Thoughts on a Virtual Internship

Hi everyone! After completing my summer internship at the Vance Birthplace, I wanted to share with you some of my thoughts about my final project and how it went! 

My project for the summer was to create a virtual timeline about the lives of some of the women who lived and worked on the site throughout its history. I focused on the Cherokee women who were on the land before the Vance family, Priscilla Brank, Aggy, Venus, Leah Erwin, Mira Baird, and Elizabeth Hemphill. The project is set up as a timeline covering when these women were on the site. I created the project using Sutori, which is an online presentation format that is mostly for teachers and students, but that I found worked well for my purposes for the site. 

In order to accurately tell these women’s stories, I had to research the primary documents and photographs available to me through the Vance Birthplace itself, since most of the little we do know about these women, especially those who were enslaved, comes from those documents. The 1844 estate sale of David Vance Jr, as well as a letter written by Mira Baird Vance, were extremely helpful in my research. Outside of these primary documents, secondary research on the historical context for the experiences of these women was most important. Before I completed this project, I knew very little about women’s history in southern Appalachia and in Asheville specifically. I had to read relevant chapters in books related to the history of North Carolina and the history of women in North Carolina, in order to get a broader sense of what their lives would have been like. 

Record from the 1844 David Vance Estate Sale. Twelve enslaved men, women, and children were auctioned during this sale on August 13, 1844.

Of course, for enslaved women, my research had to become even more specific, so that I could make sure I was presenting an accurate, full, and honest narrative. I had to confront my own whote privileges when discussing slavery, and make sure that I was not imposing my biases onto the stories of these women, to the best of my ability. I also learned a lot that I didn’t know about the history of slavery in America, and the history of enslaved women, and how their bodies have been used throughout history as a means of promoting oppression. 

Some books I found to be most helpful when learning about enslaved women’s lives in America and specifically in North Carolina, were Instances in the Life of a Slave Girl by former enslaved woman Harriet Jacobs, Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century by Tera W. Hunter, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, and North Carolina: Change and Tradition in a Southern State by William A. Link. I would encourage any of you who are interested to pick these books up, as they are easy to follow and really teach you a ton about the history of slavery and racism in our nation. 

Bound in Wedlock by Tera W. Hunter

My research for Priscilla Brank Vance was particularly interesting, because there is so much context for her lifetime that needs to be understood in order to fully create a picture of what her life would have been like. There is just too much to include in the project, to be honest. Her parents lived through the French and Indian War as adults, and she lived through its aftermath as a child. She was the daughter of German immigrants, and she married a soldier in the Continental Army, who was away from her fighting for long periods of time. She was an enslaver and also a woman living through the events of the American Revolution and the creation of a new democratic nation. The conflicting ideas of freedom and slavery during this time could not have been lost on her, especially since, as a woman, she was denied many of the freedoms that the founders of this country advertised during the revolution herself. 

Another more interesting group that I researched for this project was the Cherokee women who lived in the Reems Creek Valley before white colonists arrived. Unfortunately, I knew very little about these women before this project, but that means that I learned the most when researching their culture and experiences. I found Theda Perdue’s book Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835, to be invaluable for this research, although several of the books I thought would be mostly related to the histories of African American and white women in America gave me some great insights into the lives of Native American women, especially the Cherokee, as well. 

Cherokee people belonged to the clan of their mother. You can see the clans represented in the above painting by Cherokee artist, Dorothy Sullivan, entitled “She Speaks for Her Clan.”

I think the most challenging part of this project was the virtual aspect of it, and the fact that I had to spend hours on a computer during the day researching. In hindsight, if I had more money to spend, I probably would have bought some physical copies of the books I read, instead of reading ebooks, just because it would have saved my eyes and head some pain! Of course, that was simply the nature of doing a public history internship during a global pandemic, and I am grateful for the experience of creating virtual material and for being able to work with a historic site! Many of my peers could not get an internship this summer, virtual or otherwise, because of the crisis. 

Another challenge was learning to write to a public audience with various ages and reading levels, and different levels of historical knowledge, instead of to an academic audience of fellow historians. I have been trained for so long to write like a historian, but I have only been studying public history for a year now, and so I lack the training in how to write for a museum. This means, however, that this project gave me much needed experience on that front! 

My favorite part about the project however, was simply learning about these women’s lives. I think that, as a future professional historian, I get so focused on completing my research and making a historical argument or writing the perfect paper, that I forget to just enjoy learning the history I am reading about in the first place. Due to the virtual nature of this work, and the fact that I needed to present it to a diverse public audience with various interest levels in history, I knew I would have to approach it differently. I focused on teaching myself in order to effectively teach the public about the topic, and I looked for interesting facts to include that would catch viewers attention and help them remember these womens’ stories.

Overall, this project was really rewarding, and I plan to add to it in the future if possible, as I find out more about the women who lived in the Reems Creek Valley, who deserve to have their stories told. 

You can visit the completed timeline on the Vance Birthplace website: https://historicsites.nc.gov/all-sites/zebulon-b-vance-birthplace/history

Priscilla, Aggy, & Indepence Day

Marriage license of Priscilla & David Vance, dated September 21, 1775

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?

Textiles and Women’s History: Part One

Embroidery fragment on display at the Vance Birthplace.

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!

Finger Weaving

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! 

Further Reading Links: 

Cherokee Heritage Center

Oconaluftee Indian Village, Cherokee NC

Books:

The Cherokee Diaspora: An Indigenous History of Migration, Resettlement, and Identity by Gregory D. Smithers

Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835 by Theda Perdue

Art of the Cherokee: Prehistory to the Present by Susan C. Power