“BLACK JACK” JESSE NUNLEY: Warrior of the Hidden Cherokee
KEY WORDS –
Cherokee, Chickamauga, Chickamaka
Nunley, Hobbs, Stoner, Northcutt, Smartt, Miller, Wilson, & White
PLACE NAMES –
Nunley Mountain; Nunley Caverns; Nunley Cove; Northcutt Cove; Stoner Mountain; Grundy County; Warren County; Beersheba Springs; McMinnville, Tennessee; Bailey, Texas; Haslam, Texas; Logansport, Louisiana; and Deadwood, Texas; Stanley, Louisiana.
The newspaper in McMinnville, TN. called him “Black Jack” Nunley in their reports of his skirmishes with agents of the U.S. Government (more commonly known as Revenuers). While the stories were always politically correct, the tone suggested that the editor (and possibly the readers) enjoyed the exploits of “Black Jack” and applauded his successes in frustrating the federal tax collectors.
According to their personal perspectives, the people of Warren and Grundy Counties considered Jesse Claiborne Nunley an “Outlaw Injun” or an heroic warrior in a 100 year war between his people and the US government. However, Jesse’s “war” with the “Revenuers” was more an economic than an historic enterprise. The Nunleys of Nunley Mountain and Nunley Cove, and their close relatives -- the Stoners (Stoner Mountain), Northcutts (Northcutt Cove), Hobbs, Smartts, Millers, Whites, and Wilsons – planted and maintained extensive apple orchards on the slops of the mountains of Grundy and Warren Counties in Eastern Central Tennessee. But, in the closing decades of the 19th Century, (as in the preceding century), there was no practical means of transporting their apples to available markets. However, as their ancestors had learned, wagons of apples can be reduced to barrels of apple cider, and barrels of apple cider can be distilled into jugs of “Apple Jack Brandy.” Unlike apples, brandy had a long “shelf-life,” was easily transported to distant markets, and always brought a good price.
As his nickname indicated, “Black Jack” Nunley was expert at “jacking” (distilling applejack brandy from apple cider). Jesse employed both freeze distillation (jacking) and evaporation distillation in creating fine applejack brandy. By the year of 1889, Jesse’s relatives had been producing and selling applejack brandy for at least three generations. It remained their principle “cash” crop, and they had no intentions of sharing their meager profits with their traditional enemy, the United State government. It also seems that Jesse could, when the crops warranted, transmute corn into white lightening. However, applejack was his principle product.
In Oct.,1898 (the date of Jesse’s final shoot-out) his family had lived in the isolated Tennessee mountains and valleys for almost a hundred years. They were among the earliest settlers, and gave their names to the principle landmarks -- mountains, valleys (coves), and cave systems. Only 50 years earlier (1838), Jesse’s parents and grandparents had successfully hidden here while their relatives were rounded up by government agents, held in a concentration camp at nearby Cleveland, TN, and force-marched to Oklahoma on the trek that came to be called the “Trail of Tears.” The lands, homes, and even the personal belongings of their departed relatives were given to white settlers by lottery. “Orphan” Cherokee children, left by their captured parents, were adopted by their Cherokee relatives, and hidden in the hills and caves.
The Nunleys and their racially mixed allied Cherokee families had practiced survival duplicity since the American Revolution. To avoid confiscation of their land and deportation to "reservations," the "Indian-looking" family members were kept hidden, while those who could pass as European whites conducted business and held title to the family lands. The extensive Nunley cave system accessible from Nunley Mountain and Nunley Cove provided protective shelter when enemies searched the hills. From the late 18th Century until the middle 20th Century personal, economic, and social survival required that these families deny, disguise, and hide their Cherokee and Native American heritage. The related families stayed close, intermarrying and supporting each other in difficult times.
While Jesse had been a wild youth, with a string of escapades and close calls, his marriage to Laura Ann Hobbs in May of 1884, and the births of their first four children -- Lucy (1885), James “Jim” Lafayette (1886), Ada Ann (1888), and William “Will” Henry (1889) -- had introduced new responsibilities and restraint. But Jesse (at age 37) remained a prime target of Revenuers, eager to avenge past defeats. The story of the final encounter has been handed down through their descendants. It seems that the Revenuers cornered Jesse and some of his brothers and cousins. A shoot-out ensued, as Jesse and his crew held off the law officers while members of the group slipped away into the hollows. One of Jesse’s brothers or nephews (possibly Jonah James, born 1858) was crippled (according to our story by a club foot). Jesse had always taken special care to protect this brother, and when a shot from one of the Revenuers hit him, an enraged Jesse took aim and shot the officer.
As the story has been passed down, no one knows the fate of either of the victims (crippled brother or federal agent). Whether they lived or died, one thing was certain – Jesse Nunley couldn’t stay in Tennessee. According to tradition, Jesse and Laura and the four babies were boarded on a train that very night, with tickets for Bonham, Texas. Like so many Cherokee warriors before him, Jesse won his battle with the US government, but was forced to cede his land and resettle in the west.
Located in Northeast Texas just south of the Oklahoma border, Bonham was chosen as their destination because of family ties. Laura’s widowed Mother, Evelina Hobbs Hobbs (she was born or adopted a Hobbs and married a Hobbs), her younger brother Dock, and two sisters, Sue and Edith had moved to Bailey, near Bonham to join Cherokee relatives who had settled there in the aftermath of the Civil War. On that long train ride, Jesse and Laura retraced the travels of their Cherokee kin, crossing the mountains, and entering the Great Plains. When their train arrived in Bonham, the wide-open spaces greeted them; the Big Sky stretched from horizon to horizon. The Texas relatives had sent letters back to Tennessee extoling the virtues of flat-land farming, telling tales of cotton fields with six-foot high plants, and corn “as high as an elephant’s eye.” But on arrival, all Jesse saw was a flat, dry, brown-grey land without mountains or even trees. According to the legend, he was inconsolable. He bought a jug of white lightening, and sat beneath the only tree he could find, and got rip-roaring drunk.
Jesse and Laura remained in Baily for one or two years. Their son Charles “Charlie” was born there in 1891. There are two differing stories of why Jesse and Laura and the children left Bailey and settled in the Deadwood community near Logansport, LA. The first explanation is that they fled Bailey because of the long arm of the law. Inquiries in Tennessee apparently directed attention toward Texas and the kinfolks in Bailey. Jesse and Laura sought a new home where the law would have difficulty finding Jesse. Deadwood, located on the border of Louisiana and Texas, allowed residents to move easily from one state jurisdiction to another.
The second story is simply that Jesse hated the open plains of North Texas. He worked long enough to buy train fare to start the long journey back east to Tennessee. Reserving enough money to get started in a new location, he bought train tickets for his little brood. They got as far as Logansport, Louisiana (on the Sabine River, just across the Texas border). North of Logansport, Jesse found a sharecropping opportunity. While Deadwood was short of mountains, there were plenty of trees, and rich farmland. Jesse made a crop that year, and when fall came the couple had a new baby, Luther, (born in Nov. 1894 on the Texas side of the border). Jesse and Laura decided to wait another year before continuing the trip back to Tennessee. As each year passed, and each new baby was born, their roots reached deeper into the soil of the Texas/Louisiana borderlands. Cordie Ann was born in Jan., 1898 in Louisiana; Johah was born in May 1901 in Texas; Mary was born in 1902 in Louisiana; and Johnny was born in May, 1904 in Texas.
Mary died as an infant, and Johnny was a sickly child who lived less than 5 years. Both children were buried in the Cemetery at Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Oak Grove (now Stanley, LA.). Jesse and Laura had two more daughters, born after Johnny’s death. Britt Annie “Shug” was born in 1910 and Minnie Ola in 1911 (both in Louisiana where the family had finally settled). By then the older children had begun to marry, and establish their own families. When Laura died in 1922, the dreams of returning to Tennessee were long forgotten. Laura was buried beside the babies.
The widowed Jesse lived with his two youngest daughters, Britt Annie and Minnie Ola. Several of the older children and their families lived nearby. The Nunley families were highly respected, church-going people. They were steady members of local Baptist and Pentecostal Churches.
Jesse survived Laura by 7 years, dying in Aug., 1929 of injuries suffered in a car accident. On a Saturday, Jesse, as was the custom among farmers, came into Logansport to visit and shop. Finishing early, he decided to visit his daughter Britt Annie and see his youngest grandchild, Billy Ray Freeman. He found a friend on his way to Haslam (across the Sabine River), and jumped onto the running board. When he approached his destination, Jesse misjudged, and jumped off the running board before the car stopped. He took a bad fall that led to his death.
The stories of young Jesse’s alcohol-producing enterprises were closely held within the family. The legend of the shoot-out and escape from Tennessee was passed by whispers within the family, lest scandal blight the family’s reputation. The family was so successful in suppressing the stories that I truly do not know if Jesse ever practiced his knowledge of distillation in Louisiana or Texas. I have never heard any rumors suggesting that he was a bootlegger, or that he drank. His children, mostly teetotalers and all deceased, would be scandalized to know that I have publicly shared this story.
The only potential traces of his past are buried in the stories of Jesse’s birthday celebrations. Jesse was born on the 4th of July, and thus given a perfect opportunity for big birthday bashes. Every year, on the 4th, the Nunley family hosted a big community party with barbeque, watermelons, and some say “strong liquor” of exceedingly high quality (secretly shared by the men). The 4th of July birthday tradition (minus the “strong liquor”) has been kept alive by Jesse and Laura’s descendants, unto the 5th and 6th generations. This year, on July 4, 2013, they will celebrate the 160th anniversary of “Black Jack” Jesse Claiborne Nunley’s birth.
Jesse and Laura had 12 children and approximately 60 grandchildren. At this time, it is estimated that their descendants, who now include six generations, exceed 400. Among their descendants are a dozen preachers of at least four denominations – Baptist, Pentecostal, Methodist, and Assembly of God. They also include many talented musicians. While these descendants know that Jesse and Laura had Cherokee ancestry, the extent and implications of their Cherokee bloodlines have only recently been revealed.
The story of Jesse and Laura’s Cherokee Ancestry and of the HIDDEN CHEROKEES is told in the following blog.
 I’m telling this story as I know it, in sincere hopes that others with additional information will contribute, so a more accurate version can be created. The secrets were so closely kept for so long, by so many that the truth is difficult to discern.
 There were two methods for distilling applejack brandy from apple cider – the traditional evaporation method, and freeze distillation, commonly called “Jacking.” In freeze distillation, the cider is allowed to “freeze.” The less alcoholic water freezes at higher temperatures than concentrated alcohol. When the frozen “water” is removed from the liquid cider, the residual is more highly concentrated.
 There is currently only one legal producer of applejack brandy in the U.S. However, applejack brandy was the favorite drink of colonial America, and remained popular through the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries.