By Edna Ward
The Genealogical Society of East Alabama will hold its quarterly meeting Jan. 17 at 10 a.m. at the Museum of East Alabama, 121 S. Ninth Street. Jeff Benton, a retired Air Force colonel, will present the program.
Benton holds master’s degrees in English, political science and history. He has taught history, English, political science and national defense policy from high school to the graduate school level. His research interests are currently focused on Montgomery history. He has written extensively on Montgomery, including more than 250 newspaper articles in “The Montgomery Advertiser” and “The Montgomery Independent.” He has also written five books on local history:
“A Sense of Place: Montgomery’s Architectural Heritage, 1821-1951”
“The Very Worst Road: Travelers’ Accounts of Crossing Alabama’s Old Creek”
“Indian Territory, 1820-1847”
“They Served Here: Thirty-Three Maxwell Men”
“Respectable and Disreputable: Leisure Time in Antebellum Montgomery” and
“Through Others’ Eyes: Published Accounts of Antebellum Montgomery, Alabama”
“The Very Worst Road” contains 16 contemporary accounts by travelers who reached Alabama along what was known as the “Old Federal Road,” more a network of paths than a single road, that ran from Columbus and points south in Georgia for more or less due west into central Alabama and to where the confluence of the Tallapoosa and Coosa Rivers forms the Alabama River.
These accounts deal candidly with the rather remarkable array of impediments that faced travelers in Alabama in its first decades as a state, and they describe with wonder, interest and frequently with some disgust, the road, the inns, the traveling companions and the few and raw communities they encountered as they made their way, often with difficulty, through what seemed to many of them uncharted wilderness.
His most recent book, “Through Others’ Eyes: Published Accounts of Antebellum Montgomery, Alabama,” includes descriptions of traveling to and from Montgomery but focuses on the travelers’ descriptions of Montgomery itself. The 28 published accounts between 1825-1861 were written by Americans and Europeans with a variety of backgrounds. A few are as objective as can reasonably be expected considering the short durations of the writers’ visits. Some are prone to display their preconceptions and prejudices. Most exaggerate – they had to make their books marketable.
The accounts are sometimes insightful or incredulous, often humorous and colorful, always giving the reader a vicarious experience of being there.
For most of its 40-year antebellum history, Montgomery was a frontier river town. These accounts of it do not reveal moonlight and magnolias but a rather coarse culture. The touring authors don’t mince words about slavery; after all, their readers expected commentary about the most peculiar of Southern institutions. However, the writers’ diverse views of slavery are as complicated and contradictory as was the institution itself.
Together, these accounts sketch a fascinating world populated by individuals and with customs that would have inspired Charles Dickens had he overcome his prejudices and ventured further south than Richmond in 1842. The book’s epilogue provides a description of the first capital of the Confederacy.
There is no charge for the program, and the public is invited.