How His Brother's Failed Store Led Samuel Williams From Paint Rock To Ross's Landing (3rd In A Series)

Monday, February 18, 2019 - by John Wilson

The story is told in the remarkable Williams legal papers that were unearthed last March of how Samuel Williams was induced by his brother to leave Alabama and come to little Ross's Landing.

Samuel Williams, later known as "the Father of Chattanooga," at the time was ensconced in Paint Rock, Ala., where he had grown up. He and his wife, Rebecca, had a little daughter, Elizabeth.

Brother George Williams had gone up to Hamilton County and moved in with his ailing father, G.W. Sr. George Jr. then went to store keeping at the Williams home place near Mountain Creek. At one time he and his brother Silas kept a store in Lookout Valley. But George Jr. was not so well versed in business. And he had shrewd competitors like the Rawlings.

Col. James A. Whiteside tells the story best, "George W Williams very often gave me a history of his early life and commencement in business and of the motives for and manner of joining Samuel Williams in business. He has very often told me of his embarrassment in a small mercantile business which he was doing before the partnership, of the efforts of other merchants to break him down (particularly the Rawlings), and of his going to Alabama where Samuel resided and inducing him to sell his land for money, drive up his stock and join him in business at Ross's Landing - a new trading place just opening to importance on the borders of the Cherokee Nation and near the portion which was being rapidly settled by Georgians from the lower country."

John Baker, who married the older sister of Samuel Williams, notes, "George Williams had been merchandising prior to 1833. Samuel Williams was living in Jackson County, Ala., where he had a small farm. George W. had become much embarrassed in his pecuniary affairs. He went down in 1833 to Jackson County and proposed a partnership to me and Samuel Williams in business generally such as hogs, cattle, farming and merchandising.

"I declined to go into business with him, but Samuel agreed to do so. They were in partnership generally in everything, and neither one of them was to hold any property, either real or personal, separate, but everything was to be in partnership. Samuel Williams sold his farm in Alabama for $1,100, and that was used for the payment of George's individual liabilities in Tennessee. George told me he owed between $900 and $1,000 that he could not pay without help. They both told me that the debts of George had to be paid before they could go into business."

Col. Whiteside continues, "As well as I recollect the amount contributed by Samuel was stated by George to be a little over $1,000 - proceeds of his land sale, stock mostly investable for market worth some five or six hundred dollars and his household effects, for George often said to me that one of them did not own a spoon."

Samuel Williams took up residence sometimes at the home place as well as in a house on Market Street. This was near their G&S Williams store.

Col. Whiteside, who afterward became a partner in the Williams mercantile business as well as their land holdings, remembered, "George declared to me the home place to be joint property belonging to him and Samuel, that it was cultivated and managed on their joint account with their joint forces, and that one had as much control of the place as the other, and that all its proceeds were treated and used as joint property.

"George said he had commenced on nothing, got his goods on a credit and got them scattered out in the country on credit so that he could get little for them and that Sam's money saved him. He had not been doing business at Ross's Landing but on the north side of the river near the mountain. But when Samuel came they started a small trading establishment at Ross's Landing.

"Brothers of George W. informed him that sometime before he had gone to Nashville to procure some goods. He had gotten the small stock of goods on credit as recommended by David Rankin. He had not been able to pay for them and he was expecting to be sued. He was advised that living as he did on the border of the Cherokee Nation, if he had any capital he could do a profitable business trading with the Cherokees. He spoke despondingly of the efforts of other merchants, particularly, the Rawlings. Appealed to Samuel to convert all his lands into cash and move to Tennessee as a partner. George W. Sr. left personal debts of several hundred dollars not covered. Samuel sold his land and they became equal partners.

"They had all confidence in each other in their business transactions. There was no distrust of each other and no occasion for it because one could not defraud the other, everything being in common between them as regarded property, money or anything of value. And beside they were as intimate and confiding as I ever knew two brothers and I am certain each would have trusted the other for everything under all circumstances."

Jesse G. Blackwell, who also clerked for G&S Williams, said, "George remarked to me that it was distinctly true, and known to the World, that he nor Samuel had any individual property, but that everything they had, from a clod of Earth up to the spoons upon their shelves, were partnership property. And in the conversation George said that Samuel owned one-half of everything used by his family and he owned one-half of everything used by Samuel's family for six years before that time, and that he had the same interests in everything used by Samuel's family - although there was no instrument of writing between them." 

Capt. John P. Long said, "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."

Alexander Kelly, whose family operated Kelly's Ferry in Marion County, said, "I was acquainted with George W. Williams and George the father. G.W. lived with his father. They lived in Jackson County, Ala., until about or after the death of the Old Man. By they I mean the balance of George W. Williams' children. G.W. was merchandizing and doing tolerably well at the time of his father's death. When Samuel Williams moved here, the property included hogs, cattle, dry goods. I lived about 12 miles from him. Him and me was very intimately acquainted. The trade from the lower end of the county was mainly done with Col. Oats and me, and when G.W. Williams first went to lay in goods he came and stayed all night and told us his business and he was cautioned about merchandizing. He told us his circumstances and how he had to make the payment. If I remember right, Col. Oats or me, or perhaps both, loaned him some money, which we did do a few times. I think we gave him a few lines to Nashville. G.W. Williams bought his first goods on credit, but I suppose he was able to pay when due."

James S. Edwards, who worked as a Williams clerk and then had his own store, said, "James A. Whiteside told me he had sold out his interest to George and Samuel Williams for $500, that he had concluded to do so rather than be bothered, that it would be a very troublesome business to settle up. George Williams told me he had bought out Whiteside and gave him $600 for his interest. He said he and Samuel were to pay the debts of the firm. I also agreed and took the same amount. There was a good deal owing, but what amount I am not able to state. There were books left that showed the amount of accounts owed the firm and went into the hands of George and Samuel Williams." 

William H. Stringer, who had property on Stringer's Ridge, said, "I was tax collector for Hamilton County in 1834. G.W. had 120 acres of common land and 668 acres of school land. None listed for Samuel Williams. G.W. and Samuel commenced business together in 1832 or 1833. I settled an account with G&S Williams for dealings in the store at Chattanooga. Afterward, G.W. Williams presented an individual account due to him for articles I had got for Old Man Smith down at the home place, which account I paid. It was for salt, sugar and some small fancy articles. It was around November 1837." 

Elijah Thurman said he became acquainted with George W. Williams in 1831 and with Samuel Williams in 1833. "I lived about three miles from them. I have heard them both talking divers places and divers times, and both said that everything they had in the world was partnership property, and they both said they lived out of a common stock and no accounts were kept between them. That if ever they did dissolve partnership, everything was to be divided equally without any reservation to one more than the other. I have probably every year heard them speak of their partnership until George died. The last time I heard George speak of it was when he was gathering their last drove of cattle. I rode some distance with him. I heard George speak of the partnership between them oftener than I ever did Samuel. George told me he had known men who kept no accounts, who had succeeded better than any he ever knew. And that was the reason he done business in that way. "  

George Williams Jr. became very ill a short time after he and Elijah Thurman started out on the cattle drive. He returned to the Williams home place, where he died Aug. 9, 1842. He was 33. One notation states: Aug. 9, 1842. One fine lined and trimmed coffin $25."

Col. Whiteside remembered, "Within a few days on the cattle drive George took sick and died. I was going to start to the north soon and Samuel implored me to fall in with Silas in Virginia, furnish him expense money, inform him of George's death, aid in selling the cattle and go to Baltimore and pay over the proceeds of the sale on the debts.
"George Williams had no money when he died and Samuel had none to furnish me when I started about the 15th of August. I went on through Washington City, passed over to Winchester in the Valley of Virginia and returned about 100 miles where I met Silas in the neighborhood of Staunton. I furnished some expense money of my own and was reimbursed out of the sale of the cattle so I consider I may safely say G&S Williams had no money at the time of George's death. A good many of the cattle which they drove were bought on credit and afterwards paid for by Samuel. I wrote up the settlement between Samuel and Silas regarding the cattle on Sept. 19, 1842."
The unexpected turn of events left Samuel Williams alone in the mercantile business with a pile of debts. Samuel Williams overnight had lost not only his business partner, but his best friend.
* * * * * * * * * *
A demolition 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

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 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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