By Robert C. Hunt, Chattanooga, Tenn.
The first white man known to have settled in the Huntsville area was an Indian trader by the name of John Ditto and usually referred to as “Old Man Ditto”.1 Ditto’s Landing was located at the present site of Whitesburg on the Tennessee River about ten miles south of Huntsville.2 Supplies were brought down the river from East Tennessee and unloaded at Ditto’s Landing from which point they were carried by pack horse to the settlers in the Big Bend of the River. He is said to have operated a ferry.
It is well established that Joseph and Isaac Criner were the first settlers to actually build a home and work the soil in what was to be Madison County.3 Isaac Criner related how his brother’s wife baked bread for John Hunt and Andrew Bean when they stopped over night at the cabin near New Market on their way to the Big Spring in the fall of 1804. Criner said that both men went back to Tennessee, Bean settling on Bean’s Creek in Franklin County and Hunt returning to the Big Spring.
Built a two-room cabin
It seems certain that John Hunt with the aid of his two oldest boys, William and George, built a two-room cabin near the Spring in the fall of 1804 or the spring of 1805. We are told that William felled the first tree to go into that house and shot the last bear to be killed in the vicinity of the Spring.4
A large family had to be moved and cattle driven from East Tennessee but there is little doubt that the Hunt’s were well established in their new home by the summer of 1805.
David Larkin, Jr., the eleven-year-old son of John Hunt’s friend and companion in Virginia and East Tennessee, according to tradition had a great adventure helping to drive the cattle. Later as a merchant in Larkinsville, Alabama, this boy was to drive cattle to market at New Orleans and Augusta.
These frontiersmen, for the most part of Scotch-Irish descent, in the years just before and after the Revolution, spread to Wie southwest through the valleys of Virginia and into East Tennessee. The route known as the Wilderness Road turned to the northwest through the Cumberland Gap and on into Kentucky along the route followed by Boone.5 Rockbridge, Botetourt, and Fincastle Counties lay in the path of the route and from this Southwest section of Virginia the families of Hun, Acklen, and Larkin moved into East Tennessee. It seems that families moved together in those days for they later went to Middle Tennessee and North Alabama.
Will of Henry Larkin
The will of Henry Larkin was probated in Botetourt County, Virginia in the year 1773. His son, David Larkin, born in 1752 and mentioned above, was a contemporary of John Hunt. With their families, they arrived in Hawkins County, East Tennessee about the time that Rogersville was settled and from there moved on to Franklin County, then considered West Tennessee. John Hunt’s son, David, married David Larkin’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth, in Winchester on February 25, 1806. The facts available confirm the tradition that John Hunt emigrated from Virginia sometime before the Revolutionary War. 6
John Hunt is usually referred to as a soldier in the War for Independence but this fact has not been established. He was, however, an experienced fighting man because in the year 1790 when the Territory South of the Ohio River was established Governor Blount appointed John Hunt, Captain of Militia, and David Larkin, Justice of the Peace, for Hawkins County. These men were sworn into office at Rogersville by Judge David Campbell on Wednesday, November 3, 1790.7 John continued to move toward the West and we next hear of him in Tazewell, Tennessee about forty miles from Rogersville and just below Cumberland Gap.
Tennessee had become a state in 1796 and when Claiborne County was formed of parts of Hawkins and Grainger Counties by Act of October 29, 1801, the County was organized at the house of John Owens on December 7, 1801, and county officials, among them David Rogers, Sheriff, were elected. ”
The last named, David Rogers, was unable to give bond and John Hunt, Sr. was elected to fill the vacancy. The next term of court, (Court of Pleas and Sessions) was held at the house of John Hunt who lived on the site of Tazewell.”
Old Huntsville, Alabama
Lay off town of Tazewell
A commission was appointed to lay off the town to be known as Tazewell, “the site was chosen upon land occupied by John Hunt, Sr, and doubtless owned by him.” John Hunt, Jr. was a member of the first grand jury. ”
The Methodist early made Tazewell a preaching place. Bishop Asbury in his journal speaks of preaching “at Hunt’s at Claiborne Court house on October 14, 1802.” The records show that John Hunt, Sr. served as Sheriff of Claiborne County from 1801 until 1804 and that his son, John Hunt, Jr., was Sheriff of the County from 1820 through 1836.8
But this man kept on the move and in the year 1804 when the term as Sheriff that had been thrust upon him had ended, Hunt and Bean left their homes in East Tennessee to find the Big Spring they had heard of located on land claimed by both Cherokee and Chickasaw Nations not far south of the Tennessee state line.
According to the account of Anne Royall,9 early woman journalist, written after a visit to Huntsville in 1818, these two picturesque Irish frontiersmen pulled up their horses at the bank of a stream to be known as Bean’s Creek near the present site of Salem, Tennessee and about forty miles to the north of their destination. ”
Hunt looked for better locations
This stop brought a change in Bean’s plans. Beside a blazing fire and suspended quarters of deer and bear, he decided that this spot was the site he wanted for his cabin. The music of the creek, stars shining through the heavy forest, fertile soil, pure water and a bountiful supply of game seemed too ideal a setting to pass by. He informed his friend of his conviction. ”
Hunt, however, believed there were better locations ahead and shoved on alone the next morning. After a march along the old Winchester Trail, he came out upon a bluff. Closer examination revealed this to be an immense spring which flowed away to the West to a broad marsh well stocked with fish and surrounded by game So this was John Hunt’s introduction to the site where the town bearing his name was to be started.”
Anne Royall described Hunt as “standing 5 feet 10 inches in height, his 180 pounds were a mass of flexible steel. His courage and endurance were immeasurable. He was fond of hardships, adventure and daring but he was valued most among those early frontiersmen for his caution.”
Importance in Madison County
Hunt played an important part in opening up Madison County. When an order was issued for a public road from Winchester, Tennessee to Ditto’s Landing, now Whitesburg, the old trail over which most of the early settlers came down into this section, the pioneer was selected as a guide.
He led a party of 40 men, a part of whom served as guards for the Indians bitterly opposed the road. These men blazed the trail and cleared the route from Whitesburg, by the Big Spring and through New Market, to the Tennessee line.
When the surveyors, Thomas Freeman and John W. Garyson, came in 1808 to run the original boundary lines of Madison County,” with their instruments packed on horses, they came directly to Hunt’s cabin and employed him to guide them in their way” The original county as laid out, was in the shape of a triangle with its base on the Tennessee River. Lands belonging to the Cherokees bordered the county on the East and hunting grounds of the Chickasaws lay to the west.
The white settlers were pushing further and further into the lands belonging to the Indians. In a few years, Andrew Jackson was to pass through Huntsville many times in his campaigns against the Creeks, The following account of this early American journalist is all that we know of John Hunt’s part in the battles between the early settlers and the Indians.
Painting of Big Spring and water works in Huntsville ca. 1850 by Laura Bassett (Alabama Department of Archives and History
Big Jim was a staunch friend
“In his many treks among the Indians, Hunt made one staunch friend. He was Big Jim, a member of the Cherokee Nation. Often they met in the forest and talked to one another in the savage’s sign language. Their customary meeting place was a spot east of Byrd’s Spring Branch.
“On one occasion Hunt found a message carved by the Indian upon a tree near the spot where they met. The caricature showed a buck running toward the Indian Nation, while on the opposite side of the tree, toward the white settlement, was outlined a heart pierced by an arrow.
“Hunt understood the warning and assembled the whites at once. The Indians had not declared war but he knew that they planned to surprise the settlers in the valley and drive them from their hunting grounds. Ten days later, the Indians, discovered in a swamp, were attacked and defeated.”
Why did he not buy land?
There has been much speculation about why John Hunt didn’t buy the land he had settled. Some say he was tricked by Leroy Pope. The facts do not justify this for Pope paid a good price for the land, $23.52 per acre, and the circumstances do not indicate that there was any trickery involved. Others say that he was not financially able to pay for the land. He could not have been a wealthy man but the census of Madison County of 1809 shows that he owned five slaves.
It just may be that he didn’t want the land. Boone didn’t buy the land he settled. We first heard of him when he left the Yadkin country of North Carolina, next in East Tennessee and then in Kentucky. But Boone continued to push westward and died in Missouri. These men were explorers and adventurers.
After Leroy Pope acquired the large tract that includes a good portion of Huntsville, at his request, the Territorial Legislature gave the town the name of Twickenham. This was the name of the home of the English poet and his kinsman, Alexander Pope. Before that time the location had been known as Hunt’s Big Spring. For some reason, a later session of the Legislature changed the name to Huntsville. It will be remembered that the British opposed the settlement of the West and incited the Indians against the pioneers; so it is not hard to believe that these people preferred naming the town for the old Irish frontiersman. Some say that Hunt had left this area when the town was named for him in 1811. He was there in 1809 for the census of that year lists him as the head of a family of eight.
No mention of wife
Nowhere in the records, letters or traditions of these people is there any mention of his wife. The chances are that she did not reach the Big Spring but was buried somewhere along the trail. There are, however, records and letters written by his sons, David and John, Jr., and we know something of them.
David served as a Major with Jackson in the War of 1812. His great grandchildren live on the old home place at Huntland in Franklin County and the Larkins are still there too. John, Jr. went to Missouri and died there in 1847. His children were pioneers in California.
George Hunt was born February 14, 1787, lived for a time in Talladega County, Alabama, and moved to Texas with his wife, Lydia Campbell Hunt, in 1837. They lived in Washington County, Texas, where he died August 22, 1838.
William remained in Alabama and probably died in Huntsville.
When and where John Hunt died is not known. More than likely the old man spent his last days with one of the children. There were no rest homes in those days but we believe there were taverns where old hunters could get together and swap stories about the good old days 10
Tazewell July 10th 1826
Dear Brother — Misfortune has at length induced me to write to you; and as my loss is one of no ordinary magnitude, I should reflect on myself were I to withhold it from you. My eldest daughter (Polly) is dead. She was taken on the 29th, June with the fever & died after an illness of six days on the 5th July inst. To have had a family for twenty years & upwards, & never to have been crossed with a misfortune of this kind before; to have raised a blooming & promising daughter to the age of 18 years, and then to have her swept away, by the chill blasts of deaths’ destructive storm, is a circumstance that has inflicted upon my heart a wound that nothing can ever heal while my memory serves me. But when I reflect that our loss is her infinite gain, the heaving sigh & gushing tear are for a moment checked. She gave the most unequivocal evidence of her acceptance with God & seemed to shrink at the cold touch of death with perfect tranquility & without a groan or a murmur. She injoined it on me & all the family, to get religion & meet her in Heaven. And I feel at this moment a resolution to try and obey her injunction. To be told by a dying and affectionate daughter, in the last agonies of death, “Father I want you to meet me in Heaven is a solicitation that none but the most obdurate heart could withstand; it has created feelings in my bosom that I hope may never be erased. She sung in her last moments part of the following lines-—
“When we have been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We have no less days to sing Gods praise,
Than when we first begun”
Part of these lines she sung distinctly, after death had stamped his gloomy seal on her countenance, which caused tears of Gratitude to God to flow, particularly from her mother, as well as regret for her death. Excuse me for having consumed this much of your time in this Melancholly detail, but It is the circustance that I could write to you about, that would either interest you or myself. The ballance of the family are well. Our corn crops are good, wheat crops quite inferior. I continue to be sheriff yet, but am almost induced to quit from the hardship of the times. I shall probably come to see you this fall, if my business in Alabama is not otherwise adjusted. You will surely not neglect writing to me soon, if you do, I shall consider it a breach of that friendship which I so fondly hope exists between us.
My wife and family join most fervently in a tender of their love and esteem to you all I remain your brother by love as well as by nature
Hunt Be so good as to show this to as many of your brothers & sisters as will be convenient — as it will be too tedious to write to them all — I shall however write to sister Elizabeth Acklin. J. H.
Tasewell T July 12th 18 3/6
Mr. David Hunt Salorn
Franklin Cty W.T. Mail
Salim Nov 7th 1830
I this day ese Mr. Wedington In this place and stats to me that he saw you in the monty of July and you stated to him that you had Wrote Several times to this Country and had Not Reed any answer I Can Just Say the Same for I have Written I think this is five Letters and have Never Reed, but two from you and your mother is Very oneasy about you by reason of not hearing from you oftener then What we doe But the distance is so great probel the Letter has been miscaried by neglect of the post masters We are all Well Except your mother She has been onwell for some ten or fifteen days but is Now on the mend
I Wrote to you about 15 days Since Which if you Receive Will give you Some of the perticulars of our Country your Relations are all Well So far as my knowledge Extends Clinton is Living with your uncle David William Came from Thare three day ago they are all Well our Crops gather in Very Short We have had no Rain Since the Second day of August until the 2th Day of this Inst we had a Small Shower
Nothing more but Remain your affectionat father and Mother till Death P.B. write to us as often as posebul the Children all Send thare Complement
David Elizabeth Hunt
John C. Hunt Arcansis
Territory Near fort Gipson
Larkinsville July 28 – 1835
Dr Brother Opportunity offers & I drop you a few lines as I did not know yesterday that I would have this oportunity I sent you a letter by the mail I am in good Health Clinton can give you all the news I will be over sometime if nothing happens Your friend & brother
Wm. B. Hunt
David L. Hunt
By C. A. Hunt
Larkinsville, Ala. March 4th 1835
Dear Sarah I Red your favour by the hand of uncle Davia stating your health & love for your Teacher which was pleasing to me I am glad that you are pleased to be a good girl & learn as fast as you can try & stand head in your class I will come and see you when I can I am busily Engaged hardly have time to write you an answer to your letter Clinton will be at home before long and can give you all the news write to me when you have an oportunity I believe it is more than my older Sisters will do I will bring you a present when I come for your love Remembered towards me give my love to all your little Cousins and Father & Mother, tell Polly, Jane & Ara that I would like to see a letter from them — your friend & Brother Wm. B. Hunt P,S, I will be at ***** as Uncle David * * * Philadelphia & Back & I ******* before I could not read all your
letter what I could not read I guessed at — I would be glad to see you all when I come I will stay the longer Wm. B. Hunt
Miss Sarah A. Hunt
Salem Tenn Franklin Cty.
Taladega 17th – Sept 1836 Dr Brother our troops have just past this place I am going on them Uncle George and William are both here they say the family are all well I am going home with them to night I am in good health and well pleased I want you to go and tend to my business after your time is out in Salem for I have no idea of getting home again that time we are going to Florida we were mustered into Service in claysville on the 8th give my respects to all your friend and Brother Wm B Hunt TALLADEGA
Sept 20 AL (postmark)
George W. Hunt Esq
Salem Franklin Cty Ten.
In camps near Talahasse Florida Oct 27th — 1836
Dear Brother I have just read your letter dated 7th which gave me considerable Satisfaction I had just Started you a letter by Mr. Stovall but think it not amis to let you know that I have received your letter I have nothing more to write than what I Said of you in my letter of yesterday I am still well in fine spirits & think we will whip the indians easily I dislike vary much going on the gulph but cannot help it. I have no fear or dred on my mind but what I will see you all in Tennessee again & before I would disgrace myself or relations I would face the mouth of the blazing cannon and be torn asunder I know that this is what will establish a mans character if we are brave & Stand up to what is honorable and right in defence of our country & Should be cut off from time our names will live after we are no more if we escape our names will live with us
Wm B Hunt
I wrote to Clinton by Capt Roberts he said it would take him about ten days to return to his company Clinton is where letters cannot rech him only by express you can write to me at Tampy Bay our battalion will be nearest that point & I will always have an oportunity of getting your letters tell Father & Mother to give themselves no uneasiness about me I fair four times as well as I had any Idea of before I left home and I know that you all think that we See wors times than we do the Tennessee have seen some hard time since they have been in the nation on account of provisions but we came out with that expectation we will have the advantage of them on account of being nearest the bay where all the provisions will land & I expect have the most indians to fight. Your friend & Brother
Wm. B. Hunt
St. Marks 31st October 1836
Dear friends I am now about to set Sail our horses are on board the Schooner Howel I hope we will have a delightful trip the Capt says that we can Sail to Tampy bay in thirty six hours if we have a fair wind it will just depend upon the wind it has taken Seventeen days Genl Jessep says that he will complete the business we came here for in ten days after he commences his operations the Indians are forted in the forks of the two Arthlacoochys the object in our gowing by water is to get on the opposite side of them Call will be on this side Armstrong in the forks we will all commence operation at the same time they will have no possible chance to effect a retreat & it will not be as has hear heretofore if Christ be for us the indians cant fase us Give my love to all the friends Yours
Wm B Hunt
S. MARK Mr, George W. Hunt
Nov. 2 Salem Franklin County Tennessee
Near Fort Brooks Tampa Bay E.F.
May 4th 1837
Dear Clinton I take a pleasure in writing you a fiew lines to give you the news of this country when I sent you the first last and only scrap that I have since you left this place my calculations were at that time that we would have been released from the service before this time, & that I should have seen you, but unfortunately for us the Indians have failed to comply with their promise and there is none of them off yet; There has been some fifteen or twenty vessals in the Bay for the last two months ready for emigration, but the indians ask for a longer time than was given them from the commencement of the treaty they wanted till fall & I believe they will have it yet. I have no idea that they will ever pretend to fight any more but they are slow about coming in and will have their own time about getting away for it would be impossible to force them in at this Season of the year The country is remarkably warm and sickly they die daily more or less about the Bay our situation is more healthy we are three miles up the Hillsborouh from the fort at a tolerable good Spring for this country we have lost eight men by sickness out of this Batalion Capt. John Smith was one of that number he died on the 22nd April in the hospital after an illness of three months & some days & on the 2-May an election took place to fill the vacancy I was promoted to the honourable office after a third ballotting George Peters was my worthy opponent We were tied the two first ballotings in the morning it was then postponed till evening at which time I got a majority of one vote. We have sent home about eighty men from the Battalion who were in a delicate state of health but there are more falling every day. I am in perfect good health myself I hope this may find you with all the friends enjoying the like blessing my respects to all.those who may honour me with an inquiry. Wm B. Hunt
PS, write to me at this place it is uncertain when we will leave
Tampa Fa May 8, 1837
Clinton A. Hunt Esq.
Salem Franklin County Tennessee
In camp near Talahassee June 3, 1837
Dear Clinton this is to inform you of my arrival we landed at this place on yesterday evening left Tampa 22nd May making it in ten days 311 miles with a train of waggons we are ordered to Fort Mitchell Ala. to be under the comd. of Gov. Clay, We will leave this again in the morning & make Fort Mitchell in Eight days I wish we may have orders to march home by the time we arrive at that place if So we will be at home the 1st July. I have lost my horse but will never grumble nor ask for help as long as I am able to travel there are not more than Eighty mounted men in the Battalion, I am in good health my Self but it is not a general thing give my respects to all the friends I have not reed a letter from any of my friends since Dec. 1836 & have wrote a great many
C A Hunt & All friends
Wm B. Hunt Capt
Comd cap Ala. Vol.
June 4 1837 FLA.
Clinton A. Hunt Esq
Franklin County W. Tenn.
Alabama Jackson Cty. 17 Nov. 1839 Honoured mother I take the opportunity of informing you of my own and Clintons health I landed over safe the day I started and Clinton the Wednesday following, we are both at the river at this time and Clinton still keeps mending every day and I am able to gow hard at work I expect to stay with Clinton till Christmas and then I will return perhaps to stay. I have just came from the cove and they are all well, as for business we are getting along ^tolerably well we have not got our jin completed yet give my compliments to all friends to Miss Fanny in perticular I have nothing more but remain your loving Son
W. B. Hunt Maj.
W. Tennessee Salem
1Huntsville Times — September 11, 1955
2“The next day (October 12, 1813) he (Andrew Jackson) joined the cavalry (under Coffee) at Ditto’s Landing on the Tennessee below the outpost settlement of Huntsville/* Andrew Jackson by Marquis James. Page 157.
3“Away back when I lived in Huntsville, I was told by Mr. George Shwartz, who was especially interested in Tennessee River history, that old Captain Matthew Mahan had told him that as a boy, hanging around the Huntsville taverns, he heard much discussion regarding the first man in the county. The concensus was that Hunt was the first to live here, but he was a hunter; Ditto was also in about the same time but he operated a ferry, and that my husband’s ancestor, Isaac Crimer was the first to actually till the soil.” Letter, September 8, 1951 — Mrs. Howard C. Jones, Sr. New Market, Alabama to Robert C. Hunt.
4“William Hunt cut the first tree that ever went into a house where Huntsville now stands. He also killed the last bear that was killed near the Spring — and that occurred between the Bank and the Court House. Dr. Stanhope C. Smith told me of these matters and he had them from his father and William Hunt.” Letter, William E. Skeggs, grandson of William Hunt, Decatur, Alabama to Ben P. Hunt, Huntsville, April 2, 1901
5“William Hunt cut the first tree that ever went into a house where Huntsville now stands. He also killed the last bear that was killed near the Spring — and that occurred between the Bank and the Court House. Dr. Stanhope C. Smith told me of these matters and he had them from his father and William Hunt.” Letter, William E. Skeggs, grandson of William Hunt, Decatur, Alabama to Ben P. Hunt, Huntsville, April 2, 1901
6During the year of Henry Larkin’s death, 1772, “the congregations of Ebbing and Sinking Springs on Holstin’s River, Fincastle, County, presented a call to the Reverend Charles Cummings signed on behalf of the congregation by William Blackburn, John Hunt, John Robinson, and Christopher Acklin.” Annals of Southwest Virginia. Every generation of Hunts from the sons of John to the present day has had a “William Blackburn.”
7Vol. IV, Territorial Papers of the U.S. Southwest Territory, Page 436-7.
8Goodspeed, East Tennessee Editions. Claiborne County, Page 847-8-9.
9Huntsville Times, January 26, 1936. Article by Pat Jones-Letters of Anne Royall published about 1919.
10Henrietta Hunt married Calvin Morgan of Huntsville and their son, John Hunt Morgan, the famous calveryman of the Civil War, was born in Huntsville. Her father was John Wesley Hunt of Louisville, Kentucky. Life of John Hunt Morgan by Cecil Holland.
ALABAMA FOOTPRINTS Pioneers: Lost & Forgotten Stories includes the following stories:
- The Yazoo land fraud
- Daily life as an Alabama pioneer
- The capture and arrest of Vice-president Aaron Burr
- The early life of William Barrett Travis, hero of the Alamo
- Description of Native Americans of early Alabama including the visit by Tecumseh
- Treaties and building the first roads in Alabama.
See larger image