More than armchair historians
Every regular reader of this column has an interest in this region’s history. But most of us are, more or less, armchair historians. We mostly read books or watch documentaries produced either on TV or as videos. We might, from time to time, visit a museum, historical site, or even walk a trail with historical associations. That’s about the extent of it. There are some, however, who want to push the envelope and actually experience, insofar as possible, the lifestyles and conditions faced by the early explorers and settlers.
About 15 or so such individuals presently comprise a group of like-minded souls informally known as Gist’s Company of Scouts. According to Bob Plott, one of the group’s members, “The name comes from Christopher Gist, who lived in North Carolina as a scout, Indian trader and land speculator. Gist is known to have saved the life of a young George Washington at least twice, and fought in the French and Indian War with a group of scouts or rangers. He died in 1759, and his sons became traders and scouts, too. One of them, Nathaniel, led a group of scouts during the American Revolution, and all his sons were special friends of the Cherokees. It is believed that Nathaniel married the sister of the Cherokee chiefs Old Tassel and Doublehead and was the father of Sequoyah. So the name has special historical significance to us.”
Plott currently lives in the Statesville area, but has strong ties to the western tip of North Carolina. His uncle, Cecil Plott, lived in Bryson City, where he supervised the railway depot for most of his life. His father, Glenn Plott, lived in Bryson City after returning from service in World War II, but later moved the family to Statesville to find work. Bob Plott fondly remembers his frequent visits to Bryson City to hunt and camp with his uncle. And he seemingly considers Swain County and the immediate region to be his spiritual home.
The Plott family name is intimately tied to Western North Carolina’s history. George Plott and his family were by 1755 among the first settlers west of the Catawba River. Sometime in the late 1790s, members of the family moved to Haywood County, thereby becoming some of the first settlers west of the Pigeon River. The Plott family is, of course, renowned worldwide for developing a strain of hunting dog known as the Plott hound.
According to Bob Plott, the Gist’s Company of Scouts is “a group of guys who recreate or reenact 18th century life skills. All of us have been involved in the hobby for at least five years, most 10 or more. Some of us are avid hunters and hunt only with 18th century weapons, but all of us are avid outdoorsmen who have camped and hiked in extreme conditions, wearing only period-correct clothing and period-correct accoutrements. All clothing, weaponry, and accoutrements must be fully documented by a recognized source or cannot be used. All leather or hides are either brain tanned or bark tanned, true to the period. All members have either made their gear themselves or traded for, or bought it from reputable craftsmen or sutlers. We cook over open fires started by flint and steel. And we eat only period-correct foods, such as jerky, dried fruit, wild game, vegetables, coffee or tea, and water.
“We come from a wide range of professions. Most are married with kids, and live throughout western and piedmont North Carolina, east Tennessee, and southwest Virginia. Right now our membership is entirely male, only because no females, our wives included, have expressed interest. There are, however, many women in the hobby, as well as Native and African Americans.
Several years ago, Plott met and became friends with Charlie Brown, a person with a great deal of knowledge and skills concerning the nitty-gritty of 18th century lifestyles and material goods. Quickly thereafter, Gist’s Company of Scouts came into being.
Brown, who now resides in Winston-Salem, also has ties to Swain County, especially to the Hazel Creek area. When Lake Fontana was flooded, most of the family was relocated to Maryville, Tenn., where Brown was born and raised and became an avid outdoorsman from youth. He is now becoming established as an outstanding blacksmith and leatherworker, one who can provide period correct bags, leather goods, and knives for members of the Gist’s Company of Scouts as well as notable figures in that field of interest like Mark Baker and Mike Alton. Baker taught Mel Gibson to shoot in the “The Patriot” movie and advised Daniel Day Lewis on his role in “The Last of the Mohicans.” Baker and Alton, a Gist’s Company member, also produced a series of popular videos on 18th century skills.
Plott said: “We do some camps at historical sites to educate the public, but much prefer actual hunts or scouts, usually lasting two to three days in public lands like the Linville Gorge area, or other areas in the Pisgah National Forest or other state or federal gamelands. Some members also lease land to set up permanent hunting camps. Most of our scouts revolve around an actual event that occurred in the area so as to make them more realistic.
“We use four historical sites as our home bases for public education: Fort Dobbs in Statesville; Fort Loudon in Vonore, Tenn.; Fort Watauga at Sycamore Shoals, Tenn.; and Martin’s Station in Virginia. All are sites of major historical significance for the time period we focus on, 1750-1785.”
This past Saturday morning, I spent some time with Plott and Brown visiting sites of interest in Bryson City and walking alongside a little creek in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Once we got in the woods, I could sense that both of my guests were perfectly at home. They didn’t need to talk much as we ambled along in the late fall sunlight, listening to the creek. But at one point, I heard Plott say to his friend: “Charlie, can’t you just imagine a Cherokee war party coming down this trail?”