A Grim Business: A West Knox Development May Trespass on Tragic History

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

My friends who are hardcore New Urbanists are fond of applying Gertrude Stein’s famous assessment of Oakland, Calif., to suburban West Knoxville. “There’s no there there,” they say.

Of course, there’s a there everywhere, even when we’re almost effective in our attempts to obliterate it. There is certainly a there on the western fringe of West Hills. For one developer, that’s the problem.

Faux-British names appeal to the culturally aspirant, and Bentley Fields, another cul-de-sac development with about 30 houses on it, would hardly have been noticed anywhere else.

But there’s no there quite like this one. The construction site—an odd, sloping field of almost 12 acres, with a deep, old sinkhole—is adjacent to the spot where a household of 13 was murdered and buried.

It happened in 1793. It was the worst mass killing in Knox County history.

The Metropolitan Planning Commission rarely has to consider such extraordinary background in their approvals, but they will have to consider those facts at their monthly meeting next week.

Among Native Americans, the Chickamaugan confederacy was the radical extremist fringe, the al-Qaida of the 1790s. The Chickamaugans sought vengeance for real wrongs. But, like their enemies, they sometimes visited their vengeance on the innocent.

More than a thousand Chickamaugan warriors marched to Knox County with one grim piece of business. That was the destruction of Knoxville, the fortified bluff-top village where a couple hundred people lived. It was the white man’s capital. The militia was out of town, raiding other Indian villages. One thousand men could easily have removed Knoxville from the white man’s map.

They paused a few miles before they got to town. There was a station—a fortified home—several miles west of Knoxville, near the road to Kingston. They besieged Alexander Cavett’s station, where the Cavett family, as well as a couple of visiting militiamen, huddled for protection. They fired back as they could, but they were outnumbered 100 to 1.

Some of the chiefs lured the Cavetts outside their compound with the promise of safety. Some of them may have meant it. Then, on the orders of a chief called Doublehead, the unwelcome visitors killed the Cavetts.

Doublehead had a reputation, even among his people, as an impulsive sadist, but he may have felt justified. Whites had tricked his brother, the powerful chief Old Tassel, into an ambush and killed him.

The Chickamaugans distrusted the white people, and thought some ethnic erasure would increase their chances of survival in their homeland. Some call Doublehead a psychopath, and maybe he was. Still, it would be hard to argue he wasn’t right about us.

As he and his men hatcheted the Cavett family, most of them children, other chiefs protested Doublehead’s violence. Doublehead earned the nickname “Babykiller.” Even the radicals didn’t consider it a compliment.

After the slaughter came confusion, compounded by evidence of approaching armies—some of it a deliberate ruse by the 38 white non-soldiers who, hearing about the mortal threat to the city they’d barely founded, presented the illusion of a regiment—as a couple of old men back in town fired cannons in the blockhouse, presenting a separate illusion of soldiers in a different direction.

There are different stories, but at some point the dispirited Chickamaugans gave up their dreams of slaughtering Knoxville and fled.

Neighbors buried the Cavett family on site, perhaps in a common grave. There’s no reason to doubt the generations-old tradition that it was within this rectangular plot, about the size of a modest backyard and known as the Mars Hill Cemetery, named for a Baptist church established in the 1850s. The church burned down before living memory.

It’s back behind Doublehead Lane. To get there, you have to trespass across well-tended backyards or know somebody. I knew Cindy Johnson, a neighbor who’s concerned about the prospective development of the big field adjacent to the graveyard. She’s descended from Cherokee on two sides of her family, but as she only recently discovered, she’s also descended from prominent settler James Campbell, a friend of the Cavetts who helped bury them. She helped host the recent Historic Cavett Station Picnic, attended by more than 50 neighbors.

One thing you notice about the graveyard is that all the existing gravestones, most from the mid-19th to early 20th centuries, are around the perimeter, leaving the broad center seemingly vacant, with only a few trees.

“I think that’s where the Cavetts are buried,” says Prof. Charles Faulkner, the University of Tennessee archaeologist who began investigating the story almost 40 years ago. His book, Massacre at Cavett’s Station, was published in 2013 by UT Press.

By the time people started using it as a conventional churchyard, they respected the unmarked middle. “People still knew about that in the 1850s, and just avoided that.”

In the otherwise umarked middle is one monument, installed in 1921: “IN GRATEFUL MEMORY OF THE DEFENDERS OF CAVETT BLOCKHOUSE.” Their resistance, its text implies, prevented the destruction of Knoxville. Johnson has learned that one of those who attended the ceremony was a descendant of Bob Benge, one of the Chickamaugan chiefs who pleaded for mercy toward the Cavetts.

Faulkner has looked, and never found evidence of the fort, which may have been lost to nearby development years ago. Faulkner and others who have been doing research on the area with ground-penetrating radar are convinced the graveyard is bigger than the fenced-off area, and urge further research.

Some archaeologists have been at work there recently, with some urgency. Several radar “anomalies” consistent with graves are in the Bentley Fields site, right where the developer wants to build a road. Johnson thinks there may be many more. Faulkner says “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.” The Lonas family, who were kin to the Cavetts, are known to have owned slaves. They’re likely buried somewhere around here. No one knows.

But the developer wants to get to work. Johnson points to evidence that a bulldozer has made a sortie along the prospective road.

It’ll be an uncommonly interesting afternoon at MPC. The meeting is Thursday, Oct. 13, at 1:30 p.m. at the City County Building.

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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