Tag Archives: Davy Crockett

A Smithsonian smorgasbord of awesome objects

I used one of my free afternoons in Washington to take a whirlwind tour of the National Museum of American History.  I hadn’t been inside since the renovations that wrapped up in 2008.  I like the changes; the new halls are much more open and inviting, and easier to navigate.

But as I’ve said before, what I’m really after when I visit the NMAH isn’t so much interpretation as the chance to stand in the presence of iconic “superstar” objects—the things the Smithsonian has because it’s, y’know, the Smithsonian.

And hoo boy, does the NMAH have them in spades, especially in the exhibition The Price of Freedom: Americans at War.  From the French and Indian War through the War on Terror, it’s nothing less than a comprehensive military history of the United States in exhibit form, bristling with incredible artifacts.  One of them—Gen. John Pershing’s WWI desk—is right outside the exhibit entrance.

I was mostly drawn to the Rev War stuff, of course.  Hessians of the Ansbach-Bayreuth Regiment surrendered this flag at Yorktown.

Perhaps the most awe-inspiring pieces in the exhibit are personal items worn or used by George Washington: epaulets, sword, camp stool and chest, and 1789 uniform.

While we’re on the subject of generals and their apparel, here’s the uniform coat Andrew Jackson wore at the Battle of New Orleans…

…and William Sherman’s hat, along with the sword he carried at Shiloh.

If you visit the McLean House at Appomattox today, the chairs inside the parlor are reproductions.  Here are the originals, in which Grant and Lee sat to hash out the end of the Army of Northern Virginia.

If you’re going to be a frontier officer, you might as well dress like a frontiersman.  Here’s George Armstrong Custer’s buckskin coat.

And we haven’t even gotten to the twentieth century yet.  You could easily spend an entire day in the Price of Freedom exhibit—and if you can’t visit yourself, you can check out the artifacts online—but there are treasures on every floor of the NMAH.  Some of the most remarkable are in American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith, which boasts the portable desk Thomas Jefferson used to write the Declaration of Independence…

…and the box Washington used to store papers from the Constitutional Convention.

Here’s an object with a Tennessee connection.  Davy Crockett received this ceremonial hatchet from a group of admirers in 1835.

Some of the coolest objects are in the NMAH’s maritime exhibit On the Water.  Here’s some ammo recovered from the wreck of Blackbeard’s ship.

I’ve mentioned my interest in the history of whaling before, so I was delighted to find a section of the maritime exhibit devoted to it.  Here’s one of the basic tools of the trade.  Once this harpoon’s toggle head sank into a whale’s flesh, the rear prong sprang outward, holding the blade fast.  Think of it: Men climbed into small boats and used these things to wage close-quarter battles to the death against sixty-foot leviathans on the open sea.

The twisted iron below, wrung out of shape by a diving whale, is mute evidence of how fierce these contests could be.  That thing gave me chills.  It brings to mind Ahab’s remark about Moby Dick bearing harpoons “all twisted and wrenched in him.”  You can also see some of the improvements in the whalers’ arsenal that became more common in the late nineteenth century.  The harpoon gun and the exploding harpoon head, patented by Sven Foyd in 1870, allowed whalers to take down even the largest and fastest species.

A whaleboat outfitted for the chase:

With their prey dead, the whalers towed the carcass back to the ship and lashed it alongside.  Some men donned “monkey belts” like the one below to hang over the vessel’s side, where they stripped the blubber to render it into oil.  It was messy, dangerous work.

Chopping blades hacked the strips of blubber into “Bible leaves,” while skimmers and forks were indispensable tools around the boiling vats.

At the end of the day, of course, whaling was a business.  Ships’ logs recorded the number of barrels of oil obtained from each kill.

Whaling voyages were long; many ships stayed at sea for years at a time.  Scrimshaw carvings in teeth and bone helped sailors pass the time.

The NMAH also has an extensive collection of objects related to mass media and pop culture, but as a serious history professional, I wasn’t about to sully my intellect wi—HOLY CRAP, IS THAT THE BATMOBILE!?

Indeed it is, and it’ll be parked at the Smithsonian for three years.  And maybe it’s as appropriate an object as any for wrapping up a visit to NMAH.

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Filed under American Revolution, Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Tennessee history, dinner theater, the Bible, so forth and so on

A few days ago I heard a radio ad for Biblical Times Dinner Theater in Pigeon Forge, TN, plugging a show that combines gospel music, Bible stories, and…wait for it…Tennessee history.

Surprised by that last one?  So was I.  In fact, for a second I thought I’d misheard something.  But it’s true.  You can now eat a meal, enjoy live entertainment, get some religious edification, and learn about the history of the Volunteer State all at the same time:

This show was specially created for those of you who are fans of classic gospel music and who have an interest in the FAITH heritage of East Tennessee. You will meet great heroes of the Bible along with legends of Tennessee who took a stand for God’s Word, from Moses to Billy Graham, Noah to Davy Crockett, Joshua to Sgt. York and enjoy music legends like The Happy Goodmans, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Johnny and June Carter Cash, Elvis and more.

The website’s list of “Legends of Faith from the Bible and East Tennessee” also includes Samuel Doak and Andrew Johnson.  All you fellow Rev War and Tennessee frontier enthusiasts will recognize Doak as the Presbyterian minister who preached to the Overmountain Men at Sycamore Shoals before the march that ended at King’s Mountain.  Andrew Johnson needs no introduction, although I confess that when I think of great defenders of the faith from Tennessee, he’s not exactly the first guy who comes to my mind.

I’m assuming all these characters somehow figure in the performance, but I’m not sure if cast members actually portray them on stage or if somebody just relates information about them in between the songs.  One historical figure who does put in an appearance is the Apostle Paul, because he’s the narrator.

Part of me would pay good money to see Davy Crockett, Sgt. York, and Samuel Doak singing and cutting a rug alongside Moses and Noah, especially if the M.C. is a guy who wrote part of the New Testament.  But at this point I think I’ll have to pass on making a reservation.  I love Tennessee history, I love the Bible, I love theater, and I love a hearty meal, but I’m not sure I’d like them all at the same time.

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Filed under History and Memory, Tennessee History

From coonskin caps to lightsabers

In a few days, Disneyland is closing some attractions—most of them in Frontierland—to make way for construction of a new Star Wars themed area.  The Disneyland Railroad, Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes, Mark Twain Riverboat, Sailing Ship Columbia, and Tom Sawyer Island Pirates’ Lair will be out of commission for at least a year, while the Big Thunder Ranch Jamboree, Petting Farm, and a frontier-themed BBQ restaurant are shutting down for good.

All the American Wests collide in Frontierland, from Twain’s Mississippi to the desert Southwest. By Chuck, aka SolGrundy on Flickr – https://www.flickr.com/photos/solgrundy/ (https://www.flickr.com/photos/solgrundy/380968586/) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s somewhat fitting that Disney is replacing parts of Frontierland with Star Wars, because it reflects some long-term changes in the relationship between popular culture, childhood, and historical memory.

For kids of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation, the American frontier was the setting for a lot of the mass media they consumed and the toys they played with, whether they were listening to cowboy-themed radio shows in the 1930s or watching the wildly popular Davy Crockett serial on the Disneyland TV series in the 1950s.  The Crockett serial starring Fess Parker was so popular that it became a bona fide part of the Zeitgeist for children of the 1950s.  According to the L.A. Times, at the height of Crockettmania, parents were buying 5,000 coonskin caps per day.  The same article reports that Disney moved some $300 million in Crockett-themed merchandise before the whole thing ran its course.  I ran that figure through some inflation calculators.  Turns out $300 million in 1955 would be the equivalent of $2.6 billion in 2015.  To put that in perspective, it’s more than the 2013 merchandising revenue from Spider-Man, the Avengers, Batman, and Superman combined.

I can’t think of any historical-themed franchise aimed at kids from my generation or since that has had that kind of popularity.  Sure, I had a few Western-style cap guns, pirate swords, and toy rifles when I was a kid.  But the dominant media and toys of my childhood took fictional universes as their setting, not the frontier or some other historical era.  Instead of Crockett and the Swamp Fox, we had He-Man and Han Solo.  By the time my generation of kids came along, moviemakers and toy manufacturers had traded in the West for Eternia and Tatooine.  Same thing goes for today’s kids, whose cultural touchstones are the fictionalized worlds of Star Wars, Harry Potter, and so on.

I don’t intend this to come across as a “kids-these-days-don’t-know-their-history” rant.  It’s not that children of the seventies, eighties, nineties, and 2000s were any more susceptible to mass marketing or any less susceptible to a fascination with the past.  It’s just that the media and products aimed at kids have changed.  There aren’t any historical TV shows that can command the kind of market share ABC’s Disneyland show had sixty years ago, when there were fewer channels and the whole country was watching the same programs.

And despite the popularity of “historical” shows like the Crockett and Swamp Fox serials, I don’t think anybody would argue that they helped kids of the 1950s to develop any sort of historical sensibility.  The people and events depicted in these old programs bear little in common with their historical counterparts.  Indeed, Frontierland itself isn’t even a fictionalized depiction of any particular time or place.  Instead, it’s an imaginative evocation of all the different Wests of our imaginations: the palisaded forts of Crockett’s trans-Appalachian frontier, the steamboats of Twain’s Mississippi, the saloons and dance halls frequented by cowboys and gunslingers, and the dusty mining towns of the Southwest.

Still, exposure to a fictionalized past can help spark an interest in the real one.  Perhaps a history-themed entertainment franchise with the sort of popularity enjoyed by Harry Potter or Star Wars would create a new generation of budding historians.  As things stand now, though, I doubt that a major theme park built in the 2010s would devote an entire themed area to the frontier.  An amusement park with a Frontierland made sense in the 1950s, but the West just doesn’t have the same hold on kids’ imaginations that it did in the days of Roy Rogers and Fess Parker.  The past isn’t the mass-marketed playground it used to be.

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Two items of note from here in Tennessee

Eight Tennessee sites have joined the National Register of Historic Places, including Crockett Tavern in Morristown, just down the road from my hometown.  Davy Crockett’s family moved to the site when the famous frontiersman was still a boy.  The present structure is a replica built in the 1950s, during the Crockett craze whipped up by the Disney series.

I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t been there yet, but I’m going this year, as soon as they re-open for the spring.  It’s not that uncommon for history buffs to spend years driving all over the country to visit sites and let the ones in their own backyards fall through the cracks, but the fact that I’ve gone this long without crossing Crockett Tavern off my bucket list is downright scandalous.

Also, the East Tennessee Historical Society is hosting a Brown Bag Lecture on Jan. 16 at noon about an interesting archaeological site in downtown Knoxville: the home of Peter Kern, a remarkable guy who turned a run of bad luck into a fortune in the food business.  Kern was a German immigrant who settled in Georgia and signed up to fight for the Confederacy.  Wounded in Virginia, he went back home to recover.  While returning to the front by train, he ended up in Knoxville just as the city fell into Union hands.  Stuck in town for the duration of the war, he made the most of his situation and established a bakery and ice cream parlor.  Kern’s bread business was quite a success (you can still buy baked goods with the Kern’s label here in East Tennessee) and he stayed in Knoxville, running successfully for mayor in 1890.

So on behalf of my fellow East Tennesseans to whichever Yankee soldier managed to knock Kern out of the action—thanks for all the awesome sandwiches.

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

Crockett the celebrity

Here’s an interesting article on David Crockett’s public image during his own lifetime.  It’s written by Bob Thompson, whose Confederates in the Attic-style road trip book on Crockett hits stores next month.

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Spend a day celebrating East Tennessee history

…this Saturday at the 2010 East Tennessee History Festival in Knoxville, sponsored by the East Tennessee Historical Society.  From the looks of the schedule, there’ll be something for everybody—reenactors, live music and craft demonstrations, special tours of area historic sites and buildings, films, weapons demonstrations, and a birthday party for Davy Crockett.

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

History in your veins

Here’s an interesting news story, via a blog devoted to John Brown, about an event attended by descendants of Brown and his followers.  One of the attendees was Brown’s great-great-great granddaughter, Alice Keesey Mecoy of Allen, Texas.

For some reason the notion that I’m sharing the planet with John Brown’s great-great-great granddaughter struck me as pretty darn cool.

I had a similar feeling a few years ago when I saw a local TV spot here in East Tennessee.  It was a campaign ad for Andrew Jackson VI, who was running for a judgeship in Knox County.  The background music was an instrumental version of “The Battle of New Orleans.”  I had no idea there was an Andrew Jackson VI, and I certainly didn’t know he lived in Knoxville.  But lo and behold, it was true.

Technically, of course, he’s not a biological descendant of Andrew Jackson, who fathered no kids of his own; he’s descended from Rachel Donelson’s nephew.  But Old Hickory adopted the nephew and named him Andrew Jackson, Jr.  That’s good enough for me.

I actually met a John Sevier descendant once.  She was a delightful lady, and strikingly resembled the Peale portrait of him.

I decided to see what I could find out about people who are carrying history around in their genes.  Web browsers make it a lot easier to indulge this kind of idle, unproductive curiosity.

  • News story about the release of the John Adams dollar coin, with a picture and quote from a seventh-generation descendant.  I think he looks more like Sam Adams than John, but that’s just me.
  • Jefferson descendants have their own organization.  Benefits include burial at Monticello.  Last I heard there was a Hemingses-need-not-apply policy, but that might have changed by now.
  • Madison’s relatives also have a group of their own, with a spiffy website.
  • There’s also a group for Washington relatives, although His Excellency (like Jackson) had no biological children of his own, and thus no direct descendants. 
  • No Lincoln descendants left either, though if I had one of those John Adams dollar coins for every time somebody told me they were in Abe’s direct line, I could buy an original Gettysburg Address.  But here’s an item about a modern-day Abraham Lincoln who claims a distant relation.  Imagine the trouble this guy has passing checks.
  • Back in May, a Virginia reporter caught up with U.S. Grant’s great-great-grandson—who’s a Confederate reenactor.
  • A fellow named David Morenus has a website on his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandma, Pocahontas.
  • Davy Crockett’s descendants and relatives are taking applications for new members at their website.
  • If you’re one of the millions of Mayflower descendants, maybe you’ll be interested in joining this group.  Given the math, though, this is about as exclusive as having your name listed in the white pages.
  • Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., direct descendant of both Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, runs a foundation that opposes modern-day slavery, which seems very appropriate.
  • Here’s an old news item about an event with appearances by various relatives of Ohio’s presidents.  One of the guests of honor was a guy named Rick Taft, great-grandson of you-know-who.  According to the news item, he’s a lawyer and software developer.  Here’s a picture and blurb from his company’s website. 
  • The same event also hosted Stephen Hayes, great-great-grandson of Rutherford B.  He’s a consultant with one of those firms which have really impressive-sounding names, the kind for which you see commercials on television that never actually explain what service they offer.  I think this one finds people to run companies.  (Wouldn’t it be easier to just promote somebody from the ranks?)

And finally, for the rest of us whose family trees are undistinguished, weep no more.

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