The Scobey & Benton Families

Wednesday, February 5, 2003

One of the early families to settle south of Obion Lake was the Scobey clan. Matthew Scobey, the ancestor of the family, had joined the colonials during the Revolution and died during the war, leaving behind a widow and seven boys. After the war Mrs. Scobey and her sons loaded up their worldly goods on a one-horse cart and made their way across the mountains to Fort Bledsoe. Only one week after their arrival the family had another setback when one of the sons, David, was killed during an Indian campaign. Despite these hardships the family became well established in Sumner County and eventually opened a ferry on the Cumberland River. While living in Middle Tennessee Mrs. Scobey's son, Joseph, served in the War of 1812 as a Cornet under Colonels Coffee and Alcorn, and would later rise to the rank Captain. Like many young men, the Scoby brothers, were lured by the untamed land that lay to the west. In the 1820s John Scobey moved to Dyer County soon followed by Captain Scoby. Also relocating in the county was their sister Elizabeth who had married Robert Dougan in 1796. As mentioned in an earlier article, Robert was the son of Major James Dougan. Robert also served as a 1st Lt. in Dyer County's 85th Militia Regiment and was the superior officer of John Henry Dillard, who would later died at the Alamo. One of the Scobey desendants, Norville Scobey would serve as the Postmaster of Newbern. Norville had been a graduate of Cumberland University at Lebanon, Tennessee.

The Benton Family Dyer County saw many prominent families move across her landscape as the United States was expanding ever farther to the West, one such family was that of the Bentons. At the head of the famous clan was Jesse Benton, Sr., a North Carolina Lawyer who lived near Hillsborough. Jesse was a member of Memacum Hunt & Company, a land speculation firm that controlled over 75,000 acres in West Tennessee. Another prominent member of the firm was Col. Thomas Polk, father of the future president of the United States. However, Jesse never reached his full potential, for he died at a relatively young age and the rearing of the family fell to the mother, who was born and bred in Virginia. She seems to have been an extraordinary woman and was instrumental in molding the destiny of the family. Perhaps most importantly, she took a keen interest in the education of her children. In a biography of her son Thomas, it was related that "She herself began the training of her son's mind, studying with him, history and biography, while he also, of course, had access to his father's law library." She also sent the children to a grammar school that was instructed by a New Englander. New England at the time had a fine educational system and teachers from that part of the country were highly regarded, in fact it was stated that," school teachers and peddlers were, on the whole, the chief contributions made by the Northeast to the new Southwest." Her son Thomas had began to study at Chapel Hill College until his mother decided the family fortune would lie further west where her husband had left them a rather large land investment. They first put down roots in a wilderness area near the town of Nashville and founded the small village of Benton (located on "Great War Trail" of the southern Indians) The family had been Episcopalians in the Carolinas, but decided to become Methodist like their newly acquired neighbors. The Bentons seemed to thrive in their new home. Soon Thomas erected a log schoolhouse where he became the schoolmaster and continued in that position until he had finished studying law.

Thomas Hart Benton Thomas was destined to become the most famous member of the family, for after being admitted to the bar he began to practice in the frontier towns of Franklin and Nashville. Nashville was teeming with characters many that would play a large roll in national history; men such as Houston, Jackson and Crockett frequented the town. Nashville's character, at the time, was much like that of early Dyersburg, "where horse-racing, cock-fighting, gambling and whiskey-drinking sometimes seemed to be the chief pursuits." Though Thomas was considered a cultured man of the time, he was not above getting involved in bloody street fights. In later years after he had moved on the Missouri, he became involved in a duel with another lawyer. After both were wounded in the first duel, Benton finally gunned down the lawyer in a second duel on Bloody Island near St. Louis. However, Thomas Benton's most famous brawl took place at a Nashville Inn with Andrew Jackson. Thomas and his brothers went head to head with Jackson and General Coffee. The incident was spawned when one of the Benton's had been whipped in a fight by General Carroll. The affair was so confused that it has been stated that even the participants probably never knew exactly what had taken place, but it resulted in Jackson being shot and Thomas Benton being pitched headlong down the stairs, with "all the other combatants more or less damaged." Jackson was carried from the inn, leaving the Benton boys, "masters of the field where they strutted up and down and indulged in a good deal of bravado." Though this affair quite naturally put the Bentons at odds with Jackson, later Thomas and Andy would eventually become close friends. In fact, Benton would later become one of Jackson's strongest supporters on the Senate floor. In 1809, Benton was elected to the Tennessee Senate where he became a strong supporter of the war. During his tenure Benton introduced the bill that began the Circuit Court system of Tennessee. This system was a great benefit to many, "especially the poorer class of litigants, "who would have found it a great burden to have cases tried at a distant court. Though a slaveholder himself, Benton also introduced a bill that would give slaves the right to a trial by jury, the same right accorded to the white population. Later he would support the abolition of slavery, though by a more gradual means than some preferred. When the War of 1812 erupted, Thomas Benton would served as a Colonel of a Tennessee unit under Jackson, though he never actually saw combat. (Many years later President Polk the son of his father's old business partner tried to get him appointed as commanding general of the U.S. forces in the War with Mexico, but was unsuccessful). While still a young man, Benton had a mistress who was said to be, "a beautiful French Quadroon", but when he entered politics he decided she would be a political liability and so he sent her to Memphis to be "held in trust" by his friend General James Winchester. However, this backfired when Winchester fell in love with the young woman and took her off to Louisiana, where it was legal for them to be married. Winchester came back to Memphis with his new wife where it caused quite a scandal. The affair eventually ruined Winchester, but it did not sink Benton's career. Thomas would eventually move on to St. Louis where he edited the "Missouri Enquirer," before becoming a United States Senator. He would go on to serve 30 years in the Senate, longer than anyone had served, and became regarded as one of the great statesmen of his era. He was known as "Old Bullion" because he was a strong advocate of silver and gold over paper currency, a name that he greatly admired. He favored annexing California, no doubt influenced by his son-in-law, the famous explorer and presidential candidate, John C. Fremont. Fremont, known as the "Great Pathfinder," would be appointed to the rank of Major General in the Union army, though one of his wife's first cousins, Samuel Benton, would follow a different flag rising to become a General in the Confederate army. Another famous descendant of the Missouri branch of the family was Thomas Benton's grandnephew, who shared the same name as the senator and would become one of Americans foremost painters.

Another branch of this illustrious family are the brothers of Senator Benton who settled in West Tennessee. Next week we will continue the story with this branch of the family.