Myth or Truth?

Three items of local significance that I’ve heard about recently – although are they actually true?

Indian pointing trees. Wikipedia:

Trail trees, trail marker trees, crooked trees, prayer trees, thong trees, or culturally modified trees are hardwood trees throughout North America that Native Americans intentionally shaped with distinctive characteristics that convey that the tree was shaped by human activity rather than deformed by nature or disease. A massive network of constructed pre-Columbian roads and trails has been well documented across the Americas, and in many places remnants can still be found of trails used by hunters and gatherers. One unique characteristic of the trail marker tree is a horizontal bend several feet off the ground, which makes it visible at greater distances, even in snow.

Dr. Wheeler writes: “The trees are not a myth. But if anyone points one out to you, ask yourself whether the tree is reasonably close to 200 years old.”

Symbolic quilts on the Underground Railroad. From the Longview News-Journal:

Long before Navajo code talkers in World War II and the advent of secured phone lines and encrypted emails, some say, American slaves used quilts hung from windowsills and clotheslines as a signal to others to help them escape to the North for freedom.

“These quilts contained symbols sewn into them. For instance, the North Star signaled for a slave to go north, a sailboat represented safe passage and bear claws told slaves to follow the bear trails into the mountains.

From the comment thread:

This idea has been debunked by serious historians.

1. The quilts would have had to be out all the time, as one could never know when a runaway would be coming by. Neighbors would begin to wonder why a quilt was out all the time.

2. Enslaved people would have had to know about the codes. What is the old saying? Two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead. Imagine a mother, husband, father facing his loved ones being sold away, and would they not be willing to reveal the secret to keep their loved ones close?

3. In his book The Underground Railroad, William Still, secretary to the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery society, states that there are records of over 800 people escaping slavery. None of them mentions using a quilt as a map. Tubman makes no reference to use of quilts in her many trips to bring family members to freedom.

4. There were songs, the most famous being “Follow the Drinking Gourd” that are alleged to be from the period to help enslaved people escape along the Ohio River.

Appalachian English. Wikipedia:

One popular theory is that the dialect is a preserved remnant of 16th-century (or “Elizabethan”) English in isolation, though a far more accurate comparison would be to 18th-century (or “colonial”) English.

From a paper on Scribd:

After leaving Appalachia for school in Louisville I learned that Appalachians use Elizabethan English. Unfortunately that isn’t true. It has, however, become a cultural myth. Michael Montgomery says, “The idea that in isolated pockets somewhere in the country people still use “Elizabethan” or “Shakespearean” speech is widely held and is one of the hardier cultural beliefs or myths in the collective American psyche.”

The idea arose in the late nineteenth century and has often been associated with the southern mountains—The Appalachians of North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia, and the Ozarks of Arkansas and Missouri. At one extreme it reflects nothing less than our young nation’s yearning for a stirring account of its origins, while at the other extreme the incidental fact that English colonization of North America began during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I more than four centuries ago. Two things in particular are responsible for its continued vitality: its romanticism and its political usefulness. Its linguistic validity is another matter entirely. Linguists haven’t substantiated it, nor have they tried very hard to do so, since the claim of Elizabethan English is patently based on very little good evidence. But this lack of support is a secondary, if not irrelevant, matter for those who have articulated the Shakespearean English idea in print—popular writers and an occasional academic—for over a century. It has indisputably become a powerful cultural belief and acquired mythic status.

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