October 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 6
‘When describing his native landscape, one Tennessee statesman liked to say. “Our great state is the multum in parvo of all the lands lying between the ramparts of the Alleghenies and the majestic currents of the mighty Mississippi.” Soon after the Revolutionary War the American frontier pushed west through that densely wooded multum , leaving a lattice of primitive civilization in its wake. Much of the settlement was clustered around Jonesborough, the state’s first municipality, and its traces can still be found there.
The town of Jonesborough tucks neatly into the hills of northeastern Tennessee, just west of the Appalachian Mountains. At first the place seems too quiet and compact to accommodate a colorful, sprawling history. Only one street (Main) runs from one end of town to the other, and on either side of it rows of two-story buildings stand like brick soldiers along the sidewalk, displaying the order and symmetry of their Federal-period architecture. Most of these were built between 1820 and 1850, when Jonesborough was a hub on the stage routes and thus a thriving center of commerce. Others were there in 1788, when the twenty-one-year-old Andrew Jackson came to the frontier town to study law. He paraded down Main Street “riding a race horse, with a pair of holstered pistols strapped to the saddle leading a pack horse carrying his personal possessions, whilst trotting behind was a pack of fox hounds,” according to one diarist. The student was outfitted for action.
When I arrived in Jonesborough, on the last evening in October, Main Street was animated not by stagecoaches or foxhounds but by a noisy parade of small pirates, witches, Dick Tracys, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Jack-o’-lanterns flickered through the wavy old glass of nineteenth-century storefronts while trick-or-treaters scurried down the street gathering candy. One pair of goblins sneaked up behind a crowd in the park and blanketed town officials with pink Silly String. The prank delighted the victims as well as the audience; this is a place that has always encouraged independent spirits.
Northeastern Tennessee was settled in the early 1770s when a group of North Carolinians pushed west over the highland barrier, defying the British Proclamation of 1763 that banned immigration past the Appalachians. They established two communities, one each along the Watauga and Nolichucky rivers. Then, in another audacious move, they teamed up to form the Watauga Association in 1772 and founded an autonomous government. A century later, Theodore Roosevelt remembered the Wataugans as “the first men of American birth to establish a free and independent community on the continent.”
Eventually the citizens renamed their territory the Washington District, making it the first American place named after George Washington, and appealed to North Carolina for annexation. They formed a third community, between the two existing ones, to serve as the capital. It was named after Willie Jones, a Carolina statesman who supported recognition of the western settlement.
In 1775 a tract of one hundred acres was divided into one-acre lots, which were sold for seventy-five dollars each. News of the municipality spread, and settlers flocked to the fledgling town. The lots were so popular that they had to be awarded by ballots.
Even today most Jonesborough houses rest comfortably on those eighteenth-century plots, with hedges or gravel driveways defining the original borders. The residential architecture is distinguished by modest ingenuity, never ostentation, honoring the intent of the community’s first planners.
By 1788, when Andrew Jackson arrived, Washington County had earned a reputation as a region full of upstarts. Soon after the Revolution, North Carolina had offered the district to Congress as payment for its share of war expenses. The citizens of Washington feared this would leave them abandoned without proper representation, and they again set up their own government. This time they declared themselves an independent state. A four-year power struggle followed.
As the capital, Jonesborough was the site of most of the trouble. In court, tempers flared and battles broke out regularly. Fistfights were common. But in time things cooled down and the region was folded into Tennessee Territory, which joined the Union in 1796.
Jonesborough’s current courthouse, a neoclassical beauty of 1913, rests on the site of its original version, yet it hardly suggests the turbulence that once animated the spot. On the contrary, its grandly pillared facade now stands as the town’s dignified centerpiece. I stopped to admire it on the morning after my arrival, as I followed a historical walking tour of the town. The ninety-minute tour is the best way to start getting a sense of Jonesborough’s heritage—particularly if you’re there on a perfect Indian-summer day, as 1 was. Under these conditions Main Street looks as if it had been cut from the conscious idyll of a Currier & Ives print, with bursts of yellow foliage punctuating the hills in the distance. Our group ambled down the sidewalks, munching on penny candy left from the Halloween festivities, while the guide regaled us with architectural data, tales of a local ghost population, and historical anecdotes.
Dominating Main Street is the old Chester Inn, a 1798 structure that was once a favorite hostelry for wealthy settlers moving westward, or politicians and merchants traveling eastward. James K. Polk and Andrew Johnson both frequented the inn, as did Jackson. As a Nashville judge, Jackson angered local citizens by supporting a resolution to limit land speculation, and in 1803 a furious mob assembled outside the inn, hoping to tar and feather him when he rode into town for his regular court duties. Jackson, forewarned, had hurried ahead to Jonesborough, arriving exhausted and suffering from a raging fever. He was lying down in the inn’s tavern when a friend ran in to tell of the “regiment” gathering outside and suggest that he lock the door. Instead, the judge rose up in a rage, flung the door open, and ran onto the porch, yelling to the rabble that he was ready to “receive” them. Whether they were intimidated by his bravado or simply reluctant to attack a sick man, the mob dispersed. Jackson had a good night’s sleep and held court as usual the next day. Years later President Jackson held a reception for friends on the same porch.
Just beyond the inn is the site of an 1818 printshop, where America’s first abolitionist newspaper, The Manumission Intelligencer , was produced. Abolitionist sentiment prevailed in Jonesborough even before the beginning of the nineteenth century, in part because of the large number of Quakers who settled near the town in 1797. The integration practiced here was unthinkable in neighboring states; from their start in the early 180Os, Jonesborough’s churches welcomed “the African born,” although they had to sit in balconies and obtain permission from their owners before entering.
The Intelligencer was soon renamed the Emancipator , and its Quaker editor, Elihu Embree, wrote eloquent essays on the blacks’ behalf. Although the paper stopped publication with Embree’s death in 1820, Jonesborough continued to demonstrate enlightened race relations. During the Civil War there were enough Northern sympathizers to threaten secession from the rest of the state and to split the church congregations.
This story, and others, are effectively told in exhibits at the Jonesborough-Washington County Historic Museum, which is housed in a contemporary center at the edge of town. One display describes a turning point: In 1857 the railroad came to Jonesborough, and while it allowed easier access to the cities in the North and East, it also eliminated the town’s strategic position as a stagecoach stop. When business stopped booming, Jonesborough stopped growing. The town hasn’t changed much in the past 130 years.
Now designated a National Historic District, Jonesborough gamely resists most invasions of modernity, and residents happily refer to their home as a “sleepy town.” With its population steady at three thousand, it’s essentially a bedroom community for nearby Johnson City. It has no neon or fluorescent lights, no fast-food strips, no video arcades. Since the old Chester Inn is now a library, overnight visitors can choose between local bed-and-breakfasts or venture out of town to nearby motels and inns.
The first weekend in October Jonesborough comes alive as the location of a huge annual storytelling festival. On Saturday night participants gather at the town’s two-hundred-year-old cemetery and tell ghost stories around a raging bonfire. It’s a great tradition, one in which the town’s history is eerily recalled to life. But one can’t count on local phantoms to be present. No doubt, Jonesborough’s ghosts, like its founders, are intensely independent spirits. They’re probably out blazing new trails.