by Mike Slate.
Often called “Sally,” Sarah Ridley Buchanan was a pioneer Nashvillian described by one of her contemporaries as “large, bold, homely, rough, vulgar, industrious, neat, kind, benevolent, highly honorable, and much respected by all.”1 As her fame spread through much of the eastern United States, this woman of contrasts would become known as “the greatest heroine of the West.”2
Probably born in 17733, Sally is said to be one of the first female children born in the eastern Tennessee territory.4 Her parents, the venerable Captain George Ridley and his first wife, Elizabeth Weatherford Ridley, moved their family to Nashville in 1790 and established Ridley’s Station near the present intersection of Nolensville Road and Glenrose Avenue.5 Early on, Sally gained a reputation as “the fast rider of Mill Creek” when she and neighbor Susan Everett fooled some lurking Indians by feigning to be crazed males and riding past them at blazing speed.6
After marrying widower John Buchanan in 17917, Sally settled in at nearby Buchanan’s Station, becoming the step-mother of young John Buchanan III, whose mother had died shortly after his birth.8 On September 30, 1792, the most historic day of her life, Sally was in the ninth month of her own pregnancy. Near midnight on that fateful Sunday, hundreds of Indians attacked the undermanned Buchanan’s Station.9 All seemed hopeless, but the undaunted Sally is said to have cheered and encouraged the gunmen as she supplied them with fresh ammunition,10 halted a stationer from surrendering herself and her children to the Indians,11 shamed a frightened man into action12, and participated in a “showing of hats” to fool the attackers into thinking the station was heavily manned.13 Her insistence on victory contributed to the withdrawal of the Indians without the loss of a single defender. Eleven days later the heroine of the Battle of Buchanan’s Station gave birth to George Buchanan, the first of her thirteen children.14
Nineteenth-century writer Elizabeth Ellet, Sally’s primary biographer, told yet another story of her audacity. According to Ellet, when two notorious horse thieves appeared at Buchanan’s Station and demanded that she produce two fine horses for them, Sally brandished a long hunting knife and threatened to cut the rascals down. The thieves, astonished, “were compelled to retire without the horses15.”
Primarily within the context of the 1792 battle, Sally’s fame spread widely. In 1892 one Boston periodical, Ballou’s Monthly Magazine, published a story featuring “Mrs. Buchanan,” titling it “The Heroine of Cumberland Valley.” The fanciful author depicts Sally engaging in a lengthy conversation with an Indian chief immediately before the battle, then parting, each having gained a measure of mutual respect.16 Such authorial embellishments highlight the difficulties historians face in trying to establish reliable details of Sally’s exploits.17
The legendary Sarah Buchanan died in 1831 and is buried beside her husband in the Buchanan’s Station Cemetery on Nashville’s Massman Drive.
1 Pioneer William Martin 1843 letter to archivist Lyman Draper transcribed in Paul Clements, Chronicles of the Cumberland Settlements (Nashville: self-published, 2012), 366. The description is also quoted in John Buchanan, Jackson’s Way: Andrew Jackson and the People of the Western Waters (Hoboken NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2001, reprint by Castle Books), 132.
2 Elizabeth F. Ellet, The Women of the American Revolution, Vol. III (New York: Charles Scribner, 1856), 325. Ellet’s exact words were, “The fame of this gallant defense [during the Battle of Buchanan’s Station] went abroad, and the young wife of Major Buchanan was celebrated as the greatest heroine of the West.”
3 Like that of her husband (and many other pioneers), Sally’s exact birth year is problematic. In Jeannette Tillotson Acklen, comp., Tennessee Records: Bible Records and Marriage Bonds (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2001, reprint of 1933 edition), 244, Sally’s birth date is recorded as November 28, 1774. Since this date was supposedly transcribed from the Buchanan family Bible, I would ordinarily default to it. However, on Sally’s headstone, in the Buchanan’s Station Cemetery, are these words: “In memory of Sarah Buchanan, died Nov. 23th, 1831, aged 57 years 11 months, and 23 days.” Doing the subtraction results in a birth date of November 30, 1773. Additionally, in Ellet, 311, Sally is said to have been born “in December, 1773.” Therefore, in this case I conclude that “ca. 1773” and “probably born in 1773” are appropriate.
4 Ellet, 311, affirms, “one of the first, if not the first-born daughter of Tennessee.” In G.T. Ridlon, History of the Ancient Ryedales (Manchester NH: published by the author, 1884), 495, the author writes, “She is said to have been the third white woman born in her State.” Ridlon also states that Sally was born on November 28, 1773.
5 G.W. Featherstonhaugh, Excursion through the Slave States, Vol. I (London: John Murray, 1844), 202. Featherstonhaugh interviewed Sally’s father, Captain George Ridley, and reports that the Ridley family emigrated from east Tennessee to Nashville in 1790. Ridlon, 494, says “about the year 1790.” Concerning the exact location of Ridley’s Station near Nashville see Clements, 688.
6 Ellet, 314-315, tells this story. The venerable Jane Thomas also recounts this story in Miss Jane H. Thomas, Old Days in Nashville, Tenn. (Nashville: Publishing House Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1897), 110-111.
7 Among other places, the 1791 marriage date is recorded in Acklen, 244, and in Ridlon, 485.
8 Among the sources that speak of Major Buchanan’s first wife and son is Josephus Conn Guild, Old Times in Tennessee (Knoxville: Tenase Company, 1971, reprint of the 1878 original) 304, in which Guild says, “Maj. Buchanan was married twice—first, in 1786, to Miss Margaret Kennedy, who bore him one son; and the second time in 1791, to Miss Sally Ridley, daughter of Capt. George Ridley, who bore him nine sons and four daughters.” See also Acklen, 243-244.
9 See the “Battle of Buchanan’s Station” article.
10 Numerous anecdotal accounts have Sally distributing ammunition to the gunmen, and some accounts say that she (and other women) molded the bullets during the ongoing battle. It is even said that the fresh bullets were molded out of Sally’s pewter plates and spoons. Concerning this matter, Ellet, 324, reports that after the discovery that the men were out of bullets “Mrs. Buchanan passed around with an apronful of bullets, which she and Nancy Mulherrin, the Major’s sister, had moulded during the fight out of her plates and spoons.” At least by 1888 the “plates and spoons” became “pewter plates and spoons,” when Wilson & Fiske, eds., Appleton’s Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Vol. 1 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1888), 436-437, said, “When the bullets gave out, Mrs. Buchanan was at hand with an apronful moulded from pewter plates and spoons during the progress of the fight.” I am somewhat skeptical that bullets were molded during the battle itself (which James Robertson said lasted “for an hour”), and I am quite skeptical about the detail that would have the women melting plates and spoons.
11 Ellet, 322-323, tells this story. Also, in Octavia Zollicoffer Bond, Old Tells Retold (Nashville: Smith & Lamar, 1906), 165-166, Bond gives the name “Phoebe” to the would-be surrenderer.
12 Ellet, 323. In Guild, 307, the frightened man is called “Tom.” In the Draper Manuscripts, 6XX64, John Buchanan Todd reports, “There was a man in the fort so much of a coward that he could not fight. What his proper name was I do not remember, but in derision he was ever after called Jenny Glisten.” Clements, 366, also presents this Todd comment.
13 Edward Albright, Early History of Middle Tennessee (Nashville: Brandon Printing Company, 1909), 175, explains, “However, there were more portholes than gunners to man them, and the Major’s wife, Mrs. Sallie Buchanan, together with other women of the fort, displayed in this emergency great bravery. Seizing each a man’s hat they dodged about holding them from time to time in front of the vacant openings. This was called a ‘showing of hats.’ It was intended to fool the Indians as to the size of the garrison.” See also A. W. Putnam, History of Middle Tennessee (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1971, new edition of the 1859 original), 395-396.
14 Major Thomas Washington, “The Attack on Buchanan’s Station,” Annals of the Army of Tennessee and Early Western History, Vol. 1, December 1878, 426, reports, “There were a number of women in the station at the time, and among them Mrs. Sarah Buchanan, who was occupied during the attack in carrying around to the men posted in the different parts of the station ammunition and brandy, giving to each, as she supplied him, a word of encouragement. In eleven days afterward, this same Sarah Buchanan was delivered of her first child, the said George Buchanan.” Acklen, 244, verifies that George was born on October 11, 1792. George Buchanan (1792-1816) is buried, with original headstone, in the Buchanan’s Station Cemetery.
15 Ellet, 317.
16 Mrs. M.E. Robinson, “The Heroine of Cumberland Valley” Ballou’s Monthly Magazine, Vol. LXXVI, August 1892, 121-125.
17 Relevant to the difficulties in determining the true facts of the heroics attributed to Sally Buchanan, Ellet, 326, offers this: “When called upon, as she often was, to detail the part she bore in ‘the times that tried men’s souls,’ she never failed to disclaim any credit for herself, and always said that many foolish stories had been told about her by gossipping old ladies and garrulous old men, exhibiting her in a character which she never displayed.”
Ellet, Elizabeth F. The Women of the American Revolution, Vol. 3, p. 310-327; chapter on “Sarah Buchanan.” New York, Charles Scribner, 1856.
Featherstonhaugh, G.W. Excursion through the Slave States, Vol. 1, p. 199-212. London, John Murray, 1844.
Ridlon, G.T. History of the Ancient Ryedales, p. 493-497; section on “Ridley’s of Rutherford County, Tennessee.” Manchester NH, published by the author, 1884.
Clements, Paul. Chronicles of the Cumberland Settlements. Nashville, self-published, 2012.
Bond, Octavia Zollicoffer. Old Tells Retold, p. 154-167; chapter on “Night Assault on Buchanan’s Station.” Nashville, Smith & Lamar, 1906.