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County archivist explains importance of first deed book


The Washington County Commission, Archivist Ned Irwin and local media in recent days have asked the State of Tennessee to return Book A of its archival records to Jonesborough. What is all the fuss about? For some answers, the Herald & Tribune asked Archivist Irwin about the book. The H&T’s questions and Irwin’s answers follow:

 l. What is Book A?

It is the first deed book for Washington County. The first part of this volume (pages 1-178) was sent to Nashville in 1897 as part of Washington County’s exhibit at Tennessee’s centennial celebration. The second part of the volume (pages 179-320) never went to Nashville and remains bound in Deed Book 1 in the Register of Deeds office at the courthouse in Jonesborough.

2.  Does it have another name?

The Tennessee State Library and Archives has mislabeled the volume as the “Watauga Purchase” book because the first entry in the deed book was the indenture (or deed) made by the settlers with the Cherokee chiefs for the land they were then living on.

3.  Why is it important?  What is its historical significance?

It is significant because the volume records the earliest land transactions in Washington County and what eventually Tennessee became. For anyone doing a title search for a clear and legal claim to their property in the area, it is important to be able to trace the change in land ownership back to its beginning in the 1770s, 20 years before Tennessee became a state. For historians, the volume provides evidence of land settlement patterns and information on who was living in this area in the earliest frontier days. For genealogists, the book provides information on their early ancestors living on the frontier.

4.  Why was it sent to Nashville?

It was sent on loan to be part of Washington County’s exhibit for the Tennessee State Centennial celebration held there in 1897. For whatever reason, it never returned to Jonesborough.

5.  Who is in possession of the book at the present time?

Deed Book A is presently housed at the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville.

6.  What are the dates of the documents in the book?

The portion of Deed Book A that is now in Nashville covers the period, 1775-1782. Land records in the combined volume cover the period from 1775-1788 in total. 

7.  Who wrote the book and who had custody of the book while it was in Jonesborough?

The present Deed Book A is a copy made probably in the 1830s by the clerk in Jonesborough of the original volume from the 1770s. This copy was then checked and verified by Nathan Shipley, County Surveyor for Washington County and a justice of the peace. The original volume is lost to history. My guess is that the original volume was in such poor shape by this time that it was discarded once the copy was completed and verified as being an accurate transcription of the original.

8.  What efforts to obtain the book have been made to date?  When did the effort begin?

I know Mary Hardin McCown attempted in the 1970s to have the book returned by the TSLA but was unsuccessful. We began the current effort in the autumn of 2019.

9.  What has been the State of Tennessee’s response to the request?

The Tennessee State Library and Archives believes that the book is a state record and should remain in Nashville. We disagree and believe it is a county record.

10.  What is your opinion on why the original should be stored and included in the records of Washington County? Where would it be stored if obtained from the State of Tennessee?

There are many reasons we feel this is a Washington County document. I will just mention a few. The original deed book was created and maintained in Washington County 20 years before Tennessee was even a state. This is verified by the Tennessee State Library and Archive’s own website commentary on the volume. So, it could not be a state record when the state of Tennessee did not even exist at the time of its’ creation. It was a Washington County record. Likewise, the copy made in the 1830s (which is the volume in dispute) was also created and maintained at the courthouse in Jonesborough until being loaned for the state centennial exhibit in 1897. Any argument by the TSLA that the volume in question was created at an earlier date than we state and was housed at the state capitol rather than Jonesborough prior to 1897 is disproven by noted Tennessee historian J. G. M. Ramsey, who mentions in his Annals of Tennessee (1853) using the book at the courthouse in Jonesborough while conducting research for that book.

11.  Have any of the documents in Book A been transcribed? Do you know where any of the transcriptions of the documents are?

Deed Book A has not been transcribed or published. The state library has made a digital copy of the volume, which can be found at their website.

12.  Do you have any knowledge of the names of some of Tennessee’s pioneers who are mentioned in the documents in the book?  What are the names you know about?

Mrs. McCown complied an index to the volume in 1976. We have a copy of this in the archives. It contains the names of many of the individuals living in Washington County and the surrounding area in the 1770s and 1780s. Just a few of the prominent figures listed include John Sevier, Charles Robertson, James Robertson, Jacob Brown, Christopher Taylor, William Bean, the Cherokee chiefs Oconastota and Attakullakulla, among others.