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Events of 1781, In Search Of Ammunition

At the close of 1780 the distressed colony was reduced to three or four stations, and lack of ammunition made impossible a long continued defense of these. Therefore in the early part of December Colonel Robertson, accompanied by his son, together with his friend, Isaac Bledsoe, and a Negro servant, had set out on a journey to Harrod's Station, Kentucky, for the purpose of securing a supply of powder and lead. The undertaking was one of extreme hazard, but they passed through the Indian lines and arrived at Harrodsburg in safety. Here they received their first news of the splendid victory which had been gained by the American forces over the British at King's Mountain, in October preceding. In this memorable battle their friends from East Tennessee, under the leadership of Col. John Sevier and Isaac Shelby, had played a most heroic part. On receiving the news Isaac Bledsoe is said to have exclaimed, "If Sevier and Shelby can handle the combined force of British and Tories, can we not whip the Indians in the backwoods?"

The party was given a hearty welcome at Harrodsburg, but because of the depleted condition of the store they were unable to secure ammunition, and accordingly journeyed on to Boonesborough. Here they found Daniel Boone, who in former days had been a comrade of both Robertson and Bledsoe, and who cheerfully divided with them his supply. But this was too scanty and the amount they thus received was not enough to last through the winter. It was therefore decided that Colonel Robertson, his son and servant, should return at once to the Cumberland with what they had, and that Bledsoe should go across to Watauga and there lay before Colonel Sevier the urgent needs of the Western Settlement. This he did and came back later to the Cumberland bringing with him an abundant supply of ammunition. He brought his family also, the latter having hitherto remained in East Tennessee.

In the meantime Colonel Robertson had returned to the settlement, having crossed over to his station at the Bluff on the afternoon of January 15, 1781. There he learned that on January 11, four days previous to his return, another son had been born to him, the late Dr. Felix Robertson, for many years an honored citizen and prominent physician of Nashville.

Upon his arrival Colonel Robertson hastily divided his ammunition with his men at the Bluff and went out to spend the night at Freeland's, where his wife and child were staying with friends. This fort was, in the matter of construction, very much as the one at the Bluff, the latter having been previously described. There were a number of one and two-story cabins built near together, the whole being surrounded by a stockade, thus forming an enclosure. To this there was but one entrance, a gate which was fastened each night by a heavy chain. Within the fort that night were eleven men and a number of women and children. One of the former was Major Lucas, who before coming to the Cumberland had served as an officer under Colonel Sevier in several expeditions from Watauga against the Indians. He had also been one of the founders of the local government of Watauga. The Negro man who came with Colonel Robertson and his party over the mountains in 1779 for the purpose of raising a corn crop at French Lick, as it was then called, was also in the fort at this time.

The scouts, among them Jacob Castleman, had come into the fort about dark on the evening above mentioned and reported no signs of Indians, therefore no danger was feared. Having had a late supper the occupants of the fort did not retire at an early hour, but by eleven o'clock all were asleep except Colonel Robertson. The latter was known among the Indians as the "Chief who never sleeps," and was probably more alert than usual now by reason of his recent experience in sleeping out of doors on his return journey from Kentucky through a dangerous and lonely forest. Major Lucas and the Negro man, together with several others, occupied a newly built cabin in which the cracks had not yet been chinked. A full moon shone from a clear sky and the night was one of surpassing beauty.

About midnight Colonel Robertson heard a rattling of the chain and looked out just in time to see the gate open and a band of a hundred and fifty Indians, who proved to be Chickasaws; come rushing into the fort. He at once gave the alarm and seizing his rifle fired through the window at the approaching savages. The report of Robertson's rifle awoke Major Lucas, who sprang out of bed and rushed through the door of his cabin into the yard. He was immediately surrounded by the savages and fell mortally wounded, pierced by a dozen shots. The settlers were now thoroughly aroused and began firing at the Indians through windows and port-holes, the women lending all the aid possible. Surprised at this vigorous assault from within the savages ran out of the fort after the first volley and renewed the attack from the outside. Some of them went around to the back of the cabin from which Major Lucas had come and began firing through the cracks at the men within. During this fusillade they killed the Negro man above mentioned. The onslaught was terrific and for a time the fortunes of the conflict wavered. Round after round was fired from within and from without. The attacking party, in their savage thirst for blood, rushed from place to place about the fort, jumping high into the air, all the time whooping and yelling like demons. They lighted brands and made repeated attempts to set fire to the roofs and walls of the cabins, but the brands and logs were too green to burn. For six hours this attack was kept up, but just as the gray light of the morning dawn came over the eastern hills the little cannon which had come around on the good boat Adventure, and which was now mounted on the fort at the Bluff, opened its brazen lips and a solitary "boom" echoed along the Cumberland. Capt. John Rains was thus saying to Colonel Robertson and his beleaguered comrades that he had been apprised of their danger and would be along directly with reinforcements. The Indians, who stood in great fear of a cannon, heard the shot, too, and knowing that the settlement was now thoroughly aroused, began a hasty retreat. However, they were joined during the morning by a party of Cherokees, and together for several days thereafter they continued to infest the neighborhood roundabout, plundering and thieving.

In the attack on Freeland's only Lucas and the Negro man, of the settlers, were killed, and none were wounded. Next morning no less than five hundred bullets were dug from the walls of the cabin in which these men had been sleeping. One Indian was shot in the head by Colonel Robertson. His body was found partially covered with dirt the next day some distance away in the woods where it had been left by his fleeing comrades. No one knew how many of the dead had been carried off, but the bloodstains about the fort and along the trails leading therefrom indicated that a number were either killed or wounded. Had it not been for the timely presence of Colonel Robertson on the night of the attack the fort must surely have fallen into the hands of the enemy. His vigilance on this, as well as on many subsequent occasions, saved the settlers from slaughter. This was the first and only attack ever made on the settlement by the Chickasaws. Soon thereafter Colonel Robertson had a "peace talk" with Piomingo, the Chickasaw chief, forming with him an alliance which gave to the pioneers the everlasting friendship of this famous warrior and his people. At heart the Chickasaws hated the Cherokees, who were the relentless foes of the whites. Though they had on previous occasions allied themselves with the Cherokees, they now joined the settlers in expeditions against them.

Piomingo was a striking figure among the noted Indian rulers of his day. He is described as having been of medium height, well-proportioned in body, and as possessing a face of intelligence. Though at the time of his visit to Bledsoe's Lick more than a hundred years old, he strode the earth with the grace of a youth. His dress was of white buckskin, and his hair, which he wore hanging down his back in the form of a scalp-lock, was, by reason of his great age, as white as snow. This was clasped round about on top of his head by a set of silver combs. Despite the early offenses of his tribe the name of Piomingo deserves an honored place in the annals of Middle Tennessee because of the generous deeds of his later years.

Events of 1781, Mrs. Dunham and Daughter Wounded

In the summer of 1780, John and Daniel Dunham had located on that splendid body of land near French Lick, now known as Belle Meade. Having in the meantime built thereon a log house and made some other improvements, they were now obliged to move their families back to the fort at the Bluff for protection. A few days later Mrs. Dunham sent her little daughter to the woodpile, about three hundred yards up the hill, and near where the Maxwell House now stands, for a basket of chips. Some Indians were concealed in a fallen treetop nearby. When the child came up they sprang out, seized her by the hair and tore off her scalp. Attracted by her cries the terrified mother was wounded by a shot from the Indians as she ran up the hill toward them. In the meantime the men from the fort had armed themselves and came rushing to the rescue, but at sight of them the savages fled into the surrounding thickets and escaped. Both mother and daughter recovered and lived for many years there-after. During the months of February and March the stations were free from attack and the hope was ventured that since their failure to capture Freeland's fort the savages were disheartened and had abandoned hostilities. However, in this they were doomed to bitter disappointment. Their success during the previous year in breaking up the various stations had been so marked that they were yet determined not to yield their favorite hunting ground without a deadly struggle.

On the night of April 1 a war party of about four hundred Cherokees advanced on the Bluff Station and lay in ambush about the fort. It was doubtless a part of their plan to destroy this at one blow and then, acting in concert with reinforcements from other tribes already on the march hither, to quickly exterminate the smaller colonies at Eaton's and Bledsoe's. The plan of attack was well laid. About two hundred of the party concealed themselves in the wild-brush and cedars which grew on the hillside along Cherry Street, between Church and Broad. The remainder of the band went down and lay along the bank of a small stream which ran south of Broad Street, near to and parallel with Demonbreun and into the river near the foot of Broad. Early next morning three of the Indians, sent out as decoys, came near the fort, fired at the sentinel in the watchtower, and then ran back some distance, where they halted to reload their guns. All this time they were shouting and waving their hands as if to attract attention.

Unable to resist this challenge, and not suspecting the trap which had been laid, about twenty of the settlers saddled their horses and, led by Colonel Robertson, dashed out of the fort and down the hill toward the retreating savages. The latter kept themselves in sight, however, and by their mockeries still tempting the whites onward, finally made a stand on the bank of the branch near the intersection of College and Demonbreun. The settlers had by this time crossed Broad and, now dismounting, gave battle. No sooner were they on the ground than a swarm of savages arose from their hiding places immediately in front and poured a deadly fire into the ranks of the whites. At this the horses of the latter took fright and breaking away from their masters, started on a run up the hill toward the fort. In the meantime the party concealed along College Street had come out, and raising a war whoop, were stringing along Church Street toward the river in an effort to completely cut off the retreat of Robertson and his men to the fort. The position of the latter was now, indeed, one of extreme peril, and had the Indians carried out their plan the little company must certainly have perished, every man. But at this juncture the horses came dashing through the line. Many of the savages, unable to resist such a temptation, now broke ranks and pursued the frightened animals in an effort to capture them. The horses ran up to the fort, but finding the gate closed, went on over Capitol Hill and down into the Sulphur Spring Bottom, closely followed by the Indians. A few of them were captured, but the larger number returned later to the fort, where they were admitted to a place of safety.

The battle down on Broad continued. Capt. James Leiper, Peter Gill, Alex. Buchanan, John Kesenger, Zachariah White, George Kennedy and John Kennedy had been killed and Kasper Mansker, James Manifee and Joseph Moonshaw were wounded. The rest of the settlers were now fighting desperately and making their way as best they could toward the station, dragging with them their disabled comrades.

Shut up in the fort was a pack of fifty dogs. These, by instinct and training, hated the Indians, and during the progress of the battle were charging madly around the enclosure in an effort to get into the fray. Mrs. James Robertson, who with the other women of the fort, had been watching with breathless alarm the varying fortunes of the battle, now directed the sentinel to open the gate and let the dogs out. History has not recorded a more vigorous onslaught than that made at this time by these noble brutes in defense of their masters. Rushing furiously down the hill and into the ranks of the enemy, they sprang at the throats of the latter and for a time completely arrested the efforts of the savages, who were utterly surprised by this attack from such an unexpected source. This incident and the flight of the horses turned the tide for the whites and saved to them the day. It is said that Mrs. Robertson stood at the gate after the battle and, patting each dog on the head as he came into the fort said she "thanked God that he had given Indians a love for horses and a fear of dogs."

As soon as the attention of the Indians was diverted by the attack of the dogs, the settlers started on a run for the fort, still carrying with them the wounded. In this retreat Isaac Lucas, brother of Major Lucas, who had been killed at Freeland's, was shot down, his thigh being broken. He was in the rear and the other members of the party having already passed on, could not return to lend him aid. As he fell he turned his face toward the advancing foe, determined to fight to the death. Quickly priming his gun, he took aim at a big Indian in front of the pursuing party and shot him dead in his tracks. Some of the men had now reached cover of the fort and seeing the dangerous position of Lucas, began firing at the savages, whereupon they turned and fled. Dragging himself to a place of safety the wounded man escaped into the fort. After lying on his back for a few weeks this hardy pioneer arose and went about his work with only a little lameness as a result of his wound.

Edward Swanson, whose marriage is recorded as having taken place only a short time before, was also one of this retreating party. His rifle having been knocked from his hand by one of the enemy when only a short distance from the gate, he turned upon the savage and seizing his gun barrel, began a struggle for its possession. Finally the Indian wrested it from Swanson and struck the latter a blow which felled him to the ground. All this time the men within the fort had been watching the contest, but were afraid to shoot lest they might wound their comrade. However, seeing that Swanson would be killed unless relief was given, John Buchanan now rushed out of the gate and fired at the Indian, inflicting a mortal wound. The latter supported himself against a stump nearby for a short time and then hobbled off into the woods, where his dead body was afterwards found. Swanson was carried into the fort and afterwards recovered.

Thus ended the "Battle of the Bluff." The Indians scalped the settlers who had been left dead on the field, and taking with them such guns and ammunition as had been left, retired to the woods about 10 a. m. Just how many of the attacking party were killed is not known. The bodies of several were found at various places in the forest round about, and by reason of the Indian custom it is supposed that a number of their dead and wounded were carried away.

That night another feeble attack was made on the fort, presumably by a party that had failed to arrive in time to take part in the battle of the morning. They were plainly to be seen gathered in a group several hundred yards west of the station. They had fired only a few rounds when Colonel Robertson determined to give them a shot from the cannon. Some of the men protested that they could not spare the powder, and that there were no cannon balls in their stock of ammunition. However, over these objections the piece was well loaded with broken horseshoes, scraps of lead and bits of pottery. Behind this was a heavy charge of powder, each settler having contributed a small amount from his flask. Despite constant danger and privation there was yet left to the Stationers a fine sense of humor. Everything being in readiness, the spark was applied. Many cannon, both great and small, in peace and in war, have since that time been fired on the Cumberland, but probably none has ever made quite so loud a report as did this little swivel as it broke the stillness of that April night. The party of redskins toward which the shot was directed quickly vanished and were seen no more. The scarred and broken tree trunks and saplings in the neighborhood of where they stood, afterwards paid silent but eloquent tribute to the wisdom of their unceremonious departure. Supposing this shot to be a signal of distress a party from Eaton's Station soon arrived on the opposite bank of the river and called for boats to bring them over. Two men were quietly slipped down the bank behind the fort and made the crossing and return in safety, bringing their friends into the Bluff Station, There the visitors spent the night, keeping watch in the tower until daylight.

A few days later William Hood and Peter Renfroe were killed in North Nashville; Hood in the McGavock addition near Freeland's, and Renfroe between there and the sulphur spring. The enemy now lay in wait by every path and along every trail until it was perilous to attempt passage from one fort to another, while others in bands hovered around, shooting cattle, killing and driving the game from the woods, and committing every other conceivable depredation in order that the food supply might be exhausted and the unwelcome emigrants thus forced to abandon their newly-acquired land,

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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