The Tennessee State Library and Archives of Awesomeness

So I played hookey this afternoon and went down to the Tennessee State Library and Archives. I finally got a chance to look at the Jack Macon petitions, of which there were two. In the 1830s, right as Tennessee was passing a law forbidding slaves from practicing medicine, Doctor Jack’s patients wrote in and asked for an exception to be made for him. In the letters, a little of Macon’s practice emerges. He did a lot of healing with roots and he healed a lot of people, men and women, who were in pain. There was one account of him helping with some kind of white boil on the back of a kid’s leg, but by and large, he was helping with pain.

But, obviously, these petitions fell on deaf ears, because they wrote again in the 40s, asking the same thing and, interestingly enough, asking that any fines William Macon–Jack’s owner–incurred be forgiven. So, apparently, when the petitioners failed in the 30, William just broke the law instead.

I don’t know how it was resolved, though I think it’s obvious that Jack continued to practice medicine.

But then I looked up Dickinson’s remarks on the Baxters, just to see if there was anything good in it and a.) Dickinson’s a racist jerk; b.) he’s all pissed at Jere Baxter for claiming that Tennessee property is worth less in 1890 than it was in 1860 (adjusting for the loss of slaves) and that Tennesseans are hugely illiterate. Dickinson’s counter is that it’s unseemly to air dirty laundry about the state in public, that Baxter’s numbers are wrong, and that everyone in the South is hugely illiterate, so what’s the big deal? Also, white people are responsible for educating two races, not just one, so their burden is double; c.) But he held Jere’s brother Edmund in high esteem. Believe me, Jere comes out looking better in the exchange at this point in history.

So that was awesome. And they had the Ed Baxter book, so I got to look at it there. It’s, self-evidently, a lot of Civil War crap, but basically, here’s the history of Baxter’s second brigade–walk somewhere, get sick, either get better or die, shoot at some people. Walk somewhere else, get sick, either get better or die or possibly captured, shoot at some people. Walk to yet another place, get sick, etc. Finally the War ends. Get shipped home in a boxcar. The end. Granted, I was skimming, but I didn’t see that many people from Baxter’s unit getting killed in the War. It was all getting sick and dying.

Plus, the TSLA is having this great display all about Tennessee cemeteries which is amazing. I could have looked at it all day. They even have two examples of I think they’re called feather crowns–these balls of feathers that, after you died, your family would cut open your pillow looking for. If they found one, it was evidence that you’d gone straight to Heaven.

How awesome is that? But then they closed at 4:30! I was not done!

Anyway, because I love you guys, I took this picture right outside the doorway of the TSLA. I love how you can really see just how rocky our town is and I love the clouds reflected in the windows.

More on Our Friends, the Baxters

So, you know that it’s my contention that Ed Baxter–Sue’s brother-in-law–who is the lawyer Hamlin Harland heard from Itta K. Reno and Judge Dickinson ran from The Thing. Another candidate has presented himself–Colonel Baxter Smith. Let us stop and note with pleasure that Col. Smith’s first name is Baxter. Col. Smith’s mom was Sallie Baxter, daughter of Jeremiah Baxter. Jeremiah? Oh, just Ed Baxter’s Grandpa.

So, Smith goes heroing it up all over the Civil War as he valiantly attempted to protect his and his neighbors’ right to own slaves. Obviously, that didn’t go well. So when he was done making war on the United States, he came home and became a lawyer. He practiced law with his father-in-law for a while and then his father-in-law went off to be a judge. Then he practiced law with Ed Baxter. Yes, our Ed.

And then he practiced law with Judge Dickinson.

I still think this points to Ed being the guy who had the run in with The Thing–Dickinson said to Hamlin that he knew the lawyer it happened to, not that it was his old law partner. But I had to throw out there that Col. Smith is also a plausible candidate since he’s also a lawyer who would have been tangentially connected to the Allens and who would have known Dickinson.

The Wampus Cat

Writing took a strange turn last night. I ended up with almost a 2,000 word discussion of various mystery animals in the woods of Tennessee–the dog with the face of a rabbit that was the first manifestation of the Bell Witch, the Thing (obviously), and the Wampus Cat. For those of you unfamiliar with the Wampus Cat, it’s basically a sort of mountain lion looking thing that walks upright on two legs and scares the shit out of East Tennesseans.

I also read that East Tennesseans used to have a demonic boar, but I couldn’t find any actual stories about said boar. If you know of any, please let me know. I did download a bunch of copies of “Wild Hog in the Woods” so I will know what tune to hum to myself as I am being attacked by said demonic boar, should that come to pass. Since I don’t have any legends to base my behavior on, I have to rely on music.

Anyway, back to the Wampus Cat. There are two legends I’ve heard/read about the Wampus Cat, both about Cherokee women (the Wampus Cat is pretty much considered the same as the Ewah in Cherokee mythology, though I need to do some more digging into non-Wampus cat references to the Ewah before I understand why). At the Tennessee State Museum, at their awesome ghost story thing, they told a tale (which I have seen repeated elsewhere) of a Cherokee maiden who wanted to learn the men’s hunting magic, so she disguised herself in a mountain lion pelt and sneaked up on the hunting camp and listened in as they did it (I think part of the presumption here is that a woman hearing the men’s magic would then ruin the magic, hence the taboo on her trying to learn it). She’s caught and cursed into some kind of half-mountain lion/ half-woman beast which wanders the land scaring the shit out of people.

The second is that there’s a demon in the woods and when it finds a hunter, it looks him in the eye and drives him mad, thus rendering him useless for anything but women’s work. So, one day, a hunter comes back all demon-fucked and his wife is like “I will have my revenge on you, demon asshole.” So she confers with the tribe’s magic people and they give her a dried mountain lion mask to wear and she goes out in the woods to surprise the demon and scare the shit out of it with her creepy dried mountain lion face. And so she does. And the demon runs off. Though it occasionally returns and she has to go scare it off again. And even now, her ghost haunts the hills of Tennessee and parts of Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia (and Oklahoma, Arkansas, and wherever. She’s ambitious.), looking something like a half woman half mountain lion.

Now, both of these stories have some elements that make them nice stories. The first one seems to tell you a little about why different genders can and can’t do different things. It seems to reveal that hunting, for the Cherokee, was as much magic as skill. And it seems to reinforce important gender taboos.

The second one seems to provide a reasonable explanation for why some Cherokee guys might not be big hunters–they’ve been ensnared in a demon’s gaze–and seems to give us insight, again, into gender roles and familial obligations.

But we’re never not telling stories about ourselves, you know? So, when contemporary people tell those stories, they tell them for reasons and those reasons can vary widely depending on the teller. It’s easy to imagine a Cherokee mom telling the first story as a way to illustrate how different things are now. It’s easy to imagine her telling the second one to illustrate the bravery of Cherokee women.

But every widely available version of the legends seemed obviously told by white people. And, obviously, we have different motivations for the stories we tell about Cherokee people than they would. Stories are funhouse mirrors, you know, designed to reflect ourselves back to us in ways that allow us to say “Oh, that’s not really us.”

But I still wonder which, if either, of these stories is actually similar to the stories the Cherokee told/tell about the Ewah.

I was thinking that this is one of the things that kind of pisses me off about how our culture works. If I told you I knew a legend about an Irish-American guy who is transformed into a mountain lion man and in one version of the story, set in the pre-Vatican II days, he sits down for a huge steak dinner on Friday and in another version of the story he doesn’t, we’d all kind of know that the chances of the non-Friday meat eating story being the probable story told among Irish Americans is pretty high. It’s a little cultural tell. Likewise, if both stories had Friday steak dinners, we might say “Well, I’m not sure that’s really an Irish American story” or we might say “Hmm, even though it doesn’t really seem like it, I wonder if this story used to be about the taboo of eating meat on Friday.”

Similarly, I am positive that, to a Cherokee person, there are tells in those stories that make one or the other or both or neither of them actual plausible Cherokee stories. Something in those stories is a cue to whom the story belongs.

But I don’t know those cues. Along the way, our society decided that those were not necessary cues for a gal like me to learn. And, honestly, I’m doing better than most to even know that I’m missing them.

So, the Wampus Cat. What can we say about it? It’s a gal and a mountain lion and it will scare the shit out of you.

Is it a precursor to the Thing? To the rabbit-headed dog in the Bell’s yard?

I have to think so.

But what’s the real story?

I don’t know.