Chester Martin Remembers Old Washington And Some Twists And Turns Of His Mom's Family History

Thursday, September 29, 2016 - by Chester Martin

Think "East Tennessee". And think of the backwoods of the year 1828 when my great-grandmother was born - on a farm, of course - "in the beautiful hills in the midst of Roane County", as an old song says.

She was Elizabeth Sarah Willett, the daughter of Enoch Willett, Sr., and the former Elizabeth Ford of the Grassy Cove community. John Ford, her mother’s father, had been a soldier in the Revolutionary War.

At age 17, in 1845, she married my great-grandfather, Nathaniel Henry Smith, and the young couple wasted no time in moving from the Tennessee River port of Kingston, down to Washington, Tn., another thriving port on that river. They had inherited some far-flung and scattered land in that area, which they meant to claim.

One bit of their new inheritance included land beside the well-known Washington Ferry which was in existence for over 100 years, and was already a well-established Tennessee antiquity and landmark at that time. Grandfather Nat was an expert cabinetmaker and master carpenter, soon building an inn beside the ferry which welcomed river travelers. He set up his woodworking business in one room of the inn, and both these businesses prospered simultaneously. Their first child was a daughter, my great aunt, Eliza. This aunt married John Wyrick, and they settled at New Market, Tn., northeast of Knoxville. I can barely remember her from my childhood - and the charming house in which she lived.

Second child was a son, whom the whole family came to respect and adore, as he became a Methodist minister of the Holston Conference following his education at Emory University. I have already written a sketch of his life. He was my mother's uncle, of course, and she always called him Uncle J. Wesley, or simply, Uncle. He wrote scientific articles for the Atlanta Constitution and also some popular books. When his father, Nathaniel, went off to fight for the Southern cause in our Civil War, Uncle J. Wesley - in his mid teens - stayed home to tend the family farm and assist his mother and siblings. Life in Rhea County was rough in those days as the county was strongly divided between northern and southern sympathies. When the news hit Old Washington that the North had won the battles of Chattanooga and Chickamauga, some neighbors who favored the North celebrated that event by burning down my great-grandfather's inn on the river banks!  Fortunately, they also had a town-house inside Old Washington - a refuge to which they moved.

Enough said about those perilous times in Rhea County, as my focus is now mainly on the small town of Washington, Rhea County’s first county seat, before Dayton. Washington suddenly began to shrink immediately after a railroad was put through going north from Chattanooga. This railroad went through Dayton, several miles to the west, drying up Washington's economy and causing its continuing decline. The population largely all went away in search of new livelihoods. My great-grandparents, Nathaniel Henry and Elizabeth Smith, tenaciously held on to their home in Washington - and their house stood, constantly occupied, until within the last 10 years, (although not by any of my kinspeople).

As time passed, the many brick buildings of Washington disappeared. I have personally seen those buildings go away one-by-one. The Chattanooga Times used to report the loss of buildings there, when tornados, fire, and other acts of nature took them away. As the original county seat of Rhea County, Washington had had a fine brick courthouse, jail, nice homes, taverns and inns which all went away. John Wilson, publisher of this influential online newspaper, can personally attest to having seen many of those buildings in his early days as a reporter for the Chattanooga News - Free Press. As the population declined, leaving a virtual ghost-town, the once bustling village of Washington, Tn., acquired the name, "Old" Washington. And that is what my grandmother Smith/Young and my mom called it. Fact is that my mother could hardly say the name Washington without prefacing it with "old"! And that is how it was among all the people privy to knowledge of Washington's past.

I have a second cousin in up-state New York who descends through John Wesley Smith's line (he's the Methodist minister, above). This cousin makes very occasional trips through that Old Washington area of Rhea County and is as puzzled as I am about that community's total disappearance. Last time I was there (about five years ago) I could find not one building from the past. I have even searched on Google Earth to no avail. Nothing is left. Not even a roadside plaque stating that “ONCE A TOWN CALLED WASHINGTON, TENNESSEE STOOD HERE”.

I ask myself how so many BRICK structures could have vanished so completely without a trace, and that question remains, embedded in my subconscious mind - probably forever. Road construction for the new bridge which spelled doom for the ancient ferry surely had something to do with the matter, but it could NOT have wiped out an entire town. Approach to the new bridge is not very wide - certainly no super-highway...

Fortunately, I heard a few lively tales about Old Washington from my grandmother. Some of those are recorded in a book called, "The Road I Came", by Paul Jordan-Smith - son of the Methodist minister. My mother liked silly things and she liked to tell about the little dog that swam the river to stay with relatives on the far side of the river whenever he got tired of those on this side. Then, when he got tired of THEM he would swim back.(Remember that the Tennessee River was more a natural river back then before TVA created wide "lakes", so the distance across was substantially less than today). I was fortunate to have a tape recorder in the early 1960's and I got to make a tape of my mom's first cousin, Jim Young, who then lived in Dayton, and her closest living relative on earth! On it he told about "playing around on the jail grounds" when a boy growing up in Old Washington. (I was also surprised to hear him refer to my grandmother as "Aunt" Mattie - the only person I ever heard call her "aunt").

Somewhere online I found a vintage map of Washington, Tn.,, published by the Tennessee Department of Transportation. It indeed shows a meticulously well-laid-out small town with Court House, jail, and one or two churches. My great-grandparents supposedly lived on "Livingston Street" which is clearly shown on that map, however it does not agree with the site I was shown by my mom, who got the location straight from HER mom (who grew up in it!) So that shows you how mystifying and frustrating family researches can be. You must always keep an open mind, and be willing to give up some "sacred" bit of information you have erroneously treasured and believed in all your life. Be prepared to do a lot of revising, for sure!

As an interesting sidebar to all of the above, my great-grandmother had a brother, Enoch Willett, Jr., who sold all his possessions in Roane County to go "west" to "trade with the Indians". His wife, and possibly one other family member went with him. They dropped out of sight for a long time - perhaps years - before word came that they had all been killed in an Indian massacre in Texas. Curious to pry into that matter, I used Google Earth to find the roadside marker giving the name "Enoch Willett", and the others, who had died in the same massacre. They are buried in a tiny but well-marked cemetery in a kind of triangle between the confluence of two roads. The terrain is as desolate as Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, and one can only wonder what the attraction was to lead them to such a god-forsaken spot!

My great-grandmother, Elizabeth Sarah (Willett) Smith, moved to Chattanooga following the death of my grandfather, James Lyde Young. She lived for several years with my mom and grandmom before dying at age 84 (in 1912). She is buried in Forest Hills Cemetery here. Name on her stone is simply "E.S. Smith”. And for some unexplained reason her husband - my great-grandfather - Nat Smith, is buried in an UN-MARKED grave in Mynatt Cemetery, Old Washington, Tennessee! No one today understands how or why that happened, for, among all his children there was certainly enough money to pay for a decent stone marker.

These ramblings are meaningless to most of you I am certain. But there is hope that in writing a story like this some future researcher might happen upon just the “right” detail or scrap of information to make his own work more authentic. It might also tip someone off as to the pitfalls of family research, as stated earlier. It is incredible how much easier the Internet has made things for the modern researcher, with such programs as Ancestry and My Heritage, but can also just lead you down a dead-end more quickly than by the traditional, more old-fashioned methods!

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )



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