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Exile's Communion - Trail of Tears In Nashville

By Toye E. Heape

View of Nashville In 1832

"View of Nashville" from Matthew Rhea's map of Tennessee published in 1832

"Map of the State of Tennessee" TSLA Map Collection, 37884, Tennessee State Library and Archives , Tennessee Virtual Archive

In 1838, November 25th was a Sunday. The Rev. Daniel Butrick, a missionary, sat in his tent in a place far away from his home and worried about the sacramental meeting he had arranged for this Sabbath. It was cold and the people to whom he ministered, exiles from their homeland, were already suffering. Many were ill and he didn't want them exposed to the unpleasantness of the open air while they took holy communion. He had contacted other ministers in a nearby city to help find a meeting house with no results.

As Butrick pondered the situation, a visitor came calling. He was an aged minister, an elder at a local church - “a missionary in spirit” he said - and offered Butrick the use of his large brick meeting house, furnished with two stoves, only a half mile away. Butrick gladly accepted, and the ministers, their interpreter, and their congregation were able to worship their god in relative comfort. The experience would not soon be forgotten by all involved.

This event took place in what was then the outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee, near the banks of Mill Creek, where Murfreesboro Pike crossed the stream. Daniel Butrick was a missionary to the Cherokee Nation who had been assigned to Brainerd Mission in what is now Chattanooga, Tennessee. The Cherokee people who attended the service were one of 13 groups, or detachments, of about 1,000 people each, who had been rounded up by the United States military and put in concentration camps, and were then forced to travel mostly on foot from southeast Tennessee to Indian Territory, currently known as the state of Oklahoma. The interpreter for the service held in the brick meeting house was also the leader of this particular detachment: Richard Taylor, descendant of the Cherokee Beloved Woman Nancy Ward, President of the Cherokee National Council, an educated man who had helped found Brainerd Mission to educate Cherokee children.

Nashville Republican Banner, December, 1838 article noting the Cherokee camping at Mill Creek

We know the circumstances of the church service held on November 25th because Butrick kept a journal of his journey with the Taylor detachment as they traveled west on the Trail of Tears. We know this detachment, and possibly the other 10 detachments that passed through Nashville in the fall of 1838, camped at a spot near Foster's Mill, on Mill Creek at Murfreesboro Pike, because Nashville newspaper articles of the time specify that location for the Cherokee campsite. However, Butrick's journal doesn't mention the name of the church or the name of the minister who offered it's use to the Cherokees, and so far no other documentation has been found that offers the specific identity of the building or the minister.

In a 2010 blog post, local historian Mike Slate used Butrick's journal and his knowledge of the area's history to suggest possible locations for the church. His immediate thought was Mill Creek Baptist Church, built of brick, possibly as early as 1810, once located near Mill Creek at Murfreesboro Pike. The church building no longer exists, but the foundation and the cemetery are still there.

We believe that Mr. Slate's first choice for the site is correct and Mill Creek Baptist Church was, in fact, the church where the service for the Cherokees in the Taylor detachment was held. We also believe the minister who offered the meeting house to Butrick was James Whitsitt, who founded the church in 1797.

On November 25, 1838, a church service described in the journal of Daniel Butrick, a Christian missionary who accompanied the Cherokee to Indian Territory, was held in a church near the Foster's Mill camp site. Butrick doesn't identify the church or the minister who invited Butrick to hold the services there, but based on our research, and that of Mr. Slate, we believe the church was the historic Mill Creek Baptist Church that once stood near the intersection of Dodge Drive and Old Glenrose Avenue, and the minister was James Whitsett, a prominent member of Nashville's religious community in the 19th century.

Mill Creek Baptist Church

Mill Creek Baptist Church

"Mill Creek Baptist Church" Tennessee State Library and Archives, Image ID: 3408

At the time of the Cherokee service, both Whitsitt and the church building, shown in the above photograph, would have have fit the descriptions in Butrick's journal. Butrick describes their host as an aged Baptist elder who referred to himself as “a missionary in spirit”. In 1838 Whitsitt was 68 years old and an elder in the Mill Creek Baptist Church, which had recently excommunicated some members after they had denounced it's missionary activities. Butrick says the meeting house was a “large brick house, well finished”. The Mill Creek Baptist Church building was brick and was large for a church at the time. In an 1846 letter Whitsitt described the church building near his house as “one of the best in the country; it is 60 feet by 40, with galleries on three sides, and is well finished (emphasis added).”

Nineteenth-century maps corroborate the location of Foster's Mill near Mill Creek Baptist Church (or Whitsitt Church) near Murfreesboro Pike where the road crosses Mill Creek, as given in the 1838 newspaper articles.

Detail from an 1845 map, published by Samuel Augustus Mitchell, showing Foster's Mill on Mill Creek at Murfreesboro Pike

Detail from an 1845 map showing Foster's Mill

The Native History Association plans on continuing our research into the location of the Cherokee's Mill Creek campsite. The site where the 19th century Mill Creek Baptist Church was located is maintained by the Friends of Mill Creek Baptist Church Graveyard, Inc., a non-profit organization that has done an amazing job of maintaining the property. Visit their website at www.millcreek-graveyard.org.

November 25, 1838, is also significant because of another event that took place, hundreds of miles from Nashville.

When the removal roundup began in late spring of 1838, some Cherokees fled and hid in the mountains of East Tennessee and North Carolina. The Army continued to hunt them down and in early November of the year they captured one family led by a man named Tsali. While they were being escorted to the concentration camps, the men in the group attacked their captors and killed two of the soldiers. Tsali and the group of 12 then escaped and went into hiding.

Niles Weekly Register, January, 1839 article noting execution of Tsali and his sons

Niles Weekly Register, January, 1839 article noting execution of Tsali and his sons

The army conducted an intense manhunt but couldn't capture Tsali's people, so they offered other Cherokees that were in hiding a chance to stay in North Carolina if they would help bring in the fugitives, and some, including a man named Euchella, who was once Tsali's neighbor, agreed. Members of the Oconaluftee Cherokee, a group that had been granted exemption from the removal, also felt pressured to assist the Army in the search.

On November 24, 1838, three men from Tsali's group were captured and executed by firing squad. The next day, November 25th, Euchella and his search party took custody of Tsali and executed him at noon, probably around the time the members of the Taylor detachment were having their service in the church near Mill Creek.

The legend that has grown up around Tsali says that he turned himself in so the other Cherokee fugitives from Andrew Jackson's “justice” could stay in North Carolina. The military accounts of the incident say Tsali was captured, but then again the military was committing the original crime in this incident. In any case, the Army did stop searching for the Cherokees hiding in the mountains, and most of them ended up staying in North Carolina, along with the Oconaluftee Cherokee. Tsali is a martyr and a hero to them.

On November 26, 1838, the Taylor detachment broke camp on Mill Creek and headed through Nashville on their way to Indian Territory.

(Click to open/close the list)

Trail of Tears National Historic Trail Maps, National Park Service

The Journal of Daniel S. Butrick May 19, 1838 – April 1, 1839, by Daniel S. Butrick, published by The Trail of Tears Association Oklahoma Chapter, 1998, pages 46-47.

Musings: The Trail of Tears Through Nashville, by Mike Slate, 2010, Nashville Historical Newsletter

Nashville Whig, Oct. 15, 1838

Nashville Union, Nov. 30, 1838

Nashville Republican Banner, Dec. 1, 1838

History of Davidson County, Tennessee, With Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of It's Prominent Men and Pioneers, by W. W. Clayton, published by J.W. Lewis and Company, 1880, pg 72, 73

Map Of The States Of Kentucky And Tennessee. Philadelphia. Published By S. Augustus Mitchell. 1845. David Rumsey Map Collection

Map of Davidson County, Tennessee From Actual Surveys Made By Order of the County Court of Davidson County 1871, Surveyed and Mapped by Wilbur F. Foster. Library of Congress, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.gmd/g3963d.la000870

“Mill Creek Church”, The Baptist, Vol. IV, No. 7 July 1838, Robert B.C. Howell editor, published by W. H. Dunn, 1838, pg 217-220.

A General History Of The Baptist Denomination In America And Other Parts Of The World, by David Benedict, published by Lewis Colby and Company, 1848, pg. 801. footnote 5

"The Cherokees", Niles National Register, Sept. 1838 to March, 1839, Volume 55, pg 290

Trail of Tears National Historic Trail Route Through Nashville. Tennessee

Trail of Tears National Historic Trail Route Through Nashville, Tennessee (shown in yellow)

Click image for expanded image.

Maps of individual Trail of Tears National Historic Trail sections in Davidson County:

Murfreesboro Pike From the County Line To Mt. View Road

Murfreesboro Pike From Mt View Rd To Una Antioch Pike

Murfreesboro Pike From Una Antioch Pike To Briley Pkwy

Murfreesboro Pike From Briley Pkwy To Elm Hill Pike

Murfreesboro Pike From Elm Hill Pike To N 1st Street

North 1st St To Trinity Lane

Whites Creek Pike From Trinity Lane To Briley Pkwy

Whites Creek Pike From Briley Pkwy To Old Hickory Boulevard

Whites Creek Pike From Old Hickory Boulevard To Seymour Hollow Rd

Whites Creek Pike From Seymour Hollow Rd To I_24

Whites Creek Pike From I_24 To Coopertown Rd


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