Mud Tavern, Old Hickory and the Politics of Drinking in Donelson, Tennessee

By Joe Nolan

The Mud Tavern community in Nashville’s Donelson neighborhood boasts its own historical marker along with a legend worthy of the landmark. Honor, history, politics and potent pints of porter all met there in America’s first days at a time when drinking and dueling played lead roles in the political pageant of our new democracy.

A Sound in the Morning

On the grounds of Harrison’s Mill in Logan County, KY on the morning of May 30, 1806, the first pistol blast silenced the ripples of the nearby Red River. The springtime birds screeched in the trees as a .70 caliber bullet smashed into the chest of Andrew Jackson, splashing a crimson crown as it pulverized linen, tore through flesh, crushed bone and stopped perilously close to the future President of the United States’ racing heart. A mere 24 feet away, 26-year-old Charles Dickinson lowered his smoking pistol, sure he was looking at the stumbling bulk of the 27th man he’d killed in a duel of honor. But after Jackson stepped and Jackson swayed, he suddenly planted his feet. He brought one hand to his chest and with black smoke pouring from the inside of his coat he straightened his back and raised his pistol at Dickinson.

By the rules of dueling, Jackson was entitled to return fire if he was able. He squeezed before the pistol’s hammer fell half way and jammed. Jackson pulled the hammer back again before blasting Dickinson’s chest wide open. Dickinson hit the ground. He would not recover.

Earlier, Near Mill Creek

Two happenings in the early settlement of Tennessee led to the forming of the Historic Mud Tavern Community and earned it its oozy boozy moniker: before 1784, Major John Buchanan built a fortified home on Mill Creek’s east bank. Buchanan Station is believed to have been the first permanent dwelling in the area. The building withstood attacks during the Chickamauga Wars and became the civic center of the community that developed near the station at the close of the 1700s. There is some evidence that sometime during the 1800s, a tavern opened at what is now the corner of Elm Hill and McGavock Pikes. The watering hole took its name from its own cedar and mud walls along with its stick-built chimney. While there are no records documenting the Mud Tavern’s original owner, some sales documents and court decisions dating 1810 – 1832 suggest that the tavern was owned and operated as a drinking establishment and an inn by a man named Richard Smith.

That said, the original Mud Tavern left no ruins and nearly no paper trail, but – like a long night of suds-sipping often does – the Mud Tavern left a lasting legend: Andrew Jackson was said to have been a regular at the stop on his trips between The Hermitage and Nashville. It’s also said that he spent two nights at the tavern preparing for his duel with Charles Dickinson.

A Plan to Execute

In Tennessee the story of the duel and its result is well known – the whole thing started when Dickinson accused Jackson of cheating on a horse race before also insulting his wife. But the preamble about Jackson’s strategizing retreat at the Mud Tavern is a detail left out of most tellings. Jackson was a notoriously weak marksman – some accounts credit Jackson with more than 100 duels during his lifetime, but he never killed another man in these fights for honor, aside from the unfortunate Dickinson. Jackson reckoned he could steady his nervous aim if he was the man taking the second shot. He was so sure of his strategy that he was prepared to take the first bullet when it hit – it broke two ribs and remained in Jackson’s chest for the rest of his life. Jackson was such a savage for vengeance that afterwards he vowed that he’d have killed Dickinson even if it meant taking the first bullet in the brain. One wonders how much of that must have been the beer talking?

Alcohol and the places that sold and served it played a very different role in those days than they do now. Some colonial communities had taverns before they had churches, and these establishments provided lodging and meals in addition to alcohol. These precursors to the modern motel also served as community meeting places, news gathering centers and even postal points where rural colonists could get a picture of the world beyond the wilderness. In America’s earliest days these places were also classless: military officers, laborers, farmers, merchants and artisans all drank together, spoke together, schemed and dreamed together. The American Revolution overflowed from taverns like the one where Jackson looked his death in the face and refused its grim insistence.

There’s another factor in the central role that beer played in the colonies, and in the days after the Revolutionary War: a lack of potable water made brewed and distilled beverages the safest drinks around. Colonial-style table beers might have been as weak as 3% ABV. That’s not really that low when you consider drinking it morning to night – contemporary Tennessee craft brews like Mountain Light and Cherokee Red Ale (Smoky Mountain Brewery & Restaurant) register ABVs at 2.77% and 3.08% respectively. America was a pretty pissed place back in Jackson’s day, and there might’ve been less dueling if there had only been enough LaCroix to go around.

Our democratic experiment is certainly soaked in suds, but is the Jackson story real or is the Mud Tavern more lush legend than legitimate landmark? A Myth

Walks Into a Bar

The best evidence that the Mud Tavern was a real place with real history is that the surrounding community took its name and the label has stuck on maps of Davidson Country all the way through to the 21st century. Local historian Mike Slate is a Hermitage resident who was raised in Donelson –he’s an expert on the Mud Tavern community who was recommended to Tennessee Craft Beer by no less than The Hermitage.

“I happen to subscribe to the view that possibly during the time of Andrew Jackson there wasn’t a Mud Tavern. I put it in the category of folklore. I lean to the idea that during Andrew Jackson’s day, Mud Tavern didn’t exist,” says Slate. “The bottom line is I can’t find any documentation whatsoever of Jackson at the tavern during his lifetime. Now, that just means that I haven’t found any proof. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t there.”

In fact, Slate insists that the Mud Tavern was definitely a real place that he’s been able to document all the way back to the late 1860’s.

“For me this means the tavern called Mud Tavern was a post-Civil War event, but there may have been another tavern on the same spot that was known by another name during an earlier era. This legendary tavern may have existed, but maybe not by the name of Mud Tavern.” However, Slate has yet to discover any new evidence of an unknown watering hole. “I’ve searched for other taverns under other names during an earlier time but I haven’t been able to find one yet.”

What we also found out from Slate was that there was another early American tavern up Elm Hill Pike from Donelson in what is now the Mount Juliet area of Wilson County. The Eagle Tavern might be the place where the secret to this Jacksonian legend is hiding.

“Elm Hill Pike was the old road to Lebanon for many years, and it does appear that Eagle Tavern was old enough to have been there during Jackson’s time,” says Slate. “I can say that with quite a bit of confidence even though there’s very little we can actually pin down and document about that era and about that event. The duel happened, but the rest of the story is ultimately speculation. Did Andrew Jackson drink? Sure he did. Did he frequent taverns? You bet. But, Andrew Jackson has supposedly stayed at so darn many places in his life that at a certain point it’s hard to prove which ones or where.”

One thing we do know for sure is that taverns and beer were important ingredients in the early alchemy that transformed America from a group of rag tag colonies into an independent democratic nation. It’s also a pretty good bet that Jackson might not have had 100 duels if his better angels had just stuck to the cider.