John Adair

Copyright (2002) * All rights reserved
J.C. (Jim) Tumblin, OD, DOS
3604 Kesterwood Drive, East
Knoxville, Tennessee 37918-2557
(865) 687-1948

Fountain Citians Who Made A Difference

John Adair


Foremost among Fountain Citians who made a difference is John Adair, the first settler. He came to Grassy Valley, as the area was then called, in 1791 and built himself a house, something like a blockhouse, in what came to be known as Adair Station and much later as Fountain City.

John Adair was born in the Province of Ulster in the north of Ireland in 1732. He and his wife, Ellen Crawford Adair, came to America in 1771, landing in Baltimore, Maryland. After a year, they moved to Pennsylvania where they remained only a short time. Adair became interested in the pending settlements in North Carolina and joined a group which made its way down to Sullivan County, North Carolina (now Tennessee) in 1772 or 1773. For about twelve years they lived there, near the present city of Bristol (1).

His reputation grew in his community and the governor of North Carolina appointed him the entry-taker of the county in 1776. His duties were to collect the small fees charged by the State for lands granted to settlers. This position enabled him to contribute greatly to the victory at the Battle of Kingís Mountain in the Revolutionary War, although he was forty-eight years old and ineligible to serve in the army. Thereby hangs a tale.

By the summer of 1780 the British had overrun the South and the morale of the patriots was poor as a result. Lord Cornwallis had dispatched Major Patrick Ferguson to put a stop to guerilla forays, some of which were conducted by patriots from the Watauga Settlements on Upper East Tennessee. Ferguson threatened to cross the mountains, burn the Wataugansí homes and lay waste to their farms. When Colonels John Sevier and Isaac Shelby heard this, they made plans to meet Ferguson head-on instead of waiting for his attack. The Wataugans pledged their aid enthusiastically, but they needed money to buy equipment, ammunition and food. They had no money, since it had been spent in buying their land and building their homes. But Sevier and Shelby thought of John Adair whose entry-taker funds (around $13,000) were all that were available. When they made their request, Adairís reply revealed his patriotism:

"Colonel Sevier, I have no authority by law to make deposition of this money. It belongs to the impoverished treasury of North Carolina, and I dare not appropriate one cent of it to any purpose. But, if the country is overrun by the British, liberty is gone. Let the money go too. Take it. If the enemy, by its use, is driven from the country, I can trust that country to justify and vindicate my conduct. Take it."

The Overmountain Men from Watauga contributed greatly to victory at Kingís Mountain in October, 1781, a turning-point in the war. The battle was won, Ferguson was slain and the discouraged commander-in-chief, Lord Cornwallis, moved his army into Eastern Virginia and surrendered at last to General George Washington at Yorktown, ending the war. Sevier and Shelby kept their pledge to refund the money Adair had provided and the Treasury of the North Carolina was repaid on January 31, 1782.

In recognition of his services to his country, the State of North Carolina granted John Adair a section of land (640 acres) in Hawkins County (now Knox County), Tennessee in 1788. The square mile of wilderness land extended from what is now Jacksboro Pike to the campus of Gresham Middle School in present-day Fountain City. A white oak that stood on the Baumís Greenhouse property as late as 1976 marked the southeastern edge. Adair built a log cabin surrounded by a stockade of logs about where Sanders Lane intersects Broadway today. Two springs outside Adairís Station (or Fort Adair) supplied water. Although attacked by Indians on several occasions, it was never captured (2).

Adairís neighbors were five miles away at Whites Fort (now downtown Knoxville), where General James White and James Conner, Adairís contemporaries, had settled. The largely self-reliant Adair family took their grain to the miller there and eventually attended church at the First Presbyterian Church near Whites Fort.

One of the favorite routes to the Cumberland Settlements (Nashville) was via Emory Road (once known as the Cumberland Road or Cumberland Trace). Settlers assembled at the foot of Clinch Mountain and, when enough had gathered, were conducted to Nashville by the Cumberland Guard (North Carolina militiamen). The route was so heavily traveled that by 1787 the Assembly authorized the militia to widen and level the road to accommodate the "vast emigration pouring into the country beyond the wilderness." John Adair was named Commissioner in charge of purchasing supplies for the Guard in 1788 and opened his supply depot for that purpose and to take advantage of the travelers who crossed Beaver Ridge, then Hindís Valley across Black Oak Ridge and into the Fort in Grassy Valley. The settlers followed the old Indian path near the former location of the Belcaro estate through what is now the Lynnhurst Cemetery property and to Adairís Fort, the last place where the hundreds of emigrants could procure supplies before plunging into the wilderness. Adairís business prospered (3).

In 1792 Adair became one of the members of the first Knox County Court and in 1794 he was named a member of the first board of trustees of Blount College (later the University of Tennessee). He became a member of the Constitutional Convention (1796) which would design the first Constitution for the State of Tennessee. In 1796 and again in 1800 he was a Presidential Elector. Known as a man of honor and of unblemished character, John Adair was chosen one of the original elders of First Presbyterian Church (4).

Upon his death on February 24, 1827 at the age of 95, the following obituary appeared in the Knoxville Register:

"DIED--On February 24, 1827, at his residence in this County, John Adair, Esq., at the advanced age of nine-five years. He was among the early settlers in this County, a man of enterprise and respectability, for many years an Elder in the Presbyterian Church; unblemished in his deportment with the world, and continued to the end to evince the integrity of his heart and sincerity of his profession (5)."

He and his wife were buried on his farm, now a part of Lynnhurst Cemetery. In 1924 the Bonny Kate Chapter of the DAR placed markers over the graves of Adair and his great-grandson, Edward Smith (6).

Once thought to be his only child, Mary Adair (____-____) married Robert Christian, son of a prominent Sullivan county resident, Col. Gilbert Christian. Their daughter, Mariah (1802-1883), married John Smith (1795-1883), born in Culpepper County, Virginia, but living in the Beaver Dam settlement, on August 21, 1819. John Smith, a harness-maker, purchased 474 acres for $1000 from his grandfather Adair on December 2, 1820 and farmed the land for many years. The Smithwood community is named for him, as is the Smithwood Baptist Church of which he was a deacon and benefactor (7).

Mariah Christian Smith was the grandmother of James Harvey Smith (1840-1932) who lived in the homestead of handmade brick at the intersection of Jacksboro (Tazewell) Pike and Broadway for many years. James Harvey Smith was the grandfather of another prominent Fountain Citian, Harvey B. Broome, founder of the Wilderness Society and influential Knoxville attorney (8).

Historian Calvin M. McClung also wrote that the Adairs had another child, John Adair, Jr. who applied for a pension from Wayne County, Kentucky on September 24, 1832. He stated that he was born in County Antrim, Ireland, in 1754 and that he and his parents came to America when he was nearing 18 years of age. He was living in Sullivan County, North Carolina (later Tennessee) when the War of the Revolution began and served as a volunteer in expeditions commanded by officer McCampbell. He was granted a pension as a result of his service. In 1791 he moved to Knox County, Tennessee. After living there for 14 years, he moved to Wayne County, Kentucky where he died in ____ (Research Wayne County) (9).

John Adairís will, short and to the point in keeping with his taciturn nature, appears in Book O of the Knox County Will Book:

"I give to my wife Ellen, all my personal estate with every particular parcel thereof, be it the same, more or less, under what ever name or denomination may exist.

"Likewise, I hereby constitute, make, and ordain my wife the sole executor of my last will and testament.

"I do hereby, utterly disallow all former wills executed by me at any time (10)."

John Adair opened Grassy Valley to settlement and thus began what would become Fountain City. But, as Knoxville author Fred Brown would say many years later, "With the help of a fellow from Grassy Valley, and a handful of militia, the once slow trickle into the wilderness began to change its flow. Soon, that flow became a river of people, moving and spreading outside its banks in ever wider circles, making new beginnings." Adair had assisted significantly in the westward expansion and eventually, as the population grew, in Tennessee statehood (11).

w-adair.doc (8/14/02)


1.  N.L. Hicks, A History of Fountain City (Knoxville, 2000); J.B. Adair, Adair, History and Genealogy (Los Angeles, 1924).

2.  North Carolina Land Grants in Tennessee, Grant No. 28 (#2802), dated May 28, 1788.

3.  The approximate site of the Fort is indicated by a Tennessee State Historical Marker (1E-24), entitled Fort Adair, which reads as follows, "Established in 1788, this fort was used as a depot for supplies for the Cumberland Guard, a militia organization which furnished armed protection for parties of emigrants to the Cumberland Settlements, later the town of Nashsborough, now Nashville."

4.  M.U. Rothrock (Editor), The French Broad Holston Country: A History of Knox County, Tennessee (Knoxville, 1946, 1972).

5.  ibid. J.B. Adair.

6.  op. cit. N.L. Hicks; Russ Manning and Sondra Jamieson, Historic Knoxville and Knox County (City Center, Neighborhoods, and Parks: A Walking and Touring Guide).  The Adair monument resides under a large tree to the right side of West Adair Drive in the far northeast corner of Lynnhurst Cemetery.

7.  ibid. N.L. Hicks.

8.  op. cit. J.B. Adair; K. White "Where Trolleys and Autos Now Run John Adair Built His Stockade While Indians Peered Down From Black Oak," Knoxville News-Sentinel, July 22, 1923.

9.  Letter from Calvin M. McClung to Nellie Cooper of Johnson City, Tennessee, dated May 5, 1923, found in the McClung Historical Collection, Knoxville, Tennessee.

10.  ibid. K. White; Book O, Knox County Will Book, Knox County, Tennessee. The will was witnessed by Samuel McKinley and Andrew McCampbell in April, 1825. Andrew McCampbell died before the will was probated, and James Park (Adairís Minister at First Presbyterian Church) and Robert Houston testified to John Adairís handwriting when the will was probated and the final settlement was made.

11.  F. Brown, "John Adair Had Knack of Being in Right Place to Prosper," Knoxville News-Sentinel, May 22 2001.

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