Granny White Pike

Street names have always been a curious thing to me. Having worked in several different professional roles where street names are pretty important (police officer, real estate developer, private investigator, county planner, board member for an emergency communications district), I could fill a bushel basket with all of the strange intricacies that are considered and the enormous gravity that is commonly placed on the street name selection process along with a surprising list of corollary weights and outcomes associated with casually naming a new road.

For the most recent 11 years, I’ve been a County Planner, so I write and enforce policy and standards for lot and road development as well as providing comprehensive land use studies and recommendations for future growth. So pretty much everyday, I’m witness to and have a stake in the perpetual development and redevelopment of the county where I call home.

Even though I spend my down-time thinking and frolicking about much simpler ideas and activities, trying my best to explore this nasty habit of mine – writing interesting tidbits about seemingly uninteresting things – my professional life occasionally weaves and lattices its way onto my private/personal writing slate. Even my hobbies creep into this thing with street names.

One such hobby of mine is that I collect old maps. I love to cross reference old street names with new one’s. It gives me a broader perspective on how an area developed and evolved over time.

Apparently, my writer persona is just not as cool as the me in real life…

The most difficult thing for me as a writer of nonsense, is to keep from sounding too professional, technical, and boring. If I’m ever going to lure my wife to read more than the first couple of paragraphs of anything I write, I’m definitely going to have to find some stylistic method in which to arouse the same amusing thoughts about street signs as a typical reader would feel about someone passing gas in a car. Apparently, my writer persona is just not as cool as the me in real life…

But, alas, I’m a technical and serious kinda guy, concealing a goofball in my gut. You know what that means; I’m not really overweight, I just have a dual personality that needs to eat too. I’m working on it; you get what you get – steer your way back onto the subject Chris.

Back in the day, we didn’t place much of an emphasis on street names. There were only a dozen or so anyway, no real way to mess that up. We just named our streets after prominent citizens or important topographical features like River Street, Mill Street, Church Street, or Washington Avenue.

I’m sure there’s some popular historic figure out there with the not-so-common last name of “Main”, but alas, I haven’t found the guy yet. I know he’s out there ready to be discovered, I’m confident of it.

Today, its more common to name new streets after our dogs and grandchildren. Another popular thing to do is to find people who weren’t famous when a street was first named, but who are famous now, and rename our old streets.

There’s hope for Kim Kardashian yet. The boring way to do it is, of course, to just let our engineers name them from pre-approved lists of street names that don’t sound similar nor repeat existing street names with different suffixes (e.g., Kardashian Ave., Kardashian St., Kardashian Blvd.).

Why is all this stuff about street names so important you ask? Well, when you’re 75 years old and living in your brand-new assisted living apartment on James Avenue, tight-fistedly clutching your hokey plastic life-alert device strung from your neck, and have reason to push the button and repeat those celebrated words, “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!”, you’re going to pray to your maker that there’s not another assisted living facility on a road called James Street on the opposite side of town.

Lots of your own accumulated bad karma from 40 years of dedicated service as a meter reader just may guarantee that the 911 operator, Candy; we’ll call her, who’s taking your call, erroneously sends the ambulance intended for you to the other assisted living instead. Because Candy lives just down the road a piece from the other assisted living facility and mistakenly assumes you are there instead of here. That would suck; but weirder things have happened. And that’s why communities take that sort of thing so seriously.

Growing up in Nashville and having the name “White” as my surname, meant every time my parents drove through the intersection of Granny White Pike and Harding Place, meant I’d be in the back seat of the car wondering to myself, “Who was this Granny White; is she my Granny White? And, if she’s not my Granny, what made this particular Granny White so famous as to have a street named after her? Eventually, I did ask my grandfather (Frank White), about this mysterious Granny of mine.

You know, grandfather’s are famous for telling tall tales. I could write an entire blog about my Papaw White and some of his hilarious stories. He was quite the character for sure. Mammaw White (Blanche) – my own Granny White, was his equal in every way – only much shorter and without the chewing tobacco in her mouth.

My grandfather, however, was a certified, genuine, expert on THE Granny White. Once he knew he had my undivided attention, he carefully removed the stinky cheap cigar from his mouth, blew out a bellowing stench of white smoke, then put on a quasi conspiratorial expression before commencing to tell an intriguing story about Granny White’s famous boarding house, the best in the land.

Papaw told me, in his own metered style, that Granny White, as she came to be known, was a poor widow and most definitely an ancestor or ours, who came to Tennessee in its early years, scant of supplies or anything else with the obvious exception of freedom. He said she had fallen victim to countless native “Indian” attacks at the fort in Nashville, the result of which took her husband and one of her poor children from her.

He told me her husband had been a Revolutionary War hero and was given many acres of land in Tennessee by George Washington himself, in payment for his gallant service in the War of Independence. The poor widow used her inheritance, sold part of the land, and decided to build a fine boarding house on the remainder. The funny part of his story, and there always was a funny part, Papaw explained to me how the widow ended up marrying an old Indian Chief nicknamed “Chief She-She”.

Papaw repeated his story to me as if I were carrying down an important piece of family history. My grandfather continued; Cherokee Chief She-She, without good command of the English language, was accustomed to sitting on the elaborate front porch of her boarding house, smoking a corn cob pipe, and would always reply “She, She” to any arriving guests, accentuated by his pointing toward the front door of the house. This apparently, as if to say to the guest(s), “I don’t know shit, Granny is just inside that door, go right on in.”

Great stuff, right? But, as an amateur genealogist and the Technical and Serious guy I told you about earlier in the blog, I eventually had little choice but to try and trek down a more historically accurate version of my grandfather’s colorful summary. And, as in any story handed down from a family member that comes from a generation people without computers, instant access to the library of congress, or DNA analysis, some of what you have heard about a great many things relating to your family may be complete bullshit and some may bear a ring of truth. Example: this very same grandfather used to tell me that I was named after Captain John White of Mayflower fame.

I actually knew that wasn’t true when he said it because of two reasons: First, my first name is Jon, not John, and second because my mother told me she loved the spelling of the name Jon because it looked exotic and maybe even French (Jean). So, since it was my fancy-bourgeoisie mother who actually named me, and since she’d so exquisitely explained her rationale in choosing my name, I think she will have to stand as the expert witness on the subject. So, it wasn’t like I hadn’t become accustomed to getting a heaping of bullshit with my corn flakes. But as a child, you just learn to accept the stories for what they are – indelible memories and experiences worthy of honorable mention in a grandson’s blog, 40 years down the road.

Anyway, as I started to do my research on Granny White, it seemed to me as though fact and fiction have become so thoroughly mixed in her story that we may always have some doubt as to our ability to determine who she really was and what actual circumstances surrounded her moving to middle Tennessee. But, she was definitely real, and there are not only records of her success, recorded deeds and a will, but there were also stories told and articles written about her from notable people.

Aside from those stories and records, it seems the whole story of Granny White and the pike that bears her name has never been fully recorded. But in 1934-35, the General Francis Nash chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Nashville, commissioned its historian, Mrs. Edythe Rucker Whitley, to “collect any available information that could be found, including anecdotal stories, for eventual publication”. When the project was completed, the chapter distributed typewritten copies of Reminiscences of Granny White Pike and Its Neighbors, a work from Mrs. Whitely which contains the most detailed information on the Pike, now available in the Tennessee Library of Archives.

Fortunately for us and my little blog, the DAR was able to assemble a great deal of information about Granny White, but the report’s principal area of concentration was centered on the history of the road itself along with the people who lived along it in the 1930’s. About the only information on the legend of Granny White herself is to be found in newspaper clippings from the Nashville Tennessean and Banner.

A more popular and more often repeated story, was that Granny White was a poor widow who left her home in North Carolina with two small, orphaned, grandchildren (aged eight and ten), and an old slave named Zachery came to the settlement at Fort Nashboro to start a new life for herself and the children. Her later success was indicated by her eventual acquisition of land, horses, and cattle. In addition, she became hostess of an extremely fine tavern.

This version of the story appears to have taken much of its color from the circumstances surrounding its origin. Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, by way of Tennessee, presented it in one of his speeches to the United States Senate, and thus the account went into the Congressional Record. The Senator appears to have added considerable gloss to his story in an effort to win support for legislation advocating provisions of land for settlers in new parts of the country – the first Wild West if you will. So, the story told isn’t fully reliable.

To illustrate how these settlers could make successful lives for themselves in the wild western frontier, Benton dramatically related the story of the sixty-year-old woman who left her North Carolina home with two small boys for the Cumberland settlement, a distance of six or seven hundred miles. This trip was made necessary, he said, because local courts and religious authorities refused to grant Mrs. White possession of her grandchildren because she lacked the means to support them.

The Benton story was repeated as follows:

When Granny White arrived in the Cumberland settlement after some time in East Tennessee where she earned a living by selling her own baked goods, a kind Irishman, Thomas McCrory, sold her some land at a nominal price. He granted her an indefinite period of time in which to pay. The property consisted of faces of two adjoining hills. Because the hills were so steep, so the story goes, Granny White had to support her pumpkins with stakes to keep them from rolling down the hillside and bursting.

Thomas Hart Benton

A search of land records in the State Archives office reveals several inaccuracies in Senator Benton’s account, as well as my own papaw White’s story. Granny White ( or, more properly, Mrs. Lucinda White) arrived in Middle Tennessee sometime before 1803 near the state’s 8th birthday. Her first home was located in what is now Williamson County. She lived there with several children, not grandchildren.

It is true, however, that she later purchased land in Nashville, but from Wolsey Warrington not Thomas McCrory. The deed transaction was recorded on January 2, 1803, was listed as fifty acres and for a purchase price of three hundred dollars. The property was located on an old spring and beside an old buffalo trail known at that time as the Middle Franklin Turnpike.

There are yet other slight distortions from the Benton story. North Carolina records suggest that Lucy or Lucinda may have been the wife of a Revolutionary soldier, Zachariah White. Such a man was listed as a local militia soldier of the Pasquotank County, North Carolina, regiment in 1755. It seems that sometime between 1760 and 1766, White married Lucy, most likely the daughter of William Wilson of Chowan County, North Carolina. Aside from being a militia volunteer, Zachariah was a pioneer schoolteacher.

A soldier named Zachariah White was listed as being killed during an attack by Chickamauga Indians when they attacked the French Lick establishment in the Battle of the Bluff, in the defense of what is now Davidson County (Nashville) during the Revolutionary War, and for that loss his family was given a certain 640 acres of land in the county. If “Granny” White was Zechariah’s widow, she owned land in what was then Davidson County when she left North Carolina and was perhaps not wandering aimlessly as Senator Benton had suggested. Williamson County was formed out of Davidson County in 1799, land grants would have been awarded in 1784.

Military land grants were awarded to persons for military service in the Revolutionary War, the amount of acreage determined by rank. Pre-emption land grants were awarded to various qualifying families and heirs of deceased soldiers who died in battle, during, or after the war. The State of Tennessee was a part of North Carolina until 1796. Davidson County, including much of northern middle Tennessee, was originally carved off as a military reservation intended to be divvied up as a part of the Act.

From these North Carolina records,

“Monday, 10 May 1784, the following persons satisfied the requirements of pre-emption and had made the necessary petitions: (Long list of names to follow). And the committee are further of opinion that the heirs or devisees of Zachariah White (and others), who were killed in the settlement and defense of the said County of Davidson, receive grants for the same number of acres in the same manner, and on the same terms and conditions as the former.”

What stood out in that original record is that Zachariah White was the very first soldier mentioned by name from the pre-emption Act intended to award land to fallen soldiers. Why? It certainly had nothing to do with alphabetical order. He was awarded 640 acres, which was the amount given to all soldiers holding the rank of Private. NCO’s were said to be awarded 1,000 acres, Captain’s 3,840 acres, Major’s 4,800, and so on with General’s being given 12,000 acres.

Despite the purchase of a book of surveys for military land grants to Tennessee, I cannot find the actual survey for Zachariah despite his name mentioned in the first 10 pages of the book as having been granted the 640 acres. I did, however, find a survey plat for a Benjamin White, which could have been his son, but I can’t verify the record. If so, the grant would have been along the Harpeth River near the present day Leapers Fork – in what is Williamson County today.

When Zachariah was killed, Lucy was thirty eight years old, a widow, and penniless. Lucy White, no doubt, struggled to raise two orphaned grandchildren by herself. And for the next eighteen years, she endured a life of virtual poverty in North Carolina. She may have inherited land in Nashville, but getting to it might prove to be a daunting task for someone without the means to pay for a trip. Although short in stature, Lucy was long on willpower. She is said to have possessed a larger-than-life personality, was an accomplished cook, and combined a gentle nature with a terrific wit.

Records, however, show few connections between Lucy and Zachariah White except the practice, common among eighteenth-century families, to continue family names with their children. In the will of Mrs. Lucinda White, recorded on August 24, 1816, certain bequests are left to her sons John and Benjamin. There are earlier records which link Zachariah White also to two sons, John and Benjamin. These facts caused Mrs. Whitley in her research for the DAR to conclude, “Now we have proof that John was a son of Lucy, and that John was an heir of Zachariah and John was a brother of Benjamin; therefore, if John was Lucy’s son, brother of Benjamin and etc. then Lucy’s husband was Zachariah White.”

In 1800, dirt poor, and with nothing to lose and the promise of land in Nashville, the sixty year old white haired grandmother, along with Uncle Zachary (an old slave) loaded up the children, Willis and Thomas, into an ox cart and began an eight hundred mile journey over the Appalachian Mountains toward the Cumberland Territory. It was recorded that twice along the way, Lucy stopped to setup bakery stands to make ends meet, selling bread and ginger cakes. Each time, packing up and moving on when she’d made enough money to continue.

It gradually occurred to her that with all of the wagons headed westward, there just might be a long-term opportunity in all this. Finally, after three years of traveling, Lucy arrived in Nashville, Tennessee. In a time when women were taught to “keep silent,” Lucinda White would manage to operate a flourishing business where I’m confident she did lots and lots of talking. She built her famous house near the bottom of one of her two hills where a road passed southward from Nashville. Lucy, it is said, quickly established gardens and orchards.

With the proceeds, she obtained bed linens and fabricated other textiles by hand using her old spinning wheel. She decided that her home would be an excellent location for an inn. With the help of her sons, she built a fine house with lots of extra space for passers-by. The tavern was opened in about 1812 and soon became, according to historian John Trotwood Moore, the most noted inn, and and essential stagecoach stop, between Louisville and New Orleans. If Granny White had kept a guest book and if it were still available, Mr. Moore wrote,

“We would perhaps be able to read the names of many extremely well-known people who stopped to enjoy her hospitality and good food. Just a few of the noted people known to have stayed there were Sam Houston, John Bell, Edmund Dillahunty, James K. Polk, Andrew Jackson, and Thomas Hart Benton. “

John Trotwood Moore
The only known surviving photograph of Granny White’s Inn. (Tennessee State Archives)

One famous anecdotal story concern’s one such notable guest who decided to ruffle Granny White’s composure by putting a frog in one of her butter-milk crocks. He informed several members of his traveling party of what he had done, and they watched all evening long to see what would happen when the servers and their hostess discovered the unwelcome guest. As the evening grew longer after the guests had enjoyed their fine supper, they realized that bedtime was nearing, and no one had heard any excitement concerning the frog. The notably mischievous guest could restrain himself no longer and went to investigate. Finding the crock empty, he asked Granny White what happened to the buttermilk. He was somewhat taken aback when she told him it had all been served him that evening.

The fame of Granny White was to outlive her by many generations. Her life as an innkeeper was not long-lived, however, for she died in 1816 at the ripe old age of 73. From a hardscrabble beginning, Lucy White had achieved a her destiny and lived a life more notable than any woman of the era. Why the leaders and shepherds of the modern feminist movement haven’t recognized Granny White with a monument escapes all reason, for she was certainly a commercial force with which to be reckoned at at time when women were socially handcuffed.

Granny White is buried in a small cemetery on what was her land on Granny White Pike about six miles from Nashville. Near her grave are the graves of three others – one of a child, the other two of adults. It is possible that the child’s grave belongs to Thomas, one of the grandsons mentioned in the traditional story. Lucy White did have one child who died after reaching maturity, and she left some orphaned children.

One of the adult graves may be that of Lucy’s daughter Kesiah who was mentioned in the will, but who apparently never married. The other adult grave remains a mystery.

The will of Granny White provides some interesting reading, if for nothing else its thoroughness. She left the following provisions: to son John $15; to son Benjamin $15; to daughter Kesiah $15; to grandson Willis White – a slave boy named Lewis, four cows, five one-year-old calves, one sorrel horse, six hogs, two sheep, one bureau, two boxes, three beds, a bedstead and bed furniture, three pots, one chest, one skillet and lid, one skillet and frying pan, one pot rack, three tables, “all my pork that is salted for this present year,” four trays, one set of knives and forks, one set of cups and saucers, six pewter plates, six earthen ones, one pewter dish, one and one half dozen spoons, one pair of dog irons, one looking glass, all household and kitchen furniture, all corn, one fodder stack, ten gallons of whiskey, twenty gallons of vinegar, one tub of “laird,” all poultry, and “all my wearing appearrel (sic).”

Ironically, $15 dollars in 1816 would be the equivalent of $290 dollars today in 2021. Not all that much money. It makes one wonder what she may have thought about John, Benjie, and Kesiah? Willis pretty much got everything she owned, including her “wearing appearrel”. I hate to assign my 21st Century views to a 19th Century custom, but doesn’t this sound as if Lucinda was protecting Willis from what she viewed might be a difficult life ahead? I don’t know, but this is why I’m often spellbound by digging deep in historical records. It sometimes sheds light on how people were experiencing the same sorts of things we deal with today.

The family of Zechariah and Lucinda White apparently were: (1) Joshua, who died in Davidson County in 1817 – there is no positive connection between him and Granny White, but names of children listed in his will (Wilson, Dempsey, Jacob, Jabez, etc.) tally with those of Lucy’s family in North Carolina;  (2) a son, possibly named Robert;  (3) Wilson, said to have died unmarried and to have been buried in Franklin in a plot with Benjamin; (4) John, named in the will;  (5) Kesiah, named in the will; and (6) Benjamin, named in the will, who was born on June 23, 1771, in North Carolina. There may have been other children, but no proof has been found.

Aside from the high probability that my paternal ancestors may have been related to Zachariah, I’m very confident my family did not directly derive from this particular Granny White. My paternal roots do come from North Carolina during the colonial period and from the same general vicinity as did Zachariah. At most, we’re distant cousins. That will be yet another tidbit of information I will have to dig for at a later date.

In the years that followed this courageous woman’s ordeal, efforts have obviously been made to maintain the memory of Granny White. She was officially honored when the Granny White Turnpike Company was incorporated on January 25, 1850. And even though there’s no real effort in modern times to celebrate her now, she was clearly a prominent person of her day – a rare figure of strength for women of that era.

In the 1930’s, the Everett Beasley family acquired rights to her land and decided to set aside the area around the site of the old inn. Of course, the original structure had long ago fallen down, but the Beasley’s found a log structure similar to it. They made arrangements for the house, purchased in North Carolina, to be moved to Nashville and reassembled on the site of Granny White’s inn. For a number of years, the Beasley’s maintained the building and allowed it to be used for various meetings. Eventually it became unsafe, and the property was closed to the public. Now, of course, nothing remains of the original inn and the entire area has been sold and resold, carved up, divided, and developed. All that remains is the tiny little cemetery.

What about my grandfathers account of Chief She-She. Was he real, made up, or some other person that existed in a different place that my grandfather mistakenly attached to Granny White. I decided at first that She-She was just an invented person of interest during a burst of creativity to make his story sound more interesting?

It makes sense that my grandfather would have become acquainted (somewhat) with her story at that time. My father was born in 1935, so my grandfather would have been a curious 40 year old adult living near the area when this renewed interest and efforts were made by the Beasley family to memorialize the site of the Inn.

But alas, I discovered yet another mixed couple running an Inn about 40 miles further down the Natchez Trace around the same time as Granny White was in business. Only, this Native American was called She-Boss and the Inn nicknamed the SheBoss Place. Prior to the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Chickasaw’s had signed a treaty stating white settlers could operate businesses along the Natchez Trace so long as an Indian was the proprietor. A widow is said to have operated an inn there with her Indian second husband who spoke little English. He was not a chief. According to legend when travelers approached with questions about accommodations, he would only point to his wife and say, “she boss.”

It seems the stories my grandfather learned as a young man, stayed with him quite a long time, but were perhaps mixed up a little or attached to other stories along his adventurous 81 year path of life. He wasn’t such a creative type after all. I think I will continue to use the Chief She-She story, it’s just too good to forget. Out with She-Boss, in with She-She.

As one of Nashville’s pioneers, Granny White’s two-hundred year old story is one of ingenuity, perseverance, and entrepreneurial spirit. I’m delighted I took this path to get to know her and my grandfather just a little bit better. I hope you enjoyed the journey as much as I did. Perhaps Granny White is largely a legend in the history of Nashville, but those of us who believe in southern hospitality, good food, and good humor, will never be convinced.

Best Lil’ Ho House in Nashville

It was none other than the esteemed Thomas Jefferson, a founding father and Secretary of State (at the time), whom first directed that the United States should conduct a decennial census. His rationale need not be questioned, but for the conspiracy theorist friends of mine, it was, well, uhm, it was for reasons I can’t really disclose. Just kidding; I think we all know why.

That very first census happened in 1790 and we’ve conducted a census in every year ending in a zero digit since that date. Our most recent census, the second one we’ve conducted in the 21st century, marks 230 years of this kind of detailed record keeping. Now you know who started the whole thing.

As a person who’s been utterly transfixed in genealogy research for at least a couple decades now, I’ve often used old census records to either discover new distant relatives or establish birth years or even learn about occupations, birth states, and the countries or origin for a great many of my very distant relatives. For the most part, pretty much any census record you’ll find, of the same year, will look similar and hold the same types of information.

Although considerable care has been used from location to location and from decade to decade to promise some level of uniformity in the collection of these records, the vast number of people involved in the task has made complete consistency all but impossible. That said, sometimes you get lucky and find the good stuff; you know, the things you’d never expect to discover.

So fortunate for us were those rare individuals who took their census taker roles more serious, and undertook the collection of information no modern millennial would ever dream of going the extra mile to collect. Because of those wonderful mavericks and mustangs, we get to know some not-so-common knowledge about some pretty interesting ancestors. In rare instances, some census takers took it upon themselves to ask a few more questions than they were instructed to ask.

Some early census-takers, for example, took it upon themselves to completely alphabetize their local census. In at least one case, that of Wilkes County, North Carolina in 1820, the alphabetizing was done by first name! On other occasions certain record takers had recorded not only the state in which an individual was born but also the county. With such peculiarities and inconsistency in various censuses, the practices of individual census marshals have, on occasion, given us some incredible insights. Or, perhaps better said – highlights and unusual observations, which would have otherwise been denied to us had strict uniformity in census-taking been required.

Most interesting to me, a Nashville native, are the highlights recorded by Nashville census-takers in 1860, and a prime example of what I’ve been attempting to describe. In 1860, the city of Nashville was right-smack-dab in the opening crosshairs for what would soon become known to southerners as the War of Northern Aggression. War not yet begun, nor the city yet occupied by union soldiers, Nashville was brimming with its gentrified grey-uniformed military men, strategically positioning themselves for the inevitable, who had peculiar needs that couldn’t be properly dealt with while they were away from their more genteel homes. Those “needs” evolved into a thriving practice of the oldest profession indeed. Nashville, it seems, became a hotbed (pun intended) for prostitution.

Although I cannot imagine that the instructions given to census-takers that year, or as in previous years, ever referred to prostitutes at all. The Nashville marshals, for some strange reason no longer discernable, took it upon themselves in 1860 to count and catalog every soiled-dove and lady-of-the-evening it could possibly label, accuse, or identify.

Thus, the 1860 Nashville census included data gathered on the extent of prostitution in this city. In fact, venereal disease became such an issue in Nashville that in 1863 the city began issuing professional licenses for prostitutes and their respective bordello’s in order to help keep the soldiers – and ladies – healthy. Such a careful count of these ladies does not appear to have been made before nor since, nor does my research reveal any similar practices to have ever been attempted in other cities.

Little historical attention has been devoted to the world’s oldest profession. Almost nothing, aside from the obvious, is known of its operations, nor of the circumstances under which it flourished. My mind circles back to an Italian getaway where Emily and I visited the ancient ruined city of Pompeii.

There in Italy too, early houses of prostitution have actually been identified an excavated. Caricatures of erect penis’ carved into the basalt stones that line the ancient stone roadways, just as hard as in historical times, were and still are ever-erect and pointed directly toward the doorways of these historical ho-houses. It’s quite a humorous thing to actually witness but these archeologically important graffities tell us emphatically that it really is the oldest profession as these ancient houses of ill repute were already two thousand years old when they were covered with volcanic ash in 79 AD.

On the streets of Pompeii

It is, of course, impossible to know exactly how many prostitutes there were in my beloved Nashville in 1860, or at any other time for that matter. But, this otherwise beclouded chapter of Nashville’s past has in some ways been exposed by these census-takers/quasi-journalists whose unorthodox methods have managed to entertain the rest of us over 150 years later.

There were no doubt many ladies who, in describing their work activities to the “Gladys Kravitz” type census-takers, resorted to such euphemisms as “Seamstress,” “Tippling House Operator,” “Bagnio Keeper,” etc., or who just left the designation blank. It is also impossible to define some of these terms too specifically. There were undoubtedly then, as now, ladies of easy virtue whose income from legitimate sources was supplemented by funds received in return for services rendered, for favors bestowed, or in some other sense as a quid pro quo.

Nonetheless and despite all those shy types, there were still quite a few – I’ll say “professionals,” who were not at all reluctant to call themselves exactly what they really were – which totaled 207 out of the 13,762 free Nashville residents who reported in the 1860 census. Virtually all of them were white, although nine of them were listed as mulatto. Nearly half were illiterate; eighty-seven listed themselves as totally illiterate, and eight others arrogantly said that they could read but could not write. Twenty reported that they’d been widowed.

These otherwise virtuous women of Nashville ranged in age from fifteen to fifty-nine, although the majority were in their teens and twenties. Three were fifteen, 9 were sixteen, 15 were seventeen, 14 were eighteen, 12 were nineteen, and 10 were twenty. The mean age for these girls, however, was twenty-three, and most of which were home grown.

One hundred thirteen were Tennessee born. Kentucky and Alabama were tied for the dubious honor of second place, each furnishing 12 girls to the Nashville trade. In lesser numbers were women who hailed from Indiana, Massachusetts, Georgia, Virginia, Missouri, North & South Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Foreign born ladies were also represented; one woman hailed from Canada, and three came from Ireland where the potato famine was very recent history. Who ever said Canadians haven’t accomplished much doesn’t know their history.

Emaline Cameron was among the thousands of refugees who poured into Nashville during the civil war. Born in Smithville, 50 miles to the East, the strains of war must have caused her to cross through dangerous territory to Nashville from an imploded marriage back home.

Her husband Toy Hayes divorced her on the grounds that he was not the father of their eldest child. She admitted as much in court: working as a chambermaid in the Smithville Hotel, which was run by her parents, a hotel border inconveniently left the 15 year old Emaline pregnant. Her parents swiftly married her off to the naïve Toy Hayes before she began to show signs of her ill-fated condition.

Emaline was not only one of those statistics of those uncertain times in Nashville, she was also one of the first such women to get a professional license for the much vilified vocation when licenses became mandatory in 1863. Pretty Lula Suares, born in Pennsylvania, may have been of Spanish ancestry, and Jinnie Tante may have been French, but the other 205 had such names as Richardson, Scott, Johnson, Fox, Armstrong, Graves, Thomas, Harris, Patterson, Walker, Wilson, Webb, and Martin. The Browns were by far the most prolific, furnishing eight girls to the immodest trade.

In some cases it is very tempting to assume relationships such as Sarah Morgan, age 38, with whom worked Rachel Morgan, 21, Mary Morgan, 18, and Nancy Morgan, 16, all in the same household. Given names run the full gamut of nineteenth-century respectability, and there were Anns, Nellys, Mollys, Pollys, Sarahs, Sallys, Alices, Rachels, Harriets, and Carolines. There were ten Elizas, thirteen Marthas, fourteen Nancys, seventeen Elizabeths, and twenty-nine Marys.

Some of Nashville’s brothel’s reflected significant affluence, while others showed signs of abject poverty. The largest house was operated by Rebecca and Eliza Higgins at 101-103 North Front Street. Rebecca owned real property valued at $24,000 and personal property amounting to some $1,500, which were very large sums in those days. Twenty-eight people lived in the house, of whom seventeen were prostitutes, one was a carpenter, one was a brick mason, six were children in school, two were pre-school age, and one was twenty-two year old black guy named Tom Trimble.

Eleven prostitutes worked at Mag Seat’s place, address unknown. Mag was a twenty-five year old Tennessean who seemed to be able to keep a more youthfully staffed workshop than some of her other Nashville competitors. Six of her eleven girls were in their teens, and the oldest was twenty-four. At 72 North Front Street was Martha Reeder’s house, where ten ladies of the night and two pre-school children lived. This thirty-one year old Tennessee-born madam reported owning personal property totalling $15,000.

Large houses, however, were the exception rather than the rule. Most of the houses were either one-woman cribs, or at most, two or three-woman operations. Nineteen of the sixty-nine houses in the city were operated by one woman, twenty-five had two women, and twelve had three women working in them. The smallest houses appear to have been the most pathetic – often sheltering one prostitute, widowed, in her late twenties or early thirties, with two or three children under ten years of age. Its times such as these most certainly were, where I could almost pick any house and write a story of tragedy and hardship that would depict with fair accuracy many situations in Nashville during that contemptuous time period in American history.

Another useful tool used in genealogy research are the old city directories. Old census records don’t often list addresses but you can determine many of them, as is occasionally done here, by researching those city directories. Twenty-four of Nashville’s sixty-nine houses of ill repute may thus be located upon an old city map, and they constitute a very definite sector of the city.

Eighteen were located in a quarter only two blocks wide and four blocks long, being the first block north and the first block south of Spring (now Church) Street, on Front, Market, College, and Cherry (now First, Second, Third, and Fourth Avenues) Streets. The location was no doubt excellent for the river trade of the day, of which there was a great deal and it is said that the four by two block red light district enjoyed a famed nickname of “Smokey Row.” Five of the houses, including those of the Higgins sisters, were practically adjacent to the upper steamboat landing on Front Street. Other houses were clustered in the same general vicinity.

The profile, therefore, of the average Nashville prostitute in 1860 would show that she was a white, Tennessee-born, twenty-three year old. There’s a very good chance that she was illiterate, and that she worked in a house with two or three colleagues.

Her name was something like Mary Brown, and, since the law of supply and demand no doubt controlled her market as it does everyone else’s, the number of her competitors in the city would seem to indicate that business was humping…ughm, maybe brisk is a better word. Her impact upon the community was probably considerable as were her activities deserving of closer examination than historical research has thus far devoted to them or than these brief paragraphs have been able to render for you.

But, by 1862, after the Union Army occupied Nashville in February then moved thousands of troops here, the number of prostitutes exploded, that number believed to be as high as 1500 – more than 10% of the entire population of Nashville. Major General William Rosecrans (Old Rosy), a Roman Catholic from Ohio, had a real problem on his hands.

At least 8.2% of his Union soldiers were infected with either syphilis or gonorrhea and the mercury treatments of the day could sideline a soldier for weeks. These mostly unprincipled Union soldiers from dreadful sounding places like Pittsburg and Chicago were responsible for a sexual plague in Nashville like nothing that had ever been seen anywhere. In fact, there were local shortages of mercury wherever the union army occupied…well, I just made that part up.

At first Rosecrans ordered George Spalding, provost marshal of Nashville, to “without loss of time seize and transport to Louisville all prostitutes found in the city known to be here.” The obedient Spalding did exactly that. Finding them was easy but how he would carry out the order is quite amusing.

Spalding soon met John Newcomb, owner of a brand-spanking-new steamboat christened the Idahoe (can you see the irony?) Much to Newcomb’s dismay, Spalding ordered Newcomb to take the Idahoe on its maiden voyage northward with its soiled maiden passenger list.

All 111 women aboard the Idahoe had three things in common, their profession, they’re unfortunate collective cases of syphilis, and that they were all white. Almost immediately upon their departure, their black counterparts took their places in Nashville’s brothels. The local press delighted in the story. The Nashville Daily Union:

“The sudden expatriation of hundreds of vicious white women will only make room for an equal number of negro strumpets. Unless the aggravated curse of lechery as it exists among the negresses of the town is destroyed by rigid military or civil mandates, or the indiscriminate expulsion of the guilty sex, the ejectment of the white class will turn out to have been productive of the sin it was intended to eradicate…. We dare say no city in the country has been more shamefully abused by the conduct of its unchaste females, white and Negro, than has Nashville for the past fifteen or eighteen months.”

Nashville Daily Union – cir. 1862

It took a week for the Idahoe to reach Louisville, but word of the unusual manifest list had already reached the city’s law enforcement. Newcomb was forbidden from docking there and ordered on to Cincinnati instead. Ohio, too, was uneager to accept Nashville’s prostitutes, and the ship was forced to dock across the river in Kentucky – with all inmates required to stay on board, reported the Cincinnati Gazette:

There does not seem to be much desire on the part of our authorities to welcome such a large addition to the already overflowing numbers engaged in their peculiar profession, and the remonstrances were so urgent against their being permitted to land that that boat has taken over to the Kentucky shore; but the authorities of Newport and Covington have no greater desire for their company, and the consequence is that the poor girls are still kept on board the boat. It is said (on what authority we are unable to discover) that the military order issued in Nashville has been revoked in Washington, and that they will all be returned to Nashville again.

Cincinnati Gazette – cir. 1862

It was reported that by the time the Idahoe made it back to Nashville, the ship’s stateroom had been badly damaged and the beds were badly soiled leading to a request for $1,000 in compensation for damages. It’s not known whether Newcomb ever got his money or not but what we do know is that Spalding’s ultimate solution was to legalize prostitution in Nashville so that licenses could be issued and medical supervision required. Girls paid $5.00 for a license and fifty cents to physicians to sign off on the licenses.

Thus making Nashville, Tennessee the first city in the United States to have legalized prostitution – not Las Vegas. Of course, in 1865 when the war was over and the unprincipled Northern occupiers gone, Nashville quickly left it’s restraints of martial law and did away with legalized prostitution.

While this early experiment in legalized prostitution may not have had lasting social repercussions for Nashville, it is possible that improved medical conditions in the dangerous profession delivered women like Emaline through the hardships of a horrible war. Emaline survived her time in Nashville to ultimately return to Smithville, where she lived out her days in the home of her son and there are generations of her family living today that have no earthly idea how or with whom they came to be born into this crazy world. But you know because of my crazy addiction to genealogical research.

Genesis 2.0

Everyone benefits from an obsession with family history. Maybe too bold a statement…? I can only speak from my own experiences but if you will allow me to explain my reasoning I think you will agree.

Had I, like many others, not followed my genealogical paths backward, I could never have better understood the whole of who I am in the way that I do now. Knowing what I know about all of the astonishing things that had to occur and all of the remarkable people who were able to survive along the way – all contributing their own DNA along the way, it has helped me to realize just how unique we all are but also amazingly true is how similar we are.

Genealogical research has a way of reverse-engineering our souls. It breaks us down piece by piece, and reveals an honesty about our pasts which is sometimes flattering and newsworthy and just as often ugly or immoral. For some, it can reveal a surprising or hidden truth, blurred by time, exaggerations, or even lies. For the majority of us, what little information we do learn from our ancestors only represents a tiny fraction of the story of us.

I vividly remember my paternal grandfather, Papaw White, telling me that we were Scotch-Irish and that I was named after Capt. John White of early American colonist fame – Roanoke/Croatoan story. I never doubted the Scotch-Irish ancestry but somehow I never really bought the Capt. John Smith story. A couple things just didn’t add up; the Captain was English and, most importantly, after returning from England to discover that his colony was lost, he returned to England and never returned to American soil.

My grandmother, however, shared her family history with me which has turned out to be pretty accurate, albeit scant in detail. She told me her family immigrated to the United States from Germany. What I later discovered was that they immigrated from a tiny hamlet called Mitschdorf, Alsace which is actually in France. Situated on the Rhine River bordering France, Switzerland and Germany, Alsace has a complicated history as it sits just below the traditional French customs border of the Vosages Mountains although the French territories stopped at the Rhine River – just beyond the tiny town of Mitschdorf. The people who inhabited that region were principally of German descent.

The German language and customs of the inhabitants of these French outskirts continued for centuries through the 17th and 18th centuries – including the time when my Neese family immigrated to the United States. Thirty year old Hans Michael Nehs, infant son Michael and his twenty seven year old wife Dorothea along with 266 other Palatines arrived in the port of Philadelphia, PA on 21 September, 1731, sailing on the ship Britannia having sailed across the Atlantic from Rotterdam, Holland. Soon after immigration the Nehs family, either through ignorance of the language or by choice, Americanized the surname to Neese and/or Neece and other similar variations which have since scattered themselves to and fro across the entire country.

So, my grandmother was actually pretty close right? You could say that but only if her story began or stopped right there – but it doesnt. Michael’s father and mother Mathias and Maria had just been living in Rusovce, Bratislava, Slovakia prior to moving to the Alsace region of France.

Cognizant to most of us family tree-climbers is that just four generations up the tree gives me no less than sixteen great grandparents. Another generation beyond that gives me thirty-two grandparents – another gives me sixty-four… each grandparent having his or her own distinct ancestry, some of it quite fascinating. Unfortunately, some is also lost forever to time and insignificance. Perhaps we should expend more energy while we’re alive with the goal of not being so insignificant.

Most of us associate our general lineage and ancestry by our last names. The truth is that you have hundreds of last names, some you’ve never heard about. If I push my ancestry out just ten generations beyond myself, I can personally verify 128 different surnames. This does not include incidences where the same last name repeats from other ancestors marrying cousins which occurs nearly a dozen times in that same ten-generation time span. There are also familial lines where I can’t YET go back ten generations.

Family Tree

I have found a wealth of new names, belonging to me, I’d never even heard before. Some of the oddest names in my lineage: Cazeneuve, Coggeshall and Erchtebrech. The Beaufort, Ragland, Marcell and Simpson are surname lines that I’ve researched heavily while the Pfeiffer, Koch, Emot and Lisbet lines are among the many still lying in wait for me to catch an interest. The gist of everything I’m writing here is that we are all so much more than the sum of two parts, even if you’ve not been formally introduced to the other parts.

While I grew up thinking I was just an average white guy with Scotch-Irish/German ancestry on my paternal side and maternal Welsh/English ancestry, I’ve since learned that I hail from Scandinavia, Spain, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, England, France, Italy, Turkey, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Greece, the Middle East, Hungary, Slovakia, Israel, and Belarus. My ancestors were Vikings, Jews, Knights Templar, Spanish conquistadors, American colonists, Native Americans, Revolutionary War soldiers and early American statesmen. They were Frankish kings and Welsh nobles and they were poor farmers, merchants, tin smiths and shoe cobblers.


What my ancestors have most in common with your ancestors is that they were all survivors. They are the survivors of numerous plagues, copious wars, inquisitions, witch trials, battlefield forays, and voyages across unknown and uncharted waters. They survived attacks from neighboring warlords, tribes, and villages. They fought off zealous religious groups, parried political unrest, returned from great world wars, defeated the Nazis, found something to eat under communist regimes, lived through indentured servitude and found freedom after generations of slavery. Our ancestors avoided the horns of Jericho and the plagues of Egypt. Had they not, you and I would not be having this conversation.


All of us are extremely lucky to even be here. There were far more opportunities for us to have never been born at all than for us to have ascended from whatever heaven and hell our people endured. If you look far enough and broad enough backward, sideways, and crossways, you’ll find a bit of both.

Since I know that I’m a Gaul, a Latin, an Etruscan, a Greek, a Celtic, a Briton, a Silurian, a Native American, a Jew, an Arab, a Spaniard, a Frank and a Viking, I can safely assume that other people living among me who are firm in their belief that I’m either a deplorable, infidel, heathen, left-winger or right-winger might also themselves be a great many things they never knew about.

Despite our differing features, sizes and shades of skin, we’re very much a homogeneous community of very blessed people of common origin and descent. Not the kind of homogeneity like Hitler envisioned but in the way that if you look deep enough, what you find is me. Hitler didn’t have the ability to know that he himself was a Jew – we, however, do. If we all choose to use our extremist obsessions to peel back the layers of our own ancestry instead of the flaws and faults of others who disagree with us, perhaps we could all realize that we are all many different things…things which would not qualify us to be the judge of all others. Said differently, if I’m an infidel, we’re all infidels; because I am you.


A Ship Called Censor – History Erased

In quiet observance of some of our latest pop-culture absurdities, I found some useful truisms in an old Longfellow Psalm that I decided to doctor up a little bit with some Chris’isms. The moral of the story is multifaceted. First: Although you may be hurting individually or even as a community, history is always going to have winners and losers. That doesn’t mean we should erase the history so you can feel better about yourself. History belongs to everyone. We and our children learn from history, both good and bad.

Second: Our good history is another’s bad history. What makes you proud, hurts another. What you run away from, other’s run to. If history is hurting you and not healing you, grow up – history cannot by itself hurt you, you are hurting you. If we are successful at erasing the history that hurts us most, we’re putting our children in danger of becoming secondary victims of lessons we’ve already learned – then summarily lost.

Lastly, if you cannot find one morsel of empathy or logic in another’s alternative ideology, you’re not thinking deep enough. Although I may not agree 100% with everyone I encounter, I seldom hear any opinion with which I cannot somewhat empathize. Don’t be afraid to prove yourself wrong. It’s liberating to be wrong sometimes.


Tell me not, in mournful mobs,

Lives of past are empty dreams,

For the soul is dead and there are odds,

That things may not be what they seem.


History is real! History is earnest!

And the grave is surely not the goal;

Dust thou art, to dust returnest,

And risk forget our histories toll.


Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,

Is our-destined end or way;

But to act, that each tomorrow

Find us farther than today.


Life is long, and Time is fleeting

And our hearts, though stout and brave,

Bull horns blaring, marches leading

Spray paint tags upon the grave.


In the world’s broad field of battle,

In the bivouac of our Life,

Be not dumb, like driven cattle!

Be a hero in the strife!


Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!

Let the dead Past bury its dead!

Dare not stray from living Present!

Heart within, and God o’erhead!


Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time;


Footprints, that perhaps another,

Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,

A Forlorn and shipwrecked brother,

Seeing, shall take heart again.


Men found great by time gone by,

May fall from favor, his deeds undressed,

Should we erase, exhume, untie;

History then becomes suppressed?


Lessons lost, apt be Repeated,

Our future yearns for all experience.

Selfishness prevails the child is cheated,

Insecurity manifests the devil’s deliverance.


Leave alone and let be the dead,

The shackles’ keys have long been lost.

Bronze and stone statues are tying threads,

And remind us of that fateful cost.


Change a name, tear down a marker,

Erase, redact, our right to censor.

Less enlightened – our world is darker.

Sympathy grows an incurable cancer.


Let, us then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labor, learn to wait.


Let your deeds be yours

And not the elimination of another’s.