The bloody history of the Graham Cabin

This impressive log cabin was built 1770-1772 by Col. James Graham. It was the site of a bloody attack in 1777. This special structure is one of the few other surviving frontier blockhouses of the 18th century Virginia frontier, all of which lie within a fairly small radius of the Greenbrier Valley: the Graham Cabin, Byrnside’s Fort, and the Estill Blockhouse (the latter two being in modern day Monroe County on Indian Creek). The Graham cabin is on the Greenbrier River.

Originally, all three of these blockhouses were in Greenbrier County, and then all three were in Monroe County (at the 1799 creation of Monroe County). Blockhouses were log or stone structures, usually homes, which were fortified and capable of defense from Indian attack. Sometimes, but not always, they had an overhanging second story and an internal chimney. The blockhouses which were constructed as fortified homes, rather than purely as a military garrison structure, were almost never overhanging on the second story. I believe this is primarily due to the fact that you could not build exterior chimneys with an overhanging second story.

Blockhouses may, or may not have also been part of a fort. In this case, the fort was some distance away, but still running distance. Neither of the three of these surviving blockhouses (Graham, Byrnside, Estill) have an overhanging second story. Probably because they were built as homes, they were used as homes, and were maintained, and survived, rather than being scavenged for the valuable hewn logs. It is believed that Arbuckle’s Fort had a small square blockhouse with an overhanging second story. But I’m not sure what that’s based on…. It may be based on the knowledge that it was not built as a home, but solely as a military fortification. Consistent with that, nothing remains of it today, except some chimney foundation stones.

Later, Summers County was formed, which claimed the Graham Cabin from Monroe – but just barely. Col. Graham was one of the early fathers of both Greenbrier County and Monroe County, along with the James Byrnside and Isaac Estill. And it’s hard to believe all three of their original fortified homes survived.

On the North bank of the Greenbrier River at Lowell, Summers County, WV. Believed to be the oldest structure in present day Summers County, West Virginia.

This is an existing example of a Blockhouse style fortified home. Less than a fort. More than just a cabin. This is one of the coolest historic structures in West Virginia.

This house was attacked by the Shawnee in 1777, killing the son of Col. Gra­ham and two others, and also capturing his 8 year old daughter, taking her to Chillicothe, OH. Her finally found and ransomed her 8 years later.

Originally this house would have had little or no windows. Just a door and some bored holes for gunfire, or as I suspect, observation. I have seen the inside of the front gun port, and it has an iron cover on the inside which rotates out, opening the port. It seems like it would be difficult to aim however.

The yard still contains a massive, massive Walnut tree. I have to imagine that tree was there in 1777. I’ve never seen a Walnut that large.

Not only does this awesome structure still stand, built with massive yellow poplar logs and double stone chimneys built of river rocks from the Greenbrier River, but we have an 1899 description of the family history from Col. Graham’s grandson, David:

As has been previously stated, the pioneer settlers of this community located here at a time when the savage, red warrior was still to be seen treading stealthily in this valley, the dim paths known only to the hunters and warriors of his own people. Thus, were those sturdy and brave pioneers ever kept on the outlook for terrors daily expected.

While some worked to clear away the heavy forest, others with rifle in hand watched for this treacherous foe. The cause of the strange barking of a cur, the snapping of a twig, the indications of fresh [89] footprints or the rustle of a leaf were looked into with as much scrutiny and precision as if their life depended on it, which, indeed, in many cases it did. Therefore, to better protect themselves from an attack from these marauding Indians, the pioneer settlers whom we have named, very soon after locating in their new homes, built a fort on the south bank of the river on the exact spot where now stands the Lowell hotel. This fort soon became a nucleus around which settlers sought homes and the protection it afforded. (NOTE: THIS WAS “FORT GREENBRIER”)

New homes were thus made more remote from the older ones, yet near enough that when an Indian alarm was sounded, they sought safety within the walls of the fort. It is to be presumed that many alarms, false as well as true, were heralded from house to house in these days of dread and terror. How often these alarms were followed by the actual presence of the Red man in these settlements or whether he was on missions of peace or painted for war, tradition does not say; but it is believed that this little community, though living in con- [90] stant fear, increased and prospered, with no known fatalities until the spring of 1777, when an Indian alarm was again heralded from home to home, which for once proved to be too true. This rumor seems to have been founded by a report of someone having seen Indian signs in the neighborhood.

From this report the whole community collected themselves to the fort. After being in the fort for a short time, possibly two or three days, and no further signs of Indians having been seen or reported, James Graham, hoping the alarm to have been ill-founded, proposed to those in the fort that, if some of the men would go and stay with him a night, he and his family would go over home. Accordingly, they did so, some of the men in the fort volunteering to go with him. Shortly after he went home, either the same night or later, his house was attacked by the Indians.

The assault was made in the after part of the night before daybreak. Not feeling well, Graham had luckily lain down on a bench against [91] the door with his clothes on. The Indians made the assault by trying to force the door open, which they partly succeeded in doing. Thus aroused, Graham and his men placed the heavy bench and a tub of water against the door, and in this way prevented the Indians from gaining an entrance. A man named McDonald (or Caldwell), who was assisting in placing the tub against the door, while reaching above the door for a gun was shot and killed, the ball passing through the door.

Thwarted in their effort in affecting an entrance into the house, the Indians next turned their villainous assault upon an outhouse or kitchen standing near the main dwelling. in this outbuilding slept a young negro man and two of the Graham children. The negro, whose name was Sharp, tried to escape by climbing up the chimney (chimneys in those days were large and roomy), but when discovered was ruthlessly hauled down from his hiding place, tomahawked and scalped.

As this tragedy was being enacted, the cries of the two children who were sleeping [92] on the loft above next directed the attention of the Indians to that quarter. They shot up through the floor and wounded the eldest of the two, a boy named John in the knee, then dragged him and his sister down and out into the yard. Finding that John was wounded so badly that he could not stand upon his feet and that he would be a burdensome prisoner, they at once dispatched him with a tomahawk and carried off his bleeding scalp as a trophy of their crime.

While this bloody scene was going on in the kitchen, Colonel Graham had gone upstairs and was shooting through a porthole at the Indians in the yard as best he could. The men in the lower part of the house loaded the guns and handed them up to him and he did the shooting. About the time they were trying to make the wounded boy stand up, several of them huddled together and fired at the bulk; when they suddenly dispersed. It is believed that one or more of the Indians were killed or wounded.

When the morning dawned upon the Graham [93] home, it was found that their ten-year-old boy, John; their neighbor and friend, McDonald (or Caldwell); and their faithful servant, Sharp, were dead and that their seven-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, was missing. The feeling of despair, gloom and sadness, doubtless mixed with a desire for revenge, that now rested upon the hearts of these sturdy pioneers can better be imagined than told.

There could be no speculation or guessing about the fate of those who lay dead. Their suffering was over; but the missing one! Where was she? Dead or alive? Was her mangled form floating down the river, or was it left in the deep forest to be devoured by wild beasts? or, perchance, was she living, half naked, with bleeding limbs, treading through brier and bramble at the mercy of some unfeeling savage? These must have been the thoughts that crowded the minds of the half distracted parents; but unrelenting search and untiring efforts finally disclosed the fact that she had been carried off a prisoner.

During the night of this massacre, William, the [94] oldest son, a lad of about twelve years, was not well, and being restless, had come in from the out house and, on his coming in, his mother remarked to him that he “had better go back to bed with the other children”. He replied that as it was nearly daylight he would lie down on the floor till morning, which, luckily for him, he did. otherwise, he no doubt, would have met the same sad fate of his younger brother. A few years after this occurrence an Indian skeleton was found about two miles from the scene of the tragedy, on a small run near where E. D. Alderson now lives, called Indian Draft, which was believed to be the same Indian killed by Graham. Graham secured the jaw bone of this skeleton and used it for a gunrack for a number of years.

After becoming thoroughly convinced that Elizabeth had been carried into captivity, the next task of Col. Graham was to locate her whereabouts and, if possible, secure her return. Months of anxious and unceasing search located her among the Shawnee tribes, whose wigwams were [95] situated at what is now Chillicothe, Ohio. She had been adopted by a squaw of one of the chiefs of the Cornstalk family of that tribe and, while it was doubtless a source of great jo’.y to those fond parents to find their long-lost child alive and well and well cared for, though in the home of a savage chief, yet a new anxiety awaited them, but little less terrible than that which they had already experienced, the work of rescuing and seeing her once more around the hearthstone of their own home. To this task Col. Graham directed his energies and several times visited the Shawnee towns and as often met with new obstacles and disappointments, none of which were probably more heart-rending to him than to know that his child had learned to love her savage home, and that in turn she was loved and doted on by her adopted mother. As the tender twig is easily bent and made to grow in new directions, so were the inclinations of this innocent child readily diverted from the scenes of the past and made to love the passing events which surrounded [96] her, and she being well cared for and never mistreated by the Indians, it was but natural that she loved them.

It is also said that before her return a love more passionate than that for her adopted tribe or mother had seized her youthful breast and that a young warrior would soon have claimed her for his “white” squaw. As to the truth of the story, that she had an Indian lover, we do not vouch, but having learned it from her own descendants, we think it worthy of mention. After fruitless efforts and at least two contracts, which were violated and backed down from by the Indians, Col. Graham finally succeeded in 1785 in ransoming and bring his daughter back home, after an absence of about eight years. The price paid for her release was the release of an Indian prisoner whom the whites held, thirty saddles and a lot of beads and other trinkets, and, according to the summing up of the various traditions, about $300 in silver.

She had to be carefully watched and even at [99] times confined to prevent her wild, wandering nature from reasserting itself, but as the years passed by, her love for Indian habits and customs decreased in the same proportion that her love for civilization increased. She married Joel Stodghill in the year 1792 and settled on Hans Creek, Monroe county, and to them were born five sons and four daughters. She died March 22nd, 1858. William Graham, the oldest son, married Harriet Walker and lived and died on Hans Creek. William was born November 27, 1794, and died December 5, 1850.


Some architectural observations:

There are a lot of interesting similarities between this cabin and our blockhouse at Byrnside’s Fort. Similar sized V notched logs were used – though these are made with poplar, whereas Byrnside’s used oak. Though they apparently did use oak here for the sleeper beams, and walnut for the sill beams. Poplar was much easier to work, since it was softer. I wonder if it was chinked with stone, or wood?

The width is apparently 28 feet, or so according to the National Register application, though it doesn’t look it from the pictures. Perhaps that’s because the first and second stories are 12 feet tall – unusually large for an 18th century log cabin. The oldest portion at Byrnside’s is 29 feet in width on the front and back wall. But Graham’s is also 25 feet deep, whereas Byrnside’s is 19 feet deep. However Byrnside’s was built originally with a full 6.7 foot basement, floor to ceiling. The Graham cabin was built with only a crawl space. Both have a similar sized attic with riven clapboard gables (I assume the Graham cabin was originally gabled with horizontal riven clapboards, because it wasn’t a log gable, for sure.

One major difference is that the Byrnside blockhouse formed part of a fort, whereas the Graham Cabin, although fortified and defensible, was built close to a fort. So ideally, the occupants would flee to the fort if advanced warning was received. As such, it would have had no stockade; no militia garrison, etc.

The front door on the Graham cabin appears to be at about the identical position of the original fort front door at Byrnside’s, which was later converted into a window. They are just slightly left of center. Like Byrnside’s, it would have originally had no downstairs windows. But also like Byrnside’s, I assume the second story windows, being very small, could have been original wood door shuttered windows, capable of also serving as shooting ports. This must be the case, because I don’t see any shooting ports cut out of it. The small hole in the center must be a peep hole. If you’ve ever fired a flintlock, you know you couldn’t aim and fire through that hole. Way too small….

The floorboards in the Graham cabin look close to identical to the old floorboards at Byrnside’s, which only still serve as a floor in one room. In the other rooms, they’re there, but they’re under later floors.

Both the Graham cabin and Byrnside’s have opposing stone chimneys. However, the Graham chimneys are made out of local river rock, presumably from the Greenbrier River, which is just a stone’s throw away. Byrnside’s is constructed with limestone rock quarried from somewhere other than a creek or riverbed. Byrnside’s other chimney is attached to the log addition. The original fort blockhouse had only the one chimney. The Graham chimneys are also wider, probably being much easier to make without having to hand-chisel limestone.

The partition wall for the bedrooms upstairs to be close to identical to the one’s put up at Byrnside’s. They appear to also be hand planed tongue and groove, with an early whitewash paint.

Note: this House remained in the Gra­ham family until 1860. It is now a museum.

Original NRHP application:

YouTube video with some footage of inside, including ghost stories: 

A few more pics:

5 thoughts on “The bloody history of the Graham Cabin

  1. My wife is a distant relative of the Graham family ( Peggy Jo Graham Anderson) daughter of Joseph Sparks Graham & Margaret Louise Jones Graham.
    Born and raised in Charleston, W. Va.

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