History of Davidson County, Tennessee
with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Its Prominent Men and Pioneers
by Prof. W. W. Clayton
J. W. Lewis & Co., Philadelphia
PERILS AND HARDSHIPS OF THE PIONEERS.
PERILS AND HARDSHIPS OF THE PIONEERS.
Trouble with the Indians-Deaths during the First Year-Scarcity of Food-Valor and Hardihood of the Settlers
-The "Clover Bottom Defeat."
-The "Clover Bottom Defeat."
THE stationers arrived upon the Cumberland just upon the eve of an outbreak of Indian hostilities. "The savages," says Haywood, "seized the first opportunity after the hard winter was over to approach the improvements around the Bluff, and carry among the early settlers the work of massacre and devastation." During the first year no less than thirty-seven at the different stations were killed, being picked off here and there by roving, predatory bands of Indians, who scarcely showed themselves openly anywhere. The thick cane-brake and wild undergrowth afforded them every advantage for concealment. The only one of the settlers who died a natural death the first year was Robert Gilkie. We give the names of the killed as we gather them from Ramsey's and Haywood's histories, as follows: two men by the name of Milliken, Joseph Hay, old Mr. Bernard, Jonathan Jennings, Ned Carver, James Mayfield, Porter, near Eaton's Station, Jacob Stump, Jesse Balestine, John Shockley, two men not named, at Bledsoe's; William Johnston, on Barren River; one at Asher's Station; Isaac Le Fevre, near the fort on the Bluff; Solomon Phillips and Samuel Murray, at Cross' Old Fields; Bartlett and Joseph Renfoe, old Mr. Johns and his wife and family, John Robertson, son of Capt. James Robertson, Abel Grower, Jr., and others. The stations were nearly all broken up except Eaton's and the one at the Bluff. All I who could get to these stations did so, but many never saw their comrades in these places. Some were killed while asleep; some were awakened only to he apprised that their last moment had come; some were killed at noonday when not suspecting danger. Death seemed ready to devour the whole colony. On the morning that Mansker's Station was broken up two men who had slept a little later than their companions were shot by Indians pointing their guns through the port-holes of the fort. They were David Goin and Patrick Quigley. These Indian alarms caused Mr. Rains to remove to the Bluff, where he remained four years before he dared to settle upon his plantation.
Although the crop of corn this year on the lowlands and islands was seriously damaged by a freshet in July, and there was a great scarcity of bread, yet the hunters procured a full supply of meat for the inhabitants by killing bears, buffaloes, and deer. A company of twenty men went up the Cany Fork as far as Flynn's Creek, and returned with their canoes laden with meat in the winter. They are reported to have killed one hundred and fifty bears, seventy-five buffaloes, and more than ninety deer upon this excursion. This source of supply furnished the families at the Bluff with meat; but the scarcity of bread and the multiplied disasters and dangers which threatened the settlements induced a considerable portion of the settlers to remove to Kentucky and Illinois. All the remaining inhabitants collected at the three stations,-the Bluff, Eaton's, and Freeland's.
These desultory attacks of the Indians, kept up at intervals through a period of nearly fifteen years, swelled the number of victims to a fearful list, among whom were included some of the bravest and best of the settlers. This told at times with desolating and disheartening effect upon the hopes and spirits of die survivors, but was not carried to the extent of paralyzing their energies, or of inducing them to yield with resignation to the merciless stroke of the tomahawk. " The instances of cowardice were remarkably few. There was a chivalrous stickling for the backwoods ethics which required every man to turn out gun in hand at the first cry of alarm and fly to the aid of the distressed, an I the unfortunate. The records of the ages furnish no brighter examples of self sacrificing friendship than are found in the history and traditions of these people. Even in the most perilous conjunctures there were never wanting bold spirits, ready to break through the chain of hostile environment for the purpose of carrying the tidings of alarm to other places and bringing back succor, or of penetrating the forest in search of game for the sustenance of the hungry."
The records of most of the engagements of the settlers with the Indians are very brief and fragmentary, -a necessary consequence with later historians of the dearth of written records and the passing away of the actors who could have given full and intelligent accounts of the events in which they participated. Those were not the days of newspapers and ready reporters anxious to glean every fact, and thus rob the future antiquarian of his pleasurable vocation.
The most striking fact in connection with the history of this period is shown in the readiness and alacrity with which the settlers engaged in battle with their enemies even at fearful odds. While they were steady and undaunted in their defense, nothing could exceed the spirit and precipitation of their attacks. It is further noticeable that no case occurred where a house or station was surrendered by parley, and but one or two instances, at most, where persons submitted to capture. It was always a death-struggle. It might be said of the entire body of Cumberland settlers that as a people they were superlatively brave, enterprising, and spirited, and in hardihood and endurance were never surpassed. The full force of this remark will be felt when the fact is stated and properly appreciated that in the year 1783 there were not two hundred men capable of bearing arms in the Cumberland settlements, while at any time there could have been brought into the field against them, from a distance of not over two hundred miles at the farthest, the full strength of the Cherokee and Creek nations, numbering not less than ten thousand warriors in a state of deep hostility, and at liberty to select the time and mode of attack. It is confidently believed that few people have encountered greater difficulties in founding a new community. Their record of heroic endurance has few parallels; their tasks were herculean. To the vicissitudes of heat and cold, the river's flood, and the manifold perils of wilderness life they bared their bodies with uncomplaining and unexampled fortitude, -of very different stamp from that of the gladiator, who steps into the arena and conquers or dies amid the plaudits of assembled thousands. They had no spectators to the thrilling drama they were enacting.
"THE CLOVER-BOTTOM DEFEAT."
The following account of an adventure with the Indians while gathering Col. Donelson's corn at Clover-Bottom in the fall of 1780 is taken from Putnam's "History of Middle Tennessee":
"The company from the Bluffs was under the command of Abel Gower. He had with him his son, Abel Gower, Jr. John Randolph Robertson, a relative of Col. Robertson, and several others, white and black, seven or eight in all. The party from Mansker's Station was under the direction of Capt. John Donelson, second son of Col. John Donelson. He was a young man of about six and twenty years of age. Robert Cartwright, an aged gentleman, was also in the company. . . .
. "The parties having ascended Stone's River and fastened their boats to the bank (between the present turnpike-bridge and the small island a few yards below), commenced gathering the corn, packing it in baskets and sacks and transferring it by means of a 'slide' to the boats. Capt. Donelson had brought a horse for the purpose of dragging the rudely-constructed 'slide,' as also to use in towing boats up the stream. They were encamped for several days and nights upon the ground. During each night their dogs kept up an almost incessant barking. They had with them more dogs than men. Some of the party had suggested that the dogs scented or discovered Indians in the surrounding woods and cane. But the prevailing opinion was that as there was much fresh meat at the camp and offal left in the woods where buffalo had been killed, the wolves were attracted thereby, and the dogs were barking at these wild beasts. During the last night of their continuance at the place the dogs rushed furiously in every direction around the camp, as if actually mad, making the woods ring and echo with their barking.
"In the morning they made no examination for Indian signs, but hastened the completion of their loads and preparations for departure. Very early Capt. Donelson pushed his boat across the river and began to gather the bolls of cotton and deposit them in heaps upon the corn in his boat. It was thought this would cause but a short delay. But when Capt. Gower's party had finished their breakfast they became impatient to start. Donelson had expected Gower's boat also to cross the river, and his people to share in the crop of cotton.
"Great was the surprise of Capt. Donelson and Mr. Cartwright to discover Gower's boat passing down the stream instead of coming across. Capt. Donelson stepped to the bank of the river, hailed them, and asked if they were coming over or going to leave them behind. Gower replied, 'We are not coming over; it is getting late in the day. We wish to reach the Bluffs before night. I think there is no danger.' Capt. Donelson remonstrated, but added. 'If you can risk it, so can we; we will first gather the cotton.' By this time, and while they were yet conversing, Capt. Gower's boat had drifted into the head of the narrow island shute, when the Indians, who were in ambush on the south side (supposed to be several hundred in number), opened a desperate fire upon the men in Gower's boat. Capt. Donelson saw the attack plainly. He immediately ran down to his own boat and secured the rifle and shot-bag. Upon rising the bank he saw the Indians in pursuit of several men who had jumped from the boat at the first fire. The water did not exceed three or four feet in depth.
"He also discovered a large party of Indians making their way up the river-bank to a point opposite his boat. There, however, the river was too deep to be forded. Upon that party Capt. Donelson fired, and then endeavored to join his own party. They had all fled into the cane upon hearing the guns fired and the yells of the savages. It was with considerable difficulty he was enabled to rejoin his friends. The horse was given to Mr. Cartwright, who otherwise could not have escaped, being aged and infirm. Some of the party of Capt. Gower were killed at the first fire, others were overtaken in the water and tomahawked. . . . One white man and a negro escaped into the woods. Another negro, a free man, known as Jack Civil, was slightly wounded and surrendered. He was taken to the Chickamauga towns, remained, and moved with that roving, murderous, thieving set farther down the Tennessee River, and gave name to the town of Nick-a-Jack, or Nicka-Jack's town.
"The white man and negro who jumped from the boat and escaped into the woods wandered for twenty hours. At length they reached the station towards morning, pushed aside some of the pickets and entered the inclosure at the bluffs undiscovered by any one in the fort, although the dogs gave the faithful alarm. Gower's boat floated down the river, the corn and some of the dead being on board, undisturbed, except by some of the dogs which continued therein. The opinion prevailed for some days that the Donelson party had fallen victims to the guns and tomahawks of the savages. It was hazardous to pass between stations so distant as Mansker's and the Bluff. James Randolph Robertson was among the slain.
"There was no alternative for the Donelson party; they must abandon the boat and all it contained and flee into the woods. They could render no assistance to their friends, now overwhelmed; they could not pass out with their own boat; and they might well suppose that the savages, flushed with an easy victory over half the harvesters, would speedily be in pursuit of themselves. After Capt. Donelson had overtaken the fleeing party, they hastily agreed upon the direction to be taken, so that they might assemble the next day upon the banks of the Cumberland some miles above the mouth of Stone's River, where they would attempt to cross and escape to Mansker's Station. It was deemed advisable to separate, not all to go together, lest thereby they should make such a trail through the cane and bushes as the Indians could easily follow.
"Having continued their course until sunset, Capt. Donelson discovered a large hickory-tree which had fallen to the ground, and as it had a thick top and a large supply of leaves, he called in the wanderers, and they huddled together there for the night. They did not attempt to kindle any fire, though they greatly needed it. The night was passed in quiet, but with very little sleep. Capt. Donelson informed the party of the slaughter he had witnessed of the Gower party. He believed they were all killed, and that the Indian force was sufficient to besiege and capture any of the stations.
"The situation of this little squad was also very critical. The savages might be in search of them, and they had the river between them and their friends at Mansker's Station, and there was no boat to be had. How should they get over? or what should they do? Having convened upon the bank of the river, they endeavored to construct a raft upon which to be floated across. They had left the axe in the boat, and no light and suitable material could be found to answer the purpose. Yet they gathered sticks and fastened them together with withes and vines, and made several attempts to go over, but the current inevitably drove their rude float back to the side of the river whence they had set out. They had to abandon all efforts thus to get over, and permit their raft to be carried away by the current. What now shall be done? At this juncture Col. Donelson's faithful servant, Somerset, volunteered to swim the river with the aid of the horse, and ride to the station and give information of the situation of the party. He succeeded in crossing, ascended the opposite bank, and hastened in the direction through cane and woods. Safely arriving at the station, he gave the first information of the disastrous defeat. It was indeed sad news, disheartening to every one.
"Immediately a few active men returned with Somerset, taking axes wherewith to cut and prepare a float for the relief of their friends, who were suffering with cold and hunger. It was chill November weather, and the rain had fallen during a part of the night and morning. They were all passed over and safely arrived at the station."
 No better subject could be offered for a poem than the voluntary heroism of this old servant, Somerset. He merited a monument.
Content on this page was transcribed and published by Debie Cox.
Copyright © May 5, 2007, Debie Cox.
Copyright © May 5, 2007, Debie Cox.