Let's be honest, if you're checking here on a lovely day like today, instead of being outside where
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it's nice, I can really only assume you have nothing better to do than to read me sharing with you some of the cool, but incredibly nerdy, stuff I've learned about Bell's Bend.
Don't feel bad. I'm stuck inside, too, watching my dumb dog in her safety cone collar who cannot be left unattended for longer than five minutes without getting herself wedged between the toilet and the wall and who cannot sit outside in the grass while I hang in the hammock because she's somehow cut open her belly.
So, I'm not looking down on anyone else who's happened stop by. Welcome, friends, and read on.
The Folks Who Recently Reappeared
On Monday, a woman fishing at the boat landing at the end of Cleece's Ferry found some leg bones. It turns out that those bones belong to your neighbors who lived here 6,000 years ago.
You may or may not be surprised to learn that 6,000 years ago, the residents of Bell's Bend spent a lot of time doing what the residents of Bell's Bend do now--fishing, hunting, hanging out with their families and close friends. They were, much like the folks presently suddenly determined to become small farmers, on the verge of learning to successfully grow gourds and squash.
When they died, their families buried them in the river bank. And, obviously, sometimes when it's wet enough, they come up out of the ground and move around.The First Big Bell's Bend Controversy
Back in 1870, the whole bottom of the Bend was controlled by three families. The six Clees brothers owned 1600 acres where the May Town Center is proposed to go. A man named Bloomstein owned 600 acres west of the Clees's land, bound by the river on the south and west. A man named Anderson owned the property just north of Bloomstein's, and between the three families, they controlled the whole bottom of the Bend.
I quote to you now from the Central Law Journal
of 1877, "By crossing the river and striking the Charlotte turnpike at a distance of about three quarters of a mile, persons living on the bend could reach Nashville by that turnpike, the distance in all being some six miles, whereas the distance to Nashville by going out of the bend to the north was nearly sixteen miles, and over bad roads."
So, even then, the question of how to get people in and out of the Bend was being asked.
Anyway, the three families agreed to build a road between the properties (probably just a hair west of OHB is now, and the reason for my guess will become clear in a moment) and purchase land on the other side of the river, between it and Charlotte Pike, and to operate a ferry and to split the money in direct proportion to how much land each family held.
But then, when it came time to actually build the road, the Clees changed the road's position and put it all on their land and opened their own ferry and seemed to have then tried to argue that, though the three families surely all held the land between Charlotte and the river together, the Clees brothers now owned the road and the ferry and all of the profits.
There was, as you can imagine, a huge lawsuit. And, on the one hand, the Clees brothers lost. On the other hand, you can still drive down Cleece's Ferry Road and not Anderson, Bloomstein, and Clees's Ferry Road.
History is funny like that.A Small Community of Melungeons
When I first saw that there was an African American cemetery in the Bend, I wondered if it was a slave cemetery or if, later, there was a freedman's community there. I got distracted in my search by the discovery that along both sides of the river, even as far north as Bull Run Road, there was a small, but thriving Melungeon community.
In fact, it appears that two Melungeon brothers--Tom and William Hulan--ran the ferry from the 1870s to the early 1900s. But the Hulan family seems to have been in the area since the 1840s (though there was a second wave of Melungeons settling in the area a little later than that, after a family feud out near Lebanon). That would make Bell's Bend one of the furthest west Melungeon communities.
"That's nice," I hear you saying, "but who the heck are the Melungeons?"
And that, my friends, is the interesting question.
Sociologists and other scholars call the Melungeons a "tri-racial isolate group," which basically means that, up in the mountains of East Tennessee and North Carolina, where they escaped close policing of racial bounds, whites, blacks, and Indans intermarried and their descendants kept to themselves enough that they were not "like most folks."
Though the Melungeon were, in certain areas of Tennessee, treated like a distinct (and distained) ethic group, in other parts of Tennessee, what it means to be Melungeon is a little looser. When you look at the census records, you get a sense of the confusion.
Let's consider the poor census-taker who went out to Bull Run in 1910 (which is in Scottsboro, which I know we're supposed to pretend is so far away from Bell's Bend, but for the sake of this post, let's be honest about it all being right together there). Here he found William and Mary Collins (with their daughter Hazel) and Thomas and Mary Barnes (with their eight children), who he at first classified as "w" for white and then we see the "w" traced over and replaced with a cursive "b" for black.
Right below them is Sarah Thompson (and forgive me here, because I can't read the handwriting very well), but she appears to have at first been classified as "mul" (for mulatto) and that is smeared away and replaced with "w" and her daughter, Vinia, is firmly a "w" without seeming question. And who knows what to make of Curtis Pentecost's wife Ida or daughter Molly? He is a "w," but they are both "d"s.
To help clarify the mess for whoever tried after him to make sense of it all, written elegantly in the margins by each of these families is "Portuguese."
The Melungeons had been calling themselves "Portuguese" and "Portuguese Indians" for a long time, as a way of escaping the "Melungeon" label. And so it's not surprising to see the term here as a way of explaining these people who weren't easily racially classifiable.
Many of these folks are still there in the Bend, of course. In the cemetery, you'll find William and Mary Collins, a whole bunch of Barneses, some Pentecosts, and William Hulan and his family. I'm guessing this is the same cemetery that folks on both sides of the debate are calling the "African American Cemetery," but in calling these families solely African-American, we lose sight of a cool part of the story of Bell's Bend.