Category Archives: History and Memory

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Appalachian History, History and Memory, Tennessee History

From the “Lincoln Was a Godless Communist” File

Because if there’s one thing a longtime Whig like Lincoln couldn’t stand, it was capitalism, right?

Religious right broadcaster Kevin Swanson agreed with one of his guests that Abraham Lincoln imposed socialism on the United States during the “war against the South” – more commonly known as the Civil War.

Swanson hosted neo-Confederate author Walter Kennedy last month on his radio program, reported Right Wing Watch, where the pair argued the Republican Party had been founded by “radical socialists and communists.”

“The Democrats, both Northern and Southerners, believed in limited government, and the Marxists hated that concept,” Kennedy said. “They wanted to do away with states’ rights and limited government so that they’d have one big all-powerful indivisible government that could force its will upon the American people.”

The broadcaster – who has argued the Disney hit movie “Frozen” was a satanic tool for indoctrinating girls to become lesbians — agreed with his guest, saying Lincoln and Mark Twain helped ruin the U.S. by replacing Southern slavery with socialist slavery.…

The author told Swanson that Lincoln had given a “big boost” to communism by winning the Civil War and then created a federal government that began an “incessant attack on religious values in America.”

“What Marxist dictator could ask for less?” Kennedy said. “All of these communists that have wormed their way into power, into powerful positions, they began to influence other people to pursue this objective of a big, indivisible government, and government supplants God as being sovereign.”

3 Comments

Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, History and Memory

Revolutionary backwoodsmen ride onto the stage again

I’m obliged to Gordon Belt for passing this along.  In North Carolina there’s a new play in the works about the Battle of King’s Mountain and the men who fought there.  Here’s how the play’s author describes the backcountry settlers:

“They had a bone to pick with the British government even when they lived there,” he said “They lived a hard life under landlords that were very hard to deal with. They had famine and drought, and they were seeking a new life in the New World where they could make a living, raise their families and worship as they please.”
The settlers came to the backcountry of North and South Carolina and quickly adapted to the frontier area.
“They had to be rugged, independent people. They endured hardships, they had to fight Indians. They persevered,” Inman said.
When the war began, the backcountry patriots just wanted the British to leave them alone.
“The British said, ‘You have to support the crown.’ They said, ‘No, that’s not the way we operate.’ And so, they took up arms against the British and won,” Inman said.

The backcountry settlers who fought in the Southern Campaign have been the subject of dramatic works before, especially in the 1950s, when Pat Alderman‘s outdoor drama The Overmountain Men premiered in Erwin, TN.  It told the settlers’ story from the genesis of the settlements west of the mountains through the Battle of King’s Mountain.

Alderman eventually turned his research into a book, and if you compare the description of the settlers in its pages to the news item quoted above, you’ll see that the characterization of the backwoodsmen hasn’t changed much over the decades:

These frontiersmen were sons of frontiersmen, accustomed to the rugged life of the new country.…This unhampered wilderness freedom, far removed from royal rulers and their taxes, was to their liking.  These bold, resolute men were self-reliant.  They were independent, individualistic, and not always inclined to respect or observe the niceties of the soft life.  Living on the outskirts of civilization, their law was to have and to hold.

In fact, you could quote lengthy passages from books on the backwoodsmen written in the late 1800s and find many of the same sentiments.  It’s fascinating to see how popular notions about the eighteenth-century frontiersmen have remained so steady.

For more information about Revolutionary-era settlers on the stage, check out Gordon’s book on John Sevier in myth and memory.  (Sevier was the subject of his own biographical play about sixty years ago.)  And if you’d like to see an outdoor drama about the eighteenth-century settlers for yourself, Sycamore Shoals hosts a very popular and long-running show every year.

2 Comments

Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Historiography, History and Memory, Tennessee History

Glenn, Hillary, and history: pot, meet kettle

I can understand why the folks at Glenn Beck’s news outlet would get a kick out of Hillary’s Lincoln mistake.  But the admonition against removing a speck from your neighbor‘s eye seems awfully appropriate here.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Abraham Lincoln, History and Memory

Hillary Clinton invokes ‘Team of Rivals,’ flubs a detail

Hillary Clinton was speaking in Chicago yesterday, and this happened:

A senator from Illinois named Lincoln?  There might’ve been, if a guy named Stephen Douglas hadn’t gotten in the way.  Lincoln served a term in the House of Representatives, but not the Senate.

I never know how much to make of it when politicians trip over history like this.  When it’s something said in passing, it’s hard to tell if the person just misspoke, or if it’s really a case where an eminent public figure genuinely has no idea what they’re talking about.

To me, the really interesting thing here isn’t the flub about Lincoln, but the way Clinton has assimilated the whole Team of Rivals thing into her personal history, with herself cast in Seward’s role as the frontrunner who becomes a member of the victor’s cabinet.  It shows you how deeply Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book has penetrated into the way American political leaders remember and make use of history.

Leave a comment

Filed under Abraham Lincoln, History and Memory

The Continental Army’s foreign-born bad boys

Lately we’ve looked at how film, TV, and fiction about the RevWar tend to portray the British as arrogant dipwads.  (That’s a technical social science term, is what that is.)

I think there’s a corollary to this stereotypical view of the men who led Britain’s armies in America, and it applies to the Continentals.

Think of the American officers who come across the worst in popular historiography, film, TV, and so on.  The list would probably include Benedict Arnold, Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, and maybe Thomas Conway.  Arnold’s place on the list is obvious.  The others share something in common: all were foreign-born. Gates and Lee were both natives of England, while Conway was a French-educated Irishman.

Would we have such prominent collective memories of these men as haughty but ineffectual snots if they had been born in America?

It certainly wouldn’t have cancelled out the stigma of Gates’s performance at Camden, Lee’s ignominious capture and unseemly ambition, and Conway’s backbiting.  In other words, they were probably bound to end up on the wrong side of historical memory.  But I wonder if the fact that they were professional veterans of European armies helped the process along.

2 Comments

Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory