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Seedtime on the Cumberland

Harriette Simpson Arnow

Publication Year: 2013

Harriette Arnow’s roots ran deep into the Cumberland River country of Kentucky and Tennessee, and out of her closeness to that land and its people comes this remarkable history. The first of two companion volumes, Seedtime on the Cumberland captures the triumphs and tragedies of everyday life on the frontier, a place where the land both promised and demanded much. In the years between 1780 and 1803, this part of the country presented tremendous opportunity to those who endeavored to make a new life there. Drawing on an extensive body of primary sources— including family journals, court records, and personal inventories—Arnow paints a stirring portrait of these intrepid people. Like the midden at some ancient archaeological site, these accumulated items become a treasure awaiting the insight and organization of an interpreter. Arnow also draws on a medium she believed in unerringly—oral history, the rich tradition that shaped so much of her own family and regional experience. A classic study of the Old Southwest, Seedtime on the Cumberland documents with stirring perceptiveness the opening of the Appalachian frontier, the intersection of settlers and Native Americans, and the harsh conditions of life in the borderlands.

Published by: Michigan State University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xx

Seedtime on the Cumberland is a remarkable book— offering carefully researched cultural history combined with family stories and personal anecdotes, all of which have been sifted, selected, and polished by a writer who knows how to shape a story and set it in the proper light to help us catch surprising glimpses of our American ancestors and what still connects us to them. Originally published by Macmillan in 1960...

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1. The Old Boot

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pp. 1-16

I could see Granpa in spite of the pitch dark. His hat was dark felt, low- crowned, wide- brimmed, and his clothes were blue and faded; around him was none of the bright trappings of war, neither silver sword, nor waving flag; the long eight- sided gun barrel was dull; only the gunstock of close- grained, well oiled maple made a faint shine like a half- smothered star. The powder horn high up around his neck was old and yellowed; a fit...

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2. Rocks and Earth

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pp. 17-34

There was another thing much further away than Granpa Merritt, but not so far but it, too, could live again in the fog. This was the old sea, and when the fog was thick below us, hiding the town and the river, it seemed only the old sea come again, for all about were the traces of life that had been there...

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3. The First Settlers

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pp. 35-48

Once I had a garden on a bench of land on the side of a narrow valley, a valley so narrow with the hill across the way so high that, though the hillside faced west, the hill shadow would creep across my garden long before suppertime. It was then, while my husband did the barn chores and the long shadow merged into twilight, I did my gardening...

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4. Rivière des Chauouanons

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pp. 49-64

Forests and canebrakes reclaimed the land once planted to corn, and trees grew high above the carefully buried dead. The land, empty of human inhabitants, was still no wilderness. The first white visitors to describe it found the Barrens,1 treeless reaches of grassland where in late spring the wild strawberries reddened with juice the travelers’ horses up to...

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5. The Long Learning

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pp. 65-90

“. . . We were so feeble for want of nourishment we could not continue our journey. . . . Some of our men were obliged to subsist upon the sap, young leaves, and tender buds of trees.”1 This story of near starvation was written by the French priest Penicaut of a group traveling in the spring of 1700 by water up to French outposts in the Illinois. The men were well armed; many were seasoned soldiers; they suffered from neither...

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6. The Illinois

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pp. 91-108

It is probable that as Dr. Walker explored the upper Cumberland, there were, west of him on the river, Frenchmen hunting buffalo. The Mississippi Valley from the time of Father Marquette had never been without Frenchmen, and the French settlements, particularly of the Illinois and the Wabash, played no small part in the settlement of the Cumberland...

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7. The Shirttail Men

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pp. 109-138

This song, usually referred to as the first poem written in Tennessee, and sung we can imagine to the tune of some hymn of Isaac Watts,1 must have caused the deer to lift their heads in wonder and then dart away, for it is doubtful if deer in what is now Sumner County,2 Tennessee, had heard by 1766 a singing Pennsylvanian. The composer and singer was...

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8. Attakullakulla

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pp. 139-162

Late in November of 1774, “Two Indian men and a woman,”1 listened to an organ played in the Moravian town of Bethabara near present-day Salem, North Carolina. The sweet singing both entranced and troubled the listening Cherokee, and the lid had to be taken off to prove no child was trapped within, making the sounds; the Cherokee took many scalps both...

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9. The Travelers

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pp. 163-196

How many Kentucky settlements there were in the spring of 1775 when Richard Henderson “bought” the land from the Cherokee, no one will ever know, but certain it is there were already a good many people in Kentucky. “That afternoon I wrote the letter in Powell Valley,” Henderson wrote after reaching Boonesboro, “we met about forty people returning...

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10. The Woodsmen

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pp. 197-222

The men and women who took the hard winter as a matter of course and once on the Cumberland, set to work to change woods and canebrake to farms, were not a race of supermen. They stood in relation to the woods as the Nantucket sailors did to the sea; not all of them together could have caught a whale, yet not even the most courageous of sea captains...

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11. Indians

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pp. 23-242

If on the evening of January 15, 1781, one could, by some magic, have been lifted high above the Mississippi Valley, and through some still greater magic have been able to see the whole sweep of country, it would, at first glance, have seemed an uninhabited stretch of grass or forest land, cut by rivers glittering in the moonlight, for the moon was bright that...

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12. The Bare Essentials

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pp. 243-270

It was October 7, 1783,1 and Haydon Wells who, in the winter of 1779– 80, had come overland with the Stumps and Eatons, had so far lost only an eye to the Indians.2 We know little of Haydon Wells, except that he was a good and respectable man,3 living north of the Cumberland and at least sleeping at Eaton’s Station, for it along with Freeland’s and French...

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13. Silk Handkerchiefs and Feather Beds

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pp. 271-304

The settlers on the Cumberland who late in 1783 and early 1784 sought out the clerk of new Davidson County to record a stock mark or list an inventory were, except for now and then a fort school, enjoying for the first time in almost four years the benefits of an institution other than the home. Settlers upriver in Kentucky would live, some for more...

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14. Around the Family Hearth

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pp. 326-334

Home was the center of the pioneer’s world. Center of home for all in the early years when Indian troubles forced most to live in small houses behind picketed walls, was the family hearth, source of warmth, sometimes light, and always food. It is impossible to look at some long since forgotten cooking hearth without wrinkling the nose, reason only half conceding...

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pp. 335-336

The kettle singing from the crane above the glowing hickory embers was like most other aspects of pioneer life, both new and old. Fire and kettles were old in Europe when Martin Chartier visited the Cumberland. The heat of hickory embers had long been known to the American Indian, but was strange to England. The pioneer put the three together...

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Author’s Acknowledgments

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pp. 337-340

This work is not a history, nor is it concerned with the lives of famous men and women, nor does it pretend to be an exhaustive study of the pioneer. I have tried to re- create a few of the more important aspects of pioneer life as it was lived on the Cumberland by ordinary men and women. I owe the bit of knowledge gleaned entirely to all the other people...

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Explanation of Bibliographical References

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pp. 341-346

The county records of Tennessee are from the typescripts prepared under the supervision of Mrs. John Trotwood Moore, and housed in the State Library Division of the Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville, and used by permission of Gertrude Morton Parsley, Reference Librarian. I have followed the original page numberings for convenience in referring to the...


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pp. 347-456


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pp. 457-480

E-ISBN-13: 9781609173678
E-ISBN-10: 1609173678
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611860795
Print-ISBN-10: 1611860792

Page Count: 500
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: 1st

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Subject Headings

  • Cumberland River Valley (Ky. and Tenn.) -- History.
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