Susan Daniel/Kevin Markuson, September 1, 2018
(For photos and maps of Old Jefferson, please click here)
The town of Jefferson was located within the forks of the Stones River. This land was part of an assignee land grant to Robert Weakley and Thomas Bedford from the state of North Carolina. The original grant reads, “by an act of our General Assembly entitled an act for the relief of the officers and soldiers in the Continental line and for and in consideration of the signal bravery and persevering zeal of James Pearl, a captain in the Continental line of said state. . . a land grant of 3,840 acres . . .Robert Weakley and Thomas Bedford were the assignees [Note: purchasers of the grant] of James Pearl on December 12, 1801.
The town of Jefferson was laid out by Weakley and Bedford prior to June 1803, when these lands were still a part of Davidson County. A plat of the town was registered with the Davidson County Clerk according to early deeds and laid out with a public square and 102 town lots.
Weakley and Bedford held the first sale of town lots on June 10 and 13, 1803 as many of the early deed for town lots, registered with the Rutherford County Register, bear these dates. It is interesting to note that Weakley and Bedford gave town lots to certain individuals at this time. William Nash (a Justice of the Peace) and Joseph Herndon (County Trustee for Davidson County and soon to be County Clerk for Rutherford County) were given lots #20 and #81 respectively “for and in consideration of the respect and friendship they (Weakley and Bedford) bear. . .” A total
of 40 lots were sold on June 10 and 13, 1803. Some of the first buyers were John Hill, James Sharpe, Alexander McCulloch and William Nash, soon to be prominent personages in the growing community of Jefferson.
During the summer of 1803, a growing movement for the formation of a separate county in the environs of Stones River was about to reach a climax. Petitions were sent by a number of citizens in Davidson and Williamson Counties requesting that a new county be laid off due to the vast extent of the counties and the hardships to the citizens in attending courts, general muster and elections in the town of Nashville and Franklin.
A petition of August 26, 1803 further requests that the navigation of Stones River be kept open from Cummins Mill to the mouth of the river to carry produce to the market. The petition also requests that Captain Joseph Morton, James Sharpe, Robert Smith, Captain William Doran, John Andrews, O. M. Benge and James Campbell be appointed commissioners to establish the place of the seat of justice. Petitioners included John Cummins, Travis Nash, Cader and Abner Dement and Samuel Wilson.
It is interesting to note that as early as 1802, settlers living south of the Cumberland settlements were desiring a separate county. This is evidenced by a petition, in the Tennessee State Library and Archives, to the General Assembly from citizens living on or near the big Harpeth River, dated December 8, 1802. The land included with the bounds proposed by this petition would have included the present eastern portion of Williamson County and the present western portion of Rutherford County.
There were some opposing the creation of a new county in 1803. This is evidence by a petition to the General Assembly from citizens of Davidson County requesting that a new county not be laid off for reasons of inconvenience if the request for a new county should be granted. [Legislative Papers, 46-1-1803, TSLA].
Rutherford County was formed by an act of the General Assembly, October 25, 1803, entitled, “An act to erect the counties of Davidson and Williamson into three separate and distinct counties.” Contained with this act, the courts were to meet on the first Monday in March, June, September and December. The first court was to be held at the home of Thomas Rucker and subsequent courts were to be held at different places until a courthouse was built. It was further declared that Rutherford be a part of Mero District for all military and civil purposes and that sheriffs of
Davidson and Williamson Counties be free to collect taxes that were due the date of the act. On November 7, 1803, the General Assembly passed “A supplementary act” to the act creating Rutherford County. William Nash, on the part of Rutherford County, and Samuel Weakley, on the part of Davidson County, were appointed commissioners to run the line between Rutherford and Davidson Counties. They were to make out a plat, with the distances to the major water courses, and file this with the clerk of the county. The lines of the county were to be run by the “first o
January next.” The several justices that fell into Rutherford County after the lines were run were appointed justices in Rutherford with the same powers as before.
Nashville, August 18, 1802
“During the last two weeks, the Indians have stolen horses three different times from the inhabitants on the waters of Stones River—in the two first instances the horses have been recovered but not in the last. Such depredations as these it is not probable, will be submitted to with impunity—they are supposed to be Creeks or Cherokees”
Tennessee Gazette, August 18, 1802
After the sale of lots in June 1803, there were only a few sales of lots in Jefferson by Weakley and Bedford in August and September. On New Year’s Eve 1803, Weakley and Bedford old to Joseph Herndon 501½ acres lying on both sides of the West Fork of Stones River, situated not far from the town of Jefferson. This was to become the home of Joseph Herndon as evidenced by later court entries describing roads in the county. That same day, Weakley and Bedford also sold to Joseph Bowman 141½ acres lying on the West Fork of Stones River. On this land, Joseph Bowman was authorized by the courts to build a mill in January 1808.
The court, according to the above-mentioned act of the General Assembly, met for the first time at the home of Thomas Rucker, near where the Veteran’s Administration stands today. The first mention of holding court in Jefferson was in the adjournment of the first session, when it was recorded that the “court in course be held at the forks of Stones River at the junction of the main West and East forks.”
In July 1804, the county court met at the “courthouse” in Jefferson agreeable to the adjournment of the previous session. Court was also held in Jefferson in October 1804. It must be remembered that Jefferson at this time had not been chosen for the seat of justice for Rutherford County yet.
However, Weakley and Bedford, without doubt, must have envisioned Jefferson to be the seat of justice. At this time, Jefferson was the only organized town in the county and its situation between the forks of the river
made it a potential center for trade and commerce for the area. These early references to a courthouse in Jefferson support the tradition that the early courts were held in the Lenoir house. This house stood on the north side of what was the old square. During demolition for the Percy Priest project, a two story log structure was uncovered that was
incorporated into the house. Most likely, Weakley and Bedford donated this log building to the county for use as a courthouse in an attempt to have Jefferson selected as the county seat. Later, in 1806, the Commissioners of Jefferson would order the sale of this building when the new courthouse was finished.
On August 3, 1804, the General Assembly passed an act appointing commissioners to fix a place for the seat of justice for Rutherford County, John Hill, Frederick Barfield, Mark Mitchell, Alexander McKnight and Peter
Legrand were appointed commissioners to select a site “having special regard to good water.” It was further enacted that the commissioners acquire 40 acres of land for the erection of the public buildings, lay off a
town to be named by them and sell lots at a public sale. A tax was also authorized to defray the expenses of a new courthouse that was to be built.
With an organized town, containing several good springs and access by road or watercourse, established and growing with the forks of Stones River, Jefferson was a logical choice for the seat of justice. Unfortunately,
no records are available of the proceedings of the commissioners that would reveal to us any alternative sites they may have considered.
There was very little real estate activity in Jefferson during the year 1804, with just a few lots being transferred by the original buyers. Weakley and Bedford did not sell any lots in Jefferson, in 1804, according to present
deed book records.
Although the county court had temporary facilities, in the log “courthouse,” apparently there were no facilities to hold prisoners. During the July session of 1804, the sheriff, Samuel McBride, entered a protest to the court that there was no jail within the county hold prisoners. In the October session of court, Peter Legrand, John Hill, Mark
Mitchell, Alexander McKnight and Frederick Barfield came into Jefferson and gave bond and security for the office of commissioners to fix a place for the seat of justice. For some unknown reason, James Sharpe, the other commissioner named In the act of the General Assembly, did not give bond until January 10, 1805. On this same day, Alexander McKnight and Frederick Barfield filed their resignations as commissioners with the County Clerk’s office. As the records of the proceedings of the commissioners are not known to be in existence today, the question of why they resigned is open to conjecture. It may have resulted from some dissension within the commission, or an inconvenience of the duties of the appointment to the above commissioners.
The court moved from Jefferson after the October 1804 session and convened at Simon Miller’s house on the first Monday in January 1805. The court met for the ensuing sessions, through January 1806, at the home of Nimrod Menifee, except for the July session which did go back to the log courthouse in Jefferson. Within the act creating Rutherford County, it was stipulated that the courts were to move from place to place until the seat of justice was chosen.
The commission must have selected Jefferson as the site for the county seat by April of 1805, for it was on April 4th that they levied a tax for the purpose of erecting the public buildings in the county as provided for in the act of the General Assembly. Although it appears that the town of Jefferson was chosen as the seat of Justice in 1805, Robert Weakley did not deed the land to the commissioners of Jefferson until February 16, 1806. He deeded 40 acres of land on the south and east sides of the town, “for and in consideration of the regard he bears toward the said county of Rutherford.” This particular tract of land was one of the divisions of the unsold portion of the 3,840 acres that was owned by Weakley and Bedford, and was allotted to Robert Weakley after the death of Thomas Bedford. Referring to the Weakley map of Jefferson, Weakley donated the land contained in lots #103 through #162 which the commissioners had surveyed and laid off to be sold to help defray the cost of the new courthouse.
During the year 1805, the town of Jefferson must have been bustling with activity. Presumably, the new courthouse was being constructed on the square and wharves and warehouses were being erected by the river to handle the trade that was increasing with the growing population of the county. Most likely, other structures were also being built in Jefferson to accommodate the business needs of the community and surrounding area.
Norton Gum was appointed the overseer of the streets and public square in Jefferson, on July 2, 1805, with all the hands within the bounds of the town to work under him. He had also been licensed to keep an ordinary at his dwelling house, in the town of Jefferson. The Norton Gum ordinary was the first to be licensed in Jefferson. Tradition holds that Mark Mitchell had the first ordinary within the town, but no evidence could be uncovered to support this.
During 1805, William P. Anderson petitioned the court to build a mill, on the East Fork of Stones River, about 600 yards from the town of Jefferson. This site now is the picnic area of the East Fork access area. There was indeed a mill built here which in later years was known as the Ridley or Davis mill. A small portion of the mill dam can still be seen today.
It appears that the commissioners had a sale of town lots in Jefferson on December 26, 1805, as a number of deeds registered in Rutherford Co. bear this date. A total of 11 lots were sold that day. Robert Weakley, Samuel Bell and John Bell were among the purchasers of lots.
The first election held in Rutherford County, with Jefferson as its political center, was held in 1805. On July 2, 1805 the court appointed James Sharpe, Samuel Wilson, Hugh Robinson, Constant Hardeman, Alexander McCulloch and Joseph Herndon as inspectors and judges of the next election. Jefferson was undoubtedly the polling place for the county. By order of the commissioners to fix a place for the seat of justice, William Quisenbury, a surveyor, determined the center of the county sometime in 1805. The county seat was usually centered so as not to put
any part of the citizens at a disadvantage in attending courts, elections and general musters. On January 7, 1806 while court was being held at the Menifee house, William Quisenbury was allowed eight dollars for his
Clarissa of Jefferson – A Black Woman’s Fight for Freedom
Clarissa’s legal fight for her freedom started in April of 1805 and was to last for at least two years.
On April 2, 1805, the court ordered William Edwards to give bond to permit Clarissa to appear at the next court when she was to pursue her appeal for her freedom. The court further ordered that Clarissa “be treated with humanity” by Williams Edwards In the meantime.
William Edwards must not have taken any action by this court order, for on July 4, 1805, the court again ordered William to give bond, in the amount of one thousand dollars, to permit Clarissa, “who has sued him in this court for her freedom,” to appear before the court during the proceedings of her suit against him. Again, the court ordered William to treat her with humanity.
The next court entry concerning this suit was on October 7, 1805, fifteen months after William was last ordered to give bond for the assurance of her appearance in court. The court entry for this date reads, “Clarissa vs. Wm. Edwards – False Imprisonment.” In this particular case, the jury granted a mistrial to the defendant, William Edwards.
During the following session of court, on January 7, 1807, William Edwards and Clarissa, along with their attorneys came into court where Clarissa was again suing him for false imprisonment. The jury found the defendant “not guilty as charged in the plaintiff’s declaration above, and that the said plaintiff is the slave of him, the said defendant.” An appeal was “prayed and granted.” On the same day, January 7, in a separate entry, it was recorded that Alexander Moore, a witness for the plaintiff was called but did not appear and, therefore, “forfeited agreeably to an act of the General Assembly.” Was this the appeal that was granted by the court? Unfortunately there are no further entries in the county court records concerning the case of Clarissa and William Edwards, but the story
of Clarissa is not over yet.
On July 1, 1810, O.M. Benge sold to a Clarissa Boushane Lot #122 in the town of Jefferson for two dollars. In the 1810 census for Rutherford County a Clarissa Beshano, “a free person,” was recorded as residing as a head of household in the town of Jefferson. She was at least 45 years old and had one slave, according to the census. The County Court Minute Books for Rutherford County reveal that Clarissa bought two more lots in Jefferson on October 8, 1812; one from O.M. Benge, and Lot #124 from William Locke.
In a report, dated 1813, on improved lots in the town of Jefferson, Clarissa appears again as “Clarese Bushong, a woman of color from one of the French Islands.” Is this the same Clarissa who six years ago brought William Edwards into court to sue him for her freedom? If so, how did she finally gain her freedom? Could a settlement between Clarissa and William Edwards have taken place out of court, with Clarissa gaining her freedom and taking up residence in the town of Jefferson where she could have found work in an ordinary or some other business? Without further documentation, the answers to these and other questions will remain unanswered.
In April 1806, the court moved back to Jefferson, presumably to the newly constructed courthouse on the square. In Goodspeed History of Rutherford County, the courthouse is said to have been constructed of brick and measured roughly 40 feet by 40 feet. The cost is said to have been between two and three thousand dollars. A copy of the Weakley map of Jefferson describes the courthouse as built with brick and stone.
The town as well as the county were growing rapidly in these first years. On April 9, 1806, Thomas Mitchell obtained a license to keep an ordinary at his dwelling house. The Mitchell ordinary was the second ordinary to be licensed for the town of Jefferson. According to an article in the Nashville Tennessean dated March 26, 1950, John Nash Read came into Jefferson and established another tavern on the square sometime in 1806. The Read tavern was said to have had stables across the east main street, which in later years was turned into a blacksmith’s shop after the
tavern closed down.
As the town was growing and prospering, there was also an increase in violence and disturbances of the peace. There were three taverns in Jefferson at this time, and after a journey up the river from Nashville, they surely must have been a welcome sight to a thirsty river-man. No doubt, on different occasions, overindulgence of the spirits may have caused some brawls and other disturbances in town. Throughout the county court minutes for 1806, there are numerous cases of assault and battery and trespassing. John Spence and William Gilliam were appointed the first patrollers for the town on April 17, 1806. Patrollers were also appointed for McCoy’s militia Co., Capt. Wm. Searcy’s militia co., and Capt. Nimrod Jenkin’s militia co. out in the surrounding county.
In July 1806 the county clerk, Joseph Herndon, and the sheriff of the county were provided space in the new courthouse. The court ordered that Joseph Herndon “have leave to appropriate the corner of the courthouse
upon the upper floor at the head of the staircase for the purpose of an office so as not to interfere with a sufficient passage at the head of the staircase.” The court also ordered that “the sheriff of this county have leave to make for his own use a closet under the staircase in the courthouse, in such a manner as he may think proper, not injuring said staircase.”
A jail for the county had been constructed of logs and was probably located on the northwest corner of the square. Mr. Lee Victory, former owner of the Lenoir house prior to the Percy Priest Project, claims that the logs of his smokehouse were the logs used in the first jail for the county. He moved the structure from Jefferson to his present hom, in Smyrna, during the dismantling of the town during the project.
In addition to the courthouse, jail and stocks, wharves, warehouses, taverns and houses in Jefferson, there was also a blacksmith’s shop in October 1807. On October 6, 1807, the court ordered certain individuals to lay out a road, “beginning at the mouth of the main street near the blacksmith’s shop” leading from Jefferson to Lebanon. According to the map of Jefferson, this would have put the blacksmith’s shop down the hill from the courthouse near the river front.
There also may have been a government land office in Jefferson for a short time in 1806-7. In a move to settle the continued land disputes between Tennessee and North Carolina, the General Assembly of Tennessee, in 1806, passed an act entitled, “An act directing the division of the state into convenient districts, for the appointment of the principal surveyors thereof, and for ascertaining the bona fide claims against the same.” In section eight of this act, the locations for the district offices are as follows: District 1 office at Nashville, District 2 office at Jefferson, District
3 office at Alexander’s, District 4 office at Kingston, District 5 office at Knoxville, District 6 office at Jonesborough, and the office for the territory south of the French Broad and Holston rivers at Sevierville. Rutherford County was within the bounds of the first district according to the boundary descriptions in the above act and an early surveyors map. The office for the second district at Jefferson, because it was the closest organized town to the district (the southern boundary between the first and second districts was roughly the boundary between Rutherford and Bedford counties). When Bedford County was organized in 1807, the land office may have been moved to Shelbyville, where it would have been in the same district that it was authorized for.
On November 7, 1807, the General Assembly passed an act entitled: “An act for the regulation of the town of Jefferson in Rutherford County.” According to this act, the sheriff was to hold an election at the Courthouse in Jefferson in April of 1808 to elect five persons to act as commissioners of the town. Only those who were either inhabitants of the town or owned property in the town were allowed to participate as candidates or voters. The commissioners were empowered to regulate the town including calling on inhabitants who were liable to work the roads, appointing an overseer of the streets, “prevent encroachments on the streets or burials on the public square” and appointing a surveyor to resurvey the town, agreeable to the original plan, and designating the lots by stone cornerstones at each lot. They were also authorized to lay an annual tax on the town as follows:
Not exceeding $100 worth town property…..12½ cents
White poll………………………………………………12½ cents
Each black poll……………………………………… 25 cents
Each stud horse……………………………………. 75 cents
The appraisement and collection of this tax was subject to all the rules and regulations of the state tax. Section VIII of this act stipulated that the monies collected through this tax were to be appropriated only for the benefit or improvement of the town and that the commissioners were not to receive any compensation for their services.
The town must have grown considerably by this time to require a town commission and a town tax for its proper upkeep. As the population of the county increased, the business and traffic in and through Jefferson must have increased proportionately. There was the river traffic, bringing goods up river from Nashville for sale or trade in and around Jefferson and when the court was in session, the town must have been busy with the Justices, witnesses,
petitioners and jury members that came in for the court. In many of the early court cases, witnesses were allowed so much money for so many days attendance. This must have been to help defray the expense of coming to Jefferson, possibly staying a night or two at one of the ordinarys.
For many, it was a long trip into Jefferson on horseback or in a wagon. The population of the county had grown, by the end of 1807, to the extent that the General Assembly authorized another place, in addition to Jefferson, for the next election to be held. This act specified that all persons living in the 2nd Battalion of the militia and those living east of the road from Cummins mill (located on the East Fork of Stones River now Walter Hill) to William Kelton’s were to vote at the house of William Kelton. William Kelton lived at the Black Fox settlement. The sheriff was to carry the polls to the courthouse in Jefferson, to be added and included in the total poll of the county. It was also stipulated that “any person who votes at both places of the holding of the election, shall pay $10 to any person
who may sue for the same.”
The pattern of migration, into Rutherford County by these early settlers, was from the north by way of Jefferson and that vicinity. As settlers pushed further south and east in the county, they were at an increasing distance from Jefferson and consequently under more of a hardship to attend courts and elections there. Shortly this will be a key
factor in the seat of justice being removed from Jefferson.
In January of 1808, an order by the county court extended the area for which the overseer of the streets was responsible for in Jefferson, to the east bank of the West Fork at the low water mark. Norton Gum was still the overseer of the streets in Jefferson at this time. Apparently, the area mentioned must have come into disrepair, possibly from the traffic connected with the river trade. The log jail must have also fallen into a state of disrepair, about this time, for John Griffin was allowed 6 dollars and 16¾ cents for repairing the jail.
Again in 1809, a separate election was held at the Black Fox settlement in addition to the polling place at Jefferson. The inspectors and judges of this election for Governor and members of the legislature were Charles Ready, William Lofton, Robert Smith, Sr., and Ezekial McCoy. They were to oversee the election at Black Fox settlement as they were all inhabitants of the southern and eastern portions of the county. With polling places elsewhere in the county, Jefferson was rapidly losing its importance as the legal and judicial center for the county.
On April 7, 1809, Joel Dyer, a resident of Jefferson, was appointed overseer of the western boundary of the town to the low water mark on the West Fork with all the liable hands within the town to work under him. Later, in 1811, Joel Dyer was licensed to keep an ordinary at his house in Jefferson. According to Goodspeed History of Rutherford County, Joel Dyer moved his business to Murfreesboro in 1812.
The census for 1810 shows the total number of inhabitants in Jefferson to be 107, including heads of households, spouses, children and slaves. Joel Dyer had the largest household with the town with 11 males, 7 females and 9 slaves. As he was operating an ordinary at this time, it is possible that some of the males and females counted were boarders. He and George Simpson were the largest slaveholders in Jefferson, each having 9 slaves. The heads of households in the tow of Jefferson were as follows: Joel Dyer, James L. Armstrong, George Shall, Thomas Mitchell,
Clement Read, George Simpson, George R. Nash, Thomas Johnson, James Sharpe, Neil B. Rose, William D. Hill and Clarissa Boushano.
Again the jail had fallen into disrepair as John Griffin was allowed $3.45 for fixing the jail. On the previous day he, as sheriff of the county, protested about the “insufficiency of the jail” in Jefferson. During the same session of court, on January 2, 1810, Joseph Herndon resigned his position as the County Clerk, having served 6 years in that position.
In January 1811 new rates for taverns in Jefferson and those out in the county were established by the court. They were as follows:
Breakfast and supper……………………………16¾ cents
½ Pin whiskey, peach brandy or gin……….12½ cents
Each 24 hrs. horse kept in stables………….57½ cents
Each person a bed……………………………….6¼ cents
½ Pint rum, wine or French brandy…………25 cents
The Tragic Story of Herbert Hardy
An interesting story comes to light, in Jefferson, in an examination of the county Court minutes for April 1811. It appears there was a Dr. William Ward in Jefferson at this time and on April 2, 1811, the court ordered that “if Dr. William Ward will receive Herbert Hardy and will give him such medical aid, and also furnish him with such nourishment as his situation may require, that this court will make him a suitable allowance.” Who this
Herbert Hardy was, where he had come from, and what injuries or ailments he had is a mystery. All that is evident from an examination of the records is that he came into Jefferson, injured or ill to the extent that the court was
moved by his situation and appropriated county funds for his care.
The next day, April 3, the court ordered that Thomas Mitchell, who operated a tavern in town, be allowed $25 for furnishing Herbert Hardy with a bed. The efforts to revive Herbert Hardy failed for he died sometime between April 3 and July 2, 1811. It was on this last date that the court reimbursed Dr. William Ward $8 for a coffin he provided for the “late Herbert Hardy dec’d.” This same day, the court ordered the sheriff of the county to take possession of the bed and other effects of Herbert Hardy and sell them at six months credit, making a return of the sale at the next
court session. It appears that Herbert Hardy must have been in a destitute state, for when the sheriff made a return of the sale of his personal belongings on October 10, 1811, it only amount to $14.13. On October 7, James Havins was allowed by the court $25 for caring for Herbert Hardy while he was ill in Jefferson. Dr. Ward must have had James Havins care for Herbert Hardy, while he gave the necessary medical treatment. The next day, James Gray was granted $12 by the court for his amount against Herbert Hardy.
During April 1811, the court ordered that the courthouse in Jefferson be repaired and that a courthouse tax be laid on all taxable property in the county, being equal to one half of the state tax. Within the court order, it was specified, “to paint the window frames, doors and cornice with some cheap paint, to repair the doors, ceiling, justices seat and bar, to erect a clerk’s table, plaster the inside of the house, fill the windows with sound glass and mend any sash that is broken.” So here we have a picture of the courthouse in 1811 with broken doors, peeling paint on the trim, an
unplastered interior with exposed brick and broken windows around the house.
THE REMOVAL OF THE SEAT OF JUSTICE
On October 17, 1811, the General Assembly passed an act entitled, “An act to establish the permanent seat of justice in the county of Rutherford.” The passing of this act represents the culmination of a growing dissatisfaction with Jefferson as the county seat by a portion of the citizens over the last few years. Within the above act, the reasons for
moving the seat of justice away from Jefferson were as follows: that the town of Jefferson was not near the center of the county; that the town was laid out and lots sold before the county was established; that the greatest part of the citizens were put at a great disadvantage and inconvenience in attending courts and elections in Jefferson (i.e. separate polling places in the county).
The courts meeting in Jefferson had a tremendous impact on the growth and prosperity of the town. When the courts were in session, the town must have bustled with activity. Business, because of this, would be attracted to the county seat. As it was the judicial and legal center for the county, it was also the business and trade center for the county.
Another setback hit the town of Jefferson, for tradition holds that the waters of the Stones River began to diminish periodically and the boats coming up the river, bringing trade and commerce to Jefferson, could no longer navigate the river year round.
With the passage of this act, the fate of Jefferson was sealed. The town that once looked to be the thriving, prosperous commercial and judicial center for the county now faced an uncertain future with the courts
moving away and the river traffic it depended on diminishing.
There was quite a bit of controversy and commotion in the county at this time concerning moving the seat of justice from Jefferson to another place. The people with lots and business interests in Jefferson and others living in the vicinity stood to lose much through the court’s moving, while other citizens of the county stood to benefit by the convenience and economic benefits with the relocation of the seat of justice. There was widespread reaction throughout the county over this matter.
The citizens of the town of Jefferson sent a petition, sometime in 1812, to the General Assembly asking for indemnity if the county seat was moved. In the petition, it is stated that “many men made large expenditures for improvements in Jefferson which have been reduced to almost nothing.” The land values in Jefferson would surely have dropped rapidly with the courts moving away. There was to be a tremendous impact on the town with the courts gone, causing taverns and other businesses to close their doors. This petition was signed by 17 individuals
including Joel Dyer, John Griffin (the former sheriff), Thomas Mitchell, John Spence and Thomas Sappington.
Another petition was sent to the General Assembly, in 1812, from the citizens of the county asking that the county seat be chosen by referendum. The petitioners state that a few men in the county (presumably the commissioners named by the General Assembly to find a permanent seat of justice) have kept the county in perpetual confusion
concerning the seat of justice. They further state that there are some who want Lytle’s and Murphey’s (sic) Spring, while others represent the negative aspects of this site and yet other who are disinterested in any particular place. The 59 citizens that signed this petition called for a general vote on the matter, this being the only way to do justice to the citizens of Rutherford County.
Even though a new courthouse, jail and stocks were slated to be built at the new site of the seat of justice, on April 8, 1812, the court ordered that the sheriff of the county to put the jail, in Jefferson, in repair. The cost of this was not to exceed $15. The court order specified that all the repairs were to be done on the “lower room and the same to be used as a debtors room.” This last phrase leads us to believe that the log jail must have been a two-story structure (the log section of the Lenoir house was two stories – could this have been used as a jail after the new courthouse was built?).
The jail must surely have been in an extreme state of disrepair for the county to appropriate funds for fixing the jail, when by an act of the General Assembly, a new jail was to be built in the near future. On this same day, Matthew McClanahan was allowed $1.50 by the court for repairs already done on the jail.
As there was continued commotion and controversy over the seat of justice in Rutherford County, two of the commissioners who selected Jefferson as the county seat, Mark Mitchell and Peter LeGrand, sent a letter to the General Assembly explaining why they had chosen Jefferson. They sent this letter because of the “frequent mis-representations (that) have been made relative to the conduct of the five commissioners.” In their letter, Mitchell and LeGrand state that the principal part of the population was in the north and northwestern parts of the county when the commissioners chose Jefferson and that the part of the county that was beyond the old Indian line was not part of the county at that time and could not have been taken into account in centering the county. Mitchell and
LeGrand went on to state that the forks of the Stones River (at the time Jefferson was selected as the county seat of justice) was seven miles from the center of the county and when the benefits to the town by the navigation of the river were considered county toward this site. The commissioners also felt that many “merchant and saw mills” would be built on the many streams in close proximity to Jefferson “sufficient to supply the largest town not only with flour and meal, but with building materials at any season of the year.” Mitchell and LeGrand refer to the fact, in supporting this, that W. [William] Crosthwait was then erecting “extensive merchant mills” within one half mile of Jefferson. They referred to Stones River as still being navigable, with large boats descending the river once a year and smaller craft being able to make the trip three fourths of the year. The letter was closed with “these were our principle reasons and fondly hope that they will satisfy an impartial publick (sic)”.
It appears that on October 8, 1812, there was a sharp confrontation, in court, between those in favor of moving the court and those wishing it to remain in Jefferson. At the adjournment on October 8, with 14 justices present, it was ordered that the court meet the following day at 10 o’clock in Murfreesborough. William Searcy, Theophilus Cannon, John Hill, Glover Banton, James L. Armstrong, and William Edwards, who all were justices,
then appeared before the bench and commanded the sheriff to adjourn the court to meet at Jefferson the next day at 9 o’clock. This was done, for the court entry for the next day as the court meeting in Jefferson.
Following this incident, a petition was sent to the General Assembly, dated October 10, 1812, calling for the removal from office those justices who conducted the “illegal” adjournment to Murfreesborough . The petition was signed by 65 citizens of Rutherford County. It appears in this petition, that on the day following the confrontation in court, those justices who called for the adjournment to Murfreesborough, went to the house of William Lytle, in Murfreesborough, and held court there while court was being held in Jefferson by the sheriff’s order of the previous day. The petitioners state that there were only 14 of the 51 justices of the county present on October 8 when they called for the adjournment to Murfreesborough and therefore, they did not constitute a majority. The petition goes on to state, “the said fourteen gentlemen were repeatedly admonished and adviced by the gentlemen, learned in the law, who were then present as practicing attorneys of said court….and who were earnestly and repeatedly remonstrated against such an unwarrantable act…they were well advised of the illegality of such a proceeding.”
According to the petition, a great many of the citizens were inconvenienced as the court docket was full and many had traveled considerable distances to attend court, only to have it disrupted and the proceedings delayed. For these reasons, the petitioners requested that those justices who composed the court at the illegal adjournment be removed from office “by impeachment or otherwise.” Petitioners included John Nash Read, William Dyer,
Constant Hardeman, John Coffee, Jam es Espey and Thomas Bedford (the son of Tho. Bedford dec’d).
On June 5, 1813 with 27 justices present at court, which was being held for the last time in Jefferson, a majority of acting justices was determined and the court was adjourned, to meet the following day at Murfreesborough, “agreeable to the act of the General Assembly.”
With the courts moving, went the dreams and aspirations for the town of Jefferson to be a prosperous, active center for the county. As fewer people were coming into town since the court was moved, many of the taverns and other businesses closed their doors. Over the years Jefferson became another quiet country community with farms dotting the land that once held the first county seat of justice for Rutherford County.
EPILOG: THE DEATH OF JEFFERSON
Authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1938, construction of the Percy Priest Dam, on Stones River, was begun in 1963. The impounded waters were expected to cover most of the site of the town, perhaps only leaving a small island. During 1966-7, the town was destroyed with all of the buildings either dismantled or moved to different locations. The waters of Percy Priest lake never fully covered the site of Jefferson and it is still possible today to walk over the small knoll that once held the first seat of justice for the county.
1. Jefferson was located within the bounds of North Carolina Grant No. 3390 to Robert Weakley and Thomas Bedford.
2. Tradition holds that the town of Jefferson was laid out with 150 lots, but evidence cited later suggests that the town was laid out with 102 lots and the remaining lots were surveyed and laid off by the commissioners of Jefferson after the town was chosen as the county seat.
3. The Norton Gum ordinary was probably in the town of Jefferson since Gum was appointed to oversee its roads. An overseer for the roads was appointed to those that lived on or were in close proximity.
4. The Thomas Mitchell house was in Jefferson at this time, as a court entry in County Court Minute Book B, p. 128, makes reference to the “house of Thomas Mitchell in Jefferson.”