For great reading about Virginia history, look past the bestsellers and into niche titles – The Virginian-Pilot

The tiny hamlet of Crows in Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains owes its name to Col. John Crow, a hard-drinking, red-faced and portly tavern proprietor whom 19th-century associates dubbed “the biggest liar that walked on two legs.” According to multiple accounts, the tales he spun were far from his most eccentric feature; he also owned a pet bear named Bruin whom he rode like a horse.
This account is one of many in Virginia C. Johnson’s “Virginia by Stagecoach,” a colorful ride into the eclectic experiences that awaited overland travelers in and around the Old Dominion in the days before railroads. And as much as this story offers a charming glimpse into a singular, outrageous episode, it also underscores a truth about the wealth of options available to people looking for entertaining reads.
In books chronicling great events that defined generations and changed the course of history, readers can find narratives that highlight exceptional deeds. Yet in certain subcategories of nonfiction await stories that are grittier, more recognizable and, like many of their higher-profile counterparts, wildly entertaining.
Among them: Local and regional history titles, which are increasingly hitting shelves thanks to a growing army of people with specialized knowledge who are willing to tackle book writing, and firms such as Arcadia Publishing and its History Press that are devoted to such projects. Similarly, academic titles, nearly as old as publishing itself, can offer relevant and enjoyable insight into the world that readers encounter every day.
Some of the niche titles that offer stranger-than-fiction glimpses into bygone eras and the characters who populated them are thematic, and “Virginia by Stagecoach” is one of them.
General readers have probably never stopped to ponder the brief period in the 18th and early 19th centuries when stagecoaches and wagons were the only vehicle transportation between inland communities. But the lasting marks of this era live on in verbiage and place names, as with our turnpikes and taverns. Just as enlightening as those connections are the (now) humorous scenes that were once common when horse-drawn vehicles ruled the road. During this era, some stagecoaches were so rickety, and the roads so treacherous, that riders nicknamed them “spankers” because of the torture they inflicted on derrieres.
Another asset of niche history like “Virginia by Stagecoach” is that smaller publishers may not ax creative flair that bucks the conventional format. Johnson, a Fredericksburg librarian, starts each chapter with a brief recipe from a historical cookbook because taverns were important way stations along stagecoach routes. So, in addition to funny snapshots of the past, readers are treated to how-tos for old delicacies ranging from ginger wine to sweet potato buns.
Also found among the narrowly focused histories are hyper-local titles, and it’s at that molecular level that readers can feel the sort of immersion that delightfully transports the imagination to another realm. “A History Lover’s Guide to Norfolk,” edited by Jaclyn A. Spainhour — director of the Hunter House Victorian Museum — collects the work of Norfolk educators and historians. Their explorations delve deep into the rich history of the city’s neighborhoods and other defining features, such as the military and historic cemeteries.
In her chapter about downtown Norfolk, the MacArthur Memorial’s education manager, Amanda Williams, makes a salient point about a Norfolkian identity crisis: “Most cities conform to a simple brand. Norfolk’s identity is difficult to pinpoint. … Is it a southern city? Is it a Navy town? Does it have a local or international outlook?”
That motley character results in large part from Norfolk’s inextricable link to the water, a bond referenced (biblically) in the first line of the introduction by retired city historian Peggy Haile McPhillips: “In the beginning, there was a river.”
For more than four centuries, the tides have washed in different cultures that have left their mark on what Norfolk is today. This book makes the connection for anyone — not just history lovers — who wants to know the city and its landmarks, past and present, at such an intimate level. For instance, the Jamestown Exposition of 1907, held at Sewells Point, was a financial failure but a seminal event: It helped to shape Norfolk’s infrastructure and economic future.
And while academic books might call to mind the esoteric research of elbow-patched professors, they can nevertheless offer meaningful and compelling insight into common interactions we have with the world around us. Such is the case with “Deeds, Titles, and Changing Concepts of Land Rights: Colonial Innovations and their Impact on Social Thought” by David Ress.
At its heart, Ress’ work examines a fundamental shift that occurred in the idea of land use and ownership when English settlers began to populate areas of North America and Australia that had once been the domain of indigenous inhabitants. The population dynamics meant that Englishmen had to redefine what it meant to “own” land, and part of the result was the legalese on deeds to which we sign our names today.
Ress’ introduction strikes a conversational tone, as he recalls standing on the Kansas prairie, thinking of settlers who had cultivated the land. The rest of his work is decidedly academic: “While the ability to sell land was not an innovation of commercial and industrial societies, it had long been common for laws and custom to regulate or constrain the transfer or encumbering of land.”
But Ress nevertheless makes his arguments — and forges deeper connections for the reader — through human stories, such as that of an aging 17th century Pennacook Indian who senses oncoming conflict and pleads with English leaders to record his right to occupy his land.
Ress should know how to tell a good story; he is a longtime Daily Press reporter and has been a foreign correspondent for Reuters — and one with esteemed credentials at that, including a master’s degree and doctorate from the University of New England in Australia, where he is an honorary research associate.
If these three titles don’t light a fire in you, it’s easy to search lesser-known bookshelves that will undoubtedly yield themes that click. Checking the box to filter for “Virginia” at Arcadia Publishing’s website for its imprint The History Press returns books about Brunswick stew, surfing in Hampton Roads and the Outer Banks, and Christmas season at the old Miller & Rhoads department stores.
So sure, grab that bestseller. But limiting your library to what everyone else is reading leaves gaps in discovery that could help illuminate the world you encounter every day — a world that is real, fascinating and a joy to explore.
Ben Swenson is a writer and educator in James City County who specializes in American history and culture. [email protected].
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“VIRGINIA BY STAGECOACH”
Virginia C. Johnson
History Press. 192 pp. $21.99.
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“A HISTORY LOVER’S GUIDE TO NORFOLK”
Jaclyn A. Spainhour, ed.
History Press. 224 pp. $23.99.
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“DEEDS, TITLES, AND CHANGING CONCEPTS OF LAND RIGHTS: Colonial Innovations and their Impact on Social Thought”
David Ress
Palgrave Macmillan. 115 pp. $59.99.

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