Life and Times of an Early Germantown Settler
February 11, 1785 – March 9, 1849
By Suzanne Parker, DPh
In the early morning hours, late in the summer of 1834, forty-nine-year-old Wilks Brooks sat atop his horse, his fifteen-year-old son Joseph beside him. He looked back east at the land of his youth, the county of Pitt in the Greenville area of Eastern North Carolina. It was here on this land, in the midst of the first citizens, leaders, and true patriots of the United States of America that Wilks Brooks had traveled from boyhood to manhood, having all the lessons and values of America’s first patriots woven into the very fiber of his being. Here on this soil, he became husband, father, leader of his family, and one of the leaders of his community and state. With his son saddled beside him, Wilks Brooks headed west, into the rays of the rising sun, with supplies, knowledge, and a tremendous spirit of patriotism in tow. He would soon be a building block of a new community in the rugged, yet green and fertile, lands of West Tennessee –now Germantown and East Memphis-where the results of his hands, knowledge, and patriotic spirit have transcended time and remain today.
They had risen early that morning, before the sun, with lanterns in tow to pack their horses with supplies and kiss their family good-bye. He saw from the top of a hill, his family’s farm. The farm sat south of the Tar River, east of Indian Well Swamp and north of Greenville. The vegetables had been harvested, cotton was in bloom, and the rice waited for the harvest. As they looked back his wife Patsy Tucker Brooks and their daughters waived. His daughter Sophie was twenty and already married to Parker. Alvania was seventeen and married to James B.
Shute. His other daughters were twelve-year-old Margaret, seven-year-old Patsy Anna, and four-year-old Sara.
Wilks Brooks was born in the Piedmont region in Pitt county near Greenville on February 11, 1785, in the land and times of America’s Founding Fathers and earliest citizens. His father was William Brooks, a county commissioner, and leader. His mother was Sara Hardee Brooks, daughter of a county leader. Pitt County North Carolina is located in Eastern North Carolina with Greenville as the county seat. The people of this area were not wealthy. They were mostly farmers recovering from the costs of the Revolutionary War (1775 -1783, ratification May 12, 1784). The people were hard-working and frugal. During the years of Brooks’ youth, the main crops were corn, rice, and barley. Cotton was not yet” king,” and not the profitable crop it grew to be because North Carolina had no deep-sea ports. It was a land of fierce patriots who supported the idea of an independent nation with their pens and their swords. Though not wealthy by material standards, the people were rich with the drive for independence and the spirit of Patriotism. This is the spirit Wilks Brooks carried throughout his lifetime, first in North Carolina, then to Tennessee. John Adams described and encouraged the spirit of the early American citizens in “A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law” first published in the Boston Gazette in 1765:
“Let us read and recollect and impress upon our souls the views and ends of our immediate forefathers in exchanging their native country for a dreary inhospitable wilderness. Let us examine into the nature of that power, and the cruelty of the oppression which drove them from their homes. Recollect their amazing fortitude, their bitter sufferings-their hunger, their nakedness, the cold which they patiently endured-the severe labors of clearing their grounds, building their houses, raising their provisions, amidst dangers from wild beast and savage men, before they had time or money or materials for commerce. Recollect the civil and religious principles and hopes and expectations which constantly supported and carried them through the hardships with patience and resignation.
“Let us recollect it was liberty, the hope of liberty for themselves and us and ours, which conquered all discouragement, dangers, and trials. In such researches as these, let us all in our several departments cheerfully engage, –but especially the proper departments of law, learning, and religion.”
Pitt County formerly part of Beaufort County was formed sometime after 1760 by a grant of land to eight English noblemen. It was named after William Pitt, a famed supporter of the colonists’ rights, the Earl of Chatham, and former Prime Minister of Great Britain. The county’s fathers, grandfathers, uncles –men- had fought alongside General Washington in winning our country’s independence. James Brooks (possibly Wilks” Brooks grandfather) of Pitt County served as a lieutenant under Captain William Burney in the Revolution. Other men of Pitt County served under him. The county’s women supported the troops by maintaining the homes and farms and by sewing and mending soldiers’ uniforms. Mothers and grandmothers of this part of the land were proud. They provided food for the soldiers of the Revolution and cared for the sick and wounded. The men and women of this area had helped win the Revolution and lived and formed the ideals of patriotism- a dedication to the ideal of a country free from tyranny with the willingness to give all to establish and protect that freedom. The spirit of patriotism was as real and necessary as the air her citizens breathed.
Pitt county leaders met at Martinborough on July 1, 1775, author the “Pitt County Resolves.” In this document, county leaders proclaimed, in peril of their lives, that they “due to the cruel scene now enacting in Massachusetts Bay,” were united and determined to never become slaves to any power on earth and would bear arms to protect against British tyranny. They declared loyalty to their land and the resolve to resist British tyranny by any means necessary- including the willingness to bear arms. The document bears the signatures of James Brooks, as well as signatures of the Hardees, members of Wilks Brooks’ mother’s family. A plaque honoring the Pitt County Resolves hangs today in the courthouse. A few months after the Pitt County resolves, William Pitt addressed the English Parliament and the Continental Congress defending the colonists and the principles they had declared in “The Pitt County Resolves.” A year later, writers of the “Declaration of Independence” on July 4, 1776, proclaimed the same principles and resolutions for the new country. North Carolina sent five delegates, one from Pitt County to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. In 1789, the year Brooks turned four, Pitt county sent a delegate to Fayetteville to ratify the newly written Constitution. That same year, the Constitution became the law of the land for the United States of America.
Formation of Values
Little is known of Brooks’ early life, but one can assume that he grew up hearing the stories of the Revolutionary war-the battles won and lost, and the great deeds and thoughts of the country’s Founding Fathers. His father, grandfather, relatives, and other men of Pitt county proceeded the nation’s “Declaration of Independence” with their brave “Pitt County Resolves.” The early American citizens held firm to the ideals of a free nation and that every man was born with rights given by God. They believed the responsibility of the perpetual success of a free country governed “By the People, for the People” was that of the individual. It was the duty of every citizen to be educated about the Constitution and its principles, and it was only through knowledge of these principles that citizens could hold all elected leaders accountable for following the constitutional principles and ensure that posterity did the same.
These were the values instilled in Wilks Brooks, the ideals to be taught to future generations, and carried on to posterity.
Brooks Life in North Carolina
Wilks Brooks was born a twin of Joseph Brooks on February 11, 1785, in Pitt County. His father was William Brooks and his mother Sara Hardee Brooks. Other children of William and Sara Brooks were Francis, Elizabeth, Nancy, William, Calvin, Holland, Southey, Prudence, Martha “Patsy” and Churchill. His family farmed land in Pitt County north of
Greenville. The main crops were corn, rice, and barley. They also grew cotton and vegetables which were harvested and preserved to sustain the family through the winter. The family attended a Baptist Church near their farm. Francis married Elizabeth Hardee of the area. Elizabeth married Reading Bell. Holland married Adam Carroll. Southey married Livey Moye. Prudence married Lewis Gwaltney. William served in the War of 1812. No records can be found of Wilks Brooks’s education, but other members of his community attended Princeton University.
At the age of twenty-seven, January 7, 1812, Wilks Brooks married twenty-two-year-old Patsy Tucker. They had seven children, but only six survived: Alevania born in 1817, Joseph born in 1819, Sophia born in 1814, Margaret born in 1822, Robert born in 1825, and died in 1826, Patsy Anna born in 1827, and Sara born in 1830. The Brooks and Hardee families owned farms that Wilks Brooks likely worked on and helped oversee the operations of. From the age of twenty–nine in 1813 until 1821, at the age of thirty-six, Brooks served as a Justice of the Peace for Pitt county. In this role, Brooks performed marriage ceremonies, mediated minor legal disputes, determining punishment and fines for small crimes, and by law was required to call out the county Militia of necessary. By law, all free men from the ages of eighteen to forty-five were required to be members of the militia. The militia was required to meet and train 6 times a month. As a justice of the peace, Brooks had the right to join with two other justices of the peace to call out the militia if circumstances required.
The year he served, 1821, was an important year for all who held the position of Justice of the Peace and for history. The year was a time of struggle between blacks and whites. The educated slaves of Eastern North Carolina were struggling for limited freedom against a white majority. The state and county citizens were in fear of slave uprisings because of incidents reported in nearby counties in the newspapers.” The State Street Bridge Incident” of 1821 had aroused public awareness and fear of the issue. On the States Street Bridge in Newbern, in eastern North Carolina, about midnight two groups of white slave patrols came upon each other from opposite sides of the bridge. Each group mistook the other for rebelling slaves and they fired their guns at each other.
Some men died, and several were injured. No group of rebellious slaves was ever identified or discovered. Newbern County Captain John Rhem was seriously injured. He spent fifty-one days at the house of John Fonville in Newbern recovering. This incident and alleged incidents of stores being robbed at night reported in papers across the country ignited fear of slave uprising in North Carolina. North Carolina had a system for handling times of peace and panic. Slave patrols formed as part of the militia and the County Commissions and their justices of the peace acted as the two most powerful mechanisms to suppress slave unrest. No records are found of slave patrols ever firing a shot in Pitt County during Wilks’s tenure as Justice of the Peace or of the militia being called out. To prevent undue panic and unnecessary use of force, Brigadier General William Clark of Pitt County wrote to Colonel John Hill of Carteret County after the State Street Bridge Incident specific requirements for calling out the militia:
“It requires that negroes and free people of color should have committed themselves in arms committing thefts and alarming the inhabitants and that those facts should be distinctly stated to three or more Justices of the Peace of your county.”
In 1823, Wilks Brooks was elected to serve a term in the House of the North Carolina General Assembly and was a delegate to the North Carolina Constitutional Conventional Convention of 1823. In those times, men running for elected office traveled from farm to farm on horseback, buggy, or foot to gain the support of their constituents. Friends held barbeques giving others in the community to meet and question the candidate. Brooks had been a strong supporter of a bill to educated the negroes and free people of color, but it was defeated. Also during Brooks’s tenure on the General Assembly, in 1823 Captain John Rhem petitioned the Assembly to appoint militia to control “uprising slaves”. (Committee of Claims reports on the Petition of Capt. John Rhem, 1823, Committee Reports, Session of 1823-1824, General Assembly Sessions Records, NCDAH) North Carolina County courts of Bladen, Carteret, Jones, and Oslow made allegations like those of John Rhem to justify their military call outs. The true purpose of the Militia was to prevent foreign invasion and Indian attacks. Pitt County had not had any military call-outs against uprising slaves.
The decision to Move to Tennessee
By 1824 fear of slave insurrection and unrest in North Carolina had subsided, but rose again after what is called the Nat Turner Rebellion. On August 20, 1831, Nat Turner, a slave who was also a preacher and respected for his intelligence by both blacks and whites gathered fellow slaves, and according to Turner’s confession reported to Thomas Gray before his execution, ate supper about three o’clock in the afternoon, then proceeded to his master’s house, who Turner described as “kind and good to him”, and murdered all the members of the family with weapons such as axes. The group of slaves grew as they traveled to nearby Virginia farms and murdered as many as fifty-five whites. The slaves were tracked and caught by the Military and Nat Turner was hung on August 30, 1931. Nat Turner claimed that he was instructed by God. A massacre of innocents, pure evil, is remembered by history as a slave rebellion or insurrection. This event sparked fear in the neighboring state of North Carolina.
Other events of history probably contributed to Brooks’ and other Pitt County residents’ decision to move to Tennessee. In 1793 Eli Whitney from Connecticut had invented the cotton gin while visiting a plantation in Georgia. Now farmers could produce more cotton fibers to sell because the tedious process of removing the cotton fibers from the seed had become much quicker. The demand for cotton from England was increasing. The only states at the time that had land suitable to grow cotton were North Carolina and Georgia. Daniel Boone had explored Tennessee and reported of the lush fertile lands. North Carolinians needed more land to become prosperous from growing cotton and they needed a port to ship it from. The land of West Tennessee and the Mississippi River provided both. The leaders of the nation carried a vision of westward growth and expansion Wilks Brooks’s brother, Joseph, moved to Tennessee in 1829. The stage had been set for men and women
of North Carolina and surrounding states to create a home in the new state of Tennessee.
Before the westward movement began, Tennessee was called home by the Cherokee Indians of middle and east Tennessee, and the Choctaw and Cherokees of western Tennessee. The Cherokees signed a treaty giving up their rights to east Tennessee in 1770. May 12, 1784, the Treaty of Paris was signed officially ending the Revolutionary War recognizing the U.S. as an independent nation with claim to the country’s land. In 1796 Tennessee has declared a state. John Rice and John Ramsey of North Carolina each entered and won a claim for 5000 acres of land in what is now West Tennessee as a reward for service in the Revolutionary War. They later sold their land from these grants to men from North Carolina. With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the United States gained rights previously held by France to lands west of the Mississippi River. The War of 1812 freed Kentucky and Tennessee land bordering the Mississippi River for settlement. Cherokees and Choctaw Indians still called Tennessee home. The United States negotiated treaties removing the Cherokees and Choctaws from most of Tennessee by the second decade of the nineteenth century. Most Indians relocated to Georgia and Alabama. The Choctaws remained. They claimed the fertile bluffs of the Mississippi in the Southwest corner of Tennessee.
Isaac Shelby had his eye on the bluff as did Andrew Jackson. Shelby was a former military hero, governor of Kentucky, and friend of James Monroe. Shelby had been asked by Monroe to serve as Vice President, but Shelby declined. Shelby had also previously served in the North Carolina government and had many friends there. Shelby owned farmland in eastern Kentucky near the Mississippi. He dreamed of free ports to ship goods from Kentucky and Tennessee down the great Mississippi to the ports of New Orleans. Isaac Shelby was an experienced negotiator with much political influence throughout the country.
Andrew Jackson was a man born in poverty. He won fame with each military victory. He was the nemesis of the American Indians and the hero of the settlers. Jackson was captured by the British as a young man during the Revolutionary war. A British officer struck him in the face with a sword-Jackson never forgot. He spent his life detesting the British and their allies- the Seminole Indians of Florida. Jackson’s fame among the Americans grew with every Indian battle won, and with every acre of land won for Americans to settle. By 1818 Jackson had led Americans to victory against the Seminoles in Florida and Tennessee was mostly open to settling, but the treasured bluffs of Tennessee along the Mississippi were home still home to the Chickasaws. Jackson sought and received help from the great Isaac Shelby negotiating the purchase of the valued bluffs. The Chickasaws ceded. Jackson and Shelby purchased six million acres for fifteen annual payments of twenty thousand dollars. A year later Marcus Winchester and William Lawrence surveyed the bluffs and Memphis was conceived.
Joseph Brooks, the twin of Wilks, started for the Western District on February 23, 1829, with his wife Jemina Cannon and family, and settled in Shelby County Tennessee. Wilks Brooks had purchased the rights to 640 acres (a section of land) granted to Tignal Jones, assignee of John Rice. This land was in Civil District 11 at Pea Ridge, Shelby County Tennessee 13 miles east of Memphis on the old Cherokee trail. In 1822 John Rice had received a warrant for this land in consideration for military service to the State of North Carolina.
Wilks and his son Joseph arrived at Pea Ridge in what is now Germantown and East Memphis area on October 15, 1834. Wilks was forty-nine years old and Joseph was fifteen years old. They came from the green fertile grounds and the blue skies of North Carolina to the similar land on Tennessee. They brought with them supplies to survive, skills to build a home and to operate a farm, knowledge of government, the values and ideals of their father, and the hope with the help from his brother and cousins to build a peaceful and prosperous home for their family.
The family arrived on December 4, 1835, and moved on February 20, 1836, to the plantation they named Woodlawn on the State Line Road at Pea Ridge. The area was later known as Massey when on 18 July 1836 postal service was moved to Germantown from Eppy White’s house. By letter from the Post Office Department of Tennessee, the name Pea Ridge was requested to be changed to another name so as not to conflict with a more established area in Tennessee named Pea Ridge.