By Jonathan Williams
Times West Virginian
The Marion County Historical Society will be hosting Bob Thompson, author of “A Woman of Courage on the West Virginia Frontier: Phebe Tucker Cunningham,” from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday for a book signing.
Thompson will also have signings at the Morgantown Historical Society and Pricketts Fort over the weekend.
Thompson, a historian who grew up in Texas and is living in St. Louis, Mo., has been published in the past, but this is his first full-length book.
“My father was born in West Virginia and so I have lots of distant relatives and history connections that go back.”
Those connections extend to the subject of his book.
“(Phebe Tucker Cunningham) was my paternal fifth-great-grandmother,” Thompson said.
Growing up, he’d read and heard her story from family sources, but it wasn’t until he traveled to Marion County that he was inspired to put the history to paper.
“I made my first trip to Pricketts Fort, where she and her husband were married,” he said. “Just being there, I started thinking about their wedding,” and with the traditional music playing, he thought, “that was what it must have felt like.”
So over the course of the next few years, he dived into research covering her personal story as well as the history of the region in those early frontier years.
“Just trying to establish a baseline of what was life like, my first impression was it was damn hard,” Thompson said.
People tend to think of the wild plains when you say “frontier,” he said, but in the 1780s, the now-civilized Appalachians were anything but.
“It was very unforgiving. It was very difficult to get farms started ... so life was hard, very, very difficult.”
Cunningham was no stranger to hardship. She watched as her four children were murdered before her eyes and spent three years basically in captivity with the Wyandot tribe.
“I found the woodland tribes ... to be truly remarkable people,” Thompson said, adding “the adverse impact of British colonialism,” the greed of land-speculators and poor policy on the part of early American political leaders led to most of the tensions and what he believed to be avoidable conflicts.
After three years, Cunningham escaped and displayed what he called “absolute determination” to return home.
With his last trip to West Virginia, Thompson set out in search of the family homestead and found it on County Road 8, west of Shinnston. There, he found a memorial dedicated to Thomas and Edward Cunningham, the two brothers who built it, with “the big sandstone lock from the cage (Phebe Cunningham) was held in from the first few nights.”
Dora Grubb, president of the Marion County Historical Society, said they are thrilled to have Thompson coming for the signing.
“This is not a period of which we have many books about what happened,” she said. “It was a completely different era.”
Grubb said she was particularly interested in the history of the Native American tribes of the region, who were driven out into Ohio and later into Kansas if they weren’t lost to history.
“This is Native American heritage that I had never heard of before,” she said.
Also presenting history no one has seen before will be Christa Greco, with her book signing for “Images of America: Fairmont” at the historical society from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, May 18.
“Her new book is about photos of Fairmont and of various parts of Marion County,” Grubb said, describing the collection as eclectic. “There are photos in there that are long gone from Fairmont.”
Greco visited many private collections and sorted through archives at the Marion County Historical Society to find some real treasures, such as multiple photos of Gov. Francis Pierpont’s home guard following the Civil War, a relic from an era when photographs were brand new. The book covers aspects of life from industry to leisure through Fairmont’s golden years.
Both events will have refreshments served, and Grubb said the historical society covers the sales tax on any books purchased.
Email Jonathan Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @JWilliamsTWV.