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.

Sulphur Well 2

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

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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

benjamin-peeples

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

Bunn will extract

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

Indiana Mysteries

Mollie & John R. Fohl

Mollie Caldwell and John R. Fohl

Nowhere does the family tree encounter more uncertainty than in the branches of the Indiana family of Mollie Caldwell, Lizzie Fohl’s mother.

Mollie married John R. Fohl in Henry County, Indiana, in 1867, just after the conclusion of the Civil War. Her parents were Hannah Canutt and Franklin Caldwell; Hannah’s parents in turn were John Canutt and Mary Magdalina Landis while Franklin’s were Mary Loder and someone completely unknown and – at this distant date – perhaps unknowable.

What happened to Franklin’s father? Continue reading

Dynamo

Mary Sue RaglandMary Sue (Ragland) Nelson is remembered as one of the most energetic and capable recent members of the family. Born in 1907 as the granddaughter of prominent Henry County businessman Ben Thompson and great-granddaughter of the pioneer Methodist minister Benjamin Peeples, she lived her entire life in Paris, Tennessee, excepting only the years she spent earning a degree at Randolph Macon Women’s College in Virginia (she was the second of three generations of the family to attend this school).

Mary Sue was raised by her mother and grandparents in the spacious Thompson house in downtown Paris. Her parents divorced when she was young, and her father returned to his family in Kentucky where he remarried. Later in life Mary Sue rejected his overtures Continue reading

“Prodigious Planter”

James Lee & Sarah Crafton Blakemore

James Lee and Sarah Crafton Blakemore

Among the families that settled in West Tennessee following the 1818 Chickasaw Cession of lands west of the Tennessee River, the Thompsons made their home in Henry County and the Nelsons in Madison County while the Blakemores settled in between, in Gibson County. There, James Lee Blakemore, the middle son of William and Frances Blakemore (and the descendant of both John and Joseph Blakemore of Fort Blackmore), married Sarah W. Crafton in 1849.

Like the Blakemores, the Craftons were another Virginia family whose American roots stretched back into the 17th century. Crafton genealogists benefit from the extensive work of Raymond G. Crafton whose book Origins and Lives of the Craftons of Virginia provides a very thorough examination of Crafton records starting in Britain prior to immigration. While there are no firm documents establishing the original Crafton immigrant in this family, the author makes a strong case Continue reading

Easley

Oak Grove

Oak Grove near Cluster Springs, Halifax County, VA. Constructed 1825 by Thomas Easley, brother of John Easley. Photo via oldhalifax.com

Every family story starts in the middle.

In the early 1830s, the extended Easley family was comfortably settled in Halifax County, Virginia, on the border of North Carolina. Their prosperity is evident in the number of preserved historic structures associated with the family that were built from the 1820s to 1850, including the Oak Circle house and Brooklyn Store along River Road and Oak Grove and Elmwood near Cluster Springs.

It would be interesting to know why John Easley (brother of Thomas Easley of Oak Grove) and his wife Susan decided to leave their extended family and head west to Tennessee in about 1832. They were not youngsters striking off to make their fortune; they were both around 50 years old and had five children, two of whom were already adults. Their son Stephen was in his early 20s when the family moved, and the eldest daughter Mary was already married to James Ragland who was from another established Halifax County family. Their destination was Smith County, Tennessee, which had been settled for about 40 years and was no longer the edge of the frontier, perhaps making the process a little less daunting. Unfortunately, the compelling reasons for such a late-in-life migration are unrecorded, but the risks were starkly illustrated when Susan died within a year of their arrival. Continue reading

Deep Virginia Roots

sunshine-fog-trees-1Tracing this family’s history in North America is like following a path from a well-lit meadow into an increasingly dense and dark forest. At the beginning, the path is wide and well-groomed, with occasional side trails paved in sturdy stone splitting off to Alsace, Hungary, and Ireland. A little ways further along there are rough but distinct pathways branching off to Germany, France, northern Ireland, and England. The main path keeps going deeper into the forest, but starts to splinter into dozens of poorly defined trails all of which eventually run into a colonial Virginia fog bank where not only does the researcher lose visibility, but the 17th century walking surface itself dissolves into nothing but air and vapor. Thus the cloud of unknown and possibly unknowable 17th-century family history in tidewater Virginia.

While flailing around in the mist occasionally a foot will locate a firm hold, providing a solid if tenuous path to follow both backward and forward. Usually this is the result of finding a well-known and well-documented individual. Such is the case with Abraham Wood, one of the progenitors of the Thompson family.

Abraham Wood was only 5 years old when he arrived in the Virginia colony in 1620 Continue reading