from the files of the Nashville Historical Newsletter.
Mike Slate wrote this press release in early 2012, hoping to stimulate public interest in rescuing one of early Nashville’s most important historical sites, which was about to be swallowed up by industrial development.
On a rocky bluff above a bubbling Mill Creek, under a canopy of trees that include American elm, black cherry, and sassafras, a group of pioneers – some of the architects of Nashville’s “can do” spirit – lie buried and forgotten. Two of them are especially significant.
Twenty-year-old John Buchanan (later called “Major John”) and his family arrived at the future Nashville during the unusually cold winter of 1779-1780—perhaps even ahead of James Robertson’s founding party—with nothing but a few necessities on pack horses. Unlike many other early settlers, Major John persevered here for the remainder of his life.
After losing his brother Alexander at Ft. Nashborough’s 1781 “Battle of the Bluffs” and writing Nashville’s first book, John Buchanan’s Book of Arithmetic, the young land surveyor and his extended family established Buchanan’s Station at Mill Creek, near today’s Elm Hill Pike at Massman Drive in what is now Donelson. Additional sorrows soon followed as John lost his father, John Buchanan Sr., and another brother, Samuel, in continuing Indian assaults.
The Chickamauga War reached its climax at Buchanan’s Station on September 30, 1792, when only about twenty defenders held off several hundred Native Americans whose goal was to destroy all the Cumberland settlements. Buchanan and his friends stopped them there, saving Nashville without the loss of a single stationer. Nineteenth-century historian J.G.M. Ramsey called this victory “a feat of bravery which has scarcely been surpassed in all the annals of border warfare.”
It was during this nighttime “Battle of Buchanan’s Station” that Major John’s eighteen-year-old wife, Sarah (“Sally”) Ridley Buchanan, in her ninth month of pregnancy with the first of their thirteen children, earned national fame. She encouraged the men, reassured the women and children, molded much-needed ammunition reportedly by melting down her dinnerware, and provided the voice of victory throughout the seemingly hopeless pandemonium. For her uncommon spunk, biographer Elizabeth Ellet referred to her as “the greatest heroine of the West,” and she was heralded in magazines and newspapers from as far away as Boston.
Unfortunately, the Buchanan Station story, as celebrated as it once was, has become lost to contemporary Nashville. Today the dilapidated Buchanan’s Station Cemetery, where Major John and Sarah Buchanan lie buried, is wedged anonymously into a Massman Drive industrial park, where hundreds of workers drive past twice a day, completely unaware of the graveyard’s historical import. (2011)
All photos of Buchanan Station’s Cemetery by Mike Slate, 2011.
John Buchanan was a Scots-Irish American who emigrated to the French Lick in late 1779 and helped found the town of Nashville, at that time considered part of back-country North Carolina. Born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on January 12, 1759, young Buchanan and his party arrived at the Lick shortly before the James Robertson and John Rains groups, and began building cabins. Along with the Buchanans were sundry other first comers, including Daniel and Sampson Williams, James and John Mulherrin, and Thomas Thompson.
Not long after the establishment of nearby Fort Nashborough on a site called “the Bluffs” overlooking the Cumberland River, John’s brother Alexander was killed in the well-known “Battle of the Bluffs” on April 2, 1781. During this same Indian attack John’s father, John Buchanan Sr., heroically saved pioneer Edward Swanson from almost certain death. The following summer, John compiled early Nashville’s first book:John Buchanan’s Book of Arithmetic, dated June 20, 1781. A kind of personal workbook likely prepared under the tutelage of teacher James Mulherrin, the fragile volume survives today at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. John used the book to learn the mathematics of land surveying, a profession he later pursued with lucrative success.
In 1784, after the town of Nashville was officially recognized and laid out in grids, the Buchanans, apparently not wishing to live as town folk, moved a few miles southeast to Mill Creek and built their own outpost called Buchanan’s Station. Located at today’s Elm Hill Pike and Massman Drive in the Donelson area, the station and its 640-acre tract served as John’s home until his death in 1832. He also built a grist mill, well-known as Buchanan’s Mill, and one of Nashville’s earliest roads was cut from old Fort Nashborough out to the mill.
In 1786 John married Margaret Kennedy, with whom he had one child, John Buchanan III. Their descendants included Tennessee governor John Price Buchanan (1847-1939) and modern Nobel Prize winner James McGill Buchanan Jr. (1919-2013). Four years after Margaret’s untimely death in 1787, John married Sarah “Sally” Ridley, daughter of pioneer Captain George Ridley. The legendary Sally would bear thirteen more Buchanan children.
Initially a lieutenant and then a captain in the local militia, by 1787 John had gained the title of major. Although he is often called “Major John” today, the circumstances that led to this rank are not known, and one speculation is that it was honorary in nature. John’s militia service reached its zenith on September 30, 1792, when Buchanan’s Station was attacked by a large confederacy of Indians from several tribes, a storied event that resulted in a dramatic victory for the Cumberland settlers.
Over the years John Buchanan served on numerous juries, surveyed countless parcels of land for other settlers, and accumulated thousands of acres for himself and his family. Having arrived on the lower Cumberland with only a few possessions on pack horses, he died a prosperous man on November 7, 1832, having realized the American pioneer’s dream.
Hurt Drive, located off Elm Hill Pike in the Donelson suburb of Nashville, is for me the eeriest street in Davidson County. In the 1960s this half-mile-long road was part of my boyhood newspaper route, and some of my friends lived here in neat, moderately sized brick houses. Today nothing remains of that civilization except a ribbon of asphalt road.
Built during the 1950s Donelson boom, the subdivision that includes Hurt Drive thrived for about thirty years before the Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority acquired it during its noise mitigation program of the 1980s and ’90s. (Indeed, today’s planes fly very low over this area.) The MNAA razed every house along Hurt Drive, carefully removed all rubble, constructed impressive masonry gates at both the north and south ends of the street, and generally returned the land to nature. Currently the agency keeps much of the grass cut while allowing a few lots to grow more freely.
The aforementioned gates, which inhibit vehicular but not pedestrian traffic, enhance the mysterious aura of the empty street. Arriving at the south gate, a visitor is roadblocked without any explanatory signage. May I walk along this road and enjoy it as a greenway path? Should I keep away from here altogether? Nothing answers such questions. However, around at the north gate a lonesome sign warns, “MOTORIZED VEHICLES PROHIBITED,” implicitly granting permission to walk the road. Yet visitors unacquainted with the area’s history are still faced with the overarching conundrum: why is this road here, since there’s nothing on it?
And what about the name itself, Hurt Drive (sometimes “Hurt Road”)? Where did that come from? Since “Hurt” is an esteemed local surname with area roots at least back to the War of 1812, my guess is that the road was named after the Hurt clan (or a member thereof). Hurt family members are buried in the nearby James Buchanan Cemetery; Benjamin Hurt was an area postmaster in the 1850s; Joe Hurt, also a postmaster, owned a grocery store at Lebanon Road and Donelson Pike around 1900; and Dr. Joseph Hurt was a well-known Donelson physician of recent years.
McCrory’s Creek flows immediately to the east of Hurt Drive. In fact, the ancient creek forms the back boundaries of some of the street’s lots, adding convincingly to Hurt Drive as a de facto greenway. Not surprisingly, “McCrory” is another eminent pioneer name. The specific individual for whom the creek was named is lost to history, but in 1792 Thomas McCrory helped repel the famous Indian attack at Buchanan’s Station, which was situated on Mill Creek, about three miles west of Hurt Drive down the present Elm Hill Pike. Although the McCrory family played a major role in the early development of the Davidson County area now known as Forest Hills, there are very few McCrorys remaining in the county today.
It’s nearly impossible for me to think of McCrory’s Creek without remembering the venerable Miss Jane Thomas. Her father settled along the creek in 1809 when Miss Thomas was nine years old. Later she helped establish a Methodist church nearby, raising money for a log building. When she was in her 90s, she wrote reminiscences in a series of newspaper articles, which were collected into a delightful, gossipy volume titled Old Days in Nashville. The important little sourcebook was first published in 1897, and reprints are still available today.
Virtually every Nashville historian is acquainted with Miss Thomas and her book, yet no one knows the precise location on McCrory’s Creek of either the Thomas home place or the Methodist church she helped found. If an enterprising researcher cannot pinpoint at least one of these and place an appropriate historical marker there, then perhaps a marker to the memory of the grand old lady could be erected on Hurt Drive, offering walkers something to read and contemplate.
At Elm Hill Pike, Hurt Drive is sandwiched between McCrory’s Creek to the east and the Buchanan Log House to the west, giving visitors a triple treat in a single geographical spot. The landmark house, owned by the non-profit Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities (APTA), has in its front lawn a new Metro historical marker that describes the home and its circa 1807 origins. Branches of the local Buchanan family, however, stretch back even further than that, all the way to the very beginnings of Nashville. Two Buchanans signed the 1780 Cumberland Compact, and another died in the 1781 “Battle of the Bluffs” at Fort Nashborough. In addition, Maj. John Buchanan fought along with Thomas McCrory at the “Battle of Buchanan’s Station,” mentioned above.
The log house marker also records the circa 1820 addition to the structure. It’s satisfying to imagine that, in addition to Buchanans, the enlargement project may have been watched or joined by members of the Thomas (perhaps by Miss Jane Thomas herself!), Hurt, and even McCrory families.
For lack of space the marker does not relate the important second ownership of the Buchanan House. After Buchanans had lived here for over fifty years, the place was purchased by Thomas Neal Frazier, an area judge. His son, who grew up here on the banks of McCrory’s Creek, was James B. Frazier. You might recognize that name, for he became governor of Tennessee in 1903 and a U.S. senator after that.
Hurt Drive, flanked by the Buchanan House and McCrory’s Creek, well illustrates the richness of Nashville history. Chapters of our heritage abound on every river, on every creek, and on almost every street or farm in the county . . . and all across Tennessee. Citizens who seek historical edification will likely find it right under their feet.
Source Note: A variety of written sources were consulted in the preparation of this article, but none were more helpful than two fonts of living knowledge: Debie Cox of the Metro Nashville Archives and Lu Whitworth of the Buchanan Log House.
This article was first published in the July 2009 issue of The Nashville Retrospect. We thank publisher Allen Forkum for his permission to republish it here.
The earlier of Nashville’s two most famous Indian onslaughts occurred on April 2, 1781. It was probably Charlotte Robertson – stalwart wife of Nashville co-founder James Robertson – who sicced the Fort Nashborough dogs on the attacking Indians, a storied deed that helped foil a clever Indian subterfuge. Another hero of that fateful day was John Buchanan Sr., who darted from the fort and rescued Edward Swanson, who had been clubbed by one of the marauders. These heroics notwithstanding, several pioneers died at the “Battle of the Bluff,” including Alexander Buchanan, thought to be John’s son.
The second of our legendary Indian battles took place on September 30, 1792, at Buchanan’s Station, which had been established about 1784 by Major John Buchanan, another son of the elder John. In his 1853 Annals of Tennessee, J.G.M. Ramsey described the Battle of Buchanan’s Station as “a feat of bravery which has scarcely been surpassed in all the annals of border warfare.” In that nighttime attack as many as 900 Creeks, Cherokees, Chickamaugans, and others were repulsed by about 20 settlers inside the station. Again the hero of the day was a woman: Sarah (called “Sally” or “Sallie”) Buchanan, wife of Major John. The heavily pregnant Sally cheered on the defenders, molded bullets, and perhaps even served up distilled beverages while the men fired away through blockhouse portholes.
Although the battle could have become Tennessee’s Alamo, the besieged pioneers did not suffer a single casualty. However, among the noteworthy Indians killed that night was Kiachatalee (or Chiachattalla), a dauntless warrior who attempted to set the fort ablaze. The Indians intent was to assault Fort Nashborough after destroying Buchanan’s Station, but the plucky stationers confounded the natives’ ambitions.
At first light an inspection of the premises produced numerous articles left by the retreating attackers. Several swords were found, including “a fine Spanish blade . . . richly mounted in the Spanish fashion.” Some historians have conjectured that the sword may have been traded to the Indians in exchange for scalps of slain settlers (certainly the Spanish stirred up such trouble for the westward-advancing Americans). Such a sword would have been quite a prize for the victorious stationers, plunder that would not have been treated carelessly. We can easily imagine that they presented it to Sally Buchanan as a tribute to her uncommon spunk.
So what has happened to this splendid Spanish sword? Does a Buchanan family member treasure it today? Does it survive in some museum, under the auspices of curators who have no knowledge of its history? Maybe it awaits us in a dark, cobwebbed attic; or perhaps all that separates us from this luxurious booty is a nondescript floorboard in some old house. Unfortunately, we may never set our eyes on this symbol of pioneer resilience, but all is not lost. In fact, we have something far more precious than a mere sword: we have the Buchanan Station Cemetery, where Major John and Sarah Buchanan are buried, along with other pioneers.
If the Buchanan Station sword were in a display case at the Tennessee State Museum, tens of thousands of admirers would have by now filed past it. But only a handful of Nashvillians have made the pilgrimage to the little cemetery to pay respects to our earliest settlers, upon whose sturdy shoulders rests our local civilization. If you are moved to visit the cemetery, you will find it along Mill Creek near the corner of Elm Hill Pike and Massman Drive. If you turn on Massman into the industrial park, you will find the cemetery on your left just after the first set of buildings. Parking for a few cars is available on the left side of the cemetery, which is now marked by a black fence and informative signage. We think you will agree that the Buchanan Station Cemetery is one of the most fascinating features of Nashville history.
Adapted by Kathy B. Lauder from the historical research of Nancy Helt and Josef Wilson, founding members of the Donelson-Hermitage Chapter of APTA, and Lu Whitworth, Buchanan-Whitworth researcher.
Members of the Buchanan family have been part of Nashville history from the beginning. Alexander Buchanan died in 1781 in the “Battle of the Bluff,” protecting Fort Nashborough from an Indian attack. Major John Buchanan was living in Buchanan’s Station by 1784. Archibald Buchanan moved his family to the area from Augusta County, Virginia, in 1785 to take charge of a 640-acre land grant called Clover Bottom. When Archibald died in 1806, his son James, who had spent his early years farming this land, inherited half the property (his uncle Robert Buchanan received the remainder), and purchased 310 additional acres from Thomas Gillespie’s original land grant “on Stone’s River.” This second property, which was not adjacent to Archibald’s grant, included the McCrory’s Creek area where James built what we now know as the Buchanan Log House. Eventually James Buchanan sold his share of Archibald’s property to John Hoggatt, who purchased the other half from Robert Buchanan’s heirs.
James was 46 years old when he finished the three-room log structure in 1809, about 50 years before the Two Rivers and Clover Bottom mansions were completed. A year after completing the house, James married 17-year-old Lucinda “Lucy” East and moved his young bride into the house, where the first of their sixteen children was born in 1811. Their home was one of the earliest log structures built in Middle Tennessee and is one of the few examples of two-story log construction still on its original foundation.
The original building exhibits construction techniques typical of frontier houses. Resting on solid unmortared limestone, the half-dovetail notched logs are chestnut, oak, and yellow poplar. The two-story single-pen original structure measures 18 by 26 feet, with exterior limestone gable-end chimneys flanked by double-hung sash windows. The two-room first floor has a 10-foot ceiling with exposed beaded poplar floor joists. A “ladder” stairway led to the upstairs room, which features a fireplace with an unusual arched limestone lintel marked by an incised keystone.
By 1820, after ten years of marriage, James and Lucy already had eight children. Needing more space, they constructed a one-and-a-half-story addition measuring 16 by 18 feet. This addition, with an exterior gable and a limestone chimney, created what is known as a saddlebag-type house. Even with the new section, the floor space still totaled only about 1430 square feet, into which they crowded eight more little Buchanans over the next few years. All sixteen children lived to adulthood, and many remained in the Donelson-Hermitage area, where a number of their descendants live today.
Because of the Buchanans’ land holdings and the number of slaves they held – about 15 – the family would have been considered quite wealthy for the period, falling into the upper 10% of the population.
When James Buchanan died at the age of 78 in 1841, he became the first person to be buried in the Buchanan Cemetery* across the road from the house. His tombstone carries this inscription:
Farewell my friends, as you pass by As you are now, so once was I As I am now, so you must be Prepare to die and follow me.
With the help of Addison, her fourth child, Lucy kept the farm going for another 24 years after her husband’s death. She died in 1865, at the age of 73, and was buried near her husband. Her epitaph echoes his:
As thou hast said, I follow you As all the rest must shortly do Then be not guilty of any crime So you may live in heaven sublime.
Her faithful son Addison received a 50-acre plot 1/4 mile east of the family home, where he built a two-room log house (one room downstairs, and one room up). This building has been moved to the 2910 Elm Hill Pike location, just behind the main log house. The move required “chopping” the roof so it could pass under the power lines, and taking the chimney apart, stone by stone, to be rebuilt at the new location. Renovating the Addison Buchanan house included removing the siding to expose the cedar logs and to repair or replace the chinking.
Soon after Lucy’s death, just as the Civil War ended, the property (except for the one-and-a-half-acre Buchanan cemetery) was purchased by Thomas Neal Frazier, a criminal court judge for Rutherford and Davidson counties. Frazier, a Union sympathizer, was impeached by the Tennessee General Assembly in 1866 for a conflict involving the 14th Amendment, but the impeachment was overturned in 1869. Judge Frazier’s son, James B. Frazier, who was a 10-year-old boy when the family moved into the log house, was elected governor of Tennessee in 1903. His administration is remembered primarily for advances in public education. He resigned as governor in 1905 to complete the term of U.S. Senator William B. Bate, who had died in office. Frazier was elected to three more terms in the Senate but lost to Luke Lea in 1911 and returned to his law practice in Chattanooga. Governor Frazier’s mother, Margaret McReynolds Frazier, lived on in the Log House until her death in 1910. Living with her were her daughter Sarah, with her husband John Harris, and Sarah’s brother Samuel J. Frazier, with his wife Fannie (Whitworth) and their son Neal, who later became a professor and dean at MTSU. Sarah, John, and Samuel, who lived on in the house for close to twenty years after Margaret’s death, all eventually died there. Neighbors referred to the house for years thereafter as the “Frazier place.”
Since 1927 the names on the mail box at 2910 Elm Hill Pike have included Payne, Richardson, Stark, Hudson, Keathly, Williams, and Greer, each of whom made a few changes and additions to the house. In May 1992 the property was purchased by the Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority, who soon transferred it to the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities (APTA), a statewide organization dedicated to the restoration and care of historic sites. Located seven miles from downtown Nashville, the Buchanan Log House is now managed by volunteers from the Donelson-Hermitage Chapter of APTA. Three of James Buchanan’s children married Whitworth siblings, and their descendants care for the Buchanan cemetery to this day.
*Note: this is not the same as the Buchanan’s Station Cemetery.