Meet A Tennessee Founding Father at Rock Castle
Let’s begin with a history quiz. Who knows the famous Tennessean who created the first official map of Tennessee and named our fair state? He held about every political office possible, was a Revolutionary War patriot, rose through the militia of three states to the rank of General, built the first stone house in Middle Tennessee, and was related twice by marriage to President Andrew Jackson’s family.
If you drive north of Nashville to Hendersonville, on the east bank of Drakes Creek you will find Rock Castle, the historic home of surveyor General Daniel Smith and his wife Sarah. Completed in 1796, when George Washington was still president, the house is a well-preserved mix of Federal and Georgian design styles and reveals a glimpse into the life of one of Tennessee’s founding fathers.
Daniel Smith was quite the statesman. An educated Virginia gentleman and surveyor, he served as a captain in the Revolutionary War and moved his wife and family from eastern North Carolina to what became Middle Tennessee, settling on property awarded him as a land grant in payment for his surveying services.
These early frontier days were plagued with fierce Native American attacks that continued for 14 years as the Native Americans fought to keep their favorite hunting grounds. Rock Castle, begun in 1784 as the first stone house in Middle Tennessee, was built as a fortress with locally-quarried limestone block walls 22 inches thick.
Windows were placed on all sides of the house to watch for the approach of Native Americans from any direction and every tree within 200 yards of the house was cut down to prevent an ambush. While General Smith traveled the territory as a surveyor, he left his wife Sarah to oversee construction of their home and manage the 3,140 acre plantation. No question, women were capable of amazing things on the frontier!
Rock Castle was the first elegant home of its kind in the area, completed in 1796, the same year of Tennessee’s statehood. Ash, cherry, cedar, walnut and poplar from the property were used for the interior. It’s amazing today to see the floor-to-ceiling closets, unheard of for a frontier home, and the ornate wooden paneling decorating several rooms.
My favorite Rock Castle story took place the night Daniel Smith’s daughter, Polly, eloped from her second story bedroom window, climbing down a rope vine ladder to ride away with her lover, Samuel Donelson. Co-conspirator of the plot was none other than the future President Andrew Jackson, a boarder in the home of Rachel and Samuel Donelson, and law partner with Samuel.
The couple was married by a preacher on the other side of the river that same night. General Daniel Smith was so angry, it almost caused a feud between the two families, but the rift finally began healing when the first grandson was born.
Daniel Smith found success in everything he touched. The first map of Tennessee, created by him, was published well into the 19th century. In 1784 he helped survey the city of Nashville and later helped draft Tennessee’s first constitution. His many positions included two terms as U.S. Senator and long experience as a Native American treaty negotiator. He even had his own distillery and made peach brandy, which he sold in New Orleans under the Rock Castle brand.
Rock Castle is now a state-owned treasure and sits on a remaining tract of 18 acres overlooking Old Hickory Lake. Daily tours of the house include the cemetery, smokehouse, herb garden, visitor center and gift shop. The venue is also popular for weddings and parties.
If you’re like me, history comes alive when you can step back into another era, and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of Daniel Smith’s direct descendants in Hendersonville.
Your chance may come in September, when for two days the annual Daniel Smith Colonial Days at Rock Castle recreate life in the eighteenth century. Plan to bring along the family to enjoy historic demonstrations by period artisans and craftsmen, competition events, music, food and children’s games. Remember to visit the herb garden and learn about the natural remedies that cured all manner of ailments!
(Pictures courtesy of Sumner County CVB & Rock Castle Master Gardener Sally Bracey)
Do you have a favorite story from one of Middle Tennessee’s historic homes? We’d love to hear it!