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.
Daniel Smith was born October 29, 1748, in Stafford County, Virginia. Having made up his mind to become a doctor, he studied medicine with Dr. Thomas Walker at Castle Hill, in Albemarle County, Virginia. However, he soon made an abrupt career shift and, at the age of 22, was licensed as a surveyor by the College of William and Mary (founded in 1693).
Three years after he began working as a surveyor, he married Sarah Michie and took a position as Deputy Surveyor and later sheriff of Augusta County, Virginia, where their son George was born in 1776. Smith first came to Middle Tennessee during the winter of 1779-1780, after he was hired to survey the western region of the Virginia frontier, and particularly to chart the border between Virginia and North Carolina. During the American Revolutionary War, he was commissioned a colonel in the militia, took part in a number of battles, and was appointed Assistant Deputy Surveyor for the Southern Department of the Continental Army in 1781. Strongly attracted to Middle Tennessee, in 1784 he claimed a land grant awarded for his military service and moved his family, which now included daughter Mary Ann “Polly,” to a 3,140-acre tract in Sumner County, where he served as the county surveyor.
After reaching adulthood, both of Daniel Smith’s children wed members of the Donelson family. George married Tabitha, the daughter of Capt. John Donelson III; Polly and Rachel Jackson’s brother Samuel Donelson eloped, with the assistance of Rachel and her husband, a circumstance that caused hard feelings between Daniel Smith and Andrew Jackson for many years*.
In 1783 Daniel Smith was appointed both county surveyor and justice of the peace for Davidson County (still part of North Carolina at that time), and helped to survey the state military land-grant reservation in the Cumberland valley. One of the five trustees responsible for overseeing the establishment of the City of Nashville, he was also a charter trustee of Davidson Academy, the first institution of higher learning in Nashville. This school, founded in 1785, would over the years be transformed into Cumberland College (1806), the University of Nashville (1826), the Peabody Normal College at Nashville (1875), and finally the George Peabody College for Teachers, now part of Vanderbilt University.
When Sumner County was created in 1786, Daniel Smith, as justice of the peace, presided over the first session of the Sumner County Court. Two years later he was named Commanding General of the Mero District (Sumner, Davidson, and Tennessee counties), and in 1789 he was a member of the North Carolina convention that voted to ratify the United States Constitution. In 1790 Smith was appointed by President George Washington to become secretary of the Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio, with authority to act for the territorial governor in his absence. The first map of the region, created in large part from Smith’s own surveys, was published during his term as secretary.
Daniel Smith held the post of territorial secretary until 1796, when the territory became the State of Tennessee. Smith was a member of the 1796 Convention and chaired the committee that wrote the young state’s first Constitution and Bill of Rights.
During the first decade of the 19th century, Smith played a key role in negotiating a series of treaties with the Cherokee. He was appointed to serve several months of Andrew Jackson’s unexpired term in the U.S. Senate (after Jackson resigned to serve on the Tennessee Supreme Court), and in 1804 was elected to his own full term in the Senate. Unfortunately, he was forced to resign from the Senate in 1809 because of ill health. He and Sarah remained at home for several more years, overseeing various farm and business interests from their Sumner County plantation house, Rock Castle, which still stands on Drake’s Creek in Hendersonville. He died there on June 16, 1818, at age 69. Both Daniel and Sarah, who died thirteen years after her husband, are buried in the family cemetery at Rock Castle. Smith County, created while Daniel was still very much alive, was named to honor his service in the Revolutionary War and his many other contributions to the development of the state of Tennessee.
Often called “Sally,” Sarah Ridley Buchanan was a pioneer Nashvillian described by one of her contemporaries as “large, bold, homely, rough, vulgar, industrious, neat, kind, benevolent, highly honorable, and much respected by all.”1 As her fame spread through much of the eastern United States, this woman of contrasts would become known as “the greatest heroine of the West.”2
Probably born in 17733, Sally is said to be one of the first female children born in the eastern Tennessee territory.4 Her parents, the venerable Captain George Ridley and his first wife, Elizabeth Weatherford Ridley, moved their family to Nashville in 1790 and established Ridley’s Station near the present intersection of Nolensville Road and Glenrose Avenue.5 Early on, Sally gained a reputation as “the fast rider of Mill Creek” when she and neighbor Susan Everett fooled some lurking Indians by feigning to be crazed males and riding past them at blazing speed.6
After marrying widower John Buchanan in 17917, Sally settled in at nearby Buchanan’s Station, becoming the step-mother of young John Buchanan III, whose mother had died shortly after his birth.8 On September 30, 1792, the most historic day of her life, Sally was in the ninth month of her own pregnancy. Near midnight on that fateful Sunday, hundreds of Indians attacked the undermanned Buchanan’s Station.9 All seemed hopeless, but the undaunted Sally is said to have cheered and encouraged the gunmen as she supplied them with fresh ammunition,10 halted a stationer from surrendering herself and her children to the Indians,11 shamed a frightened man into action12, and participated in a “showing of hats” to fool the attackers into thinking the station was heavily manned.13 Her insistence on victory contributed to the withdrawal of the Indians without the loss of a single defender. Eleven days later the heroine of the Battle of Buchanan’s Station gave birth to George Buchanan, the first of her thirteen children.14
Nineteenth-century writer Elizabeth Ellet, Sally’s primary biographer, told yet another story of her audacity. According to Ellet, when two notorious horse thieves appeared at Buchanan’s Station and demanded that she produce two fine horses for them, Sally brandished a long hunting knife and threatened to cut the rascals down. The thieves, astonished, “were compelled to retire without the horses15.”
Primarily within the context of the 1792 battle, Sally’s fame spread widely. In 1892 one Boston periodical, Ballou’s Monthly Magazine, published a story featuring “Mrs. Buchanan,” titling it “The Heroine of Cumberland Valley.” The fanciful author depicts Sally engaging in a lengthy conversation with an Indian chief immediately before the battle, then parting, each having gained a measure of mutual respect.16 Such authorial embellishments highlight the difficulties historians face in trying to establish reliable details of Sally’s exploits.17
The legendary Sarah Buchanan died in 1831 and is buried beside her husband in the Buchanan’s Station Cemetery on Nashville’s Massman Drive.
1 Pioneer William Martin 1843 letter to archivist Lyman Draper transcribed in Paul Clements, Chronicles of the Cumberland Settlements (Nashville: self-published, 2012), 366. The description is also quoted in John Buchanan, Jackson’s Way: Andrew Jackson and the People of the Western Waters (Hoboken NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2001, reprint by Castle Books), 132.
2 Elizabeth F. Ellet, The Women of the American Revolution, Vol. III (New York: Charles Scribner, 1856), 325. Ellet’s exact words were, “The fame of this gallant defense [during the Battle of Buchanan’s Station] went abroad, and the young wife of Major Buchanan was celebrated as the greatest heroine of the West.”
3 Like that of her husband (and many other pioneers), Sally’s exact birth year is problematic. In Jeannette Tillotson Acklen, comp., Tennessee Records: Bible Records and Marriage Bonds (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2001, reprint of 1933 edition), 244, Sally’s birth date is recorded as November 28, 1774. Since this date was supposedly transcribed from the Buchanan family Bible, I would ordinarily default to it. However, on Sally’s headstone, in the Buchanan’s Station Cemetery, are these words: “In memory of Sarah Buchanan, died Nov. 23th, 1831, aged 57 years 11 months, and 23 days.” Doing the subtraction results in a birth date of November 30, 1773. Additionally, in Ellet, 311, Sally is said to have been born “in December, 1773.” Therefore, in this case I conclude that “ca. 1773” and “probably born in 1773” are appropriate.
4 Ellet, 311, affirms, “one of the first, if not the first-born daughter of Tennessee.” In G.T. Ridlon, History of the Ancient Ryedales (Manchester NH: published by the author, 1884), 495, the author writes, “She is said to have been the third white woman born in her State.” Ridlon also states that Sally was born on November 28, 1773.
5 G.W. Featherstonhaugh, Excursion through the Slave States, Vol. I (London: John Murray, 1844), 202. Featherstonhaugh interviewed Sally’s father, Captain George Ridley, and reports that the Ridley family emigrated from east Tennessee to Nashville in 1790. Ridlon, 494, says “about the year 1790.” Concerning the exact location of Ridley’s Station near Nashville see Clements, 688.
6 Ellet, 314-315, tells this story. The venerable Jane Thomas also recounts this story in Miss Jane H. Thomas, Old Days in Nashville, Tenn. (Nashville: Publishing House Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1897), 110-111.
7 Among other places, the 1791 marriage date is recorded in Acklen, 244, and in Ridlon, 485.
8 Among the sources that speak of Major Buchanan’s first wife and son is Josephus Conn Guild, Old Times in Tennessee (Knoxville: Tenase Company, 1971, reprint of the 1878 original) 304, in which Guild says, “Maj. Buchanan was married twice—first, in 1786, to Miss Margaret Kennedy, who bore him one son; and the second time in 1791, to Miss Sally Ridley, daughter of Capt. George Ridley, who bore him nine sons and four daughters.” See also Acklen, 243-244.
10 Numerous anecdotal accounts have Sally distributing ammunition to the gunmen, and some accounts say that she (and other women) molded the bullets during the ongoing battle. It is even said that the fresh bullets were molded out of Sally’s pewter plates and spoons. Concerning this matter, Ellet, 324, reports that after the discovery that the men were out of bullets “Mrs. Buchanan passed around with an apronful of bullets, which she and Nancy Mulherrin, the Major’s sister, had moulded during the fight out of her plates and spoons.” At least by 1888 the “plates and spoons” became “pewter plates and spoons,” when Wilson & Fiske, eds., Appleton’s Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Vol. 1 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1888), 436-437, said, “When the bullets gave out, Mrs. Buchanan was at hand with an apronful moulded from pewter plates and spoons during the progress of the fight.” I am somewhat skeptical that bullets were molded during the battle itself (which James Robertson said lasted “for an hour”), and I am quite skeptical about the detail that would have the women melting plates and spoons.
11 Ellet, 322-323, tells this story. Also, in Octavia Zollicoffer Bond, Old Tells Retold (Nashville: Smith & Lamar, 1906), 165-166, Bond gives the name “Phoebe” to the would-be surrenderer.
12 Ellet, 323. In Guild, 307, the frightened man is called “Tom.” In the Draper Manuscripts, 6XX64, John Buchanan Todd reports, “There was a man in the fort so much of a coward that he could not fight. What his proper name was I do not remember, but in derision he was ever after called Jenny Glisten.” Clements, 366, also presents this Todd comment.
13 Edward Albright, Early History of Middle Tennessee (Nashville: Brandon Printing Company, 1909), 175, explains, “However, there were more portholes than gunners to man them, and the Major’s wife, Mrs. Sallie Buchanan, together with other women of the fort, displayed in this emergency great bravery. Seizing each a man’s hat they dodged about holding them from time to time in front of the vacant openings. This was called a ‘showing of hats.’ It was intended to fool the Indians as to the size of the garrison.” See also A. W. Putnam, History of Middle Tennessee (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1971, new edition of the 1859 original), 395-396.
14 Major Thomas Washington, “The Attack on Buchanan’s Station,” Annals of the Army of Tennessee and Early Western History, Vol. 1, December 1878, 426, reports, “There were a number of women in the station at the time, and among them Mrs. Sarah Buchanan, who was occupied during the attack in carrying around to the men posted in the different parts of the station ammunition and brandy, giving to each, as she supplied him, a word of encouragement. In eleven days afterward, this same Sarah Buchanan was delivered of her first child, the said George Buchanan.” Acklen, 244, verifies that George was born on October 11, 1792. George Buchanan (1792-1816) is buried, with original headstone, in the Buchanan’s Station Cemetery.
15 Ellet, 317.
16 Mrs. M.E. Robinson, “The Heroine of Cumberland Valley” Ballou’s Monthly Magazine, Vol. LXXVI, August 1892, 121-125.
17 Relevant to the difficulties in determining the true facts of the heroics attributed to Sally Buchanan, Ellet, 326, offers this: “When called upon, as she often was, to detail the part she bore in ‘the times that tried men’s souls,’ she never failed to disclaim any credit for herself, and always said that many foolish stories had been told about her by gossipping old ladies and garrulous old men, exhibiting her in a character which she never displayed.”
Ellet, Elizabeth F. The Women of the American Revolution, Vol. 3, p. 310-327; chapter on “Sarah Buchanan.” New York, Charles Scribner, 1856.
Featherstonhaugh, G.W. Excursion through the Slave States, Vol. 1, p. 199-212. London, John Murray, 1844.
Ridlon, G.T. History of the Ancient Ryedales, p. 493-497; section on “Ridley’s of Rutherford County, Tennessee.” Manchester NH, published by the author, 1884.
Clements, Paul. Chronicles of the Cumberland Settlements. Nashville, self-published, 2012.
Bond, Octavia Zollicoffer. Old Tells Retold, p. 154-167; chapter on “Night Assault on Buchanan’s Station.” Nashville, Smith & Lamar, 1906.
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.”
Just as in our national history, the question of personal safety has arisen many times in Nashville. For at least fifteen years after our 1780 founding, not a man, woman, or child was safe. Indians devised surprise attacks again and again on the encroaching settlers, and many lives were lost – some, like Jonathan Jennings, through horrific means.
Never has there been a Nashville panic like that of February 1862. After Fort Donelson fell on February 16, it became clear that Union troops would occupy Nashville. Many Nashville secessionists quickly scattered to the winds, while others, determined to remain, hunkered down in fearful anticipation of the arrival of the invading army.
Soon afterwards, as if the Civil War had not brought enough agony, one of several vicious cholera epidemics claimed as many as 800 Nashville lives in the summer of 1866. Seven years later, in 1873, nearly 750 Nashvillians perished in another outbreak of the terrible disease.
By the end of the day on March 22, 1916, about thirty-two square blocks of East Nashville had become a wasteland. A particularly voracious fire, driven by high winds, had devoured nearly 700 buildings and homes. Not many years later, on March 14, 1933, another unwelcome guest—a savage tornado—roared through East Nashville threatening again the very foundations of the community.
During the 1960s Nashville was a highly visible stage for the Civil Rights Movement. At times it looked as though our city might self-destruct out of racial tension. Neither whites nor blacks felt safe as the pressures created by mandated integration resulted in legal battles, demonstrations, sit-ins, and riots.
Nashville was left largely to its own devices during the destructive flood of May 2010, when it received more than 13 inches of rain in two days. The fast-rising water displaced 10,000 residents, produced $2.3 billion in property damage, and caused a number of deaths. Receiving little help from outside, neighbors helped neighbors, and volunteers turned out by the hundreds to help with clean-up efforts.
Late on March 2, 2020, a category-EF3 tornado roared through Nashville and into Mt. Juliet along nearly the same path as the 1933 storm, causing five deaths, over 200 serious injuries, and $1.5 billion in property damage, including a disproportionate number of churches and school buildings. The Covid-19 pandemic had just begun to affect the health of the community as tornado clean-up got underway, and the remainder of the year was consumed by efforts to sustain schools, businesses, and healthcare facilities during a time of unprecedented illness and hardship. And then, just as new vaccines brought hope, the Christmas morning bomb blast on 2nd Avenue downtown shattered our peace once again.
Yet somehow, through these and other perilous times, Nashville has survived, and even thrived. We have always been an industrious lot, constructing landmark public buildings, universities, churches, libraries, businesses, and homes. More important, we have strengthened our collective character and have raised our children to become leaders in business, education, law, politics, medicine, and music. We have produced artists and poets, authors and publishers, factory technicians and practical nurses. We, along with our nation, have become a diversified and enriched society that must continue to mature. We have proudly earned our motto, “Nashville Strong!”
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.
It’s difficult to imagine when Nashville wasn’t here—when Davidson County was a game-rich but otherwise uninhabited wilderness. Yet that’s the way it was 250 years ago. Who started all this civilization that we now take for granted and call our home? The traditional view is that Nashville was founded by pioneers James Robertson and John Donelson, who journeyed here in 1779-80 with a few hundred others, built a fort on the bluff above the Cumberland River, and persevered through much danger and hardship. The arrival of Robertson and Donelson was certainly the pinnacle of an uphill process, yet other founding factors are worthy of more emphasis than they sometimes receive.
For example, we should not forget the buffalo. The huge hump-backed beasts flourished here near the river and made paths to a salubrious spot in the vicinity of Sulphur Dell ballpark and the Bicentennial Mall. That spot was a salt lick on a creek called Lick Branch, long since smothered by modern infrastructure. So many bison and deer were here that reports from early hunters and explorers made our area attractive to adventurous colonials back east. Yes, our metropolis rides atop buffalo humps: without the bison there may never have been a Nashville, a circumstance that illustrates the interdependence of geographical, natural, and human history.
Despite 200 years of study the next factor remains mysterious and fraught with theory. Generally, we know that over the eons distinctly different cities were often built one on top of another. Nashville has risen upon a Mississippian-era culture commonly known as the Mound Builders, Indians so ancient that even the more modern Native Americans didn’t know where they came from or where they went. When early woodsmen arrived at our salt lick they found an old earthen mound close by, obviously man-made and apparently ceremonial in function. Ralph Earl, Andrew Jackson’s portrait artist, excavated the mound in 1821 and found the round base to be about thirty yards in diameter and the height about ten feet. Situated generally from the mound eastward to the Cumberland, an ancient burial ground held interments enough to indicate that a large population thrived here. These remains of a surprisingly sophisticated society were a few to several centuries old. In addition to Davidson County finds, other such sites were discovered in surrounding counties and across Tennessee—all a part of a nexus that extended throughout much of the Ohio River Valley and beyond. Was the existence of a previous society an encouragement to later pioneers? Did early Nashvillians assume, consciously or not, that since another culture had flourished here, so could they?
After the era of the Mound Builders, the Shawnee Indians also had villages along the Cumberland. In fact, an early name for the Cumberland River was the “Shawanoe,” an English derivative of the French “Chaouanon.” The Shawnee were a rather nomadic tribe, but for a time they had a village near our salt lick, until driven north in about 1714 by Cherokee and Chickasaw tribes who sought to reserve Middle Tennessee for hunting only. Thus for many years before the Euro-American settlers arrived, our Middle Tennessee area was a kind of sacred game preserve. No wonder the Indians were enraged when the white man came. However, the settlers, knowing good land when they saw it, determined to have it regardless of the price they had to pay. That price was paid in blood, as Indian wars raged for the first fifteen years of white settlement. Evidently, no real estate is more desirable than that which someone else also desires!
During and after the Shawnee period, French hunters and traders headquartered at our salt lick. Around the year 1710 a young apprentice, Jean du Charleville, worked here for an old Frenchman whose name is lost to history. Their trading post was located directly on top of our Indian mound. Arriving in the 1760s, another hunter-trader bore an auspicious name: Jacques Timothe Boucher de Montbrun. More commonly known as Timothy Demonbreun, he returned in later years to settle in Nashville, and today’s Demonbreun Street is named for him. Because of the intermittent presence of such French entrepreneurs, our locale became known as the French Lick, a name familiar to researchers of the American frontier. A remnant of French influence survives today in the word “Nashville,” the suffix -ville being French for town or village.
On the heels of the French traders came the Long Hunters, so called because of the lengthy time they spent in the woods. Notable hunters and explorers in our region during the 1760s and 70s include Thomas Hutchins, Henry Scaggs, Uriah Stone, Michael Stoner, Kasper Mansker, Isaac Bledsoe, Thomas “Bigfoot” Spencer, James Smith, John Rains, Daniel Boone, and John Montgomery. History knows a fair amount about these trailblazers, and their romantic era is fittingly memorialized in the name of today’s Long Hunter State Park along Percy Priest Lake. Serving as the vanguard of colonial civilization, the Long Hunters laid the foundation necessary for permanent settlement.
The Long Hunters gave rave reviews of the western wilds to a North Carolina judge, Richard Henderson, who was interested in land speculation. Together with like-minded partners, Henderson established a land company, the Transylvania Company; and in 1775 he negotiated with the powerful Cherokee Indians to gain tentative control of much of today’s Kentucky and upper Middle Tennessee territory, including the French Lick. He then organized emigrant groups to settle both the Kentucky and Cumberland regions, with Daniel Boone the head of the Kentucky contingent and James Robertson the Tennessee leader. Robertson, a North Carolinian, teamed with Virginian John Donelson and devised a plan to conduct a few hundred pioneers from northeastern Tennessee to the French Lick, Robertson by land and Donelson by river. Robertson’s group arrived here in December 1779 and built the fortification overlooking the Cumberland, and Donelson’s voyagers arrived the following April. A number of the newcomers established other stations nearby. Close behind the settlers came Henderson, who then penned our first organizational document—the famous Cumberland Compact—in which he referred to our compound as “Nashborough,” in honor of General Francis Nash who had recently died in the Revolutionary War. Some 256 men signed the Compact, and the primitive village was up and running, along with its sister stations.
But Nashborough had no real legitimacy. It was only a speck of civilization separated by hundreds of rugged miles from its territorial mother, the State of North Carolina. Finally, in 1783-84, the North Carolina legislature recognized it, upgrading the outpost to the status of a town in the new county of Davidson and changing its name to Nashville, an apparent attempt to disavow the English with whom the Revolutionary War was just ending.
Of our Nashville founding factors—buffalo, Mound Builders, Shawnee, French hunters-traders, Long Hunters, Henderson, Robertson and Donelson, North Carolina legislature—perhaps the most under-appreciated is frontier opportunist Richard Henderson. So instrumental was his role in our beginnings that if someone were to claim him as our founding father it would be difficult to argue the point. While it is Robertson who is proudly and justifiably known as the “Father of Middle Tennessee,” Henderson was the CEO behind the initial enterprise. He didn’t do the heroic grunt work or Indian fighting necessary for our permanence, but he was our prime mover.
Like the trees that obscure the forest, hidden within the “how” of our founding is the “why.” Why did the founders come to this particular place? Nashville’s founding factors provide a fundamental answer: the colonial settlers were drawn to this location because it already had a magnetic history.
Helpful sources: Haywood’s The Natural and Aboriginal History of Tennessee, 1823; Goodspeed’s History of Tennessee, 1887; Thruston’s Antiquities of Tennessee, 1890; Williams’s Dawn of Tennessee Valley and Tennessee History, 1937; Arnow’s Seedtime on the Cumberland, 1960; Crutchfield’s Early Times in the Cumberland Valley, 1976; Satz’s Tennessee’s Indian Peoples, 1979; Hinton’s A Long Path, 1997; Finger’s Tennessee Frontiers, 2001.
This article was originally published in the September 2009 issue of The Nashville Retrospect. We thank publisher Allen Forkum for his permission to republish it here.
About half a mile south of the Stone’s River bridge on Lebanon Road, along the new greenway trail, you can peer across the river at the place where Stoner’s Creek empties into Stone’s River. If you know your history, you will stop dead in your tracks for a few moments, knowing that you have arrived at a historic location. The confluences of streams were landmarks for the pioneers and early historians . . . and no doubt for the Indians before them. Whereas we might say today that Central Pike is just past the Stone’s River bridge, the pioneers would more likely have said that a trail was just past the point where Stoner’s Creek flows into the Stone’s River.
Standing on that special spot and watching the Stoner rushing into the Stone awakens the realization that stream confluences are also confluences of lives: hundreds, maybe thousands, of folks have stood in this same area long before the greenway made it accessible to us greenhorn pathfinders. Uriah Stone, for whom Stone’s River was named, probably stood there. Michael Stoner, after whom Stoner’s Creek was named, surely scouted around that spot. I wish I could tell you that these two “long hunters,” so called because they explored and hunted for extended periods of time, met each other at that place and marveled together about the similarity of their surnames. That discussion may well have taken place, but probably not there. Both Stone and Stoner might have hunted in the Wellen party in the early 1760s, but that group did not follow the Cumberland as far west as its confluence with Stone’s River. It appears that the two pioneers explored our area at separate times in the late 1760s, about a dozen years before Nashville (or “Nashborough,” as it was first called) was founded.
Nashville co-founder John Donelson would probably also have stood on that spot. He planted corn in the adjoining bottom land, called “Clover Bottom,” and the Donelson family eventually lived nearby. No less an international dignitary than Andrew Jackson may very well have strolled that area himself, perhaps while his horses were warming up on the Clover Bottom race track. Another intriguing possibility is that Daniel Boone might have stood there. Boone and Stoner were not only compatriots but also close friends. Though I know of no record of a Boone visit to the Stone’s River, he could have come with Stoner at some point in time.
Nineteenth-century historians mention the existence of a Stoner’s Lick, located at some unspecified point on the creek. This would have been a salt lick, an area where salt or a salt rock outcrop rose to the surface. Such places were not just landmarks; they, like the French Lick around which Nashville was founded, were quite valuable in other ways. Buffalo and other game congregated at the licks, assuring easy access to meat and fur for the Indians, explorers, and settlers. Stoner’s Creek winds much farther east than it appears to on some maps [Stoner Creek Elementary School in Mt. Juliet, destroyed by the March 2020 tornado, is currently being rebuilt (2021)], so the lick could have been anywhere along several winding miles. For example, since buffalo trails often became roads for the settlers, the lick could have been approximately at the intersection of today’s Central Pike and Stoner’s Creek. Perhaps the driveway to the emissions inspection station is astride the lick! At least we still have the confluence, since the lick is probably lost forever.
I will conclude these musings with a linguistic grumble: Stone’s River and Stoner’s Creek do not exist on modern maps. Oh, the streams are there, all right, but the names have changed. Although most nineteenth-century historians wrote both names in the possessive form, somewhere along the way the apostrophes dropped off. Considered acceptable now are “Stones River” and “Stoners Creek,” despite the fact that the long hunters’ names were Stone and Stoner. I will hazard a guess that the corruption occurred first on maps, for lack of space or accuracy, and then continued on into texts. However it happened, if you drive out Lebanon Road and cross the Stone’s River bridge today, you will see a sign that reads “Stones River.” Feel free to smile at that sign, realizing that you know better.
Note: In 2011 a reader informed us that his ancestor Thomas Wilson bought this land from James Rucker in 1805. Wilson died in 1811, but his sons lived there until the 1830s and then migrated to Memphis. One of his daughters married William Creel, and another married Timothy Dodson.