As published by the Daily News Journal, Sunday, October 11, 2009
By Greg Tucker, President of the Rutherford County Historical Society
As part of the 1776 campaign to clear the Cherokee from the region that is now upper east Tennessee, General Griffith Rutherford, with a militia of 2,400, “destroyed thirty-six Indian towns and villages, cut up and wasted the standing and gathered corn, and drove off and destroyed all flocks of domestics that could be found.” History does not record the number of Cherokee men, women and children killed or driven from their homes.
This apparently is the most significant contribution of Griffith Rutherford for whom Rutherford County is named, the founding and settlement of Tennessee. There is no mention, however, of Rutherford in the historic accounts of this period in the official “Tennessee Blue Book” or the textbook, “Tennessee: The History of an American State” authored by Terry Weeks and Bob Womack, historians and teachers affiliated with MTSU.
In Goodspeed’s history, written in the late nineteenth century, the historian notes than when the General Assembly authorized establishment of the County in 1803, the legislation specified that the new county be named for Griffith Rutherford. Giving faint praise, Goodspeed identifies Rutherford as a North Carolinian “known in the Revolutionary War.”
The son of Ann Griffith and John R. Rutherford, Griffith Rutherford was born in 1721 in Ireland. Both of his parents died on the voyage to America in 1729, and he was raised with little education as an orphan in New Jersey. He migrated to North Carolina about 1740, and married about ten years later. The marriage to Elizabeth Graham produced five sons and four daughters.)
North Carolina records shows Rutherford working as a British-appointed surveyor in 1753, and over the next twenty years he was an aggressive land speculator and broker.
During this period he also served in the North Carolina legislature, was a county sheriff and judicial officer, and served in the Colonial militia fighting with the British in the French and Indian War.
By 1770, Rutherford was a captain in the militia under British command. Whiles a Colonial legislator, Rutherford was instrumental in establishing the militia, starting a college in Charlotte and banning gambling.
As the conflict with England developed, the settlers in western North Carolina were sharply divided between the Tories (those loyal to the British) and the Patriots (those favoring independence from England). Rutherford, at the age of 55, sided with the Patriots and was one of several laeaders in that region who “gathered strong bands (of Patriot volunteers) around their standards.”
After the “successful” campaign against the Cherokee (rumored to be British collaborators), Rutherford’s brigade and other Patriot bands engaged in several local battles with the Tories. In most of these the Patriots prevailed but Rutherford’s role was generally undistinguished.
In the battle at Ramsour’s Mill, Rutherford’s brother-in-law, Joseph Graham led the Patriots and scattered the Tories, although inexperienced leaders and soldiers took heavy losses on both sides. Early in the conflict, graham sent word to Rutherford urging him to hasten forward for reinforcement. Rutherford and his men, as noted in firsthand accounts, “arrived on the ground two hours after the battle had closed”.
A 1779 engagement, described by historians as the “disastrous repulse at Briar’s Creek”, pitted North Carolina General John Ashe with 1,200 volunteers against British force of 1,800 infantry ‘regulars’ and 500 cavalry. Expecting reinforcements with men and artillery led by Rutherford, Ashe engaged the enemy.
Rutherford never arrived.
Most of the Patriots were killed or captured. Ashe fled and escaped.
By 1780, the British under Lord Cornwallis had taken Georgia and were advancing through South Carolina. Attempting to stop the advance into North Carolina, Continental regulars from Delaware and Virginia joined the North Carolina forces and met the enemy near Camden, S.C. During the battle, the Virginia and North Carolina militia literally threw down their arms and fled. The defeat of the American forces at Camden was the worst suffered during the entire Revolutionary War. “Never was a victory more complete or a defeat more total.”
But the American forces rallied and the British were surprised and overwhelmed by largely inexperienced Patriot forces using Indian tactics at King’s Mountain, described as the turning point of the southern phase Revolutionary War. Among the heroes of King’s Mountain was John Sevier, and North Carolina was not again threatened.
Sometime before or during the Camden rout, Rutherford was taken prisoner. Near the War’s end he was release in a prisoner exchange and returned to North Carolina. Land documents show even during the War years, he continued buying and speculating in real estate. After the War, he looked to lands west of the mountains. In 1783, he joined with John Sevier, William Blount, John Donelson and others in developing settlements in what is now northern Alabama but the venture failed due to Indian resistance.
By 1784, Rutherford and his son Henry were surveying lands west of the mountains for North Carolina grants. Himself the beneficiary of several grants, Rutherford and Henry purchased lands from numerous other grantees, often ‘sight unseen’, eventually holding title to thousands of acres in what later became Sumner, Maury, Davidson, Williamson, Rutherford and Dyer counties in Tennessee (according to “Sims’ History of Rutherford County”, Charles Ready in 1802 bought land on the East Fork of the Stones River from Rutherford).
After a brief tenure as head of the Legislative Council for the U.S. Territory of the Ohio River, Rutherford moved to Sumner County. Historians generally agree that he never set foot in Rutherford County. He died in 1805 and is believed to have been buried in an unmarked grave in the LaGuardo community in Wilson County.
Although the legislative record reveals little as to the rationale for naming Rutherford County, it is likely that John Sevier, then serving as Tennessee’s first governor, influenced the decision to name the new county after his friend and fellow North Carolinian. (There is also a county and town named for Rutherford in North Carolina.) In 1946, as part of the Tennessee Sesquicentennial observance, a monument to Rutherford was unveiled on the courthouse grounds in Murfreesboro, July 4, 1946.
Local chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution led the fundraising for the monument. The veil was removed by Mary Purseley Baum, a great-great-granddaughter of the honoree.
Greg Tucker may be reached at [email protected].