Friday, August 18, 2017

Figuring out that "Washington District"

It has not been lost on me, tracing my Mayflower ancestors through that northeastern corner of Tennessee where they settled by the early 1800s, that some records report that family births occurred in Washington County, Tennessee, while others were said to have happened in Washington County, North Carolina.

It was once explained to me that the Tennessee version of that Washington County used to be the same place, only claimed by North Carolina. However, when I hauled my naive self over to resources to look up said Washington County, North Carolina, it appeared to be far removed from its namesake in Tennessee. In fact, it was distressingly far-removed from any part of Tennessee, being much closer to the coast than to the mountains.

While I understood the history of North Carolina's previous land-grabbing tendencies during colonial times, this still was quite a stretch, and I dismissed that verbal explanation from my scope of possibilities.

That decision may have axed any chances of pursuing the possibility of becoming First Families of Tennessee material, when in fact—at least if those two Washington Counties were one and the same—my ancestors may indeed have been in the state before the requisite cutoff for that designation.

Of course, I wandered onto that possibility while pondering just where my Tilson and Davis ancestors might have been when their children were said to have been born in Washington County.

That sparked a search for the details about Washington County—in Tennessee, the county from which my family's homes in Erwin of Unicoi County were originally carved. I decided to revisit all those websites genealogy researchers used to use before the advent of mega-sites for subscribers. Launching my search at Cyndi's List, I touched base at the Tennessee section of U.S. GenWeb, looking up any resources for Washington County.

The Washington County, Tennessee, GenWeb had a helpful page explaining that the place eventually designated as the Washington District was a settlement from the 1770s extending from "south of the Holston River, on the Watauga and Nolichucky Rivers, within the boundaries of the North Carolina colony." By 1777, the North Carolina legislature changed the place's designation to name it Washington County, North Carolina.

When North Carolina ceded the western reaches of their state to the federal government in 1790, and then six years later saw that land transformed into a portion of the new state dubbed Tennessee, the part which had once been called the Washington District now belonged to the newly-formed state. The name stuck: they were still called Washington County, but in the new state of Tennessee.

Thankfully, in a question and answer format on their website, the Washington County TNGenWeb explained that the former Washington County, North Carolina, was not the same as the current Washington County, North Carolina—thus allaying my concerns. The old North Carolina county was now the one belonging to Tennessee. So when I see my ancestors' children showing as born in Washington County, North Carolina, and dying in Washington County, Tennessee, I can rest assured they basically spent their entire life in the very same place. The turf was the same. It's just the boundaries that shifted.

As for my Tilson and Davis ancestors who were part of the Mayflower line I'm tracking—those difficult ancestors opting for the pioneer's life far from any signs of civilization (and their concomitant paper trails)—I did find a few shreds of evidence, though only in secondary sources.

For one, a transcription of the 1897 Goodspeed's History of Unicoi County mentioned, "The first settlers of this county located in Greasy Cove not long after the first settlement was made on the Nolichucky." The article mentioned several names of those first settlers, then continued, "and a little later came Baxter Davis, Enoch Job(e), Jesse Brown, Pheleg and William Tilson."

"Pheleg," most likely, was my fourth great grandfather, Peleg Tilson. The one accompanying him, William Tilson, might have been either Peleg's older brother or his father, both of whom were named William, and both of whom were said to have been in that very area.

What's tantalizing about that list of names is that it includes a Davis. And not just any Davis, but one named Baxter Davis. While not the James C. Davis who married Peleg's daughter Rachel—I have yet to discover the name of James Davis' father—it is interesting to note that the firstborn son of James and Rachel was given that very same, unusual, first name: Baxter.

Perhaps this detour to learn more about the area of my ancestors' pioneer settlement, the Washington District—and, specifically, the place known as Greasy Cove—has become a more beneficial divertissement than I anticipated. After all, not only did I find assurance that Washington County in North Carolina and Tennessee were one and the same location, but I found confirmation that their original settlement in Greasy Cove grew into the town that was later known as Unicoi



  1. I vote for Baxter! Highly unlikely that they would name their first born son after someone else:)

    1. Of course every time period is different, but I thought Baxter was an unusual name, myself, Far Side. Thanks for that vote of confidence! I think I'll go exploring what can be found on this Baxter Davis. Might uncover something promising!


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