Jerry Summers: Thomas V. Swafford - Bledsoe Historian

Thursday, January 20, 2022 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

When Tommy Swafford passed away on February 6, 2014, at the age of 78 at his home in Pikeville, Tennessee, the community, and individuals interested in the preservation of the history of the locale lost a true champion.

            A native and graduate of Bledsoe County High School in 1953 he had graduated from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville with a degree in civil engineering.

            He served his country in the United States Navy as a Lt. J.G. in the Civil Engineering Corps from 1959 to 1962 and he was part of the team that designed and oversaw the construction of a helicopter pad and a bomb shelter at the White House in Washington, D.C.

            From 1972 to 1991 he served as vice president in construction and engineering at the large development at Fairfield Glade in Crossville.

            After his retirement he became an author and from 1999 to 2008 he researched and wrote four books about the history of Bledsoe County.

            His initial literary effort involved the family background of the Swaffords who settled in the Sequatchie Valley in the early 1800s.  Titled My Swafford Ancestors (1999) it was favorably received by the public enough to stimulate a lifelong dedication to interviewing hundreds if not thousands of residents of the area and spending countless hours in libraries and courthouses.

            The earliest descendant mentioned in the book was Thomas Swafford, Sr. who was born in Greenville County, South Carolina. He and seven brothers moved from that area into the Sequatchie Valley in 1810.

            John Tollett and his family moved to the heart of the Sequatchie Valley around 1806.

            Tommy’s second book The Swafford-Tollett Feud, written and published in 2003, related the tales of the famous feud and its bloody climax in the election day shoot out on November 8, 1892 at a voting site in northern Bledsoe County (Melvine) that resulted in the immediate death of one individual, another lay dying, and five others were wounded by gunfire.

            The origin of the feud is also in dispute.  One version claims that it started during the Civil War in 1863 when John A. Tollett, Jr., 72, and a visitor were killed in a robbery at his home by invaders seeking his hidden cash.  One of the robbers was allegedly a Swafford.

            One death in the long running feud occurred in 1905 when one of the survivors of the 1892 shootout, William L. “Bill” Tollett, was gunned down by a Swafford nephew who had been accused of forging checks on Bill’s bank account which would continue the feud into the 1920s.

            A variety of issues such as divided loyalties because of the Civil War, labor disputes in the bustling coal mining industry, moonshining territorial disputes and other issues fanned the simmering flames of the continuous rivalries until another explosive event caused the gunfire to erupt again.

            The 2003 book contains numerous colorful photos of the picturesque Sequatchie Valley and newspaper accounts of the history of the feud.  The beauty of the 75-mile-long Sequatchie Valley that runs three miles in Cumberland County on the north, through the next 27 miles in Bledsoe County, with the southern portion traveling through Sequatchie and Marion Counties in Tennessee.

            After the success of his second publication Tommy Swafford wrote volumes 2 and 3 of what has been the accurate but hopefully now outdated “Bloody Bledsoe” series that covered the era of violence from 1861 to the late 1950s.  During that time period he discovered approximately 300 incidents of homicides and deadly assaults in Bledsoe County.

            Volume 3 covers the life of Church Lester under the title of “Moonshine Man” and describes incidents that occurred in Bledsoe and Cumberland Counties.

            Lester was one of the leaders in the illegal moonshine industry and bore the reputation of being “known as a good friend to many but a dangerous enemy to some” during his 44 years of life.

            He intended to take the life of an individual by the name of Harmon Gorge whose fate arose out of a confrontation between Harmon and Arnold Tollett that resulted in Tollett’s death after being stabbed by Gorge.  Church Lester and four others dynamited Gorge’s home in Carter County near Elizabethton, Tennessee that resulted in the death of three minor daughters of Gorge and the serious injury to his wife while her husband was awaiting trial for the Arnold Tollett murder.

            On February 22, 1938, in what was described as the “Trial of the Century in East Tennessee”, Church Lester and his co-defendants went to trial for the murder of one of the three girls.

            Tommy Swafford explains the events leading up to the famous trial, the verdict, its outcome, and the remaining years of Lester’s life that is documented with exact portions and excerpts of the original court transcript from the well-publicized event.

            The concluding volume in Thomas V. Swafford’s trilogy of the history, events and personalities of Bledsoe and the surrounding counties on the Cumberland Plateau and Sequatchie Valley is Whiskey Wars:  The Life of Jim Hamilton (2008).

            Moonshine whiskey making, its sale and distribution, and effect on law enforcement and the communities was a way of life in the Valley in East Tennessee.

            Turf wars between moonshiners and honest lawmen resulted in countless fights and deaths.

            The local Whiskey War of 1920 involved nine men going to battle over illegal liquor and resulted in six being severely wounded by gunshots and the subsequent shooting death of another shortly thereafter.

            The turbulent life of whiskey maker Jim Hamilton is the main focus in volume 3 of Tommy Swafford’s last history trip through the Sequatchie Valley.

            Hamilton had previously killed his drunken and unstable brother who was attempting to harm their mother on her deathbed.

            He was also implicated in the double murders of his sister-in-law and her new husband in a whiskey dispute.

            A second double murder of his niece and her husband resulted in him being convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 75 years in the state penitentiary, but he was paroled after serving 22 years in the state penitentiary in Nashville.  Prior to being convicted in the Gorge case and while out on bond he had shot Bledsoe County Sheriff Thomas J. Swafford on Main Street in Pikeville because he believed the sheriff had manufactured evidence against him to be used in the homicide trial.

            The third volume mainly concentrates on the period of time from 1900 to 1940 which includes the uncertain and violent times of World War I, the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression.

            Tommy Swafford in the preface to the Hamilton book expressed a reluctance to judge the main characters of any individual in his book but instead stated that “my goal is to preserve as much local history as possible, especially oral history, for the lasting benefit of current and future generations.”

            Unfortunately, his death in 2014 prevented him from bringing forward to the present the non-violent development of the lovely mountain and valley area and its citizens.  His thinking is consistent with the now often present attempts to erase or ignore history.  As philosopher George Santayana stated in the Life of Reason 1905: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

            Except for the occasional crime that occurs in any community peace and “the per capita homicide rate has dropped to about average for the state and nation.” (as of 2007)

            Fortunately, the intense rivalries of the athletic teams from Cumberland, Grundy, Sequatchie, Bledsoe, and Marion Counties have replaced the violent image of “Bloody Bledsoe” and surrounding counties from 1861 to the 1950s.

            All three volumes are still available for purchase on the usual Internet websites.

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)

           

           

Thomas V. Swafford
Thomas V. Swafford

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