Although most people would not connect Middle Tennessee with the French and Indian War, a small but brutal part of that long-ago conflict took place here in 1759. The British and the French were vying for control of eastern North America, and what transpired involved the Chickasaws, who were inveterate enemies of the French and loyal friends of the British, and the Shawnees, who were allied with the French. The origins of the event in question began to unfold long before England and France initiated their war in the mid-1750s.
The oral tradition of the Shawnee was that after moving west across the Alleghany Mountains, perhaps during the middle 1600s, some parts of the nation broke away and settled in a variety of different places. As early as 1670, or perhaps as late as 1690, one contingent settled at what would first become known as the French Lick, and ultimately as Nashville. They were soon attended by one or more French traders, who would receive pelts and hides in exchange for such goods as guns, ammunition, and articles of European clothing. But attacks by other Indian nations finally became too much to endure, and around 1710 the Shawnees decided to abandon their settlement. As they were traveling down what came to be called the Cumberland River, the Shawnees were attacked just upstream from the mouth of the Harpeth River, and a majority of them were killed.
Some twenty years later a sizable party of Shawnees traveled south and made war against the Chickasaws, whose homeland was in the vicinity of what became Tupelo, Mississippi. The Chickasaws drove them away, and the Shawnees moved to the southeast and settled among the Creek Indians in what would later be south-central Alabama. After a stay of about twenty years, at the height of the French and Indian War, this southern contingent of Shawnees moved back to the north, hoping to establish a new settlement. The Chickasaw alliance with Britain in that region was facilitated by an English official named John Brown. Beyond overseeing the trading relationship with the Chickasaws, Brown was actively
involved in their military affairs, and in large part would direct the attempt to intercept the party of Shawnees that was migrating north from the Creek nation.
Along with a few pack-horsemen and 140 Chickasaw warriors, Brown set out on February 4, 1759, in search of the Shawnees. They had crossed the Cherokee River — later to be named the Tennessee — close to where Huntsville, Alabama, would stand, and then made their way up into the region of the Duck and Cumberland Rivers. The Chickasaw war party was out searching for the Shawnees for nineteen days before frigid weather compelled all but John Brown and three warriors to return to the Chickasaw settlements. They soon discovered the tracks of the Shawnees, and on March 8 some 200 warriors began their trek to attack their enemies. They almost certainly traveled north by northeast along the old Chickasaw Trace, ultimately moving up Lick Creek, through what is now Hickman and Williamson Counties. But the place where they attacked the Shawnees remains a mystery.
In the late afternoon of April 4, they located the Shawnee encampment, and although John Brown pressed for an immediate attack, the Chickasaw leaders chose to wait until the following morning. During the night the Shawnees discovered their enemies, and they quickly built a makeshift fort out of logs and brush. The number of Shawnees was estimated as 270 men, women, and children. They were attacked the next morning, and the sounds of suffering were heard from inside the fortification. There was no attempt to rescue a Shawnee woman who was taken captive and burned at the stake within view of the fort. The Chickasaws continued to pour gunfire into the embattled position until noon, when their ammunition was all but expended. By the time the Chickasaw attack finally came to an end, the sounds from the surrounded Shawnees had greatly diminished. The Chickasaws, who had two warriors killed and six seriously wounded, took 240 horses from the Shawnees and returned to their home territory. There was no estimate of Shawnee casualties,
but it was thought that only a minority had survived.
Due largely to the direction of John Brown, a considerable number of French allies had been killed, and the Chickasaws, who would continue to serve British interests in southern North America, had become stronger. When the war officially ended in 1763, England assumed official control of a vast territory, including much of what would become both the United States and Canada. The war had put an enormous strain on the British treasury, and a chief cause of the Revolutionary War was the imposition of unpopular taxes such as the Stamp Act, by which England hoped to recoup some of its diminished wealth. When the revolution broke out, the Chickasaws remained as fierce allies of the British.
There was English involvement in attacks the Chickasaws made on the Cumberland settlements in 1780 and 1781, but that changed in 1783, the year before Nashville was officially established. Chickasaw emissaries attended a peace treaty at French Lick, and became the staunch allies of those who had settled on the southwestern frontier of America. The Chickasaw alliance was crucial to the survival of the Cumberland settlements, and in 1795, at the close of the Indian wars, the citizens living along the Cumberland were called on to help the Chickasaws, who were at war with the Creeks. The Chickasaws were greatly outnumbered in that conflict, and a substantial force of settlers went to the aid of their old allies. The Chickasaws were able to defend their homeland, and during the War of 1812 they continued to serve American military objectives. But the Chickasaws ultimately shared the fate of the Cherokees and other native people when, under pressure from President Andrew Jackson, they were forced to relocate west of the Mississippi River.
The reason there is so much specific information about the attack by the Chickasaw on the migrating party of Shawnees is that John Brown described what happened in a letter, and his letter was published in an eastern newspaper a few weeks after the event took place. Brown’s letter did not mention the specific area of the fight, but the information that it occurred in the vicinity of the Cumberland River was conveyed to James Robertson by Chickasaw leaders in 1805, and that information was preserved among Robertson’s papers. Additional details concerning the Shawnees were provided by French archival information. And so somewhere in Middle Tennessee, perhaps in a backyard, in a park, or on a farm, is the site of a massacre that took place over 250 years ago.
From time to time history provides experiences of considerable resonance. For me those experiences began with finding my first arrowhead, and later they included going into the library of an old house in Bellevue and discovering that it was basically a time capsule — its shelves filled with the books that were still where their owner had placed them prior to his death in 1848, and its bureau drawers still containing his personal papers. In 2009 I participated in the exhumation of Charles Dickinson, who had been killed by Andrew Jackson in a duel in 1806. I had done research on him over the years, but I had never expected to hold what was left of him in my hands, or to have some of his decomposed remains underneath my fingernails.
In 2010 I stood in the bedroom where the heroic Charlotte Robertson died in 1843, 63 years after her arrival on the Cumberland frontier. I think the resonance of those experiences is amplified when what was abstract becomes tangible. Having heard that Indians once lived where my neighborhood was ultimately built was an abstract notion. Finding an arrowhead that had been lying in the same place for a thousand years was concrete. Knowing the name of a plantation owner and the general details of his life was an abstraction. Opening a drawer and finding his belongings, none of them less than 150 years old, was tangible. And it was the same regarding the remains of Charles Dickinson, or standing in the room where Mrs. Robertson lived out the last of her long life.
In 2001, Deborah Oeser Cox, who worked at the Metropolitan Archives of Nashville and Davidson County, uncovered a single sheet of paper that conveys a similar measure of resonance. Still locked away in a safe at the archives is the will of Jonathan Jennings—written over 230 summers ago. Jonathan Jennings was born in Virginia, and nearly two decades after serving in the French and Indian War, he left Fincastle County, crossed the mountains into Kentucky, and made his way to Boonesborough to claim a tract of wilderness land. Returning home just prior to the commencement of the Revolutionary War, Jennings resumed his military activity when he marched against the Cherokee nation as part of a large American force. He served for at least another year, but by the end of 1779, when he was likely past the age of 50, he was preparing to embark with John Donelson on the epic voyage down the Tennessee River and up the Cumberland to the future site of Nashville.
The river journey commenced on December 22, 1779, but after floating for a relatively short distance, a great freeze set in and the party camped for two months before finally getting underway. On March 8, near the eventual site of downtown Chattanooga, the Donelson party was attacked while it drifted past a town of the Chickamauga Cherokee. The Jennings boat apparently came through unscathed, but further downstream, where a narrowing of the river caused several miles of treacherous rapids, Jennings pulled his boat to shore to help recover the belongings of a fellow traveler whose canoe had overturned. An Indian force arrived and the Jennings boat, which had run aground, came under fire. Those on board included Jennings’ wife, his children and a one-day-old infant. Although Jennings’ son, along with a slave and another young man, abandoned the boat, Jonathan Jennings fired back.
With the battle underway and with the younger men gone, there was no one to push the craft back out into the current, so Mrs. Jennings and a slave woman began throwing articles overboard in order to lighten the boat. They finally started moving downstream, but soon discovered that along with the various items that had been jettisoned, the newborn had accidentally been thrown into the river and drowned. The other boats were further downstream, and it was assumed that the Jennings boat was lost. Of the young men who had left Jennings, the slave drowned and the unnamed young man was captured and killed. Young Jennings was also captured, and although he was scalped, before he could be killed he was purchased by a trader and eventually returned to his family. Two days after being attacked from the shore, the Jennings boat finally caught up with the rest of the Donelson party, and it was another six weeks – weeks that were filled with hunger and fatigue – before they reached their destination in the early spring.
There were a growing number of Indian attacks in the first months of settlement, and by the summer of 1780 the number of those being killed continued to accelerate. Not long after the return of his injured son, Jonathan Jennings, hunting in what became East Nashville, was shot, presumably by Delaware Indians. He was taken in a canoe to the French Lick Station, and survived long enough to direct what should be done with his possessions. An undated will was written by Zachariah White who, along with James Robertson and William Fletcher, witnessed the will — the first that would be filed after Davidson County was established in 1783. Before he died Jennings was able to perform what was almost certainly the final act of his life— the signing of his will.
That is the story behind the will of Jonathan Jennings, but there may be something more on that single page than the signature of Jennings or the words penned by Zachariah White, who would himself be killed less than a year later in what became known as the Battle of the Bluff. If some test could be conducted that would not damage the document, it might be possible to determine whether the substance that is clearly visible on the will is what it appears to be — blood. Could the blood of Jonathan Jennings be the substance that has stained his will? Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t, but in either case this document takes a long-ago life and transforms it into something much less abstract.
Every day, countless vehicles move along Eighth Avenue North, past an appealing development of urban housing known as The Lofts at Werthan Mills. Many Nashvillians recall when the massive but architecturally-engaging complex of brick buildings was home to Werthan Bag, an iconic locally-owned company that occupied the site from 1928 until 1995. The company produced cotton bags that had a wide array of uses—from decorated flour bags to the sandbags that protected
American soldiers in every war from World War II to Viet Nam. The enormous structures into which Werthan Bag moved just prior to the Great Depression had been built soon after the Civil War to house the Tennessee Manufacturing Company, which became one of the south’s most extensive cotton factories.
The oldest of the buildings now being used for residential lofts was completed around 1871, but on the south side of the property, near Taylor Street, is the opening to a pungent well that connects the site to a much earlier part of Nashville’s history. A number of feet below a metal cover is the source of one of the several sulphur springs that comprised what was known as the French Lick, where herds of buffalo, elk, and deer once congregated to lick the salt that remained after the sulphur-rich water that flowed onto the surface had evaporated. Long before the Tennessee Manufacturing Company was built around and over the spring, the property was the site of a frontier fort called Freeland’s Station.
When James Robertson made his first journey to the eventual site of Nashville in March, 1779, the ten individuals who accompanied him included two brothers, George and James Freeland. Robertson’s group was soon joined by other frontiersmen, and by the end of April as many as 25 men had gathered at the French Lick. After a substantial crop of corn had been planted, George Freeland and most of the others returned east, or to Kentucky, with the intention of bringing their families back in the fall. The Freelands were one of the families that reached the Cumberland by the end of 1779. After staying for a time at Mansker’s Station, George, James, and Jacob Freeland, along with Edward Swanson, members of the Dunham and Catron families, and a number of others, crossed the frozen river near the place where the Tennessee Manufacturing Company would be built some 90 years later, and built Freeland’s Station in the early months of 1780.
The first several weeks were peaceful, but in early April Joseph Hay, who had gone up the nearby French Lick Branch looking for some strayed livestock, was killed and mutilated by Indians. On April 24, when the party led by John Donelson arrived at the French Lick after completing their grueling thousand-mile river journey, Freeland’s Station was apparently the principle local settlement. A few families were living in log houses on the bluff about a mile-and-a-quarter to the southeast, but James Robertson, a crucial leader of the Cumberland settlements, was not living at the bluff. Robertson was a resident of Freeland’s Station.
It was probably Richard Henderson, who had purchased a vast tract of land that was thought to include the settlements, who decided that the bluff, which he wanted to be known as Nashborough, would be the focal point of the area. When Henderson authored the Cumberland Compact, an agreement between the settlers that was intended to govern their legal relationships, “Nashborough” was allotted three “conscientious and (deserving) persons from or out of the different stations…to do equal and impartial justice between all contending parties.” But Freeland’s was only entitled to elect one such individual. Although “Nashborough”—which was called the Bluff Station or French Lick Station by local settlers—was in the process of becoming the hub of local settlement, the continuing importance of Freeland’s Station was evidenced by the number of Indian attacks sustained by its inhabitants.
At the time the Cumberland Compact was being signed, a party of Delaware Indians killed Edward Larimore less than a mile from the fort, cut off his head, and killed two others soon afterward. And in the weeks that followed, after William Renfroe had been butchered nearby, both William Hood and Timothy Terrill were also killed. While the danger was increasing beyond the walls of Freeland’s Station, its occupants were doing what they could to adapt to life on the frontier. As lives were being lost, James Robertson’s wife, Charlotte, had become pregnant, and John Eldergill had established a school inside the station. At the beginning of 1781, less than a year after the building of Freeland’s Station, the future appeared far darker than it had at the start of the previous year.
Of the eight stations named in the Cumberland Compact, only four were still occupied, and one of those — Mansker’s —seemed on the verge of abandonment. Freeland’s seemed relatively secure, but early in the year 12-year-old Polly Dunham was partially scalped, and then David Hood was shot, scalped twice, and left for dead. James Robertson, who had developed rudimentary surgical skills, treated Hood’s devastating injury by boring through his skull with an awl, and making a substantial number of small holes. Then, on the night of January 15, 1781, soon after the attack on Hood, Freeland’s Station was entered by a force of Chickasaw Indians. There were eleven men in the fort to mount a defense, and by the time the fighting came to an end, two of them, a Robertson slave named Cornelius and Robert Lucas, were dead, a considerable amount of livestock had been killed, and a large supply of corn and fodder had been burned.
The decision was made to abandon Freeland’s, and the next day its inhabitants withdrew to the Bluff Station, which was still unfinished, but which could be more effectively defended. Mansker’s was soon abandoned as well, and in early April, when the Battle of the Bluff was fought, the Bluff Station was nearly overwhelmed. For several months afterward only two stations remained on the Cumberland, the Bluff Station and Heaton’s Station, about two miles downriver. Although many if not most of the surviving settlers had already fled to Kentucky or returned to the east by the time of the battle, Robertson and a number of others decided to stay. There was a period of hunger, but the attacks diminished, and by the next year Robertson and a number of other settlers had returned to Freeland’s Station.
In the late summer of 1782 Jacob Freeland was killed by a party of unidentified Indians while hunting on Stones River. Around the same time a contingent of Chickasaws came to Freeland’s Station, which they had attacked the year before, seeking peace with the Cumberland settlers. A council was held with Robertson and others, and then a second council took place at the Bluff Station a few days later. It was understood that following their defeat in the Revolutionary
War, the British, long-time allies of the Chickasaws, were withdrawing from the region, and the Chickasaws had been forced to create an alliance with both the Cumberland settlements and with the settlements in Kentucky. It was an alliance that would become crucial to the survival of the struggling colony on the Cumberland.
It was proposed that a formal treaty should be held the following year, but there were opposing opinions about whether the treaty should be held locally. A large delegation of Indians was expected to attend, and it was customary that native visitors should be provided with gifts. But gifts might not be available, and there was a fear of what might happen if a large number of Indians came to the treaty and were then disappointed. A vote was held, and although all 32 votes cast at Freeland’s opposed a locally-held treaty, favorable votes cast by a narrow majority of voters at “Nashborough” and by a vast majority of those at “Heatonsburg” (Heaton’s Station) determined that the treaty would be held. The Bluff Station was selected as the site.
John Donelson was one of the commissioners appointed to preside at the treaty, which was successfully conducted in early November of 1783. There was a lull in the killing in 1784, and many of those who had been living in forts, including James Robertson and his family, moved onto land they had claimed. Robertson settled on his large land grant on Richland Creek, and it appears that the station became uninhabited soon after Robertson’s departure. But the memory of the area around Freeland’s Station was still fresh enough in 1840 to inspire the curiosity of a group of Nashville schoolboys.
In 1902 one of those schoolboys, R.M. Vannoy, wrote about his boyhood attempt to satisfy that curiosity: “A lesson at Mr. Hume’s school relating to the first settlement…had created a desire among the boys of the class to know something of the early history of Nashville…It seemed that the Lower Landing, where Lick Branch empties into the river, was the first site of the pioneer settlers…We soon passed the Great Sulphur Lick, and in due time reached the lower landing. There was a salt well north of the landing, and having satisfied ourselves with that historical place…we soon came to three or four log houses without windows — two stories high and strongly built…I supposed these must have been the abode of the early settlers. We came to a graveyard, then a two-story log house, the strongest built house we had seen.” Could Mr. Vannoy have been describing the remains of Freeland’s Station?
In his History of Middle Tennessee the noted historian A.W. Putman wrote (p. 86) that “Fort Union” was “at the bend of the river, above the bluffs, about six miles distant (from Nashville); here was once the town of Haysborough.” Putnam
had a particular interest in Fort Union. In 1846 he had discovered, in an old trunk, the document that would become known as the Cumberland Compact. The Compact was written in 1780, and it referred to seven settlements that were in existence on the Cumberland the month after the Donelson Party arrived by river. Along with “Nashborough,” “Gasper’s” (Mansker’s Station), “Bledsoe’s,” “Asher’s,” “Freeland’s” and “Eaton’s,” the Compact also mentioned “Fort Union.” Apparently Putnam did what research he could, and reported the location of Fort Union. But the fort was not upstream and “about six miles distant.” It was many miles downstream in what became Montgomery County, and was a considerable distance up the Red River.
The Red River location for Fort Union is established by land records (Tennessee State Library and Archives, microfilm group 1177, Tennessee County, file #232) relating to a grant that was issued to James Renfroe. The records describe a tract “of six hundred and forty acres of land lying on both sides of Red River, beginning…on the south side of said river, about a half a mile below Fort Union, commonly called Red River Station…” Fort Union had a short but dramatic history, and its circumstances should be accurately understood. It was settled by a group that had branched off from the Donelson Party at the mouth of the Red River. That group, largely composed of members of the Renfroe, Turpin, Jones, Miller, and Johns families, had traveled some nine miles up the Red River, and settled across from the mouth of what ultimately became known as Passenger Creek. But after less than two months, the settlement would be abandoned. Following the killing of two men, help had been solicited and several families had been evacuated, and the remaining settlers were escorted toward the small cluster of stations that had been built where Nashville would eventually stand.
In mid-June, 1780, southeast of the present location of Coopertown, the fleeing party was attacked by a force of Chickasaw Indians, and some 15 individuals were killed in an assault that was associated with the Revolutionary War. Although no British soldiers were known to have been directly involved, the British are almost certain to have at least encouraged the attack. The Chickasaws were long-time allies of the British, and were retaliating against the Americans as a result of General George Rogers Clark having built Fort Jefferson near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, on Chickasaw land.
In his 1858 work History of Middle Tennessee (p. 86) historian A.W. Putnam wrote “the fort at Nashborough was erected upon the bluff, between the south-east corner of the Square and Spring (now Church) Street, so as to include a bold spring which then issued from that point.” Putnam’s location for the fort that grew into downtown Nashville is a bit general, and there are sources that point to precisely where the fort stood. Andrew Castleman, who lived in the Bluff Station, was interviewed by frontier scholar Lyman Draper in 1844, and he provided highly-detailed information about its location and appearance. A map (in the Draper Papers, 6XX:80) drawn from Castleman’s information shows that the fort was just south of the spring to which Putnam referred. A second map was drawn by Draper from information provided by frontier settler, Robert Weakley (Draper Papers 1S:59).
But a more helpful map (in the manuscript division of the Tennessee State Library and Archives) was drawn from the recollections of a third early resident. It was entitled “Nashville in 1804” and was produced from information that came from “Mrs.Temple – daughter of Duncan Robertson.” Mrs. Temple’s map shows a structure labeled “White Hall” just south of “present Church Street,” and Putnam’s spring is also shown just to the north. In smaller print, White Hall is identified as the “former Fort.” In 1874 A.W. Johnson, another resident of old Nashville, wrote (TSLA, Bransford Family Papers) that “in 1802 or 1803, the walls of the first fort built in Nashville were standing at the mouth of Church Street,” substantiating both the location of the fort and the accuracy of Mrs. Temple’s recollection. The remains of the Bluff Station must have soon disappeared. The specific details of its demise seem lost, but what of the spring that caused the fort to be built where it was? In her Early History of Nashville (p. 63) Lizzie Elliott recalled what she had once been told by Morton B. Howell. He had reported that “during the war the Federals were blasting at the end of Church Street, near the top of the bluff. After one blast, the negroes at work noticed that the water of the spring had stopped flowing. It never came any more.”
Preliminary work on what is being called the Riverfront Park Redevelopment Project is underway, and if that project intends to include an historical component, perhaps a more accurately placed or at least a more accurately configured replica of the French Lick Fort, can be part of that redevelopment. There are a number of excellent sources that describe the appearance of the fort, including descriptions by Edward Swanson (TSLA, manuscript division, John Haywood Papers, folder 6), Hugh F. Bell (Draper Papers, 30S:252-3), and Lavinia Robertson Craighead (Draper Papers, 6XX:50), as well as A.W. Putnam’s description (p. 81, 84, and 86). As for where the original fort stood in relation to the present replica, the Bluff or French Lick Station stood slightly to the north of the replica.
Metro Channel 3 was kind enough to record this talk on video, and it’s now available for viewing on YouTube.
FACT or FICTION? Daniel Boone once came to the place where Nashville would eventually stand. There has been a long standing curiosity about whether Daniel Boone ever visited French Lick, the future site of Nashville. Boone, who was perhaps America’s premier frontier figure, was a prolific hunter who roamed far and wide. It would seem odd if he had never come to kill the buffalo, elk, and deer which crowded into the flat open ground in what became north Nashville. He certainly visited the Watauga settlement, where he was said to have been well-acquainted with Nashville’s founder, James Robertson. But when Boone’s son, Nathan, was questioned by historian Lyman Draper, the younger Boone said that he did not recall hearing his father mention having ever come to French Lick (My Father, Daniel Boone, p. 45).
While that lack of mention suggests that Boone might not have come so far down the Cumberland, there is another source which gives a more definitive answer. John G. Stoner was the grandson of the noted frontiersman, Michael Stoner, and he provided key information to Draper about his grandfather, and about Daniel Boone. Michael Stoner was mentioned in numerous historical accounts, often in connection with Boone. He was with Boone in 1773 when an initial attempt to settle Kentucky was thwarted by a Shawnee attack in which Boone’s son, James, was killed. In an 1853 letter (Draper Manuscripts, 24C-53) John G. Stoner described a hunt in which Boone and Stoner ended up together. A number of their hunting party had been killed, “and they all turned back with the exceptian of Boon and my granfarther, Michael Stoner.
“They continued to dive deeper into the wilds of the Kentucky wilderness until they found a country that abounded with all kinds of game—the place where Crab Orchart [Crab Orchard, Ky.] now stands… my granfather had a single combat with an Indian there…they clinched, Stoner’s strength proved superior, and the combat ended tragically.” Later, after separating from Boone and setting off by himself down the Cumberland, after killing a bear and being attacked by Indians, and after being pursued for two days, Michael Stoner “finaly succeaded and on the third morning he again struck fire for the purpose of preparing food which he so mutch neaded. It was in a hollow near Nashville whare he made his breakfast… He discovered in the bottom a streak of blue smoke hardly perceivable, and with all the care of an experienced woodsman he approached close anuff to see who it was. To his joy he dicoverd Boon engaged in the same occupation he had just finished. To test Boon’s vigilance he sliped upon him and had his hand upon his [Boone’s] shoulder before he was aware of his presence. But as quick as thought Boon’s rifhl [rifle] was at his brest, and would have fiared if he had not have recognized his friend. My uncle says that they went back to [Virginia] and returned again together and then setteled Boonsbourogh.”
So Daniel Boone did, in fact, visit the place where Nashville would later stand, and although it remains unclear when that visit took place, it seems most likely to have been in the early to middle 1770s, prior to the founding of Boonesborough in 1775.
—This article originally appeared in The Nashville Retrospect.
FACT or FICTION? A large party of emigrants made a journey of several hundred miles together by land, crossed the frozen Cumberland River on Christmas Day, 1779, and settled at what would become Nashville.
This story, mentioned in a variety of histories, started to become part of early Nashville lore 150 years ago. The Christmas Day crossing on the ice was hinted at by historian A.W. Putnam in his 1858 History of Middle Tennessee (p. 66). He wrote that “they reached the river in December, 1779, and between the middle of that month and the 1st (of) January crossed the river to where Nashville is now situated.” Putnam also related that “it is believed that the first day they (the settlers) passed at the Lick was Christmas day, 1779.”
Putnam does not guess at the initial size of the Robertson party, but explains that they were joined by other groups along the way. Referring to the total number of settlers, Putnam wrote that “when they were all assembled upon the Cumberland, there were more than two hundred.” So Putnam didn’t say that some 200 settlers made the long journey through the wilderness together, and he didn’t say they came across the ice-covered Cumberland on Christmas, or on Christmas Eve. As to where they had crossed, he wrote that it was to “where Nashville is now situated,” but did he mean where downtown Nashville was located in 1858, or was he designating a more general area? Maybe we don’t know as much as we thought we knew about the Robertson party, and its arrival in what became Nashville. Can we get any more clarity than Putnam managed to achieve when he tackled the subject—less than 80 years after the event he was trying to describe took place?
What would James Robertson have had to say? Although he did not write about the journey he had led, or about the first days of settlement, Robertson, along with his wife, Charlotte, conveyed much of what they knew to their son, Dr. Felix Robertson. Felix became the family historian, and recorded an impressive amount of what he had learned from his parents, and from others, about the early frontier. In one account (Draper Papers, 6XX-50) Felix Robertson disclosed that there were only “some twelve or fifteen in the party” that had been led by his father. That modest group had grown somewhat larger—others had joined them on their way to their destination—but neither he nor any other early source held that there were ever as many as 200 individuals in the Robertson party.
Dr. Robertson also provides information about when the ice was crossed. In the same account (6XX-50) he wrote that “they arrived at where Nashville now stands in December and found the Cumberland River frozen over.” In that account he made no mention of when a crossing took place, but in a separate account (Draper Papers, 31S-35) he gave details about both when and where the river was crossed. He wrote that his father “drove his horses and cattle on the ice over Cumberland River at the mouth of the Lick Branch, towards the last of February, when a thaw had just commenced… .” That doesn’t establish that the party itself didn’t come across the ice earlier, but if the party had come across on Christmas, it seems that would have been mentioned. What he wrote does establish that they crossed the ice considerably downstream from the bluff, and from the fort which is so often reputed to be the main site of the initial settlement. Why would Robertson and his party have crossed all the way down at Lick Branch? His son disclosed the answer in one of his accounts (6XX-50) when he wrote that “they commenced building at the place where David McGavock lived and which was afterwards called Freling’s (Freeland’s) Station”—later the site of Werthan Bag on Eighth Avenue North. For the first year of settlement James Robertson lived at Freeland’s Station, not at the Bluff.
As was the case with A.W. Putnam, the question of whether there was a Christmas, or a Christmas Eve, crossing wasn’t definitively answered by Felix Robertson. Could the answer come from another source? Judge John Haywood, who got much of his information from frontiersman John Rains, who was one of those who actually came across the ice, wrote nothing of a Christmas crossing in his 1823 work, The Civil and Political History of Tennessee, and early settlers such as Edward Swanson didn’t mention it either. That lack of mention might cast some doubt on a Christmas crossing, but is there something more to suggest what did, or did not, take place?
In the end the question seems to be resolved by Daniel Smith, who was camped beside the Cumberland River early in 1780. Smith kept a detailed journal as he was establishing the boundary that would separate Virginia and North Carolina—now the border between Kentucky and Tennessee. Smith, who would become a highly noted leader on the frontier, recorded that upstream (near what is today Somerset, Ky.), the river did not freeze over until Jan. 6, 1780, and it remained frozen there until Feb. 13 (Daniel Smith Frontier Statesman, by Walter Durham, p. 287-8). It seems extremely unlikely that at the future site of Nashville, the Cumberland could have been frozen solidly enough for crossing some two weeks before it froze to the north where Daniel Smith had camped. For that reason it appears that there could’ve been no Christmas crossing of theCumberland River.
But there is a Christmas connection with the first settlers. A sizeable party led by Amos Heaton had arrived on White’s Creek, on the north side of the river, and spent Christmas there in the large encampment they had made, not too far from the Cumberland.
—This article originally appeared in The Nashville Retrospect. Republished here by permission.
FACT or FICTION? Colonel John Donelson, who led the well-known river migration that reached “ye French Salt Springs” (soon to be called Nashville) in 1780, kept a journal throughout that momentous voyage.
What is labeled as “The Original” Donelson Journal has been preserved in the Tennessee Historical Society collection at the State Library and Archives for well over 150 years, and has appeared in countless histories. But are these the pages on which Colonel Donelson wrote the details of the epic river journey as it unfolded?
Before you give your “final answer” on the question of its authenticity, youmight want to reread the journal, particularly the entry for the 8th of March.Notice the conversational tone with which several dire events are described,and notice the changes between past and present tense. If that isn’t enough to raise some doubt concerning thejournal, there’s the matter of handwriting. Also available at the Tennessee State Library and Archives (the Draper Papers, 1XX12 and 9DD34) are two letters by Colonel Donelson. The script is clearly different from what is contained in the journal, so the Colonel did not write the version of the journal kept at the archives. So could it be a copy? If it is a copy, where is the original? The plot thickens.
Also in the Historical Society collection is a microfilm copy of what is called “John Donelson’s Surveyor’s Fee Book,” which includes, in Colonel Donelson’s handwriting, ten entries which were actually made while the river journey was underway. The fee book also contains the handwriting of Colonel Donelson’s son, John Donelson Jr., as he completed one of his father’s entries. So could the journal have been kept by the Colonel and his son as they continued their voyage? Clearly not.The entry refers to General (James) Robertson, who did not become a general until 1791. So there is strong circumstantial evidence that the Donelson Journal was written a number of years after the events it describes took place.A reasonable guess is that what is covered from March 8th forward was written in the early 1820s by John Donelson Jr., in connection with the state’s first comprehensive history, John Haywood’s Civil and Political History of Tennessee.
But if you still think that the old Colonel might have penned the journal,despite indications to the contrary,there is a smoking gun. Also at the archives, in the Draper Papers (5J, 3), is a letter from Stockley Donelson, son of John Donelson Jr. In 1884 he wrote:
“There is an old ledger in my possession. The ledger contains…the old Journal by Col. John Donelson. Colonel D. carried the Journal to the place where Ephraim Peyton’s wife was delivered of a child. The balance of the Journal was kept by John Donelson, Jr. who had a copy of the whole made which is deposited in the Historical Society at Nashville.”
So it appears that the Colonel stopped writing in the journal on March 8, 1780, and that the rest of the information was added, perhaps 40 years later, by his son. But those circumstances do not diminish the historical value of the journal—they might enhance it.Being largely composed well after the voyage took place, the journal probably contains much more detail than if it had been written on the river. John Donelson Jr. was an eyewitness to what took place, as was his wife, Mary, who almost certainly contributed her recollections to what was ultimately written.
Paul Clements is author of A Past Remembered and the forthcoming book, Chronicles of The Cumberland Settlements. For more information on the above topic see his article “Tennessee Notes” in the Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Winter 2005 (Volume LXIV, number 4) .
FACT or FICTION? The frontier settlers who inhabited what would become known as Nashville originally called their settlement “Nashborough.”
In early records such as the Cumberland Compact, as well as in a number of early land records, there are numerous references to “Nashborough.” Richard Henderson had chosen the name in honor of Francis Nash, who had been killed in the Revolution (for information on his role, see the Tennessee Historical Magazine, 1916, Volume 2, number 3, page 173). It appears that Henderson was also the driving force in promoting the use of the name. Public figures such as Andrew Ewing, Samuel Barton, and David Shelby, all closely connected to Henderson, made numerous references to Nashborough in the official records under their control. It is those records, along with the Cumberland Compact, that have led to the notion that the name was widely used by the inhabitants of the settlement.
But beyond the records there seems to be no evidence that the name was used by the citizenry. Some early inhabitants eventually wrote about their frontier experiences, while others narrated their accounts to interviewers such as Lyman Draper. Not one of the individuals whose recollections were preserved appears to have referred to “Nashborough.” In her excellent work, Seedtime on the Cumberland (p. 307, note), premier historian Harriette Simpson Arnow noticed that Henderson’s preferred name for the settlement went unmentioned. She wrote, “My own feeling is that Nashborough was the more formal name of French Lick Station; Draper correspondents spoke of French Lick but not Nashborough.”
The name Nashborough, with its British-related “borough,” may have been unpopular with the populace because of animosity toward England during those last years of the Revolutionary War. Or it may have been that “the Bluff” and “French Lick Station,” which are mentioned again and again by former residents, were the names of choice because they were more descriptive of the place.
There is an especially telling contemporary source that should answer any lingering question about what the settlement was called. The legislative act that established Nashville does not refer to Nashborough at all. That 1784 act instructed that: “two hundred acres of land, situate on the south side of Cumberland River at a place called the Bluff, adjacent to the French Lick… be laid off in lots of one acre each…and shall be called and known by the name of Nash-ville, in memory of the patriotic and brave General Nash.”
So General Nash was ultimately honored, and France, which had played such a crucial role as an American ally in the Revolution, also received a bit of acknowledgement when the “borough” was replaced by the French-related “ville.” That time the name stuck.
—This article originally appeared in The Nashville Retrospect. Republished here by permission.
A few years ago the discovery of a portrait, purported to be of Nashville’s founder, James Robertson, was brought to the attention of the public. Since that time it has appeared in at least one newspaper article, it has been published in an historical journal and identified as Robertson, and it has been discussed as possibly being Robertson on the Internet. There seem to be circumstantial indications that it might be Robertson, but could it really be a likeness of the eminent pioneer figure?
There is one portrait known to be of Robertson, and it has appeared in numerous histories. Local historian Octavia Zollicoffer Bond reported having been told the story of how the longrecognized likeness of Robertson came to be painted (Harllee, Colonel William Curry. Kinfolks, Volume 3, p. 2537-8). Robertson’s great-granddaughter, Nellie Robertson Cannon, had related that “when the locally noted artist, Cooper, was painting the portrait of the widow, Mrs. Charlotte (Reeves) Robertson, it was the wish of the family and of the public that a portrait of her distinguished husband might be painted. There was no likeness of him in existence then.”
Since the recently-emerged likeness seemed to be of a much younger individual, Nellie Cannon’s information casts a good bit of doubt on there being an earlier likeness. If what appears to be a general lack of resemblance between the countenances in the two portraits isn’t convincing enough, an additional source adds even more doubt.
A letter written in 1839 to historian Lyman Draper (Draper Papers, 8CC,25) by James Robertson’s son, Dr. Felix Robertson, should put the matter to rest. Dr. Robertson wrote that, “No portrait or likeness of my father was taken in his lifetime.” He also named the artist who had painted the portrait of his father. “Some four years ago I prevailed on the late Mr. (John C.) Grimes, a portrait painter, to attempt making a likeness of him from my directions, and…what he could obtain from sketching the features of our family, where a feature was found to resemble my father.He succeeded beyond my expectations, and produced a portrait which was instantly recognized by my father’s old acquaintances… It is not a perfect likeness, but better than many I have seen taken from…life by artists of reputation. My father had been dead upwards of twenty years when this portrait was painted.”
James Robertson’s widow, Charlotte,in her late eighties when the portrait was painted, was even more complimentary than her son. Nellie Cannon related the response of her great-grandmother. “When she was shown the resultant completed portrait, her usual calm gave way to tears of delight at seeing what she pronounced to be a perfect likeness of her deceased husband.”
So who is the man in other painting? “It is his grandson, James Robertson Napier,” says James A. Hoobler, curator of the State Museum where both paintings reside. “This mistake goes back to the donors in the 1970s who told the Tennessee State Museum that they were donating portraits of a young James and Charlotte Robertson. When I came here, I looked at them, and the clothing and style of the portrait told me otherwise. I thought the chair and clothing in the new Charlotte Robertson portrait looked like about 1820. The only known portrait of Charlotte shows her a little over a decade later, toothless,wizened, and white haired. Quite a change from the lovely mid-life lady in the new portrait. So, I looked at an inventory of Ralph E. W. Earl portraits, because I thought the paintings resembled his work. There in the inventory were Charlotte Robertson Napier and her son, James Robertson Napier, dating from when I thought they should.”
—by Paul Clements, republished here by permission of The Nashville Retrospect