Brown's Tavern, erected for John Brown in 1803 by carpenter Casper Vaught, is the oldest structure on its original foundation in Chattanooga. Brown's father, Richard Brown, owned 640 acres on Moccasin Bend and across the Tennessee River, where his son operated the tavern and nearby ferry.
In 1805, Col. Return J. Meigs negotiated a treaty with the Cherokees providing for construction of the first wagon road through the Cherokee Nation. One fork of the road passed the tavern of John Brown and crossed the Tennessee River at Brown's Ferry.
The Browns were mixed-blood Cherokees. Col. Richard Brown's father, Chief John Lucien Brown, was half Cherokee and half white; his mother, Dolly Dean Brown, was a full blood. Selu Corn Woman, Richard Brown's first wife, was the mother of his son, John Brown (sometimes referred to as John Brown Jr. after his grandfather), who built the tavern and was himself a chief. John Brown's wife, Nancy, born about 1792, was a full-blooded Sioux adopted and raised as a Cherokee. Both Richard and John Brown fought under Andrew Jackson at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend during the Creek War of 1814.
John Brown maintained a farming operation and a mill on his land. In addition to the two-story tavern with fireplaces at both ends, there was a smokehouse, barn, hen house and an orchard. When his widow Elizabeth Brown, apparently his second wife and administrator of Brown's estate, sold the property in 1847, it included the tavern, outbuildings and slightly more than 300 acres.
Brown moved to Walker County, Georgia, in 1830 when the Hixson family took over his ferry, but he moved back across the state line in 1835. He was living in his house during the Trail of Tears, when the Drane and Bell detachments crossed the river at Brown's Ferry and the Whitely detachment camped nearby for three nights in June 1838.
Ocoee District land records for 1839 and 1840 also show that he was living in Hamilton County before his death in 1847. John Brown was buried in the Brown family cemetery near the tavern on land now occupied by the softball field adjoining Valley View Elementary School.
During the Civil War, the Union army occupied the tavern and used it as a storehouse for supplies and munitions. Over the years the tavern has passed through several hands. In 1969, Chancellor Herschel Franks and his wife, Joan, purchased the tavern, a detached log kitchen and a guest house on the 14 acres. They restored the tavern and made it their home. Chancellor Franks reported that John Ross was said to have spent his honeymoon in the tavern. He added that during the great flood of 1886 people were evacuated by boat from the second story of the building.
Richard Brown was a slave owner, according to historian William G. McLoughlin, and Chancellor Franks noted that the first slave purchase recorded in the courthouse is attributed to John Brown. Another source offers census evidence of John and Nancy Brown at Lookout Valley with 12 slaves in 1835.
The tavern is also an historic site of great importance because of its role in Chattanooga's Civil War history. James Livingood and Gilbert Govan in "The Chattanooga Country" describe vividly how on the night of Oct. 26, 1863, about 1,800 federal troops on pontoons crossed the river to gain a foothold on the south bank of the Tennessee River below Lookout Mountain. The following day they drove out the Confederate sharpshooters on Raccoon Mountain and established a position in Brown's Valley. A pontoon bridge was established at Brown's Ferry, and on the morning of Nov. 23 Sherman's troops marched across that bridge in full sight of the dismayed Confederates.
Fortunately, Brown's Tavern has been acquired by the American Battlefield Trust, which is transferring it to National Park Partners. Plans are in the works to preserve the tavern and interpret its rich history intermingling Cherokees, African Americans, white settlers and Civil War soldiers. Congratulations to all those who have helped bring this about!
Those interested in supporting the effort to preserve and interpret the tavern should send their donations to the Brown's Tavern Fund, c/o National Park Partners, P.O. Box 748, Chattanooga, TN 37401.
Kay Baker Gaston, a former Chattanoogan, is a regional historian. For more, visit chattahistoricalassn.org.