Introducing James Robertson
Another pioneer who lived in Boone’s day was James Robertson. Like Boone, he came from North Carolina, and he led the way for the settling of Tennessee very much as Boone did for Kentucky. The story of those days shows that he was one of the most forceful and successful of the early English pioneers who led out settlements west of the Alleghanies.
Born in 1742, Robertson was ten years younger than Washington. But this boy’s early life was very different from young George Washington’s, for little James was born in a backwoods cabin, and his father and mother were too poor to send him to school. So he grew up to manhood without being able to read and write.
But he wanted to study, and was persevering and brave enough to learn the letters of the alphabet and how to spell and to write after he had grown to manhood. We can be sure, therefore, that James was the right sort of boy, and that he would have mastered books if he had been given the chance, just as he mastered the wilderness in later life. But it is as a backwoodsman that we first come to know Robertson and learn why he was trusted and followed so willingly.
Although not tall, he was vigorous and robust, having fair complexion, dark hair, and honest blue eyes that met one’s glance squarely. His frank, serious face, his quiet manner, and his coolness and daring in the midst of danger gave him a mastery over others such as it is given but few men to have.
Like Boone, he was noted as a successful hunter; but hunting and exploring were not with him the chief motives for going into the wilderness. He was first of all a pioneer settler who was seeking rich farming lands with near-by springs, where he could make a good home for his family and give his children advantages which he himself had never enjoyed.
Led by this motive, he left his home in North Carolina to seek his fortune among the forest-clad mountains, whose summits he could see far-away to the west. With no companion but his horse and no protection but his rifle, he slowly and patiently made his way through the trackless woods, crossing mountain range after mountain range, until he came to the region where the rivers flowing westward had their beginning.
Much to his surprise, he found here on the Watauga River some settlers from Virginia, who gave him a kindly welcome. He stayed long enough to plant a crop of corn and see it grow up and ripen.
Then, late in the autumn, having decided that this was a good place for his family, he started back home. His faithful horse was his only companion. Some corn in his leather wallet was all the food he carried. He trusted his rifle for the rest.
All went well for a time, but in the depth of the pathless forest he missed his way, and the mountains became so steep and rough that his horse could not get across. Imagine his sorrow when, to save his own life, he had to part from his dumb friend and start on alone.
Other misfortunes befell him. The little store of corn that he had brought with him gave out, and his powder became so wet that it was useless for shooting game. So almost his only food for fourteen days was such nuts and berries as he could gather in his desperate search.
He was near death by starvation when he chanced to meet two hunters. They gave him food and asked him to join them. Then, allowing him to take turns in riding their horses, they helped him to reach home in safety.
You might think that this bitter experience would have made Robertson unwilling to risk another journey back through the wilderness. But, as we have said, he was not easily thwarted, and the thought of what lay beyond the mountains made him hold the cost light.
He gave such glowing accounts of the wonderful country he had seen that by spring sixteen families were ready to go with him to make their home there.