Category Archives: Appalachian History

Does “Appalachian” history have a start date?

I’ve been using the term “Appalachia” in my dissertation.   The people I study lived in present-day East Tennessee and southwestern Virginia.  That’s Appalachia by just about any contemporary reckoning, so it might seem like a no-brainer.

The tricky part is that I’m writing about the Revolutionary era, and nobody really called it “Appalachia” in the eighteenth century.  It’s not that the word wasn’t around.  In fact, “Appalachia” is one of the oldest European place-names in the U.S.  It comes from a sixteenth-century Spanish transliteration of the name of a village in Florida, later applied to the mountainous area to the northward.

The Watauga River, which (depending on what time period you’re talking about) may or may not be in Appalachia. Bee Cliff River Slob [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

But “Appalachia” as a common name for the mountain South only dates back to the late nineteenth century, when Americans formulated the idea of the region as a culturally distinct unit.  In an eighteenth-century context, it’s anachronistic.

Does that matter?  The point of language is to communicate, and when we use words with meanings everybody knows, it saves a lot of trouble.  But language doesn’t just ascribe intended meanings to things.  It also reinforces the unintended meanings and associations that accumulate around words like barnacles on pier pilings.  And the term “Appalachia” has many such associations.

Eighteenth-century observers did think of Appalachia’s white settlers as set apart in some respects, but they didn’t use the term “Appalachian” to do so.  Whereas nineteenth-century commentators thought of a culturally distinct and isolated region contained within the U.S., eighteenth-century observers emphasized its geographic position at the back end of British America.  That’s reflected in the terminology they used.  What we consider Appalachia would have been “the backcountry” or the “back parts.”  I use “backcountry” a lot in my dissertation, but I don’t think it’s totally synonymous.  It’s a more slippery, generalized term that applies to more than just the mountainous South.

Some eighteenth-century observers referred to white settlers in East Tennessee and southwestern Virginia as “back water men,” or said that they lived on the “back mountains” or “western waters.”  These phrases reflect the same sort of Atlantic vs. western orientation as “backcountry” and “back parts.”  They emphasized the fact that these settlers lived on the western side of the mountains, where the rivers flowed toward the Mississippi.  These terms are more specific than “backcountry,” but also narrower than “Appalachia.”  There were plenty of whites settled in the Appalachian backcountry who weren’t “back water” men.

Maybe I shouldn’t be looking for an eighteenth-century equivalent to “Appalachia” at all.  If people didn’t think of the mountainous South as a distinct region at the time, perhaps I’m just buying into the nineteenth-century myth of Appalachia by trying to conceptualize it as its own, unique thing.

Then again, there’s something to be said for staking a claim for Appalachia in an early American context.  A lot of historians who specialize in the region focus on the nineteenth or twentieth centuries.  Applying the term to the Revolutionary era reminds people that the tumultuous events of that period mattered profoundly in the mountain South.  Rather than agonizing over whether it’s anachronistic, maybe the best approach is to appropriate it for historically informed purposes.

Leave a comment

Filed under Appalachian History, Colonial America

John Mack Faragher’s Boone research now online

Check this out, frontier historians:

Aficionados of Daniel Boone may recall a 1992 biography of the frontiersman written by John Mack Faragher, professor emeritus of history at Yale University. For that milestone study, Faragher, my former adviser, conducted research throughout Kentucky and the broader region, spending months digging in archives held at the Filson and Kentucky historical societies, among others. In so doing, the author consulted hundreds of sources, taking nearly 5,000 notes comprised of 350,000 words.

These annotations are now available online via the “Digitizing Daniel Boone” project here. As the compiler of this resource, I believe this will be a “boon” to Kentuckians and to historians alike, for two reasons.

First, Faragher’s meticulous notes (the word-count equivalent of nearly four books) shine a bright light on the state and region’s archival holdings. Have an ancestor among the early settlers or indigenous peoples of the region? You can conduct a full-text search within the historian’s files. Users can also run reports based on keywords and people. This allows one to peer into the author’s mind between primary-source research and the crafting of paragraphs, to witness the first layer of historical interpretation.

Until now, the public typically could access only the source materials, on the one hand, and the published text, on the other. This has obscured the vast majority of historical work, like the nitty gritty of taking notes and organizing them into themes and eventually chapters. Now, we can better understand exactly how a historian went from consulting the files of missionaries, officials, and 19th-century historians like Lyman Draper to synthesizing them into a narrative. Equally important, we can better identify silences and the ways that the scholar’s perspective leaves some actors on the margins of history.

It’s pretty darn handy.  Faragher transcribed a lot of material from the Draper Collection of Manuscripts and other sources, and it’s a lot easier to access this stuff online than it is to locate it in a repository and then grapple with microfilm.

Because the database basically consists of Faragher’s own research notes, it’s a bit like looking over his shoulder as he works on his Boone book.  I would’ve loved to have had access to something like this before starting my dissertation, so that I could’ve had a glimpse at how an accomplished historian went about organizing material for a major project.

Leave a comment

Filed under Appalachian History, History on the Web, Research and Writing

A new acquisition from the ALLM’s backyard

My phone rang during a day off from work this summer.  Something turned up during a road excavation on campus, just a few minutes’ walk from the museum, and they wanted me to take a look at it.  Now it’s part of our collection.  Here’s what happened:

Believe it or not, this isn’t our first rodeo with Civil War ordnance.  Years ago, when I was still an undergrad at LMU, a water line project uncovered a whole cache of explosive shells right across from the museum’s parking lot.  Some of them got drilled, disarmed, and added to our collection; an EOD team from Ft. Campbell detonated the rest in a vacant field at the rear of campus.

It’s not surprising that Civil War artifacts turn up at LMU from time to time.  We’re just a stone’s throw from Cumberland Gap, a critical invasion route that changed hands four times.  In fact, the contest for this strategic region is why we have a college named for Lincoln in East Tennessee—and one of the best private Lincoln/CivilWar collections anywhere.  Right now we’re planning an exhibit on LMU’s origins and early history, where we’ll have the mortar round on permanent display.

Oh, and if you happen to run across any Civil War artillery rounds in the wild, let the experts handle it.  This stuff is lethal.

Leave a comment

Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War, Tennessee History

“There’s no important human information being imparted…”

If you’re a Batman fan, you probably know that Alan Moore’s graphic novel The Killing Joke is one of the definitive works in the canon.  (And if you’re not a Batman fan, I just told you.)

Via ign.com

Surprisingly, Moore himself isn’t a fan of TKJ.  Here’s what he told one interviewer (from The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore, p. 123):

The Killing Joke is a story about Batman and the Joker; it isn’t about anything that you’re ever going to encounter in real life, because Batman and the Joker are not like any human beings that have ever lived. So there’s no important human information being imparted….It was just about a couple of licensed DC characters that didn’t really relate to the real world in any way.

And from another interview, in which Moore compared TKJ unfavorably to some of his other work:

But at the end of the day, Watchmen was something to do with power, V for Vendetta was about fascism and anarchy, The Killing Joke was just about Batman and the Joker – and Batman and the Joker are not really symbols of anything that are real, in the real world, they’re just two comic book characters.

So Moore’s issue is that Watchmen and V for Vendetta touch on deeper themes and speak to the human condition, whereas The Killing Joke isn’t “about” anything except Batman and the Joker.  I’m not sure I agree with thatI think TKJ raises some interesting and provocative questions about madness and depravity, grappling with the senselessness of the world, and that old saying whereby those who fight monsters risk becoming monsters themselves.

But The Killing Joke‘s profundity or lack thereof is a topic for another time.  What struck me about Moore’s comments is the implication that a work’s quality depends on it being “about” something deeper than its ostensible, immediate subject matter.

Maybe TKJ is “just” a Batman and Joker story, but it’s a superb Batman and Joker story, and one that’s had a lasting impact on the characters.  Isn’t it enough that for what it is, it’s one of the best?

I bring this up here on the blog because I think it bears on how we evaluate works of scholarly history.  Some monographs are “about” more than what their Library of Congress sub-headings would indicate.

Take Ron Eller’s excellent book Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, for example.  As its subtitle indicates, it’s partly a regional history of the postwar era.

Via kentuckypress.com

But it’s also a critique of the ways we think about progress and development. We tend to associate these ideals with economic growth. We assume that “development” itself is an intrinsic good. We trust that it’s a remedy for poverty. We don’t stop to consider whether poverty might be rooted in structures that benefit some people rather than others, whether the remedies we propose will reinforce these structures, or whether the end goal of “development” is even desirable for the targets of our good intentions. We don’t question our assumptions about what “progress” means.

Eller’s work has implications that are relevant to much more than Appalachian history. It’s applicable to much of the recent past beyond Appalachia or America, and raises important questions for the present and future, too.

Stephen King has said that when you’re writing a novel, story comes before theme.  You tell the story first, and then later you can go back and figure out what the implications are and whether you need to tease them out more. I suspect something along those lines is true for most historians whose projects take on big thematic implications.  You start out with an interest in a particular topic, you investigate it, and only then do you figure out what the broader implications are.

I’m still trying to work through whether my current project will have implications for anything besides the American Revolution or the early frontier. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. For now, at least, I’ll be satisfied if I just end up saying something worthwhile about the topic at hand.

Leave a comment

Filed under Appalachian History, Historiography, Research and Writing

Upcoming symposium on the Tennessee frontier and the American Revolution

The East Tennessee Historical Society in Knoxville is hosting a really cool event on Saturday, April 21.  It’s a half-day symposium focused on the American Revolution on the Tennessee frontier, co-sponsored by Marble Springs, Blount Mansion, and the Department of History at UT.

It’s right up my alley, so I’m delighted to announce that I’m one of the speakers.  My presentation will deal with the ways settlers in the Tennessee country sought alliances with and protection from fellow Revolutionaries outside the region.  Here’s some more info:

The American Revolution created the United States of America. Tennessee’s rich history is linked to the very founding of our nation. Access to frontier lands and control over Appalachian territories were key factors that caused the Revolution. The Battle of King’s Mountain involved prominent frontier settlers such as John Sevier. The peace treaty that ended the war also paved the way for Tennessee to become the 16th state in 1796.

The History Department at the University of Tennessee is partnering with local organizations to make possible the first ever American Revolution on the Tennessee Frontier symposium. The event will be held Saturday, April 21, 2018 from 9am to noon at the East Tennessee Historical Society. Speakers from the Blount Mansion, the East Tennessee Historical Society, the Marble Springs State Historic Site, and the UTK History Department will talk about the Battle of King’s Mountain, John Sevier, William Blount, the Cherokee, and much more. The event is free and open to the public. Food and drinks will be served.

9:00 AM–Opening Remarks, Dr. Chris Magra, UTK History Department
J. Tomlin, UTK History Department, “No Popery, No Tyranny: The Episcopacy Crisis and the Origins of the American Revolution”

9:30 AM–Lisa Oakley and Cherel Henderson, East Tennessee Historical Society, “The Revolutionary War through Artifacts and Family History”

10:00 AM–Michael Lynch, UTK History Department, “Declaring Dependence in Revolutionary Tennessee”

10:30 AM–Samantha Burleson, Marble Springs State Historic Site, “Marble Springs, Last Home of Governor John Sevier”

11:00 AM–Dr. Julie Reed, UTK History Department, “Willstown: Cherokee Casualty or Creative Adaptation of the American Revolution”

11:30 AM–David Hearnes, Blount Mansion, “William Blount: The Revolution and Politics”

NOON–Closing Remarks, Dr. Chris Magra, UTK History Department

This event is free, and they’ll be providing food and drinks.  I hope to see some of you there!

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Tennessee History

ETHS goes into the trenches and in search of Sgt. York

I highly recommend you visit In the Footsteps of Sergeant York, the new special exhibit from the Museum of the American Military Experience at the East Tennessee Historical Society.  It strikes a neat balance between an intimate portrait of York himself and a broader examination of Tennesseans’ mobilization in the Great War as a whole, and takes you from York’s rural Fentress County home…

…to the trenches of the Western Front.

The exhibition also chronicles the Sergeant York Discovery Expedition’s use of GIS and archaeology to pinpoint the precise location of his famous attack at Hill 223 near Chatel-Chéhéry.  (You may recall that the Tennessee State Museum’s Military Branch hosted this part of the exhibit a few years ago, although ETHS has augmented it with additional material.)  The machine gun below is reportedly one of the weapons York captured, while the rounds in front of the helmet are among the artifacts the SYDE recovered from the battleground.

Fire from the machine gun nest York took out cut down six of his comrades, and artifacts excavated from their original burial site are also on display.

As fascinating as the Chatel-Chéhéry items are, though, the object that struck me the most is this canteen carried by Fred O. Stone.  Like my great-grandfather, he was a Claiborne County, TN native who graduated from Lincoln Memorial University’s old medical school in Knoxville.

Leave a comment

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

First hero and Sevierville namesake

A lot of folks who visit Marble Springs from outside the area ask us, “Is this the guy SEE-ver-ville is named after?”

Sevierville is indeed named for John Sevier, who defeated a contingent of Cherokee warriors near the future townsite at Boyd’s Creek in December 1780.  And if you’re going to be in the Smokies this year, swing by the Sevierville Visitor Center and check out their new exhibit on the city’s namesake, John Sevier: Tennessee’s First Hero.  (The title might sound familiar.)

Marble Springs loaned some items from our collection for this project.  Since there are a lot of artifacts we don’t usually keep on public display, this is a great opportunity to see a few of the things we’ve acquired and dug out of the ground over the years.

And guys, it’s pronounced like “severe.”  Not SEE-ver.

1 Comment

Filed under Appalachian History, Tennessee History