Thursday, July 18, 2013

Weather in the Time of John Sevier

Thanks to our volunteer, Kristin Brig, who researched and wrote this blog entry for us!

Today, the sun is shining, the clouds are scattered across a silky blue sky, and the weatherman, who predicted rain this morning, turns out to be wrong in his prediction. But we still have a weatherman we can rely on in dangerous weather, just a click away on the living room television. In John Sevier’s time, no weathermen existed in times of danger, no less televisions to issue warnings. Instead, Sevier, like so many other American colonists, personally had to learn the art of predicting weather, colonial style! 

Unlike today, the colonists had only a few weather tools to use for predicting the weather, among them weather vanes and thermometers. Although the first thermometer reached America in 1715 in Philadelphia,[1] people along the frontier usually solely used wind vanes and almanacs.[2] Almanacs attempted to accurately predict the weather through use of temperature and wind direction tables, which helped farmers decide where and when to sow seed and put plants in the ground. Yet colonists along the frontier like Sevier could more easily find out wind direction via wind vanes: “The settlers often found the weather of their new home rather challenging, so they made ample use of weathervanes to predict the weather and improve their farming practices.”[3] In large towns or cities the town hall usually held the wind vane for the town. If not, farmers would own their own wind vanes, as Sevier might have done at Marble Springs.

From entries in his diaries, Sevier probably had neither a thermometer nor an almanac, as he often recorded daily weather patterns but not exact predictions or temperatures. At times, he solely records the day’s weather from his own observations; for example, in March 1799 Sevier writes about the daily weather and nothing else for nine days straight![4] As a farmer, Sevier had to watch the weather closely. As such, he put weather descriptions in his diaries every so often to keep up with the ever-changing frontier weather. Sometimes, it wasn’t even for the farming- he would also remark on the weather during his time as a Congressman in Washington, DC. During his time in DC, many times he focuses more on the weather than visiting with foreign ministers and heads of state! On March 13, 1813, he wrote “Visited the President [Madison]. Cold and windy.”[5]

If you want to see the weather descriptions for yourself (in edition to a few “cures” Sevier had for ailments), you can access his diaries here:

[1] Thomas L. Purvis, Colonial America to 1763 (New York: Facts on File, 1999), 1.
[2] Fae Moller, “Predicting Weather in the Eighteenth Century,”
[3] “History of Weathervanes,”
[4] John Sevier’s Diary, March 1799,
[5] John Sevier’s Diary, March 1813,

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Gardening at Marble Springs

Thanks to our volunteer, Kristin Brig, who researched and wrote this blog entry for us!
Is this a watermelon or a pumpkin?

Is that a watermelon?

We’ve been hearing this question a lot at Marble Springs, in regards to our garden. What you’re actually seeing is a pumpkin!

Our garden isn’t only full of these (currently) green beauties…  We’ve also got corn, squash, onions, tomatoes, and more. In growing true colonial foods, we try to think about what John Sevier might have grown back in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. After all, not all historic preservation has to take place in a museum, or the cabins that you visit here on site; in fact, much historic preservation goes towards maintaining gardens!

Gardens served several purposes in the colonial era. For instance, if you travel up to Colonial Williamsburg or Charleston’s historic homes, you will find gardens teeming with some of the most colorful flowers to be found in the South. In these instances, gardens served a purpose of beauty, of giving serenity to a bustling household, and of showcasing the stately nature of the wealthy inhabitants of said households.[i] Today, much as the colonists did three hundred years ago, visitors to such places enjoy a stroll along the garden paths, studying the colorful flowers and remarking on the geometry used by the colonists.

Yet John Sevier’s gardens went beyond just cultivation of flowers. For Sevier and other colonial settlers along the frontier, gardens meant food, a form of self-sustaining farming. And today, unlike the colonists of three hundred years ago, visitors often wonder why such gardens have fewer flowers and more crops than townhomes do, especially for a man as politically active as John Sevier. Visitors instead should take away a different message from these maintained gardens: the colonists put a lot of work into producing much of the same food for their tables that we only have to purchase at our local grocery stores. According to Therese Ciesinski from Organic Gardening, “What [colonists] grew and how they grew it reveals the differences between then and now…and emphasizes how difficult it was to coax food from the ground.”[ii] As a result, maintaining the gardens here at Marble Springs not only gives visitors something delectable (and sweet-smelling) to look at, but also something to make them think about how difficult the life of a colonist truly was, even in aspects of simply getting food to eat. 

Our herb garden is also undergoing a transformation, as we are currently expanding it and removing the walk-in areas. For a colonist, herbs provided flavoring for food as well as medicine for basic illnesses. Typically, colonists raised their herb garden beds so that water would drain quicker and the soil would warm quicker in the spring and summer.[iii] As such, our herb garden beds here at Marble Springs are raised, as is our vegetable garden. (They are also raised due to the archaeologically sensitive ground that the gardens sit on).

A big thanks to our fantastic volunteers, Jim Buckenmyer, who helps us out with our gardening workshops, and Fran Brown who has been helping us with weeding and cutting back the herbs.

[i] “The Lure of Colonial Gardens,” JSTOR, 455.
[ii] Therese Ciesinski, “How We Grew,” Organic Gardening.
[iii] “Colonial Herbs,”