Archive | frontier life

Uncle Billy: The Evolution of a Legend, Part Two

Another Billy Rubottom story has a third version, less romanticized, a product of the change in sensibilities in our own era.  This one concerns the death of  Hilliard Dorsey, who was married to Billy’s daughter Civility. Dorsey was a former Confederate officer, like Billy a prominent Mason and community leader. Horace Bell’s portrait is not […]

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Uncle Billy: The Evolution of a Legend, Part One

William Wiley Rubottom, a California innkeeper and entrepreneur known to everyone as “Uncle Billy,” provided the inspiration for some serious storytelling.  Conflicting versions of two of these stories, set down twenty years apart,  offer a glimpse of the way in which stories can be used to reinforce the values of a place and time, and […]

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A Frontier in Flux

Perhaps Middle Tennessee was just too civilized for Newit Drew by the time he, his wife Sally, and their seven children set out down the river in 1816.  Ordinary farmers were wearing knee breeches and red vests, and their wives might own calico petticoats, lace, ribbons,  embroidered aprons and silk parasols.  In Nashville there were […]

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Women of the Border: Mary Kelly Bettis

The life of my great-great-great grandmother, Mary Kelly Bettis, spanned three stages in the evolution of the southern border.  She was born into a family of hunters, trappers and Indian traders, who settled on the St. Francis River, in the remote southeast corner of Missouri, in the first years of the 19th century.  Isaac Kelly, […]

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Everything Changes: Newspapers and Democracy

“It would diminish the importance of [American  newspapers],” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in 1840, “to believe that they serve only to guarantee freedom; they maintain civilization.” In the four decades before these words were published, there had been an explosion of newspapers throughout America, from the great cities to the tiniest towns.  In 1810 there […]

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Audubon in the Canebrake

We know John James Audubon because of his brilliant paintings of American birds, paintings based on his close observation of hundreds of species during the course of years of journeys covering the entire eastern half of the continent.  We know less about his manic energy, his incredible stamina, and his fondness for rather nasty practical […]

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Upriver by Keelboat was the Hard Part

Going down a river on a flatboat was the easy part.  When you reached your destination, or the place on the river nearest your destination, you simply took the boat apart, sold it for firewood, or used the logs to build yourself a new cabin.  Going upriver was something else entirely. Keelboats, described by the […]

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From Fort to Fashionable in Seven Years

The frontier period in Middle Tennessee did not last long. In 1780, only a handful of years after the long hunters had hunted  out the last of the game on the Cumberland Plateau, Kasper Mansker returned with James Robertson and a large party of settlers to the site of present-day Nashville.  That same year saw […]

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The Short History of the Long Hunters

They were the legendary hunters and explorers of  Kentucky and Tennessee, men like Daniel Boone (pictured at left,) Kasper Mansker, Joseph Drake, Isaac Bledsoe, and Uriah Stone, who set out from the mountainous edges of Virginia and North Carolina in the 1760s and early 70s.  They were known as long hunters, because they were sometimes […]

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Moving West

Two of my ancestors moved west over the mountains, one from Virginia and the other from North Carolina, within eight years of each other.  They were part of the “second wave” of settlement, yeoman farmers who supplanted the earlier hunters and Indian traders.  Both were moderately prosperous citizens, with standing in their communities.  Newit Drew, […]

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