Smith County History: Indian Trails to Interstate

November 12, 2020

The following is an excerpt from the Smith County History Book. The book was published in 1986 by the Smith County Homecoming ’86 Heritage Committee. To purchase a digital copy of the Smith County History Book, contact the Smith County Chamber of Commerce or the Smith County Heritage Museum.

Article by Sue W. Maggart

Prehistoric man, the Indian, the Long Hunter, and the Pioneer followed the same network of trails that intertwined for thous­ands of miles throughout the eastern part of the country. Thus concludes Dr. W.E. Myer (1862-1923), noted anthropologist and native Smith Countian, in his report, “ Indian Trails of the Southeast.” The buffalo and the deer further defined these routes as their natural instincts sought out passes through the mountains and the salt licks along the streams.

The most significant of the Indian Trails to the early settlement of Tennessee was the Great War Path which went through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky, allowing the traveler to avoid crossing the treacherous terrain of the Cumberland Plateau. This was the route taken by James Robertson and the first settlers on their journey to the French Lick, later Fort Nashborough.

The need for a more direct route to the Cumberland Country was recognized by the State of North Carolina, and in 1787 the legislature provided for cutting a “ trace” through the “ Wilderness” beginning at the south end of Clinch Mountain (now in Hawkins County). The trace followed rough­ly the old “ Chickasaw Path” and came to be known as the Military Trace or Old North Carolina Road, and, later, the Old Fort Blount Road.

Following is an excerpt from the essay of Mrs. Laura Gaston (Young) Garrett which won first prize in 1930 in competition sponso­red by the Middle Tennessee Daughters of the American Revolution for the best story of an unmarked historic spot. Mrs. Garrett (1887-1982) was the wife of the late Dr. Rhea E. Garrett of Dixon Springs and the mother of Dr. Sam Garrett. A copy of the essay with clarifying notes was shared with the editors of this volume by Vernon Roddy of Hartsville, Tennessee. Mr. Roddy says that while Mrs. Garrett’s account differs in some res­pects from the accounts of others, one finds much of value in her story about the Old Fort Blount Road that one does not find else­ where. The editors apologize that space would not permit the printing of the essay in its entirety, but a copy will be placed on file in the Smith County Library for handy reference. Mrs. Garrett writes:

This was the first road into the valley of our State, directly from the East; and between the years 1786 and 1796 the only direct road to “ the Cumberland Country;” yet a section of it lies today practically unknown; its sacred spots unhonored and unsung.

Rough it was, and narrow, and winding with hills; but it played its vital part in the winning of the West.

The pledge of the Revolutionary heroes was “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor;” their lives and honor saved, but their fortunes somewhat worsted at the ending of the war — what better solution of finances, what happier thought, could come then to reprieve on the marvelous Cumberland Bounty Land? The news of its richness was spreading; the Old North State was generous with her grants; the influx of immigration had begun.

But the Indians also prized the fertile valleys and richly timbered hills of their hunting ground; and they contested the right of the white man to pass without paying toll over the newly opened road through the territory remaining in their possession.

In lieu of other compensation, the Indians exacted human life; and so energetic they became in collecting that in 1787, the year following the opening of the first narrow roadway, the North Carolina legislature deemed it expedient to send for the protec­tion of the Cumberland settlers an armed force known as “Evan’s Battalion.”

Three of the captains under Major Evans* were Joshua Hadley, John* Hunter, and Wm. Martin; and one of their duties assigned by the legislature was the leveling and widening of the new Wilderness Road.

No child’s play, that of converting an Indian Trail into a wagon road but that courage which threw off the British yoke had faith to “ blaze the trail” to Cumberland; and the opening of the finished road September 25, 1788, to a party of sixty immigrant families was the consummation of the first forward step towards good roads in Tennes­see.

The Indians had as yet never consented to more than one ferry across Clinch river, that at Campbell’s Station, Southwest Point, the present Kingston. The Kentucky road used exclusively before this time by Cumberland settlers crossed the Clinch there, and at that point the new road began.

Striking the Cumberland Mountains twelve miles from Clinch, it crossed in turn: Rock Castle, Manny’s Creek, Spencer’s Hill, Crab Orchard, Daddy’s Creek, Obi River, Drowning Creek, and descended the western side of the mountain. From a point between White Plains, the present Algood, and the town of Livingston, on the last ledge of the mountain, it was eleven miles to the later location of the house of John Blackburn.

From Blackburn’s down Flinn’s Lick Creek the road then ran and crossed the Cumberland River where in 1794 Fort Blount was erected on the north side of the river (This location of the fort on the north side of the river, though in contradic­tion to some authorities, is corroborated by map of early roads and forts in Tennessee Historical Magazine, in Vol. 7, No. 4, and also by the statements of Mr. E.P. Garrett, Dixon Springs, of Mrs. Jean McClelland, and of Mr. Buddie Smith of Carthage, Tenn., who all remember having seen the logs which were the remains of the fort in close proximity to a spring several hundred yards nearer the river than the Williams Graveyard and on the same side of the road as the graveyard.

From the fort at the river the road ran westward; crossed Salt Lick Creek a short distance below the old Woodfork place; crossed Defeated Creek at the site of the Cross Roads Church, at William’s Cross Roads; down the Sloan Branch where, in 1799, the “Widow Young” made the Mora­vian ministers pay dearly for a night’s lodging.

Thence across Peyton’s Creek below old Herod’s Cross Roads, at Pleasant Shade; up the Porter Branch of Peyton’s, across Tow Town Branch (named by an early local Presbyterian minister) and to the top of Mace’s Hill; down the Mace’s Hill Road, leaving the road near the house on the place sold by Sam M. Young about 1920 to Jim Phillips and passing through his lower field towards the first Baptist Church orga­nized between Station Camp Creek and the settlements in East Tennessee, and across Dixon’s Creek about three hundred yards below the church and about one-half mile to the north of the northern boundary of Tilman Dixon’s tract; across Lick Creek just south of the old Gillespie house and north of the Othiel Johnson house; across Glasgow Branch where Goodwill Church now stands, winding through the lower side of Greene Wright’s farm, by an old log house on his place, and runs south of, and roughly parallel with, the Mongle’s Gap road and, with the topography of the land, diagonally down the line of hills to the foot of Stalcup’s; by Hartsville and Bledsoe’s Lick, Station Camp and Mansker’s to the river at French Lick .

This was the route of practically all travel to Cumberland from the year 1786 until the settlement of Col. Wm. Walton at the mouth of the Caney Fork about ten years later, when, by way of Cookeville, Chestnut Mound and Carthage, a new route was opened which diverged from the older Fort Blount route, at the point between Livingston and Algood, previously mentioned as being eleven miles from the house of John Blackburn. This was known as the Caney Fork Road, and it converged again with the Fort Blount route at the foot of Stalcup’s Hill, Trousdale County, three miles east of Hartsville, on the present Tilman Dixon Highway.

Both routes from that time were in con­stant use for about five years, and it is only too significant of the condition of each that, regardless of which road a traveler chose first, he usually returned over the other!

In the year 1801 the Caney Fork route from Carthage east was widened and graded and called the Walton Road, and the Fort Blount section of the original road became only a connecting link between the local settlements and landmarks, and some of its stretches now are almost obscured by the intervening century and a half.

But the glories of the old Fort Blount can never fade!

“The Appian Way of the Cumberland Country,” it fitly might be called, for along its historic bed are the graves of countless early heroes, whom Rome herself need not have scorned to own — officers and privates of the Colonial wars; members of committees of safety of North Carolina and Virginia; participants in the Battle of Alamance, where Freedom’s first blood was shed in 1771; members of Robertson’s and Donelson’s adventurous parties, and signers o f the Cumberland Compact; Watauga settlers, who signed the first independent government west of the Allegheny Mountains; signers of the Mecklenburg Declaration; distinguished ministers of the gospel, as McFerrin and the Magees; officers of George Washington’s staff, and privates, captains, majors, colonels, generals, in the war for independence — all these were here.

Among them I list the following, whose services for patriotic motive and rich achieve­ment are worthy of a nation’s thanks:

Capt. Sampson Williams, the obliging young commander of Fort Blount, who with Moses Fisk established at Hilham, Overton County, the first female academy in the southwest.

Edmond Jennings, fierce Indian fighter who requested that his body be buried at a certain spot near the Fort Blount road and his grave filled with rocks, “ for,” he said, “ I don’t want no damn varmints scratching me out.”

Col. Wm. Martin, soldier of the Revolution at fifteen years, and of the Creek War at forty-seven, son of Gen. Joseph Martin.

Wm. Herod of Stafford County, Va., supposed brother or close relation of James, of Harrodsburg fame; his son, Peter, tradition says, was General Washington’s godson.

Major Wm. Cunningham, descended from Abraham Michaux and aide de camp to General Washington during Revolution. His son-in-law:

Col. Wm. Saunders, member of North Carolina Society of Cincinnati, father of the Hon. Romulus Mitchell.

Wm. Cleveland, son of Col. Benjamin of King’s Mountain fame, who claimed descent from Oliver Cromwell.

Maj. Tilman Dixon, member of North Carolina Society of Cincinnati, founder of Dixon Springs, first postmaster, first tavern keeper; mentioned by Louis Philippe, Duke of Orleans, and other early travelers. The local tradition, given me by one of his descendants, says that the Duke on being informed that he might share a bed with one of the major’s sons said: “But do you realize that I am a prince of the blood?” “Yes,” answered the old patriot, “and you’ll be sleeping with a prince of the blood when you sleep with one of my boys!”

John Magee, who with his brother William, Rev. McGready, and others, started “ the jerks” of the great revival in 1799. First M.E. minister in Smith County (old Smith County).

Andrew Greer, son of Andrew, Watauga settler, brother of Alexander who carried the news of King’s Mountain to Congress.

John Brevard, Jr., son of John, member of committee of safety and constitutional con­gress of North Carolina.

Capt. Wm. Alexander, James Hart, and James Lauderdale, and the Bledsoe’s.

Halery Malone, who always refused a pension, saying: “I owe that much to my country,” and the distinguished Winchesters.

Dr. Wilson Yandell, honored with a degree from John Hopkins University for his skill in medicine without ever having attended a lecture.

James Sanders, member of North Carolina Cincinnati.

Wm. Brandon, the first white child born south of the Yadkin in North Carolina.

Gen. Griffith Rutherford, one of the few Revolutionary generals who came to Middle Tennessee.

Col. Wm. Cage and Edward Douglas and the Peyton twins.

Gen. Matthew Locke had four sons in the Revolutionary War atone time. Member of North Carolina Constitutional Congress.

Zaccheus Wilson, Mecklenburg signer.

Gen. Daniel Smith, soldier, scholar, states­ man, whose commission as surveyor of the Territory South of the Ohio, is in the Lyman C. Draper collection in Wisconsin.

Yes, the Fort Blount Road has its glories. It served its country well; our oldest homes were built along its course; our finest stories still revolve around it; our bravest pioneers sleep along its way.

May our old traditions keep its memory green!

Although the earliest route over the Pla­teau to the Cumberland Country was the Old Fort Blount Road, it did not take many years for the dominant way to become that which crossed the river at Walton’s Ferry (later Carthage). So states Vernon Roddy in his essay, “The Greener Grass on the Cumber­ land: The Wide Way There,” in agreement with Mrs. Garrett that the old road even­tually became used for local travel only. The “new” road was first known as the Caney Fork and later the Walton Road.

Early attempts were made to build a new road into the Cumberland country but most efforts failed because of difficulties with the Indians. The Territorial legislature, on July 10, 1795, authorized the sale of certain salt licks to defray the expenses o f “ cutting and clearing a wagon road from Southwest Point (Kingston) to Bledsoe’s Lick.” The Indians claimed the act violated some techni­calities of the Treaty of the Holston, negotiat­ed in 1791 by Territorial Governor William Blount, and continued to resist the passage of the emigrants without payment of toll. In the meantime William Walton, who was operating his ferry on the Cumberland, began to clear a route to a point on the Cumberland Plateau called “ Forks of the Road.” Walton followed an old buffalo path up Snow Creek to the top of Chestnut Mound hill thence eastward along the crests of the ridges. Competition was always keen between the ferrymen, and Walton, by constructing a road in his direction, no doubt, hoped to divert some business from the ferry at Fort Blount to his own enterprise.

In order to comply with the terms of the treaty made in 1791, the legislature on the 26th of October, 1799, passed an Act naming William Walton and William Martin of Smith County and Robert Koyle of Hawkins County as commissioners to mark and lay off the road in the name of the United States government. The road began at the fort near Southwest Point, passed through the valley of Post Oak Springs and ascended the mountain at what was later called Kim­broughs Gap, southwest of Rockwood. At the present town of Crossville it intersected with the old North Carolina Road, which it practically followed to “Forks of the Road” where one fork led to Fort Blount and the other to the confluence of the Caney Fork and Cumberland Rivers, probably following the route of Walton’s earlier road.

William Walton contracted to build and open the road to the Caney Fork, and it subsequently came to be known as the Walton Road. The road was opened in 1801, and “stands” or depots were located at convenient distances for the traveler. Walton kept a stand at his ferry, supplying travelers with produce from his farm, and hunters were hired to furnish a supply of fresh meat. In succeeding years stands were opened at Kimbroughs at the eastern foot of Walden’s Ridge, Sidnor’s at Crab Orchard, Alexander’s near White Plains and no doubt others over the years.

Some stands were in operation on Walton’s road to “the forks” even before the Walton Road was completed. One in particular was that of James Raulston which was built about 1795 and located about fifteen miles east of Carthage in a small community called Pekin. The name was later changed to Mount Richardson when James and Eliza McKinney took over the stand around 1820. A DAR marker at the site of the old stand on present Highway 70 states that three Presidents stopped there at one time or another – Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk and Andrew Johnson.

Benjamin Blackburn had been authorized to keep an ordinary at his dwelling house which was located at now Double Springs, Putnam County, and he, too, catered to the influx of travelers; Blackburn was also ap­pointed Postmaster of “ Blackburn Springs” on January 1, 1801. In 1799 two Moravian missionaries, Brothers Steiner and Schweinitz, traveling from Knoxville to Nashville, give an account of this stand. They say that Mr. Blackburn and his family use their advantageous location to sell provisions and fodder to travelers at high prices. Corn sold for $1.00 a bushel and bears flesh Vs of $1.00 per pound. The Brothers also recorded that dry grass was gathered and sold to the travelers for hay. In fairness to Mr. Black­ burn, he was allowed by the court to charge double for his services because of his danger­ous proximity to the Indian line – hence, perhaps, the name “Double Springs.”

At the October session, 1801, the Tennes­see State Legislature passed an Act designa­ting the Walton Road as the Cumberland Turnpike. The incorporators were required to measure and milepost the road, dig and level the passage through the hills as well as the bridges to a width of twelve feet. The remainder of the road was to be fifteen feet in width. The rate of the tolls was established by the same Act, with Indians being exempt from paying a toll. Andre Michaux, traveling the road in 1802, reported that it was set every three miles with markers, and declared that it was “ broad and commodious as those in the environs of Philadelphia” and better than much of the road to Pittsburgh.

Various names have been assigned to the old road, but the route has deviated but little from that laid out by Walton and his “ engineers” almost two hundred years ago. In later pioneer days the road became known as “The Great Stage Road;” in the twentieth century it was termed the York Highway in honor of Alvin C. York, W.W.I hero; it later became Highway 24 and now Highway 70, North. In 1931 the Old Walton Road Chap­ ter, Daughters of the American Revolution, moved to perpetuate the historic thorough­ fare by asking the General Assembly to restore the name “ Walton Road,” but appar­ently no action was ever taken.

The first justices of the Smith County Court were not unmindful of the need for roads to further Commerce and transporta­tion within the county. Passable roads were necessary not only for communication be­ tween communities but also as a route for transporting products to market. Many of the first acts of the court were related to the construction and maintenance of roads. The first session of the court in December 1799 appointed Henry McKinney as overseer of a road leading from Fort Blount to the head of Flinn’s Creek. William Gillispie was to oversee the road from the crossing of Long Creek to the State line, and William Gil­ breath was in charge of the road leading from Captain Turney’s to Mungle’s Gap. Dixon Springs was to have a road to Mungle’s Gap laid out by Frederick Debow, and William Cochran was to oversee one to Robert Bowman’s. William Walton was to oversee a road northwest from his ferry to Peyton’s Creek and east to the head of Snow Creek. In June 1800 Terisha Turner was appointed to oversee a road from the ridge between Defeated and Peyton’s Creek to Michael Murphey’s (Pleasant Shade).

On the south side of the county the court commissioned roads leading to both the Caney Fork and Cumberland Rivers. In March 1800 William Walton, John Cros­swhite, and James Payne were commissioned to lay off a road from the mouth of the Caney Fork to the Indian Boundary. In September of the same year William Sullivan, Sr. was to oversee the road from Sullivan’s Ferry (near Maggart) to the forks “where it meets Walton’s Road.” All hands living on Martin and Hurricane Creek were to work under said overseer. The court meeting in March 1802 ordered a road laid off from Lancaster’s Ferry on the Caney Fork to intersect with Walton’s Road at the most convenient place going towards Knoxville. Richard and Thomas Lancaster, William and James Pryor, Wil­liam Walker, John Goad, and David Morrison were appointed to carry out the court order. At the same term Leonard Fite was to oversee a road that ran from the head of Walker’s Creek to Lancaster’s Mill. Another road to Lancaster’s Mill was to run from Walton’s Ferry as ordered by the court meeting in June 1802 with John Gordon, William Hughes, John Haney, William Smith, Mathew Payne, Jesse Smith, and Thomas Lancaster to be the jurors. The same court further decreed that a road be laid off from Bowling’s Ferry on Smith Fork to intersect the Nashville road at the most convenient place for the upper settlements of Hickman’s Creek. At the December 1803 session of court, William Smith, William Hankins, Harris Bradford, Joseph Prewitt, James Cotter, Leonard Caplinger, and Wilson Coats were appointed to lay off a road from where the Wilson County road strikes the Smith County line near Round Lick Creek to near the mouth of Hickman Creek.

Of course, the term “road” did not have the same connotation as in the present day. Many were little more than a widening of the old Indian and buffalo trails to enable wagons and carts to bump through. In some of the deepest ruts logs were sometimes laid cros­swise to prevent travelers from becoming hopelessly mired up. These were termed corduroy roads. The early court minutes often make a distinction between roads and “ bridleways” which were meant to accommo­date a horse only. Overseers were appointed by the court, and the “ hands” were the able- bodied men of the district who were expected to work on the roads a certain number of days each year. Tools were supplied by the county as evidenced by an appropriation in 1813 of $15.00 for procuring a sledge and crow bar. John Fite, Thomas Bratton, Evan B. Bradley, and Joseph Snow, overseers on the Caney Fork waters, were to share the equipment! An act of the court in February 1819 ordered John Gordon to contract for one hammer and one crowbar “ suitable for working on the road which tools when made be appropriated to the use of the following roads – from Trous­dale’s Ferry to the Dry Fork of Mulherrin’s Creek; also from said ferry to the Flat Rock branch towards Murphreysborough (sic); also the road leading from Hickman Creek to Mulherrin Creek towards Carthage; and also the road leading from Orange’s to James Mosses.” From these decrees of the early courts a mental “map” of some of the roads literally hacked out of the cane brakes by hammer and sledge may be visualized.

As the need for more and better roads increased, the legislature in 1804 granted the counties the right to construct roads, bridges, and ferries and charge a small toll. Progress was slow, for the counties had little money to spend.

The next step in road building was the chartering of the turnpike stock companies who were given license to build roads and charge a toll which was set by the legislature. Four such companies were chartered in Smith County in the 1800’s: the Carthage to Hartsville turnpike; the Trousdale Ferry Pike which followed roughly the present Highway 141 into Lebanon; the Alexandria, Carthage, Blue Sulpher Springs (Red Boiling

Springs) Pike which came up Dry Fork and across now Bradford Hill into Carthage and on to the “Springs;” a road from Hogan’s Ferry (mouth of Hogan’s Creek) to Lebanon failed to be as successful as the other pikes. Eventually the old turnpikes were divided up into smaller companies with one or two individuals as the owners. They were allowed to charge tolls and were responsible for the maintenance of the road.

By actions of the quarterly term of Smith County Court, held the first Monday in January, 1929, the bars that prevented free passage of all roads and bridges in the county came down. At this meeting the Justices voted to purchase the bridge across the Caney Fork at Stonewall and the ferry across the Cumberland River at Rome. The amount appropriated for purchase of the Stonewall bridge was $10,000 and $3,000 for the Rome ferry. Some years earlier the toll gates on the highway from Carthage to Dixon Springs were removed. Later the toll gate at Chestnut Mound came down. Then a few years later the bridge across the Caney Fork at Elmwood was made free. Two years earlier in 1927 the bridge across the Cumberland at Carthage was opened. A county “picnic” was held on the courthouse lawn in celebration of the momentous event.

The first automobiles were built around 1896, but it was after 1900 before the “ horseless carriages” chugged and snorted along the roads of Smith County. However, by 1914 a news item worthy of printing in the Courier stated that there were eight automo­biles in Pleasant Shade, the largest number in any community in the county. In the same year the paper also proclaimed the news that J.R. Curtis had purchased a new Ford from I.H. Beasley and Company of Dixon Springs, and a new Maxwell could be bought from Z.T. Gregory for the price of $750.

Smith County’s roads were not made to accommodate this new marvel, and travel was hazardous and unreliable. Most owners put their cars up on blocks during the winter months as the roads were impassable during the bad weather. It was ironic, too, that gas for the automobiles had to be shipped up the river by barge and delivered to the service stations (usually a gas pump in front of a country store) by horse drawn wagons be­ cause gas-powered vehicles could not get over the roads. Mr. Bob Mixon, one of the earliest gasoline distributors in the county, says you couldn’t get to Gordonsville in the winter even by mule, the road was so bad. The road from South Carthage to Defeated was so rough that drivers always carried a spare wheel for their mule-drawn wagons.

The necessity for better roads became so critical that W.A. Ashley, Chairman of the County Court, called a special meeting for March 9, 1914, for the purpose of discussing the improvement of the county roads. All citizens were invited to attend. Gradually the dirt tracks gave way to paved highways, and the old “ ordinaries” and riverfront hotels were replaced by “filling stations” and “tourist cabins.” Stock could be loaded on trucks and delivered to the market at Union Stockyards in Nashville; coal from Monterey, watermelons from Georgia, and dry goods from Nashville were only a few of the products that could be delivered to the merchant’s door.

The construction of Interstate 40, which more or less follows the route of Walton’s old road, was completed in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The next time you zoom towards Knoxville on this “super,” peer carefully into the mists for the ghosts of the old settlers plodding along on a trip that often took weeks; look sharply for the hunters who supplied the stands along the way; and most especially watch for William Walton as he surveys his domain. Then, as you contem­plate our fascinating journey into the past, try peering two hundred years into the future. Can the imagination even begin to conjure up what phenomena will have made our times as primitive as those of the pioneers seem to us?