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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an item in the
Tennessee Historical Magazine

published by the
Tennessee Historical Society

The text is in the public domain.

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Vol. V
Colonel John Montgomery.

John Montgomery, founder of Clarksville and eponymist of Montgomery County, Tennessee, was a native of Southwest Virginia. An officer in the militia of Augusta County, he took part in the Sandy River expedition against the Indians, under the command of Maj. Andrew Lewis, in 1756.​1 He was a justice of the peace of Botetourt County from its organization in 1770​2 until it was divided in 1772,​3 when he became a justice of Fincastle County, which office he continued to hold under the State constitution of 1776.​4 He was also a member of the Revolutionary Committee of Safety of Fincastle County.5

Being brave, restless, and adventurous, like most of our earlier pioneers, in 1771​6 he explored the Cumberland Valley, in company with Mansker, Drake, Bledsoe and others, distinguished in the annals of its settlement. But events in the course of the Revolutionary War changed, for the time, the current of his activities.

In 1777 George Rogers Clark conceived his bold scheme for the conquest of the Northwest, and immediately repaired in Williamsburg to lay his plans before Gov. Patrick Henry.​a Gov. Henry at once recognized the immense possibilities of such an enterprise. He conferred the rank of Colonel upon Clark, and gave his authority and unqualified support to his Northwestern campaign. But the success of his operations required absolute secrecy; and the exigencies of the war on the seaboard forbade the withdrawal of troops from that quarter. He, therefore, authorized Col. Clark to enlist seven companies, each of fifty men, to be raised from the frontier counties west of the Blue Ridge, without disclosing to them the true object of his campaign.

When the call reached the frontiers of Holston Capt. Montgomery enlisted a company of volunteers, and was ordered to the Falls of the Ohio, for the defense of Kentucky. He moved with such promptness that his company was the first to reach the place of rendezvous, where he waited until May 27, 1778, when Col. Clark arrived with his Kentucky troops.​7 Here,  p146 for the first time, Capt. Montgomery's men learned that they were intended for service in the Illinois; they were surprised and disappointed, and many of them deserted, but with those who remained he embarked with Col. Clark, June 24, 1778.

The first phase of the expedition was a complete success — Kaskaskia was taken without firing a gun, Cahokia and Vincennes submitted and took the oath of allegiance to America, and Fort Jefferson, south of the Ohio in the Chickasaw country, was erected and garrisoned. After remaining in the country until circumstances seemed to permit his absence, Capt. Montgomery returned home with his volunteers, being instructed to wait upon the Governor as soon as possible with letters and verbal messages which Col. Clark had entrusted to him.8

Having reached the seat of government and communicated with the Governor, Capt. Montgomery was commissioned Lt. Colonel, and ordered to raise three hundred men and rejoin Col. Clark as soon as possible. He succeeded in raising the greater part of the troops authorized, and embarked them down the Holston River, on his way to the Illinois.9

In the meantime, news of Col. Clark's successful campaign against Kaskaskia having reached the British Governor Hamilton at Detroit, he determined not only to drive Col. Clark from the Mississippi Valley, but to deliver a blow against our northwestern frontiers that would prevent a repetition of his bold exploits. Leaving Detroit with a strong force, he took Vincennes, December 17, 1778; but instead of pushing forward and destroying Col. Clark, as he might have done, he devoted the winter to planning and organizing a great spring campaign, in which he expected the assistance of five hundred Cherokee, Choctaw and other Indians, who were to rendezvous at the mouth of the Tennessee River. British agents collected a supply of stores and goods at Chickamauga to the value of $125,000 for distribution at that meeting. Before the arrival of spring, however, Col. Clark, after one of the most arduous and difficult marches on record, retook Fort Vincennes, February, 25, 1779, and sent Gov. Hamilton a prisoner to Virginia.

Their spring campaign in the northwest having thus failed, the Chickamauga Indians determined to invade the frontiers of Holston. Warning of their intentions having reached the settlements, a force some three hundred and fifty men were  p147 embodied under Col.º Evan Shelby, which united with the troops of Col. Montgomery, then on their way to the Illinois, and proceeded down the Holston and Tennessee Rivers to the Chickamauga towns, which they surprised and destroyed. Col. Montgomery then continued on his way to the Illinois, and arrived at Kaskaskia May 29, 1779.​10 He was then ordered to Fort Vincennes on the Wabash.

Clark had now been promoted to the office of Brig. General, and finding the public interest required that he should reside at the Falls of the Ohio, until provision should be made for a campaign against Detroit, by general order dated August 5, 1779, Lt. Col. Montgomery was ordered to take command of the troops in Illinois, and the Indian agents there were directed to report to, and take orders from, him, at Kaskaskia, to which point he proceeded, August 14.11

In the spring of 1780 the American positions were threatened by an invasion of the Indians, and were saved from serious danger only by the timely arrival of Gen. Clark with reinforcements from the Falls of the Ohio. In June, Gen. Clark having again returned to Kentucky, Col. Montgomery marched three hundred and fifty men up the Illinois River to Lake Michigan, and thence across to Rock River, destroying the Indian towns and crops, the enemy, who had lately disbanded, not being able to raise a sufficient force to meet him.12

After this expedition he started home, by way of New Orleans, but finding no immediate passage to Virginia, returned, leaving New Orleans March 15, and reaching his command May 1, 1781. Finding the garrison at Fort Jefferson in a starving condition, with no goods or property with which to purchase supplies, the credit of the State being long since exhausted, and no supplies coming from the Falls of the Ohio, he was obliged to evacuate Fort Jefferson June 8, 1781.​13 It is worthy of notice, in passing, that the erection of Fort Jefferson caused the Chickasaw invasion of Cumberland in 1780, that resulted in the abandonment of the first settlement made within the limits of Montgomery County, and the massacre of a large part of its inhabitants. Its evacuation at this time restored peace with the Chickasaw, which was never afterwards disturbed.

July 2, 1781, Col. Montgomery returned to the Falls of  p148 the Ohio, where he found conditions almost as bad as at Fort Jefferson. There was not a mouthful for the troops to eat, nor any money to purchase supplies. He was compelled to billet his troops through the country in small parties, except the little guard he kept in the garrison. August 10, he represented these matters to the Governor by letter and also by a special courier.14

At the conclusion of his military services in Kentucky and the Illinois, Col. Montgomery came to the Cumberland settlements to make his permanent home in the land of his early explorations. Just when he reached the Cumberland is not definitely known. He signed the Cumberland Agreement; but the time is indefinite, as signatures to the Agreement were made from time to time as long as the Association continued; that is, from May 13, 1780, to the organization of Davidson County, October 6, 1783. He was present, however, at the organization of the Committee for the Government of the Cumberland Association, January 7, 1783, and was by the Committee elected sheriff of the District.​15 But his affairs connected with the Western army requiring his attention, he appointed Thomas Fletcher deputy sheriff, and returned to Kentucky. February 22, 1783, he was with Gen. Clark at New Holland,​16 and having learned that reports prejudicial to his character had been circulated by his enemies, he defended himself in a vigorous and manly letter to the Virginia Board of Commissioners for the Settlement of Western Accounts, which seems to have silenced his critics in that direction.

But while he was defending himself before the Virginia Commissioners, his enemies attacked him in a new quarter. James Colbert, a Scotchman who had married a Chickasaw woman and adopted the Indian life, had for some years been conducting extensive piratical practices against the Spanish on the Mississippi River, which gave them great annoyance, and caused much uneasiness on the Cumberland lest they should make it a pretext for inciting Indian hostilities against them. Col. Montgomery was now charged with being connected with Colbert's operations. March 15, 1783, the Committee of Cumberland annulled his appointment of Fletcher to be deputy sheriff, and themselves elected him sheriff;​17 and on June 3, sent two men to the Illinois, with letters to be  p149 transmitted to the Spanish Governor, denying any connection or sympathy with Colbert's proceedings.​18 Moreover, this charge was carried to the Governor of North Carolina, who issued a proclamation for Montgomery's arrest. Accordingly, the County Court of Davidson County, at its first term in 1784, placed Col. Montgomery under bond to appear at the next term of the Court, and answer the charge of aiding and abetting Colbert.​19 But before the next term of the Court, the Governor, being better informed, withdrew his proclamation, and the proceedings in the County Court were dismissed as a matter of course.20

In the meantime the discerning eye of Col. Montgomery had discovered in the rugged hills that crown the forks of Cumberland and Red Rivers a superior site for the location of a town; and at the very time the County Court was ruling him to bond, to‑wit, January, 1784, he and Martin Armstrong were entering the land on which the city of Clarksville is now located. In the fall of the same year they had it surveyed, and Armstrong, who was a practical surveyor, laid off the plan of a town on it. The town was named Clarksville, in honor of Gen. George Rogers Clark, the commander and friend of Col. Montgomery in the Northwestern campaign, and was established by legislative authority in 1785. Col. Montgomery, who made his home there, was the first named among its Commissioners. It was the second town established in Middle Tennessee, Nashville, chartered in 1784, being the first. Martin Armstrong never lived in Clarksville.

Col. Montgomery was one of the justices of Tennessee County from its establishment in 1788 until his death. In 1794 he commanded the territorial troops in the Nickajack campaign, the last, and one of the most important and successful enterprises undertaken against the Indians, in which the towns of Nickajack and Running Water were destroyed, and the power of the Chickamaugas completely broken. This was Col. Montgomery's last public service.

A party of Creek Indians from Tuskegee were doing much mischief on the Cumberland in 1794. It was the same party who had killed Maj.º Evan Shelby in 1793. They began their operations this year on upper Red River, where they killed Miss Betsy Roberts on the twelfth, and Thomas Reasons and wife on the fourteenth of November. Soon afterwards  p150 they moved down to the mouth of Red River. Col. Valentine Sevier, after the fall of the Franklin Government in 1788, had emigrated to Tennessee County and erected a station on the north side of Red River, near its mouth, and about a mile from Clarksville. The Indians surprised his station on the eleventh of November, and massacred many of its inhabitants. They then returned to the country around Eddyville, Kentucky.

After his return from Nickajack, Col. Montgomery led a hunting excursion to the neighborhood of Eddyville, where the party of Creeks were lurking. November 27, 1794, they surprised him in his camp. His party, taken at a disadvantage, retreated, when Col. Hugh Tinnon, one of the party, who was impeded by a wound, asked Col. Montgomery not to leave him. With the courage and devotion so often found among the pioneers, he threw himself between Col. Tinnon and the Indians, until a bullet from one of their guns took effect in his knee, when, finding him disabled, the Indians rushed upon him and killed him with their knives. John Rains, on his way from Fort Massac, reached Eddyville on the day of the tragedy, and met Julius Sanders, one of the hunting party, who had escaped, though shot in four places. Sanders told him the last he saw of Col. Montgomery an Indian was stabbing him repeatedly with a large knife. The next day Rains went with a party, including a son of Col. Montgomery, and found his body, which they buried where a tree had been uprooted by the storms.21

Two years later, when Tennessee County gave up its beautiful name to the State, it took the name of Montgomery, in honor of the brave Col. John Montgomery, who had been her leading citizen, and was second in command of the national heroes, who, under Gen. George Rogers Clark, had conquered and saved to the United States the great West, from the Alleghany Mountains to the Mississippi River.

Albert V. Goodpasture.

The Author's Notes:

1 Summers' Southwest Virginia, p61.

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2 Summers' Southwest Virginia, p108.

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3 Summers' Southwest Virginia, p130.

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4 Summers' Southwest Virginia, p242.

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5 Summers' Southwest Virginia, p201.

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6 Ramsey's Annals of Tennessee, p105.

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7 Calendar of Virginia State Papers, Vol. 3, p441.

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8 Calendar of Virginia State Papers, Vol. 3, pp441‑2.

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9 Calendar of Virginia State Papers, Vol. 3, p442.

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10 Calendar of Virginia State Papers, Vol. 3, p442.

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11 Calendar of Virginia State Papers, Vol. 1, p324.

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12 Calendar of Virginia State Papers, Vol. 3, p443.

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13 Calendar of Virginia State Papers, Vol. 2, p313; Vol. 3, pp443‑4.

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14 Calendar of Virginia State Papers, Vol. 2, pp313, 315.

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15 American Historical Magazine, Vol. 7, p116.

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16 Calendar of Virginia State Papers, Vol. 3, p441.

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17 American Historical Magazine, Vol. 7, p123.

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18 American Historical Magazine, Vol. 7, p134.

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19 Putnam's Hist. Mid. Tenn., p211.

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20 American Historical Magazine, Vol. 7, p218.

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21 Southwestern Monthly, Vol. 2, pp266‑7; Haywood's Hist. Tenn., pp424‑5.

Thayer's Note:

a Clark's own Memoir of the Vincennes campaign is online in its entirety: a remarkably good book, and required reading naturally for anyone interested in the subject. Clark mentions Montgomery a number of times of course, in my sections 2 • 4 • 7, and the later editor mentions him in my section 5 as well as in his Introduction.

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Page updated: 20 Feb 14