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