Alice Thompson Collinsworth: Intrepid Pioneer

by Gloria Newsom Huggins.

On Christmas Day 1779 James and Elizabeth Thompson arrived at French Lick on the Cumberland River. The couple had joined James Robertson’s adventurers, looking for a new life on land where they believed they would be free. However, they had no idea what a high price they would pay for land in this territory that was to become Nashville, Tennessee.

By the time John Donelson’s party arrived on April 24, 1780, the Robertson group had already built eight stations of log cabins. A week later the men in the group gathered at the Bluff and adopted the Cumberland Compact1. Within the next two weeks they agreed on additional resolutions, and on May 13, 1780, James Thompson and his son Robert joined 254 other men in signing the completed Compact.

Signature page of the Cumberland Compact

As original settlers, the Thompsons received 640 acres on Richland Creek, near today’s Belle Meade mansion. In 1790 James began building the family’s cabin there, not realizing the dangers that lay ahead. By 1791 two of the Thompsons’ sons had lost their lives in Indian attacks. More tragedy was to follow: a narrative given to The South-Western Monthly in 1852 by John Davis, an early neighbor, described the murder of James and Elizabeth Thompson and their daughter Elizabeth by a party of Indians on February 25, 1792. Thomas E. Matthews’ book General James Robertson, Father of Tennessee, adds that the marauders enslaved the Thompson’s 31-year-old daughter Alice, along with two houseguests, a Mrs. Caffrey and her young son.

Scene in Indian village

The captives were taken to a Creek village called Kialigee, where Mrs. Caffrey’s little boy was taken from her and given to another white slave to raise. It would be two years before they were freed. Indian agent John O’Riley purchased Alice from her captors for 800 weight of dressed deerskins valued at $266 (the equivalent of almost $7,000 today). In May 1794 Alice was taken to the American Agency at Rock Island, Georgia. Before she returned to Nashville, she met with Governor Blount in Knoxville to answer his questions about other captives she had seen in the Indian camps. Governor Blount recorded these facts in a letter to the Secretary of War on October 2, 1794.

Meanwhile, in 1793, Edmund Collinsworth had arrived in Nashville to join his half-brother John Cockrill, who was married to James Robertson’s sister Ann. Edmund was a veteran of the Revolutionary War, having enlisted in the First Virginia Regiment in 1777 and served until April 1780. According to family stories, it was “love at first sight” when Alice met Edmund upon her return to Nashville in late fall 1794. They were married on December 17, 1795.

The couple built their home on land that had belonged to Alice’s brother John, who had died in the 1791 Indian attack. It is believed that both Alice and Edmund were eventually buried in unmarked graves on this home place, which is located in today’s Antioch/ Mount View area southeast of Nashville.

Edmund died in March of 1816, leaving Alice with seven children ranging in age from seven to eighteen. As she always seemed to do, Alice took the bad with the good and persevered, bringing up the children on her own. Her son James carried his Tennessee fortitude to the young Republic of Texas where he served as aide-de-camp to Sam Houston during the Battle of San Jacinto. He was a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence and was Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme court at the time of his death. Another of Alice’s sons, John, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Daughter Susan married Mark Robertson Cockrill, who owned a 5.600-acre farm where he bred award-winning Merino sheep, their wool acclaimed as the finest in the world.

Merino sheep

Alice died in February 1828 at her home, which she shared by then with her daughter Parmelia Ann Davis and her family. The old house is long gone, but in December 1864 it was the place where Parmelia Ann had a touching encounter with a Union officer . . . but that’s another story2.

1 The Cumberland Compact, adopted in Nashville in 1780, was essentially a constitution for the frontier settlement, setting rules for governing the colony (including salaries, which were to be paid in animal skins) and for making and enforcing laws. It was signed by 256 colonists. (ed.)

2 Widowed in 1848, Parmelia watched the railroad industry change the face of middle Tennessee. During the Civil War, Nathan Bedford Forrest and others took great pride in sabotaging the tracks to impede the advance of Union troops. In early December 1864 Parmelia heard the thunderous crash of a train accident near her property and rushed toward the flaming wreckage to see what had happened. The Union officer in charge was gathering the bodies of 24 soldiers killed in the accident, planning to bury them all together in an embankment near the tracks. Parmelia intervened, insisting that the dead soldiers be buried on her plantation, each individual grave to be marked with a stone from her fields. Touched by her kind gesture, the Union officer posted a “special guard” to protect Parmelia and her land from attack for the remainder of the war. After the war the remains of the 24 Union soldiers were reportedly moved to the Stones River National Cemetery in Murfreesboro.  (ed.)

John Montgomery’s Nashville Nap

by Mike Slate.

“Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file – the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur-trader and hunter, the cattle-raiser, the pioneer farmer – and the frontier has passed by.”  Frederick Jackson Turner, 1893

How does someone get into a major history book by taking a nap? Whatever his reasons, iconic 19th-century historian Lyman C. Draper (1815-1891) thought an account of John Montgomery’s Nashville nap important enough to insert into his biography of Daniel Boone. Draper’s anecdote, virtually unknown except to Boone scholars, is reproduced here by permission of Stackpole Books (The Life of Daniel Boone, ed. by Ted Franklin Belue, p. 266):

“Among this band of Nimrods was John Montgomery. Having hunted awhile around Station Camp Creek and the neighboring licks, he concluded he would like to go alone and visit the French Lick region and informed his companions as he started not to be alarmed on his account should he be a week or two absent. He loitered around French Lick a day or so, and then went to what was afterwards called Robertson’s lick on Richland Creek, five miles west of the present city of Nashville. His object was not game but to view the country. Entering a thicket adjoining the lick, he lay down to take a nap and soon dreamed that if he did not take care, the Indians would kill him. So vivid was the dream that it alarmed and awakened him. While thinking of it, a gun was fired not apparently a hundred yards from him, and in a few moments a stricken deer came dashing through the bushes and fell dead almost at his feet. Knowing that Indians were close upon him, he hesitated whether to waylay the fallen deer or retreat further into the thicket; but upon a moment’s reflection he concluded that he had better quietly withdraw; for, should he wound or kill an Indian, he feared it would at least fill the minds of his hunting companions with apprehensions of retaliation, or even break up their hunting expedition with the loss of some of the party.  Acting upon this discreet conclusion, he crept carefully away and returned to the Station Camp.”

This statue of John Montgomery now stands in downtown Clarksville, Tennessee (photo from NHN collection)

While Draper’s Montgomery story may initially seem only mildly intriguing, a second look suggests some significant “firsts,” as well as a tragic irony. To my knowledge, this is the youngest age at which the future founder of Clarksville and source of Montgomery County’s name enters substantively into the historical record. According to Draper’s summary of John Montgomery’s life, which appears near the end of our story’s chapter (p. 272), Montgomery was born in 1748. Since the context of Draper’s anecdote is a 1771 group hunting and exploring expedition, Montgomery was only about 23 years old when he had his frightful dream near the natural salt licks that would, about eight years later, give rise to the new outpost of Nashborough (later Nashville).

Although there is a Station Camp Creek associated with Daniel Boone in eastern Kentucky, in our narrative Draper is no doubt referencing the one in today’s Sumner County, Tennessee. Groups of “Long Hunters,” so called because of their lengthy hunting expeditions, often established central camps in the wilderness and launched from there in smaller groups. It was from our nearby Station Camp that Montgomery began his exploration of the country around French Lick.

Draper’s reference to “Robertson’s Lick on Richland Creek” may also be a first. His 1771 context is the earliest point I know in which this salt lick and creek become elements of our written heritage. Shortly after James Robertson co-founded Fort Nashborough in 1780, he claimed land along Richland Creek that included the buffalo and deer lick and moved his family there. For a while the family lived in a log house, a replica of which stands today in H.G. Hill Park at 6710 Charlotte Pike, but Robertson soon built a comfortable brick home that, had it survived, would be located near today’s Robertson Avenue in West Nashville.

So how did John Montgomery (and later Robertson himself) manage to discover the Richland Creek/ Robertson’s Lick area? That was probably easy enough. Buffalo and deer made paths from salt lick to salt lick, with Indians stalking after the game. No doubt Montgomery simply followed the buffalo-Indian trail that ran from French Lick, the geo-historical epicenter of future Nashville, out to Robertson’s Lick, a future suburban area. Like other Nashville thoroughfares, today’s Charlotte Pike may originally have been a natural buffalo trace, and Montgomery was probably among the first white men to travel that ancient “road.”

Daniel Boone was the most famous of the Long Hunters.

Some historians malign the Long Hunters as ne’er-do-wells who escaped the drudgery of homesteading by taking to the woods, leaving wives and children to fend for themselves. While such criticism tends to counterbalance overly romantic views of the storied woodsmen, it certainly does not apply to John Montgomery. Far from lazy, he was among the busiest of American frontiersmen. After his career as a Long Hunter, he commanded troops under George Rogers Clark in the Illinois campaign of the Revolutionary War and, in concert with Col. Evan Shelby, quelled the fierce Chickamauga Indians near today’s Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 1780 he returned to the French Lick, presumably with his family, aboard the Donelson flotilla to Fort Nashborough, where he signed the Cumberland Compact. He served briefly as sheriff of the Cumberland district before co-founding Clarksville in 1784 with surveyor Martin Armstrong. Montgomery named the new city for his former colonel, George Rogers Clark.

After returning from the apocalyptic 1794 Nickajack expedition, in which he once again led troops against the Chickamaugans, Montgomery was killed and scalped by Indians while hunting near Eddyville, Kentucky, on November 27, some 23 years after his prescient dream at Robertson’s Lick. Although history’s ironies often delight us, this one compels a moment of silence. Draper, perhaps after his own quiet reflection, eulogized our fallen luminary as “brave to a fault, generous, and kind; six feet, two inches in height, with blue eyes, auburn hair, ruddy complexion, handsome features, possessing great strength and activity, and presenting altogether a real border war hero whose ‘lofty deeds and daring high’ excite our liveliest admiration” (p. 272).

Sources: Draper’s The Life of Daniel Boone; Durham’s The Great Leap Westward: A History of Sumner County, Tennessee; Haywood’s The Civil and Political History of Tennessee; Kelley’s West Nashville…Its People and Environs; Consultation with Ilene Jones Cornwell; Goodpasture’s “Colonel John Montgomery,” Tennessee Historical Magazine 5 (1919), pp. 145-150, and online.  

This article was first published in the January 2010 edition of The Nashville Retrospect.  We thank publisher Allen Forkum for his permission to republish it here.  

Angels in the Midst of Richland’s Rampage

by Ilene Jones Cornwell.

Trembling and panting with exertion, I leaned against the front door of my 1955 cottage on Richland Creek; it was 9:15 a.m. on Sunday, May 2, 2010. This was the second day of Richland’s flooding rampage. Saturday’s flood had been a “normal” backyard event for this riparian landowner – aware that the additional water and waterborne algae enrich the soil supporting trees, shrubs, and plants in my bird garden – and the water had crested at 5:10 p.m., then receded into the usually peaceful creek. Now, however, our water-saturated earth and unremitting deluge of rain were ominous harbingers of a disastrous second flood. Thus, I had begun an hour earlier to hastily gather essentials I would need after my exodus from the cottage, and I presently resembled an overloaded pack mule. Both my arms were laden with bulging plastic sacks containing essential vitamins/medicine/toiletries, my address book with listings of family/friends, my pocketbook with billfold/identification/credit cards, and the vital red-metal lockbox protecting family documents for myself and two grown sons. As survival instinct frantically pumped adrenalin throughout my five-foot body, my inner voice urged, “Brace yourself, woman, and GET OUT!”

This photograph of the author’s house was a gift to her from Tamara Magee, one of her “angels.”

With my right hand on the doorknob, I reluctantly took one last look at my long-treasured collection of Tennessee and Southern books arranged in the six bookcases lining the walls of the living room. “Pleeease don’t take my beloved books, ” I desperately prayed aloud, hoping sympathetic guardian angels lurked nearby to perform a miracle of epic proportions, but that ludicrous prayer evaporated when I pulled open the heavy wooden door. Torrential rain, near-gale-force wind, and a rapidly rising surge of foul yellow-brown flood water assaulted my senses and body, pushing me several steps backward. Given access to the cottage’s interior, roiling water rushed over the doorway’s threshold and across the gleaming oak flooring. I instantly realized there would be no coming back to save any other possessions. In fact, I would be extremely blessed if I managed to save myself.

Clutching an umbrella to shield my head, I hesitantly stepped onto the front porch, feeling the shock of cold water as my feet, ankles, and calves disappeared into it. My left hand grabbed the wrought-iron railing as my loafer-clad feet gingerly groped for the two steps down to the sidewalk. Once on that flat surface, I blindly pushed myself forward through the water and heavy rainfall. My exploring feet “recognized” familiar objects beneath the water: stepping stones, stones outlining the English cottage garden, and — ouch! — sharp shards of my smashed pottery planter.

I had progressed five or six feet into the yard, determined to reach my car, when the turbulent current threatened to throw me off my feet. I summoned extra strength and leaned forward into the wind and current to keep moving, as I squinted through the surrounding monsoon to see my maroon Saturn parked near the mailbox at the road. Eureka! But water had already risen to the bottom of the car’s windows — my Lizzie VI was doomed and could not offer escape. Muttering several X-rated curse words, I shifted my bobbing cargo as I struggled to keep my footing and turned toward the indiscernible road. I was now in the center of the swift, white-capped current and losing momentum to move forward.

“Hey, can I help you?” yelled a male voice through the hammering rain.

Startled by the sound, I peered from under the umbrella and saw a young man plunging into the current toward me with outstretched hand.

“Yes! Yes!” I yelped, flapping my encumbered right arm toward his hand. “Hurry, please hurry!”

After an eternity of a few minutes, the young man reached me and caught my right arm to drag me from the savage current, which was apparently intent upon sweeping me to the dead-end of the road and down over Richland Creek’s banks (where two persons would be drowned later that day). As my rescuer and I struggled onto the road’s pavement, he pulled the sacks off my right arm and took the red-metal lockbox to ease my load, then somehow he propelled us through the rib-high flood water to the hillside on the west side of Meadowcrest Lane. As we doggedly slogged up the water-logged hillock, young neighbor Greg Chapman met us and helped me to his cottage, where we collapsed into drenched heaps on his front-porch steps. We sat coughing, sputtering, and gasping for air as we silently surveyed the carnage around us.

As I began to shiver in my sodden clothing, I said breathlessly to my rescuer, “I’ve seen you many times coming to and going from your cottage at the end of the street, but I don’t know your name. Who are you?”

The dark-haired, bearded fellow grinned, “Your neighbor. I’m Stephen Selby.”

I gratefully returned his smile and introduced myself, then shook his strong right hand. “Thank you, Stephen Selby, for saving my life! Both my sons were water-blocked and couldn’t get here to help me out of my cottage . . . you certainly are my guardian angel this morning.”

He modestly declined any praise as he returned to the storm to join other volunteer rescuers. Greg Chapman helped me up the rain-slick steps into his home, where several other drenched neighbors had taken refuge. One of his roommates gave me dry sweat-pants and shirt to replace my soaked slacks and shirt. When I returned to the living room, a group of young men stood by the porch steps in the rain talking to Greg and Stephen; they were dividing into pairs to check the other four homes on lower Meadowcrest and rescue anyone trapped inside. I stood on the porch, watching the men struggle through the murky water. Biting my lower lip to hold back tears, I whispered, “How brave and caring they are.”

As the men moved down the submerged road, another group of fellows came from the upper end of Meadowcrest, wading through the rain and flood water toward me. One tall young man offered haven in his cottage on the high ground of Oakmont Circle to everyone in our group of refugees, and I eagerly accepted. The higher I could position myself, the sooner one of my sons could get to me. Thus my second guardian angel, Jeff Recker, and I gathered my plastic sacks, umbrella, and red-metal lockbox to push ourselves uphill ahead of the pursuing flood to his parked truck. As we traveled the two blocks south to his cottage, he chuckled, “You don’t remember me, but I came to your door and tried to buy your house a few years ago.  Now I’m glad you wouldn’t sell it to me!”

I was astonished and laughed as I exclaimed, “That was YOU?!  Well, I’m glad you decided to buy another cottage in Richland Meadows . . . otherwise, you wouldn’t have been here this morning.”

Upon reaching Jeff’s cottage, we were met at the door by his roommate, Brett Bergstrom, a young guitarist recently transplanted to Nashville. For the second time, I was offered dry sweat-pants and shirt to replace my wet clothing. After I was dry and warm, Brett whipped up a late breakfast of fried bologna, buttered toast, and scrambled eggs — absolutely the most delicious, most appreciated meal I have ever eaten!

After breakfast, Jeff attached his outboard motor boat to his truck and left us to continue his volunteer efforts for flood victims, while Brett answered the telephone and relayed messages to fellow volunteers. During the long afternoon, while hard rainfall relentlessly drummed on the roof, Brett strummed his guitar while composing music and lyrics to commemorate the Great Flood of 2010: “Ilene’s Song.” I was deeply moved by his sensitive compassion for this flood refugee and very honored by his plaintive song of survival.

When my younger son came to retrieve me around 4:00 p.m., we drove to my Meadowcrest cottage to take post-flood photographs. Later, traveling the two miles west to his home, we were silently absorbed in our own thoughts. I was sated with profound gratitude for my neighbors’ kindnesses as I mulled over the day’s benevolent events. And I repeatedly chastised myself: How could I have worried selfishly about losing books this morning when such a massive catastrophe as Richland Creek’s rampage was overwhelming all the lower creek-side neighbors?

The sought-after answer suddenly flashed through my brain: Life-saving assistance from my previously unknown neighbors was the appropriate response of any lurking-nearby guardian angels to my prayer for a miracle of epic proportions. They had, indeed, been there — ready and willing to help — but I had lost focus on what I needed most. Thank goodness, guardian angels never lose focus and provide what’s best for us, not what we think we want.

This personal story of survival on May 2 is but one of the myriad miracles affecting the lives of thousands upon thousands of uprooted victims of the Great Flood of 2010 in Nashville and environs.

A look back at the Flood of 2010 – WKRN video: