Tag Archives: frontier

Digging up Fort Boonesborough

They’ve brought in an archaeologist from across the pond to look for remains of the 1778 siege.  I went there a few years ago; it’s a neat site.

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Long rifles and red tape

With summer here, I’ve been able to dig into some of the books I’ve got stacked up, waiting to be read.  A few days ago I finished Malcolm J. Rohrbough’s Trans-Appalachian Frontier: People, Societies, and Institutions, 1775-1850, which I bought a couple of years ago.

One of the prominent themes in this book is the role of government in the organization, settlement, and development of the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century frontiers.  The federal government secured lands to be settled by winning wars or negotiating treaties with foreign powers and Indian tribes.  It established the ordinances to survey this land, sell it to private citizens, set up territorial governments, and transform the territories into states.  It defended the frontier’s inhabitants from external threats.  It contributed to the development of trade and communication routes, and obtained commercial outlets for the settlers’ commercial goods (i.e., securing the right to navigation of the Mississippi and use of the port of New Orleans).

Also notable is the eagerness with which many frontiersmen formed their own government institutions, and the things they allowed those institutions to control.  Many frontier communities established local courts with power to set prices and regulate moral behavior.  If you lived in some eighteenth-century settlements, you could find yourself hauled before a magistrate for cursing or sleeping with somebody who wasn’t your spouse.

A replica of the log capitol of the short-lived State of Franklin in Greeneville, TN. The original was erected in the 1780’s; this reconstruction dates from the 1960’s. From Wikimedia Commons

This is interesting, because it runs against the notion a lot of people have of the early frontier.  It was supposed to be a place where you could get away from authority.  The men and women who settled the early West were supposedly hardy, independent-minded souls who wanted nothing from anyone, only land where they could carve a living out of the wilderness with their own two hands, free from the oversight of the settled societies back east.  They were like characters out of an Ayn Rand novel, except they were dirt poor and carried long rifles.

Right?

Well, sort of.  Various sorts of people went to the early frontier for different reasons, so we make blanket generalizations about them at our peril, but it’s safe to say that many of them were more comfortable with institutions of authority than we often assume.  When the settlers near the Watauga River in northeastern Tennessee found themselves outside the reach of effective government in 1772, they didn’t sit back to enjoy a state of blissful anarchy; they set up a five-man court with laws patterned after those of Virginia.  In 1776, they petitioned the governments of Virginia and North Carolina to annex them.

My point here isn’t to write an apologia for interventionist government based on historical precedent.  One can find many instances in which early frontiersmen actively resisted government agencies.  Frontier people weren’t really eager to welcome government just for its own sake.  When they established courts, passed laws, and obeyed the laws of territorial governors, it was generally because there was something in it for them.

What most settlers ultimately wanted, I think, was land and livelihood, so when a government institution could help them secure these things, they let it happen.  The Wataugans wanted to farm their land unmolested by renegades and riff-raff, and their provisional government of 1772 was the best means to accomplish it.  Similarly, other frontiersmen could tolerate or even support territorial governors who wielded almost dictatorial power under federal ordinances because it meant law and order and secure land titles.

In other cases, frontiersmen acted against government authority when it interfered with their desire for land and livelihood.  Federal authorities often had their hands full trying to keep settlers from encroaching on land reserved to Indian tribes by official treaties.  The Franklinites weren’t shy about negotiating their own treaties and waging their own wars with the Cherokee in spite of the fact that their actions had no legal standing as far as the governments of either North Carolina or the United States were concerned.  And, of course, the reason the Wataugans had to establish their provisional government in the first place is because they had settled across the mountains in direct violation of British authority.  In these instances, law and government stood in the way of land acquisition rather than ensuring secure enjoyment of it, and thus frontier inhabitants cut through the red tape by acting on their own.

I therefore submit that it’s a drastic oversimplification to say that inhabitants of the early frontier wanted independence and freedom above all else, if by “independence and freedom” we mean liberty from any government authority whatsoever.  They were out to build lives for themselves where land and opportunity could be had, either with the aid of law and order or in defiance of it.  The nature of their love-hate relationship with government depended on what it could do for them at any given time.

None of this should surprise us, except that the archetype of the autonomous frontiersman casts such a long shadow over American history.  After all, by welcoming government as long as it helped them secure their lives, liberties, and property and resisting it when it hindered them from doing so, these settlers were basically acting out the same relationship between Americans and government that’s been going on for over two hundred years.

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Filed under Historiography, History and Memory, Tennessee History

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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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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John Carter of Mars and the American frontier

Anybody who thinks the history of early America doesn’t continue to cast a long, dark shadow over modern culture should consider the pressing matter of Confederates on Mars.

Wikimedia Commons

I’m referring, of course, to the new movie John Carter, and to its source material, the century-old story A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Both the book and the film relate the adventures of an Army of Northern Virginia veteran who finds himself mysteriously transported to the Red Planet, referred to by its inhabitants as “Barsoom.”  This fictional Mars is populated by tall, green-skinned, six-limbed aliens called Tharks, as well as a race of humans (or humanoids, I suppose) with copper-red skin whose cities are perpetually at war with each other.  Carter is taken captive by the Tharks, gets mixed up in Barsoomian politics, and falls in love with a scantily-clad humanoid princess named Dejah Thoris.

It would be hard to overstate the influence of A Princess of Mars and its sequels on science fiction.  I decided to read it for myself before seeing the film, and was surprised at how many of the scenarios, characters, and themes from later movies and books were right there in embryonic form within the pages of Burroughs’ story.  What also struck me was a remarkable degree of similarity between this seemingly outlandish tale of extraterrestrial swashbuckling and some very real accounts from the early American frontier.

Because Carter finds himself in a dangerous environment populated by “primitive” races, you could interpret A Princess of Mars as a frontier story, and many people have done so.  In particular, let me discuss a number of intriguing parallels between Carter’s fictional experiences and historical accounts left behind by Anglo-American colonists and settlers.

Take clothing, for example—or rather, the lack thereof.  One of the things colonists found most striking about Indians was their “nakedness,” interpreting their exposed bodies as signs of barbarity.  The inhabitants of Barsoom, both the Tharks and the red humanoids, also go largely unclothed, wearing only elaborate metal ornamentation, jewels, and the straps holding their weapons.  Carter describes a Thark leader as “heavily loaded with metal ornaments, gay-colored feathers and beautifully wrought leather trappings ingeniously set with precious stones.”  The metal ornamentation is an apparently ubiquitous feature of Barsoomian dress which the text mentions again and again, and it brings to mind the European gorgets and trade bracelets worn by Indians of the Eastern Woodlands.

A prominent Cherokee is depicted wearing a European gorget and other ornamental trappings in this eighteenth-century portrait. Wikimedia Commons

Thark weaponry also seems reminiscent of Native American weaponry of the colonial and Revolutionary frontier.  The green Martians carry rifles which fire bullets equipped with explosive “radium,” and they employ these firearms at long distances to deadly effect.  For close-quarters combat, they wield edged weapons.

Carter’s opinion of the Tharks reflects Anglo-Americans’ paradoxical attitudes toward their aboriginal neighbors.  On one hand, colonists considered the Indians barbaric.  On the other, they sometimes idealized the Native Americans as exemplars of primitive virtue, a notion summed up in the phrase “noble savage.”  In the same way, Carter finds the Tharks to be cruel and warlike, raising their children communally with no pity for the weak.  Like some historic Native American tribes, Tharks find a kind of collective catharsis in making a violent spectacle of their prisoners.  Whereas the Iroquois and other Indian societies vented tribal anger through the communal torture of captives, the Tharks punish troublesome prisoners by forcing them to do battle with monstrous creatures in a gladiatorial arena.  But Carter also notes the Tharks’ admirable qualities.  They possess what might be called a savage code of honor, and their leaders maintain their status by their prowess in combat.

This regard for prowess is how John Carter earns the respect and even admiration of the Tharks.  Martian gravity being distinct from that of his home planet, the former Confederate is capable of tremendous physical feats on Barsoom, turning him into a virtual superman.  In time, he becomes a member of Thark society.

Burroughs’ book is thus not merely a story of an encounter between cultures, but a story about an individual from one culture who finds himself immersed in a culture that is not his own.  For that reason, I think we can be more precise about its historical antecedents than calling it a “Western” or a frontier story.  I suggest that it’s a particular type of frontier story, one that really predates the “Western” as most of us are used to thinking about that term.  As one of the first great science fiction epics, A Princess of Mars is an early example of a relatively new genre, but it’s also a comparatively recent example of a very old genre, perhaps the oldest genuinely American genre there is—the captivity narrative.

Captivity narratives are accounts of people who fall into the hands of another culture, a culture which the captive considers less civilized than his or her own.  There are very early examples from Europe, but the genre really took off in the New World, where the proximity of aboriginal societies and the frequency of cross-cultural warfare increased the likelihood of cross-cultural captivity.  The most notable example is probably Mary Rowlandson’s account of her capture during King Philip’s War, one of the first American “best-sellers.”  Like the captivity memoirs of Rowlandson, Jonathan Dickinson, and other whites who were held by Indians for some period of time, A Princess of Mars takes an autobiographical form, since Burroughs employs the device of a “false document,” a manuscript written by Carter and left in the care of a relative, to tell the story from the protagonist’s own perspective.  The book thus takes the same form as non-fiction firsthand accounts of cross-cultural imprisonment, except that it’s a work of the imagination rather than memory.

Consider the relationship in these accounts between imprisonment and adoption.  While living among the Tharks, Carter earns the right to wear the metal and bear the prestige of the warriors he defeats in battle. When he dons their ornaments and straps, he becomes a full-fledged member of their society and even a prominent figure within it.  In the same way, Indian tribes in eastern North America adopted captives taken in war; indeed, the taking of captives to “replace” dead relatives was one of the purposes for which Native Americans engaged in warfare.

The relationship between Carter and the Thark chieftan Tars Tarkas is especially worth noting.  Tarkas is the first of the green aliens to appreciate Carter’s remarkable physical abilities.  The two become close, even though Tars Tarkas is the Earth man’s captor.  Their relationship is not unlike that between Daniel Boone and the Shawnee leader Blackfish, who seems to have adopted the frontiersman during Boone’s imprisonment at Chillicothe in 1778.

One important difference between Boone’s experience and Carter’s is the fact that Boone seized the first opportunity to escape, whereas Carter comes to embrace his newfound status.  A decisive factor in his transformation from John Carter of Virginia to John Carter of Mars is his immediate attraction to Dejah Thoris, the red princess of Helium, a character vividly described by Burroughs:

Her face was oval and beautiful in the extreme, her every feature was finely chiseled and exquisite, her eyes large and lustrous and her head surmounted by a mass of coal black, waving hair, caught loosely into a strange yet becoming coiffure. Her skin was of a light reddish copper color, against which the crimson glow of her cheeks and the ruby of her beautifully molded lips shone with a strangely enhancing effect.

She was as destitute of clothes as the green Martians who accompanied her; indeed, save for her highly wrought ornaments she was entirely naked, nor could any apparel have enhanced the beauty of her perfect and symmetrical figure.

She is sufficiently alien to be exotic and alluring, but unlike the Tharks, she is someone in whom Carter can recognize a common humanity.  Here is an example of the impulse to fantasize about the frontier as a venue for cross-cultural romantic escape, perhaps the same impulse that might have led John Smith to invent, exaggerate, or misinterpret the occasion on which Pocahontas reportedly intervened to save his life.

The first time Carter lays eyes on Dejah Thoris, she is a fellow captive of the Tharks, and the Virginia gentleman takes it upon himself to protect her.  Later, when she falls into the hands of a rival society, Carter undertakes a dramatic rescue.  By this point in the book, Carter is no longer a prisoner, but a Martian warrior engaged in rescuing a vulnerable female from danger, just as Daniel Boone led a raid to rescue his daughter from Indian captivity in a famous 1776 incident.  The native of Earth has transformed from a captive into a master of his dangerous new world, just as Boone became the archetype of the white man at home in the treacherous environment of the frontier.

The rescue of Jemima Boone and her fellow captives, by Millet via Wikimedia Commons

Carter’s decision to pledge his heart and his sword to Dejah Thoris marks a point at which his story and the early American captivity narratives part ways.  For Anglo-American captives who wrote down their stories for colonial audiences, an important theme was “redemption,” the experience of coming out of captivity.  John Carter, by contrast, is one of those captives who chooses to stay among his adoptive people and take up a new identity.  Unlike Mary Rowlandson, these “converted” captives did not leave behind such influential accounts of their passages across the cultural boundary.  They remained on the far side of that boundary, never again at home in the society in which they were born.  John Carter finds on Barsoom an escape from all the unpleasant aspects of American civilization; his frontier, like that of many Americans who wrote about their own, is a source of renewal.  Having fought as a soldier for a lost cause on Earth, and having gone west in search of fortune, he unexpectedly becomes a hero on another world.  Rather than looking for redemption from captivity and exile, he finds that his captivity and exile redeem him.

In introducing Carter’s “memoir,” Burroughs writes that after the hero of Mars returned to his home planet, he would stand outside at night, “with his arms stretched out to the heavens as though in appeal.”  Maybe the reason Burroughs could create a popular hero who dreamed of returning to the far side of the cultural frontier is because the actual, historical frontier of America was no longer a threat close at hand.  To early Anglo-American colonists, the Indians were nearby, numerous, and threatening.  But Burroughs wrote his story more than two decades after the U.S. Census Bureau declared the frontier closed and the Native Americans’ last great act of military resistance to white encroachment came to an end.  The real frontier had become a distant object of nostalgia, almost as distant as Mars must have seemed to John Carter when he was back on Earth, gazing at the night sky toward the faraway home of his Martian princess.

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Here’s a little sample

…of how I spent my Saturday.

I didn’t take my camera, and couldn’t have used it if I had.  (It wouldn’t do to have a member of the cannon crew standing there taking pictures and video.)  Here, though, is some footage the 2009 Raid at Martin’s Station that’s available on YouTube.  If I can get my hands on any pics or videos from this year’s event, I’ll post them, too.  Enjoy!

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I’ve finally seen the elephant

A lot of people ask me if I reenact, and they’re sometimes surprised when I say no.  In fact, it surprises me a little.  I’ve been seriously interested in history for about ten years now, but I’ve never engaged in living history, although I’ve helped organize events.  I suppose it’s been a combination of lack of time, severe allergies, and a general aversion to being hot and sweaty that’s kept me from it.

Not long ago I plugged the tenth Raid at Martin’s Station, a frontier/Rev War event held at Wilderness Road State Park near Rose Hill, VA.  I’ve been to it several times, but always as a mere spectator.  WRSP has an active group of living history interpreters, one of whom is a schoolteacher I’ve known for many years.  In fact, it was my dad who got him involved in reenacting when the hobby took off after the Civil War centennial.  This year he asked me if I’d be interested in taking a spot on the cannon crew for the Martin’s Station event, and I said yes.

The cannon in question was a “grasshopper,” a light bronze gun which fires a three-pound projectile.  I knew a little bit about grasshoppers, because they were used in some of those Rev War battles in the South that fascinate me to no end; Tarleton had two of them at Cowpens.

This grasshopper in the visitor center exhibit at Cowpens is very similar to the one I helped service. From Cowpens National Battlefield's website

While the infantry assembled within the fort walls, we went over the routine.  My task was simple.  When the battery commander gave the order, I was to remove a round of canister from the box and hand it off to a runner.  I’d also be responsible, as were all the men on the crew, for helping move the piece into position.

The battle itself was a surreal experience for me, and not just because it was not the sort of thing you get to do every day.  One of the things I found while researching my master’s thesis is that accounts by men in the ranks differed greatly from those by officers.  Commanders remembered the battle with a bird’s eye perspective, as a set of objectives to be accomplished.  Accounts by average militiamen, such as the memoir by James Collins (who was only sixteen when he fought at King’s Mountain), tended to be more impressionistic, consisting of a series of kaleidoscopic and fragmented details: the thirst, the sweat, Ferguson riding into and out of view, and so on.

Once the shooting started during my own little trial by fire, I understood why this was the case.  When the gun crew was still inside the fort, I could observe the infantry assembling in the yard, the riflemen on the walls, and the officers passing around giving orders.  I couldn’t see what was going on outside the walls, of course, but my perspective of the action within the fort itself was pretty good.  Once we were ordered out, though, my perspective shrank to a pinpoint.  I knew nothing but what was happening right in front of me, and my memories of that part of the battle are exactly the sort of disjointed details I’d read in veterans’ accounts: the smell of gunpowder, the ungodly and inhuman yells of the Indians (a sound that raised the hair on the back of my neck), the shouted orders, the breeze, the pain in my feet, the red ammunition box with the word VENGEANCE painted in black on the top, the blurred faces of the spectators as we rolled the cannon past them.

Here’s an anecdote that will illustrate how much my point of view diminished once the frantic process of hauling and firing the cannon started.  After the battle was over, when we had the gun back at the fort and the tourists were allowed in, I looked around to see that an outbuilding had been set on fire and was now a smoldering ruin.  Right in front of me were the sprawled bodies of the “dead.”  I had passed directly in front of all this twice during the engagement, but didn’t notice any of it until it was over.

I also lost all sense of time.  I didn’t have my wristwatch on, for obvious reasons, and I have no idea how long the battle lasted.  It could have been twenty minutes or an hour.  Things seemed to speed up once we were ordered to take the grasshopper out of the fort, but I don’t know if this last phase of the battle was actually shorter or if it was simply due to the haste with which we had to move and load the grasshopper.

I was also surprised at how easily and quickly I forgot things that I’d long known—at least in an abstract sort of way—about eighteenth-century weapons.  Before we wheeled the cannon outside, I was given a pistol and told to take a post on the fort wall.  I hadn’t taken three steps before I absent-mindedly lowered the pistol barrel to the ground, dumping out every bit of the powder.  Once I finally stepped up onto a platform and stuck the pistol out of a firing port, I made an even more basic mistake.  Despite reading countless descriptions of the procedure for cocking and firing flintlock weapons, I neglected to pull back the frizzen before pulling the trigger.  Even in a mock battle in which no one’s life was in serious danger, it was easy to see how the uproar of things could get the better of you.

I’ve long believed that living history is a fantastic instructional tool when it comes to the general public, but now I’m more convinced than ever of its value for the researcher.  I didn’t “learn” anything about the eighteenth century in the sense of increasing my store of knowledge.  Instead, the information that I already had became deeper and more visceral.  I already knew that common soldiers experienced battle as a disjointed series of impressions, that their perspective of time changed, and that they often did things (or failed to do things) for which they couldn’t account afterward.  I knew all that, but I knew it in only the abstract.  Now I know it with a kind of visceral certainty, and from participating in only one event.  So to any researchers who wonder if reenacting will be of any benefit to their work, let me assure you that it will.  And the fact that it’s just plain fun doesn’t hurt, either.

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