In simple white letters on a brown sign: “Historic Negro Head Point Road.” It stopped me in my tracks.
“Oh, gods, I’m sorry,” I whispered.
Hilda, my puppy, sniffed the sign and looked up at me, wondering why I’d started crying.
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t born yet. I wasn’t here; my family wasn’t even here—but I am still so very, very sorry.”
I wiped my eyes and shuddered, and just wondered yet again how difficult we (humans) really are.
I talk about Negro Head Point Road every Saturday when I do the Literary History Walking Tour. It figures heavily in several fiction and non-fiction books in the area. But standing there, staring at the sign, it’s inescapable bloody name and bloody history overcame me. That complicated, terrible reality of life in the South continues to overshadow so much.
A visit to Widow Moore’s Creek Bridge and a walk with Hilda on the newly added Mountains to the Sea Trail nearby were two of the items on my list of 40 new things to do in 2015 for encore. Visitors will learn about the American Revolution at Widow Moore’s Creek Bridge. The war for freedom was fought by a group of people who enslaved another group of people. The historic landmark left me grappling with the unresolved reality of slavery and Jim Crow more than the battle. But history should be unsettling. We shouldn’t visit these sites or battlefields and leave feeling sunny and certain. Turning points in the human experience are not simple cut-and-dry affairs. Humans are not simple creatures. We are by definition contradictory and complicated.
Take the Scottish Loyalists who rallied to the British Crown at the end of February 1776: Many of them had lost in the Battle of Culloden in Scotland 1746, and grudgingly sworn loyalty to the British Crown in exchange for their lives. Yet, 30 years later they were rallying to the Crown’s standard in a new land an ocean away, and attacking their neighbors, instead of doing what they really wanted to do: farm the land.
What a weird world.
“Have you been here before?” the park ranger at the visitor’s center asked when I signed in.
“Yeah, but not in like 30 years,” I responded.
While he looked for a cup, so I could get Hilda some water I scanned the visitor’s log. People traveled from Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, and even Canada.
The last time I was here I was 6 years old. We came on a school field trip and a man in re-enactor’s garb led us around the grounds. The major things I remembered from were him pointing up the “Old Road to Fayetteville” (as he called Negro Head Point Road, probably unprepared to say that word in front of a group of children) and the retelling of instructions to the Americans not to shoot their guns until they saw “the whites of their eyes” of the British. Of course, information is a relative experience for everyone. The road to Fayetteville before the highway was covered in leaves and as comprehensible to a group of 6-year-olds as the idea that “up from the launch pad” was the road the rocket took to the moon.
Though the adults tried to make it clear that seeing “the whites of their eyes” meant they were very close to their enemy, I did not comprehend death enough at age 6 to fully understand. I couldn’t internalize clearly identifying the victim I was aiming at as a neighbor, who, incidentally, would probably hold a broadsword rather than a musket. I’m not sure I do at 35.
Hilda’s presence forced a perspective that I am too quick to miss: I am so text driven and fascinated by reading each sign that I don’t stop and notice my surroundings. Hilda is triggered by smells, sounds, movement, and is keenly aware that we are on a path in woods filled with wild animals. I am quick to treat it like a museum, but she forced me to come back to the crisp air and visualize what this looked like as an overgrown pine forest—without a nice, neatly kept path. It made me realize men dressed in wool, carrying guns and packs through wet muddy swamp—where they could sink in past their ankles—trudged through here in the coldest month of the year. This was wilderness—and its wildness, though pushed back and trimmed to look nice—still lurks on the edges, if we take the time to notice.
I’ve spent a lot of time reading North Carolina history in the last couple of years: non-fiction, novels, plays, poetry, memoirs, etc. Walking through Moore’s Creek National Battlefield isn’t so much stepping back in time as it is stepping through eras. There are monuments erected in the early 20th century; the marker for Pvt. John Grady, the only Patriot killed, was erected in 1857. And the signage of the park is clearly geared toward a modern audience, simultaneously evoking the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, and discussing the changing importance of the pine forest in the local economy across three centuries.
Anyone who ever took Bob Jenkins’ walking tours of historic Wilmington knows he spends a few minutes educating everyone on the history of pine pitch and its myriad uses on land and sea. The National Park Service has been re-seeding long leaf pines to try to recreate the forest of the period. They have multiple demonstration sites set up for harvesting and processing valuable products of the pine forest: lumber, turpentine, tar, and pitch. NC from the UNC School of Education defines tar, pitch and turpentine:
“Tar is a dark, thick, sticky liquid produced by burning pine branches and logs very slowly in kilns. Seamen painted coats of tar on riggings that held masts and sails in place. It was also used on land, as axle grease, to preserve fenceposts, and to cover wounds on livestock to help them heal. Most likely smelled when passing a new road being laid down.
Pitch is produced by boiling tar to concentrate it. It was painted on the sides and bottoms of wooden ships to make them watertight. At room temperature, pitch is nearly solid, much like modern caulk, which has similar uses. When heated, it flows like a liquid and can be used as a paint.
Turpentine is distilled from a gum that living pine trees secrete to protect wounds in their trunks. It was not much used in the colonial period, but by the 19th century it was used in manufacturing paint and a variety of other goods, as well as for medicinal purposes. This colorless but strong-smelling fluid is used as a thinner for oil-based paints.”
Hilda and I didn’t make it to the Mountains to the Sea Trail. I planned so poorly, I even forgot to bring water for her to drink. Any of the militia from the battle would have been shocked I ventured out without basic supplies, yet here we were. (Thanks again to the ranger who saved us.) But in one afternoon at Moore’s Creek, we reconnected with many facets that continue to shape our area, literally our living history.
The 240th anniversary of the Battle of Widow Moore’s Creek Bridge will be February 27-28, 2016. The National Park Service promises encampments, re-enactments, and demonstrations of period artisans, crafts and cannon. Our colonial history set the stage for the economic reality of our area for the next 300 years. The more we learn about it, the greater chance we have of understanding how we got here and what we need to do to move forward.