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Perils of The River

News of the fleet's approach seems to have preceded it down the river, and now at every turn the unhappy voyagers were greeted with signs of hostility. They had by this time reached the Whirl or Suck, ten miles down from Chattanooga, where the river is compressed into less than half its usual channel by the jutting walls of the Cumberland Mountains. While passing through the "boiling pot" near the upper end of these narrows an accident occurred which almost cost the immigrants their lives. John Cotton had attached a large canoe in which he was traveling, to Robert Cartwright's flatboat on which his household goods were stored, and into the latter Cotton and his family had gone for greater safety. At this point the canoe was overturned and its cargo lost. Pitying Cotton's distress those ahead decided to call a halt and help recover the property. They landed at a level spot on the north bank and were going back to the scene of the accident when to their utter surprise the Indians appeared in great numbers on the opposite cliffs above and began firing down on them. The would be rescuers beat a hasty retreat to their boats and shoving off rowed rapidly down the river. The savages lining the bluffs overhead kept up a brisk fire, during which four of the immigrants were wounded. In the boat of Russell Cower was his daughter Nancy Cower. When the crew was thrown into disorder by the attack, Nancy took the helm and steered through the narrows though exposed to all the fire of the enemy. A bullet from an Indian's rifle passed entirely through her body, but she made no outcry, standing bravely at her post. No one knew she was wounded until her mother discovered the bloodstains on her garments. She survived the wound and afterwards became the wife of Anderson Lucas, one of the first settlers at Nashville.

It would seem that the events above recorded were enough for one day, but the end was not yet. A boat belonging to Jonathan Jennings ran on a large rock jutting out into the water at the lower end of the whirl. The enemy soon discovered Jennings' plight, and turning their whole attention to him, kept up a most galling fire on his boat and its occupants. He immediately ordered his wife, a son nearly grown, a young man who was a passenger, and two Negro servants, a man and a woman, to throw all the goods into the river that they might thus lighten the craft and get it afloat. Jennings himself, being a good soldier and a fine marksman, took up his rifle and returned the fire of the Indians with great effect. Before the boat was unloaded, his son, the young man who was a passenger, and the Negro man jumped overboard and started to swim ashore. The Negro man was drowned, but the two young men reached the bank where they secured a canoe and started down the river. Mrs. Jennings and the Negro woman continued their work of unloading the boat, assisted by Mrs. Peyton, a daughter of Mrs. Jennings and the wife of Ephraim Peyton, who had gone overland with Robertson. An infant, to which Mrs. Peyton had given birth only the day before this disaster, was accidentally killed in the confusion and excitement incident to unloading the boat. When the goods were all thrown overboard Mrs. Jennings got out and shoved the boat off the rocks. In so doing she nearly lost her life because of its sudden lurch into the water. History has seldom recorded deeds of greater heroism than those accredited to the brave women who were among the immigrants on this most memorable voyage to a new and unknown land.

The two young men who deserted the boat were met on their way down the river by five canoes full of Indians. By the latter they were taken prisoners and carried back to one of the Chickamauga towns. There young Jennings was knocked down by the savages who were about to take his life, when a friendly trader by the name of Rogers came up and ransomed him with goods and trinkets. He was afterwards restored to his relatives at the French Lick settlement. The other captive was killed and his body burned. All other boats of the fleet were ahead of that of Jennings, and though their occupants feared for its safety, they were ignorant of its peril. They had proceeded without incident during Wednesday night, and after sailing all day Thursday, March 9, considered themselves beyond the reach of danger, and camped at dusk on the northern shore. About four o'clock next morning they were aroused by a cry of "help!" from the river. Upon investigation it was found that the call was from the Jennings boat, whose occupants were drifting down stream in a most wretched condition. They had discovered the whereabouts of their fellow travelers by the light of the camp fires ashore. It was little short of miraculous that they should have escaped without the slightest wound, as their boat and even the clothing they wore had been pierced by many bullets.

The members of this unfortunate family having now been distributed among the remaining boats, the voyage was resumed. After a day of safe passage the fleet anchored again at night on the northern shore.

On March 12 they came to the upper end of the Muscle Shoals near the present site of Tuscumbia, Alabama. Here, we remember, it had been agreed that a party from French Lick should either meet them or leave a sign which should determine their future course. Doubtless the commanders of this flotilla and the company they were leading looked forward with a sense of relief to a probable journey from this point overland, by which they might escape the further perils of the river. In this, however, they were doomed to disappointment, for upon their arrival at the head of the Shoals neither the party nor the promised sign were in evidence. Colonel Robertson's reason for not fulfilling this part of the agreement is unknown. A probable explanation is that because of the unexpected length of his own journey he supposed the river party had already passed the Shoals by the time he reached French Lick.

Nevertheless, the crews of the flotilla, though well aware of the dangers confronting them, were determined to continue the voyage. The Shoals are described as being at that time dreadful to behold. The river was swollen beyond its wont, the swift current running out in every direction from piles of driftwood which were heaped high upon the points of the islands. This deflection of the stream made a terrible roaring, which might be heard for many miles. At some places the boats dragged the bottom, while at others they were warped and tossed about on the waves as though in a rough sea. The passage which was, withal, exceedingly dangerous, was made in about three hours, the entire fleet coming through into the western channel of the river without accident.

End of the Voyage

Two days later some of the boats coming too near the shore were fired upon by the Indians and five of the crew were wounded That night after having gone into camp near the mouth of a creek in' Hardin County, Tennessee, the party became alarmed by the loud barking of their dogs, and supposing that the enemy was again upon them, ran hastily down to the river, leaving all the camp outfit behind. Springing into the boats they drifted in the darkness about a mile downstream and camped again on the opposite shore. Next morning John Donelson, Jr., and John Caffrey, who seem to have been the scouts of the expedition, determined to find out the cause of alarm. Securing a canoe they rowed back to the first camp where they found an old Negro man, a member of the party, sound asleep by the fire. In the hurried flight of the night before no one had thought to wake him, and he was yet undisturbed by the rays of the morning sun. The alarm was false, for nothing had been molested.

The party now returned and gathered up their belongings, after which another day's voyage was begun. On Monday night, March 20, they arrived at the mouth of the Tennessee River and went into camp on the lowland which is now the site of Paducah. Though already much worn by hunger and fatigue, the supply of provision having run short, they were here confronted by new difficulties, the whole making the situation extremely disagreeable. Having been constructed to float with the tide their boats were unable to ascend the rapid current of the Ohio, which was almost out of banks by reason of the heavy spring rains. They were also ignorant of the distance yet to be traveled, and the length of time required to reach their destination. Some of the company here decided to abandon the journey to French Lick; a part of them floating down the Ohio and Mississippi to Natchez, the rest going to points in Illinois. Among the latter were John Caffrey and wife, the son-in-law and daughter of Colonel Donelson.

This loss of companionship made a continuation of the voyage doubly trying on those who were left behind. However, nothing daunted, they determined to pursue their course eastward, regardless of all the danger. Accordingly they set sail on Tuesday, the 2 1st, but were three days in working their way up the Ohio from Paducah to the mouth of the Cumberland, a distance of fifteen miles. Arriving at the latter place they were undecided as to whether the stream they found was really the Cumberland. Some declared it could not be the latter, because it was very much smaller in volume than they had expected to find. Probably their three days of incessant toil against the swift current of the Ohio had much to do with this pygmean appearance of our own beloved and historic river. However, they had heard of no stream flowing into the Ohio between the Tennessee and Cumberland, and, therefore, decided to make the ascent. They were soon assured by the widening channel that they were correct in their conjectures. In order to make progress up stream Colonel Donelson rigged the Adventure with a small sail made out of a sheet. To prevent the ill effects of any sudden gusts of wind a man was stationed at each lower corner of this sail with instructions to loosen it when the breeze became too strong.

For three days after entering the mouth of the Cumberland their journey was without incident. An occasional hunting excursion was made through the forest which skirted the shore Thus was procured a supply of buffalo meat, which was poor but palatable. On the second day out a large swan came floating by the Adventure. Colonel Donelson shot it, and describes the cooked flesh thereof as having been very delicious. Two days later they gathered from a place in the bottoms near the shore a quantity of greens which some of the company called Shawnee salad. To this day the spot above mentioned is known as "Pat's Injun Patch," so named for Colonel Donelson's old Negro cook. Patsy, who was called "Pat for short.''

On Friday, March 31, they had the good fortune to meet Colonel Henderson, of the Transylvania Company, who was out with a surveying party trying to establish the much disputed boundary line between Virginia and North Carolina. This meeting was very timely, as Colonel Henderson had come over by way of French Lick and brought to them good tidings of the arrival of Colonel Robertson and his companions from whom they had not heard since the latter began their perilous westward march over the Kentucky trail five months before. Until late in the night they plied him with questions about the new country toward which they were journeying. He painted in glowing colors the future before them, and by way of relieving anxiety as to present needs vouchsafed the information that he had just purchased a quantity of corn from the settlements in Kentucky to be shipped by boat from Louisville to French Lick for the use of the settlers. Doubtless there was then a silver lining to the cloud of uncertainty that had long hovered over this hard shipriden band of adventurers.

But there were yet three weeks of sailing before them. At length they arrived without further accident, at the mouth of Red River in Montgomery County, where they bade adieu to Isaac Renfroe and several companions, the latter having on a previous hunting trip selected a location at that place. The voyage was now near an end, and on April 23, they found themselves alongside of Eaton's Station, a mile and a half below the Bluff fort. The following day, Monday, April 24, they joined their relatives and friends of the Robertson expedition from whom they had parted many weeks before. Colonel Donelson records the fact that it was then a great source of satisfaction to himself and his associates that they were now able to restore to Colonel Robertson and others their families and friends, whom sometime since, perhaps, they had despaired of ever meeting again. Thirty-three of the party had perished by the way, and nine of those who remained were wounded.

Truly has Gilmore said: ''This voyage has no parallel in history. A thousand miles they had journeyed in frail boats upon unknown and dangerous rivers. The country through which they passed was infested by hostile Indians, and their way had been over foaming whirlpools and dangerous shoals where for days they had run the gauntlet and been exposed to the fire of the whole nation of Chickamaugas, the fiercest Indian tribe on this continent."

In all events it will stand forth to the end of time as one of the most remarkable achievements in the early settlement of the American continent.

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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