Francis Baily and the Flavor of the Tennessee Frontier

by Mike Slate.

On the evening of Monday, July 31, 1797, a 23-year-old English sojourner arrived at Nashville, an upstart town in the embryonic State of Tennessee. For our purposes, forget that this refined, yet daring young man would return to England and make a fortune as a stockbroker. Never mind that in the third stage of a charmed life he would become a world-class astronomer and have a moon crater named after him. For if Francis Baily had accomplished nothing else except to bequeath us his American travel journal, that alone would have secured him a place in the annals of history. First published posthumously in 1856, Baily’s Journal of a Tour in Unsettled Parts of North America in 1796-1797 is an invaluable primary source for interpreting an emerging nation.

After nearly starving and drowning on his way up the trail later called the Natchez Trace, sometimes with Indians as companions, Baily approached a ramshackle settlement on the fringes of Nashville. In a lengthy July 31st journal entry, he noted that “Nothing could exceed our joy upon this occasion: we jumped, halloed, and appeared as elated as if we had succeeded to the greatest estate imaginable.” The Natchez-to-Nashville leg of his American odyssey had taken about 27 days by horseback.

A mile and a half closer to Nashville, Baily and some fellow travelers arrived at the plantation of a “Mr. Joslin.” Perhaps this was the Joslin’s Station mentioned by later historians (e.g., Haywood, Civil and Political History of Tennessee, p. 427). Of this outpost and his meal there, Baily wrote:

“It has been formed about seven or eight years, and consisted of several acres of land tolerably well cultivated: some in corn, some in meadow, and others in grain, &c.  His house was formed of logs, built so as to command a view of the whole plantation, and consisted of only two rooms; one of which served for all the purposes of life, and the other to hold lumber, &c.  Our fare, when it came to be served up, was such as we might have expected in such a rough country as this: it consisted of nothing more than a large piece of boiled bacon, and a great dish full of French beans, together with some bread made of Indian meal. However, as it was quantity, not quality, which we stood most in need of, we made a very hardy meal, and devoured with great avidity the homely fare that was set before us.”

Continuing toward Nashville later that day, Baily and a companion named Bledsoe (perhaps a member of the important Bledsoe’s Lick community northeast of Nashville) “even met, within three or four miles of the town, two coaches, fitted up in all the style of Philadelphia or New York, besides other carriages, which plainly indicated that a spirit of refinement and luxury had made its way into this settlement.” Tantalizing tidbits to ponder are the identities and destinations of the passengers in these fine coaches.

Baily entered Nashville that evening and stayed for about two days. In his journal he left us a few precious paragraphs about the town, including this excerpt with its memorable “rude rabble” conclusion:

“This town contains about sixty or eighty families; the houses (which are chiefly of logs and frame) stand scattered over the whole site of the town, so that it appears larger than it actually is. The inhabitants (like all those in the new settled towns) are chiefly concerned in some way of business: a storekeeper is the general denomination for such persons, and under this head you may include every one who buys and sells. There are two or three taverns in this place, but the principal one is kept by Major Lewis [this was, in fact, William T. Lewis’s establishment, later known as the Nashville Inn]. There we met with good fare, but very poor accommodations for lodgings; three or four beds of the roughest construction in one room, which was open at all hours of the night for the reception of any rude rabble that had a mind to put up at the house; and if the other beds happened to be occupied, you might be surprised when you awoke in the morning to find a bedfellow by your side whom you had never seen before, and perhaps might never see again.”

Leaving Nashville in the afternoon of August 2, Baily proceeded across the Cumberland wilderness to Knoxville, a 15-day immersion in further adventures, privations, and scenery. At one point on this trek, he complimented Tennessee’s beauty by noting that “the agreeable diversity of hill and dale with which this state is favored, together with the delightful views of a fine romantic country, served to dissipate that ennui and wearisomeness which, perhaps, I might otherwise have experienced.”

The Nashville and Tennessee portion of Baily’s journal has been extracted in various historical works including Samuel Cole Williams’ Early Travels in the Tennessee Country and J. Wooldridge’s History of Nashville, Tenn. The newly formed state, however, was only one destination of Baily’s much larger American itinerary. Prior to his Natchez Trace expedition, he had visited such eastern cities as Philadelphia, New York, and Washington before crossing the Allegheny Mountains and voyaging down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans. His resulting journal of roughly 300 pages, one of our most engaging firsthand accounts of early American life, begs to be read in its entirety.


Rights to the 1856 edition of the Journal are in the public domain and, fortunately, Google Books offers the complete text online. In addition, used hardcopies of the 1969 Southern Illinois University Press edition can be purchased through such vendors as AbeBooks.com and Amazon.com.  Surprise after surprise awaits the reader of the full travelogue, including a description of Washington city under construction, details on building a flatboat (pertinent to John Donelson’s founding voyage to Nashville), and an almost-incredible account of meeting with none other than Daniel Boone.


This article was first published in the August 2009 issue of The Nashville Retrospect. We thank publisher Allen Forkum for his permission to republish it here.

A Woman Challenged: The Life of Granny White

by Doris Boyce.

Born in 1743, Lucinda Wilson became the second wife of Zachariah White about 1760 and helped raise his children, along with a brood of her own. Zachariah wanted land badly enough to risk his scalp. He joined James Robertson and headed overland to North Carolina’s Cumberland territory to help establish the settlement of French Lick, where the city of Nashville now stands.

Granny White Grave Marker (from The Historical Marker Database; photo by Michael Manning)

Zachariah was a militiaman, a farmer, and a part-time teacher. He opened the first school at French Lick in the spring of 1781, but he was killed at the Battle of the Bluffs later that year, leaving Lucinda, called Lucy, and his heirs so poor they could not afford the surveyor’s fee required for eligibility to receive the 640-acre grant North Carolina awarded to families of men killed defending the settlement.

Seventeen years later, in 1801, 58-year-old Lucy was informed by the courts of Surrey County in the Tidewater district of North Carolina that she was too old and too poor to take on the responsibility of her two orphaned grandsons, Thomas and Willis, ages 8 and 9. The judge, who would not have granted custody to a woman in any case, ruled that the boys must be bound over to a tradesman in order to keep them out of the poorhouse.

But Lucy would not be told “No” again, certainly not by North Carolina! She loaded her spinning wheel and household goods onto an oxcart pulled by a yellow longhorn steer and left in the middle of the night, along with Thomas, Willis, and an elderly slave called Uncle Zachary. Traveling only about three miles a day, they walked 800-900 miles through Indian territory and the rugged Carolina mountains, leading the oxcart toward the Cumberland settlements where Lucy had three adult children and a number of step-children. Along the way they made several stopovers, staying long enough in each place to make a little money and become more self-sufficient. In Roane County, Tennessee, at a place called Meredith, she put up a ginger cake stand where she sold baked goods to travelers.

The small, white-haired Lucy was 60 years old when she arrived in Nashville in 1803. She set up another ginger cake stand, along with a tar pit or kiln for greasing wagon axles. With the money she made from her various enterprises, she purchased 50 acres that consisted of the facing slopes of a pair of adjoining hills. Her land was located along an old buffalo path that had been the first road built going south from Nashville to Franklin. One of Lucy’s hillsides had to be dug away to create space to build a log house. The other hill was planted in grapevines, fruit trees, and vegetable gardens. The land was so steep that apples rolled downhill into the fence and pumpkins had to be staked to the hillside.

By 1812 Lucy had opened an inn that attracted travelers from the Natchez Trace, four miles to the west. She soon became known for her excellent cooking and the whiskey that she made herself. Guests of the inn praised her for the finest brandy and applejack, the best pancakes, and the cleanest beds. She charged 12 1/2 cents a night for a room and 50 cents a night to board horses. Lucy was innkeeper, housekeeper, and cook, and somehow found time to weave the bed linens and the family’s wearing apparel. When more guest rooms became necessary, she added new wings, a room at a time.

Lucy’s grandsons called her “Granny,” and soon the customers did, too. Still remembered today as Granny White, she was 73 years old when she died in 1816, possessed of considerable wealth, along with slaves, horses, and cattle. Grandson Thomas had died in an accident as a youth, so Willis inherited the property, but the tavern was not open to paying guests after Granny’s death. Willis and his wife Winifred moved to Nashville so their ten children could go to school, but the couple returned to the inn in their old age, after the children were gone.

The inn was half-rotted by late 1864, when the Battle of Nashville took place all around it. Everett Beasley acquired the lands in 1930 and in 1942 replicated the log tavern at the same location with logs from a frontier inn in Dickson County. After 30 years, however, the old logs began to sag just as Granny’s originals had. In 1983 Robert Neil and Vander Linder conveyed the logs to Cheatham County, where they constructed a log house that still stands today.

One hundred sixty-five years after Granny’s death the property was developed into 43 residences called The Inns of Granny White. Her fenced gravesite is near the entrance. To get there from Nashville, you will take the same route the buffalo did, along the street toward Franklin, now named Granny White Pike.

Granny did not accept the social wisdom of her day. She did not let being a woman, being old, or being poor defeat her. After an apparently hopeless beginning, she became a self-reliant individual, an entrepreneur. She ignored the hurdles in her path by flaunting the law, engaging in commerce, making and selling liquor, and taking strangers into her home. She accepted the challenge of frontier life and did what she had to do.