Saturday, January 1, 2011

Robert Ferguson of Pittsylvania Virginia

When Robert Ferguson was born in 1761, Pittsylvania was still a part of Halifax County and a British colony. He was six years old before Pittsylvania was established. Not much is known about his early life. We are fortunate to have the information from his application in 1832 for a Revolutionary War pension, which he dictated over fifty years after his military service. He was 71 years old when he applied and the pension started on March 14, 1833. Often the numbers do not quite add up. Records indicate that he was 74 years old when he began receiving $80 a year for his time as a private during the War. That would mark his birth in the years 1759. The later date is more likely correct.

Leading up to the Revolutionary War, Virginia colonist felt that they were unfairly treated and taxed by the British government। On January 26, 1775, the freeholders of Pittsylvania County elected a Committee of Safety. The colonies had resolved not to buy or sell English goods. Pittsylvania elected 30 members of a committee to punish those who violated the restriction. William Witcher was among those on this committee.

During the Revolutionary War, Virginia was divided into 16 military districts. Each of these districts was to provide a battalion, under the command of a colonel, lieutenant colonel, and major. There would be 500 Minute Men, consisting of ten companies of 50 men each. Each district was also required to furnish one captain, two lieutenants and 68 men for the Continental Army. One of these districts was made up of the counties of Pittsylvania,Bedford, Botetourt, and Fincastle. Twenty seven companies of 50 men each were organized from the 1,439 men fit for duty in Pittsylvania County

Robert Ferguson was probably raring to go off to war for several years as he saw his friends and neighbors join the military to fight for separation from British rule, which officially began on July 4, 1776. Only twenty years before, local men had fought against the French and Indians on the not so distant frontier.

The year 1777 brought many changes to Pittsylvania and its people. By that year, the state of Virginia had raised 15 regiments of infantry for service under Continental Congress authority (known as the Virginia Continental Line). Other troops were recruited within the state under authority of the General Assembly (Virginia State Line).

The large county of Pittsylvania extended to the Appalachian Mountains just past the present Stuart, Virginia. To facilitate the assembly of militia troops for the growing military efforts, the General Assembly formed the new Henry County. In order to have the courthouse more centrally located, the old courthouse at Callands was moved about eleven miles east to the present county seat of Chatham. Although the new courthouse building was authorized in February of 1777, construction was delayed for a long time. It is not clear when the entire court complex actually moved.

Citizens were divided in their support for the new cause of freedom. Many supporters of King George III were strongly opposed to war against the Crown and British rule. The people of Pittsylvania were given little choice in their support. It was made known that anyone who refused to support the cause of independence would forfeit their property and leave the colony of Virginia. In May of 1777, the General Assembly passed an act which required all inhabitants of Virginia above the age of 16 to take an “Oath of Allegiance.” Because of the consequences, only a handful refused to sign this oath:
“I do swear that I renounce and refuse all allegiance to George III, King of Great Britain, his heirs and successors, and that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to the Commonwealth of Virginia, as a free and independent state, and that I will not at any Time do or cause to be done anything injurious to the freedom and independence thereof as declared by Congress; and that I will discover and make known to some justice of the peace for the said state all treasons or traitorous conspiracies which I now or hereafter shall know to be formed against this or any of the United States of America.”

Pittsylvania took swift action to prevent the spread of support for and organization of Tories, who supported the king. Previous to 1777, when Caswell County was formed, the area just across the Pittsylvania and state line was a part of Orange County, North Carolina.. British forces in that area crushed an uprising by “Regulators” who sought to rebel against the rule of corrupt authorities that represented the king. Men were hanged on both sides.

In 1779, when he reached the age of 18, Robert Ferguson volunteered as a substitute for Bazaliel Wier in a company of Pittsylvania militia under Capt. William Witcher. William Witcher lived on grants that he received in the Museville community along the Pigg River. He was an important leader in county affairs. Back in 1775, he was elected to the Committee of Safety. The committed was responsible for organizing, financing and supplying the local militia, which played a large role in the success of the colonies in their quest for independence. Witcher was a member of the vestry of the Anglican Church and was named a justice in 1777. He led out with a company of soldiers in 1776 on the Cherokee Expedition and again on three other occasions.

Private Robert Ferguson was a member of Capt. Witcher’s company, serving under Col. David Mason, as they marched south into North Carolina from Pittsylvania County through the newly formed Caswell County, then through Guilford Courthouse and Salisbury. They marched on to Charlotte where they remained a few days. Crossing into South Carolina, Capt. Witcher’s company crossed the Wateree River at Camden, and then marched to Bacon’s Bridge on the Ashley River. They passed through the Black Swamp in present day Jasper County and then on to Stono Ferry near Charleston, South Carolina. Capt. Witcher’s company was engaged in Battle of Stono Ferry took place on June 20, 1779. The Americans stormed a British fort there, but were repulsed.

More than fifty years later, Robert Ferguson stated that his term of service, being six months, ended at that place. Other soldiers in the same company stated that the Virginia troops were discharged at Camden, South Carolina on the way home. Even today, a march to Charleston, South Carolina and back would be like a very long walk, but that was only one tour of duty for private Ferguson.

In the following spring of 1780, Robert Ferguson was employed by Joseph Terry of Pittsylvania to assist him in driving cattle into North Carolina. He arrived at Wilkes County Courthouse on about May 15, 1780, and there he again entered the service of the United States as a volunteer. He marched out of Wilkes in a company commanded by Capt. William Cleveland. The company was a part of a regiment commanded by Col. John Cleveland. They marched until the first of October 1780 in various directions along the Catawba River searching for and making prisoners of Tories. Robert Ferguson returned with the company to Wilkes Courthouse and was discharged by Col. John Cleveland after serving four months and 15 days on this tour of duty and made his way home to Pittsylvania.

From all indications, it appears that Robert Ferguson made his home at that time on the north side of Dan River above Dix Ferry in what is now the City of Danville. About the first of December 1780, Ferguson again entered the service of his county as a substitute for William Bennett in a company commanded by Capt. John Wynne. John Wynne’s father Col. William Wynne was among the earliest settlers in south central Pittsylvania County. He and his sons owned about 3,500 acres south of the Dan River, which is now Danville. One large grant was for 2,000 acres. They bought and sold land, but at one time or another, they owned all the land from downtown Danville to the North Carolina line.

Captain John Wynne and his company mustered at Pittsylvania Courthouse (now Chatham) and marched to the Island Ford on the Dan River. There are three islands in the Dan River just below the original town of Danville (where the present 265 by-pass crosses the river), the largest of which is Reedy Island. Ferguson stated that they marched to the Great Falls and then to North Carolina. John Dix, who established his ferry in 1766, also owned a mill at the falls which was operating in 1771. The town of Danville was established opposite the falls in 1793. There was a ford just below where the Main Street Bridge is now located. There was no bridge until 1801. In the 18th century, during high water, the Dix Ferry was the only way to cross the Dan River in this area. Col. John Wilson’s “Seven Mile Ferry” was upstream at his Dan’s Hill plantation. You guessed it; seven miles from Danville by the old roads.

In North Carolina, Ferguson and his company joined with the main army under General Edward Stephens and General Robert Lawson. He was then transferred to a company commanded by a neighbor, Capt. William Dix. William Dix was a son of John Dix and inherited the ferry after his father died. The Dix and Wynne families had large plantations on opposite sides of Dan River. Capt. Dix and his company marched in various directions not staying long in one place, sometimes at night until they reached Guilford Courthouse. There they were engaged in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse on March 15, 1781. Capt. Dix had his prize horse shot from beneath him. He was later compensated for the loss of this horse by the county court. (see: )

The Americans were defeated at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse and retreated to the Troublesome Iron Works near the Haw River (west of the present Reidsville). According to Ferguson they marched under Gen Nathaniel Green in pursuit of the British until they arrived at Ramsey’s Mill on Deep River in North Carolina. Capt. William Dix discharged Ferguson in April of 1781. This tour lasted four months. Ferguson said that James Mastin Williams, who was with him on that enlistment, could prove this service. After the War, Williams made his home in Danville, where he operated the Exchange Hotel on lower Main Street.

About the last of April 1781, Robert Ferguson was drafted as a soldier and marched from Pittsylvania County in a militia company commanded by Capt. Henry Burnett. The company marched through Halifax County to Charlotte Courthouse and joined the army there under General Stephen Lawson. Ferguson was transferred to a company commanded by Capt. John Buckley. They were attached to the regiment commanded by Major Purnell. From Charlotte Courthouse the company marched to Prince Edward Courthouse and then to Cumberland County where they crossed the James River at Carter’s Ferry. They continued their march until they reached Dandridge’s Old Field in Hanover County. There they joined with the main army forces commanded by the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette’s headquarters was a the home of Col. William Dandridge’s plantation about 22 miles northwest of Richmond.

At Hanover, Robert Ferguson was transferred to a company commanded by Capt. William Clark. They “marched with Capt. Clark, under Major Purnell through the Chickahominy swamp down to Malvern Hill in Henrico County about 17 miles below Richmond and stationed there several weeks. There he was discharged by Capt. Clark about the last of July 1781. He served three months on this tour. Bazaliel Wier and Joseph Ferguson, who served with Robert Ferguson certified this tour.

As soon as he returned home in August 1781, Robert Ferguson enlisted with William McCraw who was deputy quartermaster for the southern army at Peytonsburg. Peytonsburg “Old Town” was the old Halifax Courthouse, which was located east of Chatham near the line between Halifax and Pittsylvania. The community was a major supply depot during the War. Ferguson continued to drive wagons for McCraw until the end of the War. He served in this capacity for at least a year. James Mastin Williams also served with McCraw during this time. Williams stated in his application that they were employed to take 56 horses from the County of Cumberland in the state of Virginia and carry them to Ashley Hill, in the State of South Carolina. They delivered the horses to Edward Carrington, who was Quarter Master General, for the Southern Army.

It appears that Robert Ferguson settled in the area north of Dix Ferry near the present Danville Airport. He purchased land late in life and there are few records with his name. Joseph Ferguson, who made a deposition in Robert’s pension application, may have been a brother. Joseph Ferguson married Patsey Vaughn on December 26, 1788. If he married at about 20 years old, in the 1760s, he would have been about Robert’s age, but too young for service during the Revolutionary War. In 1793, Joseph Ferguson paid taxes on a tract of 171 acres at the head of Cane Creek as early as 1797.

Family tradition is that after the War, Robert Ferguson married Michel Worsham (born circa 1752). Michel is named in the will of her father Joshua Worsham who owned a large tract opposite the Great Falls on both sides of the present North Main Street. Joshua built a mill on Dan River in 1769 and died in 1771 on his 437-acre plantation. Michel’s (sometimes spelled Michael) two children Lucy and Elizabeth are mentioned in the will of her unmarried sister Martha “Patty” Worsham (written on 19 Dec. 1777 and proved 28 May 1778). It appears that she had two more children Tunstall Ferguson and Tabitha Ferguson later. Michel (Michael) Ferguson’s unnamed children were named in the will of her brother John when he wrote his will on July 20, 1813: “Children of my brothers Robert Worsham & Joshua Worsham (who is now dead) and Thomas Worsham & of my sisters Michael Ferguson.” At the estate auction sale of John Worsham’s property in March 1823, Robert Ferguson purchased a sorel mare for $60.25 and Joseph Ferguson bought a bed & furniture, one side saddle, yarn and counterpanes for a total of $35.75.

The marriage record of Robert Ferguson and Michel has not been found, but there are many indications they were married. Their daughter Tabitha Ferguson married Asa Prewitt (descendants use different spellings such as Pruett) on March 14, 1809. In 1810, Asa Prewitt is taxed 24 cents on two white males and two horses. A man by the name of R. Parker is staying with the Prewitts. Asa was bondsman for Parker’s marriage on November 12, 1810. On October 10, 1812, Asa Ferguson bought 50 acres of land on Fall Creek from Josiah Barron. This land was 20 miles from the courthouse, which would place it near Dan River and between the former plantations of Joseph Ferguson and Joshua Worsham.

They had only been married for six years, when Asa Prewitt died in May of 1815. Asa left Tabitha with four small children Robert Prewitt, John Prewitt, William Prewitt and Thomas Prewitt.

Tabitha probably moved in with her father Robert Ferguson. By February 1817, Tabitha was dead. The Pittsylvania court in that month ordered that Robert Ferguson be appointed as guardian of Robert, John, William and Thomas Prewitt, Orphans of Asa Prewitt, deceased and with James M. Williams secure bond for $500.

On June 16, 1817, just four months later, two of the four children were “bound out” to a relative Zachariah Prewitt. Zachariah stated that the children were “sons of my cousin Asa” (John Prewitt, Jr.). “It is ordered that the overseers of the poor of this county do bind unto William Tucker (later he used William C. Pruett) & Thomas Stuart Pruett, orphans of Asa Prewitt, deceased to Zack Prewitt. Zachariah Prewitt was another Revolutionary War veteran who documented his service in 1832 at the age of 74.

Zachariah was born in 1730 in Prince George, Maryland and was 83 years old and receiving his pension during the 1840 census of Pittsylvania. Zachariah Prewitt lived on a 100-acre tract on Double Creek in the Laurel Grove area in 1797. He received another 100 acres in 1797 by the 1801 will of his father Samuel Prewitt. During the 1840 census, Zachariah, at age 83, had eleven in his household including two males under 10 years old. Those two males were my ancestor William C. Pruett and his brother Thomas Stuart Pruett, two of the orphans of Asa and Tabitha Prewitt. Zachariah died on May 15, 1843.

It is not know when Robert Ferguson’s first wife Michel died. He needed help in raising the small children. On May 4, 1818, he married Bersheba Newbell (sometimes spelled Newbill), daughter of John Newbill of Milton, North Carolina. He was then 57 years old. The bondsman was John M. Dix, who lived in the Mountain Hill area not far from the site of the old Dix Ferry. This would reinforce the supposition that he lived near the town of Danville until late in life.

This small permission slip was tucked away in the Pittsylvania Courthouse in 1818 when "John Newbel" called his daughter "Bartia Newbel."

Robert Ferguson’s pension for service during the Revolution began on March 14, 1833 when he was 74 years old. He received $80 a year.
On May 25, 1837, Robert Ferguson bought 42 ½ aces of land on Lower Double Creek near the line between Pittsylvania and Halifax in the Laurel Grove/Sutherlin area. He was then 76 years old, Robert Ferguson was 81, when his daughter Tamson, the last his many children, was born. Tamson Ferguson married first to James Robert Moore and secondly to Charles Samuel Jordan. Another child Robert Daniel Ferguson (Ancestor of Ernest B. "Pat" Furguson) who was born January 23, 1838, married Mary T. Smith, and served with the 53rd Regiment “The Chatham Grays” during the Civil War.

This is the 1840 census record showing Robert Ferguson and family in Pittsylvania County.

Robert Ferguson's land was in a fork of Double Creek not so far from where it flows into Halifax County। This is the location according to the previous owner of the 42 1/2-acre tract.

On June 21, 1862, Bersheba Ferguson, of Caswell County, North Carolina, sold John McCormick the Double Creek land, which adjoined his land. The sale price on the 42 1/2-acre tract was only $25 in Confederate money. Those who purchased land with their Confederate money were fornunate. At the end of the War it was worthless. The sale during the War was not recorded in the courthouse until June 1, 1868.

Robert Ferguson died on about April 22, 1850. According to descendant Pat Ferguson, "Family tradition says he lies at old Rock Springs Church."
Later in the year, on December 1850 the census taker, listed Robert’s widow Bersheba (Dothea sic), age 50, with seven children। Harriet was 28, Elizabeth 36 (?), Sally 29 (?), Lucy 13, Tamson 9, Robert 11 and Richard 18. (census records are notorious for being wrong and/or difficult to read).

Bersheba Ferguson moved back to Milton, North Carolina to be near her family. In the 1860 census, she was shown as a seamstress and still 50 years old. Her daughters Harriett, age 30 and Tamson, age 16, were living with her.

My ancestor William C. Pruett (1815-1880) married Frances Epperson on November 8, 1834. They lived near Zachariah Pruett’s land on Double Creek until the 1850’s when they moved a short distance into Halifax County. In 1855, William Pruett was appointed to survey a road leading north from Barksdale Station on the Richmond & Danville Railroad, which was completed to Danville in 1856. His will, probated in 1880, mentions his “shops.” It is likely that he supplied iron spikes for the railroad. Some railroad spikes were found in his cabin built during the 1850s. For more on William Pruett see:

William Pruett had five sons and a daughter. The oldest son Nathaniel (1837-1900) was my great grandfather. He married Laura Lavelette Driskill on December 30, 1864 while he was a Confederate soldier. He and his family moved to Danville in 1888, but he owned a 50-½ acre tract he received from his father until he died.

We need sound proof of Robert Ferguson’s marriage with Michel Worsham. They were likely married in the 1780s after the Revolutionary in Pittsylvania or a surrounding county.

Copyright 2010 Robert D. Ricketts