Monday, June 26, 2006


I am indebted to my niece, Mrs. Kate Holden, for four letters by my father to her father, R. N. J. Wilson, when he was a young man studying law, giving at his request the early history of the family. These letters are of great value, and will be read with interest by his descendants as it is the only history of our ancestors on my father's side, and throws some valuable light upon the habits and customs of the people of old Virginia (the mother of us all), at an early day.

The historical part of the letters I transcribe verbatim, as follows:

Wall Hill, Miss., April 2d, 1857

My dear son Nicholas:

I am in debt to you for two letters, both of which I will now in part try to answer. To your first, relative to your determination to study law as a profession, I cannot say I am well pleased. Law as a science will be pleasing to you, I know, but when you come down to the application of those great principles of right and injustice, in what is called the "Practice of law, " I am persuaded you will be disgusted with such a display of little, low, cunning, duplicity, ignorance, evasion, and want of moral virtue, as to turn you away. It does not of necessity follow, that all who enter into the practice of law, should condescend to such a degraded course, and I am assured you cannot. Your moral sense of rectitude, imbibed from, and sustained by that eternal and emmutable code of omnipotence and wisdom, the "Bible," will never permit you, for a moment, to entertain such a degraded course. Again, the business of law office, the confinement to books, for writing, and all the labor of making up cases, examination of authorities and statutes, will be greater perhaps than you are aware of, and then the time you of necessity must "suck your paws" before you can make character, to earn your bread ("the doom of every professional man ") may fatigue you. I don't say these things to discourage or dishearten you, but that you may look them full in the face and summon up fortitude to overcome them all, and to enter the profession determined to sustain it in that high and exhausted position it of right in society holds, and by a correspondent exhibit of all character in you, never suffer a dime to prostitute you to any low, or dishonorable course in tactics to conquer! Remember the old adage, "Honesty is the best policy." The subject of your last letter, is one of interest to me, and has been for a number of years, but how to arrange and embody the information of the family genealogy to my descendants, has been the difficulty. The time is so short, and the facts so scarce, as to amount to a mere point. I am now the eldest one of the Wilson family of which you are a descendant, and I presume, know more of the family, than any living person, and as you manifest such anxiety on the subject, I have determined to gratifying your desire to the best of my ability.

Stephen Wilson, the root of my family, my grandfather, came to Virginia from England early in the 18th century, perhaps as early as 1730 (for his family was grown up to manhood by the breaking out of the war with Great Britain in 1775), and settled on James River in the vicinity of old Jamestown, where he married a lady by the name of Ragsdale. At the commencement of the trouble with the mother country, he removed to the back settlements of the whites, to Nottoway River, which was then, as I heard his oldest son say, the dividing line between the Indians and whites in Dinwiddie County, about one hundred miles from Jamestown. Hereby family continued and grew up to manhood; I, myself, being the first to set my face to the far West. He was a man of great perseverance and industry, a house joiner and painter by profession. In the vicinity he located large tracts of land, built framed dwellings on them, and sold, reserving his best river lands for his children, and built comfortable houses on them. In one of these dwellings I was born. Of his industry, many anecdotes were told, such as disturbing the neighbors by the sound of saw and hammer at night, and call of stock before day. He was the first to introduce ditching against troublesome neighbors. He was also a great stock raiser. At the time of the passage of Lord Cornwallis to Yorktown he suffered by his depredations.

He reared a family of six children, three sons and three daughters -- David, George and Robert; Nancy, Molly and Betty. Betty married a man by the name of Overby, and she left but one son by the name of Thomas Overby, who removed to the state of Georgia about the year 1820. David Wilson, the oldest son, went into Revolutionary service, and never returned, or was heard from. George, the second son, lived to be old before he married, and then married an old widow, leaving no children. He was the last survivor of his family, from whom I received my information in making this narrative. He was a man of great piety and godliness; the constant reader of the Bible, attendant at public worship with any denomination, without party spirit or prejudice, although a member of the Baptist Church. In moral honesty he was the standard of his neighborhood; and as my father died when I was only 10 years old, of whom I could know but little, I will relate a few anecdotes of him.

Whatever he had for sale, he put a price on it, and that price he would have, and should he be offered more, he would not accept it; and this occurred so often in his sales of property, in the neighborhood that it became a proverb.

At the end of every year he was scrupulous and punctual to pay every cent. He never went to the courthouse but on the day of election to cast his alert, which he never failed to do. Being asked why he was so punctual on elections, replied: "My country has made it my duty, not privilege, to vote."

One more, and it may be of service to you to know it. In the year 1819, your uncle, Legrande, removed to Huntsville, Ala., in the midst of the great immigration of that day, and was seeking business, as you may be some of these days, without recommendatory letters. The gentleman to whom he applied inquired where he was from, deferring an answer for a few days; in the meantime he met a man in whom he could confide, from Dinwiddie County, Va., and asked him if he knew this young man Wilson. "No," he answered, "I do not know the young man, but I know the family well, and they are proverbial for honesty." Upon which he employed your uncle in his responsible business. This anecdote throws some value upon your desire to know something of your pregenitors, notwithstanding the great power of Democratic institutions to level society to the standard of individual merit. Yet all are looking to the channel through which they come for character.

But this must suffice for the present. I hope you will succeed in your present undertaking, to store up profitable knowledge for yourself and society, and made God add His blessing to your labors and sanctify them to His own glory.

Your father, JAMES WILSON.


WALL HILL, MISS., April 14th, 1857

My dear Son:

I resume my narrative of Uncle George's peculiar trait of character, because it had effect on our family in its embarrassment. At the time of his wife's death, her heirs had removed to West Tennessee. They removed her negro property to the West, and rather than separate the family, which would be done if he brought his back to Virginia, he liberated his, and remained without servants to the day of his death. When I come to the history of my family after my father's death, you will see the bearing of that benevolent disposition.

My father, Robert Wilson, the youngest son of Stephen Wilson, grew up to manhood (with the ordinary education of the day), prepared to dig mother earth for a living, and in the occupation of tobacco planting, provided well for his family. He was of industrious habits and perseverance in business, of warm, social disposition, a zealous supporter of the church of the Baptist order, and to the day of his death, the leader in the cause of common schools in his vicinity. In early life, he married Clara Fisher, the oldest daughter of James Fisher, of Brunswick County, Va. She also was of like habits, a zealous professor of religion of the same order; a great reader, and lover of vocal and instrumental music. She entered the Church in her fifteenth year, and with unwavering faith ran the Christian race, with a truly Catholic spirit, advocating and aiding in all the benevolent efforts of her day, seemingly insensible to party divisions in the Church of Christ, as her liberality did testify.

His marriage took place about the year 1780. With a firm determination to provide for his own, and the wants of his house, he began life by overlooking the farm of his relation, Maj. Ned Ragsdale, of Lunenburg County, who in at that day represented that county in the Virginia Legislature. While engaged in his employ, in the full enjoyment of domestic happiness, with his first born son and bosom companion, the conflagration of his dwelling occurred by which every article of furniture and clothing were destroyed. The great difficulties of that day surrounding the commencement of life, cannot be comprehended or appreciated at this day.

Consider the trouble preceding the Declaration of Independence, all the harassing measures of the mother country, the curtailment of trade, the few improvements in labor-saving machinery, if you can, and you may have some faint conception of the spinning wheel and loom in the house for female labor; the plow, hoe and ax for the field labor of men, all of the roughest construction. They reaped the field with the reaphook, plowed with a wooden shaft plow, and share of an uncouth, crooked piece of iron; for instance, a grubhoe turned upside down, and fastened on a handle, and inserted into the stock of the plow. Flax, cotton and wood, the only articles from which to manufacture closing for both sexes, and these to pass through the fingers on the roughest machinery that the ingenuity of the age could invent; for instance, pick the seed out of the cotton with the fingers, or on hand-roller gins, pick and clean wool with the fingers, for the "lap card"; break, hurd, and swingle and hackle the flax, and spin it on the lap-flax wheel.

The field and road carriage for transportation, the single, or two horse cart. The tobacco packed into hogsheads, weighing 1,200 to 1,500 pounds, and rolled on the ground to market. Under circumstances like these did my parents come before the parson for matrimony, clothed in habiliments of their own manufacture, for I have heard my mother say she spun and wove her wedding dress, on the 1000. sley, the finest manufacture of that day. Many nights, during the Revolutionary struggle, did my mother with others pass in the deep woods, to avoid British aggression. Should we not be surprised that any of that generation should be able to read and write. This disastrous conflagration did not depress my parents, but they plied their energies to business, and by prudent economy, provided a competence for themselves and family, always the constant attendants on public worship.

How long my father continued in the employ of Maj. Ragsdale, I know not, but he laid up in that county a tract of land of 400 acres. From this county he removed to Dinwiddie county, to the land of this father, where he continued till his death in the year 1804. At which place his family of children grew to manhood, and his widow died, and are both buried in the same family cemetery. By this marriage he raised eight children to be grown--Fisher, Thomas, Baxster, Ragsdale, James, David, Elizabeth Ragsdale, Legrand Whitehall, and Benjamin.

Nanny, my father's sister, was dependent on him for a home after her father's death, with her negroes, numbering twenty. These, she devised by will to my father, and were to be liberated at some convenient time after his death. They were all young, and in possession of my father at his death.

After his death, Uncle George instituted suit for their liberation, which was sustained by the Court, and the negroes freed. These young negroes had been raised and provided for by my father for several years, and were worthless as hands, and only an expense, and you can readily see, a great burden to his family.

But four of Robert Wilson's sons left issue to bear the name, viz., Fisher, James, David, and Legrand.

Thomas Wilson left two daughters, only, Elizabeth R., married a man by the name of Snow, and died, leaving an only daughter, to the care of Legrand W. Wilson, named Vermonta Elizabeth.

In my next I will commence the history of my own family.

Your father, JAMES WILSON


Post a Comment

<< Home