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?