Discovering Dickson County
Over the past year or so I’ve written a number of articles concerning our local history. In the new year, I’d like to go a little further back to the beginning of Dickson County.
The first inhabitants of Dickson County were Native American Indians. They were joined by European settlers who began coming to the area in the 18th century.
Daniel Boone was born on October 22, 1734 in the colony of Pennsylvania. He grew up on the frontier, learning critical surviving skills, including how to hunt. By the time he was 15 he was known as one of the best hunters in the area.
In 1750 the Boone family moved to a valley in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina. Daniel began taking trips into and over the mountains on hunting expeditions. We know he made it to present day Tennessee by 1760, because of a carving in a tree with the inscription, “D Boon Cilled a Bar” was found in present day Washington County.
Boone’s trips were successful and people began accompanying him on his hunting expeditions. One of the people who joined him was James Robertson. James was born in North Carolina on June 28, 1742. He was a tall man with dark hair and blue eyes. In 1768 he married Charlotte Reeves Robertson. The next year Boone and Robertson took a trip together over the mountains. On the way back, they discovered the “old fields” along the Watauga River Valley where the town of Elizabethton later developed. It was believed that these old fields had been cultivated for generations by the Native American Indians. Robertson decided to stop there to plant corn and build a small cabin to stake his claim to the land.
After he returned to North Carolina, James became frustrated with the government and started thinking about moving permanently to the old fields along the Watauga River, but in 1763 King George III issued a royal proclamation declaring that no English colonists were allowed to move west of the Appalachian mountains. James didn’t care. He and Charlotte began planning their move anyway. They convinced some of their neighbors to travel with them too.
James became the leader of the westward expedition and when he found the old fields again, they decided to stop and settle there. Assuming they were outside of North Carolina’s borders, they formed the Watauga Association and attempted to govern themselves.
The land technically belonged to the Cherokee and issues with the natives caused some of the settlers to move on from the Watauga Valley. In July 1776, while America's founding fathers were framing the Declaration of Independence, the Cherokee attacked the settlement. A group led by Robertson and John Sevier repelled the attack, but afterwards Robertson decided it was time to relocate.
After Richard Henderson cut a deal with the Cherokee at Sycamore Shoals to buy a significant portion of what is today Middle Tennessee, it was opened up for settlement, but not all of the Cherokee were in favor of this deal. A small group led by an Indian named Dragging Canoe broke off from the Cherokee and formed a new tribe known as the Chickamauga. They moved south and settled around present day Chattanooga.
James and his wife Charlotte along with a group that also contained John Donelson, his wife, and their daughter Rachel moved to an area known as the Great Salt Lick or the “French Lick” on the Cumberland River several hundred miles west of the Watauga River.
Robertson led a group over land and Donelson led a group that traveled by water. Donelson's party traveled down the Tennessee River and ran into the Chickamauga. They attacked one of the boats and took several members of the group captive. Despite the attack, most of the party survived and they met up at the French Lick with Robertsons group where they settled and built a fort for protection from Indian attacks. The Fort became known as Fort Nashborough and the site eventually developed into the city of Nashville.
Fort Nashborough was in a hostile area. They had to worry about attacks from the Cherokee to the east and the Chickasaw to the west, but the major threat was the Chickamauga.
In the “Battle of the Bluffs” the Chickamauga attacked Fort Nashborough in 1781. The mission was carefully planned out by their leader, Dragging Canoe. The Chickamauga lured Robertson and some of his men out of the fort and separated them from their group.
Charlotte Robertson, who was stuck inside the fort, released the dogs out of the fort and this was enough to distract the Chickamauga and James and the other men were able to re-enter the fort. They eventually won the battle and the Chickamauga were sent back south.
James Robertson and his group that settled at Fort Nashborough were not the first European settlers to come to the area we know today as Middle Tennessee. The first settlers of European descent were French fur traders. Jean du Charleville was a French fur trader who settled in what would become Nashville around 1710. He established a trading post near a natural salt lick and a spring that was located where the Bicentennial Mall and the Nashville Sounds baseball park stands today. It became known as the “French Lick.” After the British won the French and Indian War in 1763, most of the French people who resided in the area left, which opened up the area to settlement from British colonials.
Before Tennessee was a state and Dickson was a county, people were already settling in the area we know today as Dickson County. Most of the early settlers arrived in this area because of land grants given to Revolutionary War soldiers for their service. Since this area was originally part of North Carolina, the governor would give veterans from his state land here. Some sold their land grants, but others like the Larkins family chose to settle on the land and make this area their home.
Hugh Larkins owned and operated a sawmill in Ireland. Hugh had a son, John Larkins. One day when John was about 9 or 10, he and his cousins were playing by the river near his fathers sawmill. John was kidnapped by pirates. They took him to America where he was sold into indentured servitude for 50 pounds of tobacco. He was bound to a man in Pennsylvania, but when it was discovered that he was being mistreated and abused, he was removed from that situation and ended up with a man from North Carolina who was visiting Pennsylvania at the time.
In North Carolina, John Larkins was raised as a member of the family he was bound to and when the war for independence broke out against the British, John joined the Patriots. He served in the continental army and helped the United States win independence from Great Britain. For his service he was given a land grant from the state of North Carolina in what would become Dickson County.
On the lawn of the historic Dickson County courthouse there is a monument dedicated to the soldiers from the Revolutionary War who are buried in the county. We know of at least 30 individuals who served and were buried here.
By the mid-1780’s, Fort Nashborough had reached a significant population and in 1784 it was incorporated as a town by the North Carolina government. At the end of the Revolutionary War, James Robertson was elevated to general and was in charge of the militia in the Cumberland Settlements. Prior to statehood, James Robertson led the militia, negotiated treaties, and settled disputes with local Indians.
He was also a land surveyor. He established boundaries for land grants. While surveying the area west of Nashville in the early 1790s, he discovered iron ore scattered on the surface of the ground, particularly in the hills along the middle fork of Barton’s Creek. On June 21, 1793, he and William Sheppard acquired a 640 acre tract in what would become the northern end of Dickson County. An iron furnace was established there and over time it became known as the Cumberland Furnace. A village developed around the furnace which took on the same name. The Cumberland Furnace was operational by 1796 and it was the first iron furnace established west of the Appalachian Mountains. The furnace created jobs and people began rapidly moving to the area. That same year, Tennessee had a large enough population to become a state.
Delegates met in Knoxville at the Tennessee Constitutional Convention. There, they wrote the Tennessee State Constitution. They modeled Tennessee’s Constitution after the constitutions of North Carolina and Pennsylvania. It included a preamble and eleven articles. The articles dealt with topics such as Separation of Powers within the Tennessee Government, elections, impeachment, the Legislative Branch, Executive Branch, Judicial Branch, and state and county Officers. According to one historian, Thomas Jefferson described the Tennessee State Constitution as "the least imperfect and most republican of the state constitutions."
Voters elected John Sevier as the first Tennessee Governor. They also selected two US senators and one member of Congress. Andrew Jackson was chosen to be Tennessee's U.S. House Representative.
Now that they had everything in place, they applied to Congress for admission as a state. On June 1, 1796, Congress gave the approval and Tennessee entered as the 16th state of the Union. Tennessee was the third state added to the US after the original 13 states, being admitted after Vermont (14) in 1791 and Kentucky (15) in 1792.
TENNESSEE BECOMES A STATE
The American Patriots fought the American Revolution from 1775 to 1783. In 1783 a treaty was signed that officially ended the war. The founding fathers spent the next few years organizing the government. By 1787 the US Constitution was written and then sent to the states for ratification. Now that the Constitution was approved, it became the law of the land and it was time to elect the nation's first president. George Washington, who had led the Continental Army in the war, was elected the first President of the United States.
It was right around this time the people began rapidly moving to what would become Middle Tennessee. Washington was still president by the time Tennessee became a state in 1796. After the first Tennessee Constitution was written, it was sent to George Washington who then forwarded it to Congress. The House of Representatives and the Senate both debated the issue of Tennessee statehood for a month before it was approved.
After statehood approval, Nashville became the epicenter of this area in Tennessee and new settlements were beginning to pop up all around. After James Robertson discovered iron west of town, the Cumberland Furnace was established in what would become Dickson County. It created jobs and people began to move there for work.
One of the people who moved to the area because of the furnace was Montgomery Bell. He moved to Tennessee in 1802. Bell was originally from Pennsylvania. He had owned a hat making business in Kentucky, but he wanted to move south to break into the iron industry. He gave his hat business to his cousin and moved to Tennessee. He took a job working at the Cumberland Furnace, but once he had sold all of his property up north, he purchased the furnace in 1804 and became its new operator.
Montomgery Bell, however, did not come to Tennessee alone. He brought his trusted assistant James Worley with him. Worley was a slave and had worked in Bell’s hat making shop. Worley helped Bell select ore banks and water power locations. He assisted Bell in all of his iron making operations and, in fact, every branch of his business. Bell trusted Worley to take iron to Cincinnati and New Orleans and every single time he returned with every dollar that was owed to Montgomery Bell. James Worley was key to Bell building his business empire, in fact, Bell credited most of his success to Worley. A resident of New Orleans once offered a large sum of money for Worley, Bell replied that he wouldn’t sell Worley, “Not for all of New Orleans.” James Worley was an exceptional man and is considered by historians to be Tennessee’s first prominent African-American.
By 1803 there were enough people in this area to create a new county and Dickson County, Tennessee was officially formed in the fall of 1803. It was named for William Dickson II, a physician from Nashville who served in the United States House of Representatives. Dickson was originally from North Carolina. He moved to Tennessee the year before it became a state. He came from a line of politicians and patriots, one of his cousins was a general in the Revolutionary War. His father, Colonel William Dickson I., was involved in politics, he served for forty-four years as a Court Clerk in his hometown in North Carolina. He also served as a delegate to the group that framed North Carolina’s first constitution and he represented his county in North Carolina’s state government. He too was a patriot. A family story claims that when British General Charles Cornwallis’s Army marched through his town on its way from North Carolina to Virginia, William Dickson I concealed the records of the county in an iron pot to prevent their destruction. While we believe that Dr. William Dickson II never actually lived in Dickson County, his relatives did play key roles in the county's early development.
By the spring of 1804 it was time to organize the county and appoint officials. A group of people including Montgomery Bell, Sterling Brewer, and Richard C. Napier were present at the meeting. It was determined that a site needed to be chosen for the county seat and later that summer they picked a spot near a spring along a creek near an old Indian trail. The place was centrally located and they named the new town Charlotte in honor of Charlotte Robertson, James Robertson's wife. Before long, lots were divided out and sold and a town began to form. Soon a courthouse would be built that would sit in the center of the town square and a road would be established that would connect Nashville to Dickson.
It’s impossible to calculate how many settlers had made their way to Dickson by the time the county was formed in 1803. We know there were settlements on the banks of most of the creeks and one room cabins were popping up all over the place. Most of those original settlers were farmers by necessity and they found out pretty quickly that cotton didn’t grow well here, but corn and tobacco did.
At the time, there were still Indians living nearby that used this area as a hunting ground. They claimed this area, but there were not any Indians here in 1803. However, hundreds of years ago there were some Indian settlements in or near the county.
Artifacts discovered in the local caves have proved that there were indeed ancient Native Americans in this area a very long time ago. State Senator Doug Jackson found what appears to be a hatchet head in one of the caves. He took it to the state archeologist who said it was several thousands of years old.
Just outside of Dickson County, to the east on the banks of the Harpeth River lived the “Mound Builders.” They lived in this area several hundred years ago. We know they were here because the mounds they built still exist. If you’ve never been to “Mound Bottom,” I would encourage you to go. It's a giant mound that was built by the Native Americans. It is located on the banks of the Harpeth River, not far from where Highway 70 crosses it.
This land is part of Cheatham County now, but it was part of Dickson County in the early days. It’s currently owned by the state, but not open to the public. In order to see it up close, you have to go on a supervised tour. I contacted some people at the state office and was able to go on a public tour. Anyone can go, you just need to sign up. I learned so much, it was a great experience. Everyone should see it at least once. There’s so much history there.
At the time Dickson County was formed, the Mound Builders were long gone and this area was claimed by the Cherokee and Chickasaw tribes and used for hunting purposes. They did not live here, but frequented the place often.
The Tennessee divide runs through our county. It’s the highest point between the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers. It actually passes through Downtown Dickson and it was the traditional dividing line for the Cherokee and Chickasaw.
Unfortunately, relations between the Indians and settlers were not always friendly. There were some tales of hostilities in this area. A man was killed in an Indian attack on Garner’s Creek. As a result of these attacks, several forts were erected to protect the settlers. One Fort was built in Cumberland Furnace, another one was built near what would become the town of White Bluff.
The original act that created the county did not provide for a county seat. So, the following year in 1804, the state legislature empowered a committee that included Montgomery Bell to find a suitable site for a new county seat.
They found a great spot near an old Chickasaw Indian trail that crossed through the county from east to west. There was a wet spring and a creek near the gentle sloping hillside. It was the perfect place. The committee eventually secured several acres from a man named Charles Stewart who was one of the county’s early settlers. Once the land was acquired, it was divided into several lots with a courthouse scheduled to be built in the middle of a new town square. The lots were sold and homes began to be built rapidly. The original plat had 59 lots and 11 streets.
Charlotte was of course named after James Robertson's wife, Charlotte. It was the first settlement on the Highland Rim that was not located on a major waterway, which sometimes made things challenging. The first post office in Charlotte was established around 1806, after a road from Nashville to Charlotte had been cut for the mail carriers. Today, some sections of that old road still exist and are part of the modern Charlotte Pike.
The courthouse that would be the focal point of the square was not constructed immediately and for the first few years, important meetings were held in local homes. Around 1807, a tax was levied to help pay for the courthouse and shortly after, construction began. It took a few years to build, but it was worth the wait.
The old courthouse that they built is still there and it’s the oldest functioning courthouse in Tennessee. It suffered some major damage in 1830, and has undergone some big renovations, but it still stands today.
THE LONESOME CABIN
As someone who studies local history, I often get asked the question, “What is your favorite historical site in Dickson County?” A number of places come to mind, from the old courthouse in Charlotte, to the Ruskin Cave, to the Hotel Halbrook in Downtown Dickson. But personally, my favorite place is the “Lonesome Cabin.” If you are not familiar with where it is, it’s located in Burns right off of Highway 96 near the center of town. It’s an old log cabin set in a valley right next to Beaverdam Creek. It’s one of the few examples we have left of an old homestead from the 1800’s.
The cabin was owned by the Austin family up until recently when the decision was made to give the entire site to the town of Burns. We are currently in the process of turning the site into a full fledged park and historical site. I am proud to serve in a small role contributing to the project.
I think I fell in love with the cabin when I learned about all of the history associated with it. The cabin's story is the story of America.
First off, it was built by David Passmore, who was a veteran of the Revolutionary War. David was born in Pennsylvania not far from Philadelphia. He took part in the Revolutionary War serving under George Washington in that terrible winter at Valley Forge. He was also present when British General Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, effectively ending the war.
After the war, David ended up in North Carolina. He came to Tennessee with a caravan of other families. Most of them came from Orange County. One of those families was the Austins. Ruth Austin and her children made their way to Tennessee after her husband died. David eventually married Ruth once they all arrived in this area.
Tennessee was a brand new state and the possibilities were endless. They settled just west of Nashville in what would become Dickson County. They arrived within a few years of the county being formed.
David’s stepson was William Austin. William was just a young boy when his family made the trip to Tennessee. He grew up here, and when it came time to defend his state and his country, William took up the call. He joined Andrew Jackson and became one of the original Tennessee Volunteers who fought in the War of 1812 against the British. According to family records, William traveled to Clarksville where he volunteered for service on July 6, 1812. He was assigned to the First Regiment, Tennessee Militia, serving under Captain James Hamilton, and later under Captain Cuthbert Hudson. Once dispatched, the men traveled down the Natchez Trace towards New Orleans to defend the city.
THE WAR OF 1812
Some historians consider the War of 1812 to be the second part of the American Revolution. The British invaded America, keen on getting their colonies back that they had lost several decades earlier. They came close to winning that war, even burning the White House, but eventually a peace treaty was signed officially ending the war.
Before word of peace reached New Orleans, a major battle would ensue. The Battle of New Orleans ended up being the final battle of the war. Led by General Jackson, they defeated the mighty British Empire which was the world's strongest power at that point.
William returned from the war a hero. He was honorably discharged once he returned to Tennessee. His discharge papers were signed by Andrew Jackson himself, and for his service he was given a land grant. At one point, it is believed that he owned about 800 acres of land along Beaverdam Creek near what is today Burns, Tennessee.
A few years later William married Dicy Horner. As a wedding gift, it is believed that his stepfather, David Passmore, built the cabin for him and his new bride. It is estimated that the cabin was probably built between 1819 and 1821. In the cabins' early days, William and his family tried to make their new place home.
Most of the people in this area supported Andrew Jackson when he ran for President a few years later in 1824. He was a war hero that represented the common man and many Tennesseans voted for him.
He was given the nickname of “Old Hickory” because of his strict and bold leadership style during the War of 1812. He earned that nickname. He was strong and unbending like a tree and as tough as wood.
His home, “The Hermitage” was located on the eastern side of Nashville.
Andrew Jackson ran for President in 1824, 1828, and 1832, winning twice and serving two terms for a total of eight years in office.
HISTORIC CHARLOTTE TENNESSEE
There are a lot of small towns in Tennessee that have historic downtown areas, but there are few that can trace their establishment all the way back to the early 1800’s. Charlotte is one of those towns. By 1804 the town of Charlotte had been established, and over the next few decades it began to develop into an enterprising frontier town.
By 1810 over 4,500 people had settled in Dickson County. The economy was originally mostly based on agriculture but within a few years it had expanded and new professionals were finding their way to our area. Doctors, lawyers, ministers, and teachers came to Dickson County to establish new business, churches, and schools.
In the first decade of the nineteenth century, Charlotte, the county seat of government, began to grow. The Charlotte square was the epicenter of the town. Early on lots were laid out around the square and sold. The lots didn’t sell as quickly as expected, but the money from the sale of the lots would be used to construct a courthouse.
We believe that the courthouse on the square in Charlotte was probably built sometime between 1810-1812. Until it was completed, public gatherings and political rallies were held at Molton Dickson’s store.
Molton Dickson probably established the first general store in Charlotte. He was a cousin of William Dickson II, the county’s namesake. We think his store was established by 1805 and in 1806 the store began offering newspaper subscriptions to locals wanting to read the news.
By 1815 the square in Charlotte had a lot of businesses. There were multiple general stores, a blacksmith shop, a hat shop, a broom factory, a tobacco factory, a bank, a saloon, and a tavern. To support the saloon, there were a few distilleries set up around the county.
A lot of homes were built around that time. One of the oldest homes in Dickson County is still located on the square today. The home that sits at 10 Court Square was probably established in 1806 and has stood there for over 200 years. According to the “Heritage of Dickson County” book, that home was built by John McRae. It is one of the oldest brick structures in the entire county. The building has housed a store, post office, bank, and possibly even a small school. The home was built during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency and is reminiscent of the houses built during that time on the upper east coast of the United States.
THE CHARLOTTE TURNPIKE
Back in 1806, the first road was completed from Nashville to Charlotte. It was a very rough country road that was created mainly for mail carriers on horseback. It became known as the “Charlotte Turnpike.” It was the first road that left Nashville heading west. In 1812, the Tennessee General Assembly ordered the Charlotte Turnpike to be created from this road. It was widened and improved for wagon travel. The building of this road helped expand the local economy.
We believe that the first post office in Charlotte was probably established around 1806, just after the first road through Charlotte was completed. According to Robert Corlew, who wrote an excellent book about the history of Dickson County in the 1950’s, the first postmaster in Charlotte was a man named Richard Waugh.
The mail ran every Friday. It would leave Nashville at 6:00am and arrive in Charlotte by noon. The mail carrier would then pick up the mail in Charlotte and an hour later, he would take it back to Nashville. He would usually end up back in Nashville by 8pm. This required the rider to travel at a speed of about 7 miles per hour.
Charlotte was also home to an early hotel. The “Charlotte Stagecoach Inn” was also created on the southside of the square in 1812. It stood where the Courthouse annex stands today. The Charlotte Stagecoach Inn gave travelers on the Charlotte Turnpike a place to stop and rest. It operated for over 100 years until it was torn down in 1913.
By 1816, stagecoach roads, like the Charlotte Turnpike had opened up travel all across the United States. Someone from Charlotte could travel to Nashville and then from there, you could go as far north as the state of Maine on these stagecoach roads. That is a distance of over 1,500 miles! Stagecoach roads were first class roads in the early 1800’s. They were 12 feet wide with bridges and mile markers.
Charlotte continued to prosper and served as a hub in the years leading up to the Civil War. In the early days, the only raid traveling west out of Nashville went through Charlotte. For a time, especially before the war between the states, it could be said that “all roads lead to Charlotte” as the famous saying goes.
HISTORIC CHARLOTTE SQUARE
Before Tennessee became a state, the area that today is West Tennessee was a hunting ground for the Chickasaw Indians. In 1818, Andrew Jackson negotiated a treaty with the Chickasaw to buy this land and open it up for settlement. This deal was known as the “Jackson Purchase.” Around this time, Alabama and Mississippi both became states and the southeast part of the United States was starting to look as it does today.
Before West Tennessee was opened up for settlement, Charlotte was one of the westernmost towns in Tennessee and the Tennessee River served as somewhat of a border between settlers and Indians.
The town of Charlotte continued to grow into the 1820’s. Charlotte was starting to become an important place and high profile men like Andrew Jackson began to frequent this area. Sterling Brewer, one of the town's early settlers, became Tennessee’s Lieutenant Governor in 1821 and served in that role until 1823. The Tennessee Supreme Court met in Charlotte in the early 1820’s.
The main road out of Nashville heading west went through Charlotte. Charlotte became a travel hub for folks heading to West Tennessee and the newly established city of Memphis. Memphis was the home of the “Memphis Exchange,” where cash crops and other goods were bought and sold.
Dickson County produced a lot of iron, and sometimes this iron was put on flatboats and floated down a system of rivers to Memphis and even all the way to New Orleans. Before the establishment of Memphis, they would travel to New Orleans by boat, and then travel by land back to Dickson County using the Natchez Trace.
Charlotte continued to prosper until a fateful night in 1830. On May 30, 1830 a tornado traveled through Middle Tennessee. It reached the height of its power by the time it reached Charlotte. The storm almost wiped the town off of the map. Only a handful of buildings survived.
Some of the businesses that were destroyed included several general stores, several homes, a grocery store, a tailor shop, the post office, some stables, a hat shop, a tavern, a smokehouse, several kitchens, and a building containing a cotton gin.
John Eubank’s home was destroyed and his wife died in the storm. John would go on to serve in the Tennessee General Assembly for ten years.
One of the few buildings around the square that actually survived was the brick home located at 10 Court Square on the northwest corner. It experienced some damage, including the roof being blown off, but it did survive and it is believed to be one of the oldest, if not the oldest home in the city of Charlotte to survive to the present day.
Varying reports sometimes state that the Courthouse was destroyed or “leveled to the ground,” but recently more information has been found that leads us to believe that Courthouse was damaged but probably not completely destroyed.
The courthouse needed major repairs and while it underwent construction, court was held in nearby buildings. By October repairs had been made and they went back to meeting in the courthouse.
The jail was also severely damaged and it is believed that some of the bricks found in the rubble after the storm were used to rebuild the jail.
Charlotte was damaged so badly that the town easily could have ceased to exist, but the residents were determined to rebuild and new buildings started to pop up in the years following the disaster.
Things began to change in the years after the tornado. The Indian Removal Act was passed and in the 1830’s most of the native Indians left or were pushed out of Tennessee. A part of the “Trail of Tears” went through Middle Tennessee. Indian attacks on settlements became a thing of the past.
In 1837 the town of Charlotte was incorporated and the town continued to prosper until the outbreak of the Civil War.
In 1977 the courthouse and several of the buildings on the square were placed on the National Registry of Historic Places. The Dickson County Courthouse is the oldest courthouse still in use in the state of Tennessee. There are several buildings still standing on the square that were also constructed before the Civil War. The Collier-Cook House (#5) built in 1853, the B.A. Collier Store (#14) built in 1849, the Hickerson Hotel (#15) built in 1853, the Voohries-James House (#22) located at 10 Court Square built in 1806, the Christopher Columbus Collier House (#23) built in 1830, the Old Jailers House (#39) built in 1830, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (#38) built in 1850, the L.L. Leech Building (#29) built in 1849, and the Mallory and Leech building (#30) built in 1860.