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.