Tag Archives: Sycamore Shoals

Still life at Sycamore Shoals

I finally got to see the updated visitor center exhibit at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park.  The exhibit narrative offers a pretty good crash course in the history of Tennessee’s Revolutionary frontier, using some lovely murals, audio, artifacts, and a few tableaux with life-sized figures.

You can stand eye to eye with Dragging Canoe while listening to an audio dramatization of his speech denouncing the Transylvania Purchase.  He delivered these remarks in March 1775, just a short distance from where the exhibit gallery now stands.

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When Cherokee warriors launched an assault on the settlements in July 1776, one prong of the assault struck Fort Watauga.  Here’s Ann Robertson employing a little frontier ingenuity, using scalding water against a warrior intent on setting fire to the fort’s wall.

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Of course, another important moment in the history of Sycamore Shoals came in late September 1780, when the Overmountain Men mustered there for the march that took them to King’s Mountain.

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In terms of original artifacts, the highlight is this pair of kettles from Mary Patton’s gunpowder mill.  Born in England, Patton lived in Pennsylvania before migrating to the Watauga region with her husband.  The Pattons’ mill supplied five hundred pounds of gunpowder for the King’s Mountain expedition.  I think these material links to East Tennessee’s Rev War years are pretty darn special.

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If you wanted to identify one site as ground zero for Tennessee’s frontier era, Sycamore Shoals would be as good a spot as any.  It’s nice to see the place get the sort of modern exhibit it deserves.

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Colonial America, 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

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

A closer look at Branson’s Sycamore Shoals painting

If you haven’t seen the special exhibit of Lloyd Branson’s art at the East Tennessee Historical Society yet, I highly recommend it.  I’ve been twice, mostly to get a closer look at Branson’s masterpiece: his painting of the muster at Sycamore Shoals, on loan from the Tennessee State Museum.

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Completed in 1915, it’s a landmark in the history of Tennessee art and an important example of Rev War memorialization.  Branson’s epitaph refers to this painting alone out of all his other works: “THE TENNESSEE ARTIST WHOSE GENIUS CREATED THE PICTURE ‘SYCAMORE SHOALS’ AND BY IT IMMORTALIZED THE TURNING POINT THAT EANT LASTING VICTORY IN THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION A.D. 1780.”

I’ve seen it before, of course—so have you, if you’ve ever taken a look at my blog’s header—but always in the King’s Mountain exhibit case at the State Museum.  Without that protective glass and dim lighting, it’s like looking at a whole new canvas.  The colors are much more vivid, and you start to pick out details you’ve always missed.  It’s sort of like the first time you watch something in HD.

For example, here’s a group of militiamen gathered around a fire.  Looks like the guy on the far right is wearing a brown frock and leggings.  A little white dog appears to have followed his master to the muster ground.

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The guy in the blue coat is checking his horse’s feet—not a bad idea, considering he’s got a trip of something like 200 miles ahead of him.  One soldier with a blanket roll hurries to catch up with his comrades.  In the foreground, a volunteer kisses his wife or sweetheart goodbye, maybe for the last time.

IMG_1354I’d never noticed this African American before; he’s on the left-hand side of the painting, near the bank of the Watauga River.  The force that attacked Ferguson did include some black men.  Lyman Draper reports that Col. William Campbell’s mixed-race slave John Broddy was along for the march.  Another black King’s Mountain vet was Ishmael Titus, who was born a slave in Virginia and earned his freedom by serving as a substitute for his North Carolina master.

IMG_1357Here’s something else I’d always missed when looking at printed images of the painting: Branson put a couple of Native Americans at the muster.  Just a few months after the scene depicted here, the settlers in present-day Tennessee would be at war with their Indian neighbors again, and John Sevier would be leading his men south into the mountains on another campaign.

IMG_1348Is that a road running along the riverbank?  Perhaps it’s the trail that will take the Overmountain Men toward their camp at Shelving Rock.

IMG_1356There’s a fire going in one of the cabins nearby, and it looks like somebody’s cultivating the fields by the river.  More horses are lined up and ready for the long ride that will end in South Carolina.

IMG_1358Not all the Overmountain Men were mounted.  Here a group of footmen head out with rifles, blanket rolls, powder horns, and cartridge pouches.  As big and busy as this scene is, the amount of detail that Branson put into these small figures is remarkable.

IMG_1352There are two prominent men on horseback in the foreground, shaking hands with well-wishers before setting off.  If I recall correctly—and I don’t remember where I read this, so it’s a rather big “if”—the one on the left is supposed to be Isaac Shelby, and Sevier’s the one on the right.  Don’t quote me on that, though.

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Even more mounted volunteers head out from a fortified building (Ft. Watauga, perhaps?).  In the distance are the Appalachian mountains, the same ones Ferguson has threatened to march over to lay waste to the settlements.  The riflemen beside the river will be crossing those hills instead, headed in the other direction to take out Ferguson and his Tories.

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The more time you spend with the painting, and the closer and more carefully you look, the more you start to pick out finer details, and at some point all those seemingly indistinct figures start to take on a life of their own.  It’s not unlike the process of studying history, come to think of it.

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, History and Memory

Lloyd Branson’s art at the East Tennessee Historical Society

The East Tennessee Historical Society just opened a special exhibit on Lloyd Branson, one of this region’s most prominent artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The exhibit runs through March 20 and then heads to the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve encountered Branson’s work before.  The banner image running along the top of this website is from his painting of the Overmountain Men’s muster at Sycamore Shoals, the event that started the march leading to the Battle of King’s Mountain.  The original painting is part of the Tennessee State Museum’s collection, but it’s on loan to ETHS for this exhibit.

Some sources—including yours truly—have reported that Branson also painted the Battle of King’s Mountain itself, but that this work went up in flames when a Knoxville hotel burned down in 1916.  But it looks like the lost King’s Mountain canvas wasn’t a Branson work after all.  Adam Alfrey of ETHS tells the Knoxville News-Sentinel that contemporary newspaper reports attributed the painting to James W. Wallace, one of Branson’s students.

That’s not much consolation for the torched painting, though, because Wallace was a fine artist, too.  He did a number of works on regional and historical themes, including a really nice painting of the signing of the Treaty of Holston.  I’m dying to know what his depiction of King’s Mountain looked like.

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Revolutionary backwoodsmen ride onto the stage again

I’m obliged to Gordon Belt for passing this along.  In North Carolina there’s a new play in the works about the Battle of King’s Mountain and the men who fought there.  Here’s how the play’s author describes the backcountry settlers:

“They had a bone to pick with the British government even when they lived there,” he said “They lived a hard life under landlords that were very hard to deal with. They had famine and drought, and they were seeking a new life in the New World where they could make a living, raise their families and worship as they please.”
The settlers came to the backcountry of North and South Carolina and quickly adapted to the frontier area.
“They had to be rugged, independent people. They endured hardships, they had to fight Indians. They persevered,” Inman said.
When the war began, the backcountry patriots just wanted the British to leave them alone.
“The British said, ‘You have to support the crown.’ They said, ‘No, that’s not the way we operate.’ And so, they took up arms against the British and won,” Inman said.

The backcountry settlers who fought in the Southern Campaign have been the subject of dramatic works before, especially in the 1950s, when Pat Alderman‘s outdoor drama The Overmountain Men premiered in Erwin, TN.  It told the settlers’ story from the genesis of the settlements west of the mountains through the Battle of King’s Mountain.

Alderman eventually turned his research into a book, and if you compare the description of the settlers in its pages to the news item quoted above, you’ll see that the characterization of the backwoodsmen hasn’t changed much over the decades:

These frontiersmen were sons of frontiersmen, accustomed to the rugged life of the new country.…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.

In fact, you could quote lengthy passages from books on the backwoodsmen written in the late 1800s and find many of the same sentiments.  It’s fascinating to see how popular notions about the eighteenth-century frontiersmen have remained so steady.

For more information about Revolutionary-era settlers on the stage, check out Gordon’s book on John Sevier in myth and memory.  (Sevier was the subject of his own biographical play about sixty years ago.)  And if you’d like to see an outdoor drama about the eighteenth-century settlers for yourself, Sycamore Shoals hosts a very popular and long-running show every year.

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Keeping up with the Carters

Yesterday I finally took care of a nagging bit of unfinished business.  Being an aficionado of the Rev War and the Tennessee frontier, I’ve always had a soft spot for Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area, but I’d never visited Carter Mansion, the historic house museum just a few miles away operated by the park as a satellite site.

Built sometime around the Revolution, either by John Carter (one of the first settlers in what would become Tennessee and leader of the Watauga Association) or his son Landon (a veteran of the War for Independence and an important political figure on the frontier), the house is one of the oldest and most important structures in the region.

I’d wanted to see it for a long time, but it had been closed every time I’d visited the park, so when I found out about a living history event at the house this weekend, I jumped at the chance to make a special trip.  I took my cousin along; he’s a fellow history enthusiast who accompanied me on my last visit to the park.

If this doesn’t fit your idea of a “mansion,” bear in mind that most houses of that time and place were simple cabins; painted siding and brick chimneys weren’t the sort of architectural features you saw every day.

Where the house really knocks your socks off, though, is its elaborate interior.  The carved panels, crown molding, chair rails, and fluted columns of the first-floor walls put this home in a different class altogether from the rough dwellings typical of the eighteenth-century frontier.  Incredibly, some of the walls still have the original stain, visible above this fireplace in the parlor.

I’ve seen more than my share of historic house museums from the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, and this is one of the most beautifully restored and furnished of the whole lot.

Some members of the Carter family are buried on the grounds…

…although I could’ve sworn I saw John Carter himself treating some of the local militia to a patriotic libation.

A gang of Tories broke up the party by showing up uninvited, more than a little irate that their property had been confiscated.  The negotiations didn’t turn out well.

A good time was had by all—except for the Tories, I suppose—and I can finally scratch Carter Mansion off my bucket list.  Totally worth the wait.

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Museums and Historic Sites, Reenacting, Tennessee History