William Dickson left County Antrim, Ireland at the age of 16 for a better life in Greeneville, Tennessee. He succeeded. By 1796, when he was 21, he was commissioned by President George Washington to be the town’s first postmaster, a lifetime appointment. He also amassed a considerable fortune as a merchant.
This mountainous region of northeast Tennessee was not easy to get to except along old Indian trails. It did have a good water source, known as “Big Spring,” but there is nothing to explain why the area was amenable to the Irish, or to merchants, who needed to ship goods in. They named an early road Irish Street, so they obviously worked it out. No matter the difficulty of the terrain, what the Irish settlers found was a vast improvement over conditions in the homeland, as reported by Dickson’s brother John, in an 1816 letter from Rocksborough, where landlords charged enormous prices and tenants could not pay their rents or afford oatmeal or wheat. “I think there is very little prospect of doing any good in this country for a long time, as the people are destroyed with religious feuds and heavy taxes.”
About half the first families of northeast Tennessee came from Ireland, with the largest numbers from Antrim and Ulster according to the East Tennessee Historical Society, which has been identifying the First Families of Tennessee. There were more Irish settlers there than the combined sum of Scottish, German and English.
Two years after his letter, John Dickson arrived in Greeneville with his wife to live in what must have seemed a paradise. By then William Dickson had married Eliza Douglas, the daughter of one of George Washington’s soldiers (she was 9 years his senior), and they had a daughter Catharine, their only child, on whom they bestowed what was at the time an exceptional education for a girl, so that she would be able to skillfully manage the family business and, hopefully, a large household. Dickson had already built fine homes on Main Street for his and his brother’s family, but he was already planning the ultimate dream house for his daughter. Although Catharine did not marry Dr. Alexander Williams (another wealthy merchant) until 1823, Dickson, in 1815, began construction of the imposing high Federal style mansion that would be his daughter’s wedding gift. He hired Irish artisans Thomas Battersby and John Hoy to direct the construction and do the finishing work.
Catharine was a gracious hostess and the home and gardens became known as the “Showplace of East Tennessee.” Presidents Andrew Jackson, James Polk, and Andrew Johnson were entertained here, as well as “celebrities” like Davy Crockett and the Marquis de Lafayette. William Dickson himself must have enjoyed visiting his grandchildren in this spacious home. Catharine gave birth to ten children, but only four survived: Elizabeth Douglas (1824), William Dickson (1826), Joseph Alexander (1832), and Thomas Lanier (1838). William Dickson died in 1842 and did not live to witness the incident that would make this house famous for all time.
On September 3, 1864, General Thomas Hunt Morgan, known as The Thunderbolt of the Confederacy because of his surprise raids, arranged to stay in the home of his friend Mrs. Williams, now a widow. Although Tennessee did secede from the Union, northeast Tennessee was known for its Unionist sentiment. Catharine never said which side she favored and entertained both Union and Confederate officers when they were in town.
Learning of Morgan’s presence, Union troops, with orders to take him dead or alive, surrounded the block. Morgan, who had been in the upstairs bedroom shaving, pulled on his pants and ran from the house in his nightshirt, razor still in hand, and headed for the stables. He was chased and fatally shot and his entire staff was captured with the exception of Catharine’s son, Captain William D. Williams, who, according to local historian Robert Orr, hid in the cistern until he could escape. Some reports say young Lucy Williams, Joseph’s wife, tipped the Union but she denied the charge for the rest of her life. (The razor Morgan carried out with him is now displayed in the upstairs bedroom, known as the Morgan Bedroom.)
The horror of the event at her home is said to have led Catharine to despair and she died six years later. The mansion eventually passed from family hands and over the next 100 years served as a school, a tobacco factory, an inn, and a hospital, until it was privately purchased and restored to its mid-19th-century appearance. It is now operated by the Dickson-Williams Historical Association as a museum.
William Dickson’s great-great-grandson, Beverly Williams, 66, (descended from Thomas Lanier Williams) has, with his wife Wilhelmina, always been involved with activities at the house. Since his retirement from the dairy industry, he is a full time tour guide. (His unusual first name is a family name from the Beverley family, which came from England to Virginia in the 1600s.) He has lots of stories to tell.
To visit the house, call Main Street Tours at 423-639-7102.