Smith County History: The First Settlements

October 22, 2020

The following is an excerpt from the Smith County History Book. The book was published in 1986 by 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

The scene was chaotic – the bellowing of livestock, the clatter of kitchen and house­ hold paraphernalia, the shriek and cries of children, and the commotion of ferrying anywhere from thirty to fifty families in a group across the Clinch River. This scenario was to be repeated numerous times following peace with the Indians after the Nickajack campaign. Louis Philippe says he was told that twenty four thousand whites, with their families and slaves, had crossed the ferry for the Cumberland Valley in the year 1796 alone.

Some of these settlers were destined to take up the fertile land along the Cumberland and Caney Fork Rivers and their tributaries. Many had in their possession land warrants issued by the State of North Carolina; others would purchase smaller parcels from the land speculators who owned large tracts which they had obtained from holders of warrants who did not choose to come to a new frontier and claim their holdings. And many came with “ Great Expectations” only. They came not only from North Carolina but also streamed in from the older states of Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, South Carolina and others.

At the close of the Revolutionary War the State of North Carolina had no funds with which to pay her soldiers for their services. Her greatest resources lay in the vast lands west of the mountains of which Middle Tennessee was a part. An Act of the General Assembly of North Carolina was passed in 1782 for the “ relief o f the officers and soldiers in the Continental Line in consideration for their signal bravery and zeal.” Warrants or grants were issued for land in the unsettled country. The number of acres awarded was determined by the rank of the soldier – privates receiving 640 acres and so on up.

In addition to the bounties granted to the officers and soldiers, grants were issued to guards commissioned to protect the settle­ments and lay off roads. Prior to 1785 the approach to the Cumberland settlements was generally through the wilderness of Ken­tucky, but at the November session of 1785 the General Assembly of North Carolina enacted a law providing for a force of three hundred men to protect the settlements, to cut and clear a road from the lower end of Clinch Mountain to Fort Nashborough, and to act as escorts for the new immigrants. The “Guard Rights” induced numerous individ­uals to become members of the guards!

Surveyors had to be employed to lay off the bounty lines, and they, too, received land grants as pay for their services.

William Walton, owner of the original site of Carthage, was one of the first North Carolina soldiers to lay claim to land in later Smith County in redemption of his grant bestowed by that state. At the age of seventeen Walton enlisted in the army and saw his first service at the Battle of Stoney Point in 1779. He was taken prisoner at the Battle of Charleston in 1780. Upon being exchanged he was promoted to Captain and served under General Greene until the close of the War in 1783. In the spring of 1784 Walton, in the company of John Lipscomb, William Roberts, John Gatling, James Bryer, and Henry Salisbery, made the journey from North Carolina for the purpose of looking over the land. That same year Walton returned home, and the following year he came back to the frontier with his family, living at Mansker’s Station.

In 1786 Walton and Tilman Dixon (see History of Dixon Springs in this volume) came up the Cumberland River to select and locate their grants. Dixon located at the spring which yet bears his name and Walton on the north bank of the Cumberland where it is joined by the Caney Fork River. Walton may have begun cultivation and improv­ements earlier, but it was not until around 1795 that he moved his family and perma­nently established a new home on the Cumberland. Walton was granted the “ privilege of keeping a ferry” by the Sumner County Court on Monday, October 5, 1795. In August of 1797 Francis Bailey, a young Englishman, writes of crossing Walton’s Ferry and having breakfast with his host (Walton) “who furnished me with coffee and some fried rashers of bacon, served up with Indian bread, a common breakfast in this part of the country, where nothing better is to be had.”

The town of Bledsoesborough was estab­lished by an act of the Tennessee State Legislature in October 1797, being a part of a tract of one thousand acres granted to William Saunders by North Carolina for his services in the Revolutionary War. When the act was passed, the tract was still a part of Sumner County. The history of Bledsoesborough’s brief existence has been rescued from oblivion by Vernon Roddy, author of an interesting account of the town which was located two miles south of Dixon Springs on a bluff of the Cumberland River. (The Lost Town of Bledsoesborough, Tennessee: Its Beginning, Its End. Vernon Roddy, 1984). The job of the original town commissioners – Tilman Dixon, William Alexander, Charles Donoho, Peter Turney, and Henry M ’Kinney – was to lay off the town and to advertise and sell the town lots. Roddy says it seems certain that lots were laid off on two or more streets either in 1797 or 1798. As late as 1800 Lot No. 102 was conveyed to John Ward and regis­tered in Smith County on September 22, 1801. On October 3, 1798, William Saunders was granted leave to keep a ferry on the Cumberland River at Bledsoesborough by the Sumner County Court. The ferry was to connect two major roads, both leading to Nashville – one leaving Bledsoesborough and passing on the north side of the Cumberland River and the other crossing Saunders’ Ferry and passing on the south side of the River. The same session of the Sumner County Court that approved the ferry also ordered a road built from Walton’s Ferry to Bledsoe’s Lick, connecting with the road at Bledsoes­ borough. A tobacco warehouse and inspec­tion point was established in the town, and John L. Martin was operating a “ store house” as late as 1803. The death of Colonel Saunders on October 20, 1803, and the loss of the election for county seat to Walton’s Ferry were the contributing factors to the demise of the town. Today there is practically nothing left to indicate that the place ever existed.

McClure’s Bend took its name from the forty eight hundred acre tract granted to William McClure, a surgeon in the Continen­tal Line. McClure was taken prisoner at Charleston on May 12,1780, exchanged June 14,1781, and served until the close of the war. The land was leased for several years to various people. Colonel McClure died on October 25, 1828, and after the death of his daughter to whom the land was entailed, the tract was divided into small parcels and sold. Many who had rented became the purchas­ers.

One of the largest grants in the county was issued to the heirs of James Hogan who was commissioned a Colonel on November 24, 1776. He was promoted to Brigadier General in 1779 and was taken prisoner by the British at Charleston, South Carolina May 12, 1780. General Hogan died in prison January 4, 1781. The Hogan grant of 12,000 acres included all of Hogan’s Creek and much of Mulherrin. The tract was first settled by Arthur S. Hogan, an heir of General Hogan, James Hodges, Thomas Hale, Ward Wooten, William Wooten and others who immigrated from North Carolina about 1796.

As was often customary with settlers coming into the new country, the Hogan group first stopped and raised a crop on White’s Creek in Davidson County. The transient pioneers did this in order to have provisions for the winter. They did not take time to clear the land; instead the trees were “stripped” and the seed sown on the lightly tilled soil. The pioneer would then go on to his destination and construct a lean-to or temporary shelter and then return to gather the mature crop that needed little cultivation in the rich virgin soil. Using pack horses the Hogan party transported their crop to Ho­ gan’s Creek, a distance of sixty miles. The nearest mill was the one on Smith Fork operated by John Lancaster which was some twelve to fifteen miles away. There was no road nor, according to Bowen, even a pathway so they formed a party to hack one out of the dense cane thicket. The first day put them across Mulherrin Creek to about where Gordonsville is today. Here they killed a bear which furnished them meat for dinner and breakfast. The remainder of the kill was hung on a tree to be retrieved on the return trip.

The Hogan tract was eventually sold to immigrants in small parcels of from one to three hundred acres. In the July 6, 1810, issue of the Carthage Gazette, Arthur S. Hogan advertised for sale all o f his land “ lying in Hogan’s large survey on the south side of Cumberland River.” Tracts were offered on Mulherrin and Ward’s Creeks, two of which had improvements. Negroes and horses would be taken in payment.

At about the same time the large grants were being taken up and settled, other communities began to establish identities. Lying west of the Hogan tract were Plunk­ ett’s and Rawls’ Creeks both of which are mentioned in early deeds of the county. In 1808 Charles Mobias received a grant from the State of Tennessee for three hundred twenty acres on Plunkett’s Creek. Neighbor­ ing land owners were Jesse Morris, Gideon Lamb, and Joseph Hodges. The same year Mobias also owned land on Rawls’ Creek bordered by Stephen Barton. In May 1812, James Barnet bought three hundred twenty acres on the east fork of Rawls’ Creek known by the name of Plunkett’s Creek.

Captain Armistead Moore was an early settler near Rome at a place first known as Bowen’s Lick. Tabitha Bowen, daughter of Captain William Bowen, married Moore and the lick took its name from her father who owned the property. It early lost its original name and came to be known as Thompson’s Creek. The name was changed again by 1805 when Martin Armstrong sold a tract of land “in the county of Smith on Thompson’s Creek, now called Round Lick Creek, on the south side of the Cumberland River on the east border of Roland Thompson.” A post office called Round Lick was established on April 1, 1815, with Armstead Moore as Postmaster. James Shelton next held the office from September 3, 1819, until May 7, 1830, when the name was changed to Rome.

Tradition assigns two reasons for the chan­ging of the creek’s name to Round Lick. One is from the shape of the ground immediately around the spring and the other is that one of the earliest settlers in the vicinity was named Rountree. Excavations at the lick in 1845 exhumed many bones of long extinct animals of mammoth size. Dr. Bowen says he measured a tooth which was eight inches long and four inches in diameter.

John Gordon came to the Caney Fork around 1800 and settled on the present site of Gordonsville. He built a cabin and brought his family to the county in 1801. Under Gordon’s leadership and with its proximity to the river and the Trousdale Ferry Pike, and later, the railroad, Gordonsville became the largest town on the south side of the Cumberland River. (See History of Gordon­sville in this volume.)

Gordon’s nearest neighbor on the east was Thomas Smith, Sr. who settled on the west side of the Caney Fork near the mouth of Hickman Creek. Smith came from North Carolina in 1799-1800. His five sons were John, William, Jesse, Thomas, and Robert. William settled on Mulherrin Creek where New Middleton is now located. His son, Josiah R., was a Methodist preacher and a soldier in the War of 1812. Jesse married a daughter o f William Trousdale who also settled on the Caney Fork. Robert Smith married Lucy Gordon, sister of John Gordon. John and Thomas, Jr. both became Method­ist ministers.

The fertile valleys along Hickman or Beaver Creek, as it was called by the early settlers, was quickly taken up by those with an eye for good soil. John Baird and James Upton were settled in by 1801, and Henry Moore purchased one hundred acres on the headwaters in 1802. John Nichols sold John Trousdale six hundred forty acres on the east bank of Caney Fork above the mouth of Beaver Creek in 1804. Charles Kavanaugh, one of the first county commissioners, also lived on Hickman Creek near the present town of Alexandria. In 1806 he sold land to Daniel Alexander near the fork of Hickman Creek, reserving one acre for the use of a meeting house. A post office called Kavenaugh was established on October 1, 1807, with Daniel Alexander serving as Postmaster. On April 1,1808, Charles Kavanaugh was the Postmaster and here ends the record of the now extinct office.

Brush Creek, the largest tributary of Hickman Creek, was also settled early in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Sam­uel Casey built a mill on the stream, and James Garrison lived on a tract called Sulpher Springs. The Boons and Garrisons were in residence early on; John Boon, who married Chloe Garrison, drowned in Hickman Creek. Higher up Brush Creek on a stream called Hoyden’s Branch, lived Tittsworth, a furniture maker, and a blacksmith named Ferguson; Jeremiah Wilford built a little corn mill on Brush Creek, and Joseph Collins was engaged in land transactions on the Creek at an early date. Thomas Terry was a very early pioneer as was Benjamin Watts (Coats) whose wife was a midwife for forty years and assisted at the birth of forty children in three families – thirteen at Benjamin M. Davises, thirteen at Lewis Washburns, and fourteen at Abel Hunts. Atwood, Lankford, White, Scudder, Thompson, Tuggle, Belcher, and many other names are associated with the early history of this area.

James Kitching (Kitchens), a native of North Carolina, immigrated to Tennessee, stopping first at Bledsoe’s Lick, and after­ ward locating near the head of the creek that bears his name.

Smith’s Fork heads up in Wilson County, flowing eastward across the southern breadth of Smith County, falling into the Caney Fork River. Adam Dale was living on this stream by 1797 where he established the town of Liberty and erected the first water-powered corn mill. Among those who soon joined Dale at Liberty from his native Maryland were William and John Dale, Thomas West, William and George Givens, Thomas Wha­ ley, Josiah Duncan, James and William Bratton, Henry Burton and others. In 1802 Dale and William Bratton each purchased three hundred twenty acres at $1.00 per acre, on the waters of Smith’s Fork (formerly called Collin’s River) from Robert Hays of Davidson County. Liberty, which was at that time in Smith County, soon became a thri­ving town with streets laid off and lots being sold. In 1807 Adam Dale sold to Robert W. Roberts a “lot of ground in the town of Liberty. . . two acres to run 210 feet on Sary Street which is the main public road leading through the said town.” In 1812 William P. Lawrence, a physician, purchased from William Anderson, tanner, two “ lots” in Liber­ty, one on the west side of Sary’s Street and the other a back “lot” facing Mary’s Street. Salem Baptist Church was constituted in 1809 and a building was erected in 1810.

When Brothers Steiner and Schweinitz, Moravian preachers, visited the present Middle Tennessee in late 1799, while at Walton’s Ferry at the mouth of the Caney Fork, they observed the following: “ The land along the Caney Fork is being more and more settled since a well-to-do man, by the name of Lancaster, has settled here and built a mill . . .” The well-to-do man was John Lancas­ter whose mill was several miles up the Caney Fork at Lancaster. In 1802 Thomas and Mourning White (formerly Mourning Pryor, widow of Richard Pryor, dec’d.) sold one hundred acres to James Pryor located on the east side o f the Caney Fork near the head o f a large cave spring about one mile from Lancaster’s ferry.

Mulherrin, once called Wolf Creek, and later named for Jams Mulherrin who was a land speculator, is a tributary of the Caney Fork and flows through rich bottom lands. Much of the Hogan tract lay on this stream and the town of New Middleton was estab­lished on its banks. Prior to 1809 William Moore and Benjamin Enoch were residents of the Elk Fork of Mulherrin. Little Berry Hughes bought four hundred sixteen acres on the Dry Fork of Mulherrin in 1810.

Snow Creek was first mentioned in the court minutes in 1799. It enters the Caney Fork near Elmwood where Zachary Ford was one of the earliest settlers, being there about 1799-1800. Others who settled on Snow Creek were the Vadens, Timberlakes, Armisteads, Ferrels, Nicholas, and Condits.

William Sullivan was given “ leave to keep a ferry on the south side of Cumberland River about a mile below the mouth of Hurricane Creek . . .” by the Sumner County Court in January 1799. Hurricane Creek flows into the Cumberland at Maggart. In 1802 the Smith County Court gave William Sullivan, Sr. the right to keep a ferry on the Cumberland River at “Buffelow Creek” and he was to discontinue the one he operated three miles above said creek.

According to the research of Vernon Rod­dy, Defeated Creek was at various times called Peyton’s Defeated Creek, Defeated Camp Creek, Peyton’s Defeated Camp Creek and, sometimes Shackler’s Creek after one Phillip Shackler who had large land claims thereon. By the end of 1792, however, the name “Defeated Creek” seems to have be­ come the most commonly used. This same year a grant for four hundred twenty-eight acres on a branch above Defeated Creek was issued by North Carolina to Robert Brooks, a private in the Line. Jacob Cannady oper­ated a mill on Defeated Creek prior to 1803. Henry Huddleston and Stephen Holladay were among the early settlers on the creek. Others were Hoggs, Cornwells, Harpers, Kemps, Wests, Donohos, and Youngs. At an early period a man named Cyrus Goodner operated a tanyard on Defeated Creek. His son, James Goodner, later went to Alexan­dria, Tennessee, where he became a prom­inent merchant.

Thomas Draper lived on Salt Lick, now Jackson County. He came to Mansker’s Creek from South Carolina in 1796 and, two or three years later, moved east into the new settlements. Three brothers, James, Daniel, and Phillip Draper came to Smith County soon after he did. Thomas raised twelve children. James Young, an influential citizen of Jackson County, married one of his daughters. Another daughter married a son of Henry Huddleston and one married Ste­phen Holliman, both early settlers of Defeat­ed Creek. Willis Dean also accompanied his uncle and cousins, the Drapers, to Smith County settling in the area still known as Dean Hill. His arrival dated between March 1805 and June 3,1807, when his first son, but second child, Pilate Dean was born. The Deans too emigrated from South Carolina and John Holloway (a Dean descendant) still owns property at the foot of Dean Hill where he spends his leisure time. The Drapers, Youngs, Huddlestons, and Holladays, des­cendants of these old pioneers, are still numerous in this and surrounding counties.

Peyton’s Creek takes its name from Colo­nel John Payton, the surveyor who first located lands on the creek. The Granades, Sandersons, Sloans, and Cornwells were among the early settlers as well as Winklers, Haynies, and Smiths lower down the creek. William Granade and family were already residents of Smith County when he pur­chased 320A. from Joshua Knowlton of Sampson County, North Carolina on Decem­ber 15, 1802. This property was located on “ Payton’s Creek” adjacent to Young’s SE corner. Also the Sutherlands must have been early residents, as Samuel Sutherland sold 160A. to Michael Murphy for $600. on the 2nd September 1807. Willoby Pugh and Patrick Sloan acted as witnesses of the transaction. Christian Boston owned two hundred thirty acres on the west bank of Peyton’s Creek on the “ old road leading from Bledsoe’s Lick to Knoxville” which he pur­chased in 1804 from the heirs of David Wilson. A small tributary called Tow Town Branch was settled by Arthur Hesson and Bry Gregory about 1800. Michael Murphy’s house on Peyton’s Creek near present day Pleasant Shade was the scene of some of the first Smith County Court meetings. In what was later known as the Nixon Hollow, near Graveltown, William Gregory settled prior to 1799. He was often referred to as William Gregory, Esquire due to his position in the County Court to which he was one of the earliest to present his stock mark for record­ing.

James Vance, one of the guards who accompanied the settlers across the wilder­ness, operated a grist mill on the south fork of Indian Creek which he sold along with ten acres to Armistead Stubblefield in 1803.

Benjamin Johns settled on Turkey Creek in 1803 and William Pendarvis in 1805, both purchasing their land from William Walton. On the southwestern side of the county on Round Lick Creek near the Wilson County line, a tract was granted to Samuel Ashe for his services in the War. In 1805 James Spencer Bell, Jr. sold a part of this tract to John Seay. Some other families early associa­ted with this area were Newby, Gill, Oakley, Barbee, Hankins and McClanahan. The community was first called Jenning’s Fork and later Grant.

Once the new settlers and their families arrived at their destination, came the real test of their fortitude and perseverance. A shelter had to be provided, the land cleared, and the crops planted. The very air quivered with the ring of the axe and the crash of the felled trees thundered against the hills as these sturdy pioneers worked diligently to create homes and communities out of the forests and canebrakes. This is our heritage.