His name appeared in newspapers as Napoleon Bonaparte Tankersley, Charles Bonaparte Tankersley, Nathaniel Bonaparte Tankersley or some other version.
But he was known widely as “Bony Tank,” a nickname that he adopted himself because whatever his real name was, he felt it was too much of a mouthful. That’s the way, most of his life, people knew the popular Lumpkin Countian. He was even known in parts of the United States, and some said his reputation traveled overseas. At one time he served as notary public and ex-officio justice of peace in Lumpkin County’s Wahoo District.
His early reputation was as a fighter in the gold-mining era in what is now Auraria, what used to be known as “Nucklesville.” While that name originally came from Nathaniel Nuckolls, an early settler, the town did have a reputation for fighting. At one time, it was said anyone passing through Nucklesville would either have to fight or run for the woods.
Bony Tank was the principal fighter, a giant of a man, who eschewed knives and guns in favor of bare knuckles or stones flung from his massive hands. “Many a man has hit the dust from one of Bony’s sledgehammer blows,” one newspaper wrote.
Some called him the godfather of Nucklesville; his word was law. He even served as mayor when the town was thriving. One newspaper writer described him typically wearing his “hat cocked to the left over an absent eye. He chews tobacco on the same side of his mouth and is the oracle of his kingdom of Knucklesville.” He lost the eye in a Civil War battle while he was fighting for the Confederacy.
The community grew to about 3,000 people, had two banks, a dozen stores and scores of residences. Auraria, as it is known today, is considered by some a ghost town, a shadow of what it was in its prime. Only a handful of the original buildings stand.
The Lumpkin County gold rush was in the early to mid-1800s. What is known as Auraria today was the temporary county seat before Dahlonega was named.
Bony Tank never lost a fight, according to some accounts. But he and some rowdy friends were thrown out of a circus in Dahlonega once.
He didn’t get to Gainesville often, but he was a big A.D. Candler supporter because the future governor was born in Pigeon Roost, a suburb of Nucklesville. Candler and Emory Speer were in an epic battle for 9th District congressman, Candler eventually winning. Bony Tank came to Gainesville to celebrate, probably had a little too much moonshine and threw somebody through a two-story hotel window.
His name appeared often in court records. Once he was accused of “doctoring” a gold mine, that is, planting traces of gold to make the mine more attractive to potential buyers. He denied ever doing such a thing.
It was said of Bony Tank that “he knows more about moonshine whisky than the commissioner of Internal Revenue and more about gold than the director of the mint, and he is indispensable to the kingdom of Knucklesville as the queen bee is to the swarm.”
Not long after Coca-Cola became the rage as a soft drink in Gainesville and elsewhere, he was invited to sample it at a local soda fountain. Apparently, people were interested in how Bony Tank would react, considering his longtime love of moonshine. After swallowing a sip, he was disappointed, quoted as saying, “H’it does tolerable, ha’int got body to it.”
While Bony Tank was a roustabout in his early years, he was considered to have toned down considerably as he aged, leaving a peaceful and pleasant life. He grew corn and cotton on his farm, and besides the name Bony Tank, many fondly called him “Uncle Bony.”
He died April 22, 1908, and was buried in the Baptist cemetery in Auraria. Bony Tank had a large family, and many of his Tankersley descendants live throughout the area.
A new name
Auraria’s name came about because some wanted their town to get away from its “Knucklesville” reputation. John C. Calhoun, a South Carolina politician, invested in Lumpkin County’s gold mines, and he and a fellow South Carolinian came up with “Aureola.” Later, Maj. John Powell suggested “Auraria,” which has some connotation to gold, and it stuck.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; 770-532-2326; or email@example.com. His column publishes weekly.