Asheville first newspaper: a fascinating example of bad journalism
by Rob Neufeld
“Our section of the country has been visited with an unusual flood of rain during the past week,” reported the Highland Messenger, Asheville’s first newspaper, as it launched its first issue, June 5, 1840. It was the biggest downpour in 40 years. Consequently, the editors noted, “We have had no mail from the east.”
Editors Rev. David R. McAnaly, a Presbyterian minister, and Joshua Roberts depended on news from outside to edify their readership.
We “shall do all in our power to benefit our readers,” they avowed, “to improve the mind and morals—to enable the ignorant to learn and the wise to improve their recollections.”
Ministers held big sway over communities. Women turned to them to temper drunkenness. Upwardly mobile families turned to them for their children’s education. Communities turned to them for social order.
On June 16, the Highland Messenger noted ten days later, McAnaly presided over the equivalent of a royal marriage in these parts, that of Nicholas Woodfin to Eliza McDowell, daughter of Col. Charles McDowell.
Sentiment and bias
In a literary style brimming with sanctimony, the Highland Messenger reiterated the sentiments of the Raleigh Register regarding their vision of family values.
“A Mother’s influence! Alas! I fear my feeble pen can but ill acquit itself of the task of portraying one of the most powerful, holiest, of all earthly influences.”
In the political arena, the editors professed objectivity, but clearly supported Gen. William Henry Harrison, the Whig candidate for president, against Martin Van Buren, the Democratic incumbent.
Presidential politics had only recently become two-party; and 1840 marked the first modern-style campaign. The Highland Messenger helped defend Harrison against charges that he’d sold “poor white men for debt.” It raised alarms about Van Buren wanting to support a standing, peacetime army.
News in the ads
Locally, the editors promoted Asheville with the kind of hype generally associated with the post-railroad era forty years later.
“The road (the Buncombe Turnpike) is good—very good,” the newspaper stated. It’s the best passage within a 100-mile radius. The region “is the most healthy, romantic, and in many respects desirable to be found in the United States.” Asheville has got six dry goods stores, two groceries, two hotels, and two academies.
Only “criminal apathy” will prevent Asheville from growing rapidly and becoming wealthy. Occasionally, hard news crept in, sometimes through ads, to confirm this opinion.
That summer, R. Deaver let people know that his hotel, Sulphur Springs, was “in excellent repair, and open to accommodate from one hundred and fifty, to two hundred persons.” Bath houses, stables, and enlarged rooms were available.
And there were discomforting notices.
The estate of William T. Coleman was selling off all of his possessions, including his store goods, and horses and carriages.
The town had jailed “a Negro man, about 35 years old…who says his name is Henry.” He’d left home in Chatham County with “a mulatto boy named Toney.” The owner is requested to come forward and pay the retrieval fee.
That item appeared every week for a few weeks; as did one in which Daniel Payne plaintively noted that his yellow sorrel horse had been stolen from John Love’s stable in Haywood County.
It has got “a pretty large blaze in his face, extending to his mouth,” Payne said. “His hind legs (are) both white, with wind-galls on the ancles; he is about fifteen hands and a half high—very heavy bodied, with a beautiful ear, head and neck…one of his hips is a little lower than the other…I swapped for him four years ago…I have since rode him on the Blairsville, Lafayette, and Spring Place Circuits.”
Only a couple of years after the Trail of Tears, the Highland Messenger took a moral stand against broken treaties,
“We are informed on good authority,” the editors reported on July 24, 1840, “that between nine hundred and a thousand of these deluded beings (Cherokees), are still hovering about the homes of their fathers, in the counties of Macon and Cherokee. It is also stated, that they are a great annoyance to the citizens of those counties, who have been induced to purchase the lands at a high price under the firm belief that the Treaty would be strictly complied with, in the removal of all the Indians.
“The citizens,” the writers continued righteously, “have petitioned the President of the United States to have them removed…(but) he has returned them the following answer: that ‘they (the Indians) are, in his opinion, free to go or stay.’ Thus saying…what he has…said to the citizens of the whole United States, ‘you are in the habit of looking for too much from the General Government.’”
So there were the old contradictions: federal peacetime army, bad; federal interference with Cherokees, good
The Whig candidate, Harrison, was famous for falsely promoting his log cabin origins. Parties clamored for a populist image, and the Highland Messenger reflected this in their humorous anecdotes.
A miller asks a fool what he knows and doesn’t, one joke goes. “I know that millers have fat hogs,” he says. “I don’t know whose corn they eat.”
Finally, there’s the issue of grabbing sensational stories and not doing enough fact-checking.
The newspaper passed on the news sent by the Sydney (Australia) Herald that Capt. Charles Wilkes on the U.S. ship Vincennes had discovered the continent of Antarctica.
As has been revisited by Nathaniel Philbrick in his compelling 2003 book of history, “Sea of Glory,” Wilkes had been a brutal tyrant who’d promoted himself to captain, faced a mutiny and a court-martial, and falsified the date of his landing to discredit British explorer James Ross. His greater achievements as a nautical surveyor comprise another story, and one with a less flashy headline.
Early issues of the Highland Messenger, the first newspaper to be published in Asheville, are now available in the North Carolina Newspapers project at digitalnc.org. The Highland Messenger was nominated for digitization by Buncombe County Public Libraries.