ASHLAND Mary Alice Pearson has never lived in Northeast Kentucky.

The red clay of Georgia, where she grew up and still lives, runs in her veins.

But the hills and hollows of this part of Appalachia call her nonetheless, possibly because her family roots are firmly lodged in the rocky soil of rural Boyd County.

Evidence of those roots is recorded in documents residing in the Boyd County Public Library — entries in a ledger compiled by her ancestor, one of the county’s earliest physicians. Pearson’s mother, an Ashland native, donated it in the 1990s.

Pearson recently made her first visit to Ashland in nearly half a century in order to donate another historically significant document.

The documents are of the sort local genealogists hope to find — primary sources with which, combined with other sources, they can trace relationships and ancestry.

The new document is a certificate presented to her great-grandfather, Daniel Webster Steele, by the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States.

“I knew the ledger was there and I thought the certificate should be in the same library because of the family connection. It just seemed to me it was the right thing to do,” Pearson said.

Steele lived in Ashland and was an officer in the Union Army during the Civil War. The certificate is important to Pearson in establishing her Ashland roots.

What makes the certificate significant to others is its provenance. The Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States is not well known and thus less researched, according to Jim Kettel, the library’s genealogical supervisor.

“This certificate told us there is an organization besides the GAR, which was the largest organization Civil War veterans joined,” he said. The GAR — Grand Army of the Republic — was a fraternal organization of Union veterans who served in the Civil War.

The Military Order was a separate organization for officers, Kettel said. Knowing of its existence could lead genealogists and historians to pertinent information for their research, he said.

When Pearson, 58, visited Ashland last month to present the certificate, she had not been to Northeast Kentucky since a family trip when she was 12.

The middle-school mathematics teacher has always been interested in family history, and was excited to see the ledger her mother had donated.

Her mother, Mary Louise Steele, was born in Ashland in 1925. The ledger she donated belonged to Benjamin Ulen Jr., a physician and the eldest son of Benjamin Ulen Sr.

The ledger dates to the 1850s. Within its cracked leather covers are meticulous records of housecalls he made to families in Boyd and Greenup counties.

The entries include dates, family names and children’s names. Some are birth records and show he charged $5 per delivery.

Daniel Webster Steele was his son-in-law.

The birth records are valuable because the state agency that collects vital statistics was not established until 1911, Kettel said. Before that, such records were compiled at the county level, but there was no enforcement mechanism to insure that records were complete.

For historians, the ledger sheds light on how physicians kept records and how they operated their practices. For instance, some entries reveal medicines and treatments administered, Kettel said.

It also provides insight into commodities of the era, listing quantities and prices for plugs of tobacco, bushels of corn, pounds of salt and yards of flannel.

Pearson’s Ashland visit yielded more family revelations than she anticipated. Through Kettel at the library she met Lewis Nicholls, a retired Greenup circuit judge and part-time historian. Nicholls had written a book about Benjamin Ulen Sr., “The Life and Times of Benjamin Uhlen.”

“Uhlen” was the earlier spelling of the name.

Nicholls and his co-author Matthew Wixsom, both attorneys, had written the book after performing a title search on Uhlen’s log cabin, built in Greenup County and still standing in rural Boyd County.

“Benjamin Uhlen was not the first person in Greenup County but he was one of the earliest Greenup County pioneers. To meet a descendant of one these pioneers is a thrill for me as well,” Nicholls said.

Invited by the current owner, Pearson drove out to see the cabin. “It was amazing to see the ax marks on the logs where my great-great-grandfather had chopped the bark off,” she said. “The roots I knew I had are now more vivid, more real, since I’ve seen the cabin and learned about the book.”

The library has digitized the ledger, which is increasingly delicate as age takes its toll, and the digitized copy is available for researchers, both amateur and professional, to use in the Minnie Crawford Winder Genealogy and Local History Room.

(606) 326-2652 |

Mike James is The Independent's education reporter. He has covered news in Northeast Kentucky since 1996.

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