South Buncombe’s early owner made an epic trek
by Rob Neufeld
“The time has come,” Samuel Murray might have announced as he, his wife, Elizabeth, seven children, two in-laws, four grandchildren, and 12 slaves left what is now Newberry, S.C. to settle in what is now Fletcher.
The year was 1795. It had been 45 years since Samuel, at age 11, had traveled with his father, William, and three brothers down the Philadelphia Wagon Road to the Long Lane settlement, a Patriot enclave in the Loyalist region of Ninety-Six.
When the Revolutionary War reached its hostile climax in the South, Tory attacks on the Long Lane settlers, many of them Scots-Irish, became merciless.
In 1781, soldiers in Major William Cunningham’s notoriously savage Loyalist regiment, captured Robert and James Dugan, Patriot soldiers visiting their mother in Long Lane, hanged them, and then hewed them to pieces with broadswords.
After the attackers left, John Chapman chronicled in his book, “The Annals of Newberry,” based on accounts he’d gathered 40 years later, the mother “began to collect with her own hands the mangled remains of her murdered boys,” and buried them without coffins on a hillside.
This story surely found its place in Murray lore.
Samuel Murray had served with Col. Thomas Dugan of the Ninety-Six community under Gen. Francis Marion in the 1770s. The slaughtered Dugan brothers “were related by marriage to the Murray family,” Brenda Bagwell Coates states in “At the End of the Road the Journey Begins,” her book about the Murray clan. She is probably referring to the marriage of Samuel’s son James to Col. Dugan’s daughter, Margaret, in 1791.
There was a long legacy of fierceness in the Murray family, going back to the landed Murrays who’d left Scotland and Ulster County, Ireland because they would not submit to English authority.
The 15th century Murray motto was “Furth, Fortune, and Fill the Fetters,” derived from an injunction to go after pirates, take their booty, and put them in chains.
Samuel’s cousin, Robert Murray, exemplified that maritime spirit, for after trying out and rejecting South Carolina, he returned north and became the top shipping magnate in New York. George Washington was a good friend.
Robert’s wife, Mary Lindley Murray, showed her spunk when, left alone at Murray Hill with her two daughters, she tricked British General Lord William Howe into resting for a couple of hours while Patriot General Rufus Putnam escaped Manhattan.
There’s a painting of “Mrs. Murray’s Strategy” in the Library of Congress.
So, as Samuel and his clan packed pots and pans, bedding and board, road emergency gear, granddad’s ancestral dresser, and other provisions into their four wagons for a 160-mile trip from their established plantation to the untamed wilds, they carried a store of legacies in their hearts.
In the 1800 census, Samuel Murray is listed as having three slaves. The sons of his who are listed independently in the census are recorded as having none.
Samuel’s three slaves might be “Nancy & her two children,” whom he’d acquired from Andrew Erwin in Buncombe County in 1800, according to a deed. What happened to the 12 slaves that Samuel had brought with him from South Carolina? Did he free them? I can’t trace that. Did he sell them? There are no deeds on record.
According to Coates, the senior slave, Ben, had been skilled. He drove one of the wagons on the Murray journey. Other slaves on that trip were couples with children.
The history of African-Americans gets lost in the dust of shuffled papers as the Murrays proceeded with the main thrust of their lives, business prosperity in a land with new economic requirements.
In backcountry South Carolina, the land supported monocultures and required crop rotation and cheap labor.
In Western North Carolina, the soil was rich, lying in strips fed by plentiful water, which also powered mills. Much of the best land was still available in 1795. The area that Samuel had scoped out the year before with his brother, William, who’d moved to the Mills River region in 1788, lay in the path of what would be a north-south connection to Asheville. As a wealthy early-comer, Samuel would have some say over roads.
Perils and promise
William Murray’s arrival in then Burke County had been only four years after Samuel Davidson had been killed by Cherokee warriors in what is now Swannanoa; and three years after the Treaty of Hopewell, which had officially ceded much Cherokee land west of the Blue Ridge to the United States.
The Treaty of Hopewell was supposed to fix the western boundary of U.S. expansion, but several more treaties followed, taking more land, leading Cherokees to call such documents, “talking leaves,” that is, easily blown away.
Fear of Indian attacks did not cease after the treaty, with good cause.
“A small party of Cherokees set out from the more western parts of North Carolina in the summer of 1793, to attack the white settlements on Swannanoa River,” F.A. Sondley wrote in his 1930 “History of Buncombe County.”
Sondley then reported how Colonels Doherty and McFarland of East Tennessee had led 180 mounted riflemen east, destroyed six Cherokee towns, killed 15 Cherokees and took prisoners.
James Mooney told the rest of the story in his “Historical Sketch of the Cherokee.”
Capt. John Beard, directed by John Sevier, had previously killed 15 Cherokee at a conference in Echota (now under Tellico Lake) in retaliation against attacks on boundary-crossing settlers by Chickamaugas and Creeks. Cherokee chiefs planned to avenge the deaths, and were pacified by government action. Beard was arrested; and yet later acquitted.
Proceeding at a rate of about six miles a day through disputed territory (the Hopewell Treaty had been signed in South Carolina, near present-day Clemson), Murray and his party, as they stopped at homes, taverns, and blockhouses, kept hearing tales of Indian attacks on farms and thefts of livestock.
Mixed feelings about settlement had to have preoccupied the Murrays at times. They had an affinity for the Cherokee as well as a fear of them. They idealized the Cherokee’s relationship with the land; and had learned much from their native ways.
Samuel’s wife, Elizabeth, Coates relates, “practiced cooking first hand under her mother who...benefitted from her family’s initial friendship with the Indians, and their advice on what vegetables grew best and even how to prepare them. This included the introduction of corn into our lives.”
The Revolutionary War also bequeathed conflicting feelings. The road to North Carolina involved connecting the dots between Scots-Irish habitations; and yet the future meant working and even intermarrying with settlers of various backgrounds.
The Murrays’ route passed significant Revolutionary War sites, conjuring up stories of Civil War-type animosity. And yet the war had made Samuel Murray an expert in the art of convoy travelling, for in 1780 and ’81, he had served as wagonmaster in the Continental Army.
Eventually claiming land between Hooper Creek and Cane Creel, Samuel Murray went about establishing a community, named Murrayville; and an inn. He would come to own 12½ square miles, from today’s Lake Julian to Fletcher.
Rob Neufeld writes the weekly “Visiting Our Past” column for the Citizen-Times. He is the author of books on history and literature, and manages the WNC book and heritage website, “The Read on WNC.” Follow him on Twitter @WNC_chronicler