Preserving Nashville’s Pioneer Legacy, Part II: The Role of John and Sally Buchanan in Nashville History

from the files of the Nashville Historical Newsletter.

This account was written by Mike Slate in 2011 as part of his campaign to save Buchanan’s Station Cemetery from being lost in a flurry of industrial development.

Early map of the Cumberland River (Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2013591467)

John Buchanan (1759-1832) and his group of settlers arrived at the French Lick (future Nashville, Tennessee) in the winter of 1779-80. In his book Tennessee during the Revolutionary War, historian Samuel Cole Williams states that “Some South Carolinians on the move to the West overtook the Robertson party; and, being smaller in number and less encumbered, reached French Lick first, crossed the Cumberland on ice, and began the building of cabins. The South Carolinians included John Buchanan and his brother, Alexander; Daniel and Sampson Williams, brothers; James and John Mulherrin, and Thomas Thompson.” If this account is accurate, John Buchanan was one of the very first pioneers to call Nashville home. Today John (often called “Major John”) lies buried at the Buchanan’s Station Cemetery.

John Buchanan was the son of John Buchanan Sr., one of Nashville’s first heroes. In the April 2, 1781,Battle of the Bluffs” near Fort Nashborough, John Sr. famously saved Edward Swanson from being killed by a Native American attacker, but Buchanan lost his son Alexander during this battle. Several years later John Sr. was himself murdered at Buchanan’s Station by Indians; an account of this event is preserved by George W. Featherstonhaugh in his Excursion through the Slave States. Samuel Buchanan, another brother of Major John, was also killed by Indians at the station. For an evocative account of Samuel’s death see the article, “The Buchanans of Buchanan’s Station” in the Chicago Magazine, Vol. 1 No. 3, 1857. Buchanan Sr., his wife Jane, and their son Samuel are likely buried in the Buchanan’s Station Cemetery in unmarked graves. Though he lost his father and two brothers to Indian warfare, Major John, unlike many others who attempted to settle in Nashville but moved on, persevered here for the remainder of his life.

John Buchanan’s Book of Arithmetic (courtesy of the Tennessee State Library and Archives)

John Buchanan wrote Nashville’s first book. Apparently in a systematic effort to learn the mathematics of land surveying, Major John created John Buchanan’s Book of Arithmetic, and dated it June 20, 1781. He did indeed pursue land surveying, and his name is listed on many early Nashville surveys. In the course of his public career, Buchanan himself amassed many hundreds of acres, becoming quite prosperous. Today, Buchanan’s book is a Nashville and Tennessee artifact that is carefully preserved in the Tennessee State Library and Archives. Ironically, Tennessee has treasured the book but not the grave of the man who produced it.

After living approximately four years at Fort Nashborough, Buchanan and his family moved a few miles east and established Buchanan’s Station on Mill Creek, near today’s Elm Hill Pike and Massman Drive. In addition to a stockaded fort with blockhouses, Major John built a grist mill, and some authorities believe his mill is the one that gave Mill Creek its name. In about 1786 John married Margaret Kennedy, who died after giving birth to their first and only child, John Buchanan II (technically John III), born on May 15, 1787. Little is known about Margaret, who may be buried in an unmarked grave at the Buchanan’s Station Cemetery. Descendants of John Buchanan II include Tennessee Governor John Price Buchanan, Nobel Prize winner James M. Buchanan, and Nashville attorney Alexander Buchanan.

John Buchanan was the commander of the fort on the fateful night of September 30, 1792, when several hundred Indians attacked it as part of a grand plan to destroy the Cumberland settlements. In this “Battle of Buchanan’s Station,” roughly 20 riflemen in the station repulsed the horde, killing several Indian leaders, without the loss of a single settler. Historian J.G.M. Ramsey called the victory “a feat of bravery which has scarcely been surpassed in all the annals of border warfare.” James Phelan offered a similar assessment: “This is one of the most remarkable incidents in the early border warfare of the Southwest. So wonderful, indeed, that even some of the pioneers believed in the direct interposition of Providence.” Not surprisingly, the story of the Battle has been recounted in many volumes of history, including Theodore Roosevelt’s The Winning of the West.

Frontier wedding (photo courtesy of Living History farms)

Perhaps the wisest decision John Buchanan ever made was to marry Sarah “Sally” Ridley (1773-1831). Sally was one of the first white females born in what would eventually become the state of Tennessee. Along with her father, Revolutionary War veteran Captain George Ridley, she arrived in the Cumberland settlements about 1790. Her family established Ridley’s Station in the area of today’s Nolensville Road and Glenrose Avenue. Sally, a large woman with a large personality, was destined to become a legend in much of the eastern half of the United States.

Throughout the Battle of Buchanan’s Station, Sally, nine months pregnant with the couple’s first child, was the heroic voice of victory. She encouraged the riflemen at every turn, molded bullets when the supply ran low (reportedly by melting her dinnerware), blocked another woman in the station from surrendering herself and her children to almost certain death, and helped fool the Indians by a “showing of hats.” Sally’s uncommon spunk was extolled by biographer Elizabeth Ellet in her 1856 volume, The Women of the American Revolution, which referred to her as “the greatest heroine of the West.” Periodicals from as far away as Boston immortalized Sarah, some fancifully, and she was listed in at least two national encyclopedias of biography (Appleton’s and Herringshaw’s).

John and Sarah Buchanan had thirteen children: George, Alexander, Elizabeth, Samuel, William, Jane T., James B., Moses R., Sarah V., Charles B., Richard G., Henry R., and Nancy M. The Buchanan children and grandchildren intermarried with members of other settlements around Buchanan’s Station, their families becoming important not only to Davidson County history but also to that of neighboring Rutherford and Williamson counties. Eventually the Buchanan descendants spread to all parts of the United States, and accounts of their accomplishments and contributions to the nation could fill volumes.

A reenactor portraying Cherokee Chief John Watts shares historical information with visitors to the Buchanan’s Station Cemetery, 2012.

Buchanan’s Station also has significant associations with local Native American history. It was a confederacy of Creeks, Cherokees, and Shawnees that attacked the Station in 1792. During the battle, Chiachattalla (also known as Kiachatalee, Tsiagatali, Kittegiska, and Tom Tunbridge’s son), an especially dauntless warrior, was shot near the fort. As he lay dying, he reportedly continued his efforts to set the structure ablaze by fanning the flames with his last breaths. Also killed in the battle were “the Shawnee Warrior” (Cheeseekau, a brother of the great Tecumseh) and White Owl’s Son, brother of Dragging Canoe. The great Chickamauga chief John Watts was shot through both thighs but was removed from the battleground in a litter and later recovered. For a partial list of Indian casualties at the Battle of Buchanan’s Station see American State Papers: Indian Affairs 4-331.

Today John and Sarah Buchanan are almost forgotten. Very few citizens know that their graves, with the original headstones, survive in Buchanan’s Station Cemetery, the last vestige of the pioneer settlement. The educational and inspirational lessons of their lives have been largely squandered, and the story of the Battle of Buchanan’s Station has been all but lost. Believing that the Buchanans are an integral part of early Nashville history – see the first chapter in Harriette Simpson Arnow’s Flowering of the Cumberland – a number of concerned Nashville-area citizens have formed the Friends of the Buchanan’s Station Cemetery, with the goals of remedying years of neglect of this historic site and of restoring one of Nashville’s founding families to its proper place in our historical consciousness. (2011)

John and Sally Buchanan’s gravestones in Buchanan’s Station Cemetery

Major John Buchanan (1759-1832)

by Mike Slate.

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.

Battle of the Bluffs

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.

A page from John Buchanan’s Book of Arithmetic, currently stored in the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

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.

Mill wheel

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.

Where is the Buchanan Station Sword?

by Mike Slate.

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.

Photo of Buchanan’s Station cemetery by Esther Victory.

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.