Tag Archives: Southwest Territory

Communication and a cryptid on the Tennessee frontier

I’ve run across some strange stuff while poking around in Tennessee’s early history, but nothing as bizarre as a newspaper report J.L. Bell has uncovered.

In the 1790s, militiamen on patrol in the Cumberland Mountains stumbled across a creature that “had only two legs, and stood almost upright, covered with scales, of a black, brown, and light yellow colour, in spots like rings, a white tuft or crown on the top of its head, about four feet high, a head as big as a two pound stone, and large eyes, of a fiery red.”

When one of the men attacked the thing with his sword, “it jumped up, at least, eight feet” and then landed, spewing “a red kind of matter out of its mouth resembling blood, and then retreated into a Laurel thicket turning round often, as if it intended to fight. The tracks of it resembled that of a goose, but larger.”

Yikes!  Soldiers on a wilderness mission come face-to-face with a grotesque, creepy-eyed beastie.  Seems like I’ve heard this one before…

Bell quotes the story as it appeared in the Hampshire Gazette on Sept. 24, 1794, and notes that it also popped up in various other newspapers with attributions to the Knoxville Gazette, the first paper published in what’s now Tennessee.  Unfortunately, searchable copies of the Knoxville Gazette aren’t yet available online.  But here’s the same item from the Aug, 30, 1794 issue of the Baltimore Daily Intelligencer.  It’s identical to the one Bell found in the Hampshire Gazette.


Since the opening is addressed to “the Printers of the Knoxville Gazette,” I assume this is the same text that appeared in that paper.  One wonders who submitted it to the Knoxville Gazette in the first place, but there doesn’t seem to be a name attached to any of the versions available online.

The reference to Indian lore is interesting.  Reptilian creatures do appear in Cherokee mythology.  The most well-known is probably the Uktena, a great horned serpent bearing a crystal in its forehead.  But I’m not aware of any creature from southeastern Native lore matching the description of the thing these militiamen encountered.  As Bell notes, William Blount referred to it as “Cheeklaceella” when he mentioned the article in a 1798 letter to John Rhea.  I couldn’t find that word in an electronic search of texts on Indian mythology.  In fact, I couldn’t find it anywhere except in a printed version of Blount’s letter from Samuel Gordon Heiskell’s book on early Tennessee history.

What I find notable is the fact that newspapers across the country picked up this bizarre report from the Tennessee frontier.  Readers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Maryland would have read the story of the militiamen who encountered a mysterious creature in the Cumberland mountains, and editors in these cities seem to have been aware of what their colleagues on the frontier were printing.  Lately I’ve been going through letters written by settlers in southwestern Virginia during the Revolutionary era, and I’m surprised at how often they refer to events in Boston, Philadelphia, Yorktown, and even Europe.  Similarly, eastern newspapers picked up news from Kentucky and the Tennessee country and disseminated it all along the seaboard.  We tend to think of the eighteenth-century trans-Appalachian West as a remote, isolated region, but frontier folk were very much a part of early American communication networks.

Anyway, assuming the incident happened as the newspapers described, what did those militiamen see?  My money’s on some sort of crane with a skin disease, but you never know…

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Digging up Knoxville at the McClung Museum

Well, my fellow East Tennessee history aficionados, the wait is over.  The McClung Museum’s special exhibit Knoxville Unearthed: Archaeology in the Heart of the Valley opened last Friday night, and it’s quite spiffy.  Kudos to the co-curators, archaeologists Charles Faulkner and Tim Baumann (bonus points to the latter because he’s a fellow Marble Springs board member), exhibits preparator Christopher Weddig, and all the other folks who helped make it happen.  It’s a fantastic 225th birthday present for the city.

The exhibit covers Knoxville’s transition from a rough frontier settlement into an industrialized city, but being an eighteenth-century guy, I’m most excited about the early stuff.  Let’s take a look at some highlights.

Before there was a State of Tennessee, Knoxville was the capital city of the Southwest Territory.  This English-made teapot was found at the site of the office Col. David Henley occupied after his appointment as agent of the Department of War in 1793.  It was the same location where, in 1796, a convention met which drafted Tennessee’s first constitution.

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Remember our visit to Tellico Blockhouse back in July?  Here’s a pearlware teacup recovered from the site, dating to the period when the fort was an active frontier post.

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East Tennessee’s original historic inhabitants are represented in the exhibit, too.  The archaeological record contains traces of items they obtained in trade with Anglo-Americans, like this eighteenth-century brass bucket fragment from the Cherokee town of Tomotley.

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Trading with whites didn’t mean the Cherokees slavishly adopted whatever products they obtained, however.  Sometimes they repurposed Anglo-American goods into something new.  A brass kettle from England might end up as ornamental tinkling cones, like these examples from Chota.

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James White was the first Anglo-American settler to take up residence in Knoxville, moving here with his family in the mid-1780s.  These bones belonged to a pig that ended up on the White family’s table.  Pork was an important staple of pioneer diets in the southern backcountry.

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Hey, speaking of pioneers, I think I know this guy…


I’m delighted that artifacts from Marble Springs figure prominently in the exhibit.  Teams of archaeologists from UT conducted excavations at the site in the early 2000s, but this is the first time their discoveries have been on display for the public.



Items dating from John Sevier’s occupancy of the site include this English bowl fragment…

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…and a small piece of a pepper shaker.  Perhaps Nolichucky Jack used it to add a little flavor to his food while mulling over how much he hated Andrew Jackson.

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Ceramics recovered from Marble Springs indicate that while Sevier lived pretty well, he wasn’t using the finest dinnerware available on the early frontier.  But he was wealthy enough to have other people doing his work for him.  This hatchet head and knife were recovered from the location of one of the slave cabins.  They offer a tangible link to men and women we know mostly from brief, passing references in Sevier’s journal.

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Artifacts excavated from the slave quarters of Blount Mansion, the 1790s home of the Southwest Territory’s governor, provide another look at the lives of enslaved laborers in early Tennessee.  One of them wore this good luck amulet…

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…while fragments of English and Chinese ceramics indicate that slaves used hand-me-down dinnerware from their owners.

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About a year ago, as you may recall, we paid a virtual visit to Ramsey House.  When Francis Ramsey took up residence in the Knoxville area in the 1790s, he initially lived in a log cabin.  Later, after completing the impressive stone house that is still standing to this day, he seems to have used the log building as an office.  In the nineteenth century, the log structure changed functions again, this time to a slave quarters.  Here are a few bits and pieces recovered from the site, including another amulet.

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Finally, this may be the most poignant item featured in the exhibit, a neck restraint dating from the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century excavated from the Tellico Blockhouse site.  Little wonder the enslaved inhabitants of early Knoxville carried those amulets; they needed all the good fortune they could get.

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And we haven’t even gotten to the later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century artifacts yet.  Knoxville Unearthed runs until January 8, 2017.  Admission to the museum is free, so stop by and check it out.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Archaeology, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

John Sevier’s smack talk

I’ve been reading Massacre at Cavett’s Station by the eminent Tennessee archaeologist Charles Faulkner.  The titular massacre was one of the uglier episodes in the long history of white-Cherokee conflict on the Tennessee frontier.  It took place on September 25, 1793 when a massive war party (contemporary reports put their numbers as high as 1,500) headed for the territorial capital of Knoxville heard firing from the town and feared they’d lost the element of surprise.  Instead, they fell on Cavett’s Station several miles to the southwest, killing the thirteen men, women, and children who were there.

Remarkably, the Indians had managed to approach Knoxville without detection by John Sevier’s militia, but retaliation was not long in coming.  In what would prove to be his last Indian campaign, Sevier marched into Georgia and caught some of the perpetrators at Etowah, near present-day Rome.  The Indians were in a position to oppose the militia’s crossing of the Etowah River at the town, but when a party of the whites moved south to cross elsewhere, the Indians followed them and left the fording place near the town undefended.  The militiamen galloped back to Etowah, dispersing the defenders and putting the town to the torch.

Apparently Sevier decided that defeating the Indians wasn’t punishment enough, because he decided to up the ownage by sending them the following message, a copy of which is preserved in his journal:

Your murders and savage Barbarities have caused me to come into your Country Expecting you would fight like men, but you are like the Bairs and Wolves.  The face of a white man makes you run fast into the woods and hide, u see what we have done and it is nothing to what we shall do in a short time.  I pity your women & children for I am sure they must suffer and live like dogs but you are the Cause of it.  You will make War, & then is afraid to fight,—our people whiped yours mightily two nights ago Crossing the river and made your people run very fast.


To the Cherokees and their warriors if they Have Any.

Ouch.  Not much for the niceties of spelling and punctuation, but the guy definitely knew how to twist the rhetorical knife.

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Looking for a substantial research project?

Then consider writing a biography of an early national figure, particularly one from Tennessee.  Mark Cheatham is probably correct in guessing that “many graduate students who might be interested in writing biographies as dissertations are discouraged by their advisors.”

It’s a shame, because there are plenty of prominent early leaders about whom we just don’t know enough.  Both Gordon Belt and myself have lamented the lack of a good biography of John Sevier.  A few hagiographic treatments came out over a century ago, but as far as I can determine, the only scholarly attempt at a life of Sevier was Carl Driver’s, published back in the thirties.

William Blount’s life story would also make for a fascinating read.  A study of his conspiratorial dealings came out not too long ago, but as a member of the Constitutional Convention and governor of the Southwest Territory, Blount deserves a cradle-to-grave account, too.

In part, this dearth of early Tennessee biographies is symptomatic of a more general shortage of scholarship on the Volunteer State’s frontier period.  The good news is that those relatively few recent studies on early Tennessee history have been very good—such as John Finger’s overview of the Volunteer State’s early daysKevin Barksdale’s book on the Lost State of Franklin, and Cynthia Cumfer’s examination of early Tennessee’s three races.

But it’s also symptomatic of the surprising gaps that exist in the field of early American biography.  These gaps become readily apparent when you look at Rev War biography.  One thing that’s always struck me is the lack of a recent, full-scale life of Nathanael Greene, the remarkable general who took command in the South in late 1780 and turned that theater of war on its head, after having served under Washington in the major campaigns in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania.  Few men played a more critical role in the war.

Henry Knox, Washington’s resourceful artillery chief, also needs a full-scale, scholarly biography.  Don Higginbotham wrote a very good life of Daniel Morgan, but another look at the Old Wagoneer wouldn’t hurt, either.  Philip Schuyler and Horatio Gates could also stand intensive biographies.

Let me point out that all these men were general officers, and yet we have more abundant published work on some Civil War colonels than on these guys.  Biographies of British commanders are just as hard to come by, perhaps more so.  In a sense, Rev War historiography has leapfrogged over the old military history and gone straight to the new.

Grad students and young scholars in search of dissertation or book topics need not worry about running out of material.  There are enough dead white guys in search of their Boswells to keep us all busy for a while.

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The view from Rocky Mount

Last time I related the results of the weekend’s successful TomTom field test, and promised to post one of my historic site reviews for the destination.  It was one of those Tennessee frontier museums that I’d intended to visit for a long time and had just never gotten around to seeing.  I’m pleased to report that it exceeded my expectations.

Rocky Mount Museum is a historic house and farm in Piney Flats, up in Tennessee’s history-saturated northeastern corner.  The really surprising thing about the house is the fact that it’s still there at all.  William Cobb built it for his family in the early 1770’s, when permanent settlement in what became Tennessee was still in its infancy.  It’s got to be one of the oldest homes in the entire state.  It’s also quite a substantial structure.  If you’re expecting a tiny frontier cabin, you’re in for a surprise.  The main house has a good-sized parlor, two upstairs bedrooms, a dining room across a covered dogtrot-style passageway, and an additional room converted into an office.

This office is one of the things that makes Rocky Mount so significant.  After the State of Franklin dissolved in the late 1780’s, North Carolina finally and permanently ceded its western lands to the Federal government.  The area that’s now Tennessee was organized into the Southwest Territory, with North Carolina’s William Blount appointed governor.  From his arrival in 1790 until 1792 (when he moved to a new frame house in Knoxville that’s also become a nifty museum), Blount stayed with the Cobb family and conducted the territory’s business out of the downstairs office.  Rocky Mount was therefore the first capitol of the Southwest Territory, and Blount’s time here figures significantly in the tours and programming.

There are several other buildings to see besides the main house.  A detached kitchen, a smaller building that functions as a smokehouse and cloth-making area, and a slave cabin are also located on the grounds, along with a barn and livestock fields.  It’s a beautiful site with a gorgeous view; “Rocky Mount” wasn’t just Cobb’s creative nickname, because the house actually does sit on a high hill topped with rocky outcroppings.

The interpretive scheme relies heavily on first-person techniques and hands-on demonstration.  Teams of costumed interpreters conduct groups through the buildings.  All the guides working on the day we visited were extremely knowledgeable, not just about the site but about the Tennessee frontier and early American history in general.

In fact, the quality of the interpretation is one of Rocky Mount’s greatest strengths.  All too often I’ve found myself visiting a historic building and being led from room to room by a bored intern with the weary delivery style of a telemarketer.  You won’t find that here.  Rocky Mount’s guides are very engaging, and they know their stuff.  Ask a question about the most minor object tucked away in a corner, and they’ll not only identify it but also weave it into the larger story of life on the eighteenth-century frontier.  Is it homemade?  Yes, we make it out of such-and-such.  Where do you get the materials?  Well, this part comes from Mr. So-and-so’s store in Jonesborough, and then we get that part in monthly shipments from Virginia. 

And Mr. So-and-so’s store, and all the rest of it, is actually documented.  It’s not so much a tour as it is a step into a fully realized, fully recreated world, all based on painstaking research.  You get a sense of the household’s place within a genuine, living frontier community.

This is living history in its fullest sense—not just clothes and personas, but actually doing the kinds of things necessary to keep a 1790’s farm going.  After seeing the house, we headed over to the kitchen, where a guide showed us how to bank the cooking fire to keep the coals smouldering while she explained techniques for preparing practically every food and medical remedy you’d find on an eighteenth-century plantation.  Later, she took us past the garden, where we held the herbs up to our noses and smelled them, and then into an outbuilding to watch different kinds of fabrics being prepared, running them through our fingers to feel the difference.  I’ve toured a lot of historic home sites, and I’ve seen a lot of first-person interpretation, but rarely have I seen any of this done so well.

I’ve also got to say that the way the buildings are stocked and furnished is incredibly convincing.  Rocky Mount looks like a place where people live; if the Cobb family happened to show up, I imagine they could find everything they’d need to get by here.  Because the tours are guided, there aren’t barriers and cases all over the rooms to remind you that you’re in an artificial environment.

A museum and orientation film offer an introduction to the history of the Tennessee frontier, from the French and Indian War to the early statehood period.  Some of the exhibits are pretty dated, but they’re in the process of being updated, and they’re still worth a look, despite the wear and tear.  As You’ll be able to get an overview of the major events and personalities in early Tennessee history.  (Seeing the powder kettle Mary Patton used to supply the King’s Mountain expedition was a real treat for me, and one I wasn’t expecting.)

There is one thing I found a little odd, and that’s the selection of books for sale in the gift shop.  There are quite a few hard-to-find titles on local and nineteenth-century Tennessee history, but many of the works on the frontier that you usually see in Tennessee museums aren’t there.  I was particularly surprised not to find a copy of Walter Durham’s history of the Southwest Territory, which seems like such a natural fit.  But this is a minor point, and I don’t intend it as a criticism of the site’s overall quality.

I’d enthusiastically recommend a visit to Rocky Mount Museum to anybody who’s planning a trip through northeastern Tennessee.  And if you’re a Tennessean within driving distance of the Tri-Cities, you owe it to yourself to go.  My only regret is that I didn’t make it there sooner.

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