Along the Wagon Road

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Route of the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road which many Scotch-Irish and German immigrants followed to new homes on the frontier of Virginia and the Carolinas. It is superimposed over a modern county map.

The second of five major waves of Scotch-Irish immigration arrived on America’s shores starting in 1725. Fleeing exorbitant rents, English suppression of Irish trade, and the resulting poverty, the descendants of the lowland Scots who had emigrated to Ireland in the early 17th century sought better fortunes across the Atlantic. Most landed in one of the port cities along the Delaware River, encouraged by Quaker Pennsylvania’s religious tolerance. Finding much of the farmland proximate to the coast already claimed by earlier immigrants, the Scotch-Irish arrivals headed inland, west through Pennsylvania and then southwest into Maryland and Virginia. The previously established settlers – although concerned that the large number of immigrants would threaten the existing order – were delighted to have a buffer between them and the occasionally hostile Native Americans on the frontier.

John Dickey was one of those Scotch-Irish helpfully buffering the coastal settlements. He and his wife Martha McNeely immigrated from Ireland, and in 1737 made their way to the frontier Virginia county of Albemarle, although it wasn’t until 1747 that he acquired land along Mechum’s River with a view toward Rockfish Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Albemarle was still a young county; the first land patent was granted in 1727, and the first settlers only arrived in the 1730s, so John and Martha were among the earliest in the area. Continue reading

The World Turned Upside Down

It is fairly certain where John Jones could be found at 2:30pm on October 19, 1781. He would have been standing in one of three rows of soldiers on the west side of Hampton Road, just outside of Yorktown, Virginia. Across the road were similar lines of French soldiers dressed in fancy uniforms distinguished by colorful lapels, collars, and buttons that indicated their regiments. By contrast, the American soldiers of the Continental Army similarly stood at attention but wearing well-worn blue uniforms that had not recently been laundered. As for John Jones’s Virginia militia compatriots, they wore more-or-less what they always wore: leather hunting shirts and breeches, perhaps with an old uniform piece or two, quite the contrast to the French professionals.

A French military band played to entertain the the soldiers. The British were late.

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Governor Harris

While enthusiasm for the southern cause during the Civil War was lukewarm among family household leaders like Thomas Alexander Paysinger and Benjamin Peeples, their children, siblings, cousins, and other relatives were sometimes much more motivated and involved. No family member embodied belief in the Confederacy more than cousin Isham G. Harris, the governor of Tennessee who led the state to secede from the United States at the start of the war.

Senator Isham G. Harris

Isham G. Harris while serving as a U.S. Senator late in his career. Library of Congress photo.

The Harris family was tightly wound up with the Randle, Davidson, and Thompson families. Continue reading

The Smell of Sulphur

In 1821, Major John Randle and some of his family were prospecting for salt at a historic salt lick in Henry County, Tennessee. They dug a well down 16 feet or so, and then hit a solid layer of marble. Undaunted, they began drilling. Three-hundred and seventy-four feet later, a gush of water “with enough force to turn a mill” erupted from the hole. But it wasn’t salt that was a notable feature of the new artesian well, but white sulphur water. The new spring soon became a destination for health-seeking Tennesseans, and a resort grew up on the spot. It proved particularly healthy for those Memphis residents who fled the city in 1873 to avoid a yellow fever outbreak. However, the site now lies beneath Kentucky Lake which the Tennessee Valley Authority filled in 1944.

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Guests at Sulphur Well, date unknown. Sulphur Well was an important tourist destination in western Tennessee until it was submerged beneath Kentucky Lake.

Sulphur Well was likely the last major project in Major John Randle’s adventurous life. Continue reading

Letters

LettersOld family letters are a precious find, providing more insight into the people of our past than any number of government records. Letters from the 19th century are particularly scarce as literacy was far from universal and the passage of time with its attendant wear-and-tear has consumed fragile paper.

Somewhere, however, there is a cache of letters from the Thompson family of Maryville, TN. The files of Mary Sue Ragland Nelson contained photocopies of two of them, one written in 1836 from the merchant William H. Thompson of Paris, TN, to his father William living in Maryville, the other written in 1837 to William H. from his mother Rebecca. Continue reading

Settled

Lula Mai & Edgar Luther Nelson

Edgar Luther Nelson and his wife Lula Mai (Blakemore)

Edgar Luther Nelson died in 1969 less than a week before his 86th birthday. In all those many years, he never lived more than 2 1/2 miles from the small town of Humboldt in Gibson County, western Tennessee. His was the fourth generation in west Tennessee; his grandfather and father had made only a small move from the adjacent Madison County to Gibson sometime after the Civil War. The western migration for this part of the Nelson family was clearly over after his great-grandfather John arrived in the early 1820s.

Edgar grew up amidst tragedy and the memory of tragedy in his immediate family. Continue reading

A Peeples Minister

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Reverend Benjamin Peeples

While most rural 19th century American men were farmers, there were some other important occupations available. Physician, judge, land surveyor, miller, and minister were among the choices. Benjamin Peeples chose them all.

An earlier post briefly described Benjamin Peeples as an early Methodist minister in Tennessee and the husband of Martha Davidson Randle. However, that thumbnail description did not adequately describe this well-known Henry County pioneer. Mary Sue (Ragland) Nelson was fortuitously a great collector of information about her great-grandfather Peeples, and this mini-biography draws heavily from her files.

Benjamin Peeples was born in 1797 in Carter County, Tennessee, at the eastern edge of the still-new state. His parents died when he was young, and he finished his childhood in the house of an uncle. At the age of 16, he converted to Methodism and became a minister. At the time, the Methodist Church was proselytizing in the new communities of Tennessee and sent itinerant ministers out to carry the faith from town to town. This is the work that Peeples chose, and after riding circuits in eastern Tennessee and Kentucky, in 1821 he was assigned to the area west of the Tennessee River which had just been ceded by the Chickasaws. His strengths as a preacher were attested to many years later by his youngest son Samuel, who in 1919 wrote, “My father had a stronger mind than any boy he had. I was the youngest and used to ride behind him and it was nothing uncommon for him to get off his horse and begin to talk, and a great circle of people would gather around him.” Continue reading

The Work of Others

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Extract from will of Jacob Bunn, Northampton County, NC, 1790

Most American genealogies justifiably celebrate the accomplishments and deeds of ancestors, recalling how they experienced or participated in the historical events of their times. However, genealogies of white southerners often omit reference to a group of household members that contributed significantly to their family enterprises: that is, those household members held in slavery prior to the Civil War. Yet much as slavery was impossible to ignore in antebellum southern society, it is impossible to ignore within the primary documents of the era. Particularly disturbing is reading wills, where “Negroes” are parceled out to heirs along with livestock and household furnishings. One common formulation reads like that in the 1790 will of Nelson ancestor Jacob Bunn, of Northampton County, NC: “I give unto my grandson Elias Lewter one Negro woman by the name of Edy and all her issue to him and his heirs forever.” Thus does one man expect to condemn a woman and all her descendants to slavery in perpetuity.

No one in the family handed down stories of slavery, but a few, usually tragic glimpses remain in the historical record. Continue reading