Category Archives: Tennessee History

“I guess I have come to die”

Today is the 101st anniversary of the Cross Mountain Mine Disaster, a coal mine explosion in the Coal Creek Valley of Anderson County, TN. Despite a rescue effort mounted by the new U.S. Bureau of Mines, eighty-four of the eighty-nine men who were in the mine at the time of the explosion lost their lives.

The last two bodies recovered were those of Eugene Ault and Alonzo Wood, both of whom managed to leave farewell messages for their families before suffocating. Ault’s last statement is inscribed on his monument at the cemetery of Briceville Community Church:

Dear Father, Mother, Brothers, and Sisters, I guess I have come to die. Well I started out and I came back to side track, and Lonzo Wood is with me.. Air is not much now. Will be good, and I aim to pray for God to save me. All of you tell Clarence to wear my clothes out. Give him my trunk. I guess I will never be with you any more. Give Bessie Robbins a stick pin of mine. Tell her goodbye, so goodbye. Give them all my love.

E. Ault

Nine years before the Cross Creek disaster, this same church hosted a memorial for miners killed in an even deadlier explosion at the Fraterville Mine which killed 216 men, making it the costliest mining accident in Tennessee history. And a decade before that incident, it served as a temporary jail for miners involved in the Coal Creek War, an uprising prompted by the use of convict laborers to break a coal strike.

You can learn more about the turbulent mining history of the Coal Creek area by clicking here.

Eugene Ault’s grave marker in the Briceville Community Church Cemetery. The message he left for his family is inscribed on the base. By Brian Stansberry (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Filed under Appalachian History, Tennessee History

“Welsh of Tennessee” lecture this Friday

Here’s an interesting event for all you folks in Knoxville:

“The Welsh of Tennessee” is the subject of a Brown Bag Lecture and book signing at the East Tennessee History Center at noon on Friday, December 7. Dr. Eirug Davies, associate member of Harvard University’s Celtic Department, will discuss his new book and the remarkable story of how the Welsh helped develop East Tennessee’s fledgling iron and coal industries after the Civil War.

The Welsh presence in East Tennessee goes back to the very beginning of white settlement in this neck of the woods. One of the region’s most prominent early settlers was Evan Shelby, an immigrant from Wales who moved from Maryland to Sapling Grove (present-day Bristol) in the early 1770′s. He served in Dunmore’s War and in a number of other campaigns against the Indians, and his son Isaac was a soldier and statesman who’s appeared on this blog before.

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Tennessee’s original constitution is going on display for the first time

I might just have to take a drive over to Nashville next weekend.

If you don’t get a chance to see the document, you can console yourself by visiting the spot where the state’s first constitutional convention hammered the thing out back in 1796.  It’s a parking lot at the corner of Gay St. and Church Ave in downtown Knoxville.  That’s what I’ve read, anyway.  Somebody really needs to put up a marker or something.

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Want to help reclaim the Franklin battlefield?

The Civil War Trust is trying to raise $339,000 to close on three important parcels.

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Filed under Civil War, Historic Preservation, Tennessee History

Two exhibits on the Civil War in Tennessee

They’re both coming to the Museum of East Tennessee History in Knoxville. One of them tells the stories associated with some Civil War tombstones; the other is a traveling exhibit from the Tennessee State Museum.

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

Heads up

Eastern Kentucky University just acquired a 4.5-billion-year-old meteorite. This isn’t the sort of thing I’d normally bring to your attention, but this meteorite has an interesting provenance. It’s probably from the same bunch of space debris that turned up in my hometown of Tazewell, TN in 1853.

Other than the nineteenth-century angle, this doesn’t have much to do with American history, but look—I find something in the national news about a meteorite in my hometown, it’s going on the blog.

As long as we’re on the tangential subject of meteorites in my immediate vicinity, the town of Middlesboro, KY is actually inside a meteorite crater, and it’s about fifteen miles from Tazewell, just on the other side of Cumberland Gap.  (Here’s an article from the Planetary Science Institute.)  That’s two separate instances of big honking things hurtling down from space and smacking into the ground near where I’m sitting as I type this.  Tomorrow I’m buying a hard hat.

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East Tennessee History Fair this weekend

If you’re looking for something to do this Saturday, check out what’s happening in downtown Knoxville.  They’ll have demonstrations, reenactors, Civil War and historic home tours, and vintage film screenings.  And the whole thing’s free!

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What’s left of Knoxville’s Civil War?

Jack Neely goes looking for the fortifications that once defended the city in an article for Metro Pulse.

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DNA casts light on Melungeon background

From The Associated Press:

For years, varied and sometimes wild claims have been made about the origins of a group of dark-skinned Appalachian residents once known derisively as the Melungeons. Some speculated they were descended from Portuguese explorers, or perhaps from Turkish slaves or Gypsies.

Now a new DNA study in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy attempts to separate truth from oral tradition and wishful thinking. The study found the truth to be somewhat less exotic: Genetic evidence shows that the families historically called Melungeons are the offspring of sub-Saharan African men and white women of northern or central European origin.

And that report, which was published in April in the peer-reviewed journal, doesn’t sit comfortably with some people who claim Melungeon ancestry.

“There were a whole lot of people upset by this study,” lead researcher Roberta Estes said. “They just knew they were Portuguese, or Native American.”

Most of the stuff I’ve read linked the Melungeons to some type of Portuguese or eastern Mediterranean ancestry.  This latest study focused on families in upper East Tennessee, so it’ll be interesting to see if they extend it to other areas.

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Long rifles and red tape

With summer here, I’ve been able to dig into some of the books I’ve got stacked up, waiting to be read.  A few days ago I finished Malcolm J. Rohrbough’s Trans-Appalachian Frontier: People, Societies, and Institutions, 1775-1850, which I bought a couple of years ago.

One of the prominent themes in this book is the role of government in the organization, settlement, and development of the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century frontiers.  The federal government secured lands to be settled by winning wars or negotiating treaties with foreign powers and Indian tribes.  It established the ordinances to survey this land, sell it to private citizens, set up territorial governments, and transform the territories into states.  It defended the frontier’s inhabitants from external threats.  It contributed to the development of trade and communication routes, and obtained commercial outlets for the settlers’ commercial goods (i.e., securing the right to navigation of the Mississippi and use of the port of New Orleans).

Also notable is the eagerness with which many frontiersmen formed their own government institutions, and the things they allowed those institutions to control.  Many frontier communities established local courts with power to set prices and regulate moral behavior.  If you lived in some eighteenth-century settlements, you could find yourself hauled before a magistrate for cursing or sleeping with somebody who wasn’t your spouse.

A replica of the log capitol of the short-lived State of Franklin in Greeneville, TN. The original was erected in the 1780′s; this reconstruction dates from the 1960′s. From Wikimedia Commons

This is interesting, because it runs against the notion a lot of people have of the early frontier.  It was supposed to be a place where you could get away from authority.  The men and women who settled the early West were supposedly hardy, independent-minded souls who wanted nothing from anyone, only land where they could carve a living out of the wilderness with their own two hands, free from the oversight of the settled societies back east.  They were like characters out of an Ayn Rand novel, except they were dirt poor and carried long rifles.

Right?

Well, sort of.  Various sorts of people went to the early frontier for different reasons, so we make blanket generalizations about them at our peril, but it’s safe to say that many of them were more comfortable with institutions of authority than we often assume.  When the settlers near the Watauga River in northeastern Tennessee found themselves outside the reach of effective government in 1772, they didn’t sit back to enjoy a state of blissful anarchy; they set up a five-man court with laws patterned after those of Virginia.  In 1776, they petitioned the governments of Virginia and North Carolina to annex them.

My point here isn’t to write an apologia for interventionist government based on historical precedent.  One can find many instances in which early frontiersmen actively resisted government agencies.  Frontier people weren’t really eager to welcome government just for its own sake.  When they established courts, passed laws, and obeyed the laws of territorial governors, it was generally because there was something in it for them.

What most settlers ultimately wanted, I think, was land and livelihood, so when a government institution could help them secure these things, they let it happen.  The Wataugans wanted to farm their land unmolested by renegades and riff-raff, and their provisional government of 1772 was the best means to accomplish it.  Similarly, other frontiersmen could tolerate or even support territorial governors who wielded almost dictatorial power under federal ordinances because it meant law and order and secure land titles.

In other cases, frontiersmen acted against government authority when it interfered with their desire for land and livelihood.  Federal authorities often had their hands full trying to keep settlers from encroaching on land reserved to Indian tribes by official treaties.  The Franklinites weren’t shy about negotiating their own treaties and waging their own wars with the Cherokee in spite of the fact that their actions had no legal standing as far as the governments of either North Carolina or the United States were concerned.  And, of course, the reason the Wataugans had to establish their provisional government in the first place is because they had settled across the mountains in direct violation of British authority.  In these instances, law and government stood in the way of land acquisition rather than ensuring secure enjoyment of it, and thus frontier inhabitants cut through the red tape by acting on their own.

I therefore submit that it’s a drastic oversimplification to say that inhabitants of the early frontier wanted independence and freedom above all else, if by “independence and freedom” we mean liberty from any government authority whatsoever.  They were out to build lives for themselves where land and opportunity could be had, either with the aid of law and order or in defiance of it.  The nature of their love-hate relationship with government depended on what it could do for them at any given time.

None of this should surprise us, except that the archetype of the autonomous frontiersman casts such a long shadow over American history.  After all, by welcoming government as long as it helped them secure their lives, liberties, and property and resisting it when it hindered them from doing so, these settlers were basically acting out the same relationship between Americans and government that’s been going on for over two hundred years.

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Filed under Historiography, History and Memory, Tennessee History