Benjamin Hawkins—A Bridge to 1790s Asheville
Part 1 of 2
PHOTO CAPTION: George Vanderbilt explores his farm with a guest in 1906. The Hawkins cemetery, still maintained by Biltmore Estate, is on the crest of the distant hill in the center of the photo, which is used with permission of The Biltmore Company.
When, in 1790, Benjamin Hawkins set up his plantation on what is now the site of the Biltmore Estate Winery, he envisioned a large farm spreading out along the French Broad River not far from the drover’s road.
He was 28, and he’d just married 21-year-old Hannah Chambers.
Hannah has the qualifications of a Scots princess. According to Amanda Swanson on Geni.com, Hannah had been the only child of James Chambers and Mary Tipton Chambers, who’d been 17 to James’ 42 at Hannah’s birth.
That’s one version of the story. Other genealogists believe that Hannah’s mother was Abigail, who is seen in the 1790 census and in land deeds as being Hawkins’ neighbor when he was there with Hannah.
Was Hannah’s dad the old man with the lass; or was he the missing presence when her mom moved next door?
If her connection is to James Chambers, she’d have a lot of Scots pride. James’ grandfather, an earlier James Chambers, had been a major in William III’s army at the Battle of Boyne. That battle had capped the “Glorious Revolution” in northern Ireland as James II, Catholic King of England, had fled the field in defeat.
For his exploits, James earned an Irish estate. Yet, after his death, his four sons left, settling in America above the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, and establishing farms, replete with a mill.
This was the life pattern of successful men at the time.
Hannah’s dad stayed put, but his three brothers moved to Cumberland County, when it was still Algonquin land, to fend off incursions by Catholic settlers from Maryland.
The Chambers clan, after whom Chambersburg is named, is “inseparable from...the history of the Scotch-Irish in America (and) white-man myths of the Susquehanna,” Hubertis Cummings stated in his book, “Scots Breed and Susquehanna.”
Mouth of Swannanoa
Benjamin became a community leader fast.
“Influenced by the academy movement that flourished in North Carolina,” George McCoy wrote in his 1951 history of the Presbyterian Church in Asheville, Hawkins, educator Robert Henry, and others founded Union Hill Academy in 1793. Four years later, they attracted the Rev. George Newton to come serve as the area’s educational leader. (The academy’s name would change to Newton in 1809.)
The original log structure, built on a hill above what is now Asheville Radiology, soon accommodated the community known as “Mouth of Swannanoa” by housing its church, which went hand in hand with Newton’s arrival.
“If the Presbyterians established a church in an area, the minister also had to be a teacher,” Edith Hawkins Garrett, 4-times-great-granddaughter of Benjamin, confirms. (She is writing a book, “The Descendants of Benjamin Hawkins,” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The school’s curriculum, McCoy noted, “was based on the ‘three R’s’; but the Academy, like those springing up elsewhere, did not neglect the more profound subjects of Greek and Latin, mathematics, and the English language. Birch switches helped maintain discipline. Pens were made of goose quills and ink from pokeberries.”
The land for the school had been donated by Mouth of Swannanoa plantation-owner, William Forster, who’d had a large orchard there, and “every one was welcome to gather fruit if he would not break the trees,” F.A. Sondley remarked in his 1930 history of Buncombe County.
The local gentry were a together group. Forster’s daughter Mary married Benjamin’s brother James. James, as it turns out had a rocky road ahead of him.
In 1788, Benjamin and Forster had had to post bail for James when James had been arrested for theft in Burke County, Dorothy Hawkins details in a 2013 report to the Old Buncombe County Genealogical Society. A year later, James compensated Forster by giving him a mare, bridle, saddle and slave girl.
James went on to serve on juries and help lay out the road to Hominy Creek; but in 1824, Mary divorced him (he must have been about 60), and cited the long-ago theft as a factor.
Plantations and slaves
The slave girl whom James had given Forster makes us realize that, even in the earliest years of Buncombe history, the bigger entrepreneurs of the region, many of them first-or-second-generation Scots, had adopted the South’s economic model and thus its paternalistic and property-minded attitude toward African-Americans.
At the same time, in Buncombe County, poor white yeoman, tending lots scattered among the big farms, got to know their black neighbors, both resenting and befriending them.
In his book, “Race Relations at the Margins,” Jeff Forret points out that “the work and leisure-time activities of slaves and poor whites (reveal) not only hatred, but also friendship and camaraderie.”
Benjamin owned 19 slaves in 1820, the census shows. He’d come here in 1790 with none. Thanks to a recent archival discovery, we know the names of 12 Hawkins slaves who had been around in the mid-1820s.
In February 2013, Bill Alexander, Biltmore Estate’s historian, was researching sales of land to George Washington Vanderbilt at the Big Bend—the peninsula that had made up the Hawkins plantation.
Alexander read a note that confirmed the common wisdom that Benjamin Hawkins’ will had burned up in an 1865 courthouse fire. Then he “came across a four-page, legal sized document, hand written on an unusual blue-green paper stock,” he told Edith Garrett, writing for “A Lot of Bunkum” (the OBCGS quarterly). “These opening words,” he related, “caught my attention: ‘In the name of God amen. I Benjamin Hawkins of the county of Buncombe...’”
A commemorative sign, incorporating the new information, has been placed in view of the Hawkins cemetery at the Biltmore Estate. Alexander is working on a book about the landholders who had sold to Vanderbilt.
With Hawkins’ will, genealogists are now able to name Benjamin’s wife and children with authority, as well as to gauge the nature of his wealth and household.
He bequeathed his wife, Hannah, 30 plantation acres, the big house, the orchard, 10 acres of meadow, including the calf pasture, and sufficient timber from the back land. He also willed her “two Negroes to wit a woman named Charity & a boy named Andrew & six cows with there calves,” four sheep, 20 hogs, two horses, and a lot of furniture.
Benjamin endowed eight children with at least one slave each, and with land, livestock, and furnishings. He made sure that “a Negro woman...whose labour I have enjoyed” be supported throughout her life.
The story line requires further exploration, as do the topics taken up in next week’s article: Buncombe’s first courthouse, livestock drives, juries and crimes, and the frontier.
A 1790s state of mind
Part 2 of 2
As first settler Benjamin Hawkins was building his dream life—home, farm, business, slaves, and position—on the Big Bend of the Swannanoa River in the 1790s, he and his wife Hannah were also producing a lot of children.
By 1804, the total was eight, with the births coming on all the even-numbered years, starting in 1790, when Polly was born on the third day of Christmas.
Joseph, the eighth child, was the only one not to live to adulthood. He died at age eight on July 21, 1812. Three days earlier, Hannah, age 46, had given birth to her 12th child, to whom she and Benjamin transmitted the name Joseph on top of a second name, Washington. The Hawkins’ 13th and last child, Benjamin Franklin was born in January 1815.
It’s insights such as these that we squeeze from a scant historical record, which would be even scantier if, two decades ago, the Thornwell Children’s Home, south of Greenville, S.C., hadn’t found, among the estate of Gabrielle Hawkins Herbner, the family Bible of her father, Benjamin F.; and if Sidney Hawkins, great-great-grandson of Benjamin F.’s brother John, hadn’t tracked down the executor, who’d been holding onto it.
So, now we know. Benjamin had 13 children and a very healthy, fortunate wife.
He’d been one of the settlers who had gotten hold of the prime land in the region—coves, as opposed to the narrower hollers and the hardscrabble branches.
The big house he built on his new plantation was not a brick mansion with verandas, like James McConnell Smith’s edifice that would be erected two miles downriver in the 1840s, but a log structure.
All structures were log up until the 1820s in the Asheville area, ranging from the homesteader’s first crude cabin to two-story, finely finished inns with big fireplaces. Hawkins would have had to gather a work crew to cut down the yellow poplar or chestnut trees to be hewed and notched with dovetails and hoisted high, incorporating a central chimney built of local stone.
He didn’t arrive with slaves. Who knows how many modest farmers and laborers were available to help him build.
In 1790, Buncombe County (which had included 11 present-day counties from Yancey to Cherokee) “contained about 1,000 souls, not including the Indian population,” John Ager wrote in his essay, “Buncombe County: A Brief History” for the 1981 publication, “Cabins and Castles.”
One of the less famous souls, according to the 1790 census, was Hawkins’ near neighbor, Oldham Hitown. It looks as if he had five children and a relative, Austin Hitown, living nearby with several children of his own. The 1800 census revises Hitown to Hightower, and shows that Oldham still housed two children, including one adult male.
Oldham was 46 in 1790, according to a WikiTree entry. At age 32, he’d signed the Watauga Petition, seeking inclusion in North Carolina as protection against Cherokee and British antagonists in the Elizabethton, Tennessee territory where he and others had set up an independent government.
Four years later, Oldham fought with the Overmountain Men and helped defeat the British at Kings Mountain.
What we learn from these details is that Buncombe’s first settlers, though divided by class and quality of land, had shared a common (and recent) heritage of war and defense. The mix of domestic tranquility and frontier violence in their personalities is brilliantly represented in the large paintings adorning the City Council chambers.
(As a side note: I have heard some people call Clifford Addams’ dark, impasto murals in the City Hall ugly. On the contrary, they are treasures. Clean them.)
At any rate, 1790s Asheville was peopled by veterans who built forts and retained hurts. F.A. Sondley relates, in his 1930 history of Buncombe County, that Daniel Smith, father of James McConnell, once “saw two Indians crossing French Broad River in his canoe. Rushing to the bank of the stream he shot and killed both Indians. As this happened to be a time when there was peace between the races Colonel Smith narrowly escaped an indictment for murder.”
Another time, Smith was hunting up on Beaucatcher Mountain when he heard a gunshot at his home. He rushed back to find that friends had killed a large bear who had been bathing in Smith’s spring.
Settlers were bound in their defense against wild animals.
In 1785, North Carolina passed a law that courts in western counties could tax property owners “for the purpose of granting bounties to persons who shall kill or otherwise destroy any wolves, bears, panthers or wildcats in such counties.”
Daniel Smith’s wife, Mary Davidson Smith, had had her hands full with wild animal threats along the Swannanoa. Mary was the daughter of Maj. William Davidson’s, whose twin brother, Samuel, had been killed by Indians when, in 1784, he’d tried settling the area before the Cherokee had ceded it.
Daniel Smith had built a log house on his land and, lacking lumber, had used curtains for door shutters, Katherine Hawkins wrote in a family history. (Her ancestor, John Hawkins, son of Benjamin, had married Daniel’s daughter, Mary.)
When Daniel was away for a week getting grain milled in Morganton, Mary, left alone with her small children, “had only the dogs for protection and company. At night their entertainment consisted of sitting by the fire listening to the dogs fight with the wild animals...Their cries rent the night and their fighting bodies caused the curtain doors to sway in the firelight.”
Commerce and labor
So, let’s assume that, despite the sparsity of settlement, Hawkins had a lot of local help in building his log house. There were people available for such tasks in the most settled communities, such as the Mouth of Swannanoa.
Sometimes the big landowners used hired labor.
In 1795, Buncombe court minutes reveal, Daniel Smith paid Benjamin Yardly four pounds fourteen shillings and four pence (about $400 today) “in part pay for the building a house.”
In many instances, such as the building of roads, the county enlisted citizens to donate their time in joint efforts.
On Mon., July 16, 1792, 11 days before Benjamin’s first son John was born, Benjamin was in court at Col. William Davidson’s house accepting the responsibility of overseeing the crew that would build the road from Davidson’s place to Avery’s Creek.
At the same meeting, “Captn. Justice, overseer from the ford of Mills’ River to the mountain top at the head of Boulstone’s (Boylston) creek,” agreed to engage his own company to do the work. Whom had Hawkins employed?
Roads got laid out with prodigious speed. The landowners had a lot to benefit from them with the commerce the road brought, including the livestock trade in which Hawkins had invested.
“What we do know about him,” Hawkins family historian Edith Garrett says, “is that he raised a lot of pigs, and moved them every year to Charleston. He had one of his sons, James, move to Greenville (S.C.) and live on property that his father had purchased. What they did is move the animals from Asheville to Greenville, stay for a while, and take the animals the rest of the way.”
By the time of Benjamin’s death in 1827, he was able to amply provide for his wife and all their children. His French Broad estate went to his two youngest sons, Joseph Washington and Benjamin Franklin; from them to Wiley Jones in 1848; from Jones to Dr. Tennant, who built Antler Hall; and ultimately to the Vanderbilt estate, where the Hawkins cemetery is preserved behind the Winery.
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; email him at RNeufeld@charter.net.