Monthly Archives: May 2012

The collapse of Carter’s Grove

About the time I was first getting seriously interested in early American history, my parents and I took a trip to Colonial Williamsburg.  We planned to visit Carter’s Grove, the plantation home of Carter Burwell (and before that, site of a seventeenth-century English settlement excavated by famed archaeologist Ivor Noel Hume), but it was only open on certain days of the week and we got our schedule mixed up, so we missed it.  CW sold the property five years ago.

Now it’s falling apart, because Halsey Minor, the tech investor who bought the place, has evidently overextended himself and can’t afford to keep it up.

Inspectors from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources have been monitoring the property and have noted in reports the continuing deterioration of the mansion.

“Very little general maintenance work has been conducted,” inspectors said in a March report to the court after a visit to the mansion earlier this year.

“Of critical importance is the need for repairs to the failing HVAC system,” the report says. “During this site visit, there was visible standing water in the mechanical room in the basement, emanating from the chiller water pump. The risk for flooding is very high and could result in an explosion should water make contact with the gas burner.”

The inspectors found water leaks and worsening signs of rotting, cracking and mold throughout the mansion. It was unclear, they said, whether recent repairs actually stopped the water intrusion.

On the outside, they found more shingles missing from the roof, more bricks missing from the walls and more mortar cracked.…

[A court-appointed trustee] discovered that the insurance on the property had lapsed, the property’s caretakers had not been paid in a month, and that utility companies were threatening to shut off the gas, electric and water services for lack of payment. The Carter’s Grove bank account had only a few dollars left.

Pretty sorry outcome for one of the most significant pieces of architecture in the country.

1 Comment

Filed under Colonial America, Historic Preservation

Paper trails

Lately I’d been having some trouble logging into my work e-mail, and when I called the tech guys they discovered that in the process of some changes to the system my entire account had accidentally been deleted.  They were able to set up a new one for me, but all my old messages, both incoming and outgoing, vanished into whatever ethereal realm is reserved for defunct e-mail accounts.

It’s no great loss as far as posterity is concerned, since most of these e-mails dealt with mundane matters—students  apologizing for missed classes, reminders that I needed to submit paperwork, and so on.  But it got me thinking about a question that I ponder from time to time.  What is the advent of electronic communication going to mean historians of the future who will be trying to study us?

For some scholars, it probably won’t mean much at all.  Modern bureaucracies still generate reams of paperwork.  As organizations both public and private have grown and become more complex in the last 130 years or so, they’ve churned out mountains of internal documentation.  When historians write about the presidencies of Bush and Obama a century from now, they’ll have plenty of written evidence to handle.  Many organizations archive the documents they generate electronically; some of them, in fact, are required by law to do so.

The difference, I think, will involve unofficial, personal communication.  For biographers, personal letters are an indispensable tool.  Even historians writing about public events rely on personal documentation to gather information.    My own graduate research about King’s Mountain involved reading a lot of personal letters.  Until comparatively recently, it wasn’t uncommon for ordinary people to leave behind a cache of letters and other personal papers.

But what about now?  Speaking for myself, I’ve sent and received plenty of personal e-mails, but as for hard copies, I’ve got nothing but birthday cards and the occasional cover letter.  Since personal e-mail accounts are hidden behind passwords and subject to deletion, will historians of the future will be able to access the correspondence of ordinary folks like you and I?

Of course, hard copies aren’t immune to time, either.  The great Tennessee historian J.G.M. Ramsey accumulated a treasure trove of documents about the eighteenth-century frontier, some of which he used to prepare his massive book on the Volunteer State’s early days.  Unfortunately for future students of Tennessee history, Ramsey was an ardent Confederate, so when a Unionist firebrand torched his home, his remarkable archive went up in smoke.  One advantage of electronic documents is that they’re easy to back up.

Maybe future historians looking to document the lives of everyday Americans will just have to use different sources.  Instead of reading caches of family letters, they’ll pore over home videos.  Or perhaps they’ll have access to some sort of archived social media, in which case we’re not going to come off all that well…

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Putting a face on Benjamin Cleveland

Some folks in Cleveland, TN have commissioned a portrait of the town’s namesake, Revolutionary War hero Benjamin Cleveland of North Carolina.  Don Troiani will be doing the painting.  The 300-lb. Cleveland commanded the Wilkes County militia at King’s Mountain and persecuted backcountry Tories with a zeal bordering on fanaticism.  As far as I know, there aren’t any contemporary likenesses of him, so this will be the first attempt at an accurate depiction.

My favorite anecdote about Benjamin Cleveland involves the capture of two horse thieves.  Cleveland hanged one and then offered the other a choice—he could either join his partner at the end of a rope or take a case knife, cut off his own ears, and never show his face in that neck of the woods again.  The guy took the knife, sharpened it on a brick, gritted his teeth, and set to work.  To quote the Joker in The Dark Knight, “Even to a guy like me, that’s cold.”

Speaking of the Carolinas, renowned Palmetto State historian Walter Edgar is retiring.  He’s a guy who takes public history as seriously as he takes scholarship, so here’s hoping he keeps writing and speaking.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Appalachian History, Tennessee History

The Bat Creek Stone rolls onward

It’s a source of both surprise and amusement to me that the post on the Bat Creek Stone continues to get passionate comments almost two years after it went up.  Whenever I glance at the search terms that bring people to the blog, “Bat Creek Stone” is invariably near the top of the list.  I can understand that, since it’s a pretty obscure topic and thus there are only so many places on the Interwebs a Google search will take you.  But the fact that people continue to post replies is unusual, since this blog gets very modest traffic and it’s rare for any of my posts to generate more than a few comments.

I’m also surprised at the diversity of these reactions.  Some people take issue with specific points, while others just seem irate that I was critical of Glenn Beck.  Some readers want to use the post as an opportunity to make a case for pre-Columbian contact in general, or for the validity of Mormonism.

I’m not qualified to make a case for or against the Bat Creek Stone.  I’m neither an archaeologist nor a linguist.  But I have a real problem with a public figure like Beck taking it upon himself to educate his audience about the past and making such a mess of it.  Getting one’s facts straight is the first responsibility of the public historian.  When it comes to the Bat Creek Stone, it simply won’t do to present it as an undisputed artifact.  That’s what Beck did.

I’m not complaining about the reaction the post has gotten, mind you.  Far from it.  I wish readers would pitch in like this all the time.  I just think it’s interesting that of all the subjects we toss around here, this is the one people want to discuss the most.

Leave a comment

Filed under History on the Web

American Hannibal

Arnold as depicted in a 1776 print. From the Anne S.K. Brown Collection of Brown University via Wikimedia Commons

As I continue trying to catch up on my reading backlog, I’ve just finished Benedict Arnold’s Army: The 1775 American Invasion of Canada During the Revolutionary Warby Arthur S. Lefkowitz.  It’s a fine campaign study, thoroughly researched and compellingly written.  I’d recommend it to anybody interested in the Revolution.

Arnold’s march across the Maine wilderness is the sort of stuff of which legends are made, as is the dramatic nighttime assault he and Richard Montgomery launched against Quebec.  The failed attack cost Montgomery his life and Arnold a wound in the leg—his first leg wound, actually, since he caught another one at Saratoga.

The Quebec expedition is not one of the Revolution’s better known incidents, which is a shame and also a little odd.  After all, the march was much longer and far more arduous than the Overmountain Men’s 1780 expedition to defeat Ferguson, as well as Washington’s retreat across New Jersey in late 1776.  Its relative obscurity alongside other Revolutionary episodes may have something to do with the fact that the attack on Quebec didn’t succeed, but I can’t help but wonder whether Arnold’s eventual treason might have something to do with it.  He was a remarkably audacious and inspiring combat commander.  When reports of his small army’s trek to Canada reached the Americans, they lauded him as a modern Hannibal; five years later, they were calling him an American Judas.  Had his Saratoga wound been fatal, he probably would’ve joined Montgomery and Daniel Morgan in the pantheon of Revolutionary heroes.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution, Historiography, History and Memory

It tolls for thee

A news item out of Georgia.  I’m never happy to see potentially significant ground torn up, but one can’t help but be impressed by this developer’s honesty.

The Jonesboro City Council cleared the way this week for a funeral home to be built on about 11 acres on Ga. 54 just off Tara Boulevard after a contentious fight to preserve what is believed to be the last piece of unspoiled Civil War battleground in the county.…

Representatives for Weisbaden told city officials and residents at Monday’s meeting Jonesboro is a sensible place for a new funeral home because of its aging population.

Hey, all you elderly folks in Jonesboro—the people at Weisbaden Investments have big plans for you!

Leave a comment

Filed under Civil War, Historic Preservation

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Historiography, History and Memory, Tennessee History

Recognize the warning signs

Ed Darrell has posted an item well worth reading over at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub.  It’s a list of warning signs for what he terms “voodoo history,” or bogus pseudo-scholarship, adapted from a similar list originally proposed for recognizing bad science:

  1. The author pitches the claim directly to the media or to organizations of non-historians, sometimes for pay.
  2. The author says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.  Bogus history relies more on invective than investigation; anyone with an opposing view is an “idiot,” or evil.
  3. The sources that verify the new interpretation of history are obscure, or unavailable; if they involve a famous person, the sources are not those usually relied on by historians.
  4. Evidence for the history is anecdotal.
  5. The author says a belief is credible because it has endured for some time, or because many people believe it to be true.
  6. The author has worked in isolation, and fails to incorporate or explain other, mainstream versions of the history of the incident, and especially the author fails to explain why they are in error.
  7. The author must propose a new interpretation of history to explain an observation.
If you’re familiar with arguments regarding orthodox Christianity among the Founders and statements about legions of black Confederate soldiers, some of these criteria probably ring a bell.

1 Comment

Filed under History and Memory, History on the Web

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History