Alice Thompson Collinsworth: Intrepid Pioneer

by Gloria Newsom Huggins.

On Christmas Day 1779 James and Elizabeth Thompson arrived at French Lick on the Cumberland River. The couple had joined James Robertson’s adventurers, looking for a new life on land where they believed they would be free. However, they had no idea what a high price they would pay for land in this territory that was to become Nashville, Tennessee.

By the time John Donelson’s party arrived on April 24, 1780, the Robertson group had already built eight stations of log cabins. A week later the men in the group gathered at the Bluff and adopted the Cumberland Compact1. Within the next two weeks they agreed on additional resolutions, and on May 13, 1780, James Thompson and his son Robert joined 254 other men in signing the completed Compact.

Signature page of the Cumberland Compact

As original settlers, the Thompsons received 640 acres on Richland Creek, near today’s Belle Meade mansion. In 1790 James began building the family’s cabin there, not realizing the dangers that lay ahead. By 1791 two of the Thompsons’ sons had lost their lives in Indian attacks. More tragedy was to follow: a narrative given to The South-Western Monthly in 1852 by John Davis, an early neighbor, described the murder of James and Elizabeth Thompson and their daughter Elizabeth by a party of Indians on February 25, 1792. Thomas E. Matthews’ book General James Robertson, Father of Tennessee, adds that the marauders enslaved the Thompson’s 31-year-old daughter Alice, along with two houseguests, a Mrs. Caffrey and her young son.

Scene in Indian village

The captives were taken to a Creek village called Kialigee, where Mrs. Caffrey’s little boy was taken from her and given to another white slave to raise. It would be two years before they were freed. Indian agent John O’Riley purchased Alice from her captors for 800 weight of dressed deerskins valued at $266 (the equivalent of almost $7,000 today). In May 1794 Alice was taken to the American Agency at Rock Island, Georgia. Before she returned to Nashville, she met with Governor Blount in Knoxville to answer his questions about other captives she had seen in the Indian camps. Governor Blount recorded these facts in a letter to the Secretary of War on October 2, 1794.

Meanwhile, in 1793, Edmund Collinsworth had arrived in Nashville to join his half-brother John Cockrill, who was married to James Robertson’s sister Ann. Edmund was a veteran of the Revolutionary War, having enlisted in the First Virginia Regiment in 1777 and served until April 1780. According to family stories, it was “love at first sight” when Alice met Edmund upon her return to Nashville in late fall 1794. They were married on December 17, 1795.

The couple built their home on land that had belonged to Alice’s brother John, who had died in the 1791 Indian attack. It is believed that both Alice and Edmund were eventually buried in unmarked graves on this home place, which is located in today’s Antioch/ Mount View area southeast of Nashville.

Edmund died in March of 1816, leaving Alice with seven children ranging in age from seven to eighteen. As she always seemed to do, Alice took the bad with the good and persevered, bringing up the children on her own. Her son James carried his Tennessee fortitude to the young Republic of Texas where he served as aide-de-camp to Sam Houston during the Battle of San Jacinto. He was a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence and was Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme court at the time of his death. Another of Alice’s sons, John, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Daughter Susan married Mark Robertson Cockrill, who owned a 5.600-acre farm where he bred award-winning Merino sheep, their wool acclaimed as the finest in the world.

Merino sheep

Alice died in February 1828 at her home, which she shared by then with her daughter Parmelia Ann Davis and her family. The old house is long gone, but in December 1864 it was the place where Parmelia Ann had a touching encounter with a Union officer . . . but that’s another story2.

1 The Cumberland Compact, adopted in Nashville in 1780, was essentially a constitution for the frontier settlement, setting rules for governing the colony (including salaries, which were to be paid in animal skins) and for making and enforcing laws. It was signed by 256 colonists. (ed.)

2 Widowed in 1848, Parmelia watched the railroad industry change the face of middle Tennessee. During the Civil War, Nathan Bedford Forrest and others took great pride in sabotaging the tracks to impede the advance of Union troops. In early December 1864 Parmelia heard the thunderous crash of a train accident near her property and rushed toward the flaming wreckage to see what had happened. The Union officer in charge was gathering the bodies of 24 soldiers killed in the accident, planning to bury them all together in an embankment near the tracks. Parmelia intervened, insisting that the dead soldiers be buried on her plantation, each individual grave to be marked with a stone from her fields. Touched by her kind gesture, the Union officer posted a “special guard” to protect Parmelia and her land from attack for the remainder of the war. After the war the remains of the 24 Union soldiers were reportedly moved to the Stones River National Cemetery in Murfreesboro.  (ed.)

Buchanan’s Station: A Stirring Reminiscence of the Olden Time

Primary Source Document, transcribed by Kathy B. Lauder.

Republican Banner, November 17, 1869

To the Editor of the Banner:

In company with the Vice-president of the Pacific Railroad, a few days since, I rode along the first six miles of the road. The work is in a forward condition, and but for two or three injunctions, the grading, masonry, etc., would be finished by the first of next January ready for track-laying.  The masonry of the bridge at Mill Creek is finished and the iron bridge will be erected when the track-laying reaches that point.  The object of this communication is to call public attention to the fact that this bridge crosses the creek at the point where was fought one of the most remarkable Indian battles that characterize the early settlements of Tennessee.

Nearly fifty years ago, the writer became familiar with the spot, and often heard from those who had participated in the battle an account of the gallant and successful defense of the fort, then called Buchanan’s Station.  The eastern abutment of the bridge rests on the bluff near the spot where stood the stockade and block-house.  It should be commemorated by some suitable tablet and inscription erected upon that end of the bridge.  This and many similar events are passing out of the memory of our people, and I am afraid that the rising generation are not at all familiar with the early history of our State.    In 1792 General Robertson, the father of Middle Tennessee, received intelligence which led him to believe the Indians would visit his neighborhood.  He sent out one of his trusty scouts, Abraham Castleman, to reconnoitre and find out what danger, if any, was impending.  Castleman made a circuit of some sixty miles, going south and returning by the place where Murfreesboro now stands.  He reported traces of the Indians at that point.  Other scouts reported that no Indians were about and none appearing.  Castleman was jeered for his report to such an extent as to cause both himself and General Robertson great mortification.  Events, however, proved the correctness of his reconnoisance [sic].  On Monday, the 30th of September, the people in the fort were awakened by the running in of the cattle and other noises which betokened a large force of Indians at hand.  Before daylight a vigorous attack was made by a large body of savages.  They attempted to fire the fort before the little garrison were in position for defense.  In the fort were fifteen gun-men and a few women, who did their full share of the fighting, running bullets, loading the guns, and firing, as the occasion required.  The heroic conduct of Mrs. Buchanan, exhibited in her coolness, bravery, and the spirit in which she animated the men, was common talk long after her death. 

Reenactors portray Sally Buchanan and a wilderness preacher at a 2012 event to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Buchanan’s Station. (photo from NHN collection)

This station was on the old road to the Hermitage, and until the turnpike was built visitors to the Hermitage were shown this place as one pre-eminently entitled to notice.  With the people of this section, Mrs. Buchanan was as much a heroine as General Jackson was afterward a hero. 

The battle lasted an hour. The Indians, from the brisk and incessant firing kept up from the fort to their destruction, believed it was defended by a large force, and retired, leaving some of their dead on the field, but carrying off their wounded.  They left a large amount of guns, swords, tomahawks, kettles, etc., on the field.  The celebrated John Watts, a noted Cherokee Chief, was wounded.  Kiachatalee, a noted Indian warrior, was killed, as was also a hostile half-breed, known as “Tom Turnbridge’s step-son,” who was shot while attempting to fire the fort.  Thirty balls were fired through one port-hole into the roof of the fort, and were found in the area of a man’s hat.  Governor Blount, in his official account of this battle, estimated the number of assailants at three or four hundred.  Both Ramsey and Putnam, in their histories, say the Indians acknowledged their force to have been seven hundred, and that they were dispirited by the constant fire, which led them to believe that the fort was defended by a very strong force.

Not a man, woman or child in the fort received the slightest harm.  Surely such an event as this is worthy of some commemoration.  A simple tablet of iron, with a suitable inscription, could be placed by the railroad company on this bridge at a trifling cost, which they can well afford to pay, as the owners of the land neither charge damages for running the road through it, nor ask pay for the fine stone quarried from the bluff for the erection of the bridge.

(No author is listed.)