by William Anderson
The Wilderness Road Blockhouse in Natural Tunnel State Park is a reproduction of the original blockhouse built by an early pioneer, John Anderson, in 1775. Anderson’s eventful life included not just his role as the Blockhouse proprietor, but also service as a regional militia leader and judge.
Born in 1750, Anderson was the son of one of the first settlers of the Shenandoah Valley, William Anderson, who farmed several thousand acres near Staunton, Virginia. The Andersons were part of a group of immigrants known as “Scots-Irish” because they were Scottish in ancestry but came to America from Northern Ireland. The Scots-Irish were hardy and stubborn people, qualities Anderson would need to survive first the French and Indian War in his youth and later the long conflicts in the Holston region.
Anderson first explored the Holston area in 1769, when it was still a wilderness, and moved to the area in 1773 with a wave of new settlers. Anderson did not build the Blockhouse, however, until two years later. In the meantime, he nearly lost his life. During Dunsmore’s War, a short-lived conflict with the Shawnee in late 1774, Anderson served as an ensign in the local militia attached to Blackmore’s Fort left behind to protect against attacks on the settlements. When a raiding party caught the fort defenders outside the fort, Anderson and another defender left the security of the fort under fire to try to rescue a downed comrade who was about to be scalped. The militia colonel in charge of the region reported that “the Indians like to had done Anderson’s job, having struck into the stockade a few inches from his head.” Daniel Boone led a rescue party to the fort the day after the attack and served as captain over the local fort defense for the rest of Dunsmore’s War. Boone and George Rogers Clarke were two of the heros of the era Anderson undoubtedly new and worked with in the defense of the western frontier.
When he was discharged from his militia duty, Anderson married his fiance, Rebecca Maxwell on January 12, 1775. Needing a place to raise his family, he selected a piece of land at the end of Carter’s Valley, the farthest settlement into the Holston wilderness. This location, wittingly or not, placed Anderson squarely in the path of any native raids coming across Big Mocassin Gap from the west. On this spot he build the famous Blockhouse in the spring of 1775. For the next twenty-five years, Anderson’s Blockhouse served as the starting point for parties crossing the Wilderness Trail to Kentucky.
Anderson is best known for his role as the Blockhouse owner, but he was also a successful farmer and one of the area’s leading citizens. Following his service at Blackmore’s Fort, Anderson likely fought in the Battle of Long Island Flats, one of the first battles of the Revolutionary War. In early 1777 Governor Patrick Henry of the new state of Virginia appointed Anderson as one of the first members of the county court of newly formed Washington County, and as captain of the County militia. After 1779, due to a boundary dispute, Anderson and the Blockhouse became part of North Carolina, where he served as Lieutenant Colonel in the Sullivan County militia. Anderson is believed to have participated in at least two campaigns into native territory during the Revolutionary War. He may also have fought in the key Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780 but the records are unclear. In Virginia, he is often referred to as “Captain John Anderson,” his rank in the Virginia militia, but several researchers refer to him as “Colonel John Anderson” based on his later rank.
When his state affiliation shifted to North Carolina, Anderson continued to serve as judge on the Sullivan County Court. In 1783, a group led by John Sevier tried to establish a new State of Franklin that would have encompassed the Blockhouse. Anderson found himself on the side of the supporters of the new state and even served for a short time as one of three state justices. Many residents of the area opposed the state, and the dispute reached violent proportions on occasions. At one point the opponents raided Anderson’s court, drove the justices out, and took all their records. Anderson’s brother-in-law, George Maxwell, led the military forces of the opponents.
In the 1780s the Blockhouse became important in the defense of Kentucky, the “dark and bloody land” where the Shawnee and Cherokee fought bitterly to stop the settlement of their hunting grounds. George Rogers Clark and other leaders used the Blockhouse to store ammunition destined for Kentucky, and Anderson provided hospitality to various officers and government agents traveling back and forth. In 1789 native raids increased in the region, in one instance resulting in one local individual losing his wife and all of his ten children to death or capture. Anderson’s status among the military leaders made him the logical choice to write to Col. Arthur Campbell seeking assistance. In this letter, the only known surviving example of Anderson’s handwriting, Anderson reports on a Mr. Johnson who “had his family, which consisted of his wife and eleven children, all killed and taken except two.” Anderson rather searingly questions why the region’s residents “guarded our frontiers in the time of the late war, when we were attacked on both sides, and now can get no help.”
In the 1800s, due to shifting state boundaries, Anderson found himself back in Virginia. In a mark of the high respect area residents held Anderson, the citizens of new Scott County elected him Sheriff, the first officer appointed, even though he was 65 years old at the time. He died two years later while trying to bring cool water from a distant spring to his ill wife. His son Isaac became a leader of the new county. Anderson and his wife raised eight children and had sixty-four grandchildren. One of those grandchildren, Joseph R. Anderson, founded Bristol, Tennessee. The Blockhouse burned in 1876.
Anderson never held political office and never followed the adventurists like Boone into new territory in Kentucky and elsewhere. Instead, he settled into his life at the Blockhouse, the only home he and Rebecca ever knew, and provided a life of dedicated service to his local community. The many descendants of the travelers over the Kentucky road can thank him in part for the lives their ancestors were able to create.