Two Brothers-in-Law at City Cemetery

by Carter G. Baker.

Buried near each other in the same lot on Oak Avenue are brothers-in-law John Patton Erwin (1795-1857) and Thomas Lanier Williams (1786-1856). Their relationship was not always so peaceful. Erwin, two-time mayor of Nashville (1821 and 1834), was married to Thomas’s sister, Frances (Fannie) Lanier Williams (1796-1872).  Fannie is buried at Mt. Olivet with her daughters who lived to adulthood.  Four other children who died young are presumed to be buried at City Cemetery with their father.

John Patton Erwin’s grave at Nashville City Cemetery

Both Erwin and Williams left significant marks on Tennessee history. John Patton Erwin was a newspaper editor, lawyer, banker, justice of the peace, and postmaster of Nashville. He was also the secretary of the Robertson Association, which was deeply involved in the American settlement of Texas while that region was still part of Mexico. His sister Jane’s first husband was wealthy Nashville banker, Thomas Yeatman, under whom Erwin served for a time as cashier. (Their son, Thomas Yeatman Jr., was a powerful supporter of the Confederate cause.) After Yeatman’s death Jane married the Hon. John Bell, Speaker of the House of Representatives, U.S. Senator, and Union Party candidate for president in 1860.

Erwin’s brother married one of Henry Clay’s daughters, while his cousin, also named Jane Erwin, was married to Charles Dickinson, who died in a famous duel with Andrew Jackson. Dickinson’s remains, recently discovered, were moved from a long-unmarked grave near Whitland Avenue to Nashville City Cemetery on June 25, 2010. 

Thomas Lanier Williams was a lawyer, state representative and senator, and a justice on the State Supreme Court.  His most lasting contribution to Tennessee was his long period of service as Chancellor of Tennessee, during which he became known as the father of equity law in the state.  Less well known is the role he played many years earlier in the historic victory of the Tennessee Volunteers at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in the War of 1812.  He and his wife’s uncle, Hugh Lawson White (an 1836 candidate for president), convinced his brother Col. John Williams (later a U. S. senator) to lead the 39th U. S. Infantry Regiment in bringing desperately-needed supplies and manpower to Col. Andrew Jackson.  Jackson would give Williams and his soldiers great credit for their pivotal role in defeating the British-allied Creek Nation at the Horseshoe. This important battle set the stage for Jackson’s success in the Battle of New Orleans and insured that Britain would never control the lower Mississippi River or the valuable ports of Mobile and Pensacola.

Horseshoe Bend from the air (courtesy of Alabama Backroads website)

Unfortunately, John Williams and Jackson later became political enemies, while Sam Houston, who had carried the regimental flag (designed by Thomas’s wife, Polly McClung Williams) in the successful charge at Horseshoe Bend, remained close to Jackson.  Houston wrote a vitriolic letter to President John Quincy Adams urging him not to appoint John Patton Erwin as postmaster.  Adams did make the appointment, but Erwin challenged Houston to a duel over the matter. Although the duel never actually took place, Houston wounded Erwin’s second.

Sometime in the 1820s John Patton Erwin declared bankruptcy, perhaps because of unsuccessful land speculation. Col. Joseph Williams, Fannie Erwin’s father, dispatched his son, Thomas Lanier Williams, to Nashville to protect his daughter’s interests and to make certain that Fannie’s future inheritance was specifically shielded from her husband.  Although this decision caused some animosity at the time, matters were eventually smoothed over. 

The Erwins’ home from 1831-1860 was named “Buena Vista.” The house was located on the hill near Rosa Parks Avenue and I-65, where the St. Cecilia motherhouse now stands. Thomas Lanier Williams stayed with the Erwins on many of his trips between his Knoxville residence and Nashville, and he eventually died in their home.

John Patton Erwin’s grave in City Cemetery is marked with a Nashville Mayors’ gravestone, while Thomas Lanier Williams is honored with a V.A. marker reflecting his military service in the War of 1812.

Thomas Lanier Williams’ grave at Nashville City Cemetery

Thomas Lanier Williams was the namesake of four other men named Thomas Lanier Williams.  The most famous of these was playwright “Tennessee” Williams, a several-times-great-nephew of Thomas I and a great-great grandson of Colonel John Williams.

The flag of the 39th, still owned by a descendant of Colonel Williams, is on temporary display this spring at the Tennessee State Museum’s War of 1812 “Tennessee Volunteers” exhibit. (2012)

Previously published in Monuments & Milestones, the Nashville City Cemetery Newsletter.

Meet Nashville’s Leaders

by Kathy B. Lauder.

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.

Ann Robertson Cockrill, James Robertson’s sister, was a young widow with three little girls when she arrived in Nashville with the Donelson party in 1780. She later married John Cockrill, and they settled near today’s Centennial Park to raise their large family. She was the only woman among the early Cumberland settlers to receive a land grant in her own name, earned largely for her courage in defending Fort Caswell (later Fort Watauga) against Indian attack.

William Carroll Napier owned 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!

A former Fisk Jubilee Singer portrayed Mabel Imes in the 2008 Living History event, regaling delighted visitors with beautiful music.

Thomas Crutcher served 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 Elliott was 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.

State Representative Ben West portrayed his father, Ben West (Mayor of Nashville 1951-1963), during the 2010 Living History event.

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.

Powhatan Maxey 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)

Ghosts in Nashville City Cemetery (photo by Lynn McDonald, 2011)

Previously published in Monuments & Milestones, the Nashville City Cemetery Newsletter.