"History made interesting."

In a comment posted to The Posterity Project earlier this month, Michael Lynch reminded me of a book that I have had on my reading list for quite a while, but until now I have not had the chance to read it.

Originally published in 1970 and later reissued by The Overmountain Press in 1986, The Overmountain Men by Pat Alderman is a compilation of a series of booklets written by the author to cover succeeding periods of early Tennessee history. Only the first two sections were published separately (The Overmountain Men in 1958 and One Heroic Hour at King's Mountain in 1968). The remaining chapters in this book (The Cumberland Decade, The State of Franklin, and Southwest Territory) complete Alderman's single-volume compilation.

The Overmountain Men cuts a wide path through the Tennessee frontier. In his comment on this blog back in January, Michael Lynch wrote of the book:

"Alderman's work on the Tennessee frontier is very unusual. He loaded his books with illustrations of all kinds--photos of historic sites and artifacts, maps, paintings, drawings--so reading them is almost like taking a mental field trip to the places he's talking about and back in time. But the writing itself is sort of similar to the work of earlier chroniclers like Draper; very focused on prominent figures and dramatic episodes, and heavily reliant on tradition. I love flipping through The Overmountain Men because it evokes places and time periods that are special to me, but I get frustrated when Alderman mentions something I can't find elsewhere and have no hope of finding without a reference."

Such is the dilemma for many researchers of early Tennessee history. So much of what we know about that important time period has been chronicled through the oral histories and traditions handed down through generations, and later chronicled by historians of the mid to late 19th century who viewed the early American period through the lens of "Manifest Destiny" thinking.

For his part, Pat Alderman liked to describe his brand of storytelling as "history made interesting." While this approach to writing history makes for quite the page turner, it certainly would not pass the scrutiny of peer review by today's standards. As a public historian, I found several flaws with The Overmountain Men. There are no footnotes to check statements of fact (though, thankfully, there is a brief bibliography). Much of what Alderman wrote was clearly gleaned from the works of the early Tennessee writers and historians who preceded him, and there is very little, if any, original scholarship. Alderman himself acknowledges this weakness, writing that "This brief pictorial sketch of early Tennessee History is not intended as a source of research, but rather as a medium of calling attention to some of the highlights of that period."

The Overmountain Men is illustrated hagiography, and the whole book struck me as the work of a chronicler, not a historian, and yet I found myself strangely drawn to its pages. Despite its flaws as a work of "history," there is something that public historians can learn from The Overmountain Men if we first try to understand the man who wrote it.*

John B. "Pat" Alderman grew up as an entertainer, always looking to please the crowd. He was born in Dunn, North Carolina on October 31, 1901. As a youngster, he developed a love and appreciation for music. In fact, Alderman's whole family was involved in music, either by playing an instrument or singing. Religious music was the Alderman family's calling, and at age 14, Pat Alderman toured eastern North Carolina with his family performing evangelistic music.

Throughout high school and college, Alderman immersed himself into the music ministry. After two years at Wake Forest College (now Wake Forest University), Alderman left for New Orleans to further his music education at the Baptist Bible Institute. From there, he moved to Troy, Alabama, where he became the director of a local church. After a short stay in Troy, he moved to Birmingham, Alabama to attend Howard College and to direct the college glee clubs. From 1927 to 1930 Alderman attended the Chicago Conservatory of Music where he earned a master's degree in music.

By the time he earned his master's degree, the Great Depression began to take a toll on all phases of the economy, and especially music education, forcing Alderman back home to Dunn, North Carolina. Despite the bleak outlook for music educators, he managed to organize a number of community sings, and eventually landed a job as a music teacher at a Baptist orphanage in nearby Kinston, North Carolina. But just as he was getting back on his feet financially, the United States' entry into World War II brought more change to Pat Alderman's life. In 1943, he began working for the shipyards at Wilmington, North Carolina where he remained until the war's end in 1945, when he returned to Dunn for a year.

Following the war, Alderman and his wife Verna moved to the mountains of East Tennessee, where he found work as a music director at a church near Johnson City, and later took up permanent residence in Erwin, Tennessee, where he became the director of the choral music department at Unicoi County High School. This is the place where Pat Alderman's love for East Tennessee history took root.

Beginning in the 1950s Alderman developed a keen interest in Appalachian, especially East Tennessee, history and culture. It was during this time that he wrote and directed historical plays and pageants, and authored books on Appalachian history, including the works that make up The Overmountain Men compilation.

In 1952, Alderman put his skills in music and the arts to work for the local community by producing an outdoor drama, also named The Overmountain Men, which was cast almost entirely by citizens of Erwin, Tennessee. The Erwin Record newspaper published front page accounts of plans for a "Big Historical Pageant" which would "encompass one of the most rugged and dramatic epics in the birth of this -- the United States of America."

Replete with "horses, Indian fights, and celebrations in the rugged outdoor setting in the locality where this dramatic period was lived," The Overmountain Men drama was a full-scale production. Set in a 2,000-seat football stadium, with sixteen episodes in three distinct acts, and a 300-person cast including fifteen major leads, The Erwin Record noted that "the pioneer pageant of bronze and white will have a most definite thread of personal human interest that treats with the individual as well as the spread of an empire." Manifest Destiny had arrived in Unicoi County.

This image depicts a scene from Pat Alderman's historic drama, "The Overmountain Men," produced in Erwin, Tennessee in 1952. The entire cast in this production were natives of Erwin.
Image credit: The Overmountain Men by Pat Alderman.

Pat Alderman's personal journey to the mountains of East Tennessee reminds us that history should be more than a rote recitation of names, places and dates. Good history requires good storytelling. Although The Overmountain Men fails to adequately cite sources, exhibits an over-reliance on secondary literature, and treats its subject with an unusual reverence, there are moments of great storytelling within its pages. As Michael Lynch accurately points out, the book is "not the sort of thing one can rely on for research," but for what it's worth, The Overmountain Men is the kind of book that inspires further inquiry, and reminds us all that history is indeed interesting.

*EDITOR'S NOTE: I want to extend a special acknowledgment to the Archives of Appalachia, which houses the John Biggs "Pat" Alderman Papers at East Tennessee State University. A biographical sketch published on the Archives' website provided me with a great deal of information concerning Pat Alderman's life and his early influences.


Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.