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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 VIII.  1866 - 1905  (Part 2)

 

In January, 1870, a few of the citizens of the little village of Princeton assembled and constituted themselves a Committee of safety, for the purpose of devising a plan by which the much vexed County site question might be finally settled.  After a careful review and consideration of the situation in all its aspects, local, political, and otherwise, it was concluded that the first and best step to take was to have the Legislature of the State, then in session at Wheeling, pass a special Act submitting to the people the question of the location of the seat of justice, to be settled by a majority vote.  In order to get such a law passed, it was deemed necessary to send to the seat of government a man who who was recognized as belonging to and a leader of the dominant party then in control of the Legislature.  The man was found in the person of Mr. Benjamine White, who had been and was still the Sheriff of the county.  White was a man of influence and weight in the county with his party, and was fairly well known in the southern part of the state, and a man of fair address, and when aroused was bold and plausible talker, and could make himself felt in any enterprise or cause he chose to espouse. He was going on public business, but in the interest of Princeton;  which neither he nor those in the secret let the public know.  Once in Wheeling and the matter being put under way, on account of the irregularity and uncertainty of mails and the long time that it took letters and papers to reach our section in mid-winter, it was felt that no intelligence of what was going on at the capitol was likely to reach Mercer County until the mission of the messenger had been accomplished and the Legislature adjourned;  which would then be too late for any organized opposition to Mr. White's bill, should anyone wish to oppose so fair a mode of settlement of our local trouble.    As before stated, Mr. White was going on public business, and it was not to be expected that he would be compelled to pay his personal expenses, therefore a few persons raised and placed in his hands $100.00 to meet these expenses.  There were no railroads in this immediate section in that day and no public conveyances of any kind, so Mr. White, in the dead of winter, mounted his horse and pushed out over the mountains to the Kanawha, where he took passage on a steamboat to Wheeling by way of the Kanawha and Ohio Rivers.  On his arrival at the capitol and meeting several of his acquaintances and political friends, and laying the matter in hand before them, he soon had his bill introduced, passed and was on his way home before the people of Mercer County knew what had transpired.  The committee of Safety was composed of Captain John A Douglass, Mr. H. W., Straley, Major C. D. Straley, Mr. Joseph H. Alvis, Mr. William Oliver and this writer.  To insure success perfect secrecy was necessary, and the Committee of Safety made and took a solemn pledge that nothing which was said or done touching this matter should be divulged by them to anyone;  and none were admitted to their counsels, except those who gave the pledge to each other to keep within their own breasts whatever happened or was resolved upon.  It soon became known where we held our meetings, at one of which, a slight disagreement or misunderstanding with our friend Mr. White took place, and he withdrew and we were afterwards termed by him the "Town Clique."   We were not offended at this, however, as it is well known that all towns are said to have their "Cliques."  At our first meeting after Mr. White's return from Wheeling, held at our place of general rendezvous, there was a very serious difference of opinion between members of the Committee.  Mr. White was for calling the Board of Supervisors of the county together at once and having it order a special election on the question of the location of the seat of justice;  the other members of the Committee opposed it, and the vote of the majority was the law which governed its actions.  Now it might be well to give some of the open reasons which were expressed for not being willing to hold the election under the new law and before the general election, which was to take place in the following October.  First, the special law did not authorize a special registration of voters;  secondly, we had a board registration and by law it could only revise the registration lists at certain stated periods before each regular election;  third, if we held the special election under this special law with a new registration, and succeeded, the question might again get into court, where it had already been for nearly five years, and in the end might be defeated;   fourth, there was no reason for haste, as the election could be held before another Legislature would assemble and have opportunity to repeal the Act.   These, as have been stated, were the open reasons;  but beyond these was one which we dare not disclose to any but the truest--the trusted and the tried.

Fully seventy-five per cent of our people were proscribed and disfranchised by the provisions of our Constitution, and obnoxious laws upon our statute books; and civil and political liberty to our people were worth more than Court Houses, especially as Court Houses were not free to the proscribed;  for to that class there were but four things free, viz:  Air, water, payment of taxes and death;    therefore the passage of the special Act, ostensibly to settle the Court House controversy, meant to those in the secret much more than appeared on the surface;    it meant the breaking of the bonds of political slavery and decitizenship, under which our people, probably twenty-five thousand or more in the state, had suffered and groaned for nearly years.  It also meant the again clothing of that part of our people who had been disfranchised, with the right of citizenship and of freemen, and restoring to them that liberty which had been torn and wrenched from them by a set of political pirates, most of whom were moved only by the spirit of revenge, but others by more sordid motives.  By this proscriptive legislation honest men and women could not by law collect their honest debts, if the debtor had been truly loyal to the Union during the late unhappy strife.  Professional men could not practice their profession for a livelihood;  and no man who had engaged in the war on the Confederate side, or had sympathized and given aid and comfort to the Confederates, could sit upon a jury or hold office;  nor could the poor young woman, the daughter of a Confederate soldier, teach school without subscribing to the "Test Oath."  While these laws were pretty rigidly enforced for a period of nearly five years, the time was rapidly approaching when they would become a thing of the past.  As has already been stated, the law provided for the appointment by the Governor of  a Board of Registration, consisting of three members, removable at his pleasure.  This board possessed powers somewhat akin to that exercised by the Spanish Inquisition;  they had power to send for persons and papers--a right to say who should vote and who should not--by a mere stroke of the pen (that is, such  of them as could write) either to place a man's name on the list or strike it off at their pleasure, and in this they were protected by law, being exempt from civil suits or criminal prosecution for any dereliction or violation of law connected with the registration of voters, or any other outrages they chose to perpetrate touching the qualification of electors or the right to vote.

The men composing the County Board of Registration of Mercer County for a good part of the period referred to, were in most part honest men and desired to do right as far as the law allowed them.  It was not so much the fault of the men who composed the Board in the latter days of the life of the law, as it was the law and the District registrars, who were not always the cleanest birds that could be found, for it was an open secret that any man who would promise to vote the Republican ticket, or for any particular candidate, perhaps for the registrar himself, could have his name enrolled as a voter without taking the oath prescribed by law for all voters, or to procure the registration of a voter by deceiving the registrar that the party registered would vote for him, when it was understood he was to vote for another.

In this connection it may be mentioned that the court records of the county had been kept at Concord Church until the fall of 1869, when at a meeting of the Board of Supervisors, Mr. Benjamine white, who was then sheriff and lived at Princeton, made a motion before the Board to remove the records to Princeton for safe keeping, alleging that a threat had been made to destroy them, an in support of his charges produced the affidavits of one or more persons tending to show the truth of his    charges.  Mr. White's strong and boisterous speech and serious charges alarmed two of the members of the Board of Supervisors, and they actually gathered their hats and left the place, leaving three members only of the Board present, who voted for the motion and the records were immediately removed by wagons procured by Mr. White.   The feverish excitement aroused over this removal of the records engendered bad blood, and nearly approached open collision.  The fact, though not apparent to the public, was that the people in the interest of Princeton had made a bargain with Mr. George Evans, who, for a certain consideration, would aid in removing the records and abandon his fight for Concord Church as the County site, and espouse the cause of the people in the interest of Princeton;  how well this bargain was carried out and the manner of its carrying out, will be fully hereinafter stated.

As hereinbefore stated, the County Board of Registration exercised the right of revision of the list of voters, and the right to strike off the name of any person they chose, and thus deprive him of the right to vote at the succeeding election;    and woe to the man that was suspected of disloyalty, not to his country, but to the Republican Party, for when the County Board met and it suspected, or some one reported, that a given man was not loyal in the sense above stated, a summons was issued requiring the suspect to appear and prove his loyalty;  no charges preferred, none proved, but the party summoned must come prepared to prove his innocence--that is, that he was truly loyal to the Republican Party and had always voted and still intended to vote with that party--but if he did not show up right on this he was adjudged not a legal or qualified voter.  Very few instances of this kind occurred in Mercer County, but one such at least occurred in an adjoining county, in which a gentleman of the legal profession, being under suspicion of disloyalty, was summoned before the Board of Registration to show and prove that he was true to the Grand Old Party;  appearing before the Board, inquiring what it wanted, and being told he must prove his loyalty, he thereupon became very indignant, using some very rash, opprobrious epithets toward the Board and some of its members for their baseness, meanness and ignorance.  When he had finished his speech, one of the members of the Board raised his spectacles upon his brow and lifting his eyes said:  "Well, sir, I am like the apostle of old, I thank God I am what I am,"  to which the legal gentleman retorted:   "Yes, and you are thankful for d---d small favors."

This registration scheme was wholly political and one against liberty;    a plot to disfranchise honest, law-abiding people and to perpetuate the dominant party in power in the state, and well it succeeded for five years, but they pressed their advantage too far and the conservative element in their party finally revolted, and the plan that had been devised to ostracize their neighbors became a useful weapon in the hands of liberty-loving freemen for the political overthrow and destruction of the inventors, and resulted in hurling from power the party which had, as it supposed, firmly entrenched itself behind its registration disfranchising scheme, which it had theretofore regarded as impregnable.  This registration law, together with the manner of its execution, became so offensive to the good people of the state and smelled so badly, that it was said that  "The man in the moon was compelled to hold his nose when he passed over";  and by the close of the fourth and fifth years of its life, no one scarcely dared to do it reverence, or to publicly attempt to justify it.   It was doomed and must go, and it was only a question of a short time when it would go;  the law itself was bad enough, but its abuses were ten fold worse.

 

Quite a digression  has been made from the consideration of the special law passed to settle the County site question, to let in the explanation of the operation and effect of this registration law;  for this very law played an important part, not only in the settlement of the local question, but influenced greatly the political results in the county and state at the general election held in October, 1870.

The Committee of Safety on the part of the Princeton people could no longer have Mr. White in its counsels, and was compelled to go its way alone without the aid of this gentleman and his friendly advice.  It was finally determined not to have a special election under the special statute until the new registration could take place in the September following, but the plan was to get control of the Registration Board, not only to have such board friendly, but also favorable to a fair non-partisan registration, and this was a question of grave consideration, for the appointing power of this board was the Governor and he was an extreme, staunch Republican, who could be depended upon to appoint men that he at least believed would do what his party wanted done.  This Committee could have no influence with the Governor, and therefore began to cast about as to how they might get control of this registration board, without raising a suspicion that it was engaged in some political intrigue against the Republican Party.  Mr. George Evans was a Republican  of the Republicans, and no man  could question his fealty to his party or his zeal for its success;  he was a warm personal friend and admirer of the then Governor Stevenson, who was a candidate that spring for re-nomination and for re-election that fall, and as the Republican Convention was to be held in the city of Parkersburg, it was not thought likely that any delegate except Mr. Evans would go to the convention and that he would not probably go without it was urged upon him and his expenses paid.

The Circuit Court for the county was to be held at Concord  Church in May, which was a short time prior to the meeting of the Republican Convention at Parkersburg.   The Safety Committee, supposing that the Republicans of the  county would hold their convention at the Circuit Court in May and appoint their delegates to their State Convention, a plan was hit upon to make known to Mr. Evans that it would be a good thing for the interest of Princeton, he having in the meantime changed his base from the support of Concord Church to that of Princeton, for him to keep in favor with the governor, and to do this it would be well for him to go as the only delegate from the County of Mercer, and that if he would undertake to manage to hold his county convention during the court an have himself appointed a delegate, and to be sure to appoint men other than himself, none of whom would go, that the committee would undertake to furnish the money to pay his expenses.  The bargain was struck, the court came on, the Republicans held their meeting and Mr. Evans, among others, was appointed a delegate to the convention.  The committee started out to raise the money, and among the men they  came across and asked to contribute five dollars was Honorable Frank Hereford, Democratic nominee for Congress;  who inquired what was wanted with the money, and the answer came, "Never mind about that;  you will be informed this fall, after the election."  Mr. Evans went to the convention;  Governor Stevenson was re-nominated, but his election was another question.

 

For a number of years the people living in the lower district of Mercer County, on and along the New River, and the people of Greenbrier  and Monroe Counties occupying the territory adjacent to the New River, near the mouth of Greenbrier, favored the formation of a new county, and the Committee of Safety conceived the idea that this was the favored time to encourage the people to ask the Legislature to create the new county and to vote for a candidate who would be in favor of the project and would push it through the Legislature;  and while this  committee advised the people to secure the right man, it wanted to see and know that the man was right, not only on the new county question, and therefore on the County site question, bit that he would pledge himself to use his best endeavors to secure the repeal of all proscriptive and obnoxious laws.     Arrangements for a secret meeting were made between the representatives of Princeton and those in favor of the new county, and it was agreed that Sylvester Upton, a staunch Union man, a conservative Republican, but in every sense an honorable and upright gentleman, should be supported by the combination for the House of Delegates, and he was accordingly named as the candidate.  Against Mr. Upton, the Concord Church people nominated or placed in the field Mr. Keaton.  In this same combine Mr. George Evans was to be supported for Clerk and recorder, David Lilley was to be supported for Clerk and Recorder, David Lilley for sheriff, L. M. Stinson for county Surveyor, and J. Speed Thompson for Persecuting Attorney.

The support for Mr. George Evans for Clerk and Recorder was the consummation of the arrangement entered into at the time he abandoned the interest of Concord Church and agreed to stand for Princeton;  and this was to be in full settlement and discharge of any obligation to him by reason of the previous arrangement for his abandonment of the interest of those favoring Concord Church.  Before all the plans could be fully carried out some arrangement had to be made to control the Board of Registration;    and in some way, if possible, non-partisan men, or at least the majority of such   must be secured on this board, or there would not be the ghost of a chance for success.   The board at this time consisted of  L. M. Thomas, Silas T. Reynolds and Mr. Cox.   Mr. Reynolds was a high-toned gentleman and liberal in his views, and while he would faithfully execute the law, he would not pervert it;  the two others were narrow-minded partisans, and whose chief aim was party success.

The war had now been over for five years and many young men had attained their majority, and they were almost universally against the party in power.  It was hoped that by the aid of these voters and that of the liberal, conservative element of the Republican Party, and with a non-partisan board of registration, to be able to overthrow and defeat the radical wing of that party;  not only carry the county ticket, composed in part of liberal Republicans, but to also carry the Court House question for Princeton, and the measure in favor of the new county.  But this dreaded Registration Board, like "Banquo's Ghost,"  would not down;  it was concluded, however, that down it must go, at all hazards.  The committee knowing that its friends, Mr. Evans and L. M. Thomas, president of the Board, were close friends politically and otherwise, it was  therefore thought possible for the sake of the local question and the committee was again perplexed.  While brooding over this apparent ill-luck, with  nothing but what seemed a dark and dismal future, a little incident happened    which opened the way of escape from the apparent difficulties.

 

 

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