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Women, Work and Family in the Antebellum Mountain South  (Cambridge University Press, 2008)


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Sources to End Historical Silences

This is a copyrighted document from the electronic archive for Wilma A. Dunaway. Women, Work and Family in the Antebellum Mountain South (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Sources for the Study of Cherokee Women

Sources for the Study of Black Appalachians

Sources to Study White Appalachian Women

Appalachian Slave Narratives

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In order to document women's work and family patterns among antebellum Southern Appalachian women, it is necessary to analyze work and family patterns for a wide diversity of women. The Caucasian females to be investigated are poor women, women in religious minorities, women in European ethnic groups that experienced persecution and discrimination, rural women, town women, nonslaveholding affluent women, and slaveholding affluent women. The nonwhite females to be investigated are Cherokees, enslaved African-Americans, and free blacks, both rural and urban. To research these groups, I have triangulated archival, primary and secondary documents with quantitative analyses of public records. I made the conscious choice to remain cognizant of Trouillot's critiques of the inequalities inherent in the history production process and to avoid the kinds of historical privileging, silencing and stigmatizing that have plagued scholarship in Appalachian Studies and in Southern women's history. In other words, I have actively decided to select more historical "facts" and events that will result in greater historical mentioning of poor and nonwhite women, especially since impoverished Caucasian females have received such limited attention in Southern women's history. That is not to say, however, that I have neglected the more affluent Appalachian women, for it is important to draw comparisons among the diverse class, racial, and ethnic groups with respect to women's work and family patterns.

Sources for the Study of Cherokee Women

Although distorted through the colonizer's filters, indigenous Appalachian males walk routinely across the pages of official colonial documents and archival materials while women are rarely mentioned. As Trouillot has observed, "silences enter the process of historical production at four crucial moments: the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance)." The colonial history of Native American women has been ignored most significantly at the moment of fact creation, either through intentional exclusion or through the racist and sexist discourse employed by male writers. To avoid a high incidence of historical silencing and misrepresentation of marginalized people, Trouillot warns that "a competent narrative":

needs their voice(s) in the first person or, at least, it needs to paraphrase that first person. . . . Their subjectivity is an integral part of the event and of any satisfactory description of that event. . . . [H]istory reveals itself only through the production of specific narratives. What matters most are the process and conditions of production of such narratives. (1)

After two decades of researching eastern Cherokee women, I still am frustrated that I have not been able to achieve this goal by locating women's narratives in their own voices. With rare exceptions, I have been forced to search for women lurking like shadows or oddities in the documents of colonizers- both European and American, a risky method since ethnocentrism, Victorian sexism and racism clouded the perspectives of the writers. Three types of archival and primary documents were utilized (a) Primary documents which were produced during the colonial period when the international fur/slave trade was at its peak; (b) Primary documents that were produced during the early post-Revolutionary War period, and (c) Ethnographic and public narratives produced after 1815. In justifying her heavy reliance on colonial documents to develop her ideas about indigenous female cultural brokers, Sylvia Van Kirk was not concerned that "their writings reflect[ed] European cultural and class biases." Even though many of the documents that I utilized were produced by writers who had the same "advantage of long, intimate experience with the Indians" as did those writers upon whom Van Kirk depended, I assumed a much more critical attitude. (2) Therefore, I struggled to distinguish specific indigenous behaviors from ethnocentric commentary about those behaviors. Despite their pitfalls, racist colonizer documents are valuable sources of information. On the one hand, details about women were recorded unintentionally by colonial officials. For instance, indigenous women appear when minutes report the anger of colonial officials over their presence in political settings considered inappropriate for white women or when a missionary describes female behaviors that he considers "outrageous" violations of white middle-class gender norms. On the other hand, one can glean an estimation of degree of change through the disdain expressed by a colonial writer who thinks that indigenous women are not abandoning old ways quickly enough. Throughout the colonial documents I utilized, colonial writers tended to assume that women were "less progressive," more resistant to change than Cherokee males. If anything, then, they were more likely to "under-report" women's shift away from traditional practices, and that would cause the investigator to err conservatively rather than to over-estimate the degree of change. It is also possible to compare colonial-era trends with documents written during the early nineteenth century when missionaries and Indian agents routinely wrote greater detail about women's activities and actions.

Sources for the Study of Black Appalachians

History does not just belong to those who are reified in government and archival documents. The past is also owned by survivors of inequality and by those who live through injustice at the hands of powerful elites. As has recognized, "survivors carry history on themselves," and care must be exercised in the construction of knowledge from their indigenous transcripts. To be as inclusive as possible at Trouillot's "moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance)," I have grounded this study in analysis of narratives of nearly 300 slaves. I spent many months locating Appalachian slave narratives within the Federal Writers Project, at regional archives, and among published personal histories. Beginning with Rawick's forty-one published volumes of the WPA slave narratives, I scrutinized every page for county of origin, for interregional sales or relocations that shifted slaves into or out of the mountains, and for occurrences during the Civil War that displaced slaves. After that process, I identified other archival and published accounts, finding several narratives in unusual locations, including archives at Fisk University and the University of Kentucky. In this way, I did not ignore the life histories of slaves who were born outside Southern Appalachia then migrated there or those who were removed to other regions. Ultimately, I aggregated the first comprehensive list of Appalachian slave narratives. (3)

How representative of the region are these narratives? In comparison to the entire WPA collection, Appalachian slave narratives are exceptional in the degree to which they depict small plantations. By checking the slave narratives against census manuscripts and slave schedules, I established that the vast majority of the Appalachian narratives were collected from individuals who had been enslaved on plantations that held fewer than twenty slaves. Consequently, Blue Ridge Virginia is under-represented while the Appalachian counties of Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia are over-represented. Thus, those areas that held the smallest number of slaves in this region are more than adequately covered by narratives from slaves who resided there. Moreover, Appalachian slave narratives are not handicapped by the kinds of shortcomings that plague the national WPA collection. Large plantations, males, and house servants are over-represented among the entire universe of respondents. In addition, two-fifths of the ex-slaves had experienced less than ten years of enslavement. The most serious distortions derived from the class and racial biases of whites who conducted the vast majority of the interviews. Most of the Appalachian respondents had been field hands, and very few were employed full-time as artisans or domestic servants. In terms of gender differentiation, the Appalachian sample is almost evenly divided. In contrast to the entire WPA collection, three-quarters of the Appalachian ex-slaves were older than ten when freed. Indeed, when emancipated, one-third of the Southern Mountain respondents were sixteen or older, and 12 percent were 25 or older. Thus, nearly half the Appalachian ex-slaves had endured fifteen years or more of enslavement, and they were old enough to form and to retain oral histories. Perhaps the greatest strength of the Appalachian collection has to do with the ethnicity of interviewers. A majority of these narratives were written by the ex-slaves themselves or collected by black field workers, including many Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia interviews that were conducted under the auspices of Fisk University, Hampton Institute and the Atlanta Urban League. Because these narratives were collected over a vast land area in nine states, they offer another analytical advantage. The geographical distances between respondents offer opportunities for comparing everyday living conditions and family patterns.(4)

I have come away from this effort with a deep respect for the quality and the reliability of these indigenous narratives. When I tested ex-slave claims against public records, I found them to be more accurate than most of the slaveholder manuscripts that I scrutinized, and quite often much less ideologically blinded than many of the scholarly works I have consulted. Therefore, I made the conscious intellectual decision to engage in "the making of history in the final instance" by respecting the indigenous knowledge of the ex-slaves whose transcripts I analyzed. That means that I did not dismiss and refuse to explore every slave voice that disagreed with intellectual fad or convention. In most instances, I triangulated the indigenous view against public records and found the slave's knowledge to be more reliable than some recent scholarly representations. In other instances, I perceived that Appalachian slaves are a people without written history and that it is important to document the oral myths in which they grounded their community building. Because Appalachian slave narratives present a view of enslavement that attacks the conventional wisdom, I recognized that they and I were engaging in a process that Trouillot calls "the production of alternative narratives." When contacted by a Fisk University researcher in 1937, one Chattanooga ex-slave comprehended that he possessed a knowledge about slavery that was different from the social constructions of the African-American interviewer. "I don't care about telling about it [slavery] sometime," he commented cynically, "because there is always somebody on the outside that knows more about it than I do, and I was right in it." Clearly, this poorly educated man understood that historical facts are not created equal and that knowledge construction is biased by differential control of the means of historical production. On the one hand, I set myself the difficult goal of avoiding the kind of intellectual elitism the ex-slave feared while at the same time trying to avoid the pitfall of informant misrepresentation. On the other hand, I heeded the advice of C. Vann Woodward and did not view the use of slave narratives as any more treacherous or unreliable than other sources or research methods. (5)

I have found it far more difficult to end historical silencing of free black Appalachians. Public documents such as census manuscripts and county tax lists provide data from which a socioeconomic description of households can be reconstructed. However, there are few primary sources about free blacks, especially first person narratives. Fortunately, free blacks appear in many primary Cherokee and slave documents, antebellum newspapers, and travel accounts. However, most of their non-statistical appearances are in court records and county registers of free blacks, the kinds of sources that are most likely to offer a demeaning view of this marginalized group. Surprisingly, the least representative public sources are county records of the legally-required registrations of free blacks. Given the rigidity of statutes about the movements and residence of free blacks in Southern states, I have been shocked to find that county registers offer a long-term view of only a few lighter-skinned free blacks and that county and state "permissions to remain" only document a favored few. Consequently, it has been necessary to rely heavily on census data, tax lists, and slave narratives to try to gain a better understanding of free black women's work and family patterns. I end this project with the disappointment that primary sources are simply not available that will permit us to hear the first-person voices of free blacks very often, but I hope that I have been able to reveal some new unexpected patterns that will be clues for future investigations.

Sources to Study White Appalachian Women

As tedious and time-consuming as it is to locate primary women's narratives for nonwhite Appalachian females, it is even more problematic to locate women's narratives or reliable primary sources to explore antebellum poor Caucasian females. Even though public mentions are more skimpy than we would prefer, women of color are at least made visible in the documents of colonial officials, Indian agents, slaveholders, and slave narratives to a degree for which there is no parallel in public record-keeping for antebellum poor whites. When I began this task, I quickly noticed that poor whites appeared frequently in the pages of the travel accounts or church memoirs. However, such narratives must be judged skeptically because they were constructed by individuals who were biased not only by antagonism against specific European ethnic groups, but also by antagonism against the poor. Following Trouillot's advice, I sought to avoid two significant errors that earlier writers have committed. As a sociologist of race and ethnicity, I am keenly sensitive that there is a powerful difference between "fact" and a writer's expression of personal racism or sexism toward the group being described. Consequently, I simply did not want to misrepresent whites on U.S. frontiers and in later antebellum communities in the same ways that earlier constructors of historical stereotypes about Appalachia have done. As Bob Newby points out:

The history of poor, powerless, and largely unliterate people is difficult to reconstruct, and for groups subject to continuing social prejudice the difficulty is compounded. For those groups, ordinary problems of source materials are aggravated by additional difficulties of cultural bias. Investigators have not only misinterpreted primary sources in ways that privilege elite cultural biases, but they have also often drawn unsupported generalizations about non-elite women for whom they consulted no primary sources. Such claims are more often than not reiteration of popular stereotypes. Consider a scholar who barely mentions poor whites, then suddenly interjects: "Although information about yeoman farm girls is sparse, what there is indicates that fewer courtship rituals surrounded them, and apparently many country girls enjoyed freer sexual behavior than elite women." She offers no evidence to support this generalization except the biased account of one affluent traveler who described the "scantily clad young women parading the street of a North Carolina village." (6)

Sorely aware of the sparsity of primary sources about poor and middle-class nonslaveholding Appalachian women, I was also concerned about another methodological issue that has been raised by feminists. Barbara Ellen Smith cautions that it will be necessary to seek out women's unconventional "hidden transcripts of gender." The history of women in Appalachia, Smith admonishes, "will not be discovered exclusively, perhaps even primarily, in the official documents of institutions. . . . Nor may women necessarily be located at 'historic' events. . . that they influenced." It is also essential to employ women's narratives obtain a full description of female work habits. According to Shaunna Scott, "the gender differences between male and female work narratives suggest that men are more likely than women to be ignorant of and, perhaps, underestimate the contributions that other family members make to the farm." At the same time, however, the investigators must be careful to compare women by class, race or other differences, rather then to generalize to all women from primary sources that were constructed by a narrow group of females. (7)

When studying non-elite white females, a great deal of care must be taken in using church records or public census manuscripts. Without empirical evidence, one Southern women's historian generalizes that "there is every reason to believe that the pervasive sense of female self as predominantly a matter of family membership informed the lives of nonslaveholding as well as slaveholding women." She supports that generalization in a footnote which contends that the "best evidence" to prove the "familial identification of nonslaveholding women" can be found in "religious history: sermons and especially church records." Since so many U.S. citizens did not belong to churches before the Civil War, only a small proportion of women will be represented in their records, and male constructed sermons will not offer women's voices. In addition, antebellum sermons most often advocate elite separate spheres gender conventions, and the sermons which are available at archives were collected primarily from the denominations supported by elites, not those smaller institutions attended by the poor or by the rural middle classes. The Appalachian church records which I consulted most often mention females who are being punished for violations of church rules about gender etiquette, so they are excellent sources to document such public disciplining. However, they are not reliable sources to determine whether females embraced or resisted separate spheres constraints. Census manuscripts are equally problematic. Middle-class white census takers quite often were biased by separate spheres gender conventions, so they automatically recorded "homemaker" or "housewife" as the only occupation for middle-class Caucasian wives. However, the census manuscripts reflect power inequalities at the moment of fact creation. Over two decades of using census manuscripts, I have found that middle-class white enumerators were less likely to apply those "respectable" terms to poor white, Indian, or free black women whom they "demeaned" by reporting female headship, manual labor or income-earning activities. (8)

While I employed census and church manuscripts to study women, I did so with an eye to their sexist and ethnic limitations and to the need to triangulate those public records with female primary sources. Barbara Ellen Smith emphasizes the importance of oral histories and family legends. Women's history in Appalachia, particularly the history of working-class women, requires an approach that looks beyond orthodox sources of data and fields of action to locate women's history-making and the contestations of gender. The resulting feminist historiography challenges conventional conceptions of the region, its history, and who has created both. Mary Kelley cautions that we need to fill in gaps in public records with women's narratives while Glenda Riley emphasizes the need to seek out women's cash-earning activities outside separate spheres boundaries by looking for that activity in the sexist expressions of primary sources and by correctly interpreting vaguely stated public records, passing comments within female letters and diaries, and biased details in travel and newspaper accounts. Store accounts, poor house records, child indenturement records, and court records also provide details about the work and family patterns of middle-class and poor white women. (9)

With all those admonitions and concerns in mind, I identified first-person narratives for several major groups of Caucasian females. For elite and middle-class women, I located many archival manuscript collections; I even located some letters and diaries for middle-class nonslaveholding females. To document both affluent and poor females, I drew from a number of published Appalachian first-person narratives. To document women's work for nonslaveholding poor and middle-class white females, I drew heavily upon two first-person narrative collections. Perhaps the best primary sources for assessing women's work is the little-used Appalachian Oral History Project. From this collection, I selected 109 interviews of elderly women and men who were born in the 1880s and 1890s and were able to describe the nineteenth-century work of their mothers or grandmothers. These narratives are also rich in details about common class and racial biases in Appalachian communities. The second collection is the Tennessee Civil War Veteran Questionnaires, a project conducted by the Tennessee State Archivists between 1915 and 1922. The questionnaires asked the veterans to supply details about their pre-War households, about community attitudes toward manual labor, and about class relations between slaveholders and nonslaveholders. From this collection, I selected the 474 respondents who resided in Appalachian counties before they became soldiers. (10)


1. Trouillot, Silencing the Past, pp. 149, 24-25.

2. Van Kirk, Many Tender Ties, p. 10.

3. 74. For methodological details, see the website. Trouillot, Silencing, pp. 149, 153, 26. Published sources of slave narratives are Rawick, The American Slave, Rawick, The American Slave: Supplement I, Rawick, The American Slave: Supplement II, and Tennessee Civil War Veteran Questionnaires. The Fisk collection is archived as Egypt, Masuoka, and Johnson, "Unwritten History of Slavery." The Kentucky collection is archived as "Slave Narratives, Notes and Data," Typescripts, Coleman Papers.

4. Yetman, "Background," pp. 534-35. Woodward, "History," p. 472.

5. Egypt, Masuoka, and Johnson, "Unwritten History,", p. 143. Trouillot, Silencing, pp. 26, 29, 49. Woodward, "History," p. 475.

6. For an example of a contemporary writer who constructed Appalachian stereotypes by interpreting expressions of racial and ethnic prejudice as factual evidence about groups, see Fischer, Albion's Seed, pp. 605-782, McWhiney, Cracker Culture, pp. 21-43, and McDonald and McDonald, "Ethnic Origins," pp. 79-99.  Newby, Plain Folk, p. 9. For the author who generalizes using only one biased travel account, see McMillen, Southern Women, p. 19.

7. Smith, "'Beyond the Mountains,'" p. 9. Scott, "Gender," p. 109. For example, Cott, Bonds of Womanhood, intro., generalized findings to all New England women from the diaries and letters of middle-class females.

8. Fox-Genovese, "Sarah Gayle," p. 19, claims sermons and church records are the best way to document gender conventions of non-elite women. Regarding low church membership, see Finke and Stark, Churching of America, pp. 2-17.

9. Smith, "'Beyond the Mountains,'" p. 1. Kelley, Woman's Being, pp. 7-83. Riley, Frontierswomen, p. 56.

10. First-person narratives which describe nineteenth century Appalachian women's include Bush, Dorie, Janney and Janney, Janney's Virginia, Thompson, Touching Home, Wiggington, Foxfire editions, and Goodrich, Mountain Homespun. Researchers seeking to use the Appalachian Oral History Collection will find the following information helpful. Four Appalachian schools-- Alice Lloyd, Lees Junior College, Appalachian State and Emory and Henry-- began this project in 1970, using students to collect oral histories from elderly citizens in east Kentucky, western North Carolina, and southwest Virginia. The Microfilm Corporation of America published a microfiche edition of the transcripts in the 1980s, but few university libraries hold it. A published catalog entitled The Appalachian Oral History Project: Union Catalog provides a list of the transcripts that have been transcribed, indicating which of the schools holds the originals. Unable to locate the microfiche edition, I used the transcripts at each of the school libraries, and I found Alice Lloyd and Appalachian State to be best organized to make available both typed and taped interviews. Selected interviews have been published in Shackelford and Weinberg, Our Appalachia.