Anybody could play chunkey: boys, girls, old men, old women, anybody

Posted by Dave Tabler | August 31, 2016

Anyone who has been to the Cherokee Indian Museum down here where you buy the tickets to “Unto These Hills” has probably seen some chunkey stones. They are a variety of sizes; they are all nicely polished stones. They all stick out a little bit on the sides like little wheels that didn’t have holes put there for the axles. We don’t exactly know how long ago people started using chunkey stones, but we know it goes back many, many years ago.

We don’t know exactly how they got them made, but we are pretty sure it was done by rubbing one stone against another because they go back so far that there were no metal tools or braces fixed to grind a whole new piece or that sort of thing. So good old hand polishing did it.

Well, in that long, long time ago, the old men—those who had gotten too old to hunt or fight or even work in their gardens, fish, or what not usually stayed around the council house. It was warm there in the wintertime; they usually found some pleasant company. Council houses, as you recall, were either on mounds—there’s one right over yonder; there’s one down at Franklin. There’s one down near Bryson City.

There were several reasons for them being on mounds, but for the little boys who lived around there, the main reason the council house was on kind of a mounded place was so you had a nice down hill place to play chunkey. If you asked any boy why that was there, that is what he would tell you.

Now anybody could play chunkey: boys, girls, old men, old women, anybody, but usually boys played it. One thing about playing chunkey; you didn’t have to get into any special gear. You didn’t have to have shoes with cleats on them; you didn’t have to have a certain shaped bat or a ball that was a certain size. You just had to have a stick. Any old stick would do.

Edwin H. Davis’s copy of William Bartram’s sketch of a chunkey yard, from his unpublished manuscript “Observations on the Creek and Cherokee Indians.” Chunkey was the most popular game among southeastern Native Americans until the advent of the colonial era. Players rolled a stone disc and threw poles or spears after it, trying to land closest to where the stone had stopped.

Now, of course, a boy who really played a great deal, usually got him a stick about so long and about so wide while it was green, stuck it in the fire, rubbed off the end a little bit to make it a little pointed, and he would play with that. But if the group started playing, and he hadn’t time to run to the cabin to get his stick, he just grabbed a stick and went to work.

Now to win this game, the rules were very simple. To win this game, you just had to hit that chunkey stone dead center with your stick as it was rolling. It would flop over, and you had won the game. Well, now what they would do was, they would talk to one of these old gentlemen at the council house, because no young boy ever had a chunkey stone. They were too valuable.

The old man had one that was handed down by his father, and he had got it from his father and all. They were about the most valuable thing they had in the whole village, and the old man would carry it in his pocket. But most any old man felt rather complimented to think the little boys would come and ask him to roll the chunkey stone; come along and ask Grandpa if he would roll the chunkey stone.

It took just a little effort for the old man to roll it, the boys would go running along beside it, throwing their stick trying to make it flop over. If they hit it too far in the front or behind, it would just wiggle around; they would have to pick it up and bring it back to him. The boys would play all afternoon, and maybe one would make a score, but that didn’t make too much difference. Long as it was daylight, long as the old man was willing to stay there, as long as he would roll the chunkey stone, the boys would just keep on playing.

As soon as the sun went over the top of that tree, you know there were no radios or televisions or anything to tell what time it was; that’s the way they told time. That’s how long ago it was. Soon as it dropped over, all the suppers were ready; mothers went to the doors to call the boys. Every boy answered, “Uh huh!” Well, you know what “uh huh” in Cherokee means. It doesn’t mean “no;” it isn’t “unt huh.” It’s “uh huh;” it means “yes.” Well, yes, I hear you! Why, yes, I’m enjoying my game! Yes, I know you have supper ready!


excerpt from Mrs. Mary Chiltoskey’s telling of two Cherokee legends, at the Western North Carolina Historical Association’s April 1978 meeting.

Southern Highlands Research Center
Louis D. Silveri Oral History Collection,
D. H. Ramsey Library Special Collections,
University of North Carolina at Asheville

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The Lost Provinces

Posted by Dave Tabler | August 30, 2016

North Carolinians for many decades thought of them as the Lost Provinces. Prior to the early 20th century, Ashe, Alleghany, and Watauga counties were hemmed in and separated from the rest of the state by the Eastern Continental Divide— average elevation 2,500 to 3,000 feet— which forms their eastern and southern borders.

Lowlanders joked that the only way to get there was to be born there. Commerce and society were forced to circulate between these three counties and Grayson and Smyth Counties, VA to the north, and Johnson and Carter Counties, TN to the west.

Archibald Murphey. Portrait in the North Carolina Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Archibald Murphey. Portrait in the North Carolina Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Archibald D. Murphey (1777-1832), a lawyer and judge remembered for his vision of how the state’s internal affairs could be improved, was far ahead of his generation in his comments about the region’s transport: “The roads have been badly laid out; they are badly made, and the population in many parts is too weak to keep the roads in even tolerable repair. All these roads should be made at the public’s expense.”

The idea of getting state aid in building roads finally took hold in 1887. Up to then citizens worked on the roads on a rotating basis. A road out of Ashe County to meet the Wilkes road system was impractical at that time because of the sheer difficulty and cost of such a road. Instead county officials decided to build, with the help of state convicts, a road from Jefferson, past Healing Springs, to the nearest railway terminal, in Marion, VA.

The upper New River Valley continued to remain extremely isolated into the early part of the 20th century. In 1911 the Blowing Rock Turnpike began construction. It effectively connected the High Country with Lenoir and its prosperous network of farmers’ markets and railroad depots. The Blowing Rock Turnpike not only served cars but horsedrawn wagons and could be used, free of charge, for Watauga County residents bringing their goods to market.

The High Country’s first railroad appeared in 1914. It connected Ashe County with Abingdon, VA, to facilitate the region’s short timber boom. The first narrow gauge railroad line rolled through in 1918, and followed the pattern: it came not east from the Piedmont but rather from Tennessee to the west.

First train in West Jefferson, NCPhoto caption reads: First train in West Jefferson, NC. January 2, 1917

Beginning about 1920 Ashe County undertook a local road building program, during which approximately $1,500,000 in bonds were issued. The expected number of resulting county roads never materialized, however, due to the high prices at which contracts were let for the construction of these roads, and the fact that most of the county projects were later taken over by the state.

North Carolina’s 1921 General Assembly finally established the state highway system. Early on there was official recognition of the need to “rescue the hillbillies.” Frank Linney, D.D. Dougherty, and Mary Martin Sloop were prominent High Country influences in the political scramble to develop roads. The Assembly approved a $50 million road bond, paid for by a one-cent tax on gasoline, and the brand new Highway 16 finally connected the central piedmont with Ashe County.

Robert Doughton, of Alleghany County, U.S. Representative from 1910 to 1953, was a key player in creating road access into the region. As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee from 1933 to 1953, he was the major force in promoting the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which further opened the former Lost Provinces to jobs and tourists.
The Papers of Archibald Murphey, Vol. 2, William Henry Hoyt, Editor (1914)

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Oh brother I am dying now

Posted by Dave Tabler | August 29, 2016

Listen to Buell Kazee play “The Dying Soldier”


Oh brother Green, oh come to me,
For I am shot and bleeding,
Now I must die, no more to see,
My wife and my dear children.
The southern () has layed me low,
On this cold ground to suffer,
Stay brother stay and lay me away,
And write my wife a letter.
Tell her that I’m prepared to die,
And want to meet her in heaven,
Since I believed in Jesus Christ,
My sins are all forgiven.
My little ones, I love them well,
Oh could I once more see them,
That I might bid them a long farewell,
But we will meet in heaven.
Oh brother I am dying now,
Oh see I die so easy,
Oh surely death has lost it’s sting,
Because I love my Jesus.
Go tell my wife she must not grieve,
Oh kiss my dear little children,
For they will call for me in vain,
When I am gone to heaven.

Recorded on January 18, 1928 in New York City

Buell Kazee was a master of the high, “lonesome” singing style of the Appalachian balladeer. His banjo style was a unique variation on the traditional frailing style, and he played in as many as eleven different tunings. Because most of his life was taken up with preaching and his duties to his Baptist congregation, he had a limited time for music.

In 1926, W. S. Carter, the proprietor of Carter’s Phonograph Shop in Ashland, KY (who was also a representative of Brunswick-Balke-Collender Recording Company) heard Buell sing. As a result, Kazee the following year was asked to record for Brunswick in New York. The producers of the sessions asked Kazee if he could sing with more of a southern accent—he was a bit perturbed by this, having worked relentlessly to hone his voice to a point he considered worthy of recording.

Buell KazeeOver the next two years, he recorded 52 songs backed by New York musicians. Many were religious, but others ranged from traditional to popular ballads, including “Lady Gay,” “The Sporting Bachelors,” and “The Orphan Girl.” His biggest hit was a version of “On Top of Old Smoky” called “Little Mohee,” which sold over 15,000 copies on 78 rpm recordings.

Buell Kazee’s career as a professional musician came to end in 1929, despite offers of tour support for county fairs across the country and membership in the radio cast of WLS’ National Barn Dance in Chicago. His priorities were spiritual, not musical. “I couldn’t go that way,” he said (he heard the call to preach at 17). “My life was cast in a different direction and there wasn’t any reason to consider it. I was going to preach all my life.”

Kazee was born on August 29, 1900, at the head of Burton Fork in Magoffin County in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky.




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‘My name is Mike Fink!’ was the curt reply

Posted by Dave Tabler | August 26, 2016

He was the most famous of the keelboatmen, who plied the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers for two decades until they and their watercraft were displaced by steamboats.

Mike Fink, by William Gropper (1897-1977), from the series ‘American Folk Heroes.’

Born near Pittsburgh, PA (at the headwaters of the Ohio River), around 1770, Mike Fink —‘Miche Phinck,’ as he learned to spell it from his French Canadian parents—gained notoriety as a marksman and an Indian scout in the Ohio River Valley before settling into keelboating.

He took up boating around 1785 and rose in the trade. Fink mastered the difficult business of keelboating—poling, rowing, sailing, and cordelling (pulling via a rope winch) keelboats upstream for hundreds of miles against strong river currents.

By the early 1800s, he owned and captained two boats headquartered at Wheeling, WV. Working his way west, Fink’s career paralleled that of American expansion into the Mississippi Valley.

Fink’s trickster exploits captured the American imagination, and provided plenty of fodder for tall tales that took on a colorful life of their own.  A typical example is “Mike Fink and the Sheep,” penned in 1852 (roughly 29 years after Fink’s death) by Ben Casseday, a Louisville, KY journalist and newspaper editor:

“His practical jokes, for so he and his associates called their predations on the inhabitants of the shores along which they passed, were always characterized by a boldness of design and a sagacity of execution that showed no mean talent on Mike’s part. One of the most ingenious of these tricks, and one which affords a fair idea of the spirit of them all, is told as follows:

“-Passing slowly down the river, Mike observed a very large and beautiful flock of sheep grazing on the shore, and being in want of fresh provisions, but scorning to buy them, Mike hit upon the following expedient. He noticed that there was an eddy near to the shore, and, as it was about dusk, he landed his boat in the eddy and tied her fast. In his cargo there were sonic bladders of scotch-snuff.

“Mike opened one of these and taking out a handful of the contents, he went ashore and, catching five or six of the sheep, rubbed their faces very thoroughly with the snuff. He then returned to his boat and sent one of his men in a great hurry to the sheep-owner’s house to tell him that he ‘had better come down and see what was the matter with his sheep.’

“Upon coming down hastily in answer to Mike’s summons the gentleman saw a portion of his flock very singularly affected; leaping, bleating, rubbing their noses against the ground and against each other, and performing all manner of undignified and unsheeplike antics. The gentleman was sorely puzzled and demanded of Mike ‘if he knew what was the matter with the sheep.’

“YOU don’t know?” answered Mike very gravely.

“I do not,” replied the gentleman.

“Did you ever hear of the black murrain?” asked Mike in a confidential whisper.

“Yes,” said the sheep owner in a terrified reply.

“Well, that’s it” said Mike. “All the sheep upriver’s got it dreadful. Dyin’ like rotten dogs- hundreds a day.”

“You don’t say so,” answered the victim, “and is there no cure for it?”

“Only one as I knows on,” was the reply. “You see the murrain’s dreadful catchin’, and ef you don’t git them away as is got it, they’ll kill the whole flock. Better shoot ‘em right-off; they’ve got to die anyway.”

“But no man could single out the infected sheep and shoot them from among the flock,” said the gentleman.

“My name’s Mike Fink!” was the curt reply. And it was answer enough. The gentleman begged Mike to shoot the infected sheep and throw them into the river. This was exactly what Mike wanted, but he pretended to resist.

“It mought be a mistake,” he said; “they’ll may be git well. He didn’t like to shoot manny’s sheep on his own say so. He’d better go an’ ask some of the neighbors ef it was the murrain sure ‘nuf.”

“The gentleman insisted, and Mike modestly resisted, until finally he was promised a couple of gallons of old Peach Brandy if be would comply. His scruples thus finally overcome, Mike shot the sheep, threw them into the eddy and got the brandy. After dark, the men jumped into the water, hauled the sheep aboard, and by daylight had them neatly packed away and were gliding merrily down the stream.”


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  • Granny Sue says:

    hey Dave,

    I was talking about Mike Fink all summer for children’s library programs–the theme this year was Make a Splash, so I traveled creeks and rivers from my home to the ocean and told stories about each one along the way. Mike Fink, of course, starred in the Ohio River/Mississippi River section of the program. This is a great story here.

  • robert dewalt says:


    Just a question. Is there a source for Mike Fink’s supposed French Canadian background? The standard scholarly treatment of the Fink legend– Blair and Meine, U of Chicago P, 1956– states on page 1: “It has been assumed that his parents were Scotch-Irish, as were many people in the settlement[Fort Pitt], but there is a strong liklihood that they belonged to the Pennsylvania German contingent.” Nowhere in the many published tales collected in Meine and Blair is Fink’s ethnicity stated, and French ancestry is probably the least likely possibility , given the demographics of Western Pennsylvnia after the fall of Fort Duquesne and the withdrawal of the French to Detroit. The settlers of the area after the French and Indian War were largely Scotch-Irish, English and Pennsylvania “Dutch,” that is, German.

  • Dave Tabler says:

    Blair and Meine quote an 1829 article by one Timothy Flint titled “The Last of the Boatman” in which Flint explains Fink’s spelling of his name. “He had but little knowledge of letters,” says Flint, “especially of their sounds and powers, as his orthography was very bad, and he usually spelled his name Miche Phinck, whilst his father spelled his with an F.” In other words Fink spelled his name that way not because of French Canadian roots, but simply because he was a poor speller.

    The reference I used that stated Fink was French Canadian was an MNBC article at The article has no byline, and does not cite ITS sources. Not a very strong citation to use for my own article, I admit!

  • robert dewalt says:

    Thanks for the clarifiation, Dave, and more generally for a very enjoyable and informative site. My own (half-serious) belief re Fink– Pennsylvania German of Swiss origin. Note his penchant for shooting things off people’s heads a la William Tell! Happy New Year.

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Woman has no greater claim to the rights of the ballot

Posted by Dave Tabler | August 25, 2016

“Bullets and ballots are not companions;” said Lizzie French in a famous 1912 speech to the Tenneesee Bar Association, “but ballots in the hands of people are supposed to be a substitute for bullets in the hands of hired agents…Thanks be to God that in giving women the crown of motherhood he made her the giver not the taker of life. Woman has no greater claim to the rights of the ballot than she is a producer not a destroyer of life.”

Elizabeth Crozier French, born this date in 1851, was at the time the recently elected president of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association, Inc. When the first woman in Tennessee history to address the organization took the podium, she delivered what many scholars believe today was one of her greatest messages stating her position on the state’s law forbidding women from voting. French was never one to sit still, and knew her best strategy as president of the state’s suffrage organization would be to take her message straight to the Tennessee Bar Association.

Elizabeth Crozier FrenchAs the daughter of an attorney and an out-spoken leader in the women’s movement, French wasn’t at all intimidated by the men seated in front of her. Her speech was put into the record of the Tennessee Bar Association as an “Address on Women’s Rights” and became a much quoted theme in the South’s growing number of suffrage groups. French continued her work in Knoxville founding and serving as president of the Knoxville Equal Suffrage Society and becoming a leading member of the National Women’s Party.

From this speech forward, French began her all-out fight to see that the Susan B. Anthony Amendment – now more than 30 years old and regarded as a dead piece of legislation in Congress – was added to the United States Constitution.

The bill and the labors of women like Lizzie Crozier French were having some impact on women’s rights in America. Some states had begun giving women greater control over their property, a few had made divorce easier for those in abusive relationships, and women were slowly gaining access to the courts in their ability to sue for damages.

Finally on August 25, 1919, Tennessee certified the ratification becoming the 36th state and making the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution the law of the land giving women the right to vote.

Lizzie C. French and the Suffragists across America cheered passage of the 19th Amendment, and French joined women across Tennessee in casting their first votes that following November. In addition, French went on to help found the Knoxville chapter of the League of Women Voters.

Lizzie C. French remained an active member of the Knoxville community and made a bid for City Council in 1923, but was defeated. Three years later the 75-year-old Lizzie C. French traveled to Washington, D.C. to help the National Women’s Party furnish a room in honor of the Tennessee suffragists and also secure introduction of a bill in Congress to benefit working women in America. On May 14, 1926, while still in Washington, D.C., the Tennessean quietly passed away.

Her body was returned to her hometown in Knoxville where she was laid to rest in the City’s Old Gray Cemetery – leaving behind a legacy that is still felt to this day.


Lizzie+French Tennessee+Equal+Suffrage+Association Knoxville+TN suffragists appalachia appalachian+history appalachian+mountains+history

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