Wilkes County, North Carolina, represents homespun traditions, local folklore, and vast beauty. As the foothills begin cascading down from the Blue Ridge Mountains, the county engulfs the Yadkin River’s turns and swift currents throughout the land. The boundaries of Wilkes have changed often since the onset of establishment dated 1777. Many 18th and 19th century families have traveled through this area while keeping their eyes focused on distant lands such as Tennessee, Kentucky, and even further west. According to documents, many early families were well established in present-day Wilkes county when the land was known as Surry, Rowan and Anson counties. But, nothing compares to the number of families arriving in the area between 1777-1779.
The original boundaries formed out of Surry, and the District of Washington, known today as the eastern sections of Tennessee, attracted hundreds of people who sought a fresh start on fertile soil. The first court, held at the home of John Brown, a resident of present-day Wilkes, for several years before the county’s formation. The new county’s name can trace back as a respectful honor to John Wilkes, who held radical views as a Member of the Parliament in Middlesex.(1) Wilkes supported the American patriots and religious freedoms for a brief time. The famous slogan for the period was Wilkes and Liberty, and both sides of the Atlantic Ocean chanted these words. John Wilkes(1725-1797) is a fascinating individual, and Piedmont Trails may have more on this character from the past in the near future.
During the enormous 18th-century migration, 1744-1780, thousands upon thousands of families migrated to and through North Carolina. Groups of people were seeking the availability of land as their primary target. As each new section of opportunity opened, the wagons and the families would flow into these sections by the hundreds. The news of a new courthouse represented the hope of personal advancement with a public voice, respected recognition, and prosperity per colonial social standards. This action also represented new business prospects aligning with public demand transforming a rural area into a thriving profitable community. This article will examine some of the families who entered Wilkes County during the years 1777-1779.
Before the naming of these settlers, please allow focus on the early surnames who arrived before 1755. These are Gist, Brannon, Brown, Nelson, Bryan, Boon, Cleveland, and Wilson. The Mulberry Fields area and these early family’s history and genealogy will be arriving on the upcoming podcast show of Piedmont Trails, episode #20. The podcast will discuss the historical details with the Mulberry Fields area while concentrating on the growth and popularity before Wilkes became a North Carolina county.
Surnames along Roaring River are Spirer, Slown, Hammon, Wheatley, Byrom, Webb, Fugit, Goodge, Rose, Greenstreck, Holbrooks and Woolbanks. Surnames along Mulberry Creek are Russan, Tolever, Robbins and Hickenson. Surnames along Fisher Creek are Hunt, Kearby, Harris, Underwood and Chandler. Surnames along Swan Creek are Bourland and Bicknell. Surnames along the Elkin River are Wright, Loving, Carter and Carrell/Garrell. Surnames along Cove Creek are Marlow and Estap. Surnames along the Yadkin River are Vanderpaol, Tate, Herndon, Crenshaw, Boaz, Loving, Stabblefield, Dier, Sheppard, Barton, Kees, Parks, Pitman, Thrasher, McCorkle, Ross, Sparkes, Bates, Carpenter, Johnston and Lenoir.(4)
Many of the surnames mentioned above were also active members of the Wilkes County Militia established December 9th, 1777. These men were involved in at least 27 battles and skirmishes associated with the American Revolution. The Colonels listed are Benjamin Cleveland, Elijah Isaacs, and Benjamin Herndon. The regiments dealt with little to no provisions. Small quantities of blankets were available, and no tents for shelter document the lack of supplies during the war years.(2) Cleveland was known for hunting Tories in the area during the war. His diligence while in pursuit can be located in many different materials. An unknown amount of local skirmishes continue to reveal Cleveland’s actions through correspondence letters, journals, and other documents. Folklore stories also add spice to the growing legend of Benjamin Cleveland. The “Hanging Oak” or “The Cleveland Oak” pictured also represents the lives of captured Tories and others who hung to their deaths upon the branches.(2)(6)
After the war, Benjamin Cleveland was forced to surrender his land in Wilkes County and migrated to South Carolina. He lived out his remaining days in his new home and is buried in Oconee County, South Carolina. Much controversy began with land grants in the area soon after the establishment of Wilkes County. Many families forced to move and surrender their property migrated to western and southern lands after the war. These actions were not associated with the Confiscation Act of 1777(7) but by a much broader outline embellished with various lawsuits, court rulings, and appeals. The debate concerning the actual land of present-day Wilkesboro continued for over thirty years until 1831. Colonel Benjamin Cleveland is a well-known patriot of the American Revolution, and only Loyalists were affected by the Confiscation Act of 1777. Several questions begin to surface when Cleveland and many other families lose their lands and homes after the war in Wilkes County. Could these questions supply the answers to family historians seeking out the reasons for western migrations? One reason for departure would be the lands received for patriotic services, and many family surnames fall into this category. However, the number of families leaving the Wilkes County area between 1784 and 1799, with the lawsuits and active court cases, involve a much louder voice.
The 1800 census of Wilkes County demonstrates how many of these early families left the area. The surname Spirer/Spear has migrated to Tennessee. A few remaining in Stokes County, NC. The Slown/Sloan family migrated to Mecklenburg County of NC and the Newberry District of South Carolina. One member of the Byrom family is in Stokes County, NC. Others are in Mecklenburg and Lincoln counties of North Carolina and further south into Pendleton and Laurens districts of South Carolina. Many members of the Goodge family are in Rutherford County, NC. One family member of the Greenstreck surname is in Burke County, NC. The majority of the Woolbanks family is in South Carolina, with one member in Guilford County, NC. The surname Russan is in Buncombe County, NC. The Hickenson, Kearby, Tate, Barton, and Hunt surnames are in Stokes County by 1800. The Crenshaw family migrated to South Carolina in Union, Newberry, and Lancaster districts. The Stabblefield family is in Rockingham and Caswell counties of North Carolina. The Kees surname is in the Pendleton District of South Carolina. The scattered Pitman family appears in South Carolina and eastern sections of North Carolina by 1800. Traces of the Thrasher family are in the Pendleton District of South Carolina.
Of the fifty surnames mentioned in this article, twenty-two has migrated to other areas outside of Wilkes County by 1800. The original land grants seem to indicate a majority of these properties resided east and north of present-day Wilkesboro. Take advantage of the land grant information, including waterway routes and neighbor boundary lines. Also, use historic overlay mapping. These tools will possibly allow you to pinpoint down the correct location of your ancestor’s home and enhance your research ability on a local level. More articles are to follow with Wilkes County soon on Piedmont Trails. Enjoy Your Journey To The Past !!
- Jensen, Merrill “The Founding Of A Nation: A History of The American Revolution, 1763-1776 pp. 152, 155
- Crouch, John “Historical Sketches of Wilkes County pp. 38-39
- Leroy, David “The Formation Of The North Carolina Counties, 1663-1943
- Photo of Richard Sidden’s barn located near Absher, Wilkes County, NC courtesy of Library of Congress
- NC Land Grant Images and Data
- History of the Tory Oak courtesy of The Town of Wilkesboro
- Demond, Robert “The Loyalists In North Carolina During The Revolution” pp. 160, 171