West Tennessee includes the coastal plains and Mississippi River valley; Middle Tennessee is made up of the Highland Rim and the Nashville Basin; while East Tennessee includes the Cumberland Plateau and the Blue Ridge area of the Appalachian Mountains. Middle Tennessee was a common destination of settlers crossing the Appalachians from Virginia in the late 18th century and early 19th century, as exemplified by the Duncan families of the 1780s and 1790s.
Through the 1820s and 1830s, John and Mary Ann Duncan lived in the area of McMinnville in Warren County in Middle Tennessee. They had four sons - William born in 1820, John born in 1822, Patrick Lafayette born in 1825, and Samuel born 1828 - and one daughter - Ginsey Permelia, born 1824. William and John were given the traditional family names. Patrick was given the middle name Lafayette in remembrance of the young French general and life-long friend to General Washington.
In December 1831, another young French aristocrat named Alexis de Tocqueville traveled through Middle and West Tennessee on a tour of the United States to study the phenomenon of "democracy in America". As the youthful de Tocqueville passed through Tennessee, hundreds gathered in order to get a glimpse of the European noble who had come to visit the backwoods of a then-backwoods nation.
In his journal, de Tocqueville observed the political culture of Tennessee at the time:
"Two years ago the inhabitants of the district of which Memphis is the capital sent to the House of Representatives an individual called David Crockett, who had received no education, could read only with difficulty, had no property, no fixed dwelling, but spent his time hunting, selling his game for a living, and spending his whole life in the woods. His competitor, who failed, was a fairly rich and able man."de Tocqueville offered many other anecdotal observations of the lives of settlers in the Ohio and Tennessee River Valleys - observations that offer us insights into what the lives of the Duncans in Tennessee might have been like. He wrote:
"We passed through the whole breadth of Kentucky, going from Louisville to Nashville. We also passed through the greater part of Tennessee, going from Nashville to Memphis on the banks of the Mississippi. These two States seemed to us very like one another in many respects.
The country is covered with hills and shallow valleys through which a multitude of little streams flow; it is a land of natural, but uniform, beauty.
In both States the ground seemed still almost entirely covered by forest. At distant intervals a line of fencing, some burnt trees, a field of corn, some animals, a cabin made of roughly shaped tree trunks put on top of one another indicated some denizen's isolated home. One hardly sees any villages. The cultivator's houses are scattered in the midst of the woods.
Nothing is more unusual than to see a brick house in Kentucky; we did not see ten of them in Tennessee. Except for Nashville.
The interior of these dwellings show up the master's laziness even more than his poverty. There one finds a fairly clean bed, some chairs, a good gun, often some books and almost always a newspaper, but the walls are so open to the day that the outside air comes in on every side.
In the North there is a look of cleanliness and thoughtfulness in the ordering of the smallest houses; here everything seems sketched out, everything left to chance; one would say that the inmate lived from day to day with the most carelessness of the future.
In the parts of Kentucky and Tennessee through which we passed the men are big and strong; they have a national physiognomy, and an energetic look. By no means like the inhabitants of Ohio, who are a confused mass, a mixture of all the American races, they on the contrary all come from a common stock and belong to the great Virginian family. So, too, they have much more than any other Americans we have yet met that instinctive love of country, a love mixed up with exaggeration and prejudices, and something entirely different from the reasoned feeling and the refined egotism which bears the name of patriotism in almost all the States of the Union.
Almost all the farmers we saw, even the poorest, had some slaves."He continues, almost describing what one might imagine could have been John Duncan's young family in 1831:
"After passing a fence of roughly shaped wood, not without the risk of being devoured by the owner's dogs, one reaches a cabin whose walls a fire can be seen crackling on the hearth; one pushed open a door hung on leather thongs and having no lock; one enters a sort of savage hut which seems the refuge of every misery; there one finds a poor family living with the leisure of the rich.
As you come in, the master of the house gets up, and receives you with pressing hospitality, but he is careful not to go himself to get what you need; in his mind it would be degrading to him to serve you. It is a slave who pokes the fire to warm the traveler; it is a slave who gets his clothes dried and brings him the food he needs. The master watches and his gestures direct his servants' work; he does nothing himself. If he opens his mouth, it is to call his dogs or to tell of some of their bold feats. There is no farmer in Kentucky or Tennessee so poor but can represent a fine example of the country gentlemen of old Europe.
Nothing in Kentucky or Tennessee gives the impression of such a finished society; in that respect these two States are essentially different from those newly peopled by the Americans of the North, in which one finds the germs of the high civilization of New England.
But yet they are by no means still rustic folk; there is none of that simplicity bred of ignorance and prejudices ... which distinguish agricultural peoples in the least accessible places. These men nonetheless belong to one of the most civilized and rational peoples in the world. Their manners have nothing of rustic naivete. The philosophic and argumentative spirit of the English is found there as in all America.
There is an astonishing circulation of letters and newspapers among these savage woods. We traveled with the mail. From time to time we stopped at what is called the post office; almost always it was an isolated house in the depths of a wood. There we dropped a large parcel from which no doubt each inhabitant of the neighborhood came to take his share. I do not think that in the most enlightened rural districts of France there is intellectual movement either so rapid or on such a scale as this in this wilderness."He then continues with a commentary on slavery in the American South:
"In Kentucky and Tennessee slavery has immense effects on the character and habits of the masters: it halts the industry of the inhabitants, and prevents emigrants from outside from contributing theirs. But it presents no threat to the future of the colonists.
The black population is so much smaller than the white, and it always will be so more and more. That is due to natural causes which can be easily demonstrated.
In Kentucky and Tennessee no crop requiring a very great number of slaves is cultivated; ...on each small holding lives a white family with a very small number of slaves; one does not see, as in the [Deep] South, hundred of slaves cultivating the land of one white man. Moreover Kentucky and Tennessee were peopled by poor emigrants who could not have assembled a great number of slaves on any one property even if the type of cultivation had made it easy to do so. In Kentucky and in Tennessee the masters live all the year round on their land. They direct their slaves' work and the poorest work with them themselves.
That then shows that it would be possible to do without slavery. Public opinion in these two states seems entirely to support this view. But slavery is an evil whose roots go so deep that it is almost impossible to get free from it after its fatal influence has been noticed as before it was appreciated.
It would be absurd to want to pass judgment on a whole people after spending a week or ten days among them. So I can only trust to hearsay.
The inhabitants of Kentucky and Tennessee are well known throughout the Union for their violent habits; if what were told in the country is true, they seem to deserve that reputation; they say that quarrels often lead to bloodshed, and that elections seldom pass off without knife-blows given and received.
Various reasons which are not impossible to define, must have combined to give the inhabitants of Kentucky and Tennessee the character attributed to them.
The first is the climate; it has always been that passions have been hotter in the South than in the North. The second is slavery, a common factor for all the inhabitants of the South and one that modifies their national character in the same way. The habit of uninhibited command gives men a certain feeling of superiority which makes them impatient of opposition and irritated at the sight of obstacles. Slavery makes work a dishonor; it makes the whole white race a leisured class for whom money loses a part of its value and who seek their pleasures elsewhere in the resources of society and the pleasures of pride, a sort of aristocracy which is not guided at all by the sort of legal honesty of trading peoples, but which has its values of convention, its fine feelings and its point of honor. The Americans of the South are brave, comparatively ignorant, hospitable, generous, easy to irritate, violent in their resentments, without industry or the spirit of enterprise.
That is the whole story of the inhabitants of Kentucky and of Tennessee. They are men of the South, masters of slaves, but rendered half savage by solitude and hardened by the miseries of life."Slavery was indeed a defining characteristic of Tennessee lifestyle, and of the South in general. During the 1830s, many settlers in Tennessee moved southwest to settle in Texas, which at the time was part of Mexico. These settlers brought with them the contradictory values of freedom and slavery. The Mexican government had outlawed slavery, but the American settlers that flowed into Texas asserted their right to own slaves. Among the settlers from Tennessee was Sam Houston, former governor of Tennessee, and David Crockett - the aforementioned trapper, explorer, and politician who moved to Texas after his service in Congress. Unable to resolve the issue peacefully, Texans declared independence from Mexico in 1836 and war followed. Crockett died heroically at the siege of the Alamo, but the Texan rebels eventually defeated the Mexicans. For several years, Texas existed as an independent state, until it was annexed by the United States in 1845, sparking the Mexican-American War. At the end of the war in 1848, Texas was admitted to the Union as a slave state. Settlers continued to pour into Texas and slavery maintained its hold on the American South.
However, the Duncan family seems to have largely resisted the calls to move to Texas - at least for now. John Duncan's family remained in Middle Tennessee from 1820 through the 1860s. As for the issue of slavery, I am uncertain when or where the Duncans acquired slaves, but they almost certainly had some as was typical with most white Tennessee land-owners of the time. But, as will be seen shortly, not all Tennesseans agreed on the issue of slavery or rebellion.
In July 1841, John and Mary Ann's oldest son, William, married Artimishie Rust, a daughter of John C. Rust, another transplanted Virginian from the Leesburg area. John and Mary Ann's only daughter, Ginsey married William Lusk in September 1841. Their second son, John, married Martha Locke in 1847. John and Martha are pictured below:
In 1842, William and Artimishie had a son, Patrick Henry - no doubt named after the famous Virginia patriot and governor, and hinting at the fact that Virginia's roots and revolutionary sentiment still remained strong in the family.
In July 1844, William's father, John, died in Tennessee at the age of 49, two weeks after William and Artimishie's second son, John Lycurgus, was born. In August that same year, John and Mary Ann's third son Patrick Lafayette married Sarah Rust (Artimishie's sister), further strengthening the ties between the Duncan and Rust families of Tennessee. Patrick and Sarah eventually moved from McMinnville to Nashville.
Mary Ann, widowed at age 39, lived with her son Patrick and Sarah after John's death. Mary Ann's parents, William and Virginia "Jennie" Martin lived in Warren until their deaths in 1866. By and large, the Duncans lived prosperously and peacefully in Warren County, Tennessee during this time.
Through the 1840's and 1850's the issue of slavery in the United States grew to a boiling point. By 1860 the enslaved population of Tennessee had nearly doubled to over 283,000 (about 25% of the state's population of 1.1 million before the Civil War) with only 7,300 free African Americans in the state. While much of the enslaved population were concentrated in West Tennessee, planters in Middle Tennessee also used enslaved African Americans for labor.
In November 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th president of the United States. His election was nearly guaranteed by the disintegration of the Democratic Party during its attempts to nominate a candidate. The favorite, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, was an abhorrence to Deep South Democrats. So the Democratic Convention adjourned without nominating anyone. Different elements of the Democratic Party then chose their own candidates – John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, who represented the Deep South Democrats, and Stephen A. Douglas, who represented the Northern and border-state Democrats. The Constitutional Union Party, comprised of former Whigs and other factions who took a neutral stance on slavery, nominated John Bell of Tennessee as its candidate.
Bell - a native of Nashville - was the same age as John Duncan. Bell had served in the state legislature representing Nashville, and later became Speaker of the US House of Representatives, and was perhaps the most notable politician from Tennessee at the time.
However, most Tennesseans initially showed little enthusiasm for breaking away from a nation whose struggles it had shared for so long. In February 1861, fifty-four percent of the state’s voters voted against sending delegates to a secession convention.
With the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861, however, followed by President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to coerce the seceded states back into line, public sentiment turned dramatically against the Union.
Unionists of all descriptions, both those who [eventually] became Confederates and those who did not, considered the proclamation calling for seventy-five thousand troops "disastrous." Having consulted personally with Lincoln in March, Congressman Horace Maynard, the unconditional Unionist and future Republican from East Tennessee, felt assured that the Lincoln administration would pursue a peaceful policy. Soon after April 15, a dismayed Maynard reported that "the President's extraordinary proclamation" had unleashed "a tornado of excitement that seems likely to sweep us all away." Men who had "heretofore been cool, firm and Union-loving" had become "perfectly wild" and were "aroused to a phrenzy of passion." For what purpose, they asked, could such an army be wanted "but to invade, overrun and subjugate the Southern states." The growing war spirit in the North further convinced southerners that they would have to "fight for our hearthstones and the security of home."
No doubt, William (and his brothers John, Patrick, and Samuel) was among these voters. At this point, we can only speculate which side of the issue they found themselves on. Did they support succession in reaction to Lincoln's heavy-handed militarization and the federal government's abuses? Or, did they support a unified body of states that should seek a democratic and systematic approach to the issue of slavery?
Many battles were fought in the state—most of them Union victories. The Civil War, to a large extent, was fought in cities and farms of Tennessee—only Virginia had more battles than any other state.
William's son, Patrick Henry and John Lycurgus, enlisted in the Confederate Army almost as soon as war broke out in the summer of 1861. It's likely that their uncles John, Patrick Lafayette, and Samuel, or even father William also participated in the war. There are no records of where they were located during the war, but the war soon came close to home.
In February 1862, Federal troops under command of General Ulysses S. Grant entered Tennessee to engage Confederate troops coming from the South. Grant's troops and the United States Navy captured control of the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers. and soon reached Nashville. Union troops held off the Confederate counterattack at Shiloh in southwest Tennessee in April of the same year.
One month after the Battle of Shiloh, on May 24, 1862, William's wife, Artimishie, died. She left behind several children, including three year-old William Martin Jr.. Perhaps William (and others) remained behind to take care of the family after Artimishie's death, while Patrick Henry and John Lycurgus continued their service in the military.
In 1863, William remarried to a Nancy Elkins and had at least one more child, whom they named Jefferson Davis Duncan, after the Confederate president. Perhaps William's loyalties had turned towards the Confederacy, if they had not already?
It is not known how many slaves were owned by the Duncans, but they undoubtedly had at least a handful before the war. Some time between the Union occupation and the end of the war, what slaves were owned by the Duncan family were freed.
In May 1864, a Union army under General Sherman's command began its "march to the sea" in a devastating campaign from Chattanooga, through Atlanta to Savannah, effectively splitting the South in two.
To add to the grief, Patrick Lafayette's wife (and Artemishie's sister) Sarah Rust died in January 1865 at the age of 36, leaving Patrick with 5 children under age 18.
In 1868, Patrick Lafayette married the youthful Sarah York and together they moved westward to Texas (taking his younger children with him), where they started another family. Supposedly, Mary Ann went with her son Patrick to Texas, where she died in 1877. But, I have been unable to confirm this. Patrick Lafayette lived in Texas until his death in 1886.
In the few years following the Civil War, William and his oldest sons - Patrick Henry and John Lycurgus - remained in Tennessee. They soon found that Tennessee had little to offer to a family so profoundly affected by the Civil War.