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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in
American Historical Magazine
Vol. 5 No. 3 (Jul. 1900), pp225‑229

The text is in the public domain.

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 p225  Sketch of Henry Rutherford

[Read before the Tennessee Historical Society by Hon. P. T. Glass.]

Henry Rutherford was born in Rowan County, North Carolina, August 17, 1762, and was the second son of Genl. Griffith Rutherford, of that State.

The latter was a distinguished actor in the struggle for American independence, being identified with the earliest movements in that direction. He was one of the band of Regulators organized to suppress toryism in his part of the State under the guidance of Hermann Husbands.​a He was sent to the first assemblage of patriots at Newbern, in 1775, to protest against British oppression, and to the Continental Congress at Halifax in August, 1776. By this congress he was made a brigadier-general, and served throughout the struggle. He was also a member of the convention that framed the State constitution in 1776, as well as a member of the committee of safety. Among the military achievements of Gen'l Rutherford not the least was his march across the mountains for the purpose of chastising the "over hill" Cherokees for depredations on the frontier settlers. In this campaign he advanced as far as their middle towns near the present city of Chattanooga, driving the Indians from their villages on the Little Tennessee, destroying their houses and crops, and driving away their cattle.​b

The route of his march was long known as Rutherford's Trace. He commanded a brigade in the ill‑fated battle of Camden, was taken prisoner and sent to St. Augustine, Florida. As a reward for his patriotism and courage, North Carolina and Tennessee have each preserved his name in one of their counties, and his native State further honored and rewarded him by the gift of a warrant for five thousand acres of land. This warrant was first "located" on a part of the 25,000‑acre grant to Gen'l Nathaniel Greene, in the present county of Maury, Tennessee.

A lawsuit, growing out of the double location of warrants, was finally decided by the United States Supreme Court in favor of the heirs of Gen'l Greene.

 p226  The Legislature, at a subsequent session, authorized the heirs of Gen'l Rutherford to lift the warrant and locate it elsewhere. Gen'l Rutherford was appointed by the President one of the legislative counselors for the territory south of the Ohio, and was elected president of that body August 26, 1794; this territory two years later becoming the State of Tennessee.

Gen. Rutherford removed many years afterward to Williamson County, Tennessee, and settled on Little Harpeth, where he lived until his death, about 1810. His wife was Elizabeth, daughter of Governor Graham, of North Carolina.

Henry Rutherford inherited a good constitution and the thrifty habits of his Scotch-Irish ancestry, and was gifted with great decision of character and indomitable energy. He was educated at such schools as the country then afforded, and was taught the art of surveying, which he pursued, in connection with farming, for a livelihood all his life. He was a resident of what became Tennessee when the act was passed — October, 1783 — creating the Armstrong land office, which was established at Hillsboro: and land warrants issued to officers and privates of the Revolutionary Army could be registered there and located upon lands in Middle or Western Tennessee. Henry Rutherford, E. Harris, and James Robertson were appointed deputy surveyors, and with Almer Bush and W. Bush as guides and hunters, and six chain bearers, came in June, 1785, to the French Lick, the future site of Nashville. Finding that much of the best land was appropriated, they set out for the west end of the State, then claimed by the Chickasaws. They descended the Cumberland in canoes, proceeding cautiously for fear of Indians, examining the country as far as practicable with the view of future locations. There was at the time a new settlement near the present site of Clarksville, though the Cherokees were claiming the country, and constantly roaming over it, as were the Chickasaws, the Shawnees, called the roving band, having been driven out.

Old Fort Massac had been built below the mouth of the Tennessee, on the north side of the Ohio. The Spanish also had a trading post at New Madrid, prior to that time occupied by the French, and called by them Lance de Grace.​c Notwithstanding the occupation by Indians of the country traversed by Rutherford and his party, they were not molested. They descended the Ohio  p227 and Mississippi to the mouth of a small stream emptying into it, which the Indians called Okeena. The killing of a deer here suggested the name Forked Deer. The party separated here, Rutherford with two chain carriers, Amos and Alexander Moore, with Almer and W. Bush went up this stream, while Harris and Robertson and four chain carriers went down the Mississippi and began locating on the Coosa Hatchie River, and later on the Obion. The two parties must have rejoined each other in the neighborhood of the latter, as they frequently exchanged chain carriers, as their field notes show.

Rutherford made his way up stream some nine miles, named a lake there Boyd's lake, which afterward was called Clear Lake, for Adam Boyd, for whom he made the first survey August 30, 1785. Dissatisfied with the character of the land, which was all either subject to overflow or much broken, he went up the stream to the first bluff, and near the mouth of a spring branch, on September 1st, he made the beginning corner of his connected surveys on the Forked Deer River.

It is claimed that the name given this stream originated in this way: That some member of the party killed, near their camp on its banks, a large buck with horns of a peculiar shape; and it was decided to call the river Forked Deer, and it was so referred to in Rutherford's surveys. Here the beginning point, known as the "Key Corner," was marked on a leaning sycamore standing on the south bank of the river, on which he cut the letters H. R., and a large key, to indicate it as the key to all his Forked Deer surveys. This was the beginning corner of four of his locations: the first of 3,000 acres in the name of Griffith Rutherford, his father; the second of 5,000 acres for Benjamin Smith; the third for Benjamin Silversmith, of 5,000 acres; and the fourth for Martin Armstrong, of 5,000 acres.

During Rutherford's first visit to West Tennessee he located there more than three hundred and sixty-five thousand acres of land, of which thirteen thousand five hundred were for himself, six thousand for his father, and five thousand for his brother John. He located besides numerous warrants for the Blounts, John Carter, Henry Clark, John Estes, E. Harris, W. Hughlett, George Doherty, and many others.

Rutherford began his surveys at the key corner more than a year prior to the John Rice location below the mouth of Wolf  p228 River, that being made by Isaac Roberts December 1st, 1786. Rutherford's surveys were made on the waters of the Forked Deer, Obion, and Mississippi rivers, and Reelfoot Creek; many on the spot that is now Reelfoot Lake. None of the large lakes in the Mississippi bottom, in West Tennessee, then existed, and were formed in 1811 by earthquakes.

Rutherford's Fork of Obion, on which he made many surveys, he named for himself. He spent three months in locating lands in the latter part of 1785. His father represented Rowan County in the Legislature of North Carolina in 1786, and soon afterward removed with Henry to Harpeth River. Henry resided there until West Tennessee was opened for settlement by a treaty with the Chickasaws, October 18, 1818. In 1819 Henry Rutherford, in company with his brothers, John and Griffith, and a Mr. Crenshaw and their families, descended the Cumberland from Nashville, in scows or flat boats, and began to build houses and clear their lands.

Henry Rutherford settled some three miles east of Key Corner, on one of the tracts he had entered in his own name, in 1785. The Baptist Church near Double Bridges was built on this tract, on land given by him. The church is called Elon, and was at first used by all the orthodox denominations, and as a schoolhouse.

On his first visit to locate his warrants, Rutherford soon exhausted his provisions, and then his supply of salt, and having reached the forks of the river, he abandoned his canoe and depended for subsistence upon the gun. His half-breed was a good woodsman and guide, while W. Bush, his hunter, furnished the party with elk, bear, deer, and turkey. His surveys were made according to the cardinal points: he was not only a good surveyor, but did his work rapidly. He had a remarkable memory, being able in many instances to name the trees on which corners had been made thirty or forty years afterward, and to go to the places and identify them.

The pea vine was at the time of his first visit so rank that persons walking through it and dragging a chain left a conspicuous trail, and it was Rutherford's practice, for fear of being ambushed, to move half a mile from his line at night. He saw no Indians while in West Tennessee, and in fact not until he reached the Tennessee River on his way to Nashville. Rutherford possessed  p229 superior business qualities; he was of generous impulses, was ardent in his friendships, and always trustworthy. He inherited slaves from his father, but was too indulgent to make them a source of much income; most of them were taught to read. He did not realize much from his large landed estate, much of it being sold at low prices. Much of his time was given to the public, in aiding new‑comers and others in finding their lands and tracing the lines. He was often summoned to testify as to land titles, and to make resurveys to be used in litigation. Heavy drafts were made on his hospitality by strangers who visited the country in quest of homes. As he kept open house, declining to accept payment for the entertainment of travelers, he not only did not become rich, but died poorer than at the time of his settlement. Notwithstanding he was brave, and of much experience in the forest, he was on one occasion frightened out of his senses. While making a survey in what is now Maury County, he declared he heard Indians, and leaving his camp started in the dark for Nashville. He took a southern direction, and soon reaching Duck River declared it had sprung up during the night, and was not there the previous day. It was with great difficulty that his comrades, who had followed him, convinced him that the stream was in its proper place, and that there were no Indians near the camp.

Henry Rutherford contributed in great degree to the upbuilding and development of the State. He was a broad-minded man, who gave encouragement and pecuniary aid to all public and charitable causes. After a long and useful career, devoted particularly to the settlement of the Western District, he died May 20, 1847, at the age of eighty-five, and was buried at Elon Church Cemetery.​d

Thayer's Notes:

a There is to this day much disagreement about the Regulators: whether they were a mob or a reform movement, and whether or not they may legitimately be viewed as precursors of the Revolution. Chapter 17 of Connor's History of North Carolina covers the subject in depth, including Herman(n) Husband(s)' role in the movement.

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b See "Rutherford's Expedition against the Indians, 1776" (North Carolina Booklet, 4:3‑28 (Dec. 1904).

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c Properly, L'anse à la Graisse (= "Grease Bend"); a curious replacement.

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d A photograph of his tombstone and some brief genealogical information are given at a page on Find-a‑Grave.

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Page updated: 16 Apr 19