I shook the family tree…

By Ted Smith

Some time ago now I spent an entire year researching my ancestry. My motive was simple: I wanted to find out who my great-grandfathers were.

But tracing your ancestors is like following a stream to its source. You never know where it will lead, but it will always come to a dead end. And most of what you find is just names and dates.

But occasionally there are individuals about which a good bit of information is available. One of those for me was my sixth great-grandfather Uriah Humphries, a very complex individual. He was a patriot, owned thousands of acres in six states, was a moonshiner, a slave owner, very litigiousness, and an adulterer and fornicator. But he also was an affable man capable of compassion and generosity. And he had a sense of humor.

Uriah was born in Northumberland County, Virginia on the Chesapeake Bay about 1740. At some point early on, he moved to Botetourt County in the Virginia mountains near what is now the border of West Virginia.
He became a leading citizen and served as a deputy marshal, a surveyor, a merchant, and “Overseer of the Road,” a position that involved maintaining a stretch of road and a bridge. He married Sarah Reynolds in Botetourt County about 1769, and seven children were born to this marriage.

But things did not work out well for him by 1787. In that year he was fined for not fulfilling his job as overseer as well as being charged with moonshining. He had resigned his job as deputy marshal five years earlier when his youngest brother Spencer was indicted for counterfeiting. Part of his responsibilities as Marshall was to summon witnesses to the trial, which he did not do, a dereliction of duty for which he was fined 10 pounds.
But he prospered in other ways.

Uriah is said to have had a “lust for land” and began to accumulate property. By the time he was 18, he was able to supply the Colonial government with horses in the French and Indian War of 1758, as well as in Colonel William Christian’s Cherokee Indian Expedition in 1776 and 1783.

He petitioned the government for compensation for his service in the Revolutionary War, and that began a chain of events that changed his life forever. The government paid him with a land grant in Georgia in the Jackson County Territory on the north side of the Apalachee River in what is now Oconee County at High Shoals.

The Apalachee River at High Shoals where Uriah and Nancy lived. Source: Jim Kundell.

A second major event occurred in 1792 when Sarah’s sister and her husband, the Burks, died and left behind five orphans, the eldest of which was Nancy, who was 16. Uriah and Sarah were appointed guardians of the children.

But within a year, Uriah, who was 53, began an affair with Nancy and she got pregnant. Uriah and Sarah separated, and he moved to Georgia with Nancy and her siblings, settling in High Shoals. Sarah filed for divorce in 1798 and accused Uriah of adultery and fornication. The divorce was granted. Uriah and Nancy were fined for adultery and fornication in September 1801 in Jackson County and for adultery shortly after in Clark. But he apparently loved Nancy, who was a remarkable woman. They had a total of 11 children before his death in 1817.

Did I say that Uriah was litigiousness?

He is listed in numerous court records in both Botetourt County and Clark County and was known for filing lawsuits, commonly over titles to land. In an article in 1870 in The Southern Watchman, an Athens, Georgia weekly, it was said that when he died, he should be buried under a courthouse so that he would be ready to answer when his name was called.

The article was part of a series on the early settlers of Clark County, and even though it was written more than 50 years after his death, the author apparently knew him. He describes Uriah thus:
“He was a grasping, avaricious man, very anxious to increase his possessions . . . but he was not ill natured or quarrelsome.”

The author had nothing but good things to say about Nancy, who gained a reputation for good health because she had so many children. Some of it was attributed to drinking from a spring at High Shoals.

He said, “Mrs. Humphries, whether owning to the spring water or to some other cause, was a hearty, strong woman at the time of her husband’s death, and would dash into town (Athens) on horseback, and looked as if she were abundantly able to bear half a dozen children more.”

She died between 1850 and 1860, but I do not know where she is buried. For that matter neither is Uriah’s gravesite known.

I must take a moment to discuss their first child, my fifth great-grandmother, Louisa Lydia Leddy Humphries, who was born at High Shoals in 1794. She married my fifth great-grandfather, David Nowlin. She was apparently adored by her father, although she won a plot of land in the Cherokee land lottery of 1827 under the name Leddy Burke. I can’t say for certain where the land was, but I suspect it was in Floyd County because that’s where she and David moved to. David died there before 1840, and she died between 1850 and 1860 in Telfair County.

At the time of his death Uriah was a very wealthy man, said to own land in six states – Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, and Georgia. In 1817 he paid taxes on 4,482 acres in Clark County alone. But how many acres he owned it is not very easy to discern because he is thought to have given a lot of his property to his descendants prior to his death.

For the same reason it is impossible to know how many slaves he owned, but he is not known to have been a planter or operated a plantation. In his last will and testament he lists 14. The will is noteworthy because he bequeathed everything to Nancy and their children except for one shilling each to his children by Sarah. That is not as vindictive as it sounds. Sarah’s children were all well established while his oldest child by Nancy, Leddy, was 23. The will was voided on a technicality, and his wealth was evenly distributed among Nancy and all 18 of his children. An interesting side note is that the executors of Uriah’s will included Major Thomas Mitchell, great-grandfather of Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind.

For all that Uriah was or wasn’t, I give him credit for raising Nancy’s siblings as his own. Like I said he was a complex man. The author of the article in The Southern Watchman tells a story about him that reveals something of his character, particularly his sense of humor. Uriah had a large farming operation at High Shoals that included acres of corn and a grist mill on the river. Uriah was known for the quality and quantity of his corn. One year there was a drought and most farmers did not have good crops, but Uriah did. He always grew more than he could use and sold the excess. One day he was walking by a corn crib on his farm that was full of corn when he encountered his neighbor, a man named Evans.

The article describes him as “a large, stalwart man, of wonderful physique, strong enough to handle two common men; but he was intellectually as weak and feeble as he was physically strong. He was the laziest mortal in the country, and fortunately of imperturbably good temper, always hard run to supply his family with food and clothing. Too improvident to plant and cultivate a crop, he depended for a support for himself and family on getting jobs or work in harvesting, log rolling, house raising, splitting rails, etc., such work as required great strength; and by a few days of hard work, would be able to live in utter idleness for a month. He was perfectly sober and honest.”

Evans wanted to get a bushel of shelled corn to feed his hungry family, but he had no money. He offered to work for it, but Uriah told him that corn is a cash article and nothing else will get it. Evans left, but the next morning Uriah found his neighbor sitting in the corn crib shelling corn.

Uriah accused him of stealing, but it may have been in jest. Evans got indignant and said, “I am not stealing, I am shelling a bushel of corn, to carry to the mill to be ground into meal, to make bread for my children. I told you yesterday that I would work for it, and if you think that I am going to see my children suffer, when you have got corn in your crib, you are very much mistaken; and I tell you now, (continuing all the time to shell the corn) that when this is gone, I mean to come for more.”

Perhaps amused by the man’s impudence, Uriah replied “Well, whilst you’re at it, you had better shell two bushels, and then you won’t have to come back so soon.”