Editor’s Note — This article was written by Independent Herald founder and long-time publisher Paul Roy in 2012. Upon writing it, Roy credited Daniel Jeffers’ family and the Scott County Historical Society for preserving details of Jeffers’ life.
As a young man, he was Lincolnesque in appearance. He had a stern but compassionate face, a jet-black beard and receding hairline. And he lived during the time of Lincoln as well — growing up with few, if any, material advantages in the American backwoods of the mid-1800s, but with the desire to do whatever it took to better himself.
His name was Daniel Jeffers, and his similarities didn’t end there, for he, too, was a rail-splitter as a young man, as well as being a self-made man in every sense of the word.
According to William A. York in his tribute to his great-grandfather in the book Scott County, Tennessee and Its Families:
“Often he told his family how proud he felt when he wore his first pair of boots which he had earned by splitting fence rails for a man who made boots and shoes for the people of the community. At that time all farms were fenced in with split rails, so it took a large amount of rails to fence a farm.”
Daniel Jeffers was born on September 6, 1837 (28 years after Lincoln’s birth) in what is now Scott County. He was the son of David and Pherba Yancey Jeffers. In his growing up years he and his mother lived alone on a farm and he had little opportunity for schooling. In fact, he had only a few weeks of public education as a child and was in his 20s before he learned to read and write, thanks to the tutelage of his sister, Almira Carroll.
Another descendant, Scott County Attorney Leif Jeffers, notes that Daniel Jeffers was a Union soldier during the Civil War — and indeed he was — but not in the traditional sense.
Jeffers was a member of the Scott County (Union) Home Guard — a unit formed early in the war to “protect our homes, families, property and liberties” during the course of the war, according to the oath each member of the Home Guard took.
The local Home Guard, referred to by the Confederates as “Bushwackers,” was involved in a few skirmishes with invading Rebel forces, but two years later, many of their members were sworn in as full-fledged soldiers (for 90 days) with the formation of the East Tennessee National Guard, when General Ambrose Burnside marched through here with some 13,000 troops en route to Knoxville in August 1863. Apparently, however, Daniel Jeffers was not among them, for one reason or another.
Just four months before the war began, on December 27, 1860, Daniel, 23, married Sarah Hembree, the daughter of Meshack and Martha Katherine Carroll Hembree. Sarah had previously been married to a man by the name of John Goodman, whom she had divorced two years earlier (July 29, 1858) on a charge of adultery. Sarah was restored to all rights, privileges and immunities of a feme sole (“never married”), and was restored to her maiden name.
Their first child, Almira, was born June 28, 1861, and was followed by Emsley, born November 18, 1863; Martha, born May 6, 1865; Alvis, born 1867; Leroy, born 1869; Elender, born November 23, 1870; Leonard, born June 1872; Etha, born July 12, 1874; Ella J., born September 13, 1876; Johnny, born April 6, 1878; Elvin, born December 6, 1879; and Otis, born March 1882.
They had 12 children over the span of 21 years, and eight of the 12 would live to adulthood. An ideal brood for a farm family in Scott County in that day and time.
“After the war was over he brought his family to Huntsville to live on a large farm of several hundred acres which he had purchased,” according to York’s account published in 1988. “To farm was necessary, but he did not confine himself to farming, [as] labor was cheap and farm help was readily available.”
Instead, 28-year-old Daniel Jeffers began studying law.
“During this time he served as a member of the Circuit Court and also serveda s Deputy Circuit Court Clerk,” York writes. Later on, he would accept an appointment as a U.S. Commissioner.
At the age of 41, Daniel Jeffers officially launched a new era in his life when he was admitted to the bar on November 29, 1878, followed immediately by establishing his own private practice in Huntsville, while still overseeing the family farm.
He was one of only a few lawyers in the county seat and he was prominent among them here and throughout the circuit.
In addition, Jeffers showed a great deal of interest in the welfare of the people and of the community.
“When the courthouse was erected with sandstone, he served on the building committee. He and Sarah were charter members of the Huntsville Presbyterian Church and a strong supporter of the Academy connected with the Church,” York wrote.
According to Esther Sharp Sanderson’s History of the Huntsville Presbyterian Church and Academy and the Mossip Memorial School (published in 1978), not only were Daniel and Sarah among the charter members of the church, Daniel was also chosen as its first deacon. The formal organization of the Huntsville church came on the second Sunday in July 1882.
Just three years later, in 1885, the Huntsville Presbyterian Academy was organized and among the three trustees named to oversee its operation was Daniel Jeffers (along with James M. Keen and J.B. Brasfield).
“The aim of the Academy was to prepare students for college and to give to those who did not expect to attend college a good English education,” Sanderson wrote. “Special attention was given to those who wished to teach in the public schools. Better education in the common schools throughout the county was an outgrowth of teacher training at the Academy.”
For the remainder of his life, Daniel Jeffers would be closely associated with both the church and the Presbyterian Academy which, incidentally, closed its doors the year of Jeffers’ death (1909).
Jeffers was laid to rest in what was then called the “Jeffers Graveyard” in Huntsville, as would his widow just three years later. Also, several of his children were buried near them in Jeffers Cemetery, as it is known today.
The name Daniel Jeffers is not as familiar to Scott Countians today as are the names of other local attorneys of that era (Baker, Keen, etc.), primarily because Jeffers was not a politician. However, over a four year period prior to his becoming an attorney, he served two terms as a constable in Scott County’s Fifth Civil District.
As a lawyer, much of his work was in the area of land disputes, rather than in high profile criminal cases.
In Sanderson’s profile of Daniel Jeffers (in the book Profiles of Scott Countians), she writes, “His temperament was such that he did not confine himself wholly to the law practice. He enjoyed farming, and he felt that work on the farm, alongside his sons would give them good training in the development of strong bodies and minds. He [also] owned and operated a grist mill located at the Town Spring at the Waterfall on Cane Creek.”