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Bledsoe Fort offers step back into history

Larry Woody, Outdoors Writer • Updated May 12, 2014 at 10:42 PM

As we strolled across the grassy meadow alongside an ancient wagon road, musket fire suddenly rattled from an adjacent hollow and wisps of muzzleloader smoke drifted from the tree-line.

Had we been transported in time back to the 1780's, we would have run for our lives to nearby Bledsoe Fort. The musket fire would have signaled an Indian attack -- the kind that killed homesteader Anthony Bledsoe in 1788 and slew his brother Isaac five years later.

Instead, all we did was flinch at the gunfire, which came from a marksmanship competition held during last weekend's Bledsoe Fort Colonia Fair.

The three-day event, held on the historic fort site in Castilian Springs, drew thousands of visitors, including re-enactors dressed in period attire and living as our frontier ancestors lives over 200 years ago.

One grizzled old pioneer hunkered over a smoky campfire roasting a buffalo brisket.

Two minstrels sang original frontier songs and played a vintage lute and fiddle.

Merchants sold everything from beeswax candles to powder horns, from hatchets to sun bonnets.

"I've always been fascinated by history, especially Middle Tennessee history," said Ronnie Dowdy of Gladeville, who wore a tri-corner hat, home-spun shirt, leggins, and assorted leather-work accessories to go with the long-rifle he cradled in his arm.

"I enjoy hunting and the outdoors, and the frontiersman who came into this area were the original hunters," Dowdy said. "It's amazing to think about the hardships and adversity they were able to overcome."

Among the first and most famous long-hunters was Thomas "Bigfoot" Spencer who spent a winter living in a hollow sycamore tree near the Wynnewood historical home. A monument marks the site of the tree from where Spencer one morning watched an Indian raiding party set up camp near one of the springs.

That was in 1788. The next  year Spencer built was is believed to be the first cabin in the area, near the springs. He remained a legend on the Middle Tennessee frontier until 1794 when he was killed by Indians near the present site of Crab Orchard in Cumberland County.

Anthony Bledsoe was killed during an Indian attack on the fort, and his brother Isaac was killed five years later about a quarter-mile away, near the site of the old family cemetery. A monument marks their graves.

Down the hill from the fort site, marked by a historical plaque, are the remains of the old springhouse where the pioneer family got its water and stored milk and butter.

On down the path from the springhouse is the Cavern of the Skulls, where some 200 skulls were discovered by archeologists. The skulls were placed in the cavern by Indians, for reasons unknown.

Indians hunted in the area, drawn by the herds of buffalo, elk and deer that were attracted to the salt springs. Some of the Indians had lived there for generations -- a large ceremonial mound can be seen alongside Highway 25 west of the fort -- while others were nomadic hunting and raiding parties.

No area is richer in history than the Castilian Springs sites. Walking the ancient traces, visiting authentic log cabins and touring the graves of our frontier ancestors is a trip back into the past that every Middle Tennessean should make.

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