Tag Archives: Appalachia

Judge refuses to have Blair Mountain put back on the National Register

Let’s imagine for a minute that I blew up Cemetery Ridge.  Just hypothetically, I mean.  Imagine that Gettysburg National Military Park up and decided to sell off some land, and I bought Cemetery Ridge and then bulldozed away all the soil, and then I drilled down into the rock and placed some explosives and then just blasted it all to smithereens.

If that scenario disturbs you, consider this: Last week a federal judge, siding with coal companies, refused to have the site of the Battle of Blair Mountain put back on the National Register of Historic Places.

You’d think a place where one of the biggest armed uprisings in American history happened, and one of the most significant historic sites in Appalachia, would get a little more respect.

Why did Blair Mountain get removed from the register to begin with?  Believe it or not, Randall Reid-Smith, West Virginia’s State Historic Preservation Officer, asked for it to be taken off, claiming that most of the property owners objected to the designation. When a real estate lawyer took a closer look at these dissenting property owners, a funny thing happened.

The list of objectors, Bailey discovered, included two dead men—one of whom had perished nearly three decades earlier—as well as a property owner who had sold her land years before the nomination process. In addition, Bailey identified 13 property owners who did not appear on the SHPO list at all. “The final count we reached was 63 landowners and only 25 objectors,” Ayers said.

Hey, if two guys came back from the hereafter and asked you to get a site taken off the National Register of Historic Places, you’d probably get right on it too, wouldn’t you?

There’s a sickening irony here; the Battle of Blair Mountain happened because the miners got fed up with the coal companies’ rapacity, and now the site itself is threatened by coal companies’ rapacity.  Picture an original safe house on the Underground Railroad being torn down to build a whites-only restaurant, and you’d have an analogous situation.

If you care about historic ground, now would be a good time to let some elected officials know it.

After the battle, the miners of Blair Mountain hand over their guns. West Virginia Division of Culture and History (wvculture.org)

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A frontier landmark

If you drive along U.S. Route 58 in Lee County, VA you might notice a distinctive geologic feature a few miles east of the entrance to Wilderness Road State Park and just inside the eastern boundary of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.  Atop the ridge of Cumberland Mountain sit the “White Rocks,” a sandstone formation containing light-colored quartzite that shines when the sun hits it.

In the late 1700’s the rocks were an important landmark for the hundreds of thousands of settlers traveling on the Wilderness Road below.  The sight of this outcrop let migrants know that they were about a day’s march away from Cumberland Gap, which offered a passage through the mountain wall into Kentucky.  (Today you can drive from White Rocks to the Gap’s opening in fifteen minutes.)

I doubt any of those frontier migrants felt like climbing to the top of the ridge to see what the valley looked like from the rocks; they had more important things on their minds.  Today, though, if you want to check out the view from White Rocks, there’s a three-mile trail that will take you there.  That’s three miles one way, mind you, and it’s mostly uphill.  Not exactly easy, but you can take in some nice scenery once you get there.

Sort of a bird’s-eye view of Daniel Boone country.  Actually, I guess it is a bird’s-eye view, since you’re eye-level with the birds.

If you’re going to hike to White Rocks, make sure you see Sand Cave, too.  It’s about a mile from the White Rocks overlook, and on the other side of the ridge.  I’d never been there before last week, but as soon as I saw it, it immediately became one of my favorite places in Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.

The cave gets its name from the fine sand that covers the floor.  There’s a small waterfall near the cave’s entrance.  My pictures don’t really do it justice; with the waterfall-fed stream running through the trees and the cave’s ceiling towering overhead, it’s like stumbling across the Garden of Eden.  It’s not a deep cave, but the semi-circular roof towering overhead and the wide entrance make it pretty spectacular.  The sand inside is so thick that it’s like walking on a beach, with your feet sliding and churning all over the place.

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Remember the biggest American uprising since 1865?

You know, the one where coal companies and the armed forces teamed up against striking miners in an honest-to-goodness battle?  If it doesn’t ring a bell, here’s a quick refresher.

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I showed up late to the feud

I didn’t watch The History Channel‘s Hatfields & McCoys miniseries when it premiered a few months ago, mostly because the notion of a fictionalized account of the Hatfield-McCoy feud from The History Channel filled me with the same foreboding I had when I found out that the Rock was going to star in a remake of Walking Tall.  But when an encore presentation aired last week, I ended up watching the whole thing, and it’s actually not half bad.

In terms of pure entertainment, Part Two is by far the best segment, and the scene in which the Hatfields execute three of Randolph McCoy’s sons packs quite a wallop.  (IRL this incident took place on August 9. 1882.)  To me, the standout performances are Kevin Costner’s “Devil” Anse Hatfield, Tom Berenger’s Jim Vance (Tom Berenger’s good in everything), Powers Boothe’s Wall Hatfield (ditto), Jena Malone’s Nancy McCoy, Lindsay Pulsipher’s Roseanna McCoy, and Noel Fisher’s Ellison Mounts.

Modern scholarship indicates that the changes taking place in postwar Appalachia led to the resentments that erupted in the feud.  The problem wasn’t so much the existence a traditional and primitive society untouched by modernization, but rather the reverse.  My biggest fear—and the main reason I steered clear of the miniseries when it premiered—was that we’d get six hours of the same old superficial, simplistic, and stereotypical depictions of nineteenth-century mountaineers as backward, violent, lawless, clannish, and ignorant.  Indeed, the feud itself helped generate and perpetuate these very notions.  For the most part, though, I was pretty pleasantly surprised.  The third part actually touches on the media’s role in popularizing the stereotype of a violent mountain culture in a scene featuring Bill Paxton’s Randolph McCoy.  While the embittered patriarch holds a sort of press conference at a relative’s home, a New York reporter and a photographer urge him to hold a bystander’s firearm while posing for the camera.

A few minor criticisms: I know it’s cheaper to film in Romania, but Eastern European mountains aren’t quite the same as Eastern Kentucky ones, so the scenic shots undermined the illusion a little.  Seeing men’s ponytails in a late nineteenth-century setting was also a little odd.  Finally, Appalachian accents continue to be hit-or-miss when it comes to Hollywood; some actors just can’t swing it.

Despite all the snark I’ve directed against The History Channel in the past, I’ll give them props for Hatfields & McCoys.  Ultimately, what impressed me the most about the miniseries was its success in depicting the feud as a wrenching ordeal in which flesh-and-blood human beings got caught up in extraordinary, terrible circumstances.  There’s something to be said for that.  Over the years, cartoons, TV shows, and other media have used the feud scenario as a comic, almost buffoonish affair, but whatever else it was, the Hatfield-McCoy conflict was a tragedy involving real people, and the filmmakers didn’t lose sight of that.  One could certainly do worse.

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East Tennessee History Fair this weekend

If you’re looking for something to do this Saturday, check out what’s happening in downtown Knoxville.  They’ll have demonstrations, reenactors, Civil War and historic home tours, and vintage film screenings.  And the whole thing’s free!

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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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