Sunday, June 17, 2012

Renfroe's Station was settled in 1780....so what?

1st page of the Cumberland Compact. Tennessee State Library
and Archives. Nashville, TN.
        In April of 1780, the "Red River" party of John Donelson's larger flotilla broke off and traveled up the Red River to begin a proposed settlement at the mouth of Parson's Creek, 14 miles upstream. The name of the settlement was Fort Union and was one of the stations designated by the 1780 Cumberland Compact from which one delegate was to be selected to help moderate the new government that the compact set up. This settlement, however, would be short lived.

        This inital settlement effort was made under the auspices of the Transylvania Land Company. In 1775 Richard Henderson, the proprietor, had "purchased" Cherokee rights to what was called "Caintucke" (or some other variation of the word). This included modern day north middle Tennessee north of the Cumberland River. Henderson hired hunters who were well aquainted with the region from prior expeditions. This included men such as Daniel Boone and Kasper Mansker. The idea was to create settlements in the newly acquired territory to encourage people to buy land and set up communities. As Boonesborough became the nucleus of settlement in eastern Kentucky, French Lick/ Nashborough became the same for the Cumberland settlements.

Filson Historical Society, www.Filsonhistorical.org

Copyright David Britton 2012. USGS Topo. All sites are on private property.
Markers have been slightly skewed for protection of sites.
        It is very likely that each station site mentioned in the Compact were previously explored by the men in charge at each settlement. It is just as likely that each were station-camps for previous longhunting expeditions.
Near to Fort Union was a probable station camp called the "Slab-camp", mentioned in early land records. Also adding to the evidence that Fort Union was previously explored is the presence of a large pond 8 miles north called Renfroe's Pond, likely named for it's "discoverer". It is featured prominently in early southern KY land documents.

       The Renfroe party consisted of about 88 people, including 4 slaves. After they arrived at their destination, they began building half-faced camps and planting pumpkins and corn. The settlement lasted through the next two months, but in June things grew tense. A group were out picking mulberries when a few Shawnee were seen stepping out of the woods. They attacked and killed one of the berry-pickers. The next day the same Shawnee killed another man just a few hundred yard out from the station. This prompted the settlers to consider removal to French Lick as they were nearly 40 miles from another settlement.

The spring where the party camped in 1780.
 Photo: David Britton, 2012
        A rescue party from French Lick arrived and the party was divided into two. The first removed successfully. The route used was an existing bison trail/ game path that ran south from the Port Royal region of the Red River, through Robertson County alongside Millers Creek, then through modern-day Coopertown before crossing Sycamore creek and heading into modern-day Davidson county along Whites Creek pk. The rough half-way point was a few miles south of Coopertown and at a double spring. This is the point where the party decided to camp for the night. Early the next morning a band of 50 or so Chickasaws attacked the camp resulting in around 15 deaths.

Southbound trace leaving the camp/ battle site.
Photo: David Britton, 2012
        While this is certainly an intriguing and interesting story, it has been relayed in secondary literature over the past 150 years as being a singular event with no connection to anything else. As if in a vacuum. For me at least, not including the broader context in many ways cheapens the event. But for many, this account represents many aspects of frontier romanticism or all the things they love about frontier history: Indian attacks. A disconnected group of settlers. Bravery and zeal. Fighting to the death. Mystery. Horror. Intrepid spirits of westward-bound patriotism. A brave woman hiding with her two children and managing to keep the calm all day and night until help came the next day.
       
      

  Yes, a very good story but as a good friend of mine once said -  "so what?"



Asking "so what?" is what keeps history from being simply anecdotal and what provides the impetus for analysis. With this story/ account there are a couple things I'd like to point out, in order to answer "so what?"

       First, is to re-emphasize that the Cumberland settlements were ultimately a business opportunity for men like Richard Henderson. Though Henderson's claim was eventually nullified by Virginia and North Carolina, the Cumberland and it's environs remained a hot spot for land speculators for years to come. The settlement of Ft. Union in 1780 was an organized effort to jump start the land speculation process. Stations were built as a means of protection but also as a base to survey new claims from. This would later shift as un-affiliated settlers came in an built their own stations.
       
        The story is portrayed in many ways as the genesis of civilization in the region, however, it is also filled with glimpses of an alternate yet broader understanding. Consider the journey itself. Tradition, if only inadvertently, has portrayed the Donelson voyage down the Tennessee River as the first time such a feat had occurred. The Tennessee river had, in fact, been utilized in an identical fashion for nearly 100 years by the time Donelson and friends descended it's waters in 1780. British officials in Carolina (pre north and south) were immensely concerned and pre-occupied by the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers potential for navigation, especially after a few French coureur des bois from Canada showed up at their back door in about 1690. The French were frequent users of the rivers for purposes of trade as were the British, but early on for the purpose of enslaving native peoples. By the 1770s it was a known fact that the Tennessee led to Illinois and the Mississippi valley. Donelson and the Renfroe's were only following a multi-generational tradition.
      
Chickasaw Indian bust, 1775. Illustration from Bernard Romans’s A Concise Natural History of East and West Florida. Courtesy Library of Congress LC-USZ60-680
        Additionally, we must also consider the presence of the Indians mentioned in the story. On June 25th, 1780 several hundred Chickasaw attacked Ft. Jefferson in what is now western KY on the Mississippi river. The fort and settlement was built under orders from Gen. George Rogers Clarke, much to the chagrin of the Chickasaw who were largely allied to the British. The Chickasaw claimed the land the fort was on. They also claimed much of the land around the Cumberland River. On their return south, a party of these Chickasaw found Ft. Union. From their perspective, the settlers leaving Ft. Union were no different than those at Ft. Jefferson and were likely seen as blatanly defying Chickasaw sovereignty. The mention of Shawnee is also interesting. Shawnee were one of the primary claimants of the region south of the Ohio river and north of the Cumberland river. Early Kentucky history is filled with encounters with various Shawnee. Various bands of the Shawnee had claimed the Cumberland region since at least the mid 17th century, if not earlier. Thus, their encounter here is not suprising.
      

       It is important to realize that "the Indians" were not roaming bands of unidentifiable "savages", even if some of the primary material reflects that. Remember - anti-Indian sentiment was growing exponentially at this point. Indian relations were increasingly defined in terms of race and the perceived divide between savagery and civility was growing. In order to understand the various Indian groups in the 18th century we must recognize each group individually with unique cultures, practices and understandings of land, law and alliance. Groups like the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, the Creek confederacy and Shawnee, who all had claims to the Tennessee and Cumberland river valleys at one time or another, have deep roots and histories together that are not immediately clear. These histories, however, determined the way in which they interacted with each other and with European cultures later.

        As tempting as it is to see the westward bound settlers of 1780 as the beginning of a new story or chapter,  they were the capstone to a century-plus old story of imperial projections, immense changes in Indian cultures, negotiation and accomodation. By no means does the story get any less complicated after 1783, but it dramatically shifts. Renfroe's Station/ Ft. Union is only a microcosm of much broader event but it helps us understand that broad context. In turn, the broad context gives us the "what" in "so what".


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