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Caleb Starr’s Tennessee Mountain

“Hidden History”

Joe Guy


I attended a cemetery dedication recently, that of the old Cooper Cemetery east of Etowah, in the Conasauga Valley alongside Starr Mountain.  And as I listened to the dedication remarks spoken so eloquently by preservationist Marvin Templin, I looked to the mountain where the fog hung heavy and low.  As cattle called in the distant field, and I thought of the man for whom the mountain was named, and of his home that once stood on a nearby rise only a few hundred yards away.

Caleb Starr was born 1758 in Chester County, Pennsylvania, of Quaker ancestry.  At some point in adulthood, Caleb migrated to North Carolina, and about 1775 he came into the Tennessee country, along with future governor Joseph McMinn. Some sources say the two knew each other well.

In 1797, Caleb is listed as a hireling to Ellis Harlan, a fellow Quaker and a well-known trader to the Cherokee.  Both are listed as whites living in the Cherokee lands in “Persons Residing in the Cherokee Country, Not Natives of the Land in 1797” in a letter by Agent Silas Dinsmore to Governor Sevier. It is probable that Starr had worked for Harlan for quite some time, as Harlan had been a trader, and at times a spy, for many years.  Harlan had married the daughter of Nancy Ward, Katherine Kingfisher, and fathered a half-breed girl named Nannie about 1777.

Although he was a bit older than she, Caleb Starr must have taken notice of Nannie while working in her father’s trading business.  Caleb would have seen her often, and he also would have seen much of the Cherokee lands in his travels and visits with the Indians.  It is likely that he first saw the rich lands in the Conasauga Valley while employed with Harlan.  When Nannie Harlan was 17 years old, Caleb took her as his wife in about 1794.

Around 1800, the year her father died, Caleb and Nannie moved into the Conasauga Valley underneath the shadow of the Unicoi Mountains and built a cabin on a small rise at the foot of the ridge.  Starr continued to work with and for the Cherokee, while at the same time building up a rather large farm.  On July 11-12, 1810, Caleb is listed on the records of Indian Agent Return J. Meigs as having been compensated for blacksmith work ($10.75) and for building two looms ($16.00) for the Cherokees.  On a receipt dated November 1, 1815, of the United States Government’s Cherokee annuity payment for the years 1813 to 1816, thirty-six thousand dollars was paid to Return J. Meigs, United States Agent to the Cherokee Nation, which was to be dispersed among the Indians. The receipt was signed by Caleb Starr, among other leaders, indicating his position of importance as a member of the Nation. Not long after, he would be involved with both the Treaty of 1816 and the Treaty of 1819.  But it was the treaty of 1817 that secured Caleb Starr in the ownership of his ever-growing plantation.

By the 8th article of the Treaty of 1817, the United States agreed to give a reservation of 640 acres of land, to each and every head of an Indian family, residing on the East side of the Mississippi River. The reservee was to have a life estate for himself, but the Treaty provided that if any of the heads of families for whom reservations might be made, should the owner remove voluntarily from the land reservation, the right of ownership was to revert back to the United States. When the Hiwassee Purchase was made in 1819, the Indians’ reservations had precedence over the subsequent land sales.  Caleb Starr’s reservation alongside the mountain was recorded as section 9 of the fractional township, Range 1 East on the Conasauga Creek, in newly formed McMinn County, Tennessee.  By this time, the Starrs held the 640 acres and worked the farm with around 100 slaves.

Caleb Starr had by this time already established himself and was raising a large family on his beautiful valley farm, so much that those who would settle nearby began to refer to the towering mountain not as Chilhowee, but as “Starr’s Mountain”.

For about thirty years, the Starrs lived on their farm.  Fourteen Children were born there: Mary Jane, James, Thomas, Ruth, Ezekiel, Sarah, George, Joseph McMinn, Rachael, Nancy, John, Alexander, Deborah, and Ellis.  Only John and Alexander did not live to adulthood.  Of all the children, James seems to be the most flamboyant and controversial.  It was he who convinced President Andrew Jackson to give 640 acres to certain white settlers moving into the area. James became a member of the Treaty Party, which advocated total tribal removal, and with other members he signed the controversial Treaty of 1835, which would result in the total removal of the Cherokees in 1838. 

Like his sons, Caleb Starr seems to have supported emigration, as did many of the mixed bloods.  The anti-Removal Party, led by John Ross, was supported mostly by full-bloods.  Several years before the Trail of Tears, some of Caleb’s sons, including Ezekiel and James, had already relocated to the lands west of the Mississippi.  After the Removal was complete, members of the Removal Party were hunted down and killed.  James escaped the first round of bloodshed, only to be killed later in 1845.

By the time he sold out of his Conasauga Valley farm and traveled the long trail to the West, Caleb was almost 80 years old.  Like others who supported removal, Caleb may have seen the futility of fighting with the determined policies of Andrew Jackson, or he may have simply believed there was a better life awaiting the Cherokees out West.  He and Nannie died in 1841 and 1843, and both were laid to rest in the Going Snake District, Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory (now Adair County, OK).

Some sources say that Caleb Starr’s grave lay unmarked, and I am unsure if it remains so today. His original home is also gone, having fallen into disrepair it was torn down in the mid-20th century.  But I do know that rising almost 2000 feet, and following a twenty-mile course over Monroe County, the eastern edge of McMinn County, and into northern Polk County is an everlasting monument to Caleb Starr, a mountain forever named for the man and the life he made in the Conasauga Valley. 


Joe D. Guy is a nationally published author, newspaper columnist, and historian residing in McMinn County, TN.  He may be reached via email at or at PO Box 489, Englewood, TN 37329.