I’ve long been aware that both my paternal and maternal ancestors migrated from Bertie County, North Carolina to West Tennessee in the earliest years of the state’s history.
When I ran across “Beginnings of West Tennessee: In the land of the Chickasaws, 1541-1841” written by Samuel Cole Williams (1864-1847) and published in 1930, I bought it and threw it on my stack of books to read “when I get a chance.”
I finally got a chance a few weeks ago while on vacation. Since I spent part of my vacation on the beach with Samuel Cole Williams, I wanted to get to know more about him. You can read what I discovered about Williams life and career here.
Williams’ history of West Tennessee didn’t disappoint, and it helped fill in a few blanks for me on what motivated my ancestors to leave their large farms and plantations behind in North Carolina and what their lives may have been like when the arrived in Haywood County.
In the preface, the author notes that, although he was a native of West Tennessee, he had not lived there for more than 40 years. He wrote that it would be easier if someone living there now would write a history because they would have access to materials located there. He had to make up for that handicap by “diligent searching of printed volumes, archival materials and files of old newspapers.” p. vii.
Also in the preface, he recommends “Old Times in West Tennessee: Reminiscences—Semi-Historic—of Pioneer Life in the Big Hatchie Country” by Joseph S. Williams (also no relation). That’s another great book on very early Tennessee history.
North Carolina in the Early 1800s
Williams included a little about what my ancestors were experiencing in the early 1800s in North Carolina and why they would want to make the dangerous—and for some, deadly—move to Haywood County. He wrote:
The picture of conditions in North Carolina at this period, may be deemed to be best painted by the people of that Commonwealth. A son of Captain Herndon Haralson, a first comer to the District, thus responded to the report sent back home by his father: ‘In this old country where we have nothing calculated to inspire enterprises, I feel careless about living…I design coming to your Land of Canaan.
Widespread distress in the old State was said to be due to the ‘unwarranted spirit of speculation that has pervaded every class…’ 116.
Notwithstanding, there was, in 1824, ‘a disposition to emigration in every part of the State, because our roads are bad and every pound of cotton and tobacco or anything else pays a heavy duty…’ p. 117.
In 1825, a Knoxville newspaper noted that wagons, carts and carriages passing through to the West through town amounted to from four to five thousand annually. A severe draught in North Carolina in 1826 produced near famin; so sever as to permit of the burning of logs that were obstructions in streams… p. 117.
In the thirties the migration from North Carolina to West Tennessee rose to a veritable hegira. The owners of large land grants in the region found themselves land-poor, and unable to pay the taxes. The files of the Jackson Gazette show that lands of many leading Carolinians were advertised for sale for taxes” (80,000-100,000 acres sold in Haywood County for taxes in 1826). p. 118.
Williams also answered a question about written memories of settlers that I’ve long been curious about. He wrote, “These pioneers were not of a writing generation. They left few, if any journals of their trek overland. The writer endeavored to uncover even one, without success.” p. 120. I’m always hoping to find written recollections of the trip from North Carolina westward, but it seems like that’s not to be. There is one account of a family’s arrival in Haywood County by a woman who included it in her autobiography, The Soldier’s Friend, which I’ll write about another time.
History of Haywood County
The history of Haywood County has been well documented, but I’m sharing a little of Williams’ version here:
This country was honored in receiving its name from that Tennessee’s great jurist and historian Judge John Haywood. Colonel Richard Nixon may well be called its founder. He made the first permanent settlement in 1821 on Nixon’s Creek about three miles east of the present Brownsville. Blazing his way there through the cane-brakes from Jackson. Red men of the Chickasaws were found encamped on the same creek. With them he cultivated friendly relations, and for weeks he enjoyed the hospitality of their camp. At his home the first courts were held, as was also the first religious service. He was the county’s first merchant; Nixon’s landing on a bluff of Hatchie about four miles from the site of later Brownsville, was his place of business. His father, as a revolutionary officer received a grant of 3,600 acres laid in the country.
Williams’ book is incredibly thorough, with chapters on nearly every aspect of early West Tennessee history including customs, religion, education, agriculture, slavery, cotton farming, business and banking, the bench and the bar, the press and other aspects of every day life for early settlers. He also includes more about specific historic occurrences like The Chickasaw Treaty of 1818, The Revolutionary War, The Nashoba Experiment, political campaigns and more. The level of detail included in Williams’ book is even more remarkable when you consider he had to work the old-fashioned way and that from 1923 to 1930, when “The History of West Tennessee” was published, he had written or edited seven books in seven years.
You can read more about Samuel Cole Williams on this blog entry.