It was an unexpected setting for a significant moment in Tennessee history. Sailboats bobbed in the harbor of the charming Maine seaside village, and visitors in casually expensive shorts and sandals strolled past with their rescued greyhounds and canvas bags from L.L. Bean. But behind the oak and granite walls of a York Harbor pub, a descendant of Nashville founder James Robertson (1742-1814), was unwinding tissue paper from a family treasure.
Dr. Henry J. Llewellyn is a 60-something radiologist who lives and works in the Boston area. A man of great dignity and charm, he has, since the recent death of his sister, begun to consider the fate of various family treasures he holds in trust. What he was carrying with him on this September day in 2002 was a small watercolor sketch, in profile, of a man generations of his family have believed to be a young General James Robertson. Dr. Llewellyn had recently contacted Mike Slate, editor of the Nashville Historical Newsletter, saying he would like to share this heirloom with the public.
The enormity of this find, should the face be Robertson’s, would challenge and delight Nashville and Tennessee historians. Although one confirmed portrait of Robertson does exist, experts agree it was produced after his death. That portrait was painted by artist Washington Bogart Cooper (1802-1888), who arrived in Nashville in 1830 and had become quite a popular artist here by 1838. According to James A. Hoobler of the Tennessee State Museum, Robertson’s widow Charlotte called her children together and commissioned Cooper to paint the portrait by combining, not unlike pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the facial traits “of various family members whose features resembled their father.” Charlotte loved the painting and “swore that it looked just like James had.” It is important to remember, however, that Charlotte Robertson was in her mid-80s by that time, and that her husband had been dead for more than twenty years.
At least some of the Robertson images that appear in various history texts seem to have been copied from the Cooper painting. One other painting, attributed to artist Henry Benbridge (1743-1812), accompanies many modern-day accounts, including the James Robertson entry in the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Still another portrait once believed to be of James Robertson has been identified as that of a kinsman. If Dr. Llewellyn’s miniature is, in fact, a portrait of the General drawn from life, it is very likely the only one in existence. Indeed, the story that has come down through the family, passed from parent to child for eight generations, maintains this to be the only likeness ever made of Robertson during his lifetime.
The picture itself is small and imperfect. The oval frame, made in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, is probably not much more than one hundred years old. It is badly cracked. Almost a quarter of the picture has been torn off, in a line running down the right side from top to bottom, and another deep crease runs vertically through the entire figure. A small section of the back of the head, where the page is torn, has been drawn onto the backing paper below by a less artistic hand. Stains and age spots discolor much of the page.
It is very small: the oval frame is four and a half by six inches; the image of the man himself is only three inches high. But it is startlingly beautiful. Less like our conception of a rugged frontiersman than a graceful illustration for a Jane Austen novel, the profile of a handsome young man is outlined in a few delicate strokes. The skin tones are subtle and lifelike; the hair, except for the awkward smear on the backing paper, has an almost palpable softness. It is a lovely piece of historical art that merits further study.
Nashville historians who have viewed the portrait agree that the clothing and other stylistic details of the painting are inconsistent with the period of James Robertson’s youth, and that the young man’s profile is quite different from that of the Cooper portrait. A few individuals have also pointed out that stories passed down through families are subject to the same process we remember from our childhood game of “Telephone,” in which a sentence whispered from person to person transforms into something quite different by the time it reaches the last player. Nevertheless, it is entirely probable, since the portrait has been so carefully tended through the years, that it is indeed a likeness of one of Dr. Llewellyn’s ancestors, perhaps even another member of the Robertson family. (2002)
Robertson Line, General James Robertson to Dr. Henry J. Llewellyn from Sarah Foster Kelley. Children of Nashville. Nashville: Blue & Gray Press, 1973.
Henry Jerome Llewellyn II (15 Jun 1937 – 13 Feb 2009)
b Philadelphia, PA; d Brookline, MA
Father: Clinton F. Llewellyn
Mother: Mabelle Ann Johnson Llewellyn
Spouse: Paige E. Llewellyn
Clinton Llewellyn (5 Dec 1903 – 13 Jan 1944)
b Philadelphia, PA; d Philadelphia, PA
Father: Henry J. Llewellyn (NY)
Mother: Pauline Drescher (PA)
Manager at H. J. Llewellyn Co., his father’s bakery supply company.
from the files of the Nashville Historical Newsletter.
Mike Slate wrote this press release in early 2012, hoping to stimulate public interest in rescuing one of early Nashville’s most important historical sites, which was about to be swallowed up by industrial development.
On a rocky bluff above a bubbling Mill Creek, under a canopy of trees that include American elm, black cherry, and sassafras, a group of pioneers – some of the architects of Nashville’s “can do” spirit – lie buried and forgotten. Two of them are especially significant.
Twenty-year-old John Buchanan (later called “Major John”) and his family arrived at the future Nashville during the unusually cold winter of 1779-1780—perhaps even ahead of James Robertson’s founding party—with nothing but a few necessities on pack horses. Unlike many other early settlers, Major John persevered here for the remainder of his life.
After losing his brother Alexander at Ft. Nashborough’s 1781 “Battle of the Bluffs” and writing Nashville’s first book, John Buchanan’s Book of Arithmetic, the young land surveyor and his extended family established Buchanan’s Station at Mill Creek, near today’s Elm Hill Pike at Massman Drive in what is now Donelson. Additional sorrows soon followed as John lost his father, John Buchanan Sr., and another brother, Samuel, in continuing Indian assaults.
The Chickamauga War reached its climax at Buchanan’s Station on September 30, 1792, when only about twenty defenders held off several hundred Native Americans whose goal was to destroy all the Cumberland settlements. Buchanan and his friends stopped them there, saving Nashville without the loss of a single stationer. Nineteenth-century historian J.G.M. Ramsey called this victory “a feat of bravery which has scarcely been surpassed in all the annals of border warfare.”
It was during this nighttime “Battle of Buchanan’s Station” that Major John’s eighteen-year-old wife, Sarah (“Sally”) Ridley Buchanan, in her ninth month of pregnancy with the first of their thirteen children, earned national fame. She encouraged the men, reassured the women and children, molded much-needed ammunition reportedly by melting down her dinnerware, and provided the voice of victory throughout the seemingly hopeless pandemonium. For her uncommon spunk, biographer Elizabeth Ellet referred to her as “the greatest heroine of the West,” and she was heralded in magazines and newspapers from as far away as Boston.
Unfortunately, the Buchanan Station story, as celebrated as it once was, has become lost to contemporary Nashville. Today the dilapidated Buchanan’s Station Cemetery, where Major John and Sarah Buchanan lie buried, is wedged anonymously into a Massman Drive industrial park, where hundreds of workers drive past twice a day, completely unaware of the graveyard’s historical import. (2011)
All photos of Buchanan Station’s Cemetery by Mike Slate, 2011.
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.”
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.
At the end of the 19th century City Cemetery was in crisis. Once a burial place for all Nashvillians, it had been supplanted by the newer and more beautiful Mt. Olivet, Mt. Ararat, and Calvary cemeteries. The Union Civil War dead had been transported to National; the Confederates, to Mt. Olivet. Neglected and ignored, City was described by the Banner on June 21, 1868, as a ruin: “robbery, murder and lust have held their horrid orgies in it and even now nightly desecrated by being the rendezvous of lascivious love.” No wonder the cemetery was promptly declared a “public nuisance” and burials were suspended the following month. A plan quickly came together within city government to remove all the graves and make the land a public park.
“Not so fast! Absolutely not!” Nashville’s women spoke out forcefully against such an idea. This was “sacred ground and should never be called a park,” protested Felicia Steger, a granddaughter of Felix Grundy. Women had found a new freedom of expression with the advent of the 20th century. In 1897 their Woman’s Building at the Tennessee Centennial had been a triumph. Now they found that, although not yet allowed to vote, they could nonetheless organize and engage in “civic housekeeping” with positive results. “We shall never have clean cities until the women undertake the job” was the credo of these busy ladies. Their noble efforts notwithstanding, a Banner reporter of 1900 expressed indignation that “women were boldly wearing ankle-length skirts on clear days because they were helpful in getting on and off streetcars.”
Saving and caring for City Cemetery became the focus of several groups. In 1903 the Tennessee Women’s Historical Association was organized, its specific purpose to preserve the cemetery. Sumner A. Cunningham, editor of the Confederate Veteran, claimed credit for suggesting its formation. He was the only male member of an industrious group that included Louise Lindsley and Carnegie librarian Mary Hannah Johnson. Other civic and patriotic organizations were asked to join them “to assist in improving and preserving the old city cemetery, to dispel the spirit of vandalism and promote civic pride. The Ladies’ Hermitage Association, DAR, UDC, and Colonial Dames all cooperated under this umbrella. One of their successful projects was the construction of a Memorial Gate at the 5th Avenue entrance. Dedicated in 1909, the gate exists only in pictures now, having been destroyed in an automobile accident during the 1930s. Wishing to do their part, Cumberland Chapter, DAR, erected a sundial to mark the path leading to the James Robertson family plot.
The South Nashville Federation of Women was another group that worked to care for the City Cemetery grounds. The guidebook All About Nashville reported in 1912 that “with the cooperation of 400 members, they have cleared away the rubbish, pruned trees, graveled the walks, and planted a line of memorial elms and lastly, are in the process of erecting a handsome memorial gateway to the heroes of another day.” These gateposts, on 4th Avenue, still stand. May Winston Caldwell, whose parents and siblings are buried at City, remembered the pre-Civil War days when her mother and Peter, the gardener, came to care for the family plot. Now May, as a member of the South Nashville Women, was proudly carrying on that tradition.
These hard-working women began a program of stewardship and restoration that has resumed in recent years after a period of neglect. Today the Nashville City Cemetery Association (composed of both men and women!) is ten* years old, making it the longest-lived and most professional volunteer organization ever to protect and renovate the grounds and markers: an endowment established at the Community Foundation will support the continuing restoration of the City Cemetery in the years to come. Thanks to the $3 million allocated by the Metro Council, and with the cooperation of the Metro Historical Commission and such citizen organizations as Master Gardeners of Davidson County, the cemetery is once again prepared to maintain its status as a historically valuable resting place of our pioneer heritage. (2008)
Previously published in Monuments and Milestones, the Nashville City Cemetery Newsletter.
* Note: This article was written in 2008. The NCCA began its work in 1998. By this time (late 2021) the organization is more than 23 years old.
One of Nashville’s most popular events is the annual Living History Tour each fall at City Cemetery. Visitors see the past come alive as costumed characters step forward from the gravestones to tell their stories. Although a few beloved personalities from Nashville’s history do reappear from time to time, the Nashville City Cemetery Association (NCCA) selects many new characters each year. The individuals named below were featured in the 2013 Tour. The photos of reenactors were taken during NCCA Living History Tours between 2008 and 2012.
Lipscomb Norvell, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, served under General George Washington at Brandywine, Trenton, and Monmouth. An early pioneer, he raised a large family in Kentucky before joining family members in Nashville, where he died at age 87.
Frank Parrish, a free man of color, was a Nashville entrepreneur, operating a Bathing House and Barber Shop on Deaderick Street. He died in 1867 and was buried in a family plot at City Cemetery.
William Carroll Napierowned a Nashville livery stable. His son James carried Mayor Cheatham to surrender Nashville to Union forces in 1862. Later the two Napiers helped John Berrien Lindsley set up military hospitals around the city by transporting food equipment and supplies. During the Occupation, the Union Army employed Carroll as a spy, tasked with reporting Confederate troop movements in Murfreesboro and along the Harpeth River. Son James C. Napier would later become Nashville’s African American city councilor, as well as Register of the U.S. Treasury under President Taft.
George W. Campbell, one of Nashville’s most distinguished citizens, was an attorney, a U.S. Representative and Senator, one of the first two Tennessee Supreme Court Justices, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, and U.S. Ambassador to Russia. His wife Harriet Stoddert was the daughter of the secretary of the Navy in Thomas Jefferson’s cabinet. In 1843 Campbell sold a property known as “Campbell’s Hill” to the city of Nashville, later transferred to the state as the site of the Tennessee state capitol.
Mabel Lewis Imes was raised in New England, where she received an excellent education, learned to speak French, and took voice lessons. When she auditioned for the Fisk Jubilee Singers during their Eastern tour, they immediately invited her to sing contralto with the group . . . at the age of 13!
Thomas Crutcherserved as the State Treasurer of Tennessee for 25 years. An activist in promoting education for women, he was a founder and active trustee of the Nashville Female Academy, where the students called him “Uncle Crutcher.”
Lizzie Porterfield Elliottwas the daughter of Collins D. Elliott, president of the Nashville Female Academy, and she was perhaps the most compelling example of his belief in educating women. She taught in both public and private schools for more than 30 years and was active in educational and civic organizations. An authority on Tennessee history, she served as an officer in the Tennessee Historical Society. A bright and interesting woman, she authored the Early History of Nashville, still admired for its historical accuracy.
Before the section of the city north of the Cumberland River was known as Edgefield (and then East Nashville), it was referred to as Wetmore’s Addition. Moses Wetmore, the first person to subdivide the area into lots for homes and businesses, also donated the land for Holy Trinity Church and gave his name to two city streets.
Mayor John Patton Erwin served two terms as mayor of Nashville. He worked as a bank cashier (in those days, the equivalent of a bank manager), was editor of the Nashville Whig, and served as Postmaster, Justice of the Peace, and clerk of the Tennessee House of Representatives.
PowhatanMaxey served as a justice of the peace, an alderman for seven terms, and mayor of Nashville from 1843-1845. He negotiated the purchase of Capitol Hill from William Nichol and George W. Campbell, and then donated the land to the Tennessee General Assembly, provided they would locate the State Capitol on that site. (2013)
Previously published in Monuments & Milestones, the Nashville City Cemetery Newsletter.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Probably recounted more often than any other Indian attack in Tennessee history1, the heroic Battle of Buchanan’s Station occurred on the moonlit night of September 30, 1792. A confederacy of about 300 Creeks, Chickamauga Cherokees, and Shawnee2 surrounded Major John Buchanan’s Mill Creek stockade, intending to destroy it before advancing on Nashville and the other Cumberland settlements. A mere fifteen sharpshooters3 within the station turned back the onslaught by killing or wounding several notable Indian leaders without losing a single defender. Historian J.G.M. Ramsey called the victory “a feat of bravery which has scarcely been surpassed in all the annals of border warfare.”4
Informants Richard Finnelson and Joseph Deraque had warned the Cumberland settlers of the impending attack.5 In Knoxville territorial governor William Blount was similarly alerted by friendly Indians. Blount ordered Nashville’s James Robertson to raise militia and prepare, but he sent orders to stand down after no attack materialized. Robertson, more skeptical, remained vigilant and sent out scouts to hunt for marauders. Two of the scouts, Jonathan Gee and Seward Clayton, never returned and were later discovered to have been killed.6
Following a war conference that fueled their longstanding outrage over colonial encroachment, the Indians, armed by the Spanish government, began their campaign in Chickamauga country near today’s Chattanooga. As they approached Nashville, they quarreled about whether to attack Buchanan’s Station first. This decision set the stage for the ensuing drama.7
On guard at Buchanan’s Station, John McCrory heard the Indians approaching and fired the first shot of the battle, instantly killing Shawnee Warrior.8 The Indians fired volley after volley at the blockhouse as the little garrison inside struggled against overwhelming odds. Sarah “Sally” Ridley Buchanan, Major Buchanan’s hugely pregnant wife, became the voice of victory. Aided by other women, she reportedly molded and carried additional ammunition to the riflemen, supplied them with distilled spirits, insisted that they make every shot count, and cheered them on. For her courageous acts that night, she would become known as “the greatest heroine of the West.”9
The Indians also demonstrated great courage. Cherokee warrior Kiachatallee (also Chiachattalla) attempted to set the fort ablaze. Although mortally injured, he continued to kindle flames with his dying breath.10 Among other braves who died that Sunday night was White Owl’s Son, possibly the brother of Dragging Canoe.11John Watts, recently chosen chief of the Lower Cherokees (Chickamaugas), was severely wounded but later recovered.
The battle finally ended, perhaps because of the ineptitude of an inebriated Irishman in the station. Not realizing he had overloaded the Buchanans’ old blunderbuss, Jimmy O’Connor produced a stupendous boom.12 The Indians, terrified of cannon fire, withdrew.
The Battle of Buchanan’s Station has captured the attention of historians since 1792. British scholar Dr. John Sugden recently determined that the Shawnee Warrior killed by John McCrory was Cheeseekau, Tecumseh’s brother and mentor. Moreover, Sugden writes, Tecumseh himself was present at the battle and watched his brother die.13 Such valuable ongoing research will continue to deepen our understanding of this critical frontier event. (2014)
1 Although such matters are difficult to quantify, I know of no single conflict between colonial settlers and Native Americans in Tennessee history, not even Nashville’s “Battle of the Bluff,” that has appeared in print as often as the Battle of Buchanan’s Station (BoBS). Accounts of the BoBS are many, varied, and sometimes conflicting. Tracing and analyzing these accounts chronologically, from 1792 until the present, is a fascinating historiographical journey. The “baseline” account is a 388-word report from James Robertson to territorial governor William Blount, which arrived to Blount on October 9, 1792. That correspondence can be found in American State Papers: Indian Affairs 1: 294-295. Skipping over many other accounts to the present, three excellent modern treatments of the battle are John Buchanan [a coincidental name], Jackson’s Way: Andrew Jackson and the People of the Western Waters (Hoboken NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2001, reprint by Castle Books), 131-136; John Sugden, Tecumseh: A Life (New York: Henry Holt and Company, paperback reprint, 1997), 70-75; and John Anthony Caruso, The Appalachian Frontier: America’s First Surge Westward (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2003, new edition of the 1959 original), 353-357.
2 The number of Indians said to have surrounded Buchanan’s Station varies from 280 to 900 or more. Robertson’s original account (in the American State Papers) says, “supposed to consist of three or four hundred.” However, a report from Blount on November 5, 1792, says, “appeared to have been, Creeks, from 400 to 500; Cherokees, 200; Shawanese, from 30-40” (See American State Papers: Indian Affairs 1: 331). The Tennessee state historical marker on the battle site says “about 300,” and most modern treatments also report “about 300.” I have chosen to use the conservative “about 300” figure.
3 The exact number of defenders, like that of the attackers, is uncertain. Robertson’s original account clearly says “fifteen gun-men,” and that is the number used by some later accounts and most modern ones. Yet it appears possible if not likely that Robertson’s report was not precisely accurate. Over the ensuing years the number increased to about twenty. A few accounts attempt to name the defenders, and a researcher can combine those accounts and arrive at well over twenty. Those accounts which attempt to name the defenders include the following: John Buchanan Todd, letter to Lyman Draper, 9 November 1854, Draper Manuscripts 6XX64; Major Thomas Washington, “The Attack on Buchanan’s Station,” Annals of the Army of Tennessee and Early Western History, Vol. 1 November (1878): 378-381; Josephus Conn Guild, Old Times in Tennessee (Knoxville: Tenase Company, 1971, reprint of the 1878 original), 300-313; Thomas Buchanan, “Buchanan Memoir,” at https://sites.google.com/site/davidsoncounty/home/people-of-interest/buchanan-history, accessed 01-25-14; and Edward Albright, Early History of Middle Tennessee (Nashville: Brandon Printing Company, 1909), 171-177. It appears that some of the pioneers named were indeed involved in the larger context of the battle but not in the actual conflict itself. I have chosen to use Robertson’s conservative “fifteen gun-men” figure.
4 J.G.M. Ramsey, The Annals of Tennessee to the End of the Eighteenth Century (Johnson City TN: The Overmountain Press, 1999 reprint of the 1853 original), 566-567.
5 For more on Finnelson and Deraque see American State Papers: Indian Affairs 1: 288-292.
6 Robertson’s original account (in the American State Papers) reports of Gee and Clayton that “it is supposed they are killed.” Later accounts substantiate this and describe the circumstances of their deaths. Little is known about Jonathan Gee. Ironically, Seward Clayton was captured by Indians when he was a boy, in an incident that involved Major John Buchanan. For that story see Lizzie P. Elliott, Early History of Nashville (Nashville: The Board of Education, 1911), 155-158. The Indians later released Clayton, who then met his death by their hands in 1792.
7 The events and circumstances leading up to the Battle of Buchanan’s Station are substantially covered by the three modern accounts listed in note #1 above. The BoBS was the climax of a much larger story that is instructive as to the political climate of the time as well as to the complicated relationships between Native Americans and Euro-American settlers.
8 “John Mc. Rory” is the only active defender that Robertson mentions by name in his original account. The specific fact that McCrory killed Shawnee Warrior is not stated by Robertson, but is taken from later accounts. Additionally, some later accounts mention Thomas McCrory rather than John. An example of such accounts is the “literary” (complete with dialogue, etc.) story by Octavia Zollicoffer Bond, Old Tells Retold (Nashville: Smith & Lamar, 1906), 154-167.
9 Elizabeth F. Ellet, The Women of the American Revolution, Vol. III (New York: Charles Scribner, 1856), 310-327. Ellet wrote an entire chapter featuring Sarah Buchanan. Concerning the designation, “the greatest heroine of the West,” Ellet’s exact words were: “The fame of this gallant defence [during the BoBS] went abroad, and the young wife of Major Buchanan was celebrated as the greatest heroine of the West.” Also see Wilson and Fiske, eds., Appleton’s Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Vol. 1 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1888), 436-437, in which Sarah is again called “the greatest heroine of the west.”
10 The events of the death of Kiachatalle (also known as “Tom Tunbridge’s step-son”) must have been quite dramatic. Robertson’s report says that he “ascended the roof with a torch, where he was shot, and, falling to the ground, renewed his attempts to fire the bottom logs, and was killed.” Kiachatalle’s body was identified the next morning by Joseph Brown, who knew him well from his captivity by the Indians a few years before the BoBS.
11 White Owl’s Son seems to be sometimes known as “Little Owl,” who was indeed Dragging Canoe’s brother. A Creek chief (perhaps Talotiskee) was also killed at the battle, and Unacate was injured or killed. See American State Papers: Indian Affairs 1: 331. One or two other accounts report that as many as thirty Indians were killed that night. More research needs to be done about the Indians who participated in the BoBS.
12 The priceless story of Jimmy O’Connor’s fortunate misuse of the blunderbuss has been told over and over again. Some accounts, however, say that it was the boom of the little swivel cannon at Fort Nashborough that so frightened the Indians. I am partial to John Buchanan Todd’s clever statement (in Draper, 6XX64) that, “Jemmy O’Connor blundering with his blunderbuss in all probability saved the station.”
13 It would be difficult to overestimate the importance and influence of Sugden’s determination that Cheeseekau (sometimes called “Chiksika”) died at Buchanan’s Station in the presence of his brother, the iconic Tecumseh. Fortunately, Sugden provides his well-reasoned analysis of the sources related to this matter in Sugden, 421-422 n. 1. Many scholars and Internet sources have accepted Sugden’s discovery as fact, which has placed Buchanan’s Station on the radar of many additional historians.
American State Papers: Indian Affairs 1: 294-295.
Arnow, Harriette Simpson. Flowering of the Cumberland. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1996 edition of the 1963 original.
Buchanan, John. Jackson’s Way: Andrew Jackson and the People of the Western Waters. Hoboken NJ, John Wiley & Sons, 2001, reprint by Castle Books.
Caruso, John Anthony. The Appalachian Frontier: America’s First Surge Westward. Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 2003, new edition of the 1959 original.
Clements, Paul. Chronicles of the Cumberland Settlements. Nashville, self-published, 2012.
Ramsey, J.G.M. The Annals of Tennessee to the End of the Eighteenth Century. Johnson City TN, The Overmountain Press, 1999 reprint of the 1853 original.
Sugden, John. Tecumseh: A Life. New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1997, paperback reprint.
James Robertson’s original account of the Battle of Buchanan’s Station as found in American State Papers: Indian Affairs 1: 294-295:
“On the 30th September, about midnight, John Buchanan’s Station, four miles south of Nashville, (at which sundry families had collected, and fifteen gun-men) was attacked by a party of Creeks and Lower Cherokees, supposed to consist of three or four hundred. Their approach was suspected by the running of cattle, that had taken fright at them, and, upon examination, they were found rapidly advancing within ten yards of the gate; from this place and distance they received the first fire from the man who discovered them, (John Mc. Rory.) They immediately returned the fire, and continued a very heavy and constant firing upon the station, (blockhouses, surrounded with a stockade) for an hour, and were repulsed with considerable loss, without injuring man, woman, or child, in the station.
“During the whole time of attack, the Indians were not more distant than ten yards from the blockhouse, and often in large numbers round the lower walls, attempting to put fire to it. One ascended the roof with a torch, where he was shot, and, falling to the ground, renewed his attempts to fire the bottom logs, and was killed. The Indians fired 30 balls through a port-hole of the overjutting, which lodged in the roof in the circumference of a hat, and those sticking in the walls, on the outside, were very numerous.
“Upon viewing the ground next morning, it appeared that the fellow who was shot from the roof, was a Cherokee half-breed of the Running Water, known by the whites by the name of Tom Tunbridge’s step-son, the son of a French woman, by an Indian, and there was much blood, and signs that many dead had been dragged off, and litters having been made to carry their wounded to their horses, which they had left a mile from the station. Near the blockhouse were found several swords, hatchets, pipes, kettles, and budgets of different Indian articles; one of the swords was a fine Spanish blade, and richly mounted in the Spanish fashion. In the morning previous to the attack, Jonathan Gee, and — Clayton were sent out as spies, and on the ground, among other articles left by the Indians, were found a handkerchief and a moccason [sic], known one to belong to Gee, and the other to Clayton, hence it is supposed they are killed.”
Felix Randolph Robertson, a man of diverse talents, contributed much to the development of Nashville from its beginnings through the Civil War. Born January 11, 1781, to Nashville founders James and Charlotte Robertson, he was the first Caucasian child born in the new settlement.
Although the son of a pioneer, Robertson earned a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He studied under Dr. Benjamin Rush (a signer of the Declaration of Independence) and graduated in 1806, specializing in children’s diseases.
Robertson courted Lydia Waters in Maryland but, uneasy about asking Lydia to abandon her comfortable surroundings for a frontier town, returned alone to Nashville to build his home and practice. He erected a two-story building at 129 Cherry Street (near today’s 4th Avenue N. and Church Street) that served him as both office and home, and he became Nashville’s first pediatrician.
Eighteen months later Robertson returned to propose to Lydia, who not only accepted but also arranged to bring her mother and siblings to Nashville. The couple married on October 8, 1808.
Lydia and Felix Robertson had eight children before Lydia’s 1832 death at 44. Felix never remarried, remaining a widower for 33 years.
Dr. Robertson made many contributions to the field of medicine but is probably best known for advocating the use of quinine to treat malarial fevers. Founder and first president of the Nashville Medical Society, he served as president of the Medical Society of Tennessee from 1834-1840. He was a professor of medicine in the University of Nashville Medical Department, served briefly as president of the Bank of Tennessee, and was twice elected mayor of Nashville.
In 1826 Robertson, as president of the Texas Association, led thirty men to Texas to survey land and start a settlement in what is now Robertson County, Texas. Though he did not stay in Texas, his cousin, Sterling Clack Robertson did. After winning a legal battle with Stephen F. Austin over the land, Sterling surveyed and established Nashville, Texas, on the Brazos River.
Felix Robertson lived alone in his later years after all six surviving children married and settled outside of Nashville. He died in 1865, at the age of 84, from injuries sustained in a buggy accident caused by a runaway horse. The first-born Nashvillian had lived through the War of 1812, the growth and development of “the Athens of the South,” and the devastating Civil War, in which family members fought on both sides. His positive impact on Nashville is reflected in his tombstone inscription in City Cemetery: “First white child born in Settlement now called Nashville. Distinguished as a physician. Foremost as citizen.” (2013)
Previously published in Monuments & Milestones, the Nashville City Cemetery newsletter.
The tales of political and military leaders abound at City Cemetery – these influential citizens are often the focus of our research and knowledge. However, beyond the public and civic life of Nashville, private stories show us another more personal life of love and devotion, loss and memory.
Two married couples may be found on the Foster family plot in section 29.2. The more famous pair is Ann Robertson Johnston and John Cockrill, who fell in love as they traveled with John Donelson’s party on the flatboat flotilla bringing settlers to Nashville in 1780. Ann, the widowed mother of three little girls, and bachelor John Cockrill were both 23 years old when they were married at Fort Nashborough, where Ann’s brother, James Robertson performed the ceremony. Despite the threat of Indian attacks, everyone celebrated the wedding on that spring day with feasting, dancing, fiddling, and bear meat. Both Ann and John received land preemptions, and they settled where Centennial Park stands today. The parents of eight children, they enjoyed a long life together. Ann died in 1821 at 64 years of age; John lived until 1837. They were originally buried near their home, but due to encroaching development, they were brought together to City Cemetery in the early 20th century.
Ann S. Hubbard Foster and her husband Robert C. rest nearby. They had been married 51 years, 6 months, and 12 days when he died in 1844. His vault was reopened when Ann died in 1850, so that the couple could be buried together as she had wished.
True love sometimes needs a helping hand, as Margaret Nichol discovered when she fell in love with Robert Armstrong, an aide-de-camp to Andrew Jackson. Her wealthy banker father, Josiah Nichol, forbade their marriage, insisting that the life of a soldier’s wife was not what he and Margaret’s mother wanted for their daughter. Not to be denied, Margaret and Robert eloped in 1814, asking for help from the couple they knew would be on their side: Rachel and Andrew Jackson. At the Hermitage, where the future president and his wife were still living in a log cabin, Old Hickory took command, sending for a pastor to perform the marriage and writing to the bride’s father. Jackson reminded Nichol of their own “lack of fortune” when they first came to Nashville together, and vouched for Armstrong’s character. He encouraged smiles, tranquility, and acceptance of the marriage . . . and then invited everyone to a festive dinner party at the cabin.
Two of Nashville’s prominent architects designed monuments at City Cemetery. Adolphus Heiman, just beginning his career in Nashville, carved the marker for Nancy Bailey Maynor in 1836. She and her husband, painter Pleasant Maynor, had been married only eight years. Heiman marked the stone with a butterfly, symbolizing a brief, beautiful life.
Grieving husband John W. Walker commissioned William Strickland to design a monument for his 28-year-old wife, Sarah Ann Gray. Strickland described the monument as “very elegant . . . constructed of pure white marble from Baltimore . . .. The lachrymal vase is an exact copy of vases found in the ruins of Pompeii.” It was completed in July 1846.
These stories remind us of the importance of recording the inscriptions and caring for the tombstones of City Cemetery. Without these markers, much of what we know about these people would be lost. The purpose of the monuments, as created by those left behind, was to ensure that their loved ones would always be remembered. Our care of the cemetery keeps that hope alive. (2008)
Previously published in Monuments & Milestones, the Nashville City Cemetery newsletter.