Charlotte Reeves Robertson
Patron Saint of the Revolutionary Period
One of the notable women in the early history of Tennessee, was Charlotte Reeves Robertson, wife of General James Robertson, sometimes called, “The Father of Tennessee.”
She was born in Northampton County, N.D., in 1750, and was married on her eighteenth birthday to her boy lover, James Robertson, the son of a neighbouring [sic] planter. The youthful pair soon afterward journeyed across the mountains and settled near the confluence of Big Creek and the Wautaga River, where young Robertson built the largest and finest house in the section except that of Captain “Jack” Sevier. Here for about ten years, fortune smiled upon them and they prospered greatly. But in 1779, the little Wautaga settlement was too small for Captain Robertson, as he was called, and he and his wife decided to find a new field.
It was not long before he had formed a party ready to seek the valley of the Cumberland River. Captain Robertson and most of the men of the party went on ahead driving their cattle before them. A few weeks later, Charlotte Robertson with her four little children, her brother and sister-in-law and their servants loaded their goods and chattels upon flatboats and joined other colonists in the journey down the Holston River and thus begun one of the most thrilling voyages in the pioneer history of the Middle West.
The route as planned was to be down the Holston to the Tennessee, down the Tennessee to the Ohio, up the Ohio and Cumberland and to the point selected by Captain Robertson for his settlement—a journey of over two thousand miles. Captain John Donelson, a wealthy old Virginia surveyor, was in charge of the party. He kept a journal of the trip, which is now in the archives of the Tennessee Historical Society. It is entitled “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 Donelson.”
The journey was started in February while the snow yet lay deep in the forest and there was still much ice in the rivers and the party suffered greatly from the cold. The river was entirely unknown to any of the men and numberless accidents ensued. At “The Whirl” in the Tennessee, one of the most wildly picturesque spots in America, the beauty of which is only equalled [sic] by its danger in high water, a large canoe containing all the household goods of one of the families, the members of which were travelling [sic] in one of the larger boats, was overturned.
“The company,” says Colonel Donelson in his journal, “pitying their distress concluded to halt and assist in recovering the property. We landed on the northern shore at a level spot and were going back to the place when Indians, to our astonishment, appeared immediately over us on the opposite cliffs and commenced firing down upon us which occasioned a precipitate retreat to our boats. We immediately moved off.”
Colonel Donelson’s bright-eyed, black-haired and pretty twelve-year-old daughter Rachel, was one of the little band of immigrants who shared the dangers and hardships of the voyage, little dreaming of the future which should see her the wife of General Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States.
Through all these exciting adventures, Charlotte Robertson played her part. At one time it is recorded that when attacked from both sides of the river by Indians, she coolly built a barricade to protect her children and then loaded the rifles for the men, apparently indifferent to danger. At another time the boat in which she had taken the place of a wounded boatman at the oars was attacked by a full canoe of Indians. Seizing an oar she upset their craft and as the Indians rose to the surface and attempted to climb aboard the flatboat, she rained blows on their heads until they sank or were driven off.
When the voyagers reached the Ohio, they were beset by further difficulties. The river was filled with floating ice and heavy drift. A number of the families became discouraged and turning their boats down-stream continued down the Ohio and the Mississippi and finally found homes near Natchez. The remainder of the party slowly worked their boats up from the mouth of the Tennessee to the mouth of the Cumberland and then up that river for two hundred miles.
It was a long and laborious journey, and only a few miles’ progress could be made in a day. Charlotte’s sister-in-law, Mrs. Johnson, acted as pilot of their boat, and Charlotte and her maid Hagar, worked together with the men at the oars. The weather turned bitterly cold with frequent storms of rain and sleet. Their provisions ran low and the Indians on both sides of the river prevented their going on the shore after game. At times they had to content themselves with scant rations of parched corn.
At length, more than four months after leaving Fort Patrick Henry, they reached the appointed spot and landed their boats, at what is today the foot of Market Street, Nashville. There they were met by Captain Robertson and his men who had arrived some weeks before. They had built several log cabins with a blockhouse and stockade around them. This new home was considerably different from the house left by Mistress Robertson on the Wautaga.
The windows were of greased paper, and a blanket hung up at night served as a door. It was this arrangement that caused the lady one of her most thrilling experiences. One night when Captain Robertson was away hunting, she and her little family retired early. Wakened by a slight noise, sometime later, she saw by the dying firelight a large panther enter through the door, walk slowly around the room, and then spring softly on her bed. Badly frightened, she retained presence of mind enough to remain perfectly quiet and feign sleep. Pretty soon the animal climbed off her bed, went across to where the children were sleeping, examined them curiously and then walked out. Captain Robertson returning some time later was surprised to find his wife up and dressed, and sitting with rifle in hand guarding the house.
At one time when the men were all away from the fort working in a field, a party of Indians suddenly appeared. The women of the fort, under the direction of Mrs. Robertson, rushed to the guns and repulsed the first attack. A party about twenty-five braves had, however, found lodgment [sic] under the overhanging walls of the block-house and were trying to set it on fire. Their position was such that they could not be reached by the rifles and in a few minutes more would have had the building in flames. It was Mrs. Johnson’s quick wit that saved the situation. It was wash day at the fort and calling the others seized buckets of boiling water which they carried up a ladder, placed against the stockade, and she poured a scalding flood down on to the backs of the savages. Three times she was wounded but held her post while the boiling water was passed up to her, until the Indians retreated. The little party suffered greatly from the Indians for a year or two, and a number were killed including two little sons of Mrs. Robertson, Peyton and Randolph, who were killed within a stone’s throw of the fort.
On another occasion when the men were all away, with the exception of Mrs. Robertson’s son, Jonathan, who was hunting wild turkeys not far from the stockade, the Indians suddenly appeared. Mrs. Robertson saw them dancing around a prostrate form which she divined to be that of her son. She knew that something must be done if the settlement was to be saved. She called to her servant, Caesar, to bring two horses and a gun, and taking her little boy Felix in front of her rode to alarm the men. Hearing her shouts of alarm they cut their horses loose from the ploughs [sic] and in a few moments nineteen farmers with rifles in hand were following Charlotte in a wild dash to the fort.
As they came up the Indians fell back and the men followed, only to find that the retreat of the Indians was a ruse and that they had been drawn into ambush, the Indians closing in behind them, cutting them off from the fort and driving them toward the river. It was nineteen against hundreds and Mrs. Robertson, rifle in hand, watching the battle from the fort recognised [sic] the desperate situation. Calling to Caesar, she bade him release a pack of bloodhounds which were kept at the fort. Attacked by the rear by this new enemy and distracted by its suddenness and the deep baying of the hounds, the Indians were soon in a panic and were quickly routed. A rescue party at once went to where the mother had last seen her son and there he was found unconscious. He recovered, though badly wounded.
That battle marked the turning point in Tennessee. Many new settlers came soon and the little colony thrived as did the fortunes of the Robertsons. Captain Robertson was made a General and elected to the senate and died in 1814, honoured [sic] and respected by an entire State. Charlotte Robertson survived her husband by about thirty years, dying in 1843, in the ninety-third year of her life and was buried by his side in the Old City Cemetery at Nashville.
Reference: The Pioneer Mothers of America: A Record of the More Notable Women of the Early Days of the Country, and Particularly of the Colonial and Revolutionary Periods by Harry Clinton Green and Mary Wolcott Green, A.B. Third Volume, Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons.