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State historian praises Rogersville's 1806 Powel Law Office as 'worthy of preservation'

Jeff Bobo • Oct 20, 2019 at 5:30 PM

ROGERSVILLE — A dilapidated two-story structure that has been decaying for decades in downtown Rogersville may soon be resurrected to tell the story of a historic family that participated in key moments of early American history.

Tennessee state historian Dr. Carroll Van West from Middle Tennessee State University recently completed a study on the Powel Law Office, which is located on Washington Street just west of the Depot Street intersection.

Local legend puts construction of the building at some time in the 1790s, although there is no official date on record.

West is setting the date of construction in 1806 based on the year when its original owner, former U.S. congressman, judge, and local attorney Samuel Powel (1776-1841) began his law practice in Rogersville.

The building has connections to the Revolutionary War and the founding of Tennessee through Powel's father-in-law, Gen. George Rutledge. Powel also had two sons who served in the Tennessee legislature, two sons who fought in the war with Mexico, and two sons who fought in the Civil War — including one who was killed and the other severely wounded.

Powel's son-in-law was East Tennessee’s leading portrait painter, whose list of subjects included President Andrew Johnson.

One of the Powels’ slaves who was sold to a Mississippi family became famous for escaping captivity during a visit to Syracuse, N.Y., in 1839.

Preservation and the architectural significance

The Powel Law Office is owned by the city of Rogersville, which has expressed its intention of restoring the structure to its original log appearance, minus any utilities such as electricity or water, and promoting it among the city's many historic tourism attractions.

That's why West's study is so important. As with the nearby Rogers Tavern, which was also studied this year by West, the hope is that West's acknowledgment and citation of the historic significance of these structures will lead to grant funding to pay for total restorations.

There are several personal stories to be told through the Powel Law Office, but West notes that the facility itself is a rare well-preserved “example of the evolution of Tennessee domestic architecture from the first decade of statehood.”

“It shows the form of the hall and parlor house, a popular urban house style found in abundance in Powell’s native state of Pennsylvania at the turn of the nineteenth century,” West states in his study. “This style consists of two rooms, one that serves as the entrance, or hall, and the second room serving as the primary living area, or parlor. The Powell home indicates the owner’s prominence in that it is two stories in height and that the log notching exhibits a considerable degree of craftsmanship, suggesting that a nearby carpenter or cabinetmaker was involved in the construction of the dwelling. The width of the logs also speaks to the building’s construction in 1806, if not earlier.”

West added, “As the building is restored to its 1806 appearance, and the clapboarding and interior is taken apart, further architectural evidence of its frontier era look will be uncovered, providing invaluable clues about the building’s construction and evolution over the decades. The building, considering that it was abandoned and left to the elements for too many years, clearly remains in restorable condition.”

A potential for historic tourism

West states that the building is historically significant because it represents a family that significantly impacted Hawkins County and Tennessee history.

“As the only surviving building directly associated with the significant Powel family, the Powel Law Office has many important stories to tell,” West said. “Certainly, a 200-plus-year-old log building that housed two generations of important attorneys and jurists is worthy of preservation. It is a rarity. But the stories associated with this building are so much deeper.”

Congressman and Judge Samuel Powel (1776-1841)

Samuel Powel was born in Norristown, Pa., in 1776, attended the College of Philadelphia and passed the bar in Pennsylvania.

Around 1800, Powel moved to Blountville and, according to some sources, may have operated a law school there, which would have made it Tennessee's first.

He married Mary “Molly” Caldwell Rutledge (1790-1867), daughter of Gen. George Rutledge (1755-1813), who was a Revolutionary War veteran from the Battle of King’s Mountain and a well-respected leader in Sullivan County.

In 1806, the Powels moved to Rogersville where Samuel Powell began his law office in the surviving Powel Law Office building on modern day Washington Street. 

In 1806, the main road through Rogersville was the Old Stage Road that followed the creek behind the Powel Law Office, and when it was built the front of the structure faced south. Later the structure was remodeled so that the front faced north toward Washington Street, but when a rear addition was removed it exposed the original front doors.

Powel was a successful attorney and farmer, and by 1830 he owned a large amount of land near Rogersville as well as 16 slaves.

In 1815, Powel was elected as a Democratic-Republican to the U.S. House of Representatives, serving Tennessee’s 1st District, but he only served one term.

Upon leaving Congress, Powel was appointed judge to Tennessee’s 1st Circuit Court, a position he held until his death in 1841.

Powel is buried at Old Presbyterian Cemetery adjacent to his law office. His portrait was painted posthumously by his son-in-law Samuel Shaver in 1845.

Gen. George Rutledge (1755-1813)

Gen. George Rutledge was the father of Samuel Powel's wife, Mary Caldwell (Rutledge) Powel, and he arrived in Sullivan County in 1777, where he served as a state senator until his death.

He commanded a company in Col. Shelby's regiment at the battle of King's Mountain. He served under John Sevier in the North Carolina militia and later assumed command of this same group that would eventually become the Tennessee militia.

Rutledge was also a member of the convention that formed the Constitution of Tennessee in 1796. The city of Rutledge in Grainger County was named after him. Later in life, he lived with family in Hawkins County, where he died, and he was buried in Blountville.

George Rutledge Powel (1807-1873)

First son of Samuel and Mary Powel, George was a state representative (1835-37), a local attorney and political activist, and in 1842 arranged for President James Polk to visit Rogersville.

He married Eliza Ruth Fain, daughter of local businessman Nicholas Fain in 1836.

George Powel served as Hawkins County's Circuit Court Clerk (1840-52); and Chancery Court Clerk and Master (1855-58), and he was on the board of trustees for the Odd Fellow’s Female Institute in Rogersville, which was a women's college located on the current site of Rogersville City School.

The 1860 census listed him as the town’s third-wealthiest resident, worth approximately $80,000.

Samuel Jackson Powel (1821-1902)

The second son of Samuel and Mary Powel, Samuel Jackson Powel was a Rogersville attorney who joined the 5th Tennessee Volunteers in 1848 and served as a 1st lieutenant on an occupation force during the war with Mexico.

He married Mary Elizabeth Armstrong (1829-1912) in 1851.

He was elected to the Tennessee General Assembly, where he served 1849-51; was a Democratic elector for President James Buchanan in 1856; and served as Hawkins County attorney general 1854-60.

When the Civil War started, he enlisted in the 29th Tennessee Volunteer Regiment in November 1861 where he rose to the rank of colonel. He was severely injured in the Battle of Perryville (Ky.) in October 1862 that forced him to resign from the military that November.

By 1870, he was living in Mississippi, where he spent the rest of his life. When he died in 1902, he was returned to Rogersville, where he was buried with his family in the Old Presbyterian Church cemetery beside Powel Law Office.

Robert David Powel (1825-1861)

The third son of Samuel and Mary Powel, Robert David Powel was a Rogersville attorney who served in the 5th Tennessee Volunteers with his brother Samuel Jackson Powel during the war with Mexico in 1848.

After the war, Robert Powel left for the California gold rush of 1849 and returned to Rogersville in 1856 where he established the Rogersville Weekly State Sentinel newspaper.

Sadly, Robert Powel is best remembered as the first Tennessean to be killed in combat in the western theater (outside of Virginia) during the Civil War.

On Sept. 19, 1861, 1st Lt. Powel with the 19th Tennessee Volunteer Infantry was killed in an ambush while scouting a bridge with two companies in Barbourville, Ky.

Powel, who wasn't married, was returned to Rogersville, where he was buried with his family at the old Presbyterian Church cemetery beside Powel Law Office.

Samuel and Mary Elizabeth (Powel) Shaver

Mary Elizabeth (Powel) Shaver (1825-56) was the only daughter of Samuel and Mary Powel and was married in 1845 to portrait painter Samuel Shaver (1816-78).

Samuel Shaver, a Sullivan County native, taught drawing and painting at the Odd Fellows Female Institute in Rogersville, where Mary's brother George was a trustee. The couple lived with Mary Shaver's widowed mother and they had two daughters.

From the 1840s until the end of the Civil War, Samuel Shaver was East Tennessee's leading portrait artist, painting many prominent figures of the day, including Andrew Johnson in 1856, a decade before he became president. Shaver also painted a portrait of President Franklin Pierce.

After his wife died, Samuel Shaver stayed in Rogersville until 1860, when he moved to Knoxville and became one of the founders of the East Tennessee Art Association, which commissioned him to do portraits of 15 Confederate leaders and generals.

He eventually remarried and moved to Illinois near St. Louis, where he died in 1878.

Harriet Powel (1815-60)

Born in Rogersville, Harriet Powel was a slave of Samuel Powel and was identified by sources of the time as a “quadroon,” which meant she was one-quarter black and three-quarters white. Her mother was also a Powel slave, and Harriet claimed that Samuel’s brother Benjamin Powel was her father.

She was sold, along with her mother and sister, to Mississippi plantation owner John Davenport, who paid $1,400 for Harriet, supposedly for her needlework skills, although her physical beauty was supposedly the real motivation for Davenport’s purchase.

In 1839, Harriet accompanied the Davenport family on a visit to Syracuse, N.Y.

An account printed in a Syracuse University Library exhibit on the Underground Railroad states: “Harriet was a strikingly beautiful woman who was certainly attracting attention in the city. The party had taken up residence in the Syracuse House, the most luxurious of the hotels in the city, and this is where it was learned that Harriet was actually a slave owned by the Davenports. The abolitionists William M. Clarke and John Owen conveyed a message to her at the hotel that they could arrange transportation for her to freedom in Canada if she desired it.”

Initially Harriet declined the offer. But upon hearing that she would be sold to a man for $2,500, Harriet agreed to escape and fled while the Davenports were being honored at a party on the eve of their departure for home. John Davenport posted a reward of $200 for her return, but Harriet escaped to Kingston, Ontario, where she eventually married a respected local musician and had eight children.

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