Archaeology at Red River Gorge, ‘Antiques Roadshow’s’ Wes Cowan, and More!

By Leslie Potter | 5/12/19 8:30 AM

The annual Living Archaeology Weekend turns Red River Gorge into Kentucky’s most popular outdoor classroom; Antiques Roadshow’s Wes Cowan reminisces about his Louisville roots and a vintage life; and part two of our profile of Ulysses S. Grant’s Kentucky connections tracks his rise as a general, beginning with his battles in the western part of the state.


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Living Archaeology Weekend at Red River Gorge

Kentuckians learn about the lives of people who lived on this land centuries ago through the Living Archaeology Weekend at Red River Gorge. It’s an eye-opening experience for visitors who get to see artifacts and traditions from ancient cultures up close.

“What I would like people to come away with from their experience at Living Archaeology Weekend is an understanding of the diverse ways to be human,” says Gwynn Henderson of the Kentucky Archaeological Survey. “A lot of times people think that if technology is simple, the people are simple-minded. The challenges of human life now or in the past are complementary and the technology that they used is just as complex in its own way as the technology we use.”

Continue reading about Living Archaeology Weekend at watch the video.

Wes Cowan of “Antiques Roadshow” Comes Home to Louisville

When the popular PBS show “Antiques Roadshow” came to film at Churchill Downs in the spring of 2018, it was something of a homecoming for longtime appraiser Wes Cowan. But there is an asterisk next to his status as a Kentuckian.

“Even though I claim I’m a Kentuckian, I was actually born in Flushing, New York,” Wes admits. “But I didn’t live there very long. I moved back to Union, Kentucky when I was three years old.”

Wes grew up in Louisville and spent summers visiting relatives in rural areas of Western Kentucky. He was raised by a single mother, Mary Wesley Cowan, along with his brother Fred and his sister Roberta. All three Cowan children grew up to have notable careers. Roberta earned a Ph.D. and has published several books. Fred served a term as Kentucky’s Attorney General. But despite an inauspicious early academic career – Wes remembers bringing home four Ds as final grades in ninth grade – Wes has been hugely successful in the world of antiques.

“I was walking over in Cherokee Park one morning, and this guy comes up the hill walking up the other side,” says Fred. “He says, ‘Aren’t you Fred Cowan?’ and I said, ‘Why yes I am, as a matter of fact,” thinking, oh this is good, they still remember me. And he said, ‘I just love your brother on TV!’”

Wes started Cowan’s Auction House in Cincinnati in 1995. He joined “Antiques Roadshow” in its second season after some episodes were shot in Cincinnati in 1997.

“When I heard that the Roadshow was going to be switching things up and not filming in convention centers and moving into outdoor venues, historic sites, my reaction was, boy this is great,” says Wes. “I think all the appraisers were excited about that. We of course were concerned about what happens if it rains; the weather’s always an issue. But I must say that the producers and the production staff of the Roadshow handled everything with such aplomb. They did a fantastic job, and everything went off without a hitch.”

Despite the early summer Kentucky heat, Churchill Downs proved to be an ideal filming location for the show.

“It’s hard to be at that historic place and, particularly as a Kentuckian, not be proud of it,” says Wes. “I’m a guy who hasn’t been to the Kentucky Derby for 25 years, at least, and but I watch it every first Saturday in May, and when ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ is played, I cry.”

Ulysses S. Grant’s Kentucky Connections Pt. 2

Ulysses S. Grant’s rise in the military during the Civil War wasn’t without its missteps. One of them happened early on in Kentucky.

“Grant was in Cairo, Illinois, when he learned that the Confederates had marched into Columbus, Kentucky, and taken Columbus on the Mississippi River,” says James A. Ramage, Regents Professor Emeritus. “Two days later, a report came that they’re marching on Paducah.”

“Kentucky was ostensibly neutral,” says historian Ronald C. White. “Grant quickly heads up the Ohio River and comes into Paducah just hours before the people expect the Confederates to arrive. Well, he sees the chagrined faces of the citizens of Paducah. He recognizes that they’re not exactly excited to see Union troops arrive.”

Grant sent a message to the Kentucky Speaker of the House of Representatives, informing him that the Confederates had violated Kentucky’s neutrality by moving into Columbus.

“Columbus, Kentucky, is defended by the Confederates,” says White. “He comes down through the night and he lands not on the east side of Mississippi but on the west side at Belmont, and he surprises the Confederate troops there. His men are overjoyed, and they begin to rejoice, not realizing that there’s another contingent of Confederates on the other side. The Confederates crossed the river and attack the Union soldiers who beat a hasty retreat back up the peninsula, towards the boat.”

It was an unfortunate learning experience for Grant, who admitted later that he shouldn’t have allowed himself to be surprised and he shouldn’t have let his troops rejoice prematurely. But his leadership prevailed soon after when his troops defeated Gen. Seymour Bolivar Buckner at the battle of Ft. Donelson.

“It was really the first time that the Union army had a victory at either the East or the West,” says historian Christopher Burns.

And while that victory earned him respect and admiration as a general, one of his biggest black marks came soon after in the form of General Orders No. 11.

“At the beginning of the Civil War, the Lincoln Administration puts a blockade on the Confederate states to prevent any smuggling of cotton into the northern states,” says NPS Park Ranger Nick Sacco. The goal of the blockade was to weaken the south economically. “Jesse Grant [Ulysses’ father] sees this as business opportunity.”

Jesse Grant set up an arrangement with the Mack brothers of Cincinnati, who he had done business with in the past. Essentially, he had the Mack brothers smuggle cotton from the south into the north. The elder Grant asked his son to turn a blind eye to the Mack brothers’ smuggling.

“General Grant is outraged,” says Sacco. “He believes in the full execution of the law. He is not going to give exceptions to anybody, including his own father. He is outraged that he sent the Mack brothers down to Kentucky to do this. Grant issues General Orders No. 11…an order expelling all Jews from his military lines in Kentucky.

“It would have been one thing to issue a general order demanding all smugglers to leave his military lines in to leave the south,” says Sacco. “But instead, Grant sort of conflates smugglers with Jews.”

Jews were rightfully outraged, and several people went from Paducah and Cincinnati to Washington to ask President Lincoln to rescind the order, which he did immediately.

Eventually, Grant did admit the error of his action.

“In 1868, shortly after he was elected president, there was a public letter in which Grant said that he did not pretend to sustain the order, and that it was a mistake of him to have issued it,” says Sacco. “He believed all people should be treated equally under the law.”

Grant went on to appoint what was then a record number of Jewish Americans to government positions during his presidency.

During the Civil War, Lincoln ultimately asked Grant to be in charge of all the Union Armies. At the same time, Congress passed a motion making Grant only the second-ever four-star general of the U.S. Army. The first was George Washington.

“Grant was highly honored to be promoted to that high of a rank,” says Ramage. “And he was deeply honored to be compared to Washington.”