One of the reasons I ride a bike is navigating through time and space -past, present, future- on the landscape. What is 'landscape'? It is the collective overlap of physical environment and cultural environment. Both have multiple layers of time in space, and space in time. In fact, at many points in time the artificial divide between conceptions of 'past' and 'present' blur. Most of all, being immersed in the surrounding environment can facilitate meaning and place-making.
I've always been interested in how people perceive places and how people create meaning through places. I try to listen to the voices, the versions and the scenes. I don't restrict meaning to organized tours, glossy brochures and pamphlets, but try to really find and listen to the many voices of a landscape. Even the quiet one of the physical environment, for it is not really silent.
Several things struck me during both my visits to Tennessee, more pronounced this visit than the first. One was naming -names attached to the physical landscape (called toponyms). They contrast like polar opposites to toponyms in Texas. Another is dominant voices in the past and the present. The former amused me, while the latter was a source of disappointment. I'll explain why later.
Regardless, during the last two days in TN both of these came to a head. It began earlier riding on the Joe Brown Highway, and continued growing to the surface. So my story begins here, at a site in Belltown.
The marker above offers a glimpse into history: a point in time and space, right there. But, as with most human interactions (especially with many divergent concepts of right, wrong, values, etc), it's way more complicated that this.
This is a good example of sequent occupance, the process by which a landscape is gradually transformed by a succession of occupying populations. All the physical environment on this continent has a human imprint at some time or another in space (here's that space and time continuum). Each population modifies the landscape left by the previous group; the landscape's dynamic character.
It is like biological genetics: any landscape has roots in a previous landscape and that is linked to its forbearance and to its offspring. What interests me is the evolutionary and dynamic nature of the landscape as shaped not only the earth itself, but also by all living things, including successive human cultures and populations. (This reminds me of my studies in forestry and silviculture)
Many times while in Tennessee I found myself drawing comparisons -differences and similarities- to landscapes in Texas and Oregon. Tennessee is too much like Maine to tickle my deep curiosity, but one reminder that surfaced often was that many settlers that came to Texas were from Tennessee. I often wondered.... why? (I still do)
Another interest was the Cherokee. My great-grandmother was Cherokee. That does not make me Cherokee or Indian, nor do I pretend to be. Nonetheless, I am curious not only about her and her people, but the interactions of the indigenous peoples on this continent and the Anglo-Europeans/New Americans. They were a world apart; in some ways, they still are. The question remains: "Why??" I'm still trying to understand. In looking for answers, I learn more about people, why we do what we do, why we are what we are, who we might become, and about our interactions with the landscape.
It all ties in, in various ways.
I learned some time ago that there were, and still are, Texas Cherokees. I thought that visiting the Nation in Oklahoma might enlighten me. Then I realized that they are too removed from their birthlands; the landscape that formed them as a large Nation in the southeast, and upon which they imprinted their culture for hundreds of years. There lies the origins of their mythology, beliefs, values, family histories, their pains and joys. When you want to know the 'truth', go to the source. But that can be misleading, too.
An archeologist/cultural geographer puts it in perspective: "Heritage sites are an organizing medium through which communities remember, consumed as place and experience by tourists seeking "authentic" "reconstructions" of the past. But heritage sites are always inventions, offering for consumption selective versions of the past. Definitions of authenticity and heritage, far from being politically neutral, hinge on who has the authority and power to define the authentic. Those who define authenticity will be able to have their account of history accepted as the public version." (Jakob Crockett)
So can one find the 'truth'? Or instead, a construction of a 'less-false' reality? The keys in any landscape -both physical and cultural- are voice, authority and authenticity. A convergence of these concerns helps produce a meaningful history. That is what I sought in Tennessee. It is what I try to find where ever I go; even Terlingua and Big Bend. It makes it all more 'real.'
During this trip to TN I was fortunate to spend time with Jack, a Tennessee native whose family, and family's family, grew up in the area of Tellico Plains. His voice, as well as that of his family by way of his family stories, enriched the visit. I learned more about the area than I could ever have as a typical tourist or vacationer. We rode through areas rich in history: physical remnants of previous occupants, their stories, his stories...all are voices. This was supplemented with reading before and after the week-long visit and from various sources. And maps. Lots of maps. And that is where the authority and authenticity come in.
I noticed last year, and later, that historical signs, brochures, articles, books, and papers (even maps) are many times inconsistent, sometimes even contradictory. I notice that here in Texas; a lot. But now I know why. So I wondered if anyone can ever know the 'facts.' But then, are the 'facts' the only important thing in history? In people? (harken back to sitting at your school desk reading about dates and events in history class, wondering why you had to memorize them, and who cares anyway?)
Facts are important, but only to pinpoint an event spatiotemporally; in time and space. The most important is meaning, the ways people have always created meaning through place and time. This develops meaningful history. People create history by things that they do, believe, say, sing, write, create and destroy: social action in time and in places. It engages people, elicits connections and incites empathy. Most of all, it shows people that many aspects of contemporary social and economic life that are taken for granted are neither 'natural' or inevitable. Rather, they are open to question, challenge and even change. As the old adage goes: "Why don't we ever learn from history?"
So, from that long introduction, I introduce Fort Louden. It was a fort built by the British around 1746 when the southeastern indigenous nations -Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, and Chocktaw- were caught in the middle of land lust and as a political volleyball between the British and the French. Both imperialists played the indigenous nations against the other with the same end in mind: to get their land. The ugly head of imperialism and land-hunger.
The Native Americans and the Anglo-Europeans -and later, the Euro-Americans- had more similarities than differences. (I refer those interested in this discourse to the most complete examination of this topic: A Strange Likeness: Becoming Red and White in Eighteenth-century North America, by Nancy Shoemaker, Oxford University Press, 2004.) The great gap was in the concept of land. And the landscape. We're still far from settling this issue and bridging the gaps, as unfolding history reveals.
The 1700's in the East was a time of tit-for-tat. The French built a fort, so the British had to build two forts. Both professed 'friendship' and trade relationships with the native tribes. As long as they were loyal to one or the other, not both. Another bait was the Shawnees, who had aligned themselves with the French, and who were sworn enemies of nearly all the southeastern tribes. So it was like an eight ball game on a pool table of thousands of forested acres rich in game, timber and water. Just don't hit the white ball in the hole.
Fort Louden was built near the Overhill towns and north of Great Tellico, once the largest and most powerful chief town in the entire Cherokee Nation, and for a long time, amongst the Overhill Towns. (Great Tellico was only a mile or so from the modern town of Tellico Plains. We rode through it, or on it. Nothing remains now.)
Relations with the Cherokee were shaky and tense then due to the current of power-play between the British and French, and the fluctuating loyalties of the various nations and tribes in the region. What neither the French or British understood was that loyalty meant different things to the natives. And loyalty from one local tribe was not loyalty of the entire tribal nation.
The native peoples had no central government or leadership. Each town had two chiefs: the war chief and the principle chief, who was responsible for civil matters. Sometimes they didn't agree on things, either. Regardless, the Europeans, and even the new Americans, couldn't seem to get it through their heads that the native peoples didn't share the same social and political structure that came across on the boats. They continued to see through European eyes. And they ignored the voices from the new lands. Never did the twain meet. Instead, they always clashed.
After a long series of tit-for-tat skirmishes - Europeans killing a group or town of natives, the natives retaliating likewise (another value intrinsic in all the tribes across the continent was clan revenge: tit-for-tat. But then, the Europeans proved to be no different in that respect, they just performed it differently and blamed everyone else)- a fox of a governor (of S. Carolina) at another British fort, Fort Prince George, captured under ruse an invited delegation of Cherokee peace makers, imprisoned them, abused them and killed several (a similar event occurred in Texas).
A group of Cherokee warriors retaliated, killing a lieutenant sent to meet with another Cherokee group outside the fort. The English then killed the remaining Cherokee prisoners in the fort. Of course, this incited the rest of the Cherokee nation, and a large contingency attacked Fort Louden in 1760. After four days of attacks, the Cherokee fighters appeared to abandon the siege (a common Indian war strategy) and then stealthily killed two soldiers when they left the fort to look for food.
Two Overhill chiefs agreed upon a truce with the captain of the fort under the condition that all weapons of the remaining garrison be turned over to the Cherokee, and the soldiers would be transported to Fort Prince George. The garrison left the compound after they had buried their shot and powder and throwing most of their guns in the creek. They camped on Cane Creek, in the field behind where the above historical marker now stands.
In the morning, the garrison troops found that their escort had disappeared and they faced a contingency of Cherokee warriors. They proceeded to fire on each other. Approximately twenty soldiers were killed. One junior officer who had befriended the local native people was spared and allowed to walk away with his life. In fact, he was escorted to the fort with provisions of food and blankets, in peace.
So, here on Belltown Rd, is one example of where one perspective of the landscape, one in time and space, is exhibited. One voice is heard. The others are silent.