Home Research Aids Research Guidance Research in Early Tennessee Records, by Prentiss Price
Research in Early Tennessee Records, by Prentiss Price PDF Print E-mail

Transcribed from Ansearchin' News, Vol. 14, No. 1, Jan-Mar, 1967, pp. 5-11. No copyright infringement is intended by posting this very important research information here.

While some of the document location information is 40 years out-of-date, the historical and research strategy details in Mr. Price's lecture remain pertinent today.


These notes from Mr. Price's talk to The Tennessee Genealogical Society in April, 1966, are not complete. Our tape recorder had a "spell" and much of his talk is almost too dim to distinguish the sound. We regret this very much but feel that the following information is of great value, and we want to share it with our members who could not be present even though it is not entirely complete. There are no doubt errors in the transcription due to our inability to understand the tape. Mr. Price had had some trouble with his eyes and could not read his notes, but he talked for an hour "off the cuff" and answered questions for quite a long while after the meeting was officially closed, so we felt doubly indebted to him for his splendid talk.

The earliest possible records for genealogical research in the State of Tennessee, and the states from which Tennessee was cut, begin with the longhunters who came in 1760. I doubt that many of us are interested before that time in the Indian settlements. As you know, these long hunters were a group of men who went out on hunting and exploring trips and stayed gone sometimes as long as two years, with only their trusted long rifles to bring them safely home again. Many of our early geographical names came from them, and many of the men came back and settled on the spots named for them. Haywood's History of Tennessee and Ramsey's Annals of Tennessee are among our best historical records in print, and they both state that William Bean, who settled Boon's Creek of Watauga River in 1769, was the first permanent white settler, and he may well have been the first white man with a family. John Hunnicutt came about the same time or a bit earlier, for it is written that when Gen. James Robertson came in 1770 he ran out of food and ammunition, and John Hunnicutt succored him, gave him ammunition and sent him on his way.

The first permanent white settlement in Tennessee was established on the Watauga River about 1769, in what is now Washington and Carter counties in Tennessee. The mountains formed a natural boundary between them and the North Carolina government, and they were forced to fend for themselves. They caught the eye of the historians and much has been written about them. There were equally early settlements in what is called the North of Holston area, the present Sullivan and Hawkins counties in Tennessee. They were a continuation of the Valley of Virginia with no visible barrier or boundaries to separate them. Settlement occurred in the upper part of the valley in Hawkins County as early as 1768 or 1769, very close to the Virginia line. I mean the line as we know it today.

The line between Virginia and North Carolina had been surveyed earlier as far as the present Johnson County, Tennessee, in the extreme northeast part of the state. Around 1771, Colonel John Donelson made a crude survey that indicated a great part of the North of Holston country would be in North Carolina when the line was correctly surveyed. Virginia authorities knew this and did not issue land grants in this area, although many of the settlers thought they would be living in Virginia.

Although Virginia did not grant land, it did feel that if people wanted to get married, and record wills, etc., they should have a place to do so legally, and records and law suits for this part of the country were handled in the county courts in the nearby Virginia counties for quite some time. First Fincastle, which was a shortlived county; then Botetourt; and from about 1777, Washington County, Virginia, had jurisdiction over the North of Holston settlement. The line was not properly surveyed until 1779. Some two years before, North Carolina had established Washington District. In 1778, it became Washington County, North Carolina, and is now our oldest Tennessee county. When the line was surveyed in 1779, a second county, Sullivan, was erected primarily from Washington County, Virginia, not Washington County, Tennessee. Only a very small part of Washington County, North Carolina, is incorporated in Sullivan County, Tennessee. These are our two oldest counties.

In 1783, Greene County was erected from Washington County, Tennessee, and about this same time the settlements in the Cumberland Territory were forming. Most of us know the story of the Donelson Flotilla, and of Robertson's overland march to the now site of Nashville and the forming of Davidson County. May 1, 1780, James Robertson, John Donelson and the other members of their settlement signed the Cumberland Compact as their first form of government. The original of this Compact and Donelson's Journal are on display in the State Archives.

In 1787, Hawkins County was formed, then Sumner and Tennessee counties. Tennessee County relinquished its name when the State was formed. These three, along with Greene and Davidson counties, were the only ones formed under North Carolina auspices.

My purpose here tonight is to tell you where to find records of the very earliest days of Tennessee. The Court records of Fincastle, Botetourt and Washington counties, Virginia, have frequent road orders. One I remember, at the mouth of Big Creek, would be only about three miles from Rogersville, Hawkins County, which is now about 50 miles from Bristol on the Virginia line. There are two records in Washington County, Virginia, between men we know to be long hunters: Casper Mansker, later famous in Middle Tennessee; Castleman Brooke, killed by Indians in 1777 in now Hawkins County; Elisha Walden, who settled Walden's Ridge; and Humphrey Hogan, who came in 1766 on a trading mission.

Among the earliest records is a title bond for exchange of land - one in Botetourt from General William Cocke in 1775 in which he assigned his right in certain land when it can be patented. There are other documents of this type, but no deeds, as everyone was exerting squatters rights until they could find out what State their land was in and make their entries and get a formal grant. There are two petitions to the Virginia Legislature, one in 1776 and one in 1777, which protest the location of the courthouse in Washington County, Virginia, at Wolf Hills, now Abingdon, Virginia. They said it was 60 miles or more for some of the inhabitants to get to the courthouse. The only way some of the inhabitants could be that far from the courthouse was to be in what is now Tennessee which proves that their land fell below the present Tennessee line. Petitions, which have many names signed to them, are excellent sources for genealogical research. Both of these petitions have been published in the East Tennessee Historical Society Quarterly. There were no tax lists for this early period, and the Washington County, Virginia, tax list which would have been most helpful cannot be found.

There are in existence in Nashville, and published in Judge Samuel Cole Williams' Dawn of Tennessee History, the entries and land assignments made in the private enterprises started in 1775 over in the present Washington and Carter county areas. Such names as these back in the 1770's are the earliest lists of names showing who lived in the area.

There is extant the 1778 tax list of Washington County, North Carolina, which has also been published in ETHS Quarterly. The earliest Sullivan County tax list preserved is for 1796. The Washington County, Tennessee, tax lists are in the courthouse at Jonesboro and have been preserved for practically every year. The 1778 and 1787 lists have been published with only a few names lost from waterspots on the pages.

In 1778, North Carolina opened a land office at Jonesboro with Colonel John Carter as entry taker. He is well known indeed in Tennessee history. He first settied in Carter's Valley which is named for him, and which is now in Hawkins County. He and William Parker had a trading post for the Indians. They were raided by the Shawnees, but not the Cherokees with whom they did business ........ they received compensation for their losses ........ a long section of Carter's Valley, very ample compensation. The only trouble was that at this time the line had not been surveyed. The settlers would come in and tell Colonel Carter and Mr. Parker that this land was not in North Carolina, never was, it was in Virginia, and therefore their deeds were no good to them and they would just take the land. So their deed is on record and that's about all it amounted to.

Colonel Carter's entry taker's records were sent to the North Carolina Archives after 1781 when the office closed, and may be complete, although they cannot now be found. Luckily in 1807, the State of Tennessee, after fighting with North Carolina for many years about North Carolina's reservation of the right to issue grants on entries long after they had ceded the Western Country to the Federal Government, and long after it became the State of Tennessee, decided they should have a copy of the entry book.

In 1803 (I believe it was) they finally forced North Carolina to quit issuing grants. In 1807, Judge John Overton was sent to North Carolina to make a copy of this entry book, because any entry for which a grant was not issued was valid, and Tennessee could issue that grant. So fortunately Judge Overton's copy of the Carter Warrant Book is in the Tennessee State Archives. Our 1807 copy is for "all the land on the South side of Holston, and a great deal of it on the North side of Holston."

In 1780, a land office was opened for Sullivan County, with John Adair as entry taker. This was long before Blountville was made the county seat which I believe was in 1787. The Adair Book apparently was lost before Judge Overton copied the other book. The Adair entries would have to be recovered by recourse to the jacket of original grants at Raleigh where the entries were filed. I have done about one-third of them, and it is a hard job ........ between these two sets of land entries should be records for every entry of land in Tennessee until about 1781. Later, in 1783, the land office opened at Jonesboro, North Carolina, with John Armstrong as entry taker. That office accepted payment for land in specie certificates, issued in payment of Revolutionary service or claim. You are probably familiar with Mrs. Penelope J. Allen's book Tennesseans in the Revolution which contains North Carolina Revolutionary accounts as turned in by three auditors for the Western District which was Washington and Sullivan counties. Of course, the entries in John Armstrong's office were not merely limited to land claimed in the Western District. Any man who paid and had issued these certificates could pay for his land with them, or trade them to someone else who had to use them for payment of land, that was all they were good for. Many of these grants were traded around, so a grant based on an Armstrong warrant does not necessarily mean the recipient of the grant was a Revolutionary soldier. It does mean that the man who assigned him the specie certificate was either a soldier being paid for his army duty, or was being paid for claims for provisions, horses, equipment, etc. This is considered a Patriot's claim by DAR. These are among the very earliest of our Tennessee records.

I am trying to keep a rough chronological outline of this. In Middle Tennessee, the Cumberland Compact, of course, has a long list of names; and the Cumberland Preemptions were granted to the earliest settlers and heirs of earliest settlers. They received these preemption grants in payment for extending the frontier and for helping to hold back the Indians during the Revolution. These lists are all of settlers in Middle Tennessee.

In 1914, the DAR magazine printed a Greene County tax list which was taken in 1783 and was a list of tithables and what they paid taxes on. Whether they actually had these slaves, wheeled vehicles, etc., no one knows. Mrs. Martin Reynolds, now long dead, who lived in California, had apparently carted all her family possessions to California at an early date. Her father was a lawyer in Greeneville, Tennessee, and years after his death, Mrs. Reynolds was going through an old trunk and found it full of Greene County records which we think had been thrown away in a courthouse re-doing and which her father had rescued. She gave the 1783 tax list to DAR. I had some correspondence with her 20 years or more ago. She said she had other tax lists, a number of marriage bonds which are no longer in the courthouse there. About three people are working furiously now to find all these papers and get them back to Tennessee where they should be. We are glad the 1783 list was printed.

The Washington County court records are in pretty good shape except for the fact that the first court Minute Books are copies made in 1870, and the originals are in the Tennessee Historical Society Library. A comparison of this work shows that the job was only half heartedly done by a person who was not very familiar with or interested in Tennessee history for he turned John Cocke into John Citson - no doubt other such errors occur.

There is a hiatus in these Washington County records called "The State of Franklin," which has been well written up by Judge Samuel Cole Williams. Franklin records are few and far between. ........ the only casualties were the records. Washington County has a few Franklin records ........

Greene County records are about as complete as one could find for any of these early counties. Sullivan has very good records although there is also a hiatus there during the days of Franklin. I was told that in 1844, Dr. Lyman P. Draper stopped at the Courthouse one day and copied the first pleadings of the Sullivan Court marked 1780, which was held at the home of Moses Looney. It was just as well he copied them, for in November, 1863, the men in Blue stopped in Blountville and set the courthouse on fire.

The land records were kept in what was called the State Record Books. Fortunately for us, the registrar was crippled, and he had received permission to keep the deed books in his own home near the courthouse. In this way they were saved from the courthouse fire and are complete from 1780. Everything else except a few re-recorded wills is lost. Old Sullivan wills that have been preserved in families continue to turn up. Recently one turned up in Memphis. Chancery Court records are from 1875, when that court was created. Before that it was served by Washington County Chancery, and before that by Hawkins County.

There were actually battles of the Revolutionary War in what is now East Tennessee. Echoes, publication of The East Tennessee Historical Society, has been publishing for years now abstracts of pension applications for Revolutionary War soldiers who served in what is now Tennessee. There are many, many more but they will have to be found by just going through the pensions and finding them listed under Virginia or North Carolina service. In the individual pensions you find someone who served under Shelby or Sevier, and they are very helpful. Dr. Draper's King's Mountain and Its Heroes, published about 1888, has a great deal about the war in East Tennessee. There were not any battles in Middle Tennessee, of course, since East Tennessee is the oldest part of the State.

The Draper Manuscripts, now in the Madison, Wisconsin, Library, are several series of papers collected by Dr. Draper containing good early material on Tennessee, particularly on Indian captivities, massacres and military affairs. There are in the Draper papers several muster rolls of companies in the 1770's and 1780's.

If you have read much Tennessee history you know there were several expeditions against the Cherokees when they would get obstreperous. During the Revolution they were urged on by John Stewart, the British Superintendent for Indian Affairs. There was an expedition in 1776, the Martin expedition in 1779, and several expeditions led by John Sevier down toward what is now Chattanooga.

As a matter of fact, we had a naval expedition, believe it or not, in 1779. Washington County, Virginia, and from what is now East Tennessee met at the Bigbee Creek in present Hawkins County and descended the river in canoes to the Chickamauga Indians near Chattanooga. Did you know that Tennessee once navy - naval expedition I should say?

The records of Davidson County which start with the Cumberland Compact and Cumberland Preemptions seem to be reasonably complete. Some of these records are in print. Others are in the Courthouse in Nashville. Most of these earliest records were copied in the 1930's by the W. P. A. (Works Progress Administration). There is a full set in the Archives in Nashville, an almost complete set in the University of Tennessee Library at Knoxville, and a complete set including unbound pages of incompleted work in the National Archives (but they are hard to see there). Memphis has some of the West Tennessee records at Cossitt Reference Library. Some of the work was mimeographed and widely distributed, such as the inventories of State Archives and county records inventories. Other records were only typed in 4 or 5 copies and bound.

We still have found nothing that gives us a good state-wide roster. I mentioned those two petitions to the Virginia Legislature - there are probably 25 or 30 petitions to the North Carolina Legislature in the archives at Raleigh, filed mostly in the legislative papers, and the only way to find them is to take the boxes and turn paper by paper until you find them. I am lucky enough to have a list, which Miss Mary Belle Delemar of Raleigh picked up over the years. She lists a great many petitions, both in East Tennessee and in Middle Tennessee. Three of these petitions have been handscribed [sic]. I have with me a longhand copy of a petition received in December, 1787, from the inhabitants of the Western Country. It was circulated in 32 separate sections and has over 2000 names signed to it. There is one section of German script, which I may never be able to read. This petition is to be published under the auspices of The E. T. H. S. Once published and indexed it will be the nearest we have to a comprehensive early list.

I believe the Davidson County tax list of about 1787 is published, and with these you will have pretty much the roster of the entire State at this date.

We became The Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio in the year 1790. Since we were a little late becoming a State or Territory, a census wasn't taken in Tennessee until 1791. This is among the casualties of I know not what -- British burning of Washington, or what. No Tennessee census has been preserved before 1810, and then for only one county, Rutherford, which is preserved in the National Archives, and incomplete ennumerators' copies of the 1810 census for Grainger County in East Tennessee have been found and published in connection with the 1810 tax lists. This list is not, except for a printed copy, to be found in Washington. All the East Tennessee county census for 1820 are lost. The 1820 census for Middle Tennessee, and I believe Shelby County, were saved and published years ago by Miss Martha Lou Houston. The 1830 census of the State is practically complete, as are those for succeeding years.

The land grants, which North Carolina started issuing about 1780, were founded on the entries first in Carter's office, then Adair's office, and then from Armstrong's office. The first grants were for Washington County, then Sullivan, Greene, Hawkins, Eastern District, Middle District, and Western District, the military grants, and Cumberland Preemption grants, all of which are neatly filed in jackets in the State Land Office in the State Library, Raleigh, North Carolina, under auspices of the North Carolina Secretary of State.

In 1791, when North Carolina relinquished its western territory and ceded it to the Federal government, the then Secretary of State for North Carolina, James Glasgow, who later got into hot water over land speculations, sent to the United States Secretary of State a long list of grants issued in the Tennessee country by North Carolina up-to-that-date. He divided them by the counties, but he numbered them serially, and unfortunately the grants do not follow that way. They overlap in numbers, sometimes a series of the same numbers are used three times with different dates. This has been published in facsimile as you know by Mrs. Laurence Gardiner and Mrs. James B. Cartwright of Memphis. It is a wonderful research tool. One should remember that just as many grants issued after 1791 when this report was made, in fact they kept issuing for another 12 years. So if you don't find your man in the Glasgow list printed in North Carolina Land Grants in Tennessee, 1778-1791, then check the records for after the 1791 date, in the North Carolina Land Office in Raleigh, North Carolina which would be up to 1803. There were quite a few issued by the State of Tennessee after 1807 on those old North Carolina entries.

We come now to the time when practically every county has some kind of records preserved. Of our oldest counties the only one whose records seem to have disappeared almost completely is Tennessee County. I can't find these anywhere. It was forged into Robertson and Montgomery counties when Tennessee became a state.

After that date the private petitions to the Territorial Legislature can be found in Nashville, they are filed by years in boxes and may be found by turning pages in the boxes. Up to 1779, we have Virginia records through petitions to the Virginia Legislature on North side of Holston, from the very earliest settlement until 1790 on South side of Holston, and from 1779 on the Northwest side of Holston and Little Tennessee Rive~ we have the petitions and tax lists, etc., in Raleigh to the North Carolina Legislature. From 1790 to 1796 we have the papers of the Territorial Legislature and the book in the Territorial Series published by the U.S. government, Volume VI, Southwest Territory, I believe. This has a vast amount of correspondence but not too much genealogy. There are names, there is a page from Governor Blount's journal appointing militia and civil officers, etc. This journal has been printed twice, the last time by The Tennessee Historical Quarterly. These records, and the county records, are our earliest sources for research.

Someone will say - What do we do about the counties whose records have been lost? North Carolina had a law at one time that clerks had to return quarterly or semi-annually reports of wills, administrations, etc., filed in their office. There are in Raleigh, reports of wills and administrations of estates for certain years from Washington, Sullivan, and Greene counties. From 1780-81 to around 1784, practically every will that was proved in Sullivan and every administration that was granted is listed. This is not the will itself, but a list showing the name of the testator and the name of the executor or administrator, the date of administration or probate, who was named security for the administrator's or executor's bond. This could be extremely helpful for often the executors or administrators were kinsmen.

The very earliest records of Washington County were published years ago in The American Historical Magazine. Miss Kate White (Catherine Hugh White) published a book called The King's Mountain Men, which was a labor of love. Printed on very poor paper, it is now very brittle. She also printed many more of the Washington County court records and also a list of all the soldiers who were at King's Mountain that she could gather. There is no comprehensive list, but she gathered many of them. She was a very delicate lady of the old school, and when anyone started being poorly, or any uncomplimentary thing was said, she put a myth on them so their descendants would not be embarrassed. I have gone through the records and corrected my copy, for I don't get embarrassed by such things that happened over 200 years ago or more, and I don't think many modern day descendants do either.

There are then our earliest church records: The Holston Baptist Association was formed in 1786, and its original records are at the First Baptist Church, Johnson City, Tennessee, in the Holston Baptist Repository. Microfilm copies are in the Baptist Library in Nashville. I believe it is called the Darvis-Hargen Library, out where Ward-Belmont use to be. A copy is also at Lawson-McGhee Library in Knoxville. This was the only Baptist Association in East Tennessee until about 1803. One was established about 1790 in Middle Tennessee, but it was covered by a Kentucky Association. Records of individual churches go back much further - two in Washington County, Tennessee, are in the 1770's or early 1780's, and there has been quite an argument over which is the older, Sinking Creek or Buffalo Springs. Then there was Licking Creek not quite so early. ........ These records have been typed and indexed and a copy is in the State Library and Lawson-McGhee Library. Little Pidgeon Creek has no records before 1775 ........ Some church records were copied by W. P. A. and are extremely helpful ........ Quaker records are well preserved. There weren't many Episcopalians, and about half of their records are preserved. Few early Presbyterian records have been found. They often show marriage records, but the Baptist records never did name the woman in the marriage records. If the earliest Catholic Missionary records could be found they would be quite helpful. There is no central repository for most of these records and most of them are not catalogued or indexed ........

I have tried to cover the religious, civil and military records available for our earliest period of Tennessee history. To these I might add the first newspapers printed in Tennessee, November 5, 1791. The files of the Knoxville Gazette are complete for about six years and comparatively complete for about 100 years. Nashville first had a paper about 1799, I think there is one issue known, but starting around 1801-2, the Tennessee Gazette is well preserved. These are particularly valuable for counties that have lost their court records, because legal notices appear where some of the parties to the suits are not legal residents and have to be advertised for. Frequently heirs to certain people can be picked up through these notices. Some of our later Tennessee counties have lost their records fairly recently, such as Cocke County which is not far from Knoxville. It is possible to find through legal notices when people died, who their heirs were, etc. These are usually in the Knoxville papers, for Knoxville covers East Tennessee like Memphis covers West Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi.

It has been a pleasure to talk to you, and I could go on and on, but I have about covered the ground suggested and will be glad to answer any questions that I can. Spread on the table before me is a great deal of material I have collected over the years in East Tennessee. If you would like to come up and look it over you will be most welcome to do so.