John Armfield, slave trader and businessman, descended from North Carolina Quakers who were Loyalists during the American Revolution. While still a boy, Armfield ran away from home, vowing not to return until he had acquired more wealth than his father, Nathan Armfield. In the 1830s, Armfield fulfilled his vow as the partner of slave trader Isaac Franklin.
With headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, Franklin and Armfield conducted gangs of chained and shackled slaves down the Natchez Trace and sold them in the slave pen on the edge of that Mississippi town. The arduous journey took seven or eight weeks, but wealthy cotton planters paid Franklin and Armfield well for their traffic in African flesh. Armfield's biographer, Isabel Howell, estimated that the pair averaged sales of twelve hundred slaves per year for every year from 1828 to 1835.
In 1831 Armfield courted and married Franklin's niece, Martha Franklin. A rich man when he retired in 1845, Armfield soon acquired social acceptance and began investing in Tennessee real estate. About 1850 he visited Beersheba Springs, a resort on Broad Mountain in Grundy County. Taken by the beauty of the springs and the possibility for development, Armfield purchased several hundred acres in 1854 and began renovations on the hotel. With its neo-classical facade, two-story galleries, and white columns, the hotel opened in May 1856 and inaugurated the glorious era of Beersheba–and Armfield's success as host and entrepreneur. Armfield also erected a saw mill, a brick kiln, a grist mill, and a tannery, remnants of which survive. An Episcopal supporter of the proposed University of the South, Armfield built cottages at Beersheba for Bishops James H. Otey and Leonidas Polk in 1859. Both houses still stand, along with the hotel and twelve other structures.
Armfield died childless in 1871, his fortune diminished by the Civil War. He is buried in the little private cemetery on Armfield Avenue across the road from his Beersheba home on the bluff.