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A History of The Middle
New River Settlements
and Contiguous Territory.

By David E. Johnston (1906).


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Chapter VI.  1837 - 1861  (Part 1)


Formation of Mercer County--Its Boundaries, Etc.--Courts organized--First Grand Jury empanelled--Popular election--Including election of Members of Secession Convention.

In the election held in the county of Giles in 1836 for delegate for Legislature, Daniel Hale, Esq., of Wolf Creek, was chosen.  The people living along the Flat Top Mountain, Bluestone and its upper waters and Brush Creek, partly within the territory of Giles and partly within the territory of Tazewell, finding themselves greatly inconvenienced by the distance they had to travel to their County seat, determined to have a new County, and so petitioned the General Assembly of Virginia.  Among  the petitioners were Captain George W. Pearis, Colonel Daniel H. Pearis, William White, Cornelius White, Captain William Smith, William H. French, Joseph Davidson, (Note: Made settlements in Wright's Valley, within what is now the corporate limits of the city of Bluefield, West Virginia, and built what is known as "Davidson's house," in Hick's Addition; was a son of John Goolman Davidson.) John Davidson, James Calfee, Isaac Gore, Elijah Bailey, and various others, then living within the territory of the proposed new County.  The bill was introduced, passed, and became a law on the 17th day of March, 1837.  The act in so far as the boundaries of the new County is concerned is as follows: "Be it enacted by the General Assembly, that all that part of the counties Giles and Tazewell contained within the following boundary lines, to-wit: Beginning at the mouth of East River, in Giles County, and following the meanders thereof up to Toney's mill dam; thence along the top of said mountain, East River Mountain, (the line from Toney's mill dam to the top of the mountain was evidently omitted in the act) ; to a point opposite the upper end of the old plantation of Jesse Belcher, deceased, thence a straight line to Peery's mill dam near the mouth of Alp's (Abb's)) Valley, thence to a point well known by the name of the Peeled (Pealed) Chestnuts, thence to the top of the Flat Top Mountain, thence along said mountain to New River, thence up and along the various meanderings of the same to the beginning, shall form one distinct and new County, and be called and known by the name of Mercer County, in memory of General Hugh Mercer, who fell at Princeton."  The Governor was authorized to appoint eighteen persons as Justices of the Peace for the County, the justices then in commission residing in that part of Giles and Tazewell Counties, which will be in Mercer County after the commencement of the act were to be of the number to be commissioned for the new County.  The following are the names of those who held commissions as Justices of the Peace within the territory of the new County, viz: Captain William Smith, Captain C. H. A. Walker, Elijah Peters, John Davidson, John Brown, Robert Gore, Robert Lilley, Robert Hall.

A court for the county was directed to be held on the second Monday of every month.    The following named gentlemen were by the act to locate the site of justice for the county, to wit: Thomas Kirk, of the County of Giles, James Harvey, of the County of Tazewell,  Joseph Stratton, of the County of Logan, and Henry B. Hunter, of the County of Greenbrier.

The first meeting of the justices for organization was to be at the residence of James Calfee, (Gladeville about one mile west of Princeton), on the second Monday in April, 1837.

The county by the said act was attached to the same judicial Law and Chancery to be held on the first days of May and October.

Philip Lybrook, of the County of Giles, John H. Vawter, of the County of Monroe, and John B. George, of the County of Tazewell were named as commissioners to run and mark the lines between the Counties of Giles and Tazewell and County of Mercer, and make report to the County Courts of each county.  It may here be noted that the line between Wythe and Montgomery crossed the County of Mercer from a point on East River near the present Ingleside station, and running northwest passed a little to the west of the public burying ground at Princeton, crossing Bluestone and at Clover Bottom.  The Giles and Tazewell County lines crossed about three miles west of Princeton; the Big Spring at Jarell's being one Bluestone, and head of Crane Creek another.

The County Court met on the second Monday in April and elected Moses E. Kerr, Clerk, and named Captain William Smith as Sheriff, who was afterwards duly commissioned as such by the Governor of the Commonwealth.  Captain Smith named John Jarrell as his Deputy, and he was duly appointed.  Robert Hall was appointed Surveyor of the County.

The Commissioners to locate the place on which to erect the public buildings for the county, did so on a  plat of land donated by Captain William Smith, and near the Glady fork of Brush Creek, about one mile east of Gladevillle, and the same on which the present Court House of Mercer County now stands.  The question of the name of the county town was debated, some wishing to call it Banesville for Mr. Howard Bane, one of the Commissioners, but finally as the more appropriate, they called it Princeton, inasmuch as the county was named in memory of General Hugh Mercer, who fell at Princeton, that it was altogether proper to name the county town for the place where General Mercer fell mortally wounded.

The first Circuit Court for the County was held on the 1st day of May, 1837, by Judge James E. Brown, of Wythe, who appointed John M. Cunningham Clerk, and Thomas J. Boyd, Attorney for the Commonwealth.

The first grand jury empanelled for Mercer County was composed of the following named gentlemen: Robert Hall, John Martin, Sr., Christian S. Peters, Green W. Meadows, John Walker, George W. Pearis, James M. Bailey, John Davidson, Archibald Bailey, William Cooper, Richard Runion, Thomas Maxwell,  Joseph McKinney, Jr., Joshua L. Mooney, William Ferguson, Achilles Fannon, Philip P. Bailey, Chrispianos Walker, Samuel Bailey, William Garretson, Lewis M. Wilson, Robert B. Davidson and Josiah Ferguson.  The following Attorneys were admitted to practice at the first and second terms of the Court: viz:  Joseph Stras, Albert C. Pendleton, Thomas J. Boyd, A. A. Chapman, M. Chapman, A. T. Caperton and David Hall.

A list of all the judges, attorneys, clerks, justices of the peace, including names of members of the house of delegates will be found in the appendix to this work, covering as far as possible the period from the first organization of civil government within the territory of which Mercer County had formed a part down to the date of the completing of this work.

Since the date of the act creating the County of Mercer there has been three changes in its boundary lines.  Under an act authorizing it, the line between Mercer and Tazewell from the top of East River Mountain to Peery's mill dam, was run, throwing a small strip of the territory of Tazewell into Mercer.  In 1841 on its eastern border, by an act of the Legislature, the line along New River at Wiley's Falls to the Toney mill dam was changed so as to run from said mill dam a straight line to Wiley's falls; thus cutting off a small strip of territory from Mercer and adding it to Giles County.  In 1871 the County of Summers was created, and all that part of the territory of Mercer County lying east and northeast of a line drawn from Round Bottom on the west side of New River to Brammer's Gate on the top of Flat Top Mountain was stricken off  the County of Summers, leaving to Mercer about 420 square miles.

Some of the men who aided in securing and organizing the County of Mercer had come over the Alleghenies a few years after the close of the American Revolution, and some were the sons and grandsons of men who had come prior to  the Revolution.  Those who came during the war for independence were called  "Over Mountain or Peace Men"    for the reason that they  were from over the mountains, and peace men, because it was supposed that many of them were opposed to war with Great Britain, but this could not be true of all, because many came before the Revolution began, and a large number of those who came fought gallantly in several battles;  notably, King's Mountain, Shallow Ford of the Yadkin, Wetzell's mills, and Guilford Court House.

It is doubtless true that there were Tories in the New River Valley region, mostly however on the upper waters of the New River.  Colonel Preston, when requested to secure the British and Tory prisoners captured at the battle of King's Mountain, in stockades to be built at Fort Chiswell answered, "that he did not regard the place as secure, as there were more Tories in Montgomery County than any other county of Virginia."  It is certain that some among the most prominent families of today in the new River Valley, and upon the Clinch waters are the descendants of Tory ancestors during the Revolution.  For fear of giving offense or wounding the feelings of the more sensitive, no names are here mentioned, but no just reason can be assigned why men of that day may not have well been on the King's side.  It was at least a question of opinion as to who was right and who was wrong.

Returning to the organization of Mercer County it will be noted that the justices met and chose one of their number as Presiding Justice, and this was what had substantially been provided by former laws.

Captain William Smith, who was born in the County of Rockingham, Virginia, in 1774, came to the New River Valley with his father and family when a small lad. He had often before, as well as after 1837, been honored by his fellowmen.  He was the Presiding Justice of Mercer County for twelve years, and although not a man of letters, without education in the common acceptation of the term, only able to write his name and that mechanically, for he could write nothing else, but his high sense of honor, coupled with his great native ability and common sense, commended him to the favor of his fellow citizens, who not only honored him by keeping him in the office of Justice of the Peace and making him the presiding officer of the court for a long term of years, but the court had his portrait painted, framed and hung over the judicial bench in the Court House, where it remained until the destruction of that building on the 1st day of May, 1862.

Captain Smith was several times elected to the House of Delegates of Virginia as the representative of the County of Giles, and of Mercer and Giles after the formation of Mercer.  He was a candidate for the Legislature twelve times and was elected six times.

The first settler at the place where the town of Princeton is situated, was French C. Smith, who was a son of one Ezekiel Smith, who went to Texas in the early thirties, was captured by the Mexicans and kept in confinement for five years.  French C. Smith, the son, shortly after his father left the country for Texas, also went there, and became quite a prominent figure in Texas politics, having been the Whig candidate for Governor against General Sam Houston, the Democratic candidate, and by whom Smith was defeated by a large majority.

The first merchant to open a store at Princeton was Theodore Jordan, who was followed by Captain William H. Howe, George W. and Daniel H. Pearis,  Ward and Gibbony,    Johnston and Pearis,  Pack and Vawter,  John A. Pack & Co., Scott Emmons & Pearis,  Pearis & Mahood,  John W., Smith,  Brown & Shumate. (Note:Dr. R. G. McNutt was the first resident physician.)

The first hotel keepers were James M. Bailey and Charles W. Calfee, who were followed later by George W. and Daniel H. Pearis and J. H. Alvis.  Daniel Straley was the first Black smith, followed later by George B. Newlee, and later by J. W. Dorsey.    The first shoemaker was Isham Brinkely, followed by Crockett Scott, and the first tanners were Thompson & Chapman.  The first Court House was built in 1839 by a man by the name of Ledbetter.  Mercer County enjoys the distinction of having had more Court Houses than any other county in the state and promises to build still more.    The first Court House was so badly erected that it had to be taken down and rebuilt, and this was destroyed when the town of Princeton was burned in 1862.  The third, in part built at Concord Church by George Evans, contractor, and abandoned after an expenditure of several thousand dollars; the fourth built in 1874 by Andrew Fillinger was destroyed by fire in 1875, supposed to be the work of an incendiary; the fifth and present one with the additions thereto was built in 1876 by D. W. McClaugherty in part and also later by John C. Darst; and it is now seriously proposed to build the sixth one at Bluefield, that is, whenever the necessary vote of the people can be had removing the County seat to Bluefield.

For a number of years the Counties of Giles and Mercer sent a delegate to the Legislature.  The political parties in the two counties were very closely and equally divided.

The census of 1840, the first taken after the creation of the County of Mercer showed a population of 2,243 people.  Many fierce political battles were fought in the two counties.  From the year of 1840 to that of 1854.  These spirited political contests were usually over two offices, member of the house of Delegates and the office of Sheriff.

In the year of 1841 Oscar F. Johnston defeated Captain William Smith for the House of Delegates.  In the year of 1842 William H. French defeated Chapman I. Johnston for the house of Delegates.

Before proceeding to relate incidents occurring in later contests, it will here be mentioned that two quite distinguished gentlemen and members of the bar, viz: Albert G. Pendleton and Nathaniel Harrison, over a trifling matter came very near venturing out on the field of honor to settle their differences; the interposition of mutual friends settled the difficulty, and no blood was shed.

In the year of 1843 the contest for the house of Delegates was between William H. French of Mercer, the Whig candidate and Albert G. Pendleton, of Giles, the Democratic candidate in which contest French won by eleven votes.  At that day there were only two voting places in the county of Mercer, one at Princeton and the other at Pipestem.    It was customary and usual in those days for the opposing candidates to get together at the Court House on the day of an election and sit in the polling room.    The voting then was viva  voce, and when an elector cast his vote, the candidate for whom he voted expressed his satisfaction by publicly thanking him.  A very amusing little incident as well as a clever trick occurred at Princeton in the election between French and Pendleton, and is deemed worthy of relating here.    French, the Whig candidate was at Princeton on the day of the election sitting in the polling place.  Captain George W. Pearis, a very ardent democrat, and known to be the special champion and friend of Colonel Pendleton, lived at Princeton and had charge of Mr. Pendletons interest at that place on the day of election.  Only those could vote who had a freehold, and were assessed with some part of the public revenue and had paid the same.



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