James Christy of Byrnside’s Fort: “Indian Spy” and Frontier Minister

Here is the original handwritten and signed Revolutionary War pension application of “Indian Spy” James Christy, who was garrisoned at Byrnside’s Fort in the 1770’s and 1780’s. Not only that, but he was the first pastor of the oldest standing protestant church West of the mountains, built of logs, and still standing.

And we found his 18th century Methodist book still located inside Byrnside’s Fort….

Here’s the pension application, and it’s an understated summary of a decade or so of experience as a Virginia Militia Ranger in the deep Virginia frontier:

On this 11th day of April, in the year of our Lord 1834, personally appeared before me Samuel Clark, an acting Justice of the Peace in and for the County of Monroe and State of Virginia the Rev’d. James Christy a resident in the County and State aforesaid aged Eighty eight years on the 12th day of May next who being first duly sworn according to Law doth on his Oath make the following Declaration in Order to obtain the benefit of the provision made by the act of Congress passed June 7th 1832

That he entered the Service of the United States under the following named Officers and Served as herein Stated. That he moved from the Eastern part of Augusta County in the year 1774 to Turkey Creek a tributary stream of Indian Creek now in the County of Monroe then he thinks called West Augusta and better known by the name of the Greenbriar [sic: Greenbrier] Country. [Near present day Union, West Virginia.]

That in the early part of the Indian War there was a Fort or Garrison erected on a plantation belonging to James Burnsides [James Byrnside himself spelled his name “Byrnside,” but it’s spelled both ways in most records – sometimes using both within a single document] two miles north west from where he lived which was called Burnsides Fort.

That in the early part of the year 1776 he commened the service of his Country as an Indian Spy under the Command of Captain Wright and was Stationed in Burnsides Fort. That he served in this year from the 1st of August until the 1st of November following, nothing of importance occurred….

…. during this year. That he again Forted and Scouted as an Indian Spy in the year 1777 from the 1st day of May until the 1st of November – that he was stationed in Burnsides Fort under the command of the aforesaid Captain Wright. That he does not reccollect that any thing of importance took place in the immediate neighborhood of the Fort but that the Indians were constantly prowling about through the Country and committing murders and depradations on the persons and property of the frontier setters.

Insomuch that the people were kept in constant alarm, that in the year 1778 he again entered the Service of his Country in Burnsides Fort on the 1st day of May and continued in Service until the 1st day of November following that he was commanded this year as before by the aforesaid Captain Wright.

That as early as the 1st day of May in the year 1779 he again commenced his Services in Burnsides Fort and continued in service until the 1st of November following that he thinks it was in this year a party of Indians came into the settlement and murdered William Bradshaw’s wife – the circumstances are these:

Bradshaw had remained at home with his Family and two of the Spys returning to Cooks Fort [on Indian Creek just below Greenville] called at his Cabbin to rest and informed him where they had been and that they had seen no signs of Indians but not thinking a family safe in such a situation advised him to leave his Cabbin and go to the Fort but he did….

not concent to do so and in a few hours after the Spyes left him the House was attact by a small party of Indians and some of them firing at the door which was shut the ball penetrated through the door and lodged in the boddy of Mrs. Bradshaw and wounded her so badly that she died that night. And on Bradshaw’s firing his gun through the door from the inner side, the Indians retired without doing any farther damage.

That as early as the 1st day of May in the year 1780 he again entered the service of his Country as before in Burnsides Fort and continued in service until the 1st of November following. That he was commanded as before by the aforesaid Captain Wright. That in the year 1781 he again entered the service on the 1st day of April and continued in service until the 1st of November following That between the 20th and 25th of April in that year he was drafted under the command of Captain John Woods to go to New River that he served three months under Captain Woods on New River [this is “Wood’s Fort” located near present day Peterstown, WV on Rich Creek – several miles above its confluence with the New River] after which he was discharged and returned to Burnsides Fort. That the nature of his service was to guard the Fort and go out when commanded in pursuit of the Indians when they would make their appearance in the settlement that his companions in service was commonly Matthew Patterson and John Cantly who are long since Dead. that during the whole of the aforesaid time he was either….

actively engaged in scouting or in Garrison with an Imbodied Corps under the command of the aforesaid Officers and that he was not engaged in any civil pursuits during the aforesaid periods. (First [interrogatory prescribed by the War Department]) that he was born in the City of London in England in the year 1746. (Second) That he has a record of his age now in his possession which was made in the Handwriting of his Father (Third) That he was living on Turkey Creek in what was then called west Augusta or the Greenbriar Country in what is now called Monroe County and State of Virginia when called into service where he has lived ever since

(Fourth) That he volunteered when he entered the service of his Country (Fifth) That he has stated the names of his Officers in the foregoing
part of his Declaration (Sixth) That he has no documentary evidence or any written discharge for any of the services he rendered his Country (Seventh) That he is known to John Robeson William Robeson and Robert Christy who can testify to his good Character for Veracity and their belief of his services as he states – That he knows of no persons or person living by whome he can prove his services – He hereby relinquishes every claim whatever to a pension or annuity except the preasant and declares that his name is not on the Pension Roll of the agency of any state.

Sworn to and subscribed before me this day and year aforesaid – Samuel Clark.

We, John Robeson, William Robeson and Robert Christy, residing in the County of Monroe and State of Virginia do hereby certify that we are well acquainted with the Rev. James Christy who has described and sworn to the above or foregoing Declaration that we believe him to be Eight eight years Old that he is reputed and believed in the neighborhood where he resides to have been a soldier and an Indian Spy of the Revolution and that we concur in that opinion as sworn to and subscribed before me an acting Justices of the Peace in and for the County of Monroe and State of Virginia the day and year aforesaid.

[Signed] John Robeson, William Robeson, Robert Christy

I, Samuel Clark, the said Justice of the Peace in and for the County and State aforesaid do hereby declare my opinion after an investigation of the matter and after putting the interrogations prescribed by the War Department that the above named applicant was a soldier and an Indian Spy in the Revolution and deposed as he states I do further certify that the applicant from old age and bodily infirmity is unable to attend he Court of Monroe County or any other Court of Record in the Commonwealth of Virginia, I do further certify that it appears to me that John Robeson

…., William Robeson and Robert Christy who have signed the preceding certificate are residents of the County of Monroe and State of Virginia and are credible persons and that their statement is entitled to full credit I do further certify that there is no clergyman residing in the neighborhood or section of County where the applicant resides except himself and that he is a minister of the Gospel.

[Signed] Samuel Clark

I John Hutchison, Jr., Clerk of the Court of Monroe County do hereby certify that Samuel Clark is a magistrate as above and that the foregoing signature purporting to be his are genuine. In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand seal of office at Union this 12th day of April 1834 on the 58th year of the Commonwealth.

[Signed] John Hutchison, Jr. Clerk.

If you’ve been following along, you know that we are now the owners of what was referred to in James Christy’s pension application as “Burnsides Fort,” or as it was spelled by Byrnside himself, “Byrnside’s Fort.” Spelling was somewhat subjective in the 18th and 19th centuries. For instance, my last name appears often as Bryan, Bryant, or Bryans, in my forefather’s records.

Willowbrook / Byrnside’s Fort as it appeared during the Civil War era.
Looking towards Willowbrook Plantation / Byrnside’s Fort from over Union.
Drone view of Willowbrook Plantation, with Byrnside’s Fort inside it.

Inside the parlor of the old house is this wonderful early 19th century bookcase, all one piece, and likely made in the immediate vicinity – if not on the property. There were all sorts of old books in the bookcase, but one in particular caught my eye as soon as I read the owner’s name. It was often a thing in the old days that people put their names in their books, and otherwise annotated them, as they were reading them, or using them.

Early 19th century bookcase

This particular name was “James Christy.” Of course. I recalled the pension statement mentioning Burnside’s Fort numerous times…. This is a 1794 edition of John Wesley’s Sermons – a Methodist book – owned very clearly by James Christy.

18th century book belonging to James Christy, militia ranger stationed at the fort

Check out the signature in the book as compared to the signature on the pension application:

It’s the identical signature, despite being signed 40 years apart. The pension signature does seem to indicate a little age and arthritis by that point in his life. On the next page in the Christy book, he writes a paragraph:

I believe that it is impossible for a man to enter in to the Kingdom of God except he be regenerated and born again . . . . I believe in Christian Perfection, all which I am taught by the Bible? word of God and his glorious spirit, Lord ever more teach thou me . . . . James Christy.

Then it’s signed, “Jane Fitzpatrick her hand and pen.” I’m not sure what that’s all about, but it appears to be a different handwriting…..

James Christy’s book

This is where James Christy spent all those years in garrison:

The original main floor of Byrnside’s Fort, after the 1858 plaster was removed.

The pension application was signed by Samuel Clark, Justice of the Peace for Monroe County. Interestingly, inside the house, we found the keys to that very man’s sword case, which I eventually found and posted about.

Keys to Maj. Samuel Clark’s sword case

But wait, there’s more…..

I later realized that James Christy, and the book, had another important historical importance. The pension application itself refers to James Christy as “Reverend James Christy,” and also notes that he was a “Minister of the Gospel,” and indeed notes that he was the only one in his area. Well, one day I was doing some research on Old Rehoboth Church, which is purportedly the oldest protestant church (i.e., excluding Catholic Spanish churches in Florida or the Southwest) West of the Alleghenies, constructed of logs in 1786 and still standing.

The log structure was preserved because the roof was maintained, and they even put a large overhang on it at one point. It’s preserved so well that even the pews, pulpit, etc., are still there. It has an early graveyard. “Rehoboth” is a Hebrew word meaning “broad places.” In Genesis 26, it is the name given to the well dug by Isaac. The name may have been given to the church for the same reason it was given to the well: “…the Lord made room for us, and we will be fruitful in the land.” (Genesis 26:22 NRSV)

The families who constructed Byrnside’s Fort, which included not only the Byrnside family, but six other families, included those responsible, in part, for construction of Old Rehoboth. The Keenan Family, who was one of the original six families to build Byrnside’s Fort, donated the land upon which the church is constructed. The Wisemans were also involved – another of the fort founders. In 1786, Edward Keenan, who was apparently originally a Catholic, donated the plot of land. The Keenan family’s log cabin was a few hundred yards away. It’s no longer there, but was incorporated into a reconstructed historic 19th century home. I’ve been in it and have pics somewhere. There are some old log outbuildings on the property which may be original. But that’s for another post.

Edward Keenan is buried in the cemetery near the front door of the church. Apparently he requested that since he donated the land, that he be buried at the Northeast corner of the church – and so he was…. There are also numerous Wiseman Family burials in the churchyard, which is another of the original families who arrived with James Byrnside. They built the fort first, as protection, and then built their outlying cabins.

Even though Old Rehoboth was built in 1786, that wasn’t the beginning of “the church” which thereafter met there every Sunday for five-hour sermons. I discovered this after finding some historical publications on Old Rehoboth tucked away in some drawers in some of the furniture in Willowbrook Plantation.

Old Rehoboth was dedicated by Methodist circuit rider, Bishop Francis Asbury in 1786, as a place of worship, “as long as the grass grows and the water ows.” It was only 21 by 29 feet but it was larger than the log homes in which the congregation had previously met. Indeed, the congregation had first started meeting under that name beginning in 1784 – and the first listed pastor was…. you guess it: James Christy.

A list of the pastors of Rehoboth Church, found in the following pamphlet: A Historical Sketch of Rehoboth M.E. Church, South Monroe County W. Va. Delivered at the Centennial Celebration July 20, 1884, by Rev. J.L. Kibler.

This list was in this pamphlet from 1884, and reprinted in 1960:

A Historical Sketch of Rehoboth M.E. Church, South Monroe County W. Va. Delivered at the Centennial Celebration July 20, 1884, by Rev. J.L. Kibler.

James Christie, recognized today as the founding pastor,
 organized the first Methodist meetings in the area about 1784.

Traveling the Circuit: Rehoboth Church and Museum, Oct 25, 2017
By Rev. Charles Harrell https://www.bwcumc.org/news-and-views/traveling-the-circuit-rehoboth-church-and-museum/

The “Historical Sketch” explains:

In tracing the history, I find that in the summer of 1784 a number of Methodists were settled in this community . . . . Prominently among them were the McMullens, the Johnsons, the Warrens, the Christies, the Blanters; and I may mention especially the name Edward Keenan, father of the late Samuel B. Keenen, of precious memory. [NOTE: James Christy had a brother named Robert, who was one of the signatories on his pension application.]

These were among the most substantial families of the community. They were principally active farmers, and owned large estates. They gave strict attention to their religious duties, both in their Church and in their families. Their devotion to Methodist usages and worship was manifested in their frequent meetings at private houses, where they worshipped after the Wesleyan mode. This was their chief delight.

Religious interest increased among them, and before the close of the summer, 1784, a regular society was organized, meeting at stated times, in a school house near the spot where the old Church now stands. Often however, they still met in private houses; either convenience-sake or the accommodation of the sick and afflicted, controlled their place of appointment. At this stage of history, I find local preachers at work, meeting the society regularly, and preaching with great zeal.

Among them I find the names of J. Hempbrill, Jas. [James] Christy and Jno. Wiseman. These brethren, it seems, had charge of the society – not all, however, at the same time. Men and woman came on foot from a distance of many miles. Religious services became so numerous, and the call for preaching was so great, that the local preacher, with other work, was not able to meet the growing demand . . . .

During these early years there was comparatively but little cleared land in this section; this forests abounded, wolves, panthers and other wild animals were numerous, and nearly every man carried his gun that he might be ready to defend himself against the assaults of wild beasts. The danger was so great that men were seen going to Church on Sunday morning with their guns on their shoulders – every man in front of his family with a gun . . . .

In the latter part of the year 1785 great need was felt for a house of worship. The school houses in the country were very few and very small and trifling. The private houses were also very small. [Bishop] Asbury refers to them in his journal as “cabins.” So the large and increasing congregations could no where be accommodated . . . .

In June, 1786, the building was completed, and it still stands . . . .

A Historical Sketch of Rehoboth M.E. Church, South Monroe County W. Va. Delivered at the Centennial Celebration July 20, 1884, by Rev. J.L. Kibler.

Revolutionary War hero, and signatory on the James Christy pension application, Samuel Clark, is mentioned as having been personally involved in laying the small logs for the church. It was fitting that the last person to live in the home we’re restoring (Byrnside’s Fort) was Margaret Clark, who passed away a couple years ago. And her father was Samuel Clark, the great great grandson of this Samuel Clark. Even more fitting, apparently Rehoboth Church was purposefully designed to be within the protective range of Byrnside’s Fort:

“The church building was completed in June, 1786. Only logs of medium size were used and it would have taken but a very few days to fell the trees and put the timbers into place. Samuel CLARK, a veteran of the Revolution, was one of the men who placed the wall-logs in their positions. The little building, whose floor space is not quite twenty-one feet by twenty-nine, was set up near the bottom of a circular depression in the limestone tableland. From this circumstance it can scarcely be seen from a distance of more than a hundred yards in any direction.

The choice of ground was doubtless because it was not yet felt that the danger of Indian raids was entirely over. The red men could not have come within rifle-shot unseen. It had sometimes been necessary for the settlers around to shelter themselves in Byrnside’s fort about two miles away. On one occasion the KEENANs ran to the fort in the darkness. Their baby Margaret was wrappped in a white sheet, so that her mother could better see the way.

The History of Monroe County, West Virginia by Oren F. Morton, originally published in 1916. See https://www.wvgenweb.org/greenbrier/history/rehoboth.html

Moreover, Rehoboth was the principal preaching place on the Greenbrier Circuit, established in 1787 with John Smith as the pastor. This leads us down a rabbit hole of even more interesting first hand history….

The Rev. Mr. Smith kept a journal, which gives us information about Rehoboth’s early days. Smith arrived in July of 1787. The size of the circuit prevented him from preaching at any one place more than once every four weeks, but Rehoboth was thought to be an important enough congregation to merit a Sunday service. “Hundreds ocked together to hear the word…” at the August service at Rehoboth. That winter the December and January services were held in homes because the church had no heat. See https://www.travelmonroe.com/old%20rehoboth.pdf

When Rehoboth Church was dedicated by Bishop Asbury in 1786, the worshippers carried their rifles — loaded of course, as well as their copies of the King James version of the Bible. Indians were still lurking about in that area and took a dim view of the way their hunting lands were being settled on by the pioneers.

Monroe’s Old Rehoboth Church Long on History
By Shirley Donnell
Originally published in the Beckley Post-Herald, Beckley, WV October 20, 1964

The bond for the deed where Edward Keenan donated the land specifically mentions James Christy:

Know all men by these presents, that I, Edward Keenan, of the county of Greenbrier and state of Virginia, am held and truly bound unto William Scarborough, James Scarborough, Daniel McMullen, James Christy, and Alexander House, or such trustees as shall be appointed by the preachers of the Methodist church, in the just sum of fifty pounds of good and lawful money of the state aforesaid, to the which payment well and truly to be made, I bind myself, executors, administrators, and assigns, jointly and severally, and each of them.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and seal this ninth day of February in the year of our Lord 1787.

The condition of the above obligation is such that if the above bound Edward Keenan shall make or cause to be made a lawful right and title to a tract of land containing four acres, whereupon the preaching house stands, then this obligation to be void, or else remain in full force and effect and in virtue of the law. Whereunto I have set my hand and seal this day and date above written.Edward Keenan. (Seal)

Signed, sealed, and delivered in presence of teste: Jacob Cook, Abraham Friend.

The History of Monroe County, West Virginia by Oren F. Morton, originally published in 1916. See https://www.wvgenweb.org/greenbrier/history/rehoboth.html

Here’s a Youtube video we did on Old Rehoboth:

The Baltimore Conference of the United Methodist Church keeps a great article on Old Rehoboth on their website, which reads, in part:

James Christie, [sic] recognized today as the founding pastor,
 organized the first Methodist meetings in the area about 1784. In 1786 Keenan, a local farmer and landowner, donated land for a church and cemetery, and assisted in the construction.

An appeal to Bishop Francis Asbury resulted in the appointment of Rev. William Phoebus, a preacher and polymath noted for laying the cornerstone for the first Methodist church in Brooklyn, New York. The following year John Smith organized the Greenbrier Circuit, with the new church at Union – called Rehoboth, a Hebrew name meaning “broad places” – as its center.

Today Rehoboth Church is the oldest Protestant house of worship of any kind still remaining west of the Alleghany Mountains. Though Bishop Asbury’s journal shows that he was not, as local legend holds, present for the dedication of the building in 1786, he did visit on five occasions between 1788 and 1797. During the first of these visits, in July of 1788, he preached and ordained John Smith as a deacon, the first Methodist ordination west of the Alleghenies. Anytime Asbury came, he would bring along one of the renowned Methodist preachers of his day, such as when Richard Whatcoat accompanied him on his third visit.

Another detail of the period construction is the door hinging system, which uses augured openings and wood pegs rather than metal hinges, and is believed to be original. Unknown is whether the church originally had a wooden or dirt floor, though a decayed wooden floor had to be removed during the 1920’s restoration.  [NOTE: that would be consistent with the construction found at Byrnside’s Fort. Nearly the entire log structure was “pegged” together by drilling holes with a hand-auger, and then inserted hand hewn wooden pegs.]

In its early decades, Rehoboth hosted weekend services and revival meetings for which families would arrive on Saturday night. The doors of the church opened at 7:00 a.m. on Sunday.  Services would begin, and preaching would continue until 12:30 in the afternoon or until the preacher got hungry. Then there would be a break for a midday dinner, after which preaching and exhortation would continue until late in the day. No one slept during the sermons: there was shouting and stomping, and if someone happened to nod off, a steward with a “prompter” pole would nudge the delinquent worshiper awake once more. Often the crowds were large enough that not everyone could fit inside. The preacher would then stand in the open doorway, and proclaim the word to those inside and outside at the same time, or by turns.

Traveling the Circuit: Rehoboth Church and Museum, Oct 25, 2017
By Rev. Charles Harrell https://www.bwcumc.org/news-and-views/traveling-the-circuit-rehoboth-church-and-museum/

[T]he Methodist Church, which in 1960 designated Rehoboth one of the first 17 Methodist Historic Shrines. Today, it is one of 49 United Methodist Heritage Landmarks, and the only such site in West Virginia. Questions relating to Rehoboth frequently appear on the state “Golden Horseshoe” history test that West Virginia middle schoolers are required to take and in 1974, the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Traveling the Circuit: Rehoboth Church and Museum, Oct 25, 2017
By Rev. Charles Harrell https://www.bwcumc.org/news-and-views/traveling-the-circuit-rehoboth-church-and-museum/

Back to Circuit Rider John Smith and his journal:

I also found in and among the historical documents at Willowbrook, a 1966 issue of the Journal of the Greenbrier Historical Society, related to Rehoboth Church, which included a publication of “THE JOURNAL OF JOHN SMITH OF HIS WORK ON THE GREENBRIER CIRCUIT, (WEST) VIRGINIA,” July 4, 1787 to July 8, 1788, which includes the actual journal entries by John Smith, who was an early Methodist Circuit Rider. It’s an interesting read, where he describes the tribulations of traveling by horseback across the 18th century Virginia frontier, including the Greenbrier Valley:

Sat. 28 1787: Travil’d 40 miles fed on the road and eat such things as I had with me called at the Red Springs [Sweet Chalybeate Springs] and took a drink of the water it tasting so much like tarter I could hardly bear it….

it being near night and no place for a Methodist Preaching to lodge at I set out into the Wilderness to seek lodging after riding 5 or 6 miles I got to an house where an Old Dutchman lived. It being dark I ask’d for lodging, but he had not consider’d the Apostel’s Exortation (viz) be not forgetful to entertain strangers therefore I was obliged to seek farther an dafter riding a mile I got to an house where lived the man his wife & nine children were sitting round the fire I call’d for lodging which was readily granted. I super on a little Joney cake and milk. Went to prayer with them found my should very happy and drawn out after God…..

Sun. 29 1787: Arose in the morning and commended them to God it being Sunday the 29 I rode 7 or 8 miles to the Sinks of Greenbrier (Union, WV area). Where the Rehoboth Society met together and I trust the Lord was present with us and gave us to feed on Angels food….

Tues 31 1787: Preach’d at Rehoboth Church the Lord was present and many felt the power of his word all I want is to do the will of God my soul is happy but not full Lord give me an entire conformity to they will –

Lodged at Alexander Hosicks Tribulation Flees….

6 thoughts on “James Christy of Byrnside’s Fort: “Indian Spy” and Frontier Minister

  1. James Byrnside (1727-1728) is my 5th great-grandfather. I descend through his daughter Mary Burnside (1775-1852) who married George Alford (1764-1830). The latter later relocating to then Cabell County, VA now Lincoln County, WV.

    Alan S. Bias
    Lewisburg, WV

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