Who Was John Overton?
In the late 18th and early 19th century, John Overton became one of Tennessee most influential citizens. During his lifetime he amassed a vast fortune, as well as gained the respect of businessmen and presidents. He was a Law Student, Tax Collector, Land Speculator, Tennessee Supreme Court Judge, Planter, Banker, Husband, Presidential Advisor to Andrew Jackson, and Co-founder of Memphis.
John Overton was born in Louisa County, Virginia in 1766. Drawn to the cheap fertile land in the Western territories of the newly formed United States, he traveled to Danville, Kentucky to apprentice with an attorney at the age of 21. Primitive living conditions and tensions with neighboring Indians made life in the West difficult and dangerous, but Overton thrived as a law student. His penchant for learning caused one of his colleagues to remark years later that he was a man who “spent whole nights at the lamp” reading. In 1789, he relocated to the Metro District of the Southwest Territory (present-day Nashville, Tennessee) to practice law.
In 1795, John Overton was appointed Supervisor of the Revenue for the Southwest Territory. His job was to collect taxes on luxury items, especially from the 450 liquor distilleries operating in the territory. Not surprisingly, this was not an easy job. Many resented the federal government for collecting taxes. Land disputes between settlers and Indians frequently resulted in armed clashes, and the federal government had provided little military support to the settlers. Overton’s ability to articulate the benefits of good relations with the federal government and the necessity of the tax helped calm tensions in the territory.
After Tennessee became a state in 1796, hostilities with Indians subsided and the area experienced immense population growth. A minority of settlers, like John Overton, achieved great wealth through buying, selling, and developing land. By 1800, Overton held title to at least 65,000 acres of land. The exact size of his holdings will probably never be known because he frequently used “agents” to make deals and advocated “those important rules in business: secrecy and dispatch.” While the majority of his holdings were rural tracts scattered over Middle and West Tennessee, he was also involved in Nashville’s development. He owned all or part of 28 lots in Nashville and several large parcels of land on the city’s edge, including his 2,300-acre plantation, Travellers Rest.
In 1804, John Overton was appointed Judge to the Superior Court Law ad Equity in Tennessee, which was the forerunner of the state Supreme Court. This position required him to travel about the state and attend special sessions of the county courts. According to tradition, Overton named his Nashville plantation Travellers Rest during these years of prolonged absences from home traveling the countryside as a judge. In 1811, he assumed judgeship on the bench of the newly created Tennessee Supreme Court. In collaboration with Judge Thomas Emerson, Overton published the Tennessee Reports, the first official compilation of published decisions by Tennessee’s highest courts. These cases set legal precedents for land law in the state.
Perhaps John Overton’s greatest contribution to the development of Tennessee was his founding of Memphis. The 5,000-acre city plot was part of a 65,000-acre tract that Overton Purchased in 1795 for less that 15 cents an acre. This was a risky venture as the land in West Tennessee was claimed by the Chickasaw Indians, but by 1818, General Andrew Jackson negotiated a treaty with the Chickasaw that relinquished their claims to the land. This allowed development to move ahead, and city lots went on sale the next year. James Winchester, Overton’s business partner, chose the name Memphis for the Mississippi River town in reference to the ancient Egyptian city on the Nile River. Overton tirelessly promoted the city until his death in 1833
In addition to steering the judiciary and local politicians toward policies that furthered land development, John Overton helped charter the Nashville branch of the Bank of Tennessee. The bank allowed land speculators to obtain easy credit for land purchases. During the early 1800s, citizens were divided over the benefits of big banks. Banks crafted their policies for the wealthy elite, possessed unregulated control over the nation’s economy and were instrumental in causing the nation-wide economic depression of 1819. Tennessean and future President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, was convinced that banks needed to be reformed, which caused a rift between him and Overton. Overton even briefly considered throwing his political support behind Jackson’s greatest rival, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, for the 1824 presidential campaign. But Jackson’s soaring popularity among voters convinced Overton that Jackson could not be beat. Federal reforms, mismanagement, and economic depression eventually led to the failure of the Overton Banks.
Most of John Overton’s days at Travellers Rest were spent as a bachelor. In 1820 at the age of 54, he married the 37 year old widow Mary McConnell White May. She had five children from her previous marriage, and together the couple had three more at Travellers Rest. According to tradition, Mary was a talented herbalist. The fact that all 8 of her children lived to adulthood (a rare occurrence in the early 1800s) seems to corroborate this story. After John’s death, she helped manage the affairs of the plantation before their son, John Jr., came of age and assumed ownership. A lawsuit she brought to bear on a debtor in 1841 suggest that she was more than capable of maneuvering the legal system and ensuring the family’s financial security. She died at Travellers Rest in 1862 at the age of 80.
As a leading figure of a political committee called the Nashville Junto, John Overton labored to put the first western figure and Tennessean in the White House: Andrew Jackson. Overton and Jackson first met in 1789 when they boarded together at Mrs. John Donelson’s home in Nashville. This is also where Jackson met his future wife Rachel Donelson Robards. Believing wrongly that her husband had obtained a divorce, Rachel married Jackson in 1791. The mistake was soon recognized, but the scandal allowed Jackson’s enemies to label him as an adulterer and bigamist. Overton was Jackson’s principle defender in the matter and led the “whitewashing committee” that responded to negative attacks by Jackson’s opponents. Jackson became president in 1829, and Overton remained a close advisor during his term in office.
As with most of John Overton’s elite contemporaries, operating, his 2300-acre Travellers Rest plantation rounded out his varied business interests. The plantation primarily yielded tobacco and cotton, but Overton was especially interested in his fruit orchard. He cultivated peaches, apples, pears and grapes. Some of this fruit was distilled into brandy and wine. To plant and harvest these crops, Overton owned an average of 50 slaves. Among the slaves were also highly skilled craftsmen such as furniture makers and blacksmiths who were widely known for their products.