Journal of Southern Religion


James Anderson Slover, Minister to the Cherokees: A Civil War Autobiography, ed. by Barbara Cloud. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2001. Reviewed by Joel Martin, University of California at Riverside, for the Journal of Southern Religion.


An urban legend circulating in Atlanta during the 1980s described a hapless baseball player, newly signed to pitch for the Braves, who missed his first game because he had spent the whole day circling the city on I-285, befuddled. The joke, a commentary on the post-modern placelessness of Atlanta's perimeter, rang true to anyone who had navigated the route, a relentless bending highway regularly punctuated by indistinguishable exits adorned with identical complements of Waffle Houses, apartment complexes, and service stations.


 
"Portions of the book seem like something written by Steinbeck. Or Job. "  

 

In a way, this joke recycles a nineteenth century one. In 1850, a party of settlers from east Tennessee, including James Slover, a Southern Baptist Convention preacher, determined to emigrate to Arkansas. Putting a large houseboat in the French Broad River, they started floating. Along the way, they visited kin to bid farewell, dodged rocks and dangers, and collected riverlore, including the following story: "It is said that a [riverboat] Pilot got off the shoot in this water (attempting to pass it at night), and his boat circled around the Boiling Pot [a hydraulic feature of the Tennessee river near Lookout Mountain]. On the south side was a house and there was a dance in that house on this particular night. One of the boat hands heard the music and dancing. As the boat would makes its regular trips around in the 'Pot,' of course it passed the house every time. He said, 'They are dancing in every house we pass.'"

This story is but one of the many recorded by James Slover in his memoir, which tracks his life from 1824 to 1907 and across the country, from Tennessee to Arkansas to the Central Valley of California to Oregon to San Francisco, just in time for the earthquake. Along the way, Slover served as a missionary to the removed Cherokees and experienced the Civil War as a Southern partisan and non-combatant in Indian Territory (hence the title of the book). His was a life defined by recurring movement in pursuit not of happiness, but survival.

On his journey, Slover had ample opportunity to encounter "Smart Allecks," sharpies, and thieves, and at times, his text seems to echo the frontier romances of Davy Crockett (p.122) or to evoke the tall tales of Mark Twain. He even begins his text with an Indian captivity narrative. But it would be misleading to characterize this work, now edited and published by his great-great granddaughter Barbara Cloud, as only "colorful." Its pages register too much pain, conflict, and struggle.

Portions of the book seem like something written by Steinbeck. Or Job. Crops freeze, thieves steal livestock, buildings burn, and miners undermine his homestead with their preemptive claims and lawsuits. Slover, like the Okies who would soon follow, moves so often, the text seems to repeat itself, and the reader may feel that she is trapped in the Boiling Pot, or looping round on I-285, hearing and seeing the same thing over and over again. Slover itemizes his financial losses closely, but he avoids dwelling on his emotions. Indeed, he writes about himself in the third person, even when referring to the passing of a wife or child: "There the Preacher had to bury his boy and never more see the spot." (p.118).

To endure his losses, Slover depended upon connections to extended kin and upon voluntary networks such as the Granger, the Masons, and the Southern Baptist Convention. Slover also relied upon himself. Several anecdotes highlight his capacity for physical labor. He builds houses by himself. In Oregon he raises the best crop ever seen on fifty acres near Ashland. "The work he did and the way he did it showed the Oregonians that there was at least one Baptist preacher who knew something about work." (p. 132-133).

As a Baptist, Slover believed in full immersion, no ifs, ands, or buts. Presumably he preached on this doctrine's biblical soundness, but nowhere does he summarize his sermons or describe the revivals he helped lead. Indeed, we learn far more about repairing wagon wheels than we do about converting souls. We also learn about Slover's and white people's racism. As a Southern Baptist, he sanctioned slavery and may have practiced it (xxv). As a Southern white man, his identity was strongly tied up with the subordination of African-Americans. Slover witnessed a lynching in 1849, then, on his final trip to Tennessee in 1902, tried to revisit its scene (p. 153). His sister remembered every detail of the hanging and local whites treated its location as a haunted site, invoking the African-American ghost to scare wayward white children. This is a creepy, disturbing story and an important one for anyone seeking to understand the genealogy of racism, the roles of memory and place in the construction of race.

Most of the book is far less provocative and much of it is downright tedious. By and large, this book provides an artless record of the quotidian. Historians of the nineteenth century South and West will find it useful, if not always engaging.

Joel W. Martin, University of California at Riverside

 

1998-2003 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234


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