Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Native Americans lived along Pedlar Creek at the top of the Blue Ridge

presented this paper to the Rockbridge Historical Society at its meeting of September 27, 2005 at    Southern Virginia University ]

Mormon Missionaries in the Blue Ridge, 1883-98
In its early days, from 1830 to 1846, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday
Saints was unique in that it was somewhat color-blind. (Church members
generally called themselves "Latter-day Saints" or "Saints," according
to the Bible. Almost everybody else called them Mormons. 35) The writings
of Joseph Smith, the first president, did indicate that lineage mattered to
God, with Israelites receiving covenant promises first and the descendants
of Cain receiving them last.36 The early church nevertheless welcomed all converts, "black and white, bond and free." 37 All people sat together in
system, because their existence
seemed to flaunt a violation of the
anti-miscegenation laws.22
Previous anti-miscegenation
statutes in Virginia had more flexibly
defined "colored" as more
than one-fourth Negro blood, and
"Indian" as non-colored with more
than one-fourth Indian blood.23
The Racial Integrity Act raised the
bar considerably by declaring that a
person with any "discernable trace"
of any color other than white would
be considered a "colored" person
who posed a danger to the purity of the white race. Furthermore, the act
required non-whites to register with local governments and pay a fee, 20
percent of which went into Dr. Plecker’s coffers in Richmond. 24 There,
government workers used state and colonial vital statistics, such as the
antebellum registers of free colored people, to pinpoint locations in the
commonwealth where descendants might be passing for white.2 5 Because two-thirds of the Amherst Indians 26had never registered as free issues
in the first place, the act segregated descendants from each other because
the Department of Vital Statistics labeled some as white and some
as black.27
Then the county clerk in nearby Rockbridge County denied Atha
Sorrells a white marriage license. Sorrels sued him and won by proving
that "colored" did not necessarily mean "Negro." She produced evidence
to show that she had a distant Indian ancestor but no black ones, thereby
falling within the legal exception for one-sixteenth Indian blood.28
Plecker chose not to appeal the ruling, perhaps fearing that an appellate
court could hold the Racial Integrity Act to be overly vague in
its definition of "Caucasian." Instead, Plecker increased the intensity of
his hunt for Virginians who might have a few drops of colored blood.
He widely distributed John Powell’s brochure, The Breach in the Dike: An
Analysis of the Sorrels Case Showing the Danger to Racial Integrity From the Intermarriage
of Whites with So-Called Indians. 29 Richmond bureaucrats under
his direction used the antebellum Amherst registers to trace individuals
named in it down through descendants who had dutifully obtained birth,
marriage, and death certificates.
f i g u r e 4
Dr. Walter Ashby Plecker, January 1935.
courtesy of the richmond times-dispatch
206 P roceedings of the Rockbridge Historical Society — Volume XIII Proceedings of the Rockbridge Historical Society — Volume XIII 207
The elders discovered the craggy landscape dotted with tiny log
houses, many belonging to members of the Mason family. One day, John
Mason took Kimball and Welch up to the cabin of his parents, Peter Mason
and Diannah Sorrells Mason. Fifteen family members gathered to
meet them.51 That night, Elder Kimball wrote in his journal: 52
[A] stranger sight I never saw. He [Peter Mason] was seventy years
old. [He] was born and raised at this same place (top of the Blue
Ridge Mts). He was of Indian descent, his skin being almost as dark as
an Indians. His hair was long and black. Mrs. Mason — his wife — was
very old. She said what she thought and was somewhat of a doctress.
They had seventeen children — twelve boys and five girls. Children
and grandchildren about forty-two. Indian blood was discernable in
most of their faces. Look which way you might — poverty was everywhere
to be seen. They were but little ahead of the Indian people in
education. None of them had ever belonged to a church of any kind.
If the elders had seen any indication that a group of Native Americans
lived along Pedlar Creek at the top of the Blue Ridge, they would
have sought them out as "chosen people," just as other elders had sought
out the Catawba Indians in South Carolina 53 and the Cherokee Indians
in North Carolina.54 In the Book of Mormon, the Israelite prophet Lehi
f i g u r e 5
Location of Indians in West-Central Virginia
Rugged uplands
Rivers and
Norfolk & Western
Present-day county
Tobacco Row
Buena Vista n
J a m e s R i v e r
n o r t h ( m a u r y )
R i v e r
s o u t h R i v e r
i r i s h c r e e k
p e d l a r c r e e k ( p e d l a r r i v e r )
N e l s o n
C o u n t y
r o c k b r i d g e
C o u n t y
amh e r s t
C o u n t y
nancy fischman
c o l l i e r s
c r e e k
meetings, including the few free-black members. All faithful men held the
lay priesthood, including at least two blacks.38
Then, in 1852, Utah governor and prophet Brigham Young asked
the territorial legislature to pass "An Act in Relation to Service," legalizing
slavery in the territory, though very few blacks lived there. In a statement
to the legislature, Young also denied priesthood ordination to Negro Latter-
day Saints.39
As Reconstruction ended and government-sponsored segregation
began in the South,4 0 former abolitionists in the Northeast turned their
full attention toward Mormons. Political cartoons in Republican newspapers
began showing polygamous Mormons allying themselves with other
dangerous minorities by marrying them and giving birth to mixed breeds
of every ethnic origin. 41 Federal government officials accused Mormons
of stirring up western Indians by promising them a restoration of ancient
greatness. 42 Mainstream Protestant ministers accused Mormons of barbarism
and immorality.43
In that context, it must have been a relief for the elders to journey into
the Blue Ridge Mountains and find a different set of challenges. On December
30, 1883, Elders4 4 J. Golden Kimball and Charles Welch stepped off the
Shenandoah Railway car at Riverside Station, three miles north of Buena
Vista in Rockbridge County. 45 On January 11, 1884, in a hard rain, the two
repeatedly waded the icy Pedlar Creek46 as it wound along the remote tops of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Amherst County.
* Eventually, they found
the home of a referral named Mr. Mason. Glad to have arrived safely, Kimball
wrote, "I could not stand erect in the house. They had two beds and
nine of us to stow away. It was accomplished but how I cannot tell."47
A few days later, the elders made their way to a nearby schoolhouse
where they intended to preach. A "Dunkard exhorter" finished his prayer
meeting and served them with a notice from the school commissioner
forbidding them to use the facility. So they stood outside in the snow, singing
hymns. Mason insisted that they spend another night with his family
and urged them to visit "any time . . . night or day."48
On January 20, 1884, twenty people, "who did not belong to any
church," showed up to hear the elders preach. Appalachian uplanders often
worshiped with obvious emotion. 49 Yet now they stood "without spirit"
in the winter cold. After the elders had preached for more than an hour,
not one person said a word about the sermon. Kimball was discouraged.
Then, surprisingly, most of the people quietly asked the missionaries to
call on them at home.50
* Although the waterway is now generally known as Pedlar River, the residents in
the community at the top of the Blue Ridge, and the missionaries whose diaries
recorded visits with them, spoke almost exclusively of Pedlar Creek.
208 P roceedings of the Rockbridge Historical Society — Volume XIII Proceedings of the Rockbridge Historical Society — Volume XIII 209
up the delicate subject. Hannah and John said they could prove they had
been married for seventeen years.6 8 Then Peggy Sorrells told the missionaries
that Marvel Mason had been living with her daughter without marrying
Although many in the neighborhood avoided recorded documents,
others willingly procured the proper marriage licenses and baptismal
certificates. 70 It appeared to the missionaries that the white uplanders
on Pedlar Creek assimilated with the Indians, rather than the other way
around. Or perhaps they had had Indian ancestry all along. In any event,
the "Mason neighborhood" on Pedlar Creek served as the hub of the
community, and it also became a Mormon mission headquarters for the
Virginia Conference of the Southern States Mission. 71 At the same time,
the missionaries, directed by the centralized priesthood hierarchy, continually
urged the Pedlar people to move to the American Zion in Utah and
nearby territories. Households, including those of two Mason daughters
and their families,72 began to emigrate westward. 73
As the months passed, a constant arrival of western elders moved
from family to family along Pedlar Creek. One end of the Pedlar community
came close to the Irish Creek community, in Rockbridge County,
where the elders found more uplanders who opened their homes and
their hearts to Mormonism. 74 On February 15, 1888, Elder John W. Tate
wrote his wife, telling her that several members from Irish Creek prepared
to immigrate in the spring, provided they could raise the money.
He added, "It is in the mountains we are called to labor, among the timber,
hills, holes, and rocks. It is only the poor that will receive the gospel.
There are no Saints in the valleys, people are better off down there and
will not listen."7 5
The Pedlar community in Amherst County and the Irish Creek community
in Rockbridge touched a lofty tip of a third county, Nelson, where
a group of "Campbellites" 76 asked for rebaptism as Latter-day Saints. Milton
Fitzgerald, their minister of sixteen years, led them west to Zion.77
Historic overlaps between some restorationist beliefs of these particular
Christians and the Latter-day Saints may also explain why Mormon elders
of the 1880s generally received a warmer welcome from religious people
in the mountains of Appalachia than they received from mainstream Protestants
in the valleys below.78
Industrial Boom and Administrative Change, 1890-1918
None of the Mormon elders of the 1880s predicted the dramatic political
changes of the 1890s that would take them out of the mountains and into
the towns down in the valleys. Change came for the missionaries when the
Mormon priesthood ended its dominion over Utah politics, its support of
brought his family from Jerusalem to the Americas during Old Testament
times. To Latter-day Saints, this made modern Indians a precious remnant
of one of the ancient tribes of Israel, who would gather in an American
Zion to welcome the second coming of the Messiah.55
Yet no Indian reservation existed in Amherst County, Virginia. 56 The
area looked like a fairly typical Appalachian mountain community, except
that the missionaries, who were familiar with western Indians, 57 clearly
recognized these particular uplanders as Lamanites, 58 one of the four main groups described in the
Book of Mormon and a word Latter-day Saints often used to describe American Indians. 59 Another visiting missionary,
Elder Newell Kimball, even described Peter Mason as a "full-blooded Lamanite."
The Masons and their upland neighbors confused the missionaries
by saying that they had never been baptized into any religion, but that
they loved the Bible. In fact, Kimball said that Peter Mason "was deeply
imbued with the doctrine of the Old Primitive Baptists." The old man
asked the missionaries to come again and again, said he would like to be
in their company all the time, and repeatedly "God blessed" them. Tears
rose in Peter Mason’s eyes when they read the Bible with him. But he felt
no call to baptism. In the old upland way, he had to wait until God told
him it was time, and not the other way around.61
"Mother Mason" healed the sick with herbal medicines. 62 The elders
helped her by anointing ailing people with consecrated oil and by laying
hands upon them.63
"Father Mason" warned the elders not to visit Old Man Vest and his
family because the Vests were "dangerous." All Latter-day Saint missionaries
feared the mob violence that sometimes formed against them. Although
the Ku Klux Klan and other mobs mainly targeted Negroes, they
also terrorized people they considered "social deviants," including Mormons.
64 Yet in spite of Mason’s warning, the missionaries climbed Stight
Cove Mountain, at the head of the Pedlar near Oronoco, in the snow.
Old Levi Vest "declared himself to be a great reasoner, reader of the Bible
and a Lover of the Word of God." Kimball wrote that Vest was an "Old
Iron Side Baptist, Hard Shell." Kimball hadn’t had much luck baptizing
"Primitive Baptists" in the past, but he didn’t think Old Levi Vest or any of
the Vest sons would hurt him, and they did not.65
One day, Hannah Mason announced that she was getting baptized
"on Monday at eleven o’clock." This was disquieting news to the elders.
First, they were not entirely sure that she had studied long enough to understand
the doctrine. 66 Second, it was dubious that most of the Masons could prove they were married; 67 Latter-day Saint rules forbade the baptizing
of people living in sin. Elders Kimball and Welch finally brought
210 P roceedings of the Rockbridge Historical Society — Volume XIII Proceedings of the Rockbridge Historical Society — Volume XIII 211
On December 22, 1895, Elder Thomas Romney and his companion
visited the mayor of nearby Lexington at his "beautiful brick mansion"
and had "a long friendly talk" with him. The mayor loved hearing Romney’s
stories about Mexico, and promised Romney that Mormons could
preach on the streets any time they wanted and that the laws of the city
would always protect them.85
Later that same day, Elder Romney wrote, "We find in the east end
of the city two or three families of Saints by the name of Mason who were
baptized in Amherst County. . . . They are reported to be part niggar."
Yet despite the "reports," Romney spent that night with one of the Mason
families." 86
A couple of years later, Elder David Call’s diary added that "some of
the members" in Rockbridge County "are part nigar" and that "some of
the leaders years ago baptized them through a mistake." Call wrote, "They
said they was Indian but I don’t." Call stayed overnight with Mormons
near Collierstown, rather than with the Masons.87
No previous missionary to Pedlar or Irish Creek had mentioned anything
about black people. Neither did any of the copious records that had
been sent to Salt Lake. The people did not look African American. Yet the
rumors persisted.88
In 1895 and 1896, President Elias Kimball, of the Southern States Mission,
directed all Southern states missionaries to shift their emphasis from
rural service to city service. He also told missionaries that members "should
f i g u r e 7
Buena Vista Hotel, shown in a postcard postmarked in 1909.
special collections, leyburn library, washi ngton and lee university
plural marriage, and its intense efforts to gather the tribes of Israel physically.
The federal government recognized Utah as the forty-fifth state in
1896, and Latter-day Saints began to assimilate into a more middle-class
mode of American life.79 At the same time, both industrialization 80 and segregation 81 dramatically altered the lives of the Appalachian uplanders
who had so kindly cared for the elders over the years.
For the people on Pedlar and Irish Creeks, the first indication of
change came in the form of a new boomtown named Buena Vista, in
Rockbridge County, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Elder Edward
J. Eardley, writing home on April 30, 1890, described developers
grading streets and laying water pipes in what had been a "fertile plain
devoted to agriculture." Two railroads brought guests to four spacious
new hotels. The "splendid" Buena Vista Hotel sat high on a hill with a
"charming view of the new town and the North River." The railway companies
loaded their freight cars with goods from the newly built iron works
and paper manufacturers along the river, as well as from the new tannery,
saddle company, wagon firm, and fence supplier.82
While valley people welcomed the booming job market, they expressed
concern about the "influx" of laborers "from Amherst on the
other side of the Blue Ridge." Townspeople described the new workers as
"a rough, disorderly element, partly white and partly colored." 83
Beginning in 1895, Latter-day Saint elders shifted most of their missionary
efforts from the Amherst County mountains into Buena Vista below.
84 Jobs brought some of the younger Masons down into town, where
they continued to open their doors to the elders.
f i g u r e 6
Buena Vista, 1891.
special collections, leyburn library, washi ngton and lee university
212 P roceedings of the Rockbridge Historical Society — Volume XIII Proceedings of the Rockbridge Historical Society — Volume XIII 213
Recognizing Legally
Non-Existent People: 1932 . . .
Seventy-four years later, Will Southers
told what happened. He said, "I
remember the old men that started
the church at Pedlar Creek and
Cornwall. . . . They were mostly
Masons and Colemans. . . . My dad
and mother were baptized in 1912.
Elder Turley baptized me in 1913
when I was fifteen years old. It felt
real good. When the elders came,
they preached about every night on
top of the Blue Ridge Mountains."
Will added, "What schooling I got
was when we moved everything out
of a room and had to pay a teacher
to come." After trying for more
than a year to get a schoolhouse
through regular channels, Will and
his father, Robert Southers, finally
built a school themselves on family land for Will’s younger siblings. They
used streetcar ties and logs they cut in their own sawmill. "Seventy dollars
built it," said Southers, "and we had church there sometimes. . . . Jacob
Mason was one of the head members. He worked at a factory in Buena
Vista. He preached to us when there were no elders. He knew the Bible
pretty good."98
Years went by. And a remarkable thing happened, considering the
highly centralized nature of the larger Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints. Although the existence of Latter-day Saint meetings in and near
Buena Vista totally disappeared from official records before 1921, and local
members say that infrequent visits by elders ended before 1923,99 an
Appalachian mode of Mormonism continued — completely on its own.100
Myrtle Wilhelm Coleman, a great-granddaughter of Peter and
Mason, said that in 1932, when she was nine years old, her family
had "always belonged" to the church, but "at the time we didn’t know
anything about elders or anything." 101
Members met at each other’s homes, or out under the trees, with Jacob
Mason and others preaching. They read the Bible and the Book of Mormon
with and to each other. They did not gather together every Sunday,
but met often enough that they held together as a distinct religious community
— even though families no longer lived along the same mountain
be restrained as much as possible from emigrating." He counseled missionaries
to organize locally led "branches and Sunday schools" * wherever there
were enough members to gather into a small group. He wrote, "Select good
men and ordain them priests to preside over the branches, and efficient
instructors to take charge of the Sunday schools." 89 Elders implemented
this counsel throughout the uplands of Appalachia, usually ordaining local
men whose families had faithfully harbored the elders for years.90
The mission president’s major shift of focus freed missionaries to
spend the bulk of their time in more populated areas where prejudice
against Mormons had lessened. Official church records show priesthood
ordinations taking place for local men in various rural areas of Virginia
during this time, complying with the mission president’s instructions.9 1
Yet no ordinations took place in Amherst or Rockbridge Counties.
The church records for Amherst and Rockbridge Counties from
1897 to 1918 show a distinct pattern of growth that clearly took them into
the "branch" or "ward" range:
■ ■ Between 1897 and 1912, elders established locally led Sunday
schools in Collierstown (Colliers Creek), Oronoco (Pedlar
Creek), Buena Vista, and Cornwall (Irish Creek).92
■ ■ June 15, 1918: Five hundred people attended the Latter-day
Saints meeting in Buena Vista. Missionaries wrote, "It completely
blocked the street; much literature was disposed of and
several invitations to homes were received by elders."9 3
■ ■ July 13, 1918: "The Saints in Buena Vista are anxious to have a
church built of their own," a missionary wrote. "They have subscribed
over four hundred dollars for that purpose. The site chosen
is in the Long Hollow near Brother Coleman’s residence." 94
■ ■ August 24, 1918: The branch conference held in Buena Vista
was so big that it filled the Star Theater twice.95
Then, suddenly, in spite of the large numbers of people interested in
Mormonism there, entries for Buena Vista, Cornwall (Irish Creek), and
Oronoco (Pedlar Creek) disappeared from all official Latter-day Saint
records. 96 Regular entries abruptly ended in the Sunday school mission
history. According to church records, church activity ended in and near
Buena Vista, Virginia, in 1918. No entry appeared for any of the three
locations in a 1921 list of all the Latter-day Saint branches and Sunday
schools in Virginia.97
The missionaries left. But where did the members go?
Actually, the members did not go anywhere.
* Congregations. Tiny Sunday schools could be conducted without priesthood, but
where enough members existed to form a "branch" or "ward," local priesthood
became a necessity.
f i g u r e 8
Will Southers
Courtesy of Roy and June Southers
214 P roceedings of the Rockbridge Historical Society — Volume XIII Proceedings of the Rockbridge Historical Society — Volume XIII 215
Brigham D. Madsen, another elder in the East Central States Mission,
knew Alvin Pocock during his second mission. Madsen later wrote108
that Pocock
began to proselyte in an African-American community and eventually
converted and baptized an entire congregation of about 150. . . . This
was at the same time, of course, when African-American males were
not allowed to hold the Mormon priesthood, a practice which was
reversed in June 1978. . . . I never learned what the church officials in
Salt Lake City in 1935 did about their new members or Pocock.
Indeed, church leaders in Salt Lake City faced an administrative
challenge. After Latter-day Saints demonstrated obvious patriotism during
World War I, they enjoyed increasing acceptance from the federal
government and the Protestant mainstream. Many church members became
rather Republican and middle class.109
But without a revelation from God through the current prophet, the
ban on priesthood for blacks could not be lifted.
It appears that boom-time townspeople in Buena Vista had tipped
off the missionaries as to what they might find if they read the vital statistics
in the courthouse: namely, that some of their members had been officially
classified as black. Without local lay priesthood leadership, the cen f
i g u r e 1 0
Latter-day Saints in front of the Long Hollow church house near Buena Vista, about 1944.
ewing studio, lexington — courtesy of leroy wheeler
creeks. Sometimes
they visited other
churches, but seldom
joined them.102
One day in 1932,
nine-year-old Myrtle
Wilhelm watched as
her Aunt Eva Southers
made biscuits
with "a rolling pin
full of moonshine."
An automobile with
two young men in it
stopped at the bottom
of the hill.10 3 Will
Southers said that the
men made their way
up through the field
to the house he was
building for his family.
Southers stopped
work on the floorboards.
the pair as Mormon missionaries, 104 Southers wondered where they had
been for the last many years.
Elder Alvin Pocock asked Southers, "How about us helping? And
then maybe we can have a meeting on your new floor?"
Southers nodded assent.
Pocock added, "Do you think we can get a crowd?"
In retelling the story nearly sixty years later, Will Southers laughed
out loud as he tried to describe the elders’ faces when people kept arriving.
People sat all over the house, porch, and hillside. Cars stopped to
listen. Excited people wanted to hear more, so the elders preached from
home to home and even up at the "school house on Pedlar Creek way up
in the mountains." 105
Pocock baptized scores of people in the South River near Cornwall106
and just about anyplace else where he could do a full-body immersion. Will
Southers said, "Elder Pocock baptized my wife, Lizzie, in the ‘blue hole’
from where they took the iron ore. They both like to drowned. I had told
him not to step back. At first he didn’t. He said what he had to say. Then he
put his left foot back to baptize her. And they both went straight down out
o’ sight. I jumped in and grabbed her by one hand and him by the other."10 7
courtesy of steven alvin pocock
f i g u r e 9
Mission program covers, 1930 and 1934. It was
unusual for an elder to serve two consecutive
in the same place. Though his call could have taken
him anywhere in the East Central States, Alvin Poccock
worked in Buena Vista both times.
216 P roceedings of the Rockbridge Historical Society — Volume XIII Proceedings of the Rockbridge Historical Society — Volume XIII 217
Will Southers. though unordained,
served faithfully as his counselor.
Cash served thirteen years as the
only priesthood-bearer in the
whole congregation.1 14
Meanwhile, in 1934, William
Eugene Larsen moved his young
family to Waynesboro, Virginia,
where, with his new Ph.D. from
Purdue University, he worked for
E. I. DuPont DeNemours and Company
as a research chemist. After
being officially called through the
centralized priesthood hierarchy,
Larsen led a Latter-day Saint Sunday
school in his home and took
services to members who lived in
remote locations in the Blue Ridge
Mountains. The Larsen-led Sunday
school included blessing and administering
the sacrament, 115 which
required priesthood ordination.116
In the 1940s, two Irish Creek families named Clark moved into
Waynesboro. They held Sunday school, too, but without sacrament. The
Clarks knew about the Larsens, but the Larsens did not know about the
Clarks. After some traveling elders stumbled upon the Clarks and reported
their existence, Eugene Larsen rented the American Legion Hall so
that everyone could meet together. The congregation grew large enough
to form a "branch," with Larsen as its president.117
Jim and Elijah Clark’s father and mother had been baptized in 1911,
and other Irish Creek relatives had been baptized before the turn of the
century. Many Clarks had participated in home Sunday schools, though
members partook of the sacrament only when priesthood-bearing elders
visited from the Latter-day Saint communities elsewhere.
Now members of the new branch, the Clarks saw local priesthood
bearers administering the sacrament every Sunday, and they saw local
men laying healing hands on people. Soon Jim and Elijah Clark respectfully
asked Eugene Larsen to ordain the worthy males in their family. Jim
Clark was particularly concerned because his son Claude was nearly twelve
years old, the age of first ordination.118
Eugene Larsen, having heard the rumors about "colored blood" in
the Buena Vista congregation, asked the mission president what to do to
f i g u r e 1 2
Esau, Jacob, and George Mason
in the mid-1940s.
courtesy of peggy cash goodsell
tral church in Salt Lake City could not authorize formation of a branch of
that church in Buena Vista.
Early missionaries and local church members had considered the
black priesthood ban irrelevant in this community, given that these were
chosen people, descended from the Tribe of Joseph. 110 But before elders
ordained these remnants of the house of Israel, the mission president had
sent the elders out of the mountains, down into a society that classified
the Pedlar and Irish Creek people differently. Apparently, the courthouse
classifications swayed the elders. Although local people stayed with the
church in the Appalachian tradition, they remained loyal to the Mormon
model of lay priesthood authority, and waited for priesthood holders to
come and perform baptisms.
Then, in the midst of the Great Depression, along came Elder Alvin
Pocock and a tidal wave of baptisms and religious enthusiasm. 111 Some of
the older members argued against building a church house because of
the cost and because they had gotten along without one for years. Robert
Southers, however, went ahead and donated the land for a church building
in Long Hollow, next to the Coleman home. Families sacrificed to
donate money to the construction fund. Richard Clark, who owned a sawmill,
sold lumber at a discount. Salt Lake City sent two elders to help. Will
Southers said that Elder Burton knew what he was doing and worked hard,
but the "other elder was off reading out in the shade." All the members
worked on the new building. They lighted it with oil lamps and heated it
with a coal stove. In the end, the building cost between $400 and $500.112
On May 30, 1937, Elder Reid Tippitts wrote that the members in Buena
Vista "have succeeded in building a chapel." Some 130 people showed
up at Sacrament meeting that evening and sixty people attended Sunday
school. Tippitts added, "They were
very attentive, too. I quite enjoyed
the day. But these people do present
quite a problem. They claim
they are not Negro, but. . . ."113
In 1937, Latter-day Saint elders
ordained nineteen-year-old
Hansford Cash as branch president
for the Long Hollow congregation.
Although Cash’s sister married
into the Mason line, Cash had a
white pedigree at the courthouse.
f i g u r e 1 1
Oella Wheeler Cash and
Hansford Cash in 1941.
courtesy of peggy cash goodsell
218 P roceedings of the Rockbridge Historical Society — Volume XIII Proceedings of the Rockbridge Historical Society — Volume XIII 219
"No you’re not," he said.
"What do you mean I’m not?"
"They don’t give the priesthood to niggars."
"What’s that got to do with me?"
And he wouldn’t say any more. I guess he figured he’d said too much
already. I found out later they refused him the priesthood. He was
a couple years older. They refused him the priesthood! And sure
enough, I didn’t receive the priesthood when I was twelve.
Revealing Appalachian religious attitude, Claude added, "This is
where I really criticize the [priesthood] officials in the Buena Vista area.
. . . We have a way to find out anything we need to find out. [It is] a simple
matter for a branch president [to go] in prayer to Heavenly Father.
‘Should this person be allowed to hold the priesthood or not?’ Where
were their minds, their hearts, their spirits?" 120
In that summer of 1950, when Claude turned twelve, Eugene Larsen
was the Waynesboro branch president. He also served as district president
over several other congregations in the mission, including the Long
Hollow church in Buena Vista. In addition, he was the father of a boy
who was a little younger than Claude. When Wayne Larsen was twelve, his
father delayed Wayne’s ordination because he did not want to embarrass
Claude, Wayne’s friend. Eventually, however, Eugene Larsen and other
priesthood bearers called Wayne to the front of the congregation and
laid their hands on his head. Claude Clark stood up, strode out the door,
and did not look back. Claude’s uncle, Elijah Clark, the congregation’s
clerk, wrote the newest ordination
in the record book and remained
in his seat.121
In 1950, Joseph Anderson
Clark, Claude’s grandfather, still
lived near Irish Creek at the edge of
the National Forest land where his
ancestors had lived. He knew about
his Native American lineage. In
fact, he became a Mormon in 1911
because he believed that people
with the blood of Israel had special
responsibilities to prepare for the
second coming of the Messiah.122
f i g u r e 1 4 William Eugene Larsen and
his wife,
Tursell, in the 1950s.
courtesy of g. douglas larsen
"clear the Clark family." The mission president assigned a missionary to
search Clark genealogy. The missionary responded:119
May 1, 1951
Dear Brother Larsen,
I made a trip to Amherst and in the court house there I was shown the
marriage record of Joseph Anderson Clark and Mary Susan Clark,
the parents of Jim and Elijah Clark, and they were married in 1906 as
colored. May the Lord bless you in your efforts to solve the problems
in your branch. I know they are discouraging.
Elder Wm. S. Tanner
In 1992, Claude Edward Clark, by then an experienced attorney,
reminisced about being twelve years old and Mormon in Virginia in 1950:
[It was] the week of my twelfth birthday. I was all excited. When you
are twelve you receive the priesthood. I told my cousin [in Buena
Vista] I was going to be ordained a deacon.
f i g u r e 1 3
Latter-day Saints in Waynesboro, 1951. Many of the people in the photo were Clarks,
originally from Irish Creek in Rockbridge County (and named in Plecker’s list of target
families, Figure 3). Wayne Larsen and Claude Clark are the twelve-year-olds with
large white collars at the far right. G. Douglas Larsen is the boy in the billed cap.
courtesy of g. douglas larsen
220 P roceedings of the Rockbridge Historical Society — Volume XIII Proceedings of the Rockbridge Historical Society — Volume XIII 221
Clark — on the tree. He also used
Atha’s evidence to show that Julia’s
parents were classified as white and
that Joe’s parents were colored--
Indian and white. He then proved
that his own father was Joe Clark
Jr.’s brother and his mother was
Julia Sorrels Clark’s sister, making
them double first cousins with
the exact same ancestors. 124 Joseph
Anderson Clark had produced legal
precedent indicating that "colored"
was not limited to "Negro"
in his family. President Larsen read
the documents carefully. Then he
looked Joseph Anderson Clark in
the eye and said, "Brother, I believe
you’re right.125
Claude’s "cousin’s husband,"
ordained in 1951, was immediately called to the Buena Vista Branch presidency.
126 Alvin Coleman and Garvis Wheeler, both direct descendants
of Peter and Diannah Mason, were also ordained that same day. So was
Hansford Vest, the great-grandson of old iron-sided Levi Vest.127
Hansford Vest credited his "Lamonite [sic] brothers" with "comprising
most of the membership of the Church in Rockbridge County as late as
1940," and he listed "a few of them" as Masons, Colemans, Southerses, and
Clarks. 128 Both Alvin Coleman and Garvis Wheeler later served as branch presidents, and Coleman as a bishop.129 In 1957, Elder Claude Edward Clark
served as the first full-time missionary from the Waynesboro Branch.130
From then on, the church record keepers in Salt Lake City kept detailed
records of the Buena Vista congregation.
In 1996, Latter-day Saint businessmen from outside Buena Vista acquired
the entire campus of Southern Virginia College, including the
building that was once the "splendid," boom-time Buena Vista Hotel.131
At about the same time, Garvis and Juanita Wheeler, both from Buena
Vista, participated in an unpaid Latter-day Saints mission, as retired
couples often do. A distinguished member of their mission presidency
told them that when he was nineteen years old, he had served a proselytizing
mission in Buena Vista, Virginia. Excited to meet people from Buena
Vista, this prominent priesthood leader asked Garvis Wheeler, the greatgrandson
of Peter H. Mason, "Are there any white people in the Buena
Vista ward now? It used to be an all-black congregation." 132
f i g u r e 1 6
Mary Susan Clark and Joseph Anderson
Clark in the 1950s.
courtesy of joyce howdyshell floyd
A couple of genealogical missionaries from Utah visited the Long
Hollow church shortly after his twelve-year-old grandsons were denied
the priesthood. Brother Clark took them to the Rockbridge County Court
House. Although Clark had never attended school, by the time he was an
adult he could read sufficiently to search through the dusty document
boxes. Together the missionaries and Brother Clark found court documents
pertaining to the 1925 Atha Sorrells case.12 3 They photographed
the pages, creating a roll of microfilm that Clark took to President Eugene
Larsen in Waynesboro. Clark showed him a court exhibit containing
Atha Sorrell’s family tree. He carefully identified Atha, her mother,
and her maternal great-grandparents — Joe Clark Jr. and Julia Sorrels
f i g u r e 1 5
Courtroom exhibit, Sorrells v. Shields , Circuit Court of Rockbridge County, January 9 and
10, 1925. Atha Sorrells (here spelled Sorrels) used this family-history chart successfully to
show that her supposedly "colored" ancestors were, in fact, Indian and white. In 1951,
Joseph Anderson Clark used the chart for the same purpose. Key elements read as follows:
courtesy of g. douglas larsen
1 2 3
1. JOE CLARK, SR, born 1797 . . . . JOE
CLARK owned slaves and bought Peter
Curry the father of Daniel Curry who was
sold at auction. (INDIAN and WHITE)
2. POLLY CLARK (NÉ CLARK) . . . was
mother of JAMES CLARK [who bought
a writ of] Mandamus for white marriage
license – white license granted County
Court order Book 1876 pages 137, 174
3. [Left box) John Whiteside / Always
white NO question"
[Right box] BETT IE SORRELS / Always
white NO Question


  1. Peter H. Mason is my great great grandfather on my father's side. I would like to work with anyone to put together photos and information. Also, on my mother's side, I can trace back to Joseph Clark and I enjoy reading this information.

    1. I am a decendant of Joe Clark. I would like to connect with anyone who is related to him as well. He was my great grandfather, father of my grandmother Sara Lucille Clark, aka Lou. My father is Paul S. Roberts, aka Steve. You can find me on Facebook under Ashleigh Roberts. or email me at shoogasweet22 on Aim Dot Com