Backwoods cemetery tells stories of violence and tragedy

Flowers bloom on the grave of Daniel Pennington, the second person buried at Chimney Rock Cemetery, in 1872.
Flowers bloom on the grave of Daniel Pennington, the second person buried at Chimney Rock Cemetery, in 1872.

On January 6, 1872, a traveler along the Monticello Road between Huntsville, Tenn., and Monticello, Ky., made a grisly discovery: the body of a teenage girl, badly beaten and mutilated, along a path near the roadway. The Knoxville Daily Chronicle described it like this: “Her collar bone and one rib were broken. The left eye was mashed in, apparently by a severe blow, and the entire body, most horribly mutilated, bore witness to refined cruelty, which is at once sickening and a burning shame to advanced civilization.”

The Monticello Road was a mail route between the two remote towns. Oneida, which is today the largest town along the northern Cumberland Plateau, did not exist; would not exist, in fact, until the Cincinnati-Southern Railroad came along a couple of decades later. Huckleberry Ridge, where the girl was found, does not appear on any modern map, but it was located near Station Camp Road, in what is today the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area.

The girl’s body was initially interred, but was exhumed by lawmen so that an inquest could be held. It was determined that the girl died of foul play. A grand jury was convened, and indictments were handed down, charging a Huntsville widow and her daughter with second degree murder. But they were never convicted, and the true cause of the girl’s death was never told.

Some said 15-year-old Angeline Moore, who had been indentured by her mother to the widow, had been driven from the widow’s home because she wasn’t wanted there, and that she had spent the winter of 1872 wandering about the forests, homeless. Others said that the woman had taken the girl by horseback from her Huntsville home to the area above the Big South Fork River, hoping that she would find her way to the settlements along the river, in places like Station Camp and No Business, and that she was killed by wild animals. Some claimed the widow’s dog was standing watch over the girl’s body when she was found.

One of the residents of the Station Camp area, Pa Slaven, provided land for the burial of Moore’s body, near where twin sandstone buttes known as the “Chimney Rocks” protrude from the ground.

Six months later, after winter had given away to spring and then summer, other members of the Slaven family were feuding. On July 10, 27-year-old Meshack Slaven approached the home of his sister and brother-in-law and fired a rifle into the home. His brother-in-law, 24-year-old Daniel Pennington, fired back with a pistol, striking Slaven in the shoulder and forcing him to flee. According to a newspaper account from the Knoxville Daily Chronicle, Pennington then left the home and took cover in some undergrowth, where he was shot and killed by another of his wife’s brothers, 23-year-old Steward Slaven.

A warrant was issued for Slaven’s arrest, but he fled the area and was never tried, eventually winding up in California.

Pennington, who was a giant of a man at 7 ft. 2 in., and his wife were expecting a child at the time of his death. Four months later, his son was born. William Pennington served in the Spanish-American War, fighting under the command of Teddy Roosevelt in the Battle of San Juan Hill. He moved to San Francisco after the war and never returned to East Tennessee.

Dan Pennington was buried just a few feet away from Angeline Moore, and a new cemetery had been created.

Pa Slaven, who established the Chimney Rock Cemetery, is buried there, as is Pennington’s father-in-law, Absolam Slaven, who raised young William after his father’s death.

Chimney Rock is located just a few hundred feet north of the cemetery.
Chimney Rock is located just a few hundred feet north of the cemetery.

TODAY, CHIMNEY ROCK CEMETERY (also known as Slaven Cemetery) remains in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, one of 58 cemeteries that can be found throughout the park. Occasionally attended by descendants of those buried there, the cemetery contains more than five dozen graves.

All the history of the cemetery will never be known. It has died with the people who once made their lives in the Station Camp area. Many of the original headstones were never inscribed, and many that were have been rendered illegible by decades of weathering. Even the original commercial stones that were placed on some of the later graves are weathered to the point of nearly becoming illegible. In some instances, more modern tombstones have been purchased by family members and placed at the cemetery.

But the history that is known paints a picture of what life was like for those who carved out a livelihood along the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River. It was a tough life, one where sickness could befall anyone at any time, almost without warning. There were no doctors close at hand, and certainly no hospitals. Fathers buried their children on routine occasions. And violence was prevalent.

Walking along the trails that wind through the long-since abandoned (and reclaimed by nature) settlements along Station Camp, No Business and in between, it’s easy to romanticize what life must have been like along the river. But there are reasons families began to move out of this harsh terrain in the middle of the 20th century. There was no industry here, other than the mining and timber companies that came to the region in the late 1800s, and it only took a few decades for the coal and timber to play out. Most families lived a lifestyle of subsistence — allowing the land to provide for them. But it was land that was hardly suitable for farming, with low-lying fields prone to flooding and upland field-clearing almost impossible due to the steep terrain and poor, rocky soil.

The hardy, daring souls who settled the territory were neighbors and sometimes friends — but sometimes not. With the nearest law a half-day’s ride away in Huntsville, disputes amongst neighbors sometimes turned violent. The first two graves at Chimney Rock — those of 15-year-old Angeline Moore and 24-year-old Dan Pennington — attest to that.

These are the stories — stories of violence, stories of tragedy — that are told by graves at Chimney Rock. And they make clear: the Big South Fork is a fun place to visit and explore today…but, back then, it was certainly no utopia.

Lottie Crabtree was one of the last people to be buried at Chimney Rock Cemetery, in 1936.
Lottie Crabtree was one of the last people to be buried at Chimney Rock Cemetery, in 1936.

WILLIAM RILEY HATFIELD was the great-grandson of Joseph Hatfield, one of Scott County’s 12 Revolutionary War veterans. In 1892, twenty years after the deaths of Angeline Moore and Dan Pennington, the 67-year-old Hatfield was arguing with an unidentified man along the Big South Fork River just a short distance from Chimney Rock. As they argued, Hatfield — who was said to have a temper — turned his horse in an attempt to run down the man. The man shot Hatfield from below, with the bullet entering his stomach and exiting through his face, killing him.

William Hatfield was not buried at Chimney Rock. Instead, his grave is located at the Jonathan Blevins farm — what is today Charit Creek Hostel along the headwaters of Station Camp Creek. But when it comes to these Big South Fork settlements, history is almost always intertwined.

In 1899, Meshack and Steward Slaven’s nephew, Newton Blevins, married Amanda Smith. It had been twenty-seven years since Dan Pennington was shot to death. Newt, who was the son of Richard Slaven, would not be born for six years. He was 21-years-old when he married.

Six years later, Newt and Mandy’s infant daughter, Victoria, died and was buried at Chimney Rock. She was just three months old at the time. The following year, the couple had another daughter, Sarah. But she died in 1920, at the age of 14, and was buried at Chimney Rock, as well. Newt and Mandy’s children are just two of several children buried in the Chimney Rock Cemetery.

Four years after the second of his daughters died, Newton Blevins got into an argument with his sister’s brother-in-law, William Clayburn Hatfield. Amid the argument, Blevins shot Hatfield and killed him. Hatfield was the son of William Riley Hatfield, who had been shot to death amid an argument on the Big South Fork River when Blevins was just a teenager.

Blevins was originally charged with murder, but he was convicted only of involuntary manslaughter for Hatfield’s death. He spent a year in prison, then returned to his farm at Station Camp.

But just a few years later, Newton Blevins, too, was gunned down, while he and his wife tended to their cattle. Stories have been told through the years about who was responsible, but no one was ever charged.

 

 

Just one year before his death, Hatfeld had married Poppy Blevins. The daughter of John and Elvira Litton — who built the Litton Farm that still stands on the west side of the Big South Fork River near Bandy Creek — Poppy married Harvey Blevins. He was the grandson of Armpstead Blevins (who Poppy’s father built a cabin for at Parch Corn Creek just down river from Chimney Rock). Harvey’s father, Jonathan Blevins, had drowned in the river at Station Camp near the Chimney Rock. After Harvey’s death, Poppy married Hatfield.

One of Poppy’s daughters was Lottie Blevins. She was just 12 years old when her mother married Hatfield in 1924. In February 1936, she and her husband — Claude — welcomed a baby daughter. They named her Shirley Fay. But just four days later, Lottie died — presumably from complications of childbirth. She was buried at Chimney Rock.

Claude was left a widower with a baby daughter. And just seven months after he buried his wife, little Shirley Fay also died. She was buried just a few feet away from her mother at Chimney Rock, and became the last person to be buried at the cemetery.

Claude Crabtree eventually remarried, but never had another child. And the story of Chimney Rock Cemetery was complete.

IT HAD BEEN JUST A LITTLE MORE THAN 100 YEARS since white settlers began moving into the Big South Fork region when the seven-month-old Shirley Crabtree was buried at Chimney Rock. The story began not far from where it started.

Shortly after the start of the 19th century, Richard Harve Slaven moved to the area that would soon be known as Station Camp. He was one of the first white settlers in the region (Jonathan Blevins had settled further west, where Station Camp and Charit creeks merge, a few years earlier.) He established a supply store at the mouth of the creek, and civilization of the region had begun.

By the time Slaven moved to Station Camp, probably between 1808 and 1810, the Monticello Road was already established, following Indian trails that converged at Station Camp. Even before white men arrived, Station Camp was a logical river crossing. Once Slaven’s store was built, the location took on its name because it became a popular stopover for travelers and hunters who were exploring the region.

After the Tellico Treaty of 1798 saw the Doublehead Cherokees relinquish their claims on the lands surrounding the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River, the region opened to additional white settlement by people like Slaven and Blevins, and small backwoods communities were soon being established.

Slaven was the grandfather of Meshack and Steward Slaven, who were involved in the feud that left Dan Pennington dead and the second person buried at Chimney Rock. He was the great-grandfather of Newton Blevins, whose young daughters are buried at Chimney Rock.

Richard Slaven’s great-grandson, John “Hawk” Smith, married Jonathan Blevins’ great-granddaughter, Polly Blevins, and two of the earliest families in Big South Fork history truly became intertwined. Polly’s father, Armpstead, was the son of Jonathan Blevins. Jonathan Blevins’ great-great-grandaughter was Lottie Crabtree; his great-great-great-grandaughter was Shirley Fay Crabtree. (As a side note, Richard Slaven’s great-granddaughter, Emma Burke, is buried at Chimney Rock, as well. She married Jonathan Blevins’ great-grandson, Diances Burke. Both she and her newborn daughter died in childbirth in 1926.)


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