Hamilton County Pioneers - the Vails

Thursday, May 1, 2008 - by John Wilson

John Vail went by wagon on a long trek from New Jersey to minister to Indians in the wilderness on South Chickamauga Creek. He was one of the few missionaries to remain behind when Brainerd Mission closed after the Cherokees went on the Trail of Tears.

The Vails are an English family that traces back to Thomas Vail. A Quaker, he was the first of the family to settle in northwestern New Jersey. His seven children included Noah, who was born in 1749 and married Rachel Lindsley. They lived with their sons, Thomas and John, at Rockaway, N.J. Noah rose to the rank of sergeant during the Revolutionary War. He died in 1801.

John, who was born at Rockaway in 1788, married Julia Easman on Jan. 21, 1809. They joined the First Presbyterian Church of Rockaway on Feb. 5, 1816, and decided to go out to help with the mission stations being opened in the Cherokee country. The arduous trip began at the end of September 1819, though the Vails were at first not able to start with the rest of the group due to the illness of their oldest son, Noah. It was called “the dying time” at Rockaway, and the couple had just buried two other sons, John and Jared, in a single grave on Sept. 18. It was finally decided to leave Noah with his grandmother
and the Vails and their daughters, Mary Ann and Caroline, caught up with the group. They went down through the Shenandoah Valley before finally arriving at the mission that had been started at the former farm of the trader John McDonald. The journey took six weeks.

The mission was a thriving settlement consisting of a mill, schoolhouse, dorms and other outbuildings. It enjoyed the support of President James Monroe, who had made a surprise visit on horseback the previous May. John Vail was designated as the farmer for the mission. He said he “did not know he was to be the farmer at Brainerd, but is willing to try.” In addition to raising corn and other crops, he operated the sawmill and made numerous trips to purchase supplies and equipment. He helped found the mission at Candy's Creek in Bradley County in 1824. When the Cherokee student John Arch became ill, it was Vail who took him by wagon from Brainerd to Athens, Tenn., for medical treatment.

Vail went back to New Jersey in February 1822 for his son, Noah, and brought him to
Brainerd. But there was much sickness at the mission also, and the Vails lost their daughter, Mary Ann, in September 1831 after an illness of five days. She was “remarkably affectionate and dutiful.” The frail Noah died the following month. Mary Ann was 17 and Noah was 22. Caroline also died, and a young son, Elizar, drowned in the mill run of Chickamauga Creek the following April. By 1836, the only surviving Vail child was Electa Julia. She was still with the family at the time of the 1840 census.

Many of the missionaries went west with the Indians or moved elsewhere, but the Vails
stayed at Brainerd. John Vail sought to gain title to the mission property, but Thomas Crutchfield also claimed it. A lawsuit resulted in Vail receiving the sawmill and 40 acres, which he later sold to Crutchfield. The old Brainerd Mission finally was transferred to Philemon Bird. John and Julia Vail were part of a group that established the First Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga. They continued to live at Brainerd south of the old mission site at Belvoir near the Conners. Julia was an invalid for many years, and she died in July 1843. John Vail in 1849 took Penelope Conner Majors as his second wife. She was previously married to Nelson Majors, but he had died. Penelope's brother, Asbury Conner, had worked at Brainerd Mission. Penelope died three years after her marriage to John Vail. It was in the winter and the ground was frozen, so she was placed in the grave formerly occupied by Dr. Samuel Worcester, whose body had been moved back to New England. John Vail in 1856 took a third wife - Sarah Ann Fulcher, whose family lived at Chickamauga, Ga. Sarah had been born the year the Vails came to Brainerd Mission. She and her husband had a son, John Jr., in 1859 when the former missionary was 71 years old. Vail continued to farm, and he was an agent for the Western and Atlantic Railroad for three years.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, John Vail voted against secession and was a Union man. He said he was “looked upon as the enemy and two of my neighbors was hung for the part they took in it.” The Vails could hear the guns firing at nearby Missionary Ridge. The soldiers came and “took all off in the house and on the farm. They burnt the rails for 10 miles. They left us nothing to eat” and took all the family's clothes “but what we had on.” Vail was urged to write the Mission Board for assistance, but he refused, saying, “Every dollar that they send to me takes from poor heathen that I have to meet at the great days.” His death came Feb. 26, 1871. He was buried at Brainerd Mission beside his
daughter, Mary Ann. Sarah Ann Fulcher Vail lived until 1885.

John Vail Jr. married Betty Turner in 1882. He had a farm that was located near where the headquarters was built for Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. He sold produce and other farm products to the Fort Oglethorpe Army camp. He later operated a grocery in Chattanooga. John Vail Jr. had nine children by his first wife. After her death in 1903, he married Katie Gerald in 1906. John Vail Jr. was living at 2406 Long St. in South Chattanooga when he died in 1930.

His children included M.S. and S.E., who died young. A daughter, Lydia “Liddie” married Ernest L. Osburn and then James Coots. She had a son, Johnny, and daughter, Betty who married Alfred Gaddis. Sons of John Vail Jr. were Arthur, John F., Drake M., Thomas J., Robert Lee and Joe. Tom and Robert worked at Combustion Engineering, while Drake dealt in produce and worked for Pepsi Cola Co. Robert L., who married Edith Skinner, was living at 1006 Greenwood Ave., when he died in 1955. Tom married
Cecil Turner, and their sons were Alfred, Thomas, Bobby and David Robert who married Eloise Hardeman and then Margaret Grace Eadus Doyals. Children of David Robert Vail are Robert Yeull Vail of Lantana, Fla., and Roger David Vail of Detroit, Mich. David William Vail, son of Thomas and Irene Shrum, was the captain of a destroyer in the U.S. Navy. He now teaches at a community college in Hampstead, N.C., and has researched the Vails. He gained much of his information from a ledger that has been in the Vail family for many years and from mission records that include letters written by missionary John Vail. The ledger had been kept by Jimmy Vail of Florida, son of Robert and Edith Vail. Alfred, a former Combustion employee who resides on Altamira Drive in East Ridge, has daughters Virginia and Elizabeth Ann. A son, Alfred Jr. “Freddy,”' lives on the side of Lookout Mountain. Continuing the family tradition, he has made a number of missionary trips. His son, Trey, is the sixth generation of the Vail family here.

Eastgate Mall and Brainerd Village shopping center were built at the old Brainerd Mission.


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