Tag Archives: Virginia

A Civil War canal yields a new species of plant fossil

Historic sites and Cretaceous fossils in the same news story. Woo-hoo!

A fossil leaf fragment collected decades ago on a Virginia canal bank has been identified as one of North America’s oldest flowering plants, a 115- to 125-million-year-old species new to science. The fossil find, an ancient relative of today’s bleeding hearts, poses a new question in the study of plant evolution: did Earth’s dominant group of flowering plants evolve along with its distinctive pollen? Or did pollen come later?

The find also unearths a forgotten chapter in Civil War history reminiscent of the film “Twelve Years a Slave.” In 1864 Union Army troops forced a group of freed slaves into involuntary labor, digging a canal along the James River at Dutch Gap, Virginia. The captive freedmen’s shovels exposed the oldest flowering plant fossil beds in North America, where the new plant species was ultimately found.

Dutch Gap Canal under construction in 1864. From The Photographic History of the Civil War in Ten Volumes via Wikimedia Commons

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More to it than a family feud

Here’s a story about a woman whose investigations into her family’s history uncovered the true story behind a 1926 shootout in southwestern Virginia.  Newspapers dismissed the incident as just another violent hillbilly squabble; turns out they were wrong.

This bit of genealogical research is sort of a microcosm of Appalachian history in general.  The more you study it, the more the stereotypes and assumptions start to give way to fascinating and complex realities.

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Southern Lincolns abound

The Old Dominion has embraced Honest Abe, at least according to this article.

The writer claims that Tredegar’s sculpture of Lincoln and Tad is “the only statue of Lincoln in the South, where many people still refer to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression.”  I must beg to differ.  In fact, if you visit my alma mater here in East Tennessee, you’ll find three of them: a standing Lincoln at the main entrance, a copy of Paul Manship’s larger-than-life “Hoosier Youth” in the museum atrium, and a depiction of Lincoln as a lawyer in front of the library.

There’s also a Lincoln statue at the state capitol in West Virginia, and Kentucky has more Honest Abes than you can shake a stick at.

One more quibble.  I’ve lived in the South for more than thirty years, and I’ve only heard one person refer to the Civil War as “the War of Northern Aggression.”  The guy who said it was a reenactor; ironically, I was at an event in a state that never joined the Confederacy.  Most of my fellow southerners aren’t nursing a grudge over a war that ended before their great-grandparents were born.

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Ladies and gentlemen, meet your newest national historic landmarks

Thirteen new sites just made the list, including Camp Nelson in Kentucky, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house in Connecticut, Honey Springs Battlefield in Oklahoma, and an eighteenth-century frame house in Virginia.

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

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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If there’s one thing we don’t need near Manassas

…it’s more highways.

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