Newton Cannon and a Cannonsburgh Fish Tale

Greg Tucker, ‘Rutherford For Real’

Newton Cannon, Tennessee Governor (1835-39)

Ed Note: ‘Rutherford for Real‘ is available through the Rutherford County Historical Society for only $20.

It has been often said and written that Murfreesboro was first named ‘Cannonsburgh’.  Technically, this is NOT correct.

Indeed, the only location or entity in Rutherford County to ever officially bear the name ‘Cannonsburgh’ is the Cannonsburgh Pioneer Village assembled as a Bicentennial project in Murfreesboro, Tennessee in 1976.  Located on South Front Street between Hoopers Supply and the Sticks & Stuff store (2011), the Village is now a tourist attraction, cultural event center and popular wedding venue.

Although there is one unsubstantiated ‘fish tale’ that puts the name Cannonsburgh on some unspecified property along the Stones River, the name was never actually attached to any place in the county before 1976.  ‘Cannonsburgh’ was proposed in 1811 as a name for a place that did not yet exist, but the name’s proponent ‘killed it’ within a few weeks of its origin.

In the early years of Tennessee the Cannons were friends and political allies of Andrew Jackson.  Minos Cannon settled in Davidson County near Jackson’s home in the 1790’s.

A few years later Minos Cannon relocated and prospered as a landowner in Williamson County (Tennessee) near present day Triune.  Local educator and historian Baxter Hobgood once wrote that the elder Cannon was an enthusiastic fisherman who liked to fish along the Stones River.  He became so popular along the banks of the river, according to the Hobgood fish tale, that “for a while the surrounding area was named Cannonsburgh.”  (Note that Hobgood, with tongue firmly in cheek, entitled his tale “It Could Have Happened Here…”).

Mino’s children settled in Bedford County, except for his eldest son Newton.  Remaining in his father’s house, Newton Cannon worked as a saddler, merchant and surveyor before studying law.  Most probably with the help of his father’s political connections, Newton was elected to the State Senate in 1811 representing Bedford, Williamson, Rutherford, Maury, Lincoln and Giles Counties.

Very soon after his election, responding to concerns of his Rutherford County constituents that the town of Jefferson had proved to be too remote from the developing are of the county to serve as the county seat, Newton Cannon introduced legislation on October 4, 1811, to establish a new seat of government in Rutherford County.  Newton’s legislation, passed by the State’s General Assembly on October 17, 1811, appropriated seven ‘commissioners’ to ‘fix on a place near the center of said county’ where sixty acres of land could be laid off in lots with a two acre ‘public square’ reserved centrally for ‘the courthouse and stocks’.

The legislative act also specified that the selected land should have ‘good water’ and that the new town, wherever sited, would be called ‘Cannonsburg’.  The legislative record is silent as to Cannon’s intent, but it would appear that he was either (1) stroking his own ego [see ‘Rutherford County’ by Mabel Pittard (1984), page 27 (available at the RCHS), and ‘Heart of Tennessee’ by Terry Weeks (1992), page 29] or (3) simply using his own name as a ‘placeholder’ until hearing the preferences of his constituents.

Cannon did apparently hear promptly and clearly from his Rutherford County constituents.  On November 9, 1911, barely three weeks after appointment of the commissioners, Cannon introduced an amendment changing the name from the yet undetermined location to ‘Murfreesborough’.  Acting quickly, the General Assembly approved Cannon’s amendment on November 19, 1811.

As would be expected even today, vested business interests south to influence the selection process.  Business establishments in the town of Jefferson vainly petitioned the legislature for compensation for the business losses they would incur if the courts and other county offices left their town.

The diversion of travel patterns concerned those who operated ‘houses of entertainment’ along the existing roadways, particularly along the well-traveled route from Jefferson, through Sharpsville and on through Readyville.  When it appeared that Captain William Lytle’s offer of sixty acres on Lytle Creek was being seriously considered, the Jefferson to Readyville Roadway interests united in favor of the offer from Thomas Rucker of a site near the present-day Veterans Administration property (north of present-day downtown Murfreesboro).

Readyville patriarch Charles Ready, one of the seven commissioners, recognizing that land in the Readyville area did not satisfy the central location criteria, led the effort favoring the Rucker location.  (Even though the eastern county boundary lay just easy of what is now Woodbury in 1812, and the western boundary lay east of present day’s Eagleville community, the prosperous Readyville Community was still on the far eastern edge of the populated areas of the county.)

Finally, in the late spring of 1812 the appointed commissioners selected a site for the new county seat and the name Murfreesborough was actually attached to a place in the county.  On the first commission ballot, a majority of four votes favored the Lytle property, and the question was settled.  The surveying and laying out of the new town began in June 1812, and the new town lots were quickly sold.  (Coincidentally, or perhaps appropriately, no part of the current ‘Cannonsburgh Pioneer Village’ lies within the original boundaries of Murfreesborough.  The southwest corner of the original survey was set at the mouth of Town Creek which today serves as the eastern border of the ‘Pioneer Village’.)

Cannon served only briefly in the State Senate.  He left to fight alongside Jackson in the Creek Indian War, then served eight years as a U.S. Congressman from Tennessee.  Sam Houston was his successor in 1823.  During this period, Cannon became concerned that his former friend and political ally was ‘too democratic’ in his governing policies.  As a leading anti-Jacksonite, Cannon was elected as the first Whig governor of Tennessee in 1835.

Cannon served only four years as governor, however, losing a reelection bid to Jackson ally and future U.S. President James K. Polk.  But Cannon did finally achieve a name place in Tennessee.  During his tenure as governor, portions of Smith, Warren and Rutherford Counties were taken to form Cannon County, named in honor of Tennessee’s first Whig governor.

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