James Espey of Smyrna was born to Robert and Rachel Espey in 1758 in Chester County, Pennsylvania.
Robert lived in Jefferson in the 1780s. He received a land grant in 1784 for Espeyland when this land was a section of Davidson County. The home was built in 1795.
James’ grandparents Samuel and Martha Espey emigrated from Northern Ireland. Robert Espey was a founding father of Nashville, having crossed a frozen Cumberland River on December 25, 1779, to Fort Nashborough.
James was a signer of the Cumberland Compact in 1780. In 1784, he was one of the courageous men who remained in the settlement and protected the fort from numerous Indian attacks. Two of James’ brothers, Robert and George, were killed in Sumner County by an Indian ambush.
Espey was awarded 1,280 acres in a land grant on present-day Jefferson Pike after serving in the Revolutionary War for North Carolina. His property was referred to as Espey’s Branch. James and wife Mary Patrick had three sons and five daughters. Two sons, William and Asbury, were Methodist preachers. When Mary Patrick died in 1773, Mary Catherine Overall became his second wife in 1780.
Mary’s father William Overall was a founder of Fort Nashborough. Mary arrived to the settlement on the Donelson Flotilla in 1781. Espey was a great supporter of his in-laws (Overall family). When his brother-in-law William Overall was ambushed and killed by Indians, Espey paid a bond as administrator of the estate. The money was then gifted to Susannah, widow of William.
Espey also later served as guardian to her children. When his brother-in-law Joshua Thomas was killed in a scouting expedition, James was named executor of the estate for his widow Nancy and Joshua’s three small children.
On December 29, 1862, Confederate Gen. Joseph Wheeler led a raid against a Yankee supply train on Jefferson Pike near Espey Chapel with a victory at Starkweather and Walker’s Brigades. In turn, Yankees occupied the Espey home and plundered the interior. The home was utilized as a hospital, and blood stains remained on the upstairs floors.
Historian Ernie Johns has written an extensive account of the Battle of Espey Chapel that takes its name from the Espey Cemetery located just west of Liberty Hill and 150 yards across Sharp Springs Road.
The Espey Cemetery marks the site of a Federal camp on December 30, 1862 where intense fighting occurred on the eve of Stones River.
John Clay Espey, son of Robert and Elizabeth and grandson of James Espey, departed Espeyland at age 22 and joined Company E, 20th Tennessee Infantry CSA of the Civil War. In the spring of 1862, John fought at Fishing Creek and Shiloh where he was wounded.
In 1864, this young man was captured and contracted smallpox. John died in 1899 and was buried at the Espey Cemetery in Jefferson. James Espey’s original home on Jefferson Pike was known as Espeyland and stood at the entrance of present-day Sharp Springs Park facing northwest of Old Jefferson. This home contained a private family cemetery. The beautiful home in Jefferson was built in 1795 in Southern colonial architecture with cedar logs. The floors were ash and yellow poplar. Few nails were used in the construction. Windows were pegged and tied to the logs.
As late as 1946, direct descendants of the Espey family were dwelling in this estate. Historical records indicate James Espey died in 1813, while serving as sheriff. He was buried in Espeyland Cemetery on the grounds of the home. Today, his body is re-interred in a cemetery off Jefferson Pike and Sharp Springs Road. The stone reads “James Espey, North Carolina Troops of Revolutionary War.” He desired to be known, in the end, as a soldier.
After patriarch James Espey’s passing, his second son Robert Armistead Espey settled into the old farm estate. The historical home was owned by Mrs. Ellis King, James Espey’s great-granddaughter, in the 1950s.
After standing strong for 172 years within ownership of the Espey family, Espeyland was razed in 1967. This beautiful home was a large diamond shining in Old Jefferson and now faded with a bygone day.
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