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Copied September, 2000 by Lana Floyd (DeKalb Co., Alabama Genealogical Society) from the original publication by THE TENNESSEE HISTORICAL SOCIETY.
THE JOSEPH BROWN STORY:
PIONEER AND INDIAN IN TENNESSEE HISTORY
By C. Somers Miller
The central theme of Tennessee history before 1794 was the struggle of the pioneer to wrest his own survival from a hostile wilderness. Historians have not failed to note that this struggle very often took the form of a series of bloody incidents on the frontier between pioneer and Indian.
One of the most often recorded episodes of the frontier was that of Joseph Brown, immigrant to the old Southwest in 1788. Captured by the Cherokees, he was later released but returned to pilot an expedition to destroy the Indians' Five Lower Towns where he had been held prisoner. He finally settled in Maury County, Tennessee, where he lived until his death in 1868. His longevity and eagerness to tell of his experiences rewarded nineteenth century historians who sought from him a description of life on the Southern frontier. His story became one of the most often repeated episodes in Tennessee history of this period.
In attempting to tell the Joseph Brown "story," historians have described the character of the pioneer and the Indian. This paper will examine several accounts of the Joseph Brown "story" written in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is my thesis that the frontier character has not remained a static concept but has, through the years, been interpreted in at least three different ways, and further that the narratives reflect the constant esteem of the Southern historian for his region's past.
The Cherokees and the American settlers in the transmontane area of North Carolina were the cause of much concern during the Revolutionary War. American revolutionary leaders worried that Indian presence in this area might hamper trade with New Orleans and block communication with American posts on the Mississippi and Ohio. The frontier settlements of Watauga, Nolichucky, and on the Holston were considered by the British to be in violation of the Proclamation Line of 1763, which forbade colonists to settle west of the Appalachians, and represented a threat to British authority in the area.
In the competition between the Americans and the British for the Cherokees' favor, the British were successful. Hoping to cause the withdrawal of frontier support from the southern American armies, Lord Cornwallis formulated plans in 1780 for an Indian attack on the settlements. The Cherokees and Chickamaugas began a number of raids on white settlements which were countered by expeditions upon the Indians led by John Sevier. The result was constant strife in that part of the west.
The Treaty of Hopewell, written in November, 1785, was an attempt to make peace with the Cherokee and other Indian tribes which had sided with the British. Although the negotiations defined a boundary between lands of the Indians and the settlers, efforts at such adjustment came too late: settlers and land-hungry speculators, following successful treaty writers, had already spilled over into Indian regions. A boundary line which divided two peoples became an area of "claims and counter-claims, of raids and counter-raids, of land occupied in some places by white and red men alike. It was a frontier of depth and trouble."
Sevier's expeditions against the Cherokees, though highly praised by some historians, made pioneer life more troublesome. A large band of belligerent Cherokees had been forced southward down the Tennessee River where they joined a smaller group of Chickamaugas. Living in a number of villages clustered around the Tennessee, known as the Five Lower Towns, and located not far from present-day Chattanooga, they were soon strengthened in their mountain bastion by the addition of groups from the Creek and Shawnee tribes. This location made matters worse for the settlers because the Five Towns were the center of Indian water communications and near the Great Indian Warpath which connected them with allies to the south in Georgia and with those as far north as Detroit. Even worse, other trails leading northward enabled the Cherokees to strike at newly settled areas along the Cumberland River. The Indians, strengthened in numbers, had found a strategic location to launch attacks against any intruding whites.
North Carolina was faced with a moral and legal obligation to reward soldiers of the Continental line and militia who had served during the Revolution. As the state treasury was empty, the solution to this problem seemed to lie in the abundance of western lands across the mountains, which could be granted,, with little expense to the state, to North Carolina's Revolutionary veterans.
Living in the rolling piedmont section of that state was Colonel James Brown who had immigrated to the colonies from Ireland and purchased a small land holding at the head of the Yadkin River. He had been married to Jane Gillespie Brown for several years when, with a growing family, he relocated in Guilford County. After a short time, he was chosen a magistrate of that county, served as High Sheriff and as a ruling elder of the Presbyterian church.
The Revolution had come to Guilford Court House in March 1781. Brown, a soldier in the Continental line, was engaged in the battle under Colonels Lee and Washington which resulted in a tactical victory for the Americans. Thus, when North Carolina in 1785 offered payment of Revolutionary soldiers' claims in western lands, James Brown took advantage of the opportunity and located his military warrant on the Cumberland and Duck Rivers.
Shortly thereafter he took two of his older sons, explored the Cumberland valley, and entered large claims for additional lands. Choosing a tract for settlement about five miles below Nashville, he returned for his family in North Carolina, leaving the two sons to build a cabin and clear the land for cultivation.
During the winter of 1786-1787, he built a large boat on the Holston to transport his family down the Tennessee and up the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers to Nashville. The boat was well constructed of oak, two inches thick, and upon its stern Brown mounted a small cannon. He took on board a cargo of useful goods and embarked from the Long Island of the Holston on May 4, 1787, with a party of himself, his wife, two sons who were grown; Joseph, aged fifteen; a younger son, George; and three daughters, Jane, ten, Elizabeth, seven, and Polly, four. There were, in addition to Brown's family, five young men and several of the family's Negro slaves aboard.
About daybreak of May 9, as they passed a Cherokee village on the lower Tennessee, a canoe approached their boat. It was filled with Indians who hailed the settlers and appeared so friendly that they were permitted to come on board. Their headman Cutleotoy, professed friendship and was kindly treated. Shortly thereafter the Indians returned to their town and immediately sent runners to Nickajack and Running Water villages down river, to raise a group of warriors to intercept the boat.
A party of forty Indians led by the half-breed John Vann, who spoke English, met Brown's boat before it reached Nickajack. Vann also pleaded friendship citing the Treaty of Hopewell and was successful in boarding under the pretense of wanting to trade. Once Vann had accomplished his first stratagem, seven or eight other canoes appeared. Despite Brown's protests, more Cherokees came on board and began scuttling the boat. In the ensuing melee, the Indians gained control and Colonel Brown was killed by a Cherokee warrior.
Once the Indians had grounded the boat at Nickajack, they began to expropriate prisoners. A group of Creeks who had happened to be along, took Mrs. Brown, her youngest son, George, and her three daughters and hastened to their towns on the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers. Kiachatalee, of Nickajack, obtained Joseph Brown and turned him over to Tom Tunbridge, deserter from the British army, who had established a trading post among the Cherokees and had married Kiachatalee's mother. As the Indian trader hurried Joseph off to his home, the boy heard rifle shots coming from the direction of the river. He soon learned that his two older brothers and the five other men had been ambushed and killed by the Cherokees.
In the meantime, the Indians of Nickajack had come to believe that they had been cheated of some of their captives by the Creeks. Warriors were dispatched to catch up with the Creek party. When they were intercepted, two of the Brown daughters were returned to Nickajack.
After Joseph Brown arrived at Tunbridge's house, an old Indian woman came in and angrily scolded the trader for having brought the boy away from Nickajack, and thereby preventing his being killed along with others. She warned that Brown would later pilot an army there to kill them all. Shortly after she had gone, Cutleotoy with a group of braves approached Tunbridge and asked that the boy be released to them so that they might kill him. The Englishmen resisted the Indians' demand, saying that Joseph Brown was Kiachatalee's prisoner and that his step-son would be sure to revenge the boy's death. Finally, after Cutleotoy threatened Tunbridge with a drawn knife, the boy was turned over to them.
Brown was taken to a place a short distance away where it appeared that he was to be killed. Being a religious young man and as death was certain, he asked for some time to pray. Joseph knelt and prayed the prayer of St. Stephen, trying to give his soul to God. He remembered the experience of St. Stephen: how the saint when he was stoned, saw the heavens open, revealing Christ at the right hand of God. At this point, Brown's eyes opened involuntarily and he saw smiles upon the Indians' faces. Later Joseph learned that Cutleotoy had decided against killing him because the Indian highly valued the Negro slave he had obtained from the division of the Brown property, and feared that Kiachatalee might kill the slave in revenge for Joseph Brown's death.
The boy's life had been spared and soon he was taken into an Indian family and began to adopt their ways of life. Joseph wore the breech cloth and the short shirt, and his head was shaved, leaving a scalp lock. He even developed a relationship of respect and affection with his captors, Kiachatalee and the Tunbridges. He lived with the Cherokees for almost a year during which time he became acquainted with the territory around Nickajack and the other Five Lower Towns.
Warfare between the Indians and settlers continued on the frontier. An expedition under Colonel Joseph Martin came near Nickajack but was repulsed by the Indians. During the winter of 1788-1789, General Sevier followed a large body of Cherokees to a town on the Coosa River where he took about forty-five prisoners and returned with them to the white settlements. Sevier proposed a prisoner exchange with the Indians and it was in this way that Joseph and his two sisters were released from captivity in April, 1789.
Brown and his sisters made their way back across the mountain to an uncle's home in the Pendleton District of South Carolina. There they waited for some news of the condition of Mrs. Brown, their sister Elizabeth and brother George. About six months after Sevier's exchange, Mrs. Brown and Elizabeth were taken to Rock Landing, Georgia, and restored to their family through the efforts of the Creek chief, Colonel Alexander McGillivray. George Brown was to remain with the Creeks until October, 1793..
The reunited family remained in South Carolina for almost a year. In the fall of 1790, gathering together their belongings, they again headed for the Cumberland settlements. This time they chose the overland route to their property south of Nashville. Upon arrival, they began farming in spite of constant threats of Indian massacre. Joseph Brown, now considered a grown man, was often employed as a post rider between the Cumberland settlements and Knoxville. In this capacity he was often exposed to Indian attack and several times narrowly escaped death or capture. He began to regard himself as an Indian fighter and participated in an expedition against the Cherokee.
In 1794 Brown volunteered to serve under Major James Ore in a campaign that was to destroy the Cherokee base at Nickajack. He piloted the volunteers across the mountains and while the rest of the men circled the village, Brown, being familiar with area, led twenty men to another position to insure that no Indian would escape after the battle began. The frontiersmen completely surprised the Indians and killed or captured about one hundred Cherokees. Brown later reported that he had been in the midst of the fighting, had nearly scalped one Indian and had taken a squaw prisoner. He believed that he had fulfilled the earlier prophecy of the old Cherokee woman: he had piloted an army there to destroy them. The victory over the Cherokees in 1794 ended the Indian menace from the Five Lower Towns.
Joseph Brown returned to his new wife and his home on the Cumberland where his first son was born in 1795. The same year he was engaged as a spy and guard at Fort Blount. Brown had a personal interest in seeing that the Indian threat was diminished on the Tennessee frontier; he still possessed title to a large acreage along the Duck River which had been granted his father.
In 1805 he decided that conditions were safe enough to move his family across the Duck into what is today Maury County where he came to play an active role in the county's history. Brown and his brother-in-law, Benjamin Thomas, became the first white inhabitants of that area. Brown constructed a house in which the first county court was held in 1807, and was one of the commissioners to establish the town of Columbia. In this town he began to acquire property and by May, 1811, owned more than fifteen hundred acres. That Brown had become a man of some standing in Maury County is indicated by the inscription of "Esquire" beside his name in county records.
During the Creek War of 1813-1814, he was elected a colonel and served under General Andrew Jackson for four months, participating in the battles of Tallahatchee and Talledega. In the latter engagement he and his command were thrown into battle against five hundred Indians. Seventy Indians were killed and the Tennessee troops emerged victorious. From his engagements at these battles, a curious story has found its way into some histories of this man. It was written that at the battle of Talledega, Brown learned from an Indian that Cutleotoy was still alive and had possession of several Negroes who were descendants of the slave taken from the Brown family in 1788. Investigation indicates that as early as October, 1811, Brown was aware that the slaves were within three days' traveling distance of his home in Maury County.
Colonel Brown forcibly recovered some of these slaves from Cutleotoy at Fort Hampton in January, 1814, and in so doing he violated a treaty made between the United States government and the Cherokees. The Treaty of Tellico of 1798 had bound the United States to protect the Cherokees against any claims arising from Indian thefts or plunderings which occurred before the date of the treaty Legally, Brown was barred from recovering any of the Negroes and he could have been subjected to damages resulting from this act.
After the Creek Wars Brown returned to Maury County, never again to participate in Indian expeditions. Interviewed in 1852, he stated that he had since 1815 led a peaceful life. Perhaps this was a correct description from someone who had undergone Indian captivity and had been involved in numerous campaigns. Records indicate that the rest of his life may have been peaceful but that the tranquillity was definitely interrupted from time to time. Between 1817 and 1821 he was sued several times in cases before the Maury County Circuit Court. Shortly after he appeared as a defendant in court, he volunteered his services to go to Washington to collect claims for property lost in the Seminole War.
Some of the peacefulness to which he referred may have been derived from his acceptance of ministerial duties for the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Columbia. Yet it would be difficult to describe the religion he practiced as entirely tranquil. Someone who viewed Brown's religious experiences in the 1820's described them for a later audience:
About 1822, when a small boy, I attended a camp-meeting at McClain's. Only a few tents were then built; some camped in covered wagons...Among the tents built, was the one so long occupied by Co. Brown, and there I first saw him under religious excitement, and first heard that involuntary "Oh!' accompanied by the spasmodic jerk, forward and downward, and as he arose erect, "My Redeemer!" was uttered in a low voice. Those who once heard him, can recollect the effects and intonations of his voice....."
As Brown grew older, his religious zeal increased, an enthusiasm probably accentuated by the growing prevalence of fundamentalism in rural Tennessee. In any case, his letters and interviews reveal a man who came more and more under religious influences. That this tendency was also reflected by his biographers will be shown later.
There developed during the 1850's a growing interest in Tennessee history, perhaps attributable to the reorganization of the Tennessee Historical Society in Nashville in 1849, which was incorporated the following year by the state legislature. Although this organization received little popular support and its meetings were few, a handful of men, mostly Nashville residents, attempted to stimulate interest in the state's history and desired to preserve papers and artifacts which might be revealing of the state's past.
One of the first members of the society was William Wales, of Nashville, who in 1852 began publishing the South-Western Monthly, a literary magazine. Wales had been inspired by the organizations' founding and in an extended editorial he urged his reader's to take an interest in Tennessee history and chided them for their wavering support of the historical society's work. Tennessee had a "glorious train of events for contemplation;;" in its history were stories of fabulous romance. To preserve these "mementos of the past, " the public should cooperate with the society. Other states had given generous support to their organizations and libraries; Wales regretted that Tennessee had done very little to record her greatness.
The same editorial entreated its readers to learn from the "patriarchal few who might acquaint" them with a time when the state was an unbroken wilderness. Apparently, Wales had followed his own advice and traveled to Maury County to write a sketch of the aging Joseph Brown. It is probable that he was accompanied on this interview by Feliz K. Zollicoffer who in 1850 had taken charge of the Nashville Banner. Zollicoffer would have been well acquainted with Brown, for he was a Maury County native and had been publisher and editor of the Columbia Observer before moving to Nashville. In his ANNALS OF TENNESSEE, published in 1853, James G. M. Ramsey printed Brown's narrative which was supplied by Zollicoffer. A comparison of Ramsey's account and that published in the South-Western Monthly reveal so many similarities that it is evident Zollicoffer and Wales must have combined efforts.
The narrative in Wales' quarterly portrayed the story of the brave pioneer who unflinchingly endured dangers to migrate to a new territory. It mattered not at all that the Indian had an older right to the land; rather, it was the duty of the pioneer to open this land for settlement. The savage was a definite obstacle that must be overcome. If this obstacle threatened the white settler, he must be punished or killed.
Brave and conscious of his duty, Joseph Brown personified the pioneer. He had come to Tennessee as a youth, and experienced numerous hardships in Indian captivity. After his release from the Indians, he returned to Tennessee to insure the safety of its frontier society against the defiant savage. He was a man to whom the United States owed gratitude for its first step in civilization. Brown, the gallant pioneer, became a hero in Tennessee history. Wales accomplished what he had set out to do; he had recorded the exploits of Joseph Brown so that they would not "moulder in oblivion.." Now well over one hundred years old, the narrative in the South-Western Monthly remains one of the most detailed accounts of the Indian exploits of Joseph Brown.
The same year that Wales began publication of his literary magazine, Mrs. Elizabeth Ellet wrote PIONEER WOMEN OF THE WEST. Directed to a national audience and published in New York, her book contained numerous sketches of frontier women, one of these being Mrs. James Brown.
Mrs. Ellet, born in the western part of New York in 1818, was the daughter of a pioneer of the section, William Nixion Lummis. At the age of fifteen she married Dr. William H. Ellet, a professor of chemistry at Columbia College, New York City. The same year as their marriage, Dr. Ellet accepted a position at South Carolina College where they remained until 1849, when they returned to New York. Mrs. Ellet developed an interest in history and published hundreds of essays, shot stories, and sketches during her life time. Her PIONEER WOMEN is not well documented but she acknowledged assistance from Milton A. Haynes of Nashville and her use of valuable manuscripts belonging to a historical society of Tennessee.
Mrs. James Brown's story differed in at least one respect from the narrative published by Wales' Ellet and included the story of Brown's recovery of the Negro slaves. After the Battles of Talledega, the Indian fighter learned that Cutleotoy was still living and had with him the descendants of the slaves taken from the Brown family in 1788. Joseph Brown proceeded to the Indian village and obtained his rightful property. Describing the episode, Ellet portrayed Cutleotoy as a criminal deserving death and Brown as the ideal Christian who was able to repress his feelings of revenge for his father's death. The Cherokee was presented as a criminal race "whose blood thirsty natures panted for the blood of the white man," a lawless people who deserved death in the Nickajack campaign.
Ellet believed that by telling the story of Mrs. Brown, the condition, progress, and character of a people would be better illustrated. The tale had all the characteristics of a romance but it was a "plain sad story of trials and sufferings" incident to the period and border life. The sadness and suffering of those hardy and wise pioneers was inspiring because, despite adversities, they had been able to construct a state in the midst of Indian warfare. The recurrent theme in Ellet's history was the perseverance of the pioneer. The world of the frontier woman was one of "vexation and sorrow," but she endured the hardships of frontier life and experienced the loss of husband and sons killed by Indians so that she and the remainder of her family might finally claim their rightful property.
The year following the publications of Wales and Ellet, Dr. J. G. M. Ramsey produced the "Remarkable Adventure" of the Brown family in his ANNALS OF TENNESSEE Predisposed through heredity and the environment of his youth to historical interest, Ramsey was born into a prominent family of East Tennessee and his early years were spent in the atmosphere of a family acquainted with state politics and the leadership of his state. Therefore Ramsey was exposed daily to those people and events that had shaped the history of Tennessee.
Unfortunately he believed that Colonel Joseph Brown was dead in 1853 and that his story had never before been published. Therefore, he sought a condensed version of Brown's story furnished him by General Zollicoffer. The similarity between Ramsey's narrative and the one published the previous year in the South-Western Monthly has previously been noted. Like Wales, Ramsey was determined to preserve Tennessee's historical heritage. Of particular interest were the deeds of the eighteenth century Tennessee pioneers. Therefore, Brown's narrative was an important aspect in Tennessee history, another incident of a worthy pioneer who braved frontier strife to settle the state.
To Ramsey, James Brown was a good example of the Tennessee pioneer. He came to Tennessee as a Revolutionary veteran to settle lands granted him for military service. His son, Joseph bravely endured his captivity and later, out of duty and patriotism, piloted an expedition to extinguish the Indian stronghold. Ramsey's estimation of Brown's bravery in the Nickajack campaign is illustrated in this passage:
Joseph Brown...conducted troops along the route, unknown to any of them, and though disabled, from a wound through his shoulder, which was still discharging pieces of exfoliated bone, he with one hand, swam across the river, and was among the first to reach its southern bank.
On the other hand, the Cherokees were a group of "land pirates," murderers and "savage bandits," who inflicted constant cruelty and "barbarisms" throughout Tennessee. Indian depredations caused only righteous anger among the frontiersmen.
Increasing sectionalism in the antebellum United States had caused division of several denominations into regionally governed church bodies. One of the Southern religious institutions which had separated itself from a larger national organization was the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. By the mid-1850's this organization operated its own publishing concern in Nashville.
An early editor of the Southern Methodist Publishing House was the Rev. Thomas O. Summers. He had come to Nashville and wasted little time before becoming a prolific publisher, editor, and author. His only biographer felt that it was a mystery "how he (Summers) found time to write so much and so well. ...Summers was a devoted and pious Methodist, who urged all Christian parents to properly supervise their children's reading. He edited a book entitled Letters to Parents of Sunday School Children which supported his views of screening from children books which "bear upon them the broad stamp of vice, which mark them as the devil's own."
Holding this view towards children's literature, Summers must have been delighted when he procured from a "young lady of Tennessee" a tract which depicted for children Joseph Brown's experiences with the Indians. Summers published this in a volume entitled Joseph Brown or The Young Tennessean Whose Life Was Saved by the Power of Prayer, a book obviously designed for children's religious instruction.
In this version Brown became the personification of the Christian pioneer and pious youth. It would seem that he had spent the greater part of this time with the Indians in prayer for his mother, brothers and sisters, and even his captors. Brown would not attempt escape from the Indians because he demonstrated "self sacrificing love" and could not endanger the lives of his younger sisters. When Brown met Cutleotoy at the Nickajack campaign, and told the Indian that he deserved to die, Summers added a new twist to the story. Cutleotoy agreed to his own death, saying, "It is true--I do deserve to be put to death! Do as you please with me!" But Brown could not kill Cutleotoy because of the Christian principle which forbids the children of God to revenge themselves on their enemies. The pious pioneer became the Christian hero!
Contrasted to Brown, the Cherokee was evil, capable of violent rage and murder of unsuspecting whites. Cutleotoy, for example, would have gladly killed Brown. Yet, however evil the nature of the Cherokee, he was after punishment, capable of contrition. The evil nature of the red man could be subdued by Christianizing influence.
If one were to draw a general picture of the pioneer and Indian from the episode of Joseph Brown as described by Ellet, Wales, Ramsey, and Summers, it would be substantially one of the brave and righteous versus the diabolic. The pioneer was a worthy being, constantly roused and conscious of higher goals. He had labored and fought to establish in the Southwest a fine civilization, but he had been opposed by Indians who were "evil," "treacherous," and "lawless and bloodthirsty" murderers. These views would find new interpretation in the historical writing of the twentieth century. (Part 1).
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