Historical Figures - Real or Imaginary?

Susan Fletcher

Yesterday I took a day trip to Cades Cove , a lovely corner of The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was my first time in the cove and on the way home I remarked that it is a historian/photographer/hiker’s paradise. This beautiful valley was once home to a thriving community of Tennessee pioneers in the nineteenth century. Today the cove is part of the national park system and you can visit the cabins, barns, and churches where these resourceful people once lived, worked, and worshipped.

I talked with a wonderful National Park Service volunteer about the history of the cove. He told me the story of the first settlers, of the Civil War’s impact on the region, and about the cove’s last resident in 1999. This volunteer was extremely knowledgeable and friendly and he even indulged my questions about “Cold Mountain” and “Christy.” As a public historian I appreciated his skills in historical interpretation. Actually, the National Park Service staff and volunteers do a remarkably fine job of presenting their historic sites. If you live in the South, you should definitely visit the Great Smokies and if you live elsewhere, make sure your summer plans include a trip to your nearest national park.

The volunteer told us to look for the handprints on the ceiling of the Primitive Baptist Church. When the settlers were building the ceiling, they pressed so hard against the uncured pine that the sap ran out over their fingers and left permanent handprints on the wood. This is a remarkable sight - brown fingerprints all over the ceiling. Historical figures can sometimes seem like imaginary beings, just as made-up as literary characters. That’s why seeing those fingerprints made the Cades Cove settlers so real to me. Look - these people really did exist and here is the evidence to prove it.

Scholars often talk about historical evidence and sources like letters and photographs. I like this evidence best on the small, personal scale. Handprints on ceilings, a love letter saved in a scrapbook. In reading Halcy Tomlinson?s journal entry from June 20, 1906, I am reminded of how real she was - a fifteen-year-old girl living in the early twentieth century. In this entry she writes about her paycheck and what she bought with her money. You see, knowing that these historical figures whom I study think about some of the same things I think about makes them seem so real. Halcy isn’t a character that someone invented - she was a real person who wanted to buy clothes and who had a summer job.

“June 20, 1906 Halcy Tomlinson

Tuesday was pay day again and I got $3.65. Now isn?t that a lot for two weeks’ worth? But ‘every little bit helps.’ I got me a new white dress and a lot of other little things, or rather it was a few other things. My dress cost just a dollar. I have had another pay day and got $5.65. I think this is a little better.”