CHAPTER 4 - Section Three
Married (1) Sarah "Sally" Donahue, daughter of Joseph and Nancy (Vaughlen) Donahue on February 9, 1806 in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. She was born about. 1790, and died October 12, 1844 in St. Genevieve, MO.
Children of JAMES PETTIT and SARAH DONAHUE are:
Children of JAMES PETTIT and ELIZABETH HILDEBRAND are:
This article printed ...
154 YEAR OLD MYSTERY
If buildings could only talk - the old blockhouse we call Fort Marr, standing silently beside the Polk County fail, could spin a yarn that would make your hair stand on end.
Although different articles give conflicting dates of its construction, all agree that it was last used in 1838 as the rifle tower at the southeastern corner of the 225 x 500 foot stockade which held the Cherokee Indians dust before their forced removal to the West on the infamous Trail of Tears.
This story is not about that controversy over dates. However, history does record that during the War of 1812, when Andrew Jackson issued the call for volunteers to help defend New Orleans, East Tennesseans headed that way over the Great Cherokee Warpath. They crossed the Hiwassee and cut their way through the dense undergrowth over the seven miles portage between the Ocoee and Conasauga. A supply road was ordered from where the portage and new federal road crossed the Blue Ridge divide between Ocoee and the Conasauga.
Late in 1813, the soldiers who were sent to begin the southern end of this supply road built a blockhouse or fort at a spring. This particular fort became known as the 'old fort to distinguish it from the three newer forts built in 1835 as part of the stockade used during the Removal. Some of the men who helped build this structure still have descendants living in the area - Sam Julian, Amos Ladd, James Lawson, Johnson Crewse, (ancestor of PCHGS board member Frank Lowery), Matthew McCollister, King Stinnett and expert axeman, George Manis, who built the corners of the fort.
Mr. Crewse often related many things about the erection of the fort to his grandson Thomas L. Lowery. He remembered that the colonel in charge was Moses Cunningham of McMinn county and that the adjutant was Montraville Reynolds who received $4 a day for doing all the writing for the Colonel.
Later recollections of Pettit descendant, Mrs. Harriet Kelly Hall, born January 1, 1840, passed the information to her nephew, Lea S. Kelly that the true name of the old fort was Fort Marr, which she spelled for him - "M.a.r.r."
Perhaps one of the most sensational events, second only to the death and suffering involved in the Removal, was the suicide of James Pettit, which took place the 16th of February, 1842, on the same site as the Old Fort and stockade.
Some years before the Removal, James Pettit, a young man from North Carolina, established a large stock stand on Easly ford, his lands encompassing three large farms later belonging to the Higgins. Swans and Tedfords. Other family members scattered, Ben Pettit moved his family down to Ross' Landing, and Frank Pettit moved to Riceville. PCHGS member Catherine Scarbeary’s ancestor Amos Ladd, whose wife, Nancy, was a daughter of William "Billy" and Jane Pettit, continued to live in nearby Ladd Springs where he operated a hotel.
The Cherokee property evaluation of 1836, #331, lists James Pettit, white, owning 250 acres in the Conasuga district which contained eight cabins, sixteen buildings and two orchards. Pettit’s Stand prospered, and by 1842, Mr. Pettit had become rich. Although he had taken an Indian wife who bore him sons, he was still spoken of as an 'old bachelor'. Not recognized as a legal marriage bond, his Indian wife and sons were included in the forcible removal to the West.
Apparently, Mr. Pettit, with his vast riches in gold and land, many slaves, his popular hotel and stock stand, chose the riches over his wife and children . Even in this day and age, it is difficult to understand how anyone could allow their own flesh and blood to be driven like cattle before the soldiers on such an tortuous trek westward. It is not known whether his wife survived the great ordeal; but two of their sans are known to have returned, years afterward, to old Fort on a visit.
Whether his betrayal weighed so heavily on his mind, or whether, as local rumor went, he was despondent over the failure to win the hand of a certain white girl, the sad fact is that James Pettit, on the morning of February 16th, 1842, was found lying dead in the kitchen of his log house a large hole blown into his forehead right between his eyes. He was discovered by one of his slaves, his own gun lying beside him. Since he was barefooted, it was assumed that he had used his toe to pull the trigger that ended his troubled life.
An inquest was held the very next day, even before next of kin down in Ross' Landing, (now Chattanooga) had been notified, by coroner Absalom Coleman, with a jury of neighboring farmers. The only evidence available was the testimony of Pettit's slaves, who maintained that no white man was anywhere near the farm at the time of the tragedy. The jury was composed of John Kennedy, John Towns, W.W. Henry, J.C. Kennedy, William Anderson, R.H. Pharis, Thomas Davis, T.S. Mansard, A.T. Kerr, Sam Armstrong, M.H. Ayers and R.H. Ellison. The verdict was that Pettit had killed himself with his own gun between daylight and sunrise, "maliciously, unlawfully and voluntarily." John Towns took care of Pettit's property until June county court and Levi Trewhitt was appointed attorney.
Although there was a Pettit's cemetery which joined the Federal and Ball Play roads, the remains of James Pettit was not allowed to rest there, for according to custom, anyone who committed suicide was forbidden burial on consecrated ground. According to a 1915 newspaper article by J.D. Clemmer, "So the mortal remains of the suicide, Jas. Pettit, were interred near a chestnut tree about a thousand feet southwest of Old Fort and in his field about the same distance south of the road toward the L & N underpass. The remains are there today, under a rock pile." One of his slaves is buried nearby.
And so it was, under this chestnut tree in the sweltering August heat, 1842, that Sheriff John Shamblin, noted physician and surgeons, Dr. Alexander and young Dr. Fleming, a jury composed of leading men of the county, and numerous people from Benton, gathered according to court order to see the body of James Pettit raised from the grave. When the body was dug up, examined by the physicians and their testimony taken, then the jury heard the slaves each testify one at a time, while the others were kept under guard some distance away to prevent them from hearing what the other had to say.
SECOND VERDICT SAME AS FIRST
It probably came as no great surprise that, although the slaves all told the same story as before, the jury returned a verdict similar to the first, which was worded as follows:
"Said James Pettit did, upon the 16th day of February, 1842, not having the fear of God before his eyes, but instigated by the devil, did feloniously and willfully kill himself with a certain rifle gun, his own personal property, placing the muzzle of the same centrally between his eyes and discharging the contents of the same in his forehead."
Signed: A.R. Stephenson, R.H. McConnell, James Denton, Samuel Parks, R.B. Stubblefield, John B. Cromwell, John Williams, John Austin, Stephen Blankenship, John F. Hannan, .James. Parks, Elisha Williams.
The supreme court at Knoxville later decided that the will was not Pettit's and the August term; 14th county court ordered an heir named Francis Clark, one of. James' daughters had married a Clark and moved to Alabama) be appointed administrator of the estate. And some estate it was. The inventory consisted of a long list of slaves, personal property and bags of gold - seven of them, in fact, containing $1,000 in gold, and an eighth bag holding a lesser amount. To get some idea of the value of the estate, the administrator's bond was fixed at $40,003, which the law required be set at twice the amount of the estate.
Whether filled with guilt, despondency, or troubled over some dark secret which will never be revealed, with one pull of the trigger, James Pettit, rich slave holder, land, hotel and stock stand owner, left over $20,000 to his collateral heirs. As one writer put it, " a princely fortune for pioneer days."
Not having researched the court records, if such are even in existence, it is not clear to this editor what provisions were made for the distribution of the estate. It is said that while the Pettit heirs were consulting about bidding again, the auctioneer declared the land sold to Annanias Higgins. At least one Higgins family, Gladys, wife of Woodrow, and son, Tom, and his family, still resides on a portion of the same land.
TRUTH OR FICTION
Although all of the above fact, supported by court records, there is one strange tale which continues to this day which almost makes your hair stand on end. It seems that a young farmers expectant bride of only one year, had, along with hundreds of other people over the countryside, viewed the body of James Pettit with the bullet hole through his head. Oral history avows that when her first child was born, it was stillborn, with a hole through its tiny head exactly where the bullet hole had pierced Pettit's forehead!
Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction