- Carolina Planters on the Alabama Frontier: The Spencer-Robeson-McKenzie Family Papers
Edward Pattillo began his love of history, and his book, at the piano bench. His relatives, William Robeson McKenzie and wife, Eva Smith McKenzie, lived just up the hill in Pattillo’s hometown of Tallassee, Alabama. Eva may have spent less than an hour twice a week teaching him notes on the keys, but “the tales that Cousins Will and Eva told in that twilit, tapestry-hung house set me on a life-long effort to understand the South, past and present” (ix). This inspiration for history at such a young age led Pattillo to consult on historic preservation and publish historical articles.
The Spencer, Robeson and McKenzie families provide a wonderful focal point for Pattillo to use to explore the settlement of the Alabama frontier. The author is a skillful storyteller and begins his story not on the trek to the wilderness, or even in the fields of Carolina, but with ancestors in England. This decision to begin almost at the start of the family history provides a complete picture of how the movement of settlers occurred to the colonies and then later to the American frontier areas.
Many of the relatives under discussion in the book have surviving correspondence, which Pattillo incorporates into the text at every possible opportunity. Another unique feature of Carolina Planters on the Alabama Frontier comes with the included sketches of familial residences and photographs of ancestral mementos and keepsakes scattered throughout the chapters. These artifacts and quotes bring the family members to life and draw the reader into this story of young men leaving New England to forge their place in the Carolinas and on a great adventure to the wilds of Alabama.
The Spencers that arrived in Alabama left a mark, but Pattillo aims to make sure that mark does not fade away. The Spencer brothers may have been born in the north, but as Pattillo shows, “having become Southern” they fully immersed themselves, both in the public service and political realm as well as the slaveholding realm (25). He moves his story along to the building of their lives in their new Alabama land during the 1820s and carries it through the Civil War and to the concluding chapter of “The Passing of the Old Guard.” Pattillo presents a wonderful family history, and while some members may have been extraordinary in their time, most read as heartwarmingly normal. This realism allows for their story to be a representative of all those other families who moved to [End Page 256] the Alabama frontier in the 1820s and continue to have their roots in the state. The surviving records of the Spencer-Robeson-McKenzie family provide unique glimpses into the contemporary mindset of these pioneers and the hardships of life both at home and to those family members spread across the country. The book also provides a look at how familial bonds were melded and strengthened by marriages.
Pattillo offers an interesting overview of the colonial and antebellum way of life, especially in regards to moving to the frontier areas as the country expanded. Pattillo occasionally offers the family legends or stories that have been passed down, but he also offers the caution that such tales must be taken with that proverbial grain of salt. One drawback to the book is the lack of a genealogical chart. This addition would provide the reader a quick reference to understand the family members and their connections to each other, especially when Pattillo begins detailing the marriages and new generations. This small omission does not detract from the overall expansive information Pattillo includes in his family history. This book offers readers, both laymen and historians alike, with a clear, almost firsthand, look into the decisions that led those pioneer men and women to forge their way to the Alabama frontier and the ways in which those new residents began their lives and settled into the region. Carolina Planters...