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A Review of the Historical Accuracy of Thirteen Moons

By Donald K. Burleson

When I first got “Cold Mountain” I became immediately suspicious after reading the glowing reviews on the dust jacket.  In lionizing puffery that would embarrass Shakespeare himself, Cold Mountain was noted as possibly one of the best books ever written. 

Yeah, right.

However, despite the hyperbole, Cold Mountain is no less a masterpiece of literature, worthy of its’ national book award, and Thirteen Moons is even better, elevating Frazier into the rarified ranks as one of the 21st centuries greatest authors.

To be fair, I’m prejudiced because Thirteen Moons hits many of my hot buttons.  It’s got amazing scenic descriptions reminiscent of Zane Grey’s “Riders of the Purple Sage”, the celebrity encounters of “Forrest Gump”, the sympathetic flaws of Gus from “Lonesome Dove”, and a too-eerie similarity with the first part of “Dancing with Wolves”.  

Nonetheless, Thirteen Moons is a fine read for the worthy scholar.

But most fun part of Thirteen Moons is the conflict between noble and wise Cherokee against the ignorant and corrupt Yankees.  It’s also amazing to me because of Frazier’s super-accurate descriptions of 19th century life, replete with dozens of eye-opening details of a long forgotten way of life:

  • Maroon is the last color of mourning for a proper Victorian Woman.

  • Authentic and detailed recipes for everything from grilled squirrel to bear roasts.

  • Getting “lot of bucks” is a term that’s been used for over 200 years.

Also, I loved the periodic quotes, especially one of my favorites by my long-dead relative Robert Burns wisdom:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!

A Historical Evaluation of Thirteen Moons

I have no doubt that Thirteen moons will become a major motion picture, but let’s get right to the strengths and weaknesses of Thirteen Moons.  Thirteen Moons is not a book to be tossed aside lightly, and I found myself taking over 14 hours to read it, often re-reading paragraphs where Frazier’s word-smithing which is most poetic:

On Yankees: “They’re bred to do it and don’t know any better.  I wouldn’t walk across the street to piss such a man if he were lit on fire”.

“We all reach a point where we would like to draw a line across time and declare everything on the far side null.  Shed our past life like a pair of muddy trousers”.

“It was nothing more than paper . . . handshakes and promised, moon beams and horse shit, trust and risk, all layered one atop the other in thin strata like cards in a deck”.

So, I’m going to go out on a limb here and declare Thirteen Moons to be one of the best novels thus far in the 21st century. 

What makes the best book of the century?

As an amateur genealogist and scholar of 19th century grammar, I squealed out loud at reading long-lost phrases such as “scarce and dear”, which I know to be authentic, but there are still outstanding questions regarding the historical accuracy of Thirteen Moons.

The Golden Delicious Fiasco

Fans of Charles Frazier know all about the Golden Delicious Apples mistake (Golden Delicious apples did not exist in the Civil War).  When I hit the Golden Delicious part of Cold Mountain, I set it aside in disgust for almost a week.  The problem is that you get so sucked-in to the reality of 19th century life that hitting a mistake like that is a turd in the punchbowl:


Thirteen Moons and Golden Delicious Apples

Before you claim that Frazier did it deliberately, please note that NEWSWEEK published that Frazer was mortified about the error. 

In Thirteen Moons, Frazier mention bear grease numerous time, yet I was disappointed that he never once mentions the most common uses for Bear Grease, namely using bear grease as a hair pomade and as a tool to forecast the weather.

Here are my notes on the virtues of Bear Grease

Thirteen Moons and Poontang

Throughout Thirteen Moons, Frazier takes-on the incredible challenge of describing the diction of the common spoken English of the early frontiersman, an almost impossible task given that real-world cursing was never recorded on paper.  We know that Stephen Crane heard the cussing from the veterans of Petersburg, for in his classic “The Red Badge of Courage”, Crane refers to cussing euphemistically, as “swearing a cross oath”:

“He never drunk a drop of licker in his life, and seldom swore a cross oath”.

When Frazier interjects the word “Poontang” into the text, I was immediately suspicious.  I first heard about Poontang from Vietnam Vets, and I assumed it to be a reference to the friendly gals of Saigon.  A review of the Etymology of Poontang reveals that it’s possible that Will may have know the word, but this page says that Poontang was first used in-writing in 1929:

“Several sources claim that it first appeared somewhere in the 1910s or 1920s (Chapman, 1995; Ayto and Simpson, 1992).”

I was also taken-aback with Frazier’s use of the F work (Claire: ”I didn’t f**k him”), and because Frazier is known for his accuracy, curiosity compelled me to investigate further.

Thirteen Moons and the “F” word:

Professor Steven Cerutti’s master work “The Words of the Day” notes the following on the origins and usage of the “F” word, making it likely that the words was know in the 1820’s, but not used in polite conversation, and almost not is the may ways that we hear it today:

“The Dictionary of American Slang (1960) gives as the primary meaning of the word: “[taboo] To Cheat, trick, take advantage of, deceive, or treat someone unfairly.” It goes on to offer this as an explanation of the relationships between fraud and sex: “All slang meanings of ‘f**k’ and all ‘f**k’ expressions, of course, derive consciously or unconsciously from the old and standard but taboo ‘f**k’ = sexual intercourse.

From the New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd Edition (2005) we learn that “f**k” came into the English language by slipping through the Indo-European back door and surfacing as the Germanic word fuk.

The simple truth is that “f**k”—obviously one of the oldest words in the language—if not the world—dates back to nearly the birth of writing, back when our ancestors were barely up on their feet, still hunting and gathering.”

Thirteen Moons – The Movie

By definition, this amazing book will not make a worthy movie, it’s impossible.  There are no clear-cut villains (Featherstone) and the subtleties that make this book great will never translate well into film.  However, I have no doubt that “Thirteen Moons” will be a blockbuster movie nonetheless, for these reasons:

  • Profound insights – I loved the section where Will noted that babies (and housecats) would kill us without a thought if given a chance.  Better still, his descriptions of the old ways and social mores of the 19th century ring-true with amazing clarity.

  • A man in another age – The initial scene of Ancient William, a living relic of the American frontier, living in the land of telephones and movies is very compelling.  In the movie, they should start out with Will being paraded-out in a 1910 newsreel talkie, like they did with Ole Thomas Edison. Will is a living link to an ancient past, a man who knew Revolutionary War soldiers.  It’s akin to the superb Kubrick masterpiece AI, where Stanly Kubrick interjects a sense of awe when the child robot is revived after thousands of years “here is a robot that actually knew living human beings”.

  • The smart triumph over the stupid - The conflict between the wise outnumbered Indians and their dumbass Yankee masters, makes for a great story.

  • Humor - “As a further sign of the contempt the local animal world held for me  . . . a raccoon chose the second step to the porch as his nighttime place to take a big black oily shit, punctuated with various seeds and berries.”  Also, the last page of Thirteen Moons will translate into an impressive movie scene, an unforgettable and heartwarming image that summarized the whole boo in one masterful stroke of Frazier’s pen.

  • Racism – Thirteen Moons delves into great details on the laws of races, and I was surprised to discover, that, had I been born 150 years earlier, I would be legally prohibited from marrying a white woman (and I’m only a small-part Cherokee).  People with Cherokee blood tend to have dense mops of hair (almost a “coat”, really), as noted in this video commercial for Cherokee Hair Tampons, endorsed by Cheech and Chong.    

Indian Racism in the 21st Century

Thirteen Moons delves into great details on the laws of races, and I was surprised to discover, that, had I been born 150 years earlier, I would be legally prohibited from marrying any white woman (and I’m only a small-part Cherokee). 

People with Cherokee blood tend to have dense mops of thick hair (almost a “coat”, really), as that’s not lost on the bigots, as noted in this offensive South Park racist video for Cherokee Hair Tampons, personally endorsed by Cheech and Chong.   

Thirteen Moons reminded me of my family’s personal brushes with institutional racism and our efforts to “hide” both our religion and diverse bloodlines.  Frazier notes in “Thirteen Moons” that North Carolina State law forbade anyone with even the tiniest drop of Indian blood from marrying a white woman.  These Miscegenation laws were in-force in my own father’s lifetime, strict laws which spelled out stiff prison terms, and were Indian-specific.  To further offense, this NC statute suggests that Indians were held in such low esteem as to be considered inferior to Blacks:

“A later statute, mentioned in this article (see Note 78, page 446), provides that intermarriage between a Cherokee Indian of Robeson County and a Negro or person of Negro descent to the third generation is prohibited (North Carolina General Statutes section 51-3 (1960)).”

Unfortunately, institutional racism is almost impossible to prove, and I’ve learned that even in the alleged age of racial enlightenment, exposing my Indian heritage was not a good idea.



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