GATEWAY TO THE WEST
By J. M. Moseley
The history of Lee County is inseparable from the early Wilderness Road. Its influence affected not only Kentucky, but also middle Tennessee and other parts of the west. The first who may be called a permanent settler on the Cumberland in middle Tennessee was James Robertson, in 1779. He and his companions passed through Powells Valley and Cumberland Gap, and followed buffalo trails to the great bend of the Cumberland.
Kasper Mansker and others had gone there no hunting trips before, over a period of ten years. A man named Spencer had lived there in a great hollow sycamore tree. Mansker joined Robertson there a few days after his arrival, and they built cabins, and planted corn, which was the usual beginning of every settlement. These, like the Kentucky settlers all followed Boone’s Wilderness Road through what is now Lee Co. The next year, John Donelson took a new route by water down the Tennessee and thence up the Ohio and the Cumberland Rivers, a very long and dangerous route. Others had gone over the river route in canoes. But this route was impractical.
John Lipscomb, an old soldier, was a happy-go-lucky, waggish fellow. He amde the trip through Lee Co. in the spring of 1784. With him were four others, also soldiers. Captain William Watson, John Gatling, James Cryer and Henry Salisbury. They were on the North Fork of Holston on the 12th after starting from near Kingsport on the 11th of June. They crossed Clinch Mountain and on to Blackwater. They crossed Powells Mountain over a bad route. They reported a creek where there were buckeye trees four feet through. Cane grew on the mountain side very thick. This was doubtless Wallens Creek. They crossed Powells River on June 19th. They traveled in woods and canebrakes until near Martins Station west of Jonesville. There they camped at a large spring. Colonel James Robertson had joined the party before they crossed Clinch Mountain. They crossed Cumberland Mountain at Middlesboro the 20th of June. The next day they crossed Cumberland River. They arrived in the neighborhood of Nashville twenty days after starting, having made quite an interesting trip over part of the Wilderness Road, and through new territory in Lee Co. part of the way.
By the end of the year 1785, the Ohio River had become quite a highway for reaching the west by boat. After this route was made comparatively safe, there were perhaps twice as many passing by the Ohio as by the Wilderness Road. In the year 1788 there were nearly 20,000 passed down the Ohio, and perhaps half as many through Powells Valley. But there was also a steady but smaller stream returning along the same routes, back east, because of failures or discontent. Not all who went remained as permanent settlers.
There were land speculators, home seekers, criminals fleeing from justice, and honest people seeking a way to make a living - all pursuing freedom. Frontier life was pleasant, but at best a hard life.
It is a difficult task to learn about those remote times. Tradition at best is risky. Early historians who were scholarly scorned to give credit due the Indian fighters who were uncultured backwoodsmen. Writers for the masses put too much stake by their favorite hero Indian fighter. These were the two extremes followed by early historians.
As the history of Kentucky was vitally connected with the Wilderness Road through Lee Co., so was the history of the Cumberland Settlements in Tennessee. After Richard Henderson was forced by the Virginia Assembly to relinquish his claims on Kentucky, he turned his attention to the Cumberland settlements near Nashville, operating from North Carolina. His movements in that direction in 1779 was still through Powells Valley in Lee Co., across Cumberland Gap and the Cumberland River, and thence southwestward to the great band of the Cumberland where Nashville now stands. Many of the settlers bound for Kentucky and middle Tennessee thus continued for some time to flow through Lee Co.
This connecting link of road through Lee Co. was prominent until as late as 1800, when the Indian powers were finally broken and the Ohio was made safe for travel by boat. Then migration over this part of the Wilderness Road dropped off rapidly. Quoting Professor A. B. Hulbert, we present an excellent tribute to the Road:
The footsteps of tens of thousands who have passed over it, exhausted though each pilgrim may have been, have left a trace that a thousand years cannot eradicate. And so long as the print of these many feet can be seen in dark Powells Valley, on Cumberland Gap, and beside Yellow and Rockcastle Creeks, so long will there be a memorial left to perpetuate the heroism of the first Kentuckians - and the memory of what the middle west owes to Virginia and her neighbors. For when all is said, this track from tidewater through Cumberland Gap must remain a monument to the courage and patriotism of the people of old Virginia and North Carolina.
People passed through Lee Co., and the mountain Gateway, to settle not only Powells Valley, Tennessee and Kentucky, but also the northwest territory including parts of Ohio, Indians, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Missouri and even on to the Pacific coast.
Isaac Shelby from Sapling Grove was Kentucky’s first Governor, June 4, 1792. He had often traveled the old Gateway route from his father’s home at Sapling Grove (Bristol) to his estate at Travelers’ Rest south of Danville, KY. One of his first acts as Governor was to try to improve the Wilderness Road between Crab Orchard and Cumberland Gap, by small subscriptions. Men worked 22 days on the Road.
Again in 1796 Shelby had greater improvements made on the Road, at a cost of $10,000, to accommodate wagons. Such a move was against the interest of the packhorse business which was thriving at that time.
The general Federal Postal System had been established in 1789. The first mail route through Cumberland Gap was established August 20, 1792, from Bean Station in Tennessee to Danville, KY. Thomas Ross was the first mail carrier. He was killed by Indians, near Little Laurel, KY, March 21, 1793.
The Harp Outlaws
On the Wilderness Road, a good tavern along the way was rare. Up in Rockcastle Co., KY, John Farris, Sr., ran a small place where travelers often stopped for overnight accommodations. Farris was from Virginia. On the evening of December 12, 1797, just five years after Lee Co. was organized and Kentucky had been made a state, Farris had a guest he was pleased to see. Thomas Langford from Virginia spent the night with him, not only as a lodger, but as a close friend and old boyhood acquaintance.
At breakfast next morning five new arrivals rode up, two men and three women, all swarthy, slouched and unkempt. But Farris never turned anyone away who sought accommodations at his place, rich or poor. The new corners were invited to breakfast, but replied that they did not have any money. The young man Langford offered kindly to pay for their breakfast to help them in evident need.
The strangers ate with starved appetites. Tom Langford paid the bill for them from gold coins he carried in his purse. The strangers eyed him closely. Then all went on their way along the Wilderness Road together. Langford had confided to the Farrises that the contents of his saddle bags were worth 500 pounds sterling.
A few days later, some drovers with cattle found a man’s body hidden by a log in the woods near the Wilderness Road and covered with brush and leaves. They buried the mangled body, and then reported it. The body was taken up and identified as young Tom Langford. He had been robbed and his clothes, saddle bags and horse had all been taken.
The five suspects who had left Farris’s Tavern with Langford were trailed down and captured and put in Stanford jail. The men gave their names as Roberts brothers. But they were soon identified as the famous Harp outlaws from North Carolina. One was large and the other small, and they were known as Big Harp and Little Harp. They were accompanied by three women, Susanna, Sally and Betsy, whom they had picked up at Beaver Dam in Tennessee.
A number of murders, thefts and robberies were traced to the Harps along the Wilderness Road. They had been in Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky. They were removed to the Danville Jail and every precaution was taken to prevent their escape. But the men took it all easy in the log jail, though they were chained by the feet, and the door was strongly padlocked.
On February 7, a midwife had to be called, and Betsy Walker gave birth to a baby boy. One month later, Susanna Harp gave birth to a baby girl. Ont he 16th of March the men got loose, overpowered their guards, cut a hole through the log wall and escaped in the night. Three weeks later the worried jailor once more had to call the midwife. Sally Harp gave birth to a baby girl. At length the women were released, and charity fitted them out with clothes and a horse to make their way to East Tennessee where they said they lived.
The Harps continued to terrorize the country. They made their way to Cave-in-Rock on the Ohio River. The women did not go home, but sold the horse that had been given them and rejoined the men in their hide-out on the Ohio.
But the babies were in the way. One day Big Harp killed Little Harp’s woman’s baby by slinging it against a tree. Soon he paid the penalty. He was shot and killed by officers. Little Harp escaped to Missouri and carried on in crime until he was finally captured and hanged.
Lee in the Line of Counties
To trace our position in the line of Virginia counties, we may begin with Augusta Co., VA, the first territory reached by Governor Spottswood in 1715, west of the Blue Ridge. Augusta was carved from Orange Co. and organized as a separate county in 1738. It then included the land that extended to the western limit of the State, which was then unknown and undefined. This is to say that at that time Lee Co., as yet unknown and unnamed, was a part of Augusta Co.
Thirty years later, Botetourt Co. was formed from Augusta, including the land later to be Lee Co. Fincastle was made the county seat of Botetourt. Lee Co. territory then passed into Botetourt. This was in the year 1769. At that time, Daniel Boone and several others were beginning to pass over the Kentucky Road through Scott and Lee Co. territory, of course as yet unformed as separate counties. That same year the first settlement in Scott was made on Big Moccasin by Thomas McCulloch. Joseph Martin started his settlement in Lee Co. at Martin’s Station near Rose Hill on the Wilderness Road. Uriah Stone, Casper Mansker, Abraham and Isaac Bledsoe, passed on the Wilderness Road through Lee Co. the same year.
Later there was a rough wagon road worked out through the eastern half of Lee Co. which led through the mountains to Fincastle the county seat. It was called the Fincastle Road, though it is now only a memory. A few points along the old Fincastle Road can yet be located. It extended eastward from Jonesville by Schafers Ford, through Woodway and on by Green Hill south of Dryden. East of Green Hill it ran along the north side of Wallens Ridge by the John P. Orr house, above the present highway. It passed along the lower part of the Lovelady Road which ascends Wallens Ridge and crosses to the Wild Cat Valley north of Duffield. The Fincastle Road did not cross that Ridge, but extended on eastward by the Washington Young house, and passed near the Yokum Fort, and on up Powells Valley by Big Stone Gap.
Fincastle Co. continued but a short time, from April 8, 1772 until December 7, 1776. It was divided up into three large counties, and itself became extinct. These counties were Kentucky, Montgomery and Washington. Here Lee Co. Territory passed into Washington Co. Ten years later, Russell Co. was carved from Washington Co. and included still considerable territory from which other counties and parts of counties were later formed.
On October 12, 1792, Lee Co. was carved from Russell, and included more land than at present. In 1814, Scott Co. was formed, taking a portion of land from Lee, Scott and Russell. Finally, in 1856, portions of Lee, Scott and Russell were taken to form Wise Co. as it is today. We may clarify these changes by a table including only those counties in direct line from Augusta to Lee.
The first Lee Co. Court is said to have been held at Nimrod Chrisman’s house in Turkey Cove, supposed to have been the Jonathan Wyatt house a part of which still stands at the present time in 1950. This was near the center of the county at that time. Nimrod Chrisman’s grave is in Ely Cemetery east of the L. & N. Bridge over the North Fork at the eastern edge of Pennington Gap.
Table showing Lineal Extension of Counties west of the Blue Ridge to and including Lee and adjoining counties: (Date of Beginning refers to legislative act providing for new counties.)
Date of Beginning: December 15, 1738
Made From: Orange
Named For: Princess Augusta
Date of Beginning: November 28, 1769
Made From: Augusta
Named For: Lord Botetourt, Gov. Of Virginia
Date of Beginning: April 8, 1772
Made From: Botetourt, Rockbridge
Named For: Country Estate in England
Date of Beginning: December 7, 1776
Made From: Fincastle (Kentucky was for three years a county of Virginia, then made a district in 1779 and became a state in 1792.)
Named For: George Washington
Date of Beginning: January 6, 1786
Made From: Washington, Montgomery
Named For: General William Russell (fought in the Battle of Kings Mountain)
Date of Beginning: October 21, 1792
Made From: Russell
Named For: General Harry Lee, Gov. Of VA
Date of Beginning: November 24, 1814
Made From: Lee, Russell & Washington
Named For: Gen. Winfield Scott (Had command of forces which removed the Indians to Indian Territory in 1838-39)
Date of Beginning: February 16, 1856
Made From: Lee, Russell & Scott
Named For: Gov. Henry A. Wise
Land of Lee County
Lee Co. is triangular in shape, about 48 miles in length and some 15 miles in width at the widest part, and contains about 446 square miles, about 285,440 acres. More than half of its area is farm land, including crop and pasture land, and about one-fourth in forest land, most of which has been cut over, and much of the best timber removed. About one-fourth of the area is in mineral and rough unusable land. The county is bounded on the north by Harlan and Bell counties of Kentucky, on the east by Wise and Scott counties of Virginia, and on the south by Claiborne and Hancock counties of Tennessee.
Number of Farms in 1930: 2,439
Average Size in 1930: 75.6 acres
Crop land harvested in 1930: 41,447 acres
Pasture Land in 1930: 16,245 acres
Forest Land in 1930: 49,667 acres
All other lands in 1930: 10, 848 acres
Average precipitation of Lee Co., 50 inches. Of this 21 inches is from snow fall. Average temperature if 54
Turning Point - 1800
The year 1800 may be considered a great turning point in our history. The Indian power had been broken, and comparative peace and safety had been at last accomplished by that date. There was still some danger of marauders, but not on so large a scale as before. At that time there was a new impetus to the flow of settlers. Many homes began to be established in Powells Valley, and a less number of home seekers passed on to the west than formerly. Evidence of this rise in settlement may be observed in the considerable number of substantial old houses still standing, after a century and a half, which were erected around the year 1800. Many cabins and houses of all types that had been erected before that date, have perished. Some were burned by the Indians, and some have fallen to decay and been removed. In fact all but a very few of the earliest buildings have been removed by the ravages of time or the hand of improvement, and no trace of their exact location can now be found.
It would be of great interest to now locate the exact spot where Scott’s Fort and cabin stood near Kane’s Gap, one of the first settlements in the county. However, there are some buildings that date back to near that time still standing. Some of the very old buildings at the middle of the twentieth century may be pointed out, and some early settlements which have undergone changes may be located. We have spoken of the Havely House at Natural Bridge, the Mumps Fort of 1775. Then the Aaron Fletcher house on Wallens Creek, five miles west of Stickleyville, a two-story hewed log house, is still standing and in good repair. It was erected about the year 1787. This was on a land grant of 300 acres entered by Aaron Fletcher, whose descendants still own and occupy the place. This is one of the oldest houses still standing.
The Peter Fulkerson house at Rose Hill seems to be one of the earliest. It was erected in 1793. Tradition has it that Daniel Boone once lodged there in passing through the locality.
The Andrew Fitts house at the mouth of Wallens Creek, is a typical pioneer house dating back to 1795. A further description of this house may be found in this work as a pioneer type of building still standing.
The Neal Fitts house, at Fitts Gap, is a two-story hewed log house built around the year 1795.
Major George Gibson, a soldier of the Revolution, settled at Gibson Station, giving the place its name. He owned 300 acres of land there, and built a two-story log house which is still standing and has never left the ownership of his descendants. That house was built in 1790.
Archibald Scott entered more than 1,000 acres of land in the cove at the head of Wallens Creek on the north and west side of Powells Mountain at Kanes Gap in 1782. This was the next settlement in Lee Co. after Martins Station and the two forts east of that place. As we have already seen, that cabin was destroyed in the massacre by the Indians in 1795.
Patrick Kane purchased a part of the Scott estate with his vast entries around Flat Lick (Duffield). He used the pass there to reach his land on either side of the mountain, and this gave rise to the name of Kanes Gap. Patrick Kane settled in that locality about 1795. This will be discussed later.
Robert Duff bought part of the Scott lands and also entered a large boundary north of Kanes Gap. He settled there in 1787. Hundreds of acres in this fertile cove have been known as the Dock Duff Farm, the Tommy Duff Farm and the Fred Steele Farm since that time. Many historical events have transpired there. Daniel Boone once spent two weeks there while on militia duty and his wife was sick at Fort Blackmore.
John Yokum settled at Yokum Station in Powells Valley southeast of Dryden, in 1790. Yokum lived there ten years, and then moved on with the stream of emigration into Kentucky. He was a great hunter, and like Daniel Boone preferred the wilds and did not want to be crowded by neighbors.
The Jonathan Wyatt house in Turkey Cove has already been referred to as the place where the first court of the county was held. It was erected in 1790.
Thomas Flanary settled near Yokum Station in 1790. He married a Miss Blubau. Edward Pennington came to Yokum Station that year, and married Flanary’s daughter. Pennington and his wife soon removed to the mountain pass north of Pennington Gap, bought some land of a man named Butcher, and entered other lands. They built a three-pen two story log house which stood until 1880. John Pennington, Edward’s son, built and operated the Pennington Furnace and Forge just north of the base of Nigger Head Rock.
Mitchael Friel settled where the town of Pennington Gap is now located. He took up a large boundary of land there in 1790. His land extended up Cane Creek Valley toward Ben Hur. In 1793 he sold most of the land on Cane Creek to John Zion and Michael Myers.
Abraham Jones settled on Sugar Run in 1790. He entered a large boundary including the site of the town of Jonesville and surrounding territory. Frederick Jones, Abraham’s son, gave 65 acres of land on which to build the courthouse. The town and county seat was named for him in 1793.
James Graham, a red-headed Irishman, settled in the neighborhood of York, in 1795. He entered a large boundary of land there, probably the usual of 300 acres. He came from Ireland, and was the great-grandfather of James V. Graham and Mary P. Kelly of Pennington Gap.
The Crabtree house in Long Hollow, two miles southwest of Pennington Gap, was erected in 1798. A further history of this place is given elsewhere. This is the birthplace of Chester Haburne, the first American soldier from Lee Co. killed in World War I.
The Shelton House north of Cane Creek and west of Ben Hur, was built about the year 1800. It is still standing, but a larger house of whip-sawed lumber was built nearby almost a century ago.
The Graham house on the George King place, on Cane Creek, one mile west of Pennington Gap, was built around 1800. Likewise the J. V. Graham house between this and Ben Hur at the Narrows was erected near the same date. Another of the same age is the Russell house on Cane Creek north of the Texas Company Gas Tanks.
The Sammy Tritt house, three miles southwest of Dryden on Powells river was erected in 1809.
The George Washington Young house, two miles southeast of Dryden was built in 1812. This was located on the old Fincastle Road, near the Yokum Fort.
The Cornelia Spencer Hamblin house, three miles west of Jonesville dates from the year 1800.
The John Barnett house, in Poor Valley, one mile north of Dryden, dates from about 1800. It is a story and a half building made of poplar logs. It is owned and occupied by Mrs. Pat Livingston.
The Nathan Cox house one mile east of Jonesville is made of a combination of frame and brick, and is nearing the one and one-half century mark. It is one of only two places in the State of Virginia where a tree fountain was made, by running wooden pump logs from the spring into a living willow tree.
The Jonathan Ball house on Wallens Creek five miles southeast of Jonesville dates from around 1800. It was owned and occupied by William R. Mosely for nearly half a century.
The Joseph H. Peters house on the south side of Wallens Ridge near Lovelady Gap has long since passed the century mark.
A Champion Boxer
In early days before the organization of the boxing ring, there was pugilistic practice on a free lance basis. Anyone who took interest in the art of boxing or just rough and tumble fighting could hold out a perpetual challenge to anyone who wished to match strength with him. There was an approved and unwritten code which was expected to be followed with honorable fairness.
Lee Co. had such a “prize fighter” who made a considerable impression in fistic practice. William Bailey who lived in the vicinity of Yokum Station south of Dryden prided himself in the art of fighting. He defended himself well, and was never mastered by an antagonist. He was the champion over the country south of the Ohio River, defeating all who heard of him and chose to match strength with him.
There was a similar champion north of the Ohio River. The two heard of each other and promptly set a time and place to meet, in Rockcastle Co., KY. Bill Bailey rode on horseback three days to reach the place. When he arrived, there was a large crowd awaiting the event, his opponent having already come. A cheer went up from the crowd.
The two champions met, shook hands, backed off ten paces according to established unwritten rules, stripped off their hunting shirts, and then came together. After a severe trial of strength and skill, Bailey defeated his opponent. When he announced “enough”, Bailey was quite glad to hear it.
The two played the game honorable and fair, shook hands and parted with high respect for each other. No boxing gloves were used, just bare fists. When Bailey could get at a man with his first, it meant a mule kicking wallop, and no man could stand up against it. He once faced an unfair frameup and foul play and defeated all who took part in it, coming out victorious against great odds.
Few people are aware that a duel was ever fought in Lee Co. Two colored men, one supposed to belong to a Pennington and the other a Flanary, were rivals over a colored girl. All were slaves, each belonging to a different owner. The two became so enraged over their romance that they decided to fight it out in a regular duel.
On Sunday, December 7, 1823, they met with their rifles, by secret arrangement, in Becklen’s Gap on Stone Mountain two miles east of Pennington Gap. The two man proceeded in orderly fashion, according to accepted rules of dueling at that time, though they had no seconds. They stepped off fifteen paces and took their positions. By a signal given by one of them, they both fired. One fell dead instantly, being shot through the heart. The other fell severely wounded by a shot through the right breast.
The survivor crawled to a path some distance away, and lay there in pain for two days and nights, until a passerby found him on Tuesday. He died a few days later. We see in the affair a high spirit of fair dealing, in approved procedure recognized at that time especially by slaves.
Beginning with pioneer days, and continuing for more than a century, there was a close drawn neighborly spirit among the settlers. The mountaineer in his clearing would cut timber from his field which was to be planted to corn. The trees would be trimmed, and then cut into logs, at first with an axe, and years later the cross-cut saw came in as a labor saving device. When the logs were ready to be rolled together to be burned off the land, all the neighbors for miles around would be invited to a log rolling. They would gather at the appointed time, and all hands would go to work in earnest rolling logs into great heaps for burning. At noon a bounteous feast would be ready for the jolly workers. In the afternoon the log rolling would continue. Then would come the great bonfires which consumed brush and logs, much of it valuable timber as we would now view it.
The same kind of social event would be worked up for the house-raising. The neighbors would gather and do the heavy work of raising the walls of the cabin for a new home. There would be expert choppers and notchers who would “take up a corner” each, while others waited on them, skidding up the logs into place and assisting in handling the work until the roof was reached. Then the ridge poles would be notched into place, beginning at the outer wall and drawing in the roof to a “comb.” The clapboards would be carried and handed up and the roof would be put on, at first with weights, then in later years square cut nails came into use.
When the beans were ready to harvest, there would be bean stringings, the beans being strung or freed from strings, and then strung on threads into long strings for drying. Thus dried, they were called “shuck beans”. When the corn was gathered into great heaps, then would come the corn shucking. Each of these, and the quilting were made social occasions at which there would be plenty of cheerful work and then plenty of food and merriment, and usually plenty of drinking.
Corn was the most important crop in pioneer farming. If small grain, such as wheat, had been the dependence, as in Europe, there would not have been much headway in the settling and development of the country. The newly cleared land would be rough and full of stumps which could under no circumstances be removed at once. The corn could be planted right among the stumps and rocks and other obstructions on new land, and readily grown and harvested from the rich soil. This would have been impossible with small grain, until the land might at last have been freed of stumps. Corn constituted the chief item for feed for animals and for food for man.
There were friendly contests at work at any time and of any kind. This spurred young and old to the best that was in them. They were husky and enduring workers, never shirking or quailing from any task. This tended to make and maintain a sturdy race of people. When defense was needed, there was no time nor occasion to look to the government beyond the mountains for quick emergencies. Men volunteered at once for needed services and made their own armies. Later, there were militia leaders appointed who raised armies as needed and acted under the leaders who were responsible to the government, though there was much initiative expected of the leaders themselves.
There were a few slave owners in Lee Co. They were mostly people of east Virginia origin. The common class to whom we have referred seldom owned slaves. But at that time scarcely anyone gave a thought to the possible criminal nature of slavery. Now most people realize that the bringing of slaves from Africa was fully as short-sighted as criminal. It only left us a great difficulty to settle, a very lasting difficulty with many phases.
Among the pioneers there was an abiding religious fever. Among the colored people there was strong emotional worship. The pioneer felt the great need of devotion, and all knew and loved the old soul-stirring songs such as Jesus, Lover of My Soul; What a Friend We Have in Jesus; Amazing Grace; Nearer, My God, to Thee; O for a Closer Walk With Thee; Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior; and Take the Name of Jesus With You.
Such songs as these have soothed and sustained the pioneer in many a dark and trying hour during the early history of our country. The lowly cabin of the pioneer, surrounded with toil and faced with danger, rang with these uplifting melodies.
Plans for Improvement
The raising of cattle, hogs and horses in Kentucky led to drove driving over the Wilderness Road to eastern markets. Corrals were built along the Road to care for livestock over night. Small farmers along the way sold produce they raised to drovers. At the same time Kentucky began to develop her interest in fine horses. It was more and more urgent to raise some plan for improvement of the Road and find a better means of passing the bottle neck of Powells Valley and Cumberland Gap. A toll gate was erected by Virginia authorities, in Cumberland Gap.
Major Robert P. Baker, Kentucky engineer once planned a waterway connecting the Cumberland River with Powells River by a system of canals and locks and a tunnel under the Gap. It was to be an immense and unique project consisting of 256 miles of canals and 670 miles of slack water, running into millions of cost. This was to relieve the heavy pressure on the inadequate Wilderness Road. At the same time there were strong advocates of a railway through the section, connecting the Ohio country with the south and on to the east coast at Charleston by way of Cumberland Gap.
Exile of the Indians
Among many white people there has been the impression that the Indian was lazy and shiftless. The facts do not sustain this idea. It is true that those who were removed from their native haunts and their freedom, and placed in the new and strange confines of a reservation have been more or less dispirited and morose. What else could be expected of an exiled people?
It has been observed that some of those who were permitted to remain in the atmosphere of their environment have adjusted themselves rapidly, and adopted the new methods, implements, crops and management of the white man. They have proven themselves industrious, capable and useful in all branches of endeavor. A broken spirit is a ruined life. Discouragement is perhaps the devil’s most dangerous weapon. A free and contented person of any race or color can be much more useful to society.
The Cherokees began war with the British in the Carolinas in 1759, and continued their struggle against the encroachment of the settlers through the Revolutionary War, and until 1794. They even expanded their own domain along the Tennessee River as far as Chickamauga.
Due to missionary and educational efforts among them, they at length undertook a plan of government among themselves patterned after the United States Government, in 1820. They expanded their own settlements beyond the Mississippi into what is now Arkansas. In about 1822, they developed an alphabet and began making records in writing. (For history of removal see “The Cherokee Nation” by Marion L. Starkey, Alfred A. Knoff, Inc., New York, 1946.)
At most the Cherokees had never numbered more than perhaps twenty thousand, as estimated in the year 1730. Some say only twelve thousand. Thirty years later they were estimated at about one-third to one-half that number. When they were removed in 1838, they had risen to perhaps 16,500. Losing one-fourth their number in the migration, and suffering losses in the Civil War, and by smallpox, still they recovered in number later, and by 1902 they numbered more than 28,000.
Echota had 100 wigwams. Near these was the council house, the house of the Chief, and the house of the prophetess. The grand council house was 20 feet high and 90 feet in circumference. It was built of stout poles, and plastered with clay. There were no windows. The entrance was covered with two buffalo skins. There were no windows. There were low cane benches arranged around the walls in the council lodge. These would be removed for the Green Corn Dance. Echota was also a city of refuge. A criminal or even an enemy could feet safe in Echota, but to venture outside of the town was fatal. Some tried to make practical a plan that would allow a substitute to be held for an offender as a scapegoat. A chief had got his nephew substituted in his place. The young man finally shot his uncle, and the tribe honored him as a hero.
In February, 1828, New Echota, Georgia, 30 miles southwest of Knoxville, became the Indian capital of the Cherokees. The first newspaper ever printed in any Indian language in North America was the “Cherokee Phoenix.” It was a weekly, printed in English and Cherokee, and edited by Elias Boudinot, a native Indian. This was made possible by the invention of a Cherokee alphabet by Sikwayi (Sequoya), a half-breed. He was also called Geroge Gist. His father was a white man and his mother a Cherokee woman. His work stands in bold contrast to another half-breed, the much dreaded Benge, 35 years earlier.
Sequoya spent three years contriving the Cherokee alphabet. After one year his wife burned his first efforts. He only said, “Come, this will have to be all done over.” He spent two more years remaking the perfecting it. He taught it to his six year old girl Eye-okah first. Then it spread rapidly. This was in 1826. There were eighty-four characters. Type was set for it in 1828. Sequoya was given $500 dollars for his work by the government. One thousand dollars was also paid for a press. Sequoya, the name of redwood trees was given in his honor.
The Scriptures were translated into the Cherokee language, and when a passage was read to old Chief Drowning Bear, he said, “It seems to be a good book. It is strange that the white man, who has had it so long, is no better than he is.”
Another mixed-breed, John Ross, was chief of the Cherokees, from 1828 until the removal of the Indians in 1839. His father was a Scotchman and his mother a quarter Indian. He was called “Little John,” but later the Indians called him Cooweescoowee, which meant large white bird (swan or egret). He played an important part in Indian affairs with the government. He died at Washington, D. C., August 1, 1866, at the age of 76.
Just about the time the Cherokees had reached the zenith as a powerful tribe, gold was discovered in Georgia. This led to a strong measure to have them removed from the region to a part of what now constitutes the state of Oklahoma. It was called Indian Territory. This culminated in the purchase of their lands and their removal in the winter of 1838-39, after a considerable struggle. The forced removal by the army resulted in the death of many Indians who were forced to try to make the trip all the way on foot.
General Winfield Scott was sent with 7,000 troops to remove the 17,000 Cherokees. They were forced to leave their native land by brutal hands. In Andrew Jackson’s and Martin Van Buren’s administrations was this carried out. 13,000 were removed on foot in the winter of 1838-39. Of the total of 17,000, about 4,000 were left in unmarked graves along the way. This was the saddest trail in American history, the “Trail of Tears.” (The Cherokee Nation by Marion L. Starkey).
About 1,500 escaped into Great Smoky Mountain. Tsali (Charley), a middle aged Cherokee was driven from his little cabin with his wife and two sons and a brother. The wife did not walk as fast as the guard wished, and he prodded her with a bayonet. Tsali seized the gun and shot the guard. His brother grappled with a soldier and killed him, and all the Indians got away. Later, forced to surrender from their cave, Tsali was to be put to death. No greater fortitude could be imagined than was shown by his brother and two sons, who voluntarily went with him. But imagine what it showed when his brother and oldest son were shot with him, fellow Indians being forced to serve as the firing squad! The small son was allowed to return to the Smokies.
Fragments of the tribe drifted into Texas from Arkansas. These in time were driven out by the Mexicans. A number of Cherokees escaped into the mountains of North Carolina and lived as fugitives for a number of years. In 1842 they were granted the privilege of remaining in a reservation in Sway and Jackson and nearby counties.
Finally most of them were concentrated in the western Reservation, where they developed a form of government. But there they were divided into factions among themselves, those who signed the treaty for their removal, against those who did not. This factional difference continued into the Civil War, some joining the Confederacy and some fighting for the Union.
The Cherokees were declared civilized (there were five tribes of Indians which became civilized: Cherokees, Chocktaws, Creeks, Chickasaws and Seminoles) in 1876, when they had a constitutional government with legislative, executive and judicial branches. On March 3, 1906, the nation ended when they became citizens of the United States. Their nation was dissolved as a political body at midnight, June 30, 1914.
The tribal funds amount to $600,000. This was divided among the 41,000 Indians of the tribe. A Cherokee was a senator from Oklahoma at that time, and he received as his share $15.00.
The pressing need of road and transportation improvement became more and more apparent. The various plans for improvement became a political issue between the Whigs and Democrats in the 1840 campaign. The Whig party saw the advantage of advocating economy, as those were days of economical distress in the government. Their candidate for President and Vice were Harrison and Tyler.
Under the management of Senator John C. Crittendon, a great political rally was held at Cumberland Gap, September 10-11, 1840, and the tri-state gathering became a big affair. Crittendon’s father had gone to Kentucky through Cumberland Gap in 1788. Two camps were established, one on the Kentucky side and one on the Tennessee side. There were more than a thousand people assembled in each camp. The people gathered from the mountains along the burdened Wilderness Road, from the three states, in wagons, carriages, on horseback and on foot. There were men, women, and children, a jolly crowd. There were fiddles and banjos, coon skin caps and barrels of hard cider. There was singing, and a spirit of freedom and fun.
On the Kentucky side of the Pass a speakers’ stand was erected. A banner 20 x 40 feet bore the inscription, “Kentucky-Virginia-Tennessee; Harrison and Tyler; One more Fire and the days is ours.” Back of the stand was a banner with a picture of three sisters embracing to represent the unity of the three states. A 15 pound cannon was fired from the Pinnacle to announce the rally.
Crittendon was the leading speaker. The rally was a great success for the mountain people. But with the election of the Whig candidates and early death of the President, all efforts at transportation improvements were neglected and the old Wilderness Road continued to groan under its heavy burden for other decades.
We have seen how geographical conditions in Lee Co., and the various influences of her early history all worked for a long isolation. The early settlements were widely scattered. The isolated unit of the Wilderness Road, traversing the entire length of the county, saw the passing of hundreds of thousands to the level and more desired lands westward. Now and then an emigrant family would stop by the wayside in the mountains, and start a home in isolation, often due to the breaking down of a wagon or the sickness of a traveler. Such delays would lead to the erection of a cabin in some likely place, and thus new homes would be started. Then others would join them, and a settlement would be established.
The chance settlers were of the same Scotch-Irish, German and English lines as the settlers father west. They were and are a great liberty loving people, a hardy, enduring class who have survived the rugged and long isolated mountain rigors and trying times. They cleared and cultivated the steep land, and developed grazing and grain growing, and floated much timber down Powells River to market while awaiting progressive improvements long delayed.
By the end of the century the drover business had grown to considerable proportions. In 1800 the traffic moving eastward was almost equal to the westward movement, but the Cumberland Gap and Powells Valley route through Lee Co. was still of perhaps more importance than the Ohio route. Many horses, cattle and hogs were driven along the Road to eastern and southern markets. Kentucky was reaching her famous reputation for fine horses.
Once some Russians had bought several stallions in Kentucky and were driving them on the Wilderness Road on their way to the shipping point at Charleston, South Carolina. Near Cumberland Gap, one of the best stallions broke away and made off up the Pinnacle side. Men followed him to the top. When hemmed there, the horse plunged and fell several hundred feet to his death.
It was becoming an evident and glaring need that the means of travel should be improved through the mountains. Major Robert Parker’s proposed waterway canal and tunnel would cost eight and one-half million dollars, and was turned down by the Legislature. But another feeble effort was made by spending $24,000 on the Road.
To Be Continued.......