Retyped for the page by Diane Payne, 2001
In 1779, Capt. James Robertson, with two or three hundred followers, left the Holston country for the purpose of making a settlement at the French Lick-the site on which now stands the city of Nashville. The company brought with them a good deal of stock, both horses and cattle. Their route lay through the Kentucky country; and as there were no roads, and the snows were very heavy, and the weather unusually inclement, they had a tedious and difficult journey, and did not arrive at the French Lick until January, 1780. Indeed, that winter was extremely severe-so much so, that its equal in this respect had never been known by the oldest people; and such a winter has not since been felt in this country. The company drove their stock over the Cumberland river on the ice, and pitching their camp on the bluff where Nashville has since been built, they began to construct a fort.
During the same fall and winter, Kasper Mansker, Daniel Frazier, Amos Eaton, and a number of other emigrants, followed the route of the first company, and, after suffering great privations, arrived in the Cumberland country. Besides the fort built by Capt. Robertson, as just noticed, Amos Eaton, Isaac Lindsey, Louis Crane, Hayden Wells, and others built a fort one mile and a half below Nashville, on the north side of the river. It was called Eaton's Station. George, Jacob, and James Freeland, and others, built a fort a short distance west of the French Lick, at the place where Dr. McGavock now has his residence. It was called Freeland's Station. During the same winter, or the next spring, Kasper Mansker, William Neely, James Franklin, Daniel Frazier, and others, built a fort on the west side of Mansker's Creek, about three or four hundred yards below the site of Walton's Campground. It was called Mansker's Station. Near the same time, a man named Asher, with others, built a fort about two and a half miles southeast of the place where the town of Gallatin now stands, and near the Buffalo Path from Mansker's Lick to Bledsoe's Lick. It was called Asher's Station. The land is now owned by John Chambers, Esq. About the same time, Thomas Killgore, Moses Mauldon, Ambrose Mauldon, Samuel Mason, Josiah Hankins, and others, built a fort high up on Red River, in the neighborhood now called Cross Plains, in Robertson county. It was called Killgore's Station.
In the fall of 1779, Col. John Donelson, Robert Cartwright, Benjamin Porter, James McCain, Isaac Neely, John Cotton, Mr. Rounsever, Jonathan Jennings, William Crutchfield, Moses Renfroe, Joseph Renfroe, James Renfroe, Solomon Turpin, John Turpin, Francis Armstrong, Isaac Lanier, Daniel Dunham, John Boyd, John Caffrey, Mary Henry, a widow, and her family, John Blackmore, John Gibson, and a number of others, embarked in boats for the French Lick. There were at first two companies. Col. Donelson was the leader of one, which left Fort Henry, on the Holston river, Dec. 22, 1779. Capt. John Blackmore was the leader of the other, which embarked about the same time from Blackmore's Fort, on the Clinch river. A large number of the men, who went through by land with Capt. Robertson, sent their families around by water in company with Col. Donelson. Col. Donelson kept a journal of nearly every day's travel, from the time they started until they arrived at the French Lick. I have read this journal with great interest, and, if it were not so long, I would give the whole of it. On account of the difficult navigation of the Holston river, in connection with the extreme severity of the winter, Col. Donelson's company did not reach the mouth of the Clinch river until the fifth of March. Col. Donelson, in his journal, does not give the number of boats composing the fleet; but James Cartwright, now living in the town of Gallatin, whose father was one of the company, informs me that, when the boats from the Holston river united with those from the Clinch river, at the mouth of the latter, they were about forty in number, and nearly everyone had two families on board. His father's boat held three families.
On the eighth of March, they reached the first inhabited Indian town on the Tennessee river. The Indians insisted that the voyagers should come ashore, calling them brothers and showing other signs of friendship; insomuch that John Caffrey and John Donelson, Jr., took a canoe and were crossing over to them, the fleet having landed on the opposite shore. A half-breed, who called himself Archy Coody, with several Indians, met them, and advised them to return, which they did, with Coody and several canoes which had left the shore and followed directly after him. They appeared to be friendly. After distributing some presents among them, with which they seemed to be much pleased, they observed a number of Indians on the other side embarking in their canoes, armed and painted with red and black. Coody immediately made signs to his companions, ordering them to quit the boat, which they did, himself and another remaining and advising the voyagers to move off instantly. They had not gone far before they discovered a number of Indians, armed and painted, proceeding down the river, as it were, to intercept them. Coody, the half-breed, and his companion, sailed with them for some time, and, telling them that they had passed all the towns and were out of danger, left them. But they had not gone far before they came in sight of another town, situated likewise on the south side of the river, nearly opposite a small island. Here the Indians again invited them to come on shore, calling them brothers; and, observing the boats standing off for the opposite channel, they told them that their side of the river was better for boats to pass. Capt. Blackmore's boat ran too near shore, and was fired upon, resulting in the death of young Mr. Payne. There was a boat owned by a Mr. Stuart, whose family had the smallpox. He had agreed to follow far enough in the rear, so there would be no danger of the infection spreading to the other boats; and he was warned each night when they went to camp by the sound of a horn. After the town had been passed, the Indians, observing his helpless situation, singled off from the rest of the fleet, intercepted him, and killed and took prisoners the whole crew, to the great grief of the entire company, who were uncertain how soon they might share the same fate. I will state here that, though but a small boy at the time, I recollect very well the reports of the great and terrible mortality which prevailed in the Cherokee Nation after the capture of Stuart's boat. Without doubt, the wretches paid dearly for their booty. It was said that, when they were attacked with the small-pox, and the fever was upon them, they took a heavy sweat in their houses for that purpose, and then leaped into the river and died by scores.
The voyagers still perceived the Indians marching down the river, keeping pace with them until the Cumberland Mountain hid them from their sight, when they were in hopes they had escaped them. They had now arrived at the place called the Whirl or Suck, where the river is compressed within less than half of its common width by the Cumberland Mountain, which juts in on both sides. In passing through the upper part of these narrows, at a place described by Coody, which he termed "the boiling-pot," a trivial accident had nearly ruined the expedition. One of the company, John Cotton, who was moving down in a large canoe, had attached it to Robert Cartwright's boat, into which he and his family had gone for safety. The canoe was here overturned, and the little cargo lost. The company, pitying his distress, concluded to halt and assist him in recovering his property. They had landed on the northern shore, at a level spot, and were going up to the place, when the Indians, to their astonishment, appeared immediately over them, on the opposite cliffs, and commenced firing down upon them, which occasioned a precipitate retreat to the boats. They immediately moved off. The Indians, lining the bluffs, continued their fire on the boats, without doing any other injury than wounding four persons slightly. Jonathan Jennings's boat having run on a rock near the northern shore, he ordered his wife and son and another young man, together with a negro man and woman, to throw all his goods out of the boat, while he returned the fire of the Indians, which he did with great effect. But before they had unloaded, his son, the young man, and the negro man, jumped out to swim ashore. The negro man was drowned. The two young men swam ashore, got a canoe, and started down the river. Mrs. Jennings and the negro continued unloading the boat, assisted by Mrs. Peyton, (who had been delivered of a child the night before.) Ephriam Peyton, her husband, had gone through by land with Capt. Robertson. The child was killed in the confusion of unloading the boat. Mrs. Peyton was a daughter of Jonathan Jennings. After a long time, they got the boat off. The two young men were met by several canoes full of Indians, and were taken prisoners, and carried to the town of Chickamauga, where they killed and burned the young man. Jennings was about to share the same fate, when a trader, named Rogers, paid a handsome ransom for him, and saved his life. The fleet having encamped on the northern shore, the next morning about four o'clock they heard the cry of "Help!" on the river; and poor Jennings came up in a wretched condition, having thrown all their goods into the river. Col. Donelson states he cannot tell how they escaped with their lives, as their boat, and even their clothing, was pierced with many bullets. while none of them were wounded.
On the twelfth of March, they reached the Muscle Shoals; and though none of them had ever navigated the river, they committed themselves to the care of Providence, and passed through in safety. On the fourteenth, they were fired on by the Indians, and five of the crews were wounded. On the twentieth, they arrived at the mouth of the Tennessee river, and were worn down with hunger and fatigue, their provisions having failed. New difficulties arose, and their situation was truly disagreeable. The Ohio river was very high, their boats were not suited to ascend a rapid current, and they knew not the distance before them, not the length of time it would take to reach their place of destination. Some of the boats descended the river, and went on to Natchez; but Col. Donelson, and the greater part of the company, ascended the river. On the twenty-fourth, they reached the mouth of the Cumberland river, where some of the company declared it was too small to be the Cumberland river. But as they had never heard of any river running in between the Cumberland and the Tennessee, they started up it, and soon became convinced that it was the Cumberland river. They traveled slowly, and killed buffalo for meat, which, however, they found very poor, as it was in the hardest of the winter. On the twelfth of April, they came to the mouth of a little river, running in on the north side, called Red river by the Messrs. Renfroe and company, who ascended it for the purpose of making a settlement. Col. Donelson and the others proceeded up the Cumberland river, and on the twenty-fourth of April they arrived at their point of destination, where they had the pleasure of delivering to Capt. Robertson and others their families and friends, whom they had despaired of ever meeting again.
I have thus far given you an outline of Col. Donelson's journal, which, though desultory, will, I hope, be satisfactory to you. You see it took these bold adventurers four months to complete their journey. In view of the coldness of the winter, the frequent attacks from the Indians, and the failure in their provisions, this successful expedition was one of the most remarkable achievements in the settlement of this country.