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Thomas Sharp Spencer

Thomas Sharp Spencer came next as an adventurer into the Cumberland Valley. Having heard from his neighbors, Mansker and Bledsoe, of the rich lands and abundance of big game throughout this region he came over from his home in Virginia in the spring of 1776. Besides other companions he brought with him a man named Holliday, and together they fixed a station at Bledsoe's Lick, probably having been directed hither by Isaac Bledsoe, who had discovered it several years before.

During the summer following, Spencer and Holliday hunted over and explored the country for many miles around. In the bottom adjoining Bledsoe's Lick they cleared a few acres of land which they planted in corn. This they cultivated and gathered in autumn, thus being the first crop of grain raised in Middle Tennessee.

Later on Holliday became dissatisfied and decided to return to Virginia. Spencer accompanied him to the Barrens of Kentucky, near where Glasgow now stands, and through which in those days there ran a trail leading back across the mountains. When they had bidden each other adieu and were about to separate, Holliday discovered that he had lost his hunting knife, whereupon Spencer broke his own knife in two and gave half of it to his departing comrade. The latter was never heard from thereafter and it is supposed he was killed by the Indians on his journey homeward.

Spencer returned to Bledsoe's Lick and spent the winter alone in a hollow sycamore tree which stood in the bottom near the present site of the post office at Castalian Springs. This tree perished many years ago, but so long as it stood it was called by the settlers ''Spencer's House." Sometime after the events above mentioned Spencer went back to Virginia, his native State, but returned to the Cumberland country in 1780.

During the time of his residence in the sycamore tree he explored the country side from Bledsoe's Lick to the mouth of Red River, near Clarksville, always keeping a sharp lookout for choice tracts of land to which, in the future, he might lay claim. Because of a false impression as to the provisions of the pre-emption law under which he was laboring, he supposed that by clearing a few acres and building a cabin on each section of 640 acres an individual would thus be able to possess himself of as much land as he might desire. In pursuance of this idea he selected for himself four fine tracts in Sumner County. Three of these were in the region around Castalian Springs, and the fourth was near Gallatin, it being the same as that subsequently owned by General Miller.


Spencer's Tree

In 1781 the State of North Carolina, to which the territory embracing Middle Tennessee at that time belonged, defined by enactment its pre-emption law, which allowed only one section to each head of a family or single man who had reached the age of twenty-one. Spencer was thereby forced to make a choice of the four tracts previously staked off, and he accordingly selected the one near Gallatin. This splendid body of land has ever since been known as "Spencer's Choice." It bounds the corporate limits of the town on the south, and comprises the land now occupied by the heirs of the late Capt. J. B. Howison, together with the farm just south of it, the latter the property of Mrs. John H. Oldham, and a part of the farm owned by Mr. R. P. Hite.

The description of this tract, when granted to Spencer, called for natural boundaries which were supposed to embrace a section, but when an actual survey was made many years later it was found to contain about eight hundred acres. The records on file in the Register's office of Sumner County show that on August 17, 1793, Thomas Spencer conveyed to Stephen Cantrell two hundred acres of the above tract, the consideration being ''two hundred hard dollars." The remainder of the tract was inherited by William Spencer, brother of Thomas Spencer, at the latter's death.

Spencer was a man of great physical strength, a giant in his day, well proportioned, broad shouldered, huge in body and limb, and weighing nearly four hundred pounds. His traditional feats of strength were numerous. On one occasion, shortly after the beginning of the settlement at Nashville, he was hunting with a fellow sportsman on Duck River in what is now Humphries County. As evening came on they sought a secluded spot where they might build a fire, cook a deer they had killed, and camp for the night. While they were preparing the meal a skulking party of Indians espied them, and creeping up to within range of the camp fired at them, killing Spencer's companion. Spencer, who was unharmed, gathered up the dead body and gun of his fellow hunter and with the added weight of his own arms and ammunition dashed into the thick cane and was soon beyond the reach of danger. The Indians, seeing his great strength and activity, and knowing that he had with him two loaded guns, followed at a respectful distance. He succeeded in carrying off and burying the remains of his comrade, after which he returned in safety to French Lick.

That veteran pioneer of Sumner County, John Carr, who has written so entertainingly of the early period of our history, says that on one occasion he rode through a parcel of ground which Spencer had cleared. There were five or six acres in the field, around which was a rail fence. The timbers used therein, each of which was equal in size to ten or fifteen rails, Spencer had cut from the clearing and carried on his shoulder to where the fence was being built.

Spencers Choice
Spencer's Choice

Another instance of his strength is related. He was sick and lying on a blanket by a fire near where two of the settlers were building a cabin. For a long time he watched them both struggle under the weight of a log trying in vain to put the end of it in place. Finally he arose from his blanket, walked to the cabin, took hold of the log and brushing the men aside threw it into position with apparent ease. Spencer had a large foot, huge even in proportion to his immense body. During his first winter at Bledsoe's Lick, Timothy DeMonbreun, as previously related, was conducting a trading station near Nashville, and had associated with him a party of hunters from Indiana and Illinois. One morning just at daybreak Spencer, who was himself a mighty hunter, and who happened to be in that neighborhood chased a herd of buffalo close by the door of a hut in which one of these Frenchmen was sleeping. It had been raining and the ground was very soft. The sleeping hunter, aroused by the noise of the chase, came out and seeing Spencer's footprint in the mud near the door, became frightened, swam the Cumberland River, and ran north through the wilderness until he reached the French settlement at Vincennes. There he related his experience and declared he would never return to a country that was inhabited by such giants.

Spencer was of a quiet and peaceable disposition, and being possessed of a good face and gentlemanly manners was held in high esteem by all the settlers. Like Daniel Boone and others in kind who blazed the way of civilization on its westward march, he loved the solitude of the forest and often in times of greatest danger would for weeks hunt through the woods alone, and seemingly without fear. In this way he supplied food to the settlers in times of great need. He was never married, and after the settlements began to be established in Sumner and Davidson Counties, he had no abode of his own. When not away on an expedition it was his custom to spend the night at any station most liable to be attacked by the Indians. In the fall of 1793 Spencer returned to Virginia for the purpose of winding up an estate and receiving therefrom a legacy which was his due. Returning with a party on horseback by way of Knoxville, they had reached an elevation which, because of this event has since been called Spencer's Hill, near the headwaters of Caney Fork River. True to his custom Spencer was riding alone some distance in advance of his party, when at a gap near the top of the hill he was fired upon and instantly killed by a band of Indians who were lying in wait. Thus ended a career than which in all the annals of early history there is no more shining example of undaunted courage and heroic self-sacrifice. His horse, which was a splendid animal, took fright from the fall of his master, and dashing through the line of howling savages which had surrounded him, fled back to the party and thus escaped capture.

Spencer's early advent into the region of Bledsoe's Lick proved to be a connecting link between the roving bands of hunters and adventurers who first came hither, and that hardier company whose annals we are about to consider, and who through toil and bloodshed, with trowel in one hand and sword in the other laid broad and deep the foundation of a mighty commonwealth.

Early History of Middle Tennessee

Early History of Middle Tennessee, BY Edward Albright, Copyright, 1908, Brandon Printing Company, Nashville, Tennessee, 1909

 

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