Hensley Settlement at Cumberland Gap

Hensley Settlement
Hensley Settlement

Don’t confuse the park with what they’re trying to preserve. I keep telling myself that as I wander around the Hensley Settlement at Cumberland Gap National Historic Site.

Daniel Boone first came through Cumberland Gap in 1769. Later he brought a group of settlers over the gap so that they could make a better life for themselves in the fertile land of the Ohio River Valley.

Sherman Hensley brought his wife and growing family to the top of Brush Mountain in 1903. They were going back in time, living a pioneer life without even a road. They certainly never had electricity. Several other related families settled on this high plateau. They were successful in that at their zenith, the community had 50 to 100 people and forty structures – houses, barns, corn mill, and blacksmith shop. The park signs say that the Hensley settlement used the same frontier skills that their great-great-grandfathers used in the mountain hollows in the 1800s.

But why go back to pioneer ways? The park information doesn’t really explain but leads you to believe that the male leaders wanted to live a self-sufficient life on their own land. A chat with a ranger and a little searching around leads me to a more believable answer. It was an easy place to make moonshine.

Dwarf-crested Irises
Dwarf-crested Irises

You can visit the Hensley settlement on a ranger-led tour, which starts mid-May. But I was here now, and the road is closed at other times. So the only way was to walk the Shillalah Creek Road over ten miles round-trip to get to the settlement. It was a sunny spring day. Dwarf-crested irises and other spring flowers lined the trail, keeping me amused as I plodded up.

The park has preserved 67 acres. Many buildings and fences have been restored. Of most interest was the schoolhouse, though the building was locked. Most children went to school until they were nine years old. Then they were put to work. Men went into town about once a week, but a woman only once every several weeks. Children never got off the mountain until they were adults. The last person left in 1951. By then, most men had gotten better jobs in factories.

Old man Hensley had twenty-three children, all apparently with the same woman. The cemetery is very telling about the status of women in the settlement. Sherman and his wife are only one of two double graves with fancy headstones.

20150418CUGA02 020A Sherman lived to be 98 years old but his wife, Nicy Ann, died when she was 53. Or was it Nicey, as it says on the footstone, along with a different birth date.

20150418CUGA02 022A They couldn’t even get her personal details right. The women who lived in the coal mining camp at Big South Fork were positively liberated, compared to this settlement.

I meet a father and daughter who came up by horseback and discuss the status of women in this isolated community. In contrast, some bloggers who visited the settlement with rangers wax poetic about the birds chirping and the simple life.

I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like my visit to the settlement. I question the picture of the idyllic lifestyle. I try not to confuse the park with the resource it’s trying to preserve.

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