“The Battle of Thorn Hill”

R. B. Bundren is called variations of rhyming names — “Blueford,” “Booth,” “Bluff,” “Bluth,” and Bruce” — by diverse sources. Most people living today (1997) who knew, or knew of, R. B. Bundren, describe him as a “mean man, one of the meanest that ever lived in Grainger County.” The Knoxville Journal newspaper’s account of Bundren’s death describes him as having a “hot temper” and “long considered a bad man.”

However, the newspaper reports that Bundren was simultaneously a rich man; charitable; a staunch supporter of education; and progressive, advocating good schools, good roads, and the development of Grainger County and Tennessee. Bundren counted many men of regional and statewide influence among his associates. Robert Love Taylor, a well-known Tennessee Governor who also served in the U.S. House and Senate, was Bundren’s friend and a visitor to his home.

John Crozier was an Irish immigrant who migrated to Knoxville and established a large, ennobled, and influential family there before 1800. On 14 August 1846, John Crozier’s grandson, John Harvard, was born. After serving in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, John Harvard Crozier followed his father into the practice of law. However, unlike other members of his family, John H. Crozier did not hold a distinguished position, amass great wealth, or have a strong impact on Knoxville. Instead, John H. Crozier relocated to a new home near Morristown, where he all but abandoned the law in favor of his avocation, mechanical engineering.

John H. Crozier held numerous patents, probably the most noteworthy of which was for the “forceful navigation of air.” Before his death, Crozier flew a rudimentary aircraft off the side of Clinch Mountain in Grainger County. Older Grainger County residents convey the legend they heard as children: “Had he lived, Crozier would have beat the Wright Brothers to their fame.” Loved and respected among his family, friends, and colleagues, John H. Crozier died, unexpectedly, just weeks before his fifty-fifth birthday.

On 03 July 1901, R. B. Bundren murdered John H. Crozier. This single event set in motion a four-year feud that culminated in a legendary tragedy, remembered by elder Grainger Countians as “The Battle of Thorn Hill.”

Apparently, R. B. Bundren owed money to a widow, whose name is not now remembered. The widow sued Bundren, using John H. Crozier as her attorney. Having won a judgment against Bundren, Crozier held a sale of one of Bundren’s assets, some lumber located at Condry. Following the sale, Crozier assisted the purchaser, Will Holland, in measuring and dividing the lumber. R. B. Bundren arrived at the scene and ordered the men to stop. Holland and Bundren argued as Crozier, fearing an incident between the two men, sat quietly on a log. Looking up from his seat, Crozier was surprised to see Bundren aiming a pistol at him. As Bundren fired three shots at him, Crozier attempted to hide among the lumber piles. Bundren fired two shots at Holland and then left the scene.

Crozier headed for the Condry post office. Bundren returned to his home, 3½ miles away, and got a Winchester rifle. He started toward Condry’s post office, not realizing Crozier had done likewise. Bundren arrived first. As Crozier approached, Bundren said, “There is Crozier. I will finish him now.”

Crozier spoke to Bundren for the first time in the entire episode: “Don’t shoot. You have the advantage. I am not armed.” Bundren’s reply was two rounds of rifle fire into Crozier’s body. R. B. Bundren was sentenced to life imprisonment; however, he was pardoned after serving only about 10 years.

During the altercation at the lumber yard in Condry, Bundren fired two shots at Will Holland. Holland ran into the woods, found his horse, and escaped. Local legend holds that, upon being convicted and sent to prison, R. B. Bundren gave instructions to his son, also named Will, to “finish off” Will Holland. Will Holland had understandably bitter feelings toward the Bundrens after having been shot at by R. B. at the lumber sale.

The Holland-Bundren feud lasted four years, almost to the day. In June, 1905, the entire Thorn Hill community was “in a fever of excitement,” fearing something was about to happen. On Sunday, 11 June, the men began drinking and vowing hatred for each other. Family members begged the Holland brothers not to go to their shop the next day. The climax came about one o’clock p.m. on Monday, 12 June 1905, at a blacksmith shop owned by brothers John and Will Holland in Thorn Hill.

Herbert Jones*, one of Grainger County’s noted historians, recalls hearing the story that Will Bundren and his hired hand, Clint Walker, began “riding hard, hollering, and shooting into the air” several miles away from the blacksmith shop. A newspaper account reports that Bundren and Walker began “drinking and shooting frequently along the road” on their way to Idol earlier Monday morning. Area residents were drawn to the Hollands’ blacksmith shop by all the gun shots and commotion. (*Herbert Jones’ mother was first married to Will Holland.)

On arriving at Thorn Hill, Bundren and Walker apparently shot into the Hollands’ shop before entering it. Only a few words were said before all four men began firing. Bundren and Walker ran out of the shop and crossed the creek, where they turned and renewed their fire on the Hollands. The Hollands ran out of their shop and continued shooting. Apparently, only one eye-witness observed the entire tragedy on the scene. He said the Hollands used Winchester rifles, which they kept in their shop, while Bundren and Walker used .38 and .45 calibre pistols.

Local accounts say fifty rounds were fired. The newspaper reports that the actual number of shots fired was not determined, but the men kept up “a perfect volley” until the Hollands fell dead, almost simultaneously, near their shop. Across the creek, Walker received a bullet in the jaw and one that tore through his body. Walker fell, but he did not die immediately. The newspaper reports that, because Walker’s wounds would not permit him to be moved, he lay in the blacksmith shop for hours until his death. One of the Holland brothers’ sisters wanted to shoot Walker “to put him out of his misery,” but no one would do it. The newspaper did not follow up on Walker’s death or report on his family. This is likely because Walker was “colored,” and such lack of detail on black citizens was standard for most newspapers at the turn of the 20th Century.

After the Hollands and Walker fell, Will Bundren mounted his horse and rode about 30 yards to a house, where he dismounted and died about an hour later. Local reports at the time were that Bundren was “literally shot to pieces.”

Will Holland, age 35, was a deputy sheriff. John Holland was about 25 and recently pardoned from the penitentiary, where he had been sentenced to fifteen years’ imprisonment for killing Bud Haynes. John Holland went to Virginia, where he married and started a family, using the name “Pink” Collins. No one in Grainger County knew of his other life. The Hollands were their parents’ only sons. The newspaper report states “there are none to continue the bloody feud.”

Tragedy followed R. B. Bundren even further. By 1918, Bundren had been pardoned for murdering John H. Crozier. He had returned to Grainger County and married Mrs. Kate Quillen. In late November, 1918, the Bundrens began arguing about the best time to kill hogs. He believed it was cold enough; she wanted to wait. R. B. prevailed. Their argument renewed when Kate gave some of the meat to neighbors. R. B. slapped his wife and her married daughter, Mrs. Parkey*. Following this altercation, Kate Bundren left Washburn, went to Knoxville, and retained an attorney to institute divorce proceedings and attach all or part of her husband’s property. As seen from the lumber incident, attaching R. B. Bundren’s assets usually ended fatally. [*Callie B. Parkey of Sneedville was the informant on Kate’s death certificate. She was the wife of Herbert F. Parkey.]

On 23 November 1918, Kate Bundren returned to Washburn and went to her home, presumably to pick up her belongings. She met R. B. there, and their argument ended with R. B. Bundren’s shooting his wife with a Winchester rifle. Some accounts say that Kate ran into the yard, shouting for her son’s assistance, after she was shot. A few minutes later, Kate’s teenage son, Monroe Quillen*, ran into the house, firing a pistol, while R. B. Bundren returned the fire. Other accounts say that all three were involved in the tragic quarrel; R. B., who was shooting at Quillen, accidentally shot Kate. Quillen was arrested, but Squire Dave Idol, the local Justice of the Peace, dismissed the charges against Quillen. Legend says that Bundren’s sons tried later to poison Monroe Quillen. [Kate Bundren’s first husband was Logan Quillen.]

[R. Bruce Bundren’s death certificate indicates he was born 25 Mar 1843 in Claiborne County, TN, the son of Peter and Ruth (Bean) Bundren. He died 23 Nov 1918 in Grainger County from “gun shot by step-son — purposely.” Bundren was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Knoxville. Kate Bundren’s death certificate states she was born 19 Oct 1869 in Hancock County, TN, the daughter of Jesse and Rachel (Hopkins) Ramsey. Kate died “by gun shot — by husband — purposely.” She was buried at the Ramsey Graveyard in Sneedville.]

The Battle of Thorn Hill may not have been a great military campaign, but it was an exciting event in the history of Grainger County “north of the mountain.”

Because of the sad state into which Grainger County’s historic public records have fallen, full, contemporaneous details of the “battle” and the events leading up to it may have been lost. This writer has relied upon reports in the Knoxville Journal and memories of elder Grainger Countians to prepare this essay.

Written by: Billie R. McNamara from newspaper articles, scrapbook clippings, and interviews.

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Sweetwater Telephone (Monroe Co., TN), Thursday, March 7, 1907 — transcribed by Caleb Tefeteller:

Feud of Long Standing Ends — Robert Bruce Bundren, one of the principals in the Holland-Bundren feud of Grainger County pardoned by Gov. Cox on Dec. 6, on condition that he would never return to the scene of the trouble, has returned there, and is now living at his home at Lone Mountain. Furthermore, the feud which had beginnings in reconstruction days and in its course has cost directly or indirectly six lives, is at an end and the Bundrens have been invited to pay a visit to the Holland home.

The information comes from Bruce Bundren himself in the shape of a letter written from Lone Mountain, Feb. 5th.

“I am back at my old home,” writes the rugged, old man, “in one mile of where I enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1862*, and where I have lived ever since the 15th day of June, 1865, except the four years and two months I wore the stripes in the State prison. I have spent a good poor man’s fortune, and killed two men since the war to keep from being driven out of my native State and today I am sitting at my old fireside where I have lived ever since the war. It is snowing today and I have a big, hot, wood fire, and my good and faithful old wife now in her 65th year and me 68 years old, sitting in one corner and her in the other, as happy as any two pigeons that ever dwelt together.” [*Sgt. Reuben B. Bundren, Co. C, 12th Tenn. Cav., captured 5 Dec 1863 at Philadelphia, TN. He was held prisoner of war at Louisville, KY, and transferred 24 Dec 1863 to Rock Island, IL. A Pvt. William Bluford Bundren, age 19, enlisted in Co. B, 12th (Day’s) Battalion Cavalry on 27 Aug 1862 in Hawkins Co., TN. Their records are combined in Civil War databases.]

“I met my old antagonist, Reuben Holland, who has given me so much trouble, and who is the father of the boys who bushwhacked my son on the 12th day of June 1905, and the old man came up to me with his hand out and grasped me by the hand, with tears in his eyes, and said he wanted to be friendly and pledge his honor that he would never harm me anymore. He is 79 years old, and I gave him my hand and told him I would freely forgive him and for him to repent of his sins and meet me in Heaven, and the old man wept and bid me good bye and invited me and wife to visit him. So I think my long struggle for forty-four years contending for a white man’s government and white supremacy is at an end. God help it be so.”

“Us old Johnnies up here,” he concludes “don’t believe we have but one more little battle to make and that is to help land Ed Carmack in for President in 1908 and Benton McMillin in the United States Senate, and we are going to make ‘Our Bob’ stay at home next time and send our ‘Ham Patterson’ up there to his place.”

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The 1880 Census of District 11, Grainger County, contains the following household:

Name Relationship Age Birthplace
Reubin Bundren Head 36 Tennessee
Elizabeth Bundren Wife 37 Tennessee
Martha J. Bundren Dau 12 Tennessee
James A. Bundren Son 10 Tennessee
Cora Bundren Dau 8 Tennessee
John B. Bundren Son 6 Tennessee
Ada D. Bundren Dau 4 Tennessee
Gip T. Bundren Son 2 Tennessee
William S. Bundren Son 1 month Tennessee
John Smith Laborer 23 Tennessee
Mirret Orlander (probably Orlander Merritt) Laborer 23 Tennessee
James Farmer Laborer 18 Tennessee

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