Review: The True Image
Daniel W. Patterson. The True Image: Gravestone Art and the Culture of Scotch Irish Settlers in the Pennsylvania and Carolina Backcountry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. 496 pp. ISBN 978-0-8078-3567-8.
It is not often that a book comes along that offers valuable information to both discerning academics and lay people. Daniel W. Patterson has accomplished that challenging feat. As one would expect from a book published by the University of North Carolina Press, The True Image does not read like a research-laden dissertation. Patterson uses vivid prose that is enjoyable and informative; however, he, like a number of other earnest writers, bases much of his work on the association among the Scotch-Irish, other Protestant ethnicities in Ulster, and Presbyterianism.
As one who has traipsed through countless Scottish and southern cemeteries reading names, dates, and other personal tidbits on funerary stones especially as they relate to Presbyterian congregations, I admire Patterson’s passion and enjoyed his insights into the dexterity used to craft headstones that marked the personal eschatologies of Presbyterians. I am also delighted by the way he explains the value of different rocks and how local land features affected the choice of materials used as markers. Because some of the materials used in crafting headstones had to be imported, especially for those clients who were interred in sandy areas where rock material was scant, there was a distinct social class dimension to decorating one’s grave.
That particular subject could have received more attention because, as the subtitle of the book implies, the focus of the book is the backcountry of the Carolinas and Pennsylvania. The backcountry, as described by David Hackett Fischer, was found in the Appalachian Mountains where poverty precluded many of the faithful from buying expensive grave markers. Instead, Patterson focuses most of his attention on more affluent Presbyterian communities in the Piedmont region of North Carolina.
Patterson’s command of the literature suggests that he has been engaged in studying the Scotch-Irish for a number of years. His bibliography reflects a wealth of primary and secondary sources that are solid, especially with respect to material cultures found in the South, in Ulster, and in Scotland; however, his Scotch-Irish sources are somewhat dated. Nevertheless, the older, yet seminal, works are cited: James Leyburn’s social history (1989), Patrick Griffin’s People with No Name (2001), and Marilyn Westerkamp’s Triumph of the Laity (1988). Missing, however, are a number of recently published books on the formation of a distinct Ulster Scots (Scotch-Irish) and other Protestant communities in the north of Ireland and their American counterparts in the “backcountry,” including the western reaches of the Carolinas and Pennsylvania.
While Patterson seems to recognize the mosaic of ethnicities that made up the Protestant community in Ulster and in America, who early on called themselves “Irish,” he steps into the quicksand that so many American writers have found themselves. The tendency on this side of the Atlantic is to assume that the Scots, Germans, English, and French Protestants who settled in Ulster formed a distinct Presbyterian community on the emerald Isle. This situation makes it handy for us to label their American descendants as “Scotch Irish.” A more thorough reading of recent research would have cast some light on that flawed assumption. Indeed, various Protestant groups in Ulster more often than not settled into faith communities (i.e., Baptists, Quakers, and Episcopalians) and did not assimilate into the Presbyterian community that was dominated by Ulster Scots.
On a similar note, many writers, including Patterson, have assumed that “Presbyterian” and “Scotch-Irish” can be used interchangeably. Patterson discusses how many Presbyterian ministers in Pennsylvania and the Carolinas were educated at the College of New Jersey (later renamed Princeton University). He even mentions the New Light Presbyterians and the Great Awakening, but he misses the mark in describing the reason for the emergence of the New Lights and their college in the first place. When Francis Makemie, the founder of American Presbyterianism and a graduate of the University of Glasgow in Scotland came to America, he and others of the cloth who followed him wanted to evangelize throughout the colonies, regardless of whether or not potential congregants were of Scotch-Irish lineage. Besides, the Kirk of Scotland became officially Presbyterian in 1690, so ministers and church planters who came to Pennsylvania and the Carolinas may well have arrived straight from Scotland, having never set a foot in Ulster. Without specific family histories, ship records, or other documentation that historically places a surname in Scotland and Ulster, one is hard pressed to locate precisely a so-called Scotch-Irish family’s place of origin. In other words, many of the Presbyterian folk who are buried in church yards in the Carolina Piedmont region may not have had any connection to Ulster.
Although some of Patterson’s assumptions about labeling families as Scotch-Irish may not be accurate, The True Image offers a well-written, delightfully vivid depiction of the history of Presbyterian funerary art. Historians, geographers, and lay people interested in family histories will find the book inviting and a rewarding read.