Tag Archives: Sycamore Shoals

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.

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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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Over the mountains and back again

As promised, here are some highlights from the trip my cousin and I took along the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, or at least a good-sized chunk of it.

We kicked things off with a visit to Sycamore Shoals State Park in Elizabethton, TN.  The Overmountain Men assembled here to begin the march that culminated in Ferguson’s defeat at King’s Mountain.  This was my second visit, but it had been several years since I’d been there.  We scoped out the reconstruction of Ft. Watauga, site of a failed Indian attack in the summer of 1776.

Walking on, we came to the shoals for which the site is named.  The Overmountain Men crossed the river here.

Then we passed the open ground where the muster took place.  Before the militiamen set off, they heard a sermon by Rev. Samuel Doak, one of the most prominent ministers of the early frontier.  Sycamore Shoals was also the place where Richard Henderson bought the territory between the Kentucky and Cumberland Rivers from the Cherokee in 1775.

While we were in Elizabethton, I took the chance to swing by the original site of Ft. Watauga, which I didn’t get to see the last time I was there.  A monument atop a small mound in a residential neighborhood marks the location.

After snapping a quick photo, we set off along the OVNHT commemorative driving route, which approximates the path the Whigs took into the Carolina backcountry.  This was the first time I’d avoided the interstates on a King’s Mountain pilgrimage, and it was nice to see some different scenery zip by the window.

The NPS runs a small mineral and mining museum near Spruce Pine, NC along the Blue Ridge Parkway, in the area where the Overmountain Men split into two parties to cross the mountains.  A monument on the grounds commemorates their campaign, as well as an Indian battle at Etchoe Pass in which Franics Marion participated.

The marker also refers to more recent military history: “It was the North Carolina and South Carolina and Tennessee troops—the 30th Division—in the World War that broke the Hindenburg Line.”  In the nineteenth century it was common for East Tennessee Unionists to invoke King’s Mountain when writing about the Civil War, but this was the first time I’d seen this theme applied to WWI.

In Burke County, we paid a visit to Quaker Meadows, home of Charles and Joseph McDowell, where Whig partisans from North Carolina joined the units from over the mountains.  Historic Burke maintains an exhibit in the old courthouse building, and also operates Charles McDowell’s 1812 brick home.  The house was closed, but we walked around the grounds and snapped a picture.

Just a stone’s throw from the house is a monument to the Council Oak, where the militia commanders got together to plan the next stage of the expedition.

The original tree is gone, and in fact this isn’t the exact spot where it stood, but a replacement now grows over the monument, right next to a steakhouse where I consumed enough salmon patties to founder an elephant.

The Whigs expected to find Ferguson in Gilbert Town, near present-day Rutherfordton, but by the time they arrived there the Scottish commander had begun his retreat southward.  We stopped there for the night, and then drove by the field where the militia camped, and I would’ve snapped a photo, but there was no space to pull off the road.

While we were in that neck of the woods, we made a brief side trip to Biggerstaff’s Old Fields.  The victors of King’s Mountain camped there with their prisoners on the night of Oct. 14, 1780, during their return march back into the mountains.  That evening, some of the Whigs conducted an impromptu trial and hanged nine of the Tories, three at a time.  The marker is in the middle of nowhere, and to get there you have to take  a series of winding back roads, each one narrower than the last.  There was barely enough space in the grass alongside the road to park the car.  Even in the daytime, it’s a somewhat eerie place, with that vaguely sinister, ominous vibe you sometimes pick up at isolated locations where awful things happened.  (We could hear, but not see, crows cawing in the surrounding trees. Maybe that had something to do with it.)

Back on the OVNHT, and just a short distance from Biggerstaff’s, is Brittain Church.  The Whigs passed by the site on their march southward and again on their return, leaving some of the wounded behind to recover.

For some of the injured militiamen, this was the last stop.  Thomas McCullouch was a lieutenant in Campbell’s regiment; mortally wounded, he died at Brittain Church, and his final resting place is in the graveyard behind the sanctuary.

There are other Rev War veterans buried in the same graveyard.  Most of them are militiamen from the Carolinas, but we also found a tombstone belonging to a Maryland soldier.

We skipped the next segment of the OVNHT, which crosses into South Carolina, in order to have enough time to walk the field at Cowpens, where the Whigs stopped on October 6 and joined up with additional men from the Palmetto State before moving on to King’s Mountain.  Just a few months after their victory over Ferguson’s Tories, some of them would return to Cowpens and help Daniel Morgan inflict another defeat on the British.

After taking in the battlefield, we drove a short distance to the town of Gaffney to see the gravesite of Col. James Williams, the controversial officer who suffered a mortal wound while leading a contingent of South Carolinians at King’s Mountain.

We spent the night at my usual motel near Crowders Mountain, and made the short drive to King’s Mountain National Military Park after a hearty breakfast.  I’d never been to the park this late in the year, and I was surprised at how much easier it was to appreciate the terrain with fewer leaves on the trees.  Here’s a view of the crest from Isaac Shelby’s sector of the battleground:

Lt. McCullough’s name, we noticed, was listed on the U.S. Monument.  Seeing a name on one of these engraved lists is a lot more poignant when you spent the previous morning looking at the grass growing over the bones of the man who possessed it.

Someday I’m hoping to go back and tour the McDowell House and fill in a few other blank spaces we had to skip, and of course I’ve still got to drive the northern leg from Virginia and the eastern leg which follows the route of Cleveland and Winston’s men to Quaker Meadows.  But this was a very satisfying trip, and something that had been on my bucket list for a long time.

If you’re interested in exploring the trail for yourself, let me encourage you to pick up the OVNHT guidebook by Randell Jones, published earlier this year, which includes maps, directions, photos, and background information on what you’ll find along the way.  We took a copy along with us and it came in quite handy.  I’d also recommend you take some sort of GPS device and print out the list of latitude and longitude coordinates of the waypoints along the route which is available here.

Oh, and speaking of my bucket list, we devoted the last day of the trip to another site I’d wanted to visit for a while.  This particular battleground isn’t a stop on the Overmountain Men’s route, bit it’s inseparable from the story of how they ended up at King’s Mountain.  I’ll talk about this place in my next post.

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Time to fort up, folks!

If you’re fond of the eighteenth-century frontier, Native Americans, the Revolution, palisaded forts, and living history, then this is going to be a good month for you.  (And in truth, you should be fond of all these things.)

This weekend is the Raid at Martin’s Station, hosted by Wilderness Road State Park near Ewing, VA.  It’s become one of the finest living history events in the region.  The recreated fort onsite is one of the most authentic structures of its kind anywhere, the setting is gorgeous, and the interpretation is top-notch.  Plus, they’re going to let me help shoot a cannon again.

Next weekend is yet another Indian assault on yet another recreated fort at yet another fine state park—the Siege of Ft. Watauga, hosted by Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area in Elizabethton, TN.  Sycamore Shoals is a must-visit for anyone interested in early Tennessee history; I’ve only been to the site once, and I’m hoping to visit again this month for the event.

Let’s have a HUZZAH!

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Lloyd Branson’s lost King’s Mountain painting

The good news is that—as you may have noticed—I managed to restore my nifty header image of the overmountain men’s muster at Sycamore Shoals, which kicked off the events leading to the Battle of King’s Mountain.  I’ve discussed this painting and why I like it before, so I’m glad to have a segment of it gracing the top of the blog again.

Here’s the bad news.  Lloyd Branson, the East Tennessee artist who produced this beautiful piece, also painted a scene of the actual battle, which decorated the lobby of Knoxville’s swanky Hotel Imperial.  (An early travel booklet described the Imperial as “beautifully furnished,” and noted that the food was particularly good.)  During WWI the hotel went up in flames and took Branson’s King’s Mountain painting with it.  The loss of the Imperial inspired three Knoxvillians to build a brand-new hotel which opened shortly thereafter, but of course nobody could replace Branson’s canvas.

I’ve been unable to find a picture or description of it.  It’s a shame we don’t have the other “bookend” of Branson’s visual depiction of the King’s Mountain expedition, especially since the muster painting is one of Tennessee’s definitive historical artworks.

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Christmas with the Carters

I just got an e-mail from the folks at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area in Elizabethton, TN, informing me that they’re hosting an eighteenth-century Christmas this weekend.  It’ll be at the Carter Mansion (one of the oldest houses in the state) at 1031 Broad St. on Friday and Saturday from 6:00 to 9:00 P.M., with music, hot cider, and costumed interpreters.  So if you’re in East Tennessee and you want to kick off the holiday season in Revolutionary-era style, check it out.

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A look behind the banner

Ah, the banner—that nifty picture strip that runs along the top of so many sites and blogs with a dash of personalized flair.  Maybe you’ve been wondering where I got mine.  If you guessed that it’s from Lloyd Branson’s painting Gathering of the Overmountain Men at Sycamore Shoals, 1780, now in the fabulous Tennessee State Museum, then give yourself a pat on the back.

Branson was born in East Tennessee in 1854, studied at the National Academy of Design, and travelled in Europe before returning home to become one of his state’s most accomplished artists of the late 1800′s and early 1900′s.  Like many of his contemporaries, Branson mostly did portraits, but occasionally he produced landscapes and historic scenes like this one.   

Here’s the best digital version of the painting that I could locate, from the website of another fine (but much more recent) Tennessee artist, Bill Puryear:

Sycamore Shoals, now a state park, is a shallow stretch of the Watauga River in present-day Elizabethton and the site of several significant events in early Tennessee history.  Probably the most famous of these events is the one depicted here, the muster of the militia from present-day Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia on September 25-26, 1780 that marked the beginning of the King’s Mountain expedition.  Pick up any book that deals with King’s Mountain or with the first Tennessee settlements, and you’re likely to find an evocative description of the muster—the overmountain men wearing their hunting shirts and leaning on their rifles, the women gathered to see them off, and Rev. Samuel Doak delivering his famous “Sword of the Lord and Gideon” sermon before the march.  (The other notable Sycamore Shoals moments were the formation of Tennessee’s first proto-government, the treaty conference at which the Cherokees sold much of present-day Kentucky and the lands on which the East Tennessee settlements stood, and an Indian attack on nearby Ft. Watauga.)  When I was shopping around for an image to embellish the top of the blog, this seemed like an abvious choice.  You’ve got your American Revolution, and you’ve got your East Tennessee setting. 

Lately I considered finding a new picture to spruce things up a little, but I finally decided not to, partly because this painting touches on a few of my main interests.  Furthermore, I think you can read into it some valuable lessons about the practice of history in general. 

For example, this is a military scene, but it’s situated far from the actual battlefield.  The fighting men are surrounded by their wives, children, and neighbors.  It’s a reminder that wars happen within the framework of the societies that wage them, and you’ve got to understand that context to understand the war. 

At the same time, however, the painting undeniably and unapologetically focuses on a military turning point.  This isn’t an everyday scene from life on the Tennessee frontier, it’s an occasion in which armed men intervened decisively in a particular historical episode.  Battles are important because they decide great issues.

Here’s another observation.  Important figures are visible in the painting; Isaac Shelby, an architect of the King’s Mountain expedition, is in the foreground.  At the same time, though, most of the people in the picture are anonymous.  Their faces are barely visible; we can see that they’re present, but so much about them is unknown.  They held no high rank in the battle, and they filled no major office after the war, unlike Shelby and fellow King’s Mountain officer John Sevier, both of whom went on to become governors.  History is made by the actions of a few great men as well as the aggregate actions of many anonymous ones.

In a lot of ways, it’s a very traditional image, depicting as it does an event that’s glorified in so many heroic nineteenth-century narratives.  But it’s also realisitc, not nearly as idealized and stylized as some of the very earliest depictions of Revolutionary War scenes.

Of course, I don’t know exactly what meanings Branson wanted to convey when he painted the muster at Sycamore Shoals.  But I like the fact that his painting includes so much of what makes up the sum total of history—war and peace, leaders and followers, the traditions that have become familiar and the surprisingly complex realities underneath.

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