Documenting my family's past for future generations. My family tree includes the Smith/Mansell families of Alabama and Oklahoma, the Castle/Day families of Kentucky and Oklahoma, the Wheat/Ming families of Texas and Oklahoma, and the Bell/Roberts families of Mississippi, Tennessee, and Oklahoma.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Sugar Camps, Stills, and Saltpeter Caves

If you have researched Jackson County, Tennessee, you have probably heard the name of Betty Huff Bryant. I knew she had written a couple of books about Jackson County, but I had never seen them and didn't know if I could find them. I recently discovered that they were available from a genealogical book store and finally broke down and bought them. Thank goodness for her and the people that she calls Specific Historians--the volunteer researchers that "want to know how things really were and who was really there." (From Building Neighborhoods, 1992.)

The two books that she wrote make it possible for those of us unable to travel (for the moment) to Jackson County or to the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) in Nashville to have access to court cases and land records of the 1800's. In addition, she has done the hard work for us--deciphering the handwritten entries and abstracting the important details.

One book, titled Jackson County, Tennessee Chancery Court Minutes 1840-1861, contains abstracts of the minutes of the Chancery Court. According to the website of the Tennessee State Courts at, “Chancery Courts are courts of equity that are based on the English system in which the chancellor acted as the ‘King’s conscience.’ A chancellor, the judge who presides over chancery courts, may modify the application of strict legal rules and adapt relief to the circumstances of individual cases. Chancery Courts handle a variety of issues including lawsuits, contract disputes, application for injunctions and name changes. A number of matters, such as divorces, adoptions, and workers’ compensation, can be heard in either chancery or circuit court.”

You can see why details from these court cases could be very helpful to a genealogist. In addition, her notes on various cases are instructive, and her explanation of the various men of Jackson County named James Pharis might have actually, finally, straightened them out in my mind.

The other book, the one I want to talk about in this post, is Building Neighborhoods, in which she abstracts early land records (prior to 1820) of Jackson County. In her introduction she tells readers that she did this research in "an attempt to discover exactly who were the earliest settlers on Martin's Creek." One of the few things I know about my Elzina Huff is that she said in her 1874 divorce complaint that she had lived her entire life on Martin's Creek. Luckily for me, the very records researched by this Specific Historian are the ones I am specifically interested in. If you want to know "how things really were," there are certainly clues in these land records.

Each entry in Building Neighborhoods describes the piece of property involved in a land transaction. Prior to the Revolutionary War, the metes and bounds system was used to describe the boundaries of lands being surveyed. The thirteen original colonies and the state land states, such as Tennessee, used this method. Metes are measures, like poles (16.5 ft.), rods (26.5 ft.), and furlongs (664 ft.) and bounds are physical features that are used as boundary markers. (It reminds me a little bit of the softball games we used to play when I was a kid. “First base is that tree over there, second base is the swing set, third base is the lawn chair, and home base is this rock.”)

That example is not as ridiculous as it sounds. Listen to this description of a piece of land registered by Samuel Huff in 1812: “100 acs Beg on a black oak about 20 poles SW of a spring on waters of Brimstone Cr on N side of Cumberland…” I’m really surprised that the Chancery Court minutes are not full of people suing each other over the boundaries of their properties.

What I found interesting were the references to features that are quintessentially 19th century. Several entries described land that was valuable because it contained a spring, a turnip patch, a cleared field, or a “mill seat,” a location suitable for a mill. Many, many entries included a reference to a “sugar orchard,” or more usually, a “sugar camp.” For example, the book includes this abstract, interesting to Huff researchers: “Enoch Carter…8 acs…dry fork of Martin’s Cr…to include William Huff’s old sugar camp.” Mrs. Bryant doesn’t give a definition of “sugar camp,” although a Google search turned up lots of definitions of “sugar camp”: places in or near orchards of sugar maples where sap is collected to make maple syrup.

The trouble is, that's not the definition I had heard from one of my Huff cousins; she said "sugar camp" was a nice 19th century eumphemism for "still." This definition seems more likely when you read another land description in Building Neighborhoods: “Beg at a sugar tree running east then south…so as to incl William Huff’s Sugar Camp in the dark Cave.” Okay. You surely wouldn’t have an orchard of sugar maples in a dark cave, but you might have a still. (And to give William Huff the benefit of the doubt, the cave could also contain the equipment needed to turn the sugar maple sap into syrup.)

Now maybe there’s some other information that I don’t have that would make this all clear. However, as it often happens, I recently heard a radio story on NPR about a legal battle over the definition of “Tennessee whiskey” that I think might explain why a sugar maple orchard could also be the site of a still. Tennessee whiskey, according to the Jack Daniels distillery which markets 90% of the stuff, is made mostly from corn, filtered through maple charcoal, and aged in oak casks; hence, the location of a still near a sugar orchard would be a definite advantage.

Lynchburg, Tennessee

Jack Daniels Distillery
Lynchburg, Tennessee

I visited the Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg on a trip to Tennessee a few years ago. It was a last-minute detour from our itinerary, but it was really interesting, and I was glad that we went. Jack Daniels definitely promotes the idea that their whiskey is Tennessee born and bred. The beef that some other distilleries have with JD’s definition of Tennessee whiskey is that it is JD’s recipe, and there are other ways to make Tennessee whiskey that are just as authentic. The artisanal whiskey makers of Tennessee apparently pride themselves on the spirit of the moonshiners that lives on in their products.

Jack Daniels

Another important feature in many of the land descriptions also required a Google search. “Cave fork of Knob Cr of Cumberland R…the north side of said fk…mouth of salt petre cave formerly worked by…Anderson who erected furnaces several years past at sd cave…”
“On a fork of Knob Cr of Cumberland…to incl Huff’s and Givin’s old salt petre cave.”
“One ac…Brimstone Cr…to include a salt petre cave out of which a hole goes out at the top of the mountain.”

What was a saltpeter cave?

Saltpeter is potassium nitrate and can be extracted from the soil of limestone caves, like those found in Kentucky and Tennessee. It is an essential ingredient in the manufacture of gunpowder. Saltpeter mined in east Tennessee was used to make gunpowder for the Revolutionary War; by the time of the land transactions in Building Neighborhoods, saltpeter from Jackson County was being turned into gunpowder to fight the War of 1812. An apocryphal story has gunpowder processed from Jackson County saltpeter making it to Andrew Jackson’s troops at the Battle of New Orleans.

In 2014 you can buy maple syrup in a bottle at the grocery store, order a Jack & Coke at your neighborhood bar, and pick up some ammunition at the closest Walmart, so it’s hard to imagine making any of this stuff from scratch. This is the beauty of a book like Building Neighborhoods; it gives you a clearer picture of who your ancestors really were, what they thought was important, and what kinds of tasks took up their days.

I've learned more than I ever thought I would from Betty Huff Bryant. I hope you are lucky enough to have a Specific Historian for your neck of the woods!

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