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

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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

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

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

A Wilderness Saint

In 1819, several soldiers arrived at a house in Stewart County, western Tennessee, not far from the town of Dover. They had with them a riderless horse and some very bad news to deliver to the young children who lived there. The children’s father Thomas Randle had drowned in the Chattahoochee River in Alabama while on his way home from fighting in what today is called the “First Seminole War.” He was crossing the river in an overloaded boat which responded to the safety issue by capsizing. Although Thomas was a strong swimmer, he was wearing a heavy coat with a large cape, and a struggling comrade grabbed hold and dragged them both under water.

This was the second great loss for the children, as their mother Nancy Davidson Randle had died three years before. An old relative and a servant were looking after them while their father was away, but now their situation was untenable. Fortunately, other relatives lived in the area and came to their aid, but at the cost of splitting up the family. As one of the boys, John Randle, described to his granddaughter many years later:

Relatives of the family came and divided the property and children among them. Martha and Thomas were taken by Uncle Wilson Randle; a relative by the name of Williams took Richmond. Other relatives took George and Sally.

As they rode away from the empty home at twilight with my sisters and brothers, I was left in the deserted yard unchosen. Cousin Henry Wall, who married my cousin Martha Randle, looked back and saw me, a little lonely, motherless, fatherless boy, and called out, “Get up behind and come home with me John.”

But John and his siblings were fortunate in their remarkable sister. Continue reading

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 in 1835 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. Continue reading