Governor Zebulon Vance Birthplace

Because traveling is so tricky at present, I have talked myself into visiting – or revisiting – historic sites that don’t require an overnight stay in a hotel. There are quite a few places within a couple of hour’s drive, and I decided to start with a North Carolina Historic Site, that of the homestead of the family of Zebulon Vance.

For those of you not in North Carolina, Zeb Vance was a big deal. He was a military leader in a Confederate regiment until he was elected governor of North Carolina in 1862. After the war he was able to make his way back into politics, and ended up in the state legislature, served another stint as governor, and then was elected to the US Senate.

Of course, the story is not quite so simple as what we learned in school in the 1960s. By that time there was a big stone obelisk memorializing Vance in the center square of Asheville and the state had recently bought his birthplace which was north of Asheville to turn it into a state historic site. The memorialization of Vance began in the time of the Lost Cause, and was still going strong as the era of Jim Crow was drawing to a close in the 1960s.

To look at the Vance Birthplace, which is a somewhat recreated pioneer farmstead, one would think that Vance came from humble beginnings. The log cabin birthplace of a famous man is a strong symbol going back even before Abe Lincoln. Fact is, the Vance farm was quite prosperous. When Zeb Vance’s grandparents settled on the property in the 1790s, they brought with them three enslaved persons. Over the years the Vances enslaved at least eighteen people.

The names of the people known to have been enslaved on this property

The last time I visited the Vance Birthplace was with my mother, who died in 1999. So it had been a while. I put this site at the top of my list for several reasons. At the present time, the city of Asheville is trying to decide on what to do about the monument.

It’s very likely that the monument will be brought down. I understand this, but at the same time, it will diminish the meaning of a recently installed work, Reflections on Unity by Henry Richardson. The glass globe is a perfect counterpoint to the obelisk, a monument erected in 1896 as a celebration of a champion of the Lost Cause, Governor Vance.

I was also curious to see if the way the site is interpreted for visitors had changed since my last visit. At the time there was a museum that told the life story of Governor Vance. It was a sort of timeline of artifacts. The house was presented as a typical pioneer house.

I was really pleased to see that the museum had completely changed. There was a display explaining that the Cherokee had lived on the land before the Vance family. There was great information about the enslaved people who lived on the Vance farm, and how people like the Vances helped spread slavery in the Asheville area, not due to being used as farmers, but because they were used in the livestock droving and the growing tourist businesses. And I also learned about the women in Vance’s life, especially his mother and his first wife, Hattie.

The artifacts in the museum are a combination of items actually owned by the Vance family and items from the area that date to the mid nineteenth century. Because Vance was so revered, his family kept many of his possessions, many of which were donated tp the museum.

Side note: I find it quite sad that history museums have worked hard to make interactive displays, only to have them shut down in the wake of this pandemic.

They did leave some drawers with artifacts. Here we see the ubiquitous wool production implements. There was also a wool wheel in the cabin where enslaved people lived. The museum pointed out that most of the textile production would have been done by enslaved workers.

This is a carpetbag, of sorts. After the Civil War ended, many people in the North moved south to take advantage of the fact that men like Vance were prohibited from participation in politics under the rules of Reconstruction. This led to a huge shortage of men who were eligible to fill governmental offices and so “carpetbaggers” moved in to fill the positions. Carpetbags were cheap luggage and were actually made from scraps of carpet. This one, however is made from an overshot coverlet.

Even though the Vance house was made from logs, it is a stretch to call it a cabin. It is quite roomy with two stories and multiple bed chambers.

When Zeb Vance was fourteen, his father died and his mother was forced to sell the property and move to Asheville. The house changed hands and was remodeled several times over the next century. When the state of North Carolina bought the property in 1957, the house was falling down. It was reconstructed using as much of the original structure as possible.

The outbuildings, including this circa 1790 slave dwelling, were brought in from other sites in the area.

Here is the interior of the cabin that housed enslaved people.

The Carolinas are full of pioneer homestead museums, and truthfully, it seems like they are all pretty much the same. But by changing the narrative at the Vance Birthplace, our North Carolina Division of Cultural and Natural Resources has made the site less of a shrine to Vance and the story of the great man and his humble beginnings. By making the site more relevant to modern visitors, it also was made more interesting.

Update.

I forgot to mention that I was at this site for about an hour and a half, and I was the only visitor until I was leaving. So. if you are looking for a safe outing, I suggest you look into your underutilized state parks. If your state is like North Carolina, the state sites are excellent, but underfinanced. So show them a little love and spend a few dollars in the gift shop.

6 Comments

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6 responses to “Governor Zebulon Vance Birthplace

  1. Carol

    Thank you for this post. I have driven past the exit for the Vance museum many times but never made the time for a visit. I grew up in the Carolinas (mostly South) but I wasn’t familiar with who he really was. I’m glad to finally know about him and I am very heartened that the museum is recognizing the contributions and roles of the enslaved people who lived there.

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  2. jacq staubs

    History ( as you often point out like fashion)Is a regional issue. Being of the same generation-the lessons taught in the 60’s were was somewhat censored. Yes the “cabin” would have been considered an elegant home by the 1790 standards by example of size. I only know this as my family home began (like many) a small 2 story log structure. Built several years earlier on the mountain as well . Later stone wings were added which was in abundance – I was taught however the native Americans Indians were our first slaves. We did not participate in the ownership of enslaved people even though surrounded by it No shrines either. The obelisk is interesting – we had one built of stone for George Washington. Perhaps hypocrisy not regional. I do have an architectural appreciation for the obelisk form. As always wonderful post. Stay well/safe.

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  3. Thank you for introducing me to Zebulon Vance. It’s nice (in a way) to have a private tour, though the current state of affairs is not the ideal reason. The new interpretive information is great. I visited Mt. Vernon last summer (2019) and observed that they provided more about the enslaved people who made the plantation work — I am sure that wasn’t part of the tour when I visited in 1974. And, yes to state parks! (I looked it up: there are over 6600 state parks in the U.S.)

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  4. Carol Wilson

    We are doing something similar down here in the MD/PA/WV area, exploring the history of the National Road (now much of Rt. 40, from Baltimore to Vandalia IL) within an hour of so of us. We had the Fort Ligonier museum all to ourselves and learned a lot about the French and Indian War and George Washington. They also have removed or put signs over the “hands on” aspects of the museum for now.

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