The Blue Banner

The Student Voice of UNC Asheville

The Blue Banner

The Student Voice of UNC Asheville

The Blue Banner

Third Saturday Muster at Davison’s Fort Historic Park places an emphasis on local history

Robert (Bob) Martin, 79, inside Davidson’s Fort Historic Park in Old Fort, N.C. on Feb. 17.

Removing the lid from the McDonald’s cup, he pours out the coffee into his own white thermos. 

“I’m a Virginia boy, born and bred in Norfolk, where the last Confederate reunion was. My wife’s a Michigander. That’s gotta tell you something. My first wife said to me when we got married back in the 1960s, ‘Don’t tell the family you’re from Virginia.’ She was a Michigander too. I keep marrying Michiganders. Maybe it’s the water,” said Robert (Bob) Martin, 79, the vice-president of Davidson’s Fort Historic Park in Old Fort, N.C. 

Directly next to Interstate 40, off Lackeytown Rd is the park, a replica of the original Davidson’s Fort, a Revolutionary War frontier fort and trading post built in 1776 to protect white colonists from Cherokee, indigenous to the land. The original fort was destroyed in a 1916 flood where, reportedly, the Mountain Gateway Museum and Heritage Center is now located. Today, according to Martin, the fort aims to teach history not taught in classrooms, susceptible to being forgotten by the passage of time.

“The young people coming out here, we give them a pretty decent indication of what the early settlers were. The fourth and eighth graders in North Carolina are required to have state history. They don’t teach much, but we do,” Martin said. “We have dumbed down history to the point now where the kids aren’t taught. We got school books saying World War II ended in 1953. Sorry, someone didn’t proofread it. They’ve dumbed down history so the average idiot can figure it out.”

The fort consists of a log building, surrounded by wooden fencing. Outside the main entrance is a wooden pillory, with holes designed for hands and a head, formerly used as a form of public humiliation and corporal punishment. In the center of the fort is a fireplace, used to make clay pots. Inside the building are two floors. The second is currently used for storage. Martin sits in a rocking chair on the first floor, thermos in hand.

“We’re Davidson’s Fort Historic Park. My name means nothing. I’m vice-president and my Cherokee president out there is Big Bear, Jason Cook. What we’re about is Davidson’s Fort Historic Park, which was the western most fort during the Revolutionary War. This piece of land was given as a governor’s grant, the Royal Governor Josiah Martin gave it to the older brother, George Davidson, in 1772. Under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the French and Indian War, white men on this side of the mountains, red men on the other side. However, since the Cherokee had been out here for 10,000 years, they’ve been hunting this for years. The old chiefs wanted the iron kettles and the knives. The young chiefs knew they were losing a birthright,” Martin said. 

Martin wears a period-accurate green coat and nightcap, gray trousers, a white beard and a ring on his left hand. It’s Feb. 17, the day of the Third Saturday Muster. It is the first one of the year, as January’s event was canceled due to poor weather. 

“A militia muster is a combination of board meeting and folks getting to dress out and wear funny clothes that are in the back of their closet. They put them on once a month and they come out here,” Martin said. “We don’t have anybody that lives locally, so it’s very difficult to get anybody to come out and open the place for the general public on any other given day. We push the fort, we pick up more stuff to give out. More fliers and things like that. We commune and tell eachother about events that are coming up that are of particular interest to each other and hopefully the group. That’s what a militia muster gives us time to do.” 

Born in 1944, Martin was 16-years-old when he attended his first Civil War event in Norfolk, a reenactment of the Battle of Bull Run. According to Martin, historically accurate military apparel  was not yet in production, therefore you had to buy original equipment. The same apparel and equipment used by the Confederates and Union. The same apparel used in the Revolutionary War. 

“I got my mom to dress me up in a little kepi for $20. Lemme tell ya, in 1960, $20 was a lot of jack. She bought me a kepi and I went out to the First Battle of Bull Run. They didn’t have enough reenactors, so they got National Guard troops. They had guys in little Kmart kepis and cigar boxes painted black. The Yankees had blue zipper uniforms. Confederates had gray zipper uniforms. It was so hot, people were dropping over. Carriages were getting overturned, but what did I care, I was having a good time. 16-years-old, I could whip a wild cat,” Martin said. 

While the hobby can be expensive, Martin says, it doesn’t have to be. 

“I’ll tell ya, if I had the money I spent on Civil War shit years ago, starting with that $20 hat, I wouldn’t worry about my next social security check coming in. It would all be in the bank. I got blue uniforms, I got gray uniforms, I got uniforms for the army of Tennessee, which is dyed with hickory nuts. I’ve got green uniforms, which are Berdan’s sharpshooters. Changing the buttons out and the belt buckle makes it a Chattanooga,” Martin said. “You don’t have to spend $125 for a pair of trousers. You don’t have to spend $80 or $90 for a waistcoat, or a half coat. The forerunner of the vest. People come out and say ‘I bought one for $10. I’m not going to spend a lot of money on another waistcoat for $40.’ Stuff can be acquired at the Market Fair or at other events, very cheaply. You don’t have to spend a lot of money. I squeeze a nickel till the buffalo yells. Buffalos used to be on the back of nickels.”

According to Martin, a 1763 treaty between the British and Cherokee, declared the British to not cross west of a specific, designated line. They disobeyed the declaration. Several families moved in, including, perhaps most notably, the Davidsons, from which the fort received its name. One of four brothers, Captain Samuel Davidson, led a 82 troop militia in the construction of the fort, to protect settlers from rising tensions with the Cherokee. In the Battle of Fork, in July of 1776, several white privates were killed and scalped. 14 Cherokee were murdered. Those who survived were reinforced by General Griffith Rutherford, a top-ranking military official, who destroyed 36 Indian towns, destroying their corn farms, near the Watauga settlements. 

“The people that came out here and settled on the frontier were a rough lot. A lot of them were Scotch-Irish. A number of them came down the Great Wagon Road from Pennsylvania. You had older brother George, twins William and Sam and one-eyed John, who lost his eye to a horse when he was 11-years-old. John Davidson, his wife, Nancy Brevard and the baby were killed by the Indians. General Rutherford put together a 2,400 militia. 2,400 men, 1,500 pack horses and 800 beef cattle. He assembled them at Davidson’s Fort. In September, he  marched them 300 miles out to all of the Indian towns to the West, destroying every bit of corn, crops, acreage of apples, whatever. We actually did to the Cherokee what Sherman did to Atlanta during the Civil War,” Martin said. “We had to do that because we could take 200 to 300 Indians, but we couldn’t take 2,000 or 3,000. We destroyed the Cherokee way of life and made it impossible for them to feed their families. They had to fall back into the Tennessee area. We would send out, from the 200 men left here to man this fort during war, we would send 40 to 50 men in a scouting party to make sure the Indians hadn’t come back to the towns. If there was any indication they had, we’d burn that, fire that, attack em’.”

Davidson’s Fort, in the midst of the Revolutionary War, Martin says, was the home of some of the soldiers who fought in the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780. On a flier presented by Martin reads a quote from Thomas Jefferson in a letter to John Campbell. In the letter, Jefferson refers to the battle as the “turn of the tide of success which terminated the Revolutionary War with the seal of our independence.” 

“We also sent troops when Cornwallis came down from up north. He and Sir Henry Clinton went to Charlestown and took it along with Savannah. Cornwallis sent Patrick Ferguson with one third of the army out here and said ‘subdue those pesky rebels.’ Ferguson made the mistake of saying ‘I’m going to hang your leaders.’ About 400 guys up in Virginia said ‘not on my watch.’ They went down to Watauga Settlement in Tennessee. He got another 200 or 300 from other fellas and marched this way, looking for Ferguson. Got over here, at McDowell station, got another 200-something. Benjamin Cleveland had come down. They joined forces and headed to the cowpens. They met up with fellas from South Carolina who said ‘he’s headed for Kings Mountain.’ They got about 900 militia on horseback, some of them best shots. Most of them had rifled muskets. They marched to Kings Mountain. Ferguson said, ‘God and the devil can’t dislodge me.’ Well, the battle only took an hour. Ferguson went down with about 11 shots. If you’re riding a white horse, blowing a whistle, waving a sword and wearing a checkered shirt, you’re an easy target. They took him out and one of the women he had with him. Buried them in a pile of rocks, down there. Then, he killed most of his soldiers. Ferguson lost 800 or 900 men. Had another 600 men and we took them prisoner,” Martin said.

According to Martin, through the 1780s, many campaigns against Cherokee continued, beginning at Davidson’s Fort, which itself served as a trading post. 

“The fort continued to be a trading post and continued to have a contingent of about 200 men to ride out and check on the trails. Keep the Indians down. We continued fighting Dragging Canoe until he died in 1792. Ultimately, this place was a trading post until it fell into ruin. In 1873, this town wanted to be a real, honest town. They petitioned Raleigh and they said, ‘OK. We’re gonna call you Catawba, after the railroads.’ They tore it up and sent it back to them. They left the roundhouses and all the money in Spencer, we got nothing, and they embezzled money and bought Flagler Railroad stock in Florida. It went back to the legislature and the legislature said, ‘you had a fort here during the Revolutionary War. How about we name ya Old Fort?’ There goes the name of Old Fort. That’s how that happened.”

Regarding Dragging Canoe, a Cherokee leader who resisted colonization, Martin shared their perspective and knowledge.

“Dragging Canoe, one of the primary war chiefs and a very eloquent Indian. He made a statement at Long Island on the Hudson River during a treaty. He said ‘if you settle here, you will find this is a dark and bloody ground.’ He declared war on the white man up until the time he died in 1792. He fought us continually,” Martin said. 

Nearly 26 miles from the fort is the UNC Asheville campus, where professor Daniel Pierce teaches history. Pierce, a Buncombe County resident of 52 years, since he was 3-years-old, says there were not a lot of Civil War battles in North Carolina, but the state contributed more troops to the Confederacy than any other state, as well as losing the greatest number. Davidson’s Fort played no prominent role in the Civil War, but the park’s replica hosts annual Civil War day events. The majority of events Martin has reenacted pertain to the Civil War, beginning at 16-years-old. 

“Western North Carolina was very divided during the war. There were a lot of so-called Unionists in the area. Lots of men evading the draft and hiding out in the woods and lots of armed ‘bushwackers’ who battled Confederate forces. Very famous massacre of 13 Unionists occurred in 1863 in the Shelton Laurel section of Madison County,” Pierce said. “Buncombe County was pretty solidly Confederate as there were more enslaved people here than in most of Western North Carolina. The Civil War Governor was Zebulon Vance, from Buncombe County.”

According to Pierce, near UNCA’s campus, is the site of the Battle of Asheville, in what is now the Botanical Gardens. 

“Asheville was the site of a Confederate armory that manufactured rifles. They weren’t very good. Most famously we had the Battle of Asheville in April 1865. Union forces under Colonel Isaac Kirby came up the Buncombe Turnpike from Tennessee to try to capture Asheville. They camped in the area around the current Botanical Gardens,” Pierce said. “The Confederate Home Guard held the high ground near downtown. The forces exchanged artillery and gun fire for five hours until the Union forces retreated. Both sides knew the war was over and no one wanted to get killed. No one did. Later in the month, Union troops came through Henderson County and Asheville surrendered. Union troops camped again near the Botanical Gardens and later returned to Asheville and looted it.

Back at the fort, on the other side of the room from Martin is Big Bear, the fort’s president, since Martin’s retirement, moving down to vice-president due to personal health concerns. Martin says it is his shoulder. In a Facebook post featured on Davidson’s Fort Historic Park’s public group, a caption read: “It is time for the Cherokees to take back their land LOL.” 

Big Bear, born and raised Cherokee, met Martin at the Old Fort parade nearly seven years ago. He too did Civil War reenactments. At the fort, Big Bear helps make the clay Cherokee pots, some with Grandmother Spider imprinted upon them. According to Big Bear, amongst the Cherokee, history is not prioritized. Most Cherokee do not want to teach their history at Davidson’s Fort, he says. 

“Everybody’s looking for a buck. I’m not looking for the buck. I’m looking to keep history alive and teaching it the correct way. Most of them are looking for a paycheck. Get rid of these hoodwinks out here for the dollar bill. Get rid of them, you actually get people that care about their heritage, history and way of life,” Big Bear said. “Most people don’t speak the language. Unless you go up to Cherokee, but then half of them don’t even speak it. A lot of that isn’t taught. A lot of the craftwork, as far as building pots, baskets and stuff like that, there’s very few people out here who can go out and make a bow and arrow or a basket. There’s a lot of people getting away from traditional clothing. You can tell the difference between how they started off with the feathers. Now you got cotton.” 

Exactly two weeks before the Third Saturday Muster, in a separate interview for a report on a separate, international subject, on Feb. 3, Cherokee activist Lou Montelongo spoke on a lack of collaboration in the Cherokee community, specifically in regards to progressive, communal action in Cherokee, N.C. According to Montelongo, this disconnect is a product of colonialism. At the event, a sign read: “End The Occupation,” with red paint handprints. 

“As I mentioned earlier, gadugi means cooperative labor in Cherokee. We love to throw that around as a community. We say ‘live by gadugi,’ but we don’t actually do the action behind the word, which is all of us working together for the betterment of our society. When you see that disconnect, it’s from colonialism. The reason why we feel like we can’t help each other, our own people, is because colonialism disconnected us from our communal ways. We’re not supposed to be raised by ourselves,” Montelongo said. 

To Montelongo’s side is Jakeli Swimmer, a Cherokee artist and activist, who said in order to understand the Eastern Band of Cherokee, a necessary emphasis and value must be placed in community. Oftentimes, Swimmer says, identity is extracted to benefit themself or to potentially generate profit. 

“A lot of the times I find, institutions will just pick people that fit within their institutional, academic style. ‘Oh, they’re an author.’ What you find is a lot of those authors and sometimes artists are extracting that identity to benefit and profit, but what they’re not seeing is the community has its true artists, has its true authors who have a connection to the language, have a connection to land, have a connection to their people.”

Montelongo chimed in, sharing a similar sentiment to Swimmer’s, at the Saturday event.

“Not just them claiming a community, but making sure their community claims them too. That’s a big thing. Our community, we know each other,” Montelongo said. “Come to our land and see it for yourself, but don’t come downtown and think that you’re going to see a teepee or a headdress. Learn what we actually were, what we did and where our art comes from. The tourism of Cherokee, we had to do it to survive. We need community care, so we can rely on each other, not the government.”

Present at the fort is Big Bear’s nephew, Tyler Tessiner, born and raised in Shelby, N.C. Big Bear married Tessiner’s aunt, at a wedding held at the fort, spawning the familial tie. Tessiner wears a handmade, checker-patterned shirt, Cherokee moccasins accompanied by polyester gym shorts. His favorite historical event was the delivery of the Gettysburg Address. In his hands is a book collection of word searches. He says college wasn’t for him. He hopes to go to London one day, to see Queen Elizabeth. 

“I’ve done over 500 books in 10 years. There’s about 70 word searches in this one,” Tessiner said. 

He drinks from a two liter bottle of Canada Dry ginger ale zero. Currently, he works as a repairman. He does not reenact. He doesn’t like guns. He goes to the gym daily, but doesn’t do weights. He used to want to be a mortician and loves Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, due to an experience he had when he was 7-years-old, he says. He comments on the cold, February weather.

“I do have autism. It’s interesting at times,” Tessiner said. “North Carolina has bipolar weather.” 

Posted on one the building’s structural beams is the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, which according to NCPedia, was allegedly produced on May 20, 1775, although it was not officially published until 1819. If true, this would make it the first declaration of independence in the original 13 colonies. Some historians, however, deny this. According to Charles Phillips, a UNC Chapel Hill professor, they claim the declaration to be a loose interpretation of the Mecklenburg Resolves, which itself fell short of a declaration for independence. The Mecklenburg Declaration was rumored to be written from memories of the Mecklenburg Resolves. Martin sips his coffee and explains the document’s significance.

“It’s important to retell all history. If you don’t know history, you don’t know jack shit. That’s why we give kids a basic foundation of Washington and all of those guys. In North Carolina, the Mecklenburg Declaration came a year before the Declaration of Independence. The 4th and 5th graders need North Carolina history. They don’t get it taught in school,” Martin said. 

Circling back to the fort’s history, Martin speaks on the subjects they intend to teach at Davidson’s Fort. According to Martin, Davidson’s Fort’s violent past is not the worst in all history. Throughout the day, Tessiner shared jokes regarding Martin’s age, comparing him to an antique. 

“There’s a lot of things we teach. It may not be something we can be justifiably proud of, but we’re not the worst people in the world. I mean,” Martin said, while lifting his right arm in the air, forming a Nazi salute. “Sieg Heil. One lady came up and saw the sign out there and said, ‘oh my god, John, we need to leave, they killed Indians.’ It was a two way streak. We killed Indians and Indians killed us.” 

Later in the conversation, in discussing his upbringing, Martin shared details of what entices him to history. He explains why reenactments are helpful to teach the past.  Additionally, he shares his political leanings.  

“You might notice I’m a democrat,” Martin said. “It’s easier to put history in their little brains when they can see shit. Hopefully, it will instill in them a desire to study history. If you don’t like history, be a rocket scientist. I enjoy history, because I’m not a rocket scientist. I liked history because it was easy. I didn’t like Spanish because it was hard. I can’t roll my R’s.”

In regards to the treatment of Cherokee, Big Bear shared their perspective. Martin sat across from him, trying not to interrupt, although he did several times. 

“They’ve always put us on the back burner. White devils. To live a simple life is easy, but when you add in the government to anything, a lot of shit changes real quick. If you keep the government out of stuff, it would be a whole lot better,” Big Bear said. 


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