Seth Colley (1837-1904): His Biography

Seth Colley (1837-1904): His Biography

submitted by William C. Colley, Jr.
Revised August, 1999


        Seth Colley married Nancy Thompson on January 71 (or 172), 1805, in Logan County, Kentucky. That is not a very specific location. Kentucky had been a state for only 13 years, and Logan County comprised most of its western territory. The marriage was not old Seth's only recorded relationship with the Thompson family: on March 18, 1811, he, Carter Thompson, and Samuel Thompson sold a Negro girl to Presley Edwards for $2003.

        The subject of the present biography was the author's great grandfather, born some 32 years after the wedding noted above. The bride and groom are believed to have been the grandparents of Great Grandfather Seth.

        Old Seth was not the only Colley in early Kentucky. The census of 1800 found a household headed by Joseph Colley in Scott County. Before 1850, only the heads of households were listed by name, so there may have been more. Seth first appears in the census of 1810, in Butler County. In the same year, Andrew, Jacob, and William "Colly" were found in Christian County. These were probably also Colleys, as there are marriage records showing William Colley of Christian County married Susan Thompson in 1803, Ruth Butler in 1808, and Sarah Killebrew in 1812.

        In 1810, Seth's household included himself, Nancy, a free white male under ten, and one slave. The author has assumed that the boy was Great Grandfather Seth's father, named William Garnett Colley in family legend. That and later census records indicate that Nancy was born in 1786 and old Seth between 1765 and 1770.

        By 1820, William Garnett had four brothers and two sisters. The family was still in Butler County, probably living on land owned by Nancy's parents. It was not until October 12, 1821, that James Thompson transferred title to 200 acres to Seth4. James' wife, Sally, relinquished her right of dowry to enable the transaction. James and Sally lived in Trigg County at the time. Seth resold half the land a month later5.

        In 1823, Seth and Nancy sold the rest of their land in Butler County and moved to Simpson County, Kentucky6, where Seth became a surveyor. It was here that the children of Seth and Nancy grew to adulthood and married; it was here that old Seth died in 1842, leaving Nancy to administer his estate7; and it was here, in 1882, that the court house burned, destroying most records of their existence.

        William Garnett Colley married Minerva McKendree, and the couple had two children. Seth was born February 10, 1837, either in Kentucky or in Sumner County, Tennessee (records disagree), and William G. was born December 18, 1839, in Sumner County. The family fell into misfortune shortly thereafter. William Garnett evidently died, and Minerva was forced to entrust the rearing of her children to relatives. By 1850, Seth was living with his grandmother, Nancy, in neighboring Robertson County, Tennessee8. The household included an older girl, Sarah, age 19, who was probably Seth's aunt or cousin. William G. was living with Hyram and Nancy Kelly in Simpson County9. Nancy Kelly was probably his aunt.

        Minerva remarried a man named Lucas (or Lucus) late in 1859 or early 1860, but by August she was again widowed, living in Sumner County, Tennessee, with her son, William G., and stepdaughter, Eliza Lucas, age 1710. In that year, grandmother Nancy was living with the Kellys in Simpson County11, and young Seth was on his own.

The Family Nimmo

        On a nearby farm in Robertson County lived the Nimmo family. W.C. Nimmo died in 1850, leaving Serena to raise her daughter, Lucy Jane, age 20, and sons James A., 15, and Granville, 10. The farm was a substantial one, worth $1500, according to the census.

        Seth and James Nimmo were friends for many years. Their friendship was such that, in 1858, James guaranteed payment of Seth's agreement  to settle a paternity claim made by Margaret Rippy12.

        On December 26, 1859, Seth married Lucy Jane Nimmo13, and the two moved in with Serena Nimmo, who had by then moved to nearby Richland Station (now Portland) in Sumner County14. Seth and Granville Nimmo worked as sawyers. Seth's first marriage was short lived; Lucy died June 16, 186015.

The War16

        More is known, or can be inferred from historical records, about Seth's activities during the five years of the Civil War than about the rest of his life. The author has attempted a summary of this period, based on limited research. A far more comprehensive account has been prepared by Jody Baltz17, and is recommended reading.

        Seth's brother W.G. Colley and James Nimmo enlisted in Company E, 20th Tennessee Infantry, at the onset of hostilities in 1861. James, who, with R. E. Johnson, had organized the company at Coat's Town (now Westmoreland), in Sumner County, was elected company commander when the battalion entered state service on June 1 at Camp Trousdale, near Gallatin, Tennessee. By July 31, the 20th was at Bristol, Virginia. In August, the 20th was transferred from the Tennessee Militia to CSA service, and Company E was redesignated Company F. At the same time, the 20th was recalled from Virginia and sent to join Gen. Felix Zollicoffer's force at Cumberland Gap. On September 14, the 20th was ordered to Cumberland Ford, Kentucky, and during September and October was stationed at Camp Buckner, recruiting and deterring Union occupation of eastern Kentucky.

        Private Seth Colley enlisted  in Nashville on September 25, 1861. The reason for his delay is unknown; perhaps he was left behind to run the sawmill. He probably joined Company F in garrison at Camp Buckner. He may have been in time for the battle of Camp Wildcat, Kentucky, on October 21, at which the 20th Infantry was present but not engaged. Their first major combat action was at the battle of Mill Springs (or Logan's Cross Roads or Fishing Creek), Kentucky, on January 1, 1862, where Lt. Johnson was killed.

        From Mill Springs the 20th Tennessee Infantry withdrew to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, then to Iuka, Mississippi. It was engaged at the battle of Shiloh, Tennessee, on April 6-7, 1862, where Capt. Nimmo was shot in the thigh.

        Having suffered heavy losses at Shiloh, the 20th was reorganized at Corinth, Mississippi, on May 8, 1862. Capt. Nimmo, being in hospital, was not reelected, and was discharged from service.

        From Corinth, the 20th Tennessee was sent to Vicksburg, Mississippi, then to Louisiana. On August 1, 1862, it was engaged in an unsuccessful attempt to drive the Union occupation force from Baton Rouge. A few days later, it occupied Port Hudson. Over half the soldiers were sick with chills and fever at the time.

        On September 24, 1862, the 20th was ordered back to Tennessee. They were transported by rail to Mobile, Montgomery, and Chattanooga. By October 28th, the regiment was encamped at Murfreesboro.

        On September 1, 1862, Company B, 9th Tennessee (Ward's) Cavalry was organized at Hartsville, Tennessee, which was nominally under Union occupation. The next day they saw action in a skirmish along Dickerson Pike, near Nashville. On December 7, the 9th Cavalry, as part of Gen. John Hunt Morgan's division, was engaged at the battle of Hartsville, Tennessee. By December 15, they were encamped at Murfreesboro.

        Sometime in November, 1862, Seth joined Company B, 9th Tennessee Cavalry. Since he failed to resign from the 20th Infantry, he was listed as a deserter by the latter organization. Brother W.G. also joined Ward's Cavalry about that time, but with official sanction; he had incurred severe rheumatism which precluded continued service in the infantry. This disability gained him a Tennessee pension many years later.

        According to legend, Seth was wounded, and, upon release from hospital, he went home rather than return to his unit. But home was not a comfortable place for a young Confederate man. Social pressure to participate in the war was great, and if, as in Seth's case, home lay in Union occupied territory, there was constant danger of arrest by Union soldiers. In any event, Seth's "transfer" was by no means unusual. Of the 122 members of Company F, 20th Tennessee Infantry listed by Ferguson, 37 deserted at some point in the war, and 21 had subsequent service in other branches, usually the cavalry. Even Capt. Nimmo joined the cavalry as a private as soon as he could discard his crutches.

        The 9th Cavalry was not present at the battle of Stones River; at that time, the regiment was with Gen. Morgan on his Christmas raid into Kentucky. On December 25, 1862, they were in a skirmish near Glasgow, Kentucky. By February 22, 1863, the regiment was in garrison at Liberty, DeKalb County, Tennessee, collecting conscripts. On March 21, the regiment was with Gen. Morgan in an attack on Milton, Tennessee, suffering significant casualties.

        Seth was captured near Lebanon, Tennessee, on April 5, 1863. He was sent to Nashville on April 7, then to Louisville, Kentucky, on April 9, presumably by rail. On April 14 he was sent to City Point, Virginia, to be exchanged. He probably was unable to rejoin the 9th Cavalry before it set out with Gen. Morgan on July 2 on his famous raid into Ohio. Few men returned from that ill-fated expedition.

        From this point, there is a two year gap in Seth's official service record. His name appears on a roster, reconstructed by Ferguson, of the members of Ellis Harper's partisan force. Harper's mission seems to have been impeding rail movement through Sumner County and harassing the Union occupation forces. Attacks on the railroad are recorded on October 10 and December 4, 1864. Legend has it that Seth served under Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest as well as under Gen. Morgan. Indeed, Seth's record shows him in Company C, 2nd and 21st Tennessee Cavalry, at the surrender of that regiment at Citronelle, Alabama, on May 4, 1865. Still a private, he was paroled at Gainsville, Alabama, on May 11.

        Seth's obituary18 made grand claims about his military service, some of them contradictory: "At the opening of the Civil War he enlisted in the Twentieth Tennessee Infantry and participated with it in the battles of Fishing Creek, Shiloh, Vicksburg and Murfreesboro. In 1863 he was transferred to the cavalry and served under both Morgan and Forrest, operating in Middle and West Tennessee and Mississippi. As a cavalryman he was engaged in the battles of Cross Roads, Paducah, Fort Donelson and Tupelo... He was twice wounded while in action, once in the left leg in the battle of Cross Roads and once in the right arm while doing scouting duty under Morgan." The 20th Infantry was at Vicksburg for a short while in 1862, during which the city was subject to naval bombardment, but long before the final Union attack of that city began. The battle of Fort Donelson was fought less than a month after Fishing Creek, while Seth was still in the infantry. The entire Confederate garrison at Fort Donelson was surrendered; had Seth been there, he would have appeared on Union prisoner rolls. Forrest's raid on Paducah, Kentucky, happened in March, 1864. The battles of Brice's Cross Roads and Tupelo were fought (and won) by Forrest's cavalry in Mississippi in June and July, 1864. Seth may well have been there.

        One more legend: It is said that Seth's wounded arm left him with a stiff wrist, which enabled him to fire a revolver with great accuracy.

On the Farm19

        Returning from the war, Seth wasted no time in becoming reconstructed. On January 4 (or 12), 1866, he married Fidelia Elizabeth Smith20, daughter of Dr. James Madison Smith and Margaret Ann Sands. Dr. Smith was a physician in Wilson County, Tennessee, which adjoins Sumner County to the south, across Cumberland River. For the next 22 years, Seth was a farmer, with a farmer's need for a large family. Daughter Virginia Lee was born in 1866, and son Clarence Kelly (C.K.) was born in February, 1868. In 1870, the household also included Seth's mother, Minerva Lucas, her step daughter, Eliza, and an eight year old black boy, William Price, who was a "domestic servant." Other children followed in regular succession: son Ernest Sam in 1872, daughters May in 1874, and Margaret in 1876. In May, 1879, daughter Ora was born in Paris, Henry County, Tennessee. The reason for Fidelia's visit to Paris is unknown to the author. Subsequent children were born back in Wilson County: James Homer on July 2, 1882, and William Hubert on August 20, 1883.

        Little was known about the farm or the family's life there, except that it was located near Cedar Creek in the Sixth Civil District in the northeast corner of Wilson County, Tennessee. Seth bought 80 acres from his father-in-law in 1870 for $75021. This was part of the land to which Dr. Smith had acquired title by declaring a homestead in 186722. The hardships of life on the farm must not have been too severe, as all the children survived childhood. This was unusual in that day. The author is the grandson of C. K. Colley, Seth's oldest son. He has memories of many grand dinners in C. K.'s home, and has other memories of chilly summer dawns on the bank of Harpeth River with his grandfather and his fishing poles. Every other man of the author's acquaintance who was raised on a farm was full of stories of adventures there; but the author has absolutely no recollection of a single tale told by C. K. Colley of his life on the farm. Evidently, C. K. did not treasure his agricultural upbringing.

... By the middle 1870s agriculture, based mostly on farms of less than 100 acres occupied by their owners, placed Wilson first in the state in production of wheat, sorghum, butter, and horses; second or third in cedar lumber for export, grass seed, hay, barley, clover, hogs, sheep, and mules.23

        Seth sold the farm in 1883. He, Fidelia, and her mother jointly conveyed 129 acres to R. R. Watkins24. This probably comprised all of Seth's land and part of the Smith homestead. The survey indicates that the land lay between Walton Ferry Road and Tarpley's Ferry Road. These roads do not appear on modern maps. Their names suggest proximity to Cumberland River. Much of the land near the river now lies beneath Old Hickory Lake.

        Today, the portion of Cedar Creek above the lake flows across solid limestone bedrock. The thin soil of the valley is used mainly for forage crops.

        In March, 1884, Seth bought half interest in a mill and five acres on Cedar Creek from R. D. Smith25 for $1250. The deed does not specify what kind of mill this was. Goodspeed, in 1886, recorded that, " the present...W. D. S. Smith [has] a steam and water-power saw and grist-mill on Cedar Creek, in the sixth District.26"  The venture evidently was not a success, as Seth resold his interest back to R. D. Smith in April, 1885, for $83527.

        Legend holds that Seth was active in the Ku Klux Klan during the reconstruction period. His admiration of Nathan Bedford Forrest, his skill at horsemanship, and his distrust of outsiders coming in to run things would have qualified him for such activity. His feelings about blacks are not documented, but the author knows that Seth's grandson was strongly prejudiced. This prejudice was probably learned from his forebears. Seth himself was too young to have been a slaveholder, although William Price, the eight year old domestic servant in his household in 1870, was undoubtedly a de facto slave. His father-in-law, Dr. Smith, had two slave houses containing 11 slaves in 1860, and his uncle, Hyram Kelly, was a slaveholder in 1850 and 1860.

In the City

        Around 1888, Seth abandoned the production of agricultural goods in favor of their distribution. To this end, he moved his family to a house at 723 South Summer Street in Nashville, Tennessee, and set himself up as a produce merchant, opening a stall in the farmers market. This move may have been motivated in part by the reluctance of his sons to assume operation of the farm.

        It is said that C.K., his oldest son, was the first to leave the farm, "coming down the river with fifty cents in his pocket and getting a job firing boilers at Vanderbilt University28." C.K. and his brother Homer were soon apprenticed to the architectural firm of Col. William Crawford Smith. From that experience spawned the firm of C. K. Colley & Co., Architects. In 1921, the firm became C. K. Colley & Son when C.K.'s son William Clarence joined it, and Homer left to join Washington Realty Company.

        While life on the farm had been favorable to the health of the family, life in the city proved disastrous. Her last son, Cary, was only eight months old when Fidelia died of the flux on June 21, 189029. Poor Cary survived only until September 6. His cause of death was listed as "summer complaint29." Seth, Virginia, Ora, and Hubert moved to 417 South College Street, where Virgie undertook to raise her sister and sometimes unruly younger brother. Tuberculosis claimed Virgie on April 16, 189829.

        C.K. Colley married Nannie Sue Molloy on January 24, 1894. Nannie was the daughter of Robert H. and Mary (Matthias) Molloy, but had been raised by her aunt, Susan Cunningham (Matthias) Adams after the death of her mother. She was also the niece of the wife of C.K.'s employer, Col. W. C. Smith. The couple lived at 1126 McGavock Street, where son William Clarence was born March 31, 1896. After Nannie died of meningitis on April 12, 189929, C.K. and Bill moved to a boarding house owned by Nannie's aunt Susan at 1305 McGavock Street. Homer was also living there in 190030 and Seth joined them shortly thereafter.

        Seth attempted to participate in the education of his grandson Bill (the author's father). In a memoir, Bill recalled an incident in which his grandfather brought home a fine rooster to attend the hens that young Bill cared for in the back yard. To his grandfather's dismay, Bill perceived the rooster to be attacking a hen, and dispatched it with a stone.

        In Nashville, Seth became an active member of the Frank Cheatham Bivouac Number 1, Association of Confederate Soldiers Camp No. 35, United Confederate Veterans. His name appears on the roster of that organization on a monument erected by them in Centennial Park in 1909.

        Seth Colley suffered a stroke and died on December 18, 190429. He was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery, Nashville, Tennessee. His comrades from the Frank Cheatham Bivouac carried him to his final resting place.


1 Broderbund Family Archives CD #2, Marriage Records Index: IL, IN, KY, OH, TN, 1720-1926.

2 Marriage Bonds, Logan County, KY., Prior to 1819, found in Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville.

3 Deed Abstracts: Logan County, KY, Deed Book C, p.116

4 Deed Book B, Butler County, KY, p. 411.

5 Deed Book B, Butler County, KY, p. 474.

6 Deed Book F, Butler County, KY, p. 172.

7 Simpson County, KY, Circuit Court Case #743, Dillon vs. Colly, 1850.

8 U.S. Census, Robertson County, TN, 1850, p. 1.

9 U.S. Census, Simpson County, KY, 1850, p. 464.

10 U.S. Census, Sumner County, TN, 1860, p. 186 (or 332).

11 U.S. Census, Simpson County, KY, 1860, p. 300.

12 Lawsuit #9134, Sumner County, Tennessee, 1858.

13 Early Middle Tennessee Marriages, Vol. 1, Grooms (Pre 1861) found in Tennessee Library and Archives, Nashville. Also Sumner County, Tennessee, Marriage License Groom Index, Sumner County Archives, Gallatin.

14 U.S. Census, Sumner County, TN, 1850.

15 Robertson County, Tennessee, Cemetery Records, found in Sumner County Archives, Gallatin. The date given is Jan. 16, 1860, but Lucy appears on the 1860 census, which indicates she was alive as of June 1, so it is assumed that the gravestone was misread.

16 Sources of war information include:

Military personal records and military pension records on microfilm at Tennessee Library and Archives, Nashville.

Ferguson, Edward L, Sumner County, Tennessee, In the Civil War, Monroe County Press, Tompkinsville, KY, 1972 limited edition.

Civil War Centennial Commission, Tennesseans in the Civil War; A Military History of Confederate and Union Units with Available Rosters of Personnel, Nashville, TN, 1964.

Ferguson, Edwin L., Richland From Birth to Death, privately printed by the author, 1976.

17 Baltz, Louis Joseph III, Seth Colley in the Civil War, Unpublished draft, February 12, 1998

18 The Nashville American, December 19, 1904, p. 5.

19 Most data obtained from U.S. Census, Wilson County, TN, 1870 and 1880.

20 Wilson County, TN, Marriages, 1866-1875, Lebanon-Wilson County Library, Lebanon, TN 37087.

21 Wilson County, TN, Deed Book H#2, pp. 150-151. Title was transferred from J. M. Smith to "Seth Cawly."

22 Wilson County, TN, Deed Book F#2, pp. 389-390.

23 Burns, Frank, Tennessee County History Series: Wilson County, Memphis State University Press, Memphis, 1983, p. x.

24 Wilson County, TN, Deed Book R#2, pp. 432-433.

25 Wilson County, TN, Deed Book S#2, pp. 409-410.

26 The Goodspeed Histories of Maury, Williamson, Rutherford, Wilson, Bedford & Marshall Counties of Tennessee, reprinted from Goodspeed's History of Tennessee, originally published 1886, published by Woodward & Stinson Printing Co., Columbia, TN, 1971.

27 Wilson County, TN, Deed Book T#2, pp. 477-478.

28 Elinor Colley Duke, interview, October, 1977.

29 Death certificates on file at Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville.

30 U.S. Census, Davidson County, Tennessee, 1900.


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Copyright 1999, by William C. Colley, Jr.
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