned for the conclusion to this series - Part III!).

William Lumpkins, left, and his wife, Phoebe (Howerton) Lumpkins, middle

Raised on Country Sunshine

Smack dab in the middle of the state is Plainville, the epicenter for my maternal history. The city cemetery is the final resting place for 11 of my ancestors - perhaps the largest number of my direct family buried in any single cemetery (at least in the United States). 

My maternal grandmother Marilyn passed away in October 2014. She's buried beside her parents and sister who pre-deceased her. Her headstone is engraved with lyrics from one of her favorite country songs: "Raised on country sunshine." As fate would have it, I was in Plainville on October 4th - the six-year anniversary of her passing. Before leaving town, I drove to the cemetery early in the morning when the sun was still burning the fog off the distant wheat fields, rolled the car windows down and blared her beloved Dottie West anthem - an avant garde tribute to the ancestor I knew and loved best.

Rocky Mountain High

Three hours later, I hit the Colorado state line, pulled over and snapped the obligatory welcome home selfie. Later that day, I was reunited with my family and headed up to Aspen to celebrate my birthday with my parents. The fresh Rocky Mountain air was rejuvenating (catching it on a day largely clear of nearby wildfires).

I have a handful of ancestors buried in Colorado, including my paternal grandfather, great-grandfather and second great-grandfather. All three, pictured below, are descendants of Thomas Kirk and his son Vachel - my paternal fifth and fourth great-grandfathers who are buried in Ohio. My return trip would take me to the missing link in this lineup of paternal ancestors - my third great-grandfather James Kirk who is buried in Iowa (again, keep an eye out for Part III).  

In total, I took five days to drive from DC to Colorado. Sure, I could have covered the ground more quickly, but when life hands you a pandemic that compels you to drive across country make the most of the experience and drive that extra hour (or two or three) to pay homage to those who made you you.

Stay tuned for part III of my family history road trip as I begin the return home through Nebraska, Iowa and into Kentucky coal country.


  1. What an amazing trip. I hope you got to settle in for a bit and spend some time with your family before heading back.

    As I read about your farming ancestors in Kansas, I thought of the relatively recent biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Prairie Fires by Carolyn Fraser. It described life on those prairie farms in an evocative and tragic way in the first quarter of the book (the rest of the book is interesting, but not as compelling). You might find it interesting. I found it really moving and eye-opening about the way settlers were lured to the prairies by the railroads and government and then left to struggle on their own.

    1. I did get to spend some good time with family before having to make the return trip (thankfully, because it's a long journey!).

      Thanks for the recommendation. I'm interested to pick up the book. My mother read me the Little House books when I was a kid, so I have a special affinity for Ingalls Wilder. In my Kirk research I found newspaper advertisements from the mid-1800s luring Ohio farmers to Illinois with the promise of Eden-esque farmland. Must have been pretty persuasive. Seven of Thomas Kirk's children moved to Illinois. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I was a Litte House books fan also. Let me know what you think!