Thanks to his teachers, Mike Phegley developed a love for history many years ago.
Now in retirement, the Knox County native has used this affinity for history to research his family’s past and to imagine what his ancestor’s lives were like more than 200 years ago.
His efforts led him to write “Storms of Kendiamong,” a work of historical fiction which focuses on what the lives of his pioneer relatives may have been like in the early 18th century, east of Indiana, in the Minisink Valley of northeastern New Jersey. It was a time long before the American Revolution.
“I discovered that my relatives came to this country much earlier than I thought they did,” said Phegley, who began his research after seeing his name attached to a ridge in a California State Park.
“I ended up talking to the Park’s historian who said the name came from an 1849 settler,” he said. “That surprised me, so I started researching my family at the Knox County Library, then the historical library, and to a lot of other places from there.”
Phegley’s book is the result of a 10-year journey (on and off) of genealogical research, an effort he says was more like detective work. The process was slow, as the information one finds in such research is never as much as one wants.
“I drove from here to Pittsburgh for a book in a library that provided one sentence,” he said. “But it was an important sentence.”
“Storms at Kendiamong” is about love and adventure when anywhere 50 miles west of the Atlantic Ocean was considered “the West.” It is a “story of a family and community, but also a story of hatred, prejudice and greed.”
It was in a New Jersey historical library that Phegley came across the journal written by John Redding a surveyor in 1719. He had come to the Delaware River Valley, where Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey meet, to help establish the border between New York and New Jersey. This is the setting for Phegley’s novel.
The journal provided Phegley with proof that Redding had indeed visited his ancestors, John Decker and Solomon Davids, in the course of doing his surveying work. The journal, and dozens of other documents, helped Phegley understand a 70-year border dispute between those two states, as well as how it all came to be established. He has even stood on land where the narrative takes place.
“All the major events are historically accurate,” Phegley said. “I took the facts as I know them and then weaved in a story to support it. I had to imagine what their lives were like back them, what they looked like, what the landscape looked like, what the Native Americans were like. “
The book begins with an 11-year-old seeing a survey team come into his wilderness community and then traces the family over the years and through historical events. Phegley says he has information for another book, maybe even two, that will carry his family members further west over the years.
“I’ve always been interested in history and I’ve always daydreamed about what life was like for people living back then,” he said. “So I had to find the properties, go there and stand on the land and try to envision what it was like.”
There are lots of books on the Civil War and the Revolution, Phegley says, but there isn’t as much on the French and Indian War, or the events from that period of North American history. Vincennes does have a mention in the book, as it was the far western frontier in those days.
It was a sixth grade history teacher at Busseron Township School in Oaktown, John Hodge, who first developed Phegley’s appreciation for history many years ago.
“He would read to us at the end of every school day,” Phegley said. “He read several books to us. He could read well, too, so that last half hour of the day was a special time.
“In high school Mr. Mutchmore helped us to learn that history was ‘cool,’ and Miss Dowlzel (whom I didn’t care for) helped teach us how to do research,” he said.
Phegley said a great aunt encouraged him to read as well, providing him with plenty of books. That his effort is historical fiction isn’t a surprise, as it’s his favorite genre of writing.
“I love historical fiction,” he said. “I’ve read all of Alexander Thom’s (author of “Long Knife” and “Panther in the Sky,”) work and others.”
The actual writing of “Storms of Kendiamong” took Phegley around four years, but it wasn’t as if it was a fulltime job. Still, writing it was a challenge.
“I’m not like some who can whip something out in six month,” he said. “I had to learn a few things. Whether it’s a good read or not, I don’t know.”
He said attending some writing workshops, notably the Southern Indiana Writers’ Conference at the Knox County Public Library helped him considerably.
“I can’t tell you how many times I went over that manuscript,” he said. “I bet I had gone over it more than a 100 times. Each time I found something I needed to fix or change.”
Phegley self-published the book last November, though he hasn’t done much in the way of marketing, except for sending out a few news releases. But the book is available from Amazon.com, one of the largest online retailers in the country.
Though he’s satisfied with the fruits of his labor, Phegley seems to relish the painstaking work it took to research his family’s roots.
“It takes hours and hours of time,” he said. “And sometimes it’s pretty boring. It’s like detective work. You find a lot of facts, but you don’t know where they fit.”
In time, though, his patience paid off and he found where the facts fit. In addition to visiting libraries and other sites in the east, Phegley has spoke to hundreds of people. He’s not shy about talking to strangers, either. It’s how he make discoveries.
He tells a story about talking to some strangers ultimately, through a series of discussions and other people, led him to a farmer who actually had a Pennsylvania property deed from 1788.
“It was a pretty cool adventure,” he said. “I wouldn’t have found that without talking to people.”
By Bernie Schmitt
“Storms of Kendiamong” is available in Vincennes, at Shaker Prairie Antiques, 1238 S. 18th St. (corner of 18th and Willow), owned by Phegley’s brother, Larry. It can be ordered online from Amazon.com.