Monthly Archives: May 2012

Long rifles and red tape

With summer here, I’ve been able to dig into some of the books I’ve got stacked up, waiting to be read.  A few days ago I finished Malcolm J. Rohrbough’s Trans-Appalachian Frontier: People, Societies, and Institutions, 1775-1850, which I bought a couple of years ago.

One of the prominent themes in this book is the role of government in the organization, settlement, and development of the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century frontiers.  The federal government secured lands to be settled by winning wars or negotiating treaties with foreign powers and Indian tribes.  It established the ordinances to survey this land, sell it to private citizens, set up territorial governments, and transform the territories into states.  It defended the frontier’s inhabitants from external threats.  It contributed to the development of trade and communication routes, and obtained commercial outlets for the settlers’ commercial goods (i.e., securing the right to navigation of the Mississippi and use of the port of New Orleans).

Also notable is the eagerness with which many frontiersmen formed their own government institutions, and the things they allowed those institutions to control.  Many frontier communities established local courts with power to set prices and regulate moral behavior.  If you lived in some eighteenth-century settlements, you could find yourself hauled before a magistrate for cursing or sleeping with somebody who wasn’t your spouse.

A replica of the log capitol of the short-lived State of Franklin in Greeneville, TN. The original was erected in the 1780′s; this reconstruction dates from the 1960′s. From Wikimedia Commons

This is interesting, because it runs against the notion a lot of people have of the early frontier.  It was supposed to be a place where you could get away from authority.  The men and women who settled the early West were supposedly hardy, independent-minded souls who wanted nothing from anyone, only land where they could carve a living out of the wilderness with their own two hands, free from the oversight of the settled societies back east.  They were like characters out of an Ayn Rand novel, except they were dirt poor and carried long rifles.

Right?

Well, sort of.  Various sorts of people went to the early frontier for different reasons, so we make blanket generalizations about them at our peril, but it’s safe to say that many of them were more comfortable with institutions of authority than we often assume.  When the settlers near the Watauga River in northeastern Tennessee found themselves outside the reach of effective government in 1772, they didn’t sit back to enjoy a state of blissful anarchy; they set up a five-man court with laws patterned after those of Virginia.  In 1776, they petitioned the governments of Virginia and North Carolina to annex them.

My point here isn’t to write an apologia for interventionist government based on historical precedent.  One can find many instances in which early frontiersmen actively resisted government agencies.  Frontier people weren’t really eager to welcome government just for its own sake.  When they established courts, passed laws, and obeyed the laws of territorial governors, it was generally because there was something in it for them.

What most settlers ultimately wanted, I think, was land and livelihood, so when a government institution could help them secure these things, they let it happen.  The Wataugans wanted to farm their land unmolested by renegades and riff-raff, and their provisional government of 1772 was the best means to accomplish it.  Similarly, other frontiersmen could tolerate or even support territorial governors who wielded almost dictatorial power under federal ordinances because it meant law and order and secure land titles.

In other cases, frontiersmen acted against government authority when it interfered with their desire for land and livelihood.  Federal authorities often had their hands full trying to keep settlers from encroaching on land reserved to Indian tribes by official treaties.  The Franklinites weren’t shy about negotiating their own treaties and waging their own wars with the Cherokee in spite of the fact that their actions had no legal standing as far as the governments of either North Carolina or the United States were concerned.  And, of course, the reason the Wataugans had to establish their provisional government in the first place is because they had settled across the mountains in direct violation of British authority.  In these instances, law and government stood in the way of land acquisition rather than ensuring secure enjoyment of it, and thus frontier inhabitants cut through the red tape by acting on their own.

I therefore submit that it’s a drastic oversimplification to say that inhabitants of the early frontier wanted independence and freedom above all else, if by “independence and freedom” we mean liberty from any government authority whatsoever.  They were out to build lives for themselves where land and opportunity could be had, either with the aid of law and order or in defiance of it.  The nature of their love-hate relationship with government depended on what it could do for them at any given time.

None of this should surprise us, except that the archetype of the autonomous frontiersman casts such a long shadow over American history.  After all, by welcoming government as long as it helped them secure their lives, liberties, and property and resisting it when it hindered them from doing so, these settlers were basically acting out the same relationship between Americans and government that’s been going on for over two hundred years.

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Filed under Historiography, History and Memory, Tennessee History

Recognize the warning signs

Ed Darrell has posted an item well worth reading over at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub.  It’s a list of warning signs for what he terms “voodoo history,” or bogus pseudo-scholarship, adapted from a similar list originally proposed for recognizing bad science:

  1. The author pitches the claim directly to the media or to organizations of non-historians, sometimes for pay.
  2. The author says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.  Bogus history relies more on invective than investigation; anyone with an opposing view is an “idiot,” or evil.
  3. The sources that verify the new interpretation of history are obscure, or unavailable; if they involve a famous person, the sources are not those usually relied on by historians.
  4. Evidence for the history is anecdotal.
  5. The author says a belief is credible because it has endured for some time, or because many people believe it to be true.
  6. The author has worked in isolation, and fails to incorporate or explain other, mainstream versions of the history of the incident, and especially the author fails to explain why they are in error.
  7. The author must propose a new interpretation of history to explain an observation.
If you’re familiar with arguments regarding orthodox Christianity among the Founders and statements about legions of black Confederate soldiers, some of these criteria probably ring a bell.

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Touring the Tipton place

I’ve been on a real Tennessee frontier kick lately, visiting places in my home state that I’ve been meaning to see for a long time.  A few days ago my cousin and I took another day trip to the Tri-Cities region, which means it’s time for yet another historic site review.

Tipton-Haynes State Historic Site in Johnson City has a story that goes back quite a long way. A spring and cave on the property attracted animals for thousands of years, and the animals attracted humans who hunted them with stone weapons.  In the late 1600′s, the first Englishmen to set foot in Tennessee passed through the area; a century later, Daniel Boone stopped there.

In 1784, when Tennessee was still part of North Carolina, Col. John Tipton purchased 100 acres around the spring and cave, building a one-and-a-half-story log home.  That same year, some of his fellow settlers proclaimed the creation of a new State of Franklin, consisting of the three westernmost counties of North Carolina, with military hero John Sevier its first governor.  The problem was that, as far as North Carolina was concerned, this statehood movement was illegitimate, and the Franklinites were still subject to North Carolina law.  As you might imagine, the coexistence of two rival states in the same place presented a rather interesting political dilemma.

Tipton refused to recognize the legitimacy of Franklin, and by late 1786 had become the region’s foremost supporter of North Carolina sovereignty.  In February 1788, when North Carolina authorities seized some of Sevier’s slaves and took them to Tipton’s farm for safekeeping, the would-be governor and about 135 fellow Franklinites showed up to demand their return.  Tipton and the other North Carolina loyalists holed up in the log house, trading occasional shots with Sevier’s force outside.  When reinforcements arrived for Tipton, the standoff turned into an outright skirmish—the only armed confrontation between Franklinites and North Carolina—which ended in a retreat by Sevier and his supporters.  The fledgling statehood movement petered out not long after the firefight at Tipton’s farm.

The house and the land around it passed to Tipton’s son in 1813.  In 1837 a newlywed lawyer named Landon Carter Haynes received the farm as a wedding gift from his father. Haynes built a number of additions to the house and constructed a small law office adjacent to it, where he attracted clients from across Tennessee and North Carolina. An ardent Southern advocate, he served as a Confederate senator during the Civil War. He obtained a pardon when the war ended, but left his home and moved to Memphis. The state purchased the property in the 1940′s.

This complicated history of prehistoric hunters, stillborn states, and Civil War politicians is told in a fine new exhibit at the Tipton-Haynes visitor center, which includes artifacts excavated from the grounds, Tipton and Haynes family heirlooms, and short video presentations on the State of Franklin and slavery in the Haynes household.

It’s a very attractive site; in fact, it’s difficult to believe that this pastoral little chunk of real estate exists in the middle of modern-day Johnson City. Unfortunately for frontier aficionados such as yours truly, Tipton’s log house was altered dramatically over the course of the nineteenth century. Its present appearance thus reflects the Haynes era more than the period of the Franklin battle, but it’s still a nicely restored structure.

There are a number of outbuildings on the grounds, some of which are original to the Haynes farm, others reconstructed or relocated from other sites. A short path along an old buffalo trail takes you to the spring and cave.

This is a great little site with an effective interpretation of an impressive cross-section of Tennessee history, and of course it’s located right in the cradle of the Volunteer State, so there are a lot of other historic places just a short drive away if you decide to make a day of it.  Give yourself about thirty or forty minutes to take in the visitor center’s exhibit and an hour or so to tour the grounds.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

They’ve got forts all over the place in Virginia

The Confederates built Fort Pocahontas atop the site of the 1607 Jamestown fort, so now they’re excavating the former to get at the latter.

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If I knew you could actually do this

…I’d have done it myself years ago.  An actual news item out of Nebraska:

YORK – What’s in a name? In this case, a few unusual words for one York man who has legally changed his name to Tyrannosaurus Rex.

The term, which in Greek means “tyrant lizard king,” is the name assigned to a large dinosaur. Now, it’s also the title officially adopted by Tyler Gold, 23.

Gold appeared in York County District Court Monday morning, before Judge Alan Gless who heard the unusual request.

Has nothing to do with history, I know, but I couldn’t let that one pass.

By the way, if you got a weird login request while visiting the blog today, it’s because I screwed something up while uploading the images for the post on the National Geographic article.  Sorry about that.  It should be fixed now.

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National Geographic looks at battlefield artists of the Civil War

For me, some of the most compelling images to come out of the Civil War are the sketches produced by battlefield artists such as Alfred Waud.  Since the bulky cameras of the day couldn’t really capture battles in progress, these guys followed the armies in order to draw the action for newspaper illustrations. 

I find the original rough sketches more powerful than the finished illustrations printed in the papers.  These guys were there while it was happening, and their work brings us about as close as we’re ever likely to get to seeing a Civil War battle play out.

The May issue of National Geographic has an article devoted to these battlefield sketch artists and the hardships they endured:

It was a cruel adventure. One special, James R. O’Neill, was killed while being held prisoner by Quantrill’s Raiders, a band of Rebel guerrillas. Two other specials, C. E. F. Hillen and Theodore Davis, were wounded. Frank Vizetelly was nearly killed at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862, when a “South Carolinian had a portion of his head carried away, within four yards of myself, by a shell.” Alfred Waud, while documenting the exploits of the Union Army in the summer of 1862, wrote to a friend: “No amount of money can pay a man for going through what we have had to suffer lately.”

The English-born Waud and Theodore Davis were the only specials who remained on assignment without respite, covering the war from the opening salvos in April 1861 through the fall of the Confederacy four years later. Davis later described what it took to be a war artist: “Total disregard for personal safety and comfort; an owl-like propensity to sit up all night and a hawky style of vigilance during the day; capacity for going on short food; willingness to ride any number of miles horseback for just one sketch, which might have to be finished at night by no better light than that of a fire.”

In spite of the remarkable courage these men displayed and the events they witnessed, their stories have gone unnoticed: Virginia native son and Union supporter D. H. Strother’s terrifying assignment sketching the Confederate Army encampments outside Washington, D.C., which got him arrested as a spy; Theodore Davis’s dangerously ill-conceived sojourn into Dixie in the summer of 1861 (he was detained and accused of spying); W. T. Crane’s heroic coverage of Charleston, South Carolina, from within the Rebel city; Alfred Waud’s detention by a company of Virginia cavalry (after he sketched a group portrait, they let him go); Frank Vizetelly’s eyewitness chronicle of Jefferson Davis’s final flight into exile.

You can see some of these sketches in an online gallery at the magazine’s website.  Below is Waud’s sketch of the conflagration at the Mumma Farm:

“BATTLE OF ANTIETAM, MARYLAND, SEPTEMBER 17, 1862; LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Confederates set Samuel Mumma’s farm ablaze to keep it from Union hands. By the time Alfred Waud made this sketch, using Chinese white pigment to depict flames, Union troops were in control of the area.”
From the May edition of National Geographic magazine

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Lifestyles of the deceased and famous

The most popular historic home here in the Appalachian region is probably Biltmore House, the palatial Gilded Age mansion of George Washington Vanderbilt II in Asheville, NC.  Some readers will be surprised that I qualified that statement with the word “probably.”  In terms of visitation, no historic house museum in Appalachia comes close.  In fact, few historic homes in the entire country could compete with Biltmore’s annual numbers, although offhand I’d guess that Mount Vernon and Monticello welcome more visitors.  The reason I hedged is not because its popularity as a destination is in doubt, but because I’m not sure whether I’d consider it Biltmore a “historic house museum.”  It’s difficult for me to associate Biltmore Estate with other historic sites.

Strictly speaking, I realize this seems a little ludicrous.  It’s a house, it’s historic (or old, at least), and it’s a museum.  What’s my problem here?

Biltmore House, as seen from the front

Consider the reasons why people visit Biltmore and what they get out of it.  If we were to speak with guests as they stood in line to buy their tickets, how many of them would tell us that they’re about to shell out money to learn about the past?  I’d say it would be very few indeed.

Or perhaps we might ask them if they came to Biltmore to learn about its first resident, the man responsible for its construction.  Here, too, I think affirmative answers would be few and far between.  People go to Mount Vernon, Monticello, the Hermitage, and the Lincoln Home because of their former occupants, but I don’t think this is the case with Biltmore.  Quite a few Americans will probably recognize the name “Vanderbilt,” but not George Washington Vanderbilt II in particular.

In fact, I think most Biltmore visitors would be hard pressed to identify any salient facts about Biltmore’s first owner, or to name any notable accomplishments of his other than the fact that he built himself an awesome pad.  An introverted younger sibling, George wasn’t responsible for running the family’s business affairs.  Instead, he spent most of his free time (presumably he had a great deal of it) cultivating his own personal intellectual interests.  A brief bio on Wikipedia notes that he was fluent in a number of foreign languages and managed some family property for a while; other than that, he “inherited $1 million from his grandfather and received another million on his 21st birthday from his father. Upon his father’s death, he inherited $5 million more, as well as the income from a $5 million trust fund.”  Not a bad gig if you can get it, but it won’t lead generations of children to recite your speeches at their second grade recitals.

My point here is not to belittle G.W. Vanderbilt II, but to point out that neither a regard for history nor a familiarity with Biltmore’s original occupant will explain the estate’s astronomical attendance numbers.  Instead, I submit that the overwhelming majority of visitors to Biltmore are exercising the same impulse that makes people watch TV shows where opulent houses are exposed to the cameras and to buy magazines with photographs of lavish interiors.  They go there because want to see how the fabulously rich once lived, to vicariously experience what it must have been like to enjoy untold wealth in an age of elegance and opulence, and to appreciate majesty and beauty.  Having talked to people who enjoy visiting Biltmore, and having visited myself on a number of occasions, I think most people go there just because they want to ooh and aah.

In and of itself, this is no big deal.  Historic sites aren’t necessarily any less historic just because visitors patronize them for reasons that have nothing to do with history.  Lots of folks visit national historical parks for the fresh air, the hiking, and so on.  The difference is this: What I’ve seen of interpretation during my visits to Biltmore, and what I’ve seen of the estate’s promotional material, leads me to believe that oohing and aahing is pretty much all you’re supposed to get out of the experience.

Now, before we rush to denounce this “lifestyles of the rich and famous” approach to historic interpretation, and to ask ourselves whether it constitutes historic interpretation at all, let me pose a consideration about historic house museums in general.

Perhaps historic house sites are inherently deceptive, in that they inadvertently perpetuate a very common and romanticized view of the past that I call the “frilly notion of history.”  When people think about how great it must have been to live in an earlier age, it’s usually because they have a myopic view of what living in that earlier age was actually like.  Many people have spoken to me about the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with a sort of wistful attitude, longing for the days when well-mannered ladies and gentlemen lived in gorgeous houses, wore frilly dresses, and danced the quadrille.

And yet the world of mansions, frilly gowns, and quadrilles wasn’t necessarily how “people lived back then.”  That was how the affluent lived “back then.”  It reflects only a slice of human experience from the period in question.  In the pre-modern world, most people’s lives were anything but mannered and frilly.

Historic house museums, I think, can unwittingly perpetuate this notion of a comfy, genteel past, although it happens through no fault at all of the people who manage and interpret these sites.  It’s simply a by-product of the differential vagaries of time.  The houses that last 150 or 200 years and transform into museums are generally the homes of the wealthy or notable.  Places where ordinary schmoes lived are harder to come by; they get torn down, renovated beyond recognition, or cannibalized for building materials to make the homes of later ordinary schmoes.  Thus when you visit some historic house, it was probably the home of someone who was comparatively well off.

Lest you think I’m knocking historic house museums, let me note that I spent a year of my life running one.  It was pretty small as far as historic house museums go—just three rooms, a garret, and a kitchen joined to the main residence by a dogtrot—but it was pretty nice for the time and place of its construction.  The occupant had been an officer in the militia, a statesman, and one of the largest slaveholders in his county.  When visitors remarked that the house seemed awfully small, I reminded them that contemporaries of its original owner would have found it quite comfortable.

At the really big house museums, the discrepancy between what visitors see and how most people of the period lived is even greater.  Most Revolutionary Virginians didn’t live at places like Monticello, just as most Tennesseans of the Jacksonian era couldn’t dream of living at a mansion like the Hermitage.  We cherish these places because we’re lucky that they’ve lasted to the present day and because of the remarkable men who inhabited them.  They’re worthy of our appreciation not because they’re typical residences of typical people, but precisely because they and their owners were very special indeed.

So this brings us back to the question of whether visitors to historic house museums are getting a skewed view of the past. I suppose they are, but that’s also true of visitors to any public history institution.  No site can ever hope to encompass an entire era or place.  People who restrict their heritage tourism to one type of site or field of interest—battlefields, for instance—will invariably miss out on many other aspects of historical interpretation.  Perhaps people who visit Biltmore in order to vicariously experience the life of a Gilded Age millionaire are not so different from those who visit battlegrounds to vicariously live the experiences of common men and boys who left their mark on history with bombs and bullets rather than bricks.

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