Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Nashville as viewed by Francis Bailey, 1797

An excerpt from History of Nashville Tennessee, H. W. Crew, (1890), Chaper VII, relating the account of Francis Bailey's visit to Nashville in 1797.

It may not be uninteresting to see how our frontier town and people appeared to a distinguished foreigner in 1797. In that year Nashville was visited by Francis Bailey, a cultivated young Englishman, who afterward became a celebrated astronomer and the founder and first President of the Royal Astronomical Society of England. This adventurous young man went from New Orleans to New York overland, coming from Natchez to Nashville and proceeding from here on horseback to Knoxville, and from there on to New York. Some of his party crossed the Tennessee River by swimming their horses; but others, not being used to this hazardous mode of getting across large streams, constructed a raft. Attempting to cross on this raft, our future astronomer and those of the party with him came near being drowned. Having lost control of their ill-constructed craft, they drifted down the stream and were separated from their friends, who had gone over on their horses. Bailey and the party on the raft were finally rescued by some friendly Indians, who in their canoes came to their assistance. Put on the eastern shore of the Tennessee, they were then sixty or seventy miles from Nashville. It took them seven days to make their way through the unbroken wilderness. Not a white man did they meet with, nor any sign of settlement until within twelve miles of Nashville. During this sad tramp of seven days they came near starving, from lack of food and the means of procuring any. But on the seventh day about eleven o'clock, Mr. Bailey tells us, "the path began to widen and to assume the mark of being much frequented. Soon after we observed evident tracks of cows and other animals, which plainly indicated to us that a settlement was near at hand; and to our great happiness and comfort we descried the first civilized habitation since our leaving Natchez. Nothing could exceed our joy on this occasion. We jumped, hallooed, and appeared as elated as if we had succeeded to the greatest estate imaginable. It was not long ere we approached the door of this auspicious mansion; but we met with a repulse which at first diminished somewhat the pleasure with which we were before transported.

"An old woman came to the door and told us that the settlement was but just formed, and that therefore she could afford us no shelter or provisions; but that there was another well-established plantation about a mile and a half farther on where we might meet with refreshments, etc. This latter sentence revived us again, and we once more pursued our journey to the desired spot. We soon approached it, and entering the yard, saw the horses of our late companions ranging about in a field near the house. This was an agreeable sight to us, as it was one trouble off our minds; and it was not long ere they themselves came out to meet us and congratulate us on our entry into civilized life. We were not far behind them, for they had arrived there only this morning, and had immediately ordered something to be got ready for a meal.

"This plantation belongs to a Mr. Joslin; it is situated about six or seven miles from Nashville, and is one of the last settlements on the path toward the wilderness. It has been formed about seven or eight years, and consisted of several acres of land tolerably well cultivated, some in corn, some in meadow, and others in grain, etc. His house was formed of logs, built so as to command a view of the whole plantation, and consisted of only two rooms, one of which served for all the purposes of life, and the other to hold lumber," etc.

Our Londoner, after devouring with extra relish a meal of pork and beans, continued on his way to Nashville, and as he approached the town he found houses and plantations more and more frequent. But let him tell his own tale: "We even met, within three or four miles of the town, two coaches fitted up in all the style of Philadelphia or New York, besides other carriages, which plainly indicated that a spirit of refinement and luxury had made its way into this settlement. As we approached the town the plantations on either side of the road began to assume a more civilized appearance, yet still not such as one observes in the neighborhood of large towns and cities. It was near seven o'clock when we reached Nashville. The sight of it gave us great pleasure, as after so long an absence from any compact society of this kind, we viewed the several buildings with a degree of satisfaction and additional beauty which none can conceive but those who have undergone the same circumstances. We inquired for the best tavern in the place; and having ascertained where it lay, we hastened to it; and giving our horses to the hostler, entered the house and sat down, completely happy in having performed this laborious and troublesome journey.

"We had still, however, another wilderness to go through ere we arrived at the settled parts of the United States; but as this town was a kind of resting-place for us, we did not look forward to any further difficulties and dangers, but considered our journey as at an end. In fact, the principal part of it was, for now I had not much more than a thousand miles farther to go; but this I had to go by myself, as my companion left me at this place in order to proceed to Kentucky, whereas my route lay through Knoxville, on the Holston River.

"Next day, August 1st, I went round to view the town. Found it pleasantly situated on the south-west bank of the Cumberland River and elevated above its bed about eighty to one hundred feet. The river here is about two hundred yards wide. The country all around consists of a layer of fine black mold on a bed of limestone, which in many places projects through the surface, and shows itself in dark-gray protuberances. In 1780 a small colony, under the direction of James Robertson, crossed the mountains and settled at this place, but it was not until within these few years that it could be called a place of any importance.

"The town contains about sixty or eighty families; the houses, which are chiefly of logs and frame, stand scattered over the whole site of the town, so that it appears larger than it actually is. The inhabitants, like all those in the newly settled towns, are chiefly concerned in some way of business. A store-keeper is the general denomination for such persons, and under this head you may include everyone who buys or sells. There are two or three taverns in this place, but the principal one is kept by Major Lewis. There we met with good fare, but very poor accommodations for lodgings: three or four beds of the roughest construction in one room, which was open at all hours of the night for the reception of any rude rabble that had a mind to put up at the house; and if the other beds happen to be occupied, you might be surprised in the morning to find a bedfellow by your side whom you had never seen before and perhaps might never see again. All complaint is unnecessary, for you are immediately silenced by that all-powerful argument, the custom of the country and an inability to remedy it; or, perhaps, your landlord may tell you that if you do not like it, you are at liberty to depart as soon as you please. Having long been taught to put up with inconveniences, I determined for the future to take things as I found them, and if I could not remedy them, to be content. Besides, I did not feel the ill effects of the rough accommodation so much as other persons might in traveling from a more civilized part of the world, because everything that was beyond a piece of bread and bacon and the cold, hard ground appeared to me as a luxury.

"I know no other particulars of this place, except that it is the principal town in this western division of the State, and that the country about it is pretty well settled, considering the time since its first establishment. What other particulars you may wish to know of this new State you may learn in Morse or Imlay. There are several other little towns in the neighborhood; in fact, the banks of the Cumberland River on both sides are well cultivated for a considerable distance. Major Nelson, who boarded with me at Major Lewis's, is forwarding a settlement and laying off a town at the head of Harper's Creek, about twenty-five miles off, where he sells his half-acre town lots for $10 and his out lots of ten acres for $30, on the condition that improvements are to be made and a house built within two years. The price of land about the vicinity of this place, unimproved, is from $1 to $4 and $5, according to its situation and neighborhood."

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