Digital North Carolina Blog

Digital North Carolina Blog

This blog is maintained by the staff of the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center and features highlights from the collections at DigitalNC, an online library of primary sources from institutions across North Carolina.

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Viewing entries tagged "oral histories"


The Real-Life “Hamilton” Sequel Set in Nags Head

If you’re a big fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical Hamilton (based on the life of Alexander Hamilton), you may remember the song that Aaron Burr sings about his daughter, “Dear Theodosia.” But what you may not know is that Theodosia Burr’s story comes to a head (that joke will make sense in a minute) in North Carolina.

An illustration of three horses trotting over sand dunes

Theodosia Burr was primarily raised by her father and received the kind of education that was typically reserved for the men of her time. She had a strong relationship with her father and admired him greatly, according to her letters. Among the country’s early framers, Aaron Burr was one of the few early defenders of women’s rights (7:18) (due partially to the influence of Theodosia Prevost, Theodosia Burr’s mother).

Aaron Burr’s dedication to Theodosia’s education helped her become one of the most distinguished women in early American society—and one of the most sought-after. She was apparently pursued by the artist John Vanderlyn and the writer Washington Irving. Vanderlyn allegedly painted Theodosia’s eye as a “memento of his love” (10:32) and wore it on his lapel. The most appealing suitor, though, was Joseph Alston, who would go on to become governor of South Carolina. They were married in February 1801 in Albany, New York (11:34). In 1802, Theodosia gave birth to a son, Aaron Burr Alston (15:09).

In 1807, Aaron Burr was tried and acquitted of treason, leaving his political reputation in a sorry state. To escape the negative attention, he went into self-imposed exile in England, where he stayed for four years. The separation was apparently hard on Theodosia, who didn’t see her father during that period. Then, in 1812, her son died of malaria at the age of 10 (19:50), leaving her even weaker and and more depressed.

When Aaron Burr finally returned to New York in June of 1812, Theodosia was desperate to reunite. However, her poor health made her family worry about travel on land, and the ongoing war meant that most ships had been seized by the Navy to fight the British (20:14). Finally, in the fall of 1812, Alston secured a small pilot boat, The Patriot, to take Theodosia up the East Coast from Charleston to New York. As Oscar Stradley explains (5:26), the boat was designed to sail close to the shore and arrive in New York in 5 to 6 days. Theodosia and the crew of The Patriot left Charleston on December 30, 1812.

A quick sidebar is necessary here to explain what happened next—and it involves our old friend Hamilton. As many North Carolinians know, the Outer Banks has a long history as a treacherous area for sailors, especially on dark nights, when the coastline is hard to see (not to mention the threat of pirates, which we’ll get to in a minute). Alexander Hamilton, who was personally familiar with the “graveyard of the Atlantic,” used his influence within the Washington and Adams administrations to get funding for lighthouses (1:50). He was successful in securing funding for one famous gal in 1794: Cape Hatteras.

A portion of a map of the Outer BanksAlthough Cape Hatteras provided some light for ships around Hatteras and Ocracoke by the time it was lit in 1803, by 1812, there still wasn’t good lighting around Nags Head, which is to the north (close to Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills). This set up the perfect opportunity for land pirates in the area.

On dark nights (which are especially common in the fall and winter in the Outer Banks), pirates would lure ships aground with a sneaky trick: they would tie a lantern to the neck of the ponies commonly found on the islands and lead them up and down the hills (6:48). From the perspective of boats on the water, this looked a lot like the light on another ship bobbing nearby (a “nag” is a name for an old horse). 

Although the details of what happened to Theodosia and the crew of The Patriot are still a bit of a mystery, accounts of pirates that surfaced in the 1830s led people to believe that the boat was taken in by this trick at Nags Head. Stradley notes that the crew may have been trying to determine their location when they accidentally ran ashore and fell victim to pirate murder (8:20).

The reason that we think Theodosia made it to the Outer Banks comes down to one enticingly-vague clue: a portrait that is probably of Theodosia. In Stradley’s telling, Theodosia escaped the initial pirate attack with the portrait of herself, which she intended to give to her father when she arrived in New York. The pirates may have left her on the beach, he posits, because of superstition surrounding people with mental illness, or people “whose minds had been taken by God” (10:59)

The portrait was rediscovered by Dr. William Poole, a physician from Elizabeth City who made a house call to a small fishing cabin on Nags Head in 1869 (12:06). Apparently, the owner of the cabin gave the portrait as payment for medical treatment. The portrait has a strong resemblance to Theodosia’s earlier portraits, and when it was discovered, some of her surviving family members confirmed the likeness (39:10)

Stradley tells this part of the story as if Dr. Poole was called to treat Theodosia herself (who, in 1869, would have been in her late eighties). Before Dr. Poole could take the portrait, however, Theodosia allegedly grabbed it off the wall, ran out of the cabin, and disappeared into the night (she was a sprightly eighty-six) (12:55). The portrait was later found washed up on the beach, and Theodosia was assumed to have drowned. 

Another version, explained by Marjorie Berry, historian for Pasquotank County, says that Dr. Poole was called into the cabin of Mrs. Polly Mann, a fisherman’s widow (27:30). The portrait stood out in the otherwise plain cabin, so Dr. Poole asked where it came from. Mrs. Mann explained that her old beau, Joseph Tillet, had been one of the ship’s wreckers, and that he had gifted her two black dresses and the portrait, which he had taken as his share of the loot. (In this version, the wreckers had found the ship already empty when they arrived.)

In contrast, the report that Aaron Burr received, according to Berry, was that Theodosia was drowned by a storm. Since British ships were waiting off the coast of North Carolina (they were, after all, in a war), one admiral sent Burr a message describing a rough storm that hit the Outer Banks on January 2, 1812—around the time that The Patriot would have been there (29:44). The fact that there was a huge storm in the area is a detail missing from all the pirate confessions that came forward, leaving some doubt as to their veracity.

Horses in a fenced area surrounded by low trees

Horses on Ocracoke Island

Whatever happened to Theodosia Burr, the story of her life and disappearance has been told and retold in Northeastern North Carolina many times; a copy of her portrait is on display in the Our Story Exhibit at the Museum of the Albemarle. You can hear the Oscar Stradley’s full version of the story here (courtesy of Mitchell Community College) and Marjorie Berry’s version in the recording of “History and Highballs: Theodosia Burr” from the North Carolina Museum of History. 


Old-Time Music Audio Recordings and Oral Histories Now Available on DigitalNC

Thanks to our partner, Mars Hill University, over 40 audio recordings which discuss the history of the Appalachia region and old-time music are now available on our website. These recordings include oral histories with singers and musicians such as Dellie Norton; solo and group performances from the Lunsford Festival as well as the Mountain Dance and Folk Festivals in the 1960s and 1970s; jam sessions; and a university talk about the history of old-time music from the Appalachia region.

To learn more about Mars Hill University, visit their website.

To listen to more oral histories and audio recordings, please visit our North Carolina Sights and Sounds Collection.


Oral histories from the Mount Airy Black community now online from Mount Airy Museum of Regional History

Screenshot of an adult using a spoon with a pot on a stove

Screenshot from the video “Preparing Foods that were Eaten by our Ancestors” which included women discussing their cooking.

29 oral histories collected in the early 2000s by the African American Historical and Genealogical Association of Surry County are now online thanks to our partner the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History. Thanks also to our colleagues in the Southern Folklife Collection, these audiovisual materials were digitized utilizing funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  The interviews are mostly on video and discuss many topics about being Black and growing up in Mount Airy and Surry County area during the first half of the 20th century.  

Blue print showing the façade of a two story office building

We also scanned many maps and architectural drawings for the museum in this batch and those are available here.  The drawings include a lot of buildings around Mount Airy.  

To learn more about our partner Mount Airy Museum of Regional History visit their partner page here.

To hear more oral histories on DigitalNC, go here.


Variety of Person County Materials Now Available

Thanks to our partner, Person County Public Library, a batch of materials including a variety of North Carolina maps, a video of Bill Clinton’s visit to the state in 2008, pamphlets and books about North Carolina history, and more are now available on our website.

An older Black woman sits on the porch of her home.

Morse Gardner

An interesting work from this batch is the book, Let me tell you ’bout … when I was growing up. It contains transcribed interviews with older members of the Person County community which were conducted by elementary school students using tape recorders. The recordings were later transcribed and published into this book. The interviewees in this book were quite a diverse and exciting group. The interview with Morse Gardner (pictured above) being one of the most gripping. In her interview, Morse Gardner goes into great detail about her education and family, old medicinal remedies, her thoughts on segregation, and her community growing up.

To learn more about Person County Public Library, please visit their website.

To listen to oral histories available on our website, please click here.


Wilkes County Oral Histories Now Available

Thanks to our partner, Wilkes Community College, 26 new oral history recordings are now available on our website.  Thanks to our colleagues in the Southern Folklife Collection, these audio materials were digitized utilizing funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Screenshot of the TIND audio player. The audio playing is titled, "Oral History Interview with Cranor Kilby."

These oral histories all pertain to the history and citizens of Wilkes County. Topics discussed in the recordings include the history of mills, silvering mirrors, personal stories and family histories, moonshining, fur trading, education, medicine and pharmaceuticals, Fort Defiance restoration, racecar drivers, musicians, and more.

One particularly interesting recording is Cranor Kilby’s interview. In it, he discusses his early life including the first time he made money performing, his favorite instruments, music in his early years, and keeping community songs alive. According to Kilby, there are several songs which seemed to have disappeared over the years. Through his performance of these songs, he keeps them alive for the next generation of North Carolinians and Wilkes County citizens. In the second half of his interview he performs several songs, including “Groundhog,” “Sadie,” and “Turkey Buzzard.” 

To learn more about Wilkes Community College, please visit their website.

To listen to more oral histories, please click here.

To view more audiovisual materials, please visit our North Carolina Sights and Sounds collection.


Oral histories and other audio-visual materials now online from Methodist University

42 audio recordings, including 35 oral histories, and 1 silent video showing Methodist University (then College) in the late 1970s or early 1980s are now online.  Thanks to our colleagues in the Southern Folklife Collection, these audiovisual materials were digitized utilizing funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

three adults sitting at a table

Video still from a silent video taken on Methodist University’s campus in the late 1970s or early 1980s

The oral histories including the batch are with various faculty and other staff who worked in the early days of Methodist University’s history.  There are also 9 other audio recordings that include building dedications as well as fun items such as promotions that ran on the radio for theater productions at the school and a feature called Methodist College Report.  

To learn more about our partner Methodist University, visit their site here.  To learn more about our partnership with the Southern Folklife Collection, read this post.  And to view and hear more audiovisual materials on DigitalNC, visit our North Carolina Sights and Sounds collection.


Oral histories from Mount Airy and Surry County now online

21 new oral histories detailing the lives of those who lived in Mount Airy and Surry County are now online thanks to our partners Mount Airy Museum of Regional History and Surry Community College.  The digitization of the oral histories from Mount Airy Museum was done by our colleagues in the Southern Folklife Collection and the work was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  

screenshot of a piece of yellow paper with the interview transcript

First page of the transcript from the Margaret Leonard, Evelyn Coalson, and Esther Dawson interview. The women are sisters and were interviewed in 1997.

The participants were primarily interviewed in the 1990s about their lives in the Mount Airy and Surry County region dating from around 1910 until 1970s.  The Spanish Flu pandemic, World War I, World War II, race relations, the Civil Rights movement, and the Great Depression are all topics covered in these oral histories, which feature men and women and Black and white people.  

While these oral histories were digitized last fall and winter, with the COVID-19 situation this spring, they provided a very useful option for enhancement while our staff worked from home.  We have been able to add transcripts for each of the oral histories that didn’t have them, as well as enhanced metadata, making them even more accessible than before for our users.

To learn more about our partners on this, visit their websites at Surry Community College and Mount Airy Museum of Regional History.  To learn more about our partnership with the Southern Folklife Collection, visit our post here.  And to view and listen to more oral histories on DigitalNC, visit our North Carolina Oral Histories exhibit.  


Flooded: Oral Histories Documenting Hurricane Floyd Now Online

Flooded book cover with a color image of a mailbox surrounded by water

We’ve recently worked with Braswell Memorial Library (Rocky Mount, N.C.) to digitize oral histories, written stories, and a manuscript all created for the book Flooded: Reflections of Hurricane Floyd. Compiled by the Friends of Braswell Library, Flooded represents the culmination of an effort to document what happened in Nash and Edgecombe counties twenty years ago today. On September 16, 1999 Hurricane Floyd hit North Carolina and caused catastrophic flooding throughout the eastern part of the state. Fatalities, displaced families, and property loss marked its passing.

The collection includes interviews with and stories from firefighters and other emergency personnel, city officials, and residents. Many of the interviews include both audio and a transcript. You will also find the original copies of stories included within Flooded, as well as a pre-print version of the book.

Thanks to Braswell Memorial Library and its Friends group for bringing this collection for digitization. Explore the entire Flooded collection or all of the materials we’ve digitized for Braswell Memorial Library.

 


Additional Oral Histories from Hmong Keeb Kwm: Hmong Heritage Project Now Online at DigitalNC

Chia Yang shows a pillow from her home in Vietnam during oral history interview.

Chia Yang displaying a pillow during an oral history interview.

Nearly a dozen oral histories from Hmong Keeb Kwm: The Hmong Heritage Project are now online, courtesy of our partner, the Catawba County Library. The project, designed to preserve the local histories of the Hmong people living in North Carolina, yielded over a hundred digitized materials and oral histories, which we are privileged to host online. This batch oral histories represent the second half of the Hmong Keeb Kwm materials already hosted on DigitalNC.

Throughout the spring and summer of 2018, several Hmong community members came forward and volunteered their stories in order to preserve the story of how they came to Catawba County and North Carolina. The people interviewed often tell their life stories, how they came to the United States, and how they are involved in the local Hmong community. Many also include their experiences during the Vietnam War.

Please note that many of these oral histories are not in English. However, transcriptions in English are available to download. First, navigate to the bottom of the video’s page, then click the “Download” button, then “Download” under “Action”.

Having these oral histories digitized on DigitalNC represents an important part of our understanding of Catawba County and its residents. To see other materials from the Catawba County Library, visit their partner page or check out their website. To learn more about Hmong Keeb Kwm: The Hmong Heritage Project, please take a look at the exhibit page.


Massey Hill Heritage Discovery Project Materials Tell The Story of One Fayetteville Neighborhood

A partial map of the Mill Villages found in Massey Hill.

Over 120 new photos, news clippings, artifacts, and oral interviews have been digitized and added to DigitalNC, courtesy of the Arts Council of Fayetteville, as part of the Massey Hill Heritage Discovery Project. This project was designed to trace the history of the Massey Hill neighborhood in Fayetteville dating back into the 19th century. Located between Camden Road and Gillespie Street along Southern Avenue, Massey Hill is a neighborhood that grew up alongside the three local textile mills and inspired feelings of family and community among its long-time residents, many of whom lived their whole lives in Massey Hill.

Exterior photo of the Massey Hill Hardware Store

A photo of the Tolar-Hart Mill Water Tower in Fayetteville.

 

There is a ton of variety in this batch, giving us a vibrant image of what it was like to live and grow up in Massey Hill. Dozens of photos are included, with many highlighting life in the mills, events and celebrations that were held for holidays, and pictures of local schools and schoolchildren. A number of newspaper clippings are also found in this batch, detailing many different parts of life in Massey Hill, including interviews with local residents. One resident, Ida Belle Dallas Parker, also wrote several short stories reminiscing on her childhood and family history in Massey Hill. Finally, a number of oral histories from Massey Hill residents are included – they also discuss their personal histories growing up in Massey Hill, how they feel about the neighborhood, and what it meant to them.

Having these materials on DigitalNC is an important reminder of how we build communities in our lives and what they mean to the people who live there. To browse through other materials from the Arts Council of Fayetteville, check out their partner page or take a look at their website.