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Early History of Robertson County, Tennessee


One of the most popular questions asked regarding the "Bell Witch" legend is: "What is the history of the area before the Bell family moved there?"  This page is dedicated to answering that very question.

Tennessee's earliest inhabitants that we know much about were the Mound Builders.  Archaeologists recognize two major mound-building cultures – the Woodland and the Mississippian.

The Mississippian culture came into existence around 750 AD.  Although most Mississippian groups buried their dead in cemeteries, the Woodland-type burial mounds were sometimes used.  At larger Mississippian settlements, the elite families were sometimes buried in special mounds along with their elaborate possessions that represented their status in society.  These burials took place from about 1000 to 1500 AD, when the Mississippian culture was at its peak.

The Mississippian culture was still flourishing when early Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto visited the area in the 1540-1541 period.  By the middle of the seventeenth century, mound building had ceased and the Mound Builders (as we knew them) became extinct.  Other nations, such as the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek and Choctaw, were descended from the Mound Builders.

Most of Tennessee was hunting-ground for these groups before the white settlers arrived.  Most permanent Cherokee settlements were in eastern Tennessee near the Tennessee and Holston Rivers.  Permanent Chickasaw settlements were in northern Mississippi and western Tennessee, the Choctaws had permanent settlements in northeastern Mississippi and southwestern Tennessee, and the Creeks lived primarily in Alabama.  By 1776, most Native American tribes in the area had decided to reclaim their land – now occupied by white settlers.

The first known white settler in Robertson County was Thomas Kilgore who, in 1778, built a fort on the banks of the Red River near present-day Cross Plains.  It is believed that Ezekiel Polk, grandfather of President James Knox Polk, settled on Sulphur Fork Creek, near the Red River, about two years later.  Native American hostility was so great that he remained less than a year.  Albert Virgil Goodpasture relates the following detailed account of Thomas Kilgore’s early settlement:

“The first settlement in Robertson County {The facts in regard to Kilgore's settlement were condensed from the articles written by Dr. J.S. Mulloy, for the Springfield Record} was made by Thomas Kilgore on the waters of the Middle Fork of Red River, three-fourths of a mile west of Cross Plains.  The Legislature of North Carolina passed a preemption law securing to settlers of Tennessee 640 acres of land, provided the settlement was made prior to 1780.

"In the spring of 1778, Kilgore left North Carolina with some ammunition, some salt, and a few grains of corn.  Traveling on foot, he passed through East Tennessee and plunged into the wilderness beyond.  Guided alone by the sun and the North Star, he pushed on, seeing no white people until he reached Bledsoe's Lick, where he found a colony of six or eight families.  After resting a few days, he went on some twenty-five miles west where he located.

"As a safe hiding place from the Indians, he selected a cave a mile west of where Cross Plains now is.  It had a bold stream of water running from it into the Middle Fork of Red River, and by wading through the stream he could enter the cave without leaving a trail.

"In the spring of 1779, with a few families besides his own, he returned to the spot where he had passed the previous summer.  A stockaded fort, “Kilgore's Station,” was at once erected to protect them from the Indians.  This fort was situated on a commanding eminence, about three-fourths of a mile from Cross Plains.  Kilgore's Station, from that time for years, was a landmark in the overland emigration to Tennessee.

Thomas Kilgore, after living half a century on the land which he had acquired by his heroics, died at the advanced age of one hundred and eight years.” [1]

A number of families settled in the area over the next few decades, including the Forts, Gunns, Gardners, Norfleets, Bells, Gooches, and others.  During this time, “war parties” ravaged the early frontier – killing white settlers and burning their homes.  Despite the signing of a peace treaty as early as 1777, the brunt of attacks on Robertson County's early settlers did not come until the early 1780’s, when several renegade groups of Cherokees and Creeks formed what became known as the "Chickamauga Nation," whose purpose was to reclaim their land.

After a failed attack on Fort Nashboro, which later became Nashville, the Chickamaugans headed north and raided settlements along the Red River, carrying out brutal and relentless attacks that often signaled the demise of their inhabitants.  This began of a reign of terror that would last a decade.  Over time, many  settlers armed themselves and casualties lessened dramatically.  The fall of the Chickamauga Nation began in 1792 after its chief allegedly suffered a heart attack following a drunken war dance.  After two more years of savage attacks, the new chief finally sued for peace and signed a treaty in 1794.

Most of the Red River is in present-day Montgomery and Robertson Counties, although the area was originally part of Tennessee County, North Carolina before Tennessee became a state in 1796.  The new state was divided into counties, with Robertson County being named for James Robertson, the founding father of nearby Nashville.

During the time of John Bell, Robertson County had a population of 9,938. [2]  The primary goods were whiskey and cotton.  Albert Virgil Goodpasture describes the importance of these staples in Robertson County’s early economy in his book, Goodspeed History of Tennessee – Robertson County:

“The manufacture of whisky and brandy has always been an important industry in Robertson County.  In the earlier days, small distilleries were found in almost every hollow, and it is said that on some streams there was a stillhouse every 100 yards.

"These establishments had a capacity of not more than thirty or forty gallons per day, and the whisky was manufactured by what is known as the ‘sour-mash’ process.  The honesty and care used in making the whiskey gave it a high reputation, which it has since maintained.

"One of the first distilleries in the county was erected near Cross Plains by Daniel Holman, about 1798.  In the same year, another distillery was built near Turnersville by Mr. Grider.  The Woodards were also among the first distillers of the county.

"During the first fifty years after the settlement of the county, cotton was a crop of some importance.  Nearly every farmer raised enough to clothe his own household, and after the invention of the gin, considerable quantities were shipped.  Among the gins and presses in use in 1804 were those of Archer Cheatham, in Springfield, and John McMillan, near Cross Plains.  The cultivation of cotton began to decline about 1830, and it was not long until its production practically ceased.” [3]

Tobacco later replaced cotton as the county’s most prized crop, ultimately earning Robertson County the reputation of being the dark-fired tobacco capitol of the world.

[1] Albert Virgil Goodpasture, Goodspeed History of Tennessee – Robertson County, 1886, p. 829 [Edited by Pat Fitzhugh].

[2] Albert Virgil Goodpasture, Goodspeed History of Tennessee – Robertson County, 1886, p. 836.

[3] Albert Virgil Goodpasture, Goodspeed History of Tennessee – Robertson County, 1886, p. 828 [Edited by Pat Fitzhugh].

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