Category Archives: Colonial America

A Catholic take on Pilgrim ironies

Mark Shea is an extremely witty fellow who blogs and writes prolifically from a Catholic perspective.  I always find his reflections well worth reading.  In a recent piece he examines the religious dissidents who settled New England, and some of the ironic developments resulting therefrom, all the way through the Civil War and down to the present day.  Check it out.

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Filed under Colonial America, History and Memory

Beck and Lillback stumble through Native American history

Some kind soul has posted video of Beck’s train wreck-like foray into Native American history (the subject of a lengthy tirade in my last post) to YouTube.

After delving into Pre-Columbian archaeology, Beck gets Peter Lillback’s take on colonial Indian-white interaction.  Lillback argues that the earliest English settlers got along swimmingly with the local tribes, a statement with which the Virginia Indians who ran afoul of the Jamestown colonists would probably take issue.  He also seems to believe that William Penn’s conciliatory Indian policies were something other than an aberration.

Anyway, here you go.  I hope you find it as stupefyingly appalling as I did.

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Filed under Archaeology, Colonial America, History and Memory, Tennessee History

Listening to details

I’m reading Stephen Brumwell’s excellent Redcoats: The British Soldier and War in the Americas, 1755-1763.  One of his chapters deals with the unique challenges of campaigning in the New World: rugged terrain, severe weather…and insects.  Lots and lots of insects. 

I usually don’t think much about insects when I read military history, but to a lot of eighteenth-century British soldiers who crossed the Atlantic, they were an inescapable and ubiquitous fact of life.  This is the sort of thing that wouldn’t occur to you unless you read accounts from people who were there and experienced it.  One of the strengths of Brumwell’s book is his intensive research in first-person accounts, and in fact it’s surprising to see how abundant and rich the primary material from these soldiers is.

This outstanding use of primary sources reminded me of another fine book I read several years ago called City Behind a Fence: Oak Ridge, Tennessee, 1942-1946, by Charles W. Johnson and Charles O. Jackson.  Oak Ridge was a town that sprang up out of nowhere, built solely as a home for the effort to create the radioactive material used in the first atomic weapons.  Because the city was built so quickly, there was a lot of mud everywhere, a fact that early residents remembered in great detail.  Again, this was an aspect of the historical experience that probably would have gone unnoticed if it weren’t for the fact that it was so prominent in the reminiscences of early residents, so the authors gave it the emphasis it deserved.

This is one of the reasons it’s important to be receptive to primary sources.  By “being receptive” I don’t just mean consulting them; I mean listening to them as well as asking questions of them.  We can get so caught up in framing our questions properly that we miss the things they’re telling us that we don’t even think to ask.  These two otherwise unrelated books are both well worth reading, partly because of the questions the authors asked but also because they remembered to listen.

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Filed under Colonial America, Historiography, Tennessee History

Reenacting on the set and onscreen Indians

I just stumbled across something that’s pretty interesting.  It’s from an old site, but as they used to say over at NBC, “if you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you.”

It’s a website devoted to Last of the Mohicans, with an essay by living historian Mark A. Baker on his experiences as an advisor and extra on the set of the movie.  He’s the guy who instructed Daniel Day-Lewis in the fine art of reloading a muzzleloader while running.  I’m always seeing “historical consultants” listed in film credits, and I thought this was a neat little glimpse into what that entails.

The site also has an interview with AIM activist Russell Means, who made his acting debut in LOTM as Chingachgook.  In the interview, he states that there is no record of Indians having tortured or burned anybody, so I’m guessing he’s not particularly well read when it comes to Native American history (e.g., the execution by both torture and burning of Col. William Crawford in 1782, the execution by burning of Samuel Moore and attempted burning of Lydia Bean by the Cherokee in 1776, the Iroquois practice of torturing war captives, etc.).

Means also told the interviewer that the best Indian movie—and you might want to sit down for this one—is Pocahontas.

This flabbergasted me, since I regard Pocahontas as one of the least historically-accurate movies in recent memory.  Here, let’s watch a short clip and then break it down to see if we can find anything that doesn’t ring authentic:

I noticed a couple of issues right off the bat.

  1. The appearance of the characters indicated a very low regard for historical detail.  Pocahontas was depicted as, at the least, an older teenager, and perhaps as a young adult, as opposed to the child she would have been at the time of her initial contact with John Smith.  Furthermore, her clothing did not match contemporary descriptions and illustrations of early seventeenth-century indigeous persons from eastern Virginia.  Smith lacked any facial hair, in marked contrast to the most well-known portrait of him, and his apparel seems far too modern.
  2. A tree talked.
  3. And sang.

But of course these could be minor quibbles. 

Anyway, I really like LOTM.  It’s an evocative depiction of eighteenth-century frontier America, the battle sequences are awesome, and Wes Studi makes for one scary son of a gun.  If you’re a fan of the film or if you’re into the French and Indian War, then check out the site.

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Looking for something to do this weekend?

Over the years, history buffs here in the Cumberland Gap region have watched Wilderness Road State Park near Ewing, VA become a first-rate center of historical interpretation.  In addition to a beautiful visitor center and a gorgeous setting, the park features a reconstruction of Martin’s Station, which was once the last outpost settlers reached before heading through the mountains into Kentucky.  Today it’s the most accurately rebuilt frontier fort anywhere in America.

For ten years now, WRSP has hosted an annual reenactment which has become one of the most exciting living history events in the South.  It’s happening again this weekend, and I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the eighteenth-century frontier, the American Revolution, or Native American history.

In addition to the usual reenactment goings-on—demonstrations, a mock battle, sutlers, music—one especially nifty feature of this event is a staged nighttime raid, in which visitors get locked inside the fort with the militia while Indians attack in the dark.  This is one of those rare experiences that does what good living history is supposed to do, which is give you a sense of a long-past event that’s difficult to convey through any other medium.  It’s one of the most exciting experiences I’ve ever had at any historic site.

Here’s some additional information.  Check it out.

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Filed under American Revolution, Colonial America, Museums and Historic Sites, Reenacting

Chatting up a Pilgrim

Here’s an interview with a costumed interpreter at Plimoth Plantation that popped up today on one of the Boston Herald blogs.  Describing his job, he invokes the names of both Batman and Santa Claus, neither of whom are subjects of frequent discussion in most other professional circles.

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Filed under Colonial America, Museums and Historic Sites

A frontier outpost of the British Empire

It’s been a while since I’ve posted one of my historic site reviews, but the other day I tagged along on a trip to Fort Loudoun State Historic Area near Vonore, TN.  This is another of those fascinating frontier-era sites in East Tennessee that I’ve intended to visit for a good, long while.  (It’s funny how you’ll drive hundreds of miles to see a site but go years without hitting the ones in your backyard.)

During the French and Indian War, both sides lobbied America’s tribes for military aid.  The British tried to enlist the Cherokee in their war for empire, but Cherokee warriors balked at leaving their villages undefended.  In 1756 South Carolina began constructing a fort on the Little Tennessee River to offer protection to these Overhill towns and to help improve trade between the tribe and the British.  This fort, named for the Earl of Loudoun, was the first significant European structure in what is now Tennessee.

Colonial alliances between whites and Indians were about as stable as Hollywood marriages, and the relationship between the British and Cherokee was no exception.  Indians passing through Virginia angered settlers by stealing their horses.  Colonists killed British-allied Indians for scalp money.  As reprisals took place on both sides, colonial authorities finally imprisoned a number of Cherokee chiefs in South Carolina.  A party of warriors attacked the fort to free the hostages, but the attack failed and the chiefs were put to death.

By the summer of 1760, the same Ft. Loudoun built to cement the Cherokee-British alliance was deep in enemy territory and under a loose siege by the very Indians it was supposed to protect.  Promised safe passage, the garrison started a long trek back to South Carolina.  They didn’t get far before disgruntled Cherokee warriors attacked them; many were captured and later ransomed, while others (including Paul Demere, the British officer in charge) met extremely unpleasant ends at the hands of the Indians.  Maybe the Cherokee were upset that Demere broke the surrender terms by hiding some of the fort’s arms, or maybe they were still upset over the murder of the chiefs held hostage in South Carolina.

Fort Loudoun State Historic Area tells this complex story of alliances made and broken on the outskirts of Britain’s empire.  The centerpiece is a full-scale reconstruction of the fort.  You can explore the barracks, bastions, guardhouse, commandant’s quarters, blacksmith shop, oven, and some fairly extensive outer works (a parapet, dry moat, and chevaux-de-frise).  It’s an impressive structure, and as an added bonus, the view from the elevated rear area is pretty spectacular.

The bad news is that it’s not even remotely similar to the view you would have had 250 years ago—or even three decades ago, for that matter.  Originally the ground around Ft. Loudoun was bottomland, but now it’s at the bottom of a man-made lake.  In the 1970’s, the TVA—as part of its ongoing effort to improve the lives of Appalachians by putting their homes underwater—dammed the Little Tennessee River, which overflowed its banks and flooded the area surrounding the fort site.  In the process, they completely destroyed important Cherokee archaeological sites, sent the endangered snail darter packing, and turned the site of Ft. Loudoun into an island.  To make things even more confusing, the reservoir around Ft. Loudoun is called “Tellico Lake,” but there’s another TVA project called “Ft. Loudoun Lake” that’s farther from the fort site than Tellico.  Go figure.

One of the Indian town sites destroyed by the Tellico Dam project was Tuskegee, boyhood home of Sequoyah, the inventor of the Cherokee writing system.  The park features a couple of reconstructed Cherokee dwellings, one for the summer months and one for the winter months, that illustrate the types of structures found in the villages that Ft. Loudoun was built to protect.

I used to think that the original site of Ft. Loudoun itself was underwater, too, but the reconstruction is on the original spot, although it’s seventeen feet higher in order to keep the reservoir at bay.  The idea that the original site got flooded is a common error that first appeared in a Tennessee history textbook, according to the excellent guide who showed my group around the fort.  Dressed in full redcoat gear, he was extraordinarily knowledgeable about the site, the life of an eighteenth-century British soldier, the region’s history, and early American history in general.  It was one of the smoothest, most thorough tour presentations I’ve heard in a long, long time.

I’ve always maintained that the ultimate test for any visitor center is whether or not any visitor, especially one who knows nothing about a site, can have a fulfilling and interesting tour of the grounds based solely on what they learn from the film and exhibit.  I think Ft. Loudoun would pass this test with flying colors; in fact, it’s the best visitor center I’ve seen at any of the state-run historic sites in Tennessee that I’ve been able to visit.  A fifteen-minute film covers the fort’s context in the colonial struggle for control of North America, its construction, daily life within its walls, and its eventual fall.  The exhibit is small but extremely well-done, incorporating artifacts from the excavations that have taken place at the site over the years.  It’s a fascinating look at how the inhabitants of an outpost on the edge of Britain’s eighteenth-century empire lived their lives.

I’ll also point out that if you’re into the French and Indian War, you’d better bring some disposable income with you.  The gift shop is stocked with hard-to-find academic titles and really great commemorative prints, as well as the usual souvenir items for kids.

You might want to plan on spending some extra time, too, because Ft. Loudoun isn’t the only historic site in the park.  In the 1790’s the federal government built Tellico Blockhouse just a short distance away from where Ft. Loudoun stood, partly to provide the Cherokees with protection from settlers, and partly to domesticate them by teaching them farming and manufacturing techniques.  The excavated foundations are now part of Ft. Loudoun State Historic Area, just across the lake from the visitor center and reconstructed fort.  The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum is on Tellico Lake too, but it isn’t a part of the state historic area, and unfortunately I didn’t have time to see it on this run.

Normally my Tennessee history interests fall a little bit later chronologically—from the Watauga Association to the end of the territorial period—but this is one of those sites that digs its way into your head and stays there.  It compares favorably with any historic site of its size, and it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in the Knoxville area or on vacation in the Smokies.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Colonial America, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History