By Jeff Keeling
The ebullient Owen and I had enjoyed a mock battle, eighteenth-century games and a primer on the mechanics of a muzzle-loading firearm by the time we ran into Ron Short and his flax and fiddle Saturday.
It was all part of our trip back into the late 18th century at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Site in Elizabethton. Following a loosely-based reenactment of the Cherokee and British allies’ July 1776 attack on Fort Watauga, which began a two-week long (or more depending on whom you ask) siege against the settlers inside, we ventured inside the fort’s walls ourselves.
There we learned of the self-reliance that characterized the lives of men, women and children who had crossed the Appalachians in defiance of the Royal Proclamation of 1763. Lured by river bottomlands along the Watauga, Nolichucky and Holston rivers, they had operated outside the writ and protection of British authority. Prior to the 1776 incident, the settlers had been directed by governors and bureaucrats to leave the lands on which they had established farms and developed an often-tenuous coexistence with the area’s Native Americans.
Short, who works at Natural Tunnel State Park in Duffield, Va. and grew up in Dickenson County, kept Owen’s attention with his explanation of how the settlers utilized a highly labor-intensive process to turn the raw flax they grew into soft fibers that became the basis for their clothing. He pointed to the wooden covering protecting the unsuspecting from the flax hackle’s dangers, and of course Owen had to see and touch the spiked comb that people use to process the flax to its final, softest and finest state. It would double as a fine weapon.
Owen eventually trundled off to join in the “kids’ militia,” while Short and I chewed the fat about the steep economic and quality of life challenges facing Southwest Virginia. I had traveled up his way just a week before to an economic forum at the University of Virginia at Wise. I told him of pulling to the side of the highway to photograph the high Copper Creek railroad trestle enveloped in morning fog, entranced by the beautiful scene and determined to capture it with my camera.
We talked of this region’s sublime beauty, and of the Scots-Irish settlers who played a large role in its post-1750 history. Our conversation meandered back in time to the Highland Clearances in Scotland (Britain again, hmmmm), and even back to the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, built 1900 years ago “to separate the Romans from the Barbarians, ie the pre-Scottish peoples north of the river Tyne.
The love of the land, fierce independence, self-sufficiency and grit of the people who came to dominate Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee isn’t dead yet, but it’s challenged by the realities of declining coal and tobacco. The best-case scenario is a retention of the best of our area’s qualities and culture combined with a determination to remake ourselves – in education, diversity and innovation – into a force to be reckoned with in the new, global knowledge economy.
It’s a tall order, but the spirit of the folks who settled west of that line drawn by the Royal Proclamation can meet it. And frankly, there’s no good alternative. Raising our hackles and retreating into the slow decline of denial and isolation just won’t do.