Category Archives: Appalachian History

From a house in New Orleans to southeastern Kentucky

For a supposedly isolated region, Appalachia has a history that pops up in surprising places.

Last Sunday we had a guest singer at our church who performed a great rendition of “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun.”  I’d never heard anyone combine these two songs before, but it was hauntingly effective.  The only version of “House of the Rising Sun” I’d ever heard was the one performed by the Animals.

Music buffs have driven themselves nuts while trying to determine whether the song refers to an actual place in New Orleans, whether a brothel or a prison.  Of more immediate interest to us here is not the identity of the House of the Rising Sun, but the provenance of the song itself.  Long before the Animals popularized their version—and before Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Woodie Guthrie recorded theirs—the tune was circulating in the mountains of Appalachia, and thereby hangs an unexpected tale.

In 1937, folklorist Alan Lomax visited the southeastern Kentucky town of Middlesboro on the state’s border with Tennessee and Virginia.  Lomax and his wife were collecting traditional songs for the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture.  While in Middlesboro, he captured the voice of sixteen-year-old Georgia Turner, daughter of a local coal miner, singing a song called “Rising Sun Blues.”  Here’s the recording:

Lomax recorded a couple of other versions of the same song on that collecting expedition, but Georgia Turner’s was the one that made an impression.  He credited Turner as the song’s writer when he included it in a 1941 compilation, even though a few folk recordings of it were already floating around.  Once Georgia Turner’s version appeared in Lomax’s collection, the song took on a life of its own, with various performers continuing to tweak it and add their own variations over the years.  The Animals’ 1964 version is the canonical one, of course, but until Lomax came along and picked it up in Middlesboro, it was just another obscure folk tune.

The reason I think this is so cool is because Middlesboro, KY is only about twelve miles from my hometown, so I’ve spent a lot of time there.  In fact, the church of which I’m a member—the same church where I heard “Amazing Grace” set to the tune of the song Georgia Turner helped make famous—is in Middlesboro.  I knew none of this until Sunday, when hearing it in the morning service prompted me to go poking around online.  I’d always assumed “House of the Rising Sun” originated with the Animals.

Back in 2000 the AP ran a story on the song’s complicated history and the young Kentucky girl who played such a large role in it:

“Georgie, she’s the first one I ever heard sing it,” says Ed Hunter, who played harmonica at that 1937 session in Middlesboro. Still sure-footed at 78, he has outlived her by three decades and lives 200 yards from where her family’s home once stood. “Where she got it, I don’t know,” he says. “There weren’t many visitors, and she didn’t go nowhere.”

Middlesboro then was even more isolated than today, nearly 50 miles of winding roads from the nearest interstate highway. Tucked into rugged mountains just west of the Cumberland Gap, where thousands came west in the 18th and 19th centuries, the town was laid out by English iron-ore speculators. But even before that, mountaineers of English, Scots and Irish stock, including some Turners, built lives in the hills and, in their isolation, preserved a rich tradition of music and balladry.

Out of this, it seems, “Rising Sun Blues” – aka “House in New Orleans” or even “Rising Sun Dance Hall” – bubbled up.

So next time you hear this hit made famous by a British band, you can thank a teenage miner’s daughter from a small town in Appalachia for doing her part.

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What’s left of Knoxville’s Civil War?

Jack Neely goes looking for the fortifications that once defended the city in an article for Metro Pulse.

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DNA casts light on Melungeon background

From The Associated Press:

For years, varied and sometimes wild claims have been made about the origins of a group of dark-skinned Appalachian residents once known derisively as the Melungeons. Some speculated they were descended from Portuguese explorers, or perhaps from Turkish slaves or Gypsies.

Now a new DNA study in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy attempts to separate truth from oral tradition and wishful thinking. The study found the truth to be somewhat less exotic: Genetic evidence shows that the families historically called Melungeons are the offspring of sub-Saharan African men and white women of northern or central European origin.

And that report, which was published in April in the peer-reviewed journal, doesn’t sit comfortably with some people who claim Melungeon ancestry.

“There were a whole lot of people upset by this study,” lead researcher Roberta Estes said. “They just knew they were Portuguese, or Native American.”

Most of the stuff I’ve read linked the Melungeons to some type of Portuguese or eastern Mediterranean ancestry.  This latest study focused on families in upper East Tennessee, so it’ll be interesting to see if they extend it to other areas.

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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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Oh, and speaking of Knoxville’s relationship to the Civil War

…there’s a new Knoxville Civil War Gateway on the corner of Gay St. and Hill Ave:

Beginning May first the Civil War Gateway will be open Tuesday-Saturday, 11 AM- 4 PM, providing maps, walking tour brochures, videos, troop information, and graphic presentations of the Civil War story here in East Tennessee. Saturday guided tours will be announced and conducted regularly. Consult www.knoxcivilwar.org for all details.

Sounds pretty cool!

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Admiral Farragut, both remembered and forgotten

Knoxville historian Jack Neely has written a fascinating article on the legacy of East Tennessee’s own Admiral David Farragut, with an update on the disappearing birthplace monument.

Wikimedia Commons

The current status of Farragut’s boyhood home and the marker that once stood there is…well, complicated.  Very, very complicated.

What I didn’t know before reading Neely’s piece is that Farragut has become a hero among Americans of Spanish-speaking descent.  His father was a native of Minorca who settled in the Knoxville area back when Tennessee was still the Southwest Territory.

Knoxville historians once assumed they were the only ones who’ve ever heard of George Farragut, the early settler. But there’s a high-quality portrait of him at the Smithsonian. He’s the one Knoxville settler of whom we have the clearest physical image: a robust fellow on the verge of a chuckle. Now he has his own Wikipedia page. George Farragut has emerged as a Spanish-American patriot of the Revolutionary War.

His son who became an admiral has also gained new attention. “I am extremely proud of sharing the same heritage as Admiral Farragut,” says Coral Getino, the Spanish-born leader of Knoxville’s HoLa Hora Latina, hosts of the popular annual festival. “Farragut is a role model for us: A first-generation Hispanic-American, hard-working family man, who earned the highest Navy rank for the first time in history,” she says. “His bravery, determination, and perseverance—in battle and in life—exemplify values we want to teach our children. He is a national hero who was born right here, almost in my neighborhood.” Learning the Farragut story, she says, helped inspire her to get involved in the Knoxville community.

Navy guys, Civil War buffs, and various other constituencies are also keenly interested in the fate of Farragut’s birthplace. A pity more people from the admiral’s own neck of the woods aren’t as concerned.  Neely notes that at the time of its dedication, the birthplace monument was probably the most prominent marker of its kind in the Knoxville area.  You wouldn’t expect a rock like that to fade from memory, but then you wouldn’t expect it to grow legs and walk away, either.

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Nancy Ward hits the stage

Through the magic of the Interwebs, I just found out that somebody has written a musical about Nancy Ward, Beloved Woman of the Cherokee.  The show’s on its premiere run in Hartwell, GA.

Ward (or Nanye-hi, if you prefer to use her Cherokee name) was one of those intercultural mediators that played such a prominent role on the early American frontier, which in her case consisted of what eventually became northeastern Tennessee.

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A jaunt through Jonesborough

If you want to see a stellar example of what happens when a community embraces historic preservation, you should visit Jonesborough, TN.  It’s the oldest town in the state (founded in 1779, when eastern Tennessee was still part of North Carolina) and a history lover’s paradise.  My cousin and I paid a visit the other day, after our tour of Carter’s Mansion in nearby Elizabethton.

The first thing you’ll want to do is stop by the visitor center to pick up a walking guide.  These brochures are only $1.00, and they point out all the important historic structures and locations, most of them within easy walking distance.  The visitor center also has a nice little exhibit on various aspects of Jonesborough’s past, including some nifty antique fire pumps.

Jonesborough has, at various times, been the seat of Washington Co., created by North Carolina out of some of the western districts across the mountains; a capital of the abortive State of Franklin, which ceased to exist in 1788; a government and economic center for the Southwest Territory, when North Carolina ceded her western lands to the federal government; and finally, a county seat for Tennessee.  A monument in front of the current courthouse building marks the approximate spot where a log courthouse sat over two centuries ago.

One of the oldest structures you’ll see in Jonesborough (one of the oldest structures you’ll see in the whole state, actually) is the log home of Christopher Taylor, built in 1788.  A young backwoods lawyer named Andrew Jackson lived there for a short time before moving on to Nashville and national fame.

Later, after his election to the presidency, Jackson was a guest at the Chester Inn.  Built in the late 1790′s, this building has also hosted Presidents Polk and Johnson, along with various other historic luminaries.  Now it’s the home of the National Storytelling Festival.  Check out the exhibit on the first floor; it offers a fine overview of the town’s history, and includes some pretty neat artifacts.

Next to the Taylor cabin is the site where Elihu Embree published two anti-slavery newspapers, The Manumission Intelligencer and The Emancipator.  The latter was the first newspaper in the country devoted solely to promoting the eventual eradication of slavery.  The son of Pennsylvania Quakers, Embree was actually a slaveowner himself until age thirty, joining a Tennessee manumission organization in 1815.  The Emancipator circulated as far as Boston, but its run ended when Embree died at a young age in 1820.

Our last stop was the town’s old cemetery, which sits on a hill near the historic district.  Noticing a couple of small Confederate flags on one monument, I walked over to have a closer look.  Turned out to be the grave of Brigadier General Alfred E. Jackson, who served as a quartermaster and paymaster before spending much of the rest of the war engaged in the small-scale actions that often flared up in the mountains of Appalachia.  Jackson was quite unpopular among other Confederate officers; subordinates in Thomas’ Legion (which constituted part of his brigade) considered him “morally and physically unfit” for command and asked Jefferson Davis to give him the boot.  The end of the war found this formerly prosperous businessman farming rented land in southwestern Virginia.  He was eventually able to recover some of his antebellum prosperity and died in Jonesborough in 1889.

There are plenty of other stories and buildings to check out in Jonesborough, along with quite a few historic inns and small restaurants.  The town is just a short drive from some of Tennessee’s best parks and historic sites—Sycamore Shoals, Rocky Mount, Andrew Johnson’s home, and Tipton-Haynes Historic Site, to name a few—so if you’re looking for a place to spend a history-soaked weekend, it’s hard to beat.

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Keeping up with the Carters

Yesterday I finally took care of a nagging bit of unfinished business.  Being an aficionado of the Rev War and the Tennessee frontier, I’ve always had a soft spot for Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area, but I’d never visited Carter Mansion, the historic house museum just a few miles away operated by the park as a satellite site.

Built sometime around the Revolution, either by John Carter (one of the first settlers in what would become Tennessee and leader of the Watauga Association) or his son Landon (a veteran of the War for Independence and an important political figure on the frontier), the house is one of the oldest and most important structures in the region.

I’d wanted to see it for a long time, but it had been closed every time I’d visited the park, so when I found out about a living history event at the house this weekend, I jumped at the chance to make a special trip.  I took my cousin along; he’s a fellow history enthusiast who accompanied me on my last visit to the park.

If this doesn’t fit your idea of a “mansion,” bear in mind that most houses of that time and place were simple cabins; painted siding and brick chimneys weren’t the sort of architectural features you saw every day.

Where the house really knocks your socks off, though, is its elaborate interior.  The carved panels, crown molding, chair rails, and fluted columns of the first-floor walls put this home in a different class altogether from the rough dwellings typical of the eighteenth-century frontier.  Incredibly, some of the walls still have the original stain, visible above this fireplace in the parlor.

I’ve seen more than my share of historic house museums from the late 1700′s and early 1800′s, and this is one of the most beautifully restored and furnished of the whole lot.

Some members of the Carter family are buried on the grounds…

…although I could’ve sworn I saw John Carter himself treating some of the local militia to a patriotic libation.

A gang of Tories broke up the party by showing up uninvited, more than a little irate that their property had been confiscated.  The negotiations didn’t turn out well.

A good time was had by all—except for the Tories, I suppose—and I can finally scratch Carter Mansion off my bucket list.  Totally worth the wait.

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Two posts from my neck of the woods

Appalachian History just posted two stories in a row that are both pretty close to home, at least for me—one about a bloody labor incident here in my home county, the other about Middlesboro, KY, which is just over the state line.

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