What really happened at Rocky Mount? Some say it’s time for a re-examination of a Tri-Cities historic site

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PINEY FLATS, Tenn. (WJHL) For almost 60 years, the Rocky Mount Living History Museum in Piney Flats, Tennessee has marked the spot where, according to the State of Tennessee, a key event in American history took place.

Here, on a rocky knoll in 1791, the Tennessee Historical Commission says pioneer William Cobb and his family put down roots, acquired relative wealth and influence, and – most significantly – played host to Governor William Blount, George Washington’s chosen leader of the Southwest Territory.

Since purchasing the house and surrounding land and opening the site to the public in 1962, the Tennessee Historical Commission has said Blount’s residence at Rocky Mount made the log home that now sits off Highway 11-E the de facto capital of the Southwest Territory.

“This is where Government took place,” Rocky Mount executive director Sam Wegner told News Channel 11 in March 2019 when the site was featured as a WJHL “Tri-Cities Original.” The report outlined how descendants of the Massengill family who lived there for more than a century donated the property and championed the State of Tennessee’s purchase of the home.

Rocky Mount: Where the past comes alive

But after almost sixty years, there are lingering questions about the accuracy of the currently accepted historical narrative connected to the site.

“I just don’t see how that could ever be possible,” said David Bachman, the son of the late Sally Massengill Bachman who, along with her parents, transferred the land to the State in the late 1950’s.

David Bachman reached out to News Channel 11 after our “Tri-Cities Original” report on Rocky Mount in March 2019. He told us that he and his mother, a longtime board member at Rocky Mount, had questions about the accuracy of the site’s story.

“I did believe it was true for many years because that was the oral history, the story that was told to me,” Bachman said.

But he says, in time, that changed for him and his mother, a longtime board member.

“She began to believe that the story was not right,” Bachman said. “But she did not want to rock the boat.”

And it turns out, Bachman and his mother were not alone.

“Nobody can find evidence that William Cobb ever lived at a place called Rocky Mount,” said Lucy Gump, a former member of the Rocky Mount Board and an avid student of early Tennessee history.

She says in the 1990s, she heard a college professor question the accuracy of the Rocky Mount story. So, she set out to prove that professor wrong, scouring through original land grants, deeds, and wills and mapping out the landholdings of the late 1700s.

Gump said the result of her research was stunning.

“I could find no evidence that William Cobb lived at a place called Rocky Mount,” Gump said. “I could find evidence that William Cobb lived south of the Watauga River but that he did not live north of the Watauga River.”

Lucy Gump says she spent years compiling information from original 18th century documents to map out early land holdings. She says he research led her to question the Rocky Mount historical narrative that’s been accepted as fact for years.

Determined to share her research, Gump says she took her findings to the Rocky Mount board. The response, she says, was discouraging.

“My memory is that I was ignored,” she said.

Not long after that happened, Gump left the Rocky Mount board.

But questions about the historical accuracy of the Rocky Mount didn’t go away.

In 2006, the Tennessee Historical Commission and the University of Tennessee lab tested the logs in the home and a tree stump found under the house and found this house wasn’t on this spot in 1791.

“The house that’s there now actually post-dates that time, not 1791 but more 1828,” said Patrick McIntyre, Executive Director of the Tennessee Historical Commission. “We led that initiative and the exhibits now reflect the fact the house postdates 1791.”

This dendrochronology survey at Rocky Mount revealed logs in the home and a tree stump found under the house date to the 1820’s, not the 1790’s.

That clarification to the original Rocky Mount story is now explained in an exhibit in the Rocky Mount Museum where guests can learn about the Cobb’s and Massengill’s and life on the frontier.

McIntyre said the Tennessee Historical Commission has not seen any evidence that discredits the Rocky Mount narrative, but he says changes will be made if new evidence is uncovered.

Minutes from a 1957 Tennessee Historical Commission meeting show that, even prior to the decision to acquire Rocky Mount, there were questions raised by some concerning the authenticity of the house. The minutes do not clarify who had questions or why.

But fifteen months later in December 1958, the Commission minutes show members were “satisfied as to the authenticity of the Cobb House,” and they called it a “a valuable historic site which the state should own.”

In response to News Channel 11’s request to see the state’s historical evidence for the Rocky Mount claim, the site’s current and former directors traveled to Nashville to search for original documentation that led the state to purchase the property in 1958 and declare it a historic shrine after a request from another Massengill descendant.

“She states in the minutes by deeds, abstracts, wills etc that gives no question that this is the real deal,” said Sam Wegner, Rocky Mount’s current executive director. “There’s no record of that. There’s no record in the Tennessee Historical Commission Minutes. There’s no report at the Tennessee Historical Commission offices. There’s no record of it in the TN State Library and Archives..”

These indentures or contracts show William Cobb owning property north of the Watauga River in 1783, Rocky Mount’s director says. But he says the contracts don’t contain geographic references that correspond to modern location names.

While Rocky Mount says there’s no surviving evidence to back up the site’s historic claim, they did provide two 1783 indentures or contracts showing William Cobb owned land in the general area, but they say it’s impossible to know where.

Still, Wegner says that’s not a good reason to discredit the site’s historic claims and the research conducted by reputable historians in the late 1950’s.

“I have not seen documented proof that William Cobb’s historic Rocky Mount was someplace else,” Wegner said. “So it’s kind of like… show me the money. If this isn’t it, then where would it be?”

Wegner said his research has led him to believe the survey of the property done by leading historians in Tennessee in the late 1950’s was properly conducted and is worthy of continued respect. “I think in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, we have to assume people decades ago were practical responsible and good citizens of the state of Tennessee, that nobody would have tried to work a bogus deal on the state,” Wegner said.

But Lucy Gump says she believes it’s worthwhile to take a fresh look after more than 60 years.

“It’s puzzling to me that people would not be willing to examine the evidence,” she said. “We need to get it right. Whatever the evidence that is available, we need to try to tell the story as accurately as it is possible from the evidence that we have, and there’s a lot of evidence.”

Gump and Massengill descendant David Bachman say they want Rocky Mount to thrive with a story that no longer lives in the shadow of questions.

“If we can’t be honest about our own history, if we can’t do that how are we going to move forward in the future,” Bachman said.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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