In 1772, Thomas Jefferson called James Byrnside an obnoxious villain

I stumbled upon some interesting entries in the personal papers of Thomas Jefferson. In his 1772 Memorandum Book back when he was practicing law, he discusses the real estate ventures of Colonel ( later General) Andrew Lewis’s claims throughout the Greenbrier Valley. Specifically he mentioned “the sink hole lands,” which is what the old timers used to call the part of Greenbrier County which later was formed into Monroe County (now WV). And in these paragraphs, Jefferson mentions James Burnsides (Byrnside), the builder of our fort, four separate times. He calls him “obnoxious,” among other things.

The heading in Jefferson’s notes is “Lands claimed by Andr. Lewis” and reads, in part:

‘The Sink hole lands.’

10,000. as. (acres) might be included in one grant. The greatest part of this has been surveyed by Colo. A. Lewis on the same title, lying on Second creek and Wolf creek, including the Fork survey of Colo. Lewis and Burnside’s place. One William Blanton, James Gwinn, and some others are living on it in opposition (some of them) to Lewis. Burnside is a great & notorious villain obnoxious to every body near him, who would be glad he could be removed. He is supposed to have murdered one Jno. Moorehead. He claims all the lands thereabouts and keeps people off. The Fork survey, and one other, including about 1200. as. Colo. Lewis survd. for two men, who runoff; so he keeps them for his fees.

“Memorandum Books, 1772,” Founders Online, National Archives, [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Second Series, Jefferson’s Memorandum Books, vol. 1, ed. James A Bear, Jr. and Lucia C. Stanton. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997, pp. 266–301

Well . . . tell us how you really feel about him Mr. Jefferson.

T.J.’s discussing the possibility of establishing and enforcing all of Andrew Lewis’ real estate claims in the Greenbrier Valley, and in regards to this potential 10,000 acre tract, he’s contemplating James Byrnside being a problem. He also mentions William Blanton, who helped Byrnside build the fort, and who lived there while building his own cabin (which you’ll see below). Here’s the full text of Jefferson’s entries in the Memo Book from 1772, for posterity’s sake. There’s some interesting information in there, including more comments on Greenbrier Valley claims.

Byrnside’s Fort / Willowbrook Plantation.

In the early records, most of what is present-day Monroe County, West Virginia was known as the “the Sinks,” or “the Sinks of Greenbrier,” and later, “the Sinks of Monroe.” This is due to the nature of it being comprised of hilly fertile valleys full of sink holes. This is because the land is rich in limestone, which is porous and tends to create underground caves. Which also results in frequent springs, seemingly popping up out of nowhere. Limestone content also makes the land fertile and valuable to early settlers.

There’s no doubt that Jefferson is referring to present day Monroe County. He mentions Wolf Creek, which had been surveyed and settled very early on – in fact, probably first, by Joseph Swope, and others. There was an early French and Indian War fort there, near its mouth at the Greenbrier River, called Baughmann’s Fort. It was one of the fairly rare instances of Native Americans successfully infiltrating and annihilating a frontier log fort. It isn’t known exactly what happened, but it may have been a Trojan Horse type incident. The exact site of Baughmann’s Fort has not been found. There are some theories, but it hasn’t been found.

The probable vicinity of Baughmann’s Fort, near the mouth of Wolf Creek.

Jefferson also mentions Second Creek, which flows from Gap Mills, cutting a swath through much of this sink-hole valley, emptying into the Greenbrier River. This was also fairly well known to early surveyors, lawyers, and mapmakers, because the first real exploration into present day Monroe County, was comprised of a fairly un-creative bunch who named the creek “Second” because it was the 2nd big creek they found, traveling from the direction of the Jackson River. So that was a well known reference to a large portion of the “sinks” area.

The “Sinks of Monroe,” looking towards the Greenbrier River in the far distance, from a drone over Union, WV.

Next Jefferson mentions the “Fork survey” of Col. Lewis and Burnside’s place, and then goes on to say that there are squatters in that vicinity of Lewis’s surveys, including one William Blanton. This no doubt refers to the vicinity around Union, West Virginia and Byrnside’s Fort. The fort was built at what is sometimes referred to generally as the “headwaters of Indian Creek,” but in actuality, it’s at the north fork of the fork of Indian Creek. This north-fork of Indian Creek is really known today as “Byrnside Branch.”

There was a survey recorded in Augusta County, one of only a few in the area, by Thomas Lewis, in 1752 of 400 acres on the “hd Indian.” This must be the Fork Survey, on the head of Indian Creek. Some of this may have been sold/traded to Byrnside, or possibly he ended up with a portion of it somehow. Or perhaps it merely adjoined Byrnside.

James Byrnside’s plantation, as it appears today. Byrnside’s Fort in the distance.

After some additional research, I found that Gen. Andrew Lewis’s will, written in 1780 (he died in 1781, suddenly) actually referred to this particular survey:

To my son Andrew I give the following tracts of land . . . . [a]lso a tract of land in the same county, on the branches of Indian creek, known by the name of Fork Survey, containing 400 acres.

Will of Andrew Lewis, Sr., 1780.
The fertile Sinks of Monroe, just North of Union.

Additionally, William Blanton, mentioned by Jefferson in his memo, was one of the original six families of settlers from the Bullpasture / Cowpasture area, who arrived in 1769 or 1770 when Byrnside returned to Indian Creek. He had been burned out by the Shawnee during Pontiac’s Rebellion of 1763, and these six families helped build Byrnside’s Fort. Tradition has it that James found his gun and powder horn right where he left it, lying next to a tree in a corner of his corn field, which had been abandoned at the time of the 1763 surprise attack.

The re-settlement plan of 1769/1770 was to work together to build a fort, and then all live in it while building and constructing the outlying farms and cabins. Not just for the Byrnside party, but that was pretty much the M.O. across the Greenbrier Valley. Indeed, about two miles away, William Blanton built his own log cabin, presumably after Byrnside’s Fort was established, and it’s still standing today. Or at least it was.

Eventually, Blanton was able to acquire good title to the land he was possessing. On January 14, 1780, the following entry was recorded in the Greenbrier County Courthouse land book:

We, the Commissioners, etc., do certify that William Blanton is entitled to 350 acres of land, by right of settlement before the first day of January 1778, including a survey made for him in the year 1774 lying in Greenbrier County adjoining the land of Archibald Handley and John Clendennen (Clendenin)

This is the spot. Archibald Handley adjoined Byrnside. Blanton’s cabin, which is still standing, is about two miles away, about North, Northeast – a few stones throws away from the site where Rehoboth Church was built about six years later. Additionally, Byrnside was practically a member of the Clendenin family, since he was raised by Archibald Clendenin – no doubt who influenced Archibald Handley’s name as well. These people were all very close and intermarried, all being from the Bullpasture / Cowpasture region of what is now Highland County, Virginia – then merely Augusta County.

As for the Blanton cabin, I got to see it back in June of 2004, along with my father, when the property was for sale, though I didn’t realize what I was looking at at the time. It probably was built not longer after the six families built Byrnside’s Fort for their mutual protection. Like our fort, this house apparently was lived in for many years, and thus preserved. At least until the final occupant. It’s in pretty bad shape now though. Here’s the pics from that day:

Here’s the Suffolk Latch I found in the yard at Byrnside’s Fort, which is very close to the one I photographed on the Blanton cabin in 2004:

Blanton had an interesting past. He was a French and Indian War veteran who had served under none other than Col. Andrew Lewis, in the Virginia Militia, as a ranger on the frontier. In fact, it appears that Blanton was actually with Andrew Lewis and George Washington, serving as a young grunt in the Virginia Regiment of provincial troops serving in the army of British Gen. Edward Braddock. They were all present for his disastrous defeat near Fort Duquense / Fort Pitt, in 1755.

Blanton had been born in 1735 in Caroline County, Virginia. While only 20 years old, he was among only two soldiers provided by Caroline County to serve under George Washington in the Braddock Expedition:

Two soldiers of record from Caroline took part in the campaign against Fort Duquesne.They were Thomas Riddle and William BLANTON who was shot through the thigh.Their names are perserved because the House of Burgesses voted their pensions on account of their wounds.”

Colonial Caroline: A History of Caroline County, Virginia by T.E. Campbell, page 166

In 1756, Blanton served on the Virginia frontier as a ranger in Captain Peter Hog’s company, and served with Hog through August of 1757. See Virginia’s Colonial Soldier by Lloyd DeWitt Bockstruck, 1988, page 97 & 102. Through 1764 or so, he then served in Col. Andrew Lewis’ company of Virginia Militia. This would have also been ranging duty, going from fort to fort on the frontier, as needed, looking for sign of Indians and responding to any issues.

A more recent photo I found of the Blanton Cabin.

If Blanton served under Capt. Hog in 1756, then he no-doubt was a part of Andrew Lewis’ own military disaster, the Expedition against the Shawnee, or as it’s now referred to, the Sandy Creek Expedition. To make a long story short, they almost all starved to death in a bureaucratic failure of inadequate leadership and planning. My 5th great grandfather, James Bryan, who was Andrew Lewis’s next-door neighbor on the Roanoke River, also served on that expedition, under Capt. William Preston.

It’s possible that James Byrnside was also there on the Sandy Creek debacle, since he was listed in one of the incomplete muster rolls of William Preston’s ranger company during the war. Hog’s Company was attached to the expedition somewhat against their will, apparently. It also appears that Blanton was one of the number of people who petitioned Virginia to reimburse him for lost equipment due to the Sandy Creek Expedition failure. There are records of numerous militiamen petitioning for the replacement value of their guns, blankets, and so forth.

On November 9, 1764, William Blanton again petitioned Virginia for compensation on account of being involved in a skirmish with the Indians in May of 1764, under the command of Andrew Lewis. In this encounter, Blanton was once again shot through the thigh, and rendered incapable of getting a livelihood. There’s no mention of whether he was again shot in the same leg as ten years earlier, or whether it was his good leg. He was allowed the sume of 15 pounds “in consideration of wounds.” See Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1761-1765, page 249.

Then, in 1769 or 1770, Blanton was with James Byrnside when he returned to the Sinks of Monroe. It’s been noted that he settled on the “Gaston Caperton place,” which is the exact property I visited in 2004. This is a drone view of the property, below:

This is a view of the Blanton property from a drone over Rehoboth Church, looking towards Union, WV. The house near the trees at center is the old Gaston Caperton house, which is the same property. The cabin is over behind the house. Or it was, at least.

By 1770, William Blanton, along with James Byrnside, was shown on a list of tithables in Greenbrier County, corroborating the claim that they both settled in the area by 1770. See A Seed-bed of the Republic”, ‘The Community Grows Up’ by Robert Douthat Stoner; pgs. 231-232; see also A History of Monroe County, West Virginia by Oren F. Morton, B. Lit., 1916, page 313. So there’s no doubt that both Byrnside and Blanton arrived in the vicinity on or before 1770, as permanent resident settlers.

Given the Thomas Jefferson quote at the beginning of the post, we know that as of 1772, that Andrew Lewis was at least contemplating using Thomas Jefferson, Attorney at Law, to litigate his claims to all these rich lands in the Greenbrier country, which had been settled and improved by others in the years since they had been originally surveyed by the Lewises. This included Blanton, who was a wounded combat veteran who had served under Lewis’s command. Jefferson was apparently contemplating having trouble with Blanton and Byrnside in this endeavor, which is when he called him “obnoxious,” and a “villian.” He didn’t specifically say that Byrnside himself was a squatter, but seems to imply that because of Blanton’s connection to Byrnside, that trouble is anticipated.

Gen. Andrew Lewis’ pocket “officer’s pistol.”

Ironically, two years later after Jefferson’s comments, instead of causing problems, James Byrnside would join Andrew Lewis’s army and fight in the Battle of Point Pleasant, in 1774. Which, in turn, made Andrew Lewis and heirs a fortune in later land sales, since Lewis owned thousands of acres there.

Also over Rehoboth Church, this is looking more to the South, towards Byrnside’s Fort, which is in the distance at far right. There was no doubt a road of some sort going between these two spots, about two miles away from eachother – though none exists today. Mind you, this was still 30 years before the town of Union was laid out, and the County of Monroe was created.

I was able to find more information on this real estate affair, which sheds some light on Jeffersons concerns about Blanton and Byrnside. In 1777, Greenbrier settlers signed a petition voicing their anger at the greed of the land companies, in part owned by Lewis. As it turns out, Jefferson’s fears were probably correct:

We have settled it (the country) in the west and defended it for years against the savage, in consequence of which we hoped to have obtained a just and equitable title to our possessions, without being obliged to contribute large sums of money to the separate emolument of individuals. William BLANTON of the Sinks of Monroe bought the right and improvements of a man who offered to make declaration that he and others had applied to Andrew Lewis, spokesman of the Greenbrier Company, offering to pay any reasonable price for their “settlements,” but that the offer had been refused.

A History of Monroe County, West Virginia by Oren F. Morton, B. Lit., 1916, page 67

Fortunately, Blanton got his title in 1780. That same year, Byrnside also got his.

On July 20, 1780, there was a land grant recorded in the Greenbrier County Courthouse, for 1000 acres in Greenbrier County, on Indian Creek, from “Thomas Jefferson Esq.,” to “JAMES BURNSIDES.” It’s in Survey Book E at p. 56 to 58. It came “from” Thomas Jefferson because by that time, he was the Governor of Virginia, so he had the power to issue land grants, and of course he issued multiple ones to his old friend and client, Andrew Lewis, and in so doing also issued this one to Byrnside – no doubt on behalf of whatever past deal existed between Byrnside and Lewis surrounding this “Forks Survey.” Lewis got lucky, in that his lawyer ended up becoming Governor. So he no longer had to litigate real estate claims; he could just make land grants directly.

A drone view of “the Forks,” with Byrnside’s Fort being the white house at center, overlooking the north fork, later called “Byrnside’s Branch.”

Examining the metes and bounds survey description included in the 1780 grant to Byrnside from Thomas Jefferson, it shows that Byrnside must have already owned adjoining land and this 1,000 acres adjoined him. There was a survey recorded in 1774 in Botetourt County, during the period of time when the Greenbrier Valley was Botetourt County, of 237 acres for James Burnside on Indian Creek. This would have been a much earlier claim, but with the new county being created, new surveys were ordered to take place. That could have been the original Byrnside tract he was living on. At least the part he was legally living on, if Jefferson was correct.

Looking towards where Handley’s Fort would have been on the head of Indian Creek. That’s the headwaters of Indian Creek window through the gorge towards the mountains in the distance.

The grant notes that this parcel was surveyed on April 2, 1774 and consisted of “1000a Greenbrier Co. on Indian Cr. a br. of New Riv.,” adjacent to Thomas Stewart, Byrnside himself, John Cantley, John Patterson & John Handley. This describes the adjacent landowners of the greater part of the Byrnside Fort property. John Handley, or “Handly” as it reads on his tombstone, was an earlier settler who first came at about the same time as Byrnside, and who had his own fort as well a couple miles away, or less – “Handley’s Fort.” John Patterson was most likely related to James’ wife, Isabelle Patterson Byrnside, or as he disdainfully referred to her in his will as, “Ezebeler.”

A log cabin on the Handley Farm, possibly which belonged to the Handleys? The information with the pic reads: ‘The birthplace of Ike Ballard on the Handly Farm on September 12th, 1864. The house is in the upper right-hand corner. The apple tree near the center stood over the smoke house. The Old Stage Road is in the front.’

Jefferson also issued land grants for four other properties, to Andrew Lewis himself, at about the same time, including the very same 1,200 acres in Greenbrier County “on the Sinks” Jefferson referred to eight years earlier as having been surveyed for the “two men who had run off.” It could be that these two men were two of the other original facilities who built Byrnside’s Fort with the purpose of building their own cabins/farms. These were one “McMullin,” and one “Flather.” It could be a coincidence, or it could be them. This is in Book B at p. 295-296.

A 1725 Spanish Silver coin found at the mouth of the spring cave behind Byrnside’s Fort, pictured below.
The cave spring behind Byrnside’s Fort.

In fact, examining the metes and bounds survey description contained in the land grant, it says it’s based on an April 16, 1751 survey of 1,200 acres in Greenbrier County “on the Sink holes above the head of Indian Creek at the foot of a Mountain that layette between Indian Creek and Green brier.” If it’s at the sink holes above the headwaters of Indian Creek, that’s generally referring to land in Monroe County in the vicinity of Keenan, West Virginia. I think when he wrote “Green brier,” he may have been referring to mountains, or mountain – not the river. Otherwise it wouldn’t make directional sense. He was probably just quoting the survey, and being a 1750s survey, they probably just referred to the chain of mountains – Peters Mountain and Little Mountain – as the Greenbrier Mountains.

Looking back at Gen. Lewis’s will, he left this 1,200 acre tract to his son Samuel Lewis, who I believe ended up operating this land as a plantation, encompassing much of the land between present day Union, West Virginia and Gap Mills, West Virginia.

Also, interestingly, Thomas Jefferson sued James Byrnside in 1767 on behalf of one David Frame, who hired Jefferson to file suit for a writ of “Scandal.” In Jefferson’s own words, Frame alleged that Byrnside said

“[H]e caught Frame (who is a married man) in bed with Elizabeth Burkin, put his (hand) on Frame’s – as he lay in bed with the girl and felt it was wet and then put his hand on her – and felt it wet also.”

“Memorandum Books, 1767,” Founders Online, National Archives, [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Second Series, Jefferson’s Memorandum Books, vol. 1, ed. James A Bear, Jr. and Lucia C. Stanton. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997, pp. 3–43.]

Jefferson wrote that it was dismissed in November of 1768. Id. This perhaps was some, or all, of the basis for the feelings Jefferson expressed against Byrnside a few years later in 1772. Note that Byrnside was burned out by the Shawnee in 1763, and fled back East for a while. This litigation over “Scandal” took place during that time.

Possible location of Byrnside’s first cabin, where a good number of things one generally wouldn’t throw away had been found, in the pit center left.
For instance, out of these large “rose head” wrought iron nails out of this hole, many of them show a coating of iron oxidation, making them appear almost bronze, likely the result of a very hot fire.

In yet another interesting piece of James Byrnside history, two individuals were deposed in 1803 as a part of a civil lawsuit out of Gallia County, Ohio, dealing with the heirs of Archibald Clendenin. As I’ve written about before, Cornstalk raided the Greenbrier Valley, which included a Trojan Horse style massacre of the Clendenin family in 1763. This was the Greenbrier franchise of Pontiac’s War.

Marker close to the site of the Clendenin Massacre on the Big Levels of Greenbrier.

As it turns out, Archibald Clendenin was basically James’ step-brother, having been raised by Archibald Clendenin, Sr., from the age of 3. Archibald Clendenin, Sr., married James’ mother. So they grew up together as brothers, to which he testified. But more importantly he testified that the date of his death was specifically July 15, 1763. James himself narrowly escaped death that day when his cabin was destroyed by the same war party. I wrote about the Clendenin Massacre previously:

In fact, this could explain how James Byrnside ended up an early settler of the Greenbrier Valley. His stepfather’s will (Archibald Clendenin, Sr.) specifically left him “the Plantation in the new found land.” He died on the Cowpasture in Augusta County, I believe. This may be referring to land in the Greenbrier Valley. “New Found Land.” In yet another instance of James Byrnside having a brush with the law, or the powers-that-be, his deposition about the Clendenin family was actually taken in the old stone prison in Union, (West) Virginia:

James Byrnside, prisoner in debtor’s prison in Union, Monroe County, Va., deposes 10th April, 1816: Has been acquainted with Archibald Clendennin from time James was 3 years old. His children were, viz: Archibald, by his first wife; Margaret and John, by his latter wife, who was James’s mother. He was buried on the place on the Cow pasture (Bath County) where Wm. Douglass lives. William Dougherty and James Mayse lived on adjoining places at Archibald’s death. John was then about 4 or 5 years old. John sold the land, went to Tennessee and died.

So Archibald Clendenin, Sr., had his first son, Archibald, Jr., who was the one involved in Clendenin’s Massacre – that was his home. Then he remarried James Byrnside’s widowed mother, when James was just a boy, and when Archibald Jr. must have been 3 years old. Archibald Sr. and James’ mother then had two more children, a daughter, Margaret, and a son, John – who later went off to Tennessee and died. So what was happening here in 1803 is that Archibald Jr.’s daughter, Jane, was suing for her share of her father’s land, which was in dispute, because the whereabouts of her brother John were unknown. At least by anyone but James Byrnside, his half-brother.

4 thoughts on “In 1772, Thomas Jefferson called James Byrnside an obnoxious villain

  1. In regard to your comment, [Excerpt: John Patterson was most likely related to James’ wife, Isabelle Patterson Byrnside, or as he disdainfully referred to her in his will as, “Ezebeler.”]

    Isabella Eliz. Patterson (ca. 1738-1806/7) wife of James Byrnside, Sr., was a sister of John Patterson (ca. 1732-1786). Being children of Nathaniel \”Nathan\” Patterson and Isabella Irwin.

  2. In regard to, [Excerpt: James Byrnside, prisoner in debtor’s prison in Union, Monroe County, Va., deposes 10th April, 1816]

    Believe you have a typo here that has been perpetuated from a typed transcription of original records. Most sources put the date as April 10, 1806.


    Random Notes Concerning Early Settlers in Greenbrier
    Apr 10, 1806
    Page 26-27. (issue unknown);
    Random Notes Concerning Early Settlers in Greenbrier In suit, William Douglas vs. Davi – In 1759, a patent issued to Archibald and John Clendennin, 340 acres in Bath County on Cow pasture. Archibald and John were father and son. Archibald had another son, Archibald, living at his father \’ s death… …Archibald, Jr., was soon after the acknowledged grant ( dated 17th Feb . 1761) killed by the Indians. He left one daughter, Jane. who married John Davis and is now a widow and lives Greenbrier. Jane had a b rother; is believed to have been killed by the Indians. James Byrnside… …deposes 10th April 1806: Has been acquainted with Archibald Clen dennin from time James was 3 years old… …Ballard Smith , attorney at- law, is son-in-law of Mrs. Davis, the defendant. ( Ref. – Chalkley II. 182-188)

    Note: type written book has a typo on date listing 10th April 1816. Should read 10th April 1806. ~asb

    Chronicles of Scottish Irish Settlement in VA, Vol II
    Montgomery County, VA
    Pg. 183
    …James Byrnside, prisoner in debtors prison in Union, Monroe County, VA, deposes 10th Apr 1806; has been acquainted with Archibald Clendenin from time James was 3 years old.

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