Monday, February 21, 2011

Jonathan Jennings

Some years back I submitted a transcription of the will of Jonathan Jennings to Mike Slate and Kathy Lauder, to be published in their Nashville Historical Newsletter. I wrote a brief bit, to explain who Jennings was and a little of the story of his family. I am going to borrow from that story on the Nashville Historical Newsletter and tell the story of finding the will.

I will never forget the day, in the winter of 2001, when I came across the last will and testament of Jonathan Jennings. Linda Center and I, employees of Metro Nashville Archives at the time, were placing loose records into boxes for transport, to a new facility in Green Hills. The archives had been located in the old Mt. Zeno school building, on Elm Hill Pike, since the mid 1980's. A need for more space resulted in moving the public operations to the former Green Hills Library. A new library had been built in that community and the old building was empty. Moving is always a challenge and moving hundreds of volumes of old record books, thousands of negatives and photographs, and hundreds of boxes of loose records was quite a job. The Archives for Nashville and Davidson County was a part of the public library. The archivist, Ken Fieth, was given a timeline, by the library administration, for moving. The archives was closed for several weeks, so that we could get the job done. Ken contracted with the sheriff's department to send crews out with dump trucks to move the bulk of the records and books. Linda, Ken and I couldn't bear to see some of the more precious records thrown into the back of a dump truck, so we moved the loose papers in our cars. We would load up at Elm Hill, head to Green Hills, unload, repeating the process, many times over a span of a few weeks. I remember particularly transporting the loose marriage records, from the oldest, issued December 13, 1788, to the 1940's marriage licenses, held by the archives at that time. Between the three of us, we moved every one, of the thousands of loose papers, marriage licenses, wills, court records, title search files, negatives, photographs and small collections that had been donated by individuals, all very fragile and each one important in telling the story of the history of Nashville.

In the middle of all this packing and moving, I found a stack of old papers on a table in the processing room at Elm Hill Pike. As I went through them, I realized they were original wills of old citizens who had died in Davidson County before 1800. The loose wills were filed alphabetically in archival boxes for dates ranging from 1784, through 1925. At some point these oldest wills had been pulled. We never figured out why, or by whom, but this led to the discovery of the oldest document owned by Metro Nashville Government. I began to make folders for the wills in order to file them back into the boxes. Near the top of the stack was a paper that was very old. I read the first sentence,

In the name of God Amen I Jonathan Jennings of North Carolina on Cumberland River having this day Received several wounds from the Indians and calling to mind the mortality of my Body do make and Ordain this to be my last will & Testament
The words made the hair on my neck rise. I knew the name, Jonathan Jennings, and remembered that he was one of the pioneers that came by boat from Watauga, with John Donelson, in 1780. The destination was the Cumberland country, in what is now Middle Tennessee. Another group, led by James Robertson, was coming overland. They planned to begin a new settlement, near the place called French Lick. There is no better place to be when you make an exciting historic discovery, than in an archives. I ran to the shelf where the local history books were kept and pulled out a thin volume, titled Three pioneer Tennessee documents: Donelson's Journal. Cumberland compact. Minutes of Cumberland Court. Inside this little book is a transcription of the Journal of John Donelson. I thumbed through until I found Jennings mentioned, on March 8, 1780,

Wednesday 8th …Indians, to our astonishment, appeared immediately over us on the opposite cliffs, and commenced firing down upon us, which occasioned a precipitate retreat to the boats. We immediately moved off, the Indians lining the bluffs along continued their fire from the heights on our boats below, without doing any other injury than wounding four slightly. Jenning’s boat is missing.

We have now passed through the Whirl. The river widens with a placid & gentle current. And all of the Company appears to be in safety except the family of Jonathan Jennings, whose boat ran on a large rock projecting out from the northern shore and partly immersed in water immediately at the Whirl, where we are compelled to leave them perhaps to be slaughtered by there merciless enemies.

Friday 10th This morning about four o'clock, we were surprised by the cries of “help poor Jennings” at some distance in the rear. He had discovered us by our fires, and came up in the most wretched condition.
And the hair on the back of my neck rose a little higher. I continued to pull books and search for mention of Jennings. Several of the books reported the perils of the Jennings family. As the flotilla was fired on by Indians who were along the shore, Jennings boat became stuck on a rock, protruding out into the swift current. All of the boats were carried away, leaving the Jennings boat behind. Jennings son, Jonathan Jennings, Jr., and a young male passenger, a male slave and a female slave, along with Jennings wife, began to throw items from the boat to lighten the load. Indians along the shore began to shoot at those on the boat. Jennings returned fire, and his son, the passenger, and the male slave, and Mrs. Jennings went into the water, in an attempt to loosen the boat from the rocks. It worked, but Mrs. Jennings was nearly lost when the boat started to move. The men in the water started swimming to shore as the boat was pulled away by the current. The slave went under, but Jennings Jr., and the passenger made it to shore, took a canoe the Indians had left there and went down the river. This account from Edward Albright's, Early History of Middle Tennessee, tells the story of what happened to the men,

The two young men who deserted the boat were met on their way down the river by five canoes full of Indians. By the latter they were taken prisoners and carried back to one of the Chickamauga towns. There young Jennings was knocked down by the savages who were about to take his life, when a friendly trader by the name of Rogers came up and ransomed him with goods and trinkets. He was afterwards restored to his relatives at the French Lick settlement. The other captive was killed and his body burned.
Jonathan Jennings daughter, Elizabeth, was aboard the boat. Her husband, Ephraim Peyton, had taken the overland route to the Cumberland Settlements, with James Robertson. Elizabeth had given birth the day before the attack. In the confusion during the attack her baby was killed. There are reports that say the baby was accidently thrown overboard with the family's belonging and was found to be missing after the boat had escaped down the river.

The Jennings boat arrived with the flotilla, at the Bluff Station, on April 24, 1780. On May 1st the Cumberland Compact was signed by the pioneers and Jennings was among the signers. Sometime between his arrival at the bluffs in late April and midsummer, Jonathan Jennings, Jr., was brought to the settlement by the trader Rogers who had saved him. He had been scalped, but was alive and recovered. Jennings Jr., later married and was the father of a number of children.
One of the last books consulted was that day, was The Annals of Tennessee, by J. G. M. Ramsey. Ramsey writes of Jennings death,

Soon afterwards, in July or August [1780], a party of Indians, believed to be Delawares, killed Jonathan Jennings, at the point of the first island above Nashville.
Jennings last will and testament was not dated. The will appears to be written by the hand of Zachariah White. The document was witnessed by James Robertson, William Fletcher and Zachariah White. In July of 1784, the will was presented to the court of Davidson County and proven on the oaths of James Robertson and William Fletcher. The signatures of Jennings, Robertson and White, can be found and compared, with their signatures on the Cumberland Compact, signed in May of 1780. It was not the first will probated in the county court. That honor falls to James Leeper, who was killed in the Battle of the Bluffs in April of 1781, eight months after the death of Jennings. The court was not established in Davidson County for several years after Jennings death. The folds in the paper, on which the will was written, are evidence of it having been carried for some time, perhaps in a leather wallet belonging to James Robertson. It has been speculated that the stains across the paper, may be blood from Jennings wound.

Time seemed to stop as I read the will and looked for information about the Jennings family. Holding the paper in my hand, written more than 220 years before, looking at the tattered edges and the stains, thinking about the tragedy of the family, for a moment transported me, to another place, to another time. I have often said that by the time I had finished reading, I felt as though I had an electric charge running through me and that my hair must have been standing on end. The will of Jennings was not unknown, and was easily accessed by anyone at the archives. Had it been the first will recorded, by the Davidson County Clerk, it might have been examined more closely, at an earlier time. The story of the Jennings family, and their troubles, has been told in numerous accounts by many historians and was already known by those who studied the history of the area. On that day, having the will of Jennings at hand, and realizing how early it had been written, brought new significance to the paper. Pulling together the accounts of the family as they journeyed to Nashville, the scalping and survival of Jennings, Jr., the loss of the grandchild during the attack on the boat, and Jennings death, all occurring within a few months, told an amazing story. What had been just another historical paper, filed with many others, at the archives, is now known to be, the oldest document owned by Metro Nashville Government. The Cumberland Compact, older by a few months, belongs to the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

            In the name of God Amen I Jonathan Jennings of
            North Carolina on Cumberland River having this day
            Received several wounds from the Indians and calling
            to mind the mortality of my Body do make and Or-
            dain this to be my last will & Testament        And first
            of all I give and recommend my soul to God that
            gave it and my body to be disposed of at the
            Discretion of my executors  And as touching my
            Worldly affairs I dispose of them in manner fol-
            lowing Viz

Item     I give and bequeath to my It is my Desire that
            my Estate be Equally divided between my Wife my
            sons William, Edmond, Elizabeth Haranor Mary
            Aggy Anne & Susannah all but such a part as shall be
            hereafter disposed of
Item     I give and bequeath to my son Jonathan who was Scalped
            by Indians and rendered incapable of getting his living
            a Negrow girl Milla & her increase who is to remain with my beloved
            wife till my son comes of age
            Also a Choice Rifle Gun & a Horse and Saddle    Item I
            give my beloved wife Four Choice Cows and Caves
            The Wards Milla and her increase and the Ward Jonathan
            being interlined      I devise that my Loveing Wife and my
            son Edmond be Executrix  & Exectutor of this my last Will & Testament
            Signed Sealed & Published in Presents
            of                                                                                 Jonathan Jenings
            Zach White
            Js. Robertson
            William Fletcher

The will of Jonathan Jennings, Metro Nashville Archives