Zachariah Candler and Waightstill Avery were first land-buyers
by Rob Neufeld
“In mid-2010, while compiling the descendant chart for the Zachariah Candler family,” Charles Haller writes in “Pushing the Indians Out,” his book about first developers, “I became interested in Zachariah’s obsession with accumulating land grants issued by the State of North Carolina.”
Zachariah was one of the resident landowners who jumped on the big post-Revolutionary War land sale.
Many of the early developers were non-resident speculators, who bought immense tracts, which overlapped with those of smaller claimants, who had to file pre-emption claims to hold onto what they had.
John Burton—buyer of 400 acres that included what became downtown Asheville—had been one of those pre-emption claimants.
The speculators, by the way, didn’t fare too well in certain cases. They often borrowed money for their purchases and then ran into problems—for instance, delays caused by lack of roads and wars that prevented immigration of settlers.
Speculators Robert Morris, John Nicholson, and James Greenleaf of the North American Land Co. of Philadelphia exceeded their acreage limits by using false names. They bribed officials, overpriced shares, ultimately defaulted, and ended up, Haller writes, in the “infamous Prune Street Jail, a Philadelphia debtor prison.”
Nicholson died in prison. Morris spent 41 months there, was released thanks to a new bankruptcy law, and died five years later at age 72. The two of them owed $3 million to 61 creditors. Greenleaf got out of prison after a year, having declared bankruptcy.
Meanwhile Candler, living in the area of his holdings, Haller states, moved “progressively down the French Broad (from present-day Transylvania County) with each stage of new acquisitions.”
“Eventually,” Haller reveals, “I learned that Waightstill Avery, Burke County’s top frontier lawyer, exceeded Zachariah Candler in his pursuit of acquiring early land grants.
Avery, North Carolina’s first Attorney General, bought up 151 blocks in Burke and Buncombe Counties starting in 1778, and moved to his estate, Swan Ponds, west of Morganton, in 1781.
Many of those tracts came into his hands while he was confined to a chair. In 1801, he’d been thrown from a horse, shattering both legs in a way that could not heal sufficiently.
He was 60 at the time. His son, Isaac Thomas Avery, a teenager, came home from studying law to take care of his father and run the plantation.
Retired from politics and courtroom law, Waightstill “continued to wear the colonial style of dress until his death,” the UNC Libraries webpage for the Avery Family papers notes. Perhaps he dressed for work and meetings, as he was busy buying land around the Linville and Toe Rivers, where he had hopes of finding gold.
Educated at Princeton, after growing up in Connecticut, Avery made education one of the top causes in his career. The part of the N.C. Constitution that established schools and teacher salaries in Nov. 1776 is said to have been in Avery’s handwriting, Edward Phifer Jr. states in his history of Burke County.
He had children around him, four of own, mostly grown; five of his younger brother, Rev. Isaac Avery, who died in 1799; and later in life, grandchildren.
His library was the largest in Western North Carolina, Governor David Swain said, according to Samuel A’Court Ashe’s “Biographical History of North Carolina.”
British General Charles Cornwallis burned Avery’s Charlotte law office down in 1780. Avery had been colonel of the militia of Jones County (north of Wilmington); and in 1775, participated in the writing of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, a precursor to the U.S. one.
Eleven Connecticut Averys had died at the Battle of Fort Griswold in Groton at the hands of Benedict Arnold, Waightstill learned from his brother, Solomon, the great-grandfather of John D. Rockefeller.
For 30 years, Waightstill bought thousands of acres of land around Grandfather Mountain, hoping in part to discover gold. He sent his slaves, of which he had 24, to dig mines, Haller recounts.
One of the most colorful stories is about his duel with Andrew Jackson.
False as hell
In 1788, Avery was a 47-year-old lawyer with the oldest and largest practice in this region. In Jonesborough, Tenn., he was opposed in a case by 21-year-old Andrew Jackson, who had just gotten his license and moved to Jonesborough the year before.
According to sources consulted by John Allison for his 1897 book, “Dropped Stitches in Tennessee History,” Jackson was losing.
Avery cited “Bacon’s Abridgement,” the top authority on modern English law, a copy of which, bound in buckskin, Avery always carried with him. Jackson ridiculed Avery’s pet source, and Avery responded with a sarcastic remark about Jackson’s ignorance.
“Jumping to his feet,” Allison relates, “he (Jackson) exclaimed, ‘I may not know as much law as there is in Bacon’s Abridgement, but I know enough not to take illegal fees.’”
Apparently a new schedule of fees had been issued by the state, and Avery had taken two pounds instead of one pound six shillings.
“It’s false as hell!” Avery hissed about the charge.
Jackson tore a page out of a law book, wrote a challenge to a duel on it, and handed it to Avery. Avery accepted. Later, they shot their pistols into the air, as agreed.
There’s another version of this story, funnier, and more of a credit to Jackson.
In this account, Jackson had the upper hand in court. Avery, surprisingly, had forgotten his green bag with “Bacon’s Abridgement” in it, and asked for a recess until the next day.
Jackson took an opportunity to sneak into Avery’s room and substitute a book-sized slab of bacon, wrapped in buckskin, for the book. When in court, Avery went to produce the book out of his bag, out tumbled the piece of bacon. Amid the laughter, it was Avery who challenged Jackson to the duel.
The versions of the tale varied with the geography of the teller, Allison had discovered.
Pushing the Indians Out: Early Movers & Shakers in Western North Carolina & The Tennessee Territory by Charles Haller (Money Tree Imprints trade paper, July 2014, 288 pages, $24.95). The book includes authoritative appendices on the early land grant claimants, their descendants, and their grants. It is available through Amazon.