A messy divorce landed Chattanooga pioneer Samuel Williams in a long-running lawsuit. It was unlucky for him, but lucky for Chattanooga history after some 800 pages relating to the hotly-contested dispute were found behind the walls of an old downtown building.
Samuel Williams and his brother, George, married sisters they had known since childhood at Paint Rock, Ala., in Jackson County. Samuel married Rebecca Davis before he ever came to live at Ross's Landing in 1833. George married Elizabeth Davis about a year after he came to live with his father, George Sr., at the home place near Mountain Creek.
After having children Elizabeth, Mary, Madison "Matt" and James with Rebecca, Samuel divorced her - a rarity in those days. He then married Keturah Taylor, who was young enough to be his daughter. Samuel was born in 1807 and Keturah not until 1825. He and Keturah eventually had a houseful of children, including Alonzo, Quali Alabama "Allie", Skelton, Anne, Samuel, Josephine, William S. and George Forrest.
It still might not have been a problem, but, after brother George Jr. suddenly died on Aug. 9, 1842, Samuel took his young wife and four children and moved into the home place with Elizabeth and her two sons, Calvin and Pleasant. He also brought the young wife.
To make things even more crowded, John L. Divine moved in too. He married the eldest daughter of Samuel Williams, Elizabeth. Divine had landed at Ross's Landing in January 1838 before the name change to Chattanooga. Only 15 at the time, he was traveling on horseback on his way to Mississippi. He stayed the night at the inn of the widow Henderson and found the next morning that his wallet and fortune of $16.85 were missing. Divine had to sell his horse to pay for his lodging. With no horse to continue on his sojourn, a few days later he accepted a job as a clerk for G&S Williams. He worked at the rival Rawlings store as well at one time.
A pleading in the case says Samuel Williams was "supporting the two families and the slaves and the livestock in the G&S Partnership. He was in possession of the home tract of land at the time of his brother's death. Afterward, he took a second wife and took her to his home, having divorced his first wife, a sister of complainant Elizabeth under circumstances which probably dissatisfied her.
"But he never mistreated her in any way or denied her any right she was entitled to. She was aware that the property was partnership property. After the death of George W. Williams, Samuel Williams did not appropriate the slaves for his own use, but for the support of both families."
A lawyer for the other side said, "Elizabeth was put off with the Negro woman Jinny and boy Albert and some three or four cows. The cows died except for one. At the sale she purchased some corn and bacon, which was soon exhausted. She was turned out of her home and out of doors and to penury with her two infant children by the fraudulent acts and doings of Samuel Williams."
The widow Williams finally moved out of the crowded manor house at the Williams home place. The dissatisfied widow filed suit against Samuel Williams in Chancery Court at Cleveland, Tn., on Aug. 3, 1843. On Sept. 8, Elizabeth Williams appeared before Justice of the Peace Samuel Hamill. Her statement was "Samuel Williams came into the house with his second wife as well as John L. Divine, who had married his daughter, and imposed upon me and caused an unpleasant state of affairs. He caused me to leave the house and home. He also appropriated the cabin of the Negroes and the use of the Negroes."
Samuel Williams "denied he caused Elizabeth to leave her house and home, but endeavored to make her comfortable in it. She chose to change her residence."
The case was later transferred to the court at Harrison in Hamilton County. It was disclosed to the court in the September term 1846 that the widow had married Claiborn Gott. Gott was appointed guardian of Pleasant and Calvin Williams. Claiborn Gott, who was from Marion County, had previously married another Elizabeth. Elizabeth Prigmore Gott had died in 1841 at the age of 24.
Jeremiah Fryar said, "I lived about a mile from the Williams home place. I never heard any complaints from her or others after she left the home place. There were some small buildings a short distance from the new cabins, but I do not know if she ever lived in them. The buildings were not of much value. About 15 acres were cleared. I am personally friendly to the Williams the whole time and understand their business pretty well, having dealt with them a good deal."
George D. Foster recalled, "Samuel Williams lives there (the home place) now. I have visited him there and heard him call it his place. I think I saw the widow of George W. Williams and her family at the house a year after his death. Afterward, they lived in a house nearly west of Chattanooga."
John L. Divine stated, "Elizabeth Gott moved to a farm near Chattanooga called the 104-acre fraction. She moved the old log cabins. One was moved a small distance, the other about a mile. I had the houses put up myself and hired the most of the hands to get out boards, etc. She had about $30 in improvements."
Major John Cowart, who lived directly across the river from Chattanooga and operated a ferry, was a confidante of Elizabeth Williams, the widow. He said, "I have been acquainted with Samuel and George Williams 12 or 15 years, with Mrs. Williams 10 or 11 years. Mrs. Williams was frequently at my house and requested me to act for her children, which I refused to do, thinking I might move from the country. I never moved to Chattanooga, though I live on the north side of the Tennessee River and about four miles from the Williams.
"Samuel Williams lived part of the time at Chattanooga. I have been frequently in their store at Chattanooga, though I was not very well acquainted with their business. In the latter part of 1837 and the year 1838, I did see them most every day as they crossed at my ferry by the year, and I came to Chattanooga about three times nearly every day.
"My understanding has always been that the Negroes, stock and hogs and the home place were partnership property, though I do not recollect whether Samuel was living at the home place at the time George Williams died. When either George or Samuel mentioned the stock or other property on the farm, or at the store they always spoke of it as partnership property. I know they both with their families lived in the same house together. There was but one house on the property, though there were some small cabins that were used as Negro houses. Mrs. Williams did seem to have the fullest confidence that Samuel Williams would do her and her children justice."
As a part of the lawsuit, it was ordered that the beloved home place and all its accouterments, down to the knives and forks, be sold. The Williams land also went on the auction block. The home place sale was set to be held on site. Samuel Williams, at the last moment, was able to persuade James Berry, the clerk and master at Cleveland, to put off the first sale on the contention that values had sunk so low that it would bring only a fraction of its worth. However, a second sale was arranged. Samuel Williams had to buy back his own home place along with many of his possessions. Capt. John P. Long was a representative for the widow, purchasing many items of her choosing.
Items at the sale of the Williams estate in February 1845 included feather beds, bedsteads and furniture, a china press, cupboard, two bureaus, two fall leaf tables, sideboard, sofa, candle stand, set of knives and forks, 387 pounds of castings, five cribs of corn, four stacks of fodder, two plows, three sets of gears, three files, a drawing knife, two augurs, a set of blacksmith tools, a wagon, four head of horses, 14 bee hives, 185 head of cattle, 80 head of hogs, four pair of fire irons, a lot of bacon, a rifle gun, a silver watch, a grind stone and a rifle gun barrel. These items were sold "pursuant to the court at Cleveland at its March term 1844 in the case of Samuel Williams vs. Elizabeth Williams, the widow of George Williams." All the property was conveyed "except the Negro woman Ginny, Negro boy Albert, three feather beds, bedsteads and furniture, bureau, table, set of knives and forks, colt, four cows, lot of bacon, 129 pounds of castings, 100 bushels of corn, three bee hives, which the widow retains with the price bid for it at the sale of $890.58. Making the amount transferred to her $4,565.76. Signed Samuel Williams Feb. 1845."
Ignatius Hall remembered, "At the sale, John P. Long was the principle bidder and bought the principle part of the property. My understanding was that he was bidding for the widow."
Clerk and Master Berry said, "At the first sale, attorney Whiteside advised Samuel Williams not to do it. There were some moneyed people there who wanted the sale to go forward. At the second sale date, John P. Long made the only bid for the widow. No one else bid on any of the property except perhaps for some small articles. I thought the property was bid off at a very fair price. Samuel Williams told me he wanted the property sold as soon after the court made the order of sale as I could."
William Biggs noted, "I went to the sale. When the sale started it was talked of in the crowd that some individual was going to bid on all the property for the widow. I was told the property was to be sold on a credit and that is why I did not bid. I saw no valuable property sold but what was understood to be for the widow and the crowd seemed to understand it in the same way. There was some property we did not wish to purchase, and the crowd seemed to take no interest in the sale."
The land sale was held at the Post Office on Market Street in Chattanooga. Again, Samuel Williams was able to retrieve many of his holdings.
Many of the leading citizens from the early days of Chattanooga gave depositions in the lawsuit. Each rode horseback to the then county seat of Harrison. Ross's Landing merchant John P. Long said he traveled 26 miles. Jesse G. Blackwell, clerk for the Williams brothers, turned in 70 miles for two days of testimony. Alexander Kelly said his trip was 48 miles to and from Kelly's Ferry. David McNabb, who lived across the river from Kelly's Ferry, asked for $20 payment. He said he traveled 40 miles and had to use four ferries along the way.
Samuel Williams and his lawyer and business partner James A. Whiteside frequently took the old road to Harrison for court. Col. Whiteside was considered such a great man in the community that William L. Shoemaker, who lived near the Chickamauga Creek bridge, would wait for him each day and then accompany him on to the county seat. It was said that "Old Man Shoemaker considered it a great honor and never missed it." Williams was embroiled in a number of other lawsuits as well. He had a number of dealings with the top lawyers of the day, including Reese Brabson, Benjamin Rush Montgomery, T. Nixon Van Dyke, Richard Henderson and John A. Minnis.
One of the pleadings in the Williams case says, "George W. Williams was constituted a commissioner or trustee by the proprietors of the quarter section of land upon which a part of the town of Chattanooga was situated, to lay off said quarter into lots and sell them. He acted as commissioner with John P. Long and Aaron M. Rawlings, who were also commissioners or trustees. Since the death of G.W. Williams, R.H. Peyton filed suit in Chancery Court at Harrison against John P. Long and against Samuel Williams as administrator of the estate of G.W. Williams. The suit is still pending. The amount claimed is large.
Col. Whiteside said, "Samuel Williams has been involved in several harassing lawsuits from 1839-1850. One long and expensive suit was over the 14-acre fraction at Chattanooga involving the Carter, Boyce and Hines lands. It was settled in 1848 by dividing the 14 acres."
He also said in a deposition in March 1844, "The claims of two and a half occupant interests in one of the 80-acre fractions in Chattanooga in which the Williams had an interest of two ninths was disputed by adverse claimants in part and others called into question the validity of some of the claims. There were about 20 original occupants (I cannot undertake to name them) who still held their equitable claims or had assigned them to others. A majority of the occupants or their assignees had transferred their claims to R.A. Ramsey, A.S. Lenoir and A. Kennedy to be held in trust for them to lay off in town lots, sell and account for the proceeds. The Williams claims had been so transferred. Other occupants did not transfer and were litigating with Kennedy and his associates and the other occupants. Other embarrassment existed as to this tract of land and I could not well see how it could be brought to sale under a decree so as to get out G&S Williams' interest. Nor can I see any better way than to operate on the Williams claims as it stands in setting up their partnership business. This claim might turn out to be worth nothing or it might become valuable."
One legal paper reads: Pleas in the Court House of the Town of Harrison, County of Hamilton, and the State aforesaid, on the fourth Monday, being the 27th day of March, 1843, and in the 67th year of the Independence of the United States. Judge Charles F. Keith of the Circuit Court. Joseph G. Smith, James S. Edwards and William A. Caldwell are firmly bound to Samuel Williams in the sum of $200, and they are commencing a legal action against him. Sheriff is to summon Samuel Williams to court the fourth Monday of March to answer Joseph G. Smith and James S. Edwards trading as Smith Edwards & Company on a plea of trespass on their damage of $1,000. Clerk B.B. Cannon.
Summons Joseph G. Smith, James S. Edwards and Samuel Williams. L. Guthrie, deputy sheriff. Williams was indebted to them for $450.05 for divers goods, wares and merchandise. Whiteside & Brabson, attorneys for Williams.
1848. The Honorable E. Alexander, Circuit Court Judge. Order to take the deposition of Alpheous L. Edwards. The Honorable Charles E. Keith, Circuit Court Judge. 1849. The Honorable Seth Lucky, Circuit Court Judge. Jury - Lewis Patterson, John Brown Jr., William Evitt, George Irwin, Hiram Cornwall, Absalom Selcer, Washington Gann, Henry Penick, George L. Rains, James G. Tenor, R.G. Chitwood and John Chestnut. All good and lawful men of Hamilton County who being elected, tried and sworn to well and truly try the issues joined. A.G.W. Puckett clerk. 1850. Jury - George W. Gardenhire, Gibson Witt, Jesse Walker, R. Hamill, Samuel Hunter, B. Lusk, John Julian, Samuel T. Igou, Bird Irwin, George Waller, James R. Johnson and Samuel Julian.
December 1850. John A. Hooke, justice of the peace. Judge Charles Keith. Ruling that Samuel Williams, John A. Minnis and James Clift are bound unto Joseph G. Smith, James S. Edwards and John S. Edwards, late merchants and partners, trading under the name of Smith, Edwards & Co. in the amount of $881.36. Samuel Williams to take an appeal to the Appeals Court in Knoxville. Andrew G.W. Puckett clerk. Sheriff John Johnson. Deputy Sheriff Thomas D. Conner. Deputy Sheriff Jesse G. Blackwell. Witnesses G.W. Dearing, G.D. Foster, West Shelley, T.M. Capps, John Norman, Obediah Patty, John A. Hooke, Larkin Hair, John A. Godsey, Samuel Cross and Brittain Riddle.
$11 due Supreme Court at Knoxville in case of Henry Tymannus vs. Samuel Williams. Judgment was against Williams and James A. Whiteside. James C. Francis, sheriff of Hamilton County, 1847. Judgment in the estate of James W. Smith recovered against John K. Farmer and Samuel Williams. Nov. 25, 1842. Judgement John Sappington recovered against G&S Williams for $22. Nov. 5, 1846. Suit against Gross Scruggs. Lewis Tyner claims $16.02 for attendance at court. Sept. 20, 1845. Note of G.W. Williams and Allen White to Wesley Davis. Now the property of James Kelly. July 30, 1844. R. Henderson attorney for Kelly. Samuel Williams, executor of the estate of G.W. Williams. William Jefferson Rogers clerk. Nov. 3,1845.
April 11, 1840. S. Williams & Brothers to Archable Brown, Jesse Smith, Neal Lang. Note on Blackburn Higgins. Jesse Walker vs. Samuel Williams & partners. Stayed by John L. Divine. Judgment to Chandler & Rogers. Pay to Missouri Clack August 1843. Pay Russell Peck. Allen White. Due Benjamin Ford March 4, 1839.
Spencer Jarnagin received $60 fee from Samuel Williams in the cases of George Rice vs. Samuel Williams and Rogers & Stringer against Dowell & Godsey at Circuit Court in Bradley County. Aug. 2, 1842. Darby D. McClure received $30.45 of G&S Williams by hands of Williams & Divine. James McSpaden due $9.50 Oct. 9, 1841. Promise to pay John and Willis Sanders $91.30 in good current bank notes or dry goods Aug. 13, 1838. Silas Williams. Jan. 18, 1841. Witness Thomas Oxley. Witnesses J.G. Blackwell, J.A. Minnis.
Due Mr. Vail $1. May 14, 1841. Pr. James S. Edwards. James A. Whiteside received $42.15 for 30 grants issued in the name of George W. Williams, Samuel Williams and James A. Whiteside. F.W. Lea. May 7, 1850. Rawlings & Divine due $60 in Georgia state script. June 17, 1842. $20 due George W. Evans Jan. 18, 1843. $100 in Georgia state script due Rawlings & Divine. Account with R.M. Rawlings. Pay Samuel Hamill $47 April 15, 1842. Reese B. Brabson received of Samuel Williams $53.35 as the full amount of a judgment and costs for J&S. Martin May 8, 1843. $500 judgment against G&S Williams for Green H. Pryor in Hamilton County Circuit Court June 6, 1844. James A. Whiteside attorney for Pryor. John Godsey received $100 judgment.
July 21, 1844, I rec. your letter stated you send by mr. Godsey $150 but there was not that amount I received $140.30 which will be credited he will tell you all about it Colonel Whiteside will explain to you about the judgment and execution and I will see you when you come over to see the cattle as you wrote you would come the cattle will be up about the 10th of August and I wish to sell, yours G.H. Pryor
Promise to pay Joseph Lovelady March 1842. Received of Samuel Williams the full amount of a judgment which James R. Peck recovered against W.G. Sparks, Samuel Williams and Richard Henderson at the Supreme Court at Knoxville September 1844. James F. Bradford attorney for plaintiff by his agent Reese B. Brabson. Judgment for Caleb E. Pleasant & Company against Samuel Williams before John A. Hooke, Esq. May 1843.
Received of Samuel Williams $2,692 as judgment in Hamilton County Circuit Court. Jesse Williams by his agent Jesse G. Blackwell July 25, 1850. A.G.W. Puckett clerk.
James King for the use of G&S Williams vs. Gross Scruggs. Circuit Court March 1845.Judgment rendered against Samuel Williams. Lewis Tyner paid $22 as witness.
Suit against A.L. Edwards, John S. Edwards, James S. Edwards on a note executed by them April 1843. Payable to George Stephen. Eight cases of execution now in the hands of John Mitchell, a const. of Lookout Valley. Suit Samuel Williams vs. M.P. Light. A.B. Beason.
Attorney Richard Henderson paid for his service in the Chancery Court at Pikeville, Tennessee. William Gardenhire and others were the plaintiffs against Samuel Williams. Oct. 29, 1843. Jesse Williams vs. Samuel Williams.
Jesse G. Blackwell "I was familiar with George and Samuel Williams from the summer of 1835 up to the death of George Williams. And I think I was as well acquainted with their partnership transactions during that time as any person not particularly connected with them in business. And I also think I have the right of knowing much of their business soon after the death of George.
"A short time after the death of George Williams I made a schedule of the personal partnership effects of G&S Williams, and think I found in notes and accounts to the amount of about $9,000 (owing to the firm). Nine or 10 Negroes, eight head of horses, and much other miscellaneous property such as hogs, cattle and farming tools. I think about $7,000 or $8,000 might have been considered good, and the balance was insolvent persons.
"Samuel Williams has paid many of the debts of G&S Williams since the death of George. The amount paid by Samuel is near $15,000. Including cost and other necessary expenses, I think the amount is near $16,000. The most of his time has been employed in settling the business of G&S Williams since the death of George. He has suffered many privations and undergone much labor for the benefit of that concern."
It was not until 1850 when a judge rendered a resounding verdict in favor of Samuel Williams in the lawsuit brought years earlier by his sister-in-law.
The Gotts moved on to Washington County, Arkansas. Claiborn Gott died there in 1872. Elizabeth was still living at the time.
Pleasant Williams married Lucy Foust, daughter of John and Matilda Hawley Foust of Mountain Creek, in 1859.
Calvin Williams wound up at Benson, Ariz. He died there in 1917 at the age of 81. He married Martha Bearl Easterly and had nine children.
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The links to the Williams papers on Sam Hall's website are here.