Wow. Hard to believe we have already come full circle and completed our first year of graduate school!
Before recapping this semester and the year as a whole, I would like to briefly go over the my committee meeting from last week:
Overall, I thought discussions were productive, complimentary, and critical when needed. It seemed like all of the members were impressed by the amount of research I had collected and the literature I had read and collected as “comparable to that of a Ph.D. candidate.” My method was well understood: material culture as a lens into socio-cultural pastimes. With exception to log structures, I feel every member was in agreement with the appropriateness and usefulness of the objects I had chosen to analyze.
Moving forward, however, the committee did suggest that I will need to restrain and confine my focus a bit more. Everyone was pleased to see that I had taken their individual advice in breaking down topical considerations to a particular set of people and their niches, they insisted, however, that I be even more precise in my focus statement. “It is a MA thesis,” one member admonished me to repeat to myself here on. Admittedly, it was a tad hard to articulate to my members where I was coming from with regards to my argument(s) or premise(s). This was likely due to the size of the committee and some members having to leave early. Nevertheless, I agreed with their points and even anticipated that they would suggest that I continue to hone in on a manageable and more precise focus. I foresee my focus shifting to just German communities as the material evidence I have is predominately German-based objects. Doing so will still allow me to talk about cross-cultural interactions, I am just using these German families/ communities as a topical stage to discuss broader themes concerning NRV social and cultural foundations up to 1810.
I made sure before any members left that I would be sending them draft edits throughout the summer, while I am out doing field work or visiting archives/ museums. In addition, at the insistence of Dr. Puckett, I will be conducting some very brief oral histories of descendants of the NRV first families (Linkous, Price, Harman, McDonald, Kent, Harvey, Ingles, etc.)
In review, this semester was tough. Very tough. I had expected that my Fall semester would be more like Spring. The combo of thesis proposal writing and a research project of similar length was a daunting task. While I do see the benefit in assigning both classes at the same time, I did feel at times that focus for one was cut for the other.
Looking back at this year, I feel I need to make some continued improvement in my writing. I believe anyone would agree that I digest, analyze and vocally articulate my thoughts quite well. For some untenable reason, however, I seem to fall short when it comes to writing out my thoughts. Among my most commonly committed actions: clause use, long sentences, passive voice, word choice, sentence structure, are the most identifiable writing foibles. I have begun looking at several works that I have been advised to use over the summer.
Otherwise I cannot begin to be thankful for Dr. Jones and especially my group members (Kristin, Betsy) who have been an invaluable resource in identifying where and when I needed improvement throughout my drafts. This semester was a valuable experience and a mile marker that is now crossed. Let the research and editing/ writing begin!
(So, apparently my blog post from last week never got published. My apologies everyone. This blog will then be a bit longer to recap on the past few weeks!)
After meeting with Dr. Kiechle I can say that I am definitely more toward the “acceptance” stage in thesis process. While she illustrated the most questions/ concerns regarding my proposal, I slowly began to understand, unsurprisingly, that she meant well and did so to ensure I crafted, in her words “the most intellectually stimulant, but concise, Master’s thesis.” Of all of her constructive critiques, her belief that my research questions were appropriate but “too big” resonated the most to me. As I have prepared myself throughout this entire process, I appreciated her candidness in saying that I simply have way too much research to all fit within the parameters of an MA thesis. As a result, I had crafted research questions too broad and inclusive, rather than specific and inquisitive.
She also recommended a book whose author and title I had heard of before but never considered to include as part of my secondary literature bibliography. I will say that after reading most of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s most recent study, The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth(2002), I am very glad that I purchased a copy of it with my Amazon birthday gift cards :). In her book, Ulrich takes a seemingly elementary concept, “the age of homespun,” and shows how it was constructed to fill the romantic needs of a feminized Victorian culture, dominated by the ideal of separate spheres, for a useable colonial heritage that celebrated the contributions of women alongside those of men.
Any reviews searched for online will illustrate the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s brilliance. One reviewer stated that Ulrich narrates how “fourteen obscure museum objects, ranging from an Indian basket lined with wool to a half-finished silk stocking, to examine the gendered transformation of textile making in New England from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. In doing so, she links social history to cultural history by scrupulously detailing the origins of an imagined moment in the American past that was created, embraced, and preserved by nineteenth-century New Englanders who yearned for a pastoral heritage unspoiled by technology, of which the mill cities encroaching on their landscape were the emblems.”
Yet, to me this book’s value was not in her daring, albeit the always challenging task of longue duree histories, argument, rather it was the way she used one object per chapter (some even stretching to 4o pages!) to tell a history of society. As someone who foresees material culture as an integral component in my future historical work, her mastery, therefore, is exhibited by her placing mundane object within the lives of individuals, generation after generation. Supplemented with an extensive archival documentary record of letters, diaries, memoirs, probate inventories, and court records, she is able to tell richer tales that illuminate both the history of the object and likely reasons for the myth surrounding its creation. I particularly liked her chapter on a ca.1715 cupboard from Hadley, Massachusetts. Boldly constructed and colorfully decorated , this piece becomes in Ulrich’s hands a way to explore questions of cultural history. It was ”a little castle” for the display and preservation of personal wealth, especially textiles, and also ”an assertion of life and order” in ”a world where Indians, witches and illness lurked.” Its overall ”flamboyance” reflected the ”upstart” Barnards’ family history. Its decorative patterning, full of hearts, pinwheels and lavish floral imagery, tapped an ancient vocabulary of fertility and ”fruitfulness.” Its inscribed name declared ”both ownership and literacy,” and ”assured some sort of immortality.” Its status as ”movable” property — the usual inheritance of women, in contrast to the lands and housing reserved for men — enabled future generations to mark a ”female line.” Each rests on a thick tableau of historical detail. Brought together, they reconstitute the world of Hannah Barnard and her peers — and it all starts from a cupboard. Most impressive is how Ulrich is able to demonstrate the changing delineations of meaning, ownership and use from generation to generation.
While she offered me several other outstanding suggestions for future development, Dr. Kiechle made sure I realize the importance in clarifying precisely: 1) who my historical actors are, 2) what questions I wish ask from both my material and text-based sources, 3) identify when, where, why and how community formation occurs (as she brilliantly noted that most early American migrants had already developed communal identities before arriving to their destinations) and lastly 4) hone in on and clarify what/ where the spatial boundaries of my research lies.
After this past week I have taken Dr. Kiechle’s suggestions to heart, begun organizing a meeting with all four of my committee members and continued to edit, but also “fine tune,” my thesis proposal. Other than Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book, I have begun reading, also suggested by Dr. Kiechle, Jane T. Merritt’s At the Crossroads: Indians and Empires on a Mid-Atlantic Frontier, 1700-1763(2003), and several other material culture guides specifically for historians, (see History Beyond the Textand History and Material Culture). Before reading these several guidebooks I considered myslef already well-oriented with material culture methodology and interpretation. Yet, after meeting with with Dr. Kiechle I felt like a touch up on some the basics would assist my efforts to reconfigure my research questions, argument, and topic’s spatial considerations. The biggest takeaway I have learned this week is while I am finishing my edits on my proposal and future research within my thesis, I need to ask myself and tell my readers what type of material culture approach I am taking; 1) history from things–treatment of material items in same way texts are treated/ interpreted–, 2) history of things–analysis of the relationship between objects, people and their representations–, or 3) history and things–considers artifacts positioned outside history altogether to permit historians to make creative and freer ways of conveying ideas about the past that are not not necessarily mediated by written language.
In light of these considerations, I have changed my title and time frame to: “Farmers, Entrepreneurs, and Craftsmen: Cross-Cultural Interaction and Community in Virginia’s Upper Valley Backcountry, 1760-1810.” I believe such changes will 1) give me more reasonable/ practical time frame to address within a MA thesis, 2) specifically places the actors in the front of my work for my audience to recognize how my chapters will likely be organized, and 3) this more constrained/ specifically delineated topic allows me to precisely address how cross-cultural interaction facilitated social, economic and political development in the southern backcountry. While emphasis is placed on how cross-cultural interaction and cooperation occurred, I will also address how particular socio-cultural identities remained distinct if not disparate. For instance culturally distinct folk art such as gravestones carved by Wythe County ‘s German migrant, Laurence Krone reveal the cross-cultural understandings and interactions. While Krone and other skilled (primarily German) craftsmen carved a niche out of their own socio-cultural understanding of the means to prosperity, Scotch-Irish families like the McGavocks (who owned and operated the lead mine at Ft. Chiswell) recognized German families’ specialty in certain trades. Such is evident by the McGavock family cemetery in Ft. Chiswell whose gravestones were predominately carved and inscribed in the German tradition, Laurence Krone.
Other items reveal that particular cultures maintained certain socio-cultural values, distinct from others within the New River Valley settlements. For instance, bed chests and the fraktur-style Taufschiens (birth certificates) were distinctly German elements of craftsmanship
that did not cross socio-cultural boundaries, whereas ledger account books and the items ordered and listed demonstrate the particularly merchant-based identities of Scotch-Irish and English families. Yet, the commonplace material objects on a landscape, such as a log house, demonstrate how cross-cultural interaction still remained an inseparable means of thriving within a frontier. While German vs. Irish floor plans in the lower Valley were distinguishable from 1720 to 1750, upper valley communities like in the NRV demonstrated how overtime migrant families came to interact, cooperated and learn from their frontier counterparts. These interactions contributed developed more amalgamated designs of folk architecture that shared German, Scotch-Irish, English, and African elements. Nevertheless, as I illustrated earlier, this does not mean that these “acculturated,” since specific niches and identities remained distinct across socio-cultural boundaries. Yet, similarly, this does not mean these families “persisted,” as we have seen that their living across the landscape was shaped integrally shaped by cross-cultural networks of cooperation and interaction. Thus, my work challenges the supposed “acculturation” “persistence” dichotomy that prior scholars have used in determining socio-cultural integration in frontier zones.
As for meeting with my committee, it appears that next Monday morning (according to the Doodle poll sent to all of my members) will most likely be the ideal time and day for all of us to meet. I have shared my edited thesis proposal with each one and asked at the very least to scan over its main points and argument to allow each member to generate any questions, comments or concerns concerning my proposed thesis work.
So I am happy to report that the Graduate Committee has recommended that 1)I have on my committee my suggested members of Dr.’s Winling, Ekirch and Puckett and 2) that my research should be made into a thesis. However, I will admit my initial reaction to expressed “concerns” to my proposal in Dr. Jones’ report from the committee made my heart sink a tad bit. Nevertheless, I quickly recuperated and reminded myself that this is part of the process!
The most pressing concerns expressed with regard to my proposal was that I needed to seek more demographic and migratory literature pertinent to my work. The committee’s report particularly recommended that I read Jane T. Merrit’s At the Crossroads: Indians and Empires on a Mid-Atlantic Frontier, 1700-1763. In additon Dr. Ekirch suggested that I read the eminent environmental historian, William Cronon’s path-breaking work, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, since my work focuses so much on the idea of landscapes being an agent of continuity and change within a colonial/ early American context. I did not do such a good job at unpacking this concept in my original proposal request so Cronon’s work, I believe, will get me thinking how to address this along with a book a I read last semester for Dr. Kiechle’s course, Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America. Additionally, Dr. Anita Puckett recommended that I touch base with some of the descendants of the New River Valley’s first families such as the Price, Linkous, McGavock, Christian, Craig, Havens, Harman, among others as a oral history source. No worries, I am not trying to add yet another layer to my research archive, but simply tapping into the value of the local community that has long lived, worked, and thrived upon the NRV’s landscape for generation after generation. They will assist me contextualizing certain localities, businesses and regions that their families have operated from. Also I have begun to dig a bit deeper into demographic information of the region. Particularly I will look at the 1790, 1800, and 1810 census of Montgomery, Wythe and Giles (founded 1806) counties. The committee also recommended that I extend my literature review to incorporate the ideas in Leora Auslander, et al, “AHR Conversation: Historians and the Study of Material Culture,” American Historical Review, (December, 2009): 1367-1369.
Lastly, I asked Dr. Jones if there was anyone on the five person committee that particularly raised concerns so I could I talk with that faculty member for further clarification and ways to improve further. Thus, I contacted Dr. Kiechle, thanked her for her insightful critiques and requested a meeting to discuss her aforementioned concerns. She happily agreed, and I am similarly looking forward to our meeting on Wednesday at 3:00.
Aside from the Graduate Committee’s notes, Dr. Jones’ and Kristin’s peer review of my proposal also elicited some keen points of praise and recommendations for further improvement. Dr. Jones and Kristin both were kind in their evaluation of my historiography in discussing frontier and backcountry literature. Yet, they both highlighted some points for me to address. Particularly they highlighted my need for continued improvement in unpacking/ clarifying abstruse or broad statements, such as this: “The historical layers of the upper Valley’s earliest inhabitants, thus, remain packed away, and regarded by some, Tillson included, as impenetrable due to a dearth of sources.” Most important of all, was Dr. Jones’ hint to that I need to establish and trace the development of my claimed acculturation and persistence dichotomy (tendency for historians to analyze the colonial backcountry’s peoples, oftentimes an eclectic sort, as either socio-culturally persistent or acculturated to socio-cultural norms and values shaped by those back east) within extant backcountry literature. I have listed several historiographical conversations from the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (1993), William and Mary Quarterly (1990), and Journal of Appalachian Studies Association (1995) in my bibliography. Thus, I will likely extend my proposal’s literature to incorporate some of the major turns, themes and foci traced within these historigraphical forums to demonstrate how the persistence/ acculturation dichotomy became the staple methodological consideration of historians of the backcountry overtime.
In retrospect, I was at first taken back by the comments and concerns within my first round of critiques; particularly those from the Graduate Committee. Yet, I rebounded and have, I believe, established a game plan that will remedy the majority if not all of the concerns the committee, Dr. Jones, and Kristin raised. For now, I have a committee (and I have met with each one to ask their permission to recommend them to the Graduate Committee already), and I have been given the go ahead to make my research into a Masters thesis. So there are some wins right there!
P.S: Found some great new archival sources last week. Particularly NRV personal property inventories like this one from Wythe County’s Robert Crockett in 1815:
Or this one from Montgomery County’s James Barnett in 1811:
Inventory sheets such as these two are tremendously helpful to me as they not only demonstrate how values is measured within a certain time period and place, but also general trends in personal property ownership. Lastly, Barnett’s is interesting in that is concerned with identifying all free blacks and mulattoes living within the region, which offers me some material to analyze racial considerations within a frontier and how it was shaped overtime.
One week later, I still cannot believe we have already written a first draft of our thesis proposals!
Is it just me, or was it kind of fun to get everything we have worked on this year onto paper for the first time? For me it was just nice to finally get all of my thoughts, sources, methodological considerations, topic and argument onto paper for the very first. All of our blogs, classes and discussions culminated into our very first proposal draft!
As this was my first draft (of many) proposal, I have observed and learned some keys lessons throughout the process. For one the need to be concise and direct has never been more important. Emulating Dr. Jones’ advice to write like a lawyer rather than a detective, I tried to build a case, block by block. Yet I quickly learned that in order to do so I would have to be as pithy as possible in my proposal. This meant whenever possible, I would have to cut out extraneous verbiage such as “I truly believe…”, “As I have mentioned previously…”, or “It can be argued at…” Everytime I found myself using statements/ words similar to these statements, I deleted it from my proposal and kept a side list of phrases/ words to avert.
I have additionally learned the necessity to regularly stop and consider how one constructs a proposal. Often while writing my proposal I found myself having to stop to think about logistical considerations: how have I built my methodology, have I concluded all of the evidence I wish to examine, are the seminal texts I wish to engage with mentioned? In retrospect I know I forgot to mention several things in this first draft; namely a chapter outline and more details explaining my use of sources. When crafting my chapters, however, I found it to be the most difficult task surprisingly.
Lastly, this first draft of my proposal has further demonstrated the need for me to constrain my thesis’ topical focus. Dr. Ekirch recently met with me and after permitting me to recommend him as a committee member, he was delighted to the amount of sources I had archived but similarly noted how I will need to narrow my topic down. He said that while a focus on community/ town development is fine, I will need to find a way to focus my topic onto distinct categories that highlight how cross-cultural interaction acted as an impetus and underlined the New River Valley’s development. Otherwise, I would be stretching my analysis too broadly and synthetically that would attempt to encompass all aspects of societal development. I will likely center my focus on how craftsmen (gravestone carvers, folk artists, cabinetmakers, gunsmiths, joiners/ ), farmers (cattle herders, planters), and businesses (taverns, ferries, stores, mine operations) reveal some of those underlining cross-cultural engagements. I think I have accumulated enough evidence to one day construct into dissertation, but for now must confine my analysis to actually finish my thesis on time!
Bertoti 2014 is in the hist0ry books. Some great papers, lectures and presenters highlighted the 17th Annual HGSA conference and I was able to present a conference paper for the first time. Though a memorable and enjoyable couple of days, I now see why HGSA exec has stressed over this conference for the last few months.
First, I noticed some really great things during this year’s conference. Above all, the choice of Dr. Brundage as our day two keynote speaker was spectacular. Also, the continued selection and use thereof the Graduate Life Center as our venue choice I believe has been wise. Additionally, preparations this time around in advanced of the conference were implemented (i.e, holders for the Bertoti banner, better technological awareness, mini fridge etc).
That said there were some items that will be consideration next time around. First, preparation at least the day before the conference is vital. While everyone was finally able to use required technologies for their presentation, troubleshooting was required hourly. Simply going through the motions on Friday before the conference would have assured everyone that the A/V equipment in each meeting room worked. Additionally, and this cannot be blamed on one single person, better attention to detail on things like the program, nametags, and items required in each room and when, will be needed next year. In regards to the latter concern, making a checklist for each meeting room’s required equipment would be sufficient. Second, while marketing this year has been much more effective, I would have liked to see more outreach to local historical societies in counties throughout SW VA. Lastly, a greater focus on incoming and perspective students will be needed next year. Oftentimes, these new students went missing throughout the chaos of Saturday’s events, thus, prohibiting any report with them. While understandable that downtown Blacksburg was flooded due to a music festival, preparation and expectation should have been emphasized for the prospective dinner. While I was able to book a last minute room at the GLC to accommodate all of us, it nevertheless made us appear unprepared that we had to wait until 9:15 to feed our new students.
(OK, let’s see if I can get to the pith this time!)
How and what can material culture and the historic landscapes on which they were crafted and used tell us about the burgeoning years of European settlement/ development in the New River Valley? Using an interdisciplinary methodology consisting of folk material culture and landscape analysis, I shall examine how and what dynamics underlined the nascent New River Valley’s town and community development from 1740 to 1810. While most scholars have analyzed this region’s early history with a primary focus on its political elite or political cultural ideals, I focus on how cross-cultural interactions and subsequent identity formations shaped and underlined the region’s shift from frontier to an upland southern habitat. Overtime, a majority population of Scotch-Irish, in coalition with Englishmen, consolidated an elite hegemonic order that necessitated an Anglophonic society. While a minority population of German, Welsh, and enslaved Africans adapted to this new order, they retained their Old World cultural baggage that was projected upon material and landscape scripts throughout New River settlements. My study uses material remains, ranging from recovered artifacts, decorative or funerary folk art and furniture, an assemblage of folk log structures analyzed both qualitatively and quantitatively, field reports analyzing historic landscapes of the New River Valley, and documentation ranging from ledger account books, family papers, court records, newspapers, among others. My work adds to the literature of backcountry studies by challenging future scholars to look more closely at the local and communal dynamics. In doing so, historians can break away from the acculturation/ persistence dichotomy in discussing the colonial American frontier.
As we have seen throughout the semester, most of us know what we want to do methodologically; we just struggle in actually articulating it!
First, some context behind my proposed methodology as an historian. I attribute the way I think as an historian largely from the breakthroughs of past scholars; namely, the late historian Rhys Isaac, folklorist Henry Glassie, and historian Ann Smart Martin. To say that Isaac’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning work,The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790 has attributed to my historio-analytical foundation would be an understatement. Clearly inspired by anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s symbolic anthropological methodology, Isaac employs the concept of “deep play” as a tool of ethnographic analysis. Isaac asserts the influence of evangelical religious movements over the eminent gentry status, and analyzes the means by which these evangelical groups (Baptists, Methodists, etc.), counteracted the domination of the gentry through public disapproval of their previously upper-class practices.
With regards to Glassie, his work on Folk Housing in Middle Virginia (1975) and his earlier 1971 work, Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States generated my interest in how folklore and material culture can work in harmony to produce historical work. By looking at landscapes holistically, he shows how historians can witness more broad cultural patterns overtime. Using selected examples to show how patterns operate, he draws from diverse areas: architecture (the section on barns is particularly well done), tools, ethnic cookery, small boats, and many other forms. Also, his work taught how language can be considered an aspect of material culture. A grammar, in linguistics, is a set of rules for the formulation of utterances in such a way as to be mutually accepted by all speakers of a language. Likewise, a grammar can be thought of as a set of rules for the creation of artifacts mutually accepted by the members of the culture producing them. Such rules definitely exist, even if they cannot be explicitly stated by their users. Otherwise there would be no consistency in design traditions or in methods of creating houses, tools, or weapons.
Lastly, Ann Smart Martin’s material culture approach in Buying into a World of Goods: Early Consumers in Backcountry Virginia (2008) has helped me understand how spaces can be viewed as material example of historical patterns of thinking. Especially with regards to commercial spaces, her innovative approach melds fascinating narratives with sophisticated analysis of material culture to distill large abstract social and economic systems into intimate triangulations among merchants, customers, and objects. Martin finds that objects not only reflect culture, they are the means to create it.
So, where does my research’s methodology fit within these scholars’ work? I would say that I fall more closely along the post-structuralist school of thought, especially within the tenet that discoverable patterns of structuralism are trapped in perspective, that context shapes what one perceives, and thus there is no one objective structure to language. I position myself as a socio-cultural historian, emphasizing how and what facilitates past outlooks or worldviews. By examining how human beings interacted with, produced, and exchanged objects upon their landscapes, I aim to demonstrate how such objects and landscapes are agents of continuity and change as sources of ideas. As Martin argues, objects not only reflect culture, they are the means to create it. The language produced within objects and cultural landscapes are reflective of this contention. Thus, my research question of “what can material culture and the historic landscapes on which they were crafted and used tell us about the burgeoning years of European settlement/ development in the New River Valley” aligns quite nicely within my proposed methodology.
How and what can material culture and the historic landscapes on which they were crafted and used tell us about the burgeoning years of European settlement/ development in the New River Valley? Using an interdisciplinary methodology consisting of material culture, folk studies and landscape analysis, I shall examine how and what dynamics underlined the nascent New River Valley’s town and community development from 1740 to 1810. While most scholars have analyzed this region’s early history with a primary focus on its political elite or political cultural ideals, I focus on how cross-cultural interactions and subsequent identity formations shaped and underlined the region’s shift from frontier to an upland southern habitat. My study uses material remains, ranging from recovered artifact remains, decorative or funerary folk art and furniture, an assemblage of folk log structures analyzed both qualitatively and quantitatively, field reports analyzing historic landscapes of the New River Valley, and documentation ranging from ledger account books, family papers, court records, newspapers, among others.
Although most scholars of the southern backcountry have generalized regional developments as a processes of acculturation or persistence, a closer examination of the New River Valley’s early settlers proves that cultural development in the southern frontier cannot be so easily pigeonholed. True, a majority population of Scotch-Irish, in coalition with Englishmen, did consolidate an elite hegemonic order that forced an Anglophonic realm. While a minority population of German, Welsh, and enslaved Africans adapted to this new order, nevertheless they retained Old World cultural baggage projected upon the material and landscape scripts throughout New River settlements.
STATEMENT OF SIGNIFICANCE:
My research demonstrates how objects and landscapes can be examined as sources of idea. It offers historians a chance to recapture the essence of the “new social history’s” primacy on investigating the smallest, most intimate groups in society wherein these cultural landscapes and objects resided. Conceptually, my work adds to the literature of backcountry studies by challenging future scholars to look more closely at the local and communal dynamics. In doing so, historians can break away from the acculturation/ persistence dichotomy in discussing the colonial American frontier.
Ah, what a productive and enriching week! Some much needed sleep, rest….and research! 🙂
While visiting home in Richmond, I spent a day and half at the Library of Virginia. While there I examined and photocopied several maps of southwestern Virginia counties drawn by John Wood in 1821 but most important of all, after suggested by Dr. Winling, I examined the microfilm of the Virginia Historical Inventory from selected counties of southwestern Virginia. Just to be sure nothing went unpublished/ undigitized, I scanned through each one and quickly concluded all of the slides had indeed been uploaded. However, when I pressed the librarians more into the origins and types of photos and sketches WPA workers made throughout the late 1930s, I was told that there were actually alot more extant analog photos and sketches that were never published!
Under the auspices of the Virginia/ WPA Historical Photography and Sketchwork from 1900 to 1940, I ended up taking home at least 50 plus photocopied images this collection. Upublished/ rejected Historic American Building Surveys (HABS), folk sketches of the southwestern Virginian cultural landscape, photographs, unpublished archaelogical reports, rejected National Register for Historic Places for four cemeteries and churches; all represented some of my amazing findings. If that was not enough, LVA also directed me to online database: “The Farber Gravestone Collection,” sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society. This collection has over 78 images of gravestones from southwest Virginia which, I hope, to now use as an unique material artwork to examine historically. Especially examining noticeable/ prevalent German or Scotch-Irish features, styles and symbols, these stones offer another layer into the private realm of past ordinary people.
Life and death are the two most prevalent cosmologies in the human experience. Thus, how we wish to be remembered is a reflection of one’s worldview. What does a gravestone written in German tell us about the frontier community in 1810? Initially, it demonstrates a people’s persistence in holding markers of their Old World ideologies and lexicon. The American Historical Association said it best in 2001: “These gravestones are a significant form of artistic expression and also serve as precious records of biographical information. In their inscribed narratives of death and in their very design, the stone memorials record a social history, both of the individual and of the community.”
So, some updates this week. I officially have a new addition to my committee: Dr. Anita Puckett, Director of the Appalachian Studies program and specialist on the New River Valley. After meeting with her last week, we were both overwhelmed with how much we both had to offer for each person’s own research efforts. She is currently working on a ethnographic-linguistic study of mid eighteenth century and early nineteenth century identities of New River Valley citizens. Combined with my collection of material culture and folk architecture/ landscape research, one could not ask for a more pertinent match! She will be of tremendous value as an anthropological expert of the region and as someone who could facilitate further local/ regional oral histories.
Currently, that means I have two members of my committee (upon approval by the Graduate School committee) : Dr Thorp (adviser and chair), and Dr. Puckett. I am quite certain when I ask/ recommend Dr. Winling he will want to be included as well. He has been invaluable in assisting me with digital tools that I am considering to use in my research. Particularly I envision reconstructing the old Ingles Farm and Ferry site on the New River to depict and analyze how commercial spaces operated in the eighteenth century. I am also considering Dr. Ekirch, if the Graduate Committee permits me to have four members.
That all said, I am going to give this focus statement a try! Of course I know this is inexorably going to change. But as Singles states, “If you can’t talk through [integral] questions, the next best thing is to engage in freewriting.” (91):
– How and what can material culture tell us about the burgeoning years of European settlement/ development (1750- 1810) in the New River Valley? What can this tell us about constantly reconstituted power and social dynamics within this region? Using a mixed methodology of material culture and cultural landscape analysis, I will examine why and how cross-cultural interactions within the New River Valley either facilitated or deterred constituted zones of power and social identity. It is my contention that from 1750 to 1810, cultural persistence and acculturation coexisted in both dialectic and harmonic means. While New River Valley residents lived and interacted with one another to achieve communal goals of survival and development, socio-ideological disparities persisted among select pockets of the community.
1) Mitchell, Robert D. Commercialism and Frontier: Perspectives on the Early Shenandoah Valley. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977.
Taking a historical geographic approach, this study of the eighteenth-century Shenandoah Valley of Virginia emphasizes land tenure and agricultural exploitation. Mitchell examines commercialism as it affected land usage and frontier social development and appraises the effects of environmental variation, external political influences, and different cultural groups on economic change. After testing some aspects of the Turner thesis, the author views the valley as progressing through a brief phase of primary subsistence into reoccurring periods of commercial evolution. The study’s extensive scope incorporates the entire commercial system, ranging from the frontier storekeeper to eastern seaboard centers. Specific concerns include growing agricultural specialization, the construction of an internal and external road network, and increasing diversity in manufacturing. In tracing the evolution of the agricultural economy, attention is devoted to the raising of livestock and the major crops of wheat, rye, corn, and flax, though barley, oats, hemp, and tobacco were also grown. In terms of utility, Mitchell’s text is a classic in studies of the colonial southern frontier. Preceded by Warren Hofstras’ works on the region, Mitchell’s text is a seminal look at the historio/ cultural geographic dynamics of the Shenandoah Valley in which landscapes and commercialism are seen as one holistic, historical script. I hope to incorporate such a methodology in my examination of folk architecture whereby the commercial developments
2) Hofstra, Warren R. The Planting of New Virginia: Settlement and Landscape in the Shenandoah Valley. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
As a great way to see how the literature has progressed over the years, Warren Hofstra’s most recent work on the Shenandoah Valley focused more on individual town-country developments throughout the Valley. The term “New Virginia” denoted an eighteenth-century geographic division between planter and small farm economies in Virginia. For Hofstra, the name reflects new cultural and economic directions that emerged in the West during the colonial era and the early republic. Hofstra probes that development by placing the scope of the study within the larger geographical and historical context of the Virginia backcountry. Hofstra combines the terminology of cultural geography, economic studies, and history to argue that landscapes are the products of intricate forces that extend over several generations. By using this approach, he rejects Turnerian and eurocentric interpretations that fail to trace the intricate complexities of that development. Landscapes, Hofstra explains, are encoded with specific historic backgrounds that denote the impact of human groups as they negotiate their coexistence with and manipulation of the environment. Yet unlike Mitchell’s Commercialism and Frontier (1977) , Hofstra examines settlement and development of the Valley landscape in distinct phases to demonstrate how the area grew out a combination of imperial demarcations and ethnically oriented values. More important to my research emphases, through small towns Hofstra focuses one end of “a functional continuum of surrounding villages, hamlets, and open country neighborhoods” (12). This town-and-country end state was a product of economic forces that Hofstra interprets in part via “central place, staple, functionalist, and long-distance trade theories,” leaning especially toward the latter two. Hofstra “also looks at the more conventional historical fare-land policy, imperial relations, local and colonial government, war, capitalism, and consumerism”
Before I begin discussing my source’s purpose and value to my research, allow me to transport you back to a time and space that only after you conceptualize will you be able to understand the significance of this structure seen before you.
The hills of Ireland are damp, below the dam, rocky and thus hostile to the hoe or plow. A farmer cannot survive in such an environment. As such, the Irish terrain yields a particular type of settlement. Indeed, the land dealt to you by the cosmos tell you to not grow turnips, but to instead raise cattle. As such cattle is and remains to this day, the backbone of the Irish economy.
As the wet hilly valleys reap luscious and green pastures for the consumption of those stubborn beasts, a farmstead is required in order to properly raise your cattle. A house and barns are required that facilitate this economy. When building a house, the Irish house plan is constructed around the highland plan; whole lot of rain leaves you a lot of grass for cattle. Therefore, you build your home far away from your neighbors to allow cattle roaming. Nothing too extraordinary about it; simply a rational adjustment to the physical environment you have been dealt with by history.
It here, where we must begin our historical analysis. A look into the Irish homestead, a venue that truly must be read as a cultural-historical document. Traditionally, the east and west of Ireland have dichotomous house plans that adapted the their landscape overtime. To the east the Irish house is typically low, thatched and has an entrance blocked by a chimney. This plan is typically seen as influenced by English cultural traits. Yet toward the west, a different typology emerges. One that relies more so on the hilly and rocky valleys for survival and sustenance. The western house is low, thatched and whitewashed. Unlike its eastern counterpart, the opening is not blocked but completely open. Upon entering this house, you will immediately notice you are in the smallest room of the house and that a doorway is directly parallel and across the room. The biggest room is to your left and usually can fit up to five persons in an entire family. It provides the hearth; the only heat and light source in the entire house. The smaller room provides the utilitarian purposes: stubborn cattle to go in and out of, to thresh upon the threshold, among other undesirable activities wished to be kept away from the main room.
Fast forward to 1720. In the span of fifty years, over 100,000 Irish immigrants will travel to North America, seeking new beginnings and independence. The most common port to arrive through: Philadelphia. There, you venture west as you do not find land suitable to farming. Heading west, you build stone houses , staking everything you have on a new landscape, culture and polity.Once settled, you fell trees and begin digging up the natural stones underneath the ground to create a stone cabin almost identical to the one traditionally built in western Ireland: low and with two room (one big one little).
But then you decide to move once more. Moving further west, you run into the Blue Ridge Mountains: a vast terrain of magnificent and overwhelming natural obstacle that stretches all the way down south to Georgia. Down the ridgeline, you encounter the first settlements across the Shenandoah Valley established in 1737 by a group of Dutch protestants. Truly, this place must be considered America’s first frontier. An amazing place of exchange where America was invented.These two groups settled down, exchanged with one another, and developed the most clear American house, an Irish cabin with German logs.
Known as the “continental house,” the german cabin had long permeated the American cultural landscape. With similar origins from Pennsylvania arrivals, the Dutch plan had a central chimney that split the house into 3-4 rooms for social and utilitarian purposes. While one room may be dedicated to personal space (beds), the others have may serve a gregarious setting. You can parlay in the parlor or withdraw in the drawing room without sacrificing a source of heat or light as the chimney provides both for at least two rooms.
Yet the Irish house from before amalgamated and procured building techniques from their Dutch neighbors. What emerges is the same house we are all familiar with. A low, gabled house, one big room, one little room…..yet the exterior is a matter of technical
Prototypical American Log Cabin, ca. 1800
Wythe County, VA
convenience. Horizontal log hewing and notching originated from Scandinavian settlers from the 17th-century that the earliest Dutch settlers embraced as a pragmatic response to the environment they had been dealt with by history. Yet it is still the house plan that must be analyzzed in order to determine cultural traits. Thus, what can we call a log cabin? An Irish house, with German logs!
As the years go by however, two major developments occur. 1) you decide more privacy was needed in order to truly distinguish yourself from your other cattle herder in the Appalachian, 2) you are influenced by a sub-altern cultural trait that allows external protection from heat. For privacy of bed spaces, you had two option 1) extend the house laterally or vertically. When extended laterally, the Irish two room plan is now stretched into a three room plan. In vertical extensions, Irish plan remains the same but two additional rooms are added above that align perfectly with the two on the first floor.
Yet as a farmstead, you are suggested by one of your neighbors to construct some coverage that would hide the sun away from you and yet provide platform for more technical purposes: a porch. Whenever you see a porch on early/ colonial American homes, transport your mind to not Europe, but to West Africa. More specifically, the American porch originated from Yoruban slaves taken captive in the Caribbean, sold to New Orleans and the Carolinas, and then into the backcountry of Virginia. The “shotgun” house of New Orleans typified such a construct. Thus, the porch was quickly added onto the log cabins of the Appalachian region as an efficient and practical adjustment to the environment.
Thus, the log cabin of the old was not simply a makeshift structure constructed and developed under universal conditions and vernacular patterns. Rather, these structures were practical adjustments to the environment dealt to them by history, based on their cultural baggage that provided them with a set of blueprints on how to adapt and react. In the end, you have this structure that introduced earlier. Now we have a basic contextual understanding of this structure’s origins, we can read it as a historical text. Allow me to read it for you.
Attend to the plan. You notice first from looking at this facade the porch. An African element, signifying that this was likely a later addition to the house. Yet the two floors were originally constructed as one structure, as the logs are universal in age and variegation. The line on the right side of the facade stretching from the roof down, lets the outside observer know that four rooms exist in this house: on one floor with one big room and little room and the same directly above. There is our Irish house. Several millenniums of cultural persistence, yet amalgamated with Dutch and African features that best adapt to one’s surroundings.
What does this all tell the historian? It is folk architecture like this structure that permits the historian to examine aspect(s) of settlement patterns and particular view(s) of one’s social world. As Fred Kniffen and Henry Glassie once stated: “Folkways are comparatively the simplest and most direct expression of fundamental needs and urges. They conform to type with a minimum of individual deviation, and thus attest o the innate conservatism of their practitioners. They are often areally (unoccupied landscape), even when not numerically, dominant.”
Thus, folk architecture provides an immense value as material culture. Objects and houses do not merely reflect culture but also are reflect the means by which it is created. They symbolize and communicate intangible ideas, build relationships and proffer pleasure. They are “complex bundles of individual, social and cultural meanings grafted onto something that can bee seen, touched, and owned.” When looked within the broader landscape (the New River Valley region) one is able to concretize and conceptualize early settler’s “sense of place.”
Nevertheless, there are limitations to this source typology. As seen in my overview, this is a very specialized and specific study of material folk culture. It requires, thus, a previously acquired knowledge established within years of published secondary literature. Interdisciplinary methodology is a must. Appreciation and implementation of archaeological, anthropological, and geographical principles achieve such ends. Yet, one must be careful when doing so. The dangers of swaying too much into one of these disciplines conceptual conclusions is undeniably present. The historian’s narrative means is not anthropological but historical. Interdisciplinary understanding can provide the conceptual foundations, yet the means must generate historical ends: the history of people, not things. Material items facilitate historical understanding of changing patterns of human behaviors and/ or ideals.
This is not to say that log structures are my only sources, THEY ARE NOIT! Like any good historian, my sources must be supplemented with other typologies in order to properly contextualize the historical significance of my research findings. A vast collection of blanket chests from Wythe County offer an additional type of material culture for further insight into the social world within these log structures. As these chests specialize overtime, one can see how socio-economic condition changes along with broader consumer interest in such items.
Ledger accounts from Kent Jacobs, Jr. and Ingles Ferry Hill Tavern also offer a supplemental look into the socio-cultural mindset of a past people within these frontier zones. The particular items purchased, clients listed (and information on their positions in society) reveal much about town development, early American consumerism, and broader connections to markets stretched across surrounding colonies/ states. Lastly, travel accounts provide the words to conceptualize the cognitive map, or sense of place in the 18th and 19th century. Take for instance this excerpt from Bishop Augutus Gottlieb Spanenberg, 1752:
“Here we have at length arrived [at the New River] after a very toilsome journey, over fearful mountains & dangerous cliffs…Part of the way we had to crawl on hands and feet; sometimes we had to take the baggage & saddles & the horses, & drag them up the mountains…Arrived on the top at last, we saw hundreds mountain peaks all around us, presenting a spectacle like ocean waves in a storm.”
Alot of this material will be emphasized during my presentation, but I hope this at least provides some background on where my historical mind has been in the past several months.