By DAN NORVELL
4:16 PM AKDT, July 14, 2012
What with TV shows devoted to celebrity genealogy and several websites offering families a way to build their family trees, many retirees decide to devote time to finding their roots. My mother was raised in Casey County, and she always said we were part Cherokee, so I investigated.
Through the Internet I met a long-lost cousin named Taylor, who also was born and raised in Casey. We had a common great-grandfather, Lewis Taylor, whose mother was half-Cherokee. As there were several Cherokee tribal leaders named Taylor, it is possible that his father was also part Cherokee.
Lewis Taylor served in the Union’s Third Kentucky Regiment during the Civil War. Another member of that regiment was Lewis Sharpe of Casey County. In 1900, Taylor’s granddaughter married Sharpe’s son G.W. Sharpe. Perhaps the two Lewis namesakes had met during the war. It is also likely they were named after Meriwether Lewis.
According to a plaque in Danville’s Constitution Square, the Lewis and Clark expedition — made up half with Kentuckians — passed through the city after exploring the lands of the Louisiana Purchase. The two Lewises also had in common their colorful histories. Sharpe was captured twice by rebels but managed to survive to raise a total of 16 kids. My maternal grandfather George Washington Sharpe was his youngest and is buried with his father at South Fork Cemetery, Casey County.
Taylor’s story is even more dramatic. He and his brother were arrested for killing a man and stealing the man’s horse. They claimed the man had insulted one of the Taylor wives; however, the victim was traveling with a slave. Since Kentucky was divided into pro-slavery and anti-slavery camps, one might imagine the Taylor men attacked the man because he was a slave owner. In any case, both men died while imprisoned in the federal stockade in Lexington. Family lore suggests that Confederate sympathizers of the victim may have somehow taken revenge on the Taylor men.
Surfing the internet I discovered another cousin, Lt. Col. John Norvell (USAF retired), who had put together an extensive Norvell family tree. From him I verified my descent from Captain Hugh Norvell of the Colonial Army and vestryman (1710-25) of Bruton Church in Williamsburg, Va.
On a recent trip, my wife took photos of the plaques memorializing the pew of the Norvell clan as well as those of a who’s-who of America’s founders like Thomas Jefferson and General George Washington, who were also parishioners of the Anglican church. Supposedly Capt. Hugh’s paternal grandmother was Lydia Perkins, who could trace her lineage back to Pierre I, Duke of Brittany in northern France. The name Perkins is derived from “Pierre kin.”
One of Captain Hugh’s grandsons was Lieutenant Lipscomb Norvell, considered a Revolutionary War hero. As many veterans of the patriotic war, Lipscomb was rewarded with land in the Kentucky County of Virginia. His land was located in present day Garrard County, not far from the estates of Kentucky’s first governor Isaac Shelby and Judge Samuel McDowell (famous surgeon Ephraim McDowell’s father). John Norvell, Lipscomb’s son, was born in Danville. His family might have sought medical attention from Doctor McDowell and certainly must have visited the McDowell apothecary.
Young John was interested in journalism, and taking advantage of family ties, he wrote to then President Thomas Jefferson to ask the founding father’s advice on his choice of a profession. Reportedly Jefferson wrote back in disparaging terms about newsmen suggesting they had an aversion to telling the truth. Despite this negative opinion, by 1817 John Norvell was editor of the Kentucky Gazette in Lexington. He must have been successful as he was invited to join Benjamin Franklin’s grandson in launching the Franklin Gazette in Philadelphia. In 1829, he co-founded the original version of the Philadelphia Inquirer — presently the city’s major newspaper. Journalist Norvell supported the presidential campaign of Andrew Jackson and was rewarded by being appointed Detroit’s postmaster. Later, he became U.S. Senator from the new state of Michigan.
John’s sister Mary Norvell also was raised in Kentucky. She married James Walker of Shelby County. Their son William Walker tried his hand at medicine, law and journalism before moving to San Francisco where he espoused the cause of the South. With a band of adventurers he attempted to conquer Baja California and turn it into a slave state. Rebuffed by Mexican forces, he then took a band of 57 men to Nicaragua, where he was allied with revolutionary forces. His group was successful in taking over the country and Walker became president — in reality dictator. His ambition led him to expand his empire, but the armies of neighboring countries eventually defeated Walker. In 1860, in an attempt to invade Honduras, he was captured and died by firing squad. Walker’s exploits have been dramatized in plays and in the Hollywood film “Walker.”
I’d often thought my father looked like a less-pudgy version of Oliver Hardy of the Laurel and Hardy comedy team so I wasn’t all that surprised to learn that we were distant cousins of the comic actor. “Ollie’s” real name was Norvell Hardy, but he took his father’s name Oliver as a stage name. His mother was Emily Norvell, great-great-granddaughter of Capt. Hugh Norvell. So, if you’re inclined to investigate your roots, don’t be surprised at the results. You might find a Native American or a founding father — even royalty; however, you’re just as likely to find horse thieves, a tyrant and slaver, or a fat comedian. If we are a product of our ancestry, you might not be who you think you are!
Dan Norvell retired to Danville after a career in educational publishing and more than 20 years working overseas.
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