Mary Priscilla Brank married David Vance Sr. in 1775 and was only married for a year before her husband left to fight with the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War.
Like thousands of women before and after her, Priscilla kept her husband’s property running while he was at war. She also raised a newborn and cared for several family members.
We will never know how Priscilla felt on July 4th, 1776, but we do know that, despite the sacrifices women made that proved vital to the success of the new nation, Priscilla and her female contemporaries were denied political, financial, and even physical independence—even as thousands of men died for ideals of freedom and self-government.
Priscilla was not alone in her struggle to keep her home running while David was serving as a soldier. Aggy, one of the women enslaved by Priscilla and David Vance Sr., likely spent July 4th, 1776 working for her enslavers, putting aside her personal beliefs and aspirations in order to fulfill the wishes of the people who owned her. She and other enslaved women, men, and children watched as slaveholders fought for independence while denying the enslaved any freedom at all.
100 years ago, American women did not possess the freedoms laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. 40 years ago, African Americans still did not have access to many of those same rights.
As you celebrate Independence day, we hope you’ll join us in pausing to reflect on the stories of Priscilla and Aggy, and ask yourselves:
How well are we living up to our founding ideas today, and how do we work to make sure all Americans have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?
For my first blog post related to historical content for the Vance Birthplace, I decided that I wanted to delve deeper into the history of textile work, especially needlework, in America. In researching this topic, I went a little overboard and found enough information for at least 10 separate posts; therefore, this is only the first post in a three-part series on the topic, so stay tuned for that!
Women (and men in many cultures) have been creating textiles since human beings decided that it was necessary to stay warm and clothe themselves. It is easy to pass textiles off as necessities that women had to create in order to survive, or as symbols of the domestic sphere in which many women have been forced for centuries to confine themselves to, and nothing more.
Likewise, in historical fiction novels, we often read about women and girls who rebelled against such traditional “women’s work” and were far more interested in pursuing activities considered inappropriate for girls throughout history, like swordplay, sports, and politics. As a child and adolescent, I myself had always felt that when adults encouraged us girls to participate in activities such as sewing or knitting, they were only trying to reaffirm traditional gender roles that would hold us back in the future.
However, textile work has long been a way for women to express their creativity when they were given no other outlet and even became a method for resistance against oppression. This craft allowed women to show their personalities, influence change, and tell their stories, even in a society that repeatedly tried to silence them. Textiles are not just the result of regular housework, but are also building blocks in the cultures and narratives of countless American women.
As a women’s historian in the making, I feel that it is necessary for me to learn about and understand the work women did on a daily basis, and what it meant to them. The women who lived and worked on the Vance plantation had access to a loom and a spinning wheel. They would have been engaging in textile work on a regular basis while fulfilling their domestic responsibilities. It is important to understand how their experiences with these household chores connects them to the wider story of American women’s history. I hope you enjoy learning about this topic with me!
Cherokee Women and Embroidery:
The Reems Creek Valley was inhabited by the Cherokee for hundreds of years before white settlers like David Vance Sr. and his wife Priscilla Brank arrived to settle on the land. Cherokee women (and men in some cases), among countless other Native American women, had already been creating intricately embroidered clothing, blankets, sashes, belts, shoes, and other textiles long before European women arrived in the Americas and brought their own textile culture with them.
Cherokee craftswomen worked with deerskin, wool, and other cloth-like materials, but they also used seed beads made from shells, pearls, and later glass, to create beautiful and meaningful embroidery patterns on many of their textiles. They made needles from animal bones, and were able to use plant fibers to create thread.
The patterns in Cherokee beadwork and textile art held specific tribal meanings for centuries, but much of the knowledge of those symbols and meanings have been lost to time and to discrimination and oppression against the Cherokee and other Native American nations over the years. Many of the personal stories and the artistic legacies of the women who made these textiles have been lost with them, but modern artists are trying to preserve their heritage and continue the tradition.
Beadwork embroidery, along with Cherokee traditional crafts such as finger weaving, were not only a means of creative expression but were important for cultural events and religious rituals. Below you can see an example of Cherokee finger weaving from the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual Inc. website, which I will also link here. Give the site a look to see more examples from some amazing artists!
These crafts were used as a means for Cherokee women to help support their families outside of the home as well. Many Cherokee traded textiles for needed supplies, and when the market economy in America became more prominent, they sold their wares for profit as well. Cherokee women, as the primary textile artists, were able to use their work for self expression, as a means of making money, in support of cultural institutions, and for the survival of their heritage in the face of European invasion.
Learn more about the history of textile production in America next week as I explore how white women honed their craft in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
If you want to learn more about embroidery specifically, check out our upcoming workshop at the Vance Birthplace. Assistant Site Manager Lauren May will be holding a virtual class for beginners on sunflower embroidery, inspired by a textile artifact on site that has a sunflower embroidered on it. The workshop will be on July 11th from 1-3PM, and you can register through the Vance Birthplace Facebook page for this event! The cost per person is $20.00, and make sure you register in advance with enough time for Lauren to mail you the embroidery kit!
My name is Elizabeth Bailey, and I am the Summer 2020 intern for the Vance Birthplace. Since I am unable to come to the site day in and day out to work due to the Covid19 restrictions, my internship will be mostly virtual for the rest of the summer. Consequently, you will be seeing more of me on various social media and web platforms associated with the Vance Birthplace.
I am currently a graduate student with the Public History department at Appalachian State University, and my research interests focus on women’s history, American military history, and the history of women in medicine. I plan to graduate in May 2021 with an M.A. in History with a concentration in Public History. I have always loved museums and historic sites since childhood and would like to use my knowledge and historical skill to teach others about history. I have an undergraduate degree in Social Studies Secondary Education, so I enjoy teaching and learning in multiple different outlets.
Some “fun facts” about me are that I read everything I can get my hands on, and combining my books with my mother’s often makes our house look like a library; and outside of history I have a strange interest in ocean science, especially if it’s creepy. Other hobbies include crochet and cross stitching, along with drawing and watching documentaries. I have a ten year old dog that I am obsessed with, Sophie, who you can see below.
This summer my big project will be to create a virtual timeline that gives voice to the histories of the women of the Vance Birthplace, both white free women and the enslaved. My goal is to open up dialogue about the lives these women led and the agency they exhibited in changing their own lives, the lives of those around them, the Vance Birthplace, the Reems Creek Valley, or Western North Carolina in some way. I feel that women have been repeatedly silenced throughout history, and since my area of research has been focused on women’s history since my undergraduate career, I plan to bring their stories to light in any way possible.
During this internship I will also be learning how interpretation is done, or at least the basics of it, the daily requirements of running a historic site in terms of online work and historical research, and how to create more inclusive interpretation and present the history of controversial topics to the public online. Hopefully I will be able to visit the sight at some point this summer to interact with some physical artifacts and to engage with the buildings on site, pending a loosening of restrictions!
I appreciate you taking the time to learn more about me by reading this and am excited to continue my work for the Vance Birthplace this summer! I am enjoying getting to know the history of the Reems Creek Valley and am optimistic about the projects I will be completing this summer!
Dolls have been a common toy for children since the Ancient era of the Egyptians and Greeks, and have been made of as many different materials as cultures that have used them. The types of dolls made also differ based on the social status of the family that owned them. In the Appalachian Mountains many families lived isolated lives, and had little money or time for toys, so many children had corn husk dolls. Corn husk dolls would be made from the corn husks left over from those being used for bedding and those burned to create smoke to keep out mosquitoes, all they would need is a bit of water and a few pieces of string to make something similar to what is seen below. Wealthier families, such as the Vances and Hemphills would have more resources to make their own dolls, being able to buy fine paints for the head and use patterned fabrics for the doll’s clothing. They would also be able to purchase dolls, rather than make them.
In Appalachian folklore the gun is an item that many characters such as David Grier use to great efficiency to hunt game and later hunt intruders on his mountain. While many households in the area did own a gun, it was an expensive item, so most people in the Appalachian area would have only a single gun for the whole family. Below is a picture of the two items most people used to create the bullets for their guns, a single bullet bullet mold and a lead ladle. Small rectangles of lead could be bought at most general stores, and then cut and melted into the lead ladle. The molten lead would then be poured into the bullet mold and be allowed to cool and harden. Households would generally only use their guns for hunting, so few bullets were necessary. To this point households would have need for only single bullet bullet molds, but militarizes and and mercenary companies would have bullet molds capable of molding up to 25 bullets at a time.
The children of today really do miss out where the children of the past got to enjoy a hard day’s work. Above we have two of the most necessary tools for any child in rural Western North Carolina in the 1800s, the water yoke and chamber pot. Throughout the day, water would be used in the Vance House for cooking and cleaning, thus there would need to be steady supply of it brought up from the spring house. This is where the water yoke comes in. The apparatus would by placed upon a child’s shoulders and fit around their neck. Two full buckets of water would be placed on the hooks so that the child could easily carry both to the Vance house at the same time. The chamber pot would be less of a tool for the children, as it would be a bane upon their existence. Used to hold the excrement of the Vance Family, the enslaved children would take the chamber pot out every morning to be dumped far from the spring house.
In many human cultures throughout history, the style of dress and hair has been important. People have been willing to go to great lengths to attain the ideal look of their time such as the men and women of the Victorian Britain that painted their faces with arsenic to achieve a paler complexion, or the parents of Imperial China who bound their daughter’s feet in hopes of them marrying at or above their station, and let us not forget the charming men of the 18th and 19th centuries who donned hats cured with mercurous nitrate that drove them mad. Above we have a picture of a 1700s to 1800s hair curler used to create the curls around women’s faces which were so popular in that period. To use this hair curler one must heat the end of it in the fire to get it to the appropriate temperature to curl hair. This was dangerous for a variety of reasons. First there is the danger of heating the iron too much and burning your hair off or setting it on fire. Second there is the chance that even at the right temperature one would accidentally touch the curler to their skin causing a painful burn that could easily become infected.
What is a plantation you might ask? Well, historically in
the United States a plantation has been the term used to describe a massive farm
owned by a member of the social class known as the planter class. This farm
would have at least 1000 acres, be used primarily for cash crops such as cotton
or corn, and be worked by over 20 enslaved people. So, is it appropriate to
call what the Vance family had a plantation? True, it was much smaller than
what we regularly consider a plantation, but at its height there were nearly
900 acres and 18 enslaved people. But ultimately, does it matter? After all, a plantation
is still just a specific type of farm. What is most important is how the
language we use in referencing the Vance family home today effects the perspectives
of visitors. A farm suggests images of a quaint and simple place, where food is
grown, and animals are raised for slaughter. Plantation however, almost immediately
brings to mind images of enslaved people forced to work hours on end in
backbreaking conditions with only sleep being their reprieve at the end of the
day. So, it is important to understand how the language we use in referencing
the past effects the way people view the Vance family.
Here we have three lovely kitchen appliances that Leah, the Vance’s enslaved cook, may have used when preparing meals for the Vance Family. The first is the sausage stuffer, used like a syringe, it is used to squeeze the ground meat and spices into the sausage casing to make a proper sausage. Our second item is a coffee grinder. A fairly simple tool used to grind coffee beans so that they can be used to brew a fine cup of coffee. Lastly we have a device for toasting bread. Once a loaf of bread had gotten a bit of mold on it, which was common in such a damp area, it would usually be sliced and toasted to burn off the bits of mold making it safe to eat. This was a fairly simple practice to not waste any bread. Leah would have likely used these items and more when preparing meals for the Vance family and their customers at their drovers stand in Marshall.
While this artifact may at first look like a rod used in Celtic rituals, it is actually a rug beater. While we of course still use rugs today, historically rugs where used to both protect the floor of one’s home and decorate the homes of wealthy landowners.
Rug beaters have been used throughout time in a variety of different cultures to literally beat the dust and dirt out of rugs that accumulates over time.