MURRAY COUNTY CHARACTERS
Joseph "Rich Joe" Vann
Joseph Vann was born February 11, 1798 in Spring Place, Georgia to Peggy Scott Vann and her husband James and was affectionately known as Joe. Little is known about Joe's life up until the age of eleven when he witnessed his father's murder at a tavern in Forsyth County. Joe was whisked away from the crime scene by a slave and taken back to his home in north Georgia. At his father's request and approved by the council, the vast Vann estate was left to young Joe. This inheritance included some 2,000 acres of land, various businesses and James's gold. If the fortune was compared to today's standards, these assets would be valued at over two million dollars. From then on out, Joseph was known as "Rich Joe".
When Joe was twelve years old, he left home to attend school in Charleston. By the age of fifteen, he was already traveling by boat down the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee rivers and quickly established himself as a businessman. His eye for business included trade between South Carolina and France and also bringing a cotton gin to the family home in Georgia. Joe also did significant trading with the federal government, most notably Andrew Jackson, during the Indian Wars with the Creeks. During this time, he collected some one million dollars in IOU's from the government in payment for his trading skills.
It is interesting to note that young Joe at the age of twenty had the opportunity to provide lodging for then President James Monroe. Monroe and a few other men were traveling from Augusta, Georgia to Nashville, Tennessee. They were scheduled to spend the night at the Moravian mission located just a short distance from the Vann estate. Instead, the President sought lodging at the more affluent establishment.
Joe followed the same polygamous traditions as his father. He married his first wife Jennie Springston in 1820 and fathered eight children with her. This union produced four daughters and four sons. The second marriage occurred in 1826 between Joe and Polly Blackburn. They had no children. One year later he became a part of the lower house of the Cherokee government when he was selected to serve on the National Council.
As part of the Georgia Land Lottery of 1832, the Vann house was awarded to Spencer Riley; however he was competing against Colonel William Bishop of the Georgia Guard who wanted to use the home for his headquarters. Colonel Bishop had driven out Joe and his family because Vann had violated Georgia law when he employed a white man to take care of the home. Bishop's persistency won out and Riley was literally smoked out of the house with a burning log. Evidence of this atrocity can still be found on the landing of the cantilevered stairs in the foyer. Joe sued over being kicked out of his own home and was later awarded $19,605 for the loss.
After leaving his home in Spring Place, Joe took up residency in Tennessee where he owned property in Hamilton County. The family did not stay here long and in 1836 moved to Webber Falls, Oklahoma. As plans were being made for the removal of the Cherokees from Georgia, Joe and a group of other men began surveying the outlying land in Oklahoma that was to be the Cherokee's final destination. He found the land to be substandard and knew that survival would be nothing short of impossible.
Joe traveled to Washington to seek a solution. He inquired about purchasing land he had found just east of the Mississippi that would be excellent. The commission he met with issued a price tag of one million dollars for the requested land. Joe decided to call in the IOUs he had collected from Andrew Jackson and presented to the committee IOU's that totaled the required amount. After the purchase, Joe escorted several hundred Cherokee men and their families on his steamboat to the new land he had procured.
Continuing to follow the same leadership paths previously traveled by his father, Joe was appointed the first Assistant Chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1839. This new position allowed him to serve with Principal Chief John Ross. The objective for these posts was to help the Cherokees acclimate to their new surrounding in Oklahoma.
Joe's life mirrored his father's in many ways through his work ethic, his business sense and his untimely death at a young age. On October 23, 1884, at the age of forty-six, Joe was traveling on the Ohio River destined for New Orleans. He was aboard his steamship the Lucy Walker drinking and enjoying the company of friends and became engaged in an impromptu steamboat race. As he began to lag behind in the race, he tried to find an alternative fuel source to create steam for his ship. His urge to win quickly overcame his common sense and he ordered the man stoking the flames to throw fat from sides of pork onto the fire. The stoker realized the severity of the events unfolding, refused to follow orders and ultimately jumped overboard. Joe's competitiveness cost his life and the lives of sixty other passengers when the ship exploded. The only person to live to tell the tale was the stoker who had jumped overboard.
A signet ring bearing an image of the Lucy Walker is on display in the visitor's center at the Vann House.
Murray County Characters
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