Saturday, February 23, 2013

“BLACK JACK” JESSE NUNLEY: Warrior of the Hidden Cherokee

BLACK JACK” JESSE NUNLEY: Warrior of the Hidden Cherokee[1]

Cherokee, Chickamauga, Chickamaka
Nunley, Hobbs, Stoner, Northcutt, Smartt, Miller, Wilson, & White
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[2] (distilling applejack brandy from apple cider).  Jesse employed both freeze distillation (jacking) and evaporation distillation in creating fine applejack brandy.[3]  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.

[1] 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.
[2] 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. 
[3] 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.  


  1. Thank you for sharing your story. As you mentioned, the past was not favorable for Indian heritage; as a result, great amounts of documentation and records were never kept or destroyed to ensure survival. Our family has had several family tragedies that caused additional facts to be changed. I am only beginning my research and hope to better understand my heritage, especially the Cherokee Indians that are my ancestors. Black Jacks life was not only exciting, he survived the sanctions and prejudices with intelligent resourcefulness and the right amount of spite and determination that would be a badge of honor to be of his relations. I hope our paths cross again in my studies ahead. TN

  2. "Among their descendants are a dozen preachers of at least four denominations – Baptist, Pentecostal, Methodist, and Assembly of God."...Frances, make that FIVE denominations: Jan Nunley, daughter of Earl, granddaughter of Luther, and great-granddaughter of "Black Jack" Jesse, was ordained a priest of the Episcopal Church in 1995.

  3. My grandfather was Sam Northcutt son of General Adrian Northcutt from Altimont (lived in the head of Northcutts cove) I have a slave deed passed down where a Jesse Nunley sold and sealed it in 1859 for a four year old negro child for what its worth. Just a little extra info my father grandfather and General Adrian Northcutt had not a positive thing to say about any Nunley It was a deep hatred for some reason.

    1. Is there any chance I could obtain a copy of the 1859 slave deed from Jesse Nunley? An e-copy emailed would be fine, or a hard copy mailed. My email is and my mailing address is POB 39, Logansport, LA. 71049. I will be happy to pay any costs.

    2. Could you send me a copy as well to I would also be willing to pay you. I believe we are linked as my Grandmother and family also lived around Grundy and Irving College area. Maybe we can share some information and photos.

  4. My family line is from the same area of these families; my ggrandmother Georgia Ann Wright was born in Tennessee, married in AL, then ended in Texas. She was born during the height of the Civil War, abt. 1863-64. On all records she is listed as white, and her parents birthplace listed as "U.S." I still find that family cover up. One older cousin said the grandfather forbid them to talk about it. But she was told by a grandmother when she was in her 40's. Now she won't tell me a thing, can't get her to talk.

  5. One more comment: The other side of my family was also from Texas, I have a family tree with pictures; when I started posting them I had cousins contact me and get upset because the pictures definitely identify our Native American heritage. I have studied all my life, and understand many of the dangers our ancestors faced, sometimes from their own people. But now, I want my children to know who we are. But the elders of my family are still not talking. I can be reached at and would really like to hear from anyone of the Wright, Lowe, Boydstun, or Cope families.

  6. I have one more story, that I just figured out this year, and have been working on since 1982. My 2nd ggrandmother was Amanda Caroline Cope. But in abt 1847 she has been listed as the daughter of John Benton Huitt by family members. John was the first sheriff of Dallas County Texas. He had other wives and children, one still alive when he mysteriously died in Jan. 1848. I always wondered why she had the "Cope" attached to her name, and no one could or would tell me. Then I found a private family tree website. Amanda was John's wife, not his daughter. They had no children. She remarried a man named Lowe. For John to be so prominent, all over the records in Dallas County, then suddenly disappear in the first year of her marriage, and no one knows where he is buried. The website I found named her as Amanda Caroline Cope, daughter of Ido Anderson Cope and Nancy Lambeth. The Lambeth line is related to the Greenhaw families, Greenhaw and Strickland are the same family names as Willie Nelson, famous country singer and advocate. So I believe I have Cherokee roots from both sides-my Wright family mentioned above, and from the Cope>Lambeth>Greenhaw side. These are the pictures I mentioned above that no one wants me to post. And about John Huitt, he was supposedly descended from Solomon and Charity Huitt, Solomon married Charity in Georgia, she was supposedly Cherokee and had land. But they came from N.C. and were listed as intruders on Cherokee land in Georgia, went to AR then TX. Charity's grandson Solomon Blair applied for benefits in 1909 while in TX, and was rejected.

  7. I am always searching online for articles that can help me. There is obviously a lot to know about this. I think you made some good points in Features also. Keep working, great job!
    m88 blackjack

  8. I am the granddaughter of ida bell nunley her family was from big sandy Kentucky her fathers name was Allen nunley sisters were Saraha,Ella,Mary and brother Arther,if anyone has any info I would like to hear from you

  9. Jesse was my great great uncle. I am very curious about finding more of my family that has split up around the country. Also I would like to find out if I can claim any scholarships for the Cherokee. If anyone has any info please let me know!

  10. My grandmother was Bershiba Nunley, both names spelled various ways as I search. I believe she was named after Beersheba Mountain, Grundy County. She was born 10 Dec 1893 and passed away 15 Sep 1973. Her parents were John T Nunley and Arteenie - Artanie? Artana Nunley, again various spellings. I can not find much of anything about Arteenie Nunley and perhaps it's because of her Indian heritage. Grandmother lived in McMinnville TN and was married to Charles Morgan Muncey, however divorcing late in life, but I find no records of this but I do know that my Grandfather remarried and had 3 other children. From the stories I've been told she had a great deal of family in Irving College area and Grundy County area as well as McMinnville. She passed away when I was a little girl but I still remember her telling me she was part Indian and she looked full Indian. She had never had a haircut in her life, it was so long when she undone her braids at night to brush her hair, it almost touched the floor as she sit in her rocking chair. Every morning again she brushed her hair and braided it then wrapped it around her head. She also had very little gray hair at the age of 79, just a slight bit in the temples. Same thing for my Father, Howard Eugene Muncey SR, and most of his siblings. I have a photograph that looks like my grandmother as a young lady or girl due to the braids, it has another girl that looks to be perhaps around 10, the little girl appears to have a darker skin also but not the dark hair my grandmother had. I'm still wondering though if the young woman in my great-grandmother and the child my grandmother. I have many old photos I haven't been able to identify yet, some appear to have been sent by soldiers, others you can just tell are old. The problem is they came from my Mom's photo albums which came from both my Maternal and my Paternal Grandmothers. Some photos have been easy, others not so much. My Maternal Grandparents were Shelia (Shelie) Elkins and Jessie Mai Mobley Elkins. I strongly believe my Grandmother is linked somehow to the family in the story. I'm new to all this searching but trying my best to learn as I go. Anyone that thinks they have heritage to either set of my grandparents and would like to help with the photo's or have information that can help me, please email me at I am more than willing to share any info or photos I have.
    I loved reading the story here. I definitely hope I can find a link that puts her in this heritage.