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.