John Hurst

John Hurst

John Hurst was born about 1785 probably in Hardy County, Virginia, son of William and Elizabeth Sims Hurst. He married Winny Smute (1783-1853) July 30, 1809 in Harrison County (West) Virginia. His will was written March 7, 1863 and probated December 12, 1864 in Lewis County, West Virginia. We have found no death record. It can be assumed John died 1863-1864, either in Gilmer or Lewis County, West Virginia. He is probably buried at Hurst Cemetery,  located on a hill overlooking his homestead on Straight Run of Fink Creek, although no stone has been located.

The name John Hurst is first seen in Harrison County "Tithable records" in 1805. At court sessions John Hurst was appointed to be a road surveyor in Harrison County from October 21, 1805 until June 18, 1806. Lewis County was fromed from Harrison County in 1816. We beleive the Hurst family first lived on McKinney's Run in or near today's Jane Lew.

When he applied for a military pension, he stated that he was "a private in the company commanded by Cpt. John Bozarth in the fifth regiment of the Virginia militia, commanded by Lt. Col. Isaac Booth in the war with Great Britain declared by the United States on the 18th day of June, 1812." He was drafted at Harrison County (West) Virginia on or about the 12th day of August, 1814, for the term of six months, and continued in actual service...for six months, and was honorably discharged at Fort Nelson (Norfolk, Virginia) on February 22, 1815. He received $8 per month for his military service.

After his discharge, John immediately built a cabin in the wilderness on the lower course of Fink's Creek. He had probably explored this area before his military service. It is likely he had followed the creeks while hunting and exploring, and may have chosen the site very early. The area where he built his cabin later became the town of Hurst. Many of his descendants continued to live nearby for many years. By 1837, he had received land grants for more than 200 acres on Fink's Creek.

Early mountain men had to be good marksmen to survive. If legend is to be believed, John Hurst's marksmanship was exceptional.

We know more about John Hurst than the other children of William and Elizabeth Hurst, thanks to several stories recounted in L. V. McWhorter's "Border Settlers". It must be assumed that John was happy to share the stories of his escapades in the wilderness, since most of these stories bear no witness other than himself. One can imagine this tall, muscular, white-haired man sitting under a tree entertaining his friends and family with these stories.

"This soldier settled on Fink's Creek, in now Gilmer County, West Virginia, ten miles from any human habitation and when that region was an unbroken wilderness. He completed his cabin and moved on the 10th day of April, and carved from the heavily timbered bottom land a corn patch the same season. He grubbed and cut down trees and piled the brush in the daytime and at night would fire the brush heaps and cut the trunks into logs by the light of the blaze. When fatigued, he would lay down within the circle of light where the wild animals would not venture, and sleep soundly. When refreshed, he would replenish his fires and proceed with his chopping and oft times the ring of his axe resounded throughout the entire night. The field thus cleared, Hurst cultivated in corn for thirty consecutive years, with no perceptible diminution of fertility. The back-water overflow from the creek amply replenished the soil."

Although the town of Hurst is located in Lewis County, it is very near the Gilmer County line. "Border Settlers" says John lived in Gilmer County. Some court records say "John Hurst late of Lewis County." Of course it is possible that he moved and did not stay at the Lewis County location..

"Hurst cleared land and shot wild animals during the weekdays and devoted his summer Sundays killing poisonous reptiles. These latter were very numerous, and the first year he destroyed seventy of them by actual count. One night he arose to give one of the children a drink of water, and when he stepped on the loose puncheon floor, a rattlesnake sounded an alarm in the corner of the cabin. The intruder was quickly dispatched.

"Hurst's antipathy for these reptiles was augmented in an early day. When a boy and residing with his parents on Cheat River, he was cow hunting one evening during the first warm days of spring. He stepped upon a large boulder to listen for the (cow) bell. A rattlesnake crawled from under the rock, and he struck it with a stick. In its dying throes, it sounded an alarm, when others made their appearance. The lad was soon kept busy knocking them from his perch as they advanced from every side. Before realizing his danger he was surrounded, and was nearly overcome by the nauseating aroma from the loathsome angry swarm. This odor, which is always perceptible, is greatly increased when the serpent is in a state of excitement. Hurst was barefooted, and his only means of escape was by leaping over them, which he did, and ran for a small creek only a short distance away. But he was not to escape so easily. The reptiles pursued him so closely and in such numbers, that he was compelled to continue his flight across the stream, which at this point was both narrow and shallow. Two of the rattlers swam after him, and these he killed.

"The habit of the rattler and the copperhead is to congregate in dens in the f all, where they hibernate during the winter. These dens occur in favored localities, usually among the rocks on the sunny side of the hill, or mountain. During the first warm days of spring, the inmates will make their appearance and bask in the sun. In the early days of the country, and even now (1914) in sparsely settled and mountainous districts, the reptiles have been seen by the hundreds lying in tangled masses about their dens. This they continue to do for days before scattering throughout the surrounding country. It was such a den that Hurst happened upon.

"Just before moving to the West Fork, a bear came near the Hurst cabin one night and the dog chased it up a tree on the riverbank. John, who, it must be remembered, was only thirteen or fourteen years of age, procured his father's gun and a torch and hastening to the spot built a fire with the intention of remaining there until morning, when he could shoot the bear. In the after part of the night a terrific storm burst over the forest and the rain descending in a deluge the fire was soon extinguished. The lad sought shelter in the house but the faithful dog remained on guard. Just before daybreak, bruin came down from his perch and he and the dog, a strong, courageous animal, engaged in a deadly conflict. The struggle was protracted for one of its nature. The uproar was clearly audible at the cabin and the mother experienced great difficulty in restraining the intrepid boy from going to the help of the brave dog. Finally the tumult subsided and the dog came home badly hurt. Soon as it was light, the lad hastened to the scene of the fight and found the sand bar on which it had been waged, stained with blood and other signs attesting to the desperate nature of the battle. The bear had made off leaving a trail of blood. This the boy followed to the top of a bare ridge where it was lost.

"After settling on Fink's Creek, wild animals and reptiles vied in making Hurst's life strenuous. Panthers were so fierce and numerous that the children were not permitted to go alone into the woods. One autumn day the father left home to secure help for a house raising. Not returning in the evening, George, the eldest boy, went to bring the cows from the forest. He had proceeded about a quarter of a mile from home when he stepped from the path to pick a few hickory nuts. While thus engaged, a small dog which accompanied him and had preceded him some three or four rods, gave a yelp of agony. Cautiously peering ahead, he saw the dog in the clutches of two panthers. Unobserved by the animals, he climbed a dog-wood bush, while they carried their prey a short distance up the hillside and concealed it in a small cavern in a ledge of rocks. The boy descended from the bush and ran home... Panthers are extremely dangerous when guarding their prey.

"John Hurst was hunting one day near the summit of a ridge when he discovered the partly eaten carcass of a deer only recently killed, and buried in a mound of leaves. While examining the find, he was startled by a series of screams emanating from the lower slopes of the hill; and looking he saw a large panther charging directly toward him. A steep bluff intervened, and as the animal climbed this, it was hidden from view for a moment. (John) Hurst sprang to the side of a large tree and raised his rifle. When the panther reached the brow of the declivity, still shrieking with rage, it paused to locate its enemy; when the rifle rang out and it fell dead."

John Hurst was an excellent marksman... "while hunting with a companion, their dogs chased an immense panther which took refuge in a lofty tree. It walked upon a large limb where it crouched, watching its enemies on the ground. Hurst declared his intention of shooting it in the eye. His companion remonstrated, pointing out the imminent danger if he should miss, or slightly wound the animal. He should aim at the vital part of its body, where the heavy ball would be sure of disabling it. Hurst, self-confident, disregarded the warning and fired. The panther toppled from its perch and fell lifeless among the dogs. The bullet had entered the eye so cleverly that not even a lash had been damaged."

"John Hurst's hair was turned prematurely gray by the following incident: He often, in the summertime, slept in the woods, preferring the open air to the close cabin. He would build a "smothered" fire to smudge the insect pests, rake up a few dry leaves for a couch and pillowing his head on the root of a sheltering tree, sleep soundly. One night he was awakened by a stealthy creeping noise at no great distance from where he was lying, followed by a tapping in the dead leaves. This was succeeded by the same gliding rustle as if some animal was crawling towards him. Again, it ceased, when once more came that ominous tap, tap, tap, like the measured toll of a funeral bell. This was repeated at successively nearer points, while Hurst lay helpless and unable to see the supposed danger. He had not the least doubt but that he was being stalked by a panther. The tapping was made by its tail as it paused in its approach. Hurst grasped his knife, which, with his rifle, was at his side, but dared not move for fear of provoking an immediate attack. After a seemingly long interval, he discerned a light spot on a dark and dimly outlined body flattened to the ground only a few feet away. This proved to be his dog, who forbidden, had followed him and conscious of disobedience, was endeavoring in its mute way to curry favor with a displeased master. It is needless to say that the faithful animal was greeted kindly. Hurst's hair from this time on turned rapidly white."

On another occasion, a dog, perhaps the same one, was instrumental in saving John Hurst's life. Hurst, after forbidding the dog to follow him, was watching a deer lick. Presently the dog joined him, manifesting great uneasiness. John scolded the animal. He immediately noticed the dog looking up into the tree overhead, bristling his mane and growling. As Hurst glanced upward, he saw a great panther in the act of leaping upon him. "Like a flash, his rifle went to his shoulder and the panther came hurtling to the ground dead."

"Bears were numerous around Hurst's wilderness home...He shot and wounded a bear near his home and it escaped into a nearby laurel bed. He called to his children, George and Betsy, to bring two young dogs that he was training. The children came in haste to see the sport. The dogs took up the trail and entered the thicket but immediately came out with accelerated speed closely pursued by the enraged bear. The children ran screaming to their father and clung tightly to the tail of his hunting shirt; while the dogs with true canine instinct also sought the protection of their master. Around the hunter and children in a narrow circle raced the demoralized dogs with bruin growling at their heels. Hurst could not use his rifle with safety and the situation began to look desperate. Finally clubbing his gun, he succeeded in felling the bear and then dispatched it with his knife."

"...But few excelled Hurst as a hunter. The wary turkey he decoyed to its death by calls upon a hollow wing bone of this bird; and the wolf by imitating the peculiar pack-gathering howl of this animal ... Wolves were numerous, and Hurst, for years, could keep no sheep because of their depredations. One night a band of four of them attacked his hogs and in turn were set upon by the dog. As Hurst opened the door, a powerful wolf threw the dog at his feet. The light from the open fireplace streaming through the doorway frightened the pack away. The next morning Hurst went in pursuit and trailing them about a half a mile, he discovered a single wolf standing in the brush, and fired. The animal fell, then another one leaped from the thicket and ran down the hill. Reloading his gun, Hurst howled and was answered in the distance. Repeating the call, he soon had the wolf within rifle range, when it, too, was killed. In this way he dispatched a third one and then went in search of the one he saw running. He was surprised to come upon its dead body. Unawares to him, it had stood in line and beyond the first wolf killed, and the bullet had slain them both. Four wolves with three shots before breakfast was no mean achievement even in that early day."

McWhorter told another story about another experience John Hurst met with that could have ended his life while a young man. He had walked to the salt works in Charleston, one of the few places where money was paid for labor. Hurst got a job cutting wood for the furnace and earned 25 cents per cord. Being strong and athletic, he was able to cut four cords per day. He remained at the job until he collected forty dollars, then began his return home, again on foot. Hurst realized he was short of gunpowder and attempted to purchase some, but none was available.

"As he passed the last isolated cabin in the settlement, he offered the settler 25 cents for two loads of powder, which was refused. Hurst proceeded about a half-mile further when he shot a fawn and encamped for the night. He roasted venison for supper and soon his camp was infested by wolves. Some of them came so near that he heard them gnawing the bones, which he had cast aside. A rifle shot dispersed them for the night.

"Hurst lay down by his campfire in repose. Inured to a hunter's life he was a light sleeper and far in the night was aroused by the approach of stealthy footsteps. An intuition of impending danger prompted him without rising to glide beyond the blaze of his campfire. He took shelter behind the upturned roots of a tree and with rifle thrust over this effective screen, he watched and listened. Soon a dog came into the camp light and was recognized as one seen at the cabin where the ammunition had been refused him the evening before. Cautious steps drew nearer and presently there appeared on the opposite side of the low burning fagots, silhouetted against the dark background of forest, the form of his friend of the powder episode. He was carrying a rifle and at his belt hung a long murderous-looking knife. The sinister design of the night prowler seemed fully manifest. In negotiating for the powder, Hurst had disclosed that he was from the salt works where he had been employed and the stranger, rightly surmising that he had money, had followed him with the evil intent. For a moment the man stood scrutinizing the deserted camp and then turned away. During this brief interval, Hurst drew careful aim at the intruder and twice did his nervous finger touch the trigger. Reflecting, however, that he was in no imminent danger, he restrained his impulse to fire. Hurst did not return to his camp that night, nor did he see or hear anything more of his unwelcome stranger.

"The next morning after a breakfast of roast venison, and preparing a steak to serve for dinner, he set out on his journey."

Like many of the early settlers, John raised wolves for bounty money. The wolves were destroying the livestock in such numbers that the government offered to pay $8 per pelt. For about four seasons, John captured wolf puppies from their dens before they were big enough to go out on their own. It was much easier to raise them than to track them down for the bounty.

John was not a stranger in the courts of Lewis County. He was indicted for committing an assault on June 10, 1820. The Grand Jury of the Lewis County Court heard the case in 1821. They said he "did beat, wound, and ill treat and other wrongs to the said Elisha Hall, then and there did do this damage of the said Elisha Hall and against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth." Witnesses for the Commonwealth were John McCantrey(?) and Thomas Bond(?).

In 1822, the Grand Jury of the Superior Court of Lewis County, Virginia heard the case against John Hurst who "on the fifteenth day of March (1822), unlawfully ...did ride one of the horses in a horse race then run in Main Street in the town of Weston, a public road in the said county of Lewis, contrary to the form of the state in such cases made and provided against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth." Witnesses for the Commonwealth were James Allen and John H. Singleton.

Winny's maiden name is not proven. Her Lewis County death record dated December 27, 1854 says "Unah Hurst, daughter of Thomas and Elizabeth Hurst of Northumberland County, Virginia." Her husband gave the information, but it must be remembered that his memory may have been faulty. It should be noted that Unah is an Irish version of Winifred.

In "Border Settlers," McWhorter states that she was a Winans. He probably had confused her with John's mother, Elizabeth, who married Isaac Winans in 1809.

It is the author's (unproven) belief that she was Winifred Smoot, daughter of Charles and Elizabeth Way Smoot, of Northumberland County. After Charles died, Winifred's mother, Elizabeth, married Rawleigh Alexander in 1787, and they had three children. After Rawleigh died in 1805, Winny and the three young Alexander children removed to Harrison County with their mother. Here, Thomas McWhorter was named guardian to the Alexander children.

We have found no relationship to the McWhorter family in this time period, but perhaps John met Winny through the McWhorters, or perhaps there were some ties in Northumberland County. We do know that John Hurst and Vincent Alexander (half-brother of Winny Smoot) are found together in various Lewis County court records. They were neighbors, served on a jury together, and Vincent is buried in the Hurst Cemetery. John named one of his sons Vincent, surely after his good friend and brother-in-law.

Surviving through all the hardships of frontier life, John and Winny had six children: George, Elizabeth, Nancy, Sarah, Vincent and William. In his will dated March 7, 1863, John bequeathed $25 to Harriet Lucinda and Armed Florence Hurst, daughters of his son William deceased, to be paid when they become of age. His daughter Nancy Hurst was  bequeathed all of John's household and kitchen furniture. The remainder of his estate, both real and personal, was to split equally between  "my three daughters". Adam Heckert was named executor. Witnesses were Charles Stalnaker, Washington Alexander and Lemuel D. Hurst.

John's will was probated Dec. 12, 1864 and is recorded on pages 152 and 153 in the Lewis County Will Book. (Lewis County Recorder's Book Page 9)