Saturday, May 18, 2013

Carolina Planters on the Alabama Frontiers

Carolina Planters on the Alabama Frontiers

Edward Pattillo's book Carolina Planters on the Alabama Frontier: The Spencer-Robeson-McKenzie Family Papers collects the papers of Elihu Spencer, a fourth-generation New Englander, and his family and Southern decedents, to form a history of the American nation from the point of view of planters and those they held in slavery. The documents in this volume are accounts of a privileged world that was afflicted by constant loss and despair. The papers together form a dramatic narrative of early Americans from the mid-eighteenth century to the harsh years after the Civil War. They created their new society with courage, imagination and tenacity, while never recognizing their own moral blind spot regarding the holding of human beings in slavery.  (source: South Carolina ETV)

As reported in the Alabama Media Group, "Southern Bound: 'Carolina Planters on the Alabama Frontier'," by John Sledge, on 19 April 2012 -- MOBILE, Ala. -- There’s a certain kind of Southern boy that relishes his slightly batty older relatives and their long, colorful family stories. He will sit for hours hanging on every word, hands politely folded in his lap, and nod solemnly when regaled endlessly about which silver spoon belonged to which long-departed cousin or how a particular chest of drawers ended up in the master bedroom. He never tires of hearing about his forebears’ Indian-fighting days or Civil War exploits, and he admires the fragile artifacts of those days. He knows his way around the endlessly convoluted branches of his family tree as well as a corporate accountant knows a spreadsheet, and the past is as vivid as the present in his imagination. By the time he reaches his majority, he realizes that everything signifies, and no matter how far he travels, he will always be secure in who and what he has become.

Edward McKenzie Pattillo was such a youth, and in his magnificent new book, “Carolina Planters on the Alabama Frontier: The Spencer-Robeson-McKenzie Family Papers” (NewSouth, $50), he shares the saga of his extended family and their peregrinations from 17th-century New England to 18th-century South Carolina to 19th-century Alabama. It would be a fair question to ask why Pattillo’s particular ancestors should hold any interest for the average reader, and the answer would be because they were so beautifully expressive in their writings and so immersed in the issues of their day that their story is not only entertaining and instructive, but nothing less than a history of the antebellum South in genealogical microcosm. The book is further strengthened by Pattillo’s considerable skills as a historian and gifted prose style. I cannot emphasize this last point strongly enough. Pattillo writes so well and so gracefully and weaves in his documentary selections – letters, wills, diaries, photographs, property inventories – so seamlessly that the book is pure pleasure to anyone who loves the past.

Today Pattillo is a historic preservation consultant and property appraiser in Montgomery, Ala., and this familiarity with material culture and its importance deeply informs “Carolina Planters on the Alabama Frontier.” Family homes are accurately described, many illustrated by attractive drawings, and numerous portraits and pieces of furniture are pictured with nary a mystery as to their provenance or current locale. The city of Mobile figures considerably, both as a constant source of reference among family members once they moved to northeast Alabama and as the domicile of Edward Hall, an early Mobile mayor who married one of the Spencer granddaughters, Mary Ann Powe. Their house still stands at 165 St. Emanuel Street and is now the Fort Conde Inn.

Conscientious historian that he is, Pattillo does what he can to tease out the less-celebrated and often difficult story of the family’s slaves. He long ago discarded the older relatives’ version, namely that the slaves were “beautifully cared for and happy as a lark,” and he judges his ancestors’ steadfast refusal to recognize slavery as a wrong their “moral blind spot.” “It destroyed their world, and for a century afterward their families still refused to comprehend their guilt,” he writes. Where and when he can, he includes “every scrap” about the slaves that he can find, “not only in an attempt to give back to them some of their own lost history, but also in hope that their descendents might find clues to their ancestry here.”

If this book has a fault, it is the lack of any lineage charts, which would greatly enhance the reader’s ability to follow the various lines. Pattillo knows this material so thoroughly that it is clearly effortless for him, but the rest of us could use a little more help. Otherwise, “Carolina Planters on the Alabama Frontier” is a thoroughly grounded labor of love that manages to be unblinking in both its admiration and its criticism. This is no mean accomplishment, and an object lesson in how to be at once both proud and realistic about one’s Southern heritage.  (source:  Alabama Media Group)


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