Tag Archives: Kentucky

What your grandparents learned about the Kentucky frontier

This short classroom film about pioneer life in eighteenth-century Kentucky was produced in 1941, and it makes for an interesting historical artifact in its own right.  The frontiersmen are optimistic and hardy, the community in the fort is pleasant and sociable, the food is plentiful, the family slave is faithful, all the Indians are offscreen, and there will “always be freedom out there.”  Oh, and the candles are ready in plenty of time for the big hoedown.

How would today’s frontier historians tell this story differently?  For that matter, how would the pioneers themselves tell it?

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Filed under History and Memory

Take a tour of Kentucky’s War of 1812

The War of 1812 tour is now available on the Kentucky Historical Society’s Explore KY History app.  If you haven’t downloaded this thing, let me once again recommend it to you.  Most Americans probably associate the War of 1812 with the Chesapeake or the Gulf of Mexico, but Kentucky suffered more casualties in that conflict than all the other states combined.

Gov. Isaac Shelby as painted by Matthew Jouett, from the Kentucky Historical Society’s Hall of Governors via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most notable Kentucky vets was Isaac Shelby, who became the state’s first governor in 1792 and then ran for the same post twenty years later.  Shelby didn’t throw his hat into the ring until less than a month before the 1812 gubernatorial election, and he was more than sixty years old.

He won handily anyway, partly because he’d already made a name for himself during the Rev War and Kentuckians were gearing up for another confrontation with England. (Shelby had led a regiment at King’s Mountain; in fact, he was one of the primary architects of the expedition that defeated Ferguson’s Tories.)  In the summer of 1813 he took the field himself at the head of 3,500 volunteers who fought at the Battle of the Thames, thus seeing action in both of America’s wars with Britain.

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Hey, all you inconsiderate dolts who are defacing the cannons at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.  Peek-a-boo!  You’re being videotaped.

The elusive North American Nincompoop, captured on video while cavorting in the wild. Photo from the Middlesboro (KY) Daily News

Those artillery pieces aren’t replicas.  They’re genuine relics from Chickamauga and Chattanooga, and if you’re old enough to go pee-pee by yourself, you should have enough sense not to write, carve, or play on them.

While we’re on the subject of the Civil War at CGNHP, here’s an image I’ve had on my computer for a while that I don’t think I’ve posted on the blog before.  This is Cumberland Gap as seen from the Kentucky side when the Union held the pass.  The print itself is in the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum, within sight of these very mountains.

The Pinnacle is at the top left, Tri-State Peak at top center, and the road into Yellow Creek Valley is in the foreground.  Check out the fortifications on top of the ridge and on the slopes.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War

They’re really into commemorating the Hatfield-Mccoy feud

A new geocaching trail devoted to the feud opened last month, and a fundraising effort for a Randolph McCoy monument in Pike County, KY has been getting donations from as far away as Hawaii.  I wish every aspect of Appalachian history could generate this kind of widespread interest.

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Filed under Appalachian History

I showed up late to the feud

I didn’t watch The History Channel‘s Hatfields & McCoys miniseries when it premiered a few months ago, mostly because the notion of a fictionalized account of the Hatfield-McCoy feud from The History Channel filled me with the same foreboding I had when I found out that the Rock was going to star in a remake of Walking Tall.  But when an encore presentation aired last week, I ended up watching the whole thing, and it’s actually not half bad.

In terms of pure entertainment, Part Two is by far the best segment, and the scene in which the Hatfields execute three of Randolph McCoy’s sons packs quite a wallop.  (IRL this incident took place on August 9. 1882.)  To me, the standout performances are Kevin Costner’s “Devil” Anse Hatfield, Tom Berenger’s Jim Vance (Tom Berenger’s good in everything), Powers Boothe’s Wall Hatfield (ditto), Jena Malone’s Nancy McCoy, Lindsay Pulsipher’s Roseanna McCoy, and Noel Fisher’s Ellison Mounts.

Modern scholarship indicates that the changes taking place in postwar Appalachia led to the resentments that erupted in the feud.  The problem wasn’t so much the existence a traditional and primitive society untouched by modernization, but rather the reverse.  My biggest fear—and the main reason I steered clear of the miniseries when it premiered—was that we’d get six hours of the same old superficial, simplistic, and stereotypical depictions of nineteenth-century mountaineers as backward, violent, lawless, clannish, and ignorant.  Indeed, the feud itself helped generate and perpetuate these very notions.  For the most part, though, I was pretty pleasantly surprised.  The third part actually touches on the media’s role in popularizing the stereotype of a violent mountain culture in a scene featuring Bill Paxton’s Randolph McCoy.  While the embittered patriarch holds a sort of press conference at a relative’s home, a New York reporter and a photographer urge him to hold a bystander’s firearm while posing for the camera.

A few minor criticisms: I know it’s cheaper to film in Romania, but Eastern European mountains aren’t quite the same as Eastern Kentucky ones, so the scenic shots undermined the illusion a little.  Seeing men’s ponytails in a late nineteenth-century setting was also a little odd.  Finally, Appalachian accents continue to be hit-or-miss when it comes to Hollywood; some actors just can’t swing it.

Despite all the snark I’ve directed against The History Channel in the past, I’ll give them props for Hatfields & McCoys.  Ultimately, what impressed me the most about the miniseries was its success in depicting the feud as a wrenching ordeal in which flesh-and-blood human beings got caught up in extraordinary, terrible circumstances.  There’s something to be said for that.  Over the years, cartoons, TV shows, and other media have used the feud scenario as a comic, almost buffoonish affair, but whatever else it was, the Hatfield-McCoy conflict was a tragedy involving real people, and the filmmakers didn’t lose sight of that.  One could certainly do worse.

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Filed under Appalachian History

Bluegrass history on your smartphone

Check this out:

The Explore Kentucky History app connects historical markers, related items in the Historical Society’s collections and user-submitted images and stories to points of interest on a map. The information is then grouped together into tours, with a Civil War-themed tour the first available.

As of today, it’s available on iTunes.  I just installed it on my iPhone, and it’s awesome.  (And free!)  If you’re interested in the history of the Bluegrass State or the Civil War, you’re going to love it.

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Digging up Fort Boonesborough

They’ve brought in an archaeologist from across the pond to look for remains of the 1778 siege.  I went there a few years ago; it’s a neat site.

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Filed under American Revolution, Museums and Historic Sites