Scott County, Tennessee
FNB Chronicles

This page was created 06 Sep 2008

A History Of

Mining for Saltpeter in the Big South Fork

Over the last few years numerous articles have been written about mining for saltpeter. Much of this activity occurred in natural limestone caves during the first 60 years of the 19th century. Niter mining also occurred on the Upper Cumberland Plateau during this time and has been documented in and around the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River. Potassium nitrate occurs in the sandstone rock here, and impacts to rockshelters and the presence of niter mining artifacts helps to identify sites associated with this industry.

National Park Service Archeologist
Big South Fork NRRA

Sandstone Cliffs and Overhangs In Rugged Big South Fork Area Were Once Mined for Saltpeter

Niter, or saltpeter, is an essential ingredient of gunpowder which is composed of approximately 75% niter, 12% to 15% charcoal, and 12% to 15% sulphur. Niter mining was an important industry in the Upper South and on the Upper Cumberland Plateau (UCP) from the late 18th century until the late 19th century.

Gunpowder was needed by everyone on the UCP, from the long hunters of the 18th and 19th century fur trade, to larger quantities used by the military during the War of 1812 and the War Between the States. Eventually, niter mining in the region of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River became a cottage industry performed by small family groups that sold their products to larger powder companies. These large powder manufacturers also operated large cave and cliff mining operations.

The earliest known powder mill near the region began production in Lexington, Kentucky in 1802 (George 1898; O’Dell 1989). There were a number of large powder manufacturers operating out of Lexington by 1805, and these operations constantly were expanding as new sources of saltpeter were found. The demand for domestic production of gunpowder escalated greatly during the War of 1812. After this war, and the restoration of cheaper gunpowder supplies from abroad, the monetary value of saltpeter declined.

By the 1850s, many of the Lexington powder mills went out of business (O’Dell 1989:109; Smith 1990:7). Approximately 11 years later with the opening salvos of the Civil War, however, supplies of gunpowder again became a critical concern for both sides of the conflict. With the outbreak of hostilities, great quantities of niter were required for both Union and Confederate armies. There was a resurgence in niter production throughout the UCP area during this time (DePaepe 1985:35; Smith 1990). An emphasis on developing domestic production of gunpowder stimulated niter manufacture throughout the country. The U.S. Government was paying anywhere from 35˘ a pound up to $1.50 per pound for domestic supplies of saltpeter, but only 13˘ per pound for imported niter (Osterlund 1982:108) [Referenced by not cited]. Because of this economic incentive, one of the first resources to be exploited in any newly settled area was inter. The cliffs and rockshelters around the area of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River proved to be a reliable source for this most necessary ingredient.


According to Kinne (1934: 16), between 1812 and 1824 thousands of acres along the Big South Fork were acquired for the purpose of drilling for saltpeter. All of this enterprise, though, was probably not related solely to the production of potassium nitrates or niter salts, but rather niter and sodium chloride salts. The Kentucky legislature offered favorable land grants for the production of sodium chloride salt, and there were a number of pioneers in the area who took advantage of this by establishing camps in the area.

Long hunters are first recorded traveling though the drainage of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River in 1776 and 1777 (Sandersong 1957; Smith 1985:3). [Sandersong is referenced by not cited] Other accounts describe the permanent presence of long hunters and early settlers in Scott County by 1798 (Humphrey 1981:24; Burke 1988). By 1818 there was a large salt works, the "Beatty Salt Works," located here; and later, by 1840, "Salttown" was located in the area.

The long hunters of the late 18th century who lived in this region of the country knew the procedure of how to collect saltpeter from a cave or rockshelter. They would recover it from the rock, refine it. and blend it with other ingredients, sulphur and algrimore (a finely divided charcoal), to produce a usable gunpowder. According to Phillip Mazzei (1730-1816), it was rare to find a farmer who did not know how to make powder during the late 18th and early 19th centuries (Faust 1967:2). The manufacturing process for producing gunpowder is considered by some to be general knowledge at this time (Faust 1967: 67). Other authors, though, feel that "only a few individuals possessed the necessary skill and, knowledge" (O’Dell 1989:101). There is no disagreement, however, that gunpowder was being made for personal use by early frontiersmen.

Remains of a Type 3 Hopper Used in Saltpeter Mining Operation

Mattock-like Tool Used In Saltpeter Mining Process In Big South Fork Region

Pioneer settlers on the UCP typified the early frontiersmen and were making gunpowder, which by the early 1800s was selling in this area for $2 a pound (Phillips, 1904). The price of the saltpeter constituent at the powder mills was about 10˘ a pound during this time (Coy, et al. 1984:61). Sulphur was acquired by many of the powder mills from Philadelphia, but locally it may have been available from other sources. Melanterite, a ferrous sulfate hepthahydrate (FeSo4: 7H2) is frequently found in the Big South Fork Area as fibrous aggregates, or clumps and balls of whitish-yellow, ibrous crystals, associated with coal and shale seams of the Pennsylvanian sandstone formations. Melanterite can be readily and easily reduced to elemental sulphur and iron oxides, thus providing that other most necessary element of gunpowder. However, there is no evidence that large scale mining and processing of this mineral occurred here. Charcoal or refined charcoal, algrimore, could be produced practically anywhere. It seems readily apparent then, that using the "generally" known production technology, all of the ingredients for manufacturing a serviceable gunpowder were locally available. Lead was transported from Virginia during this time and sold for 25˘ a pound.

Nineteenth Century techniques for mining the sandstone overhangs and cliff walls for potassium nitrate probably followed this basic procedure: a cliff or rockshelter showing dark, yellowish brown bands in the rock or bluish green, dusty looking soils was selected. The dusty looking soil was often tasted to confirm niter salt presence. A cool, salty taste indicated potassium nitrate. Also, a handprint or footprint put into such soil would disappear in a matter of hours. A nearby water source must have been used and in several of the niter mined rockshelters on the UCP there are seep areas that may have been dammed up to provide this resource.

The cliff walls were then drilled and shot (dynamited) and the rockfall was blasted and hammered into cobbles. Sometimes the weakened overhang collapsed on top of the cobbles that had been made, but the miners just came in later and shored up the collapsed boulders and mined out the cobbles beneath them. At one rockshelter, the roof fall was held in place with stacked up cobbles and timbers. The remaining cobbles had been removed, leaving large, heavy blocks of suspended rock. The cobbles were obviously tossed into piles near an area where the hoppers and kettles were set up for the leaching and evaporation operation.

Crude Tools Were Used in Saltpeter Mining in the Big South Fork Region

As the cobbles were leached, many of them disintegrated, leaving a large pile of sand to mark the leaching area. The leachate was then collected in wooden troughs, poured off into boiling kettles, and the water was boiled off. The niter salt remained and was collected from the kettle.

Small scale production of gunpowder and niter mining continued on the UCP until after the War Between the States when "Carpetbagger Capitalism" reestablished commerce and transportation systems; more reliable commercial black powder was once again available at reasonable prices. Home made powder and small scale niter mining operations disappeared by about 1880.


Sandstone rock of the Upper Cumberland Plateau contains a greater concentration and purer form of nitrate salt than the guano rich cave soils which were the earlier sources of saltpeter mined in other areas (George 1989: 92). According to recent research (Fig and Knudson 1984), cave soils yield only about one pound of niter per bushel of soil. (.45kg/3.79 liters) while the sandstone rock formations produce about 20 pounds of niter per bushel of rock (9.0kg/3.79 liters). And, as noted by Dr. SAMUEL BROWN in 1809, "10 pounds (of saltpeter) to the bushel of sand" can be had from rockshelter soils (Coy et al. 1984: 51, 58). The chemical make-up of niter salt from cave soils also differs from the chemical nature of niter salt obtained from sandstone. Niter from the soil of limestone caves is either a calcium or sodium nitrate while that obtained from sandstones of the UCP is potassium nitrate. Additional processing is therefore required to change calcium nitrate from limestone based cave soils into the more desired potassium nitrate and to remove other impurities (George 1986:92). Dr. SAMUEL BROWN also refers to this, stating that "Most of our saltpeter-makers find it in their interest to work the sand rock rather than the calcareous caverns, which yield a mixture of nitrate of pot-ash and nitrate of lime. The rock saltpeter is greatly preferred by our merchants and powder makers and commands a higher price" (Maxson 1932:1852-1854). Any of these nitrate salts make acceptable constituents of black powder.

Archaeological surveys done in the UCP area in the past fifty years have identified a number of niter mined rockshelters (Funkhouser and Webb 1935; Wilson and Finch 1980; Ferguson, et al. 1986). Evidence for early niter mining in the Big South Fork area consists of numerous large mined rockshelters found throughout the region. Rockshelter sites exhibiting niter mining impacts are primarily south or east facing, and agree with what was noted by Dr. SAMUEL BROWN (Maxson 1932:1854) that saltpeter miners never saw a rock facing south or west, which was very rich in niter." The signal features of niter mined rockshelter sites then are the presence of large amounts of broken down roof fall and boulders, piles of cobbles, drill marks, large or deep piles of sand, and occasionally, hand-adzed troughs and leaching vats.

One of the identified niter mining sites here has a stone carving dated 1817, and another has a signature rock signed "Moses Hickenbottom 1813). This latter is noteworthy, since it has been recorded that an AARON HIGGINBOTHAM of east central Tennessee was killed while making gunpowder and mining niter on the Eastern Highland Rim of Tennessee in 1819 (Halliday 1976:206). The HIGGINBOTHAM family’s involvement in niter production has been well documented for the 19th century. In fact, HIGGINBOTHAM cave, part of the Cumberland Caverns on the Highland Rim, was mined for its niter salts as early as 1812. The presence of the name "Moses Hickenbottom" at a niter mined rockshelter site on Ben Branch of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River is too coincidental to dismiss without additional investigation. It seems most likely that MOSES HICKENBOTTOM is one of the Higginbotham family of niter miners. According to numerous documents, niter mining continued on the Upper Cumberland Plateau throughout the Civil War, and a recently discovered inscription of 1860 at another conspicuously mined rockshelter also suggests this.

Niter mining artifacts found in the area of the Big South Fork include: portable leaching vats composed of hand-adzed sideboards with yokes and stakes, numerous hollowed out leaching troughs, prybars, ladders, blasting holes, sand piles, blasted cliff was with large piles of cobbles, and a single, metal, mattock-like tool.

The leaching vats found in this area are what Fig and Knudson (1984:69-70) refer to as Type 3 Hoppers which are rarely found intact because of their mobile or portable nature. The type 3 hopper is constructed of slabs of bark or hand-hewn wood side boards, pinned together with poles and held in place by "yokes" (Coy, et al. 1984). These types of leaching vats or hoppers are especially suited to small scale operations which as subsistence farm families attempting to supplement their income (Fig and Knudson 1984: 70). Tools associated with niter mining sites found in the area are similar to those described and illustrated by DePaepe (1985:21-22) and Faust (1955: 8-18). These include hand-adzed wooden planks or sideboards, troughs, prybars and stakes or poles, a large cast iron kettle, and a single mattock-like

tool. This latter tool is uncommon to find among abandoned niter mining equipment and is like those described by Faust (1955:10) except that its vertical "blade" (that portion of the metal tool aligned with the axis of the handle) -is broken off.

One account (Kinne 1934:20) notes the existence of a powder factory in a cave at the head of Patton Creek that was said to have been used to make - powder during the War of 1812. Henry C. Smith (1985:126-7), 161-2) recounts the powder making activities of ENOCH DAVIS who, during the War of 1812, was making powder in at least five cliff areas of Scott County. Another example of an early pioneer niter mining operation in this area was that of HUDSON "Huts" BURKE (B. 1810) who lived in the No Business community of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River of Tennessee. HUTS BURKE mined saltpeter and laid it out to dry on the roof of his cabin. With this niter he made gunpowder and sold it to neighbors and hunters (Burke 1987:15). Another description of this cottage industry on the Upper Cumberland was collected by Benita Howell (Howell 1979: 56) who interviewed Mrs. FRONA THOMPSON. Mrs. THOMPSON described her grandfather, EDMOND STEPHENS, as a Cherokee who also made gunpowder in the No Business area of Big South Fork and sold it to the Union army. On one occasion during this conflict "rebels" blew up a batch of his powder. Henry C. Smith (1985: 161-2) also tells of JIMMY SLAVEN making gunpowder near the Verdun Road lands near Oneida, Tennessee. While on top of his house drying the gunpowder (saltpeter?) he saw rebel raiders who, having seen evidence of powder manufacture at the Slaven Mill, were enroute to his house to get it. They did not find the powder, and looted the house and left. A niter mining operation in the area is also described for Peter Cave Hollow on Pine Creek in Scott County, Tennessee (Sanderson 1958) as well.


An attempt was made to determine the niter content of sandstone rock from the Upper Cumberland Plateau. A calculation of 10% was given as the proportion of potassium nitrate to sandstone by Coy et al. (1984). Using this as a baseline, ten rockshelter sites in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area were investigated to determine presence or absence of nitrate minerals in the sandstone rock of the UCP. Nine samples were collected from the sites that were mined historically for saltpeter, and one sample was collected as a control from a cliff face that had no evidence of niter mining. The samples were sent to the University of Tennessee, Institute of Agriculture, where they were tested for presence or absence of nitrate minerals. Using a Perkin-Elmer, Model 5000 atomic absorption spectrophotometer, a search for nitrate signatures in each sample was done. Results from this investigation indicated that none of the samples had retained any trace of nitrate (Ammons 1992). I can only conclude from these results that the nitrate salts have leached out over time or that the sampling method must have been flawed. I hope to continue with further testing and analysis.


I would like to thank Dr. J. T. "Tom" AMMONS and the University of Tennessee’s Agricultural Institute for the photospectographic examination of the 10 sandstone specimens. The author is also grateful to Mr. MARION SMITH for information and advice. I want to thank, as well, Mr. ROBERT MARCUM who directed me to several site locations.


Ammons, J.T. — 1992 Personal communication. Institute of Agriculture, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Burke, Mrs. Jean — 1987 Memoirs of Station Camp and No Business, Scott County, Tennessee. Unpublished manuscript on file. National Park Service, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Oneida, Tennessee.

Coy, Fred. E., Tom Fuller, Larry Meadows, Don Fig, Jim Rosene, and Garland Denver — 1984 Samuel Brown on Saltpeter from Sandstone Cliffs in Eastern Kentucky in 1806. Tennessee Arthropologist 9 (1)48-66.

DePaepe, Duane — 1985 Gunpowder From Mammoth Cave. Cave Pearl Press, Hays, Kansas.

Faust, Burton — 1967 Saltpetre Mining in Mammoth Cave, KY. The Filson Club Historical Quarterly 31: 1-4. 1995 Saltpetre Mining Tools Used in Caves. National Speleological Society Bulletin. 17: 8-18.

Fig, Donald, and Gary Knudson — 1984 Niter Mining: An Incipient Industry of the Red River Gorge, Kentucky. In Proceedings on Ohio Valley Urban and Historic Archaeology, Vol. II. Edited by D. Ball and P. DiBlasi, pp. 67-73. Louisville.

Funkhouser, William D. and William S. Webb — 1935 Archaeological Survey of Kentucky 2 Vols., University of Kentucky, Lexington.

George, Angelo I. — 1986 Saltpeter Rock Mining Activity in Dixon Cave, Edmonson County, Kentucky. Journal of Speleon History 20 (4) : 92-103.

Halliday, M.D., and William R. — 1976 Depths of the Earth: Caves and Cavers of the United States. Harper and Row, New York.

Howell, Benita J. — 1981 A Survey of Folklife Along the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River. Report of Investigations No. 30, Department of Anthropology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Humphery, Steve E. — 1981 The History of the No Business and Station Camp Communities. Unpublished manuscript on file. National Park Service, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Oneida, Tennessee.

Kinne, WA. — 1975 The Gum Tree Story: The History of Stearns (6-3-1934). McCreary County Record 57(3) 1D-16D.

Maxson, Ralph Nelson— 1932 The Niter Caves of Kentucky. Journal of Chemical Education Vol. 9, No. 11, pp. 1847-1864. University of Kentucky, Lexington.

O’Dell, Gary A. — 1989 Bluegrass Powderman: A Sketch of the Industry. Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 87 (2) :99-115.

Phillips, Jehu — 1904 Reminiscences of Pioneer Days in Scott County by the Cumberland Chronicle, Spring 1904. Reprinted in FNB Chronicle, Vol. 2, No. 1. First National Bank Oneida, Tennessee.

Sanderson, Esther S. — 1958 County Scott and Its Mountain Folk. Williams Printing, Nashville.

Smith, Henry C. — 1976 Dusty Bits of the Forgotten Past. Scott County Historical Society publication, Oneida, Tennessee.

Smith, Marion O. — 1990 Saltpeter Mining in East Tennessee. Special Collections. University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

FNB Chronicle, Vol. 8, No. 3 – Spring 1997
First National Bank
P. O. Box 4699
Oneida, TN 37841

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