"Father Of Chattanooga" Samuel Williams Was Illiterate, Lousy Bookkeeper, But He Had A Vision (First Of A Series)

Tuesday, February 12, 2019 - by John Wilson
Samuel Williams
Samuel Williams

The man known as "the father of Chattanooga" was illiterate and a lousy bookkeeper, but he had a vision about the future of a little place on the Tennessee River surrounded by mountains in all directions.

That is the portrait of Samuel Williams that emerges from hundreds of fascinating pages of a long-running Williams lawsuit that were found last March by workers remodeling an old building across from the County Courthouse. 

Historian Zella Armstrong said of Samuel Williams, "He was first, evidently, to see the future possibilities of the place." 

She added, "Capt. Williams saw the future possibilities of the village, and in 1837, he began to organize a company to buy real estate from the citizen occupants."

A business associate of Samuel Williams said. "He first seemed to have grasped the idea that there was a grand future to some city located on the Tennessee River, and that Ross's Landing was the place. He it was who interested and inspired others with his own faith in its future." 

Samuel Williams arrived in 1833 when the territory south of the Tennessee River was still Indian territory. But that did not stop him from moving his brother's store from the foot of Walden's Ridge across the river to Ross's Landing. G&S Williams was set up on the site where Cherokee Chief John Ross and his brother, Lewis Ross, had a trading post two decades earlier.

Samuel Williams soon formed a fast friendship and business partnership with Col. James A. Whiteside, who captured the same vision and was adroit at putting the scheme into effect.

Col. Whiteside, in one of several depositions he gave in the lawsuit, said, "I became acquainted with G.W. and Samuel Williams in 1837. In 1838, I moved from Bledsoe County to Ross's Landing (now Chattanooga). They were in business as merchants and general partners in trading. I lived near them and that year I think entered in partnership with them as merchants and traders and in the purchase of occupancy rights and preferences of entry, and in the entry of lands in the Ocoee District."

After the vote in Congress to forcibly remove the Cherokees from their native land, the Tennessee General Assembly in November 1837 created the Ocoee Land District. An entry taker's office was set up at Cleveland - it being a more sizable place than Ross's Landing.

The price of the land was set at $7.50 per acre. Those who had moved onto the land had preference.

At the time of the creation of the Ocoee Land District, only 53 people were living in what later became downtown Chattanooga. These included Samuel Williams, who was residing in a house on Market Street.

Still another intrepid early Ross's Landing settler was Capt. John Pomfret Long, who also was quick to recognize the landing's future prospects. He felt that "the Iron Horse" would eventually break through the mountains and reach this place. He said, "I found here all the requirements to build the future city. Pleasantly situated on the bank of the Tennessee River, with high bold banks extending to the water's edge, which had already been utilized by the Indians as a ferry and boat landing, known far and near as Ross's Landing, being the first high ground and suitable harbor above the mountains. From this central point radiate several valleys. Even the wild buffalo in the dim past with their natural instinct had selected this as their great crossing, as their paths were plainly marked."

Capt. Long said in a deposition, "My first visit to Ross's Landing was about August 1835. The Williams had goods there in partnership. They continued in partnership in goods until the summer of 1841. A portion of the time they had other partners in the concern. They sold out to me in 1841. The stock of goods amounted to $4,700. I paid about $1,000 down. I made a note to James A. Whiteside for $2,400 or $2,500."

Samuel Williams' brother, George Washington Williams Jr., was selected along with Capt. Long and Aaron M. Rawlings by the 28 persons living in the northeast quarter section as commissioners to represent them in connection with the occupant claims.

Col. Whiteside was a lawyer with far-flung contacts. He had gone into the state House in 1835, then was elected senator in 1837. He was among the state's leading railroad boosters and he began to exert every effort he could to insure that rail lines planned south from Nashville and north from (the future) Atlanta had Chattanooga as their terminus.

Whiteside was often on the road on horseback back and forth between Nashville and as far as Baltimore and Augusta. He made one trip by horse to Milledgeville, then the state capital, to lobby for Chattanooga as the ending point for the Western and Atlantic Railroad - rather than Rossville or Harrison.

Col. Whiteside joined forces with the Williams brothers, though he said, "They were uneducated men and without any of the proper qualifications of merchants. Neither of them could keep books properly, nor did either of them know when books were properly kept. They had no order, system, or regularity in their mercantile business. And, when fairly into it, could not from their mode of business tell their actual condition so loosely and negligently did they conduct it and permit it to become blended with all their other transactions."  

Though George Jr. was illiterate, he wanted his two sons to be learned. There is one notation of a payment for tuition at a school at Sulphur Spring, Ala., on Aug. 12, 1842. The payment was from George Williams Jr. to Rogers & Collins for $1.46. 

Col. Whiteside said, "I was also their partner in the following year (1839) in the purchase and sale of stock cattle taken to the Virginia market, and also for one or two subsequent years. Our business was extensive and complicated, and I was in almost constant intercourse with them up to the time of our dissolution and settlement, and indeed up to the time of the death of G.W. and since his death with Samuel Williams up to the present time."

Samuel and G.W. Williams secured a charter for The Hargrove Company on Feb. 5, 1838. Their moneyed backers were Zachariah Hargrove, a banker and attorney from Rome, Ga., and Dr. Tomlinson Fort of Milledgeville, president of the Central Bank of Georgia and a former Congressman.

At the end of 1838, with Col. Whiteside now in town and with the Cherokees gone, a second Williams syndicate was formed. This was the Hines Company. It included Samuel Williams, Col. Whiteside and four Milledgeville men named Farish Carter, Richard Hines, George Lane and John Thomas. Lane was married to the daughter of the wealthy Ker Boyce of Charleston, S.C. Lane soon transferred his interest to Boyce.

Chattanooga afterward, in homage to the outside investment and vote of confidence, had a Boyce Street (later changed to Chestnut) and a Carter Street. Long Street is named for Capt. Long and Williams Street for Samuel Williams. Cowart Street is for Major John Cowart who also gave his deposition in the lawsuit.

Samuel Williams had little capital of his own, but his part of the endeavor was to search out property deals and to manage the far-flung land.

One notation says: "Paid taxes for the Hines lands, the Hargrove lands, the home place and Negroes of G&S Williams."

Col. Whiteside said Samuel Williams "has received the rent on a portion of the lands of the Hargrove and Fort Company. He managed a portion of this land. Nearly all the town lots were unimproved and unproductive. G&S Williams (a partnership of Samuel and George Jr.) owned two ninths of this land and lots. Samuel Williams has had litigation with John Vail and A.E. Blunt on a $1,200 claim by Vail. This was related to the purchase of lands of the Carter, Boyce and Hines Company. Eighty acres was purchased for $1,200 in 1839. Williams agreed to let Thomas Crutchfield have one-half of the interest purchased. Samuel Williams conveyed 40 acres to Boyce in 1842. The Williams firm used the money it received from Boyce for other purposes instead of paying for the land.

Col. Whiteside said, "Hargrove and Fort lands were mostly in Hamilton County and some in Marion County. Renters of Williams land included Lewis Hall, Lewis Tyner, John Tyner, John Sattee and William Cook. I attended to rent of lands below Chickamauga Creek. I owned an interest in all the tracts except the 26-acre one cultivated by Sattee, but Williams had no interest in it. G&S Williams owned two ninths of the tract where Lewis Hall field is situated. They had one-ninth interest in lands rented by Lewis Tyner and one ninth in lands rented by John Tyner and William Cook. Land on the southwest side of the creek was cultivated by Cornelius Milliken. They also owned a portion of land cultivated by Henry Cornett and land cultivated by James Lee. Remaining interest in these lands was by Tomlinson Fort, Ker Boyce, Farish Carter, William B. Wofford, Thomas J. Parks, two of the McAfees, John Bridgman, William Gardenhire and myself. William Gardenhire died before G.W. Williams."

He said the Hargrove Company partners met with Samuel Williams in May 1841 and "he rendered an account. He met with Carter, Fort and the executor for Hargrove (since he had died). After discussing the issue of the division and sale of the lands, it was decided that they should be for a time withheld from the market and remain undivided, and that each one should take evidence of his interest. I wrote a title bond to Carter for his interest and to Fort and the Hargrove executor for theirs. But, before the papers were prepared, Fort and Spurlock (the Hargrove executor) left Chattanooga. Carter remained, got his own bond, and took forward Fort and Hargroves. Before a final close, a discussion arose as to the superintendence of the lands, and the Williamses proposed to take them and keep them clear of all taxes, costs and charges, and in consideration of being allowed the rents. After signing the bonds, a clause was added by James S. Edwards to this effect, but the others did not sign it. They were in Chattanooga on the day G.W. Williams died to get their deeds or make some disposition of their lands. They decided to take their deeds and await a more favorable time for sale. Samuel Williams made these deeds and signed them two days after the death of G.W. Williams.

"There was again discussion of who should oversee the lands for the $20,000 investment of Boyce, Carter and Hines. It was decided that Samuel Williams and myself would oversee them. An agreement was signed by Ker Boyce and Farish Carter on Aug. 13, 1842. The same agreement was made with Dr. Fort - he having by this time obtained the Hargrove interest. 

"Samuel Williams had two-ninths of the land worked by Lewis Hall. In June 1848, there was a division with Carter, Boyce and Fort of the partnership lands. I and Samuel Williams became the owners of the remaining seven ninths of the Hall land. We soon sold to Hall at $20 per acre."

Col. Whiteside in 1850 recalled the earlier land syndicates. "As to who made the contract with Hargrove, Carter and Williams, I cannot inform you as it was made before I had any information of it. But if a contract with Carter, Boyce and Hines is alluded to for the investment on their account of $20,000 in Ocoee and other lands, I made it myself in December 1838. Williams was to advance one-third of the money, Carter one-third and Hargrove one-third. I also had an interest. Samuel Williams was representing George's interest.

"This agreement related to the Cherokee or Ocoee lands. The objective was to operate in river lands and in land contemplated to be near the terminus of the Western and Atlantic Railroad of Georgia on the Tennessee River. In the spring or summer of 1838, the Williams informed me (George first) of their contract with Hargrove and Carter. They desired my services in arranging their land papers. They were both active men but illiterate and did their business generally in a very confused, disorderly and unsystematic manner. I found their transfers defective and their description of land, in most cases, erroneous.

"Having made out a table of their purchases of occupation, I set about correcting their transfers and descriptions of land. While I was doing so, they proposed that I take an interest with them, and we agreed that I should take one-third of their third under the article with Hargrove and Carter, and pay one-third of the money. This let me into the purchases which they had previously made and I was in like manner and to the same extent to be interested in subsequent acquisitions. I was also to take a partnership with them in their store. And for my services then performed and afterwards in relation to the land was to be paid and afterwards was paid $600. 

"From the time I became connected with them, I kept the accounts of this land, running through the purchases of occupation, entries of land, and rendering account to distant partners. I risk nothing in saying that I understood G&S Williams' interest in these lands and what they were composed better than they did themselves. Before George Williams died, a settlement took place in connection with this land with Carter and with Hargrove."

There came a point a few years later when the land venture appeared to have been a failure.

Family friend Jeremiah Fryar of Lookout Valley said, "Land values were down in 1844 due to doubts about the railroad being completed or at least stopped."

Col. Whiteside said, "These lands were taken in 1838 and 1839 and, by the time it became necessary to close the partnership business of G&S Williams, from a suspension of the work on the Rail Road and a distrust of it ever being renewed and also by the dreadful sickness which had scourged the country where these lands lay, the price of them became so depressed that considering their scattered and complicated condition, they (I mean G&S Williams') interest would scarcely have sold for anything.

"I went myself to the South and appealed to the partners of Williams to purchase the interest, but they refused to do so at any price. And in being asked said they would not give 50 cents on the original cost. Under a hope that this investment would still turn out well, Samuel Williams desired to hold on to it and to save to his brother's children their part if possible. It might turn out a fortune. The original investment had yielded no funds - the proceeds of a first sale having been reinvested."

He recalled that Samuel Williams "was a resident of Ross's Landing at the setting up of the Ocoee District. All that I remember that they held out of the partnership was a lot bought of Rhea and Ross and one half of my own lot at Chattanooga. At a land sale, we bought it. If Samuel Williams had not bought it I do not believe it would have brought one-fourth of its original cost." 

Col. Whiteside lamented, "I do not believe these lands whether in small undivided interests or in whole tracts as surveyed or surveyed into quarter sections and fractions would have sold for half the amount of the cost. I frequently endeavored to sound the market and indeed could find none. I did so on the occasion of the Williams sale, endeavoring to induce the Southern Partners to purchase the Williams interest, but could not get them to do so. They had no interest to buy at any price. They seemed to look on their investments in these lands as almost a total loss and would not purchase any more. Recently, since an improvement in the health of the county which is taking place and since the resumption of work on the Rail Road, these lands and lots have greatly appreciated in value and I would say are now worth more than the original cost of preferences and entry money and interest on it."

* * * * * * * * * *

A remodeling project on Walnut Street unexpectedly turned up documents from Chattanooga's earliest days in March 2018.

Rob Bentley, a young man who has developed a love for Chattanooga's history, said he got a call from his friend Robert Parks about the discovery. His company, T. U. Parks, was doing the demolition and build-out of the former Elks Building at Walnut and Seventh and the small adjacent former Title Guaranty and Trust building.

Mr. Bentley, who works at the venerable Chattanooga firm of T.T. Wilson and Company, said, "When they were demoing the old vault the workers found the old documents. Robert went to look at them and a check made out to T.T. Wilson was on top of the pile so he called me to let me know what he had found. I asked him if they would stop the demo of the vaults so i could come take a  look at the papers.

"By the time I got to the job site some of the documents had already been thrown into the dumpster and destroyed. I loaded up all the documents I could save out of the dumpster and the ones not yet thrown away into my truck. I went home and organized them the best I could."

The cache included many other checks to pioneer Chattanooga businesses.

The retrieved items included some 800 pages of old documents related to a lawsuit against Chattanooga pioneer Samuel Williams. Some of the documents date to well before the Indian Removal and to the earliest days of Hamilton County.

Mr. Bentley later met with Sam Hall, who has been saving thousands of old Chattanooga photos and documents through his Deepzoom Chattanooga website (now ChattanoogaHistory.com).

Mr. Hall was excited about the find and began scanning the Williams legal documents. He scanned a large group that was saved before some were thrown in the dumpster. Those retrieved from the dumpster, he photographed. Portions of those documents had water damage so that about a fourth of each page cannot be read.

Some of the documents bear the signature of H.C. Beck, one of the founders of Title Guaranty and Trust. The title company later built a much-larger headquarters next door. Both are directly across from the County Courthouse.

Through the years, the upstairs portion of the initial Title Guaranty building was rented to attorneys, including Lewis Coleman, a protoge of Coca Cola bottling magnate Jack Lupton. It is believed that the papers that were located were from one of the attorneys renting the upstairs office or from the Title Guaranty operation itself.

Later the small building was merged with the Elks Building next door. The county named the pair of buildings the Mayfield Annex. The county in recent years vacated the buildings and they are being renovated by Lamp Post Properties, which has been restoring several downtown historic buildings for new uses.

The Williams documents can be read on ChattanoogaHistory.com. They are in two files - the undamaged scanned ones and the photographed pages with water damage. 

The links to the Williams papers on Sam Hall's website are here.




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