I woke to this thought–I live three hours from my great-great-grandfather’s childhood home. The weather report promised spring sun and warm temperatures, perfect for a cemetery hunt. I gassed up my car, plotted out my routes, and headed out west through the Endless Mountains. I couldn’t help wondering why Ira Sayles’ parents and grandparents picked up and left Rhode Island.
At Williamsport, I turned north and traveled up the four lane highway where hillsides hug the horizon to the valley. Just miles from the point where Pennsylvania’s Northern Tier turns into New York’s Southern Tier, I turned off onto a winding Route 49. A stagnant band of water stretched some miles to my right, today’s Cowanesque River Recreation Area. In another moment I realized that the water was off to my left and squiggling through the soil, a river of little size. This then is the Cowanesque Valley which beckoned to my ancestors centuries ago. Alrighty. But why would the Howlands, Kings and Sayles make the trek from northwestern Rhode Island, small children, babies, pots, pans, quilts, packed into whatever form the roads required? How did this land lure people from ancestral ties, family-packed villages, established communities and businesses?
I kept driving, through Elkland, toward Deerfield Township. Knoxville and Westfield were up ahead.
I rounded a corner–to a valley opened in a welcoming hello. Flat fields stretched for miles. Farmhouses sat close to the road, their barns and outbuildings clustered close behind. Green hills rose on the horizon, tethering the fertile ground to a wide sky. So THIS was the Cowanesque Valley that pulled John and Lois Eddy Howland, James and Rhobe Howland King, and Christopher and Sarah King Sayles from the established coastal settlements to the western frontier.
The Howlands were Quaker, and their remains were buried in what is now the town of Knoxville. Quaker headstones were often inscribed with nothing more than initials and a date of death. The town decided to replace the aging stones with one durable marker honoring the burial place of the area’s Quaker ancestors.
The valley narrowed as I continued west to the Krusen Cemetery, located a short distance from the Cowanesque River bridge in Westfield. On a knoll are the remains of this town’s elders, including Ira’s grandparents, James IV King and the Howland’s daughter, Rhobe.
Turning east I took the hill-hugging Mill Street to Mount Pleasant Cemetery, the resting place of Ira’s parents, Christopher Sayles and the King’s daughter, Sarah.
Pausing at the grave sites I tried hard to imagine what characteristics I might have inherited. Persistence. Patience. Imagination. Courage to get up every day even when you don’t know if you’ve done the right thing. The desire to make a building a home,and a network of people a community.
As I looked out over the hills of my ancestors I felt a piece of me relax, accepting their gifts, prepared to continue their legacy.