The Heritage of Daniel Haston


Legends & Stories of White County, TN
By Coral Williams
Chapter I     Names of Places in White County

            This chapter will give legends centering around the naming of certain places in White
County. It will not be the purpose of this study to tell how the name of every place in the county came into existence but to give traditions that center around definite places.

            As in other sections of the Cumberland and Mountains, there are place-names that are descriptive of the place and its surroundings; such as Dug Hill, White Oak Flat, and Hickory Valley, but no attempt has been made to mention these in this study. Again personal names are applied to localities symbolized in Golden Mountain, Officer Cove, Sullivan Hill, and Floyd Branch. The names of such paces are not included unless there was special interest in the person or a particular reason for naming the place after a character.


            White County was formed from a part of Smith County by an act of the Legislature on September 12, 1806. There are three legends as to how White County got its name. Accounting to Mr. Cisco1 in an article for the Nashville American, White County was named in honor of Hugh Lawson White, jurist and statesman, who was born in Iredell County, North Carolina. It is improbable that the county was named for Hugh L. White, for he was at that time an obscure young man, living in another section of the state. Another legend says that the county was named for John White2, a citizen of the territory at the time. He had been a soldier of the Revolution and had been one of the first settlers in what is now known as Hickory Valley. Little is now known of his life and character or why the county should have been named for him. The third, found in Expositor, 1902, says that White County was named for General James White. Judge James White as the father of Hugh Lawson White.


            The first county seat was at the house of Joseph Terry, the present site of Rock Island.3 The 1809 the Legislature passed an act to establish a permanent seat of justice for White County. A commission was appointed, and the present tow of Sparta was laid off. The name Sparta4 was given to the settlement after Sparta in Greece because both were located on small rivers.

            Some years after the settlement of Sparta, there was an election held in the state legislature to select a permanent capital for the state. Many of the towns in East and Middle Tennessee were voted on. When it cam to the vote between Nashville and Sparta, that vote failed to be put on the House Journal. The legend goes that Sparta lacked only one vote of receiving enough to make it a capital, and that vote was sold for a drink of whiskey. Sam Turney at that time represented White County as senator and he worked for Sparta. The representative from White County was John Dearing, who, in the election, voted for Nashville. It is uncertain what influenced him to vote thus as it would be reasonable to expect one in that position to vote according to the wishes of his people and also for his home town. He has ever since been criticized for his action then.5


            When the white settlers first crossed the mountains and came into what is now White County, they found a small tribe of Cherokee Indians living in the little valley. This Indian chief, with his band of marauders, made frequent raids upon the young and tender cattle of the pioneers. Because he lived on the bank of the river, it became the custom to refer to the stream as Calfkiller’s river which later became Calf Killer River.

            Another tradition assigns another reason for this name. The Calf Killer is a very cold stream even now. In the early days before dams were built it was much swifter and colder. According to this tradition, young and tender cattle belonging to the settlers repeatedly waded out into the water and soon became numb from the cold and hence were carried into the current and drowned. Hence the name Calf Killer was given to the waters.6

            The third story says that a man was driving a large herd of cattle across the river near its head, when they suddenly became frightened and bolted into the stream. The whole drove was drawn into a large suck-hole and lost. The river thus became Calf Killer.


            Peeled Chestnut was given its name in the following manner:

          In the year 1785 a road was opened through the territory which is now Tennessee – from the Clinch River to Nashville, by an act of the North Caroline Legislature. Several military posts were established along this line for the intimidation of the Indians and for convenience of the settlers, who used the road for the purpose of reaching their homes, and of traffic with the eastern settlements.

         John Thompson settled midway between two of these posts and built a log house – proof against the rifle-ball of the Red Man, and which became a welcome stopping place for the immigrants, and at which the teamster could get a well cooked meal and spend a pleasant night after a day of toil and watchfulness along this primitive road. Thompson’s family consisted of himself and wife, several sturdy sons, and an adopted daughter May, whose parents had been killed by the Indians. Mary Walton was but five years old when she found her name parents. The gloom of her bereavements hung, for a time, around here; but she learned to love her kind protectors.

          Mary was eighteen years old when Pedro Williams first stopped at Thompson’s. Pedro was a Spaniard whose father had been killed by the settlers of Nashville in a raid upon an Indian village. Pedro, then only three or four years old, was taken care of by a Mr. Williams. He grew up in the frontier town of Nashville; and, when grown, became a teamster – making trips to the eastern settlements of what had now become the new state of Tennessee.

          Still John Thompson looked on him with distrust, for the Spaniards claimed this territory and often incited the Indians to make raids upon the settlers.

          Pedro fell in love with the dark haired, rose cheeked young girl who glided about preparing the meals and providing for the comfort of the tired teamsters, and her heart went out to the young Spaniard. She saw in him – not the sinister characteristics of his intriguing race, as seen by her foster father – but his own noble qualities. He stopped many times at Thompson’s; each time becoming more and more infatuated with the lovely girl who made his stay so pleasant and winning from her his assurance that she would be willing to become his wife. But alas! on leaning of their plans, Mr. Thompson objected and told her she should not marry a Spaniard.

          One Sunday soon after a party of teamsters had stopped at Thompson’s, Pedro was one of them. He and Mary took a walk to the "Blue Spring" – a spring so deep that the limpid water takes on an azure hue, and from which a stream descends by gentle cascades to a deep ravine and swells the waters of the Caney Fork. Seated, at Mary’s request, by the side of one of these cascades, she told him of Mr. Thompson’s objectives to their marriage; and that, though she loved him truly, she felt that she should respect the wishes of her foster father. The brave girl hid her sorrow but her lover was almost frantic. The muttering thunder now caused them to hasten homeward; but they had only reached the top of the hill when the storm broke upon them, causing them to take shelter under the leafy boughs of a great chestnut tree at the roadside. Here Pedro continued to plead with her to become his wife. "Be my own. They do not love you like I do. Start with me tonight to Nashville."

          But Mary replied, "It is impossible. This must be our last talk. Pedro, I know that you love me and I love you; but we must part. I would rather die than be undutiful to those who have been the kindest of parents to me."

          "Then would to God I could die with you!" exclaimed Petrol. "But hark! What is that awful sound?"

          An hour later the clouds have cleared away and the last rays of the setting sun illumine the sky and cause the dripping leaves to sparkle. The teamsters wander forth, little thinking what they shall find. They come to the top of the hill, and there they find the old chestnut tree with its top torn to splinters and its trunk stripped of its bark; and there, on the damp reeking earth at the foot of the old tree, they found, side by side, the forms of the two lovers, cold in death. And this, I am told, is why the little village clustered round is, today, called "Peeled Chestnut."

(W. B. Johnson manuscript send by Mrs. Belle Steward.)

            Mr. R. I. Hutchings gives his version of the naming of Peeled Chestnut in this manner:

         There was a thickly settled place out in the country which had neither school, church, nor mail route. The people were very dissatisfied and began work to build up their community. Soon they had a church, school, and mail route, but could not agree on a name for the thriving village. In the locality was a large chestnut tree which had been struck by lightning and all of the bark had dropped from the trunk of the tree. It had become known as a landmark by the name of the peeled chestnut and was located very near one of the principal stores. Soon the hamlet became known as Peeled Chestnut and has since borne that name.


            Often it is stated that Yankeetown was so called because of the fact that Yankee soldiers camped at that place during the war, but the fact is, that the place was called Yankeetown long before the war.

            A part of Northerners made a settlement at this particular place and established a small town which immediately became known to their southern neighbors as Yankeetown. When the war broke out all of the wanderers, who were still northern sympathizers, when back to their native land, with the exception of one widow lady and her son, who had married a southern girl. Many southerners objected to the name, and, at different times, made moves to change the name, but of no avail.7


            The name of Milksick was given to this mountain many years ago. The milk from cows pasturing there would make anyone who drank it, sick. It was supposed that something the cows ate or drank there was the cause. The mountain has been fenced off from the surrounding country and today bears the name Milksick Mountain.8


          Falling water is a north east branch of the Caney Fork of Cumberland, in White County. This stream has its source in the Cumberland mountains, and is about thirty miles long. Seven or eight miles above its junction with the Caney Fork, is the celebrated cascade, which gives name to the creek. "In the course of one mile, the descent is supposed to be three hundred feet. The large fall is a perpendicular descent of water of the depth of two hundred feet, or as some think one hundred and fifty. The country on both sides of the stream, both above and below the fall, is nearly as level as the adjacent country generally; and that is very remarkable, the only difference, in the aspects of the country, as produced by the falls, appears to consist in the depth of the channel, which would seem to have been an excavation out of the solid rock. The perpendicular height of the cliffs on each side of the stream, is about three hundred feet. The bottom of the channel below the falls, is inaccessible for many miles below the falls, and the descent to it is difficult and even dangerous. The width of the sheet of water which falls from the rock is about eighty feet, and produces a noise which can be heard for several miles." This is the account given of these falls by Judge Haywood and it is said to be substantially correct.

(Morris, Eastin, Tennessee Gazetteer or Topographical Dictionary)


            Located about fifteen miles east of Sparta on the Knoxville to Nashville turnpike was a piece of land designated as the Clifty Homestead. It was owned by James Simpson and probably granted to him by North Carolina.

            An Englishman, Colonel Thomas Eastland, came to White County in 1821, and bought the Clifty Homestead in 1839, which was then called Eastland stand. Colonel Eastland was a man of high social standing, and was with General William Harrison as lieutenant in the United States Army in 1812.

            As soon as Thomas Eastland became owner of the vast wilderness, clearing was begun for the inn, Eastland Stand, later one of the oldest and most noted landmarks on the Cumberland Plateau. The price of labor was twenty-five cents a day for able bodied men. Dave Scott asked for work, but labor was plentiful and he was refused, but Mr. Eastland, knowing that he was a noted hunter, offered him fifty cents for every deer he killed. He killed six, thus making three dollars per week while the laborers made only one dollar and fifty cents.

            The inn was two and one-half stories high and situated on the road often traveled by Andrew Jackson. Many robberies occurred on the turnpike and Colonel Eastland was often believed guilty of these and of the bloody murders, which often befell unfortunate travelers, but no proof has ever been given against him.

            James Simpson and Colonel Eastland were friends until death. On one occasion, while hunting deer, they discovered a very beautiful knob which was very symmetrical and stood out from the surrounding peaks. They called it Dumpling Knob and here made an agreement that they would be buried, side by side, on the knob. Their graves are covered with large flag stones with these inscriptions:

James Simpson

Born November 30, 1768

Died April 20, 1854.

Thomas Eastland

Died January 10, 1860

Age 82 years, 18 days.

            Thomas B. Eastland owned four hundred thousand acres of land drives in five counties. It was in memory of him that the present town of Eastland received its name.9


            Many years ago there was a large boiling spring found in this vicinity, and the early settlers placed a large cypress gum in the spring to allow the water to bubble up through it. It soon came to be known throughout the community as the Gum Spring. A mountain, a school, a church, and a cave in the section are named from Gum Spring.


            Like the above this neighborhood received its name from a large blue spring which bubbles up clear and sparkling a short distance from the Calf Killer River into which its waters flow.


            Doyle was so named after one of the early settlers of that section. Many of the communities are so named, such as England’s, Hickman’s, and Officer’s Coves, France, and others. Almyra was named for Almyra Doan, an old woman, who gave a lot on which to build a church house. The church later became a school but retained the name Almyra.


An old Indian trail which passed through White County and which was one of the trails connecting the Southern tribes with the Northern tribes ran through Blue Spring Cove. Over this trail with pack horses laden with valuable, came many adventurers and home seekers. At the foot of the Blue Spring Mountain and only a few feet from the trail is located a large cave. The opening to the cave is not discernible from the trail even to the close observer. In the cave is a round hold, very deep, and much like an unwalled well in appearance. Many people of the community say that when they were children, boys would let one of their number down into this hole by means of a rope, and that in this way many human bones were brought up. It is still called Bone Hole, from which the name Bone Cave is taken.

            Tradition says that the Murrell band of robbers used to have this spot as one of their headquarters and that pack horses with their burdens were taken and their owners or drivers killed and thrown into this hold back in the recesses of the cave. This story accounts for the great number of human bones.

            In the Weekly American this article appeared in 1883:

          During the recent visit of Prof. Colton to White County in this State to inspect the coal resources of that region he visited a cave seven miles from Sparta, which promises rare beauty and is in a way possibly the repository of a list of secret crimes committed such as might harrow up the soul of the bravest. Not fifteen feet from the old road that ran from Nashville to Knoxville and about fifteen miles this way from the point on this road where it branches to Chattanooga, is a cave, almost hidden by the densest undergrowth; in the rugged side of the Cumberland mountains, easily accessible and known to all the dwellers of that region. Having heard of this cave as a point of interest in connection with tales he was loath to credit, but thinking it might offer points of interest as the home of cave dwellers, Prof. Colton found himself one morning in its mouth.

          The entrance was effected with some slight inconvenience, the party being forced to crawl a short distance on their knees, when a chamber was reached, magnificent in proportions, and containing natural beauties of a kind even this experienced scientist claims are exceptional, in stalactites, stalagmites and general appearance.

          Penetrating beyond this chamber somewhat further progress was barred by an enormous stone, which, however, on closer inspection, was found to offer a passage through a doorway, natural, perhaps but having an appearance as though hewn by hand, of solid rock. This passage way is about two feel wide and twenty long, and ends abruptly at the brink of a narrow pit, shaped like a well, and about forty feet deep. Here were found bones – human bones – among them skulls to thick that Prof. Colton had no hesitation in pronouncing them as having once belonged to negroes. Enough have been taken out to satisfy explorers that more remain, and in inference is unavoidable that they were those of persons who have been murdered and thrown in there, or who died there under confinement.

          ***The thought of Murrell came up – the famous robber John A. Murrell – the Jesse James of the first quarter of a century and the most noted criminal of his day. His daring and outlawry have been the theme of novels, biography and song. Man now old tell the story of his misdeeds and mountain exploits as they were told them by men who long since have passed away.*** He was a terror to these men for the swiftness and vigor of his attacks and disregard of life. It is also known that his habit was to steal negroes and sell them and steal again, when too well known they disappeared from the sight of men. This last fact bore strongly upon the situation of these bones. They location of the cave, proximity to the highway, and history of Murrel and his followers as it lives in tradition in these parts – all led up to the conviction that the bones and mysterious disappearance of negroes from time to time had a fearful connection. The convention grew upon our investigating man of science that he was breathing the air in a cave which John Murrell once breathed too. Given the doorway, the narrow passageway, the pit, the history aforementioned, what wonder if the imagination pictured the frightened negro run in for supposed safety, or forced to enter, and, in the darkness, falling into this pit from which no man can climb unaided.

          The story is a legend of these mountains and there seems less reason to doubt it than many much more plausible tales.10


            About 1820, Mr. Bill Hunter built a home above Sparta out of native stones. It became known and later famous as the Rock House. The structure was located on the main road from Nashville to the capital and many distinguished visitors stopped there, among whom were Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk. Above the Rock House was a toll gate and it was by this means that this section of the road was kept in traveling condition; this route was then called the Knoxville-Nashville turnpike, and it was over this trail that many settlers, going west, passed.

            Near the Rock House was a large spring known as the Bon Air watering place. There was a large inn here and it became a desirable resort for rich planters during summer months. They came in wagons and four-house coaches from all parts of the South.

            It chanced that Andrew Jackson and Senator Benton of Missouri were stopping at the Rock House on the same occasion. That night, they, with tow other men were playing cards and in the progress of the game, Jackson discovered Benton, who had only one eye, cheating. Jackson said, "Now there is someone cheating in this game, so I’m going to burn this deck of cards, and I have a new deck in my suit case which we are going to play with, and the first man I catch cheating I’m going to shoot his other eye out."11

            The Sparta Expositor for 1902 gives this record of the place:

          The most celebrated and earliest summer resort in Tennessee or the South was at Bon Air, five miles east of Sparta. In 1840 Christopher Haufmann erected a large hotel there and later sold it to John B. Rogers. The site was one of the most beautiful and healthful in the land. The views from the hotel over the spreading valley below to the mountains of Dekalb and Cannon Counties were unsurpassed for grandeur and loveliness, and these inducements brought from 400 to 500 guests each season. In the ante-bellum days elegant balls would be of frequent occurrence, at which the elite of the states would participate. The buildings were destroyed by Scott’s Calvary during the war.
              This study shows that many of the names of places in White
County commemorate some particular person who has been in some way connected with the locality. As shown by this collection the legends fall into the following groups:
1. Mountains 1
2. Rivers or creeks 4
3. Towns 2
4. County, itself 3
5. Caves 1
6. Communities 4
7. Hotels and dwellings 2

               So far as tradition and history relate, only one name in the county has come down to the present generation from the Cherokee tribe of Indians found in White County by the early settlers. It is rather unusual that more Indian names were not retained since it is almost certain that they remained late in the county. Reverent Paul E. Doran says:

That they remained late is almost certain from the fact that even to this day many people in White County show unmistakable traces of Cherokee blood. When I first came to White County, I was amazed at the number of people I met who unmistakably showed traces of Cherokee blood. Even yet I often meet people who look out at me with eyes as certainly Cherokee as any I have ever met among the Cherokees themselves. It is doubtless true that some Cherokees never were rounded up in White County but having adopted the ways of the whites, which they are known to have done to a remarkable extent simply became whites. I have had many old people to whom I put the question squarely in this county admit with pride that they were part Indian.

1. Young, W. W., Sparta News, May 30, 1929.

2. Foster, Austin P., Conversation, May, 1931.

3. The Sparta Expositor, Jan. 1902.

4. Walker, W. A., Personal Conversation, Sept. 1930.

5. Young, W. W., op. cit., Sept. 22, 1927.

6. Doran, Paul E., Conversation, Sept., 1930.

7. Sims, Dr. Jim, Conversation, August, 1930.

8. Moore manuscript, Sept., 1930.

9. Young, W. B., through Kenneth Welsh, Manuscript.

10. Young, W. W. op. cit.

11. Doran, Paul E., Personal Conversation, Sept. 1930.

Thanks to Dona Terry for her work as the word processor on this project.  (November 2002)