In 2003, Bruce Hopkins uncovered more than his ancestors' bones when
his family cemetery was moved for road construction. As a result of
that experience, Hopkins wrote Spirits
in the Field which introduced the reader to nearly 200
years of his family history, and which was, in microcosm, a history
of the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky.
Wings to Fly Hopkins returns to the Civil War era for
the first of a trilogy that deals with three great periods of
Eastern Kentucky history. Bright Wings tells of the struggles
of mountain families, broken and in poverty, as they attempt to deal
with and recover from losses that had been unimaginable prior to the
In the next two books, Hopkins will deal with the coming of the
great coal camps and the impact of industrialization on mountain
life, and conclude with the dangers facing the very soul of the
mountaineers as the last "easy" coal is removed and the
scourge of mountaintop removal inches its way across the coalfields.
Throughout all his books, however, the ghosts of his ancestors watch
as their descendants struggle with the realities of a modern age in
a region that has been aptly described as a "national sacrifice
Bruce Hopkins is Director of Communications and Risk Manager for the
Pike County, Ky, School System. He holds a BA in English from
Pikeville College, an MA in English from Longwood University, Farmville,
Virginia and has taught in the public school systems in Kentucky,
Virginia and West Virginia. He has been an English teacher and
journalist for most of his adult life. He still teaches occasional
college-level classes in Southern Literature and writes a weekly
commentary for the Appalachian News-Express in Pikeville, KY.
of Spirits in the Field by Gayle Compton.
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Photographs of the the Old Prater Cemetery on Greasy Creek near
Pikeville, Kentucky, are by the author, Bruce Hopkins.
In 1997 the Kentucky Department
of Transportation announced plans to rebuild highway US 460 through
Pike County to Virginia. The new route would cut a wide swath
through the mountains in the valley of the Levisa, and the ancestral
burying grounds of the Hopkins family since before the Civil War was
in its path. For six years Bruce Hopkins worked to discover the
family secrets buried in the old cemetery and to reclaim his
heritage. Spirits in the Field is the story of his struggle with the Kentucky DOT
and the unearthing of his family history back to the first settlers
who came to Pike County after the Revolution. This is but one of many
family histories concealed beneath the mine tailings, highway
excavations, or kudzu of the Eastern Kentucky mountains, most of
which will remain forever untold and unknown.
Spring 2003. The view westward from the Old Prater Cemetery and Greasy
Creek toward Pikeville. US 460 will soon
cut through the mountain that's been cleared of trees.
Spirits in the Field
of Joseph Hopkins would
never work the [Pike County, Kentucky,] cotton fields again; by the end of the
the land that had produced over a hundred 480-pound bales of cotton in
1860 was reduced to wasteland from neglect and trespass. In 1867, Henry
May, a former comrade from whom Joseph had purchased some of the 450
acres he farmed, bought the mortgage on the farm and foreclosed on Lucinda
and her children. When the commissioner’s deed for 100 acres of Joseph’s
best farmland was executed, Lucinda received $58.50. Joseph had
purchased the property for $117.00 in 1857 and had paid one-half of the
mortgage by 1862 when the war closed the New Orleans cotton market.
For most of my life, I ascribed the xenophobia and sullen ignorance of my race to the discarded genes of people I thought were not capable of enduring a further journey west. I thought my people dropped anchor in the mountains simply because it was easier than going on. I did not give my ancestors credit, for I assumed every stereotype I ever heard of mountaineers had a nugget of truth in it. My family was an exception, of course, for you are allowed to make myths of the people you love. But I thought my father and the men and women of my family were in opposition to the DNA that was given them.
I often wonder where Hooker slept those nights he stayed on
the cemetery. Perhaps next to Harrison, the nephew who became the closest
thing to a father he ever knew, or between Harrison’s grave and
Lila’s, where pink roses once grew, and it is not difficult to see him
intoxicated by their fragrance, drinking it in as sleep claimed him.
Perhaps he lay on the ground where Cornelius and Dorcus
were sleeping, inside the fence that had rusted into nothingness by the
time I remembered it. Perhaps he thought his daughter might be buried
there. Perhaps there were two or three such places and he lay here or
there on different trips, in the hope that somehow he would be able to
reach her and beg her forgiveness. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps; I still did
not know for sure. I was confident of nothing more than what I had been
told, and I had been told little. Hooker’s journals would have told me,
but they were gone.
But I had seen his light. I know he
was there on those nights, pressed against the earth, pleading for
knowledge and direction, and I know that my vision, regardless of whence
it comes, is not far removed from the truth:
He puts out his lamp and lies in the darkness, feeling
the night envelop him like my grandmother’s blankets once draped over my
frail shoulders. Before he yields to sleep, he invokes the spirits of his
ancestors to help him in the hope the tiny shade of his daughter will hear
his heart beating, and will somehow be comforted in the knowledge that her
father had not forgotten her after all.
And I can hear his prayer that she
will, in the sublime reparation of the grave, forgive him his abandonment
of her last plot of earth.
I have aggrieved the spirits of my
ancestors by comparing them to their descendants. I have attributed too
much of the baseness of life in these hills today to a legacy not wrought
by my ancestors. I assumed that the fatalism so common, and the diminution
of spirit so pervasive in my culture, existed before the mines came, that
it was indigenous to my breed.
But I was so wrong.