Matthew Knox was the first of his family to cross the mountains and enter Mississippi. The covered wagon he drove pulled a milk cow while two sows and a collie dog trailed along, and his wife sat in the back. Under the tarpaulin, among the farm implements, resting neatly next to a jug of clear whiskey medicine, was a small bible his grandfather, Jeremiah Knox, had given him in 1862 when he went off to fight in the Confederate War. Together Matthew and this bible had survived the war and would stay together throughout the tense aftermath.
Matthew cared nothing for the book itself. He placed no stock in anything as speculative as religion and was even suspicious of those who preached from a bible despite coming from a family that boasted of no fewer than six Presbyterian ministers. No, the significance of the book lay solely in the list of names written in a careful scrawl by different hands over more than 200 years: his Knox progenitors.
Matthew went to Meridian, Mississippi in 1866, just after the end of the Confederate War in which he’d served. He’d heard that the new territory was ripe for an industrious young man looking to make his mark. A new start is what he needed, after his grandfather’s farm had nearly burned up when a spark from the fire under a pot of molasses jumped loose and set fire to the dry field grass which had seen no rain for more than six weeks.
Matthew only heard about the fire well after the fact. When he rode up to the farm, months had elapsed since that dreadful day of the fire that had taken not only grass and trees, but his grandfather’s life as well.
Jeremiah and his daughter-in-law Cora had fought that fire all afternoon and into the evening, digging fire breaks and throwing the dirt on the fire. But a steady wind fueled the fire that leapt over each break they created and burned everything on the near side short of the house and barn before finally burning itself out at the springhouse. Jeremiah had inhaled too much smoke; burns to his head and hands, as well as the stress of the physical exertion, it combined to be too much for the tough 90 year old man. He lingered for almost three weeks before dying in his sleep.
Matthew’s father Josiah did not arrive back at the farm until mid-1865, almost a year after the fire. However, once the full impact of the devastation had sunk in, his father told him, “you go; your mother and I might have just enough strength to rebuild this farm even if it takes the rest of our lives. You’re still young, at the start of your life and can make something of yourself in a new territory.”
This Matthew did. With him into the wilderness of Mississippi he brought the bible with the list of names: a tether to his past and his Ulster family.
Tristan Knox, Scotland, (1622), to Ulster in 1656
Angus Knox, Scotland, (1645), to Ulster in 1656
Jacob Knox, Ulster, (1670)
James Knox, Ulster, (1701)
Nathaniel Knox, Ulster, 1722, later to Pennsylvania in 1756, then Carolina, 1783, d. 1799
Bartholomew Knox, Nathaniel’s son, Ulster, 1750, Pennsylvania after 1756, Carolina 1783, d. 1829
Jeremiah Knox, Nathaniel’s grandson, Pennsylvania, 1774, North Carolina in 1783, dies in fire 1864
Josiah Knox, Jeremiah’s son, 1804, North Carolina, d. 1886
Matthew Knox, Jeremiah’s grandson, North Carolina, 1833, Meridian, Mississippi, 1865, d. 1909
The first name in the bible was put there by Matthew’s sixth great-grandfather, whose name was unknown to him, but this anonymous Scotsman notated the name of his eldest son, born in 1621 in County Galway, Scotland. The name he wrote was Tristan Knox.
Tristan was born during the first great wave of migration from Scotland to northern Ireland begun by King James the VI known as the Ulster Plantation. His father decided against relocated across the channel. However, Tristan left Scotland in 1656 along with other Scotch Presbyterians. The Tristan Knox family went to Donegal, where a few kinsmen had staked out some land.
Several generations of Knoxes lived on this land in Donegal, the names written under Tristan Knox on the list were Angus (b. 1645), Jacob (b. 1670), James (b. 1701) and Nathaniel (b. 1722).
But by now, Scots in Ulster were feeling the pinch between the Irish Catholics and the English Anglicans. Scots left Ulster in growing numbers for religious tension but they also left for economic reasons forced upon them by rising rents imposed by English overlords. Those were the sticks driving them out, the carrots were stories of a bountiful and rich the land, with no overlords or religious persecution, that waited for them across the Atlantic.
Almost exactly 100 years after Tristan left Scotland for Ulster, Nathaniel left Ulster for America.
Nathaniel Knox did what many Ulster Scots did in order to find a ship for America, he signed a contract for himself and his family for five years of labor. Indentured service was common and often the only method a tenant farmer in Ulster could pay for passage across the ocean.
The Knox family entered the New World through Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which was the largest Colonial city, and a common port of entry. The service contract Nathaniel Knox had signed placed him on a farm in southwestern Pennsylvania, within view of the Allegheny Mountains. Nathaniel’s son Bartholomew was just six when they stepped off the boat, and by the time the family had worked out of the indenture, he was nearly a teenager.
Marriage was going to be a possibility for Bartholomew in a few years, so Nathaniel started looking for some acreage of his own. The first Knox farm was a 66 acre tract of Pennsylvania land that was covered with rich topsoil and timber. Nathaniel increased his holdings whenever he could and over the next twenty years amassed nearly 200 acres of productive land.
Also over that time Pennsylvania was becoming more crowded and government intrusion becoming more and more of a bothersome thing for Scots-Irish immigrants and something of which they were decidedly intolerant. Eventually, Nathaniel and the Knox family packed up and moved once again in 1783, this time to North Carolina. Along with Nathaniel came Bartholomew’s growing family, whose oldest son, Jeremiah, at nine years old was the first native born American Knox.
Nathaniel and Bartholomew invested the money from the sale of their Pennsylvania farm into even more acreage in Carolina, where there were fewer people and less government. They might still be on the east side of the mountains, but they were well into the frontier.
This is the land where Jeremiah grew into a young man. The Knox farm produced tobacco, corn, sugar cane, and barley; and provided a good living for the Knox family. Jeremiah married a local girl, Kathleen Kerby, in 1799. Kathleen lost two infants before finally carrying to term a boy, whom they named Josiah after Kathleen’s father, Joseph, but also following in the Knox family tradition of choosing biblical names for their male children.
Josiah began helping his father with the farm work when he was eight years old and by the time he was 25, he was ready to take over the day-to-day operations and find a wife. That was Cora Adams, whom he married in 1830.
Our story began with their son Matthew, who married Willa Thomas in 1855, had their first child, Georgiana in 1856 and together they went to Mississippi, in the tarp-covered wagon with the bible, to continue the Knox family adventure in America . Having experienced the precarious nature of farm life, at the mercy of the elements, Matthew chose instead to operate a mercantile store in Meridian, Mississippi. Later he became quite successful as a cotton agent in Jackson.
Matthew and Willa were the grandparents of Elijah “Lige” Langford, and the great-great-great-great-grandparents, on his mother’s side, of Levi Hooper (see songs “The Langfords and the Littlejohns” and “Mildred’s House of Values”).
Although he knew of the bible, Levi Hooper was only vaguely aware of the entire history of his mother’s family. He’d heard how the bible had been carefully handed down from Scotland all the way to his maternal grandmother Marjy Littlejohn, the daughter of Emily Langford and George Littlejohn. Mamaw Littlejohn in turn gave it to her daughter Mildred Langford Motts, Levi’s mother. Mildred was saving this bible for her oldest grandchild, if and when Levi ever found a nice girl and settled down.