There is no doubt that those people that we call mountain men were a major factor to opening up the western section of our country and blazed the trail to later settlement. The very roots of these men lie almost 100 years earlier, with the men known as the longhunters. Just who were these men? Many of their names you may never have heard, that is unless you hail from the Carolinas, Tennessee or Kentucky. One longhunter most people have heard of is a man named Daniel Boone. While this article is not about Daniel Boone, it is about all of the men who opened up the “wilderness” in the mid- to late 1700s.

Called To The Wild

Prior to the American Revolution, much of the land lying between the Mississippi River and the Atlantic Ocean was unsettled, and to a great extent unexplored. It was a land of great resources, namely game animals such as bison and elk. It was also home to numerous groups of Native American nations, many of whom were not overly 

eager to open up their territory to white settlement. The only white men who dared to venture into middle and western Tennessee, western Kentucky, the Ohio River Valley and the mountains of the Carolinas were the longhunters.

Longhunters were groups of hunters who originally came out of the Virginia Colony prior to the American Revolution. These men moved to Virginia from New England, Pennsylvania and the Carolinas, each one having their own reasons for leaving. What drove these men to leave their homes and venture into an area that could mean certain death? There is no one answer to that question. Perhaps it was the spirit of adventure; or perhaps it was the idea of financial gain. After all, there was money to be made in bison and elk hides, and in the furs of beaver and other furbearers.

longhunters

Setting up stations was often a dangerous job for longhunters in wild country.

Earning A Reputation

While everything could be a potential danger, by far the native people of the area were the greatest threat to the longhunter. The land where the longhunter roamed was the home of the Cherokee, Shawnee, Creek and Chickasaw peoples. These native nations looked upon the longhunters as trespassers and thieves.

Generally, the longhunters would leave the relative safety of civilization at the end of fall and then not return until the early spring, if at all. This would be the time of year when the hides and pelts would be the thickest, and thus fetch the highest dollar at market. Bison by far were the primary game pursued by the longhunters. Like the fate that would befall the Plains bison, the eastern woods bison were wantonly slaughtered for their hides only, their carcasses being left behind to rot. The native people were justified in their hatred of these intruders to their territory.

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Tennessee’s Longhunters

To gather more information on the longhunters, I travelled to Tennessee, a place where the history of these men still lives on. While Daniel Boone may be the most recognizable name to most, here in Tennessee you can’t speak about the longhunters without mentioning Kasper Mansker, Isaac and Anthony Bledsoe and James Robertson.

Kasper Mansker, born to German immigrant parents, grew up in Virginia. The mid-1700s found the young Mr. Mansker hunting in the lands of middle Tennessee. In the early 1770s, Mansker, while camped at Station Camp Creek, followed a well-worn bison trail that was located about 3 miles from the Cumberland River. Following the path for about 12 miles, Mansker found a sulfur lick that was being used by the bison. He promptly named it Mansker’s Lick. This area later became the town of Goodlettsville, Tennessee.

After the American Revolution, in 1779, Mansker returned to the area and built a fortified outpost that took the name of Mansker Station. The station soon became a stopping point for settlers heading down the Cumberland River. After a long, eventful life in the wilderness, Kasper Mansker died in 1822. Today, in Goodlettsville, one can find the re-created Mansker’s Station that has been built near the original location. Here, people can learn (through re-enactors) what life was like for the longhunters and those who followed them.

mansker station

A re-enactor prepping a deer hide as they would at the first Mansker Station.

The story of Isaac and Anthony Bledsoe can be overlaid upon that of Kasper Mansker. In fact, the brothers were often hunting companions of Mansker.

When Mansker followed the buffalo trail in one direction, Isaac Bledsoe followed the trail in the opposite. After riding about 13 miles, Bledsoe found another sulfur lick, which he named Bledsoe’s Lick. Bledsoe, upon returning to camp, told of the great numbers of bison around the lick, so many in fact that he was afraid to get off his horse for fear of being crushed by the large animals.

After spending many years hunting bison and other game, the Bledsoes returned to the area of Bledsoe’s Lick and built Bledsoe’s Fort, near the banks of Bledsoe’s Creek. In the late 1700s, Isaac Bledsoe left to fight native people in Kentucky. When that was complete, he returned to Tennessee and re-joined his brother at Bledsoe’s Fort. After spending a great deal of their lives in the wilds, fighting Native American people, both brothers were killed by native people within the safety of Bledsoe’s Fort.

James Robertson is another one of those names most people would not recognize unless they came from Tennessee. On Christmas Eve 1779, Robertson led two groups of settlers across the frozen Cumberland River, about 12 miles south of Mansker’s Station. Here, these pioneers established Fort Nashborough. Fort Nashborough later grew to become the city of Nashville, Tennessee. Among those who ventured across the river was a girl by the name of Rachel Donelson, who would grow up and become the wife of President Andrew Jackson. There is little mention about Robertson, with the exception of this one thing. We must keep in mind that many men and women endured hardships and participated in adventures during the early days of our country with little or no recognition.

Outside of Tennessee and Kentucky, most people know nothing about the longhunters. These were the men from whom the mountain men learned their skills. The longhunters were the precursor to people like Davy Crockett and John Johnson. The longhunters are just one of those pieces that are often forgotten in American history, and American Frontiersman is glad to shed a bit of light on these trailblazers.                     

In fact, the brothers were often hunting companions of Mansker.

When Mansker followed the buffalo trail in one direction, Isaac Bledsoe followed the trail in the opposite. After riding about 13 miles, Bledsoe found another sulfur lick, which he named Bledsoe’s Lick. Bledsoe, upon returning to camp, told of the great numbers of bison around the lick, so many in fact that he was afraid to get off his horse for fear of being crushed by the large animals.

After spending many years hunting bison and other game, the Bledsoes returned to the area of Bledsoe’s Lick and built Bledsoe’s Fort, near the banks of Bledsoe’s Creek. In the late 1700s, Isaac Bledsoe left to fight native people in Kentucky. When that was complete, he returned to Tennessee and re-joined his brother at Bledsoe’s Fort. After spending a great deal of their lives in the wilds, fighting Native American people, both brothers were killed by native people within the safety of Bledsoe’s Fort.

James Robertson is another one of those names most people would not recognize unless they came from Tennessee. On Christmas Eve 1779, Robertson led two groups of settlers across the frozen Cumberland River, about 12 miles south of Mansker’s Station. Here, these pioneers established Fort Nashborough. Fort Nashborough later grew to become the city of Nashville, Tennessee. Among those who ventured across the river was a girl by the name of Rachel Donelson, who would grow up and become the wife of President Andrew Jackson. There is little mention about Robertson, with the exception of this one thing. We must keep in mind that many men and women endured hardships and participated in adventures during the early days of our country with little or no recognition.

Outside of Tennessee and Kentucky, most people know nothing about the longhunters. These were the men from whom the mountain men learned their skills. The longhunters were the precursor to people like Davy Crockett and John Johnson. The longhunters are just one of those pieces that are often forgotten in American history, and American Frontiersman is glad to shed a bit of light on these trailblazers.              

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  This article originally published in AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  2014-#158 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  magazine are available here

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  • Gene Dorris

    Overly politically correct that it spoils the article — “native people” comes off as a silly way of describing the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Shawnee and Muscogee nations. Give them respect not silly 21st century PA.