When the historical record is silent

Back when I was in the early stages of narrowing down a topic for my master’s thesis on King’s Mountain, my advisor said to me, “You might end up being more interested in who these guys are.”  In other words, there was a good possibility that I’d end up focusing less on the battle and more on the men who waged it.

As it turned out, I didn’t concentrate on “who these guys are,” at least not for that project.  Instead, I looked at the way contemporaries and later antiquarians interpreted the battle and the men who fought there.  It was more a study of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century perceptions of King’s Mountain and the men who fought there than anything else.  Actually, I owed that topic to my advisor as well; a scholar of war and memory himself, he made an offhand suggestion that I might look at the ways people remembered the battle.  That comment reminded me of a nasty nineteenth-century controversy involving some of the veterans, and off I went.

But since then, the question of “who these guys are” has preoccupied and vexed me.  Popular writing on the pioneers who settled the Appalachian frontier in the late eighteenth century tends to portray them more as stock characters than flesh-and-blood historical actors.  Here’s how East Tennessee writer Pat Alderman described them in one of his illustrated works of “history made interesting“:

These frontiersmen were sons of frontiersmen, accustomed to the rugged life of the new country.  They were courageous souls, daring and eager as they ventured along the unfamiliar trails leading westward.  The wide expanse of mountains, hills and valleys, covered with virgin forests and teeming with wild game, challenged their pioneer spirits.  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.  They depended on the forest and streams for their sustenance.  They would pitch a fight, scalp an Indian or wrestle (“rassel”) a bear at the drop of a hat.

That’s laying the rugged individualism and buckskin on a bit thick.  It’s not so much a portrait of an actual group of people as it is a collection of frontier tropes.  The issue isn’t that descriptions like that are necessarily false, although I do doubt that any sane person who has ever lived has been eager to “rassel” a live bear.  The issue is that they don’t adequately address the question of who these guys really were, what they were doing west of the mountains, or why they got involved in the Revolution.

And those are the questions that have preoccupied me for a good, long while.  I distinctly remember the first visit I made to Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, the place where “these guys” mustered to begin their march eastward that culminated in the Battle of King’s Mountain.  I stood for a few minutes in front of Jon Mark Estep’s fine sculpture of a frontier militiaman at the park’s visitor center.

By Jon Mark Estep (sculptor), Brian Stansberry (photograph) (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

When I looked at that figure, the question came back to me, along with a few related ones.  What the heck were you?  What were you doing out here?  What did you want out of the Revolution?  How did you go about trying to get it?

When I headed back to graduate school, I decided that I’d try to whittle these questions into a dissertation topic.  With my doctoral advisor’s help, I’ve been in the process of doing just that.  I’ve also been compiling primary sources to try to get at some answers.  While this process has been exciting, the prospect of a dissertation-length project has forced me to confront a disconcerting reality: there isn’t as much evidence about “these guys” as I’d like.

One issue is that a lot of the sources they left behind date from years—in many cases decades—after the events I’m interested in.  This is something I learned when I was doing research for my thesis on King’s Mountain.  Veterans of that battle wrote about their experiences, but much of what they wrote dates from the 1810s and 1820s, during a revival of interest in the Revolution that swept the whole country.  As I’ve tried to broaden out my research to examine their Revolutionary experiences as a whole, I’ve found the same pattern at work.  Instead of contemporary accounts, I keep running into memories set to paper long after the events themselves transpired.

What’s especially irksome is the fact that the end of the Revolution seems to have marked a real turning point in the proliferation of written documents concerning frontier Tennessee.  Once you hit 1784, primary sources suddenly become more abundant.  In other words, the end of the period in which I’m especially interested is precisely the point at which I’ve got more to work with.  Cue the Alanis Morissette, right?

Frustrating as it is to grapple with these post-Revolutionary sources, an even more frustrating problem is the absence of sources that I know once existed.  One of the greatest disasters to ever befall the study of early Tennessee history took place during the Civil War, when a Unionist set fire to J.G.M. Ramsey’s house in Knoxville.  Ramsey was a doctor by profession, but he was also a passionate antiquarian who had met many of Tennessee’s first generation of pioneers in his youth and spent a lifetime collecting material about them.  He was also a fervent secessionist who served as a Confederate treasury agent who fled Knoxville when the city fell to Union forces in 1863; in his absence, an arsonist put the Ramsey home and its priceless historical collection to the torch.  Thankfully, Ramsey set down some of the fruits of his research in a monumental book on early Tennessee history ten years before his house burned, but one wonders what insights into the state’s beginnings went up in smoke.  (Sometimes people ask me what historical event I’d like to witness if I had a time machine; if I had my choice, I’d probably go back to the hours preceding that fire and grab as many manuscripts as I could.)

Fire and time took their toll on other early frontier sources, too.  Perhaps the greatest collector of frontier sources who ever lived was Lyman Draper, a nineteenth-century antiquarian who devoted his life to compiling original manuscripts and transcriptions of early borderland records.  Many of the letters he received in response to requests for information repeat the same sad refrain over and over again: I can’t be of much help, since the family papers got lost in the war.  Likewise, while reading Rev War pension accounts, I can’t count the number of times I’ve found references to records lost, documents destroyed in house fires, and discharge papers long since misplaced and never accounted for again.

All this makes those contemporary sources I do have all the more precious.  Whenever I run across a Revolutionary document from Tennessee that I haven’t seen before—a settler’s petition to North Carolina authorities, say, or a John Sevier letter from 1781—I feel like I’ve just stumbled across a stash of Dead Sea Scrolls.  There are so relatively few material traces of Tennessee’s Revolutionary era left that I get giddy when I’m in their presence.  Those King’s Mountain weapons at the State Museum and Carter Mansion in Elizabethton are of incalculable value, just because they link us to those dramatic few years of the late eighteenth century.

I realize that I’m hardly the only researcher who has this problem.  And maybe it’s my own fault.  After all, I’m the one who decided to examine a population of only several thousand people living in a newly settled frontier society.  Of course, good historians figure out how to work around dearth of material; there are creative ways of getting at information on people who didn’t leave much of a paper trail.  I’ve been in grad school long enough to learn some of the tricks of the trade.  But I desperately wish these settlers had left more behind, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous about the fact that they left so little.

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4 Comments

Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Tennessee History

4 responses to “When the historical record is silent

  1. Simon

    It would be nice if this was an April fools post and there really was tons of info on the Battle of Kings Mountain.

    I’d be interested in hearing how your books is coming along.

    • Michael Lynch

      It’s funny you should mention King’s Mountain, because that’s probably the most well-documented episode in Tennessee’s Rev War history. Even so, a lot of the best sources from the Overmiuntain Men’s perspective date from the early 1800s.

      Thanks for the inquiry about the book project. It’s still on, but since I got admitted to a doctoral program, it’ll be a while longer than I anticipated before it’s done. Fortunately, my dissertation research draws on a lot of the same material as my battle research, so I’ve been able to compile stuff for both projects at the same time, and I’ll get down to writing as soon I get my dissertation squared away.

  2. April Payne

    Hi. Have you looked at the Cora Bales Sevier, book “Sevier’s Family History”, 1961, yet? Many of John Sevier’s letters are in it, especially those during the “Failed State of Franklin” time frame. I know he was a widower of just a few months (and a bridegroom of just about a month) when he took off for King’s Mountain, 25 Sept. 1780. His two oldest boys took part in that battle. 1799 had been a terrible year for him, as he was tasked with keeping the Tories in line. The Tories, in particular, were very troublesome that year. They threatened his very life, promising to murder him in a rather ignominious manner — at his own home. Mrs. Jacob Dykes cued Sarah Jane (John’s FIRST wife) in on the deal, to help head things off. Sarah Jane managed, in effect, to save John’s life, by revealing the plan as told to her by Mrs. Dykes. Odd, how three of his friends showed up and stayed at John’s home for several days and nights running…

    From everything I’ve read about my sixth times great-grandfather, I’m prepared to say he was one who liked a challenge. He was a man all about service to his family, his community and to his country. When faced with the threat of their lands being laid to waste by ‘fire and sword’ and all of their leaders (of which John was one) hanged, what else was the man to do, other than meet the ‘enemy’ on the battlefield?

    As for why these people joined the Revolutionary War — they didn’t just take that land they tamed, West of the Alleghenies, as some would have us all believe, but rather they leased it from the Cherokee, for ten years. It was the British who got in the way of that and messed things up. The British also enjoined the Cherokee to fight the colonists from behind, while they attacked from the East. A splendid plan, if it had succeeded. But, for the Overmountain Men’s courage and determination, something overlooked, we may yet be Subjects of the Crown, rather than Free men.

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