Category Archives: Appalachian History

Agency doesn’t always look the way we want it to

I’m really enjoying the seminar I’m taking on Native American history.  Last week we had a lively discussion about Nancy Ward, a prominent Cherokee woman of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries whose name has come up here on the blog before.  One of my most pleasant surprises as a history buff was the day I was on a short road trip with my mom; our route unexpectedly took us right by Nancy Ward’s gravesite, so I got to step out and take a look at it.

She made a name for herself when she was still a teenager in the 1750s, taking up her mortally wounded husband’s gun during a battle with the Creeks.  Shortly thereafter she married an English trader and became one of those cross-cultural mediators that popped up from time to time in the history of the American borderlands.

Nancy Ward’s grave, along with the graves of her son and brother, in Polk County, TN. Photo by Brian Stansberry via Wikimedia Commons

In the summer of 1776, as Cherokee warriors prepared to launch attacks on settlements along the southern frontier, word of the impending assault made its way to the whites.  Nancy Ward was one of those responsible for sending the warning.  When the attacks fell in July, the settlers were hunkered down behind the wooden palisades of their forts.  Warriors did manage to capture Lydia Bean, wife of one of the first settlers in present-day Tennessee.  As Beloved Woman, Ward had authority over the fate of prisoners and saved Bean from the stake, reportedly keeping the captive in her home to make butter and cheese until she could return home.  It wasn’t the only occasion Ward would use her influence to prevent the shedding of white blood.

The reason our discussion in class got lively was because Nancy Ward is a controversial subject for many modern Cherokees.  My professor noted that some members of the tribe still consider Ward a traitor because of her affinity for the settlers and her tendency to intervene on their behalf, and one of my classmates (who does preservation work for the Eastern Band) cringed when her name came up.  And by modern standards, it’s hard to argue with the “traitor” label.  What else would you call someone who sent word to the opposing side that her own people were about to launch an invasion?

But, as my professor pointed out, it’s not quite that simple.  For one thing, Ward’s status as Beloved Woman gave her a certain amount of authority in matters of war and peace.  In her excellent book Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835, Theda Perdue discusses how women sought to maintain their prerogatives when it came to the disposition of captives, treaty negotiations, and other important business during the tumultuous eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Maybe Ward’s actions had as much to do with the preservation of female power as it did with saving whites’ lives.

More importantly, judging Ward reduces our ability to see their activity for what it was, namely a form of agency.  “Agency” is a term we’ve been discussing a lot in that class.  When you’re dealing with marginalized and often voiceless historical groups—groups such as Indians, women, slaves, or the poor—it’s important to remember that their circumstances didn’t reduce them to passive blobs of matter.  They remained human beings who confronted, resisted, and adapted to the forces around them.  Historians spend a lot of time trying to recover the agency of marginalized people, and when they do, they usually identify agency with some form of resistance.  Resistance can come in many forms besides open rebellion.  Workers who protested harsh factory conditions, slaves who broke farming tools—these are the sorts of activities historians generally have in mind when people refer to “agency.”  Just because oppressed people weren’t taking up pitchforks and raising hell doesn’t mean they weren’t holding on to their humanity.  An act as simple as doing one’s work a little bit more slowly than expected could be a form of resistance.

But maybe agency doesn’t have to equal resistance at all.  Any time some historical figure faced a choice and made a decision, they were exercising agency.  Perhaps Nancy Ward’s decision to forewarn the settlers was an act of agency, too.  In fact, it was a pretty striking one; she chose to act in a way that seems counter to the interests of many of her own people.

Why did she do it?  Maybe she thought a war with the whites would just bring down even harsher retribution, which is what indeed happened, and she wanted to minimize its effects.  Maybe, as I suggested above, she felt the councils had failed to take into account her opinion and that of other leading women in the discussions that led up to the decision to launch the assaults.  Maybe her marriage to a white trader had given her a soft spot for the settlers.  I don’t know.  But whatever her motives, she decided to act as she did, even though she didn’t act the way we might expect a woman in her position “should” act.

As a Native American woman (albeit a very influential and prominent one), Nancy Ward was the kind of person whose decisions usually didn’t make it into the history books.  But in her case, we get the opportunity to observe an Indian woman choosing to act, and doing so.  Her choice might look odd to us, but it was still her choice.  Nancy Ward made her choices and shaped her own circumstances, as surely as did the Indians who fought white encroachment to the last bullet and resisted acculturation to the last breath.  As my professor put it, people want their historical Indians to behave like Geronimo, but not all of them did.

Sometimes historical figures acted in ways that seem nonsensical or even immoral to us.  Our job is to figure out why they acted as they did, and what their choices can reveal about larger patterns of behavior and about the societies that produced them.  We can’t choose for them; nor can we judge their choices.  The choices were ultimately theirs.

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A respite at Marble Springs

We just had our annual John Sevier Days Living History Weekend at Marble Springs, along with our “Sevier Soirée” fundraiser.  Thanks to everybody who stopped by; I think both events went over really well.

It gave me a good excuse to take a brief respite from doctoral work and do a little public history.  I really enjoyed the time I spent working in museums, and interpretation was always my favorite part of the job.  Part of me has always missed it, so it was nice to get to do it again this weekend.

Plus, there’s nothing like sitting on the step by the door of the Sevier cabin and listening to an afternoon rain shower.  Rain doesn’t do much for visitation, but something about the way it sounds against a two-hundred-year-old roof is just wonderful.

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Party hard with John Sevier

We’re throwing a bash at Marble Springs State Historic Site in three weeks, and you’re all invited.  Here’s the deal.

Sept. 20-21 is our annual John Sevier Days Living History Weekend.  On Saturday from 10:00 to 5:00 and Sunday from 12:00 to 5:00 we’ll have reenacting, demonstrations, crafts, food, historic presentations, and tours of the buildings.  Admission is $5.00 for adults and $3.00 for kids aged seven to fifteen; kids six and under get in free.

Saturday night there’ll be a little something extra.  We’ll be having our second annual Sevier Soirée fundraiser on Sept. 20 from 6:30 to 8:30, with a BBQ dinner, open-hearth appetizers, live music, and a silent auction.  Tickets to the soirée are $50 per person.  Reserve your seat before Sept. 15 online, by mail (P.O. Box 20195 Knoxville, TN 37940) or via phone at (865) 573-5508.

It’ll be a blast.  Hope to see some of you there!

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John Sevier almost slept here

The second oldest home in Knoxville is the James Park House, located downtown on Cumberland Ave.  Google Street View doesn’t really do it justice, but it’s better than the photo I tried to take with my phone while stopped at a red light a couple of days ago.

James Park House

I wanted to snap a picture of the Park House because it’s got an interesting connection to John Sevier.  “Nolichucky Jack” didn’t live here, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Sevier purchased this downtown lot and started building a home there in the 1790s, around the same time he was serving as Tennessee’s first governor.  Construction didn’t get very far.  Nothing but a brick foundation and part of a wall had been completed before a financial setback forced Sevier to abandon the project.  For a man so accustomed to winning, whether on the battlefield or in politics, it must have been an irksome disappointment.  He sold the lot to his son G.W. Sevier in 1801, and it passed out of the family’s hands six years later.

James Park, an Irish immigrant and Knoxville mayor, bought the lot and built the current structure on Sevier’s foundation in 1812.  The house stayed in the Park family for a century; after that, it served time as a Red Cross facility and a medical academy.  Gulf & Ohio Railways acquired it to use as a headquarters building a few years ago and undertook an extensive restoration.

Although Sevier never got to build the home he wanted on the lot, it’s just a stone’s throw from the courthouse lawn where his remains were reinterred in the 1880s.  One fellow who did get to spend some time in the Park House was Sevier’s mortal enemy Andrew Jackson, who stopped by for a visit in 1830.

In a sense, the story of the house lot on Cumberland Ave. mirrors the larger story of Sevier’s place in Tennessee’s history.  In both cases, Sevier secured the land and laid the foundation, but it was left to others to build up the structure, which obscured and overshadowed the contributions of the man who made so much of it possible.  And in both cases it happened around the same time.  While James Park was building his house in 1812, Sevier’s great rival was on the brink of national fame and state preeminence, but Sevier himself was in the twilight of his long and very eventful life.

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‘Liberty Mountain’ playwright on the history behind the show

Robert Inman, who wrote the script for the new King’s Mountain play I mentioned a few days ago, has a guest post about the campaign over at Appalachian History.

The play has its premiere this October, and after that it’s going to be an annual summer production.  Inman has evidently done quite a bit of writing for both theater and TV.  I’m hoping I get a chance to see the show.

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Remembering and forgetting John Sevier

If you’re in the Knoxville area, come out to Marble Springs State Historic Site this Saturday at 1:00 P.M.  Fellow history blogger Gordon Belt will talk about his new book John Sevier: Tennessee’s First Heroan examination of the ways we’ve remembered, misremembered, and failed to remember the man who probably did more than anyone else to create the Volunteer State.  

The cool thing about this book is that it offers an accessible introduction to Sevier’s life as well as a thoroughly researched examination of his place in tradition and memory. It traces the development of the Sevier legend across the three major phases of his life as a pioneer, a soldier, and a statesman, stopping along the way to address some of the more popular stories about him, such as the dramatic rescue of his future wife at Ft. Watauga, his involvement in the Franklin movement, and his public feud with Andrew Jackson.

I eagerly awaited the publication of Gordon’s book, not just because it fits my personal research interests to a T but also because I think it will help address a troubling bit of historical amnesia we have here in Tennessee.

I think I first realized the extent of the problem the day I went to UT’s library to borrow a book about Sevier.  It was Carl Driver’s 1932 biography, and I needed it for my master’s thesis on memory and the Battle of King’s Mountain.  The guy behind the counter looked at the title and said, “Oh, the highway guy.”

The highway guy?  And then it hit me: Gov. John Sevier Highway loops around the southern and eastern sides of Knoxville.

He was the state’s first governor, a member of Congress, a state senator, the only governor of the Lost State of Franklin, an officer in one of the Revolutionary War’s pivotal battles, commander of the state militia, defender of the frontier and the scourge of the Cherokees.  If we don’t remember his stellar résumé, we should at least remember his name, because it’s all over East Tennessee: Sevierville, Sevier County, Gov. John Sevier Animal Clinic, John Sevier Combined Cycle Plant, John Sevier Elementary School.  Along with his nemesis Old Hickory, he’s one of two Tennessee heroes in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall.  Even his wife has an elementary school named in her honor.

But to the kid behind the library desk, he was “the highway guy.”

The notion that a Tennessean of any era would be unfamiliar with the exploits of “Nolichucky Jack” would have come as quite a shock to his contemporaries.  From the time of the American Revolution until his death in 1815, Sevier was one of the most popular men in his corner of the world.

But by the late 1800s, there was already a sense among antiquarians, regional authors, and amateur historians that Sevier and the other heroes of the old frontier had not received their historical due.  These men were determined to rectify the problem, but they overcompensated.  In the work of writers like James Gilmore and Francis M. Turner, Sevier became a frontier demigod.  The hero-worshipping writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries obscured the flesh-and-blood man behind a haze of tradition and sentimental prose.

There were other, later attempts to understand and commemorate Sevier and his times in the twentieth century.  Some of the most interesting were on the stage, as the early settlement of Tennessee became the subject of outdoor dramas.  On the printed page, regional historians like Samuel Cole Williams and Pat Alderman picked up where the antiquarians of the 1800s had left off.  But separating the man from the myth remained a problem.  Although Driver’s biography is the most thorough cradle-to-grave treatment of Sevier, it dates back to the Great Depression.

Gordon’s book is just the sort of fresh take we need to kickstart another revival of interest in one of the frontier’s most important figures.  Visit Marble Springs this weekend to hear him discuss it.

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Statehood Days this weekend at Marble Springs

If you’re in the Knoxville area and you’re looking for something to do this weekend, stop by Marble Springs State Historic Site for Statehood Days.  They’ll have living history demonstrations, food, and tours of the historic buildings.  Here’s the schedule.

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