Early History
Early History of Middle Tennessee
By Edward Albright, 1909

Chapter 11
First Settlers

     Because of glowing accounts given by the hunters on their return from the French Lick country a number of colonists in East Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia decided to move thither and form a settlement. At a council of those interested, held at Watauga, it was decided that a company of men should first go over, clear land and raise a crop of corn, that their wives and children might have bread awaiting them when the removal should take place later on.

     For this purpose a party set out from Watauga in the month of February, 1779. This band of hardy pioneers consisted of James ROBETSON, George FREELAND, William NEELY, Edward SWANSON, James HANLY, Mark ROBERTSON, Zachariah WHITE, William OVERALLl, and a negro man whose name is unknown. James ROBERTSON, the leader, had carefully selected his men, taking with him only suitable volunteers and experienced woodmen, all true and tried. After three weeks of hardships on their journey over the mountains and through the wilderness they reached the French Lick. A few days later they were joined by a small company from the region of new River, Virginia. These were led by Kasper MANSKER, with whom ROBERTSON had doubtless been in correspondence before leaving Watauga. A body of land near the Sulphur Spring and now within the corporate limits of Nashville was selected as the site of the cornfield. This both parties united in clearing, planting and cultivating during the spring and summer which followed. Around it they built a rude fence for its protection against the wild animals that came daily to drink at the spring.

     When at length the crop was laid by, SWANSON, WHITE, and OVERALL were left to keep the buffalo out of the corn while the rest of the party returned to the settlement for their families. James ROBERTSON, however, did not go with the latter, but made the journey homeward by way of Kaskaskia, Illinois. This pilgrimage was for the purpose of having an interview with General George Rogers CLARK, a distinguished citizen and soldier of Virginia, and pioneer in the settlement of Kentucky. The latter had founded the city of Louisville at the Falls of the Ohio in 1778, and was now quartered near Kaskaskia at the French fort he had recently captured.

     As previously related, the boundary line between North Carolina and Virginia, to which the territory included in Tennessee and Kentucky at this time respectively belonged, had not yet been fixed. ROBERTSON believed that the country around French Lick was within the limits of Virginia. He also doubted the legality of the title thereto of Henderson's Transylvania Company under whose patronage he and his fellow settlers had come. He had heard that General CLARK, as the agent of Virginia, had for sale along the Cumberland certain land claims, called "cabin rights", which could be bought for a small sum. By the purchase of these he might insure himself and his fellow immigrants against future annoyance.

     Just what information ROBERTSON received during his visit is unknown to history. It is believed, however, that General CLARK gave him assurance that French Lick was safely within the boundary of North Carolina, and that he would therefore need no favors from Virginia. At least that was the impression that soon thereafter prevailed among the colonists. Before leaving Kaskaskia, ROBERTSON bought a drove of live stock, consisting of horses, mules and ponies. Finding some men who were going to East Tennessee, he offered them passage on the backs of his animals. The proposition was readily accepted, and soon this caravan was on its way to Watauga, the route being to Harrodsburg, Ky., and thence through Cumberland Gap. On reaching home ROBERTSON found everything in readiness for an early removal to the new settlement.

     By the middle of October a company of about 380 immigrants, gathered from all the settlements between Knoxville and New river, were ready to begin the journey.

     It was arranged that they should go in two parties. The first of these, led by James ROBERTSON, and consisting of a majority of the men, should travel overland, and by an early arrival have everything in readiness for the coming of the second party. The latter, composed largely of the families of the first party, and commanded by Colonel John DONELSON and Capt. John BLACKMORE were to proceed by boats down the Tennessee River to the Ohio and thence up the Cumberland to French Lick.

     It was agreed that after the arrival of the land party at the new settlement some of their number should go down to the upper end of Muscle shoals on the Tennessee river in North Alabama. There they would either await the coming of the voyagers under DONELSON and BLACKMORE, or leave certain signs indicating whether or not it was considered safe for the river party to quit the boats and go from thence across the country to the French Lick. If this could be done, it would shorten the journey and also avoid the danger of running the shoals.

     Colonel John DONELSON, who is mentioned in connection with the above, was born in the year 1718, and was a native of Pittsylvania county, Virginia. He was by profession a surveyor, which vocation in that day was a mark of the highest educational attainment. From the same section of Virginia originally came the ROBERTSONS, the BLEDSOES, the CARTWRIGHTS and HENDERSONS, all of whom were untiring in their efforts to extend the limits of civilization across the western mountains. We shall learn much more of Colonel DONELSON in subsequent chapters.

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