In a recent edition of The STAR, our editor Rozella Hardin presented an excellent article about the new courthouse exhibit of a saved limb from the famous old sycamore that had sheltered the first court ever held in this country west of the Alleghenies in 1772; residents will note that part of the trunk is preserved in another exhibit near where the tree had stood on the west bank of the river, adjacent to our covered bridge. She mentioned the famous quote of President Theodore Roosevelt concerning our area and that called to mind the fact that our 26th president, and the youngest person to ever hold the office, was a prolific writer who had published his first major non-fiction work when only 24 years of age. Now, dear readers, bear with me for the next few sentences as I think back.
When I was in graduate school many of the professors thought little of Roosevelt as a historian — they thought themselves smarter than he had been — so I had taken the bait and paid little attention to his work also. However, in fairly recent years after a trip to Mount Rushmore where he is enshrined along with Presidents Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson, I became curious about President “Teddy” Roosevelt and learned he was a veritable renaissance man of amazing talents and wide interests. One of his most famous quotes is specifically about our own local forefathers and what they accomplished under that giant sycamore on the river’s edge downtown.
Here’s the story: That quote is from his monumental four-volume set “The Winning of The West” that I had never read before our trip to South Dakota, where his face is carved out of the mountainside along with the other presidents. He told our story, from the very beginning and we will treat you, in this column and those following, to the stunning word picture of his own inimitable, prose:
“The eastern part of what is now Tennessee consists of a great hill-strewn, forest-clad valley, running from northeast to southwest, bounded on one side by the Cumberland, and on the other by the Great Smoky and Unaka Mountains; the latter separating it from North Carolina. In this valley arise and end the Clinch, the Holston, the Watauga, the Nolichucky, the French Broad, and the other streams, whose combined volume makes the Tennessee River. The upper end of the valley lies in southwestern Virginia, the head-waters of some of the rivers being well within that State; and though the province was really part of North Carolina, it was separated therefrom by high mountain chains, while from Virginia it was easy to follow the watercourses down the valley. Thus, as elsewhere among the mountains forming the western frontier, the first movements of population went parallel with, rather than across, the ranges. As in western Virginia the first settlers came, for the most part, from Pennsylvania, so, in turn, in what was then western North Carolina, and is now eastern Tennessee, the first settlers came mainly from Virginia, and, indeed, in great part, from this same Pennsylvanian stock.
“The women, the wives of the settlers, were of the same iron temper. They fearlessly fronted every danger the men did, and they worked quite as hard. They prized the knowledge and learning they themselves had been forced to do without; and many a backwoods woman by thrift and industry, by the sale of her butter and cheese, and the calves from her cows, enabled her husband to give his sons good schooling, and perhaps to provide for some favored member of the family the opportunity to secure a really first-class education.
“The valley in which these splendid pioneers of our people settled, lay directly in the track of the Indian marauding parties, for the great war trail used by the Cherokees and by their northern foes ran along its whole length. This war trail, or War Trace as it was then called, was in places very distinct, although apparently never as well marked as were some of the buffalo trails. It sent off a branch to Cumberland Gap, whence it ran directly north through Kentucky to the Ohio, being there known as the Warriors’ Path. Along these trails the northern and southern Indians passed and re-passed when they went to war against each other; and of course they were ready and eager to attack any white man who might settle down along their course.
“In 1769, the year that Boon[e] first went to Kentucky, the first permanent settlers came to the banks of the Watauga, the settlement being merely an enlargement of the Virginia settlement, which had for a short time existed on the head-waters of the Holston, especially near Wolf Hills. At first the settlers thought they were still in the domain of Virginia, for at that time the line marking her southern boundary had not been run so far west. But in 1771, one of the new-comers [Col. John Donelson] who was a practical surveyor, ran out the Virginia boundary line some distance to the westward, and discovered that the Watauga settlement came within the limits of North Carolina.
“Hitherto the settlers had supposed that they themselves were governed by the Virginian law, and that their rights as against the Indians were guaranteed by the Virginian government; but this discovery threw them back upon their own resources. They suddenly found themselves obliged to organize a civil government, under which they themselves should live, and at the same time to enter into a treaty on their own account with the neighboring Indians, to whom the land they were on apparently belonged…
“Troubles in North Carolina came to a head. Open war ensued between the adherents of the royal governor, Tryon, on the one hand, and the Regulators, as the insurgents styled themselves, on the other, the struggle ending with the overthrow of the Regulators at the battle of the Alamance. As a consequence of these troubles, many people from the back counties of North Carolina crossed the mountains, and took up their abode among the pioneers on the Watauga and upper Holston; the beautiful valley of the Nolichucky soon receiving its share of this stream of immigration… the bulk of the settlers were men of sterling worth; fit to be the pioneer fathers of a mighty and beautiful state.
“They possessed the courage that enabled them to defy outside foes, together with the rough, practical commonsense that allowed them to establish a simple but effective form of government, so as to preserve order among themselves.
“To succeed in the wilderness, it was necessary to possess not only daring, but also patience and the capacity to endure grinding toil. The pioneers were hunters and husbandmen. Each, by the aid of axe and brand, cleared his patch of corn land in the forest, close to some clear, swift-flowing stream, and by his skill with the rifle won from canebrake and woodland the game on which his family lived until the first crop was grown.
“As a rule, each knot of settlers was gathered together into a little stockaded hamlet, called a fort or station. This system of defensive villages was very distinctive of pioneer backwoods life, and was unique of its kind; without it the settlement of the west and southwest would have been indefinitely postponed. In no other way could the settlers have combined for defence, while yet retaining their individual ownership of the land.
“The Watauga forts or palisaded villages were of the usual kind, the cabins and blockhouses connected by a heavy loop-holed picket. They were admirably adapted for defence with the rifle.
“As there was no moat, there was a certain danger from an attack with fire unless water was stored within; and it was of course necessary to guard carefully against surprise. But to open assault they were practically impregnable, and they therefore offered a sure haven of refuge to the settlers in case of an Indian inroad. In time of peace, the inhabitants moved out, to live in their isolated log-cabins and till the stump-dotted clearings. Trails led through the dark forests from one station to another, as well as to the settled districts beyond the mountains; and at long intervals men drove along them bands of pack-horses, laden with the few indispensable necessaries the settlers could not procure by their own labor. The pack-horse was the first, and for a long time the only, method of carrying on trade in the backwoods; and the business of the packer was one of the leading frontier industries.”
(TO BE CONTINUED)