Indian law, tradition, and even superstition had shaped the conditions which the pioneers when they crossed the mountains. This savage inheritance had decreed that Kentucky should be a dark and bloody ground, fostering no life but that of four-footed boasts, its fertile sod never to stir with the green push of the corn. And so the white men who went into Kentucky to build and to plant went as warriors go, and for every cabin they erected they battled as warriors to hold a fort. In the first years they planted little corn and reaped less, for it may be said that their rifles were never out of their hands. We have seen how stations were built and abandoned until but two stood. Untiring vigilance and ceaseless warfare were the price paid by the first Kentuckians ere they turned the Indian's place of desolation and death into a land productive and a living habitation.
p158 Herein lies the difference, slight apparently, yet significant, between the first Kentucky and the first Tennessee1 colonies. Within the memory of the Indians only one tribe had ever attempted to make their home in Kentucky — a tribe of the fighting Shawanoes — and they had been terribly chastised for their temerity. But Tennessee was the home of the Cherokees, and at Chickasaw Bluffs (Memphis) began the southward trail to the principal towns of the Chickasaws. By the red man's fiat, then, human life might abide in Tennessee, though not in Kentucky, and it followed that in seasons of peace the frontiersmen might settle in Tennessee. So it was that as early as 1757, before the great Cherokee war, a company of Virginians under Andrew Lewis had, on an invitation from the Indians, erected Fort Loudon near Great Telliko, the Cherokees' principal town, and that, after the treaty of peace in 1761, Waddell and his rangers of North Carolina had erected a fort on the Holston.
Though Fort Loudon had fallen tragically during the war, and though Waddell's fort had been p159 abandoned, neither was without influence in the colonization of Tennessee, for some of the men who built these forts drifted back a year or two later and set up the first cabins on the Holston. These earliest settlements, thin and scattered, did not survive: but in 1768 the same settlers or others of their kind — discharged militiamen from Back Country regiments — once more made homes on the Holston. They were joined by a few families from near the present Raleigh, North Carolina, who had despaired of seeing justice done to the tenants on the mismanaged estates of Lord Granville. About the same time there was erected the first cabin on the Watauga River, as is generally believed, by a man of the name of William Bean (or Been), hunter and frontier soldier from Pittsylvania County, Virginia. This man, who had hunted on the Watauga with Daniel Boone in 1760, chose as the site of his dwelling the place of the old hunting camp near the mouth of Boone's Creek. He soon began to have neighbors.
Meanwhile the Regulation Movement stirred the Back Country of both the Carolinas. In 1768, the year in which William Bean built his cabin on the bank of the Watauga, five hundred armed p160 Regulators in North Carolina, aroused by irregularities in the conduct of public affairs, gathered to assert their displeasure, but dispersed peaceably on receipt of word from Governor Tryon that he had ordered the prosecution of any officer found guilty of extortion. Edmund Fanning, the most hated of Lord Granville's agents, though convicted, escaped punishment. Enraged at this miscarriage of justice, the Regulators began a system of terrorization by taking possession of the court, presided over by Richard Henderson. The judge himself was obliged to slip out by a back way to avoid personal injury. The Regulators burned his house and stable. They meted out mob treatment likewise to William Hooper, later one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Two elements, with antithetical aims, had been at work in the Regulation; and the unfortunate failure of justice in the case of Fanning had given the corrupt element its opportunity to seize control. In the petitions addressed to Governor Tryon by the leaders of the movement in its earlier stages the aims of liberty-loving thinkers are traceable. It is worthy of note that they included in their demands articles which are now constitutional. They desired that "suffrage be given by ticket and p161 ballot"; that the mode of taxation be altered, and each person be taxed in proportion to the profits arising from his estate; that judges and clerks be given salaries instead of perquisites and fees. They likewise petitioned for repeal of the act prohibiting dissenting ministers from celebrating the rites of matrimony. The establishment of these reforms, the petitioners of the Regulation concluded, would "conciliate" their minds to "every just measure of government, and would make the laws what the Constitution ever designed they should be, their protection and not their bane." Herein clearly enough we can discern the thought and the phraseology of the Ulster Presbyterians.
But a change took place in both leaders and methods. During the Regulators' career of violence they were under the sway of an agitator named Hermon Husband. This demagogue was reported to have been expelled from the Quaker Society for cause; it is on record that he was expelled from the North Carolina Assembly because a vicious anonymous letter was traced to him. He deserted his dupes just before the shots cracked at Alamance Creek and fled from the colony. He was afterwards apprehended in Pennsylvania for complicity in the Whisky Insurrection.
p162 Four of the leading Presbyterian ministers of the Back Country issued a letter in condemnation of the Regulators. One of these ministers was the famous David Caldwell, son-in‑law of the Reverend Alexander Craighead, and a man who knew the difference between liberty and licence and who proved himself the bravest of patriots in the War of Independence. Records of the time contain sworn testimony against the Regulators by Waightstill Avery, a signer of the Mecklenburg Resolves, who later presided honorably over courts in the western circuit of Tennessee; and there is evidence indicating Jacobite and French intrigue. That Governor Tryon recognized a hidden hand at work seems clearly revealed in his proclamation addressed to those "whose understandings have been run away with and whose passions have been led in captivity by some evil designing men who, actuated by cowardice and a sense of that Publick Justice which is due to their Crimes, have obscured themselves from Publick view." What the Assembly thought of the Regulators was expressed in 1770 in a drastic bill which so shocked authorities in England that instructions were sent forbidding any Governor to approve such a bill in future, declaring it "a disgrace to the British Statute Books."
p163 On May 16, 1771, some two thousand Regulators were precipitated by Husband into the Battle of Alamance, which took place in a district settled largely by a rough and ignorant type of Germans, many of whom Husband had lured to swell his mob. Opposed to him were eleven hundred of Governor Tryon's troops, officered by such patriots as Griffith Rutherford, Hugh Waddell, and Francis Nash. During an hour's engagement about twenty Regulators were killed, while the Governor's troops had nine killed and sixty-one wounded. Six of the leaders were hanged. The rest took the oath of allegiance which Tryon administered.
It has been said about the Regulators that they were not cast down by their defeat at Alamance but "like the mammoth, they shook the bolt from their brow and crossed the mountains," but such flowery phrases do not seem to have been inspired by facts. Nor do the records show that "fifteen hundred Regulators" arrived at Watauga in 1771, as has also been stated. Nor are the names of the leaders of the Regulation to be found in the list of signatures affixed to the one "state paper" of Watauga which was preserved and written into historic annals. Nor yet do those names appear on the roster of the Watauga and Holston men who, p164 in 1774, fought with Shelby under Andrew Lewis in the Battle of Point Pleasant. The Boones and the Bryans, the Robertsons, the Seviers, the Shelbys, the men who opened up the West and shaped the destiny of its inhabitants, were genuine freemen, with a sense of law and order as inseparable from liberty. They would follow a Washington but not a Hermon Husband.
James Hunter, whose signature leads on all Regulation manifestoes just prior to the Battle of Alamance, was a sycophant of Husband, to whom he addressed fulsome letters; and in the real battle for democracy — the War of Independence — he was a Tory. The Colonial Records show that those who, "like the mammoth," shook from them the ethical restraints which make man superior to the giant beast, and who later bolted into the mountains, contributed chiefly the lawlessness that harassed the new settlements. They were the banditti and, in 1776, the Tories of the western hills; they pillaged the homes of the men who were fighting for the democratic ideal.
It was not the Regulation Movement which turned westward the makers of the Old Southwest, but the free and enterprising spirit of the age. p165 It was emphatically an age of doers; and if men who felt the constructive urge in them might not lay hold on conditions where they were and reshape them, then they must go forward seeking that environment which would give their genius its opportunity.
Of such adventurous spirits was James Robertson, a Virginian born of Ulster Scot parentage, and a resident of (the present) Wake County, North Carolina, since his boyhood. Robertson was twenty-eight years old when, in 1770, he rode over the hills to Watauga. We can imagine him as he was then, the portrait taken much later in lifea shows the type of face that does not change. It is a high type combining the best qualities of his race. Intelligence, strength of purpose, fortitude, and moral power are there; they impress us at the first glance. At twenty-eight he must have been a serious young man, little given to laughter; indeed, spontaneity is perhaps the only good trait we miss in studying his face. He was a thinker who had not yet found his purpose — a thinker in leash, for at this time James Robertson could neither read nor write.
Oil portrait attributed to Washington B. Cooper, Tennessee State Museum, Nashville, TN.
[This image is not in the printed book:
At Watauga, Robertson lived for a while in the cabin of a man named Honeycut. He chose land p166 for himself and, in accordance with the custom of the time, sealed his right to it by planting corn. He remained to harvest his first crop and then set off to gather his family and some of his friends together and escort them to the new country. But on the way he missed the trail and wandered for a fortnight in the mountains. The heavy rains ruined his powder so that he could not hunt; for food he had only berries and nuts. At one place, where steep bluffs opposed him, he was obliged to abandon his horse and scale the mountain side on foot. He was in extremity when he chanced upon two huntsmen who gave him food and set him on the trail. If this experience proves his lack of the hunter's instinct and the woodsman's resourcefulness which Boone possessed, it proves also his special qualities of perseverance and endurance which were to reach their zenith in his successful result to colonize and hold western Tennessee. He returned to Watauga in the following spring (1771) with his family and a small group of colonists. Robertson's wife was an educated woman and under her instruction he now began to study.
Next year a young Virginian from the Shenandoah Valley rode on down Holston Valley on a hunting and exploring trip and loitered at Watauga. p167 Here he found not only a new settlement but an independent government in the making; and forthwith he determined to have a part in both. This young Virginian had already shown the inclination of a political colonist, for in the Shenandoah Valley he had, at the age of nineteen, laid out the town of New Market (which exists to this day) and had directed its municipal affairs and invited and fostered its clergy. This young Virginian — born on September 23, 1745, and so in 1772 twenty-seven years of age — was John Sevier, that John Sevier whose monument now towers from its site in Knoxville to testify of both the wild and the great deeds of old Tennessee's beloved knight. Like Robertson, Sevier hastened home and removed his whole family, including his wife and children, his parents and his brothers and sisters, to this new haven of freedom at Watauga.
The friendship formed between Robertson and Sevier in these first years of their work together was never broken, yet two more opposite types could hardly have been brought together. Robertson was a man of humble origin, unlettered, not a dour Scot but a solemn one. Sevier was cavalier as well as frontiersman. On his father's side he was of the patrician family of Xavier in France. His p168 progenitors, having become Huguenots, had taken refuge in England, where the name Xavier was finally changed to Sevier. John Sevier's mother was an Englishwoman. Some years before his birth his parents had emigrated to the Shenandoah Valley. Thus it happened that John Sevier, who mingled good English blood with the blue blood of old France, was born an American and grew up a frontier hunter and soldier. He stood •about five feet nine from his moccasins to his crown of light brown hair. He was well-proportioned and as graceful of body as he was hard-muscled and swift. His chin was firm, his nose of a Roman cast, his mouth well-shaped, its slightly full lips slanting in a smile that would not be repressed. Under the high, finely modeled brow, small keen dark blue eyes sparkled with health, with intelligence, and with the man's joy in life.
John Sevier indeed cannot be listed as a type; he was individual. There is no other character like him in border annals. He was cavalier and prince in his leadership of men; he had their homage. Yet he knew how to be comrade and brother to the lowliest. He won and held the confidence and friendship of the serious-minded Robertson no less than the idolatry of the wildest spirits on the p169 frontier throughout the forty-three years of the spectacular career which began for him on the day he brought his tribe to Watauga. In his time he wore the governor's purple; and a portrait painted of him shows how well this descendant of the noble Xaviers could fit himself to the dignity and formal habiliments of state. Yet in the fringed deerskin of frontier garb, he was fleeter on the warpath than Indians who fled before him; and he could outride and outshoot — and, it is said, outswear, — the best and the worst of the men who followed him. Perhaps the lurking smile on John Sevier's face was a flicker of mirth that there should be found any man, red or white, with temerity enough to try conclusions with him. None ever did, successfully.
The historians of Tennessee state that the Wataugans formed their government in 1772 and that Sevier was one of its five commissioners. Yet, as Sevier did not settle in Tennessee before 1773, it is possible that the Watauga Association was not formed until then. Unhappily the written constitution of the little commonwealth was not preserved; but it is known that, following the Ulsterman's ideal, manhood suffrage and religious independence were two of its provisions. The commissioners enlisted a militia and they recorded p170 deeds for land, issued marriage licenses, and tried offenders against the law. They believed themselves to be within the boundaries of Virginia and therefore adopted the laws of that State for their guidance. They had numerous offenders to deal with, for men fleeing from debt or from the consequence of crime sought the new settlements just across the mountains as a safe and adjacent harbor. The attempt of these men to pursue their lawlessness in Watauga was one reason why the Wataugans organized a government.
When the line was run between Virginia and North Carolina beyond the mountains, Watauga was discovered to be south of Virginia's limits and hence on Indian lands. This was in conflict with the King's Proclamation, and Alexander Cameron, British agent to the Cherokees, accordingly ordered the encroaching settlers to depart. The Indians, however, desired them to remain. But since it was illegal to purchase Indian lands, Robertson negotiated a lease for ten years. In 1775, when Henderson made his purchase from the Cherokees, at Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga, Robertson and Sevier, who were present at the sale with other Watauga commissioners, followed Henderson's example and bought outright the lands they desired p171 to include in Watauga's domain. In 1776 they petitioned North Carolina for "annexation." As they were already within North Carolina's bounds, it was recognition rather than annexation which they sought. This petition, which is the only Wataugan document to survive, is undated but marked as received in August, 1776. It is in Sevier's handwriting and its style suggests that it was composed by him, for in its manner of expression it has much in common with many later papers from his pen. That Wataugans were a law-loving community and had formed their government for the purpose of making law respected is reiterated throughout the document. As showing the quality of these first western statemakers, two paragraphs are quoted:
Finding ourselves on the frontiers, and being apprehensive that for want of proper legislature we might become a shelter for such as endeavored to defraud their creditors; considering also the necessity of recording deeds, wills, and doing other public business; we, by consent of the people, formed a court for the purposes above mentioned, taking, by desire of our constituents, the Virginia laws for our guide, so near as the situation of affairs would permit. This was intended for ourselves, and was done by consent of every individual.
The petition goes on to state that, among their measures for upholding law, the Wataugans had p172 enlisted "a company of fine riflemen" and put them under command of "Captain James Robertson."
We . . . thought proper to station them on our frontiers in defense of the common cause, at the expense and risque of our own private fortunes, till farther public orders, which we flatter ourselves will give no offense. . . . we pray your mature and deliberate consideration in our behalf, that you may annex us to your Province (whether as county, district, or other division) in such manner as may enable us to share in the glorious cause of Liberty: enforce our laws under authority and in every respect become the best members of society; and for ourselves and our constituents we hope we may venture to assure you that we shall adhere strictly to your determinations, and that nothing will be lacking or anything neglected that may add weight (in the civil or military establishments) to the glorious cause in which we are now struggling, or contribute to the welfare of our own or ages yet to come.
One hundred and thirteen names are signed to the document. In the following year (1777) North Carolina erected her overhill territory into Washington County. The Governor appointed justices of the peace and militia officers who in the following year organized the new county and its courts. And so Watauga's independent government, begun in the spirit of true liberty, came as lawfully to its end.
p173 But for nearly three years before their political status was thus determined, the Wataugans were sharing "in the glorious cause of Liberty" by defending their settlements against Indian attacks. While the majority of the young Cherokee warriors were among their enemies, their chief battles were fought with those from the Chickamaugan towns on the Tennessee River, under the leadership of Dragging Canoe. The Chickamaugans embraced the more vicious and bloodthirsty Cherokees, with a mixture of Creeks and bad whites, who, driven from every law-abiding community, had cast in their lot with this tribe. The exact number of white thieves and murderers who had found harbor in the Indian towns during a score or more of years is not known; but the letters of the Indian agents, preserved in the records, would indicate that there were a good many of them. They were fit allies for Dragging Canoe; their hatred of those from whom their own degeneracy had separated them was not less than his.
In July, 1776, John Sevier wrote to the Virginia Committee as follows:
Dear Gentlemen: Isaac Thomas, William Falling, Jaret Williams and one more have this moment come in by making their escape from the Indians and say six p174 hundred Indians and whites were to start for this fort and intend to drive the country up to New River before they return.
Thus was heralded the beginning of a savage warfare which kept the borderers engaged for years.
It has been a tradition of the chroniclers that Isaac Thomas received a timely warning from Nancy Ward, a half-caste Cherokee prophetess who often showed her good will towards the whites; and that the Indians were roused to battle by Alexander Cameron and John Stuart, the British agents or superintendents among the overhill tribes. There was a letter bearing Cameron's name stating that fifteen hundred savages from the Cherokee and Creek nations were to join with British troops landed at Pensacola in an expedition against the southern frontier colonies. This letter was brought to Watauga at dead of night by a masked man who slipped it through a window and rode away. Apparently John Sevier did not believe the military information contained in the mysterious missive, for he communicated nothing of it to the Virginia Committee. In recent years the facts have come to light. This mysterious letter and others of a similar tenor bearing forged signatures are cited in a report by the British agent, John Stuart, to p175 his Government. It appears that such inflammatory missives had been industriously scattered through the back settlements of both Carolinas. There are also letters from Stuart to Lord Dartmouth, dated a year earlier, urging that something be done immediately to counteract rumors set afloat that the British were endeavoring to instigate both the Indians and the negroes to attack the Americans.
Now it is, of course, an established fact that both the British and American armies used Indians in the War of Independence, even as both together had used them against the French and the Spanish and their allied Indians. It was inevitable that the Indians should participate in any severe conflict between the whites. They were a numerous and a warlike people and, from their point of view, were contesting for control of the red man's continent. Both British and Americans have been blamed for "half-hearted attempts to keep the Indians neutral." The truth is that each side strove to enlist the Indians — to be used, if needed later, as warriors. Massacre was no part of this policy, though it may have been countenanced by individual officers in both camps. But it is obvious p176 that, once the Indians took the warpath, they were to be restrained by no power and, no matter under whose nominal command, they would carry on warfare by their own methods.2
Whatever may have been the case elsewhere, the attacks on the Watauga and Holston settlements p177 were not instigated by British agents. It was not Nancy Ward but Henry Stuart, John Stuart's deputy, who sent Isaac Thomas to warn the settlers. In their efforts to keep the friendship of the red men, the British and the Americans were providing them with powder and lead. The Indians had run short of ammunition and, since hunting was their only means of livelihood, they must shoot or starve. South Carolina sent the Cherokees a large supply of powder and lead which was captured en route by Tories. About the same time Henry Stuart set out from Pensacola with another consignment from the British. His report to Lord Germain of his arrival in the Chickamaugan towns and of what took place there just prior to the raids on the Tennessee settlements is one of the most illuminating as well as one of the most dramatic papers in the collected records of that time.3
Stuart's first act was secretly to send out Thomas, the trader, to warn the settlers of their peril, for a small war party of braves was even then considering the preliminary war ceremonies. The reason for this Indian alarm and projected excursion was the fact that the settlers had built one fort at least on the Indian lands. Stuart finally persuaded the p178 Indians to remain at peace until he could write to the settlers stating the grievances and asking for negotiations. The letters were to be carried by Thomas on his return.
But no sooner was Thomas on his way again with the letters than there arrived a deputation of warriors from the Northern tribes — from "the Confederate nations, the Mohawks, Ottawas, Nantucas, Shawanoes and Delawares" — fourteen men in all, who entered the town hall of the Old Beloved Town of Chota with their faces painted black and the war belt carried before them. They said that they had been seventy days on their journey. Everywhere along their way they had seen houses and forts springing up like weeds across the green sod of their hunting lands. Where once were great herds of deer and buffalo, they had watched thousands of men at arms preparing for war. So many now were the white warriors and their women and children that the red men had been obliged to travel a great way on the other side of the Ohio and to make a detour of •nearly three hundred miles to avoid being seen. Even on this outlying route they had crossed the fresh tracks of a great body of people with horses and cattle going still further towards the setting sun. But their p179 cries were not to be in vain; for "their fathers, the French" had heard them and had promised to aid them if they would now strike as one for their lands.
After this preamble the deputy of the Mohawks rose. He said that some American people had made war on one of their towns and had seized the son of their Great Beloved Man, Sir William Johnson, imprisoned him, and put him to a cruel death; this crime demanded a great vengeance and they would not cease until they had taken it. One after another the fourteen delegates rose and made their "talks" and presented their wampum strings to Dragging Canoe. The last to speak was a chief of the Shawanoes. He also declared that "their fathers, the French," who had been so long dead, were "alive again," that they had supplied them plentifully with arms and ammunition and had promised to assist them in driving out the Americans and in reclaiming their country. Now all the Northern tribes were joined in one for this dread purpose; and they themselves were on their way to all the Southern tribes and had resolved that, if any tribe refused to join, they would fall upon and subjugate that tribe, after having overcome the whites. At the conclusion of his oration the Shawanoe presented the war belt — •nine feet of six‑inch-wide p180 purple wampum spattered with vermilion — to Dragging Canoe, who held it extended between his two hands, in silence, and waited. Presently rose a headman whose wife had been a member of Sir William Johnson's household. He laid his hand on the belt and sang the war song. One by one, then, chiefs and warriors rose, laid hold of the great belt and chanted the war song. Only the older men, made wise by many defeats, sat still in their places, mute and dejected. "After that day every young fellow's face in the overhills towns appeared blackened and nothing was now talked of but war."
Stuart reports that "all the white men" in the tribe also laid hands on the belt. Dragging Canoe then demanded that Cameron and Stuart come forward and take hold of the war belt — "which we refused." Despite the offense their refusal gave — and it would seem a dangerous time to give such offense — Cameron delivered a "strong talk" for peace, warning the Cherokees of what must surely be the end of the rashness they contemplated. Stuart informed the chief that if the Indians persisted in attacking the settlements without waiting for answers to his letters, he would not remain with them any longer or bring them any more ammunition. He went to his house and p181 made ready to leave on the following day. Early the next morning Dragging Canoe appeared at his door and told him that the Indians were now very angry about the letters he had written, which could only have put the settlers on their guard; and that if any white man attempted to leave the nation "they had determined to follow him but not to bring him back. Dragging Canoe had painted his face black to carry this message. Thomas now returned with an answer from "the West Fincastle men," which was so unsatisfactory to the tribe that war ceremonies were immediately begun. Stuart and Cameron could no longer influence the Indians. "All that could be done was to give them strict charge not to pass the Boundary Line, not to injure any of the King's faithful subjects, not to Kill any women and children"; and to threaten to "stop all ammunition" if they did not obey these orders.
The major part of the Watauga militia went out to meet the Indians and defeated a large advance force at Long Island Flats on the Holston. The Watauga fort, where many of the settlers had taken refuge, contained forty fighting men under Robertson and Sevier. As Indians usually retreated and p182 waited for a while after a defeat, those within the fort took it for granted that no immediate attack was to be expected; and the women went out at daybreak into the fields to milk the cows. Suddenly the war whoop shrilled from the edge of the clearing. Red warriors leaped from the green skirting of the forest. The women ran for the fort. Quickly the heavy gates swung to and the dropped bar secured them. Only then did the watchmen discover that one woman had been shut out. She was a young woman nearing her twenties and, if legend has reported her truly, "Bonnie Kate Sherrill" was a beauty. Through a porthole Sevier saw her running towards the shut gates, dodging and darting, her brown hair blowing from the wind of her race for life — and offering far too rich a prize to the yelling fiends who dashed after her. Sevier coolly shot the foremost of her pursuers, then sprang upon the wall, caught up Bonnie Kate, and tossed her inside to safety. And legend says further that when, after Sevier's brief widowerhood, she became his wife, four years later, Bonnie Kate was wont to say that she would be willing to run another such race any day to have another such introduction!
There were no casualties within with the fort and, p183 after three hours, the foe withdrew, leaving several of their warriors slain.
In the excursions against the Indians which followed this opening of hostilities Sevier won his first fame as an "Indian fighter" — the fame later crystallized in the phrase "thirty-five battles, thirty-five victories." His method was to take a very small company of the hardiest and swiftest horsemen — men who could keep their seat and endurance, and horses that could keep their feet and their speed, on any steep of the mountains no matter how tangled and rough the going might be — swoop down upon war camp, or town, and go through it with rifle and hatchet and fire, then dash homeward at the same pace before the enemy had begun to consider whether to follow him or not. In all his "thirty-five battles" it is said he lost not more than fifty men.
The Cherokee made peace in 1777, after about a year of almost continuous warfare, the treaty being concluded on their side by the old chiefs who had never countenanced the war. Dragging Canoe refused to take part, but he was rendered innocuous for the time being by the destruction of several of the Chickamaugan villages. James Robertson now went to Chota as Indian agent for North Carolina. p184 So fast was population growing, owing to the opening of a wagon road into Burke County, North Carolina, that Washington County was divided. John Sevier became Colonel of Washington and Isaac Shelby Colonel of the newly erected Sullivan County. Jonesborough, the oldest town in Tennessee, was laid out as the county seat of Washington; and in the same year (1778) Sevier moved to the bank of the Nolichucky River, so‑called after the Indian name of this dashing sparkling stream, meaning rapid or precipitous. Thus the nickname given John Sevier by his devotees had a dual application. He was well called Nolichucky Jack.
When Virginia annulled Richard Henderson's immense purchase but allowed him a large tract on the Cumberland, she by no means discouraged that intrepid pioneer. Henderson's tenure of Kentucky had been brief, but not unprofitable in experience. He had learned that colonies must be treated with less commercial pressure and with more regard to individual liberty, if they were to be held loyal either to a King beyond the water or to an uncrowned leader nearer at hand. He had been making his plans for colonization of that portion of the Transylvania purchase which lay within the p185 bounds of North Carolina along the Cumberland and choosing his men to lay the foundations of his projected settlement in what was then a wholly uninhabited country; and he had decided on generous terms, such as ten dollars a thousand acres for land, the certificate of purchase to entitle the holder to further proceedings in the land office without extra fees.
To head an enterprise of such danger and hardship Henderson required a man of more than mere courage; a man of resource, of stability, of proven powers, one whom other men would follow and obey with confidence. So it was that James Robertson was chosen to lead the first white settlers into middle Tennessee. He set out in February, 1779, accompanied by his brother, Mark Robertson, several other white men, and a negro, to select a site for settlement and to plant corn. Meanwhile another small party led by Gaspar Mansker had arrived. As the boundary line between Virginia and North Carolina had not been run to this point, Thomas soon believed that the site he had chosen lay within Virginia and was in the disposal of General Clark. To protect the settlers, therefore, he journeyed into the Illinois country to purchase cabin rights from Clark, but there he was evidently p186 convinced that the site on the Cumberland would be found to lie within North Carolina. He returned to Watauga to lead a party of settlers into the new territory, towards which they set out in October. After crossing the mountain chain through Cumberland Gap, the party followed Boone's road — the Warriors' Path — for some distance and then made their own trail southwestward through the wilderness to the bluffs on the Cumberland, where they built cabins to house them against one of the coldest winters ever experienced in that country. So were laid the first foundations of the present city of Nashville, at first named Nashborough by Robertson.4 On the way, Robertson had fallen in with a party of men and families bound for Kentucky and had persuaded them to accompany his little band to the Cumberland. Robertson's own wife and children, as well as the families of his party, had been left to follow in the second expedition, which was to be made by water under the command of Captain John Donelson.
The little fleet of boats containing the settlers, their families, and all their household goods, was to start from Fort Patrick Henry, near Long Island p187 in the Holston River, to float down into the Tennessee and along the •652 miles of that widely meandering stream to the Ohio, and then to proceed up the Ohio to the mouth of the Cumberland and up the Cumberland until Robertson's station should appear — a journey, as it turned out, of •some nine hundred miles through unknown country and on waters at any rate for the greater part never before navigated by white men.
Journal of a voyage, intended by God's permission, in the good boat Adventure is the title of the log book in which Captain Donelson entered the events of the four months' journey. Only a few pages endured to be put into print: but those few tell a tale of hazard and courage that seems complete. Could a lengthier narrative, even if enriched with literary art and fancy, bring before us more vividly than do the simple entries of Donelson's log the spirit of the men and the women who won the West? If so little personal detail is recorded of the pioneer men of that day that we must deduce what they were from what they did, what do we know of their unfailing comrades, the pioneer women? Only that they were there and that they shared in every test of courage and endurance, save the march of troops and the hunt. p188 Donelson's Journal therefore has a special value, because in its terse account of Mrs. Jennings and Mrs. Peyton it depicts unforgettably the quality of pioneer womanhood.5
December 22nd, 1779. Took our departure from the fort and fell down the river to the mouth of Reedy Creek where we were stopped by the fall of water and most excessive hard frost.
Perhaps part of the Journal was lost, or perhaps the "excessive hard frost" of that severe winter, when it is said even droves of wild game perished, prevented the boats from going on, for the next entry is dated the 27th of February. On this date the Adventure and two other boats grounded and lay on the shoals all that afternoon and the succeeding night "in much distress."
March 2nd. Rain about half the day. . . . Mr. Henry's boat being driven on the point of an island by the force of the current was sunk, the whole cargo much damaged and the crew's lives much endangered, which occasioned the whole fleet to put on shore and go to their assistance. . . .
Monday 6th. Got under way before sunrise; the morning proving very foggy, many of the fleet were much bogged — about 10 o'clock lay by for them; when p189 collected, proceeded down. Camped on the north shore, where Captain Hutching's negro man died, being much frosted in his feet and legs, of which he died.
Tuesday, 7th. Got under way very early; the day proving very windy, a S. S. W., and the river being wide occasioned a high sea, insomuch that some of the smaller crafts were in danger; therefore came to at the uppermost Chiccamauga town, which was then evacuated, where we lay by that afternoon and camped that night. The wife of Ephraim Peyton was here delivered of a child. Mr. Peyton has gone through by land with Captain Robertson.
Wednesday 8th . . . proceed down to an Indian village which was inhabited . . . they insisted on us to come ashore, called us brothers, and showed other signs of friendship. . . . And here we must regret the unfortunate death of young Mr. Payne, on board Captain Blakemore's boat, who was mortally wounded by reason of the boat running too near the northern shore opposite the town, where some of the enemy lay concealed; and the more tragical misfortune of poor Stuart, his family and friends, to the number of twenty-eight persons. This man had embarked with us for the Western country, but his family being diseased with small pox, it was agreed upon between him and the company that he should keep at some distance in the rear, for fear of the infection spreading, and he was warned each night when the encampment should take place by the sound of a horn. . . . the Indians having now collected to a considerable number, observing his helpless situation singled off from the rest of the fleet, intercepted him and killed and took prisoners the whole crew . . . ; their cries were distinctly heard. . . .
p190 After describing a running fight with the Indians stationed on the bluffs on both shores where the river narrowed to half its width and boiled through a canyon, the entry for the day concludes: "Jennings's boat is missing."
Friday 10th. This morning about 4 o'clock we were surprised by the cries of "help poor Jennings" at some distance in the rear. He had discovered us by our fires and came up in the most wretched condition. He states that as soon as the Indians discovered his situation [his boat had run on a rock] they turned their whole attention to him and kept up a most galling fire at his boat. He ordered his wife, a son nearly grown, a young man who accompanies him and his negro man and woman, to throw all his goods into the river to lighten the boat for the purpose of getting her off; himself returning their fire as well as he could, being a good soldier and an excellent marksman. But before they had accomplished their object, his son, the young man and the negro, jumped out of the boat and left. . . . Mrs. Jennings, however, and the negro woman, succeeded in unloading the boat, but chiefly by the exertions of Mrs. Jennings who got out of the boat and shoved her off, but was near falling a victim to her own intrepidity on account of the boat starting so suddenly as soon as loosened from the rock. Upon examination he appears to have made a wonderful escape for his boat is pierced in numberless places with bullets. It is to be remarked that Mrs. Peyton, who was the night before delivered of an infant, which was unfortunately killed upon the hurry and confusion consequent upon such a disaster, assisted them, p191 being frequently exposed to wet and cold. . . . Their clothes were very much cut with bullets, especially Mrs. Jennings's.
Of the three men who deserted, while the women stood by under fire, the negro was drowned and Jennings's son and the other young man were captured by the Chickamaugans. The latter was burned at the stake. Young Jennings was to have shared the same fate; but a trader in the village, learning that the boy was known to John Sevier, ransomed him by a large payment of goods, as a return for an act of kindness Sevier had once done to him.
Sunday 13th. . . . After running until about 10 o'clock came in sight of the Muscle Shoals. Halted on the northern shore at the appearance of the shoals, in order to search for the signs Captain James Robertson was to make for us at that place . . . that it was practicable for us to go across by land . . . we can find none — from which we conclude that it would not be prudent to make the attempt and are determined, knowing ourselves in such imminent danger, to pursue our journey down the river. . . . When we approached them [the Shoals] they had a dreadful appearance. . . . The water being high made a terrible roaring, which could be heard at some distance, among the driftwood heaped frightfully upon the points of the islands, the current running in every possible direction. Here we did not know how soon we should be dashed to pieces and all our troubles p192 ended at once. Our boats frequently dragged on the bottom and appeared constantly in danger of striking. They warped as much as in a rough sea. But by the hand of Providence we are now preserved from this danger also. I know not the length of this wonderful shoal; it had been represented to me to be •twenty-five or thirty miles. If so, we must have descended very rapidly, as indeed we did, for passed it in about three hours.
On the twentieth the little fleet arrived at the mouth of the Tennessee and the voyagers landed on the bank of the Ohio.
Our situation here is truly disagreeable. The river is very high and the current rapid, our boats not constructed for the purpose of stemming a rapid stream, our provisions exhausted, the crews almost worn down with hunger and fatigue, and know not what distance we have to go or what time it will take us to our place of destination. The scene is rendered still more melancholy as several boats will not attempt to ascend the rapid current. Some intend to descend the Mississippi to Natchez; others are bound for the Illinois — among the rest my son-in‑law and daughter. We now part, perhaps to meet no more, for I am determined to pursue my course, happen what will.
Tuesday 21st. Set out and on this day labored very hard and got but little way. . . . Passed the two following days as the former, suffering much from hunger and fatigue.
Friday 24th. About three o'clock came to the mouth of a river which I thought was the Cumberland. Some of p193 the company declared it could not be — it was so much smaller than was expected. . . . We determined however to make the trial, pushed up some distance and encamped for the night.
Saturday 25th. Today we are much encouraged; the river grows wider; . . . we are now convinced it is the Cumberland. . . .
Sunday 26th . . . procured some buffalo meat; though poor it was palatable.
Friday 31st . . . met with Colonel Richard Henderson, who is running the line between Virginia and North Carolina. At this meeting we much rejoiced. He gave us every information we wished, and further informed us that he had purchased a quantity of corn in Kentucky, to be shipped at the Falls of Ohio for the use of the Cumberland settlement. We are now without bread and are compelled to hunt the buffalo to preserve life. . . .
Monday, April 24th. This day we arrived at our journey's end at the Big Salt Lick, where we have the pleasure of finding Captain Robertson and his company. It is a source of satisfaction to us to be enabled to restore to him and others their families and friends, who were entrusted to our care, and who, sometime since, perhaps, despaired of ever meeting again. . . .
Past the camps of the Chickamaugans — who were retreating farther and farther down the twisting flood, seeking a last standing ground in the giant caves by the Tennessee — these white voyagers had steered their pirogues. Near Robertson's station, where they landed after having traversed p194 the triangle of the three great rivers which enclose the larger part of western Tennessee, stood a crumbling trading house marking the defeat of a Frenchman who had, one time, sailed in from the Ohio to establish an outpost of his nation there. At a little distance were the ruins of a rude fort cast up by the Cherokees in the days when the redoubtable Chickasaws had driven them from the pleasant shores of the western waters. Under the towering forest growth lay vast burial mounds and the sunken foundations of walled towns, telling of a departed race which had once flashed its rude paddles and had its dream of permanence along the courses of these great waterways. Now another tribe had come to dream that dream anew. Already its primitive keels had traced the opening lines of its history on the face of the immemorial rivers.
1 Tennessee. The name, Ten‑as‑se, appears on Adair's map as one of the old Cherokee towns. Apparently neither the meaning nor the reason why the colonists called both state and river by this name has been handed down to us.
2 "There is little doubt that either side, British or Americans, stood ready to enlist the Indians. Already before Boston the Americans had had the help of the Stockbridge tribe. Washington found the service committed to the practice when he arrived at Cambridge early in July. Dunmore had taken the initiative in securing such allies, at least in purpose; but the insurgent Virginians had had of late more direct contact with the tribes and were now striving to secure them but with little success." The Westward Movement, by Justin Winsor, p87.
General Ethan Allen of Vermont, as his letters show, sent emissaries into Canada in an endeavor to enlist the French Canadians and the Canadian Indians against the British in Canada. See American Archives, Fourth Series, vol. II, p714. The British General Gage wrote to Lord Dartmouth from Boston, June 12, 1775: "We need not be tender of calling on the Savages as the rebels have shown us the example, by bringing as many Indians down against us as they could collect." American Archives, Fourth Series, vol. II, p967.
In a letter to Lord Germain, dated August 23, 1776, John Stuart wrote: "Although Mr. Cameron was in constant danger of assassination and the Indians were threatened with invasion should they dare to protect him, yet he still found means to prevent their falling on the settlement." See North Carolina Colonial Records, vol. X, pp608 and 763. Proof that the British agents had succeeded in keeping the Cherokee neutral till the summer of 1776 is found in the instructions, dated the 7th of July, to Major Winston from President Rutledge of South Carolina, regarding the Cherokees, that they must be forced to give up the British agents and "instead of remaining in a State of Neutrality with respect to British Forces they must take part with us against them." See North Carolina Colonial Records, vol. X, p658.
3 North Carolina Colonial Records, vol. X, pp763‑785.
4 In honor of General Francis Nash, of North Carolina, who was mortally wounded at Germantown, 1777.
5 This Journal is printed in Ramsey's Annals of Tennessee.
Thayer's Note: Ramsey's Annals of Tennessee are online, in full, at RoaneTnHistory.org, an excellent site that should be bookmarked first by any of us interested in the history of that State.
a The portrait was apparently semi-posthumous, in fact: the curious details of this oxymoron are given by Kathy Lauder in an interesting article in the Nashville Historical Newsletter, "A 'New' Image of General James Robertson?", in which the new image of the article title is stated to be a different portrait of him actually drawn from life.
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