|Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association, No. 12 (1999)|
1950-51: The academic year my father used the GI bill to get a
master's degree at the University of Kentucky, the year I spent
in my grandparents' home and at their general store, the year
the Upland South stamped my life and work. My mother, little brother
and I lived with my maternal grandparents in Beckton, Kentucky,
a town of about twenty-five at the time, located in the farm country
between Glasgow and Bowling Green, Kentucky. In our household,
three generations lived together in a multigenerational household
typical of farm families for hundreds of years.
The extended family gathered in the evenings in the front room
where we continued supper conversations until bedtime. In this
time before television, the grown-ups spent the evenings talking
while the youngsters played on the floor. In summer, we'd go outside
to enjoy the relative cool of the evening. The grown ups would
sit in wooden lawn chairs while we children played on pallets
on the ground or lay on our backs looking up at the stars in the
Each evening the talk followed the same pattern: who had traded in the store that day, who they were related to, what land they owned, and who'd owned it before them, and before them. The group included two storekeepers, a patent medicine salesman, three secretaries in offices that did extensive face-to-face business, and a farmer who gathered with fellow farmers loafing at the store at the end of the workday. Beckton had been their home throughout their lives and they shared many acquaintances whom they saw frequently. Their talk wove a network of local connections that covered the Barren, Warren, and Allen County area and reached back to a time before the Civil War.
Figure 1. Photographer unknown. "Little" John Ruskin Richmond with daughter Cora (left) and wife Mary Ann (nee Pare) in front of their house at Kepler, near Smiths Grove, Warren County, Kentucky, about 1898. Photograph from copy negative in private collection. Source of original unknown.
The next morning while the family was seated at breakfast, the
neighbor arrived demanding payment for the whole barrel of whiskey.
Little John had neglected to shut off the spigot completely and
the rest of the whiskey had run onto the floor. The owner figured
Little John must have done it because other neighbors had seen
him headed toward the house swinging a jug and saw him lugging
it home later.
From my earliest memory I wanted to write down stories like those
but because I heard only the one year's talk, I needed to gather
more information to give the story body and to understand the
role plain people play in history. Academic histories in the early
1970s offered little of value so I turned to records close at
hand-oral histories and material culture. A few years later anthropologist
James Deetz made an important contribution to understanding the
nature of the history of ordinary people in his book, In Small
Things Forgotten.1 It is in the small things nearly
forgotten that we can make the connections between the daily lives
of ordinary families and the national record of the American peoples.
In the South, families are so important that it seems only natural
to study them and take seriously the materials they have saved
from their pasts. Collecting and integrating the history of our
extended family has taken me and the members of my immediate family
on an amazing journey into Jackson County, Tennessee, a county
that supposedly has no surviving historical records. By adapting
the historians' concept of sources to fit the kinds of data prevalent
in the Upland South, the history of the plain folk in the Old
South can be vividly reconstructed.
This paper has two objectives: to show how rich the history of
ordinary families can be when we combine traditional with non-traditional
sources, and to show how the history of ordinary Americans illuminates
our national history. Generational history offers the advantage
of providing natural networks of associates and kin that are often
difficult to establish in standard histories. Expanded, they can
become regional histories, showing migration motives and paths.
Histories of ordinary people that can inform histories of ideas,
religion, politics, or transportation can be compiled even when
direct ancestral lines are not available. For example, my maternal
grandparents died by the time I began my project but enough of
their generation were still living to corroborate earlier oral
traditions. They sent me to talk with their friends and to visit
family sites, and explained discrepancies in census and military
records, maps, and other people's stories. I began fitting the
pieces together in the early 1980s, while working on a degree
in American Studies. The discipline's broad interpretation of
"data" offers a viable framework for doing this kind
of historical research.
Research on the Richmond family began with traditional sources
but we quickly moved to less traditional sources for more accurate
information. Census records for Tennessee in 1840 and 1850 located
Little John with his parents in Jackson County. However, unable
to account for the several brothers working in the field that
he was supposed to be getting the whiskey for, we drove to Hartsville
where we knew that some Richmonds lived, and stopped at a Richmond's
general store to inquire about possible connections. We were referred
to Mrs. Richmond who was at the house tending to her canning.
She set it aside and accompanied us to her husband's uncle who
told us he had just the Bible records we needed. But he would
not share them with us for fear we would make money selling his
information and not share the profit with him. Instead we had
to gather names and dates at the Hartsville cemetery.
A visit to a distant cousin produced an unpublished family history based on oral traditions gathered by the late 1930s that we were permitted to copy. The search for corroboration of its many anecdotes has led us to church histories, court depositions, local histories and historians, and letters tucked into Bibles. The verifiable connections between people, locations, and ideas that these sources provide outweigh the various errors of fact we discover along the way.
Figure 2. Note Richman's Creek, Jackson County, Tennesssee, 1836. This is the approximate site of the Richmond's farm at Rough Point. Source: Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville, Tennessee.
After each visit to a storyteller or historian, I mailed a narrative
of the information we collected about each site and person to
our hosts who would return a corrected, modified, and expanded
version to me. My aunt searched the Tennessee archives for related
documents for me to integrate, my mother and another aunt located
Kentucky family documents and sites almost forgotten, and I consulted
social, cultural, economic, political, religious, and transportation
histories in libraries and archives. When all the scattered evidence
was gathered, the Richmond family history fit into coherent episodes
in the events that make up our American history and helped to
form our national identity.
The stories of ordinary people can be reclaimed. We have corresponded
with other Richmonds who identified unlabeled photos that our
ancestors had saved for generations; they often had similar poses
from the same sitting or event. Queries about southern Richmonds
in a New England family-name newsletter published for several
years in the late 1970s enabled us to cast a net broad enough
to confirm our South Carolina origin and to establish contact
with many of the Richmonds descended from the South Carolina ancestors
our branch left behind in about 1800.
A few instances from Little John's family line show how family-centered
research can establish direct connections to broader topics. Oral
tradition and civic documents combined to reveal how Little John's
father's odd behavior was typical of frontier experiences that
gave rise to the American tall tale. Until I read John Moore Richmond's
Jackson County Court records for the 1830s and 1840s, I had thought
northern writers penned imaginative myths about the South to make
it seem exotic to the likes of Harper's Weekly readers,
but the court records disclosed episodes in the lives of our own
ancestors that could easily have been written by Mark Twain or
Figure 3. Ruth B. Wood, photographer. Records in the Jackson County, Tennessee, courthouse, September 1996. Source of original: Beverly Brannan, Washington, D.C.
Jackson County is notorious for its lack of civil records but
I felt we had to go to the courthouse to confirm the lack for
ourselves. Once there, we found several basement rooms packed
with records in unmarked boxes. With very little time before the
courthouse closed for the weekend, I reached out for a box that
caught my eye. I experienced, as one friend called it, an epiphanic
archival moment; it was the "R" box with a fat "Richmond"
folder that we copied entirely (Figure 3).
These court records disclosed that Little John's father, John
Moore Richmond, went by his middle name Moore. In 1831, Moore
Richmond was operating a liquor store from his house on Gainesboro
town lot #1, where he lived with his young family. On Christmas
eve 1837, he sold his house and business to two men I'll call
buyer A and buyer B for the sake of brevity. Buyer B was not present
at the sale. Moore accepted in payment a promissory note for $550
extended by a third man, also absent from the sale. I was shocked
to learn from Moore's deposition that he sold his house and business
to complete strangers in return for a second-hand promissory note
from yet another stranger!
Over the course of the next four years, buyer A plied the region
by steamboat-from Louisville to Nashville-producing stock, mostly
"spiritous liquor," for the store he operated with his
brother-in-law who was buyer B. When the note fell due and Moore
tried to collect, the buyers escaped with all their possessions
in a small boat on the Cumberland River. They went to Arkansas
where buyer A was killed before he could be brought back for trial.
The man who had extended the promissory note used in the initial
payment could not be found either, and like the buyers, he had
left no property to attach. To complicate matters further, buyer
B had sold a portion of the property to a fourth party who claimed
he had paid cash to buyer B and therefore owed nothing to Moore
Richmond. In a sale of the property on the courthouse steps, Moore
Richmond's father Robert purchased it for $600.2
This episode is only a prelude to Moore's many land and property
transactions, conducted more for their braggadocio effect on drinking
partners, it seems, than out of any good business sense. If we
recall the ego-enhancing function of inflated claims, we realize
that records of land purchase can tell us about both the anxieties
involved in being seen as a man whose word was his bond and the
litigious nature of frontier communities. Honoring oral agreements,
even those made under the influence of "spiritous liquor,"
was a way to uphold status in the backwoods communities of the
time, a phenomenon that writers have analyzed for more than one
hundred years in studies of independence, honor, and violence
in the Old South. Elliott Gorn catches the vicious nature of the
fighting in his wonderfully titled article, "'Gouge and Bite,
Pull Hair and Scratch': The Social Significance of Fighting in
the Southern Backcountry."3 Tracing the transaction
of Moore's property provided a meaningful context for the family
tradition that Little John's father used to "fight to see
who was the better man."
Initially it seemed odd that when referring to such a rough-and-tumble
society, people consistently cited their ancestors' religious
affiliations. First I used this to calculate the distance between
their dwellings and their churches. Later I realized that religious
affiliations were related to the same fierce sense of personal
independence that prompted frontier gentry to duel and backwoodsmen
to gouge out each other's eyes to defend their honor.
The simple declaration in our unpublished family history that
the Richmonds were "first Presbyterian by faith and then
Methodists" opened a window onto our ancestors' world.4
We had discovered that Little John's great-grandfather was a Scotch-Irish
Presbyterian who lived in South Carolina beginning in 1754. Specialized
histories explained the nature of the religious beliefs and political
philosophies in conflict in England, Scotland, and Ireland starting
in the 1600s. Over a two hundred year period, the predominant
religions-Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist-represented
a progressive search for greater independence in mobility, economics,
intellect, and faith. Sequentially they moved from ritual, symbol,
and clerical intercession with the Heavenly Father toward simplicity
of worship and direct communication with God.
From their religious affiliation and dates, we can situate the
Richmonds in this progression. They had lived in the South Carolina
community of White Oak for more than a decade when Anglican preacher
Charles Woodmason described the fierce resistance Scotch-Irish
Presbyterians mounted to his efforts from 1766 until 1772 to draw
them into the established Church of England. Presbyterian resistance
tactics included acts just short of guerilla warfare, such as
unleashing fifty-seven fighting dogs in the sanctuary while Woodmason
was conducting services.5 The Richmonds must have known
about such episodes in their tiny community, and possibly participated
in them, resisting every effort to diminish their self-determination.
After six years, Woodmason returned to England, acknowledging
the futility of trying to bring American colonists into the heirarchical,
class-conscious, state-supported church. On the eve of the Revolutionary
War, American colonists demanded greater freedom, both in religion
and in politics.
After the Revolution, the Richmonds provide a personal connection
to America's religious revolution, the Second Great Awakening,
which swept through the South from about 1800 through 1812. In
America: Religions and Religion, Catherine Albanese explains
that people living on the frontier valued a theology of action
over one of intellect, and that the churches that grew most rapidly
filled that need. The Methodist Church grew faster than any other
in the early part of the nineteenth century because it successfully
combined the optimism that accompanied the new century and the
new nation with a careful balance of key concerns of the day,
such as desires for the perfection of mankind, concern with restoring
religious practice to the basics developed in the first century
after Christ, missionary zeal, and a simple organizational structure.6
By 1802 the Richmonds had moved to the new frontier of Tennessee,
settling in Jackson County. On the frontier where people's spiritual
needs were not being met regularly by any religious institutions,
Methodists led other denominations in holding informal mass camp
meetings out of doors. People gathered annually at camp meetings
for up to a week to listen to preaching, to pray and sing together,
and to socialize. From 1800 until 1813 southern Presbyterians
and Methodists held joint camp meetings, including in the Cumberland
River area of Tennessee where Francis Asbury, who established
the Methodist Church in America, conducted meetings himself. During
this period the Richmonds switched from Presbyterianism (which
held that individuals are pre-ordained by God for eternal salvation)
to Methodism (which posits that eternal salvation is available
to all who profess faith and follow the steps prescribed for a
godly life). The place and timing of the Richmonds' switch from
Presbyterians to Methodists places them squarely in the mainstream
of American religious tradition.
Hundreds attended the camp meetings so singing schools were set up to teach people common sets of songs and how to sing them together. The English-based shaped note musical notation system and singing style spread from these camp meetings. Group singing was one of the most emotionally charged aspects of the meetings, resulting in far more conversions than would a camp meeting without a preliminary songfest. The southern shaped note singing tradition represents American heritage and regional culture, economic and social class culture, the culture of religious dissent, and a communion with the past.
Figure 4. Photographer unknown. J. C. Richmond's family in Oklahoma,
about 1908. Henry Kennedy Richmond, center, with daughter, Clera
left, and wife, Genie Ray Richmond, right. Photograph from copy
negative in private collection. Source of original: Jeanne Lee,
Two generations later we can name individual songleading Richmonds
who carried on this largely southern tradition. Little John and
many of his relatives left Tennessee after the Civil War but his
cousin Pole (Napoleon Bonaparte Richmond, 1848-1929) remained
in Jackson County, as did Pole's son Johny [his spelling] Richmond
(1881-1937). Johny stayed with the widowed Pole on the family
farm at Rough Point on the Cumberland River in Jackson County
and bought out his brothers' interests. Johny and his wife Clio
Draper were members of the Church of Christ, a denomination that
grew out of the Methodist and Presbyterian Churches. Johny and
Clio gave the land for and helped build the Richmond Chapel Church
of Christ at Rough Point in Jackson County and performed many
weekly tasks such as laundering altar clothes, maintaining the
church property, and visiting shut-ins.7 Johny trained
to be a singing school teacher in the conservative four-shaped
note tradition. This style of singing was important because it
facilitated group singing in a church that did not permit musical
accompaniment, and because it symbolized southern cultural tradition
in an era of great change at the end of the nineteenth century.
Johny was one of several song leaders in the extended Richmond
family and many other Richmonds attended "singing school"
in the more genteel era that followed the settling of the frontier.
Johny relied on farming and shipping for his income. The side
of his farm facing the Cumberland River is the site of Richmond
Landing, where steamboats stopped to load crops and unload manufactured
goods. His wife Clio cooked excellent meals for the passengers
who lighted and came in to visit while the crops and goods were
being transferred. Isolated as Richmond's Landing may seem, Tennesseans
carried with them memories of its Upland South culture when they
migrated: Little John to Kentucky; his father, Moore, to Arkansas;
Pole's son Henry to Oklahoma territory. Henry Richmond married
Eugenia "Genie" Ray in January 1903 and lived on the
Richmond family farm for a year and a half. After their first
child was born in May 1904, they joined Genie's father and family
who had settled in Wanette in Oklahoma Territory. In 1997 I received
a letter from 87-year old J. C. Richmond, son of Henry who settled
in Oklahoma just before it became a state (Figure 4). J. C. recalled
his parents' life history and his family's trip back to Tennessee
when his parents were deciding where to settle permanently:
My Dad got here too late in the year to start a crop so he ran a saloon for the rest of 1904. We kids knew nothing about it for about 30 years . . . . My folks bought a small farm. It was low land near the South Canadian river. About the time I was born , the river went on a rampage and ruined the farm. The South Canadian is known for changing channels. [Dad] sold it for almost nothing. Old grand Pa Ray's health failed, so he went back to Tennessee and we lived on his farm . . . .The Richmond stories we have gathered and shared over the years have taken us on a trip through time and distance. With their stories in mind and the valuable information from the many traditional and non-traditional resources left to us, we tell about their lives in rich detail and almost watch the procession of time through their eyes. They illuminate our national history, bearing out again and again Edward Ayers's descriptions in The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction of politics, economics, transportation, employment, daily life, entertainment and more.9 Like Ayers's southerners, most Richmonds have clung to tradition. Most joined the Confederacy to fight for their familiar way of life. Most continued farming after the Civil War, ever hopeful that encroaching industrialization would cease before it forced them off their land. Most voted for Democrats who promised them agricultural support. They participated in churches. They visited their cousins, making it possible to chronicle this family history.
Grandpa Ray died in 1917. We were on his place and it had to be sold so we went back to Tennessee by train. Got to Nashville, took a boat up the Cumberland River to Richmond Landing. We got there in the early morning. Aunt Clio "Draper" was cooking bacon and eggs for breakfast. We moved into one of the rent houses. We lived there 9 months. I enjoyed the time we were there. My Dad had a corn crop by the river. I stayed there when he was working and watched the boats pass up and down the river. [Dad] sold out to Uncle Johny and we went back to Oklahoma.
About the middle of September 1917, we left for Oklahoma. We went across the river to the railroad at Cookeville, I think. Uncle Johny drove a T model, Uncle [Mayburn] Webb drove a T model, [and] a renter on the place took some things that we shipped in a wagon. Buster [Earl Stanton Richmond (1907-1993), J. C.'s cousin] and I rode in a wagon. [Buster] told me they got back home late in the night. It was quite a trip.8
As people led me to one Richmond after another and gave me bits
and pieces of information-often magnificent but bits and pieces,
nonetheless-I remembered the many women in my family who are quilters
and kept thinking I was creating a crazy quilt of narratives as
I connected the various stories: from Little John to John Moore
to Robert to John the Patriot, and back and back. Gradually, though,
patterns emerged that show what characterizes the people and culture
of the Upland South and how our migrations, agricultural background,
conservatism, family networks and New South opportunism have contributed
to the metaphoric quilt of our national history. To paraphrase
the title of the millennium history project launched by the National
Endowment for the Humanities, "our history is America's history."
1. James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten (Garden City,
New York, 1977).
2. Moore Richmond vs. Pinckney McCarver, Iris Bond, December 20,
1840, Circuit Court Records, Gainesboro, Jackson County, Tennessee.
3. Elliott J. Gorn, "'Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch':
The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Backcountry,"
American Historical Review 90 (Feb.-June 1985): 18-43;
Arthur K. Moore, The Frontier Mind (New York, 1957); Frank
Lawrence Owsley, Plain Folk of the Old South (New York,
1982); Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior
in the Old South (New York, 1982).
4. Victor Moulder, "A Chronological History of Our Relatives
From the Earliest Colonial Times to the Present Day," unpublished
typescript, September 25, 1940, p. 1. (Copied from Anna Laura
Moulder Grinstead, Three Forks, Kentucky, August 1976. Copy in
possession of the author.)
5. Parke Rouse, Jr., The Great Wagon Road from Philadelphia
To the South (New York, 1973), 201-209.
6. Catherine Albanese, America: Religions and Religion
(Belmont, CA, 1992), 161.
7. Jeanne Sadler Lee, Carthage, Tennessee, in conversations and
correspondence with Beverly Brannan, 1996-1997.
8. J. C. Richmond (Oklahoma), correspondence to Byron Richmond
and Beverly Brannan, 1997.
9. Edward L. Ayers, The Promise of the New South: Life After
Reconstruction (New York, 1992).
This web page is maintained by
Dr. Harold D. Tallant, Department of History, Georgetown College
400 East College Street, Georgetown, KY 40324, (502) 863-8075