Tag Archives: frontier

When the historical record is silent

Back when I was in the early stages of narrowing down a topic for my master’s thesis on King’s Mountain, my advisor said to me, “You might end up being more interested in who these guys are.”  In other words, there was a good possibility that I’d end up focusing less on the battle and more on the men who waged it.

As it turned out, I didn’t concentrate on “who these guys are,” at least not for that project.  Instead, I looked at the way contemporaries and later antiquarians interpreted the battle and the men who fought there.  It was more a study of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century perceptions of King’s Mountain and the men who fought there than anything else.  Actually, I owed that topic to my advisor as well; a scholar of war and memory himself, he made an offhand suggestion that I might look at the ways people remembered the battle.  That comment reminded me of a nasty nineteenth-century controversy involving some of the veterans, and off I went.

But since then, the question of “who these guys are” has preoccupied and vexed me.  Popular writing on the pioneers who settled the Appalachian frontier in the late eighteenth century tends to portray them more as stock characters than flesh-and-blood historical actors.  Here’s how East Tennessee writer Pat Alderman described them in one of his illustrated works of “history made interesting“:

These frontiersmen were sons of frontiersmen, accustomed to the rugged life of the new country.  They were courageous souls, daring and eager as they ventured along the unfamiliar trails leading westward.  The wide expanse of mountains, hills and valleys, covered with virgin forests and teeming with wild game, challenged their pioneer spirits.  This unhampered wilderness freedom, far removed from royal rulers and their taxes, was to their liking.  These bold, resolute men were self-reliant.  They were independent, individualistic, and not always inclined to respect or observe the niceties of the soft life.  Living on the outskirts of civilization, their law was to have and to hold.  They depended on the forest and streams for their sustenance.  They would pitch a fight, scalp an Indian or wrestle (“rassel”) a bear at the drop of a hat.

That’s laying the rugged individualism and buckskin on a bit thick.  It’s not so much a portrait of an actual group of people as it is a collection of frontier tropes.  The issue isn’t that descriptions like that are necessarily false, although I do doubt that any sane person who has ever lived has been eager to “rassel” a live bear.  The issue is that they don’t adequately address the question of who these guys really were, what they were doing west of the mountains, or why they got involved in the Revolution.

And those are the questions that have preoccupied me for a good, long while.  I distinctly remember the first visit I made to Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, the place where “these guys” mustered to begin their march eastward that culminated in the Battle of King’s Mountain.  I stood for a few minutes in front of Jon Mark Estep’s fine sculpture of a frontier militiaman at the park’s visitor center.

By Jon Mark Estep (sculptor), Brian Stansberry (photograph) (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

When I looked at that figure, the question came back to me, along with a few related ones.  What the heck were you?  What were you doing out here?  What did you want out of the Revolution?  How did you go about trying to get it?

When I headed back to graduate school, I decided that I’d try to whittle these questions into a dissertation topic.  With my doctoral advisor’s help, I’ve been in the process of doing just that.  I’ve also been compiling primary sources to try to get at some answers.  While this process has been exciting, the prospect of a dissertation-length project has forced me to confront a disconcerting reality: there isn’t as much evidence about “these guys” as I’d like.

One issue is that a lot of the sources they left behind date from years—in many cases decades—after the events I’m interested in.  This is something I learned when I was doing research for my thesis on King’s Mountain.  Veterans of that battle wrote about their experiences, but much of what they wrote dates from the 1810s and 1820s, during a revival of interest in the Revolution that swept the whole country.  As I’ve tried to broaden out my research to examine their Revolutionary experiences as a whole, I’ve found the same pattern at work.  Instead of contemporary accounts, I keep running into memories set to paper long after the events themselves transpired.

What’s especially irksome is the fact that the end of the Revolution seems to have marked a real turning point in the proliferation of written documents concerning frontier Tennessee.  Once you hit 1784, primary sources suddenly become more abundant.  In other words, the end of the period in which I’m especially interested is precisely the point at which I’ve got more to work with.  Cue the Alanis Morissette, right?

Frustrating as it is to grapple with these post-Revolutionary sources, an even more frustrating problem is the absence of sources that I know once existed.  One of the greatest disasters to ever befall the study of early Tennessee history took place during the Civil War, when a Unionist set fire to J.G.M. Ramsey’s house in Knoxville.  Ramsey was a doctor by profession, but he was also a passionate antiquarian who had met many of Tennessee’s first generation of pioneers in his youth and spent a lifetime collecting material about them.  He was also a fervent secessionist who served as a Confederate treasury agent who fled Knoxville when the city fell to Union forces in 1863; in his absence, an arsonist put the Ramsey home and its priceless historical collection to the torch.  Thankfully, Ramsey set down some of the fruits of his research in a monumental book on early Tennessee history ten years before his house burned, but one wonders what insights into the state’s beginnings went up in smoke.  (Sometimes people ask me what historical event I’d like to witness if I had a time machine; if I had my choice, I’d probably go back to the hours preceding that fire and grab as many manuscripts as I could.)

Fire and time took their toll on other early frontier sources, too.  Perhaps the greatest collector of frontier sources who ever lived was Lyman Draper, a nineteenth-century antiquarian who devoted his life to compiling original manuscripts and transcriptions of early borderland records.  Many of the letters he received in response to requests for information repeat the same sad refrain over and over again: I can’t be of much help, since the family papers got lost in the war.  Likewise, while reading Rev War pension accounts, I can’t count the number of times I’ve found references to records lost, documents destroyed in house fires, and discharge papers long since misplaced and never accounted for again.

All this makes those contemporary sources I do have all the more precious.  Whenever I run across a Revolutionary document from Tennessee that I haven’t seen before—a settler’s petition to North Carolina authorities, say, or a John Sevier letter from 1781—I feel like I’ve just stumbled across a stash of Dead Sea Scrolls.  There are so relatively few material traces of Tennessee’s Revolutionary era left that I get giddy when I’m in their presence.  Those King’s Mountain weapons at the State Museum and Carter Mansion in Elizabethton are of incalculable value, just because they link us to those dramatic few years of the late eighteenth century.

I realize that I’m hardly the only researcher who has this problem.  And maybe it’s my own fault.  After all, I’m the one who decided to examine a population of only several thousand people living in a newly settled frontier society.  Of course, good historians figure out how to work around dearth of material; there are creative ways of getting at information on people who didn’t leave much of a paper trail.  I’ve been in grad school long enough to learn some of the tricks of the trade.  But I desperately wish these settlers had left more behind, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous about the fact that they left so little.

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Tennessee 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.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Tennessee History

Question about eighteenth-century masculinity

So I’m working on a project linking frontiersmen’s mobilization in the Revolutionary War to eighteenth-century conceptions of masculinity and manhood.  I’ve been putting together a reading list of books on masculinity in early America, and I’ll be drawing on the work of John Ruddiman and Lorri Glover (who was one of my first grad school professors).

One of the angles I’d really like to explore is whether Americans of the Revolutionary era associated manhood to the defense of one’s home and family.  Since frontier settlers played up the need for security in their Revolutionary rhetoric, tying the defense of the home to manhood would make it a lot easier for me to examine the importance of ideas about masculinity that affected their participation in the Revolution.  Do any of you fine folks know of any scholarly literature or contemporary material that explores this association?

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Frontier types in ‘The Revenant’

It’s nice to see The Revenant getting some attention during movie awards season.  Although it takes quite a few liberties with the Hugh Glass story, it’s a well-made film and a powerful depiction of the hardships and dangers endured by the nineteenth-century fur traders.

One of the things that struck me about the movie is the way its two main characters reflect contrasting frontier archetypes, set apart by their interactions with the West’s original inhabitants.  These archetypes appear and again over the course of the American frontier’s history, from the colonial era through the late nineteenth century.

The Trapper’s Bride by Alfred Jacob Miller, via Wikimedia Commons

For some people, the frontier was a liminal realm where cultural and racial barriers broke down and where a degree of mutual accommodation and hybridity was possible.  Moving and living among Indians, these traders, trappers, and missionaries straddled the border between the worlds in which they were born and the ones they inhabited.  Examples of this type would include the coureurs de bois of New France, who sometimes too up residence among Indians, learned their languages, adopted their dress and customs, and married into their societies.  Another would be Simon Girty, who assimilated into Indian culture and fought with Britain’s Native allies in the American Revolution.

In the film, Hugh Glass (the title character played by Leonardo DiCaprio) comes across as this type of frontiersman.  Formerly married to an Indian woman, he has a mixed-race son and is himself bilingual, as fluent in the language of the Indians he encounters as he is in English.  The film’s Glass thus represents a particular frontier archetype: the white man for whom cultural and ethnic barriers are permeable.

Richard Slotkin has referred to the archetypal “man who knows Indians” in frontier literature.  This figure is often a warrior; he uses his familiarity with Indians to defeat them on their own terms, demonstrating his own superiority in the process.  The Revenant‘s take is a little different.  While Glass has violent encounters with Indians, the point of his ordeal is not so much that he survives by killing Native foes, but rather the fact of his survival itself.  Indeed, his ability to communicate and interact with Indians on something like an equal footing plays an important role in his survival.

If some historians have portrayed the frontier as a zone of adaptation and exchange, other scholars have portrayed it as a realm prone to explosions of bloody conflict.  From this perspective, the frontier was not a place where cultures overlapped and blended, but a place where they collided and ground against each other like tectonic plates.  For many frontier whites, familiarity with Indians bred contempt rather than accommodation.  They had no use for Natives, nor for the easterners who stood in the way of extirpating them.  The work of Peter Silver, David Andrew Nichols, Patrick Griffin, Brendan Lindsey, and Ned Blackhawk reminds us how prevalent this “Indianophobia” could become.  Historical representatives of the Indian-hating westerner would be men such as the Paxton Boys or the perpetrators of the slaughter of peaceful Christian Indians at Gnadenhutten.  An individual example would be John Kirk, Jr., who murdered a group of Cherokees under a flag of truce to avenge the massacre of his own family at Indian hands in East Tennessee during the 1780s.

In The Revenant, the treacherous John Fitzgerald (played to chilling effect by Tom Hardy) is the archetypal Indian-hating frontiersman.  He is suspicious of Glass for his past residence with the Pawnees, and is openly contemptuous of the son Glass fathered with an Indian wife.  Perhaps Fitzgerald’s hatred for Indians is as personal as Kirk’s, since the kerchief he wears on his head covers the scars of a scalping he survived and can still vividly recall.

I don’t know if the filmmakers intended Glass and Fitzgerald to stand in for these two contrasting types of frontiersman, the cultural hybrid and the Indian-hater.  But the degree to which the characters reflect the varied ways whites dealt with the frontier and its Indian inhabitants suggests a greater degree of historical sensibility than we usually get from Hollywood.  In any case, I recommend you see the movie for yourself.

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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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When the legend becomes Wikipedia, print the legend

I was at the grocery store the other day and ran across Bill O’Reilly’s Legends & Lies: The Real West, the companion volume to the ten-part TV series.  O’Reilly’s name is in the title, but the cover lists David Fisher as writer, so I’m assuming Fisher did the heavy lifting.  Anyway, it’s selling like crazy.

Nobody in their right mind should expect a glossy, heavily illustrated TV companion book to be a model of scholarly rigor.  But it looks like O’Reilly/Fisher really phoned this one in, even by the lackadaisical standards of pop history.

Check this out (sorry about the pic quality; snapped this on my phone in the store):

Yep, that’s Wikipedia on a list of “especially trustworthy” websites.  Wikipedia, for crying out loud.

Now you can all rest easier, knowing that your kids’ middle school research papers meet the same benchmarks as bestselling history books.

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John Sevier’s smack talk

I’ve been reading Massacre at Cavett’s Station by the eminent Tennessee archaeologist Charles Faulkner.  The titular massacre was one of the uglier episodes in the long history of white-Cherokee conflict on the Tennessee frontier.  It took place on September 25, 1793 when a massive war party (contemporary reports put their numbers as high as 1,500) headed for the territorial capital of Knoxville heard firing from the town and feared they’d lost the element of surprise.  Instead, they fell on Cavett’s Station several miles to the southwest, killing the thirteen men, women, and children who were there.

Remarkably, the Indians had managed to approach Knoxville without detection by John Sevier’s militia, but retaliation was not long in coming.  In what would prove to be his last Indian campaign, Sevier marched into Georgia and caught some of the perpetrators at Etowah, near present-day Rome.  The Indians were in a position to oppose the militia’s crossing of the Etowah River at the town, but when a party of the whites moved south to cross elsewhere, the Indians followed them and left the fording place near the town undefended.  The militiamen galloped back to Etowah, dispersing the defenders and putting the town to the torch.

Apparently Sevier decided that defeating the Indians wasn’t punishment enough, because he decided to up the ownage by sending them the following message, a copy of which is preserved in his journal:

Your murders and savage Barbarities have caused me to come into your Country Expecting you would fight like men, but you are like the Bairs and Wolves.  The face of a white man makes you run fast into the woods and hide, u see what we have done and it is nothing to what we shall do in a short time.  I pity your women & children for I am sure they must suffer and live like dogs but you are the Cause of it.  You will make War, & then is afraid to fight,—our people whiped yours mightily two nights ago Crossing the river and made your people run very fast.

J.S.

To the Cherokees and their warriors if they Have Any.

Ouch.  Not much for the niceties of spelling and punctuation, but the guy definitely knew how to twist the rhetorical knife.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Tennessee History