Surveying the year 1793, looking for the key story
by Rob Neufeld
What was happening here in 1793? A previous three-part series zoomed in on the committee that chose what is now Pack Square as the site for the county’s first courthouse. Where should the eavesdropping time traveler stop the following year?
I am tempted to follow the footsteps of Robert Henry, who had arrived in Morristown (not yet Asheville) “sometime before 1793,” sources say. He was 28 and had gotten the go-ahead that year from Presbyterian patrons to build and run the region’s first school, Union Hill Academy (later renamed Newton Academy) on a knoll near the present-day condos, The Residences at Biltmore.
Presbyterians, intent on moral rigor and enlightenment in the wilderness, established a school building before erecting a church, as Ora Blackmun chronicled in “A Spire in the Mountains.”
18th century Gump
Robert Henry led one of the most eventful lives that could be imagined. His great-great granddaughter Elizabeth Henry Laisy, has said that he was “the Forrest Gump of Revolutionary times.”
He was born in a rail pen (for cattle), family lore relates, in present-day Lincoln County, not far from Kings Mountain, where, at age 15, he was one of the South Fork boys who helped defeat Major Patrick Ferguson at the decisive Revolutionary War battle, Oct. 7, 1780. He received a bayonet through his hand and thigh while shooting the man who attacked him, according to his own account.
At age 10, because of having been bitten by a fox, he was kept in the care of his father on a trip to Charlotte, where the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence—precursor to the American one—was issued in 1775.
In 1793, Henry worked as a surveyor, and would soon be hired to draw the boundary line between North Carolina and Tennessee.
We might move past the selection of Robert Henry for our 1793 stop, and instead visit him in 1799, when he was with General Charles McDowell and Colonel David Vance doing the boundary job and telling stories; or join him in 1863, when he was 98 and talking to his grandson, E.L. Henry, just before lying down to die peacefully on the day and at the hour he’d foretold.
Real estate boom
A very important but more difficult story to tell would be of all the land speculation and road-building going on in 1793.
Tench Coxe, assistant to Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury for George Washington, and ancestor of Col. Frank Coxe, who built the original Battery Park Hotel in 1886, was going about buying 500,000 acres in Western North Carolina. He formed the Speculation Land Company and would eventually resell the land at a 400% profit.
“He bought so much and there were so many questions of title and descriptions,” his great-great grandson, Frank Coxe of Asheville, said in an interview with Dr. Bruce Greenawalt of UNCA in 1979, “that he had to get rid of it in order to avoid going into bankruptcy.”
Real estate activity had boomed after the 1791 Treaty of Holston, by which Cherokee land between the Blue Ridge and the Great Smokies had been ceded to the U.S. The takeover did not stop Cherokee resistance. Blockhouses for defense against the Cherokee and Creek were common structures throughout the region.
When the men of the settlers “were away from home,” F.A. Sondley wrote in his Buncombe County history, “parties of Cherokees would come and frighten the women and children, take their provisions, open the ticks of their feather-beds and empty the contents over the house, and collect the household furniture in the yard and burn it.”
There were clashes, there were killings; there were also instances of intercultural relations. The Cherokee protested the Holston treaty, yet attempted to make peace with the U.S., which sent out ethnologists to foster understanding. Yet, independent bands of settlers could not be stopped from making raids; and there were Indians reprisals.
It would be instructive to live among the Cherokee during this transitional period.
Sung and unsung
Historical documentation favors victors and especially the eminent ones among them. John Burton, in 1793, was buying land in what is now downtown Asheville and building a grist mill on Glenn’s Creek in North Asheville. Zebulon and Bedent Baird bought land from Burton, and established a store, to which they brought goods carted by wagon across rough mountain roads.
Col. John Carson was building the Carson House in Marion, and was visited by Davy Crockett. Col. Robert Love, Robert Henry’s father-in-law, had just moved to present-day Haywood County, and would later establish the town of Waynesville. (Love was only five years older than Henry; and his daughter was 12 at the time of her marriage.)
Knowledge of less noted residents often comes to us from court records, such as the minutes of the Buncombe County court in Oct. 1793, from which we learn that Thomas Hopper wanted a certificate that his clipped ear had come from a brawl with Phillip Williams, who had bit it. It was not, he urged, the prescribed mark of punishment for perjury or forgery.
Finally, in our survey of stories, we have something occult. The “Boston Gazette,” Daniel W. Barefoot notes in “North Carolina’s Haunted Hundred,” reported that “cryptids” called Bigfoots, resided on Bald Mountain, and waylaid travelers. I wonder if that includes time travelers.
Which episodes in history deserve historical focus? Please comment.
Robert Henry, age 94
I was surprised, but glad to see old Robert's "smiling" face! I think he deserves attention for the key story of 1793 and many more of the years to follow.Robert was a fascinating man who led a remarkable life. I am in the final editing stages with the publisher on my book, "Robert Henry - A Western Carolina Patriot," which will be released sometime in September. The book will also have an extensive history of the Sulphur Springs and includes many photos and illustrations. Trust me, what is now known about Robert Henry and the Springs only scratches the surface.
Can't wait to see it--and write about it! Smiling face, that's funny. Is it true he went around in moccasins?
Yes, he was said to have done that, and at times he would show up in court wearing no socks
Proud to say that "Robert Henry - A Western Carolina Patriot" has received the 2013 Foster A. Sondley Award from the Old Buncombe County Genealogy Society. Thanks OBCGS!!