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County seal, Lenoir's Monument Square, Lenoir in moonlight, and the Early American exhibit at the Caldwell Heritage Museum.

  History of Caldwell County by John O. Hawkins 

            Caldwell County is located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Before 1734 the territory was part of New Hanover County.  In 1734 Bladen County was formed, and in 1749, Anson County, taken from Bladen, included the area that is now Caldwell until the formation of Rowan in 1753.  Surry County was formed in 1771 from Rowan. 

            Caldwell’s parent counties are Burke, formed in 1777 from Rowan, and Wilkes, formed in 1778, from Rowan and Surry.  Other counties surrounding Caldwell and their dates of formation are: Catawba County, 1842; Alexander County, 1847; Watauga County 1849, and Avery County, the youngest of North Carolina’s one-hundred counties, 1911.  To all of these later–formed counties, with the exception of Catawba, Caldwell yielded some of her original territory.  From this point on here, when reference is made to Caldwell County, the reference is to the area that today is Caldwell even though the time of the reference may be before the actual formation of the county. 

            Before 1841 the northeastern Caldwell area long the waters of the Yadkin River belong to Wilkes County with the larger western portion along the waters of the Catawba belonging to Burke. The Brushy Mountain range served as the dividing line. 

             The first recorded description of Caldwell was made by Bishop Spangenberg in 1752 in his well-known search for a settlement for the Moravians.  He describes graphically: 

 We are now in a locality that has probably been seldom trodden by the foot of man since the creation of the world.  For seventy or eighty miles we have been traveling over terrible mountains, and along very dangerous places where there was not way at all.  With respect to this place we are encamped—one might call it a basin or kettle.  It is a cove in the mountains is very rich soil. Two creeks—one larger than the other—flow through it.  Various springs of very sweet water form lovely meadow lands…. Our horses find abundant pasture among the buffalo haunts and tame grass among the springs, which they eat greedily. 

            The area being described is the Globe, a valley located at the headwaters of John’s River.

            Bishop Spangenberg’s guide for the trip was nineteen-year-old John Perkins, nephew of Adam Sherrill.  Of young Perkins, the Bishop said, “I especially recommend John Perkins as a diligent and trustworthy man and a friend of the brethren.”   Three years later Perkins received a Granville grant as a result of his association with the Bishop.  Although “Gentleman John,” as he was later called, never lived in Caldwell, several of his descendants did, and some of the land remained in the Perkins family for over 200 years.  John’s River, first called the Middle Creek of the Three Creeks, is named for John Perkins.  The other two creeks, Upper Creek in Burke County and Lower Creek in Caldwell, retain the original names. 

            Prior to the coming of European settlers, Native Americans had free reign of the land.   The Catawba and the Cherokee tribes lived in the area that is now Caldwell County.  According to legend, an Indian village stood on the site where Hospice of Caldwell County is now located. Another Indian legend tells of the tying together of two sapling poplar trees in the Setzer’s Creek area as a symbol of peace between the two tribes after a particularly bloody battle.  Indian Grave Mountain is supposed to be the area where the dead from the battle were buried. 

            The location of two forts built to protect the settlers from the Indians is known.  Fort Defiance was built on the Yadkin River and will be discussed below in connection with General Lenoir.  The other is Grider’s Fort, built in 1776, on the site of the former Lenoir High School when the land was owned by Frederick Grider.  The local chapter of the D. A. R. erected a marker in 1925.  These forts were for protection in the event of an Indian raid, not military forts with soldiers assigned to them. 

            W. W. Scott, one of the early newspaper editors with an interest in history, estimates in The Annals of Caldwell County that in the first United States census in 1790 the area covered by present-day Caldwell County contained 2,676 people. By 1850 when the first federal census was taken in the then nine-year-old county, the population was 6,317.

            The first European settlements within the present Caldwell were made between 1763 and 1769, following the end of the French and Indian War, in what as then western Rowan County.  The earliest settlers located on the north bank of the Catawba River and on Lower Creek.  By 1769 there were enough people here to cause the Rowan County Court of order that a road be laid out from the Horse Ford (on the Catawba near the present day city of Hickory) to the Middle Creek (John’s River). As early as 1771 a Rowan County petition of over one-hundred “inhabitants of the upper settlement of the Catawba River, the Yadkin River, and the Three Creeks…praying for a new county” was submitted to the Governor.  Some of the names on the petition were people residing in the Caldwell area.

            A majority of the earliest settlers did not remain in the area permanently, but moved on to the newer territories during or after the Revolution. This seems to have been standard—the first settlers being those who always wanted to be on a frontier.  Only a small number of these who settled on the Burke side remained within the Caldwell borders long enough to found families whose descendants have continued in the county to the present day.  The Blairs, the Bradfords, and the Connellys (formerly O’Connelly) are among the few.

            As to the territory that Wilkes ceded to Caldwell, on the waters of the Yadkin, the first settlements there were slightly later than those on the Burke side.  Wilkes was formed from Surry County, and the first Surry tax list of 1771 has seven householders on King’s Creek, probably all recent arrivals, and only one on the Yadkin above King’s Creek.  This settler William Guest, who came here in the late 1760’s, lived just below Fort Defiance. By the time of the 1774 tax list, at least twenty householders are above the mouth of King’s Creek, the farthest up river being Laurence Ross at the big bend of the river below Patterson.  Captain Elijah Isaacs, the militia captain for the Head of the Yadkin District in 1777, was opposite Fort Defiance that was built under his leadership. William Guest Jr., of Pendleton, South Carolina, states in his Revolutionary Pension Application that he help build the fort in 1777, when he was 15 years old, “near General Lenore’s house” — which, of course, is a reference to the house General Lenoir built later. 

            General William Lenoir, for whom the county-seat town was named, was a native of Brunswick County, Virginia. While teaching school in Halifax County, North Carolina, he married Ann Ballard whose tombstone states that she lived with her husband “near 63 years in perfect tranquility.”  Lenoir states in his memo book on March 31, 1775, just nineteen days before the firing of the “shot heard ‘round the world”:  “Moved to Fishers Creek on the Yadkin.”  Fishers Creek was at that time a part of Surry County, but with the formation of Wilkes County three years later, the Lenoirs found themselves in a new county.  Of this frontier life, General Lenoir later wrote:  “I slept with my wife on one side and my rifle on the other.”  It was from Fishers Creek that Captain Lenoir led troops to fight the battle of Kings Mountain that is re-enacted each year in September in the Overland Victory March.  

             Lenoir came to the Yadkin Valley, which he called “the sweetest spot on earth,” in 1782, when he purchased two adjoining plantations on opposite sides of the river. The more valuable of these places was located on the north side of the river immediately below the mouth of Buffalo Creek, and was bought from William Snoddy of Washington County (now Tennessee), who may previously have lived on it. The other place across the river was purchased from Snoddy’s brother-in-law, Joseph McCorkle of Rowan County, and included the former war-time stockade called Fort Defiance.  The Lenoirs first lived in a log house, probably built by William Snoddy, on “Old House Hill.” General Lenoir began the construction of the present house called “Fort Defiance” on the McCorkle tract in the spring of 1788, and the family was occupying the house by 1791.  General Lenoir lived there until his death in 1839 when the house was passed to a son.  The property remained in the Lenoir family until the Caldwell County Historical Society purchased the home in 1964 and began the process of restoration. 

             Baptists are the most predominant religious group in the county today and the oldest Baptist church in the county is the Yadkin Baptist Church of Patterson, called in the early days “The Church of Jesus Christ at the Head of the Yadkin,” or simply, “The Head of the Yadkin Church.”  The church’s records go back to one entry in 1787 and they are fairly complete from 1791 onward.  From reading the earliest records, it is obvious that the church was in existence before 1787.  Circumstantial evidence indicates the church was organized about 1779. 

            The first clerk of record of the Yadkin Church was Jonathan Boone, nephew of the famous Daniel Boone.  Boone makes reference to Thomas Fields, an earlier clerk and probably the first person to hold the position.  Fields is the person with whom General Lenoir contracted to build Fort Defiance. Many of the current members of the Yadkin Church are descendants of some of the people who were members in the early days. 

             Parson Robert Johnstone Miller, who married a daughter of John Perkins, Bishop Spangenberg’s guide, made his mark religiously on the county.  Associated with the Methodist movement while it was still part of the Episcopal Church, he later became disillusioned with the group and sought ordination as an Episcopal priest.  Failing in this attempt because there was no organized Episcopal diocese in North Carolina, he received ordination from the Lutherans in 1794, but as an Episcopalian.  Later when an Episcopal diocese was formed, he withdrew from the Lutherans and was re-ordained in 1823 as an Episcopalian.  About this time, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church near Hudson, which was then in Burke County, was admitted into union with the diocese of North Carolina where Parson Miller had a flourishing congregation.  At his death in 1834, no successor was appointed as rector, so the church was taken over by the Baptists about 1830 and renamed Gunpowder Baptist Church but in 1835 they changed the name to Sardis Baptist Church (now First Baptist Church of Hudson.)  So far as is known, no Episcopal services were held in the county between the death of Parson Miller in 1834 and the arrival in the county in 1844 of the Rev. Thomas S. W. Mott. The remaining members of St. Andrew’s joining with the Episcopalians of the Yadkin Valley, which had been in Wilkes County, constituted the St. James Episcopal Church in Lenoir which was admitted into the diocese in 1849 and the church was consecrated in 1852. 

             Early Methodists in the county met at Littlejohn’s Meeting House, now Littlejohn’s United Methodist Church in the Gamewell community. A building was built in the 1770’s on land owned by Thomas Littlejohn, the oldest known burial in the church cemetery is “J. T. B.” in 1778. The cemetery may pre-date the church.  Thomas Hughes, once called the “unknown soldier,” and Adam Setzer, also a Revolutionary solder, were buried here.  General Lenoir, in his journal in 1780, describes Littlejohn’s as “a light set on a hill.”  There has long been a tradition that Bishop Francis Asbury preached at the church, but no records are available that substantiate the claim.  However, Asbury’s journal on October 25, 1799, states the following:  “I saw a natural curiosity in the mountains, an old trunk of a poplar had fallen, and four limbs of it had taken root at proper distances from each other and had grown to be large trees.”  W. W. Scott places this “natural curiosity” in the vicinity of Littlejohn’s Church.

            Of interest to many is Fairfield Church that was built in the 1830’s by James Harper, a prominent merchant, on his Fairfield estate.  Mr. Harper, a Presbyterian, built the church as a “free meeting house” at the request of his wife, Caroline (Finley), whom he married in 1833, who was a Methodist.  Mr. Harper deeded the property to the Lenoir Circuit of the Methodist Church in 1843.  The Methodist Church of Lenoir was established about 1846 on the corner of Ashe Avenue and Church Streets where the church is still located.  Fairfield Church, located on what is now Beall Street, continued to be used by other denominations, and in 1851, the First Presbyterian Church of Lenoir was organized by Mr. Harper and his wife, who was by then a Presbyterian, and Emma Baker, the principal of the Montrose Academy. Miss Baker is the one suggested the name High Brighton (later Hibriten) for Turkey Cock Mountain, naming it for a popular resort in her native England.

            Lutherans had congregations in Caldwell County as early as 1870, but some of these churches closed when the members moved away.  A Lutheran Church was established in Lenoir 1908. The first Advent Christian Church in Caldwell County was Berea at Collettsville established in 1875.  The Reformed Christians (now United Church of Christ), Roman Catholics, and the Pentecostal groups would not have churches in Caldwell County until after 1900. 

            Montrose Academy was one of several private schools established in Caldwell County.  It was located in Lenoir from 1843 until 1855.  After Miss Baker moved away from Caldwell County, Rev. Jesse Rankin moved to Lenoir and became the pastor of the Presbyterian Church and, along with his wife and daughters, established Kirkwood Seminary which continued for many years. Several other private schools, including Finley High School and Belvoir Academy, operated for various periods of time.  Many of the schools were conducted by ministers of St. James’ Episcopal Church.

            On July 3, 1839, the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina enacted a bill that provided establishment of public schools in each county within the state.  When Caldwell County was established on March 1, 1841, a Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions to govern the county was formed.  At their second meeting in July of 1841, they appointed Superintendents of Common Schools who had their first meeting in August 1841.  The Superintendents divided the county into school districts, and appointed members to school committees for the individual districts. The Caldwell County School system of today is an outgrowth of these early beginnings. 

            The act of the legislature that created Caldwell County was introduced by Representative Elisha P. Miller on November 19, 1840.  The bill proposed that the new county be called “Boone.”  It was read and rejected on December 5, 1840.  It was read a second time and passed by the vote of the Speaker of the House of Commons, Robert B. Gilliam, of Granville County, on December 14, 1840.  The county was named for Dr. Joseph Caldwell (1773-1835), former President of the University of North Carolina from 1805 until his death, an advocate of a public school system and of a railroad system stretching from Morehead City through the proposed county to Tennessee.  Dr. Caldwell, a Presbyterian minister, had graduated from Princeton University at the age of 18.  The bill was ratified and signed in January of 1841. 

            The actual formation of Caldwell County occurred on March 1, 1841, when the first Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions was held at George Powell’s storehouse located near the present intersections of Highways 90 and 18.  The founding fathers, in choosing a location for a county seat, decided on the area where Lenoir is located because they thought it was more accessible to the general populace of the new county and because it was the intersection of the county’s two major highroads. Tucker’s Muster Ground had long been a popular place for public assemblies of various kinds, and it had been a polling place for elections since 1796, the year before William Tucker bought the plantation from John McGimpsey. The last of the Tuckers had left the area in 1839 after selling their land to William A. Lenoir, who, along with James Harper and Seth Bradshaw, donated property for the county seat.  The name, Lenoir, was chosen to honor the memory of General William Lenoir who had died two years previously. The town lots were surveyed and sold beginning in June 1841. Tucker’s ownership of the property has led to the mistaken belief that there was a village called “Tucker’s Barn” prior to the formation of the town of Lenoir.

             Some of the first officials of the county were:  Elisha P. Miller, Clerk of the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions; E. S. Moore, Sheriff; Abraham Sudderth, County Register; William Greenway, Entry Taker; William H. Dula, County Surveyor; George Conley, County Trustee (now called County Treasurer); Clinton Hartley, Coroner; James Stewart Jr., Ranger; James Sudderth, Standard Keeper; Harrison Turner and Osmond A. Sudderth, Processioners; and Reuben Watts, Deputy Sheriff.  The “Ranger” was responsible for impounding strayed livestock, which could be reclaimed by their owners on payment of a fee. The “Standards Keeper” was in charge of “weights and measures,” and the “Processioners” were surveyors who were responsible for settling disputes over property lines.

            The first court house occupied the center of the courthouse square where Main Street crosses West Avenue. Originally the four streets radiating from the courthouse square were named North, East, South, and West Main streets, symbolically showing that all the people in the county had access to the Courthouse wherever they resided.  The present courthouse occupies the northeast side of the square.

           Caldwell County is divided into thirteen townships:  Globe, Hudson, King’s Creek, Lenoir, Little River, Lovelady, Lower Creek, Mulberry, North Catawba, Patterson, Wilson’s Creek, and Yadkin Valley. In addition to the county seat, Lenoir, Caldwell County has eight other municipalities.  They are Granite Falls, incorporated in 1899; Rhodhiss, incorporated in 1903; Hudson, incorporated in 1905; Gamewell, 1981; Cajah’s Mountain, 1983; Sawmills, 1988; Cedar Rock, 1997.  Collettsville, Grandin, Mortimer, and Patterson were once towns but they are no longer active in municipal affairs.  There are many rural communities which have their own identity. 

            The majority of the early settlers were self-employed with farming being the primary occupation.  However, about 1850 a village and mill was built at Patterson by the business partnership of Harper, Jones, and Co., of which the active partner was Col. James C. Harper, and the “silent” partners were Col. Edmund W. Jones, Gen. S. Finley Patterson, Col. Thomas Lenoir, and Rufus T. Lenoir.  The construction of the village was so far advanced before the end of 1850 that Col. Harper was able to move there. 

            Caldwell County did not escape the trauma of the War Between the States. Nancy Alexander quotes a diary kept by G. W. F. Harper saying that a volunteer company was organized on April 30, 1861, just eighteen days after the firing on Fort Sumter and twenty-nine days before North Carolina voted for secession.

            Five companies were formed from Caldwell.  Company A of the 22nd Regiment was called the “Caldwell Rough and Ready Boys” and this unit served in most of the major battles including Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. Company F of the 26th Regiment is widely remembered by Civil War historians.  Constituted of 91 men, most of whom were natives of Caldwell or one of the surrounding counties, the unit suffered 100% casualties with 19 men being killed in battle and the other 72 wounded with 12 of those 72 dying at a later time as a result of their wounds.  Company I of the 26th, and companies E and H of the 58th Regiment were also composed primarily of Caldwell County men.  Numerous youths from the county also enlisted in the Junior Reserves and various Caldwell men joined companies in adjoining counties, especially those that had cavalry companies. 

            The ugliness of the war is exemplified by General George Stoneman’s raid. Stoneman’s army, some 3,000 strong, plundered and pillaged Watauga, Wilkes, Alexander, and Catawba counties, as well as Caldwell, on two different occasions. During he first visit in March 1865 the army marched from Blowing Rock to Wilkesboro along the path that is now Highway 268. Fort Defiance was spared by an officer who was a Mason when he saw the Masonic emblem on General Lenoir’s tombstone.  

 The second and most-remembered visit took place six days after the surrender of the Confederacy, the weekend that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.  The army arrived in Lenoir on Saturday before Easter 1865.  That weekend, St. James’ Episcopal Church was used as a prison and the rectory was the officers’ headquarters. Stoneman’s destruction of Lenoir might have been worse if he had not received word of General Lee’s surrender a few days prior to the army’s arrival..  A detailed account of those days can be found in a letter written by Louisa Norwood to her uncle, Walter Lenoir.

            Following the Civil Car, John W. Forney, a journalist for the Philadelphia Press, traveled extensively in the South, and on January 24, 1869, he visited Lenoir, at that time the only town in the county.  His description of the town and county appeared in the Raleigh Standard on February 1 of that year: 

     Among the principal exports from this county are roots and herbs….These are brought into town in small parcels and exchanged for store goods….The conspicuous natural feature of the south and west is Hibriten, a peak that rises some twenty-four hundred feet from the summit of which a view of rear beauty and extent is afforded….The region is especially adapted to the culture of fruit.  Apples are one of the staples of the country….In the Yadkin Valley, some eight miles distant from this point is a flourishing cotton factory and a number of handsomely cultivated farms….The factory is used for carding wool only. The water power here is magnificent.  The Yadkin is about forty feet wide….The scenery is unsurpassed, magnificent, varied—grand beyond description.  From Fairview Peak at the head of John’s River twenty seven different mountains can be seen….To the west is Grandfather Mountain, with and altitude of 6,200 feet, full of beauty and attractions….These lands possess value of greater magnitude than the surface indicates, as they are known to be rich in minerals of various kinds….These lands are supplied with as good water power as can be found in the Union.  The rivers are accessible, and with very little expense can be rendered available to the lumber trade and for floating timber, as well as for power for machinery. 

           The following information can be found in Here will I Dwell

  Davenport College, a Methodist school for women, opened its doors in 1855. The college burned in 1877, but it was rebuilt by the citizens of the town and continued until 1933 when the college merged with Greensboro College. 

The first fire department, a bucket brigade, was formed about 1877. 

The railroad arrived in Caldwell County in June 1884 and the first trains carried freight only.  The first passenger train came a few weeks later with its first passenger, J. M. Bernhardt, returning home from Davidson College. The trains opened the way for tourists to get to Blowing Rock, and for furniture to be exported. 

The first telegraph lines were completed in 1888. 

The first electric power was also in 1888 when the Granite Falls Manufacturing Company installed the first electric lighting equipment, but the first wide-spread use of electricity was not until 1905.   Electricity came to the rural communities in the 1930's. 

The first furniture factory was built in 1889. 

In 1895 the first telephone exchange served the town of Lenoir with eight residents serviced by crank style phones.

A town water works was established about 1907. 

O. P. Lutz owned the first automobile, a two-cylinder Buick with the steering wheel on the right and a starting crank on the side of the auto.

            Events of the 20th century include major floods in 1916 and in 1940, a national depression in the 1930’s World Wars in the late teens and in the 1940’s, the Korean Conflict in the 1950’s, Vietnam in the 1960’s Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and Operation Iraqi Freedom beginning in 2002. There were polio epidemics in 1944, 1948, and a third that drew national attention in 1953. 

            During the last half of the 20th century, Caldwell County saw changes. Caldwell Memorial Hospital opened its doors in 1951.  Caldwell Community College opened in 1964. Where the county had once had eight high schools, in 1977 the consolidation plan was completed resulting in three schools. Many furniture factories that had previously been locally owned, and which were the backbone of the local economy for nearly a century, were bought by national corporations.  Also furniture began to be imported rather than manufactured locally resulting in the cutting back on local jobs. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 did damage amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

            This history is far from complete. W. W. Scott, Nancy Alexander, and others have preserved some of history in printed form. Others have preserved oral history through recordings and videos.  Despite these efforts, there is still a great deal of history that is unknown and much that is lost forever. 

Some additional information on the Caldwell County web site.

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