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.”
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.”
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.