Migration of the Evitts (Part I): From Tennessee to Kentucky
Updated: Feb 13, 2021
When I was a young girl, my great-grandmother Dovye Jane Evitts Newman--or Momaw Dovye as I knew her, told me her family had moved from Wilson County, Tennessee to Muhlenberg County, Kentucky by covered wagon when she was one year old.
I had so many questions, and didn't ask nearly enough of them. The prospects of moving a family at the turn of the century, with four young children ... without the luxury of a gas-powered vehicle? Never mind that! In a horse-drawn wagon, without the convenience of a well-maintained road system? Or hotels or restaurants to provide rest or sustenance? With but the barest minimum of resources at their disposal? In hostile territories and times?
And now, an even bigger question occupies my mind: Why Kentucky?
Those questions and more birthed a fascination within my imagination that has never quite left me.
The year was 1882, and things weren't going well.
The fact that Frank was even alive is a miracle: Survived a war that killed 3 out of every 4 Confederate soldiers (and left countless others as amputees); surpassed the average life expectancy of males who generally died between 42 and 45 years of age during this time period (his last two children, including my great-grandmother, were born as he was surpassing these ages); survived the lawlessness and violence that was prevalent all around him. And every day he survived--every statistic he defied, he built a future. And the decisions he made--though at the time may have seemed small or mundane--furthered and built a family that is still thriving.
It was a hard time to live in the state of Tennessee. Emotions remained bitter following the war between those who had supported the Union, and those, like Frank, who had supported the Confederate cause. Violence had lessened only slightly since the war's end.
In 1864, President Lincoln--a Republican--dropped his vice president, and selected Tennessee's Andrew Johnson, a Democrat and former slave-supporter to try and build trust with the Confederate South. The president, along with the vice president, planned to continue with reconstruction, pass a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery, and build the transcontinental railroad as a bipartisan team. But by the following April, Lincoln had been assassinated, and Andrew Johnson became a president, who it turns out, was unwilling to compromise with the radical Republicans who had gained control of congress.
While the country was attempting to sort out its problems, the state of Tennessee was spiraling to political anarchy. By 1867, several vigilante groups--most notably, the Ku Klux Klan, made up largely of ex-Confederates--had formed in an effort to reverse the policies of Radical Reconstruction and to restore white supremacy in the South. The KKK was violent, and largely successful in achieving its purposes. It is estimated there were over 3,500 racially-motivated lynchings in the South between mid 1860 through 1900. And that doesn't come close to accounting for so much other violence, corruption, injustice, and intimidation that had come to rule, not only Tennessee, but the entire South.
As if this wasn't enough to worry about, supporting a growing family during these times was proving difficult. Since the war, money was especially hard to earn in the South. The country was on the verge of transforming from an agricultural society to an industrial one. As a result, farmers were losing much of the social, economic, and political power they once possessed.
Abandoned farmhouse near the Bodine Farm at Beasley's Bend, Tennessee
Photograph by Carrie Bullock Fisher
Additionally, a full-fledged depression had set it.
There just weren’t enough hard-earned dollars to go around on a farm laborer’s income—particularly on what had likely become worn out farmland.
By 1870, most migrants to the state of Kentucky were coming from Tennessee, though at first blush, it's hard to understand why. Agriculture wasn't faring any better there, and the coal mining industry was only just beginning to develop. Manufacturing and industrialization was lagging behind other states ... as was education, medical care, and pretty much every other social resource. Actually, more people were moving away from Kentucky than to Kentucky. But the fact remains, a large group of Tennesseans were packing up what belongings they possessed, and heading north ... including my ancestors, the Evitts. If things were so bad, why were they uprooting their lives and moving there?
Frank's older brother, Sam, started the family's migration just after his release from Point Lookout Prison Camp. He had been captured during the War, and like Frank, wasn't released until a few months after the war's end. He found a more tolerant and sympathetic state (to his Confederate mindset) in Kentucky. Sam met a Kentucky girl, married, and spent the remainder of his life as a farm laborer in Muhlenberg County.
Brother John, who had also served as a private in the Confederate Army, followed Sam's lead. By 1870, sister Lucy had made her way there, by way of Hopkins County. Brother David, just 23, married his sweetheart in Muhlenberg County. Francis was there by 1880, marrying a Tennessee native after moving. Finally, youngest brother Luther made his way to Hopkinsville by 1900. Only one sibling is unaccounted for: Youngest sister Elizabeth.
When Frank and Sophia first married, they lived on his family's farm in Trousdale County, Tennessee. Frank's dad had passed just before the war; there's no known record for his mother by then. Since the rest of the family had settled north, he and Sophia moved to her family's farm at Beasley's Bend by 1881. This is where my great-grandmother, Momaw Dovye was born.
The Beasley's Bend farm was the logical place for them to go.
The Bodine Farm at Beasley’s Bend along the Cumberland River
149 acres formerly owned and farmed by the Bodine/Evitts family
Photograph by Carrie Bullock Fisher
Sophia's oldest sister, Nancy, needed help. With both parents deceased, Frank and Sophia took care of her. Nancy was struggling with mental health issues, and needed this support system.
Sister Sarah had moved with her husband to be near his family one county over. Brother Tom, who had a physical disability, never married and lived with Sarah's family the remainder of his life. Les's whereabouts are a mystery after the war, but since he had sided with the Union--if he survived the war--one wonders if he was an outcast to his family, leaving Tennessee in search of acceptance in a more Union-friendly state. Susan had passed back in 1860. Elizabeth and Maggie went their own ways.
Nancy was still living with Frank and Sophia when she died around 1880. Her death gave Frank and Sophia the freedom to finally leave the Bodine Farm at Beasley's Bend.
Communication wasn't great, but Frank and Sophia remained connected to their siblings through occasional letters. In their written conversations, Frank was learning that the state of Kentucky had become decidedly more Confederate after the war. Whereas Tennessee had somehow elected a Republican governor intent on rejoining the Union, Kentucky elected a series of Democratic governors, who were pro-Confederate. The fact that lawlessness and violence abounded in Kentucky during those early decades after the war didn't seem of much concern; actually, having already been exposed to so much violence, Frank may have assumed violence and lawlessness were a normal aspect of life. He would have also discovered his siblings hadn't fared well economically; they were still laboring hard and barely making ends meet as sharecroppers.
Kentucky was calling Frank: Not with the promise of wealth, or even health. Not with the hope of amenities a more secure state would afford ... but with a Confederate-friendly government, and the comfort of being reunited with his siblings.