Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Elder Robison's Visit to Cane Creek

Off and on for the last year I have been working on a book about the massacre. At each point in my research I come upon oddities that I can’t explain. As I work through the details I have been finding simple explanations that fit perfectly. William S. Berry’s visit to his father’s home in Dresdon, for example, makes no sense unless you agree he lived in Wilson, instead of Weakley County. Another issue is the visit of Elder Willis Eugene Robison to the Conder home immediately after the massacre.

For those who don’t recall, Elder Robison heard rumors about the Cane Creek Massacre while he and his companion were waiting for the other four elders (Gibb, Jones, Berry, and Thompson) to meet them at Blue Creek near McEwen Tennessee. But by Monday night, the four had not shown up,so they became concerned. Tuesday morning they headed back into town to discover rumors about the massacre the previous Sunday. Concerned about the welfare of the missionaries and members at Cane Creek, Elder Robison puts on a disguise and makes his way to the Conder home. There he gets first hand info about the massacre, is reassured about the survivors welfare and then escapes back to McEwen, Tennessee.

He started from McEwen and went to Gillam (now Tennessee City) where he caught a train south to Centerville. From there he walked. But from there his description is a little odd. He says he followed an old railroad to the Buffalo River. Centerville in almost due north of Cane Creek. The Buffalo River, however, is south and west of Cane Creek. There is no way he could have walked from Centerville to the Buffalo River and then to Cane Creek in a single day, never mind that even if he did, he would have to go considerably out of his way.

I started to worry that Elder Robison made up the story of visiting Cane Creek. It seemed an odd thing to make up. But people tell tall tales all the time. I figured I could prove it one way or another by looking at the details of his journey the same way I did for Elder Berry.

He claimed to have started walking south from Centerville along what he described as a railroad bed destroyed in the Civil War. I figured that would be a good place to start. Railroad hobbyists document a lot when it comes to old railroads, and Civil War buffs are everywhere around here. But it turns out Elder Robison was wrong about this one. There is a railroad bed that heads south from Centerville. But it wasn’t destroyed during the war, it was built to support the iron furnace industry. There were several of these furnaces built after the Civil War, but the iron ore was just not rich enough in this part of Tennessee to support the industry. Several attempts were made, but they all failed to turn a profit. A few miles north of Cane Creek the rail bed comes to Beaverdam Creek at a town called Aetna, not too far away from a small town called Buffalo. Could Elder Robison just have got the name of the river wrong?

To test this I looked at one more clue. As he left the Conder home, Jim Conder gave him directions to follow the moon so he could avoid the roads in order to reduce his chance of being caught. Elder Robison followed his directions and ended up at the spot where he said the railroad crossed the Buffalo River.

The moon is pretty predictable. To figure out where the moon was that night it would be a simple matter of figuring out which night he was there and find the right charts.

He arrived at the Cane Creek at about 11:00 p.m. on August 14th, 1884, and left two hours later at about 1:00 a.m. the next day. According to the US Naval Observatory’s website, moonrise on that day was at 11:43 p.m., placing the moon in the east, just above the trees at about 1:00 a.m. on the 15th as Robison left the Conder home. The moon would appear as a waning crescent with 43% of the Moon's visible disk illuminated. The moon’s position at moonrise at that time of year would have been in the northeast.

If you drew a line from the Conder home toward the northeast, in about five miles you would come back to Aetna exactly where the railroad bed crosses Beaverdam Creek.

It is unlikely Elder Robison could have described the correct position of the moon, at the right time had he not actually been there at the right time and in the right place. His directions are too precise, even if he got the name of the river wrong.

No comments: