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The Settlement of the Appalachian Frontier: John Donelson's Journal - of his great river adventure of 1779

The Settlement of the Appalachian Frontier

Sharing information, stories, and ideas for teaching students about the settlement of the Appalachian Frontier. Focusing on the little-known people and history of Southwestern Virginia, Northeast Tennessee, and Eastern Kentucky.

Location: Nickelsville, Virginia, United States

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

John Donelson's Journal - of his great river adventure of 1779


Journal of a voyage, intended by God's permission, in the good boat Adventure, from Fort Patrick Henry on Holston River, to the French Salt Springs on Cumberland River, kept by John Donaldson.

December 22, 1779. -Took our departure from the fort and fell down the river to the mouth of Reedy Creek, where we were stopped by the fall of water, and most excessive hard frost; and after much delay and many difficulties we arrived at the mouth of Cloud's Creek, on Sunday evening, the 20th February, 1780, where we lay by until Sunday, 27th, when we took our departure with sundry oth­er vessels bound for the same voyage, and on the same day struck the Poor Valley Shoal, together with Mr. Boyd and Mr. Rounsifer, on which shoal we lay that afternoon and succeeding night in much distress.
Monday, February 28th, 1780. ‑In the morning the water rising, we got off the shoal, after landing thirty persons to lighten our boat. In attempting to land on an island, received some damage and lost sundry articles, and came to camp on the south shore, where we joined sundry other vessels also bound down.
Tuesday, 29th. -Proceeded down the river and camped on the north shore, the afternoon and fol­lowing day proving rainy.
Wednesday, March 1st. -Proceeded on and camped on the south shore, nothing happening that day remarkable.
I March 2nd. ‑Rain about half the day; passed the mouth of French Broad River, and about 12 o'clock, Mr. Henry's boat being driven on the point of an island by the force of the current was sunk, the whole cargo much damaged and the crew's lives much endangered, which occasioned the whole fleet to put on shore and go to their assistance, but with much difficulty bailed her, in order to take in her cargo again. The same afternoon Reuben Harrison went out a hunting and did not return that night, though many guns were fired to fetch him in.
Friday. 3rd. -Early in the morning fired a four­ pounder for the lost man, sent out sundry persons to search the woods for him, firing many guns that day and the succeeding night, but all without suc­cess, to the great grief of his parents and fellow travellers.
Saturday, 4th. ‑Proceeded on our voyage, leav­ing old Mr. Harrison with some other vessels to make further search for his lost son; about ten o'clock the same day found him a considerable dis­tance down the river, where Mr. Ben. Belew took him on board his boat. At 3 o'clock, P. M., pass­ed the mouth of Tennessee River, and camped on the south shore about ten miles below the mouth of Tennessee.
Sunday, 5th. ‑Cast off and got under way be­fore sunrise; 12 o'clock passed the mouth of Clinch; at 12 o'clock, M. came up with the Clinch River Company, whom we joined and camped, the evening proving rainy.
. Monday, 6th ‑Got under way before sunrise; the morning proving very foggy, many of the fleet were much bogged‑about 10 o'clock lay by for them; when collected, proceeded down. Camped on the north shore, where Capt. Hutching's negro man died, being much frosted in his feet and legs, of which he died.
Tuesday, 7th. ‑Got under way very early, the day proving very windy, a S.S.W., and the river being wide occasioned a high sea, insomuch that some of the smaller crafts were in danger; there­fore came to, at the uppermost Chiccamauga Town, which was then evacuated, where we lay by that afternoon and camped. that night. The wife of Eph­raim Peyton was here delivered of a child. Mr. Peyton has gone through by land with Capt. Robert­son.
Wednesday. 8th. ‑Castoff at 10 o'clock, and proceed down to an Indian village, which was in­habited, on the south side of the river; they in­sisted on us to "come ashore, 11 called us brothers, and showed other signs of friendship, insomuch that Mr. John Caffrey and my son then on board took a canoe which I had in tow, and were crossing over to them, the rest of the fleet having landed on the opposite shore. After they had gone some distance, a half‑breed, who called himself Archy Coody, with several other Indians, jumped into a canoe, met them, and advised them to return to the boat, which they did, together with Coody and several canoes which left the shore and followed directly after him. They appeared to be friendly. After distributing some presents among them, with which they seemed much pleased, we observed a number of Indians on the other side embarking in their canoes, armed and painted red and black. Coody immediately made signs to his companions, ordering them to quit the boat, which they did, himself and another Indian remaining with us and telling us to move off instantly. We had not gone far before we discovered a number of Indians arm­ed and painted proceeding down the river, as it were, to intercept us. Coody, the half‑breed, and his companion, sailed with us for some time, and telling us that we had passed all the towns and were out of danger, left us. But we had not gone far until we had come in sight of another town, situ­ated likewise on the south side of the river, near­ly opposite a small island. Here they again invit­ed us to come on shore, called us brothers, and observing the boats standing off for the opposite channel, told us that "their side of the river was better for boats to pass. " And here we must re­gret the unfortunate death of young Mr. Payne, on board Capt. Blackemore's boat, who was mortally wounded by reason of the boat running too near the northern shore opposite the town, where some of the enemy lay concealed, and the more tragical misfortune of poor Stuart, his family and friends to the number of twenty‑eight persons. This man had embarked with us for the Western country, but his family being diseased with the small pox, it was agreed upon between him and the company that he should keep at some distance in the rear, for fear of the infection spreading, and he was warned each night when the encampment should take place by the sound of a horn. After we had passed the town, the Indians having now collected to a con­siderable number, observing his helpless situation, singled off from the rest of the fleet, intercepted him and killed and took prisoners the whole crew, to the great grief of the whole company, uncertain how soon they might share the same fate; their cries were distinctly heard by those boats in the rear.
We still perceived them marching down the riv­er in considerable bodies, keeping pace with us until the Cumberland Mountain withdrew them from our sight, when we were in hopes we had escaped them. We were now arrived at the place called the Whirl or Suck, where the river is compressed within less than half its common width above, by the Cumberland Mountain, which juts in on both sides. In passing through the upper part of these narrows, at a place described by Coody, which he termed the "boiling pot, 11 a trivial accident had nearly ruined the expedition. One of the company, John Cotton, who was moving down in a large ca­noe, had attached it to Robert Cartwright's boat, into which he and his family had gone for safety. The canoe was here overturned, and the little car­go lost. The company pitying his distress, con­cluded to halt and assist him in recovering his pro­perty. They.had landed on the northern shore at a level spot, and were going up to the place, when the Indians, to our astonishment, appeared imme­diately over us on the opposite cliffs, and com­menced firing down upon us, which occasioned a precipitate retreat to the boats. We immediately moved off, the Indians lining the bluffs along con­tinued their fire from the heights on our boats be­low, without doing any other injury than wounding four slightly. Jennings's boat is missing.
We have now passed through the Whirl. The river widens with a placid and gentle current; and all the company appear to be in safety except the family of Jonathan Jennings, whose boat ran on a large rock, projecting out from the northern shore, and partly immersed in water immediately at the Whirl, where we were compelled to leave them, perhaps to be slaughtered by their merciless ene­mies. Continued to sail on that day and floated throughout the following night.
Thursday, 9th. ‑Proceeded on our journey, nothing happening worthy attention to‑day; floated till about midnight, and encamped on the northern shore.
Friday, 10th. ‑This morning about 4 o'clock we were surprised by the cries of "help poor Jenn­ings, 11 at some distance in the rear. He had dis­covered us by our fires, and came up in the most wretched condition. He states, that as soon as the Indians discovered his situation they turned their whole attention to him, and kept up a most galling fire at his boat. He ordered his wife, a son nearly grown, a young man who accompanied them, and his negro man and woman, to throw all his goods into the river, to lighten their boat for the purpose of getting her off, himself returning their fire as well as he could, being a good sol­dier and an excellent marksman. But before they had accomplished their object, his son, the young man and the negro, jumped out of the boat and left them. He thinks the young man and the negro were wounded before they left the boat.[1][1] Mrs. Jennings, however, and the negro woman, succeeded in un­loading the boat, but chiefly by the exertions of Mrs. Jennings, who got out of the boat and shoved her off, but was near falling a victim to her own in­trepidity on account of the boat starting so sudden­ly as soon as loosened from the rock. Upon exam­ination, he appears to have made a wonderful es­cape, for his boat is pierced in numberless places with bullets. It is to be remarked, that Mrs. Pey­ton, who was the night before delivered of an in­f ant, which was unfortunately killed upon the hurry and confusion consequent upon such a disaster, assisted them, being frequently exposed to wet and cold then and afterwards, and that her health appears to be good at this time, and I think and hope she will do well. Their clothes were very much cut with bullets, especially Mrs. Jennings's.
Saturday, 11th. ‑Got under way after having distributed the family of Mrs. Jennings in the other boats. Rowed on quietly that day, and encamped for the night on the north shore.
Sunday, 12th. ‑Set out, and after a few hour Is sailing we heard the crowing of cocks, and soon came within view of the town; here they fired on us again without doing any injury.
After running until about 10 o'clock, came in sight of the Muscle Shoals. Halted on the northern shore at the appearance of the shoals, in order to search for the signs Capt. James Robertson was to make for us at that place. He set out from Hol­ston early in the fall of 1779, was to proceed by the way of Kentucky to the Big Salt Lick on Cum­berland River, with several others in company, was to come across from the Big Salt Lick to the upper end of the shoals, there to make such signs that we might know he had been there, and that it was practicable for us to go across by land. But to our great mortification we can find none‑from which we conclude that it would not be prudent to make the attempt, and are determined, knowing ourselves to be in such imminent danger, to pursue our journey down the river. After trimming our boats in the best manner possible, we ran through the shoals before night. When we approached them they had a dreadful appearance to those who had never seen them before. The water being high made a terrible roaring, which could be heard at some distance among the drift‑wood heaped fright­fully upon the points of the islands, the current running in every possible direction. Here we did not know how soon we should be dashed to pieces, and all our troubles ended at once. Our boats fre­quently dragged on the bottom, and appeared con­stantly in danger of striking. They warped as much as in a rough sea. But by the hand of Providence we are now preserved from this danger also. I know not the length of this wonderful shoal; it had been represented to me to be 25 or 30 miles. If so, we must have descended very rapidly, as in­deed we did, for we passed it in about three hours. Came to, and camped on the northern shore, not far below the shoals, for the night.
Monday, 13th. ‑Got under way early in the morning, and made a good run that day.
Tuesday, 14th. ‑Set out early. On this day two boats approaching too near the shore were fired on by the Indians. Five of the crews were wound­ed, but not dangerously. Came to camp at night near the mouth of a creek. After kindling fires and preparing for rest, the company were alarmed, on account of the incessant barking our dogs kept up; taking it for granted that the Indians were at­tempting to surprise us, we retreated precipitately to the boats; fell down the river about a mile and ­encamped on the other shore. In the morning I pre­vailed on Mr. Caffrey and my son to cross below in a canoe, and return to the place; which they did, and found an African negro we had left in the hurry, asleep by one of the fires. The voyagers returned and collected their utensils which had been left.
Wednesday, 15th. ‑Got underway and moved on peaceably the five following days, when we ar­rived at the mouth of the Tennessee on Monday, the 20th, and landed on the lower point immedi­ately on the bank of the Ohio. Our situation here is truly disagreeable. The river is.very high, and the current rapid, our boats not constructed for the purpose of stemming a rapid stream, our pro­vision exhausted, the crews almost worn down with hunger and fatigue, and know not what dis­tance we have to go, or what time it will take us to our place of destination. The scene is render­ed still more melancholy, as several boats will not attempt to ascend the rapid current. Some in­tend to descend the Mississippi to Natchez; others are bound for the Illinois‑among the rest my son­-in‑law and daughter. We now part, perhaps to meet no more, for I am determined to pursue my course, happen what will.
Tuesday, 21st. ‑Set out, and on this day la­boured very hard and got but a little way; camped on the south bank of the Ohio. Passed the two fol­lowing days as the former, suffering much from hunger and fatigue.
Friday, 24th. ‑About 3 o'clock came to the mouth of a river which I thought was the Cumber­land. Some of the company declared it could not be‑it was so much smaller than was expected. But I never heard of any river running in between the Cumberland and Tennessee. It appeared to flow with a gentle current. We determined, how­ever, to make the trial, pushed up some distance and encamped for the night.
Saturday. 25th. ‑To‑day we are much encourag­ed; the river grows wider; the current is very gen­tle, and we are now convinced it is the Cumber­land. I have derived great assistance from a small square sail which was fixed up on the day we left the mouth of the river; and to prevent any ill‑ef­fects from sudden flaws of wind, a man was sta­tioned at each of the lower corners of the sheet with, directions to give way whenever it was nec­essary.
Sunday, 26th. ‑Got under way early; procured some buffalo‑meat; though poor it was palatable.
Monday, 27th. ‑Set out again; killed a swan, which was very delicious.
Tuesday, 28th. ‑Set out very early this morn­ing; killed some buffalo.
Wednesday, 29th. -Proceeded up the river; gathered some herbs on the bottoms of Cumber­land, whsome of the company called Shawnee salad.
Thursday, 30th -Proceeded on our voyage. This day we killed some more buffalo.
Friday, 31st. -Set out this day, and after run­ning some distance, met with Col. Richard Hender­son, who was running the line between Virginia and North‑Carolina. At this meeting we were much re­joiced. He gave us every information we wished, and further informed us that he had purchased a quantity of corn in Kentucky, to be shipped at the Falls of Ohio for the use of the Cumberland settle­ment. We are now without bread, and are com­pelled to hunt the buffalo to preserve life. Worn out with fatigue, our progress at present is slow. Camped at night near the mouth of a little river, at which place and below there is a handsome bottom of rich land. Here we found a pair of hand‑mill stones set up for grinding, but appeared not to have been used for a great length of time.
Proceeded on quietly until the 12th of April, at which time we came to the mouth of a little river running on the north side, by Moses Renfoe and his company called Red River, up which they intend to settle. Here they took leave of us. We proceeded up Cumberland, nothing happening material until the 23rd, when we reached the first settlement on north side of the river, one mile and a half below the Big Salt Lick and called Eaton's Station, after a man of that name, who with several other fami­lies, came through Kentucky and settled there.
Monday, April 24th. -This day we arrived at our journey's end at the Big Salt Lick, where we have the pleasure of finding Capt. Robertson and his company. It is a source of satisfaction to us to be enabled to restore to him and others their families and friends, who were entrusted to our care, and who, sometime since, perhaps, des­paired of ever meeting again. Though our pros­pects at present are dreary, we have found a few log cabins which have been built on a cedar bluff above the Lick, by Capt. Robertson and his company.

From J. G. M. Ramsey, The Annals of Tennes­see to the End of the Eighteenth Century (Phila­delphia: Lippincott, Grambo, and Co., 1853), 197‑202.

[1][1] *The negro was drowned. The son and the young man swam to the north side of the river, where they found and embarked in a canoe and floated down the river. The next day they were met by five canoes full of Indians,‑ who took them prisoners and carried them to Chickamauga, where they kill­ed and burned the young man. They knocked Jenn­ings down and were about to kill him, but were pre­vented by the friendly mediation of Rogers, an In­dian trader, who ransomed him with goods. Rog­ers had been taken prisoner by Sevier a short time before, and had been released; and that good office he requited by the ransom of Jennings.