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

Daniel Williams Jr.  (1755 – ca. 1823)

by Kathy B. Lauder.

Daniel Williams Jr., first sheriff of Davidson County, was born December 11, 1755, the fourth of thirteen children of Daniel and Hannah Echols Williams.  Many sources fail to distinguish between the two Daniels, father and son: fellow settler Robert Weakley wrote, “Daniel Williams was originally from Virginia but went to South Carolina before the Revolution. There the Tories shot down two of his sons, in cold blood, at their father’s house.”1 This is a clear reference to Daniel Sr., since Daniel Jr. was 20 years old and unmarried when the American Revolution began, but their identities are not always so obligingly unambiguous.  Both Daniels are documented as residing in Middle Tennessee, serving on juries, supervising road construction, and participating in civic activities.

Daniel Williams Jr., along with his brother Sampson, John Buchanan and his brother Alexander, James and John Mulherrin, and others, arrived in the Cumberland region in 1779.2  They had left their families at Clark’s Station, near Danville, Kentucky, “in comparative safety”3 and traveled ahead to establish a settlement. They faced frequent Indian attacks, and several members of the party were injured or killed.

Although Daniel Williams Jr. was the first sheriff of Davidson County, he was not the first sheriff of the district. The colonists had established the Cumberland Court on January 7, 1783, as a regional government to oversee the new settlement. The Court elected John Montgomery district sheriff in January4 and swore him in on February 5, 1783,5  but he was soon replaced by Thomas Fletcher as “Sworn Sheriff of ye Destrict of Cumberland.”6  The hapless Montgomery (almost certainly not the same man as Clarksville’s founder, Col. John Montgomery) appeared in court in January 1784, accused of “Treasonable proceedings on the Mississippi Against the Spaniards.”7 While acquitted of these charges, when Montgomery failed to appear to face subsequent civil allegations, the court seized his property.8

Davidson County, the oldest county in Middle Tennessee, was established by an act of the North Carolina legislature in April 1783 and named for General William Lee Davidson, who had died fighting Cornwallis in the Revolutionary War. At the first session of the Davidson County court, which met October 6, 1783, the justices elected Daniel Williams to a two-year term as sheriff and ordered construction of the first county courthouse and jail.9 The sheriff, paid on a fee basis, made a comfortable living: he received 8 shillings for each arrest and slightly smaller amounts for placing someone in the stocks, collecting bad debts, carrying out whippings and brandings, and so forth.10

According to Col. T. H. Williams, writing to Lyman Draper about 1843, four Williams brothers served as Davidson County Sheriff: Daniel (1755-1823), Sampson (1763-1841), Oliver (1768-1831), and Wright Williams (1776-1815). 11 A list on the website of the Davidson County Sheriff’s Department does not include Oliver Williams, but it does name Daniel Williams (elected 1783), Sampson Williams, who served two terms (1789 and 1791-1794), and Wright Williams (1799).12

Daniel Williams Jr. died in Wilkinson County, Mississippi. Sources vary as to his date of death.  (2014)


Sources:

[Note: Many of the period sources quoted in this paper may be found in Paul Clements’ invaluable book, Chronicles of the Cumberland Settlements, 1779-1796. (Nashville: Self-published, 2012) References to all such quotes include not only the original published source (Draper, Haywood, Weakley, etc.), but also the page number where that and additional source material may be found in Clements’ book.]

1 Letter from Robert Weakley to Lyman Draper: Draper Papers, 32S, 519-520 (Clements 150).  

2 Haywood, John. Civil and Political History of the State of Tennessee from its earliest settlement up to the Year 1796. New York: Arno Press, 1971 [ca. 1823].

3 Arnow, Harriette Simpson. Seedtime on the Cumberland. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1960, 218.

4 “Minutes of Cumberland Court,” January 7, 1783. Three Pioneer Tennessee Documents. Nashville: Tennessee Historical Commission, 1964, 23.

5 “Minutes of Cumberland Court,” February 5, 1783, 25.

6 “Minutes of Cumberland Court,” March 15, 1783, 29.

7 Wells, Carol. Davidson County, Tennessee, Court Minutes, 1783-1792. Bowie, Maryland: Heritage Books, Inc., 1990, 1-2.8 Wells, 6.

9 Ewing, Andrew, clerk (1783). Davidson County Court Daily Minutes, Vol. A:3. Mf. No 1597. Register’s Office, Davidson County Court House, Nashville, Tennessee. (Clements 199-200)

10 Arnow, 316, note.     

11 Williams, Colonel T. H. Williams Family Notes, ca. 1843. Draper Papers, 5XX: 14 (Clements 510).

12 Davidson County, Tennessee, Sheriff’s Department. “Our History: List of Davidson County Sheriffs.”      http://www.nashville.gov/Sheriffs-Office/About-Us/Our-History/Davidson-County-Sheriffs.aspx  (accessed March 26, 2015)


SUGGESTED READING:

Arnow, Harriette Simpson. Seedtime on the Cumberland. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1960.

Clements, Paul. Chronicles of the Cumberland Settlements, 1779-1796. Nashville: Clements, self-published, 2012.

Haywood, John. Civil and Political History of the State of Tennessee from its earliest settlement up to the year 1796. New York: Arno Press, 1971 [ca. 1823].

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.