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A rogue history of North Carolina

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, May 9, 2005

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Where should I go to learn about North Carolina history?

Folks ask me that question a lot. Sometimes they want me to recommend books. Sometimes they want to know teachers, or speakers, or just people they can visit face to face.

Around Chapel Hill, one of the best "people to visit" is my neighbor H.G. Jones. For many years Jones was director of the state department of archives and history. Later he became curator of the North Carolina collection at UNC-Chapel Hill, serving for 20 years until his retirement in 1993. His "retirement" is a joke. I see him almost every morning walking to the Wilson Library, where he has continued his work on North Carolina history projects as a "part time" research historian.

When I have a question about North Carolina history, I can almost always get H.G. Jones to point me in the right direction. I wish I could share his storehouse of information with you. Maybe I can.

Thanks to a new book, you can learn some interesting and entertaining North Carolina history directly from Jones.

The book, "Scoundrels, Rogues and Heroes of the Old North State" is a compilation of articles from a series that Jones wrote for the Associated Press, which distributed them to North Carolina newspapers in the 1970's and 1980's. Editors Randell Jones and Caitlin Jones (no kin to H.G.) selected the articles. If the editors' intention was to share H.G. Jones' most entertaining work, rather than the most historically significant, they have succeeded.

Jones looked for unusual stories from North Carolina past that would strike a chord with any reader, not just those of us focused on the politics and economics of North Carolina's progress.

Jones tells stories of unusual women. One of them, Francis Culpeper, married three governors. Another, Justina Davis, married two men who served as North Carolina's governor. First in 1762, at the age of 15, she married Governor Arthur Dobbs. After his death she married Abner Nash. After her death, Nash became governor in about 1780.

Some of Jones' women tried to pretend they were men. Anne Bonney and Mary Read were shipmates on a pirate ship. When captured by British authorities, they were sentenced to be hanged. But they avoided the gallows because they were pregnant.

Malinda Blalock put on a Civil War soldier's uniform to follow her husband, Keith, when he joined North Carolina troops in 1862. Keith was really a Unionist. When he fooled the army surgeons into granting him a medical discharge, Malinda was stuck in the army by herself until she "disclosed the fact" of her true sex to her commanding officer and was then immediately discharged.

In another Civil War related story, James H. Jones, a Raleigh "free man of color" became the valet to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Apparently, Jones was devoted to President Davis even after the war ended. Jones became active in politics and business. Many years later, when the body of his former employer passed through Raleigh on its way for burial in Richmond, Jones drove the funeral car from the station to the state capitol.

More recently, in 1914, in Fayetteville, George Herman Ruth hit his first home run as a professional baseball player. He also picked up his nickname, "Babe," in our state. One story, according to H.G. Jones, says that one of his teammates said that he was just a "babe in the woods."

No book about North Carolina's most interesting history ought to omit Chang and Eng Bunker, the Siamese twins who made their way to Surrey County, where they married and became established as successful farmers-and fathers, with a total of 22 children between them. H.G. gives us a few more details.

If you want a serious look at North Carolina history, "Scoundrels, Rogues and Heroes" might not be your best bet. Get H.G. Jones to recommend another book. But if you love a good story, there are more than 50 of them in this book, most of them about scoundrels, rogues or heroes, just as the title promises.


D.G. Martin is the author of "Interstate Eateries" a handbook of home cooking places near North Carolina's interstate highways-available through Our State Magazine (800-948-1409). He is the host of UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This week's (May 15) guest is John Shelton Reed, author of "Minding the South."

Upcoming programs:

May 15: John Shelton Reed, Minding the South

May 22: Steven Sherrill, Visits from the Drowned Girl

May 29: Carl Ernst, Following Muhammad

Special UNC-TV programming on June 5 and 12 will preempt NC Bookwatch

June 19: John May, Poe & Fanny

June 26: Walter Turner, Paving Tobacco Road

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