Monday, November 18, 2013

... and there was James Houston

Portrait of James Houston that hangs in the Blount County Courthouse
Presented by Mary Blount Chapter, DAR(1)
Although I have lived in Tennessee for a number of years, James Houston has turned out to be the person who has made the early history of Tennessee, especially that of East Tennessee, come alive for me.  Previously I had written about the various places James traveled as a Revolutionary War soldier.  As I looked at events over the next forty years of his life, he seemed to show up in some unexpected places as the western frontier was growing into the state of Tennessee.

Following the Battle of King's Mountain, James returned home to Washington County, Virginia.  True to form, he didn't stay there very long as he headed to Tennessee to begin a new chapter in his life.  Sometime after 1872 James and his family moved from southwest Virginia to Greene County, Tennessee with his name showing up on the 1873 Greene County Tax List.(2)  When the first court of pleas and quarter sessions met in April 1873, there was James Houston listed as one of the original six court magistrates.(3)

My eyes flew wide open when I came across a document signed in April 1785 by the Governor of the State of Franklin, John Sevier.  In it Sevier named Justices of the Peace for Greene County.(4)  Once again, there in the list of the new appointees was James Houston.

Justice of the Peace Appointments for
Greene County, State of Franklin, USA
signed by Gov. John Sevier 
For people with Tennessee roots, finding a document linking a relative with John Sevier is almost like finding a link to George Washington.  Sevier was, among other things, the first and only governor of the State of Franklin, a six-term Tennessee governor, and a congressman, all before his death in 1815.(5)  The number of things named for John Sevier in this part of the state - a county, a town, streets, schools, and even an old hotel - attest to the esteem with which John Sevier is held.  But I digress.

The next surprise came as I was looking through the Greene County, Tennessee, Minutes of the Court of Common Pleas, 1783-1795.  I saw James Houston listed for several years as an juror in the quarterly court held there four times each year.   According to the minutes, in Nov 1783 James was named as a Deputy Surveyor for the county, then among the entries for May 1785 was something new about James: "James Houston Esq is appointed Sheriff and enters into bond himself with Col. Geo Doherty and David Craig Esq in the sum of 5000 pounds for the faithful discharge of his duty in office." (6)  James served as the sheriff of Greene County until a new sheriff was named in Feb 1786.

James and his family next moved to Blount County, Tennessee sometime after the late 1780s.  Again, he proved to be involved in the growth of the area and its politics.  Goodspeed's History of Tennessee From the Earliest Times to the Present had a list of early Blount County officials.  Once again, there was James Houston, listed as Clerk of the County Court from 1796-1818.(7)

Life wasn't entirely peaceful in the Tennessee territory in the late 1780s.  James was still living in the frontier, and the area of his home became known as Houston Station, identifying it as a populated area.  Following the Indian War of 1788, James actually filed a claim with the territorial government to be repaid for "ammunition and supplies procured by him to protect Houston Station during Indian War of 1788 by order of Colonel Daniel Kennedy".(8)

By 1795 there was movement around the territory to petition the US Congress for statehood.  Pat Aldridge, in her book The Overmountain Men,  wrote of some of the early events moving toward statehood, telling how "members of the first election, held by counties, met in Knoxville on Jan 11, 1796.  The following elected members assembled in Knoxville, presented their credentials, and took their seats ... [from] Blount County:  David Craig, James Greenaway, Joseph Black, Samuel Glass, James Houston."(9)  The group spend  the next three weeks writing a Constitution for the new state.  Among this mixture of former Virginians, Carolinians, aristocrats, and frontiersmen, James Houston was considered to be a moderate.(10)  By 6 Feb 1796, the new constitution had been written and approved.  The fifth person signing the Tennessee Constitution of 1796 was familiar; there was James Houston's signature on the new constitution.

Tennessee Constitution of 1796 (11)
In 1806, the US Congress allowed Tennessee to charter a number of academies.  Porter Academy in Maryville was one of those chartered in Blount County.  The present day Porter Elementary School in Maryville has a history of Porter Academy on the school's website as well as the historical marker shown below.   A few weeks ago I spent time looking through the Blount County, Tennessee, Deed Book 1, 1795-1819, abstracted by Jane Kizer Thomas.  I must have found close to 20 entries for James Houston, many of which involved buying, selling, or receiving property for Porter Academy.  Each transaction included a list of trustees for Porter Academy, and there would be James Houston listed as a trustee of the school.

Porter Academy Historical Marker
Maryville, Tennessee
James Houston turned out to be one of those distant relatives who I've hate to let go.  To me, he had been like one of those late-night infomercials, claiming " ... but wait, there's more!"  And there has been.  In addition to serving our country through a number of military enlistments, in peace time James served as an early court magistrate and sheriff, was an early appointee in the short-lived State of Franklin, served as  Clerk of the Court in Blount County for many years, was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1796, signed the Tennessee Constitution of 1796, and was involved in the direction of education in Blount County.  Thanks for the history lesson, James.

(1)  James Houston, portrait. Blount County Courthouse, Maryville, Tennessee,

(2) C. Hammett, extractor, from "1783 Greene County, TN Tax List" by Mrs. Louise Wilson Reynolds, published April 1919, D.A.R. Magazine, reprinted in The Overmountain Men by Pat Alderman, Johnson City, TN :  Overmountain Press, 1970, pp. 239 and 242. All [bracketed] words are additions by C. Hammett; extraction accessed on

(3) Ray, Worth S, Tennessee Cousins : a History of Tennessee People, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc, 1950. 

(4) John Sevier, Justice of the Peace Commissions, 14 Apr 1785; Volunteer Voices,

(5)  "John Sevier", The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, version 2.0

(6) Burgner, Goldene Fillers.  Greene County, Tennessee Minutes of the Court of Common Pleas, 1783-1795.  Ensley, SC : Southern Historical Press, 1982.

(7) The Goodspeed History of Tennessee from the Earliest Times to the Present, Nashville, TN:  Goodspeed, 1886-1887.

(8) "Tennessee Petition, 1822-1823", database, Tennessee State Library and Archives,

(9) Alderman, Pat, The Overmountain Men, Johnson City, TN :  Overmountain Press, 1970.

(10) Barnhart, John D. "The Tennessee Constitution of 1796: a Product of the Old West"  Journal of Southern History, vol. 9, no. 4, Nov 1943,

(11) Tennessee Constitution, 1796, Tennesse Virtual Archive of the Tennessee State Library and Archives,

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