“Rachel, thirteen years old, often held the helm while her father used his rifle. She was the comeliest, most daring, most popular girl on the boat. ” (“Andrew Jackson and His Beloved Rachel, “ John Trotwood Moore, Saturday Evening Post.)
In the winter of 1779-1780, thirteen-year-old Rachel Jackson and her family made a 2,000 mile voyage from down the Holston River down the Tennessee, the Ohio, and the Cumberland Rivers until they reached the Great Salt Lick near Fort Nashboro in Tennessee. They voyaged on their flatboat Adventure along with a flotilla of other boats in a voyage that was as daring as any that Colonel John Donelson’s sea captain father had ever made across the Atlantic Ocean.
The voyagers included the Donelson family – Rachel, her mother and father and eleven brothers and sisters- and the Cartwrights, the Peytons, the Blackmores, and the Harrisons. The heavy flatboats carrying entire families, household goods, and livestock required deep water and the party had to wait until Christmas until conditions on the river were favorable to leave. Finally on December 22, 1779, John Donelson described the casting off of the Adventure in his journal.“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.”
The Adventure Reaches the French Broad River
The men at the sweeps labored to keep their crafts in midstream, because midstream was out of range of enemies and rocks. If a boat strayed too close to the tree lined banks, arrows fired by unseen coppery hands could take a deadly toll of the people on the boats. On Christmas Eve, sleet bombarded the boats and the fireplace in The Adventure’s cabin hissed and spluttered like drops of water on a hot iron skillet. Some people wanted to sing Christmas carols, but since one of the Robertson children was ill and the storm continued to buffet them, the men decided to moor the boats close to shore and spent the night in the cabin. Once a small party of Indians attacked the fleet, but it was turned back without any casualties to the voyagers.
The months after Christmas tested the courage of the entire party to the limits. Provisions ran low and game seemed to have disappeared. Donelson’s Journal says that the party arrived at the mouth of Cloud’s Creek on Sunday evening, the 20th of February, 1780, and lay by for a week. When the party left, it had added some other vessels and “on the same day struck the Poor Valley shoal, together with Mr. Boyd and Mr. Rounsilfer, “on which shoal we lay that afternoon and succeeding night in much distress.”
The next day, the water rose and the boat got off the shoal, but not until the leaders had landed thirty people to lighten the boat. The men attempted to land on an island, received some damage to their boats, and lost many articles. Finally, they camped on the south shore and were joined by other vessels heading down the river.
Rain fell for half the day of March 2, 1780, as the flotilla passed the mouth of the French Broad River. About twelve o’clock, the current drove Mr. Henry’s boat on the point of an island and overturned it. The cargo was damaged and the crew’s lives endangered, so the whole fleet put on shore and went to the assistance of the swamped boat. With much difficulty, the rescuers raised the sunken boat and bailed it out so it could again hold cargo.
Reuben Harrison Goes Hunting and Gets Lost
The same afternoon, another disaster struck. Reuben Harrison went out hunting and although many guns were fired “to fetch him in,” he did not return. The next morning the voyagers searched for Reuben. They fired a fourpounder and sent out people to search the woods for him. Throughout that day and night, they fired many guns and tramped many weary miles to find him. They were not successful, and his parents and fellow travelers grieved. Finally, on Saturday, March 4, they continued their trip, leaving “Old Mr. Harrison with some other vessels to make further search for his lost son.”
At about 10:00 o’clock in the morning, the searchers found Reuben far down the river, and Ben Belew took him on board his boat. Three o’clock on the same day marked another milestone, when the boats passed the mouth of the Tennessee River and the voyagers camped on the south shore, about ten miles below its mouth.
Although fog blanketed the flotilla on Monday, March 6, 1780, it got underway before sunrise. As the morning wore on the fog thickened and many vessels in the fleet were “much bogged.” Colonel Donelson waited for them, gathered the scattered boats together, and camped on the north shore of the Clinch River. The day before, the people of the Clinch River Company had joined them, so there were many people to gather. In camp that night, Captain Hutching’s Negro man died, “being much frosted in his feet and legs.”
Encounter on the Clinch River
The seventh and eighth of March provided more encounters with the Indians. The river ran widely, the weather turned windy, and the water raced so high that many of the smaller boats were in danger of capsizing. The flotilla came to an abandoned Chickamauga town and lay by to camp for the night. Here, the wife of Ephraim Peyton, who had gone overland with Captain Robertson, delivered a child. On Wednesday, March 8, the flotilla went by an inhabited Indian village on the south side of the Clinch River. The Indians invited them to come ashore, calling them brothers and showing signs of friendship. John Caffrey and John Donelson, Jr., took a canoe which was being towed behind The Adventure and started crossing over to the Indians. The rest of the fleet landed on the opposite shore.
After John Caffrey and John Donelson, Jr., had rowed some distance, a halfbreed calling himself Archy Coody, and several others, jumped in a canoe and paddled to meet them. Coody advised them to return to their boat and they did, with Coody and several other Indians in canoes following. The members of the flotilla distributed presents to the Indians and relations appeared to be friendly. Suddenly, Colonel Donelson observed a number of Indians on the other side who were armed and painted with red and black. They launched their canoes. Coody made signs to his Indian companions and ordered them to leave the boat, and they did so.
Remaining with Colonel Donelson, Coody and another Indian told him to move off immediately. The flotilla had gone only a little way when the lookouts spotted many armed and painted Indians paddling down the river as if to intercept the voyagers. Coody and his companion traveled with them for some miles, but finally told them that they had passed all of the Indian towns. Assuring Donelson and his companions that they were out of danger, Coody and the Indian left.
The flotilla continued its journey down the river, but had not gone far before another town appeared on the south side of the river, nearly opposite a small island. Again, the Indians invited the voyagers ashore, calling them brothers. They saw the boats standing off for the opposite channels and said that “their side of the river was better for boats to pass.” Then the situation turned tragic. Donelson described it. “And here we must regret the death of young Mr. Payne, on board Captain Blackmore’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.”
Small Pox Strikes the Flotilla
An even more tragic misfortune happened to a man named Stuart and his family and friends, about twenty people altogether. The Stuart party had caught smallpox, and he and the rest of his flotilla agreed that he should keep a distance in the rear so the disease would not spread. Every night the voyagers would blow a horn for Stuart and his party to let them know that they were camping.
After the flotilla passed the Indian town, the Indians saw that Stuart’s party was isolated and helpless, cut off from the rest of the flotilla, and intercepted it. They killed or took prisoners of 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.” The people who were not killed outright were marched away into captivity and not one of the twenty-eight escaped. Later, the voyagers learned that the Indians had caught smallpox from their victims and had died by the hundreds.
Rachel Steers The Adventure
Rachel often held the sweeps of The Adventure while her father defended it with his rifle. He drilled her endlessly in shooting, loading, reloading, and taking care of her gun. When he ordered the party to trap game to spare powder and bullets, Rachel learned to set snares for rabbits and dig a pit to cover with brush to trap deer. Rachel helped the women on the voyage too. They all said that she had a way with babies and called upon her to take care of a niece or nephew when she was not helping her father. She would often sing to the children, play games with them, or rock them to sleep while their mothers snatched a quick nap for themselves. After the Stuart party had been attacked and killed, the rest of the voyagers watched the Indians marching down the river in large numbers keeping pace with the boats until the Cumberland Mountains blotted them from sight.
Next, the flotilla arrived at the place called the Whirl or Suck, where the Cumberland Mountains, jutting on both sides, compressed the river to less than half its width. Coody had described this place to Colonel Donelson, calling it the “boiling pot.” As the boats passed through the upper part of these narrows, the expedition was nearly ruined. John Cotton was moving down river in a large canoe, and had attached it to Robert Cartwright’s boat, where he and his family had gone for safety. The canoe suddenly overturned and dumped the cargo into the river.
Seeing Cartwright’s distress, the voyagers stopped and tried to help him recover his property. Men had landed on the northern shore at a level spot and were climbing up onto land when Indians appeared immediately over them on the opposite cliffs and fired down on them. Everyone rushed back into the boats and moved off. The Indians lined the bluffs and continued to fire on the boats below, wounding four people slightly. The boat belonging to a man named Jennings disappeared. The flotilla safely passed through the Whirl and into the wider reaches of the river and a placid and gentle current. The entire company was safe, except for the family of Jonathan Jennings whose boat ran onto a large rock projecting out from the northern shore and partly immersed in the water. The voyage continued throughout the day and the following night.
At four o’clock in the morning of Friday, March 10, the sleeping company heard cries of “Help poor Jennings,” far to the rear. He had spotted their fires and followed them despite his poor condition. As soon as the Indians had discovered his grounded boat, they had converged on him and his party and peppered them with bullets. Jennings ordered his wife, his nearly grown son, a young man accompanying them, and his two Negroes to throw all his goods into the river to lighten their boat so they could get it off the rocks.
In the meantime, he returned their fire, since he was a good soldier and an excellent marksman. His son, the young man, and the Negro man, all jumped out of the boat to escape the withering sheet of fire. It looked to Jennings like they had jumped too soon. Before they bailed out of the boat, Mrs. Jennings and the Negro woman had succeeded in unloading it. Mrs. Jennings got out of the boat and shoved it off, but her own courage nearly undermined her. The boat started to float so suddenly after being loosened from the rocks that Mrs. Jennings was nearly thrown into the water. The boat had been pierced in many places by bullets. Mrs. Peyton, who had given birth the night before, was with them and helped them escape. Her baby was killed in the hurry and confusion of the battle and she, herself, was wet and cold. Colonel Donelson reports that “their clothes were very much cut with bullets, especially Mrs. Jennings!”
The next day, a Saturday, the party got underway again. The family of Mrs. Jennings had been distributed in other boats and they managed to cover several miles. The day turned out to be quiet, and everybody got a much needed rest from the Indians.
Coming in part two: Read Now
” The water roared with a deafening thunder that could be heard some distance away. The current ran in every possible direction and it heaped driftwood on the points of the island so that it resembled ship wrecks. The company’s boats frequently dragged on the bottom and seemed to be in constant danger of hitting it.”