The MTSU Rogan Family Project: Archaeology, Architecture, and History of Early Irish-Tennesseans

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 7

Kevin E. Smith
Middle Tennessee State University

Over 50 years ago, Tennessean reporter Hugh Walker noted that “[Hugh] Rogan’s life story – and love story – were epics of Tennessee history, told to sleepy children in the night-time stillness of frontier log cabins.” All of the early histories of Middle Tennessee describe him as the quintessential example of an Irishman – pioneer, Indian fighter, loyal, brave, honest, and so on. While his legend faded somewhat in the 20th and 21st century, our recent decades long multidisciplinary project at MTSU may change that.

On a fateful day in 1775, Hugh Rogan and his relative (brother-in-law?) Daniel left Ireland for Philadelphia to explore the possibilities of emigrating, expecting to return soon to their wives and infant children. With passenger ship service to Ireland disrupted by the Revolutionary War until 1783, their colonial adventure was greatly extended. In late 1779, Hugh enlisted as a guard in the Virginia militia company charged to protect the survey party mapping the newly opened Cumberland region. Apparently enchanted with the bountiful lands of Middle Tennessee, Hugh stayed there both to work with surveyors John Donelson and Isaac Bledsoe and to establish claims to land he could not acquire back home. In May 1780, he was among the signers of the Cumberland Compact – the first articles of government for the Nashborough colony – and was among the men who cleared Clover Bottom for the planting of corn that summer. From 1780-83, he was on the go much of the time – but was briefly based out of Donelson’s Fort on the Stone’s River, Mansker’s Station in Goodlettsville, and Fort Nashborough.

As the stories go, when passenger service to Ireland resumed in 1783, Hugh began his journey home to his wife Nancy and son Bernard. Stopping along the way to visit Daniel, Hugh was told that Nancy had remarried and his return home was futile – a story perhaps deemed necessary as Daniel had abandoned his own Irish wife, remarried, and started a new American family. Doubtless heartbroken, Hugh returned to Middle Tennessee where he lived and worked with Isaac Bledsoe from 1784-1793 at Bledsoe’s Station – an early civilian fort in Sumner County. My first encounter with Hugh Rogan was there during Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) excavations of that site from 1996 to 2001.

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Figure 1. Reconstructed Location of Hugh Rogan’s Cabin, 1784-1793.

Our project eventually explored the archaeological remains of fourteen log structures at Bledsoe’s Station – one of them Hugh’s first long-term home in America. The artifact assemblage gave no hints as to which cabin Hugh occupied, but the recent “rediscovery” of Supreme Court testimony concerning the death of Anthony Bledsoe on July 20, 1788 provided sufficient clues to relatively confidently identify Hugh’s cabin (Figure 1). The pit cellar in his cabin had almost no artifacts in it – unlike some of the others. The archaeological record of Bledsoe’s Fort is largely that of women and children (both white and black) who were in charge of day-to-day existence. The men, except for a guard or two, were gone for days, weeks, and months. Our archaeological results were transformed by local artist Bill Puryear in 2004 into “Construction of Bledsoe’s Fort” – a striking tribute to the labors of over 60 MTSU archaeology students (Figure 2). Recently, a new generation of MTSU students (in partnership with the Bledsoe’s Lick Historical Association) reconstructed the structure and stockade outline to enhance the visitor experience at Bledsoe’s Fort Historical Park (Figure 3).

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Figure 2. Construction of Bledsoe’s Fort, painting by Bill Puryear 2004 (Used by permission).

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Figure 3. Reconstruction of Bledsoe’s Station outline, July 2017.

Although star-crossed for 20 years, Hugh and Nancy’s romance was not over. In 1795, Hugh’s nephew arrived from Ireland with a letter from Nancy – she had “been true to him, had never believed him dead, and had always prayed for his return.” Hugh sailed for Ireland soon thereafter and returned to Sumner County with his wife and now adult son in 1797 – where he built Nancy a traditional Irish stone cottage. Their second and last child Francis “Frank” Rogan was born there a year later. While our archaeology team explored Bledsoe’s Station, Caneta Skelley Hankins of MTSU’s Center for Historic Preservation was engaged in documenting this cottage prior to its restoration at Bledsoe’s Fort Historical Park only a short distance from the site of Hugh’s log cabin – where you can visit both today (Figure 4).

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Figure 4. Rogan Stone Cottage, April 2011.

Eventually, the hard work of the Rogan family resulted in a 640-acre plantation complete with a comfortable brick mansion built by Frank for his wife Martha Lytle Read (granddaughter of Isaac Bledsoe) and mother Nancy. Remarkably enough, though, the Rogan emigration story was not quite over. In 2008, the owners of the Francis Rogan plantation house donated it to the Ulster American Folk Park in Omagh, Northern Ireland – the house was carefully dismantled, transported, and restored there under the supervision of Steve Brown. Jennifer Butt, an MTSU alum, worked to provide appropriate period furnishings to accompany the house on its long journey. If a house can be said to emigrate, the Francis Rogan House is now a return immigrant in the New World diaspora section of Ulster American Folk Park, where I visited it last month (Figure 5).

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Figure 5. Francis Rogan House – from Sumner County, Tennessee to County Tyrone, Northern Ireland.

Now on-going for over 25 years, the MTSU Rogan Family project remains just that – on-going. This past summer, over 100 members of the Rogan family – many of them descendants of Rogan slaves – visited with us at the Rogan cottage and the site of the Hugh Rogan cabin during a family reunion. The next chapter of this project will be, I hope, the discovery of the archaeological remains of the ten Rogan slave residences recorded in the 1860 federal census, and perhaps Hugh’s second home from 1793-1795.

You can read more about the Rogan Project at: http://www.mtsuhistpres.org/Rogana/New_Rogan_Website/index.html.

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