Old South: All were immigrants

By Elton Camp

Nobody was truly native to Alabama. Many had English or Irish roots. The ancestors of Americans Indians arrived earlier than others.   A large portion of them had been forced west in the 1840s by the Indian Removal Act. A few who adopted settler ways remained. Intermarriage with Indians wasn’t widespread, yet a number of people in Alabama count them among their ancestors.

Elias House, an olive-skinned neighbor boasted, “I’m from a Cherokee princess. Y’u could say thet I’m sort of royalty.”

The fact that the tribe had no princesses was unknown to Elias. The story sounded good and made him more “respectable.”  Even if a person made no such grandiose claim, Indian heritage caused little trouble. Even noticeably darker skin was casually dismissed with the comment, “He’s part Injun.”  If hard working, he was accepted. Tolerance was enhanced by the fact that little history of Indian raids existed in North Alabama.

“Paw, do y’u know where our folks are from?” Leamon asked. He had a better sense of time and place than most.

“I reckon hit wuz mainly from England. Thar mought b’ som’ Irish mixed in there, but I ain’t really shore.”

Milas was seven generations removed from Thomas Camp who had been born in 1661 in County Essex, England, came to the United States and settled in King and Queen County Virginia.

Of his four ancestors named Thomas, the most interesting died in 1798. The prolific man sired twenty-four children by two wives. One of them was Milas’ forefather.

Thomas’ grave lies in an overgrown rural cemetery. A fieldstone with his name and date of death were all that marked his grave until generations later when descendants erected a granite marker at the site.

Even if most people were vague as to ancestry, one transient group knew its origin very well. About once a year a small band of Gypsies visited. They arrived in three colorful wagons pulled by horses. One of Milas’ neighbors, Bill Self, always permitted them to set up free in his pasture. Their presence caused a wave of excitement to spread throughout the community.

“Th’ Gypsies ez here ’gain,” a woman called out to a neighbor who was passing by on foot. “Bill’s put them up this year too. I sorta wish he wouldn’t do thet. They scare me.”

The wagons were brightly painted with intricate designs. A single door opened from the back of each. Each side had a window with curtains. The inside was divided into two areas.  The kitchen end had a stove with a metal chimney that extended through the roof. The area had a closet, storage chests, pots, pans, and dishes. The other portion of the wagon served for sleeping quarters. Numerous items hung on wooden pegs on the walls.

Gypsy women did most of the work and were the main generators of income. They made baskets, prepared remedies from herbs and told fortunes. Cooking and cleaning also fell to them.

Two of the older women actually spoke a dialect of Romany in addition to English. They had no success when they attempted to teach the language to youngsters.

“Granny, that’s old stuff. Nobody needs to know that anymore,” a child countered when the matriarch attempted to instruct her.

“They’s heer t’ steal chillen,” Mrs.Barnette avowed. “Y’u best keep yore boys in partic’lar locked up ’till they leave.”

That belief was one of the many wrong concepts country people held about the Roma. It was based on stories from unspecified places where children supposedly had mysteriously disappeared following departure of the travelers. It was firmly held to be true, but nobody could supply specifics. The parental threat, “I’ll give y’u t’ th’ Gypsies,” usually was scary enough to bring a naughty child into compliance.

As we will see, the Gypsies promptly set about the business that brought them to the area.