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The Siege of Buchanan's
Sunday, September 30, 1792, was a date so important in the history of what was to be Middle Tennessee that long ago the Tennessee Historical Commission set up a marker bearing the date and other information. The bronze plaque may be seen in Davidson County, Tennessee, near where the Elm Hill Road crosses Mill Creek, a tributary of Cumberland River, but now for much of its course running through suburban Nashville. Tennessee has many such markers, a large number commemorating, as does this one, the scene of a battle. Few, however, bear the name of a woman, and on this one not complete, only "Mrs. Buchanan."
There were many Mrs. Buchanans, but if any of the old ones or their children and grandchildren who heard the stories of pioneer days on the Cumberland could come alive to read the marker, they would know at once the woman referred to was Sarah Ridley Buchanan, more commonly known as Sally, wife of young John Buchanan. Judging from their many stories of what happened that Sunday evening, some of the old-timers reading the plaque might wish for another name—Jemmy O'Connor; he, too, helped make history. Still, one should not quarrel overmuch at the lack of Jemmy's name on the marker. He seems to have been what one, looking into the past, might call a passer-by. There were many of these; some appear only as names defending a station, saving the life of a companion in an Indian battle, buying a horse, or as the subject of a story told by those who wrote of the old days to Dr. Lyman C. Draper. Such a one was Jemmy O'Connor.
Sally Ridley Buchanan, on the other hand, was wife to one of the leading men of the neighborhood, thirty-three-year-old Major John Buchanan, and she was also very much a person in her own right. Many remembered her as a courageous, kind, and honorable woman, "much respected by all." Different from most women of the old Southwest who were as a rule smaller and frailer than is the average woman in today's United States, Sally weighed more than two hundred pounds. She was of a strength to match her size, for she could stand in a half-bushel measure, pick up, and shoulder a two and one-half bushel sack of corn, or 150 pounds.
It is doubtful if Sally had done such things on this particular Sunday, for in the words of the day she was "in the family way" or, more aptly, "big with child." Her first-born was expected any time. The last days of pregnancy are not considered among most women a pleasant time, especially for a large woman in hot weather. True, in so far as is known no recording on "Mr. Fahrenheit's thermometer" had that day been taken down at Buchanan's Station, or anywhere else in the old West for the matter of that, but as travelers often complained of the heat, even in October, of Kentucky and Tennessee, the day we can be reasonably certain was hot. We know at least the weather was clear with a bright moon that night.
Worse than the weather for human comfort were the conditions under which Sally lived, for she, like all the rest of the around seven thousand men, women, and children along the middle Cumberland, lived in a forted station. Stations varied in shape and size, but Buchanan's to which Sally more than a year ago had come as a bride was about average, the picketed walls enclosing around an acre with a blockhouse at each corner. This small space was shared with seven other families, some like the Buchanans with slaves, and all living in what must have been rather small log houses as they were side by side in one straight row down the middle of the fort yard.
The forted life known to most who settled the old Southwest was described by many, but whether such a one as Reverend Doddridge who spent his boyhood on the frontier of what is now West Virginia, or Colonel William Fleming who endured the "hard winter" of 1779–1780 in various Kentucky stations, none had any good word to say for the forted life, save it was the only means of protection from the Indians. Families had on all borders been wiped out because they could not bear the crowding; almost always those on the Cumberland who tried to go it alone in a small weak station sooner or later moved to a bigger one or were ruined. It was only a few weeks now since the Indians had with bullets and fire destroyed Zeigler's Station, north of the Cumberland. A short time before that the whole Thompson family, save Alcey, now an Indian captive, had been killed.
There is nothing to indicate that the pioneer valued security of any kind as highly as do we today, and to many a fort was somewhat like a prison. Neat, active, industrious Sally Buchanan must at times have found the forted life a messy, nerve-racking business. Dusty and hot in summer with no cooling shade save that of the house walls, safety demanded that every great black locust, oak, or even any bush or little cedar big enough to hide an Indian be cut. Perpetually crowded with all kinds and conditions of people from newborn black babies or white babies to elderly widows as was Sally's mother-in-law, the acre of ground was filled for most of the daylight hours with noise of humankind and smoke from cooking fires. There was, too, all the gear and plunder demanded by the complex life of such farming families as the Buchanans—ash hoppers, shaving horses, barrels and troughs for the catching of rain water, piles of firewood, a still or so, "necessary house," smokehouse and loom house, with all tools, farming implements such as plows, along with saddles, bridles, and everything else an Indian could steal, lodged somehow, somewhere behind the fort walls. No activity was safe outside the picketing, so that the fort yard, cabins, blockhouses, and outhouses were often jammed with wool waiting to be washed, piles of flax straw ready for the break, or green hides soaking in a hollowed-log tanning vat.
Most weekdays of September, 1792, would have found Buchanan's no different from other stations in the neighborhood, filled with the whirr of spinning wheels, rattle and bang of looms, thump and glug of churn dashers, the hustle and bustle and smoke and steam of scrubbing days, and washing days that meant boiling clothes in a great iron kettle set on its three legs over an outside fire. John Buchanan in time had a proper gristmill powered by a stream of water, but during the early years he, like the Hickmans and most other frontier farmers, had the usual horse mill, kept for safety behind the fort picketing—and a cumbersome, creaking thing the wooden mill was, taking up room with the slowly walking horses, not only trampling the earth into mud or dust, but now and then dropping manure; all in all making what Sally would call a "gome."
Some farmers with unusually fine horses kept their best stock inside the fort as did James Robertson, but there is no mention of horsestock within Buchanan's Station. Still, there was on any forted farm no escaping the animals. Suckling calves were usually penned near the fort walls, and bawling now and then for their mothers gone to the canebrakes. Penned also were the smelly, noisy fattening pigs, a fold of baaing sheep waiting to be shorn or lambs to be marked. There were chickens, ducks, and geese in and out, scratching, honking, crowing, cackling, hissing. Inside and out, sometimes sharing the family fire, were the dogs. Pioneering was impossible without dogs; the little feist was worth his weight in gunpowder when he warned of approaching Indians, while the great bear dogs, able to kill a man, and valued by many "to the worth of a horse," were along with the gentle hounds a necessity for any successful hunt.
The dust, gnats, mosquitoes, flies, and horseflies of summer yielded in winter to seas of mud and more smoke from heating fires. Smell of horse or cow manure drying in the sun was replaced by the greasy odor of hog killing with its attendant lard rendering, soap making, and sausage stuffing. Many activities such as hog killing that required large quantities of wood and water almost had to take place near the spring branch or creek where both wood and water were more handily had. The killing and curing of meat was usually done by the farmer or his help, but much of the work then performed by women—the milking of the cows along with all matters pertaining to the dairy—had also to be done outside the fort walls. In times of extreme danger milkmaids like plow hands were guarded, but guarded or no there was for any farm wife and her help a deal of running in and out the fort.
Yet, no matter how often a woman must go to check on the family wash or lend a hand in the bringing in of the bleaching linen at the outset of a summer shower, the heavy fort gate had always to be firmly shut as one went out. Back in 1787 in the same station in which Sally now lived, her husband's father, John Buchanan, Sr., had been killed and scalped as he sat with his wife by their fireside. A small band of Indians had been lying in wait, watching for the fort gate to be left open while the able-bodied men were at work in the fields.
Sally, one suspects, closed the gate without thinking each time she passed through and automatically reminded her help to do the same. Most of her life had been spent either in a picketed fort or within running distance of one. She had no memory of a world safe from Indians. Her father, Colonel Daniel Ridley, then living in a forted station of his own around two miles away, had, like many other settlers in Middle Tennessee, known many borders before settling on this one.
True, he had been born in Tidewater, Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1737, long after it was safe from Indians, but the year 1755 when he was only eighteen had found him deep in the "back parts." A survivor of the Battle of the Wilderness, he had, after the death of General Braddock, been one of the weary marchers from the Monongahela near Fort Duquesne back to the comparative safety of Fort Cumberland. All that was history now. Fort Duquesne had become Fort Pitt, and lately more and more people were calling the place Pittsburgh. The American colonel who had taken over the command on the death of General Braddock was now President Washington.
Colonel Ridley had also fought in the Revolution, though as a borderer he had known many battles and skirmishes undignified by the title of any war. Then, in the midst of the Revolution and while Sally was still a small child, he had taken a push still further west, settling in 1779 in what was then called the Holston Country, or the "back parts" of North Carolina, in time to be known as East Tennessee.
The ending of the Revolution had not brought peace and safety. Indian depredations had continued after the defeat of the Chickamauga in 1779, and in 1784 all the Holston Country had erupted into the bloody turmoil of a civil war when John Sevier and his followers attempted to form a state of their own—Franklin. Four years later, the State of Franklin collapsed; by late 1789 Sevier and all his followers had been pardoned. Thus, by 1790 the more thickly settled parts of the Holston Country were at least more peaceful and safer than they had been. Strange, but it was at this time, after having survived eleven years of forted life, Colonel Ridley took his family still further west into the most dangerous spot of all—the Cumberland settlements.
No one knows exactly why any man or woman—and usually there was a woman—risked death to settle a far place. North Carolina had used land (she had no cash) to pay her officers and soldiers for their services in the Revolution, and the land was among the best on earth—what is now known as the Tennessee Bluegrass—but in 1792, close to ten years after many had received their unlocated warrants, few ex-soldiers had settled or even risked their scalps on the long and lonesome trip from North Carolina to the Cumberland settlements to look over the land and locate a boundary, 640 acres for a private, more for officers according to rank. Wealthy families such as the Bentons and Polks, able to buy much land and send lawyers to see about it, had not yet settled. Still, a high percentage of the forted stations now on the Cumberland had been built by ex-soldiers and officers of the Revolution on lands they had been granted.
Yet, none of the men out of the Revolution, no matter how great their sufferings during the rebellion or from Indians after settlement, had known the losses in blood, money, and time, or endured the hardships of the first settlers on the Cumberland. These had come away back in the winter of 1779–1780, or at about the time Sally's father had moved to the Holston Country.
Sally's husband, Major John Buchanan, had been among these first settlers. His family history was much like her own and that of many other settlers near them. Buchanans, natives of Scotland and among them several Johns, had been active for generations on the southern borders. Close to fifty years before or in 1745, a John Buchanan had been a member of the first county court of Augusta County, Virginia, then a vast sweep of land to the Mississippi, unknown and unexplored, with even the very word Kenta-ke known to but few white men.
The Buchanans had continued on the borders, working as surveyors, and serving as justices of the peace or officers in the militia, often active on Indian campaigns, but basically farmers with a love of good land and always hunting better. Sally's husband, "a thick set man, five feet, six or eight inches tall," had been born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but his father, John, Sr., like so many Pennsylvania borderers, had migrated to North Carolina, settling in the neighborhood of Guilford Courthouse, now surrounded by the town of Greensboro. Not many miles west was the Yadkin Country from which Daniel Boone and many others went out on the long hunts that by the mid-sixties were taking them across the mountains and into Kenta-ke— now by 1792 the State of Kentucky.
The hunters had brought home with their peltry stories of the wondrously fine land there. They told, too, of another place to the south, the Middle Basin of the Cumberland, an old, old land, fertile, beautiful, rolling, farmed for centuries by a now-vanished race whose dead in stonelined graves were found all around, then claimed by many tribes of modern Indians who used it only as a hunting ground. Living there was too dangerous, but all tribes had wanted to share in the fine hunting. Claimed, too, in time by the French who had come as hunters and briefly as traders to a town of the wandering Shawnee soon wiped out by the Cherokee and the Chickasaw. Won by the English in the French and Indian War, the French were remembered only in place names—the Old French Landing at the mouth of the Lick Branch and the French Lick, a short distance up the stream, both on the southern side of the river and now in the lowlands of Nashville.
Meantime, English settlement crept a bit closer. The King's proclamation of 1763 to the contrary, settlers, following the headwaters of the Tennessee, continued to push south and west, and in 1769 William Bean, not knowing exactly where he was, crossed the Virginia—North Carolina border, and built the first cabin in what came to be Tennessee. The land that was to be Kentucky and Tennessee grew somewhat safer after the Point Pleasant Campaign of 1774 that marked the end of Dunmore's War and the defeat of the Shawnee. Harrodsburg Kentucky, was founded in that year. Also came the surveyors, locating boundaries for the land warrants Virginia had used to pay her soldiers in the French and Indian War. Some of these, including several hundred acres for George Rogers Clark, were located on the Middle Cumberland in the neighborhood of French Lick, for at this time most thought all the Cumberland was due west of Virginia instead of North Carolina. The only accurate map so far drawn, that of Thomas Hutchins, lay unpublished in London. The boundary line between North Carolina and Virginia had not yet been carried past the headwaters of the Holston.
The following year, 1775, western settlement was given a further push when at the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals of the Watauga, Richard Henderson led his land company in treating with Attakullakulla and other Cherokee chiefs for a vast boundary of land that embraced most of the western two-thirds of Kentucky and the mid-section of what is now Tennessee or the Middle Cumberland Basin. The treaty was not yet finished before Boone, Michael Stoner, and other woodsmen were off on the Cumberland Gap trail to Kentucky where they founded Boonesboro.
The outbreak of the Revolution in which all Indians took the side of the British checked westward expansion, and in the bloody year of 1777 only three tiny stations held in Kentucky, one of these, Price's, was a few miles below the mouth of the Big South Fork, and about two hundred up the Cumberland from Buchanan's. Meantime, save for a few hunters, notably big Thomas Sharpe Spencer, the country of the Middle Cumberland was practically empty of white men.
Excerpted from FLOWERING OF THE CUMBERLAND by Harriette Simpson Arnow. Copyright © 2013 by Thomas Arnow. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
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List of Maps.................... vii
Introduction by Sandra L. Ballard.................... ix
Author's Introduction and Acknowledgments................ xvii
Chapter 1: The Siege of Buchanan's.................... 1
Chapter 2: The Underpinning.................... 25
Chapter 3: The Most Important Crop.................... 47
Chapter 4: The Makeup of Society.................... 67
Chapter 5: The Sounds of Humankind.................... 99
Chapter 6: Intellectual Background and Education......... 129
Chapter 7: The Horse.................... 159
Chapter 8: Cows and Other Farm Animals................... 175
Chapter 9: The Farmer and His Crops.................... 189
Chapter 10: Industry.................... 219
Chapter 11: The Professions.................... 249
Chapter 12: The Business World.................... 269
Chapter 13: River, Road, and Town.................... 297
Chapter 14: Social Life and Diversions................... 319
Explanation of Bibliographical References................ 351