Susanna Withers East, A Vintage Vignette

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Susanna Withers East
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
July 10, 2008

Susanna Withers East was born blind, but her tombstone says “now she sees”. The tombstone is located south of Mill Road, in the old section of the Madison City Cemetery. It is situated among the monuments of the Martin family, near that of George Washington Martin. No other East family marker is to be found in the area. The relationship to George Martin is not evident from any of the tombstones, but the arrangement suggests a close connection.

Susanna died in 1877. She was born here in 1814, a daughter of William and Sallie Martin East. Sallie was a sister of Richard Martin, who was the father of George, Elijah Thomas, John Frank, and other local Martins. Therefore, Susanna East and George Martin were first cousins. Sallie East died in 1841 at age 62, and William died in 1847 at age 71. William’s 1846 last will and testament specifically left one seventh of his estate to his blind daughter Susanna, along with two slaves and $100. Altogether, William had 7 children and 26 slaves, but he specified the disposition of only four slaves. Two slaves went to son Yancy Thomas East, just as two went to Susanna. However, all 26 slaves were listed by name in the will, which was witnessed by William A. Pike, George W. Martin, and Vincent Gravitt. The will mentioned William’s daughter Polly (Mary) as being the widow of Jessee Gravitt and his daughter Elizabeth as the widow of Obadiah Gravitt, while Eliza was named as the widow of John Pike. William’s daughter Priscilla was mentioned as deceased, having married James Pike in 1835. They produced William’s two grandsons, William Richardson Pike and George Winkfield Pike, who were to receive Priscilla’s share of the estate plus $50 between them. These grandsons were minors at the time of the will, with William’s son Alexander Hamilton East appointed as their guardian. This indicated that James Pike had also died before 1846.

William also had over 600 acres of land, located on the northeastern face of Rainbow Mountain and along Slaughter and Jeff Roads. This land was later sold and the proceeds divided among his surviving children and two grandchildren. To carry out his last wishes, William left his son Alexander as Executor, stipulating that all of his just debts were to be paid, including his funeral expenses. The funeral was dictated to be of “the most plain manner”. Alexander’s petition for an order to sell William’s land was presented to the Probate Court by attorneys Clement Comer Clay and John Withers Clay, who were famous, prominent men of the county and state.

The obituaries of William and his wife Sallie state that they came to Madison County in 1809, having moved from Virginia to Tennessee’s Wilson County in 1807. Family stories and obituaries agree that William and Sallie were born in Halifax County, Virginia, but data on Ancestry.com states that William was born in Henry County of Virginia. Oddly enough, the county seat of Henry County is Martinsville. Per family tradition, the Martins of Madison County came here in 1809 as part of a wagon train that departed from Halifax Courthouse in Virginia. It stopped for a few months in Petersburg, Georgia, due to tales of Indian troubles in Madison County that later proved to be false.

The wagon train included East and Fitts families. These families settled along the eastern face of Rainbow Mountain, living adjacent to one another as squatters on Indian lands until 1818 when it became legal to own the land. Richard Martin was married to Lydia East Fitts, who was born in Virginia in 1795. Richard’s son George Washington Martin was Madison’s first merchant and town citizen. The 1850 census showed Susanna East living in the household of Obediah Gravitt (a brother-in-law), but the 1870 census showed her in the household of George W. Martin. As George’s blind cousin lived with his family late in her lifetime, she was given residence in the Martin burial plot at her time of passing.

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