Lead and Gunpowder in the Wilderness – Virginia Lead Mines Part 2

This is Part 2 on the Virginia New River Lead Mines. Check out Part 1, if you missed it…. These blog posts are excerpts of the materials provided to me by my good friend, Jim Webb, a lifelong resident of the New River area of Virginia, mixed in with some of my editing, commentary, and scavenging experience. One little spot in Virginia, now completely abandoned and mostly lost to history, played an amazing part in American history. During the 18th century on the Virginia frontier, this little known spot was the center of activity, and possibly made the difference between life and death….

The general location of the Virginia lead mines, as portrayed on an 18th century map. Note the red circle around the center of the pic.

Little Mention of the Mines

There are few surviving written records detailing every day life in the early settlements along the middle New River, Virginia, area where the famous Chiswell Lead Mines were located. Of these, only rarely are the lead mines mentioned. This seems odd given the importance of lead to frontier settlers in close proximity to a source of lead – and even more odd in the context of a collection of 13 colonies requiring lead to fight a revolution.

From the time of Col. Chiswell’s discovery of the New River mine site (as detailed in Part 1 ), mining and refining began almost immediately, and lead was available for sale to local settlers. When mention of the mines is made in period records, they usually go something like this: “traveled to the lead mines to procure a quantity of lead.”

Generally, no descriptions are given of the mines in those descriptions, nor how they were operated. Jim opines that this lack of mention may be attributed to the fact that mining arrived there prior to most of the settlers, and therefore wasn’t seen worthy of mention. When even the earliest wave of settlers arrived, the New River lead mines were already in operation. Early settlers described that the lead “flowed from the mines like water flowing down the New River.” That was a good analogy, because like the water in the river, lead production fluctuated up and down at times. Also like the river, it never did run dry.

A modern Google Earth photo of the spot. In reality, the mines ended up being dotted around this landscape around the center of the photo. There were different tunnel entrances leading into the larger mining areas underneath.

Fort Chiswell

Nearby Fort Chiswell would be intertwined with the early history of the New River lead mines. Located several miles North, at an important junction of early (and modern) interstate travel, it provided both military security for the mines and mine operations, and also the logistics of secure storage and distribution. Though it’s disappeared today, Fort Chiswell would serve as the central military outpost of western Virginia in the pre-Revolutionary, and Revolutionary War period, and also as the county seat of Fincastle County.

Fort Chiswell remained the county seat until 1789, when the court was moved East – across the New River – to near the place where Fort Vause formerly stood. There a town was built and named Christiansburg, which still thrives today. Even after the removal of the court-at-the-fort, Fort Chiswell remained an important stopping point along the “Great Road” (i.e., the Great Wagon Road) heading West. The old fort, Fort Chiswell (itself) however, began a rapid decline after removal of the court which Lord Dunmore had placed there. The spot remains, however, a convenient stopping place for travelers to this day – as evidenced by the numerous truck stops found at the intersection of interstates 77 and 81.

Another view of the 18th Century Map shown above, showing the surrounding area. The red line traces the Blue Ridge, also called at the time, basically “West of the mountains.” It formed a substantial separation between East Virginia and the Virginia Frontier.

The Anchor and Hope Academy

One of the few schools established on the Virginia frontier was the Anchor and Hope Academy, established in 1792, by Rev. T.E. Birch, to teach the long lost skill of in-person oratory. It was located about one mile from Fort Chiswell. While teaching there, Birch called for the abolition of the property qualification for voting in Virginia. Birch had been a British sailor, serving at one time under Lord Nelson. He claimed in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, to have been involved in the capture of 47 British vessels during the Revolutionary War, most likely while serving under the American Commander, Alexander Gillon – probably in the Bahamas. He sent Jefferson a poem:

The Ode which is dedicated to your Excellency is the only laurel that the author can offer, to your administration

Such as it is—ah might it worthier be,
Its scanty foliage all is due to thee.

With sentiments of high regard and all due consideration, I beg leave to style my self, Sir, Your most obedient and very humble Servant
Thos Erskine Birch
Preceptor of “Anchor & Hope”
Acady, Wythe County, Virga

Thomas Erskine Birch to Thomas Jefferson, [November 1811],” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-04-02-0235. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series, vol. 4, 18 June 1811 to 30 April 1812, ed. J. Jefferson Looney. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007, pp. 286–287.]

Birch also wrote a pretty interesting book on elocution and public speaking, which presumably was used to teach at this school, “The Virginian Orator: Being a Variety of Original and Selected Poems, Orations & Dramatic Scenes; to Improve the American Youth in the Ornamental and Useful Art of Eloquence & Gesture.”

Fort Chiswell was primarily a military facility. As such, most of the supplies arriving and departing from there passed through the hands of its quartermaster. For instance, in June 1780, it is recorded that famous soldier and frontiersman, George Rogers Clark, stopped there to draw, “3 camp kettles, 23 canteens, 15 guns, 15 pairs of wippers, and 4 molds.” On November 18, 1780, records show that 6 tomahawks and 26 shot pouches were issued to an unknown individual. 

James McGavock

In 1786, one Capt. Peyton wrote to one Col. Meriwether:

Mr. David Ross desires to know of the Executor whether they will sell to him a ton of ye public lead that is lodged with Mr. McGavock at Fort Chiswell.

James McGavock was an Irishman who emigrated to Philadelphia around 1754. Indeed, following the famines in Ireland, around 12,000 Irish came to America annually during the mid 18th century. He eventually purchased a wagon and team of workers, and contracted to transport provisions for the campaign of General Edward Braddock in 1755. Following Braddock’s death at the famous battle near Fort Pitt, McGavock eventually settled in Augusta County, Virginia.

McGavock cabin, circa 1900

As James grew prosperous, and his family larger, he up and moved to what was then Botetourt County (and later Wythe County) and purchased the Fort Chiswell property, including the old military fortification, circa 1772. An old record shows that he was granted a license to operate a tavern on the premises:

 “Know all men by these present, That . . . James McGavock hath obtained a license to keep an ordinary at his house in the County of Montgomery…. The said McGavock constantly to keep and provide in his said Ordinary good wholesome and cleanly lodging and diet for travelers and stableage, fodder and provender or pasturage as the season shall require for their horses…. The said County of Montgomery shall not suffer or permit any unlawful gambling in his house, nor on the Sabbath Day suffer any person to tipple or drink any more than is necessary….”

An invoice from James Byrnside, owner of Byrnside’s Fort, to another 18th century tavern operator, Christopher Bryan, in Lewisburg (now WV), charging him for a pile of corn whiskey and rye whiskey for his tavern, which had been distilled at Byrnside’s Fort. This was a big business on the frontier in the 18th century. Travelers needed food, drink and lodging. These frequently ended up in litigation, which is how this document was found. Byrnside ended up suing Bryan over nonpayment. This was found by local historian Sam Hale, courtesy of the Greenbrier County Historical Society.

Apparently McGavock did very well with his tavern at Fort Chiswell – no doubt due to the great location in a time of mass movement. A discussion of McGavock comes up in an archaeology report pertaining to the battlefield located in the city limits of present-day Franklin, Tennessee. Apparently, McGavock ended up owning most of Franklin, and his descendants were among many of the prominent citizens there:

Fort Chiswell was located along the Wilderness Road, which connected the growing frontier settlements of western North Carolina (Tennessee) and Virginia (Kentucky) to the established towns in the East. Capitalizing on the stream of emigrants and traders traveling on the Wilderness Road, McGavock transformed the complex into a prosperous tavern and trading post, eventually enlarging the fort to include twenty additional log buildings. In the nearby village of Max Meadows, he constructed a two-story log home, which the family dubbed, the “Mansion House” (Gower and Allen 1960: 12 and 17).

While operating Fort Chiswell, McGavock turned his attention to public affairs, becoming Justice of the Peace to four area counties and one of fifteen signers of the Fincastle Resolutions, which called for the use of force against British aggression. During the Revolutionary War, McGavock allowed Fort Chiswell to be used as a supply depot and was commissioned as a militia captain and recruiting officer. McGavock’s discontent toward the British Crown was so well known that local Tories publicly called for his scalp. In 1776, a portion of McGavock’s property became part of newly formed Montgomery County. Anticipating the county’s need for suitable land to construct public facilties, and a chance to incur more business, McGavock donated twenty acres adjacent to Fort Chiswell for the construction of a courthouse and jail (Gower and Allen 1960: 13- 14).

As McGavock’s wealth accumulated, he further enhanced his stature within the region by contributing money and land for the Anchor and Hope Academy and a Presbyterian Church. McGavock’s prosperity allowed him to hire Alexander Balmaine, an Episcopal minister and teacher, to educate his children. Although he acquired notoriety through his roadside ordinary and his civic contributions, McGavock became best known for his insatiable appetite for acquiring property (Gower and Allen 1960: 14-15).

Eastern Flank Battlefield Park Archaeological Survey, Franklin, TN, by Larry McKee and Ted Karpynec, April 2008.

McGavock was both an important part of Fort Chiswell’s history, and apparently of the westward migration to Tennessee. The central theme here is the important emigration hub of the wagon roads around the middle New River settlements. Fort Chiswell made safe transportation possible.

What did the fort look like?

There is no surviving period description of Fort Chiswell itself, or the buildings it may have contained. However, it was surely built much to the same pattern as most of the larger frontier forts of the time. It’s likely that the fort formed a square, with each wall being a little less than 100 feet long. One blockhouse served as a powder magazine, and another would have served as an armory magazine, storing guns and accoutrements.

A view of the original fort logs and original chinking, made bullet-resistant with stones, from the Southeast corner of Byrnside’s Fort – a contemporary, and likely smaller fort than Chiswell.

Old records mention the public store, perhaps a third blockhouse which contained food supplies. There may have been a fourth blockhouse, possibly larger than the other three, lodging troops and/or residents. There were most likely several small log huts built along the stockade walls, and possibly a shed along one of the stockade walls. It would be unlikely that any buildings were built inside the stockade walls which were not connected to the walls.

Emigrants weren’t the only resource protected by the fort. Lead was a rare resource in 18th century North America. And it was an absolute necessity. A 1756 letter from the Governor of North Carolina to the British Board of Trade, begging for lead, indicates that even the colonial government had very little of it, and that it was vitally important to maintaining the peace:

My Lords Newbern 14th June 1756

There having been a conference with the Catawbas held at Salisbury by their King Hagler and some of his Warriors with Chief Justice Henley which has been sent down to me I thought it proper to send you a Copy of it, it was occasioned by some of the Cherokee’s who were returning from Virginia after their disappointment of attacking the Shawanese who carried off a white woman from Virginia and ’tis supposed at her Instation they carried off some horses, saddles and plunder from the back Settlers as they passed through the Province.

But I suppose would not supply the with provisions and our Mad settlers want to repel force with force but I have sent strict orders at their peril to make any opposition but to save their lives…. I shall order 100 weight of Gunpowder and 400 weight of lead to the Catawbas our friends, although we have not 1000 weight in the Province and none can be got unless the Government supplies us from England in case of War….”

Arthur Dobbs

All of this powder, lead, and other supplies would have required storage, in either a powder magazine or large cellar. This may account for the fact that you tend to find full basements in some of the few surviving 18th century log structures, whereas in the 19th century they almost always utilized a crawl space, which allowed for air flow, and less expensive and complex construction. Byrnside’s Fort has two surviving cellars, the larger of which is 30 feet by 20 feet, and 7 foot tall:

The basement of Byrnside’s Fort, with thick stone walls, sometimes several feet thick. No doubt this served as powder and lead storage, as well as other supplies necessary for a frontier fort and settlers.
A closeup on what the arrow is pointing at in the above photo of the Byrnside’s Fort basement. Somebody was counting something. That’s in solid limestone, so it was no easy task.

Governor Dobbs’ letter is a testimony to the shortage of gunpowder and lead on the southern frontier. The only other source for gunpowder and lead was to import it from England, which would be difficult during a time of war with England. Col. Chiswell’s New River lead mines and the nearby Trollinger gunpowder works helped to supply the need on Virginia’s frontier. Through the early output of the mining operation was undoubtedly small, the need was great. It wasn’t long after Chiswell’s initial discovery before word spread of the high quality lead at Chiswell’s mine on the New River. Numerous documented requests were made to the mine stewards, asking if lead could be sent to different settlements. People across the southern frontier were close to destitute. For the most part, they had little to no lead to fire from their longrifles. Without powder and lead, they were just expensive sticks.

Boundaries with the Cherokee

Many early Virginians complained bitterly when the 1763 “Proclamation Line” was drawn, which gave the valuable lead mines, as well as the “Dunkard Bottom” to the Indians. The Loyal Land Company had previously claimed the land. In fact, they had already sold many of the tracts. As a result, even though they had accepted payment for the tracts, they could not convey good title. The North Carolina mountains and Tennessee remained Indian land. When the Virginia – North Carolina boundary was extended West from Steep Rock Creek it was soon realized that the Watauga Settlements were in Indian Territory. The residents were ordered to remove. The ingenious settlers then promptly leased the surrounding lands from the Cherokee, thereby circumventing the law forbidding the “purchase” of Indian lands. But westward movement, as we know, was inevitable, and unstoppable.

In 1767, North Carolina and the Cherokee Nation agreed upon a new boundary, expressly incorporated “the Lead Mines of Col. Chiswell” as part of the boundary between the “Province” (Colony) of North Carolina and the “Cherokee Hunting Grounds,” as approved by the “head beloved men and Warriors of the Cherokee Nation. See Agreement between North Carolina and the Cherokee Nation concerning the boundary between North Carolina and Cherokee land Cherokee Indian Nation; North Carolina June 13, 1767, Volume 07, Pages 469-471.

Governor Tryon, who you may remember from the North Carolina episodes of Outlander, was personally involved in the process. In a June 4, 1767 letter from William Tryon to John Rutherford, Robert Palmer, and John Frohock, pertaining to the division of western boundaries of North Carolina, Governor Tryon wrote:

Reedy River Camp the 4th June 1767.

You will wait on the Cherokee Chiefs and acquaint them and Mr Cameron you have my directions to begin to run with them this morning the dividing line between the western frontiers of this province and their hunting grounds to commence on Reedy River where the South Carolina line terminates and be run a north course into the mountains whence a straight line to the lead mines of Colo Chiswell are to fix the boundary agreeable to the settlement made by the Prince of Chota, Juds Friend and all the other warriors of their lower towns at a meeting held at Fort Prince George the 20th day of October 1765.

I am Gentlemen &c

Governor Tryon’s character from Outlander.
The actual Governor Tryon

On October 17, 1767, John Stuart, Superintendent of Indian Affairs in the South (not the same John Stuart of Greenbrier Valley fame), managed to conclude the treaty Tryon ordered to be negotiated with the Cherokee. Stuart managed to acquire all the right and title to all land lying East of the East Bank of the Great Kanawha (New River) and from Chiswell’s Mine on the East Bank of the river, in a straight line, to the confluence of the “Great Conhoway” in Ohio.

Tokens of the alliance between the British and the Cherokee, which read, “God and my Right,” and “Shame be to him who thinks evil of it.”

The lead mines played a central part in the crafting of the boundary, as well as the crafting of the deal’s consummation. All parties involved agreed to meet at Chiswell’s Mine and finalize the boundary on May 10, 1769. This tract is West of the Proclamation Line of 1763. As a result, Col. John Chiswell’s New River Lead Mines thereby finally became part of the Colony of Virginia. This single parcel of real estate was probably the single piece of land that the Colony of Virginia, as well as the Province/Colony of North Carolina, wanted the Indians to relinquish – more than any other. Lead was a precious resource in a time where lead being fired at one’s enemy was the difference between life and death – or country vs. colony.

Another Treaty, this time made by Sir William Johnson, far to the North at Fort Stanwix, in October of 1768, extended the Western border of Virginia all the way to the Ohio River. These new treaties made it possible for the Loyal Land Company to finally convey good title to all of their 800,000 acres. They finally made good on their business deals, and Virginia, as we know it, was officially open to settlement beyond the mountains.

Heading Towards a Revolution

Inclusion of the lead mines themselves into the colonies, rather than on Cherokee land, would be strategically vital, for both Virginia and North Carolina in the War for Independence against England. On July 25, 1776, the North Carolina Council of Safety sent an order/request for lead to the lead mines, indicating what at the time must have been obvious: they had no other obvious source for ammunition with which to fight a war.

Halifax No. Carolina 25th July 1776


You will deliver to Mr. Matthew Locke Esqr. or his order all the lead which you may have in readiness at Chiswells Mines for the use of the Colony of No. Carolina taking a receipt for the same

we are Sir, your hble Servts

By order of the Council of Safety No. Carolina

Mr. Calloway Manager of Chiswells Lead Mines Virginia.

The colonial struggle for independence increased the demand for lead and gunpowder. Though having a sufficient supply of lead, inefficient operations and low output resulted in intervention by the Virginia legislature. They directed the Committee of Safety of Fincastle County to lease the lead mines “at a reasonable rate and if they could not lease them, to impress them for use of the State.” There was no other choice, as lead was a necessity. The Committee, acting according to their authority, took possession of the lead mines – though whether it was by lease, or impression, is lost to history.

Charles Lynch and one Captain Calloway operated the New River lead mines during the Revolutionary War. Records show that captured British soldiers were sent to the frontier and forced to work the lead mines “to their fullest extent.” During this period, rent for the mines was paid to the representatives of the original lead mine partners: John Robinson, Col. William Byrd and to John Chiswell, Col. Chiswell’s son.

Lord Dunmore, the last colonial governor of Virginia, chose the lead mines for the county seat of the newly formed, and vast, Fincastle County, established in 1772. Four years later, Fincastle County was abolished and divided into three new counties. Montgomery County included the lead mines, but the county seat was moved from there to a few miles North to the nearby fort, Fort Chiswell, probably due to its strategic location on the much-traveled “Great Road.” Washington County was also formed, which included all of the Holston River area and the present state of Tennessee. The third county created was Kentucky, which later became the State of Kentucky.

Two original Lord Dunmore signatures we have in the Scavengeology Museum Collection. The framed one, with the seal intact, is currently on display at the Fort Pitt Museum.

Before the original Fincastle County was dismembered, it gave its name to the Fincastle Resolution of Liberty. Drawn at the lead mines in January of 1775, it was a resolution addressed to the Virginia Delegates to the Continental Congress.

The Fincastle Resolutions was a statement adopted on January 20, 1775 by thirteen elected representatives of Fincastle County, Colony of Virginia. Part of the political movement that became the American Revolution, the resolutions were addressed to Virginia’s delegation at the First Continental Congress, and expressed support for Congress’ resistance to the Intolerable Acts, issued in 1774 by the British Parliament. Other counties in Virginia had passed similar resolutions in 1774, such as the Fairfax Resolves, but the Fincastle Resolutions were the first adopted statement by the colonists which promised resistance to the death to the British crown to preserve political liberties. The Fincastle men had fought in Dunmore’s War against the Shawnee to the west and were not able to formally express their sentiments about the constitutional dispute until this time. The Fincastle representatives adopted the resolutions at Lead Mines,currently Austinville, Virginia located in Wythe County, Virginia which was then the location of the county seat. The Lead Mines county seat of Government would shortly thereafter move to Christiansburg, Virginia as Fincastle was divided into Montgomery, Washington and Kentucky counties of Virginia.

Others say that the Resolutions were signed at nearby Fort Chiswell:

The much-reported tradition (in dozens of secondary sources and scores of newspaper articles) that the Fincastle Resolutions were adopted at the Lead Mines is probably wrong…. A comprehensive reading of the available documentary evidence, and consideration of the geographic realities, together make it highly likely that the Resolutions were actually signed ten miles distant from the Lead Mines at James McGavock’s ordinary at Fort Chiswell.

The Fincastle Resolutions, by Jim Glanville, The Smithfield Review, Volume XIV, 2010

What is known for sure, is the identity of the men responsible for the creation of the document, one of whom was James McGavock, discussed earlier. Another was the legendary frontier leader, Daniel Smith, surveyor and later founding father of Tennessee. This is his powder horn and surveyor’s poll axe:

Daniel Smith’s powder horn and surveyor’s poll axe, in the Scavengeology Coll.
Pipe axe which belonged to Daniel Smith. Now owned by Giles Cromwell.
“Rock Castle” – Daniel Smith’s home in Tennessee

The early lead mine operations were carried out in a most primitive manner. Only the abundance of rich lead ore made mining operations possible. Transportation of the refined lead, on the other hand, was a large problem. An even larger problem was the transportation of the mining equipment to the mine itself.

Early Mining Efforts

There are few descriptions of the early workings at the New River lead mines. Little is known about the operations, or how workers were quartered. There is no mention of buildings, or houses of any kind. But when Fincastle County was formed in 1772, the lead mines were chosen to be the county seat. Records survive, but it is not known where the proceedings were held. There were surely some buildings and fortifications, likely hastily built from timber removed from areas cleared due to mining operations. Most time and energy was likely applied to the mining and refining of lead ore, rather than to construction.

The early proprietors of the mining operations imported from England all but the most basic every day items. All had to be transported to the New River lead mine, which was no small task. Not to mention the amount of time it must have taken between placing equipment orders and the delivery of such items from England to America. Along with the equipment from England, by necessity came Englishmen with the knowledge of its operation. These men also brought with them the knowledge of how to increase the mine’s output. Only occasionally were the names of those in charge of operations recorded.

This is a medieval salt mine in Poland, but still pretty close I’d imagine. Interesting pics at the link.

Finding workers on the Virginia frontier who were willing to tie themselves down to everyday drudgery of mining was difficult, if not impossible. Most men on the frontier were more interested in hunting, trapping and exploring. Few ere willing to perform back-breaking hard labor. The proprietor and overseers were from Williamsburg, or other settlements far to the East. The workers were also likely brought in from the East – most likely immigrants, recruited and brought to the frontier specifically to work the mines.

Abandoned 18th century English mine in Russia. Also some awesome pics at this link as well.

During the 1770s, Col. Campbell commanded troops stationed to guard and protect the lead mines and the surrounding area. Frequent mention of Tories and Indians lurking around is mentioned. How many soldiers and militia stationed there is not known. Most likely the number varied from season to season. Combined with mine workers, there would have been a considerable number of people on site, and as the militia troops remained there for several years, housing – although probably primitive – was surely provided. It is not until about 1780 when Mose Austin acquired the mines and took charge of their operations, that there was mention of the presence of a village. 

This is an old photograph which I was given by my friend Jim Webb, who grew up in this area, and has been researching it his entire life. This shows a shot tower at the lead mines. But it’s clearly not made of stone. 

Rev War Events and the Mines

The importance of the New River lead mines is illustrated by a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to Patrick Henry, who at that time was the Governor of Virginia:

That considered perhaps as the sole means of supporting the American Cause, the lead mines are inestimable.”

Another letter, sent by the Colony of North Carolina on July 27, 1776, also to Gov. Patrick Henry:

This Colony (North Carolina) is in the greatest want of lead; we have to request that you order from Chiswell’s mines a prest supply of five tons. As the inhabitants of our frontier have scarcerly any, and are in the most distressed situation and we have no other means of procuring that article but from your Colony (Virginia). Therefore must once request your friendly and speedy assistance.”

The American colonies, and especially the residents of the Virginia frontier, depended on the constant supply of lead produced from Chiswell’s New River mines. The militia mustered at Fort Chiswell – not far from the mines – replenishing their supply of lead and gunpowder before setting out in pursuit of Indians and Tories. The inhabitants of the Virginia frontier were fortunate to have a source of lead. Surprisingly, however, the proprietors never made large profits, likely due to the mine’s remote location. Lead, being extremely heavy, made transportation back East, or to other colonies, inefficient and expensive.

The inhabitants of the Greenbrier Valley frontier weren’t all that far-away from the lead mines. But since lead is heavy, and there were no real roads as of yet, resupply of lead was almost impossible. George Clendenin, of Greenbrier County, wrote to the Governor of Virginia, in 1789, describing the problem of transportation on the frontier:

Our country, at present is entirely destitute of lead, as I have no possible means, I know of getting from lead mines, although I am informed there is a considerable quantity there which belongs to this country, yet I can produce no method of getting it brought from thense.

George Clendenin was an early frontier settler in the Greenbrier Valley. Then he moved and with his wife, Jemima, founded what is now the Capitol of West Virginia: Charleston, West Virginia (named after his father, Charles Clendenin). We actually discovered the grave site of George Clendenin’s wife, Jemima Clendenin, while searching for the grave of my 5th great grandfather, James Bryan, at Point Pleasant, West Virginia:

With my metal detector I found an early 20th century marker for the original buried tombstone of Jemima Clendenin. There was no record of its location ever recorded before that point.

The grave site actually ended up on my family’s land in Point Pleasant, because, as I discovered, Jemima’s daughter, Parthenia, married Andrew Bryan, who was the older brother of my 4th Great Grandfather who lived in a log cabin on the property there, along the Kanawha River, until about 1840. Here this woman was the co-founder of the Capitol of West Virginia, and she had been completely lost to history. Read more, or watch the Youtube video we made, where you see the actual moment I discovered it:

The Battle of King’s Mountain and the Lead Mines

During the Revolutionary War, the Chiswell lead mines played a central role in what was probably the greatest American victory in the Southern theater of the war – the defeat of Col. Ferguson at the Battle of King’s Mountain, by the rifle-equipped frontiersmen of the southwest frontier.

Both during, and following the Revolution, Col. William Campbell and his troops were stationed at Fort Chiswell, in order to protect the Chiswell Mines from attack by Indians and Tories, the later of whom were the greatest threat. There was a sizable local group of Tories lurking around in the nearby mountains. They tried on various occasions to stir up trouble. In the quelling of an uprising in the 1780s, several hangings took place. Charles Lynch, manager of the lead mines, and also a justice of the peace, led the miners as they aided Col. Campbell and his soldiers in restoring order. It is said that Mr. Lynch employed a swift justice and punishment that gave our language the term “lynching.” He was compensated for his actions by an Act of the Virginia Assembly in 1782.

Col. William Campbell was not sitting at the mine with his men, unwilling to move against the British General, Ferguson, and his Torries in the Carolinas. Protecting the lead mines was his number one priority. The lead mine was a prime target. For the last several weeks, his men had been engaged in quelling uprising from Tories and Indians in the vicinity of the lead mines, as well as further up the river. Col. Campbell had just returned to the mine, when a letter was received requesting urgent assistance by Isaac Shelby, of Kentucky. Campell immediately wrote a reply, regretting that “he could not leave the lead mines unguarded.” In fact, he had formulated his own plan to march his troops to the South, down Flour Gap and into North Carolina, should the British troops advance further North than Salisbury, North Carolina.

Campbell had received intelligence that Ferguson and Cornwallis planned to join forces at Salisbury, and advance into Virginia in order to lay waste to the lead mines and its stores. The Tory plan also included inciting the Indians to attack and destroy the Watauga and Holston River settlements, with the hopes that the combined forces would destroy the frontier rebels. The invasion of Virginia from the West during the Revolutionary War never in-fact materialized, in hindsight. But at the time, it was a very real threat, as evidenced by the numerous letters expressing anxiety about its occurring, by many of the central historical figures of the Revolutionary War.

While Ferguson was en route to join Cornwallis, he learned that a large group of Patriots were following him. He turned the head of his command southward, making a deliberate hook maneuver onto a ridge line 36 miles west of Charlotte.
There, he established his men in a defensive posture atop a ridge known locally as Kings Mountain. Ferguson sent out requests for reinforcements to Tarleton at Charlotte and Colonel Cruger at Fort Ninety-Six. Niether men were able to send any men to Ferguson. Ferguson was now isolated on Kings Mountain without any chance for reinforcements.
Ferguson placed his force in defensive positions along the ridge’s plateau, 600 yards long. Sentries were placed below the rim of the hilltop to provide early warning of any Patriot attack. Ferguson’s command was made up of 1,075 troops derived from elements of 6 Loyalist Militia regiments.

Col. Isaac Shelby wouldn’t take no for an answer. He sent a second request of assistance, simultaneously also requesting assistance from Col. Arthur Campbell, who was the County Lieutenant and cousin, and also brother-in-law, of Col. William Campbell. What effect, if any, the request of assistance from Col. Arthur Campbell had on the later decision to join Shelby on the march to the Carolinas is unknown. But that he did.

The defeat of Col. Patrick Ferguson at King’s Mountain by the “over-the-mountain-men” from the Holston River settlements, and other western settlements, is well known by most. They decided to put a stop to the threats and boastings of Col. Ferguson about what he intended to do to the rebellious citizens on the western frontier. The threats were not taken well by the southwestern frontier patriots. They agreed that they would march to the Carolinas and put an end to Col. Ferguson and his army. Or die trying.

Col. Ferguson told his soldiers “Unless you wish to be eat up by an inundation of barbarians, I say, if you wish to be pinioned, robbed, and murdered and see your wives and daughters in four days abused by the dregs of mankind, in short, if you wish or deserve to live and better the name of men, grasp your arms in a moment and run to camp.  The backwater men have crossed the mountains. If you choose to be pissed upon forever and ever by a set of mongrels, say so at once and let your women turn their backs upon you and look out for real men to protect them.”

The plan was hastily formed, but a central part of it was to seek the assistance of Col. Campbell, and his troops garrisoned at the lead mines. The additional men were a great asset to Shelby and Sevier’s small army. No doubt the acquisition of extra lead and gunpowder brought with them from Fort Chiswell and the lead mines, raised the sprits of everyone, as they marched towards the Carolinas. Thus, after some negotiation, Col. Campbell eventually agreed to join them, splitting his forces between the mines and the little army headed to Carolina. The ensuing death of Col. Ferguson at the Battle of King’s Mountain took place largely due to the determination of the frontiersmen who fought the battle, along with a little help from the lead mined from the New River lead mines and the gunpowder stored at Fort Chiswell, having been produced at various fronter gunpowder works, including the Trollinger gunpowder factory near the mines.

The battlefield at King’s Mountain, now a National Park.
The spot where Col. Ferguson was killed, and is now commemorated at King’s Mountain. It reads, “This memorial is from the citizens of the United States of America in token of their appreciation of the bonds of friendship and peace between them and the citisens of the British Empire – Erected October 7, 1930.”

King’s Mountain, Fort Chiswell and Byrnside’s Fort

The militia garrisoned at our very own Byrnside’s Fort also played a role in both guarding the Lead Mines at Fort Chiswell, and in supporting the garrison there. There are multiple surviving Rev War pension statements which mention rendezvousing at Byrnside’s Fort and then marching to Fort Chiswell, a.k.a., “Chissel”:

From, John Kincaid’s Rev War Narrative, Frontier Forts, Lead Mines, Scandal, and Forensic Pathology .

Read more, and in particular about this Kincaid fellow, who was quite interesting:

Byrnside’s Fort, looking in the direction of the lead mines. The road from the fort to the mines would have passed over those ridges, which would be the same likely path from the other Greenbrier Valley forts and settlements.

There are other pension applications which mention being part of the company drafted in 1781, which rendezvoused at Byrnside’s Fort, and then marched south to Fort Chiswell, with the purpose of going on to Kentucky after that. However, the narratives all mention that the militia company ended up staying at Fort Chiswell, rather than proceeding to Kentucky. This witness, one John Patterson, a supporting witness for John Kincaid, affirms in his verification that he personally saw John Kincaid at the rendezvous at Byrnside’s Fort in 1781…..

One such group of Tories had concocted a conspiracy to seize the lead mines in southwestern Virginia, which just happen to be in the vicinity of Fort Chiswell – where the Greenbrier militia company was headed on their way to Kentucky in February of 1781. Could that conspiracy have been part of the reason they were headed there first? Or possibly the reason they ended up staying there for their entire enlistment periods, rather than continuing on to Kentucky?

From, John Kincaid’s Rev War Narrative, Frontier Forts, Lead Mines, Scandal, and Forensic Pathology .
A grouping of fired lead rifle balls found concentrated behind Byrnside’s Fort, no doubt from the 18th Century period, and most likely sources from the New River Lead Mines. Whether this was due to target practice, or firing at an enemy isn’t known.
It’s possible these were all fired from the stockade, which would have been a downhill shot of about 150 yards or so – decently accurate rifle range from the stockade.

Read more about the surviving Revolutionary War pension narratives which mention service in Byrnside’s Fort:

The Battle of King’s Mountain was in October of 1780. One Littleton West mentioned in his pension narrative statement that he was drafted with other men from the Greenbrier Valley, into militia service in either 1779 or 1780, for which they rendezvoused at Byrnside’s Fort:

About the year 1779 or 1780 as I think I volunteered under Captain Thomas Wright of Greenbrier County in the State of Virginia in which County I still lived with a body of Militia ordered out by the authority of Virginia. We marched from Greenbrier County in the said State under the command of Captain T. Wright and Colonel J Henderson – with about 30 men to Burnsides on the Frontier of said County of Greenbrier in said state where we were stationed for protecting the frontier settlements. We were in actual service this tour 30 days, was discharged and returned to my former residence in Greenbrier Virginia.

It was noted in the Virginia Militia records for the County of Greenbrier, that in 1780, Captain Thomas Wright raised a company,

“to go against the Indians at Detroit. But then it was marched to the Lead Mines (Fort Chiswell) on Holston, and then to Logan’s Station in Kentucky. It was also at McAfee’s Station in Kentucky where Capt. James Armstrong was in command.”

Virginia Militia in the Revolution, p. 33.

Apparently they marched from Byrnside’s Fort to Fort Chiswell, were part of their force was enlisted to guard the lead mines during this time.

One John Robinson recalled being marched from Byrnside’s Fort to Fort Chiswell in February of 1780:

Living in Monroe County, West Virginia on Sept. 17, 1832. Born 1749. Drafted in February, 1780, under Capt. Thomas Wright, of Greenbrier, for the alleged purpose of going against the Indians at Detroit, but was marched by Crytes (probably Crisswell) lead mines to the head of Holston, and thence to Logan Station, Ky., where it was decided that the troops were not to go to Detroit.


There were apparently two separate militia musters at Byrnside’s Fort raising men for George Rogers Clark, for the Greenbrier Militia to march for Kentucky in order to serve in expeditions under Clark: one in 1778, and one in 1781. Each time they marched to Fort Chiswell. Each of these expeditions ended up diverting men to stay and guard the mines, as they were constantly under threat by the local tory groups in the nearby mountains.

Byrnside’s Fort, and vicinity.

One of the pensioners recalled being part of Capt. Wright’s Byrnside’s Fort muster group who was actually diverted into the army headed to the Carolinas. “Drury Ham,” recalled that:

That he entered the service of the United States under the following named officers and served as herein stated. That he entered the service of the United States about the first of March in the year 1778 as a drafted militia man in Captain Thomas Wright’s Company of the County of Greenbrier State of Virginia to serve a tower [tour] of three months which tower he served, some few days after he joined the said Wright’s Company the said company marched to New River in the State aforesaid where his Company was attached to Colonel James Henderson’s Regiment. He states that after the term of his service expired for which he was drafted he was discharged by his Captain Thomas Wright….

and in the month of September 1780 he again entered the service of the United States as a Volunteer in the company of Captain Alexander Hanley in the County aforesaid to serve a tower of six months, the company marched to the County of Montgomery & State aforesaid on Holston River where they were attached to Major Campbell’s Battalion and from that place they marched through North Carolina to South Carolina where they joined General Morgan’s [Daniel Morgan’s] Brigade and after they joined the aforesaid Brigade they marched to the Cowpens and that he was in the Battle of the Cowpens [January 17, 1781]…..


John Kincaid recalled rendezvousing at Byrnside’s Fort on February 14, 1781 and marching to Fort Chiswell, where they apparently guarded the lead mines for 6 to 8 weeks. This would have been guarding against the British, Indian and Tory threat during the Revolutionary War:

[H]e entered the service of the United States of the following named officers & served as herein stated: that he was drafted in the month of February in the year 1781 under Captain John Henderson and Lieutenant John Woods and Major Andrew Hamilton had the command. He then lived in Greenbrier County Virginia.

He started to the place of rendezvous on or about the 14th day of February and met at James Byrnsides the place of rendezvous on the 15th day of that month 1781. He was drafted as a private in said company but if there were any stated time for the termination of his service he does not now recollect. He served more than six months or perhaps seven….

The company was assembled in Greenbrier County Virginia they were then marched to the fort “Chessel” then in Montgomery County Virginia (Fort Chiswell now in Wythe County). After remaining there some six or eight weeks he was marched back to Woodses’ fort near New River in Greenbrier County (Woods’ Fort, 4 mi NE of Peterstown now in Monroe County WV) and was kept employed in guarding Indians and Tories.


Michael Swope was apparently on the same muster in 1781, but was in the group diverted from Fort Chiswell out to Logan’s Station in Kentucky, in order to serve with George Rogers Clark:

That in the winter of the year 1781, he was drafted for a three months Tour to go as he was then told against the Indians on Cumberland River and on the 15th day of February of that year he together with about thirty others took up their march as they supposed for that place under the command of Captain John Henderson, Lieutenant John Wood and Ensign John Hall, their company was joined at Burnsides Fort by a company from the County of Greenbrier Commanded by Captain James Armstrong and another Company commanded by Captain Davidson, in the whole was under the command of Major Hamilton.

That they marched on to Fort Chisel (Chiswell) where they met with Major Quirk or Kirk a Continental Officer who assumed the command over Major (Andrew) Hamilton, and thence they marched on to Kentucky to Colonel Logan’s Station where they remained until the three months draft expired when they were informed that the object of the draft was to go to Detroit (with George Rogers Clark) and a number of the men becoming dissatisfied deserted the next day but he remained and went on to Baughman’s Station and remained until most of the men left the Station when he was permitted to return home having served five months in said tour; that he never received any pay for said Services when acting as a Spy and but $6 for his services while drafted.


Gunpowder Operations

Little has been recorded concerning the small gunpowder operations on the Virginia frontier, and rarely are they mentioned today. But to the early residents there, they were the difference between life and death. With meager amounts of gunpowder and lead, the early settlers were able to repel attacking Indians, hunt game for food and clothing, and do their part in fighting a war against the British.

Lead had little use unless sufficient amounts of gunpowder could also be had. The want of gunpowder in the vicinity of the lead mines was somewhat relieved when Henry Jacob Trolinger, a North Carolina resident, moved just Northeast of the New River lead mines, near what is today New Dublin, Virginia. A Saltpeter cave was discovered there under a limestone ledge, in an area known as the Horseshoe Bend of the New River. Trollinger and his eldest son established the Trollinger Gunpowder Manufactory there. They worked the saltpeter cave extensively and produced substantial quantities of gunpowder there during the Revolutionary War era. They did well financially, since the spot was also convenient to the Great Road through Virginia.

One of the basic elements of gunpowder was saltpeter, which if found, sulphur could be obtained, and charcoal could be made. With a little knowledge, the three elements could be combined into gunpowder. Check out the post we did on a similar saltpeter cave and gunpowder mill in Monroe County, West Virginia:

Most of the Trollinger gunpowder was used in the frontier areas, West of the Blue Ridge. Following the Revolution, Henry Jacob Trolinger, Jr. returned to North Carolina. Henry Jacob Trolinger, Sr. then trained his youngest son, John, in the art of making gunpowder. Thus, the enterprise continued at the old saltpeter cave for some years afterwards. The operations were later reopened to furnish gunpowder for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Another small gunpowder manufactory was established by John Thompson, who found a saltpeter cave on top of a mountain near the Virginia-North Carolina line. He supplied gunpowder to local residents along that border area. It’s unknown when his operation began, but Hardin Taleferro states that during the 1820s, “a favorite gunpowder with hunters in that section was made by a man named John Thompson. I have no doubt of it’s being the best powder in the world.” He also stated that, “Hunters in that section obtained their lead at Pearce’s Lead mines, Poplar Camp Mountain, Wythe County, Virginia (Pearce and Jackson were partners in the New River lead mines, but ran independent operations).

One of the saltpeter caves in Monroe County, West Virginia, which provided saltpeter to the gunpowder mill on Indian Creek.

All across the frontier, from the Trollinger Powder Works on the New River, North to the Greenbrier, and the small powder works on Indian Creek, and West to the Holston, and into Tennessee and Kentucky, there were others who manufactured gunpowder in small batch operations, supplying their local communities with the invaluable product.

The Birth of Texas

During the first 30 years of operations, it was a struggle to keep the New River lead mines operating and producing lead. 1780 marked a new beginning when a man named Mose Austin acquired the New River lead mines. He and his son would play an important part in subsequent historical events. In fact, his son would later be known as, and remains known as today, the father of Texas…… To be continued.

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