April 28, 2017

The Research Room

Following an 8,800 mile journey from Singapore to Los Angeles, and then 1,800 miles from Los Angeles to Lynchburg, Tennessee, USA Today and New York Times best-selling author Fawn Weaver began what would become a more than 12-month long research project uncovering more than 10,000 original artifacts and documents, from five different states.

With the assistance of more than 20 historians, archivists, archaeologists, conservators and genealogists, and more than 2,500 hours of collective research, she can confirm without a doubt these four things:

  1. Nathan “Nearest” Green was the first African-American master distiller on record in the United States. There were plenty African-American slaves making whiskey in the United States – from Maryland to Kentucky – well before Nearest was even born. George Washington’s Mount Vernon Distillery, the largest in the late eighteenth century, certainly had plenty. However, there is no other known distillery in which an African-American slave was given full autonomy to run the operations, prior to Nearest.Beginning around the mid-nineteenth century, it is believed that Dan Call turned over the reigns of his whiskey still to Nearest Green, a slave especially skilled in a process known at the time as charcoal leaching. In August of that year, Call married a teetotaler, Mary Jane, and she was uninterested in having a distiller as a husband. Not to mention, Dan Call was also a preacher and his church was on a small parcel of land adjacent to their property. Imagine that, a preacher with a distillery on one side of his property and a church on the other.
  2. Jack Daniel never owned any slaves. Ever. In spite of what some have claimed, according to all the African-American matriarchs and patriarchs Fawn interviewed in Lynchburg, sometime in the mid-1850s, Jack befriended a slave on the farm belonging to Dan Call. Jack was an ambitious young chore boy, who somewhere between the age of seven or eight, began working on the Call farm following his attendance at nearby Mulberry Training Academy each day. Nearest Green was the master distiller fully in charge of the property’s whiskey still. Nearest became Jack’s mentor. Then his teacher. And then…
  3. Nearest Green was the first master distiller for Jack Daniel Distillery. Known in his day as the “head stiller,” the fine whiskey Nearest once made for Dan Call continued years later for his pupil, Jack Daniel. And it was a family affair. Nearest and his second-born son, George, and his fourth-born son, Eli, worked together on the Call Farm making the whiskey for Jack. Sometime after 1881, Jack moved his distillery to its current Cave Spring Hollow location and at least three of Nearest’s children and at least three of his grandchildren went to work for Jack. All together, seven generations of Nearest Green’s family have worked for Jack Daniel Distillery (including in St. Louis when prohibition took hold of Tennessee 10 years prior to the nation) and three continue to work there to this day.
  4. Nearest Green was the wealthiest African-American in Lynchburg, Tenn. Immediately following the civil war, Nearest Green was one of the wealthiest men in the area of any race and the wealthiest African-American. As it turns out, being known as the best whiskey maker around may have had its perks. Pictures of his children and grandchildren paint a very clear picture of a family who did incredibly well for themselves and never allowed the devastation of slavery to tear their family apart. That was not the fortune of most slave families, and quite frankly, we have no idea how they did it. It’s something that still strikes us as a modern day miracle.
©2017 Nearest Green Foundation
Left: Nearest Green’s daughter, Minnie. Nearest Green’s grandson, Jesse, and his wife Gertrude.