The history of Rotherwood goes back to the 1810s. For a long time, the area was called “Old Kingsport.” Several historic accounts make the claim, but there was no structure there prior to F. A. Ross’s house. Ross retained the services of noted architect Thomas Hope for the building. Several rumors also state Rotherwood was built in 1776. This would’ve been 20 years before Ross was born.
Dr. Frederick Augustus Ross was born on Christmas Day of 1796 and raised in Cumberland County, Virginia. His father was Scottish immigrant David Ross. David Ross owned three different plantations: Cobham, Mount Ida, and Red House. None of the original houses stand today, with Red House completely undocumented.
Frederick Ross came from a financially comfortable family and wanted to make his mark in the world. His father died in 1817 and the family was forced to break up his estate and liquidate the assets. David had a sizable estate, but it carried a sizable debt. The estate had 500 slaves, which were to be sold.
The Ross family couldn’t bear to part with many, especially when they realized several prospective buyers had reputations for poor treatment of servants. Several in the group were elderly or disabled. This didn’t include the many faithful slaves who had families. If they were sold, it would not be as a family. Rather than subjecting them to such a horrific fate, they emancipated those in special circumstances and gave them small portions of the estate. Ross also took care of their taxes for a number of years before he left Cumberland County.
The executor of his father’s estate suggested Ross come to Tennessee. It was a new frontier and civilization was growing westward. Ross made his way to Hawkins County, a new county in a newly formed state. From his own writings, Ross’s father already had land purchased in Hawkins County on either side of the Holston River.
Ross came to the area and stayed as a guest in an old log tavern. He didn’t name the structure or who owned it, only said it was at a ford on the North Fork of the Holston. This is probably where the confusion about the older structure originated.
Ross had a visionary goal of opening the west to all pioneers. He wanted to create a more convenient passage from the Carolinas and Virginia into Tennessee and Kentucky.
Attorneys and politicians alike advised Ross to forget his bridge, but he was immovable. A member of the Tennessee Legislature, named William Young, refused to see Ross’s side. It was with reason. Young, along with two other associates, had already initiated the “Bridge Act,” which would benefit them financially.
Ross offered to buy Young’s interest in the project, but they could never agree on the terms. Ross said he wanted his bridge to be free for all to use, and that infuriated his opponents. They even stated it was against the law for two bridges to be constructed across the same waterway.
He decided he would build his bridge, regardless, and he would create a fine home overlooking the bridge. He went against all and had both projects started within ten days. Mr. Young sent several associates to try to intimidate the workmen, but fortunately they weren’t afraid. Ross eventually beat the alleged law and successfully completed the bridge.
As for Ross’s house, the original Rotherwood, he stated:
“So said many who saw the structure I built. It was nothing better than a brick building, two stories, hipped roof, a cupola with railing, having the ordinary porches, front and rear. Being stuccoed white, that made it remarkable in East Tennessee, at that time, 1819. But many, like the old woman, thought the house a wonder. ‘Why,’ said they, ‘It has a fishpond on the top!’ The falling garden, indeed, gravel roads and walks, over some acres, were fine things to those who had never walked through finer.”
Ross created Rotherwood at 22 years of age. He named the home “Rotherwood,” after Cedric the Saxon’s home in the novel Ivanhoe. Historic rumor also states architect Thomas Hope (1757-1820) never lived to see the home’s completion, but he hand-carved much of the woodwork while he was on his deathbed. The original Rotherwood also had groomed grounds.
Ross was a minister by 1826. He was licensed by the Abingdon Presbytery in Glade Springs, Virginia. It wasn’t long after that Ross found himself in love. Theodosia Vance was the daughter of an elder at the Jonesboro Church. Ross’s interest bloomed after meeting her only four times. Within three months, the two were married. Of his wife, Theodosia, he said:
“When visiting him in the evening, I saw my young girl again; and at the house assigned as my home during the occasion, lo! for the fourth time I met Miss Theodosia Vance, the daughter of the family. In three months she was my wife, and the mistress of Rotherwood [December 16, 1832] and what a gift of God to me!”
Ross established the East Tennessee Silk Manufacturing Company, also called the Ross Silk Factory, in 1837. Ross, Theodosia, and eldest daughter Rowena, were all Board Members of the United Church Board for World Ministries in 1841.
Ross used an elaborate Napoleonic styled carriage, much like those in Europe. The upholstering was done in gray silk and the carriage’s trappings were solid silver. Guests to the home included such figures as President Andrew Jackson.
Unfortunately, he encountered devastating financial trouble in the late 1840s. The silk factory was stable, but he had undertaken a venture into cotton, which doesn’t grow in Northeast Tennessee. He lost a considerable amount that included his beloved Rotherwood. It was around this time that the original house with all its finery burned to the ground and left only ruins. Rather than try to rebuild, the family decided to move on. He sold his 1,900 acres to Joshua Phipps in 1846.
In a great testament to his faith, Ross was not crushed by his loss. It seemed he was strengthened by it. He stated the loss of his wealth, and its duties, gave him much more time to focus on his ministry and outreach to others. He authored several books in his lifetime, they include:
He was also a strong opponent of Brownlow, the shady and conniving “editor” who sought trouble everywhere he wrote.
Ross suffered another tragedy in 1853, when his beloved Theodosia passed on. The family was in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He worked through his grief and remarried in 1859. He ended up settling in Huntsville, Alabama, where he died in 1883.
Rowena was the first out of 15 children. Of her, Ross said:
“Rowena was our first child. Her name was given in harmonious fancy with that of my estate; after reading Scott’s ‘Ivanhoe.’ Rebecca, the Jewess, would better have suited my daughter’s style of beauty. But, the name was too common and the association with the name of her home would have been lost. I do not think I was at all like Cedric the Saxon. Nor my residence like the moated fortalice of the Thane.
“Neither was my Rowena’s parlor in any resemblance to the tapestried hall of the princess descended from Alfred; but on the contrary, Cedric might well have envied me. For my broad lands were richer and finer than his, my sky was bluer than his, and what had he like that noble emniniscence rising above the meeting of those pure and lovely rivers! What like that green mountain, as a frame round them; that garden of fragrance; and, indeed, what the Saxon Rowena’s tapestried log room, through the cracks of which the night wind blew the curtains and waved the smoky torches, compared with the refinements of the American lady’s room of reception.”
She first married Edward Temple in Knoxville, Tennessee. The couple did not return to Kingsport, Hawkins County, or Rotherwood. Temple contracted yellow fever in New Orleans, Louisiana, soon after their union. They had a daughter named Theodosia Ross Temple by the time he died.
Rowena then married Wescom Hudgens, but she passed on soon after they were married. Her daughter, Theodosia, married John S. Reed of Huntsville, Alabama. Ross continued work in the ministry and died in Huntsville, Alabama, in April of 1882. Perhaps his most beautiful writings were about his wife and daughter.
(Comprehensive sources will be provided at the end of the series)
Brief History of the Synod of Tennessee, from 1817 to 1887, John Edmiston Alexander. MacCalla & Company, 1890:
The Autobiography of Rev. F. A. Ross, D.D., in letters to a lady of Knoxville. Mrs. Juliet Park White. Huntsville, Ala., 1812-1883.