By Melinda Lane Hedgecoth
Lush meadow grasses ripple and billow in the noonday sun buffeted about by the gentle whisper of a late summer wind wending its careless path across the valley floor.
Black-eyed Susan’s in gleaming bonnets of gold vie with pink-plumed Queen of the Meadow in brilliant competition on nature’s runway as they both dance and nod and preen in the wake of the gentle, lilting breeze.
Fat cattle amble along across the flower-strewn meadow, tossing their heads in seeming carefree abandon as they plod contentedly down the well-worn trace companionably sashaying to their daily rendezvous with the watering hole ahead in the distance.
Puffy, white, cotton-candy, clouds emboldened against a backdrop of azure blue, tower in showy splendor over sloping, forested peaks of lofty grandeur.
This noble old guard of lush, green mountains, these proud old sentinels of home, continue to timelessly and seamlessly shelter and inspire all within the protective bower of their shaded embrace. Songbirds trill, as butterflies flit, jarflies whirr, while the katydids chant, midst the amber meadow tresses, as they bid adieu in their melodious swansong to summer.
Yes summer is past and fall is definitely upon us with all of its annual harvest traditions of pumpkins and apples, scarecrows and cornshocks, cornmazes and craft festivals, but let’s pause for a moment and take another look back over our shoulders to yesteryear when Tennessee was a young settler clad in buckskins, pitted against a painted warrior in moccasins in a supreme struggle for dominance over this beautiful land that we all call home now. The term “Indian Summer” took on a whole different meaning and was a time the pioneer dreaded rather than anticipated "for it was in these years that women learned to fear the calm and beautiful weather that came after frost and most of the leaves had fallen, but before the deep snows of winter, the last weather suitable for long journeys; it was then the Shawnees (speaking of the Pennsylvania/Virginia frontier of the 1750’s in this instance) came for scalps and horses, and so the frontier settler called the season Indian Summer.” (Arnow, Harriet Simpson (1960). The Shirttail Men. Seedtime on the Cumberland, VII, pages 138-139. The Macmillan Company: New York.)
The Cumberland Settlers that settled at French Lick (later to become known as Fort Nashborough and still even later the present-day city of Nashville) were definitely a hardy breed and proved it well by the courage they showed in daring to settle four lonely little stations on the banks of the Cumberland River in 1779-'80.
These stations (Eaton’s, Mansker’s, Freeland’s, and French Lick) were more than 100 miles from the nearest settlement surrounded by close to 15,000 warriors from surrounding tribes including the Cherokee, Chickamauga, Creek, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations who were decidedly not happy with the white encroachment into their tribal lands. A captured Tory perhaps phrased it best when he stated, “It is the white natives that the Indians have the greatest aversion to” (Arnow, page 289), thus, the Native Americans sided with the British against the American settlers during the Revolutionary War in an alliance that they had hoped would result in the ousting of these intruding border men, but that instead resulted in the eventual vanquishing of the tribes and their subsequent removal to western reservations, for the settlers never forgot (nor forgave) the two-pronged foe they were forced to fight, with the British at their front door while the Indians knocked at the back. This was all many years in the future though, on the night of Jan. 15, 1781, when a large party of Indians attacked the small fort at Freeland’s that housed the James Robertson family.
Luckily, Robertson had just returned that very day from an extended trip and it was he and his wife, Charlotte, who were alerted to the sound of the dogs barking and, upon checking it out, James discovered that Indians had scaled the fort wall and were inside the compound!
He and the other men managed to battle the Indians and finally get the last one out of the station and the gate latched against them but the battle raged on for four to five hours throughout the night with the Indians all around howling like wolves!
As soon as Robertson had given the alarm, he had commanded one of the servants who was sleeping on the floor to get the children under the beds and throw a pail of water on the blazing fire.
In any night attack, all lights were put out at once due to the firelight or candle light shining through the cracks of the unfinished walls revealing the positions of the occupants inside and thus exposing them to enemy gunfire. This forced the beleaguered men (and women too, who were busy reloading the guns as quickly as they were fired in order to keep up a constant barrage against their howling assailants) to have to load their weapons and fire in the pitch-black darkness.
One can only imagine the terror of the women and children, especially Mrs. Robertson, who had given birth just three days before and was confined to her bed with the young baby where bullets were whizzing through a crack in the unfinished wall of the fort just above her head! To move would have been to reveal her position and expose her to a bullet, thus all she could do was lie flat and pray that she would not be discovered.
Quoting from the aforementioned source “one wonders what the three-day-old baby did, rifles and musket roaring around him; outside the barking dogs, screams and neighs of wounded horses, bellowing of frightened cows as amid much jangling of bells they ran away, and over it all the wild roars of the yelling men, both white and Indian.” (Arnow, pages. 290-291.)
They managed to survive the night with only a handful of men defending the little fort against the seeming hordes of attacking Indians.
It was decided at daybreak to abandon the fort and make a run for the upper station at French Lick as some of the men from that station had sallied forth to come to their aid providing backup to the men, women and children in their mad dash from the lower station.
What belongings that could be collected were placed on pack horses and the women and children (including four-day-old Felix Robertson who survived and grew up to be a doctor!) galloped up the hill!
Women on side saddle clutched small babies in their arms while toddlers rode behind clinging to their Mamas for dear life. One little slave boy riding behind Mrs. Robertson fell off; however, he was rescued by another and, although the Indians were firing upon them constantly, all made it to the other fort (French Lick) safely!
Once there, though, their troubles were far from over for they faced months of possible siege with no bread and wild meat scarce in woods filled with Indians with no more than 25 men south of the river to defend the little station.
However, this station did have an added advantage in the form of a small four-pounder (a swivel gun) brought down the river on the boat Adventure by John Donelson (Rachel Jackson’s father) which certainly paid off some months later when, on the morning of April 2, 1781, the Indians attacked again and, after loading the gun with pots and rocks, they fired upon the advancing Indians.
The battle was brief and the Indians appeared to have satisfied themselves with the taking of the horses that were outside the fort walls.
Once before, the settlers had been successful in riding out after a band of Indians giving chase and retrieving some of the horses that had been stolen so after a brief discussion it was decided to attempt this again. By 10 a.m. they decided to pursue what they perceived to be fleeing Indians and lit out after them!
This was a tremendous mistake, for the Indians were wise to them and lying in wait to ambush the little force with what some said later appeared to be upward of 500 warriors!
There were two parties of them, one near the fort waiting to seize it at the first opportunity and the other down near the branch, and it was these who attacked the little army of white men. At the first scalp cry, the men leaped from their saddles, “took tree,” and fired and then tried to reload with Indians firing on them from every direction.
The little band of white men appeared to be goners for sure, for how on earth could they ever hope to withstand such a horde of savage opponents?
The day was saved though by Mrs. Robertson who quickly unleashed the pack of snarling dogs, some say upwards of 50 of them, who joined the fray, chewing the Indians to pieces and putting them on the run! It was said that Mrs. Robertson and the dogs were credited for not only saving the men and the fort, but Middle Tennessee as well!
These dogs were no ordinary dogs, either, but were instead “the fierce, general-purpose, bear-baiting, Indian-trailing–hunting dogs kept by most settlers with some families even as late as 1800 having between 12 and 15.” (Arnow, pages 295-296.)
I don’t blame them a bit! With allies such as these I wouldn’t be without them! The other help came from the riderless horses who galloped to the fort when the men took to the trees and, not being able to gain entry, were running round and round the walls.
The Indians forgot their quest to scale the fort walls and began attempting to catch the horses instead and this gave the men down by the creek the advantage they needed in order to fight their way back to the fort. Not all made it and some say as many as seven were killed and four of the wounded also later died, but the biggest majority of them were able to return. One mother was heard to say, “Thanks be to God that he gave the Indians a fear of dogs and a love of horses!” (Ewing, James (1985). Dogs Save the Day at Fort Nashborough. A Treasury of Tennessee Tales, 22, pg. 113. Rutledge Hill Press: Nashville).
This battle was forever after known as the Battle of the Bluffs and was a story told and retold many a time over the years by the survivors of this perilous time in our state’s history. Thankful we should be for those who have gone before in bravely settling this land that we all now call home!
Now, let’s get down to business with another of our settler forefathers' traditions, and that is weather predicting based on the signs of nature! Obviously, they couldn’t depend on color weather radar, satellites and meteorologists to determine ensuing weather patterns, so they closely observed the natural world around them and picked up many lessons from the Native Americans, too, in this regard!
Things observed included early fogs in August, which denote snow for the winter, the height at which hornets build their nests, the thickness of fur on animals, the thickness of bark and leaves on the trees, the thickness of shucks on newly harvested corn, the abundance and appearance of woolly worms when they make their appearance in the fall, the abundance of the mast crop and of spiderwebs.
These are just some of the natural phenomenon that they watched out for in order to know how to plan for the upcoming winter.
Based on my observations of these signs and others, get ready, for I believe we’re in for a humdinger of a winter this year!
I have counted 10 early morning fogs, with six of those being moderate to heavy and four of them light, indicating Mama’s blue darter type of snow (light skiff of snow that just barely covers the ground blowing across the top of it.) It’s cold when this occurs for the ground is frozen solid!
Also, I have a huge hornet nest on my property that is only about 8 feet off the ground, one of the biggest ones I’ve seen in years, which is another sign of a hard winter.
Another friend also spotted a large, low-lying one built near the ground and my brother even spotted a huge yellow jackets nest above ground which, true enough, usually indicates a milder, rainy winter, but he said this one was one of the biggest he had ever seen, so in view of all the other hard-winter signs, I’m inclined to think this is significant, too.
Also, thick leaves on the trees, combined with a heavy mast crop, a bumper crop of apples and other fruits this year, and spiders, spiders everywhere, with the dew revealing myriads of their webs across the top of the grass in our yard and fields and even in the low hanging tree limbs — another indicator of a bad winter.
And the early appearance and abundance of woolly worms is a sign in and of itself of a hard winter, although the biggest majority that I’ve heard about and personally seen were brown, which denotes a mild winter.
However, there were enough reports from all quarters of black ones seen and many that were black on both ends and brown in the middle, too, that I still believe this is enough indication, in combination with all of the other hard winter signs, to point to a cold, snowy winter with the beginning and ending of winter being harsh and a lull in between of milder weather.
Also, watch out for frost on Oct. 16, for I heard my first katydid on July 16, which is actually a bit later than usual due to all the rain we had during the first of July.
Additionally, keep an eye out on the trees for another hard winter sign. If the leaves wither and hang on, then expect a frosty winter and much snow. If the leaves are slow to fall then expect a cold winter. If the leaves remain under the trees and don’t blow away, expect a fruitful year to follow. If the leaves are thick (and they are) expect a cold winter.
Also, watch out for changes in the weather on the new moons and the full moons in the upcoming winter months.
If it snows on the full moon, it will melt off quickly. But, if it snows on the new moon, the snow will linger for a day or two, spawning the other old saying that “it’s hangin’ around waitin’ on another one!” And another snow will indeed usually soon follow.
So, guys get your snow shovels out, ladies stockpile your sewing and crochet projects, kids dust off your snow sleds, and everyone dig out your long handles and fill your wood bins full, for its lookin’ like it’s gonna be a doozy of a winter this time!
Take care and happy fall and winter ya’ll!
Melinda Lane Hedgecoth's mother, Helen Lane, was a Chronicle correspondent from the Crab Orchard community for decades starting in the 1940s until her passing in 2000. Lane became famous nationwide in 1960 after predicting the harsh winter based on the signs of nature. During the last two years of her life, Lane's daughter, Melinda, began writing the annual weather prediction based on her family's ancestors' techniques based on the signs of nature. Melinda has carried on the tradition of writing the annual winter weather forecast for the Crossville Chronicle since her mother's death.