Category Archives: Colonial America

A colonial romance movie

…is shooting this fall in Virginia.  It’s based on Mary Johnston’s 1900 novel To Have and to Hold, about a Jamestown settler who marries a girl pledged to a nobleman.  The book was wildly popular when it was first published, and was the basis for two silent films. You can read it online for free, if you’re so inclined.

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Filed under Colonial America, History and Memory

A wider view from Tryon Palace

The New York Times has a piece on the recently constructed North Carolina History Center at New Bern.  It’s part of the same site that includes a reconstruction of Gov. William Tryon’s impressive eighteenth-century house.

What’s cool about the article is that it uses the center’s exhibits to explain some of the ways historic interpretation has changed over the years.  Rather than focusing exclusively on Tryon and those who sat with him atop the pinnacle of colonial society, the exhibits widen things out a little by examining the everyday lives of ordinary North Carolinians, the ways the environment shaped human history, and so on.  And, of course, the center employs all the latest gadgets in order to engage in its audience.

Check out the link to the center’s website in the article, too; it takes you to a short video where you can get a taste of the exhibits.

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Filed under Colonial America, Museums and Historic Sites

A Catholic take on Pilgrim ironies

Mark Shea is an extremely witty fellow who blogs and writes prolifically from a Catholic perspective.  I always find his reflections well worth reading.  In a recent piece he examines the religious dissidents who settled New England, and some of the ironic developments resulting therefrom, all the way through the Civil War and down to the present day.  Check it out.

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Beck and Lillback stumble through Native American history

Some kind soul has posted video of Beck’s train wreck-like foray into Native American history (the subject of a lengthy tirade in my last post) to YouTube.

After delving into Pre-Columbian archaeology, Beck gets Peter Lillback’s take on colonial Indian-white interaction.  Lillback argues that the earliest English settlers got along swimmingly with the local tribes, a statement with which the Virginia Indians who ran afoul of the Jamestown colonists would probably take issue.  He also seems to believe that William Penn’s conciliatory Indian policies were something other than an aberration.

Anyway, here you go.  I hope you find it as stupefyingly appalling as I did.

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Filed under Archaeology, Colonial America, History and Memory, Tennessee History

Listening to details

I’m reading Stephen Brumwell’s excellent Redcoats: The British Soldier and War in the Americas, 1755-1763.  One of his chapters deals with the unique challenges of campaigning in the New World: rugged terrain, severe weather…and insects.  Lots and lots of insects. 

I usually don’t think much about insects when I read military history, but to a lot of eighteenth-century British soldiers who crossed the Atlantic, they were an inescapable and ubiquitous fact of life.  This is the sort of thing that wouldn’t occur to you unless you read accounts from people who were there and experienced it.  One of the strengths of Brumwell’s book is his intensive research in first-person accounts, and in fact it’s surprising to see how abundant and rich the primary material from these soldiers is.

This outstanding use of primary sources reminded me of another fine book I read several years ago called City Behind a Fence: Oak Ridge, Tennessee, 1942-1946, by Charles W. Johnson and Charles O. Jackson.  Oak Ridge was a town that sprang up out of nowhere, built solely as a home for the effort to create the radioactive material used in the first atomic weapons.  Because the city was built so quickly, there was a lot of mud everywhere, a fact that early residents remembered in great detail.  Again, this was an aspect of the historical experience that probably would have gone unnoticed if it weren’t for the fact that it was so prominent in the reminiscences of early residents, so the authors gave it the emphasis it deserved.

This is one of the reasons it’s important to be receptive to primary sources.  By “being receptive” I don’t just mean consulting them; I mean listening to them as well as asking questions of them.  We can get so caught up in framing our questions properly that we miss the things they’re telling us that we don’t even think to ask.  These two otherwise unrelated books are both well worth reading, partly because of the questions the authors asked but also because they remembered to listen.

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Filed under Colonial America, Historiography, Tennessee History

Reenacting on the set and onscreen Indians

I just stumbled across something that’s pretty interesting.  It’s from an old site, but as they used to say over at NBC, “if you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you.”

It’s a website devoted to Last of the Mohicans, with an essay by living historian Mark A. Baker on his experiences as an advisor and extra on the set of the movie.  He’s the guy who instructed Daniel Day-Lewis in the fine art of reloading a muzzleloader while running.  I’m always seeing “historical consultants” listed in film credits, and I thought this was a neat little glimpse into what that entails.

The site also has an interview with AIM activist Russell Means, who made his acting debut in LOTM as Chingachgook.  In the interview, he states that there is no record of Indians having tortured or burned anybody, so I’m guessing he’s not particularly well read when it comes to Native American history (e.g., the execution by both torture and burning of Col. William Crawford in 1782, the execution by burning of Samuel Moore and attempted burning of Lydia Bean by the Cherokee in 1776, the Iroquois practice of torturing war captives, etc.).

Means also told the interviewer that the best Indian movie—and you might want to sit down for this one—is Pocahontas.

This flabbergasted me, since I regard Pocahontas as one of the least historically-accurate movies in recent memory.  Here, let’s watch a short clip and then break it down to see if we can find anything that doesn’t ring authentic:

I noticed a couple of issues right off the bat.

  1. The appearance of the characters indicated a very low regard for historical detail.  Pocahontas was depicted as, at the least, an older teenager, and perhaps as a young adult, as opposed to the child she would have been at the time of her initial contact with John Smith.  Furthermore, her clothing did not match contemporary descriptions and illustrations of early seventeenth-century indigeous persons from eastern Virginia.  Smith lacked any facial hair, in marked contrast to the most well-known portrait of him, and his apparel seems far too modern.
  2. A tree talked.
  3. And sang.

But of course these could be minor quibbles. 

Anyway, I really like LOTM.  It’s an evocative depiction of eighteenth-century frontier America, the battle sequences are awesome, and Wes Studi makes for one scary son of a gun.  If you’re a fan of the film or if you’re into the French and Indian War, then check out the site.

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Looking for something to do this weekend?

Over the years, history buffs here in the Cumberland Gap region have watched Wilderness Road State Park near Ewing, VA become a first-rate center of historical interpretation.  In addition to a beautiful visitor center and a gorgeous setting, the park features a reconstruction of Martin’s Station, which was once the last outpost settlers reached before heading through the mountains into Kentucky.  Today it’s the most accurately rebuilt frontier fort anywhere in America.

For ten years now, WRSP has hosted an annual reenactment which has become one of the most exciting living history events in the South.  It’s happening again this weekend, and I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the eighteenth-century frontier, the American Revolution, or Native American history.

In addition to the usual reenactment goings-on—demonstrations, a mock battle, sutlers, music—one especially nifty feature of this event is a staged nighttime raid, in which visitors get locked inside the fort with the militia while Indians attack in the dark.  This is one of those rare experiences that does what good living history is supposed to do, which is give you a sense of a long-past event that’s difficult to convey through any other medium.  It’s one of the most exciting experiences I’ve ever had at any historic site.

Here’s some additional information.  Check it out.

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Filed under American Revolution, Colonial America, Museums and Historic Sites, Reenacting