Tag Archives: frontier

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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Lunchtime lecture tomorrow on Cavett’s Station massacre

If you’re free at noon tomorrow, pack your lunch and head over to the East Tennessee History Center in downtown Knoxville for a brown bag lecture on the 1793 massacre at Cavett’s Station.  The speaker is Dr. Charles Faulkner, who’s spent years studying Tennessee archaeology.  Admission is free.

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The backwoods battles of the Revolutionary War

While Continentals, Redcoats, and militiamen were battling it out in the American Revolution, a related struggle played out on the frontiers of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia as settlers and Indians wrestled for control of the West.  This frontier war for land and independence doesn’t get as much scholarly attention as the conventional war to the eastward, which is why I was glad to see the release of Richard D. Blackmon’s Dark and Bloody Ground: The American Revolution Along the Southern Frontier a couple of months ago. 

Blackmon demonstrates that colonial officials tasked with maintaining the Indians’ loyalty had long struggled with unscrupulous traders and land-hungry frontiersmen, and found their role even more difficult when those frontiersmen became rebellious colonists.  In the South, this responsibility fell on the shoulders of John Stuart, Superintendent for the Southern Department.  Both Stuart and his Whig opponents tried to secure the support (or at least the neutrality) of the southern tribes, which required supplying the Indians with the arms and powder on which they depended for hunting and persuading the tribes to expel agents working for the opposing side.

All-out war finally erupted on the frontier in the summer of 1776, after Stuart and his deputies failed to convince the Cherokees that a general assault on the settlements would only inflame white Whigs and Tories alike into reprisals.  The response from the Carolinas and Virginia was precisely what Stuart had feared.  Frontier militias rebounded from the attacks and marched into the Indian towns, burning crops and dwellings while engaging in battles with war parties.  These invasions of Cherokee country forced the tribe to trade land for peace, although a faction of warriors led by Dragging Canoe refused to lay down their arms and instead moved south to continue resistance against the settlements.

The Creeks, meanwhile, were divided over whether to join Britain’s war against the colonists, reluctant to take up arms without the support of British troops and supplies.  Pro-British Creeks did attack the Georgia frontier in 1778, although the Whigs kept part of the tribe neutral by supplying them with goods.  When British armies finally invaded the South, the Whigs faced the two-front war which they had long dreaded, but British military activity in that region was never as well-coordinated as advocates of a frontier strategy desired.

Ultimately, those Native Americans who cast their lot with England lost their military gamble, as British troops evacuated the southern posts they had been trying to maintain since the late 1770′s, leaving the Cherokees, Creeks, and other tribes at the mercy of an independent United States.  Although the war brought devastation and bloodshed to the frontiersmen (the Cumberland settlements in present-day Middle Tennessee and the Kentucky settlements proved especially vulnerable), it reduced residents of the devastated Indian communities to an especially precarious existence, and the final peace between the U.S. and England in 1783 proved to be a mere intermission in the contest for the West.

My only complaint about this book is a curious omission.  Blackmon’s description of the struggle between frontiersmen and Cherokees in 1776 is quite detailed, but it doesn’t really cover the summer attacks on the settlements in what is now northeastern Tennessee.  He does deal with the wrangling among Tennessee settlers, British officials, and Native Americans that preceded these attacks, as well as John Sevier’s later battles against the Chickamaugas, but readers interested in the early history of the Volunteer State may be disappointed that the siege of Ft. Caswell doesn’t get the same coverage as the Ring Fight, the defense of Boonesborough, and the Battle of the Bluffs.

That criticism aside, this book is a great addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in the American Revolution or the early frontier, utilizing both official documentation and eyewitness accounts of the major engagements.  Blackmon’s analyses of Andrew Williamson’s exploits and the negotiations at Ft. Patrick Henry are the best I’ve read.  Even if your knowledge of the war’s backwoods battles is extensive, it’s heplful to have a solid overview of the entire frontier war for the South in one volume, placed deftly in the context of the larger war as a whole.

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Sevier’s Parson Weems

Check out the latest post in Gordon Belt’s series on the memory of John Sevier, in which he examines the work of James R. Gilmore, the nineteenth-century writer who did for Sevier what Parson Weems did for George Washington.

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What your grandparents learned about the Kentucky frontier

This short classroom film about pioneer life in eighteenth-century Kentucky was produced in 1941, and it makes for an interesting historical artifact in its own right.  The frontiersmen are optimistic and hardy, the community in the fort is pleasant and sociable, the food is plentiful, the family slave is faithful, all the Indians are offscreen, and there will “always be freedom out there.”  Oh, and the candles are ready in plenty of time for the big hoedown.

How would today’s frontier historians tell this story differently?  For that matter, how would the pioneers themselves tell it?

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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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Jury-rigged arms race at Boonesborough

In the fall of 1778 a large force of Indians, most of them Shawnees, laid siege to Fort Boonesborough in central Kentucky. The fort held out, but the siege provides some pretty nifty examples of military ingenuity.

The original site at Fort Boonesborough State Park

Native American attempts to capture frontier garrisons were usually pretty straightforward affairs, with a party of warriors surrounding the walls and firing from cover along with attempts to fire the structure with torches or flaming arrows.  At Boonesborough, the Indians got creative.  The Kentucky River ran parallel to the fort’s rear wall and about sixty yards away from it.  The attackers decided to tunnel into the bluff along the stream and dig a mine toward the settlers, either to gain access to the interior or to set off a powder charge under the walls.  The defenders heard the digging and saw the river’s water turn muddy, and figuring out what was up, they set to work on a counter-mine.  The Indians’ tunnel collapsed before reaching the fort, but it was still a pretty interesting approach to frontier warfare.

The banks of the Kentucky River beside the site of the fort

The whites inside the fort developed a few tricks of their own, thanks to the ingenuity of Daniel Boone’s brother Squire, who built a makeshift cannon out of gum wood bound with iron wagon wheel strips.  The second shot blew the barrel apart, prompting derisive shouts from the attackers.  (One notable thing about participants’ recollections of the siege was the frequency of verbal insults traded between the two sides.)  Not the most effective of weapons, but the bang did cause a party of Indians to “skamper perdidiously,” as Daniel Trabue put it.

Another of Squire Boone’s inventions proved more effective during the siege when he managed to fashion squirt guns out of rifle barrels to douse the Indians’ torches.  I’ve never been able to figure out exactly how these things worked, but apparently some type of piston was involved.  This guy was like an eighteenth-century MacGyver.

So, who’s up for an experimental archaeology project?

Picture something along these lines, only with a nice maple stock.

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