Uneasy Tranquility: 1850-1860

G. Tillman Stewart

From Henderson County by G. Tillman Stewart, Tennessee County History Series, Joy Bailey Dunn, Editor, Charles W. Crawford, Associate Editor, 1979, Memphis State University Press.  Thanks to G. Tillman Stewart's son George Stewart for granting permission to publish this book.

The decade before the Civil War was an uneasy one, and it became increasingly evident to the citizens of Henderson County that a clash over the question of slavery was inevitable. The overwhelming majority of people living in the county were loyal to the Union, although some were slave owners.

The first slaves were brought into the county by Joseph Reed. Other early slave owners included James Arnold, Joseph Boswell, Willis Bridges, Absolum Brooks, Abner Brown, George Burns, John Carver, William Cawthorn, Jerry Crook, Brian Douglas, Peter Edwards, William B. Flake, Joshua Foster, M. J. Galloway, John Gray, Nathan Green, Andrew Griffin, Albert Hall, William Hams, John Harmon, Thomas Hart, William Howard, Joseph Hughes, Mark Jones, Thomas Johnson, Edmond Knowles, Robert Lowry, Cornelius McHaney, John Pearson, Benjamin Smith, Thomas Stanford, Jesse Taylor, J. W. Teague, Richard Timberlake, Stephen White, John A. Wilson, and J. B. Wilson. The assessor's report of 1839 showed 880 slaves owned by 120 citizens.

Dr. Robert Lowry owned more slaves than anyone else in the county and settled on what became known as the Lowry Plantation, fives miles south of Scotts Hill. Hoad Lowry, one of the Lowry slaves, was 15 years old when the Civil War started and lived until 1932. According to him and to numerous other reports, Dr. Lowry had a reputation as a cruel master; however, Lowry was an exception locally in this regard, for there were many other owners who treated their slaves with kindness.

No records have indicated that any slave auctions occurred in Henderson County, and most slave trading was conducted among neighbors. Most transfers of slaves in the county were outright sales. Occasionally a representative of a company that dealt in buying and selling slaves came to the county to buy slaves. One agent who did this was Joseph Mason, an agent of the Memphis firm of Bradley Wilson. According to available records, Mason made only five purchases in the county.

County slave owners did not push the cause of slavery as did many of those in other sections In many instances, there was a great deal of animosity between slave owners and nonslave owners Such animosity was based more often on economic reasons than on principles. Nonslave owners usually owned and cultivated small hill farms, did their own work, and could not afford slaves. Consequently, there sometimes existed an envious feeling toward slave owners; on the other hand, some slave owners viewed the small farmers as socially inferior.

Politics and Government

The decade witnessed the last gasping breath of the Whig party. Since Henderson Countians had been strongly Whig supporters, the majority of voters were forced to find new political homes. Some reluctantly went to the Democratic party, but there was no stampede in that direction.

Two new political parties were spurred into being-the American Know-Nothing party and the Republican party. The Know-Nothing party became national in its scope during the 1850s. It sprang from the outgrowth of a secret society called the Supreme Order of the Star Spangled Banner, which appealed to voters based on its secrecy, mystery, and on prejudices against Catholics and foreigners. In 1855, Meredith P. Gentry ran for governor with that party's support, being barely defeated by Andrew Johnson who was running for reelection. The vote in Henderson County for Gentry was 1230 to 734 for Johnson; the majority of voters opposed the Democratic party to the extent they voted for a candidate backed by an organization based on prejudices.

The Republican party consisted of antislave Whigs and those disgruntled voters who would not vote the Democratic ticket. The new party took a definite stand on the issues of the day, opposing the extension of slavery and advocating the repeal of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Fugitive Slave Law.

In the presidential elections of 1852, the Democratic nominee Pierce received 511 votes, while the Whig candidate, Winfield Scott, received 1193 votes. In the election of 1856, the Know-Nothing nominee, former president Millard Fillmore, received 1313. It appears that some of the boxes in the county did not turn in any votes for Fremont, the Republican nominee.

In the election of 1860 the Democratic party split into two sections, slaveholding states versus free states. The southern or slave states nominated John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky, and the northern or antislave section nominated Stephen A. Douglas; Abraham Lincoln was the Republican nominee. There were thousands of voters that were not satisfied with any nominee, so what was known as the Constitutional Union Party was formed. The party was so named for its position on maintaining the Union and upholding the Constitution. John Bell of Tennessee was that party's nominee.

Bell was an able man, having served as state senator, U.S. congressman, U.S. senator, and as secretary of war in the cabinet of President William Henry Harrison. Bell was a Whig who had been formerly a Jackson Democrat. He was close both personally and politically to such great men as Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. Additionally, he was a close friend of C. H. Williams whose home he visited at Lexington in April of 1847. Williams was very instrumental in Bell's election to the U.S. Senate. The county votes in that 1860 election were Bell, 1246; Breckenridge, 611; Douglas, 74; and none for Lincoln. Bell carried Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia with 22 electoral votes, but Lincoln was elected, even though he did not receive a majority of the popular vote.


Local agricultural practices were upgraded by the use of better methods and equipment. This progress was due, in part, to an act passed in 1855 by the Legislature which created fairs for displaying agricultural and home products. Under this act, fair associations were established for each of the Three Grand Divisions and for each county. R. S. Bradford and William B. Hall, both considered successful local farmers, were West Tennessee Fair Association officers.

The West Tennessee Fair was first held at Jackson and has continued there to this day. It was at this fair in 1856 that two-horse and one-horse wrought iron and cast iron plows were first displayed. One of the earliest owners of such a two-horse plow was William Morgan. The first Henderson County Fair Association was organized in 1856, with John Brook as acting president. Later, Obidiah Hendrix was made permanent president.

By 1858, the average price for an acre of land was $4.60, and the average cost of a slave was $865. In 1859, the 1658 slaves in the county were valued at $3,823,055; property was valued at $505,953, and gross taxable property equaled $10,826,059.

The county's largest industry remained that of cotton gins, with gross sales of cotton from 30 gins totaling $1,200,000 in 1856. Between 1855 and 1860, a woolen mill was established on Piney Creek near the Petty cotton gin; the mill operated until the Civil War closed it. It made the farmers' wool into thread and for one-fourth of that wool, cloth could be woven.


The religious fever that swept the country during the first half of the nineteenth century appeared to have slowed before the Civil War. During this time, the following churches were active: Antioch, Barren Springs, Hurricane, Middlefork, Mifflin, and Mt. Aarat Primitive Baptist; Bible Grove, Chapel Hill, Hepzibah, Jack's Creek, Jerusalem, Judson, Lexington, Ridge Grove, Shiloh Union, and Union Hill Missionary Baptist; Cedar Grove and Little Rock (Center Hill) United Baptist; Crowell Chapel, Ebeneezer, Lexington, Mt. Moriah, New Hope, Old Prospect, Olive Branch, Rock Springs, Scotts Hill, and Shady Grove Methodist; and Beech Grove, Big Springs, Palestine, Mt. Gilead, and Utah (later Luray) Cumberland Presbyterian.

The first minister of Bethel Methodist Church was the potter, Tinsley Craven. After his death in 1860, his son, Randolph, succeeded him as pastor and later became a well-known circuit rider. Other ministers active at this time included A. D. Bryant, pastor of the Lexington Methodist Congregation; John Barrett, a Cumberland Presbyterian; a Reverend Norman, a Presbyterian from Whiteville; a Reverend Crowell, Methodist; a Reverend Collins, pastor of Union Church, and a Reverend Perlsielen at Hepzibah.


In 1850, the state began to send money to counties for public education, and in 1858, Henderson County received $3188.25 to be used for its schools, at which time there were 60 county teachers whose average salary was $20 a month. In most communities, state support covered two and one-half months of school and subscriptions supplemented terms to three months and, in some instances, five or six months.

Because of the low salary and short school term, teaching was a second occupation for most teachers. In the Federal Census of 1850, the only- men who listed teaching as their profession were Richard Barnham, Robert Chumney, Francis Ray, and George Stewart. No women were listed as working in a public capacity.

The scholastic population of Henderson County, children ages six to 21, in 1859 was 4232, varying between 3200 and 4340 during 1850 and 1860. On February 8, 1850, the State Department of Education was directed to divide $18,000 from the state treasury equally among academies regardless of county population. In 1858, the Lexington Academy received $2685 from the state.

The female academy at Lexington continued to prosper and was still known as Miss Colburn's School despite her marriage. Howell's Female Academy also opened during the 1850s. It was operated by a Methodist minister named Cole, who had operated a similar school in Owensboro, Kentucky. Some other schools opened in the county were Antioch, Beech River, Bible Grove, Brown, Cedar Grove, Chapel Hill, Crowell, Ebeneezer, Farmville, Graves Chapel, Independence, Judson, Little Rock (Center Hill), Middle Fork, Moores Hill, Mosses, Mt. Gilead, Oak Grove Crossroads, Palestine, Pinch (later Juno), Pleasant Exchange, Pleasant Hill, Priddy, Prospect (east part of county), Red Mount, Rest, Rhodes (Laster), Rock Hill (Poplar Springs), Scotts Hill, Scuffle Ridge, Sheppard, Shiloh, Union, Union Hill, and White (also Tulip).

Henderson County Poor Farm

In 1851, the Henderson County Court elected A. S. Johnson, Stephen Massengill, and J. S. Priddy commissioners to see that destitute county residents would be provided with food, clothing, and lodging.  The commissioners purchased from Absalom McGee 274 3/4 acres located three and one-half miles south of Lexington for the sum of $900. This tract of land was part of an original land grant deed owned by Solomon West. Two log houses with two rooms each were constructed to provide houses for paupers.


The superintendent's house
at the Henderson County Poor Farm;
right wing built in 1870s.

The keeper, or steward, of the Henderson County Poor Farm was permitted free use of the land, housing and the sum of $5 for each pauper per month for support and maintenance. People were admitted to the farm by an order signed by at least one of the commissioners. Accommodations were average, with plenty of food, clothing, and comfortable beds on which to sleep. There is no record of those who served as stewards prior to 1861; however, Thomas A. Smith reportedly received $69.83 as his support payment as steward for the first quarter of that year. Later, the title of steward was changed to superintendent.

An insane asylum had been built near Nashville in 1849, but this distant location was too far to benefit county residents. Consequently, the poor farm facilities as well as other selected facilities for individuals were used to accommodate those in need of care.