By Leigh Ann Gardner, Interpretive Specialist, Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area
Located in the middle of a pasture, this dogtrot log cabin with part of its roof collapsed looks no different than the other deteriorating cabins we sometimes see while out in the field. Often first homes built by early settlers, such cabins sometimes later served as slave dwellings, tenant houses, or other farm outbuildings, such as corn cribs. This cabin in Lincoln County, however, was the home of a Revolutionary War veteran named Joseph Greer, a man with a number of legends surrounding him.
In early December 2015, Trail of Tears project coordinator Amy Kostine, graduate research assistant Taylor Stewart, and I first visited the cabin at the request of Dr. Warren Gill, a member of the family that owns the property. Prior to viewing the cabin, we were shown the Greer family cemetery, as well as the lovely (and well-preserved) 1857 Gothic Revival home where Dr. Gill’s mother currently resides. The family is interested in knowing what preservation options exist for the cabin and graciously set aside time to show us the place and answer our questions.
At some point in the twentieth century, the dogtrot cabin was covered with asbestos siding, and a rear addition, along with a chimney, were also added to the home. One of the most eye-catching features of the property are the remains of the two massive stone chimneys, showing a remarkable degree of craftsmanship, that once flanked each pen of the cabin. Although part of the roof of the pens has collapsed, the interior walls and logs remain in surprisingly good condition. A later visit a few weeks ago with undergraduate student Katelyn Dinkins revealed that newspaper remnants, once used as wallpaper, remain on the walls inside each of the pens.
As we work to document the history of the cabin, as well as explore possible preservation options, we are uncovering interesting and somewhat colorful stories about Joseph Greer, who was born in 1754 in Virginia. Greer’s father, Andrew, was an early settler in the Watauga Settlement, arriving there in the 1760s. Several men of the Greer family took part in the Battle of King’s Mountain in 1780, a decisive Continental victory. Joseph Greer was chosen to take a message of the victory to the Continental Congress, then in session in Philadelphia. Known for his great height (accounts vary, but it seems to have ranged between 6.5 and 7 feet), Greer strode into the room where the Congress was in session, and members reportedly remarked, “No wonder the Americans can win, if this man is a sample of their soldiers.” Following the war, Joseph Greer had a store in Philadelphia for a few years before settling in Knoxville in the late 1790s. By the early 1800s, Greer had settled on his Revolutionary land grant in what is now Lincoln County and built this cabin, sometime before 1814.
Like many well-to-do merchants and farmers of the time, Greer was a slave owner. The 1830 census, for example, shows that Greer owned 33 slaves. He still owned slaves at the time of his death in 1831, as his well directs that his slaves “be divided equally between my beloved wife Mary Ann and my children.”
One of the remarkable stories that emerges about Greer is related to one of his former slaves and may reflect the openness to emancipation, in certain specific situations, that was prevalent among some white Tennesseans during the decades after the American Revolution. In 1804, Greer petitioned the Tennessee General Assembly to emancipate Nancy, one of his former slaves. Although it is not clear when or for how long Greer had owned Nancy, by 1804 she had married Philip Thomas, a free person of color. Since Thomas was unable to petition the General Assembly on account of his race, Greer, then the clerk and master of the Superior Court of Law in Knoxville, approached the General Assembly on behalf of Thomas. The General Assembly emancipated Nancy and gave her the name “Nancy Thomas.”
Joseph Greer died in 1831 and was buried on his farm. The epitaph on his grave marker reads, “He was, while living an example of every virtue, distinguished for his benevolence and humanity.” We look forward in the coming months to learning more about Joseph Greer and his cabin.
George M. Apperson, “African Americans on the Tennessee Frontier: John Gloucester and His Contemporaries,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 59, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 2-19. The story about Greer and his former slave Nancy appears on pgs. 5-6.
Brian Patrick Compton, “Revised History of Fort Watauga,” Master’s Thesis, East Tennessee State University, 2005.
Calvin Dickinson, “Watauga Association,” Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture.
“King’s Mountain Messenger,” Yorkville Enquirer, August 20, 1915.
Maggie H. Stone, “Joseph Greer, “’King’s Mountain Messenger’: A Tradition of the Greer Family,” Tennessee Historical Magazine 2, no. 1 (March 1916): 40-42.
Mrs. John G. Young, “Joseph Greer: The King Mountain’s Messenger,” Lincoln Co. Tennessee Pioneers I, no. 6 (December 1971): 95-96.