Archive | September, 2015

The Cane Ridge Meeting House

29 Sep

For a historian, there is nothing quite like a visit to a preserved historic structure where something significant began, such as Independence Hall in Philadelphia or the log cabin in which Abraham Lincoln was born. Such sites of course have a history of their own which is totally separate from the single moment in which something of lasting significance occurred within their walls, but it is that lone event which transforms them into something with more meaning. Being able to walk in and around them facilitates a connection with the past one can achieve in no other way.

Recently I had an opportunity to visit such a site in the form of a superbly preserved 1791 log church in a memorial park outside of the small town of Paris, Kentucky known as the Cane Ridge Meeting House. The original wooden structure today stands within a modern stone structure resembling a church.  The setting was beautiful, the guide gracious and knowledgeable, and history remarkable.


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The structure was ground zero for the famed “Cane Ridge Revival” of 1801—believed to have been perhaps the largest “camp meeting” held in America during the so-called Second Great Awakening, with at least 10,000 people in attendance. It is also the congregation from which eventually emanated perhaps the first and one of the most wide-reaching entirely American religious movements, known to historians of religion as the “Restoration Movement.” This movement sought unity among all Christians by attempting to practice Christianity as it was described in the New Testament, finding common ground in essential tenets of faith with other believers, eschewing any denominational label other than “Christian,” and insisting on the local autonomy of individual congregations. The Cane Ridge church is the mother church for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Church of Christ, and several associated faiths.

Having grown up in the religious tradition to which Cane Ridge gave birth, mine was a personally intriguing and meaningful visit. But in a broader sense as a student of American history, I found it fascinating to be able to sit in a place with such resonance whose connection to modern society could be traced with such precision. Kudos to the numerous volunteers, several organizations, and historians across the nation that have endeavored to preserve and interpret this unique piece of American history.


Review of The Mobile River, by John Sledge

22 Sep

Most of the numerous history books I read are informative, many are entertaining, and a relative few are what I would term compellingly written. Those that combine all three of these characteristics are rare indeed, and when they do put all this together they provide rare insight into their topics and become something more than a mere chronicle of events; they define a topic and give it life. Such is the case with John Sledge’s The Mobile River. The book is a beautifully written and sweeping account of an important waterway that ends up providing not just a history of an area but communicates a sense of place for a region.

Mobile River cover08192015

Although the Mobile, a stream which runs through the heart of Delta region emptying the Alabama and Tombigbee River systems into Mobile Bay, is technically one of the state’s shortest rivers, it is clearly one of its most historic. In the pages of the book, Sledge chronicles successive eras of life on the storied river including the experiences of prehistoric Native American societies, colonial era intrigue among the Spanish, French, and British, Civil War exploits, the rise of the steamboat era, the diverse commerce which the river facilitated, and the disasters and triumphs it has witnessed. Sledge is particularly well-qualified for the task of telling the stream’s story, having an intimate knowledge of regional history and being the author of several books on Mobile area history. He also brings a unique flair to writing which he fine-tuned during many years as book review editor for the Mobile Press-Register back in the days when the city had such a thing as an actual printed daily news source.

Two things particularly stood out to me as worth mentioning after reading this book. One is that Sledge has a gift for making historical personalities, even those about whom we only have the most basic information, come to life. From swashbuckling colonial military leaders to hardworking shipyard divers and welders, Sledge imbues the people who he discusses with vibrancy and character. Readers gain a unique insight into the real experiences of sailors, entrepreneurs, engineers, and longshoremen in the pages of this book and a unique understanding of how their brain and brawn helped lay the foundation for a regional culture and economy. Second, Sledge has an uncanny ability to make complex work and technologies understandable on a human scale.  Whether explaining the backbreaking work of stowing hundreds of bales of cotton aboard steamers, the political arguments over the attempts to dredge and direct the river channel, the ingenuity and sweat involved in operating enormous shipbuilding and repair facilities, or the construction of the massive tunnels lying some 65 feet below the water’s surface through which thousands of vehicles travel every day, Sledge moves with dexterity and keeps the narrative engaging.

As Sledge points out in the introduction to the book, he, and countless thousands of other Mobile Bay area residents likely have been beside (along the banks), under (driving through the tunnels), and over (on the bridge) the river, but only a small portion have really been on the river. It is a sharp irony that while Mobile is one of the nation’s top dozen ports, the hustle and bustle of the riverfront takes place almost completely out of sight of the great majority of local residents and its role in shaping its namesake city can easily be overlooked. In the pages of The Mobile River, John Sledge figuratively takes readers down among the stream’s lapping waves and allows us to swim in its current. It is narrative history at its finest, and those who read it cannot ever look at the river the same way again afterwards. It is a wonderful contribution to not only Alabama, but Southern historiography.


Review of Fort Bowyer: Defender of Mobile Bay 1814-1815, by David Smithweck

15 Sep

Forrest Gump said “Life is a like a box of chocolates. You never know what you might get.” Not sure if those prophetic remarks or the more concise and potent phrase “Buyer Beware” is more appropriate in regards to my purchase of Fort Bowyer: Defender of Mobile Bay, 1814-1815 written by David Smithweck. I came across this book as I was reviewing other potential books on The Amazon page did not reveal much information on the book except for two sentences on the fort and that it contained a mere 108 pages. The fort is of special interest to me with its important role in the War of 1812 in the Gulf South. Considering the limited amount of material written specifically on the subject, I took a chance and bought it. I had hoped to read a nice, but brief account on the subject and perhaps glean some new information, but I was sorely disappointed.


The book is a hodgepodge of information and does not read like a narrative. For example, one chapter contained brief summaries of the British naval squadron only to be followed by chapters displaying artifacts from the campaigns for the fort. The book’s back page states that “there are only documents, letters and contemporary newspaper accounts to glean a glimpse of its structure and its significance in its brief history.” That is as good a description of the book as any as after a brief introduction, the author simply uses these reports and newspaper accounts to provide information on the fort. A good historian places such important documents in context with appropriate background and text to write a narrative and the author fails to do that. Smithweck gathered some material on the fort’s history and typed it up and self-published a book. While I applaud his efforts of gathering some good material and many of the newspaper accounts about British efforts to take the fort were somewhat interesting to read, I cannot recommend the book to anyone. The beginning of the book contained an acknowledgements page with a list of many who helped him. I wish one of them had read his manuscript and helped him draft a narrative worthy of the subject.


The Importance of the “Story” in History

10 Sep

While it may be humbling for us as professional historians to think of ourselves as mere storytellers, I believe this is precisely the case. I also believe we should embrace that role. Rather than seeking to justify or quantify our field of work by some obscure set of academic metrics or an alleged thoroughness of technique, we should leverage its connection to a timeless societal need. People love stories. They crave stories. They learn from stories. Historians are blessed to work with real stories of real people; real decisions; real consequences; real drama; real places.

Open book isolated over a white background.

I read a lot of history books, visit a lot of historic sites and museums, watch more than my fair share of historical documentaries, and attend an inordinate number of presentations and lectures focusing on various aspects of the past. I also hold advanced degrees in history and have worked in the field for nearly two decades. While I do not profess to be an expert in historical interpretation, I have seen enough to know that when it is at its best it is in some form a simple telling of interesting stories. We should never disparage the fact that the public will always evaluate our work as much on its entertainment value as its scholarly methodology, and welcome our unique position at the intersection of amusement and education. Few other disciplines have such a luxury.


Review of Native Land: Mississippi 1540-1798, by Mary Ann Wells

1 Sep

In my continual effort to read as many accounts as possible of the interaction of Native Americans with Europeans in Mississippi, I came across Native Land: Mississippi 1540-1798 by Mary Ann Wells. This work tells the story of Mississippi from a Native American viewpoint from the time of DeSoto’s expedition to when the area became a U.S. territory. Wells, a free-lance journalist and self-proclaimed storyteller, wrote this account at the request of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History for the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in America.

Native Land

Wells seeks to translate the historical record in an accessible form for readers and one quickly sees the narrative as a story rather than a traditional historical account full of footnotes and references. She covers all the major events including DeSoto’s raid across the southeast, French attempts to colonize the region and their dealings with Native Americans and the subsequent English and Spanish attempts to control the area. She concludes with the United States finally gaining jurisdiction over the territory. She makes special effort in relaying these accounts from a Native American viewpoint. One cannot help but feel sympathy for the Native Americans as they are forced to interact with different nations and their representative leaders over a period of 250 years. At times, the Natives assisted their visitors and formed relationships built on mutual defense and trade. In the long run, however, the various European colonizers simply used the Natives for their own benefit. At times the Natives fought back and won various concessions here and there, but the power and influence of the white men eventually took a toll and forced the Natives to alter their way of life in a mostly negative way. Eventually, most nations were either destroyed or removed from the area.

Native Land is a good read, but not a great read. Upon beginning the book, I had high hopes that Ms. Wells’s abilities as a “storyteller” would translate into a well-written, dramatic narrative, but that did not turn out to be true. Some of the narrative dragged and failed to captivate my attention. Overall, the book succeeded in telling the story of Mississippi’s Native Americans and their attempts to accommodate new and strange visitors while maintaining their own way of life. In the end, that way of life was lost and as Wells describes it, exists only in the stories of the past.