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.