Jonesborough is centrally located in present day Washington County, in the far eastern corner of Tennessee.[1] Washington County was once a vast area encompassing land that “stretched grandly from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River,” originally designated as the “Washington District” of North Carolina’s Provisional Congress in 1777.[2] The original 42,244 square miles it encompassed would later become the state of Tennessee.

In the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, there were only two small communities in the county, both located on the extreme northeastern borders at the confluence of the Watauga, Holston, and Nolichucky Rivers. Loosely organized as The Watauga Association, “they duly elected representatives and sent them in 1776 to North Carolina with a petition requesting that state to govern the area,” which was done in 1777 when Washington County was designated. An earlier petition for admission to the state of Virginia had also been ignored.[3]

Ownership of land in this region was, however, hotly “contested by territorial governments, Indians, royal grantees or their heirs, land speculators, and immigrants.”[4] With original claims stretching back to Virginia in 1609, the area overlapped with grants made by a Carolina colonial grant issued in 1629. Finally, in 1783, Lord John Carteret, later Earl of Granville, “claimed his ancestor’s interest in a Carolina Grant” and secured legal title to about two-thirds of the area.[5] Many of these sections were then sold to purchasers. Confusion continued, however, as “both Virginia and North Carolina were hard-pressed to deal with claims by the Indians, whose rights during the interim had been ignored by officials who had been awarded land grants,” and there was still no clear survey showing the line of demarcation between the territories.[6]


[1] Note that the spelling has varied over the years, with “Jonesborough” and “Jonesboro” being used interchangeably until 1983, when the former, original spelling was formally adopted.

[2] History of Washington County, Tennessee, 1988 compiled by the Watauga Association of Genealogists – Upper East Tennessee, MC31040, McClung Collection, ETHC, 7.

[3] Ibid., 7, 15.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.


There has been some confusion as to the role of the Nathan Gammon family in Sarah’s life. Some sources have attempted to assign ownership of a young Sarah to the Gammons, based solely on the idea that it would have made sense given the fact that following the Civil War, Sarah did indeed change her last name from Blair to Gammon. Some researchers are eager to name Nathan Gammon’s second daughter, Jane Leticia (“Jennie”) as Sarah’s owner based on the fact that Sarah had some education when she arrived in the west, and Jennie was a devoted school teacher.

Jennie Gammon did in fact own a young slave girl at the time of the Civil War…her name was Lucy.

Another theory we encountered was that Sarah passed between the Blair and Gammon families through marriage. The connection between the Blair and Gammon families is not in question: Nathan Gammon’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth Hamilton Looney Gammon (b. 23 August 1825, d. 14 April 1898) married William Patterson Blair, son of John Blair III, on October 19, 1820, in Jonesboro, Tennessee, where both families were living at the time.

Following the marriage, William and Elizabeth Blair moved to Warm Springs (later renamed Hot Springs) near Ashville, North Carolina, where William operated a stage line. There is some evidence that the couple owned slaves while residing in North Carolina; however, none appear to be the correct age to be Sarah.

A brief history of what we know about Nathan Gammon and his immediate family will be helpful as we begin to unravel the complexities of Sarah’s late childhood and teenage years. Nathan Gammon was a close friend of the Blair family, and there are many connections between them that hold some bearing on our story.


The Blair Lottery

As we’ve noted throughout, the Blair family had extensive roots in Tennessee. Consequently, there are A LOT of Blair family members to sort through. We were able to narrow down our list of potential suspects somewhat through Sarah’s recollections and some family sources that pointed to one particular branch of the Blair family as owning Sarah’s parents, and through that branch of the family’s connections with the Gammon family. Even so, the list of potential candidates was daunting, to say the least. There were at least three John Blairs, two William Blairs, and several other variously named Blairs to consider. On a hunch, we started with John A. Blair, who was about the same age as Nathan Gammon and had extensive business dealings with the latter in both Knox and Washington Counties throughout the period in question.


Jonesborough, Tennessee, is located in present day Washington County, and centrally located in the easternmost tip of the state.



Located in Knox County, on the eastern side of the state, Knoxville was founded on June 11, 1792 and named in honor of General Henry Knox, Secretary of War in General George Washington’s cabinet. Knoxville, the county seat, had been founded, named and laid out the year before, in 1791, when the area was still a part of Greene and Hawkins Counties. It had formerly been called White’s Fort, named after a frontier stronghold.

When Tennessee entered the Union as the sixteenth state in 1796, Knoxville officially became the state capital, and remained so until 1813, when it was moved to Nashville for the first time. Knoxville was subsequently again the capital for a brief period in 1817, however, when the state Legislature met there.

The Civil War uniquely impacted Tennessee. The last state to secede from the Union, it was also the first readmitted to statehood. Internally, it was deeply divided before, during and after the conflict.

Tennessee generally aligned with the southern cause, but slaveholding was far more prominent in Middle Tennessee than East Tennessee due to geographic differences that made cash crops such as cotton and tobacco lucrative in the former region, and almost impossible in the latter. The most widely recognized division was the Cumberland Gap, a strip of elevated tableland that divided the early counties of Washington and Mero.

Change occurred rapidly. While eastern Tennessee was more heavily populated in 1790, by the turn of the century the population had shifted dramatically with the west overtaking the east.  The population of slaves in each section was even more dramatically uneven; by 1830, the region west of the Cumberland Plateau held almost seven times as many slaves as did eastern Tennessee. The 1830 cencus lists less than 18,000 total slaves in East Tennessee, and nearly 124,000 in the western district.

This contrast created marked sectionalism, as eastern Tennesseeans watched their western neighbors surge past them in affluence based on the economics of slave labor and cash crops. As W.A. Walker, Jr. writes:

“There is little evidence to show that a better or wrose breed of masters lived in Tennessee than elsewhere. We can assume that the moral and humane qualities of Tennessee slaveholders made slavery neither more nor less acceptable as an institution in Tennessee than it was elsewhere in the South. The peculiar geographical characteristics of the state served, however, to modify the economic circumstances in which slavery was applied, and both public opinion in regard to the slave institution and the lot of the slave no doubt varied according to these circumstances.”

East Tennessee, therefore, became more sympathetic to abolitionist principles, and it was in Jonesboro that the first explicitly abolitionist publication, Elihu Embree’s “The Emancipator” was published. Both the Blair and Gammon families had strong ties, both business and personal, to the Embree family.

Knoxville in particular was torn by the Civil War. In 1861, the City of Knoxville voted in favor of scession, while the county at large overwhelmingly favored remaining with the Union. The conflict among residents with divided loyalties characterized both the war years and the Reconstruction period.

Our search began in Knoxville for several reasons that have already been mentioned elsewhere: both the Blair and Gammon families had extensive roots there, and the family that brought Sarah west departed from that city in 1870. It seemed logical to start with what we knew – that at some point prior to departing for Montana with John Luttrell Murphy, Sarah was living in Knoxville – and work our way backward from there.

That researching slaves and former slaves can be tricky business goes without saying. Few researchers are lucky enough to stumble across first-hand sources that empirically pin down the whereabouts of a specific individual, especially in the tumultuous years surrounding the Civil War. But we had to start somewhere.

Through some primary research on Knox County, Tennessee, we learned that some of our suspects, the Blairs, had sunk roots in Tennessee a few counties to the east, in Washington County; there were also Blairs in Knoxville, and just across the state line, in South Carolina. All of them warranted further investigation, as did the Gammon family, which we believed owned some of Sarah’s relatives.

So our search began with Knoxville as a home base, and branched out from there to include Jonesborough, in nearby Washington County. We believe that to understand a person, you must understand where they come from -the things they saw, the places they went, the environment that shaped them. So first up: some Tennessee history.