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.



Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

2 responses to “Revolutionary backwoodsmen ride onto the stage again

  1. Thanks for the tip of the hat, Michael. The Battle of King’s Mountain has seen a renaissance of remembrance of late. Sharon McCrumb’s novel, “King’s Mountain,” and this aforementioned drama are two examples of the renewed effort to pay homage to this neglected episode in Revolutionary War history. I devoted three chapters of my book, “John Sevier: Tennessee’s First Hero,” to the efforts by antiquarians, writers, storytellers, and Revolutionary War veterans and their descendants to remember the Battle of King’s Mountain and John Sevier’s role in it. I also wrote about the mid-twentieth century efforts to remember Sevier’s life through the use of outdoor dramas. Alderman’s “The Overmountain Men,” which you mentioned, and Kermit Hunter’s “Chucky Jack” dramas are just two examples of this type of historical storytelling I examined in my book. So, as you can imagine, this story hit a chord with me on many levels.

    While it is good to see the Battle of King’s Mountain receive much deserved attention, your comment “how popular notions about the eighteenth-century frontiersmen have remained so steady” emphasized, for me at least, that those of us in the public history profession have a lot of work to do to educate the public about this important event in our nation’s history. It continues to puzzle me why scholars have neglected the Battle of King’s Mountain for so long, resting on the work of Haywood, Ramsey, Draper, and other early Tennessee antiquarians and effectively ceding its modern narrative to regional writers, storytellers and dramatists untrained in the rigors of historical scholarship.

    I do not want my comments to appear to be overly critical of this latest effort to draw attention to the Battle of King’s Mountain. I am actually glad to see the renewed interest in this topic and I wish Mr. Inman much success in his venture. However, the lines between truth and fiction often blur when viewed through the lens of history and memory. It is my sincere hope that the playwrights involved in this latest outdoor drama make a concerted effort to draw a clear line of separation between nostalgia and history. Both have their place in the historical narrative, but they are not one in the same.

    • Michael Lynch

      I think your remark about the distinction between nostalgia and history is right on the money. A lot of what’s been written about King’s Mountain has been long on nostalgia and short on historical precision.

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