Sunday, July 11, 2010

Swedes on Cumberland Gap?

[Nils R. Caspersson, "Diatonisk and the Dulcimer" Voices: Journal of New York Folklore 34 (2008)]

No time to sort this out now so I'll just post links for the time being and come back to it later ...

In his article "Diatonisk and the Dulcimer" in Voices: Journal of New York Folklore 34 (Fall-winter 2008), available on line at, Nils R. Caspersson says the following:
James E. Thomas (c. 1850–1933) was the earliest documented and most prolific dulcimer maker. This farmer from Bath in southeastern Kentucky is credited with the dulcimer’s distinctive hourglass form with heart-shaped sound holes. While there is no known record of how or from whom Thomas learned to make dulcimers or how he developed his distinctive design, there is evidence of Swedish Lutheran immigrants in the Cumberland Gap, the area where western Virginia, southeastern Kentucky, and northern Tennessee meet. Adam S. Johnston, a soldier in the 79th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Infantry Regiment, kept a diary (now held in the Library of Congress) from September 14, 1861, to October 2, 1864. On June 4, 1862, Johnston wrote, “Left Cowen’s Station and marched over the Cumberland mountains to Cumberland Gap or Sweden Valley,” continuing, “June 5. Left Sweden Cove Valley camp and marched through Jaspertown.”

Thomas could certainly have seen and heard a Swedish psalmodikon in the Cumberland Gap region. ...
That sounded kind of goofy to me, since I'm familiar with the Cumberland Gap area, at least around Harrogate on the Tennessee side, and I didn't recognize the geographical names. Nor do I remember a Swedish community there. So while I was checking references for another article, I went looking for Sweden Cove Valley.

Couldn't find it around Cumberland Gap.

But I did find one northwest of Chattanooga. It's called Sweden's Cove, and it leads from the edge of the Cumberland Plateau down a cove, or mountain valley, to Battle Creek and the Tennessee River valley near Jasper, Tenn. (Russ Manning's book 40 Hikes in Tennessee's South Cumberland has a good description.) "Cowen's Station" would be Cowan, on the northwest side of Sewanee Mountain, and "Jaspertown" would be Jasper on the southeast side. As near as I can tell, the Yankee army would have crossed the mountain not far from where I-24 does now at Monteagle ... and followed the cove down to Battle Creek and Jasper.

So Casperson has the wrong gap. He's off by 200 miles.

In the late spring of 1862, the 79th Pennsylvania was of the 4th Brigade of a federal army commanded by Gen. James Scott Negley, based in Shelbyville, Tenn. In the first two weeks of June, it took part in a feint against the Confederate strongpoint at Chattanooga to force another Confederate army to withdraw from Cumberland Gap 200 miles to the northwest. Here's what a regimental history says about the campaign:

Negley's Expedition to Chattanooga May 28-June 17.
Jasper, Sweeden's Cove, June 4.
Chattanooga June 7-8.

* * *
On the 29th of May, General Negley was ordered to proceed with an independent force consisting of infantry, cavalry, and artillery across the monutains to Chattanooga. Colonel Hambright was now in command of the brigade which formed part of the force, and Major Mellinger of the regiment. The enemy's pickets were first encountered at Waldon Ridge. They fell back, as Negley advanced, upon their main body under command of General Adams, drawn up in line of battle ready to dispute the passage of Sweden's Cove. Three companies of the Seventy-ninth, under Captain Klein, were thrown forward as skirmishers, which scoured the hills and brought in a few prisoners.

The cavalry was held under cover in the timber, and the artillery, which had been brought up and advantageously posted, opened fire. A few shells sent the enemy flying in confusion, when the cavalry emerging from the woods, gave chase. Two miles out he was overtaken when a spirited skirmish ensued in which his loss was considerable.

Without further opposition the command advanced, and arrived in front of Chattanooga on the 7th of June. The enemy was found on the opposite side of the river, well intrenched, close to the bank, and on the summit of the hill overlooking the stream, and prepared with artillery to dispute the crossing. ...By mid-June Negley's brigade was back in camp at Shelbyville, "having been absent but fourteen days, had two engagements with the enemy, and performed a toilsome march of two hundred and eighty-four miles.
No mention of any psalmodikons, though. And it sounds like the Yankees were too busy to go looking for any.

But ... could the exchange have gone the other way? Could a psalmodikon-totin' Swedish Lutheran of the 79th Pennsylvania have met up with a "damsel with a dulcimer" between skirmishes and compared musical notes?

It's not beyond the realm of possiblity, although I don't think it's very likely. The 79th Pennsylvania was recruited in Lancaster County, in Pennsylvania Dutch country, and its muster rolls show what appear to German, English and Scots-Irish names in about the proportion you'd expect in eastern Pennsylvania. I didn't spot any Swedish names, but I'm sure there were some Lutherans among the Pennsylvania Germans. Would they have carried a Swedish musical instrument, though?

Besides, I don't think the folks in Sweden's Cove Valley were Swedes.

When I did a Google search on Sweden's Cove, Tennessee, I found this in a RootsWeb listserv under subject line: Re: [TNMARION] SWEETEN/SWEDEN COVE :
> Don't get me in the middle of this. LOL Yes there is some evidence that it
> was originally Sweetons Cove but it will always be Sweden's Cove to me. As
> long as I was living in that area that's what everybody called it. The
> Marion county soil survey published by the USDA in the 1950's labels it
> Swedens. Earlier maps go back and forth between Sweetens, Sweetons and
> Swedens. It was officially changed by the USGS to Sweetens first in 1991
> and
> then reaffirmed in 2002.
And it was in response to this post:
> > Just going to add my 2 cents in here on this. I know we have had this
> > conversation many times on the list with no clear conclusion. I think
> Bill
> > McConnell did find some evidence at one time that the cove was actually
> > Sweeten's Cove on official records. My Dad's family lived in the Cove
> and
> > he has always callled it Sweeten's Cove. He grew up there in the 30's &
> > 40's. I can remember thinking when I was kid, what an odd name for a
> > place. When I asked about it, Daddy said the Cove was named like so many
> of
> > the others in the area -- after the Sweeton/Sweeten family -- e.g.
> Mitchell
> > Cove, Hargis Cove, Ladd's Cove, Dove, Martin Springs, etc.
> >
> > Moses Sweeton & John Sweeton were in Marion Co. in 1830 and there were
> > several others there through 1860.
> >
> > As others have said, I think it all just depends on who you talk to -- how
> > they prounounce it and how they spelled it. :)
So it's pretty clear the Swedes weren't necessarily Swedes, they were Sweetons.

Sweeton is an English name, according to, a Variant of English Sweeting, which means "from a medieval personal name, originally an Old English patronymic from Swet(a) (see Sweet) ... from Middle English sweting ‘darling’, ‘sweetheart’, hence a nickname for a popular and attractive person, or for somebody who habitually addressed people with the term." A distribution map shows occurrences of the name in the north of England and western Scottish lowlands.

So my best guess is the Sweetons were from the same parts of England and Scotland as the vast majority of other settlers in the southern Appalachians. And there's no reason why any other them would have been familiar with a musical instrument that was just beginning to be used halfway across the world in Scandinavia in 1830 when they settled in Marion County, Tenn.

Absence of evidence, of course, isn't necessarily evidence of absence. But in this case, I think it comes as close as you can possibly get.