Monday, March 9, 2015

On the Nolo Chucky

If you have never heard of Erwin, Tennessee, you are likely part of the teeming millions across the land who can make that claim. If it weren’t for my own grandfather, I would be joining you and all those other millions as well.

However, I happen to know that Erwin is a small town nestled up against the Blue Ridge Mountains near the state border with both Virginia and North Carolina. I am also beginning to discover that the Davis family into which my maternal grandfather was born was not the only one of Erwin’s then less than thousand person population to be related to me. The more I research the Davis and related lines, the more I wonder if Erwin was really just a town of cousins.

It was through research on the related Tilson line that I found the migratory path for my family. Remember, thanks to finding The Tilson Genealogy online, I’ve been feasting myself on stories about my colonial roots, back in Plymouth colony, which prompts the question: how did these ancestors’ descendants end up in Tennessee?

Once again, thanks to The Tilson Genealogy, I am finding the answer to my question. It was William Tilson, my fifth great grandfather, who left Plympton, Massachusetts, sometime after his marriage to Mary Ransom in 1762. All their children were born in a place referred to by Mercer Tilson’s book as “St. Clair, Washington County, Virginia (now Smyth County).”

Of course, I’m having quite a difficult time actually finding a place called Saint Clair in Virginia. I’ll discuss that further tomorrow, but for now, let’s just say I think the county lines have done some more moving since Mercer Tilson wrote his genealogy in 1911.

That long journey to Saint Clair, Virginia, still leaves us a few miles shy of Erwin, Tennessee—and with the original question unanswered. What did prompt the family to move from Massachusetts to the southwestern reaches of Virginia?

Mercer Tilson answers that question with some details about William’s pre-married days, when he served during the French and Indian War. Just as some of my other ancestors had discovered wonderful farming land in Georgia after the Revolutionary War, William’s travels during his service in colonial America evidently opened his eyes to some land possibilities, as well.

According to Mercer Tilson, “William Tilson was in the French War and served a considerable time….” He listed some of the localities William traveled during that service. While none of those destinations included Virginia, the travels undoubtedly prompted William to consider the wide open spaces of these inland frontiers.

Mercer Tilson’s narrative went on to note:
In 1763 he migrated to the west part of Virginia, and settled at St. Clair, on the south branch of the Holstein River, where all his children were born.

Then, to the final explanation:
He moved to Tennessee and located near his three sons, on Nolo Chucky River, four miles from Erwin.

Though the Tilson genealogy doesn’t note the date of the move to Erwin, it does explain that William was following his three sons. Considering that those three sons were born during a time span between 1763 and 1767, it is likely William’s arrival in Tennessee couldn’t be any earlier than 1787. Still, that’s a significant date that I’ll be sure to stick in my back pocket for future reference.

William didn’t stay in Erwin, himself. After his wife died on their farm in Tennessee, William returned to his former home in Virginia, where he died at his son in law’s home about 1825.

Despite William’s return to Virginia, his son Peleg—the middle son of the three mentioned above—stayed on in Tennessee.
In 1803, he moved to Tennessee, and settled on the west side of Nola Chucky River, one mile from the mouth of Indian Creek, and south of the Iron Bridge, about three miles from Erwin.

Looking at a map of the area, it is hard to determine exactly where that would be. There is a section of the Nolichucky that divides the land in an east-west manner, but there are actually two references to Indian Creek—one labeled North Indian Creek, the other called South Indian Creek. And where the “Iron Bridge” might have stood at the point of Tilson’s book, one century ago, is hard to determine now.

Yet from the book, I can easily tell that other Tilsons had also made the trek from the Massachusetts colony to Virginia and ultimately to Erwin, Tennessee. Several Tilson descendants were listed as living in Washington County, Tennessee—the county from which Unicoi County was eventually carved, for which Erwin serves as county seat. Others were noted to live in nearby Carter County.

Another relative, James Tilson, who married his first cousin, Eunice Tilson—sister of my third great grandmother, Rachel Tilson—was said to have lived “on the Nola Chucky River, four miles from Erwin, Tennessee.”

With so many Tilsons having settled in Erwin—along with Davis and Laws families—I am beginning to re-envision the area as a haven of cousins. It will be interesting to see how many of those early settlers were, indeed, relatives.


  1. One of the accounts that I read while researching one of my lines said that land in Tennessee was cheap and the soil was good. The family I was working on had left Virginia for North Carolina. At the time, North Carolina was not providing any services for its citizens; farm land was getting depleted because most people didn't know about crop rotation. As a result they moved on to Tennessee.

    1. That sounds very much like the scenario I ran into with my ancestors from South Carolina who found Georgia land more enticing. Makes me wonder how widespread the neglect of crop rotation was during those times.

  2. A very handy website for tracking boundary shifts in Virginia counties is I have found this very helpful in tracing my own Virginia to Tennessee ancestors.

    1. Thanks for including that link, Patrick. It sounds like a resource very much like the AniMap software used in some Family History Centers.

  3. Replies
    1. That thought just tickles me. And to think I had never considered it before. Funny how things turn out, when you take the time to research the family's history...

  4. I've never noticed (until now) how places in the USA change names - although I did know the railroads would name their stations - regardless of the local community's name - and the community would later change their name to match the railroads.

    1. I imagine the railroads had a great deal of pull--economically, that is. I know of one old town north of where I live, which was ruined when the promised train station didn't materialize, in favor of a different town, which then grew out of nothing and flourished. I'm thinking whatever the railroads wanted, they got.


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