The feud that erupted over John Gunter’s estate

Posted by | March 15, 2017

One of the first whites to settle in Marshall County, AL was John Gunter (1765-1835), a Scotsman who migrated from North Carolina after the Revolutionary War.

Gunter came to the great bend of the Tennessee River near the present Veterans’ Memorial Bridge around 1785, where he was fortunate to find a salt deposit. He decided to settle near the river (the town that emerged around his land, originally called Gunter’s Landing, is present day Guntersville) and trade with the Indians, the majority of whom were Cherokees.

A Cherokee by the name of Chief Bushyhead, head of the Paint Clan, brought his beautiful 15 year old daughter, Ghe-go-he-li, to exchange for Gunter’s salt. Gunter accepted the bargain and changed his bride’s name to Katherine. Chief Bushyhead and Gunter signed a treaty stating “as long as the grass grows and the waters flow, the Indians can have salt.”

After his death, Gunter’s estate settlement caused quite an uproar; the Alabama Historical Quarterly, fall issue, 1947 spelled out the details of the story:

Before John Gunter died in 1835, he named the Rev. William Potter, superintendent of Creek Path Mission, as executor of his will. The old pioneer had amassed a small fortune down through the years and left large tracts of cleared land, many slaves and around $5,000 in cash. Before the Gunter will was finally settled, several persons had died in gun battles, and it became one of the most talked about events in the early history of Marshall County.

Section of Guntersville, AL aerial, shot for Tennessee Valley Authority, between 1933-45.

Although Gunter left around $5,000 in cash, he didn’t say where it was located. It was generally thought that Gunter had buried the money near his house, so the Rev. Potter formed an excavation party to dig for it. The money was never found. But Louis Wyeth noted that John, Jr. acquired several thousand dollars soon after his father’s death.

If John, Jr. did find the money, he may have felt justified, because the Indian law held that the first son to obtain his father’s estate had the lawful right to it. John, Jr. took possession of his father’s house and built a large store and warehouse some 150-yards away. The Gunter house was the largest structure in the county for many years, and when John, Jr. painted it white, it became known as the “White House.”

John C. Johnson purchased some of the Gunter property from John. Jr. in the spring of 1836. Included in the sale was a boarding house, a land office and a large stock of goods. Johnson sold the property and goods in the fall of the same year to Col. Nathaniel Steele.

Questions continued to arise over the legality of John, Jr.’s title to the property, and his right to sell it. In the meantime, the Rev. Potter, unable to settle the will, had become disgusted and resigned as executor. Sheriff Alexander Riddle of Jackson was named to take his place and immediately got a court order to sell the Gunter property and divide the money among the Gunter heirs, just as the will specified.

The property was sold to a company of men from Claysville for $1,500. The men included Wallace P. Macfarland, Cornelius Allen, William Wiggs and George Allen.

When the property was sold to the Claysville men, Steele’s title to the land became worthless, although Gunter had sold it to him in good faith. Steele vowed to get his property back or die trying, and the matter began to draw great interest locally. While many local people took sides in the feud, the Gunter children—the ones most concerned—stayed out of the quarrel.

One Sunday morning the whole thing came to a climax when Nathaniel Steele and his brother Graves Steele met near the Gunter house with the new owners of the property to settle the dispute one way or another. It soon became apparent that nothing could be settled verbally, and shooting erupted.

The Steele brothers and a man named Collins ran quickly to the Gunter smokehouse, which offered a perfect vantage point of the area. James McFarland was killed immediately, and Eli Feemsted was wounded and died a few day later. The Steele brothers and Collins were arrested following the shooting, but later released on bond.

The trio’s trial came up a few months later at Claysville. Nathaniel and Graves Steele and Collins got another one of the Steele brothers to drive them to the trial in his surrey. In the meantime, some of the McFarland clan had laid logs across the road leading to Claysville and had stationed themselves in and old log house nearby. When the unsuspecting party came by, the Macfarlands opened fire.

Nathaniel and Graves Steele were killed on the spot and the other Steele brother and Collins were wounded. This ended the most famous feud in the early days of Marshall County.

sources: The Alabama Historical Quarterly, Vol. 09, No. 03, Fall Issue 1947.

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