A Day with Isaac Shelby

This weekend, I had the honor of talking about Governor Isaac Shelby at the unveiling of a memorial at his burial site.  The Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) have worked for a long time to put memorials at sites of importance to the Revolution and this was a particularly nice event.

It is always an interesting experience to be a public-facing historian.  I’m accustomed to college-aged men and women calling me doctor, but I’m not used to it from people my age and older.  It also always surprises me to have people defer to me because of my title.  I spend a lot of time with a husband and two kids who do not care about the Dr. in front of my name.  The men and women I met on Saturday were lovely and I really enjoyed interacting with folks who are passionate about history.

The event was at the Isaac Shelby Burial Ground, Kentucky’s smallest historic site.  It is small because his home, Traveler’s Rest, is still a private residence and the burial ground is located just off their private driveway.  Turning my car into a tree-lined lane with a beautiful historic home within view gave me a little thrill because there is something exciting about walking in a place designed to remind us of the past.  The burial ground is well-kept with a Kentucky stone fence surrounding it.  And, suddenly, I got a little glimpse of what this historical figures world had been like.

Isaac Shelby was the first and fifth governor of the state of Kentucky.  He was a colonel in the revolutionary battle at King’s Mountain and a general in the War of 1812.  He was one of the first white men to settle “Over the Mountain” in Kentucky and it was easy to understand why he chose that location for his homestead. It was picturesque, near water, and good for agriculture.

Surrounded by men in revolutionary garb, with a bagpiper, and a reverent audience, I could easily slip into a historical memory of the man rather than maintaining a scholar’s distance. Shelby was, after all, a man who had many friends, who was well-liked, and said things with humility.  I could like a lot of things about him.

In my piece on biographies last week I suggested an article about historians who love too much.  This is a real danger because if I loved Isaac Shelby I would struggle to tell you that he owned slaves, passed slaves on to other relatives, engaged in a long and bloody war against Native Americans and took their land in questionable land arrangements.

I don’t think I love him too much.  I can talk about those complicated realities although I didn’t make my speech about them. But, many of the people who talked to me after the event asked tough question and I gave tough answers.  Sometimes it is hard to be an American historian because you constantly walk around busting myths and long-held beliefs about the past.  So, it was nice to be reminded that people can both remember and be critical of our past.  And, it was nice to sit at that site and feel the pull of the past myself.

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