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History of Old Sumner
Bledsoe’s Creek, Part Three

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A People Governing Themselves

The greatest thing in the world is for a man to know he is his own. – Montaigne

It was December of 1779 and Captain Isaac Bledsoe was in a devilish predicament. He was lost, cold and hungry. As guide and hunter for Daniel Smith’s survey party drawing the line dividing Virginia from North Carolina he had a lot of responsibilities to think about: horses, men, Indians, game, getting his bearings and separating two parties of quarreling surveyors battling each other over hundreds of square miles of territory. Eventually the North Carolinians quit and left the Virginians to survey the line.

Meanwhile James Robertson’s party was making its way overland from Virginia down through Kentucky to stake their claim on the high bluffs above French Lick. There they would build Fort Nashborough on a location later to become Nashville. When they arrived the river was frozen and they were able to walk across to the bluffs.

A New Beginning – David Wright  - Artist
James Robertson’s Party Crossing the Ice at the Bluffs Christmas Day 1779

The surveyors who got the job of carving up this unimaginable treasure were not unmindful of the opportunities. It was not one Isaac and Anthony Bledsoe intended to miss. Smith, who ultimately led parties to survey every boundary of Tennessee, received for his efforts 2,500 acres of prime farmland at the mouth of Drakes Creek in today’s Hendersonville. The largest residential real estate development currently underway there today is a project of one of his descendants out of that grant.

American Rifleman – David Wright, artist

Once the ice thawed, the party divided, with Daniel Smith and Anthony Bledsoe descending the river by boat and Isaac bringing the horses around to a downriver rendezvous. The river trip was 115 sinuous miles and took longer than expected. but Isaac’s party had neither river nor map to go by and lost their way. The men were hungry, cold and had their hands full keeping the horses on their feet and stopping them nuzzling under the snow for forage. Then he heard big brother Anthony’s strong voice hallooing through the woods looking for him and they were saved. They joined the others February 21st, in time for a warming fire, roast venison and toddy as a steady rain melted the last of the ice.

When they reached James Robertson’s settlement downstream at French Lick in January they found the settlement abuzz with excitement. These people, like Isaac, had come for land and they were here to take it. The problem was, it was not clear who had the power to give it.

Richard Henderson claimed he did, by virtue of a purchase he had negotiated earlier with a few Cherokee as supported by the line Smith was now surveying. But Virginia and North Carolina had not relinquished their claims, nor had England, France, and Spain. The Indian nations recognized none of these claims, and would resist tooth and claw. But Isaac had earned his land, by his service during the Revolution, as a guide and hunter for Smith’s survey, and, first and foremost, by discovery – discovery of Bledsoe’s Lick.

Alone in the wilderness, surrounded by hostile Indians, far from governments across the mountains, these people decided they had to govern themselves, and did. Henderson lost no time in drawing up The Cumberland Compact, signed by 250 settlers on May 1, 1780. This document set out the terms for political representation as well as for the acquiring of land and the registration of good title. Although North Carolina later voided Henderson’s purchase as well as titles settlers acquired under it, it served to define government and regulate transactions along the Cumberland until the creation of Davidson County, North Carolina, in 1783.

Under it, Isaac agreed to manage the construction of a fort at Bledsoe's Lick. For this service and for others he was to receive additional grants of land of his choice, which eventually aggregated over 6,000 acres of the best land in Sumner County. Anthony got more than 11,000 acres. And they were to have one of the twelve votes shared among the forts along the Cumberland. France, Britain, Spain the Continental Congress, North Carolina, and Virginia, were a long way away; the settlers along the Cumberland would govern themselves.

But not for a while. The Indians were on the warpath, furious over white men clearing, plowing and building on land they considered theirs under the pretext of a purchase agreement signed by a few of their members. So dangerous was the frontier that Isaac was forced to shelter his family at Mansker’s fort until 1783, when he brought them out to Bledsoe’s Fort.

Construction of Bledsoe’s Fort – Bill Puryear, Artist

The new government struggled to survive as the reign of terror preempted the reign of the county court and of North Carolina. Today we can barely imagine how it must have been. Isolated cabins in small stump-filled clearings dotted the creek valleys, connected by remote trails through tangled woods, with a few stockade forts into which settlers might crowd during times when Indians were sighted. A man traveled to a meeting of court at the risk of his life. Thus the court of triers first began to meet regularly on January 7, 1783. (1) Isaac Bledsoe was one of the judges of this court, as well as Captain of the militia at Manskers, where he still resided.

On April 14th of 1783 Davidson County, North Carolina, was created, replacing the Cumberland Compact. The Governor of North Carolina appointed both Isaac and Anthony to be on the first County Court and Anthony was selected as the county’s State Senator. As well as first colonel of militia. Isaac chaired the first meeting of the court on October 6, 1783 and was named first major of militia, making him and Anthony its ranking officers.

If James Robertson is the father of Middle Tennessee Anthony Bledsoe is the father of Sumner County. By the time he came to Middle Tennessee in 1780, he already had a distinguished military, commercial and political career behind him in the east. In Virginia he had been a merchant and surveyor, built Fort Bledsoe, been a Justice of the Peace and Captain of Militia for two counties, served in the Virginia House of Burgesses, served as a Captain in Lord Dunmores’ War, and served as a Major in the Virginia Militia during the Revolution. He married Mary Ramsey, daughter of the noted Indian fighter Thomas Ramsey. In North Carolina he was the clerk of the Sullivan County Court in 1780 and Lieutenant Colonel of the Sullivan county Regiment of Militia. There he acquired considerable lands along the Holston River. (3)

Patrick Henry addresses the Virginia Burgesses 1765 – Peter Frederick Rothermel, Artist


“If this be treason, let us make the most of it.”

Patrick Henry served five terms as Governor of Virginia and was supportive of westward expansion of the frontier. As a member of the Burgesses and of the Virginia Legislature, Anthony Bledsoe knew and corresponded with Gov. Patrick  Henry. Consistent with  custom and his station in life, Bledsoe, according to Harriett Arnow, wore a wig. (5)

This illustrious career gave Senator Anthony Bledsoe all the contacts he needed to help persuade the North Carolina Legislature on November 17, 1786 to honor John Hamilton’s petition to establish a second county on the Cumberland. It was to be named Sumner, the fifth county established in the state and the second in Middle Tennessee, it was, by virtue of Isaac Bledsoe’s fort being the refuge on the migration from the east, soon to be the most populous of the two counties of the Cumberland.

The first meeting of Sumner County, North Carolina’s, court was held in April of 1787 at John Hamilton’s house up Station Camp Creek. Isaac was there, but Anthony had written earlier to Daniel Smith from East Tennessee on February 21, 1787, where he had stopped to await his friend James Robertson’s return from the Assembly:

“I have only to mention to you that I had every success in the Assembly I could have expected. Herewith you will receive inclosed orders for raising 200 troops for the protection of our frontiers. And our county divided according to our agreement. I hope to be at the first Court, though this is a matter not certain …(I) should esteem it a favor if you and the gentlemen in the Commission of the Peace think that my conduct heretofore might embolden me to ask a favor. I should request that David Shelby might be appointed Clerk of the Court.”

Anthony did not get back in time for the first meeting, but his request was granted. David Shelby, his son-in-law was elected clerk. (4)

The second meeting of the new county’s court was held in July of 1787. Anthony Bledsoe was its Chairman. The first order of business was communication and security. Two roads were ordered cleared wide enough for pack horses to pass, one from Isaac Bledsoe’s fort to the Kentucky State Line, the other west from nearby Winchester’s mill downriver to Kuykendal’s. A county militia was established, with Anthony its colonel commandant and Isaac first major.

Reenactment of frontier militia muster at Martin’s Station, Virginia

Courtesy David Wright, photographer

The Bledsoes had gained the power to wrest order out of chaos and used it. The court, which now met quarterly, in January of 1788 was hearing trial matters. The next three quarterly meetings saw:

  • Ephraim Peyton fined 12 shillings ten pence for “ profane swearing and Sabbath breaking”

  • Basil Fry charged with living in an unlawful manner with Jane Mansker

  • Jane Kendrick fined 25 shillings for “having a base born child”

  • Jane Mansker found “not guilty” of adultery, at the same time she was fined 25 shillings for a “base born child”

  • Jane Kendrick making oath that “she has a bastard child and George Winchester is the father thereof” At the next session she sued him for trespass and assault and battery and won a judgement of five pounds.

  • Ephraim Peyton suing Joshua Campbell for slander, winning a judgement against him of six pence and costs. (6)

Litigation and sexual misconduct are no more a modern phenomenon than are jealousy and assault.
The Indians were having none of this, and redoubled their attacks on the settlers incursions into their territory. The stockaded forts only protected families if they knew when to avoid the trails and stay inside their log walls. For this intelligence they depended upon scouts, or as they were then called, spies, hired to watch for signs of Indians in the area.

They generally worked along the river, which they could patrol by boat on foot, looking for telltale signs of the crossing by large war parties coming form the tribes to the south of them They were to report, not to engage with the Indians.. They worked in pairs, eating their lunch back to back, sleeping in shifts. Their well-honed hunting skills taught them to identify the smallest sound or the meaning of a sudden hush in the woods. This sixth sense, re-enforced by their rifled guns, tomahawks, knives, gouging nails and teeth, were their defenses. All the same, many that went out were never heard from again.

The Indians knew the power of those accurate rifles and feared them – their guns were mostly smoothbore, inaccurate muskets supplied by the British, which they had to fire in volleys to have effect. But they also knew that once fired, the rifle took near a full minute to recharge with powder, ram with wad and ball and to refit with a flint. The best defense for riflemen was their threat of firing, and numbers. Numbers of rifles, with accurate fire, extra guns and wives as reloaders could withstand attacks from superior numbers of yelling Indians in disorganized attack, particularly from inside a stockade. Only one defended stockade – Zeigler's – fell to Indian attack, when its roof burned and forced its defenders into the open where they were massacred.

Indian Attack – Reenacted at Martin’s Station – David Wright, photographer

His superior weapon was little comfort to the settler caught alone while hunting outside the walls or ambushed on a narrow trail on his way to help a neighbor in distress. Even the listing for a short period in the one-year from mid-1787 to mid 1788, typical of the fourteen years following the beginning of settlement of Sumner County, makes melancholy reading:

  • A man named Price and his wife killed on Town Creek just south of Gallatin, and the children chopped.

  • John Beard murdered with a tomahawk and scalped near the headwaters of Big Station Camp Creek.

  • April of 1787 three sons of William Montgomery killed on Drakes Creek, three miles below Shackle Island. One was on crutches from an earlier attack.

  • Radliff, from Gallatin area, goes to Davidson County volunteering to help defend the forts under attack, receiving there the message that twelve hours after his departure his own house was broken into and his young wife and three babies slaughtered.

  • June 3rd. James Hall, young son of Maj. William Hall, killed and scalped while going from his barn to a neighboring field for some horses near his fathers residence east of Bledsoe’s Lick.

  • Aug 2nd, Major William Hall’s family ambushed by thirty Indians while moving their possessions and children the mile from their residence to Bledsoe’s Fort. Killed were Major Hall, his son Richard, and a neighbor, Hickerson, who went along as guard. His son-in-law, Charles Morgan, was wounded, recovered but was himself killed and scalped later that year, together with Jordan Gibson, between Halls and Greenfields Stations.

  • Esquire John Morgan, builder of Morgan’s Fort on Dry Fork at Bledsoe Creek, killed just outside his stockade.

  • Later in the year a Negro was killed and Samuel Campbell was wounded outside Bledsoe’s Fort. Harmless shots were fired at two of Isaac Bledsoe’s daughters who were caught at the spring below the hill.

  • Robert Jones killed two miles east of Gallatin near Wilson place.

  • Jesse Maxey knifed and scalped near Asher's, but survived.

  • Waters, fishing on Bledsoe Creek below Cragfont, killed, scalped and mutilated. (1)

Anthony Bledsoe’s letter to North Carolina Governor Caswell of August 1787 conveys the urgency of the settlers’ distress (3)

“Dear Sir:

     “When I last had the pleasure of seeing your excellency, I think you were kind enough to propose that in case the perfidious Chickamaugas should infest this country, to notify your excellency, and you would send a campaign against them without delay. The period has arrived that they, as I have good reason to believe, in combination with the Creeks, have done very great spoil by murdering numbers of our peaceful inhabitants, stealing our horses, killing our cattle and hogs, and burning our buildings through wantonness, cutting down our corn, etc.

     “I am well assured that the distress of the Chickamauga tribe is the only way this defenseless country will have quiet. The militia being very few, and the whole, as it were, frontier, its inhabitants all shut up in stations, and they, in general, so weakly manned, that in case of an invasion, one is scarcely able to aid another, and the enemy daily in our country committing ravages of one kind or another, and that of the most savage kind. Poor Major hall and his eldest son fell a sacrifice to their savage cruelty two days ago, near Bledsoe’s Lick. They have killed about twenty-four persons in this country in a few months, besides numbers of others in settlements near it. Our dependence is much that your Excellency will revenge the blood thus wantonly shed.”

Durham continues with the comment “That this letter was addressed to ‘John Sevier, Governor of the State of Franklin, to be forwarded to Governor Caswell of North Carolina’ was indicative of the unsure and unsettled conditions of the government at that time…Probably, the direction of this letter to Sevier for forwarding to the Governor of North Carolina was intended as a thinly veiled threat form the Cumberland people to join the Franklinites in their withdrawal from North Carolina unless that state should fulfill its promises of assistance against the Indians.”(7)

This meant, first, armed militia, and they arrived at long last in late 1787. But the promised battalion Major Evans commanded was far understrength - a mere 93 men and officers – and was inadequate, whether concentrated in the blockhouse they first constructed near the Lick, or spread thinly amongst a dozen stations. By the time they concentrated and arrived at the scene of action, the Indians were gone with their scalps or prisoners and were often lying in ambush up the trail.

On the second Monday in October of 1788 the quarterly court met without a Chairman. Anthony Bledsoe had been brutally murdered two days before in an ambush at Bledsoe’s fort. The only order of business was for the magistrates to sit silently to hear the reading of Anthony Bledsoe’s will, which was duly entered in the records. In an act of respect to the late Charmin, court was adjourned to meet the next day.

This event and the circumstances of the will are best recounted by Isaac’s ten-year-old daughter Mary Bledsoe Read, as recorded in the transcript of a title dispute which found its way twice into the annals of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the year 1788 (July 20th,ed.) her father, Isaac Bledsoe, was living in the fort near Bledsoe's Lick; it was very troublesome times with the Indians. Colonel Anthony Bledsoe had left the Greenfield tract, and was living in one end of my father's house. About midnight of the 20th of July, 1788, after the families had retired to bed, James Clendening announced that he had discovered some Indians near the houses. Colonel Anthony Bledsoe got up and went into the passage with Campbell, it being a clear moonlight night, when Campbell was killed dead, and Colonel Anthony Bledsoe mortally wounded by a shot from the Indians, the ball having passed directly through his body. I was in the house of Isaac Bledsoe, my father, at the time; there was difficulty in getting light; at length Hugh Rogan went to the kitchen and got fire; immediately after, Anthony Bledsoe was shot; he was drawn into the house, having fallen from the shot; when the light came, his wound was examined and discovered to be mortal; he was in extreme agony; no mortal could have suffered more; his intestines were shot and torn; and what is called his caul fat came out to a considerable length; he continued to suffer immensely till his death, which occurred about sun up next morning; there was great confusion in the room, great lamentation and grief among the family, and those present; with all, a momentary attack was expected from the Indians till day. Shortly after the light came, Anthony Bledsoe asked my mother, Caty Bledsoe, what she thought of his case. She told him he must inevitably die, and that he ought to make preparation for another world; he seemed to have a great deal of concern about that; after a little, my mother suggested to him that four of his oldest children were girls, and if he died without a will his girls would get none of his lands, and the chief of his estate consisted in lands; and suggested the idea of his making a will, in order to make some provision for his daughters; he seemed to hesitate, and said he did not know who they would marry, but said in the presence of my father and mother, and others, 'I distinctly recollect, that he said that he wanted his Kentucky and Holston land sold, and the proceeds applied to the education of his children; that he wanted a small tract of land given to his daughters, at the discretion of his executors; the balance of his lands to be equally divided among his sons; that the four oldest negroes to be kept by his wife during her life, and the balance of the property to be equally divided among all his children. James Clendening approached a table near where he lay, and commenced writing the will. I did not hear what he said when the will was writing, if he said any thing. I was present all the time, from the time the will was first suggested to him to the time of his signing his will; heard him make no other disposition of his estate, but that which is detailed above. My mother got behind Anthony Bledsoe, and held him up with her knees; he talked but little, was in extreme agony all the time; when he talked, he talked sensibly up to his death. I do not know whether the will was read over to him or not; he signed his name to it. My father, Isaac Bledsoe, was standing by him when my mother suggested to him the propriety of making the will; was present during the whole time of the writing of the will, and was over him when he died. I was about ten years of age at that time; the occurrences of that night made a deep and lasting impression on my mind; I recollect what was said and done more distinctly than transactions of late date, and this has been impressed upon my mind by conversations with others since’(8).

The Bledsoes in their lifetime participated in a modern miracle: the movement of sovereign government from London, England to Bledsoe’s Lick. In 1786 a new county was formed and Isaac’s brother Anthony was its Chairman. In less than two years he was dead, but not the heritage he wrought.

But it was under seige. And worse was to come for the Bledsoes.

Next Chapter – Bledsoe Under Seige

Bibliography and References

(1) The Great Leap Westward, A History of Sumner County Tennessee From Its Beginnings to 1805,
     Walter T. Durham, p. 50

(2) ibid
(3) ibid pp195ff
(4) ibid p56
(5) Seedtime On The Cumberland, Harriette Simpson Arnow, The Macmillan Company 1960
(6) Durham, ibid, pp 58-60
(7) Ibid, p.
(8) Polly Weatherhead 52 U.S. 329

In addition to the sources specifically cited above, I have drawn generally from the following sources in writing these articles:
Wynnewood ,1994, Walter T.Durham, Bledsoes Lick Historical Association
The Southwest Territory, 1790-1796, Walter T. Durham, Rocky Mount Historical Association, 1990
Daniel Smith, Walter T. Durham, Sumner County Library Board, 1976
Tennessee, The Dangerous Example, Watauga to 1849, Mary French Caldwell, Aurora Publishers
Seedtime On The Cumberland, Harriette Simpson Arnow, The Macmillan Company 1960
Historical Background of Bledsoe’s Lick, A Cooperative Project of the Bledsoe’s Lick Historical Association, Sumner County and Middle Tennessee State University, Project Director, Kevin E. Smith
Early History of Middle Tennessee, Edward Albright, 1908
Historic Sumner County, Tennessee, Jay Guy Cisco, 1909
Historical Sketches of Southwest Virginia Publication 5 – March 1970, The Long Hunters
Early History of the South-West by General William Hall, The South-Western Monthly, 1852
Draper Manuscripts, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin
History of Tennessee, The Goodspeed Publishing Co., 1887
Bledsoe Station:Archaeology, History, and the Interpretation of the Middle Tennessee Frontier, 1770-1820, Kevin E. Smith, Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Fall 2000, Vol 59, issue 3


Bill Puryear, Artist
1512 Cherokee Road, Gallatin, TN 37066, Email: pury@comcast.net

© Copyright 2019. All Rights Reserved. Bill Puryear.