Francis Alexander Ramsey was a Pennsylvania native who arrived in Tennessee around the end of the Revolutionary War, got involved in the Franklin movement, served as clerk of the Southwest Territory, and was a founding trustee of what eventually became the University of Tennessee. About the same time that Tennessee became a state, he hired an English carpenter named Thomas Hope to build a fine home of pink marble and blue limestone at Swan Pond, his plantation near Knoxville at the confluence of the Holston and French Broad Rivers. The house is still there, and a few days ago I decided it was high time I saw it in person.
Ramsey House is one of the most beautifully constructed and restored of all the historic house museums I’ve visited. Once referred to as “the most costly and most admired building in Tennessee,” it would have been quite a bit more substantial than most of the other homes on the frontier near the turn of the nineteenth century. The quality of Hope’s craftsmanship is evident in the limestone trim and the carved corbels underneath the roof corners.
Cabins and small homes on the early Tennessee frontier typically had kitchens that were either detached from the main house or linked to it by a covered dogtrot. Ramsey House’s kitchen, by contrast, is attached to the main structure. The tour guide told me this was at the insistence of Francis Ramsey’s wife.
The interior is just as impressive as the exterior, furnished with period pieces that include some Ramsey family items, like the Chippendale chairs and tea service in one of the downstairs rooms.
When Francis died in 1820, the house passed to his oldest son William, Knoxville’s first elected mayor. William later sold the home to his brother, the eminent doctor, historian, and public works booster J.G.M. Ramsey, who in turn gave it to his son as a wedding present in 1857 and moved a short distance away to his own estate of Mecklenburg.
The house’s link to J.G.M. Ramsey was one of the main reasons I wanted to see it, since every aficionado of early Tennessee history is bound to cross paths with him sooner or later. Although his contributions to the state’s transportation development and finance were considerable, Ramsey’s role as chronicler of Tennessee’s past was probably his most important legacy. Some of the most prominent players in Tennessee’s formative years were guests at Ramsey House when J.G.M. was growing up, and he developed a passionate interest in the Volunteer State’s history, reflected in his massive collection of manuscripts and books. The crowning achievement of this historical work was his massive Annals of Tennessee to the End of the Eighteenth Century, published in 1853 and still an invaluable resource for students of the early southwestern frontier.
Above all else, he was a committed believer in states’ rights and a defender of southern interests, serving as a Confederate treasury agent on the outbreak of the Civil War. His zealous support for secession ended up taking a tremendous toll on his family. The Union occupation of Knoxville in 1863 forced him to flee Mecklenburg, his daughter was exiled from the city, and his youngest son Arthur was one of the many Tennessee troops killed in action at Piedmont, VA in June 1864.
One wartime loss was as devastating for later Tennessee historians as it must have been to Ramsey personally—a Union arsonist put Mecklenburg to the torch, and its priceless collection of historical papers and relics went up in smoke. Ramsey himself blamed his nemesis William Brownlow, an outspoken Unionist with whom he had been at odds since before the war, for instigating the arson. One of the reasons Ramsey’s Annals is such an important resource is because much of the primary material that went into the work went up in flames along with his home. (Speaking as somebody who could’ve made use of those documents, I can tell you that if I find the arsonist in the afterlife, there’s going to be trouble.)
After the war, Ramsey was able to get a presidential pardon from Andrew Johnson. The family eventually returned to Knoxville, but J.G.M.’s son sold the ancestral home in 1866. The Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities acquired it in 1952 and furnished it to match the period of Francis Ramsey’s occupancy, using items donated by descendants and an inventory of the patriarch’s estate.
In addition to the house, the site has a small visitor center with a gift shop, an exhibit of family relics and archaeological materials excavated on the grounds, and a short film. I definitely recommend a visit if you’re in the Knoxville area; it’s an architectural gem and a fascinating glimpse into the lives of one of Tennessee’s most important families.
You might also want to visit the site of Lebanon-in-the-Fork Presbyterian Church, just a couple of miles from Ramsey House. Rev. Samuel Carrick established Lebanon-in-the-Fork in 1791, making it the oldest Presbyterian church in Knox County. The church building is gone, but the graveyard is well worth a look. The grave of Carrick’s widow is Knox County’s earliest marked burial, dating to 1793.
Several generations of Ramseys are also buried here: Francis…
…and young Arthur.
Also in the Ramsey plot is a memorial for Reynolds Ramsey, father of Francis and a veteran of the Revolutionary War who was at Trenton and Princeton. J.G.M. remembered his grandfather as a “tall and graceful” man who “never entered a room with his hat on and never retired from it without a graceful bow and a modest and sincere adieu.” I suspect it was J.G.M. himself, with his interest in history, who made sure his grandfather’s tombstone mentioned his Rev War service.
Reynolds isn’t the only Rev War veteran buried at Lebanon-in-the-Forks.
Jeremiah Jack, another Rev War vet buried in the churchyard, was one of Knoxville’s early settlers. Ramsey’s Annals includes a brief account of a canoe trip Jack and another man made to Coyatee to purchase corn from the Cherokees:
During the infancy of the settlements on Nollichucky, corn had become scarce, and availing themselves of a short suspension of hostilities, Jeremiah Jack and William Rankin, of Greene county, descended the river in a canoe, for the purpose of bartering with the Indians for corn. They reached Coiatee without interruption. The warriors of that place refused to exchange or sell the corn, and manifested other signs of suspicion, if not of open enmity. They entered the canoe and lifted up some wearing apparel lying in it, and which covered their rifles. This discovery increased the unwillingness of the Indians to trade, and they began to show a disposition to offer violence to their white visitants. The beloved woman, Nancy Ward, was happily present, and was able by her commanding influence to appease their wrath, and to bring about friendly feelings between the parties. The little Indians were soon clad in the home made vestments brought by the traders—the canoe was filled with corn, and the white men started on their return voyage well pleased with the exchange they had made, and especially with the kind offices of the beloved woman. On their return, the white men landed and camped one night, a mile above the mouth of French Broad, on the north bank of the little sluice of that river. Mr. Jack was so well pleased with the place, that he afterwards selected it as his future residence, and actually settled and improved it on his emigration to the present Knox county, in 1787.