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Episodes from The Winning of the West
Chapter Fifteen: Robertson Founds the Cumberland Settlement 1779-1783


[James] Robertson had no share in the glory of King's Mountain, and no part in the subsequent career of the men who won it; for the man who had done more than any one in founding the settlements from which the victors came, had once more gone into the wilderness to build a new and even more typical frontier commonwealth, the westernmost of any yet founded by the backwoodsmen.

Robertson had been for ten years a leader among the Holston and Watauga people, and for the last two years (1777-1779) he was Indian Commissioner for North Carolina. He had been particularly successful in his dealings with the Indians, and by his missions to them had managed to keep the peace unbroken on more than one occasion when a war would have been disastrous to the whites. He was prosperous and successful in his private affairs; nevertheless, in 1779, the restless craving for change and adventure surged so strongly in his breast that it once more drove him to seek out a new home hundreds of miles farther in the heart of the hunting-grounds of the red Warriors.

The point pitched upon was the beautiful country lying along the great bend of the Cumberland, a spot well known to hunters since the time when old Kasper Mansker and others began their trips thither ten years before. Early in the spring of 1779 Robertson had left the Watauga settlements with eight companions, reaching the Cumberland without mishap, and fixing on the neighborhood of the Bluff, the ground near the French Lick, as that best suited for their purpose. A few days after their arrival they were joined by another batch of hunter-settlers who had come out under the leadership of Kasper Mansker.

As soon as the corn was planted and cabins put up, most of the intending settlers returned to their old homes to bring out their families, leaving three of their number "to keep the buffaloes out of the corn." Robertson himself first went north through the wilderness to see George Rogers Clark in Illinois, to purchase cabin-rights from him, under the Virginia law which gave each man, for a small sum, a thousand acres on condition of his building a cabin and raising a crop. This journey gives an insight into the motives that influenced the adventurers. For though they were impelled largely by sheer restlessness and love of change, the most powerful spring of action was the desire to gain land -not merely land for settlement, but land for speculative purposes. At this time it was uncertain whether Cumberland lay in Virginia or North Carolina, as the line was not run until the following spring. As it turned out, Robertson might have spared himself the trip, for the settlement proved to be well within the Carolina boundary.

In the fall many men came out to the new settlement, guided thither by Robertson and Mansker, among them two or three of the Long Hunters whose wanderings had done so much to make the country known Robertson's especial partner, a man named John Donelson, also came, bringing a large party of immigrants, including all the women and children down the Tennessee and thence up the Ohio and. Cumberland to the Bluff or French Lick. Among them were Robertson's entire family, and Donelson's daughter Rachel, the future wife of Andrew Jackson, who missed by so narrow a margin being mistress of the White House. Robertson, meanwhile, led the rest of the men by land, so that they should get there first and make ready for the coming of their families.

The expedition led by Donelson embarked at Holston, Long Island, on December 22d, but falling water: and heavy frosts detained them two months, so that the voyage did not really begin until February 27, 1780. The first ten days were uneventful. The Adventure, the flagship of the flotilla, spent an afternoon and night on a shoal, until the water fortunately rose; and the clumsy scow floated off. Another boat was driven on the point of an island and sunk, her crew being nearly drowned; whereupon the rest of the;' flotilla put to shore, the sunken boat was raised and bailed out, and most of her cargo recovered.

They soon came to an Indian village on the south shore. The Indians made signs of friendliness, and several canoes then came off from the shore to the flotilla. The Indians in them seemed pleased with the presents they received; but when a number of other canoes put off, loaded with armed warriors, the whites pushed off at once. The armed Indians went down along the shore for some time as if to intercept them; but at last they were seemingly left behind.

There was with the flotilla a boat containing twenty-eight men, women, and children, among whom smallpox had broken out. To guard against infection, it was agreed that it should keep well in the rear; being warned each night by the sound of a horn when it was time to go into camp. As this forlorn boatload came along Indians of another village, seeing its defenceless position, sallied out in their canoes, and butchered or captured all who were aboard. Their cries were distinctly heard by the rearmost of the other craft, who could not stem the current and come to their rescue. But a dreadful retribution fell on the Indians; for they were infected with the disease of their victims, and for some months virulent small-pox raged among many of the bands of Creeks and Cherokees.

When the boats entered the Narrows, they had lost sight of the Indians on shore, and thought they had left them behind. A man, who was in a canoe, had gone aboard one of the larger boats with his family, for the sake of safety while passing through the rough water. His canoe was towed alongside, and in the rapids it was overturned, and the cargo lost. The rest of the company, pitying his distress over the loss of all his worldly goods, landed to see if they could not help him recover some of his property. Just then the Indians suddenly appeared almost over them, on the high cliffs opposite, and began to fire, causing a hurried re treat to the boats. For some distance the Indians lined the bluffs, firing from the heights into the boats below. Yet only four people were wounded, and they not dangerously. One of them was a girl named Nancy Gower When, by the sudden onslaught of the Indians, the crew of the boat which she was in were thrown into dismay, she took the helm and steered, exposed to the fire of the savages. A ball went through the upper part of one of her thighs, but she neither flinched nor uttered any cry; and it was not known that she was wounded until, after the danger was past, her mother saw the blood soaking through her clothes. She recovered, married one of the frontiersmen and lived for fifty years afterwards, long enough to see all the wilderness filled with flourishing and populous States.

Having successfully run the gauntlet of the Chickamauga banditti, the flotilla was not again molested by the Indians. They ran over the great Muscle Shoals in about three hours without accident. The swift, broken water surged into high waves, and roared through the piles of driftwood that covered the points of the small islands, round which the currents ran in every direction; and those among the men who were unused to river-work were much relieved when they found themselves in safety.

On the 20th of the month they reached the Ohio. Some of the boats then left for Natchez, and others for the Illinois country; while the remainder turned their prows up stream, to stem the rapid current of the Ohio --a task for which they were but ill-suited. The work was very hard, the provisions were nearly gone, and the crews were almost worn out by hunger and fatigue. On the 24th of March they entered the mouth of the Cumberland. The Adventure, the heaviest of all the craft, got much help from a small square sail that was set in the bow. But it was not until April 24th that they reached the Big Salt Lick, and found Robertson awaiting them. The long, toilsome, and perilous voyage had been brought to a safe end.

There were then probably nearly five hundred settlers on the Cumberland, one half of them being able-bodied men in the prime of life. The central station, the capital of the little community, was that at the Bluff, where Robertson built a little stockaded hamlet and called it Nashborough. Among the other Cumberland stations was Mansker's (usually called Kasper's), Stone River, Bledsoe's, Freeland's, Eatons' Clover-Bottom, and Fort Union.

True to their customs and traditions, and to their race-capacity for self-rule, the settlers determined forthwith to organize some kind of government under which justice might be done among themselves and protection afforded against outside attack. Not only had the Indians begun their ravages, but turbulent and disorderl whites were also causing trouble. Robertson, who had been so largely instrumental in founding the Watauga settlement, and in giving it laws, naturally took the lead in organizing this, the second community which he had caused to spring up in the wilderness.

The settlers, by their representatives, met together at Nashborough, and on May 1, 1780, entered into articles of agreement or a compact of government. It was doubtless drawn up by Robertson, with perhaps the help of Henderson, and was modelled upon what may be called the "constitution" of Watauga, with some hints from that of Transylvania. The settlers ratified the deeds of their delegates on May 13th, when to the number of two hundred and fifty-six men they signed the articles. The signers practically guaranteed one another their rights in the land, and their personal security against wrong-doers; those who did not sign were treated as having no rights whatever -- a proper and necessary measure, as it was essential that the naturally lawless elements should be forced to acknowledge some kind of authority.

The compact provided that the affairs of the community should be administered by a Court of twelve judges, or Triers, to be elected in the different stations by vote of all the freemen in them who were over twenty-one years of age, three to come from Nashborough, two from Mansker's, two from Bledsoe's, and one from each of five other named stations. The Court had jurisdiction in all cases of conflict over land titles, for the recovery of debt or damages, and was allowed to tax costs. The Court appointed whomsoever it pleased to see decisions executed. It had power to punish all offences against the peace of the community, all misdemeanors and criminal acts, provided only that its decisions did not go so far as to affect the life of the criminal. If the misdeed of the accused was such as to be dangerous to the State, or one " for which the benefit of clergy was taken away by law," he was to be bound and sent under guard to some place where he could be legally dealt with. In this and various ways a little commonwealth, a self-governing state, was created on the banks of the Cumberland as a temporary method of restraining the evil-disposed until the State should give the little community some legal form of government.

For several years after their arrival the Cumberland settlers were worried beyond description by a succession of small war parties. In 1781 they raised no corn; in the next they made a few crops on fields they had cleared in 1780. Many of the settlers were killed, many others left for Kentucky, Illinois, or Natchez, or returned to their old homes among the Alleghanies; and ,in 1782, the inhabitants, who had steadily dwindled in numbers, became so discouraged that they mooted the question of abandoning the Cumberland district in a body. Only Robertson's great influence prevented this being done; but by word and example he finally persuaded them to remain. The following spring brought the news of peace with Great Britain. A large inflow of new settlers began with the new year; the Cumberland country throve apace; and by the end of 1783 the old stations had been rebuilt and many new ones founded.