Spirits in the Field
An Appalachian Family History

by Bruce Hopkins

"Hopkins' clear and evocative prose makes [Spirits in the Field] a joy to read. What Hopkins does is something that has been attempted in all kinds of ways before but has seldom been accomplished with this depth of thought, facility of expression, and clarity of purpose. This remarkable book deserves a central place in any regional library."
      -- Appalachian Heritage

Old Prater Cemetery  on Greasy Creek near Pikeville, Kentucky  --  Spirits in the Field  --  Bruce Hopkins

by Mickey Anders
Review by Gayle Compton

This book may be obtained from your favorite local bookstore, on-line from Amazon, or you may order directly from the publisher.

Bruce Hopkins is Director of Communications and Risk Manager for the Pike County, Kentucky, School System. He holds a BA in English from Pikeville College, an MA in English from Longwood University, Farmville, Virginia and has taught in the public school systems in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. He has been an English teacher and journalist for most of his adult life. He still teaches occasional college-level classes in Southern Literature and writes a weekly commentary for the Appalachian News-Express in Pikeville, KY.
Book order form
Wind Publications
600 Overbrook Dr
Nicholasville, KY 40356


Photographs of the the Old Prater Cemetery on Greasy Creek near Pikeville, Kentucky, are by the author, Bruce Hopkins.

Old Prater Cemetery  on Greasy Creek near Pikeville, Kentucky
Spring 2003. The view westward from the Old Prater Cemetery and Greasy Creek toward Pikeville. US 460 will soon cut through the mountain that's been cleared of trees.

In 1997 the Kentucky Department of Transportation announced plans to rebuild highway US 460 through Pike County to Virginia. The new route would cut a wide swath through the mountains in the valley of the Levisa, and the ancestral burying ground of the Hopkins family since before the Civil War was in its path. For six years Bruce Hopkins worked to discover the family secrets buried in the old cemetery and to reclaim his heritage. This is the story of his struggle with the Kentucky DOT and the unearthing of his family history back to the first settlers who came there after the Revolution.  This is but one of many family histories concealed beneath the mine tailings, highway excavations, or kudzu of the Eastern Kentucky mountains, most of which will remain forever untold and unknown.


Excerpts from the book:

       The children of Joseph Hopkins would never work the [Pike County, Kentucky] cotton fields again; by the end of the war, the land that had produced over a hundred 480-pound bales of cotton in 1860 was reduced to wasteland from neglect and trespass. In 1867, Henry May, a former comrade from whom Joseph had purchased some of the 450 acres he farmed, bought the mortgage on the farm and foreclosed on Lucinda and her children. When the commissioner’s deed for 100 acres of Joseph’s best farmland was executed, Lucinda received $58.50.  Joseph had purchased the property for $117.00 in 1857 and had paid one-half of the mortgage by 1862 when the war closed the New Orleans cotton market.

       For most of my life, I ascribed the xenophobia and sullen ignorance of my race to the discarded genes of people I thought were not capable of enduring a further journey west. I thought my people dropped anchor in the mountains simply because it was easier than going on. I did not give my ancestors credit, for I assumed every stereotype I ever heard of mountaineers had a nugget of truth in it. My family was an exception, of course, for you are allowed to make myths of the people you love. But I thought my father and the men and women of my family were in opposition to the DNA that was given them.

       I often wonder where Hooker slept those nights he stayed on the cemetery. Perhaps next to Harrison, the nephew who became the closest thing to a father he ever knew, or between Harrison’s grave and Lila’s, where pink roses once grew, and it is not difficult to see him intoxicated by their fragrance, drinking it in as sleep claimed him.
        Perhaps he lay on the ground where Cornelius and Dorcus were sleeping, inside the fence that had rusted into nothingness by the time I remembered it. Perhaps he thought his daughter might be buried there. Perhaps there were two or three such places and he lay here or there on different trips, in the hope that somehow he would be able to reach her and beg her forgiveness. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps; I still did not know for sure. I was confident of nothing more than what I had been told, and I had been told little. Hooker’s journals would have told me, but they were gone.
       But I had seen his light. I know he was there on those nights, pressed against the earth, pleading for knowledge and direction, and I know that my vision, regardless of whence it comes, is not far removed from the truth:
       He puts out his lamp and lies in the darkness, feeling the night envelop him like my grandmother’s blankets once draped over my frail shoulders. Before he yields to sleep, he invokes the spirits of his ancestors to help him in the hope the tiny shade of his daughter will hear his heart beating, and will somehow be comforted in the knowledge that her father had not forgotten her after all.
       And I can hear his prayer that she will, in the sublime reparation of the grave, forgive him his abandonment of her last plot of earth.

       I have aggrieved the spirits of my ancestors by comparing them to their descendants. I have attributed too much of the baseness of life in these hills today to a legacy not wrought by my ancestors. I assumed that the fatalism so common, and the diminution of spirit so pervasive in my culture, existed before the mines came, that it was indigenous to my breed.  
       But I was so wrong.