Diane Finds She's a True Kentucky Woman

ByDIANE SAWYER via via logo

Nov. 3, 2006 — -- My co-anchors each have a unique version of the American family tree.

Chris Cuomo's Italian roots are just one generation away; and then there are Sam Champion's marathon 11 generations in the United States; and Robin Roberts' family determination sent it all over the United States looking for a better life.

And when it comes to my clan, no matter what, you can't get us out of Kentucky.

"I don't know how many generations on each branch, but this is one of the deepest trees I've ever worked on," genealogist Megan Smolenyak told me.

We, too, mostly come from Ireland, with a few tall, blonde English and German thrown in. We're from Northern Scots-Irish roots, like Banbridge with its village and castles, where they don't exactly consider me a legend.

"The one in prison?" asked one Banbridge resident when my name was mentioned.

Another was equally puzzled. "Who? I haven't, no, sorry, really I haven't heard of him."

While Sam Champion's Irish forbearers look cheerful, like the Irish who sing "Mother Macree" in pubs, my kind of Irish were the wiry, scrappy mountain pioneers.

Our family history really begins in Kentucky, in the Cumberland Gap, the rugged pass between the Appalachian and Cumberland mountains.

The Sawyers, Mackeys, Dunagans and Hatfields -- yes, like the Hatfields and McCoys -- spent the 1700s and 1800s battling their way through hard times in the freezing cold, living alongside and even marrying the native Cherokee.

Among them, a kind of legend named Princess Cornblossom.

My mom photographed the cave where she was born. According to lore, she even killed someone to protect the tribe's secret mine.

Two of my great-great-grandfathers -- Frederick Sawyer and Pleasant Caylor -- both served in the Civil War, and they came close to serving in the same battle.

Granddaddy Pleasant, though, refused to show up for any battle outside the Kentucky lines.

There's bravery, but also another trait both sides share: stubborness.

Smolenyak found documents showing one brother disinheriting the other.

"In fact, he even takes pains to say, 'If James shows up with his kids, no one gets anything,'" she said.

And she found fierce passion in my family lineage, too. My great-grandfather James, age 11, carried a 2-year-old girl onto a ship bound for America. Years later, he went in search of her, and eventually found and married his grown-up true love.

So here's to my grandparents -- farmers, the children of farmers, fighters and mountain pioneers -- who did what they could to make sure their children were educated in a rough and beautiful land.

Here's to the perceptive reader Nettie Sawyer, the wry storyteller and politician Pappy Jim, my big-hearted and tireless Grandma Nora, and the scrappy force of nature, Foxie Dunagan.

I am in every way their daughter, like the sons of Italian and Irish immigrants, Chris and Sam, and Robin, the daughter of trailblazing men and women who saw a bold new future.

The four of us are a kind of family, too, who get to say "good morning, America," and everyday know what America means.

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