Friday, January 20, 2017

Land Records, Tennessee Frontiersmen and Troublesome Wives

By Carol Roberts

Our newly-processed collection of Early Tennessee Land Records [Record Group 50] provides amazing details about Tennessee's people. From these land entries, surveys and transfers, we can gather clues about life during Tennessee's frontier days.

Land records were originally filed by their name and number in tri-folded format.

These records are the original documents that were turned into the land office in each territorial district within the state. They can tell us many interesting tidbits about personal histories, including the ones described below.

Original North Carolina land grants and surveys were folded together with cotton thread linking them usually with a seal.

Colvit, Brocus and Bean Washington County Orders of Transfer

This is a brief transaction that documents the business activities of early settlers and their travels through the South.

This is a typical order of transfer from one land owner, William Colvit, to another, Russell Bean. What's unusual is that it is signed and witnessed in Natchez, Mississippi - not in Tennessee - in March 1798. Three former Washington County residents (or landowners) William Brocus, William Colvit and John Colvit, send similar land transfers by Bean back to Washington County between March 1797 and March 1798.

William Colvit's Transfer for land grant #37 (400 acres) that he received in 1778 and transferred to Russel Bean in March 1798.

We know that Revolutionary Soldiers were paid in land, because land had more value than cash money well into the mid-1800s. The Colvit and Brocus families left valuable land along the Holston River in Washington County when they migrated to Spanish Mississippi Territory. They transferred it to Bean to have it surveyed or sold later. The Colvit and Brocus families became residents of Mississippi as that territory expanded and was transferred from Spain to the United States.

Bean was a well-known character of the Tennessee frontier. He was thought to be the first child born in the Watauga Settlements in 1769. He became a deputy sheriff of Washington County, a soldier in War of 1812 and a blacksmith.

Bean was involved in many pursuits, including travel to Mississippi and New Orleans to transact business. One 1797 trip to Natchez was at request of Col. David Henley of Washington County militia. It involved transporting raw bar iron from the Washington County area ironworks. Bean also decided to transact personal business on the side, transferring land and selling metal parts for guns and knives prepared in his blacksmith’s shop. While in New Orleans, Bean lingered in the city to enjoy cockfighting, horse racing, drinking and gambling.

Based on the dates, these orders of transfer were created during this trip. When he returned to Washington County, Bean submitted request for surveys and the entry taker’s posting of the land description. The following pages are of the entry taker's survey book of Colvit’s land, which became Bean's.

Russell Bean's request for land survey (August 15, 1799) of #37 in the bound volumes of John Carter's East Tennessee Land Office.

Bean completed this 400-acre survey request in August of 1799. This particular survey was approved by John Carter. Some of the other Colvit and Brocus 1797 orders of transfer were more complicated. Some were marked invalid by Carter because portions of the land had already been surveyed and transferred to John Sevier, Jr.

Bean took several years to complete the Washington County transfers. After his first trip to Natchez, he returned home to Jonesborough to discover that his wife Rosamond had given birth to a child. Bean thought the child was too young to be his, given his absence during his travels. So, in a drunken state, Bean cut the child’s ears off “in order to not get it mixed up with his children.” To avoid prosecution for this assault, Bean hurried away to Natchez on business again.

He later returned to Jonesborough to settle some of his land business. When he resisted Andrew Jackson's efforts to bring him to court in 1803 over the incident with the child, Jackson famously responded: “By the Eternal, I’ll bring him in.”

The Colvits were not without controversy in Natchez, either. William Colvit also struggled with his relationship with his wife, Phoebe Crawford Colvit, also from Jonesborough. Between 1796 and 1803, Phoebe Colvit sued William Colvit in the Spanish-style court system of Natchez for divorce and support of her sons. She had more legal rights under Spanish law than she would have had in Tennessee, where land possession was always in the husband’s name. Phoebe Colvit received a Natchez town lot in the settlement as well as other personal property. Colvit family tradition and records seem to confirm that this divorce was the first in Mississippi Territory. 

Did the Colvits have to sell their Tennessee property to live in Mississippi to resolve divorce and other legal entanglements? Did Bean have to divest himself of the Colvit land in Washington County to help pay court fines or support his former wife, Rosamond, and his children? Who knows for sure, but they left clues behind in the land records of Tennessee. To learn more, you may search our finding aid to the collection: Early Tennessee Land Records, 1773-1922.

To read more about Russell Bean see:

  • “Russell Bean, Tennessee’s First Native Son,” By Paul Fink. East Tennessee Historical Society. Publications. Knoxville, Tenn., The Society, 1965. 25 cm. v. 37, p. 31-48. Call Number: F442.1 .E14

  • William Bean, Pioneer of Tennessee, and His Descendants, by Jamie Ault Grady, Knoxville, Tenn: Grady, 1973. Call Number CS71: .B39 1973

To read more about the Colvit family:

  • The Natchez Court Records, 1767-1805 : abstracts of early records, by McBee, May Wilson. Greenwood, Miss. : M. W. McBee, c1953. Call Number: F341 .M28 Copy 1 [Google Books]

  • Joseph Calvitt and His Family in Mississippi. [Available online] See: “William Calvitt and Trouble with Wives Appendix 3.”

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

1 comment:

  1. Why would you entitle this including "Troublesome Women" for the lead? It appears that the women in these documents were seeking justice, not causing trouble. Yes, it was trouble for the men but not that the women were causing the trouble. This is misleading and a poor choice of words.