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Looking Back on Southside: The life and times of William Letcher

Martinsville Bulletin Staff Report - April 19, 2018

STUART — We know a lot about J.E.B. Stuart, but what about his ancestors? How did the family first settle in the Henry County area? Was a family member really assassinated in his own home by British troops? For that, we have to go back to the time of William Letcher, who was the maternal great-grandfather of James Ewell Brown Stuart.

Letcher was born about 1750 near Petersburg. He was the second son of Giles Letcher of Goochland County, who was born in Ireland, and his wife, Hannah Hughes, who was of Welsh descent. Giles established himself as a successful merchant in Petersburg, but unfortunately lost his property by fire. He eventually prospered and at the time of his death was a well-to-do landowner.

By the late 1770s, Letcher, described as “a man of fine appearance and greatly beloved and esteemed,” ventured out on his own. On November 20, 1778, he married Elizabeth Perkins, a daughter of Nicholas and Bethenia Harden Perkins of Perkins Ferry near Danville. After their marriage, William and Elizabeth decided to head west towards Kentucky as other settlers were doing at that time but decided to stop in the far southwestern part of what was at that time Henry County, Virginia. (Patrick County wasn’t formed from Henry until 1791.) He chose a place known as “The Hollow” due to the circular bend the mountains made around it. The Blue Ridge Mountains sweep around the west side while Slate and Little Mountain are on the east and south sides. The Ararat River runs the length of the valley and empties into the Yadkin River to the south.

On a slight elevation along the banks of the Ararat, William Letcher built his home, probably of log construction, as were any other supporting structures. No documentation is known to exist that William Letcher ever held title to this land. The deed could have been lost, destroyed, or, given the short time that Letcher was here, he may never had the opportunity to record it. Some evidence suggests that Letcher’s connection to this property could have come through his wife’s family, the Perkins.

Letcher grew corn and tobacco in the bottomland and had a number of livestock, including cattle, hogs, and horses. An inventory in the Henry County Courthouse includes many household and farm items such as saddlebags, rifles, featherbeds, and a looking glass. William and Elizabeth were blessed on March 21, 1780, with a daughter, Bethenia, who was named after her grandmother.

William Letcher was said to be a born leader and an ardent supporter of the Patriot cause during the American Revolutionary War, and he was active and very prominent in the local militia. In 1779, Letcher appears on the payroll list of Captain David Carlin’s Henry County Militia. In a letter written by Letcher’s granddaughter, she states, “He was a volunteer at the Battle of Shallow Ford on the Yadkin near the village of Huntsville.” He likely participated in other skirmishes and raids against Tories and other British sympathizers in the area, but it appears he was never in any major battle nor was he a member of the Continental Army. Letcher was appointed Justice of the Peace for Henry County by the Governor of Virginia in 1779.

The area around The Hollow and along the Virginia and North Carolina border spreading into Western North Carolina was a hotbed for Tories and others loyal to the British Crown. The people who settled this western backwoods region were far removed from the more populated eastern sections of the colonies and had no quarrel with the British government. A large number of these individuals aligned themselves with the British Army, and harassed and threatened the colonists in the area who were supportive of the Revolution.

William Letcher was a loyal supporter of the latter, which put his life in jeopardy. The letter from Letcher’s granddaughter goes on to state that “He had the promise of long years of happiness and domestic felicity but a serpent lurked in his path, for whom he felt too great a contempt to take any precautions.

Letcher had been warned that his life was in danger but being naturally fearless and thinking the Tories too few, he underrated the danger. He had helped defeat them once and thought them too cowardly to attack again.

He would frequently go alone, armed only with a shotgun, into the most inaccessible recesses of the mountains and hunt the Tories from their hiding places.”

Threats to his life and property became more and more common and culminated in his death on August 2, 1780. There are a number of versions as to how Letcher was murdered, but the most accepted is that the perpetrator of this foul deed was a local Tory by the name of “Nichols,” who came to the home and demanded him “in His Majesty’s name,” and shot Letcher in the presence of his wife and daughter.

Nichols was later apprehended, and after evidence was found on him that linked him to the murder, he was promptly executed. One other man who was involved tried to escape to Kentucky with his family, but he was killed by Native Americans along the Holston River. Prompted by Letcher’s death and seeking vengeance, the patriots and Whigs in the area rounded up numerous Tories around The Hollow, and several were hung without mercy or delay. After William Letcher’s death, his wife and daughter returned to Pittsylvania County, where Elizabeth later married George Hairston, a large landowner and one of the wealthiest men in the region. They made their home at Beaver Creek Plantation in Henry County which remains in existence. This estate contains the graves of George and Elizabeth and numerous family members.

William Letcher lies in a grave not much more than a stone’s throw away from the site of his home along the Ararat River and, sadly, the place of his murder. His daughter Bethenia had a white marble slab placed over the grave from a Richmond, Virginia stonecutter before her death in 1845. On the stone was carved a fitting tribute to her father. The grave, the oldest known in Patrick County with an inscription, reads:

“In Memory of William Letcher who was assassinated in his own house in the bosom of his family by a Tory of the Revolution, on the 2nd day of August, 1780, age about 30 years. May the tear of sympathy fall upon the couch of the brave.”

Ronnie Haynes, vice president of the J.E. B. Stuart Birthplace Preservation Trust, provided information for this article.

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