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Wednesday, 16 July 2014 14:08

Getting at the nitty gritty of history

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mtnvoicesRegional histories are my favorite literary genre. It’s in them that the nitty-gritty of everyday life is most clearly portrayed. Dr. H.G. Jones’ Scoundrels, Rogues and Heroes of the Old North State (Charleston SC: The History Press, 2005, soft cover, 128 pp., $16.99), edited by K. Randell Jones and Caitlin D. Jones, is a collection of more than 50 such essays. They were selected from a body of work that appeared as a weekly series of columns titled “In the Light of History” published by the Associated Press in newspapers across North Carolina from 1969 to 1986.

 

Randell and Caitlin Jones (a father-daughter team based in Winston-Salem not related to the author) made the selection for H.G. Jones, who was born in the Kill Quick community of Caswell County, N.C., in 1924. A noted historian, Jones served first as the state archivist for the N.C. Department of Archives and History and subsequently as curator of the North Carolina Collection at the University of North Carolina.

For someone like myself, who has been writing a regional history column for only four years, the editors’ summary of the time Jones put into these columns (for which he “was offered no compensation”) is daunting: “With an average of 6 hours research for each of 884 articles, he donated over 2.5 years of 40 hour workweeks (5,300 hours) and wrote a half-million words that filled 17,680 column-inches of newspaper, enough to fill 134 newspapers without advertisements. During those 17 years he never missed a Wednesday deadline.”

The topics in this collection span 400 years of North Carolina history, describing events that took place on the coast, in the piedmont, and in the mountains. Since the author grew up in and worked in the central portion of the state, it’s natural that most of the essays are about that region. But more than a few are concerned with Western North Carolina. 

Several of the tales related were already familiar. There’s the one about Frankie Silver, “The only woman ever hanged in Burke County.” And there’s the almost obligatory recounting of the adventures of Lewis Redmond, perhaps WNC’s most famous blockader and outlaw.

But other stories were unfamiliar. From my point of view, one of these was particularly interesting. It was published under the heading “Quaint Notebook Describes North Carolina Deaths.” Therein, Jones described a notebook (“the book of deaths”) kept by Jacob (“Uncle Jake”) Carpenter of Avery County from 1841 to 1915. In his own idiomatic fashion, Carpenter recorded the facts concerning each death in his community as well as his personal observations, which were “sometimes favorable to the deceased, sometimes not.” 

According to Jones, in 1848 it was recorded that, “Ben Blalock, age 40 was ‘cild June 5 by tree cot far conny.’ Translated, that meant that Ben ran the wrong way when he chopped down a tree to get at a coon.”

In 1852, Old Charlie Kiney died at the age of 72, leaving behind “four ‘wimin’ and 42 children, all of whom went to preaching together and got along ’smoth.’”

“Young Joseph Carpenter was killed in 1862,” Jones noted. “What more poetic tribute could there be to a young soldier than this: ‘hey fot for his countery los his lif.’”

That’s the nitty-gritty of everyday life. I recommend this collection to you.

Editor’s note: This column was first published in The Smoky Mountain News in July 2005. George Ellison will respond to a letter in last week’s Smoky Mountain News by Gwen Franks Breese in a coming edition of The Smoky Mountain News.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .      

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