HISTORY OF DEKALB COUNTY
WHEN TENNESSEE WAS YOUNG
- As a definite district bearing its present name, DeKalb County is not old, since it was erected in 1837
and not organized until 1838. But the territory included within its boundaries has a history we need to know something
about, along with that of the State, and this will be treated before taking up its organization.
- The entire domain of Tennessee was once a part of the State of North Carolina. Between 1750 and 1775
the first settlements were made in that portion of the State now known as East Tennessee. When the colonies there
numbered several hundred whites, North Carolina in 1777 asserted jurisdiction over the western part of her lands
and formed it into Washington County. In other words, the whole of the State of Tennessee became Washington County,
- In 1780, after Col. James Robertson with seven of his friends - William Overall (an uncle of Col. Abraham
Overall), George Freeland, William Neely, Edward Swanson, James Hanley, Mark Robertson, and Zachariah White - had
come over the mountains from East Tennessee and selected the site of Nashville for another settlement, a party
of from two hundred to three hundred of his relatives and acquaintances ar-
arrived on the Cumberland River and built homes and forts. In 1783 a new county was laid off by North
Carolina. It was, of course, taken from Washington County, included a large scope of country west of the Cumberland
Mountains (which were called the Wilderness), and became Davidson County. In 1786 Sumner County was laid off, its
eastern boundary being the Wilderness; but in 1799 it was reduced by establishing Smith and Wilson Counties out
of its eastern territory. Smith County at first included what later became Jackson, White, Warren, and Cannon Counties
- or at least a great part of Cannon. Meanwhile, in 1790, North Carolina ceded all the Tennessee country to the
United States, and it became, to use the short name, Southwest Territory, with William Blount appointed Governor
by President Washington. In 1796 Southwest Territory was admitted into the Union as a State and was given the name
- DeKalb County was not erected until 1837, but of course settlers came and occupied the land while it
was a part of some of the other counties. In what part of the country that was to become DeKalb county did the
pioneers first make a settlement? It is believed by some of the older citizens that they reached the Alexandria
neighborhood first, about 1795; others say the first settlement was made at Liberty by Adam Dale about 1797. Each
contention has merits. There had been a settlement at Brush Creek, within two and a half miles of Alexandria, early
enough for Rev. Cantrell Bethel, of Liberty, to constitute a Baptist
Church May 2, 1802. Might there not have been some settler to locate two or three miles southward of Brush
Creek some years earlier than the institution of the Church? On the other hand, the colony of forty souls who came
from Maryland to Liberty about 1800 on hearing from Adam Dale had to cut a wagon road through the forest and canebrakes
from a few miles out of Nashville to Liberty. All the traditions are to that effect, and no hint from the pioneers
has come down to indicate that they passed any settlement in the vicinity of Alexandria. It is possible, however,
that the road opened by the colony ran considerably south of the old stage road and turnpike upon which Alexandria
is located. This point will probably never be settled and may well be left alone.
- To go back many years, upon the arrival of the first whites in what is now East Tennessee, a vast portion
of Middle Tennessee was unoccupied by Indians, though hunting parties camped here or passed back and forth in their
tribal wars beyond the borders. It seems to have been agreed among the red men that it should be held as a common
hunting ground. As a result it was a wilderness well stocked with buffaloes, bears, deer, and other wild animals.
No one knows how long it had been uninhabited; the numerous burying grounds, mounds, and traces of forts prove
that some race in the past had lived here. They had probably disappeared before stronger hostile tribes. For want
of a better name, and because of their custom of building mounds and burying their dead in stone-walled graves,
that vanished tribe were called the Mound
Builders, or Stone Grave race. Some ethnologists believe the Natchez Indians were
a branch of this forgotten race.
- The mounds and other remains indicate great age and a civilization more advanced than that of the tribes
seen when the American explorers came. Judging from the location of the forts, mounds, and cemeteries, the Mound
Builders selected the most fertile sections for habitation and near streams. These landmarks are numerous in Middle
Tennessee, and the Smith Fork Valley, in DeKalb County, once echoed to the voices of the lost people. In the graves
and some of the mounds have been discovered pipes, bowls, ornaments, weapons, and toys. In one place four miles
south of Nashville three thousand graves were found and not far off one thousand more. >From these were taken
nearly seven hundred specimens of burned pottery - some of them semiglazed - representing animals, birds, fish,
and the human figure. On the farm once owned by C.W. L. Hale, north of Liberty, is a very large Indian mound, which
had perhaps been used for religious or observation purposes. Many graves adjacent have been plowed into. Graves
have also been found on T. G. Bratten's farm, just west of Liberty, in the vicinity of the buffalo trail on which
a battle was fought between Indians and whites in 1789. Mr. Leander Hayes, who had lived from boyhood four miles
southwest of Liberty on Smith Fork, gave the writer in 1894 this description of the Mound Builders' graves on his
farm: "A great number were rock-lined, square, and contained skeletons in a sitting
posture. At our old home, which I own now, there are two of these graves which have
not been molested since their discovery - one near the front gate and the other in the garden under an old apple
- The Cherokee and Chickasaw Indians lived in Tennessee when the first settlements were made - not in the
"hunting grounds" proper, however. The former lived mainly along the mountains of the eastern border;
while a portion, the banditti known as the Chickamaugas, had their villages near the present Chattanooga. The Chickasaws,
who became friends of the whites after attacking the settlers on Cumberland River in 1781, claimed all West Tennessee.
The bitterest enemies of the settlers were the Cherokees, assisted by the Creeks, who lived south of Tennessee.
- When Adam Dale, James Alexander, Jesse Allen, and other pioneers came to what is now DeKalb County, the
spirit of the Indians had been broken by the Nickajack expedition southward from Nashville in September, 1794;
but there were still hostile tribes in the State. Adam Dale arrived on the site of Liberty in 1797, just three
years after the Nickajack expedition. Until 1805 a part of the Cumberland Mountains was an Indian reserve known
as the Wilderness. As late as 1791 Nettle Carrier, an Indian chief, lived there with his tribesmen. About 1800
a band of Cherokees, under the lead of Chief Calf Killer, had their homes in the present White County. These were
called "friendly," but the savages were easily stirred to deeds of violence and readily took the warpath.
Then, even after the Nickajack expedition, the In-
dians committed depredations. At noon November 11, 1794, an attack was made on Valentine
Sevier's fort, near the present site of Clarksville, forty redskins being in the raid. Several whites were killed
and scalped. With the state of affairs before us, shall we imagine that the Indians did not camp in or pass through
some portion of DeKalb County after the first few settlers arrived?
- For many years after Tennessee became a State roving families of vagabond Indians journeyed over the
trails and highways. Subsequent to the War between the States the writer saw them go through Liberty. They were
friendly and made a few cents target-shooting with bows. It was supposed that they came over the mountains from
their old East Tennessee haunts. Prior to 1840 the Chickasaws, Cherokees, and Creeks relinquished all claims and
were removed across the Mississippi River.
- History records one Indian battle on DeKalb County soil. This was on the buffalo trail down Smith's Fork
and up Clear Fork. Hon. Horace A. Overall assured the writer that, according to tradition, the battle field was
near where the Bratten lane turns south a quarter of a mile west of Liberty. John Carr, a pioneer of Sumner County,
says of the fight in his book, "Early times in Middle Tennessee," published in 1857:
- In 1789 General Winchester went out with a scouting party; and on Smith's Fork, a large tributary of
the Caney Fork (I believe now in DeKalb County), he came upon a fresh trail of Indians. He pursued them down the
the buffalo path, and no doubt the Indians were apprised they were after them and
accordingly selected their ground for battle. The path led through an open forest to the crossing of the creek,
and immediately a heavy canebrake set in. The General's spies were a little in front. They were Maj. Joseph Muckelrath
and Capt. John Hickerson, a couple of brave men.
- Just after they entered the green cane a short distance the Indians, lying in ambush, fired upon them.
They killed Hickerson at once, but missed Muckelrath. Winchester was close behind, rushing up. The action commenced,
lasting some time. Frank Heany was wounded; and the Indians having greatly the advantage, General Winchester thought
it proper to retreat, thinking to draw them out of the green cane. In this attempt he did not succeed.
- There is no doubt but that Capt. James McKain, now  eighty-five or eighty-six years old, killed
a celebrated warrior and, I believe, chief called the Moon. He was a harelipped man, and it was said that there
was but one harelipped Indian in the nation. No doubt the same Indian shoot down and scalped Capt. Charles Morgan
a year or two before (at Bledsoe's Lick).
- One of my brothers was in this expedition. The Indians gave an account of the battle afterwards and said
it was a drawn fight, that they had a man killed and that they had killed one of our men.
- Carr says two of the whites were John and Martin Harpool, Dutchmen. Martin was foolhardy, and his brother
suggested to him, after Winchester withdrew, to rush into the canebrake and drive the Indians out while he killed
one. With a great whoop Martin entered the cane, making it crackle at a terrible rate, and the Indians fled.
- On the first settlement of the county there may have been far inland a few bears and buffaloes left.
We have no records. Just twenty years previously Tennes-
see was overrun with them. About 1781 twenty hunters went from Nashborough Fort up
Cumberland River as far as the present Flynn's Lick and soon returned with one hundred and five bears, more than
eighty deer, and seventy-five buffaloes. The late Elbert Robinson, of Temperance Hall, once said that when his
grandfather came to that settlement bears were frequently seen. Dr. Foster says that when he was an infant (he
was born in 1839) his parents removed to Dry Creek, but they were so disturbed by wolves howling at night that
they moved back to Liberty within three days. John K. Bain writes that when he was a lad, about 1835, he ran three
deer out of his father's cornfield in one day. That was in the eastern part of the county. He adds: "My uncle,
Archibald Bain, killed a bear before I remember. Squirrels were so numerous as to destroy cornfields thirty feet
from the fence. I killed forty in one day, and one fall (I kept tab) the number I killed was over three hundred."
Doubtless game was sufficiently abundant to make hunting and the chase worth while to the first comers.
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