Overmountain Trail players encamp at Sycamore Shoals


Photo by Dave Boyd
Crossing the Watauga
The Overmountain Men (and women) cross the Watauga River at Sycamore Shoals State Park Thursday afternoon in the annual observance of one of the most famous musters in American history.

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com
Through thickets and river water waist-high, patriots dressed in full colonial-era regalia arrived at Sycamore Shoals Thursday afternoon as part of the annual Overmountain Men muster and march to Kings Mountain, South Carolina.
Actors portraying colonial families and militia crossed the Watauga River to begin the march, which extends this week and includes the Overmountain Men garrison at Fort Watauga. Lynn Fox, who plays John Sevier in the Overmountain Victory Trail Association (OVTA) reenactment, recalled several members traveling to Washington, D.C in 1996 to be honored by Tennessee's Congressional contingent as part of the state's bicentennial. The cast was dressed as colonial minutemen - a fashion statement Fox said took at least one member of congress off guard.
"A congressman from New York said, 'What are you all doing here?,' said Fox. "I said, 'Some of my ancestors probably killed some of your ancestors at Kings Mountain.' I don't think he liked that too much."
The Revolutionary War victory at the Battle of Kings Mountain is often regarded as the turning point of the American Revolution. In the fall of 1780, upcountry patriots from Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina formed a militia to drive the British from the southern colonies. This trail marks their 14-day trek across the Appalachias to the Piedmont region of the Carolinas. Each year history buffs commemorate this patriotic event by retracing the steps those colonial militia men took 283 years ago.
The reenactment began Tuesday with the muster and encampment at Craig's Meadow in Abingdon, Va. From there, the group began the journey, trekking to Rocky Mount in Piney Flats on Wednesday. Several soldiers crossed the Watauga River on Thursday to reach Sycamore Shoals. The group leaves Sycamore Shoals today to encamp at Roan Mountain State Park. The trip culminates with their arrival at Kings Mountain on Oct. 7 where the battle was fought.
The Overmountain Men attacked the British after being ordered to lay down their arms and swear allegiance to King George. Those who fought at the battle included Sevier, Issac Shelby, and John Crockett, father of frontiersman David Crockett. Twenty-eight members of the expedition were killed in the battle.
The OVTA was formed in 1975. History buffs donned colonial clothing and traced the trail the Overmountain Men took from Abingdon through Carter County and to Kings Mountain. Totaling approximately 330 miles, the trail was designated a national historic trail under the U.S. National Parks Service in 1980.
"We work with the members who best promote the trail and rightly get the credit for its exposure," said Paul Carson with the U.S. National Park Service who serves as superintendent of the Overmountain Trail. Carson said the trail had been mapped in 1980 with an additional 20 miles being added to the trail corridor during the past two years.
Today, the cast is a mix of old and young, men and women, native Tennessean and those from as far away as California. "When we started I was the only woman on the trail," said Ruth Christian with a laugh.
Ruth and her husband, Frank Christian, of Knoxville took part in their first OVTA reenactment in 1991 after learning about the Overmountain Victory Trail during an event by the organization. The march took on a special significance to the couple when they learned one of their ancestors, Henry Harkleroad, was one of the Overmountain Men.
"There's always something special in it; that's what brings us back," said Frank Christian.
Most participants have been active members of the OVTA for several years. One of the most loquacious is Blair Keller of Abingdon who, along with his wife Gilda has taken part in the march since 1978. "We go along this trail taking the same steps our forefathers did," said Keller, a historical raconteur who rode the entire trail on horseback in 1980.
When organization members say they want authenticity, they're not kidding.
Deerskin knife sheaths and leather pouches hanging from shoulders or around breeches tied at the knees fit the standard fashion for men. Women wear Brunswick skirt dresses and linen hats circa 1780.
"Most people have made their own clothes," said Blair Keller.
Men carry their muskets complete with gunpowder. Association member Andy Thomas made three muskets used by actors in the firing salutes to Overmountain Men.
"You can go deer hunting with them," said Thomas, a Michigan native who now lives outside Knoxville. "We just fire the powder; we don't use the shells."
Thomas became involved in the OVTA while researching his ancestral history in East Tennessee. He made a trip to Sycamore Shoals and grabbed a brochure about the Overmountain Men. The rest, he says, is colonial history.
This year, the event coincides an encore performance run of "The Wataugans". "The Wataugans" began the first of a three-night run on Thursday.
Senator Lamar Alexander is scheduled to attend tonight's performance to honor the Overmountain Victory Trail commemoration tonight, said Herb Roberts, director of Sycamore Shoals State Park. The state's official outdoor drama played to huge crowds during the play's annual three-week run this summer.
"We broke the record attendance every night," said Roberts. "We had around 637 people on the stage ..."