Editor’s Note: BibiloChatt is a series for which NOOGAtoday editors research reader-chosen, history topics using only resources from the Chattanooga Public Library.
The story of Jerome Simmerman and Jemima Bolton started on Moccasin Bend, where Jerome owned 600 acres of farmland. Jemima was the daughter of Solomon Bolton, a tenant farmer living on the Moccasin Bend farm. Solomon and his family were Melungeons, a word that was once a slur but is now part of a proud heritage.
The history of Melungeons
The word “Melungeon” is used to describe a person who has a mixed ancestry of white, Black, and Native American living in the southern Appalachians — typically in northeast Tennessee + southwest Virginia, but also spreading down into east Tennessee (where our story will take place). According to “The Melungeon Tree and its Four Branches” by Will Allen Dromgoole, there were four original Melungeon settlements, started by two men named Vardy Collins and Buck Gibson.
The four branches on the Melungeon tree included Native American, English, African, and Portuguese settlements.
There is a lot of history to delve into regarding Melungeons, but for our purposes, this brief one will do. It is a fascinating history, so if you feel compelled, reach out to the library for resources to learn more.
Jerome Simmerman and Jemima Bolton
As aforementioned, Jerome was the owner of 600 acres of farmland. Jerome suffered a febrile illness (meaning he sustained a fever) and “went crazy,” which could mean he experienced delirium or mental health issues, that part isn’t totally clear.
But, upon regaining his senses, he began to pursue Jemima Bolton, the daughter of Solomon.
Just like a perfect love story, Jemima was quickly infatuated with Jerome, and they made plans to get married.
However, Jerome’s relatives, three half-sisters and their descendants wanted to block the marriage. If Jerome didn’t get married, he wouldn’t have children, and the 600 acres would go to them upon his death. The relatives persuaded Chattanooga officials that Jerome still wasn’t of sound mind and successfully had the marriage blocked.
They couldn’t stop this love story, though — on June 14, 1856, Jerome and Jemima took off to Dade County, Georgia to exchange vows and become husband and wife.
Unfortunately, their first child died at birth. They had a second child, Martha, in November of 1858 who survived, but Jemima died after giving birth to her. Because of this, Jerome took a turn for the worse and dealt with mental health problems the rest of his life.
Jerome’s relatives took Martha away from him and gave her to her aunt, Betsy. They told Betsy to take the child out of Chattanooga and never return. Betsy moved to southern Illinois with Martha, where they lived a deeply impoverished life for the next 15 years.
During those years, Jerome was still living on this land, but he didn’t run the farm. His land was placed in a guardianship, and the relatives, now only one half-sister and the children of the other two, challenged the guardianship in court in 1875. They claimed that the guardian was inadequate and posed that they, being next of kin, should assume guardianship.
According to court documents, “[The relatives] cannot say that [Jerome] is technically an idiot or lunatic, but his mind is so weak that he is not capable of managing and taking care of his property.”
The legal guardian of the land would control any money made off the land and inherit it upon Jerome’s death. The fight for Moccasin Bend was on.
The comeback kid
As it turns out, a friend of Aunt Betsy’s, Sam Williams of Williams Island, had kept in touch with the ladies living in southern Illinois, and he arranged for them to come back to Chattanooga.
Upon arrival, Sam helped Martha (who, remember, had been living an impoverished life) by buying her some nice clothes and finding her a good lawyer, Lewis Shepherd
Martha became involved in the case, and at one point during the trial, Martha was asked how her father treated her when she returned home and if he even recognized her. She responded: “He recognized me, and [met] me at the door and calling me by my name told me to come in and sit down. He called me his child and told me that I was the only child he had, and that he wanted me to have all his property.”
The reappearance of Martha did not slow down the relatives seeking the land. Their first move was to claim Jerome and Jemima were never married, which was quickly proven to be untrue because Aunt Betsy had Jerome’s family Bible, which included marriage details + the birth of his daughter. The handwriting matched Jerome’s.
The relatives kept fighting, stating that the marriage was invalid because, at that time in Tennessee, interracial marriages were prohibited. Jerome’s marriage to an African American woman wouldn’t have been recognized. His marriage to a Melungeon woman would be.
That’s when Lewis Shepherd stepped in and saved the day. He was able to prove that Solomon Bolton — Jemima’s father — was Melungeon, thus Jemima and Martha were, too. This was the proof:
- Solomon Bolton was allowed to vote in Hamilton County, and he was allowed to vote in South Carolina, where he had lived previously.
- In South Carolina, he served in the War of 1812 and was able to prove it with a pension.
- While living in Tennessee, he prosecuted a man who was guilty of killing one of his kids.
If Solomon had been African-American, none of this would have been legal.
The relatives lost their case, and Martha became the sole beneficiary of the 600-acre farm on Moccasin Bend.