Tag Archives: Cumberland Gap

Brian McKnight has an article

…over at the Times blog about early Civil War battles in Appalachia.  Check it out.


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Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War

Blazing Boone’s trail again

There’s a move afoot to draw increased attention to the trace Daniel Boone carved out of the wilderness and into Kentucky.  You can still drive much of the route on paved highways, but these days a lot of folks take I-75 instead.  It’s faster, but not nearly as interesting.  As Charles Kuralt said, “Interstate highways allow you to drive coast to coast, without seeing anything.”

"Boone's Trace" into the Transylvania Purchase went through the Cumberland Gap and north to Boonesborough. Other branches of the Wilderness Road went further westward. Map from Wikimedia Commons


Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

Bringing the background to the foreground

So, as I was saying, I was driving around in Cumberland Gap National Historical Park the other day when I spotted a wayside marker I’d never seen before.

I’ve driven by this spot several times, so I think this sign is a recent addition, but maybe I just need to be paying closer attention.  Anyway, this marker is worth a closer look, because it scratches an itch that I noted earlier this year.

Back in March I was griping about our tendency to get so caught up in the dramatic and exceptional events that happened in historic areas that we ignore what happened in between them.  The Gap is notable mainly for those people who were (often quite literally) just passing through.  Its story is one of long hunters, pioneers, Civil War garrisons, and industrialists who came and went.  The people who lived in the area had their own history—a long and interesting one—but it’s a history that’s invisible to many observers.  Their story forms a hazy and indistinct background to the procession of pioneers, soldiers, and boosters that passed by on their way to whatever it is they were after.

In some cases, the local story vanishes altogether.  CGNHP isn’t a battlefield or a building; it’s acres and acres of beautiful green space.  A lot of visitors come for the views and the hiking trails instead of the history.  It’s so easy to find the “wilderness” along this famous segment of the Wilderness Road that you can forget about the people who once lived nearby.  Who were these folks, and how did they live?

These are the questions I was asking back in March, and they’re exactly the questions the NPS answers in this wayside exhibit.  It affixes an actual, flesh-and-blood past to the rural Appalachian communities that so many Americans misunderstand or ignore.  Here’s a close-up of the text:

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


I have a long break between classes this semester, so I’ve developed the habit of making short little excursions into Cumberland Gap National Historical Park after grabbing lunch.  CGNHP is the largest historical park in the NPS system, with 24,000 acres and eighty-five miles of trails, so you can easily spend months or even years poking around in its nooks and crannies and still not manage to take it all in.

I was driving around near the Sugar Run trailhead today and passed by some interpretive signage I’d never noticed before.  When I stepped out of the car and walked over to have a look, I encountered this.

That’s dog poo, and it’s sitting right in the middle of the sidewalk, which is a most inconvenient resting place for fresh fecal matter. Dogs are permitted in CGNHP, of course, provided they’re on a leash, and I certainly don’t begrudge them the occasional bowel movement.  It happens to the best of us.  But consider the location of this particular specimen.

The sidewalk runs alongside a grassy strip, which in turn borders one of the wooded areas that are quite plentiful within the bounds of CGNHP.  It would seem to be a simple matter, if one’s dog was in the process of assuming a posture conducive to defecation, to persuade the animal to take two or three steps off the sidewalk and relieve him or herself in the grass.  Failing that, one might dispose of the excrement in one of the many conveniently located trash receptacles provided by the NPS.

Indeed, one such receptacle was readily available, as documented in the photograph below.

The small lump in the foreground is the offending bit of canine waste; the brown metal object behind it is for trash disposal.  About ten feet separate the one from the other.  Note also that the dog crap is almost directly in the center of the sidewalk.

Don’t mind us, you inconsiderate puke.  Make yourself right at home.

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If you’re up for some Civil War-themed music

…then head over to Cumberland Gap on Saturday.

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Just passing through

It took two centuries and millions of dollars to improve on Daniel Boone’s route through the Cumberland Gap.  For years, the portion of US 25E that crossed from Tennessee into Kentucky followed the path of the old Wilderness Road as it skirted the tip of southwestern Virginia, passed along the rocky face of Cumberland Mountain, and cut through the Gap—the notch in the mountain wall near the point where Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky intersect.  Then it descended into the valley of Yellow Creek just across the Kentucky state line.

It worked well for a pioneer footpath, but as an automobile route it presented a couple of problems.  For one thing, paving over the old Wilderness Road obviously made it very difficult to appreciate the way this critical passage looked when tens of thousands of settlers used it to head to the West.

Cumberland Gap from the Tennessee side. The old highway passed along the mountainside just to the right of the opening. From an NPS publication, reprinted from TN Historical Quarterly

Second, since it ran along the mountain face, the highway was treacherous.  If you happened to veer off the road, you could easily go plummeting down into the town of Cumberland Gap, TN at the mountain’s base.  Quite a few motorists had done just that over the years.  Locals sometimes referred to it as “Massacre Mountain.”

This combined need for safety and preservation resulted in one of the largest engineering projects this area has ever seen, a four-lane, two-way tunnel bored completely through the mountain not far from the Gap itself.

The north entrance to the Cumberland Gap Tunnel. The historic pass would be roughly half a mile to the viewer's left. From Wikimedia Commons

When the tunnel opened, the old portion of the highway across the mountain closed.  The Park Service tore up the pavement and began restoring that part of the Wilderness Road route to its pioneer-era appearance.  Now it’s one of the walking trails at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park; you can literally walk in Boone’s footsteps, along the side of the mountain and right into the Saddle of the Gap, along what used to be a busy roadway.  (Click here to see a map of both the trail/old highway route and the new tunnel route.)

I was in high school when the tunnel opened.  My school was just a short distance from the Gap, almost within sight of the pinnacle of Cumberland Mountain.  We all got out of class that afternoon to attend the opening ceremony, seated with the other spectators in folding chairs facing the tunnel’s Kentucky side.  The governors of the three states spoke, as did various other local dignitaries.  Lee Greenwood sang “God Bless the USA,” there was a brief historical lecture, and a good time was had by all.

For the grand finale, a procession of reenactors marched out of the tunnel, depicting all those who had passed through the Gap: Indians, then long hunters, then pioneers, then Civil War soldiers.  It was a flesh-and-blood, live-action version of Frederick Jackson Turner’s poetic summation of the Gap’s importance to the westward movement: “Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file— the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur-trader and hunter, the cattle-raiser, the pioneer farmer—and the frontier has passed by.”  The reenactors’ march out of the tunnel embodied Turner’s belief that the frontier consisted of stages of development, one following another in inevitable progression, and that the Gap was one of the places where this process played out.

Unconsciously, it also exemplified something that’s always bothered me about the way we remember and interpret the Gap, and indeed about the way we remember and interpret many historic places.  The emphasis was on the people who were just passing through it.  Migrating buffalo, Indians on the warpath, hunters on their way to the bluegrass, pioneer farmers on their way to new land, Civil War soldiers on their way to invade either North or South (the Gap changed hands four times during the war)—they were all from somewhere else, and going to some other destination.  Everything around it, meaning the area where I grew up and have lived most of my life, was just an indistinct blur.

Once I got older and acquired an interest in history, I was a little appalled that I had spent much of my life just a few minutes’ drive from one of the most important places in America and had never really given it much thought.  So I picked up a copy of The Wilderness Road by Robert Kincaid, the inaugural volume in a series of books on historic travel routes originally published by Bobbs-Merril in 1947.  Like me, Kincaid had spent quite a bit of time in the Gap’s shadow; he held a number of posts at Lincoln Memorial University, just a stone’s throw from the Gap, and he eventually became the college’s president.

Kincaid’s book probably remains the most comprehensive examination of the Gap and the route of which it was a part, from the earliest European contacts through the first part of the twentieth century.  Dr. Thomas Walker, Daniel Boone, the Civil War armies, the post-war British industrialists who founded the towns surrounding the mountain—they’re all there, marching across the pages just as they had marched across Turner’s imagination and then out of the newly opened tunnel in reenacted form.  In that sense, the book is comprehensive; it gives you an overview of all the hubbub that went on in this part of southwestern Virginia, eastern Tennessee, and southeastern Kentucky for the past couple of hundred years.

But the hubbub is basically all you get.  Kincaid’s book, like the tunnel pageant, is very episodic.  Each chapter is devoted to some notable incident or group of incidents.  Explorers, hunters, pioneers, soldiers, and industrialists saunter onstage, do their bit, and then saunter back off.  What was going on between all this migrating, invading, and exploiting?  Where were the people who actually lived here?

It’s not that this context would necessarily be more interesting than some of the highlights in the history of the region.  In fact, it’s hard to beat this corner of the world for dramatic incidents and wonderful stories—the gruesome murder of Boone’s son when the famous pathfinder tried to lead a party through the Gap in 1773, the escape of General George Morgan’s besieged garrison from the pass in 1862, or the creation of a short-lived industrial and resort enterprise which flourished for only a few years before vanishing entirely in the 1890’s.  Still, these occasions when the world came crashing in on the Gap region don’t, in and of themselves, constitute its complete history.

There is a natural tendency, especially among older or popularized history books, to focus solely on those occasions in which “something happened.”  History then becomes a simple series of events.  To be fair, this part of Appalachia wasn’t too heavily settled until after a lot of the more favorable lands to the east and the north were taken up, so there wouldn’t have been too much to cover besides the migrants passing by for those earliest years.  But by the early 1800’s, this region began to have a history of its own.  You don’t get much of that in many accounts of the Gap.

The region in which the Gap is located might have something to do with it.  An early commentator referred to Appalachians as “contemporary ancestors,” meaning that people in this region lived for many years in a kind of static state of preservation, exactly as the pioneers who passed along the Wilderness Road to greener pastures had once lived.  It wasn’t true, of course, but the idea caught on and has become one of the most widespread and persistent of Appalachian stereotypes.  If you buy into it, then it makes sense to ignore the broader regional context, because you’d essentially be assuming that the region didn’t really have a history of its own.

It reminds me of the concept in evolutionary biology known as “punctuated equilibrium.” in which species change during occasional fits and starts, with longer periods of stasis in between.  If you assume that things are just puttering along as usual, then why bother?  You might as well ignore the stasis altogether.

I’m not denying that the more dynamic periods of history merit disproportionate attention, so I don’t intend this to be a criticism of historians in general.  Nor do I intend it to be a criticism of Kincaid’s book in particular.  It’s a valuable distillation of information about this area that I’m very glad to have in one volume.  Besides, he was writing at a time before many of these issues became problematic.  Anyone interested in the history of Cumberland Gap in particular or Appalachia in general owes him a debt of gratitude.  (Besides, he and I have the same alma mater, so I’ve got his back.)

It’s just that the backdrop to that procession of long hunters, pioneer migrants, Civil War soldiers, and New South industrialists is my homeland, and I wish I knew as much about the folks who lived here as I do about the ones who were just passing through.


Filed under Appalachian History, History and Memory, Tennessee History

Black Confederates: Coming to a Gap near you

Most people think of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park as a pioneer site, but it was also a strategically important point during the Civil War, changing hands four times.

Just recently I stopped by the visitor center on my way back from lunch.  Imagine my surprise when I found Entangled in Freedom on sale in the gift shop.  This novel aimed at young readers is about a slave who accompanies Confederate troops into the field, and has generated some degree of controversy online because of its depiction of race relations in the nineteenth-century South and the nature of slaves’ participation in the Confederate war effort.  Kevin Levin and Andy Hall have addressed some of the book’s interpretive issues at length, so there is little need for me to go into them here.

Part of the book is set in and around the Gap, which is presumably why CGNHP is selling it.  What’s weird is that for a book that misreads some of the big issues involved in the Civil War, it includes a surprising amount of relatively little-known, arcane detail about local history and geography.

For example, there really is a cave in the mountain face, just above the old Wilderness Road, and incidentally this isn’t the first time a cave near the Gap has appeared in a work of fiction.  Cudjo’s Cave was a nineteenth-century novel set in the Cumberland Gap region which also featured an underground sanctuary, and coincidentally enough, it also featured a slave character.  After the war the real cave became a tourist attraction, and the proprietors re-christened it “Cudjo’s Cave” as a nod to the book.  Now it’s in NPS hands and has reverted to “Gap Cave,” its original name.

And there really was a massive cannon named “Long Tom” that soldiers pitched over the side of the mountain, at least according to local Civil War lore.  My hometown of Tazewell is correctly identified as the site of an engagement, and while we’ve got an interesting history of our own, we’re not exactly Sharpsburg or Chancellorsville.  Historical figures who were present at Cumberland Gap during the war appear in the book, too.

There are a few bits of trivia that are off.  The troops encamped at the Gap couldn’t have gotten water from Fern Lake, because it’s an artificial reservoir created in 1893, three decades after Union and Confederate forces were contending for control of the pass.  (The park is incorporating the lake into its boundaries as part of a 2001 piece of legislation, by the way.)  Still, it’s surprising to see Fern Lake mentioned at all.

All this credible detail within a context that misinterprets some of the fundamental issues of the war makes for an interesting case of the forest vs. the trees.


Filed under Civil War, History and Memory