Historic Structures

Rock Castle, Hendersonville Tennessee

Date added: July 12, 2021 Categories: Tennessee House

Although evidence is insufficient on the establishment of the house's construction dates, the approximate dates are 1784-1797.

Construction proceeded slowly because of problems with Indians, lack of skilled workmen, and a scarcity of readily available and usable building materials.

By 1793 work had progressed somewhat. Mrs. Smith wrote to her husband on July 20, 1793, that Captain Smith Hansborough had stopped sawing wood for the interior, and that Indians were still making trouble.

On the same day, Hansborough himself wrote to Smith and reported that the walls were about one foot above the window sills, the frames for the first floor were already in, and he was working on assorted joists, lintels, and window frames. He mentioned also that he would "try to get the 'L' part finished..,"

In a letter dated September 15, 1793, Hansborough writes that one side of the "L" was level and ready for the roof joists, while the other side was as high as the windows.

The exact date on which Rock Castle was completed is unknown. Available records do not give such specific information. Daniel Smith conveyed 305 acres of land to Smith Hansborough in 1796. This transaction may conceivably reflect Smith's payment to Hansborough for services rendered upon the completion of the house. Such payment by land to builders of houses was not unknown in this area. However, the basis for this particular conveyance is unknown and can only remain the subject of speculation in the absence of more precise documentation. The earliest known reference to Rock Castle in a habitable state comes from Governor John Sevier's Journal, in which he records arriving at Rock Castle on the evening of May 24, 1797 and staying all night.

Owners

Prior to its sale to the State of Tennessee in 1969, ownership of General Daniel Smith's estate, on which Rock Castle still stands today, passed through five generations of the family.

Following the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, General Daniel Smith received a land grant of 3,140 acres which was given him for service in the war. Here, he erected Rock Castle.

Upon General Smith's death in 1818, the estate passed to his wife in accordance with his will, which gave her "the lower part of the tract of land on which I live containing from the best estimate I can make of its quantity Fifteen Hundred and Ten acres. . .". Mrs. Smith lived at Rock Castle until her death, at which time her son, George Smith, assumed ownership of the estate.

When George Smith died in 1849, his son, Henry (known also as Harry), moved into Rock Castle.

Henry (Harry) Smith died in 1888, and his son-in-law, Horatio Berry, and daughter, Nannie Smith Berry, moved into Rock Castle, where they resided until 1893.

From Horatio Berry, ownership of Rock Castle passed to his wife and subsequently to his son, Colonel Harry S. Berry, who deeded the property to his sister upon his death. On May 8, 1969, the members of the Berry family sold the parcel of land on which Rock Castle presently is situated to the State of Tennessee.

Construction

General Smith appears to have signed no contract with the men he hired, and available account books that he kept shed no further light on this matter. For this reason, the precise origin, number, and function of the craftsmen whom he employed for the construction of Rock Castle remain unknown.

General Smith's sister, Mrs. Peter Hansborough, had two sons, Peter and Smith, who are known to have come to Sumner County from their home in Philadelphia to work on the construction of their uncle's home. Judging by the corresondence that exists between Hansborough and General Smith, it seems plausible to assume that the former was in charge of construction and that he was also a prime carpenter for the job. The Hansboroughs recruited local help, though their number and identity are unknown. However, a William Stamp is known to have worked on the erection of the stone walls for the house.

A family tradition recalled by one of General Smith's collateral descendants maintains that the original stone masons and carpenters were from Philadelphia, but that they were all killed by Indians and no replacements were further to be had from that city. Subsequent workmen were employed from the area and were less skilled, accounting for the flaws in workmanship.

While Philadelphia's being the source of craftsmen for Rock Castle is certainly plausible, in view both of General Smith's known active association with the city and of the fact that it was the home of the Hansborough brothers, no documents are available to amplify or substantiate this tradition. Furthermore, it is clear from records of various transactions between the brothers and their uncle, that Peter and Smith Hansborough survived well beyond the initial period of construction. At the same time, it is interesting to cite another source regarding the origin of the workmen; it relates that ". . . at least two of the seven original workmen brought in from Lexington, Kentucky, were killed by Indians before it [Rock Castle] was completed in late 1793 or 1794." No documentation has been found to substantiate the latter claim.

Whatever the origin and number of the workmen, the conditions prevailing during the period of construction would make it seem likely that when a worker was killed or injured, he was replaced by a man who probably was less skilled than his predecessor. Such generally have been the conditions for construction in any frontier at any point in the history of this, or any other state or nation.

Rock Castle was built from native limestone obtained from the quarry opened for that purpose by General Smith a few hundred yards from the site.

It is known that an almost virgin forest abounded around the site on which Rock Castle was erected. It is therefore reasonable to assume that any lumber necessary may well have been cut from trees of many types that were thus to be had in the area.

Andrew Nicholson, who operated a store in Manchester, Tennessee, appears to have been a likely source for building materials that may not have been available in Sumner County or the surrounding area. A list of goods purchased from Nicholson has survived, and sheds some light on this possibility.

The house, which has survived to the present day devoid of substantial modifications, was laid out in an inverted "L-shape" plan. The stem of the "L" contains four rooms; both the disposition of its rooms and its corresponding expression in the final architectural form is rather crude. The first floor contains four rooms and a central hall with a stairway, and it is a typical example of the simple Georgian houses along the Atlantic Seaboard. The second floor is similar in plan of the first floor. The basement presently contains three rooms, and is very likely the area in which the meals were prepared and the household supplies stored.

No documentation of any kind has yet been uncovered to clarify the circumstances in which the interior of the house was executed. Like the exterior, it survives to the present day with only a few modifications, the most notable of which is the rich marblizing finish that was painted on the inset panels at some later date. The scheme of the interior is simple and reflects that characteristic of simple Georgian houses. The walls and fireplaces in the first floor are all adorned with the central mantle, overmantle, and side cabinets — all set within an integrated wood-paneled wall. However, the design and execution of this paneling throughout the house, as well as the mantelpieces and the stairway in the hall, gives reasonable evidence to speculate that the craftsmen who produced them were not conversant with the "proper" details employed fastidously in the more formal counterparts along the East coast. They would seem also to suggest both the absence of any books or patterns to which they might have referred in the course of the work, and the corresponding possibility that they were proceeeding on the basis of conjecture — either their own or that of General Smith, who may conceivably have attempted to recall similar details in houses previously familiar to him in Virginia.

The limestone for walls, as has already been noted, was quarried on the site. The joists and rafters were cut from oak and cedar; the rafters were marked on each side correspondingly with Roman numerals, easily formed by straight saw cuts across the width, indicating that they were cut and fitted together on the ground, numbered on each side, and finally put in place. This practice was widespread in the area.

Most of the interior woodwork, including the wood paneling around the mantles and cabinets and the stairway, appear to have been made of black walnut. The door and window architraves were made of hewn poplar. The floors were of wide ash boards. The roof shingles were riven of cedar.

Daniel Smith

Born on October 29, 1748, in Stafford County, Virginia, Daniel Smith became a pioneer of the State of Tennessee.

A graduate of William and Mary, he became a surveyor by profession. He married Sarah Michie, of the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and settled in Augusta County, Virigina, on the Clinch River at Fort Christian, where he received an appointment as Deputy Surveyor in 1773.

In 1774, Smith was a Captain in the Colonial troops and was Company Commander in Lord Dunmore's War. In 1775, he signed the Fincastle County Resolution protesting against the oppressions of the British Government. In 1777 he helped organize and became a Major in the Washington County Militia. Two years later he was appointed Commissioner by Governor Thomas Jefferson to work with fellow Virginian Dr. Thomas Walker and representatives from North Carolina to extend the boundary line of the two States westward to the Mississippi. In 1781 he became Colonel of the Washington County Militia and participated in the Battle of King's Mountain.

With the end of the Revolutionary War, Smith settled in the Cumberland settlement, in what is now Sumner County, near the present town of Hendersonville, Tennessee; within the year, he had begun construction of his house, Rock Castle. He was a member of the first Davidson County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions in 1783. The following year, the North Carolina Legislature designated Smith surveyor for laying out the town of Nashville. In 1785 the legislature appointed him a trustee of Davidson Academy, the first institution of learning chartered in the Cumberland country. In 1787 the North Carolina Legislature made him Commissioner of the newly organized Sumner County; in the following year, he was appointed Brigadier General of the Mero District Militia.

Daniel Smith was a member of the North Carolina Convention which ratified the United States Constitution in 1789. When President Washington appointed William Blount as Governor of the Territory of the United States South of the Ohio River, General Smith was made secretary and was frequently Acting Governor in Governor Blount's absences from the territory.

In addition, Smith was the first to publish a map of Tennessee. In 1793, Mathew Carey, a bookseller in Philadelphia, published Smith's A Short Description of the Tennessee Government, or the Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio along with the map of the State as developed from his actual surveys. The map was used in Gilbert Imlay's A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America, published in London in 1797.

In 1796 Smith was chairman of the committee charged with drafting the first Constitution for the State of Tennessee. A year later he was a presidential elector from the new State and was appointed in 1798 to fill out Andrew Jackson's unexpired term in the United States Senate, following Old Hickory's resignation. He did not seek immediate reelection, but was a successful candidate for the Senate in 1805, serving through his resignation in March of 1809.

In view of Smith's numerous substantial, though unheralded, accomplishments, it seems fitting to conclude this historical vignette on the man with the testimonial made by Thomas Jefferson, who observed that "Daniel Smith was a practical surveyor, whose work never needed correction. For intelligence, well cultivated talents, for integrity, and usefulness, in soundness of judgement, in the practice of virtue and in shunning vice he was equalled by few men, and in purity of motive excelled by none."