Jacksonian Miscellanies, #8: Feb. 25, 1997

Topic: From the Roanoke to the Cumberland: Reuben Ross and Family Go West

Copyright by the editor, Hal Morris, Secaucus, NJ 1997. Permission is granted to copy, but not for sale, nor in multiple copies, except by permission.

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A business trip (hunting computer network bugs) took me to Maryland, where I followed the advice of a SHEAR 96 attendee, and went to the Second Story Bookstore, and found the Life and Times of Elder Reuben Ross, by his son, James Ross - with an introduction and notes by J.M. Pendleton - Philadelphia: Printed by Grant, Faires, and Rodgers. The introduction is dated February 1, 1882. James Ross seems to have written this late in life for his daughter, and there are frequent references to "your grandfather". I am not sure how Pendleton came to publish the book, except it seems he was a strong admirer of the elder Ross, and a friend of the family.

I'd appreciate hearing from any readers familiar with Ross or with this book. Apparently he became a leader of the western Baptist church, and was involved in the splitting of the Red River Association, in which some members fell in with the teachings of Alexander Campbell.

The two chapters of the book given here tell of a two month journey into darkest Tennessee, in which the encounter such exotic beings as Indians and Methodists. James Ross, who tells the story, was six years old at the time, and gives a very lively childs-eye account embroidering the adult ordeals with games the children made up to imitate them.



THE time for beginning the journey at length arrived; and I propose to give you some of the scenes and incidents connected with it, as they arise in my memory. You will no doubt, be surprised to find that it retains so many of these, as I was then only six years old. But what things I shall relate, and many besides, were themes of conversation in the family circle long years afterwards, and thus became fixed in my memory.

Several other families had concluded to emigrate with us, with their large families of children and servants. It was agreed that all should leave their homes the same day, in the morning, and meet at a deserted Episcopal church that stood in a forest of pines some distance from the town, and there encamp the first night.

There were many of these deserted churches in Virginia and the Carolinas at that time. When the law was passed depriving the clergy of that church of the sixteen thousand pounds of tobacco to which they had been entitled annually, the Established Church was broken up, and these lonely and decaying buildings might be seen in many places in the country. As many of these churches had grave­yards attached which were likewise neglected, the superstitious imagined they often saw forms that did not seem properly to belong to this world-not only by night, but sometimes in broad day-standing still or moving about; people generally went a little out of their way to pass around them. This was especially the case with the boys and negroes, who had many tales to relate of what they and others had seen at these places.

On the 6th of May, 1807, according to appointment, all bade adieu to their friends and relatives, the scenes of their early life, the graves of their fathers, and many objects besides around which memory loves to linger, and turned their faces towards the setting sun. It was customary then, and I believe is so still, when a family was about to remove from a place where they had long resided, and seek a home in a distant country, for the near neighbors and intimate friends to call and bid them farewell. This is usually a time when there is much tenderness of feeling; many, in taking leave, would not venture to speak; a tender embrace, a silent tear, and a pressure of the hand in many cases would be all. But few of the aged men and women now living do not remember such parting scenes. In those early times the emigrants that left Carolina or Virginia to settle in Kentucky or Tennessee hardly expected ever again to see those from whom they parted, especially if somewhat advanced in years. The great distance, the intervening mountains and rivers, the difficult roads, and the cruel savages that roamed in and around these States forbade the indulgence of this hope. They parted much as do those who part at the grave.

We children and the negroes that were along kept up our spirits pretty well by thinking and talking about Cumberland,-the name of the beautiful new world we were to find at the end of our journey. We loved to hear the word pronounced, and when journeying on towards it, if a stranger asked us to "what parts" we were going, we answered proudly, "To Cumberland." We always lost heart though a little when told there were no shad or herring, chincapins, huckleberries, or pine­knots to kindle fires with in all this beautiful country. The negroes made a serious matter of the pine­knot question, and thought the lack of these a great drawback on any country, however blest in other respects,-even on Cumberland itself.

On the day appointed, the whole party met at the old church; and as the night came on, the tents were pitched. Two or three stakes, forked at the upper ends, were cut; and firmly planted in the ground. On these a ridge­pole was laid, and against it other poles were leaned like the rafters of a house. Over all these a large tent­cloth or piece of canvas was spread, to keep off the rain and dews; then another piece of the same material was hung up opposite the front, which was always turned from the wind to keep the smoke from being blown in. Then, if the leaves on the ground were dry, some of them would be brought in and spread down inside the tent. A bed was then brought in from the wagon and laid on quilts and made comfortable to sleep on, a blazing fire kindled at the mouth of the tent, and supper cooked and served. This would be followed, perhaps, by a stroll around the campfires, and then to bed.

The first night we children camped out we were ill at ease. We thought ghosts could not find a more desirable place for their walks than the lonely church. The scarred trunks of the pines, white with the indurated rosin, the moaning of the wind in their lofty tops, and the red glare of the camp­fires among their branches worked on our imaginations, and caused the whole scene to appear weird and spectral. But at length "tired nature's sweet restorer" came to our relief, and in the deep slumber of happy childhood all was forgotten. Next morning betimes all were up. The teams were fed, breakfast prepared and served, the tents struck, and the long journey began in earnest.

Other emigrant families soon joined us, and their wagons and teams, in addition to ours, formed a long line that moved slowly over the white sandy roads, bordered by the stately pines. Among these families was that of a man named Long, with his wife and three or four children. They seemed to be in better circumstances than any others of the party,-better dressed, better equipped for traveling, more cheerful and lively, and in these respects in strong contrast with their follow­travelers. We soon learned they were Methodists, a kind of people we young Predestinarians knew but little about.

The first night we encamped together the Long children joined us in our plays; and after things began to grow a little dull the oldest daughter, a lively girl ten or twelve years old, proposed that we should have a camp­meeting, and all get happy. Then she began to sing a lively song, in which her little sisters joined her, clapping their hands, shouting "glory! glory!" and swaying their little bodies backward and forward in a way that astonished the rest of us greatly. Their parents did not seem to think this at all improper; but ours looked grave and shook their heads, thinking it a kind of mockery.

One evening the little Long girl and another got up a discussion about religion, in which the former remarked that her papa said everybody had a spark of grace in his soul, which, if he would blow and fan it, would kindle into a bright flame, and make him a good Christian. To this it was replied, "If one was not of the elect he might blow and fan a long time, before he would see any bright flame make its appearance." This subject was discussed more or less frequently for several days, among the larger children and indicated the hard­shell and soft shell elements very clearly.

After journeying with us for several days, the Longs took another road and left us, very much to our regret. We missed the camp­meetings and songs, especially at night, after they were gone. I do not remember where they were to settle, if I ever heard.

The first town through which we passed, after leaving Williamston, was Tarboro, in Edgecombe County,-the county where the General Assembly of North Carolina met in 1787. Here we crossed the Tar River, on a long narrow bridge The water under the bridge looked nearly black, and I imagined was very deep. I thought it a dangerous­looking place, and was glad when we were safely over it. The next place that I remember was Hillsboro, in Orange County; and the next Guilford Court-House, now Greensboro, where the famous battle was fought between General Green and Lord Cornwallis, in 1781. Here we all stopped, and remained several hours on the battle­field, trying to find some vestige of the conflict. We only made out, however, two or three trees cut off a considerable distance above the ground by the cannon balls. This was not much, it was true, but all seemed thankful that they had seen that much. I remember there was a good deal of jesting about the time it took some of the North Carolina militia to reach Martin County, after the fight. One fellow, of marvelous speed and bottom, got in some time before any one else, and reported that he was the only one left alive of General Green's whole army,-that all the rest were lying stark and cold on the bloody field of battle, and he alone was left to tell their sad story.

Some days after leaving this place, we children had loitered behind; on coming up with the wagons, we found them all stopped on an elevated part of the road. On inquiring the cause, we were shown what seemed to be a light blue cloud lying far away to the west, on the verge of the horizon. It was indeed to our young eyes a vision of beauty. In its vast outline not a rent or fissure could be seen; and we gazed upon it with mingled feelings of wonder and admiration. And this, then, was the famous Blue Ridge, about which we had heard so much, and beyond which lay our distant homes. As for crossing over it, how was that possible? Could wagons and teams ascend perpendicular walls? or pass over the clouds?- so thought and spoke the children.

Some time after this, if I remember rightly, we passed near the base of the Pilot Mountain, a conical peak of great elevation, and, as I think, in Surrey County, around the lofty summit of which some wonder­loving chap told us shapes like men with wings had often been seen flying in the clear blue sky. This was something to study about; and for years afterwards, your two aunts and I talked about it, so much did it haunt our imaginations. I have thought since that perhaps eagles might have sometimes built their nests on this mountain, and that this gave rise to the story, if there was any foundation for it at all.

North Carolina is divided by geographers into three sections,-the eastern or alluvial; the middle, or hilly; and the western. or mountainous. We were now in the section Last mentioned. As we approached the Blue Ridge, it seemed every day to rise higher and higher towards the zenith. At length our tents were pitched at its base. In vain they tried to make us believe that this was the same calm and beautiful mountain which we had seen many days before when it first came into view. The vast masses of rock, piled one above another in wildness and confusion; the lofty summits beaten and scarred by wintry storms; and the deep ravines worn in its sides by descending torrents,-forbade our believing it to be the same beautiful mountain first seen. "Distance" had indeed lent "enchantment to the view."

We did not cross the Blue Ridge by the road which the State of North Carolina, in 1776, ordered to be opened from Morganton on the east to Jonesboro on the west of the mountains, but farther north. Nor do I remember the name of the Gap or Pass at which we crossed. A good deal, though, was said at the time about a pass called Ward's Gap.

After the pass had been reconnoitered the ascent began. A wagon was lightened by having a part of its load taken out. Then as much team, from other wagons, added to it as could be conveniently managed. After which, one man would be placed at each wheel to assist in turning it, and two behind it, each with a large stone in his hand. It was the business of the scotchers, as they were called, to save every inch of ground in the ascent, by placing their stones, or scotchers, behind the wheels, to prevent the wagon from rolling back and dragging the team after it.

All things being ready, the driver would throw himself into the saddle, crack his whip, yell at the horses, in which he would be joined by others, and if your grandfather were not too near, perhaps some bad words would be heard after a hard pull, the driver would ascend probably eight or ten yards, and then make his team stop just as he perceived they were about to do so themselves. The scotchers quickly placed their stones behind the wheels, to save all the ground gained. Then resting a minute, the word would be given again and a similar feat performed. In this way all the wagons finally reached the summit of the mountain, and a shout of triumph was heard by those below.

While this was going on the boys had a sort of sideshow which made them nearly frantic with delight. They persuaded a stout lad to play wagon for them. He got down on all­fours, with a string around his neck, which was held by another boy, whip in hand, and scotchers were behind with stones to prevent his rolling back; in this way they carried him up the mountain too. They enjoyed every part of the show in a high degree; but when the boy would balk, as he sometimes did, and kick up his hind legs like a horse, the mountain fairly echoed with their yells of delight.

I do not remember the number of emigrant wagons then with us. Perhaps there were half a dozen, perhaps more. Some had taken other roads and parted from us before we reached the mountain. All finally gained the heights in safety, prepared, after a night's repose, to resume the journey on the morrow.

The east of the Blue Ridge is the boundary between North Carolina and Tennessee. On these lofty heights the emigrant might take his stand, and turning his face to the east, gaze for the last time on his native State and bid it a final adieu. First and last,, how many sorrowful hearts, young and old, have performed how this sad rite!

The journey thus far had been one of no little anxiety to your grandfather. Soon after it began, your grandmother took a deep cold from which she did not fully recover before it ended. At one time she was so much indisposed, that a physician was called in to prescribe for her, and fears were entertained that she would not be able to finish the journey. I well remember her pale and sorrowful face, as she lay on her bed, and was moved along over the rough uneven roads.




WE must have made a considerable detour after crossing the mountains for Abingdon, in Washington County, Virginia, was the next town I remember. Its locality in the old times, I think, was known as the "Wolf Hills." Here lived the Crabtrees, who killed an Indian while the treaty of Watago was being negotiated, which brought so much trouble upon the early settlers. This town was on the great highway traveled by the early emigrants from Virginia, who, turning to the right and passing through the famous Cumberland Gap, entered Kentucky, while those from Carolina, turning to the left down the valley of the Holston, entered Tennessee.

Along this route Boone and his large party of emigrants met with a bloody defeat, by the Indians, in 1772, in which one of his sons was killed. On this route, also, the father of the famous Peter Cartwright and his family traveled in these perilous times, when on their way to Kentucky, of which he has given an account so deeply interesting in the first chapter of his autobiography, and which culminated in the murder of "the seven families" near Crab Orchard, in Kentucky, by the Indians. On this route the famous pioneers of Kentucky, Boone, Calloway, Henderson, Clark, Rogers, and others traveled to explore this wild and perilous region when in its primeval state; as also Robertson, Donelson, Sevier, etc., so famous in the annals of the early settlements in Tennessee.

Abingdon was even then a pretty town. Here we children had a feast of gingerbread given us by our parents, and most of us received some small presents besides. Mine was a bright, tin cup, which I carried many days suspended from my neck, and used in drinking water from the pretty streams which we so often crossed. It was long ere we juveniles forgot Abingdon and the name even now sounds pleasant to my ears.

Journeying on, we at length reached Bean's Station, a place about which the emigrants had a great deal to say long before we reached it, as being the place where the first settlement was made west of the mountains, in what, as I think is now Grainger County. But its being the place where the first white child was born in Tennessee, seemed to have given it more dignity and importance than anything else. They could never cease talking about that child and I came at length to envy its good fortune to some extent, and to wonder why I could not have been born there instead. To me, except for the child, the place seemed to have no interest whatever, ignorant as I then was of the bloody Indian wars and thrilling incidents that had occurred long before, on the banks of the historic Watauga and Nolichucky rivers, and also of the famous old beech tree that bore until lately, if it does not still the inscription carved in its bark by Daniel Boone, in 1760-about forty­seven years before we passed through that country.

After leaving Bean's Station, while among the mountains of Tennessee, we saw much that was picturesque and beautiful, hills and mountains, covered with vast primeval forests, and robed in the light green of early summer, with valleys of surpassing beauty and fertility, through which flowed streams of bright and sparkling water. No wonder the poor Indian struggled long and hard to retain possession of this beautiful and romantic region.

It was among these mountains that I got into trouble. Passing near a beautiful stream, where some men were engaged in catching a quantity of fine fish, I could not resist the temptation to stop and look at them. I waited too long. The wagons got far before me. Starting off in a hurry to overtake them, I took a wrong road. After proceeding some distance I turned back to get in the right one again, having found my mistake. In the meantime I had been missed; the wagons were all stopped in the road, the horses unharnessed and mounted, and the neighborhood scoured in search of me. They feared I had been drowned in the river. All were in distress, and some in tears, for I had many friends. At length I was seen toiling up the road, weary with my long walk and anxiety. A shout was raised; all gathered around me and manifested, for a while, the most lively satisfaction for my safety. But some who had been in tears, when they thought me dead, after they came to think of the trouble and detention I had caused, suddenly turned against me and rather hinted that some punishment would do me no harm: I was quite surprised at the sudden turn things had taken. I escaped punishment, however, but was in disgrace for several days.

Long before we reached it we heard of a portion of country we had to pass through called the wilderness; and what made it more appalling to us children was that sometimes the word "howling" was added. The phrase "howling wilderness," sounded ominous in our ears. Visions of wolves, bears, lions, tigers, panthers, and Indians rose before us. This wilderness lay on the Cumberland Mountains between the Clinch River, a northern tributary of the Tennessee and the Caney Fork, a southern tributary of the Cumberland.

In consequence of some misunderstanding about what was called the treaty of Holston, it was uncertain at the time to which race it belonged, the white or the Indian, and consequently neither held it in possession. It commences, I believe, about forty miles west of Knoxville and terminated about sixty miles east of Nashville. And as the distance between Knoxville and Nashville is two hundred miles, it must have been about one hundred miles across. A beautiful description of this wilderness you may find in Parton's Life of Jackson, Volume I, chapter 16. It was written by Francis Bailey, the celebrated English astronomer, who crossed it in 1797, about ten years before we did.

It was necessary for all who passed through this wilderness to provide food for themselves and their teams, before attempting to do so; especially for themselves. There were many places where the teams could find an abundance of grass and wild pea­vines. These pea­vines were preferred by horses and cattle to any other food whatever. And it was said to recruit them when in low condition faster than any other known. These were abundant among the hills and mountains of Tennessee in early times, and afforded the richest pasturage.

Soon after entering the wilderness, we descended a very long and steep hill, not far from Crab Orchard, in Morgan County, Tennessee, I think, and encamped near a pretty stream of water. It was a beautiful and romantic spot. The little stream was called Daddy's Creek. This name greatly delighted us children. We would have given anything to know how it came by that name. The hill we had just descended was the famous Spencer's Hill, so called from a pioneer of that name who had been killed upon it by the Indians. There was a great deal said that night around the camp­fires about poor Spencer, how he and another man named Holiday crossed the mountains together and traveled on until they reached the neighborhood where the City of Nashville now stands; how each built a rude cabin and cleared a little field; how Spencer would cut down a large tree, take a rail­cut on his shoulder, and carry it to the place where he was making his fence, split it into rails, and lay them upon it, all of which he was enabled to do on account of his prodigious strength; how a hunter, not knowing he was in the country, and seeing his enormous foot­prints in the snow, became frightened, fled from it, and reported it full of giants; how Holiday lost his knife, and Spencer broke his own in two and gave him half of it when they parted; and how, after he had finished his cabin, and fenced his little field, when on his way home to bring his wife and children to the beautiful country he had found for them, he was killed by the cruel savages on the hill which bore his name.

The children shed tears for the noble hunter, when we thought of his manly form lying stark and cold far away in the lonely mountain, never again to be seen by his sorrowing wife and fatherless children; and gave vent to our feelings of abhorrence by heaping every opprobrious epithet we knew upon his murderers. I may observe here that most, if not all of what we heard that night relating to Spencer is, I think, historically true.

We were alarmed on several occasions while in the wilderness, two of which I remember. One evening, after our tents were pitched for the night, a solitary Indian came to us with some venison for sale. He told us he was "good Injun." Our people, however, thought differently, and set him down as an Indian of the very worst kind, sent as a spy by his tribe, perhaps not far off, to ascertain our strength and means of defense; and if he found us weak, to return and bring a party down upon us during the night, to tomahawk and scalp the last one of us before day. The more we thought about it, the greater the danger seemed. A council was held, and the "conscript­fathers" decided to buy the Indian's venison and to invite him to stay with us all night. Should he consent to this, well and good; if not, to place him under arrest, and keep him prisoner till morning. When the proposition was made he readily consented, and at bedtime rolled up for himself a bed of dry leaves, got into it and went to sleep. Not so your grandmother, Aunt Rosa, and others. All night they watched that pile of leaves, expecting every moment to see the Indian crawl stealthily from among them, and start off to bring his gang upon us. But this did not happen. When morning came he was still there, remained with us till after breakfast, then shouldered his rifle, bade us adieu, disappeared in the forest, and this was the last of our "good Injun," as he really turned out to be.

The next trouble we had in the wilderness occurred when at the close of a day's journey, we reached a stream of water too late to cross over it. Other emigrants though, who reached it earlier in the evening had crossed and encamped on the opposite side.

I must inform you, if you do not already know it, that large reeds, or canes, when thrown on a hot fire, will swell and burst with a report very much resembling the crack of a rifle. The children on the other side of the stream, after all had become quiet, and before going to sleep, got into a frolic, and commenced throwing armfuls of large canes on the fire, and shouting when they burst.

We on our side took this to be the report of rifles, accompanied by the yells of Indians, and thought all on the other side were being massacred by them, and that it would soon be our turn. Wild shrieks now arose among the women, children, dogs, and negroes, and dire was the din that followed. The people on the other side, hearing the uproar among us, and never dreaming that the bursting of the reeds and the shouting of the children of their own party was the cause of it, concluded the Indians were and would soon be on them, and raising a regular murder shout, joined in the concert. It would be useless to attempt a description of the scene that followed. Some new words would be needed for the purpose. At length, however, quiet was restored. On reflection, we were heartily ashamed of what we had done, and those who had us in charge thought theirs was a hard lot indeed.

After leaving the wilderness behind us and crossing the Caney Fork River, while going towards Nashville we met a gentleman in the road, who getting into conversation with your grandfather, advised him to purchase land, and settle in what, I think, was then called the Dutch River country, describing it as being a beautiful and fertile region, telling him at the same time that he owned land there, on which he had built a good cabin, which he might occupy until he could find land to suit him and gave him at the same time an order to his agent to let him have possession of the house. I have heard that this gentleman told others he was very much pleased with your grandfather's appearance, and wanted him to settle in the part of the country where his lands lay, believing he would attract others to settle near him. I judge he was one of those great land speculators, who were then engaged in securing a portion of the rich lands lying south of Nashville.

We accordingly went to the place, found his cabin, and took possession. It was situated in a vast cane­brake, a description of which would be incredible to one who had never seen anything of the kind. The canes reached half way up the tall trees, and were so thick that a bear, or Indian, could not have been seen at the distance of a few yards. Where a road or path was cut through it a wall, almost solid, seemed to stand on the right hand and on the left. The wild and lonely appearance of the country, and the constant dread of Indians, however, had a depressing effect on most of the party, and they begged to be carried away from the dismal place, so the idea of settling here was finally abandoned. But your grandfather always regretted that he did not remain, as he thus saw the lands were wonderfully fertile, and to procure such had been his chief inducement in leaving his native state and moving to the West.

Leaving this place, we journeyed on in the direction of Nashville, which a few days afterwards we reached. Here I was sadly disappointed; a few log houses and two or three brick kilns constituted the Nashville of that day, according to my recollection. But I suppose we must have passed through the suburbs only. For I see from Putnam's History of Middle Tennessee, that two years before we passed by it or through it, Nashville could have boasted of about twenty houses, scattered around here and there, in various directions. What a change had come over it when next seen by me some thirty­five years later! It had grown to be a beautiful city, the seat of wealth and refinement. A bridge spanned the Cumberland; steamboats lay along its wharves, and its spires and domes glittered in the sun.

From Nashville, after crossing the Cumberland, we traveled in a north­westerly direction to Port Royal, a village situated in Montgomery County on the left bank of the Red River, a tributary of the Cumberland. This was virtually the end of our long journey which we reached on the 4th of July, 1807, having been on the road two long and eventful months.

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