New generation walks in footsteps of Overmountain Men during historical reenactment

John Thompson • Sep 26, 2013 at 7:17 PM

ELIZABETHTON — A new generation has taken up the tradition of crossing the Watauga River at Sycamore Shoals every Sept. 25.

Tristan Gifford, 14 months old, became the youngest ever to make the crossing when his mother, Wendy, carried him across the river on Wednesday.

When she reached the other shore, Wendy checked and found Tristan was dry except for a few fringes of the blanket he was wrapped in. “Even his diapers are dry,” she said.

They were part of the group of re-enactors who were retracing the path of William Campbell and his men who came from Abingdon, Va., to gather at Sycamore Shoals in 1780. They would march into history as the Overmountain Men, the victors at the Revolutionary War turning point known as the Battle of Kings Mountain.

Wendy admitted to having a few qualms before setting out on the cold and wet crossing with her baby, but she wants to raise her children to have a love and understanding of local history. After all, her maiden name is McKeehan and she traces her family lineage back to Mary Patton of Powder Branch, who made the gunpowder for the Overmountain Men.

Wendy has been successful in instilling her love of history in her older son, Jordan, who is a fifth-grader at Happy Valley Elementary School. He has such a deep knowledge of history that Wendy said he was teaching his fourth-grade teacher history last year.

Another noteworthy crossing was made by Mike and Keli Dahl of Knoxville. This was the 34th crossing for Mike, but he preferred to boast, “Keli is the only blind person to complete the trail.” Mike held on to Keli and guided her as they walked through the cold water. Before reaching the other bank, the Overmountain Men stopped and announced they were the William Campbell family from Virginia. After Overmountain Men under John Sevier and Isaac Shelby, waiting for them on the bank, shouted their welcome, the Campbell group stood in the thigh-deep water and fired a volley from their long rifles in salute. They took a few more steps and Keli sang a beautiful version of “America the Beautiful.”

It was the first crossing for Kay Millsaps, who works as a volunteer at the park. She said the experience was “wonderful,” but admitted the water was “very cold.”

Among the spectators who watched the re-enactment were a group of nine fourth-graders from Ashley Academy. Ella Fennell enjoyed every minute of the crossing. She smiled and clapped the whole time. “I just loved it,” she said.

Most of her classmates said they liked the firing of the rifles the best. “It was awesome. It was cool when they fired the muskets,” Kaedon Pearson said. “I liked it when they fired the guns,” Zoe Trainer said.

Olivia Smith differed from her classmates. She held her hands over her ears during the firing and said “I don’t like the sound,” but said she liked to swim and would have liked to swim out and join the crossers.

Their teacher, who identified himself only as Mr. MacIlquham, said the class had spent most of the day at the park and toured the new interpretive center. He said Park Interpretive Specialist Jason Davis made it more fun by doing a scavenger hunt for the children in the new interpretive center. The children had to search for various snippets of information on the panels describing the displays. That forced the children to stop and read the panels.

MacIlquham said the students won’t be studying the Revolutionary War until February, so he will have them write letters to themselves when they are back in class as a reminder of what they saw on Sept. 25.

Once they reached the other shore, Mike Dahl told the audience that the re-enactors will follow the entire path the Overmountain Men took. The Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail commemorates their march. He said the tradition of following the trail began in 1975, when a group composed mostly off Boy Scouts followed the path.

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