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Sketches of Western North Carolina—Wilkes County

by Cyrus Hunter, 1877

Chapter IX – Wilkes County

Wilkes County was formed in 1777, from Surry, and named in honor of John Wilkes, a distinguished statesman and member of Parliament. He was a fearless political writer, and violently opposed to the oppressive measures of Great Britain against her American Colonies. In 1763 he published in the “North Briton” newspaper a severe attack on the government, for which he was sent to the Tower. Acquitted of the charge for which he was imprisoned, he sued for and recovered five thousand dollars damages and then went to Paris. In 1768 he returned to England and was soon after elected a member of Parliament. In his private character he was licentious, but his eminent talents, energy, and fascinating manners made him a great favorite with the people. He died at his seat in the Isle of Wight in 1797, aged seventy years.

Colonel Benjamin Cleaveland

Colonel Benjamin Cleaveland, one of the distinguished heroes of King’s Mountain, and in honor of whom Cleaveland county is named, lived and died in Wilkes county at a good old age. [Note: this point is not correct, and his name is misspelled in this account-as in the original published article]

In 1775 he first entered the service as Ensign in the second regiment of troops, and acted a brave and conspicuous part in the battle’s of King’s Mountain and Guilford Court House. A serious impediment in his speech prevented him from entering public life. He is frequently spoken of in the mountain country as the “hero of a hundred fights with the Tories.” He was for many years the Surveyor of Wilkes County and resided at the “Little Hickerson place.”

Among other singular incidents in his remarkable career, as preserved by General William Lenoir, and recorded in Wheeler’s “Historical Sketches,” we give place to the following:

“Riddle Knob, in Watauga county, derives its name from a circumstance of the capture of Colonel Benjamin Cleaveland, during the Revolution, by a party of Tories headed by men of this name, and adds the charm of heroic association to the loveliness of it[s] unrivaled scenery. Cleaveland had been a terror to the Tories. Two notorious characters of their band, (Jones and Coil) had been apprehended by him and hung. Cleaveland had gone along, on some private business, to New river, and was taken prisoners by the Tories at the “Old Fields,” on that stream. They demanded that he should furnish passes for them.

Being an indifferent penman, he was some time in preparing these papers, and he was in no hurry as he believed that they would kill him when they had obtained them. While thus engaged Captain Robert Cleaveland, his brother, with a party followed him, knowing the dangerous proximity of the Tories. They came up with the Tories and fired on them. Colonel Cleaveland slid off the log to prevent being shot, while the Tories fled, and he thus escaped certain destruction.

Some time after this circumstances the same Riddle and his son, and another were taken and brought before Cleaveland, and he hung all three of them near the Mulberry meeting-house, now Wilkesboro. The depredations of the Tories were so frequent, and their conduct so savage, that summary punishment was demanded by the exigencies of the times. This Cleaveland inflicted without ceremony.”

Colonel John Sevier

Colonel John Sevier was born in Shenandoah County, Virginia, in 1734. His father had descended from an ancient family in France the name being originally spelled Xavier.

About 1769 the young Sevier joined an exploring and emigrating party to the Holston River, in East Tennessee, then a part of North Carolina. He assisted in erecting the first fort on the Watauga river, where he, his father, his brother Valentine, and others settled. Whilst engaged in the defense of the Watauga fort, in conjunction with Captain James Robertson, so known and distinguished in the early history of Middle Tennessee, he espied a young lady, of tall and erect stature, running rapidly towards the fort, closely pursued by Indians, and her approach to the gate cut off by the savage enemy. Her cruel pursuers were doubtless confident of securing a captive or a victim to their blood-thirsty purposes; but, turning suddenly, she eluded the savages, leaped the palisades of the fort at another point, and gracefully fell into the arms of Captain John Sevier. This remarkably active and resolute woman was Miss Catherine Sherrill, who, in a few years after this sudden leap and rescue, became the devoted and heroic wife of the gallant Captain, and future Colonel, General, Governor, and people’s friend, John Sevier. She became the mother of ten children who could gratefully rise up and call her blessed.

During Sevier’s visit to his family in Virginia in 1773, Governor Dunmore gave him a Captain’s commission.

Through his own exertions he raised a company and was in the sanguinary battle of Point Pleasant, on the Kenhawa, in which James Robertson and Valentine Sevier actively participated.

The first settlers on the Holston, Watauga and other tributary streams, were so far beyond the influence of the State laws of North Carolina as to induce them in 1772 to form a temporary government for their better protection and security. The people enjoyed the advantages of this “Watauga government,” as it was called, from 1772 until 1777, at which date Colonel Sevier procured the establishment of courts and the extension of the State laws over a “Washington District,” then in North Carolina, embracing an interesting section of country in which he and other pioneers of civilization had cast their lots. These hardy pioneers opened roads across the mountains, felled the forest, built forts and houses, subdued the earth, and began rapidly to replenish it, for they married and were given in marriage. The State of North Carolina, several years afterward with a motherly forgiveness, passed laws to confirm marriages and other deeds of these wayward children in the wilderness.

Colonel Sevier served in the expedition under Colonel Christian to chastise the Indians for their numerous murders and depredations. In 1779, he raised troops, entered the Indian territory, and fought the successful battle of Boyd’s Creek. A few days after this battle, he was joined by Colonel Arthur Campbell with a Virginia regiment, and Colonel Isaac Shelby with troops from Sullivan County, then in North Carolina. These active officers scoured the Cherokee country, scattered hostile bands, destroyed most of the Indian towns, and, after inflicting this severe chastisement, returned to their homes with greater assurance of peace and security.

The former part of the year 1780 was one of gloom and despondency in the Southern States. Charleston surrendered, Gates defeated, and other minor reverses; Tories becoming daring and insolent; the British overrunning South Carolina and Georgia; the Indians upon the borders, bribed and inflamed against the Americans–all tended to increase the gloom and darken the prospect of achieving our independence. But amidst all the obscurity which shrouded the sun of American independence, there was a gallant band of patriots in the mountains of North Carolina and upper South Carolina, who never quailed in duty before the enemy, struck a severe blow at every opportune moment, and never despaired of final success.

In the brilliant victory of King’s Mountain, Col. Sevier, with his regiment, displayed the most consummate bravery. In June of the same year, he marched into South Carolina and assisted Col. McDowell and other officers in the successful battle of Musgrove’s Mill.

In 1781, Colonel Sevier was appointed by General Greene, a commissioner to treat with the chiefs of the Cherokees and other tribes of Indians, which trust he faithfully performed. During the years 1781 and 1782, he was almost constantly engaged in leading expeditions into the Cherokee country.

On the 14th of December, 1784, a convention of five delegates from each county of the extreme western portion of North Carolina, met at Jonesboro, now in Tennessee, of which body Col. Sevier was made President. They formed a constitution for a new State, to be called “Frankland,” which was to be received or rejected by another body of similar powers, “fresh from the people,” to meet at Greenville in November 1785. This anomalous state of things, as might be expected, caused Governor Caswell who was both a soldier and a statesman to issue his proclamation “against this lawless thirst for power.”

The prescribed limits of this sketch forbid a full recital of all the angry discussions and violent acts of the opposing parties which unfortunately, for about three years, seriously disturbed the peace and welfare of Western North Carolina.

In 1789, Colonel Sevier was elected the Senator from Greene county to the Legislature of North Carolina. In 1790, he was elected a member of Congress. He was twice elected a member of Congress. He was twice elected Governor of Tennessee. In 1811, he was elected a Representative to Congress, and in 1813 reelected to the same position. In 1815, he was appointed by President Madison a commissioner to adjust difficulties with the Creek Indians. Whilst engaged in the performance of this arduous duty, he was taken seriously ill, and soon thereafter died near Fort Decatur, Ala., on the 24th of September, 1815, aged about eighty-one years.

Gen. Gaines, then in command of the regular troops near that place, though quite ill at the time, paid the last sad tribute of respect to a brave fellow-solider and had him buried with the honors of war.

General William Lenoir

General William Lenoir was born in Brunswick county, Virginia, on the 20th of May, 1751. He was of French (Hugenot) descent, and the youngest of a family of ten children. When he was about eight years old his father removed to a place near Tarboro, N.C., where he resided until his death a short time afterward. He received no other education than his own limited means and personal exertions enabled him to procure. When about twenty years of age he married Ann Ballard of Halifax, N.C.–a lady possessing, in an eminent degree, those domestic and heroic virtues which qualified her for sustaining the privations and hardships of a frontier life, which it was her lot afterward to encounter.

In March 1775, Gen. Lenoir removed with his family to Wilkes County (then a part of Surry) and settled near the place where Wilkesboro now stands. Previous to leaving Halifax he signed the paper known as the “Association,” containing a declaration of patriotic principles and means of redress, relative to the existing troubles with Great Britain. Soon after his removal to Surry he was appointed a member of the “Committee of Safety” for that county. He took an early and active part in repelling the depredations and murderous incursions of the Cherokee Indians upon the frontier settlements. In this kind of service he was actively engaged until the celebrated expedition, under Gen. Rutherford, completely subdued the Indians, and compelled them to sue for peace. From the termination of this campaign, in which he acted as a Lieutenant under Captain Benjamin Cleaveland, to the one projected against Major Ferguson, he was almost constantly engaged in capturing and suppressing the Tories, who, at that time, were assuming great boldness, and molesting the persons and property of the Whig inhabitants.

In the expedition to King’s Mountain, Gen. Lenoir held the appointment of Captain in Colonel Cleveland’s regiment which united with the other Whig forces at the head of the Catawba river. When it was ascertained it would be impossible to overtake Ferguson, now evidently showing signs of fear, with the footman, it was decided by a council of the officers, that as many as could procure horses should do so, and thus, as mounted infantry, advance rapidly upon the retreating enemy. Accordingly, Gen. Lenoir and his company offered their services, joined the select Spartan band and nine hundred and ten brave spirits, and pressed forward without delay to the scene of action.

In the brilliant achievement on King’s Mountain, Gen. Lenoir was wounded in the arm and in the side, but not severely, and a third ball passed through his hair, just above where it was tied. He was also at the defeat of Col. Pyles, on Haw River, where his horse was shot and his sword broken. At a later period he raised a company and marched towards Dan River with the hope of joining General Greene, but was unable to effect a junction in time. He performed many other minor but important services, which it is here unnecessary to enumerate.

He filled, at different times, the offices of Register, Surveyor, Commissioner of Affidavits, Chairman of the County Court, and Clerk of the Superior Court for Wilkes County. He was one of the original trustees for the State University, and the first President of the Board. He was also a member of both State Conventions which met for the purpose of considering the Constitution of the United States. He served for many years in both branches of the State Legislature. During the last seven years of his services in the Senate, he was unanimously chosen Speaker of that body, and performed the duties of that important station with great satisfaction, firmness and impartiality.

In private life General Lenoir was no less distinguished for his moral worth and generous hospitality than in public life for his unbending integrity and enlarged patriotism. His mansion was open at all times, not only to a large circle of friends and relatives, but to the stranger and traveller. To the poor he was kind and charitable, and in his will made liberal provision for those of his own neighborhood.

During his last illness he suffered much pain which he bore with Christian resignation. He often said “he did not fear to die–death had no terrors for him.” He died, with calm composure, at his residence at Fort Defiance, on the 6th of May, 1839, aged eighty-eight years.

His remains were interred in the family burying ground which occupies the spot where Fort Defiance was erected during the Revolutionary war.