Category Archives: Appalachian History

Did early Appalachian settlers talk like I do?

I’ve lived in East Tennessee (yes, we capitalize “East”) for more or less my entire life, and I’ve got the accent to prove it.  I tend to be most conscious of it when pronouncing the words “iron,” “get,” and “our.”

Fellow grad students tell me it’s quite noticeable, although I’ve had many people tell me otherwise.  One of the things I enjoyed most about working in a museum was getting to meet people from all over the country.  Some visitors noticed my accent right away and seemed to get a bigger kick out of hearing me ask them not to take flash photos of the artifacts than they did out of seeing the artifacts themselves.  Others would ask me where I was from and were shocked to find out that I was a native of the region: “But you don’t have an accent!”

I don’t get many comments on my accent when I travel, except in Montana, of all places.  In fact, I’ve probably had more people remark on my speech on trips to Montana than in all the other places I’ve visited combined.  But I don’t hold it against them; no one was ever rude about it, and even if they were, the state that gave the world the first T. rex specimen gets a free pass from me for just about everything.  A couple of my relatives, on the other hand, have encountered offensive reactions to their speech while traveling; my aunt had a particularly unpleasant experience with a food server in eastern Virginia.  (Personally, most of the crap I’ve had to deal with in terms of negative attitudes toward Appalachians has come from people who have moved to the region from elsewhere, not people I’ve met while traveling.)

Anyway, since we’ve been on the subject of early American dialects, I thought I might discuss a question I’ve often pondered while studying frontier involvement in the American Revolution.  What did the settlers who lived in Appalachia in the late eighteenth century sound like?  If I could hop in a time machine and visit East Tennessee or southwestern Virginia in 1780 to record a little oral history for my dissertation, would my subjects’ speech sound anything like my own?  Or would it be another case of the past as a foreign country?

Many scholars trace the roots of Appalachian dialect—and southern highland culture in general—to migrants from northern Britain, and especially to the Scotch-Irish who came to the American backcountry from Ulster in the years preceding the American Revolution.  In Albion’s Seed, David Hackett Fischer claims that there’s quite a bit of continuity between the speech patterns of early Scotch-Irish migrants and the English that their descendants still speak today (p. 652):

This American speech way is at least two centuries old.  It was recognized in the colonies even before the War of Independence, and identified at first in ethnic rather than regional terms, as “Scotch-Irish speech.”  In the backcountry, it rapidly became so dominant that other ethnic stocks in this region adopted it as their own.  As early as 1772, a newspaper advertisement reported a runaway African slave named Jack who was said to “speak the Scotch-Irish dialect.”

The earliest recorded examples of this “Scotch-Irish” speech were strikingly similar to the language that is spoken today in the southern highlands, and has become familiar throughout the western world as the English of country western singers, trans-continental truck drivers, cinematic cowboys, and backcountry politicians.

Despite Fischer’s argument for continuity, some of the examples of regional dialect he provides sound as alien to me as I presume they would to someone from any other place.  In fact, I’d only heard a couple of the terms from his list of Appalachian “Scotch-Irishisms,” and even those few aren’t terms I’ve heard often (and seldom from younger Appalachians).  I’d imagine that the purely “Scotch-Irish” aspects of the region’s dialect were much more pronounced in the early years of settlement than they are now.

One other thing to keep in mind is that many of these eighteenth-century backcountry settlers were first-generation immigrants.  Thus the dialects I might hear on my hypothetical trip back in time would include the very same accents a visitor to eighteenth-century Ireland or Scotland would hear.  In fact, visitors to the eighteenth-century frontier sometimes noted the distinct speech patterns of the Irish and Scottish immigrants they met.

Furthermore, while the Scotch-Irish contribution to the backcountry population was significant, it didn’t account for everybody.  To take an example from the King’s Mountain expedition, Lt. Col. Frederick Hambright, who settled in the Carolina upcountry, was born in Bavaria.  If later accounts are any indication, he retained a pronounced German accent well into his later years.  And Isaac Shelby, a King’s Mountain commander who lived in present-day East Tennessee before settling in Kentucky, was the son of Welsh immigrants.  Perhaps growing up in a household with Welsh parents left an impression on his own speech.

John Sevier’s linguistic heritage was especially complicated.  He was born in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to a father who’d migrated from England just a few years earlier, and the father’s father was French.  Growing up in a home where the father was an Englishman raised by a Frenchman, and coming of age among Scotch-Irish and German neighbors…what in the world would Sevier’s speech have sounded like?

Perhaps it would’ve been rather Scotch-Irish in spite of his family’s history.  Fischer argues that Scotch-Irish speech patterns became prevalent in the backcountry pretty early, diluting some of the other dialects that early migrants brought from elsewhere.  Maybe someday a historian and a linguist can get together and reconstruct the speech of these settlers of the eighteenth-century southern frontier, similar to what David Crystal has done for Shakespearean English.  Until then, I suppose I’ll have to wonder how much of a linguistic foreign country the early Appalachian frontier really was.


Filed under Appalachian History, Tennessee History

Support Marble Springs State Historic Site just by shopping online

The Governor John Sevier Memorial Association now has an AmazonSmile account, which means you can support Marble Springs State Historic Site just by treating yourself to stuff you’d order online anyway.

Next time you decide to buy something from Amazon, go to and select “Governor John Sevier Memorial Association” as your preferred charity.  Whenever you’re logged into AmazonSmile, a portion of your purchase price will go to GJSMA.  It doesn’t cost you anything extra.  Amazon ponies up the donation for you., so you’ll get the same products at the usual prices.

No more feeling guilty when you splurge on books, since it’s all going to a worthy cause.  Just remember to use instead of the regular Amazon site whenever you’re shopping online.  GJSMA only gets the donation when you’re logged into AmazonSmile instead of

Now, go buy stuff!

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

A closer look at Branson’s Sycamore Shoals painting

If you haven’t seen the special exhibit of Lloyd Branson’s art at the East Tennessee Historical Society yet, I highly recommend it.  I’ve been twice, mostly to get a closer look at Branson’s masterpiece: his painting of the muster at Sycamore Shoals, on loan from the Tennessee State Museum.


Completed in 1915, it’s a landmark in the history of Tennessee art and an important example of Rev War memorialization.  Branson’s epitaph refers to this painting alone out of all his other works: “THE TENNESSEE ARTIST WHOSE GENIUS CREATED THE PICTURE ‘SYCAMORE SHOALS’ AND BY IT IMMORTALIZED THE TURNING POINT THAT EANT LASTING VICTORY IN THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION A.D. 1780.”

I’ve seen it before, of course—so have you, if you’ve ever taken a look at my blog’s header—but always in the King’s Mountain exhibit case at the State Museum.  Without that protective glass and dim lighting, it’s like looking at a whole new canvas.  The colors are much more vivid, and you start to pick out details you’ve always missed.  It’s sort of like the first time you watch something in HD.

For example, here’s a group of militiamen gathered around a fire.  Looks like the guy on the far right is wearing a brown frock and leggings.  A little white dog appears to have followed his master to the muster ground.


The guy in the blue coat is checking his horse’s feet—not a bad idea, considering he’s got a trip of something like 200 miles ahead of him.  One soldier with a blanket roll hurries to catch up with his comrades.  In the foreground, a volunteer kisses his wife or sweetheart goodbye, maybe for the last time.

IMG_1354I’d never noticed this African American before; he’s on the left-hand side of the painting, near the bank of the Watauga River.  The force that attacked Ferguson did include some black men.  Lyman Draper reports that Col. William Campbell’s mixed-race slave John Broddy was along for the march.  Another black King’s Mountain vet was Ishmael Titus, who was born a slave in Virginia and earned his freedom by serving as a substitute for his North Carolina master.

IMG_1357Here’s something else I’d always missed when looking at printed images of the painting: Branson put a couple of Native Americans at the muster.  Just a few months after the scene depicted here, the settlers in present-day Tennessee would be at war with their Indian neighbors again, and John Sevier would be leading his men south into the mountains on another campaign.

IMG_1348Is that a road running along the riverbank?  Perhaps it’s the trail that will take the Overmountain Men toward their camp at Shelving Rock.

IMG_1356There’s a fire going in one of the cabins nearby, and it looks like somebody’s cultivating the fields by the river.  More horses are lined up and ready for the long ride that will end in South Carolina.

IMG_1358Not all the Overmountain Men were mounted.  Here a group of footmen head out with rifles, blanket rolls, powder horns, and cartridge pouches.  As big and busy as this scene is, the amount of detail that Branson put into these small figures is remarkable.

IMG_1352There are two prominent men on horseback in the foreground, shaking hands with well-wishers before setting off.  If I recall correctly—and I don’t remember where I read this, so it’s a rather big “if”—the one on the left is supposed to be Isaac Shelby, and Sevier’s the one on the right.  Don’t quote me on that, though.


Even more mounted volunteers head out from a fortified building (Ft. Watauga, perhaps?).  In the distance are the Appalachian mountains, the same ones Ferguson has threatened to march over to lay waste to the settlements.  The riflemen beside the river will be crossing those hills instead, headed in the other direction to take out Ferguson and his Tories.


The more time you spend with the painting, and the closer and more carefully you look, the more you start to pick out finer details, and at some point all those seemingly indistinct figures start to take on a life of their own.  It’s not unlike the process of studying history, come to think of it.


Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, History and Memory

All I want for Christmas is a visitor center

Here’s the item at the top of my holiday wish list: Marble Springs State Historic Site really, really needs a visitor center.

Actually, we’ve needed one for a very long time, and the Tennessee Historical Commission has been trying to secure an appropriation to build us one for some time now.  A few days ago the Knoxville News-Sentinel ran an article on our ongoing effort to get this facility built and why it matters:

The Tennessee Historical Commission is asking for $2.2 million in state funds to build a 7,200-square-foot visitors center with exhibit, classroom and theater space along with a parking lot and improved entrance signs. The money also would fund the archaeology required before a building, likely located on a rise near Gov. John Sevier Highway, would be constructed.

The commission, which is Tennessee’s historic preservation office, recommends the request be part of the 2016-17 state budget. Gov. Bill Haslam announces his budget early each year, generally in February.

Marble Springs is the 35-acre South Knoxville farmstead of John Sevier, a Revolutionary War hero and East Tennessee pioneer who became Tennessee’s first governor. Owned by the state since 1942, the site is operated by the nonprofit Gov. John Sevier Memorial Association. Some 8,000 people — including 2,000 schoolchildren — visit the location each year.

This isn’t the first time the Marble Springs request has been a THC priority. Records show that it’s been a requested need since 1988, said [THC Historic Sites Program Director Martha] Akins. “We have been wanting a visitors center for Marble Springs for as long as I can remember,” she said.

I can’t even begin to convey how challenging it is to run a site without proper visitor facilities.  That’s especially true for an outdoor, multi-building site like ours.  For one thing, when visitors arrive, they don’t really know where they’re supposed go first.  All of our historic buildings and our log trading post look really similar, so unless we flag them down, guests tend to wander around aimlessly, looking for someone to buy admission from.

Second—and this is a really big deal—interpretation of the site’s history is much, much harder without a visitor center.  We can’t really orient visitors to what they’re going to be seeing without an exhibit space or an introductory film.  Guests need to begin their tour with some appreciation for who John Sevier was, what role he played in early Tennessee history, and where Marble Springs fits into the overall story.  Without an orientation space, we have to do all that orally as part of the tour itself, which isn’t the most effective way to use the site as the teaching tool it could and should be.

Third, without an exhibit space, our artifact collection is off-limits to visitors.  Archaeologists have conducted extensive work at the site over the years, but we don’t have a space to store or display the items they’ve excavated; instead, the University of Tennessee keeps these artifacts locked away for safekeeping.  Some of the objects that we do keep on site, such as personal items that belonged to Sevier, aren’t currently accessible to the public.

Finally, the lack of a visitor center severely restricts our ability to utilize the site in a multi-purpose fashion.  Site rentals for weddings, civic group meetings, and scouting events give us some added income, but not nearly so much as we’d have with a modern meeting space, better restrooms, and other facilities.  It would really be a game-changer.

If any of you Tennessee readers out there could let your elected officials know that this is a project worth supporting, I’d really appreciate it.


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

The dilemma of talking about Appalachian poverty

Every once in a while a major media outlet rolls out a story on poverty in Appalachia.  A little while ago The Guardian took a crack at it.  The result is pretty standard for the genre.

In fact, journalists have been making similar copy out of Appalachia since the nineteenth century.  What sets these more recent examples apart is the emphasis on drug addiction and the decline of the coal industry.  (I’ve always found it ironic that one of the stereotypes about Appalachia is the idea that it’s a primitive region where time stands still, when in fact it’s the ideas people have had about Appalachia that have remained remarkably consistent for over a hundred years.)

Poverty is a tough issue to deal with in any context, but addressing poverty in Appalachia is especially thorny.  On the one hand, there are parts of Appalachia in which poverty is a very pervasive and systemic problem, one that bears talking about.

On the other hand, one problem that Appalachians of pretty much all socioeconomic backgrounds face is the prevalence of stereotypes.  And one of the most common stereotypes about the region is the notion that it’s uniformly and singularly poverty-stricken.  So by talking about the problem of Appalachian poverty, it’s easy to contribute to the problem of Appalachian stereotypes.

Furthermore, one of the reasons poverty in Appalachia is hard to address is the fact that many Americans simply tend to ignore what goes on in the region.  And one of the reasons people ignore it is because they think it’s just a place full of incurably poor people.  It’s quite a dilemma.

The only way out of it, I think, is to ensure that when we talk about poverty in Appalachia, we don’t let ourselves adopt the sort of despairing tone that too often characterizes these sorts of discussions, in which poverty is a problem too wide and too deep to try and fix.  And, crucially, Americans must always remember that when they’re talking about poverty in Appalachia, they’re talking about their own fellow countrymen.

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Filed under Appalachian History

Lloyd Branson’s art at the East Tennessee Historical Society

The East Tennessee Historical Society just opened a special exhibit on Lloyd Branson, one of this region’s most prominent artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The exhibit runs through March 20 and then heads to the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve encountered Branson’s work before.  The banner image running along the top of this website is from his painting of the Overmountain Men’s muster at Sycamore Shoals, the event that started the march leading to the Battle of King’s Mountain.  The original painting is part of the Tennessee State Museum’s collection, but it’s on loan to ETHS for this exhibit.

Some sources—including yours truly—have reported that Branson also painted the Battle of King’s Mountain itself, but that this work went up in flames when a Knoxville hotel burned down in 1916.  But it looks like the lost King’s Mountain canvas wasn’t a Branson work after all.  Adam Alfrey of ETHS tells the Knoxville News-Sentinel that contemporary newspaper reports attributed the painting to James W. Wallace, one of Branson’s students.

That’s not much consolation for the torched painting, though, because Wallace was a fine artist, too.  He did a number of works on regional and historical themes, including a really nice painting of the signing of the Treaty of Holston.  I’m dying to know what his depiction of King’s Mountain looked like.

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Tennessee History

Greene Co. repudiates the Confederacy…again

Like much of the rest of East Tennessee, Greene County was heavily Unionist during the Civil War.  When the state held a secession referendum in June 1861, 78.3% of voters from Greene County opposed leaving the Union.

Indeed, one Greene County resident became the most prominent Southern Unionist in the nation.  Andrew Johnson—the only Southern senator to remain loyal to the U.S., military governor of Union-occupied Tennessee, and Lincoln’s second running mate—started his political career in Greeneville, and his home and grave are still there.

These are just a few of the reasons why County Commissioner James Randolph’s recent proposal to fly the Confederate battle flag at the courthouse made absolutely no sense.

He wants to see the Confederate flag displayed at the courthouse as a “historic exhibit,” his resolution states.

The resolution also states that the flag should be displayed to honor Tennesseans who fought for the Confederacy and that the flag represents “heritage and history that our county should be proud of.”

The Confederate flag’s display has proven to be a divisive issue, as some say it represents history and heritage while others see it as representative of slavery and oppression.

Randolph previously said in an interview with The Greeneville Sun that the State of South Carolina’s removal of the flag from its state capitol provoked him to propose the resolution.

Just so we’re clear here: Randolph thought it would be a good idea to fly the Confederate flag…

  1. at a courthouse
  2. where there was no traditional display of the flag
  3. to reflect pride in the history of a county whose residents were overwhelmingly opposed to secession in 1861
  4. and which boasts an outspoken Southern Unionist—Lincoln’s second VP, for crying out loud—as a native son
  5. in the wake of a massive groundswell of opposition to the display of Confederate symbols in public spaces

Little wonder that when Randolph’s fellow county commissioners got together to vote on his resolution a few hours ago, they roundly rejected it.  In fact, the proposal received twenty negative votes, with just one in favor.  (The “yea” vote, natch, was Randolph’s.)  That’s even worse than Greene Co. Confederates’ showing in the ’61 referendum.

Of course, what people in the rest of the country will take away from this episode isn’t the commission’s 20-1 vote against Randolph’s resolution, but the fact that somebody made the resolution to begin with.  And that’ll suffice to confirm every ignorant stereotype they have about East Tennessee in particular and the South in general.

I am so, so, so sick of these kerfuffles over the memory of the Civil War.

Greeneville, TN. By Casey Nicholson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War, History and Memory, Tennessee History