The Saga of the
A lot has been written and said about the eight brothers. Historians, sociologists, journalists, and others long ago took note of them. In June, 1900, Ellen Churchill Semple, one of the first American anthropogeographers, mentions them in The National Geographic Magazine. Dr. Thomas D. Clark, in one of the "Rivers of America" series, The Kentucky, does not overlook them. Miss Semple says that there were eleven of them, and continues, in part: " . . . one went further down the stream (the Kentucky) into the rough hill country in Breathitt (County) [KY], and the eleventh continued on his way till he came into the smiling country of the bluegrass . . ." In a following chapter we shall see that two of them went to Breathitt, that one of these two later moved to Fayette County [KY], in the bluegrass - but that he was not the progenitor of the celebrated bluegrass family of Combses. Incidentally, Dr. Clark is woefully confused as to the origin of the "eight". That is the history, constituting something like a saga - maybe a record - whenever eight brothers and their families and their father descend all of a sudden upon any community. The simple fact itself stands out as singular, regardless of all antecedents and subsequent history. (1)
Our unsung epic might as well have begun when Mason Combs, of Stafford [Co, VA], along with Daniel Boone, from Pennsylvania, cocked his eye for old Frederick County [VA] and the lower Shenandoah Valley [Augusta Co, VA], in 1750; when the big rush to the Valley was in full swing. It might have followed Mason and some of his sons southward as they fled the Scotch Presbyterians and German Lutherans, to seek peace and quiet in the upper Yadkin valley [then Rowan Co, NC]. Two wars some of them had either witnessed or taken part in. Perhaps they were nervous; perhaps they were simply land-hungry. In any event, they were on the move, those early Combses.
From the moment the Combses shoved off from the Shenandoah they were restless and uncertain. They seemed to be going nowhere in particular, just moving, pushing ahead only when the spirit moved them, and stopping wherever fancy dictated; that is, long enough to think about their next migration. Civilization, or those things called the gadgets of civilized society, react favorably on some people; unfavorably on others. The early Combses, accidentally or otherwise, were constantly running into civilization; or else, into communities which all too soon revealed some of the aspects of such a society. It seemed to annoy them. Whenever it showed signs of encroaching too closely, whenever it interferred [sic] with their love of freedom and independence, they girded their loins and moved on. Simple enough. Wherever the Combses went, back in those days, they were possessors of large boundaries of land. No golden fleece, no El Dorado beckoned them, only land, more land, independence. On or around watercourses, building and operating taverns, ferries, grist mills; their Old World ancestors must have been sea-going people, of a race that ruled the seven seas.
By the time Mason Combs died, in the valley of the Yadkin [Surry Co, NC], some of the eight brothers had grown up, and had begun to fan out into Montgomery County, Virginia, and into the Holston [River] Settlements. Again they ran into civilization, in the "State of Franklin" [Early East TN counties of Washington, Greene and Sullivan]. During the short-lived existence of that "State" (1784-1788) two of the brothers, Mason and John, probably another one or two, and "Danger Nick," their uncle, were witnesses to the struggle of the "State" to free itself from North Carolina. Long Island (at the forks of the Holston, in the South Fork) [Sullivan Co, TN], four or five miles long, and now in the edge of Kingsport, was a sacred meeting place of the Cherokees. "Danger" lived right on it. Isaac Shelby lived and fought in the Settlements; so did Col. Preston.
The citizens of the "State" petitioned the General Assembly of North Carolina, asking for freedom and recognition, in 1787. The names of William Combs, and William Combs, Jr., also Henry Combs, appear on that petition. It was the year before the Federal Constitution was adopted, Benjamin Franklin refused to use his good offices in behalf of the citizens, and North Carolina refused to recognize the new State. For the moment, John Sevier and his cause were lost. Nine years later the new State of Tennessee came into existence.
Many people, discouraged, and despairing of help, began to leave the Settlements after 1788, going back to Virginia, or to Kentucky.
The brothers, along with "Danger Nick", prepared to move. In addition to the discontent of the folks in the valleys of the Holston, Watauga and Nolichucky [Rivers of East TN], there was restlessness elsewhere also: a new State, Kentucky, had just been born (1792). Four brothers, Combses, all from Stafford County, Virginia, and second cousins of the eight, had already taken up land in Clark County, Kentucky, in 1775.
About 1795, as nearly as we can determine the date, the descent of the eight brothers upon what is now Perry County, Kentucky began. Leaving Kingsport, they went a few miles northward, crossed the gap in Clinch Mountain, or Moccasin Gap, by Gate City [now-Scott Co, VA, then in Russell]; following the old Wilderness Road, they crossed the Clinch River, thence to Powell Valley; after leaving the Wilderness Road, thence up the valley by Big Stone Gap, Appalachia and Norton, and a few miles on up to the mouth of Indian Creek; thence up Indian Creek by Wise and Pound [all in now-Wise Co, VA], and to Pound Gap, where they looked down upon the great wilderness before them, Kentucky. Dropping down into the valley below, they continued on down the Kentucky River.
As far as is known, the records in existence do not show when a single one of the first Combs pioneers came to Perry. As a result, family traditions and Census data cause confusion here and there, since they cannot be reconciled. I offer one example: Bonaparte, Mason Combs' son, said (Dickey Diary) that the youngest of his five sisters was born in Perry; that he and his brothers were all born after their sisters. The Census of 1850 (Perry) has Mason's oldest son, Washington, aged 54, born in Virginia; the Census of 1860 (Owsley [Co, KY]) says he was 62, and born in Tennessee. The Perry Census of 1870 also has him born in North Carolina. He was born in December, 1797. Nor do the Census records indicate that any of "Danger Nick's" children were born in Kentucky, the youngest one, Samuel, having been born in Tennessee, in 1798-1799. Now, it is probable that some of the early Combses first came to Perry and took up land, built their "improver's cabins", cleared their ten acres, then went back to the Holston River, Tennessee (where some of their children were born), and returned permanently to their land in Perry a few years later. The habitat of our Combs Argonauts in Tennessee was on the South Fork of the Holston River, in the present Sullivan County. The North Fork is almost entirely in Virginia, while the South Fork in Tennessee is confined entirely to Sullivan County. The entire State of Tennessee was once Washington County, of North Carolina. Sullivan County was
carved out of Washington County [now-TN] in 1779.
Had our land Argonauts continued on the Old Wilderness Road and crossed over by Cumberland Gap and on out of the mountains, they would have run right into civilization, down in the Bluegrass. It is pure fiction that the forefathers of the Kentucky Highlanders were on their way to Central Kentucky, that they stopped in the mountains because a wagon wheel broke down, or because somebody in the family died. Those old-timers knew exactly where they were going, else they would have kept on the Wilderness Road, had their eyes been skinned for the Bluegrass. Besides, after leaving the Wilderness Road, their way was only a trail, and a poor one, at that. They took no wagons along with them!
And so, our Combses, charting their course sometimes by God and by guess, sometimes by information previously obtained, set out, proceeding very slowly, with pack horses, a cow or two in each family, a hog or two, a sheep or two, and a dog. Of necessity they carried but little baggage: a few clothes, seed corn, rifle, ammunition, a few farming utensils, such as an ax, weeding hoe, a "glut", or iron wedge, a frow, some salt, and some corn meal. Wild game and fowls were the chief articles of food en route. Usually a number of families would go along together for mutual protection against prowling Indians. Sometimes a prospective settler would survey the promised land in advance, before bringing his family. This is exactly what "Gen." 'Lige Combs [Elijah Combs, Sr.] did, before the others came over; and he may have spread the good tidings of the new country among his people in the Holston Settlements and in Virginia. (2)
The spring of the year was the favorite season for migrating. The pioneer would sometimes go ahead of his family, select his land, build a cabin (an "improver's cabin" usually), clear away the canebrake, and "improve" about ten acres of land. When his crop was put out, he would go back for his family. Land was cheap, wherever it had to be bought at all. There were different methods of obtaining it. (1) It could be bought outright and, after 1815, for as low as twenty dollars per a hundred acres, under the old Land Warrants. (2) It could be bought under pre-emption rights, usually not to exceed a hundred and sixty acres. (3) "Squatter's rights", or "corn rights". In a wild, unclaimed region a settler could come in and simply "improve" a little tract, usually ten acres, live on it about fifteen years, and obtain title to it. (4) Military grants. These were made by the various States after the Revolution, to veterans. Number (5) also known as
"tomahawk" rights, was perhaps the most common method of obtaining land on the upper Kentucky River when the Combses came over.
Land taken up was at first always on some watercourse. Little by little the settler increased his holdings, by outright purchase, or by grant or warrant. An old grant or warrant of fifty to a hundred acres, say, along some stream, may not seem impressive, as to size. But later on a man's holdings and subsequent patents on a watercourse were construed as reaching to the top of the mountain above the stream.
At this point I blush at being compelled to knock some of the "oomph" out of what otherwise might have been a perfect, romantic saga: old John Combs and his eight sons, and "Danger Nick" and his family did not come to Kentucky together, in a single caravan. It is now definitely established that Elijah came first, and that the year was just about 1795. Under the eight brothers I shall give the details. But it may be safe to say that the two families were all in Perry between 1795-1810. It must be remembered that just before the invasion of Kentucky, they were living in at least three different regions, two in Virginia and one in what is now eastern Tennessee, or Sullivan County, around Kingsport. As far as is known, practically all the eight brothers were already married; it would hardly seem probable, under such circumstances, that all these families swooped down on Perry together, at the same time. The usual story is that they all came together. There are also stories and conjecture as to which one came first. Another tradition might as well be here: as far as is known, there were no Indians in Perry when the Combses came. Bonaparte ("Boney") Combs, son of Mason, oldest of the eight brothers, and born in 1807, said to Rev. Dickey, in 1898: "I do not know that there were any Indians here (on the River)." There were never many Indians in the mountains, in the first place. From time to time there may have been a few prowling Indians passing through the country, but the Combses were not molested by them.
When the first Combs came to the upper Kentucky River, most of what is now Perry County was in Clark County [KY]. Here is the story of Perry County since 1780.
Lincoln - 1780-1785 - from Kentucky County
Bourbon - 1785-1788 - from Fayette County
Mason - 1788-1792 - from Bourbon County
Clark - 1792-1796 - from Fayette County
Montgomery - 1796-1799 - from Clark County
Floyd - 1799-1806 - from Mason, Bourbon, Montgomery
Clay - 1806-1820 - from Knox, Floyd, Madison
Perry - 1820- - from Clay and Floyd (3)
Although Perry County was created in 1820, by act of the State Legislature, there was officially no public square at Hazard until 1826. In that year Elijah Combs ("Gen." 'Lige") and his wife, Sallie, make over a deed for this, in the town of "Hazard." The new county seat apparently was called Hazard from the beginning, but the Postoffice Department did not recognize it as such, and continued to call it Perry Court House from 1824 until 1854. J. Green Trimble, of Morgan County [KY], and born in the 1820's, wrote in the old Jackson Times (about 1915): "There was a postoffice at Perry Court House" (when he was growing up). Elijah Combs, Jr. was the first postmaster, appointed in 1824. The site of the present Hazard (that is, all that is on the right or north bank of the River) was in Floyd County [Co, KY] from 1800 to 1806; it was in Clay County [Co, KY] from 1806 to 1820, and in Perry from the latter date. The exact limits of the old Kentucky counties are sometimes hard to fix, since the acts of the Legislature creating them are not very clear and definite. An old map made in 1792 places those parts of Perry and Breathitt Counties which lie on the right or north bank of the Kentucky River in Bourbon County [KY]; those parts which lie on the south bank are placed in Madison County [KY]. Another old map made in 1794 places all of Perry and Breathitt in Mason County [KY].
As to politics, the families of old John Combs and "Danger Nick" Combs have run along pretty true to form, ever since the Revolution. "Danger" was not on "our side" in the Revolution; old John and his people took up arms for liberty and justice. Came the Civil War, and most of "Danger's" descendants who took any part in it fought to break up the Federal Union; while John's descendants, most of them, fought to preserve that Union. Today most of "Danger's" descendants are Democrats, while most of John's are Republicans.
THERE WERE EIGHT BROTHERS, NOT NINE. As to the parentage of the eight brothers, I shall argue that point only briefly, although it may not stand in need of it. For seventy years or more none of the old folks in Perry and elsewhere have mentioned anybody else but John and Nancy as the parents of the eight. Earliest evidence comes from Jesse, son of "Gen." 'Lige, himself, and Jesse was born in
1798; since he was twenty-one or twenty-two years old when his grandfather, old John, died, he could doubtless remember him. Jesse died in 1876; Others: Aunt "Dutch" Combs born in 1827, Jesse's daughter; Mrs. Adeline Cornett, born in 1832; Logan Combs; Judge Wiley A. Combs; Mrs. Henry Brashear; Mrs. Susan Combs Eversole; Mrs. Bertha Lyttle Jett; Sen. H.H. Smith; and the copious Combs data of the late Dr. Wilgus Back. Finally: on her one hundredth birthday, July 7,1945, old Betty Dobson, of Lott's Creek, Perry County, and granddaughter of "Chunky Jerry" Combs, stood in her yard feeding her chickens, and chatted with J.D. Smith, of Dwarf, Perry County, on the Combses. She related that John Combs was father of the eight brothers, and how he had come to Perry and build his ''improver's" cabin and cleared a few acres of ground, before returning to bring back his family.
The nine brothers legend (it is hardly that, as yet) seems to have had its beginning only about fifty years ago, or in the 1890's. Much, or most of it, is probably due to a misunderstanding of a single interview in the diary of the Rev. J.J. Dickey; in fact, careful scrutiny of that interview reveals that Rev. Dickey, himself, got his wires crossed, as I shall show. Combs entires [entries] in the diary were made mostly in 1896 and 1898. Let's look at that interview with John S. Combs (born in 1819), one of "Danger Nick's" grandsons. It took place in Perry County, April 28, 1898." - There was a large company came together" (he makes no mention of the number). "Mason, George, Nicholas, William, Samuel, Jeremiah, Biram, Elijah Combs, these were brothers." Old John S. pauses a moment, and mentions another: Henry. "Mason was the oldest." He then says he has seen all of them.
After a few more remarks, John S. continues: "My father, ("Chunky" Jerry) had two brothers: Samuel, who lived at Booneville [Owsley Co, KY]- and Nicholas, the father of Lorenzo." Now, John S.'s father was Jeremiah ("Chunky Jerry"); his two uncles were Samuel and Nicholas ("Bird-Eye"). In these latter extracts from the interview it is plain that John S. is talking about his father and his uncles, and not about the eight brothers. When he talks about his grandfather, it is separate from the eight brothers. He totally separates his father and two uncles from the eight brothers when be begins, "My father had two brothers," etc. After naming as many of the eight brothers as he could think of, he makes an inexplicable remark: "I have seen all these uncles." He undoubtedly meant brothers, since it is well known that John S.'s father, Jeremiah ("Chunky"), and his
two brothers, Samuel and Nicholas ("Bird-Eye") were sons of "Danger Nick," and do not belong among the eight brothers. Of course old John S. knew this when he was talking to Dickey. He also knew well that his grandfather, "Danger", was not one of the brothers, and that he was not their father, as Rev. S.E. Hager thinks. Use of the word "uncles" quite naturally caused Dickey to put "Chunky" and his brothers, Samuel and "Bird-Eye" among the eight.
As proof that Dickey was confused by John S.'s statement, he writes the word "Danger" above the word Nicholas, in the names mentioned by John S.; a little further on he writes it over the word Nicholas, John S.'s uncle; It is an error in either case, for those Nicholases and Jeremiahs confused Dickey, as they have confused people since his time. Now, it is quite probable that John S. did mention Nicholas as one of the eight, since one of them was certainly named Nicholas, but it was NOT "Danger Nick", and John S. knew this. And so, Dickey put all the names together, and the sum total (for him) was nine. Jeremiah and Samuel should not be there. Removing Samuel and Jeremiah, we have a total of seven names-which is correct, as far as old John S. could remember. He forgot one name, John. That makes eight, which is correct, since we know that the others, Mason, George, Henry (Harrison), William, Elijah and Biram were of the "eight brothers"
Most decidedly, categorically and finally, "Danger Nick" Combs was not one of the eight brothers. Later in the Dickey interview, John S. takes him up again, stating that he died in 1838 (looking in his Bible to confirm the date), and that he died, aged a hundred and one, two or three years. That is the most convincing statement of all. It means that "Danger" was born at least as early as 1737 - twenty years or more before Mason, oldest of the brothers, was born. Andrew (1812-13), John S.'s brother, says in the Dickey diary that some of "Danger's" brothers were in the Revolution. This also is significant, because only two or three of the eight brothers were old enough to have been in that war, and only two of them, John and William, are known to have been in it.
Let us look again at the names Nicholas and Jeremiah, and explain the reasons for confusion among them. There were three early Nicholases: "Danger", his son, "Bird-Eye" Nicholas, and Nicholas of the brothers. Nicholas of the brothers (b. 1764-65), was considerably older than "Danger's" son, "Bird-Eye" (b. 1792); these are Census dates. Not much is known about brother Nicholas, for, like his brother
Biram, he did not stay around Hazard for long, and moved away. "Danger's" son Samuel (b. 1799-1800) had a Nicholas, but he comes too late to cause confusion. "Chunky" Jerry's Nicholas (b. around 1800) also comes too late. (4)
"Danger" Nicholas married late, 1770-1775 (that is, to Nancy Grigsby), and only one of his children, Nancy, or Alicia, was born before 1779-1780; that has caused him to be counted among the eight brothers. None of the eight brothers could have been married and having children as early as 1770-1775, when Alicia was born. Mason; oldest of the brothers, did not have children until the 1780's.
The notion that Jeremiah ("Long Jerry") was one of the eight has persisted for a long time, also. As far as is known, he is the oldest of any of the children of the eight brothers, and was therefore born almost early enough (1781-1782) to have been one of the eight. As is now known, he is a son of John, the Revolutionary veteran. He was only two or three years younger than "Chunky Jerry", and that has caused some confusion. Each one married a Nancy, also. "Chunky" was born in old Shenandoah County, Virginia. Neither belongs to the "eight". Washington and Mose may be dismissed with a word. The former is Mason's oldest son, the latter is "Chunky's" oldest son. The Wilmouth Combs of the old Land Warrants (in Perry in 1816) is as yet unidentified; he is probably a cousin of the eight, and a son of William, uncle of the eight.
That old "Danger Nick" Combs was a brother of John, father of the eight brothers, can no longer be doubted. Inquiry among some of the grandchildren of these two pioneers bears out the contention. Samp Combs, a grandson of Mason, and still living (1946), says that the eight brothers were cousins of "Danger's" children. Harrison Combs, of Clay City, and a son of old "Chunky", himself, says that his father was a cousin of the brothers. Harrison was born in 1848-'49, died in 1945. (5)
I now introduce some more evidence in favor of the eight brothers. John S. Combs mentions only seven, but he forgot John for the moment. Mrs. Margaret Lewis (Dickey diary) says there were eight; she mentions a John. William Mason Combs, grandson of Harrison, one of the eight, says there were eight. "Preacher" Ira Combs, grandson of Mason, mentions seven or eight. W.J. (Bill) Combs, of Hazard, and great-grandson of "Gen." 'Lige Combs mentions seven. Mrs. Adeline Cornett, born in 1832, says there were eight. The old Staceys, who married into the Combses, and who lived among the
early ones, say there were eight. Bonaparte ("Boney") one of the youngest sons of old Mason, and born in 1807, says there were eight. ("Boney" must have known who his uncles were!) In brief, I have no statement of a single old person who says there were nine brothers. Dr. Clark, in his The Kentucky, says there were eight.