William and Ben – The Merchants

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William Harrison Thompson

Unlike many of the family’s 19th century Tennessee ancestors, when William Harrison Thompson left the family home near Maryville, TN and headed west, he did not simply find some untilled land and set up a farm. Instead, when he arrived in Henry County, Tennessee sometime between 1830 and 1838 he went into business. According to the book Tennessee and Tennesseans, William bought goods in Philadelphia and shipped them over the Pennsylvania canal to Pittsburgh where they were loaded on steamboats and flatboats to travel down the Ohio River and up the Tennessee River. Unloaded at Paris Landing, he then took the merchandise to Paris, Jackson, Trenton, or Dresden for sale. He was apparently very successful, as he invested the proceeds from this trade in land both in the city of Paris as well as in the farming community of Mansfield where William eventually established a plantation and factories for producing cotton yarn and chewing tobacco.

Then tragedy struck.

samuel-caldwell-uniform

Samuel H. Caldwell’s Confederate Army uniform, in the collection of the Paris-Henry County Heritage Center

On April 2, 1861, just 10 days before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter to begin the Civil War, William died. He was only 47 years old and his family was still young. His eldest daughter Mary Rebecca was 20 and had just married Dr. Samuel H. Caldwell on Christmas Day of 1860, so she was no longer in the home. She would soon have her own struggles as Samuel joined the Confederate Army and served the duration of the war as a doctor, mostly under Nathan Bedford Forrest‘s command. William’s son Ben had just turned 18, but the other 3 children were younger than 13. William’s wife Mary was pregnant with his youngest son who would be born in November. Within the  year the entire northwestern part of Tennessee would be the site of continual skirmishes between southern and northern forces, local government would cease to function, and bands of guerillas would roam the countryside. As a final complication, William apparently had a large number of debts and his creditors came forward to be paid. Over the next 5 years the courts ordered the sale of many of his properties to pay off the loans.

It was William’s son Ben who stepped into the breach left by his father’s death. Without any money of his own, he tapped the good will of his father’s friends for credit and repurchased some of his father’s businesses and property in both Mansfield and Paris. By family legend, among other enterprises he ran cotton to the North during the war. Really, in the scramble to make ends meet it would be unsurprising if he secretly ran trade goods to both sides of the war. Tennessee and Tennesseans mentions that “his occupation was several times interrupted by the incursion of guerilla bands, who stole his goods and otherwise jeopardized this part of the country” – a not unusual story during the chaos of the Civil War. Over time, Ben established a cotton gin and a general store in Mansfield. He granted a right-of-way to the railroad across his property, recognizing how beneficial it would be for him to load and unload goods right at his store.  He acquired thousands of acres of land in Henry, Benton, Carroll, and Madison Counties in addition to prime real estate in downtown Paris where several generations of the family lived. Later in life he was a director of the Bank of Henry.

ben-thompson

Ben Thompson

A family biographer wrote, “His [Ben’s] success was due to the fact that his energy was boundless, for he often took but four or five hours sleep or rest in busy seasons, and he never allowed himself to fail to meet a financial obligation when due, thus making his credit always good.” The flattering quote omits the sad story that early in his struggles Ben would borrow from one of his father’s friends to pay  debts due to another, which the lenders apparently all knew but tolerated because they trusted Ben would eventually pay everyone back.

Ben’s success in reestablishing and expanding his father’s land and business empire left a long-term legacy for the family. The next two generations of the family earned income primarily by renting farmland and commercial and residential property in Henry County. They also gradually sold off bits and pieces of the land. Some parcels were still held in the family another two generations later, when all of Ben’s descendants had left Henry County. The very last piece sold in 2013 – a subdivided lot from the original home site in downtown Paris. The lot holds an A-frame art studio and apartment designed and built by Ben’s granddaughter Mary Sue Ragland Nelson. With that sale, the 175-year history of the Thompson family in Paris and Henry County came to a close.

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Last Thompson property in Paris, TN: A-frame studio on East Blythe St.

Here are a few additional sources of genealogical interest:

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