Settlement of Middle Tennessee

When North Carolina annexed Watauga in 1776, the latter was fighting dissident Cherokees supplied and encouraged by the British. Over the next two decades, the Cherokee War would ebb and flow, but never go away. Watauga local government’s first priority was survival, both against the Cherokee and to produce/acquire enough food, ammunition and resources to make it through each winter. Population migration still flourished, and a never-ending stream of new migrants spread out through the hinterland, driving more Cherokee onto the warpath, but also supplying more food and soldiers for the militia. Many went north to Kentucky where things were a bit more settled, and less hostile. Nevertheless, Watauga was growing on its own, and was rapidly developing its own identity, political consensus, and largely autonomous from North Carolina was developing its own indigenous political elite–and its own vision for the future. At this point statehood was as much a tool to garner new support and resources–soldiers–as it was a hoped-for endgame  sometime in the future. It does not appear that staying inside North Carolina was ever an option.

the Chaotic Early Years

Middle Tennessee

Resident in Watauga at this time was our Transylvania Land Company CEO, Richard Henderson. Henderson had not yet resolved his dispute with Virginia, or figured out how to involve the patchwork affair that was North Carolina state government. Between 1776 and 1779, Henderson was fabricating his Plan B. His dream was still to settle the west and that meant somehow settling  what is called Middle Tennessee. Another ring of mountains separated Middle Tennessee from Watauga, and the river system seemingly offered little help. Eventually Henderson secured 200,000 acres in each state as compensation for the abrupt termination of his negotiated purchase of lands. Then he had a place to go in Middle Tennessee–that was a start.

James Robertson

His tasks were to first assemble a new corporate team and solidify his Tennessee land ownership, and then recapitalize the Transylvania Company. He did not accomplish these two tasks until 1779-80 [1].

With Boone now tied up in Kentucky, Henderson needed a replacement. He found a willing, and even more useful ally-replacement in Virginia-born Scots-Irish frontiersman, James Robertson. Robertson was among the original Watauga settlers, and had accompanied Boone on several of his scouting trips. In the midst of this he became involved in the Regulator War, and that is what drove him to move himself and his family to Watauga. In Watauga Robertson proved honest and skillful in his dealings with the nearby-Cherokee. In 1776, he along with John Sevier and a small militia force held off a vastly superior Cherokee attack on a Watauga settlement (see below). North Carolina when it annexed the region that year appointed  Robertson their formal “Indian Agent” tasked with keeping the local Cherokee out of British hands during the Revolutionary War.Robertson is today considered one of the Founding Fathers of Tennessee. He is a co-founder of Nashville and Mecklenburg County Tennessee.

The second Henderson ally was John Sevier–the man most Tennessee textbooks credit as the Founding Father of Tennessee (certainly its first governor). In 1775, however, most of Sevier’s fame lie in the future. Sevier was never an employee of Transylvania or Henderson, but Sevier was always infected with a fever for land speculation. The two were more business partners, and Henderson benefited from friendship with the rising star of Watauga. Sevier as head of the Watauga militia was also a natural resource for any initiative into the hinterland. So who is this John Sevier?

John Sevier

Sevier, probably of French Huguenot ancestry, was Virginia-born and Shenandoah Valley raised. His father was a tavern owner, fur trader and an aggressive land speculator. John, a chip off the old block, did the same. Leaving home at sixteen he with a small collection of migrants became the founders of today’s New Market Virginia. During the early 1770’s Sevier again got the wanderlust, moved his family in 1773 to the Carter Valley, across the Appalachians in what is now western Tennessee. He likely also joined the Virginia militia in 1774 and participated in Lord Dunsmore’s War with Native Americans, probably serving under its Colonel, George Washington. In 1775-6 he again relocated, moving into the Elizabethton area of Watauga. He was appointed clerk to the Watauga Association legislature in 1775, and duly elected to its legislature in 1776. At the same time, he joined the Watauga Patriot Committee of Safety, which duly petitioned the Virginia legislature to annex Watauga–which it refused. They then petitioned successfully for annexation to North Carolina.

The reason for Committee of Safety and the two positions was that Sevier, in conjunction with his Watauga legislature duties, had negotiated a land purchase from the Cherokee on behalf of Watauga–which the British governor deemed a violation of the Proclamation Line, and declared null and void. The damage, however, had been done, and a dissident group of Cherokee, led by Dragging Canoe, commenced a series of raids that marked the beginning of the second phase of the Cherokee War. Watauga was under attack and was in desperate need of outside help if it were to survive. Wataugans fled to Sevier’s stronghold, Fort Caswell, and with Indians in immediate pursuit, Sevier bolted the doors of the Fort–just in time to see a young white woman emerge into the clearing with Cherokee in full pursuit. Reaching over the wall, Sevier lifted Catherine Sherrill into the Fort. A powerhouse in her own right, Catherine became his wife, fellow soldier, and future political partner.

Over the next four years, while Henderson was solidifying his plans for an expedition to Middle Tennessee, Sevier became the principal militia and military officer defending Watauga from the Cherokee, a co-general with Issac Shelby in the Revolutionary War victory at Kings Mountain (1780) against a larger Loyalist force, and a delegate to the 1776 Tennessee constitutional convention. In the elections that followed Sevier was elected as the delegate to the North Carolina House. He had in a handful of years risen to be arguably Watauga single most impactful military and political leader. In the course of this, his fortunes–as we shall explain later–became intertwined with the Henderson, Transylvania Company settlement of Middle Tennessee.


Henderson’s Expedition Opens Middle Tennessee

The most attractive segment of Henderson’s Tennessee property inventory were areas adjacent to the “Big Salt (or French) Lick”, which had been for generations past a rich hunting ground for Native Americans, French traders, and Pioneers. A large natural salt (and sulfur) lick, salt accessed/generated a host of absolutely critical commodities necessary for an isolated household and hunter. Situated on the Cumberland River the Salt Lick was attractive in an of itself, but the adjacent lands were rich and suitable for farming, and of course hunting. The sine qua non issue with Middle Tennessee was getting to the Salt Lick. It could be done from Boonesborough and its adjacent stations, but now they were in Kentucky, a trip that would take months, and were more vulnerable to Indian disruption. Somehow a route had to be found from Watauga to Middle Tennessee and the lick specifically, over some of the highest mountains along the Appalachians. To compound matters, the river system, while extensive, did not defy gravity and flow up, and the only practicable river passage was hopelessly convoluted, straight into hostile Native American home bases, and required doubling back and approaching Middle Tennessee from the west.The convoluted river trip was about 1,000 miles.

Henderson, armed with his  North Carolina-Tennessee acreage, raised capital to finance the settlement of Middle Tennessee. A significant piece of the Transylvania Land Company’s equity was purchased a new investor, a member of the wealthy Blount family. John Gray Blount had become an owner the Transylvania Company in 1776. One of three brothers (Thomas and William), John Gray Blount, only twenty-four at the time of investment, Henderson had latched on to a vital sources of capital, and a relationship with a rising entrepreneurial family. By 1779, he had the funds to begin his Middle Tennessee settlement.

Henderson, had recruited the early Watauga Association pioneer, James Robertson, in 1779, to check out the area, do some preliminary macro-surveying, plant the “Henderson flag” by constructing a fort-station, and then report back. It took Robertson two months, a 500 mile trip, but his group, including cattle, arrived at the Lick site on Christmas Eve 1779. Robertson fell in love with what he saw, impressed with the area’s potential, so he planted corn, built some cabins, and settled in–sending back a favorable report to Henderson. Other migrant families that had followed in Robertson’s path also settled in. Winter came”–just two days before Robertson arrived at the Lick. Native Shawnee, however, were not impressed with this pioneering feat, and attacks on the pioneers began almost immediately. Robertson and his settlers constructed a stockade/fort for defense, and named it for a Revolutionary War hero, General Francis Nash. Called Fort Nashborough; it was renamed Nashville four years later (1783).

Statute of John Donelson

Meanwhile, Henderson back on the Tennessee River in Watauga territory had recruited swarms of migrants, ready and waiting to venture to the new settlement. Robertson’s route over the mountains, however, was clearly not the way to go–especially since Shawnee and their allies were now raiding. Lacking a reasonable, and safe overland road or trail suitable for mass migration, Henderson recruited a man with considerable experience and knowledge of Middle Tennessee, a surveyor (and entrepreneur) John Donelson. Donelson had considerable past experience with Boone, Native Americans, Indian fighting and militias, and surveying by which he garnered a large land claim for himself in Middle Tennessee. Donelson, an early southern manufacturer had previously owned and managed the Washington Iron Furnace in Franklin County Virginia for nearly a decade. He sold the foundry with the intention of opening up a new venture deep in middle Tennessee. In 1779, Donelson was building a boat-barge to access Middle Tennessee on his own dime. The large “boat-barge”with cabin and fireplace, and room for thirty. He intended to use the Tennessee River– following its long, hugely circuitous river to access the Cumberland further west and approach the French Lick/Nashville from the west river.

Rachel_Donelson_Jackson_by_Ralph_E._W._Earl 1823

Henderson hired him and and under Donelson’s leadership and direction, additional boat-barges were built to accommodate  more than 200 settlers (including about 20 slaves). Donelson’s family included his fifteen year old daughter, Rachael–the future wife of Andrew Jackson–were in the boat party.When completed, they headed off on December 22, 1779, heading west and south (i.e. away from Middle Tennessee) down the Tennessee, off to the Big Salt Lick.

The voyage proved nearly impossible. Only three miles on the river, the river froze, and they had to  hole up in a winter camp for nearly two months. Once restarted en-route one boat sank in swift currents, and an epidemic of smallpox soon broke out. The sick were quarantined on a single barge which followed in the fleet’s rear. The quarantined boat was attacked and captured by Chickamauga Indians. Many whites were killed outright, and naturally the Chickamauga were infected, and suffered serious loss of life themselves in the following weeks. Undaunted, leaving them behind, the main flotilla went on, somehow making through the cold and turbulent Muscle Shoals rapids. Attacks by Native Americans were constant. Several births occurred, a slave froze to death, and supplies ran out–to be replenished by hunting parties from the boat. On April 24, 1780, almost four months after leaving the Watauga Settlement, the boat expedition arrived at Fort Nashborough, and were greeted by James Robertson. Thirty-three had died en route–and nine were wounded [2].

With the arrival of the Donelson flotilla, Nashville held in excess of 300 citizens. A series of outlying stations were founded, one of which is today’s Clarksville. Isolated, nearly two hundred miles from Watauga, the Nashville citizens, guided by Robertson and Donelson, in the Transylvania Company tradition developed and signed the Cumberland Compact on May 1, 1780. Setting up a series of elected offices for governance, empowering Robertson as their commander-in-chief of their military forces, they also set up a land sales office for the Transylvania Company.

The arrival of the Donelson flotilla triggered a series of attacks by Shawnee,  killing a considerable number of homesteaders outside the fort, culminating on a nearly-successful attack on the fort itself. In December of 1780 only about 150 males were alive in the fort. Serious fighting, including a formal “Battle of the Bluff” occurred through 1781. Nashville had commenced a life and death struggle to simply survive  followed–a struggle that continued through 1784.  Middle Tennessee, Davidson County, and Nashville proved to be ground zero for chronic Native American and European conflict. This was as desperate a time as Boone had encountered in Boonesborough, but with more formidable geographic and logistical obstacles. Powder for muskets had to be constantly replaced by Robertson, making desperate over-the-mountains trips for new supplies. At one point only twenty-one male defenders remained in Nashville. All but three outlying stations were abandoned.

Conflict with the tribes did not cease with the British surrender and the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Instead of getting better, things were getting worse. With little sense that the state of North Carolina which exercised sovereignty over Middle Tennessee would send any meaningful assistance, many Nashville settlers assumed by that time the better part of valor was to take the families north to Lexington KY, which by that time enjoyed a modicum of safety. Donelson, taking his family, agreed to lead the party north in 1785.  En-route the party was attacked by Indians, overrun, and Donelson was killed, and his family saved only through the efforts of their slave who found a place for them to hide. Donelson’s widow, Charlotte and her daughter Rachael made their way back to Nashville. Upon her return Charlotte Donelson, along with Robertson’s wife Charlotte, assumed considerable military and administrative responsibilities/leadership in male-starved Nashville. The inevitable by-product of being a leader in these settlements is they got roped into the political and policy systems of Nashville and Middle Tennessee. They both became political powerhouses as well as the settlement’s founding mothers. Charlotte set up a tavern-boarding house to pay the bills and Rachael, BTW, got married. Her renters, given Charlotte’s prominent status in Nashville, were often influential. In 1788, three years after the Indian ambush, a total stranger rented a room at their inn. Andrew Jackson had arrived in Nashville.

Rachel_Donelson_Jackson_by_Ralph_E._W._Earl 1823

Andrew Jackson, in the tow of his friend, a state-appointed attorney-general for Middle Tennessee, served as his legal assistant. Donelson’s daughter Rachael and her husband, Lewis Robards, also lived in the inn, in process of building their own home. What followed is recounted by Henry L. Watson

The marriage of Rachael and Lewis Robards was already unhappy, and Robards soon accused his wife of improprieties with the newcomer. In all likelihood Rachael and Andrew were not guilty of Robard’s worst charges, but subsequent events would prove they were certainly attracted to each other. Eventually, the quarreling grew so bitter that Robards left his wife and moved to Kentucky. When word arrived that he might return and reclaim her, Andrew Jackson and a Donelson family friend escorted Rachael to faraway Natchez so she might escape her violent and jealous partner. While there the fugitives heard that Robards had changed his mind and gotten a divorce, so the happy couple returned to Nashville as Mr. and Mrs Andrew Jackson. [3].

Well, the rumor was not correct. While Robards had filed for a divorce, naming Jackson as an adulterous party, it had not been finalized. Rachael was now technically a bigamist. Once the divorce was made official, Andrew and Rachael remarried. Thus begins a sad and unfortunate story that will forever affect the course of Andrew Jackson’s future political life–and his private one as well. While a little bit late to the party, Jackson was an early pioneer settler of Nashville. He married well, and his closeness to Charlotte Donelson, as well as with other residents of the Inn facilitated his entry into Middle Tennessee politics. The awkward and disruptive Tennessee drive to statehood, and Jackson’s role in it will be dealt with in the next modules.

By 1780, Henderson had become an ardent patriot as well as a land speculator. As time went on, he was more active in politics than land speculation and the Transylvania Land Company captured even less of his attention  It began in 1778, when named as a delegate to the Articles of Confederation Congress, he declined the position in favor of a close friend. Appointed as a judge in the same year, he resigned that to accept a position as surveyor of the border between Virginia and North Carolina–that project finished in 1780. This is the time period he organized the Nashville expedition.  Elected to the North Carolina House in 1781, he was quickly appointed to its select Council of State, the true executive branch of North Carolina at that time. This is, one should keep in mind, the height of the British southern campaign–and the period that climaxed with the Battle of Yorktown. Henderson resigned the Council of State position in 1783, but died prematurely only two years later, only fifty years of age. By this time, the Transylvania Land Company, with its struggling settlement in Nashville, was off on its own course. Incorporated as a city, and the area as a county, Nashville had been integrated into formal North Carolina’s sub-state system. The mantle of Middle Tennessee leadership had fallen on James Robertson–and his new-found friends.

Wrap Up and Segue Way to “Drive to Statehood” Theme

What emerges from our discussion of the Tennessee Settlement-Conquest period is that North Carolina, as a mother-state, in few ways behaved as did its northern neighbor, Virginia. Watauga developed almost spontaneously, an accident of geography and modes of transportation. Indeed, it housed North Carolina political refugees, and was initially settled more by Virginians and even Pennsylvanians than North Carolina residents. Watauga was always mostly on its own–negotiating with the Cherokee, and forming its initial governance which copied Virginia. Once settled, further movement west was a private land company initiative. Henderson, ironically, probably because of geographic barriers, developed central Kentucky from Watauga–and expansion into Middle Tennessee, if it was to come at all, was through Kentucky and then south. Through 1776, North Carolina had almost a hands-off, Proclamation Line lack of interest in its western counties.

Watauga’s political leadership was by no means tied meaningfully to North Carolina, probably preferred to be adopted by Virginia if anybody–and over time saw the Articles, the federal government, as a potential savior against veracious and constant Indian attack. Essentially, Watauga was a political limbo, with autonomous political elites, struggling for its existence. Henderson, crippled after the 1776 seizure of Kentucky by Virginia, consumed three full years to mount a successful operation into Middle Tennessee–again with little or no assistance from North Carolina. The reception once in Middle Tennessee, even more crippling and sustained Indian attacks, and a quick formal annexation by North Carolina, only made the troubled access into Middle Tennessee more problematic. Henderson drifted to other interests, and the Transylvania Land Company lost its thrust and essentially dried up and died–as did Henderson. By 1781, with War’s end in sight, North Carolina had a little more opportunity to look around and assume some role in its western counties. It would do so in the period we describe as “the Drive to Statehood” to which we now turn.

So …. 

Tennessee’s Settlement-Conquest was different from Kentucky. Kentucky was “taken over” by Virginia. Virginia transferred its governance forms and rule of law to Kentucky County, and any future drive to statehood required concurrence by Virginia. Moreover, as part of Virginia, migration by Virginia residents into Kentucky increased and Virginia’s impact on its culture and the formation of its elites was enhanced. Given Virginia’s importance to the Articles of Confederation, Articles involvement in securing the western Kentucky hinterland–George Rogers Clark and attacks on the Ohio and Mississippi proved critical in spurring its population growth. Until it attained statehood in 1792, Kentucky counties operated within Virginia’s political system, negotiating with Virginia for statehood–a process that took nearly eight  years.

On the other hand, western “Tennessee” lands were left by default to North Carolina which through 1780 was indifferent to its western counties. Watauga, and that is what Tennessee was in 1775, had been officially annexed or adopted by North Carolina. The petition for annexation originated in Watauga in response to crippling Indian raids triggered by Watauga’s recent purchase of land from Cherokee and British support for dissident Cherokee elements. Already, so early in our tale, the intensity of Cherokee attacks and the vulnerability of Tennessee settlements were driving events at a faster pace than Kentucky. North Carolina’s first experience with Watauga involved mobilizing an expensive militia expedition to protect newly incorporation Washington County (Watauga).  North Carolina after annexation faced the same set of issues as Virginia–its over the mountains territory was next to impossible to administer and govern and it required special treatment and the commitment of resources which upset North Carolina’s fragile balances of political and economic power. It was too expensive for an almost-failed-state flirting with horrendous cash flow and revenue-raising issues was a near fatal blow. North Carolina, we shall soon learn had its own problems–including a major Loyalist rebellion in the escalating American War of Independence.

Virginia had an appetite for expansion into western lands, and a Revolutionary War Policy system willing (although not especially able) to assume responsibility and make commitments. Virginia’s first governor, Patrick Henry, was a western land speculator and positively inclined to western settlement. North Carolina had none of that.North Carolina inherited Watauga, a settlement with which North Carolina had little previous involvement. Indeed, previous to petitioning North Carolina for annexation, Watauga had first unsuccessfully petitioned Virginia. North Carolina was Watauga’s second choice.

It is to the post-178 period that we now turn when we return to Tennessee. Tennessee, however, was compelled by necessity alone to follow a different path to statehood.  settlement and drive to statehood was radically different from that of Kentucky.


[1] Archibald Henderson, “Richard Henderson and the Occupation of Kentucky, 1775” (the Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 1, No. 3 (December, 1914), pp. 341-363

[2] Weeks & Womack, Tennessee: the History of an American State (Clairmont Press.2002), pp. 113-15.

[3] Henry L. Watson, Andrew Jackson vs. Henry Clay (Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 1998),  p. 26.