Early History of Hawkins County, by Prentiss Price

From Rogersville Review, Sesqui-Centennial Edition, November 26, 1936.  Transcribed by Billie McNamara from a typescript at the Stamps Library in 1996.

The first resident of Rogersville, Tennessee, lived in Fincastle County, Virginia.  He died in  Washington County, Virginia, and yet he lived and died on Crockett‘s Creek.  This man was David Crockett, the Elder, as Judge Williams calls him, and the creek still bears his name.

We have always thought of Hawkins County as having been a part of North Carolina before it  became Tennessee, but that was not always the case.  Before 1779, when William Cocke refused to pay taxes to the Virginia Commissioners and hastened the extension of the North Carolina line west, all the county North and West of the Holston River was considered to be part of Virginia, and the earliest records of the present Hawkins County are found in the records of Fincastle County, Va. (which has since vanished from the map) and of Washington County, Va., which was cut off from Fincastle in 1776.

For some reason the historians have rather neglected the Carter‘s Valley settlement in favor of the Watauga, and the impression has been spread that the Watauga settlement is by far the oldest in Tennessee.  The truth is that both were settled about the same time.  The man whose name is well known as the first settler of Tennessee is William Bean, who settled on Boones Creek, near Limestone, in 1769, and whose son, Russell Bean, is said to have been the first white child born in the state.  What Ramsey actually says is that William Bean was the first settler farthest from civilization.  He mentions Andrew Greer and Dugger as settlers in 1766.  This was the nucleus of the Watauga settlement.

There was a grant given by the governor of Virginia to Judge Edmund Pendleton of 3000 acres in the present county of Sullivan as early as 1756.  There is no evidence that this grant was settled that early, but two white traders, Richard Pearis and Nathaniel Gish  (who was the father of the celebrated Sequoyah) established a post on Long Island, opposite Rotherwood, as early as 1754 and conducted a trade with the Cherokees.  In 1760 the Cherokees massacred the garrison of South Carolina soldiers stationed at Fort Loudo[u]n on the Little Tennessee and showed every intent of  joining the French against the Anglo-Americans in the French and Indian War.  The State of Virginia, for protection, established a fort — Fort Robinson — on Long Island in 1761 and garrisoned it.  In this same year, 1761, we have a record of explorations in Carter‘s Valley (though not yet known by that name) by Elijah Wallen, Richard Scaggs, William Blevins, Cox, and 15 others.  Judge Williams suggests that there were soldiers at this Fort Robinson and were [sic] making foraging expeditions from that base.  Wallen‘s Ridge preserves the name of this party.

Gradually settlers came into what is now Sullivan County, each year finding someone else a few miles ahead of last year’s outpost.

About 1769 Col. John Carter, whose name the valley bears, and William Parker established a store some 15 or 18 miles above Rogersville for trading with the settlers, and particularly with the emigrants who came down the river in boats bound for the Natchez settlements.  Many people came down the river before ever this country was settled.

In 1772, Carter‘s and Parker‘s store was robbed by the Indians, and in 1775 at the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals, when Judge Richard Henderson was buying the land that afterwards became the State of Kentucky, they sought redress from the Indians.  They, and Robert Lucas, who had been taken in as a partner, received the whole of Carter‘s Valley, the southern and western boundary being a line drawn from Chimney Top Mountain to the mouth of Cloud‘s Creek on Holston.

Col. John Carter, who had by this time moved to the Watauga settlement, set up a land office at Jonesboro and proceeded to sell his newly acquired valley to all comers.  This went very much against the grain of numerous settlers who had been living in the valley for some years, preparing to take out Virginia grants.

According to Ramsey this county “had ceased to be, perhaps never had been, the settled residence of any of the more modern aboriginal tribes.  At this time it was the common hunting ground of the Shawnees, Cherokees and other Southern Indians.”  There was not a single Indian hut in this section, but the great thoroughfare between the Northern and Southern Indians, the war path and the hunting path, lay directly through the advancing white settlements.  This path was chosen not only because game abounded and no swamps or impassable streams blocked the way.  From the Long Island of Holston, at Rotherwood, this path came down the valley very much as does the present road to Big Creek, turning east at Yellow Store and crossing the Holston at Dodson‘s Ford.

In 1776 the Cherokees, or rather the unruly minority of that nation, became alarmed and swept down the Tennessee settlements in three divisions, one against Watauga, one against Eaton Station, four miles northeast of Long Island, and the third, under Coronah, the Raven of Chota, against the Carter‘s Valley settlers, which at this time centered at New Providence and Stony Point.  They murdered, scalped and carried into captivity the inhabitants.  They burned their crops and drove off their animals.  The settlers fled in terror across the North Fork of Holston.

The triumph of the Cherokees was short lived.  Virginia and North Carolina joined hands and gathered a force of 1800 men at the Long Island in the summer of 1776.  The army was of such size that the Indians fled to the woods, and the command had to content itself with marching to the Cherokee towns of the Little Tennessee and destroying them.  The Chiefs of the Cherokees hastened to treat for peace and at Long Island they agreed to deliver up all horses and prisoners and to refrain from attacking the settlements.  Dragging Canoe, the Chief who headed the unruly portion of the tribe, alone held out and with his followers and the lawless Chickamauga Indians hid out in the mountains around Chattanooga.

The sense of security following the destruction of the Cherokee towns brought all the old settlers and many new ones bck to the valley and they ventured farther South.  It was in this summer of 1776 that David Crockett, late of the Watauga Settlement, originally of Lincoln, North Carolina, came out and settled by the little spring that flows into Crockett‘s Creek.  He was the first settler of the site of Rogersville of whom we have record.

This was at the beginning of the War of the Revolution.  The back settlements were by no means unaware of the conflict.  In May, 1776, the inhabitants of the present Hawkins and Sullivan counties addressed the Governor of Virginia in a double petition, calling themselves “The Inhabitants of Pendleton District, situated to the westward of Fincastle County.”  Their first petition was to “Contribute to the American Cause, the remote,” and for the furtherance of this desire, “they have formed a Society and Chosen a Committee of Safety.”  But also, they have something to say about Col. John Carter, before mentioned and his real estate business.  In the second petition they say “that John Carter and Robert Lucas of Washington District pretend they have purchased the lands of the petitioners and seize their improved possessions without warning.”

One of the methods of the British in fighting the war was to encourage the Indians by gifts and smooth talking to attack the settlers on the frontier.  It was easy to arouse the sulking Dragging Canoe and his followers and again the Indians were on the warpath.  The settlers formed companies of volunteers and erected stations or forts in various parts of the country.  There was a fort at the mouth of Big Creek and one in the Hickory Cove, captained by Robert Kyle.  But these forks were not manned until a raid had swept over the country by surprise and a dozen or so of the most advanced settlers were killed.  Among those who fell before the Indians were David Crockett of Crockett‘s Creek and his family and Castleton Brooks of Hickory Cove, ancestor of the Brices.

This attack of 1777 was the last concerted attack on the settlers of Hawkins County.  There were sporadic raids as late as 1796, but the center of frontier civilization advanced each year, and the site of the town of Rogersville was never again exposed to the fury of the Indians.

In retaliation an army of 1000 volunteers from the western settlement of Virginia and North Carolina under Col. Evan Shelby of King‘s Meadow, Sullivan County, and a regiment of twelve-month men under Col. John Montgomery (momentarily deflected from their journey to reinforce George Rogers Clark of Vincennes) gathered at the mouth of Big Creek on April 18th, 1779 and descended the river in canoes and priogues.  They annihilated the Chickamauga villages and drove off the cattle.

In October, 1779, North Carolina belatedly realized all this territory belonged to her and erected Sullivan County.  The annals of the next few years are concerned mainly with granting and settling of land and advancing the frontier bit bybit.  Col. Thomas Amis, a man of considerable importance in North Carolina, came to this territory in 1791 and built the house that still stands, probably the oldest surviving house in the county.  His tavern, store, post office, school, distillery and fort made his home the principal settlement of this part of Sullivan County for the next few years.  When North Carolina seemed to be neglecting her western colonies, the inhabitants of the frontier district formed the government of Franklin, half the delegates from Sullivan County were from the present Hawkins County.  In March 1785, the Franklin Assembly erected the county of Spencer, covering the same territory as the later County of Hawkins.  The Col. Thomas Henderson was named Clerk of the Spencer Court.  He was uncle of Richard Mitchell, Clerk of the Franklin Senate, and Clerk of Hawkins County Court, 1792-1812, and a brother of Judge Richard Henderson of Transylvania fame.  The Mitchells from an early day lived in Rogersville.  It is not known where the seat of Spencer County was located.

Now comes the interesting spectacle of two governments over the same district.  In November, 1786, the legislature of North Carolina laid off a new county called Hawkins from Sullivan and appointed Peter Turney Sheriff of Spencer.  North Carolina appointed Thomas Hutchens clerk of Hawkins, and he and Thomas Henderson had loud arguments over the custody of the records.  The two sheriffs had a comic opera encounter over an election for a delegate to the North Carolina Assembly, when the Spencer sheriff interfered with the balloting.

But the Franklin government was losing its adherents, and Spencer County was one of the first to drop away.  While Franklin was not completely dead until 1788, it apparently had no support in Hawkins County after the early part of 1787.

But wait, there is something here that is about to escape us.  In 1781 a seventeen-year-old boy came from Ireland, and by 1785 had made his way down to this part of the country.  He met the daughter of Thomas Amis and married her in October, 1786.  The young bride and groom lived for a while on her father’s land near Crockett‘s Creek, then the young husband, one Joseph Rogers, bought from the sons of David Crockett the land on which their father had been killed.

Joseph Rogers built a house for his wife and himself, like any other farmer’s house.  It was of logs, and though long since clapboarded, still stands, the oldest house in Rogersville.

The new County of Hawkins was hunting a central location for the courthouse.  The records of the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions met at the house of Thomas Gibbons, six miles east of Rogersville, on June 4th, 1787, records now destroyed but copied by James W. Rogan in 1859, show that the Commissioners, who had been previously appointed, “for fixing a place for building the courthouse, prison and stocks,” came into court and reported “that it be fixed at Joseph Rogers on Crockett‘s Creek.”  “Whereupon Joseph Rogers came into Court and gave up and relinquished the right and title of two acres of land for the use of the public buildings.”  Thomas Hutchings, Hutson Johnson, Francis Daugherty, Jos. Cloud, and Thos. Gibbons were appointed to attend the surveyor and to lay out a town at Joseph Rogers‘ on Friday the 15th inst.

Joseph Rogers was proud of his namesake.  On his tombstone he records that he founded the village of Rogersville in 1786.  The first courthouse was erected where the Baptist Church is now and doubtless a few buildings sprang up around it.  There was no regularly surveyed town laid out at first, despite the court order.  On December 22, 1789, Thomas King, Thomas Hutchings, Thomas Jackson and Joseph McCullough were appointed to lay off 30 acres in half acre lots, including the public buildings at Hawkins court house.  This town of Rogserville was the last town established in what is now Tennessee by North Carolina.

The town as laid out in 1789 is the nucleus of the present town.  It explains why Main Street has two bends.  The original town limits are marked by these bends, one at Brownlow Flats and the other at the postoffice.  Main Street was named Market Street, and Depot was Washington.  Swift Memorial faces on what was once Back Street, and the Baptist Church on Front Street.  The Hassons and Miss Kate Hale live on what was Blount Street, and Bob Bradley‘s laundry is on Water Street.

There are few towns as old as Rogersville in Tennessee, although there is no basis for claiming it as the second oldest, for Jonesboro, Greeneville, Blountville and some others were settled before it.  There is no town the illusion of age better, and no other with as much importance in the printing field, but that is the story of a later day.

It has been my effort briefly to trace the history of Rogersville and incidentally Hawkins County from the date of first settlement to its establishment as the seat of Hawkins County in June, 1787.  The history of later times must be left for another occasion.

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