By Dan Whittle
Want to trace the history of your community? Follow the channel!
Middle Tennessee historian Toby Francis recently floated Friends of Long Hunter State Park (nature park preservation group) back in time, tracing the impact of the “Stone’s River” from its “small spring” origin from Cannon County’s majestic Short Mountain to present-day life.
From the mountain, it is seven miles down to Woodbury, then the channel flows through Readyville, Lascassas, Walter Hill, Murfreesboro, Old Jefferson and Jefferson Springs as it meanders to the present in what is now Rutherford County to where the river empties into Percy Priest Lake, and the Cumberland River at the origin of Davidson County.
“Long Hunter Park is named for the earliest ‘long hunters’ out of Europe who found and followed Stone’s River that pierces the heart of our park that sprawls across parts of Davidson, Wilson and Rutherford counties,” confirmed Park Manager/Chief Ranger Thurman Mullins, a native of the Blackman community. “The name ‘Long Hunter’ was coined in history because of the extended length of time early European explorers, hunters and trappers spent in the wilderness of what is now Middle Tennessee. Stone’s River’s abundant game is what first attracted them, and the earlier Native American Shawnee, Chickasaw and Cherokee tribes.”
Being a retired Rutherford County educator, Francis “graded” modern journalists with an “F” in the spelling of Stone’s River.
“Media types spell it Stones River today, dropping the apostrophe,” teacher corrected. “On legal maps and historical documents, it’s officially ‘Stone’s River’ a unique multi-forked channel that first surfaced in written documentation by earliest European explorers in 1674. There’s an official marker in Woodbury: ‘Stone’s River.'”
MTSU history preservationist (the late) Bob Womack was unsuccessful in the 1990s in encouraging Middle Tennessee media types to use the official “Stone’s River” spelling, for accuracy purposes.
“My effort to get Stone’s River spelled correctly in area newspapers proved futile,” Womack admitted.
“Before it was called Stone’s River by early explorers, the stream was known as ‘Fish Creek,'” shared Francis, a member and former president of the Rutherford County Historical Association. “The river was later officially named after Uriah Stone, an early explorer among the first Europeans to trace the river’s course up to the forks. In 1768, Lt. Thomas Hutchins of the Royal Engineers of the British Army, was commissioned to survey the topography of the Western Frontier aboard a gunboat called the ‘Gage’ that was manned by 35 men and powered by 24 oarsmen. From that survey, descriptions and maps of Stone’s River were published in London in 1777.”
Social and economic development followed the river, as evidenced by respective county seat cities of Woodbury and Murfreesboro.
“Let’s shine a little beacon of history on the river. Due to the Stone’s River,” Womack shared in an interview he gave in 1992. “It was Readyville that first got electrification from the power generated by the flow of the stream after construction of the Readyville Dam and Mill. That was before Murfreesboro received electricity.”
“Initially, the river was used for hunting and trapping, then logging one of the most dangerous occupations of the 1800s when brave crews cut and tied the logs together to ultimately snake them down the river,” Francis accounted. “It was not until 1788-89 that the river triggered agriculture by a farmer named Samuel Wilson, who first planted corn at Forks of the Rivera”
The unique tri-forked stream drains an area of 924 square miles in Cannon, Rutherford and Davidson counties.
“It’s 82 miles long from the mouth of the river up on Short Mountain, if you measure it by all the meandering of the forks,” accounted Francis. “The West and East forks converge at Old Jefferson in Rutherford County.”
“Stone’s River was close enough to Wilson County, that it impacted development there,” added Ranger Mullins, whose grandfather, Asaph Alsup, had a grist mill north of Walter Hill in Wilson County that remained operational until the 1970s. It was powered by Fall Creek. “There was also a sawmill there”
Murfreesboro was not the first Rutherford seat of government.
“In 1803, the platted Town of Jefferson was the Rutherford County seat on a hill south of the East ≠ West confluence on the river, after Tennessee became a state in 1796,” Francis added. “This river community had loading wharves for farm and forest products for transport down stream to Nashville, and ultimately all the way to New Orleans. When river levels were perfect, one could take a flat-bed boat 27 days to reach New Orleans by the same token, it was rivers that permitted commerce goods to come down from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Since river traffic upstream was hazardous, goods were often transported overland to Jefferson and to other parts of Rutherford and Cannon counties.”
“Rivers were the interstate highways during frontier days,” Mullins accounted.
Woodbury, initially named Danville, is the nearest incorporated permanent settlement (7 miles) to the river’s origin at the foot of Short Mountain.
There are many small streams that serve as water shed out of Stone’s River below Woodbury toward Beech Grove.
“To find the headwaters of the East Fork of Stone’s River, it only takes 10 minutes’ drive from Woodbury to reach the spring that is head of the stream. Someone installed a small pipe that the spring of origin flows through today,” directed Cannon County present-day Executive Mike Gannon. “Today’s importance of Stone’s River cannot be over-stated, since all of our rural county utility districts’ water flows from the river don’t know the validity of this, but an elderly neighbor recently reported Stone’s River is the only stream that originates in Cannon County.”
“And most of Woodbury’s water today comes from Stone’s River,” confirmed Woodbury Mayor Harold Patrick.
“It all originated at the river, our first settlers, the first hunting and trapping pioneers, the first loggers,” added Mayor Gannon. “The river is the reason we’re all here today.”
“Many of those early settlers, their ancestors are still here, including the Patricks who go back multiple generations,” Mayor Patrick flowed back across the centuries. “Timber and logging were triggered by the river, and we have families today with a rich heritage of logging and sawmills dating back across the centuries”
“But Cannon County’s first settlers landed at Readyville and Bradyville in the 1790s, before Danville/Woodbury sprang up about 7 miles to the south of the spring that becomes Stone’s River,” Patrick added. “By 1800, Readyville was a permanent settlement, but is not incorporated today.”
History lives at Readyville today, with recent renovation and reopening of the historic community mill there.
Twenty miles to the south of Murfreesboro, flows Stewarts Creek through Smyrna, a year-round flowing cold creek that feeds Stone’s River and Percy Priest Lake.
“First settlers on Stewarts Creek were Owen Edwards, Thomas Nelson, William Atkinson, Thomas Howell and John Etter,” historian Francis listed.
“In 1774, John Sandusky was the first ‘white man’ to take commerce (animal skins and tallow) from the Cumberland Basin all the way down to New Orleans Sandusky and the men that followed him would walk back to Tennessee on the Natchez Trace, a very dangerous journey primarily because of bandits.”
That was in the late 1790s near the same time that Thomas Rucker was constructing a home near what is now the York VA Medical Center stands in Rutherford County.
“By 1799, William Lytle had built at the West Fork near Murfreesboro,” Francis credited. “His gift of 7,200 acres resulted in the creation of Murfreesboro.”
Follow Stone’s River, the true channel of history for Cannon and Rutherford counties.