The True Image: Gravestone Art and the Culture of Scotch Irish Settlers in the Pennsylvania and Carolina Backcountry by David W. Patterson (review)
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Scots Irish, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Stonecutters, Gravestones

The True Image: Gravestone Art and the Culture of Scotch Irish Settlers in the Pennsylvania and Carolina Backcountry. By David W. Patterson. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Pp. 481. Cloth, $49.95.)

What can be learned about the Scotch Irish by a close examination of an extended family of stonecutters’ work, lives, and community? 1 A great deal, as David Patterson proves in this book, the product of decades of research while Kenan Chair of English and Folklore at UNC–Chapel Hill. As a result, the arguments made are careful and authoritative, [End Page 303] grounded in primary sources and placed in regional, national, and trans-Atlantic contexts. The book contributes a lot to our understanding of the early Scotch Irish community, particularly in the Carolina backcountry.

Years of combing legal and church records, gathering folk stories, and networking with genealogists provide the evidence that helps sketch the world the Bigham stonecutters lived and worked in, first on the edge of white settlement and usually on the fringes of a comfortable, secure life. While the familiar leading families, such as Davieses and Polks, make vivid appearances here, the Bighams occupied a less documented place in society, gaining and losing land, leaving modest lists of possessions in probate records, and usually coming to rest in unmarked graves. This focus allows Patterson to draw conclusions about the Scotch Irish distinct from any broader Appalachian culture, and to challenge generalizations made elsewhere, including David Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, Charles Sellers’s work on early Mecklenburg, and Senator James Webb’s Born Fighting.2 The community Patterson reconstructs is far from idyllic, but instead aggressive, aggrieved, and suspicious of power exerted by external forces. The new elite that emerged tended to be second generation, born and educated into the professions in North America, and able to take advantage of opportunities to gain land and status in frontier settings, eventually over the mountains in Tennessee and beyond.

Changes in society are reflected in its burial grounds, as Patterson demonstrates throughout the book. Few regions experienced the Revolution as brutally as the Carolina backcountry, creating a fierce patriotism found in nationalist symbols on its tombstones and later exercised by the two presidents born there. By the late eighteenth century, some of its most successful citizens openly embraced Deism. The Great Revival arrived with the new century and bitterly divided churches over a now obscure dispute whether to sing the traditional Scottish Psalter or introduce Isaac Watts’s hymns. Inscriptions adapted from Watts begin to appear soon afterwards, signaling the deceased’s stance on the controversy. Eventually the issue of slavery came to divide the community, with opponents leaving to settle in the Midwest. [End Page 304]

At the heart of the book is Patterson’s exhaustive analysis of the imagery and inscriptions found on the markers, all beautifully illustrated with his photography. They prove a rich and unique source for the Scotch Irish, both “a gallery of public art and anthology of verse” (14) and “the only known graphic art from the community” (60). A distinctive school of carvers flourished in the backcountry during the second half of the eighteenth century, before being overwhelmed by the growing influence of a broader national culture in the early decades of the nineteenth.

The extended Bigham workshop of seven stonecutters left behind about 1,050 surviving markers found in Pennsylvania and dating from the 1730s through the 1750s; and then in the Carolinas from about 1760 to 1830. The imagery and verse they employed on their markers exhibit a willingness to draw on a range of influences from both the old and new countries, freely adapting symbols and text to fit their design. The symbolism most often professes faith or claims place within a family or trade. After the Revolution, a rich mix of more secular imagery emerges, including an odd collection of heraldic symbols cobbled together without authorization to assert a family’s status. Eagles and stars reflect pride in the new nation and the deceased’s place in its founding. The inscriptions, intended for the edification of readers, offer...