The French and Indian War in Middle Tennessee
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.
The Life and Death of Jonathan Jennings
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.