The Boulder in the Road – Excerpt From Calliput Mountain


“Does it occur to you,” Tom said, as if reading her mind, “that we’re living in a time warp?  That things from the past are happening all over again?  As if time itself is trying once more to get it right, trying to get around a huge boulder in the road?”

Tom felt contrite when he saw a brief flicker of alarm cross Lucille’s face.  He hadn’t meant to alarm her.  He had only been thinking out loud.

“I believe,” the old man said as he reached for a water bottle, “the gov’ment is trying to turn these mountains into a penal colony.  Four prisons so far, just in our own mountains, another prison in the works.  Add to that the ones already built on nearby mountaintops which were dynamited for cheaper access to the coal.  All done under the guise of helping us by providing a few more jobs.  A few more jobs that are a drop in the bucket of what’s needed here. Meanwhile, they’re taking away the freedom our ancestors fought for more than 200 years ago.  It’s happening again.”

“What do you mean, again!”  A voice challenged.

“In the 1700s England treated America like their own private penal colony.  They emptied their prisons, sending at least fifty thousand convicts here.  Most of them had been jailed for trivial offenses, but more than fifty thousand were sent to this area. They arrived in convict ships in Maryland and Virginia.  Most were jailed for trivial offenses, but their main offense was in being poor. The poor were considered a drain on society.  What better way to be rid of them than ship them to the colonies, sell them into slavery to provide free labor to the elite?

“Many of the prisoners later ended up in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky.  Before we became a state.  You likely have them in your own ancestry.” 

“I thought England sent the prisoners to Australia. It’s well-known that country was settled by convicts shipped from England.”  A murmur ran through the crowd.

“Are you saying our ancestors, who settled these mountains, were among the convict slaves?”

“Some were.  But many of the convicts were victims of repression.” the old man said.  “Most likely guilty of petty crimes for survival, a loaf of bread to keep from starving.  You see what I’m saying?  It might allow you to understand why the government thinks it’s fitting to locate the prisons here.”

Tom found himself enthralled by old man Honeycutt’s words.  Why had he never thought about this?  He’d known, having read it in the history books, that England had shipped convicts to the colonies.  But he’d never thought to wonder about it.  Where had the convicts ended up after their time was served?  How many settled in the mountains? It now seemed strange, that he hadn’t wondered. Why hadn’t he?  Wondered, that was.  He’d swallowed the story about them fighting for freedom of religion, as if that was all there was to it.  Now he could see that the long road that led from the founding of America to the present was rife with frightful revelations.

His thoughts drowned out the noises around him.  He’d never understood why his people were held in such low esteem.  His ancestors had pioneered these mountains.  They were among the original settlers. They fought throughout the Revolution to gain America’s freedom.  They were part and parcel of the Overmountain Men.  Leaving their humble homesteads to challenge and defeat the boastful British Major Patrick Ferguson at the Battle of Kings Mountain.  The battle turned the winning tide of the American Revolution to the Patriots. Afterwards they returned to their mountain homes and reared their families. So what happened?

Somewhere they lost face. Was it because of their homespun ways? Their hard work plus their reluctance to upgrade their status through the appearance of material wealth? They had continued to value the ways of their ancestors. Feeling no need to replace the old ways with questionably new ones. Whatever it was, the world that later re-discovered them behind their mountain walls called them ignorant. They felt justified in considering their resources fair game. As if their coal was there for the taking, however cheaply they managed to take it. Even if they had to blow off the mountaintops and just scoop it out.

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