Introduction [Part 1]
.....HE TO HECUBA AND HECUBA TO HIM. Before having my little say as to the origin and development of the name COMBS, and rattling the family skeleton until its teeth are loose, I now turn to a more pleasant diversion: to chatting. It is estimated that more than four hundred books have been written on onomastic science. It is therefore difficult to produce anything totally new in this field; although I may claim at least a modicum of originality in my approach to the present work. As I remark elsewhere, the surname COMBS offers perhaps the most interesting field for research among all family names; which fact justifies my philological remarks thereupon. It is the name, its origin and meaning, which first attracted my curiosity, long before I looked at genealogical considerations. I had seen so many attempts to account for it - some of them from the pen of recognized authorities - that I finally concluded that there was "something mucky in Morocco" about the matter. The science of philology and nomenclature has thoroughly verified my erstwhile suspicions.
.....No, I am not
presumptuous enough to range COMBS alongside SMITH, as a common family
name. A thoughtless old lady once found herself in the city for the first
time. All of a sudden, she noticed a glaring sign, "The Smith Manufacturing
Company". Recoiling, she gasped: "Lawsy mercy.' I've heerd tell of Smiths
all of my life, but this is the first time I ever knowed where they made
'em." But Combses are numerous, far more so than is generally known, not
only in America, but also in Europe. I know of no "Combs Manufacturing
Company", but if there is one, it must be in Perry County, Kentucky,
the "Combs Capital of the world". Up there in that part of the country,
so they say, all you need to do to find a Combs, even in a forest, is to
shake a bush, and out one will jump.
.....Perry County, Kentucky is the banner Combs county in the United States. There the Combses outnumber the Smiths. In fact, the Kentucky River country, from near its upper reaches to the Bluegrass, is alive with the species, including especially such counties as Letcher, Perry, Knott, Breathitt. In these Highlands the children sing it, "She'll be Combing Around the Mountain When she Combs." On some of the creeks and branches families have so intermarried for generations, that every man is his own great-grand-mother, if he only knew how to figure out the relationship. I once heard a Tennessee mountaineer say to another: "Your great-gran'mammy's sister was my great gran'daddy's step-uncle's aunt."
.....One says, sometimes, when only a slight relationship can be established: "My gran'pappy's dog ran through your gran' mammy's taterpatch." I can't help resisting here the temptation to record a genealogical puzzle attributed to Mark Twain:
....."I married a widow with a grown daughter. My father fell in love with my step-daughter and married her, thus becoming my son-in-law; and my step-daughter became my mother, because she was my father's wife. My wife gave birth to a son, which was, of course, my father's brother-in-law, and my uncle, for he was the brother of my step-mother. My father's wife became the mother of a son. He was, of course, my brother, and also my grandchild, for he was the son of my daughter. Accordingly, my wife was my grandmother, because she was my mother's mother - I was my wife's husband and grandchild at the same time - and as the husband of a person's grandmother is his grandfather - I AM MY OWN GRANDFATHER!"
.....Here is another slant on this scrambled relationship: "I didn't want to embarrass my best girl by asking her to propose to me, so I asked her to be my wife. She refused, but I got even with her - I married her mother. Then my father married the girl. Now, I don't know who I am. When I married the girl's mother, the girl became my daughter; and when my father married my daughter, my daughter became my mother. If my father is my son, and if my daughter is my mother, who in the thunder am I? My mother's mother, who is my wife, must be my grandmother, and I being my grandmother's husband, must be my own grandfather!" (I suppose that both of these unfortunate lovers are safely incarcerated behind the walls of some insane asylum, cutting out paper dolls).
story (borrowed from Bob Ripley) concerns a puzzled lass of Roanoke, Virginia:"
. . . has the following confusing relationships. Both parents are living,
yet she is an orphan! She is the daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter
of her parents.
Her father is her brother and her nephew. Her mother is her sister-in-law and her niece. Her great-grandmother was her legal mother. Her step-great-grandfather was her legal father. She has three kinds of sisters, step, half and adopted - yet she is only a child!" Ripley also cites a Dutchman, in Holland, who married an eighteen year old girl; his son then married his step-mother's forty-year old mother, and then the Dutchman became his own grandfather. (Verily, only the apiary offers such bizarre relationships: the drove [drone?] claims the unusualy [unusual] distinction of having a granddaddy, but no daddy, since developing from an unfertilized egg deposited by the queen in a drone cell, he has no male parent; but he can boast of a maternal granddaddy because the queen is the daughter of a drone, and is hatched from a fertilized egg. - J.H.C.).
.....While rattling the family skeleton, I have had some interesting (and at times, embarrassing) experiences. Once, in a little cafe in the outskirts of Fredericksburg, Virginia, I asked the proprietor if there were still any Combses in that locality. "Combses"? he replied, "you bet there are; and I want to tell you, they're the sorriest people in this part of the country!" Mr. Walter Coombs, of Minneapolis [Hennepin Co], Minnesota, tells me that, on his way home from his office, he kept noticing the sign-board of a plumber named Combs. Later, getting ready to build a house, he decided to consult the plumber about the plumbing, for sentimental reasons. The job was completed, but the charges were exorbitant; it developed that the plumber was a "hyphenated", German-American, one of whose forefathers had allegedly been a smuggler in Pennsylvania, and who had shoved off to another part of the country, changing his name to Combs in the meantime! Mrs. Electa Ball Spangler tells me of having met a Jew named Combs, in Wichita [Sedgwick Co], Kansas.
.....The late George H. Smith, of Columbus [Crisp or Muscogee Co], Georgia, was a rabid Combs fan. When I told him of my theories regarding the origin of the Combses, he said, "Oh, no, it's this way: a long time ago Adam and Eve Smith lived in the Garden of Eden. In time, they had two sons, Cain Smith and Abel Smith, after leaving the Garden. In a fit of rage, Cain Smith arose and slew Abel Smith. Then Cain Smith wandered off som'eres and changed his name to Combs."
of the name has given rise to numerous quips over the country, among the
various lines. The late Fred Coombs, of Madison [Dane Co], Wisconsin (an
avid Combs fan, and father of Walter, above), once explained why so many
Combses spell the name with one o. The majority of them are undoubtedly
shiftless, said he, because they are too laze to write both o's!
Mr. Chas. E. Coombes, a lawyer of
Stamford [Jones Co], Texas, twits me about not knowing how to spell my name, and especially since I am a college professor!
.....Many stories are behind the veil of the long past. I am indebted for the following story to the late George D.A. Combes, of Rockville Centre, Long Island [Nassau Co, NY]. It appears that one Richard Combes, Jr., son of Richard Combes, of Hempstead, Long Island [Nassau Co, NY], was accused of stealing pigs from one Ramoreck, an Indian, in 1690. Later, in Freehold [Monmouth Co], New Jersey, he was accused of a similar theft, but declared his innocence "before Almighty God", whereupon "he fell in a fitt as one dead, and did not come to himself in some weeks," according to an old record. But Dick seems to have come around all right, for in 1711, back in Hempstead, he was again accused of stealing pigs. In 1712 he showed up in Jamaica, Long Island [Queens Co, NY], where in 1740, he was convicted of stealing pigs, among other things. How Dick loved pigs! He must have been acquainted with the legend of the origin of roast pig in China, long before Charles Lamb's celebrated essay on the same subject. He is one of my heroes.
.....And how is this one for an arriviste?: During the Revolution one John Combs came over as an officer in the British army. He was captured and imprisoned in Connecticut, proceeded to make love to the jailer's daughter, married her, joined the Colonial Army and was later granted a pension by the American Government. Adventure loving John! The ballad of "The Turkish Lady" has nothing on him. Another of my heroes.
.....Now, let's span the Atlantic, and descend upon England. In 1298 (according to Dallaway's Sussez [Sussex, EN?] one John de Combe and his wife, Margaret de Gadesden, were having marital troubles. John decided to wash his hands of the whole business by executing a deed, under the terms of which he resigned all authority over said Margaret and her goods, in order that she might live in peace with her lover, Sir William Paynall. Another of my heroes. Indulgent old John! Our nominal ancestors were lovers of sports. In Sussex, EN, in 1425, one John Coumbes broke his left leg while playing football. Had it been American football, he would have broken his neck. Unfortunate John!
.....There have doubtless
been many unsung heroes among the Combses, in both the Old World and the
New World. Their deeds of derring-do have not emblazoned the pages of history,
but some of them have seeped down through the generations by way of musty
records and Chimney-corner tradition. To be sure, these exploits are not
played up in family histories, nor, indeed, do the descendants of their
perpetrators like to gloat over them. Just observe the average seeker after
his family history; all too often he assays to connect his
family with some celebrated family of the past, of the same name. And, gently rubbing his hands over the shoulders of the long past dead, seeking to discover the sprouting wings, his hand accidentally comes in contact with the top of the head - and lo! he feels full-grown horns; horns, sometimes, which a sex-dallying wife has given him, as the French say. Three additional Combs heroes (unsung) have definitely established themselves as such. Joseph, son of Joseph, of Stafford County [VA], was one of the early hell-raisers on the old Virginia frontier (the lower Shenandoah Valley). Time and again was he hailed into court at Winchester [Frederick Co, VA], charged with illegally selling whiskey, and with fornication. Time and again did Gen. Dan Morgan and Capt. John Ashby come to his rescue as witnesses. He was living several miles southeast of Winchester, and running an "ordinary" or inn, on the Shenandoah. It was during the French and Indian War, and Washington was in command of the Colonial forces at Ft. Loudon [Loudoun] (Winchester). Well, Sir, on December 28, 1755, Washington wrote Capt. Ashby a very pointed letter, a paragraph of which follows, spelling and punctuation intact:
I am very much surprized to hear the great irregularities which were allowed at your Camp. The Rum, although sold by Joseph Coombs, I am credibly informed, is your property. There are continual complaints to me of the misbehaviour of your Wife (Joseph's sister); who I am told sows sedition among the men, and is chief of every muntiny. If she is not immediately sent from the Camp, or I hear any more complaints of such irregular Behaviour upon my arrival there; I shall take care to drive her out myself, and suspend you.
.....One John Combs, of Breathitt County, Kentucky, took unto wife Winnie, daughter of Henry Combs, old Matthew's son; shoved off to Arkansas; Winnie dies; back treks John to Kentucky, and marries Winnie's sister, Evaline; Evaline dies; undismayed, John takes matrimonial vows five times more. One of my second cousins was reputed to have had forty-two children, about half of them by the accustomed, legal route, and the other half "otherwise".
.....Now I want to
record a story told to me by my father. Once upon a time, back in the fastnesses
of the Kentucky mountains, three Combs girls, all named Peggy (Margaret),
slid off into the path of primrose dalliance, and had three children the
same year, by the same man, one John Lacey by name! Romantic John! (Said
to have been daughters of Washington, Jesse, and "Long Jerry"). How John
connived to negotiate this astounding feat is unknown. He must have
been a great lover, and an astute diplomat. I hereby unequivocally nominate this Don Juan for a posthumous Carnegie Hero Medal. At any rate, he is definitely a hero.
.....In Perry County [KY], about 1857, the offices of county judge, county attorney, sheriff, jailer, and county and circuit court clerks were all held by members of the Combs family. It is probably true that since that time the County has not at any time been without a Combs office holder. And it was in all liklihood [likelihood] true from the formation of the county (1820).
.....The records of the Post Office Department, Washington, show that from 1824 (there was no postoffice at Hazard [Perry Co. KY] before that date) to 1877 every postmaster at Hazard but one, was a Combs. The postmasters were: Elijah, Jr., Jackson G., Josiah H., Jesse, William W., Hezekiah, William J. Jesse appears three times.
.....Let's go back to the court records for this one. Scene, Hazard, Perry County, Kentucky. Time: about 1912. Occasion: a session of the circuit court. Case: Jent vs. Combs. (Jent's mother was a Combs). The Judge: L.D. Lewis. (Lewis' mother was a Combs). Lawyer: John B. Eversole. (Eversole descends from old 'Lige Combs). Lawyer: C.L. Napier. (Napier married a Combs). The sheriff: he married a Combs. The official stenographer: her mother was a Combs. The jury: most of them were Combses. The witnesses: they were all Combses.
.....In 1917 Combses were candidates for office before the August primary in Perry, Letcher, Knott and Breathitt Counties [KY]. In Perry fourteen were candidates: John, Richmond, G.P. (my uncle), Bony P., Beecher, John B., H.H., A.H., C.D., James, John L., Ed., Logan, Ira. There was at least one Combs, or more, for every county office but one, that of county attorney. "Combs and Combs" is not infrequent as a law firm in Kentucky, and elsewhere. There was one so styled "Combs, Combs, Combs and Combs", at Prestonsburg, Kentucky, comprising four or five partners.
.....Now let's go
down the Kentucky River, to Frankfort [Franklin Co, KY], where a little
colloquy took place between the State Treasurer, James Davidson, and Sheriff
Combs, of Perry County, in the 1880's. The sheriff was making a settlement
for his county, and his report included twenty-five idiot claims, approved
by the State Auditor, who had given a warrant upon the Treasurer for their
payment. "Why, Mr. Combs," said the Treasurer, "you must all be idiots
up in Perry County". Quoth Sheriff Combs: "Well, pret' near't, I guess,
but we generally have sense enough to get what's coming to us from the
.....LARGE FAMILIES, ETC. Years ago Mrs. Ella Combs, of Breathitt County, Kentucky, lost seventeen relatives in one brawl. Shortly after the First World War, or on November 8, 1921, five or six Combses were killed in one fight, in a petty school election at the mouth of Clayhole, on Troublesome Creek, in the same county. A Harlan County, Kentucky Combs (who moved to Lancaster County, Virginia) has twenty-three children. One Hetty Viola Combs Feagin, who moved from Loudon [Loudoun] County, Virginia to Fayette County, Ohio, had nineteen children all living at the same time. Old Clint Combs, of Perry County [KY], had 19 children, by two wives. My great-grandfather, "Long Jerry" Combs, had seventeen or eighteen children, by two wives. His son, William L., had fourteen, by the same wife. Joseph Allen Combs, of Johnson County, Indiana, had twelve children. I could mention many more large Combs families. Geo. D.A. Combes reports one Combs family of twenty-two children, but it took the old chap three wives to get there. One good old mountain lady, when asked by an outsider how many children she had, replied regretfully: "Jist ten; it looks like a body oughter have a least a dozen." (1)
.....Longevity has characterized at least one branch in the Kentucky mountains, that of "Danger Nick" Combs and his descendants. "Danger" was about a hundred and two years old when he died (1838). His son, "Bird-Eye Nick", was over a hundred. One of his grandsons, "Tight Jerry", was a hundred and six to a hundred and nine when he died. Still another grandson, Harrison, of Powell County [KY?], died at a hundred and one. "Aunt" Betty Dobson, of Perry County [KY], and a granddaughter of "Chunky Jerry", died in 1947, aged a hundred and three. There are a number of others in their eighties and nineties.
"SETS", ETC. These people, like ninety percent of other mountaineers, are
of pure, old English stock, or ancestry. In spite of oft-repeated statements
and opinions of pseudo-historians and ethnologists, there is nothing Scotch
about them, nothing Irish. Their forebears came directly from England,
largely from the southern and southwestern parts. A few Combses have lived
in Scotland, but their forebears went there at a comparatively late date.
Not only historians (like Theodore Roosevelt and Fiske), but also some
novelists, and "missionaries" (largely Presbyterians) of Scotch ancestry,
themselves, have put the mountaineers in the Scotch-Irish camp. Hott, mon,
O wud some power the giftie gie us! (For a full discussion of the subject,
se [see] my Folk-Songs du Midi des Etats - Unis, Paris, 1925).
.....The habit of giving middle names made no headway much in Virginia until the nineteenth century, although a middle name occurs here and there, after 1750. Nor had fancy given names come in. English court records show that double given-names were not used until the 17th century, and then only sparingly. They gained some momentum in the 18th, and struck their stride in the 19th. Middle names were not popular in my line until comparatively recent times; here and there a child was given a middle name, but it was not often used, and seldom appears even in the records. Sometimes a given-name has been corrupted till it has little resemblance with its original. Josiah has long since become "Josarr"; Hezekiah, "Hyskiah", or "Karr". Pauline has become "Perliny", "Poliny" or "P'liny". Matilda has become "Tildy", Millicent (?) "Millie", Letitia, "Tish", Candesta, "Desty", Lavina, "Vina", Malinda, "Len". The old English "Peggy" (a diminutive of Margaret) is the most common name for girls in my line unless it be "Beth" (Elizabeth).
.....The name Cythia in my line goes back to Virginia. It appears in various forms, such as Cythie, Sythe, Seth and even Siphia (Sip), etc. Seth having been common among the Harrisons, Bullitts and Combses in Fauquier Co., Va., reaching my line somewhat later. Some genealogists have confused Seth with Elizabeth, an entirely different name. Among some Virginia and Clark Co., Ky. families Seth also became a name for boys.
.....The initial H. in my line stands for Harrison, or Henry; it is also used among the Clark Co. [KY] Combses. S. and C. have not been satisfactorily explained, although my Uncle Spencer Combs once said that S. stands for Sidney. The H. among families in the Bluegrass and in the mountains began when Seth Harrison Bullitt married John, Gen. Leslie Combs' grandfather, in Fauquier Co., Va. Henry, one of the "eight brothers" was always known as Harrison, except in the records. It is, therefore, singular that he had a son named Henry, and one named Harrison. The initial D. in my line is still unsolved. Among the Bluegrass Combses, B. stands for Bullitt. A possible explanation for C. is the fact that in Virginia a man unable to write, or too sick to write, sometimes made his mark by simply writing the initial of his family name on wills, deeds, etc: it finally remained as a middle initial. But this custom in time fell into disuse. In the case of the Perry County [KY] Combses, and certainly in that of those of Frederick County, Virginia, and Clark County, Kentucky, the middle initial C. probably stands for Calmes. As we shall see later, the Calmes family was a distinguished one in old Frederick [Co VA]. Judge Marquis Calmes was living there, along with Mason Combs, of Stafford [Co, VA], and his children. (2)
Introduction [Part 2], pp. xvii-xxix
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