Families emerge into history with a background of obscure traditions, dim remembrances and distorted history. The Scalf family is no exception. Only the patient labor of a genealogist, historian or Student of antiquity can pierce the curtain of years and peer with discernment into the misty origins. These specialists are able to probe back through the crackling records and reconstruct the beginnings of a sept, sometimes as far back as deep into the Middle Ages.

Sometimes, too, researchers are stymied within a very few Centuries. The genealogical trails are dimmed by the years and the guide posts, if any exist, are unrecognizable. Names go through almost unbelievable transformations under the impact of illiteracy. Personal preference, or the melding of cultures and nationalities. It has been thus with the Scalfs. In the past centuries the name was almost wholly disguised, often without the beginning letter "S".

The folk do not concern themselves very much with the spelling a name but are often garrulous with traditions that maintain no constancy of substance. The only consistency is evolution of the renderings through the years. Traditions as to the genesis of the American Scalfs are numerous, the age old stories garnished with picturesque and romantic overtones. Many East Tennessee Scalfs recall the tradition that the family is of Italian origin and tell the story of the Italian sailor, his name Scalfaro, who finding himself in Spain, wooed and won the hand of a daughter of a don. This so offended the lady's father that the lovers fled to Ireland to escape his wrath and from there to England and America. (1) It is a beautiful legend but scarcely acceptable to those who search for the firm evidence of documented history.

One Illinois descendant of the Scalfs, who collected stories and genealogical information on the family, relates her family tradition that a soldier ancestor resided in England following his Revolutionary War service. Others say it was prior to his military service. We quote one of these folk stories.

"I was a child when I heard it. It was never written down and it is quite possible that the story is mixed with other stories. One point in particular my grandmother always stressed was that the soldier (ancestor) was in the military service for seven years. He went to England and stayed a year or more. He returned to America and married." (2)

The English tradition is wide-spread and persistent. An Oklahoma Scalf descendant remembers:

"As I recall the story my ancestral Scalf came to America from England before the Revolution and his mother and some relatives, probably brothers and sisters, were still in England when the Revolution broke out. Of course he fought against the English troops here. After the war he returned to England to bring his relatives here but could not find a trace of them except that they had been in a group, of American sympathizers and had been destroyed in some manner. He finally gave up the search and returned to America. He declared vengeance on Tories here and vowed eternal hatred .... He was always in trouble at political gatherings, was very aggressive at them.

"During the war he met a young girl. She was at a spring with water vessels. He was weary and thirsty and she gave him a drink from a gourd dipper and talked to him a little while ..... Wherever he went he remembered the girl at the spring. After the war was over he made his unhappy search in England for relatives. He returned to this country and found the girl and they were later married. She was considerably younger than he but I don't know how much. l don't know how many children there were but grandmother spoke of her Uncle Bob or Tom. I don't remember which ..Uncle Bob was a rough, rowdy character from her description." (3)

Our Oklahoma kinsman continues with the family folk stories, the first vague remembrances of what was told of the first Scalf, all of it reminiscent of ancient fireplaces around which the clan gathered in the yesterdays of our sept.

"Then, of course, our great-grandfather. I don't recall, his name. Grandmother always called him Father but I have heard her speak his name. Just can't remember. He was a preacher and farmer. She told of trips away from home on preaching missions for weeks at a time and most of the time with a little time out to help put in crops and harvest them.

"I think grandmother must have been between six and eight years old when her mother died. Her mother had measles and a new baby arrived. The baby died and she asked them to hold it's body because she was going, too. They were both buried together. I am not sure how many children there were in the family but there were several ..... One brother left there with a wagon train, headed for California, I guess. Anyway, he was never heard of again but a wagon train was reported destroyed by Indians with about the right description, time, so forth, to have been theirs." (4)

Closer and closer to our time the stories come and, instead of being vague and ephemeral, they begin to mention specific persons and specific events, although they are still just stories of the folk. Researchers use them as a clue, find many times they are solid and substantial oral history but usually only entertaining traditionary vignettes.

The Illinois descendant recalls, too, the story of the Scalfs who went west. She heard stories also of the destroyed wagon train.

"I heard one story of my grandmother's brothers who was in a wagon train that was attacked by Indians. They were all killed except one little girl ..... She had been about one-half a mile away to a neighbor's house for a bucket of embers to start fires. She was about halfway between the neighbor's and her home when the Indians struck. She hid in a pile of brush and watched her folks be killed and the home burn." (5)

Another raconteur of the Scalfs indulges in the family penchant to recall the will-o-wisp story about ancestral Scalf being in England.

"I wrote my father to find out who our ancestors were and he gave me the information that way, way back his grandfather or maybe it was his great-grandfather came down in England and fell in love with one of those aristocrat ladies but the English authorities would not let her marry out of her rank. They ran away, came across the Atlantic and landed in America about the time of the Revolution."

Our folk raconteur continues to relate bits of remembrances about some of the family nearer to our day and time.

"My sister is down there (Kentucky) and is in a wheel-chair from an accident of some few weeks previous. She fell and broke her hip. She had a major operation and they put silver splints in next the bone and the last time I heard from her, a few years ago, she said that she was feeling good but was unable to put any weight at all on the leg. She is one of those sturdy Scalfs that you can hardly kill with a broad axe. She takes her ambitious attitude from our father .... Our grandmother ... was a tough old sister, too. She used to sit in the corner, a long time ago when I was a child, and with her-chin upon her hand and her elbow on her knee and she would tell stories of wolves, rattlesnakes, bears and what not in the pioneer days of old Kentucky." (6)

Some of these stories of the Scalfs were of tragedy, too; stark tales of horror and death. One of them so impinged upon the memory of an old man that three- quarters of a century later he took up pen and paper to write it down for posterity.

"I can barely remember it," he wrote. "We lived in an old house on the side of a hill, several miles out in the country from the little town of Lily, Laurel County, Kentucky. That was where sister Lula burned to death. I cannot remember where we had lived before coming to this place, but now, nearly seventy years later, I recall the whole incident swiftly and clearly, like the flash of a bright light in the dark corners of some, vault of the dead."

Only the writer, his sister and grandmother were there when Lula burned to death at the fireside. Just where his parents had gone he couldn't remember after the lapse of seventy years but he did remember the heroic struggle his grandmother made to save the little girl's life, and her supplicating cries in the twilight.

"The day was fast declining; night was not far off. Grandmother went out onto the porch, raised her scorched, bony hands up over her gray head in an attitude of prayer and uttered long, shrill, vibrating cries. Her voice sped through the silence and reached the distance over dreary, dismal and misty stretches of lonely landscape, like the cry of a lost soul on the outskirts of creation, then it died away and no answer came."

The night of horror passed and the writer was blessed with misrememberance. He remembers again, however, when the day was advanced. He saw his father and mother emerging from down the road on horseback.

"They were crying aloud as they rode down the red clay road .... They jumped from their horses and rushed into the house .... Mother knelt and father bent over. They spoke words of love to their dead child. Lula did not answer. Mother bowed her head, covered her face in the palms of her hands and wept." (7)

The tragic death of a child ever evokes folk remembrances and are carried down the years with the emotional burden of a keening mother. Some of these stories are coupled with fortitude and endurance, like the Clay County, Kentucky mother who fought storm and water to save her babe. The telling and retelling went west, with her descendants and today, after many decades, is a proud legacy.

Benjamin Phillips had gone away to the Union Army and Jane Scalf Phillips then only 17 years old, took her 15-month-old child and went to stay with her married cousins, daughters of Robert Scalf. One night in 1863 the babe became ill while she was at the home of Melinda Scalf Payne. It worsened the next day, the second day and on into the third.

Outside the mountain home rain fell in sheets and the streams rose under the impact of water rushing down the mountains. On and on it rained and as evening of the third day approached the storm increased in fury. Mrs. Phillips pleaded with her kinsmen to bring a doctor but they pointed out that no physician would ride out in such weather. The creeks were up and impassable. To her entreaties they shook their heads, sadly.

Suddenly within the fearful mother's heart was born a heroic determination. She bundled her child up, clasped it to her breast and plunged into the storm and night. Slowly, with great effort, she ascended a high mountain. Cautiously and fearfully she crossed raging streams. Where the "foot logs" were gone she waded. Overhead the thunder and lightning bombarded the hills.

She pressed onward, her struggle finally bringing her to a home where she thought help for her suffering child could be found. Inside the home kindly mountain neighbors aided the young mother to unwrap the stricken child. It was dead. It had died on the road. Outside the relentless storm became a dirge, joining the lament of a young mother for her first born. (8)

The folk remember and the folk speak and in seeking to orient their past in a place and time they grope, often blindly, seizing a few firm remembrances upon which they elaborate and throw the mantle of oral history. The Scalfs first appeared in history on the eastern seaboard and fought in the Revolution. They moved west with the tide of empire, seeking adventure and new homes. The record, what there is, was written by others and consists of officially inscribed dates of marriages, deeds, minor court actions and family Bible records. In the two and three-quarter centuries since the first Scalf of which we have historical evidence was born the family had no historian. They were privates in the Revolution, yeomen on the frontier, and wagon train migrants to the west. They left the writing of history to their posterity and today family researchers begin the weary task of piecing together their story in America


1. Related to the present writer by Charles Scalf, Bristol, Tenn., in 1929. The name of Scalfaro is found in Italy today, it is noted that Raffaello Scalfaro, commandant of the legion of Lower Calabria in Italy, was a member of the court martial that condemned Joachim Murat, King of Naples, to death in 1815.

2. Letter of Mrs. Archer, April 27, 1964. Mrs. Archer heard the story from her grandmother.

3. Letter of Mrs. Grace McFeeters, Freedom, Oklahoma, dated Oct. 1, 1956, to Mrs. Archer.

4. Ibid.

5. Folk stories remembered by Mrs. Archer.

6. Letter from Lee Andrew Scalf, dated Sept. 9, 1957, from Bellwood, Illinois, to Mrs. Archer.

7. From an unpublished manuscript, "The Death of Lula," by Lee Andrew Scalf. He was a son of Rev. Milton Scalf and grandson of Peter.

8. The child's name was James Ira and Mrs. Phillips was probably carrying an unborn second child, William, at the time. Benjamin Madison Phillips and Virginia or Jane Scalf were married in Clay County, Kentucky, Feb. 19, 1861, when he was 20 and she 14 years of age. James Ira, their first child was born in 1862. Benjamin enlisted in the army at Lexington in 1863 and was discharged Dec. 26, 1864. The event described, it is presumed almost without fear of contradiction, occurred in 1863.

Copyright (C) 1970 by Henry P. Scalf, All Rights Reserved.