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Author shares the beginning of a town

Long before the 1847 courthouse, above, was built, the town of Jonesborough sprang to life on the Tennessee frontier.


Jonesborough Town Historian

(Editor’s Note: This is third in a series of articles containing a “History of Jonesboro and Surrounding Sections” written by Miriam Fink Dulaney.)

In the grim business of war, and under the spur of As regards the date of the first settlement of Jonesboro, history seems to be silent.  In all probability, the existence of the town dates almost to the Watauga Association in 1772. In 1779, the Legislature of North Carolina determined boundary lines and established Jonesboro as the county seat of Washington County.

It was named in honor of Willie Jones of Halifax, North Carolina, a distinguished patriot, who had proven himself to be an interested friend to the people of the western country.  The struggling little village planted among the wooded hills during the dark and uncertain days of the Revolution, has been the scene of many stirring events and thrilling incidents of the state’s history. Thru [through] the streets of the newly christened town, [John} Sevier’s troops marched to the rendezvous at Sycamore Shoals, later crossing the range to take part in the battle of King’s Mountain in 1780. It is said that the first lot sold, was bought by Robert Sevier.

“Mention of Jonesboro is found in several of the journals kept by early travelers in this section. Bishop Frances Asbury, an English Methodist missionary, gives this record — April 2, 1793: “Our conference began at Nelson’s near Jonesborough, in the new territory. We have only four or five families of Methodists here. We had sweet peace in our conference.” 

“This was the first annual Methodist conference held in Tennessee. The home of William Nelson which was mentioned, was on a ridge northwest of Johnson City.

Andre Michaux, a French botanist and diplomat, made two journeys thru [through] Jonesboro. On his way from Morganton, North Carolina to points west, we find this entry in his diary — May 15, 1795: “The 15th, passed Jonesboroug (sic), 10 miles from Colonel Tipton’s dwelling and 84 miles from Burke Court House. Slept at the house of Anthony Moore near Noleychuckey (sic) river.  During the night my horse strayed away.” 

“Again, on another visit to this section, the following entry is found — March 19, 1796: “Passed by Johnsborough (sic), 25 miles from Green.” (Greeneville).  “Several merchants are established in Johnsborough (sic) who obtain their goods from Philadelphia by land.”

A few years later, two Moravian missionarys, Brethren Abraham Steiner and Frederick C. De Schweinitz made a journey to the back country to promote their gospel among the heathen – the ‘heathen’ in this section being the Cherokee Indians. They traveled from Abingdon, Virginia down the great Watauga road, which in after times became ‘the Jonesborough road.’  This famous thoroughfare was part of the main stage coach line between Washington, D.C. and Nashville. 

An interesting account is given in their report.  — Nov. 3, 1799: “On the 3rd, as this was Sunday, we rejoiced that we could be remembered in the intercessions of the congregation in behalf of those who travel.  This morning we crossed the Wataga (sic), a main tributary of the Holston. As it flows very swiftly and has a deep ford [DeVault’s Ford, near Austin Springs], we were glad that a German who has land here and is well acquainted with the ford took us through.

“Ten miles from Wataga (sic) we came to Jonesborough and into the region of Nolachucky. The land here about is very good and fertile and mostly level.  Here, also, the culture of cotton begins again. Much maple sugar is boiled by the families in this region, in qualities of 1000 lbs. Now the price is 16½ cents per pound, but in spring the traders buy it for 12 ½ cents the pound. 

“The weather hitherto has been so warm that the foliage of most oaks and locusts, even of chestnuts, was still quite green.

“Jonesborough consists of one long street, has nearly 30 houses and is growing, as are all the towns of the back country.  The innkeeper with whom we stopped, looks after an apothecary’s shop as well as the inn.” The innkeeper at that time was Dr. Williams P. Chester of Carlisle, PA.  He was the first learned physician in this section and was the family doctor of John Sevier.  The inn is still standing, probably one of the oldest buildings left in Jonesboro – a monument to its historic past.”

But to continue with the journal – “Ten miles from here in Greene County begins, where this afternoon we came to an entirely new place, Leesburg, or New Washington, which for the short time of its existence, is not insignificant.” About the beginning of the entry, there was some discussion as to changing the county seat of Washington from Jonesboro to Leesburg, but after bitter debates it was decided that the old site be retained.

Some of the buildings of that era are still standing.  Of particular interest is the old tavern, now occupied by Mr. F. R. Devault. One may still see the wings where stage coaches backed into the yard under cover, so that passengers in alighting, might be protected from inclement weather.

When people live together, there must be law and provision for the execution of that law and punishment of offenders. At the November term of court, 1784, probably held in some log cabin near Jonesboro, the following record was made: – “The Court recommend that there be a Court House built in the following manner, to wit: 24 feet square diamond corners and hewed down after the same is built up, 9 feet high between two floors and the body of the house 4 feet high above the upper floor, each floor to be neatly laid with plank.  The roof to be of joint shingles neatly hung on with pegs, a Justices bench, a lawyer’s and a Clerks bar, also a Sheriffs box to sit in.” 

Exactly a year later, another entry was made – “the Court Ordered that Col. Charles Roberson be allowed fifty pounds Current money for the building of the Court House in the Town of JonesBorough.”  In such a manner was the first seat of justice established west of the Alleghenies.

Early court records prove that the people in their legal relations with one another often resorted to the most cruel methods of punishment.  For instance, in the August term of court, 1790, at Jonesboro, a man by the name of Elias Pybourne was arraigned for horse stealing.  The record is thus: – “The defendant being called to the bar and asked if he had anything to say why the sentence should not be passed upon Saith Nothing.  It is therefore Odered that said Elias Pybourne be confined in the publick Pillory one Hour.  That he have both his ears nailed to the Pillory and severed from his Head; That he receive at the publick whipping post thirty-nine lashes well laid on; and be branded on the Right check with the Letter H. and on the left cheek with the letter T. and that the Sheriff of Washington County put this sentence in execution between the hours of Twelve and Two this day.”

However, the sheriff rebelled at this terrible punishment and refused to execute the command of the court.  He, too, was brought to trial and convicted for non-performance of duty.

   (To Be Continued with a story about Andrew Jackson “our” president.)