Is Daniel Boone Our Father?

by Mike Slate.

Nashville has not yet applauded all the cast members in its founding drama. Witness this sentence: “Boone went by way of Watauga [after surviving the 1778 Indian siege of Boonesborough] and was there enabled to make such representations to his old friend Capt. James Robertson as induced him the following year to visit the Cumberland country and become the pioneer father of Middle Tennessee.” For convenience, let’s call this revelation the “Watauga Statement.”

The Watauga Statement was made by 19th-century archivist and historian Lyman C. Draper in his book The Life of Daniel Boone (p. 521), a seminal work for later Boone biographers. Draper is our most renowned source for information about America’s first western frontier, the area from the Allegheny Mountains to the Mississippi River. Not surprisingly, when Draper speaks, historians listen.

The Statement makes the legendary Daniel Boone a major catalyst for the founding of the city of Nashville. Heretofore, history has viewed Boone’s contribution to our area’s settlement as considerably more indirect – as an organizer for Richard Henderson‘s 1775 purchase of much of Kentucky and northern Middle Tennessee from the Cherokees, and as the blazer of the Wilderness Trail through Cumberland Gap, by which route James Robertson conducted Nashville’s first settlers. However, if we accept the Statement as an accurate assessment – and why shouldn’t we? – historical justice would press us toward adding Daniel Boone as the fourth in a quartet of Nashville founding fathers: James Robertson (1742-1814), John Donelson (ca. 1718-1785), Richard Henderson (1734-1785), and Daniel Boone (1734-1820).

Twentieth-century historian Samuel Cole Williams unwittingly reveals the likely progenitor for Draper’s Watauga Statement. Serious students of the Boone-Nashville connection will want to consult Williams’ book, Tennessee during the Revolutionary War (UT edition, p. 104, note 1), as well as that note’s correlative reference to Draper Manuscript #6XX50. There they will find convincing evidence that Lavinia Robertson Craighead, James Robertson’s youngest daughter, is at least one of Draper’s original sources for his Statement.

So why isn’t the Watauga Statement better known? The most obvious reason is that for well over a century Draper’s Boone manuscript existed in handwritten form only, found exclusively on microfilm, until Murray State University’s Ted Franklin Belue brought it to print in 1998 via Stackpole Books. Furthermore, any historians who have discovered the Statement may offhandedly have dismissed it for lack of complementary accounts.

Although corroborating evidence is scant, we can nevertheless make a strong circumstantial case for the Statement’s veracity. Circumstantial Fact One: Daniel Boone and James Robertson knew each other well. John Haywood, the father of Tennessee history, stresses that for a time both men lived in the Watauga area of East Tennessee (see The Civil and Political History of Tennessee, p. 53). Both also worked for land speculator Richard Henderson’s Transylvania Company, with Boone the leader for Henderson’s Kentucky land interests and Robertson, for his Tennessee holdings. In addition, Williams provides insight into the extent of the duo’s personal relationship in his report that Boone’s children, along with Robertson’s, were christened or baptized in Robertson’s Watauga home, perhaps around 1772-1773.  (See Dawn of Tennessee Valley, p. 344.)

Circumstantial Fact Two: Daniel Boone had explored the lower Cumberland region – including the French Lick-Nashville area – and so was qualified to give Robertson a firsthand report about that country. Draper, also in his Boone biography (pp. 283-284), related a pertinent yet little-known anecdote:

“During this period, one Joe Robertson, an old weaver who had a famous pack of bear-dogs and was devoted to the chase, often accompanied Boone into the Brushy Mountain and over to the Watauga, securing loads of bear-skins, which they packed to the settlements and sold. On one of their adventurous trips, they penetrated as far as the French Lick [future Nashville] on Cumberland and found several French hunters there.”

Long hunter with deer (courtesy of State Historical Society of Missouri.

Through the years, this fascinating passage has been repeated by other Boone biographers, including John Mack Faragher, who dates Boone’s French Lick exploration to the fall and winter of 1771-1772.  (See Daniel Boone: the Life and Legend of an American Pioneer, p. 88.) Although Draper’s account is the only one I know that positions Boone squarely in geographical Nashville, various state historians do place him in the Middle Tennessee area.  A.W. Putnam notes that “Boone, Rains, Mansker, and others…hunted and explored in 1769-70 upon the Cumberland” and reported “its marvelous herds of buffalo and deer” (History of Middle Tennessee, p. 619).  Similarly, Williams comments in his discussion of 1769-1770 exploratory crews that “Daniel Boone after a hunt in Kentucky joined one of the groups on the Cumberland in the Tennessee region” (Dawn of Tennessee Valley, p. 330).  Harriette Simpson Arnow mentions that Boone “hunted over and explored most of the Cumberland at intervals between1769 and 1775” (Seedtime on the Cumberland, p. 169).  And John R. Finger, apparently guided by Draper, observes that in 1772 Boone “hunted as far west as French Lick” (Tennessee Frontiers: Three Regions in Transition, p. 42).

What shall we do with the Watauga Statement, circumstantially but not overwhelmingly confirmed?  A lone sentence – even when supported by the testimony of James Robertson’s daughter – does not a historical certainty make; so I’m not advocating that we rush precipitously to validate Daniel Boone’s ticket as a father of Nashville. But I am suggesting that we pay more attention to Boone, keep an open mind about his role in our founding, and be prepared to give him his Nashville due.

At the least, the Statement reminds us that our city’s genesis involves more personalities than we customarily credit. While Robertson and Donelson are Nashville’s leading physical founders, the conceptual founders could include not only Richard Henderson and Daniel Boone but also others as yet unrecognized.


This article was first published in the November 2009 issue of The Nashville Retrospect newspaper.  We thank publisher Allen Forkum for his permission to republish it here.

Nashville Founding Factors

by Mike Slate.

It’s difficult to imagine when Nashville wasn’t here—when Davidson County was a game-rich but otherwise uninhabited wilderness. Yet that’s the way it was 250 years ago. Who started all this civilization that we now take for granted and call our home? The traditional view is that Nashville was founded by pioneers James Robertson and John Donelson, who journeyed here in 1779-80 with a few hundred others, built a fort on the bluff above the Cumberland River, and persevered through much danger and hardship. The arrival of Robertson and Donelson was certainly the pinnacle of an uphill process, yet other founding factors are worthy of more emphasis than they sometimes receive.

For example, we should not forget the buffalo. The huge hump-backed beasts flourished here near the river and made paths to a salubrious spot in the vicinity of Sulphur Dell ballpark and the Bicentennial Mall. That spot was a salt lick on a creek called Lick Branch, long since smothered by modern infrastructure. So many bison and deer were here that reports from early hunters and explorers made our area attractive to adventurous colonials back east. Yes, our metropolis rides atop buffalo humps: without the bison there may never have been a Nashville, a circumstance that illustrates the interdependence of geographical, natural, and human history.

Painting from NHN collection

Despite 200 years of study the next factor remains mysterious and fraught with theory. Generally, we know that over the eons distinctly different cities were often built one on top of another. Nashville has risen upon a Mississippian-era culture commonly known as the Mound Builders, Indians so ancient that even the more modern Native Americans didn’t know where they came from or where they went. When early woodsmen arrived at our salt lick they found an old earthen mound close by, obviously man-made and apparently ceremonial in function. Ralph Earl, Andrew Jackson’s portrait artist, excavated the mound in 1821 and found the round base to be about thirty yards in diameter and the height about ten feet. Situated generally from the mound eastward to the Cumberland, an ancient burial ground held interments enough to indicate that a large population thrived here. These remains of a surprisingly sophisticated society were a few to several centuries old. In addition to Davidson County finds, other such sites were discovered in surrounding counties and across Tennessee—all a part of a nexus that extended throughout much of the Ohio River Valley and beyond. Was the existence of a previous society an encouragement to later pioneers? Did early Nashvillians assume, consciously or not, that since another culture had flourished here, so could they?

Photo by Paul Pierce

After the era of the Mound Builders, the Shawnee Indians also had villages along the Cumberland. In fact, an early name for the Cumberland River was the “Shawanoe,” an English derivative of the French “Chaouanon.”   The Shawnee were a rather nomadic tribe, but for a time they had a village near our salt lick, until driven north in about 1714 by Cherokee and Chickasaw tribes who sought to reserve Middle Tennessee for hunting only. Thus for many years before the Euro-American settlers arrived, our Middle Tennessee area was a kind of sacred game preserve. No wonder the Indians were enraged when the white man came. However, the settlers, knowing good land when they saw it, determined to have it regardless of the price they had to pay. That price was paid in blood, as Indian wars raged for the first fifteen years of white settlement. Evidently, no real estate is more desirable than that which someone else also desires!

During and after the Shawnee period, French hunters and traders headquartered at our salt lick. Around the year 1710 a young apprentice, Jean du Charleville, worked here for an old Frenchman whose name is lost to history.  Their trading post was located directly on top of our Indian mound. Arriving in the 1760s, another hunter-trader bore an auspicious name: Jacques Timothe Boucher de Montbrun. More commonly known as Timothy Demonbreun, he returned in later years to settle in Nashville, and today’s Demonbreun Street is named for him. Because of the intermittent presence of such French entrepreneurs, our locale became known as the French Lick, a name familiar to researchers of the American frontier. A remnant of French influence survives today in the word “Nashville,” the suffix -ville being French for town or village.

On the heels of the French traders came the Long Hunters, so called because of the lengthy time they spent in the woods. Notable hunters and explorers in our region during the 1760s and 70s include Thomas Hutchins, Henry Scaggs, Uriah Stone, Michael Stoner, Kasper Mansker, Isaac Bledsoe, Thomas “Bigfoot” Spencer, James Smith, John Rains, Daniel Boone, and John Montgomery. History knows a fair amount about these trailblazers, and their romantic era is fittingly memorialized in the name of today’s Long Hunter State Park along Percy Priest Lake. Serving as the vanguard of colonial civilization, the Long Hunters laid the foundation necessary for permanent settlement.

The Long Hunters gave rave reviews of the western wilds to a North Carolina judge, Richard Henderson, who was interested in land speculation. Together with like-minded partners, Henderson established a land company, the Transylvania Company; and in 1775 he negotiated with the powerful Cherokee Indians to gain tentative control of much of today’s Kentucky and upper Middle Tennessee territory, including the French Lick. He then organized emigrant groups to settle both the Kentucky and Cumberland regions, with Daniel Boone the head of the Kentucky contingent and James Robertson the Tennessee leader. Robertson, a North Carolinian, teamed with Virginian John Donelson and devised a plan to conduct a few hundred pioneers from northeastern Tennessee to the French Lick, Robertson by land and Donelson by river. Robertson’s group arrived here in December 1779 and built the fortification overlooking the Cumberland, and Donelson’s voyagers arrived the following April. A number of the newcomers established other stations nearby. Close behind the settlers came Henderson, who then penned our first organizational document—the famous Cumberland Compact—in which he referred to our compound as “Nashborough,” in honor of General Francis Nash who had recently died in the Revolutionary War. Some 256 men signed the Compact, and the primitive village was up and running, along with its sister stations.

But Nashborough had no real legitimacy. It was only a speck of civilization separated by hundreds of rugged miles from its territorial mother, the State of North Carolina. Finally, in 1783-84, the North Carolina legislature recognized it, upgrading the outpost to the status of a town in the new county of Davidson and changing its name to Nashville, an apparent attempt to disavow the English with whom the Revolutionary War was just ending.      

Of our Nashville founding factors—buffalo, Mound Builders, Shawnee, French hunters-traders, Long Hunters, Henderson, Robertson and Donelson, North Carolina legislature—perhaps the most under-appreciated is frontier opportunist Richard Henderson. So instrumental was his role in our beginnings that if someone were to claim him as our founding father it would be difficult to argue the point. While it is Robertson who is proudly and justifiably known as the “Father of Middle Tennessee,” Henderson was the CEO behind the initial enterprise. He didn’t do the heroic grunt work or Indian fighting necessary for our permanence, but he was our prime mover.

Like the trees that obscure the forest, hidden within the “how” of our founding is the “why.” Why did the founders come to this particular place? Nashville’s founding factors provide a fundamental answer: the colonial settlers were drawn to this location because it already had a magnetic history.


Helpful sources: Haywood’s The Natural and Aboriginal History of Tennessee, 1823; Goodspeed’s History of Tennessee, 1887; Thruston’s Antiquities of Tennessee, 1890; Williams’s Dawn of Tennessee Valley and Tennessee History, 1937; Arnow’s Seedtime on the Cumberland, 1960; Crutchfield’s Early Times in the Cumberland Valley, 1976; Satz’s Tennessee’s Indian Peoples, 1979; Hinton’s A Long Path, 1997; Finger’s Tennessee Frontiers, 2001.


This article was originally published in the September 2009 issue of The Nashville Retrospect. We thank publisher Allen Forkum for his permission to republish it here.

Daniel Boone in Nashville

by Mike Slate.

Legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone (1734-1820) is most often associated with blazing the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap in 1775 and establishing Kentucky settlements. However, his many wide-ranging expeditions arouse our curiosity as to whether he also explored Middle Tennessee in general and the French Lick-Nashville locality in particular. Kentucky’s plucky pioneer has generated a torrent of literature, and I invite the reader to hike with me down the Nashville fork of the Boone trail. Along the way I think we’ll find that history’s subplots are both interesting and informative.

(photo by Bob Bowman)

Daniel Boone’s short “autobiography,” romantically ghostwritten by Kentucky land speculator John Filson (ca. 1753-1788) and published in 1784, launched the intrepid woodsman to national and international fame. A pertinent but inconclusive sentence therein reports that Daniel and his brother Squire Boone (1744-1815) “proceeded to Cumberland river, reconnoitring [sic] that part of the country until March 1771, and giving names to the different waters” (The Adventures of Col. Daniel Boon, Kessinger reprint, p. 56). The Life of Daniel Boone, the seminal tome of renowned archivist Lyman C. Draper (1815-1891), seems to place this exploratory event within a geographical swath ranging from near today’s Bowling Green, Kentucky, south to Castalian Springs (formerly Bledsoe’s Lick) in Sumner County, Tennessee (see p. 264 of the Stackpole Books edition, edited by Ted Franklin Belue). One contemporary writer, Robert Morgan, expands this expedition even farther south, all the way to the French Lick (Boone: A Biography, p. 121).  

Draper reports a more conclusive episode – occurring as much as two and a half years after the exploratory journey mentioned above – in this fascinating passage: “During this period, one Joe Robertson, an old weaver who had a famous pack of bear-dogs and was devoted to the chase, often accompanied Boone into the Brushy Mountain and over to the Watauga, securing loads of bear-skins, which they packed to the settlements and sold. On one of their adventurous trips, they penetrated as far as the French Lick on Cumberland and found several French hunters there” (pp. 283-284). Here we have the earliest narrative I know that places Boone squarely in the heart of Nashville. The time frame for this visit is some seven or more years before the town was founded in 1779-80 by James Robertson (1742-1814) and John Donelson (ca. 1718-1785). Incidentally, I have discovered no familial kinship between Joe Robertson and Nashville co-founder James Robertson, yet the possibility remains intriguing. Furthermore, the fact that French hunters/traders occasionally headquartered at the salt lick on the Cumberland River known as the “French Lick,” site of today’s Nashville, has always been known, the most famous of these traders being Timothy Demonbreun (1747-1826), Nashville’s “First Citizen.”

Through the years other biographers have repeated Draper’s account of Boone at the French Lick: Reuben Gold Thwaites (1853-1913), though he places Boone “sometimes with one or two companions” but not with Joe Robertson or his dogs specifically; John Bakeless (1894-1978); and more recently, historians John Mack Faragher and Michael A. Lofaro. In his acclaimed 1992 chronicle, Faragher sometimes even tags the event with seasons: “Whether with his family or alone, Boone certainly spent the fall and winter of 1771-72 hunting in what would become the state of Tennessee. With a North Carolinian named Joe Robertson, the owner of a notable pack of bear-tracking hounds, he hunted bear, pushing as far west as French Lick (later called Nashville) on the Cumberland River, where he met hunters of some of the numerous French parties that came to those licks each year to hunt buffalo” (Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer, p. 88).

Other than in biographies, I am aware of no complete reference to Draper’s Boone-at-French Lick anecdote in any other Nashville or Tennessee history. The most obvious reason is, of course, that for well over a century Draper’s Boone manuscript existed only in handwritten form and often only on hard-to-read microfilm, until Murray State University’s Ted Franklin Belue brought it to print in 1998. Several state and local historians, however, do place Boone at least in the Middle Tennessee area. A.W. Putnam (1799-1869) notes that “Boone, Rains, Mansker, and others . . . hunted and explored in 1769-70 upon the Cumberland” and reported “its marvelous herds of buffalo and deer” (History of Middle Tennessee, University of Tennessee edition, p. 619). Similarly, Samuel Cole Williams (1864-1947) comments in his discussion of 1769-70 exploratory crews that “Daniel Boone after a hunt in Kentucky joined one of the groups on the Cumberland in the Tennessee region” (Dawn of Tennessee Valley and Tennessee History, Watauga Press edition, p. 330). Harriette Simpson Arnow (1908-1986), who used Draper and many other primary sources, mentions that Boone “hunted over and explored most of the Cumberland at intervals between 1769 and 1775” (Seedtime on the Cumberland, Univ. of Nebraska edition, p. 169). And contemporary historian John R. Finger, using a Draper-like phrase, observes that in 1772 Boone “hunted as far west as French Lick” (Tennessee Frontiers: Three Regions in Transition, p. 42—which book includes, by the way, the finest bibliographic essay on frontier Tennessee sources that I know of).

Equally germane to the case for a Boone visit to Nashville are his professional and personal ties to the Lower Cumberland region. He was above all a Long Hunter extraordinaire who stayed in the woods for months or even years at a time. It strains credulity that he would not at some point come to the French Lick, heralded at least since the late 1760s for its excellent hunting. In addition, Boone was (or became) well acquainted with several Cumberland pioneers including Michael Stoner (1748-1813), Kasper Mansker (ca.1750-1820), and, most notably, Nashville co-founder James Robertson. Both Boone and Robertson worked for the prominent Transylvania Company under Richard Henderson (1734-1785), with Boone the overseer of Henderson’s Kentucky land interests and Robertson of his Tennessee holdings. Williams provides insight into the duo’s personal relationship in his report that Boone’s children, along with Robertson’s, were christened or baptized in Robertson’s Watauga home in East Tennessee, perhaps around 1772-73 (see Dawn of Tennessee Valley, p. 344). Moreover, Draper asserts that their friendship directly influenced the founding of Nashville. Upon returning to North Carolina after the famous 1778 Boonesborough siege, “Boone went by way of Watauga and was there enabled to make such representations to his old friend Capt. James Robertson as induced him the following year to visit the Cumberland country and become the pioneer father of Middle Tennessee” (The Life of Daniel Boone, p. 521).

An argument against a Boone visit to Nashville could pivot on Draper’s interviews with the pioneer’s last-born child, Nathan Boone (1781-1856), who was an intrepid frontiersman in his own right, as well as Draper’s greatest wellspring of information. Fortunately, Draper cites sources for his Boone-at-French Lick passage, with this endnote: “MS. notes of conversations with Col. Nathan Boone and the late Henry Rutherford of Tennessee. Soon after the Revolutionary War, [Joe] Robertson resided in the family of Mr. Rutherford’s father, Gen. Griffith Rutherford, of Rowan County, North Carolina, and used to speak of his hunting and exploring with Boone (The Life of Daniel Boone, p. 294). But his citation of Nathan Boone as a source for the French Lick event is problematic in view of his 1851 interviews with Nathan as presented in a 1999 book. in one interview with Nathan, Draper asked, “Did Colonel Boone ever mention hunting at the French Lick on the Cumberland River?” Nathan’s answer: “Not that I recall” (My Father, Daniel Boone, p. 45, edited by Neal O. Hammon). Throughout his Boone manuscript Draper cited Nathan often, apparently at least one time too many.

Now we come to the testimony of Henry Rutherford (1762-1847), who is ultimately Draper’s chief source for the Boone-at-French-Lick account. If Henry did not receive Robertson’s story firsthand, then he may have garnered it from his father, Gen. Griffith Rutherford (1720-1805), in honor of whom, incidentally, Rutherford County, Tennessee, was named. Recycled reminiscences are common fare for historians of the American frontier, especially when researching such mythologically infilled lives as Daniel Boone and David Crockett (1786-1836); but this one seems fairly straightforward and plausible. A relevant example, however, of the vagaries of memory is that Nathan Boone remembered Joe Robertson and his bear-hunting dogs (though not specifically with any French Lick outing), but recalled him as “John” Robertson (My Father, Daniel Boone, p. 37). Still, whether Joe or John, our Robertson hunting companion no doubt existed.

Did Daniel Boone ever visit the French Lick-Nashville area? A reasonable, one-word answer would be “probably.” If we zoom out a bit and ask whether Boone was significant to the process that led to the founding of Nashville, the consensus would be “absolutely.” Not only was Boone integral to Richard Henderson’s 1775 Transylvania Purchase, which included the French Lick area, but his Wilderness Road was the very route James Robertson and companions took to establish Nashville in late 1779. Although he died in Missouri in 1820, Daniel Boone belongs to many locations, certainly including Nashville.


Note: The author is grateful to Ted Franklin Belue, Michael A. Lofaro, and John Mack Faragher for taking time from busy university schedules to read and comment on this article. A special thanks, also, for the helpful comments of Katy Schuster-Luck.  

John Montgomery’s Nashville Nap

by Mike Slate.

“Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file – the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur-trader and hunter, the cattle-raiser, the pioneer farmer – and the frontier has passed by.”  Frederick Jackson Turner, 1893

How does someone get into a major history book by taking a nap? Whatever his reasons, iconic 19th-century historian Lyman C. Draper (1815-1891) thought an account of John Montgomery’s Nashville nap important enough to insert into his biography of Daniel Boone. Draper’s anecdote, virtually unknown except to Boone scholars, is reproduced here by permission of Stackpole Books (The Life of Daniel Boone, ed. by Ted Franklin Belue, p. 266):

“Among this band of Nimrods was John Montgomery. Having hunted awhile around Station Camp Creek and the neighboring licks, he concluded he would like to go alone and visit the French Lick region and informed his companions as he started not to be alarmed on his account should he be a week or two absent. He loitered around French Lick a day or so, and then went to what was afterwards called Robertson’s lick on Richland Creek, five miles west of the present city of Nashville. His object was not game but to view the country. Entering a thicket adjoining the lick, he lay down to take a nap and soon dreamed that if he did not take care, the Indians would kill him. So vivid was the dream that it alarmed and awakened him. While thinking of it, a gun was fired not apparently a hundred yards from him, and in a few moments a stricken deer came dashing through the bushes and fell dead almost at his feet. Knowing that Indians were close upon him, he hesitated whether to waylay the fallen deer or retreat further into the thicket; but upon a moment’s reflection he concluded that he had better quietly withdraw; for, should he wound or kill an Indian, he feared it would at least fill the minds of his hunting companions with apprehensions of retaliation, or even break up their hunting expedition with the loss of some of the party.  Acting upon this discreet conclusion, he crept carefully away and returned to the Station Camp.”

This statue of John Montgomery now stands in downtown Clarksville, Tennessee (photo from NHN collection)

While Draper’s Montgomery story may initially seem only mildly intriguing, a second look suggests some significant “firsts,” as well as a tragic irony. To my knowledge, this is the youngest age at which the future founder of Clarksville and source of Montgomery County’s name enters substantively into the historical record. According to Draper’s summary of John Montgomery’s life, which appears near the end of our story’s chapter (p. 272), Montgomery was born in 1748. Since the context of Draper’s anecdote is a 1771 group hunting and exploring expedition, Montgomery was only about 23 years old when he had his frightful dream near the natural salt licks that would, about eight years later, give rise to the new outpost of Nashborough (later Nashville).

Although there is a Station Camp Creek associated with Daniel Boone in eastern Kentucky, in our narrative Draper is no doubt referencing the one in today’s Sumner County, Tennessee. Groups of “Long Hunters,” so called because of their lengthy hunting expeditions, often established central camps in the wilderness and launched from there in smaller groups. It was from our nearby Station Camp that Montgomery began his exploration of the country around French Lick.

Draper’s reference to “Robertson’s Lick on Richland Creek” may also be a first. His 1771 context is the earliest point I know in which this salt lick and creek become elements of our written heritage. Shortly after James Robertson co-founded Fort Nashborough in 1780, he claimed land along Richland Creek that included the buffalo and deer lick and moved his family there. For a while the family lived in a log house, a replica of which stands today in H.G. Hill Park at 6710 Charlotte Pike, but Robertson soon built a comfortable brick home that, had it survived, would be located near today’s Robertson Avenue in West Nashville.

So how did John Montgomery (and later Robertson himself) manage to discover the Richland Creek/ Robertson’s Lick area? That was probably easy enough. Buffalo and deer made paths from salt lick to salt lick, with Indians stalking after the game. No doubt Montgomery simply followed the buffalo-Indian trail that ran from French Lick, the geo-historical epicenter of future Nashville, out to Robertson’s Lick, a future suburban area. Like other Nashville thoroughfares, today’s Charlotte Pike may originally have been a natural buffalo trace, and Montgomery was probably among the first white men to travel that ancient “road.”

Daniel Boone was the most famous of the Long Hunters.

Some historians malign the Long Hunters as ne’er-do-wells who escaped the drudgery of homesteading by taking to the woods, leaving wives and children to fend for themselves. While such criticism tends to counterbalance overly romantic views of the storied woodsmen, it certainly does not apply to John Montgomery. Far from lazy, he was among the busiest of American frontiersmen. After his career as a Long Hunter, he commanded troops under George Rogers Clark in the Illinois campaign of the Revolutionary War and, in concert with Col. Evan Shelby, quelled the fierce Chickamauga Indians near today’s Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 1780 he returned to the French Lick, presumably with his family, aboard the Donelson flotilla to Fort Nashborough, where he signed the Cumberland Compact. He served briefly as sheriff of the Cumberland district before co-founding Clarksville in 1784 with surveyor Martin Armstrong. Montgomery named the new city for his former colonel, George Rogers Clark.

After returning from the apocalyptic 1794 Nickajack expedition, in which he once again led troops against the Chickamaugans, Montgomery was killed and scalped by Indians while hunting near Eddyville, Kentucky, on November 27, some 23 years after his prescient dream at Robertson’s Lick. Although history’s ironies often delight us, this one compels a moment of silence. Draper, perhaps after his own quiet reflection, eulogized our fallen luminary as “brave to a fault, generous, and kind; six feet, two inches in height, with blue eyes, auburn hair, ruddy complexion, handsome features, possessing great strength and activity, and presenting altogether a real border war hero whose ‘lofty deeds and daring high’ excite our liveliest admiration” (p. 272).


Sources: Draper’s The Life of Daniel Boone; Durham’s The Great Leap Westward: A History of Sumner County, Tennessee; Haywood’s The Civil and Political History of Tennessee; Kelley’s West Nashville…Its People and Environs; Consultation with Ilene Jones Cornwell; Goodpasture’s “Colonel John Montgomery,” Tennessee Historical Magazine 5 (1919), pp. 145-150, and online.  


This article was first published in the January 2010 edition of The Nashville Retrospect.  We thank publisher Allen Forkum for his permission to republish it here.