Contributed by Mary Sue Going
Jonesborough, the oldest town in Tennessee and the county seat of Washington County, sparks the interest of both casual visitors and serious historians. A brief walk down Main Street reveals the age and great architectural variety of the town. A perusal of the records in Jonesborough’s courthouse opens the door to over two hundred years of history, introduces prominent persons who have walked its streets, and reveals the names of its pioneers.
Major Jesse Walton, a Revolutionary War soldier, has never been accorded the acclaim he merits as the founder of Jonesborough. He was the Commandant of Fort Williams near Brownsborough about 1776; in 1777, he bought a plantation on the Nolichucky River near that fort. By 1778, Walton was made a justice of the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions in Washington County, was elected to the House of Commons in North Carolina, and was appointed to administer the confiscated estates of Tories. That same year he was appointed to a committee to lay out plans for a courthouse, prison, and stocks. In January 1779, as a member of the North Carolina Legislature at Halifax, Walton introduced a bill to lay out a town in Washington County to be called Jonesborough in honor of Willie Jones, a North Carolinian who had promoted the interests of the overmountain settlers. The bill named Jesse Walton, John Woods, George Russell, James Stuart, and Benjamin Clark as commissioners to lay out the town and direct building, to number lots, take subscriptions for them, and provide for a fair and Honest drawing for the lots purchased.
John Gilliland was employed to survey a one hundred acre tract on Little Limestone Creek, specify sites for town buildings, and identify at least fifty lots. The land, part of a 600-acre grant, had formerly belonged to David Hughes and was located about midway between the Watauga and Nolichucky settlements. Why a hilly area with few level building sites was chosen is not known, but the number of springs in the tract was probably an important factor.
The price of a lot was $75.00, with the proceeds to be used for the benefit of the town. Each lot owner was required to build within three years a well-framed, brick or stone house, sixteen by twenty feet and ten feet high, with a brick or stone chimney. Failure to build within the allotted time would result in forfeiture of the lot. Well-framed was interpreted as “of logs” until such time as saw mills could be erected to provide boards. A listing of 1781 shows the following subscribers and the number of lots which each subscribed: Robert Sevier 1; Major Reynolds 3; David Hughes 2; Nathaniel Evans 1; Martin Maney 4; James Allison 8; Peter McClune 2; John Allison 2; Jesse Rounds 2; Captain Stephen Cole 2; Captain Charles Holloway 2; Wiliam Noddy 1; James Ray 1; Richard Minton 2; Colonel Andrew Belford 4; James Reese 4; Spruce McCay 2; John Young 1; John Woods 2; James Lacky 2; John Gilliland 2; James Stuart 10; and Jessee Walton 9. Before 1784 a log courthouse had been erected and it is assumed that buildings had been erected by that time by all lot owners.
Commissioners for Jonesborough, whether appointed by North Carolina, the Territory South of the River Ohio, or by Washington County, had little authority, except to collect taxes, lay off and sell lots, and erect public buildings. In 1803 the commissioners purchased, for $30.00, a small tract near east Main Street about one-fourth mile from the courthouse to be used as a cemetery for Jonesborough. In 1844, this tract was in possession of Trustees Seth J.W. Lucky, William G. Gammon, and James Brown; they purchased about two acres surrounding the cemetery for use as additional cemetery space. Since that time the cemetery has been the responsibility of a self-perpetuating board of trustees. A larger cemetery, Maple Lawn, located near the Highway 11-E Bypass, was founded in 1899.
Jonesborough had no charter until 1815. The town conducted business under the original charter until it was repealed in 1879; the repeal was apparently made to take advantage of a state law which forbade selling intoxicating beverages within four miles of an incorporated institution of learning. The county managed the town until a new charter was granted in 1903; this charter, which provides for government by a board consisting of a mayor and four aldermen, each to be elected every two years, is still in effect. The mayors of Jonesborough since 1910 are as follows: Niles A. Warlick, 1910-1912; W.P. Shipley, 1912-1914; A.S. Murray, 1914-1918; W.E. May, 1914-1920; Wright L. Hoss, 1920-1922; W.S. Hickey, 1922-1923; J.T. Whitlock, 1923-1932; W.M. Lee, 1932-1934; Colonel T.B. Hacker 1934-1936; Robert M. May, 1936-1950; Will H. Clarke, 1950-1952; Robert M. May, 1952-1966; Lyle T. Haws, 1966-1972; R.N. Runion, 1972-1974; Addie Harvey, 1974-1976; Grace Haws, 1976-1978; Jimmy Neil Smith, 1978-1984; Tommy Dillow, 1984-1987; Kevin B. McKinney, 1987-.
Early in the summer of 1784 the citizens of this tiny frontier community were greatly disturbed by the news that North Carolina had ceded all of its overmountain territory, which included present-day East Tennessee, to the Federal Government. This left Washington County, and Jonesborough, in limbo; its officials no longer had authority to issue deeds or marriage licenses, make arrests, try court cases, or collect taxes. Immediately, local leaders met in Jonesborough to discuss plans for some kind of government. A second meeting held in December 1784 resulted in the adoption of a constitution for a new state, to be called Franklin. The delegates to this December meeting had not yet heard that North Carolina had repealed its Act of Cession.
For the next four years Jonesborough was the center of feuding and skirmishing between loyalists to North Carolina, led by John Tipton, and the Franklinites, led by John Sevier. Both factions tried to control the area, collect taxes and obtain custody of the court records. In 1788 John Tipton managed to secure the confiscation of some of Sevier’s slaves to satisfy unpaid taxes to North Carolina. Sevier led a group to Tipton’s home (located in the southeastern section of present-day Johnson City) and shots were fired; however, reinforcements arrived for Tipton and the Franklinites retreated. Although that skirmish marked the demise of the State of Franklin, John Tipton, a bitter enemy of John Sevier, had Sevier handcuffed in Jonesborough and taken to North Carolina for trial. Sevier escaped, and no further action was taken. Within two years, North Carolina again ceded its overmountain lands, and Jonesborough came under the jurisdiction of the Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio.
In 1788, Andrew Jackson came to Jonesborough from Salisbury, North Carolina and was licensed to practice law by the Washington County Court. During his stay in Jonesborough, Jackson lived in the home of Christopher Taylor, located about two miles west of town. In 1798, Jackson was elected as one of three judges of the Superior Court of Law and Equity, which met in Nashville, Knoxville, and Jonesborough. During his years as Superior Court Judge, Jackson spent much of his time in Jonesborough.
By 1802, Jonesborough had about one hundred and fifty wooden houses located on both sides of its main road or street. It boasted a newspaper issued twice a week and four or five general stores. Thomas Lenoir, traveling from North Carolina to Tennessee in 1806, described Jonesborough in his journal as “a shackling little place between two hills which hide the town until you get on it almost.” Thirty years later the town had about 500 inhabitants, which included two ministers, four physicians and eleven lawyers. The seemingly disproportionate number of lawyers may have been due to the need for assistance in making land transactions, resolving boundary disputes, and defending settlers and transients accused of horse-stealing or assault. In the growing town, many kinds of skilled craftsmen were needed. By 1834, Jonesborough had several carpenters, cabinet makers, bricklayers, blacksmiths, tanners, and wagonmakers.
The first businesses in Jonesborough were probably grist mills. From the very beginning, enterprising citizens set up stores, shops, and taverns. In 1783, David Deaderick set up the town’s first general store at the corner of Main and Cherokee Streets. Soon after 1790, Samuel and Nathaniel Cowan, as well as John and Robert Allen set up general stores. Several kinds of shops appeared. William Bean, a skillful gunsmith and silversmith, had a shop in or near town. Blacksmith shops, tanneries, saw mills, tailor shops, and saddle-and-harness shops were soon in operation. As early as 1779, Robert Sevier obtained a license to operate a tavern in Jonesborough, and in 1781 Robert Minton and James Allison obtained a similar license.
Store owners accepted local produce in trade or bought it for shipment to northern cities. Hides, feathers, furs, dried fruit, salted meat, grain, beeswax and flax were in demand. Perishable items were not wanted by merchants since they could not be transported to northern markets without spoiling. Supplies for stores had to be hauled by two-horse or four-horse wagons from Richmond, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. In 1801, it cost over sixty four pounds to haul three thousand pounds of goods from Philadelphia to Jonesborough. Costs for this transport greatly increased the retail price of goods; however, imported goods were a necessity, since Jonesborough was a growing town on the main road between northern cities and towns to the south and west. It was a center for supplying the needs of local residents, as well as the needs of the many families passing through the town to seek homesites on a newer frontier. Consequently, the stores were stocked with cloth, sugar, spices, clothing, leather goods, cutlery, axes, saws, small tools, china, hats, salt, pewter vessels, medicines, and other items that were not yet produced locally.
Beginning about 1820, brick buildings began to replace log structures and wooden frame buildings. New houses, churches, and public buildings were made of brick, including the courthouse. Among the fine brick homes built during this period and still in use are: the Mansion House, built as an inn about 1850 by John W. Simpson; the house of Dr. S.B. Cunningham, physician and railroad president, built about 1840; sisters Row, built by Samuel D. Jackson in 1820 for his three daughters; the house built by George Willett about 1840, located on South Cherokee Street beside the Little Limestone Creek; Febuary Hill, probably built by Congressman John Blair about 1832, later owned by the Febuary family; the Jacob Naff house and tailor shop, located on Main Street near Boone Street; and many others. The Chester Inn, a wooden structure built in 1797 by Dr. William P. Chester, served many years as the town’s best inn. It was the stopping place for three U.S. Presidents – Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and Andrew Johnson. In 1987 the State of Tennessee purchased the Chester Inn as a historic structure; it is now the headquarters of the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling.
Photography came to Jonesborough very early. In 1847, L.W. Keen opened a photographic studio in town, remaining in business until 1900.
Before the Civil War, Jonesborough schools were subscription schools and private schools called academies or institutes. Among them were Martin Academy, the Jonesborough Female Academy, the Odd Fellows Female High School, and the Holston Baptist Female Institute. Schools came to a halt during the Civil War. Soon after the war, Colonel R.H. Dungan bought the building of the Holston Baptist Female Institute and used the building for a Holston Male Institute. In 1875 he sold the building to the Society of Friends (Quakers), which conducted a school there for freed slaves for over ten years. Private schools were closed as soon as public schools were established. In the 1930’s Jonesborough reached an agreement with Washington County to permit pupils of the town to attend county schools, relieving Jonesborough of the expense of operating a school system.
The earliest churches established in Jonesborough were Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, and Christian, in that order. The congregation of Hebron Presbyterian Church moved from Knob Creek in 1816 to a site on Main Street between Washington Drive and Second Avenue; in 1847-1850 the congregation erected the presently used building near Chester Inn. The Methodists erected their first church at the corner of Fox and Main Streets, building on the site of the present church in 1847. The first Baptist Church was erected on Spring Street at Lincoln Avenue in 1843; the congregation built the presently used First Baptist Church at the corner of Boone and Main Streets, in 1849. The Central Christian Church was built on South Cherokee Street in 1889; the congregation moved to the present location at the corner of of Main and Fox streets between 1945 and 1950. It purchased this church building from the Presbyterian Church USA, which had moved to another location. There are currently thirteen churches in Jonesborough, including one Methodist, one Presbyterian, one Brethren, two Churches of Christ, two Christian Churches and six Baptist Churches.
The first post office in Jonesborough was established in 1796 with John Waddell, Jr. as postmaster. Since then, Jonesborough has had thirty-four postmasters, with Richard Knight now (1988) serving as postmaster. For many years, mail was carried by stagecoaches; an early mailbag made of wood and holding only about a dozen letters can still be seen at a local stagecoach shop, the DeVault Tavern in Leesburg. When Rural Free Delivery began in 1900, rural mail routes emanating from Jonesborough caused the closing of a number of small post offices in local communities.
Jonesborough merits recognition for the number of newspapers published there during the 19th Century. Included among about twenty were The Emancipator, the first newspaper in America devoted entirely to the manumission of slaves, ant the Whig, political mouthpiece of William G. Brownlow (who later became a United States Senator and Reconstruction governor of Tennessee). After the Civil War, the Union Flag, edited by George Gresham, served as the local newspaper until its demise in 1869. The Herald and Tribune, now Jonesborough’s only newspaper, has been published since 1869. An arithmetic text book by Abijah and Josiah Fowler was printed in 1833 in Jonesborough.
Jonesborough has had its share of disasters. The cholera epidemic of 1873 wiped out about one-fourth of the town’s inhabitants. A fire in 1803 gave Andrew Jackson the opportunity to act as fire chief by directing that wet quilts be placed on shingled roofs near the fire and by setting up a bucket brigade. Between 1854 and 1887, there were at least four major fires, each consuming about a block on or near Main Street. The town had no firefighting equipment until 1887, when it purchased a small hand-powered pump, a hose reel, and a ladder wagon.
During the 1850’s, the following businesses were in Jonesborough: W.P. Brewer, A.G. Mason, and J.C. Aiken, blacksmiths; Addison Smith and Mordecai Price, brickmasons; Hosea Henshaw and Jerry Boyd, cabinetmakers; Hyter Pritchett, Joshua Sherfy, Martin Fleming and Joseph Marshall, carpenters; Dr. Joseph Rhea, dentist; William Landreth, J.C. Perry, D.J. Gibson and J.O. Dillworth, druggists; John Green and Daniel Salts, millers; L.W. Keen, photographer; Samuel Greer and Lawson Gifford, printers; J.A. McCorkle and James Brown, saddlers; Joel Butler and Tom Burton, saloon keepers; J.D. Estes, David Reese and Jesse Mathes, shoemakers; John Butler and Robert Mathes, stonemasons; W.D. Slemmons and Mike Clem, tanners. There were many other businesses operating in and around Jonesborough prior to the Civil War.
In 1872, Jonesborough was described by one of its residents, J.H. Morrison: “A hotel was just across the railroad tracks from the depot. The earth had been filled in on the north side of the tracks with a walk way of boards running back west to the first street, where one could turn and go down town across the creek to Main Street. A stone wall had been built along the lower side of the walk way, with a sheer drop of from five to eight feet down into the meadow below.” “On one corner of Main Street, coming into town from the south from the depot was Cox’s Store; right next to him J.C.H. Smith had a store. Across the side street from the courthouse Dillworth had a drug store.”
In 1913, Jonesborough had a “Homecoming” to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone of the new Washington County Courthouse. Several thousand persons from all across the United States attended. In 1930, Jonesborough celebrated its sesquicentennial with a series of parades, exhibits and public speeches.
About 1968, Jonesborough took steps to restore and preserve its historic appearance. It defined a Historic Zone, identified seventy two historic structures, and appointed a committee to make recommendations on proposed building and on any changes to be made affecting the Historic Zone. The log home of Christopher Taylor, where Andrew Jackson stayed in 1788 while serving as District Attorney for North Carolina, was moved from its original site about one mile west of town to a site beside the Chester Inn. Among other changes, concrete sidewalks were replaced by brick on parts of Main Street. Jonesborough was the first Historic District in Tennessee to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
To attract tourists, Jonesborough began to emphasize its past by distributing brochures, furnishing information for feature articles to newspapers and magazines, arranging for tours of historic homes, and hosting various celebrations and events throughout the year. In the early 1980’s, a new Visitor’s Center and History Museum were constructed. Historic Jonesborough Days, an extremely popular event that attracts many thousands of local persons and out-of-state visitors, is held annually in early July. This event has been ranked as one of the top twenty events in the Southeastern United States for the month of July. The National Storytelling Festival held in Jonesborough each October, also draws thousands of visitors and in the past has focused nationwide attention on the town.. Records at the Jonesborough Visitor’s Center show that efforts have been successful, with from 2,000 to 4,000 visitors registering there each month. At the present time, Jonesborough has about 3,000 citizens.