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The history of Sarah Persinger and her husband Joseph Sparrowhawk,
Posted by: Mary Bowen (ID *****1527) Date: June 21, 2011 at 18:30:47
  of 3042

Susan Persinger has posted this information on her facebook page dealing with the history of the Persinger family from Virginia and has given me permission to post it here.Sarah Persinger and Joseph Sparrowhawk were the parents of Phoebe Persinger Craft who married Jacob Craft in Virginia in 1850.

Although I could never hope to tell the story of our family in the wonderful way that Mary Margaret Persinger did in her journals, I have decided to compile some of her stories into a form that may be of more help to those only seeking information on certain individuals mentioned in them. I will begin with her stories about the life of her great grandparents Sarah Persinger and Joseph Sparrowhawk and then deal with the others in turn.



Sarah Persinger was born before 1800. She was born to a large close knit family in the mountains of what would become Alleghany County Virginia. Her family was one of the first white families to tackle life there. It was not easy and were it not for the ways taught to her people by Native Americans that traveled through the area frequently, they may never have made it. That is not to say that there had been no conflict between the two cultures. The land they had chosen for their new home had been home for untold generations to numerous tribes and was a pathway for others. The Persingers had not been immune to the effects of this conflict but they came out of it with a respect for the people and culture that had been there before them. From her birth, the family noted something unique about Sarah. She had a way of seeing and knowing what others did not. Her family was well aware of the power of what they called “ the eye” and after a few tests by the women of her family it was announced that she in fact had the gift as did her grandmother before her. Her early years were filled with hard work but they were happy years. It was harder on the older members of the community into which she had been born. Religion and blood had been the glue that held them together through the long troubled years of taming a land that had never known a plow but now the faith that had united them was tearing them apart. As a woman, Sarah as were the other females in her community had a specific role to play in church and society. It may well have been their years of clearing the land side by side with the men or the realization that a different land required different rules that had brought about the change in the Persinger women but whatever the cause it was there. The divide was real but Sarah was too young to get involved in it or try and understand its roots.

Time soon worked its magic on Sarah. By fourteen she was well on her way to womanhood. Taller than most men, she let her hair hang loose in contrast to the more conservative women in her community and if anyone thought it wrong of her, nothing was ever said. She was her father’s joy and all knew it well. Her skill at working with the stock kept her out of the fields most days. There were those, nonetheless that believed that it was as much her skill as it was her father’s desire to spare her from the manual labor that would soon enough be a big part of her life that kept her there. For the time being her days were spent cleaning the barns and getting the horses ready for whatever job they were needed for that day. She also did the milking and after this was done turned the cows out onto the fields to graze. The land was at long last repaying the family for all the work they had invested in it. As fall neared her father took on a hired hand. He was German and his poor English was proof that his time in America was short. He needed a job and the men were happy to have the help at harvest time. He made his bed in the loft of the largest barn because Mr. Persinger was always fearful that some beast, two or four legged might be tempted by his stock and a hired hand was a cheap insurance policy. Sarah’s mother and the other women were suspicious of him right from the start. Perhaps it was his poor English or that a man his age with no wife or family seemed odd. The men seemed fine with him and her father said he had never seen a harder worker in the fields. The fact that he tended to be a loner was his own concern and as long as the crops all came in on time was all that mattered.

Sarah went to the barn that morning as she did everyday. After the horses were ready the men took them to the fields and Sarah began the arduous task of cleaning out their stalls. Soon she was so occupied with her work and the little tune that one of the men had taught her that she never noticed when their hired hand came into the barn. He had come back to get something for Mr. Persinger. He stared at Sarah for several minutes but she never caught sight of him. Suddenly he was on her grabbing at her dress as he threw her down on a pile of hay. When she started to cry out for help, his fist struck her repeatedly. The pain of his fists was followed by the shearing pain of her womanhood being stolen from her. When he was done he got up and begin pulling up his pants. Sarah stayed silent but her hand quickly found the handle of her pitchfork. With a skill born from having to clean stalls since she was old enough to hold it, she jabbed the pitchfork deep into his back. He fell to his knees screaming from the pain and yelling at Sarah about the way he would now kill her and her family. Sarah pulled the tines from his back and again and again drove them into his body until the pitchfork had broken in two. Only the arms of her family could get her off his now lifeless form, as now what was left of his face could not be identified as being human.

The men knew that the law of man had been broken and they would have to report it. With no witness, there was no way of knowing how the law would react, but Mr. Persinger was both a just and a religious man and said it must be done. The women, however, would have none of it. The men had ignored them when they had expressed doubts about him. All the men saw was a source of cheap labor and now it was one of their own that had paid a heavy price for their greed. They decided that the body should be burned and dumped into a unmarked hole in the ground. Mr. Persinger wanted to at least put up a marker as that would be the Christian thing to do, but the women again stood firm. The devil they said needed no marker to claim what belonged to him. The women got their way and what was left of his charred remains was dumped in a pit deep in the woods.

The sweet carefree child died that day. Sarah no longer cleaned the barn, helped in the house, or worked in the fields. Instead at first light each day ,she was off into the woods. Where she went or what she did was never known. The men would grumble on occasion about her not doing her part, but the women would begin again with the story of how she came to be that way and whose fault it was that he had ever been allowed on the place and all talk would end. For a while, the women checked Sarah each day to see if the devil that stole her womanhood had given her a child. Sarah at first did not understand, but when she did she told them that before she would carry his child she would cut it out of her own belly with a knife. Fortunately she was not pregnant and before long her body had healed but not her soul. As she grew older, her father decided that it was time for her to marry. He was certain that this would settle her down. He arranged for the young man to meet her, but the women told Sarah of his plans. Sarah told her father that she respected him but she would never accept any man, other than one of her choosing ever again. When he refused to relent, Sarah headed into the woods. After a few days when she had not returned, her father sent some of the men went to find her. Her father never went with them. The guilt he felt over what had happened to her at the hands of his hired hand had caused him to turn more and more to what they called “the berries”. These men he sent after her were men that made their livelihood in those woods but they were no match for Sarah. Not even their best dogs could pick up any sign of her. The women would laugh each evening as the men returned empty handed. Learning of what Sarah had done the young man said that he could not have a woman that wild and he left. After three weeks, Sarah appeared one evening as if she had left only that morning. She had made her point. The men said nothing and the women kept quiet but their smiles spoke volumes.

A year later Sarah came upon a campsite deep in the woods. It was the smell of the game cooking over the fire that drew her to it and the fact that the cook was a Native American warrior seemed not to faze her. She went straight to the fire and tore herself off a piece and began to eat. It was only then that she gave much attention to the cook. He was tall with long dark hair and Sarah saw something deep in his eyes that called to her. When the meal was done he left, only to find Sarah shadowing him. Born to the woods he was certain that he could quickly lose this silly white woman. Several days he tried to lose her but no matter how fast he ran, she was faster. At night the two talked around the fire but there was no physical contact between the two. On the last night, it was Sarah that pulled him to her. The next day he asked where they were going. She told him that he was going with her to meet her family as if they were going to live together her family should at least meet him first. He would later tell one of his sons that no man could ever say no to a woman as strong and sure of herself as she was.

Some in the family were opposed to the relationship at first but again it was the women who intervened. Under Virginia law they could never be legally married and it was this that bothered some of the men in her family the most. Sarah did not care. They were united by the traditions of his people and that was all that mattered to them. Sarah was at last her old happy self and if it took him to do it, then as far as the Persinger women were concerned that is how it would be. His name was Sparrowhawk but the family came to call him Sparrow for short. The fact that he was accepted into her community and family did not mean that everyone was willing to accept a white woman being with an Indian. Some of the men that opposed him may well have had family that took part in the massacre of the last full blood family in the county years earlier. Old man Beartalker, his wife and several of his grandchildren had a small cabin in the Rich Patch area of the county. The Persingers and their neighbors accepted Beartalker and his family as valuable members of their community. They were frequent quests in their homes and never gave the families there cause for concern. Like them he was a man trying to provide for his family as best he could. Some outsiders, however, saw them as trouble waiting to happen. One evening a group of men formed up and headed to Beartalker’s cabin. They blocked the door and set the cabin on fire. Beartalker and his family begged to be let out but the men refused, burning him and his family to death. One granddaughter was at the outhouse when they came. Hearing what was going on she tried to flee only to receive a bullet for her efforts. She ran into the woods and was found by Mr. Persinger and his men before they could finish her off. The Persingers treated her injuries as best they could but after a few days she died. They buried her and even many years later, they still tended her grave. Early in 1820 when the Persingers got wind of the fact that outsiders were talking about killing Sarah’s husband because he was an Indian, they let it be known that any that came for him would deal with them all. It was well known that these mountain men kept to themselves and bothered no one but if trouble came their way they were ready to deal with it. More than one person had learned the hard way that they wanted to be left alone.

The family built a cabin for the new couple, but they spent little time in it. Sparrowhawk saw a cabin as a white man’s cage and Sarah was more than happy to live life by his ways. Soon she was seen more in buckskin pants and a shirt than a dress. Even pregnancy did little to slow her down. It was 1816. The year would be known as the year without a summer due to a dramatic change in climate. Late frosts killed much of the crops that the families depended upon for survival. Sarah soon proved her worth to her community by using the skills that she had been taught by Sparrowhawk and learned herself during her years in the forest alone to provide food for her people from the forest itself. One day she showed up with a large buck that she had killed with a bow and arrow. Her husband had long ago given up the bow in favor of a musket, but when Sarah had asked to be taught to use one, he was happy to teach her. Some of the men in her family doubted that she had in fact killed it with an arrow. Even after he sworw it to be true there were doubts. If Sparrowhawk had learned anything about his wife, it was that he did not need to fight her battles as she was more than capable of doing so herself. Sarah took the bow and asked them to pick the target. They selected a red hen a good distance away and with one arrow she killed it. The men were shocked that she was able to do it and a little concerned that when their mother saw what had happened to one of her best laying hens they would feel her wrath. The men began to play the stick game. Many in her conservative Christian community considered it a sin for a woman to play the game in part because of the gambling that went along with it. More than one girl had been switched for trying to play it. Sarah was different and the rules that applied to other women were often ignored by her. Sarah played and won a knife from one of the boys. If any of the elders had a problem with it, they kept quiet. Her husband never tried to hide his pride in her. She was the strongest woman he had ever known and he often told her people that any sons she should give him would be as strong as their mother. Sarah and her family feasted upon the deer and as night fell they invited the couple to stay with them. Sarah would have none of it. When the feasting ended, the couple disappeared into the darkness. Years later the Persinger women continued to tell the story of that day when Sarah had bested the men. Their egos still a little bruised even after all those years had passed all the men could do was nod their heads in agreement as the story was told over and over again.

The storms that year grew stronger as fall neared. Sarah had finally relented and moved into her cabin so that her family could help with the delivery of her first child. One morning Sparrowhawk headed off into the woods. He would be gone for only a few days, a week at the most and Sarah assured him there was plenty of time before the child arrived. The loss of so much of the years harvest meant that hunting was no longer a pastime but a necessity if they were to have enough food for the winter to come. Sarah’s brother invited Sarah to stay with his family while Sparrowhawk was gone just to be safe. Sarah reluctantly agreed to leave for their home before nightfall. Before she could leave, a strong storm set in and Sarah knew that in her condition she could not make it by herself in the dark. She was strong and feared nothing in the forest but she knew as well that the forest was unforgiving of foolish mistakes so she decided to wait for morning. In the middle of the night her water broke and all alone Sarah delivered her first child. Much to her surprise a second child followed. Already weakened from the first birth, Sarah struggled to bring her second son into the world. By morning when she had not arrived at their home, her family became concerned and her brother and his wife rode their horse to her cabin. Sarah was on the floor covered in blood, but both boys although dirty and covered in blood were safe on her bed. Her brother was certain that Sarah would never survive. Sarah was a strong woman but she had lost a great deal of blood and was barely conscious. He knew she was to weak to be moved. He left his wife to tend her while he went for help. The family came together from all parts of those mountains to help save her life. The women cooked medicine and sent the men into the mountains seeking out the plants and herbs they needed. One of her brothers went and got a colored woman that was well known in the area as a healer. As was their way, those not helping care for Sarah formed a prayer circle around her cabin and prayed for her to be healed. After several days, her fever broke and at last she could begin to eat a little. Sarah was dry but it would not have made any difference had her milk been flowing as she was in no shape to nurse a child, much less two. The children were brought to her and she named one Gabriel after the angel she had seen in a vision while she was sick. The second she called Eli. Whatever her reasons for the names she selected, giving both sons Biblical names helped seal the bond between her family and husband. The family took the two boys so that they could be cared for and moved Sarah to one of their homes. It would take almost a month before her strength returned and her milk at last flowed enough to feed one of the two boys.

If Sarah and her family though her problems were over, they were wrong. Several men of power in the county had long resented this light skinned woman giving herself to what they publicly called a devil. Alone they were powerless to do anything about it. The Persinger men would have protected them from any danger that should come their way. Their religion, however, required that they respect the authority of man’s law as long as it did not directly conflict with God‘s law. Now she had children and children came under the control of the Overseer of the Poor. Gabriel was the first to feel their wrath as since he was with Sarah they declared him a mulatto, a move that gave them even more power over Sarah and her family. In Virginia an Indian father was the same as having a black father and while white children were subject to his control, mulatto children had almost no rights. Eli would have suffered from the same label but the family kept the birth of a second child secret for a long time. The men could do little to battle the law, however, as they came for Gabriel first and once they learned of him, Eli as well. The women did not feel as helpless as did their men. It was too late to save Gabriel from being labeled a mulatto as the men had been honest about who his father was. A decision made by the men of the family had once again brought pain to Sarah. The women now played a game with the law. Each woman when questioned named a different member of the Persinger family as being the father of Sarah’s children. Sarah followed their lead. Soon the court docket was full of cases each trying to determine which man named was in fact the father of her children. Each man denied it when questioned by the courts as their religious views would not allow them to lie to government officials, but the women had done their job. It was enough to protect most of Sarah’s children from a mulatto label as it was now impossible for the court to figure out who the real father was. The Overseer of the Poor knew that their father was Sparrowhawk, but knowing and proving were different matters.

The men had one card that they could play and that was to offer to take her children in and raise them as their own. While not his first choice, the Overseer of the Poor had little choice but to give in to most of their requests. The Persingers may have been mountain people, but some of them had enough political influence that if they could not stop him completely they could still control who could raise most of them. Gabriel and Eli could never understand what was going on, but soon learned that they would be allowed to spend as much time with their parents as they wished as long as they were careful when around those outside the family. Had the Overseer of the Poor found out that the family was helping unite Sarah and her children in defiance of his orders he would have removed them. The boys spoke Cherokee with their father when alone and to get over the restrictions about how to refer to each other when they were around others, Sparrowhawk called Gabriel u-we-tsi in public which people soon shortened to You Way and treated it as his nickname. Most assumed that he was called that because he always wanted things his way but in fact u-we-tsi was Cherokee for son.

Once again while the Persinger men followed the law, their women had seen to it that Sarah had her family with her and they had no plans of making the Overseer of the Poor‘s job easy. When two government men came for Sarah’s daughter Mary who like her brother Gabriel was in danger of being labeled a mulatto, the women acted. Mary was far to dark to hide her true father from the courts for long but the women did not plan on giving her up without a fight. They had Gabriel take his sister Mary to the home of Miss Polly while they sent for help. Polly sent Gabriel into the woods as she knew they would be able to identify her if she was with him. She also knew that if there was trouble, two government men were no match for Gabriel once he was in the woods. The government men arrive at her home and find her cutting apples at her table with Mary at her side. They want to take Mary but she informs them that they are mistaken about her. Mary she says is her girl. When they question her on this, Polly tells them that any man that comes into her house and calls her a liar will not live to regret it. Suddenly a group of Persinger men arrive. She takes the men outside and with the knife still in her hand informs them that they better leave the mountains before it gets dark as it would be a shame for some accident to occur in the dark causing them never to see their families again. She asked a couple of Persinger boys to make certain they found their way safely out of the mountains.

Sparrowhawk knew that Sarah’s family could not protect Mary much longer. These white men might be cowards but they were smart. What two men could not do maybe twenty could and if history had taught him anything, it had taught him that white men did not give up. They would be back and just like his people’s land, they would take what they wanted. They had already come for their son George and while one of her family got custody of him they had not been so lucky with their daughter Jane. As a mulatto, the law now gave the Overseer of the Poor greater control over Mary and her placement. He could take her and get his revenge on Sarah by placing her far enough away that like their daughter Jane she would never be seen again. He understood what had to be done. He would take her west with him and all the others if they would go. It would not be easy but the Cherokees were being moved west and at least they would be among their own kind. Sarah refused to leave her home and Gabriel would not leave his mother. She loved him but the mountains were her home. In her heart, she believed that he could not stay far from her for long. He believed that after he was gone Gabriel or his brother Eli who he called squirrel in Cherokee would talk their mother into heading west to join him. Sarah was left with her daughter Phoebe and while her love for the mountains had held her back, it was also her fear that Phoebe would never survive the trip west. Gabriel traveled part of the way with his father to help him with his sister Mary, but he turned back once they were well on their way. Troops, however, caught him on the road. They had been sent to round up any Cherokees that refused to leave on their own. Gabriel claimed to be a slave at a near by plantation on an errand for his master. When the troops went to check out his story, Gabriel was able to slip into the woods and escape. Like his mother, Gabriel was more at home in the woods than anywhere else and once he was in them, there was little chance that he could be caught.

With her husband and part of her family out west, there was no one to temper Sarah’s fury. After her rape at only fourteen years old, she could not tolerate any white man telling her what to do unless he was family. All she had left at home now was Phoebe and she would not give her up. Phoebe had been born early and while she was growing stronger as she got older, Sarah still worried about her. She would do what she had to do to protect her. She waited for her chance and when she met the Overseer of the Poor on the road one day she decided not to waste this opportunity. She stopped him and explained that she could not prevent him from using his power to take her Phoebe. By the same regards, she said there was not a man alive that could stop her from cutting him from head to post like a hog if he ever dared come for her. She said she would go to the gallows with a smile knowing that she had put him in the ground first. He must have taken her words to heart as he never came for Phoebe and he was never seen in those mountains again without at least one other man at his side.

When Sparrowhawk never returned, Sarah moved into Botetourt County. It was not far from where she had grown up in Alleghany County but there was one big difference: officials in Botetourt County had no grudge against her and being outside the borders of Alleghany County meant she was outside their authority. There she met Edward Hood. A light skinned mulatto from out of the state, Mr. Hood had been able to pass as white in Virginia. They moved in together with her daughter Phoebe and lived in an area where there were a number of mulattos. For the most part, they got along well with their neighbors. Many of them resented Mr. Hood, not because he was passing as white, but because he often tried acting white around them. Sarah made it clear that she had no plan on becoming the wife of any other man. For twelve years the two simply lived together and although some in the family objected she did not care. They had accepted her relationship with Sparrowhawk because they had been married following the traditions of his people and they could accept the marriage as valid even if the state of Virginia did not. This relationship was different and the idea that she was living in sin soon came to a head. Phoebe had met and fallen in love with Jacob Craft and his family could not accept Sarah’s relationship with Mr. Hood. The court had become aware of it and now were threatening to put him in jail for living in sin with a woman. Over the years, the makeup of Sarah’s community had changed. Most of the women in the family that had once protected her at all costs were dead now. Sarah still had a few allies in the family, but they advised her that any battle over her relationship with Edward Hood could cost Phoebe her chance at happiness with the man she loved. Sarah would never allow that to happen. She reluctantly agreed to marry him and six months after her marriage, Phoebe married Jacob Craft.

Just because she had married Mr. Hood, Sarah had no intentions of obeying him. As always she was the ruler of her domain and everyone knew it, no one better than Mr. Hood himself. She said where they would go and when they would leave. Time, however, was doing what no man could ever do. Her trips alone in the woods grew fewer and shorter and this tore at her. Since she was fourteen she had been willing to fight back no matter the trouble or problem, but this was an enemy she could not strike down. Many knew that the Sarah of old was in fact dying little by little when for the first time in more years than most could count Sarah attended a church service, not in the pants and shirt she was always seen in, but in a dress with her hair up. Her last gifts were Bibles that she gave to each of her children.

Those who took this action as a sign that she had given up her old views about the world were wrong. She continued hanging cedar branches throughout her house to ward off evil spirits and placed painted stones on all sides of her home to bring good luck and peace. People came from all over to have her use the “power of the eye” to tell them what would happen to them and their families. The day arrived when Sarah informed her family that she would soon pass over. She had heard an owl call her name for several nights in a row and knew that death would come soon. No one questioned her word. Over the years, she had proven the power of her gift and her last vision fittingly was about herself. In her final hours with many of her family by her bed, Sarah slipped in and out of consciousness. As she was passing she called out in Cherokee the name of the only man she had ever truly loved. The family gave her a Christian burial but after they had all left, Gabriel and Phoebe went to her grave and spoke the prayers in Cherokee that their father had taught them.


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