For the past few weeks, we have explored some of Hamilton County's earliest cemeteries, recounting the stories of veterans of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Tracing the migration of early settlers into the Tennessee Valley and Hamilton County has prompted questions about the first colonists to move through the area.
Settlers from Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina began moving into the "land beyond the mountains" well before Tennessee became a state in 1796. Most moved directly westward from Northeast Tennessee into the Upper Cumberland region. Even though rumors of fertile land circulated among the pioneer forts, few people moved into Southeast Tennessee because the Cherokee, Creeks and others had been living in the area for hundreds of years. Many of the settlers remembered fighting against the Cherokee, allies of the British, during the American Revolution and preferred to only fight the wilderness as they pushed westward.
On Dec. 22, 1779, Col. John Donelson embarked on a river voyage to the Big Salt Lick [Fort Nashborough and later Nashville] with a flotilla that grew to more than 30 families and 100 individuals. Earlier, James Robertson had left Fort Patrick Henry with a group, choosing an overland route. Donelson, a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses from 1769 to 1774 and a well-known surveyor who had settled the boundary dispute between Virginia and North Carolina, loaded his family, including daughter Rachel, aboard their boat, The Adventure, determined to meet the Robertson group in early spring.
Donelson kept a written account of his historic journey, depicting the hardships encountered as the boats moved along the Holston, Tennessee, Ohio and Cumberland rivers. Interestingly, recent scholarship indicates that the earlier descriptions of the voyage were written contemporary while the later portion of the journey may have been written from memory several decades later. His detailed notes of the struggles along the river near present-day Chattanooga, relatively early in the 1,000-mile trip, are among the most graphic in his journal. Most historians accept Donelson's account as the earliest primary document about Chattanooga and Hamilton County. [Spelling and punctuation original.]
"Wednesday 8th. Castoff at 10 O.'clock. & proceed down to an Indian village ... on the south side of the river, they invited on us to 'come ashore', called us brothers, & showed other signs of Friendship ... Mr. John Caffery & my son took a canoe which I had in tow & were crossing over to them ... After they had gone some distance, a half-Breed who called himself Archy Coody met them, and advised them to return to the boat ... telling us to move off instantly. We had not gone far before we discovered a number of Indians armed and painted proceeding down the river to intercept us ... we had not gone far until we had come in sight of another Town situated likewise on the south side of the river, nearly opposite a small island ... here we must regret the unfortunate death of young Mr. Payne on board Capt. Blackemores boat, who was mortally wounded by reason of the boat running too near the northern shore opposite the town where some of the enemy lay concealed."
Donelson then details an even more tragic situation involving the Stuart family, which had been stricken with the "Small Pox;" their boat had been distanced at the rear. "After we had passed the Town, the Indians ... intercepted him & killed & took prisoners the whole crew, to the great grief of the whole Company ... their cries were distinctly heard by those boats in the rear."
For locals who have traversed the Tennessee River, the final entry about this region rings familiar. "We were now arrived at the place called the Whirl or Suck, where the river is compressed within less than half its common width above ... In passing through a place ... described by Coody, which he termed the 'boiling Pot'."
Donelson records another encounter "when the Indians to our astonishment appeared immediately over us on the opposite Cliffs & commenced firing down upon us ... We immediately moved off, the Indians lining the Bluffs along continued their fire from the heights on our boats below, without doing any other injury than wounding four slightly."
By the next day, the Donelson expedition had moved beyond our region, ultimately reaching its destination in April 1780.
Linda Moss Mines is the Chattanooga-Hamilton County historian, a member of the Tennessee Historical Commission and regent, Chief John Ross Chapter, NSDAR.