DESCENDANTS OF IRISH John Lewis doubtless will want to know in as intimate detail as possible the story of this colorful American pioneer, of whom they have heretofore known nothing, and whose record corroborates an old saying that "truth is sometimes stranger than fiction." In order to accommodate this natural interest of descendants, the historian has delved into the annals of Virginia and the genealogical records of the Old Dominion in search of the truth pertaining to this hardy early settler in the American wilderness.
John Lewis, son of Andrew and grandson of William, the latter the fugitive exile from France in the time of Louis XIV, was a native of North Ireland where he was born in 1678. As stated heretofore, he had one brother, Samuel, born in 1680. This brother died without issue. He was killed at the time that John Lewis slew his Irish landlord and fled his native land.
John Lewis Peyton, in his "History of Augusta County, Virginia," records the story as given by the Honorable John E. Peyton, who had the facts from the Honorable William I. Lewis of Campbell, the member of Congress from that district 1815-17, who in turn had what he termed the ‘true matter" of his grandfather's history from the lips of his own father, William Lewis (brother of Pike county Samuel H. Lewis's father, John Lewis), as it was related to him by the parent long after he (William I. Lewis) had reached manhood.
According to this, which appears to be the most reliable and detailed account extant, Samuel Lewis, the younger brother of Irish John, lay sick of a disease in a bed in his brother's house in the province of Ulster, in Ireland, at the time the profligate Irish landlord, Sir Mungo Campbell, went to John Lewis's home with a body of his armed henchmen and, without any warrant of law, attempted to dispossess Lewis by ruffian forces.
This Lewis account of the slaying of Sir Mungo states that Lewis, when he saw the armed posse approaching his home, closed his door and, although hopelessly outnumbered, having with him only his wife (who was Margaret Lynn, descendant of chieftains of a Scottish clan famous in the annals of Loch Lynn), his three infant children and his sick brother, resolved to defend his home against his tyrannous oppressor.
Sir Mungo, demanding admission and being refused, ordered his henchmen to take Lewis's house by storm. One of the posse (another Lewis account says it was Sir Mungo himself) fired through an aperture into the room in which Lewis and his family stood at bay. The charge consisted of a bullet and three buckshot. John Lewis's sick brother was instantly killed and his wife was sorely wounded, shot through the hand. The Lewis account then continues as follows:
"Lewis, who had up to this time acted on the defensive, seeing the blood stream from the hand of his wife, and his expiring brother weltering in his blood, became enraged, furious, and seizing his shelalah, he rushed from the cottage, determined to avenge the wrong and to sell his life as dearly as possible. The first person he encountered was the young Lord, whom he dispatched at a single blow, cleaving in twain his skull, and scattering his brains upon himself and the posse. The next person he met was the steward who shared the fate of his master; rushing, then, upon the posse, stupefied at the ungovernable ardour and fury of Lewis's manner, and the death of two of their party, they had scarcely time to save themselves, as they did by throwing away their arms and taking to flight."
Thus, an immediate descendant of Lewis, the fourth son of him who wielded the shelalah (an implement in the home of every Irish farmer of the period), related the circumstances of the slaying by his father of the Irish Lord.
This Lewis account then tells of the gathering of Lewis's Irish neighbors, all of whom were in sympathy with the family, and of the neighbors' insistence that he flee the country to escape the vengeance of the slain Lord's friends. The account continues:
"It was consequently determined that he should proceed on that evening, disguised in a friend's dress, to the nearest seaport, to take shipping for Oporto, Portugal, where a brother of his wife was established in merchandize. Luckily, he met a vessel just ready to sail from the Bay of Donegal, in which he took passage. After various adventures, for the ship was not bound for Portugal, in different countries, he arrived in Oporto in the year 1729."
Note: This latter date (1729) refutes the dates given by some other writers, who state that Lewis killed the Irish Lord in the year 1720. According to this Lewis account, the slaying probably took place in 1728. The Lewis account says that the old Lord of the Manor, from whom Lewis originally held his lease-hold and with whom he enjoyed the most agreeable relations, died about the time of the birth of Lewis' third son, who was Andrew, later a hero of America's early wars, who was born in 1720. According to this account, Lewis bore the indignities of the wild young Lord (the old Lord's successor of the estates) for a number of years. The young Lord's profligacies and extravagances finally led him into difficulties in meeting his obligations and he adopted against his tenants a system of dispossession under some one of the numerous provisions written into the tenant-landlord contracts of the day. If the tenant complied with the landlord's demands, the matter of dispossession was overlooked. The tenants generally complied with the demands, unreasonable and ruinous though they were. Lewis was a man of different calibre and, goaded into action by the young Lord's demands upon him, went boldly to Sir Mungo's castle and, disregarding the porter who ordered him, at Mungo's command, to leave, strode before the young Lord while he was at feast with his wild companions and delivered the memorable speech quoted from Peyton in a preceding chapter.
"Upon his arrival there (at Oporto)," continues the Lewis account, "he (Lewis) was advised by his brother-in-law, in order to elude the vigilance of his enemies, to proceed to Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania, and there to await the arrival of his family which, he learned, was in good health and which his brother-in-law undertook to remove to America.
"Lewis, following this advice, proceeded at once to Philadelphia. In a year his family joined him, and hearing from them that the most industrious efforts were being made by the friends of the young Lord to discover the country to which he had fled, he determined to penetrate deeper into the American forest. He moved then immediately from Philadelphia to Lancaster and there spent the winter 1731-32 and in the summer of 1732 he removed to the place near Staunton, in the county of Augusta, Virginia, now called ‘Bellefonte,' where he settled, brought up his family, conquered the country from the Indians, and amassed a large fortune.
"The country was in the possession of the Indians, and Staunton was not known. After establishing himself here, his family was a nucleus for new settlers from the east side of the Blue Ridge and Ireland, and their number had so increased by 1745, that the County of Augusta was organized, when John Lewis was appointed a magistrate and assisted in the organization."
William Lewis, the original narrator of the foregoing account, was about four years of age at the time of his father's bloody affray with the Irish Lord, and was the eldest of the three infants mentioned by the father in his address to Sir Mungo in the latter's banquet hall. Colonel William Lewis, the infant of that bloody time, lived to a great age in America, dying in 1812. He was born in Ulster, Ireland, in 1724. His sisters, Margaret and Anne, born 1726 and 1728, in Ireland, were the two other infants referred to by the father.
Another account of Irish John Lewis by one of his descendants, namely., the Honorable Charles H. Lewis, United States Minister to Portugal in 1873, who married a daughter of Judge Lomax, adds some further particulars to Colonel William Lewis's account and also differs in some respects with that account. Charles H. Lewis, however, was much further removed from the pioneers, being his great great grandson, whereas Colonel William was an own son.
Charles H. Lewis was a son of General Samuel H. Lewis and a brother of Samuel H. Lewis, Jr., who married a Miss Dabney. General Samuel H. Lewis was the second son of Charles Lewis, who was a son of Colonel Thomas Lewis, one of the six sons of Irish John. Charles H. Lewis's account included in Howe's "Historical Collections," says that his great great grandfather was aided in his battle with the Irish landlord by a small handful of his household retainers, who after the affray accompanied Lewis to the new world. He tells also of Lewis's presentment of his case to the authorities and of his subsequent pardon by the crown, as follows:
"He (Lewis) therefore, after drawing up a detailed statement of the affair (the affray with Sir Mungo Campbell), which he directed to the proper authorities, embarked on board a vessel bound for America, attended by his family and a band of about thirty of his faithful tenantry. In due time the emigrants landed on the shores of Virginia and fixed their residence amid the till then unbroken forests of West Augusta. John Lewis' settlement was a few miles below the town of Staunton, on the banks of the stream which still bears his name. It may be proper to remark here, that when the circumstances of the affray became known, after due investigation, a pardon was granted to John Lewis, and patents are still extant, by which his Majesty granted to him a large portion of the fair domain of Western Virginia.
"For many years after the settlement of Fort Lewis great amity and good will existed between the neighboring Indians and the white settlers, whose members increased apace, until they became quite a formidable colony. It was then that the jealousy of these red neighbors became aroused, and a war broke out, which, for cool though desperate courage on the part of the whites and ferocity, cunning and barbarity on the part of the Indians, was never equalled in any age or country. John Lewis was by this time well stricken in years, but his four sons who were now grown up, were well qualified to fill his place, and to act the part of leaders to the gallant little band who so nobly battled for the protection of their homes and families."
Charles H. Lewis, in this account, in ascribing only four sons to Irish John, apparently was misled, as were some other writers, by a statement of Colonel William Lewis, that of the marriage of his father and Margaret Lynn four sons were born. Colonel William, however, was referring to the sons born in Ireland prior to his father's flight from his native province. Two of Irish John's sons, John and Charles, were born in the wilderness fastnesses of Virginia, after the flight from Ireland, and may have been the children of another mother.
It will be noted also that Charles H. Lewis's account of the flight differs from that given by Colonel William Lewis and other authorities. Charles describes the flight as being direct to America, with John accompanied by his family and his retainers. Other authorities agree that John went first to Portugal, after many delays enroute, thence to America, where his family joined him a year later.
As stated heretofore, the year 1729, given by Colonel William Lewis as the date of his father's landing in Portugal, is not reconcilable with the date 1720, given by Lewis genealogists as the year in which Irish John slew the young Lord. Further inquiry into the records of these genealogists shows that they disprove their own statement inasmuch as they show that three of John's children, namely, William, Margaret and Anne, were born in Ireland subsequent to 1720, the year they say he became an exile from that country.
The facts seem to fix the date of the affray in Ireland in about the year 1728, in the reign of the second George, in which year Anne, the last of Irish John's children of Irish birth, was born. Fleeing the country, John, after many mishaps, landed in Portugal in 1729, came to America the same year, or early in 1730, was joined here by his family in 1731, moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the following fall or winter, thence to the wilds of Virginia in the summer of 1732.
The valley of Virginia was an undiscovered region, untrodden by the feet of white men, for near a century after the landing of the Pilgrims. White discovery and exploration did not begin until 1716. John and Isaac Van Meter (Vanmeter) of Pennsylvania, forebears of the Chenoweth, Dorsey and many other Pike county families, in 1730 secured from the Governor a grant of 40,000 acres of land in this unexplored lower valley. In 1731 they sold their grant to Joist Hite, also of Pennsylvania. Hite and John Lewis together made the venture into the wild valley. Lewis pitched his settlement in what is now Augusta county, at a point a mile east of present Staunton at a place remarkable for the singular beauty and freshness of its scenery, within sound of the music of a bold bright spring that issued from the hillside.
Here, in this wildly beautiful spot, John Lewis became known as the "Lord of the Hills." His settlement arose in the vicinity of the twin hills, which he named "Bessy (Betsy) Bell and Mary Gray," so called by him after similar hills in County Tyrone, Ireland, which in turn were named for two bonnie lasses of plaintive Scottish lay. "O Bessy Bell an' Mary Gray - they were two bonnie lasses," begins the famous ballad, mournful of the sad fates of the daughters of two Scottish lairds, who in 1645 in the time of the plague, while Bessy Bell was visiting Mary Gray at the home of the latter's father, the Laird of Lednoch, together occupied a bower built for them as a refuge from the dreadful scourge. A young man, according to the legend, who loved them both, brought to both the germs of the plague as he brought them their food, and together they died and were buried side by side upon the neighboring hills.
Speaking of Pioneer John Lewis's first settlement in the valley, Peyton in his history says:
"He (Lewis) was the first to occupy the scene; no axe had ever before rung through that forest; no spade had ever turned up that soil; nature had delivered it into his hands in its untouched virginity, and it was for him to say where and how, and to what extent, labor should mingle with it and art adorn and enrich it. Here the man, nurtured in high civilization but by sinister fortune deprived of his position and banished from his country, planted himself - making a home which became his tomb - delighting in the tranquility and independence of his secluded retreat. Here, amidst the deep shadows of the wilderness he built a stone dwelling, which, with its flanks, formed one side of Fort Lewis, and in this half dwelling-half fortress, he maintained a long struggle with the savages, and under its stout walls the infant colony grew in time strong enough to defy every foe. A portion of this old fort still remains in 1882, and is occupied as a dwelling by the proprietor. It is the oldest house in the Valley and though without architectural beauty or pretensions, is one of the most interesting of our historical relics."
Here, once, it is said that Lewis in his old age was attacked by a horde of Indians, on an occasion when all of his sons and retainers were away in the mountains on various missions. Lewis, according to the account, placed himself at a port-hole and kept up a continuous fire against the redskins while his wife loaded and handed him the guns. Those who were absent, hearing the sound of the guns, rushed home and drove off the Indians.
Here, in John Lewis's border settlement, his son Charles, child of his old age, born in 1736 and probably the latest born of Irish John's children, became noted for his prowess against the Indians. (Note: It is not certain whether Charles or John was the last-born son of Lewis, but the inferential evidence points to Charles. It seems evident that John and Charles were sons of the same mother and that their mother probably was not Margaret Lynn, although this is by no means certain. There is no record of Margaret Lynn, either of her life or death in America. There is inferential evidence that John's mother was Ursula Hardin, and if so, she was probably also the mother of Charles. Margaret Lynn was descended from the clan of Loch Lynn, famed in Scottish song and story.)
Charles Lewis, later a hero of the Point (Point Pleasant), where he fell in awful combat with the Indians, was a power in the Virginia mountains, being the ablest defender of the border settlements, even when still a boy. Charles H. Lewis, family commentator heretofore quoted, says there were few families among the Alleghenies where the name and deeds of this earlier Charles Lewis were not familiar as household words.
"Charles Lewis," says this commentator, Charles H. Lewis, "on one occasion was captured by the Indians while on a hunting excursion, and after traveling two hundred miles barefoot, his arms pinioned behind him, goaded on by the knives of his remorseless captors, he effected his escape."
Joseph A. Waddell, in his "Annals of Augusta County, Virginia," tells further of this escape of Charles Lewis from the savages. He says that they came to a steep bank and that suddenly Lewis, by a tremendous exertion, burst his bonds and rolled down the embankment into the water. He then swam downstream, pursued by the savages. Finally, spent with exertion, he dropped among some tall weeds and was overlooked by his pursuers. After the savages had passed by and he started to rise from where he had fallen, he was confronted by another deadly enemy, a rattlesnake, coiled near his face and apparently about to strike. Lewis lay perfectly still and finally the reptile glided away. Lewis was being taken by the Indians to their village for torture and death at the stake, when he thus escaped from their clutches. This Charles Lewis was an uncle of Samuel Hardin Lewis, the Pleasant Hill pioneer.
Pioneer John Lewis, colorful ancestor of so many in this part of the world, was born, as all agree, in Donegal county, in the province of Ulster, in the north of Ireland, in 1678, being the first born of two sons of Andrew Lewis and Mary Calhoun. John was born seven years before the Revocation that caused his French-Huguenot grandfather, who apparently married in Ireland and then settled in France, to flee from religious persecution there. William Lewis's son Andrew (father of John) evidently had crossed the channel and established himself in north Ireland long before the Revolution. It is probable that it was in the home of this son that the father took refuge following his flight.
John Lewis died in the settlement he founded among the Virginia hills. "In this hitherto unvisited region," says Peyton, "amidst beautiful landscapes and grand points of scenery, the old hero spent the remaining years of his life, finally closing his eyes upon a country blooming in cultivated fertility and enlivened by the arts of civilization."
"In 1762," says this same historian, "the Founder died, thirty years after coming to Augusta, and in his 84th year. He was a man of superior abilities and virtuous principles, prudent in concerting his plans, and perseveringly vigorous in executing them. The last thirty years of his life were devoted to advancing the interests of the little community he founded. His mind was improved by a liberal education and few possessed greater knowledge of everything capable of forming and qualifying a man for public employment. Tall, vigorous and commanding in figure, he was distinguished for the manly beauty of his person, the cordial freshness of his address, the charm of his conversation, and the desperate character of his courage. He was buried at Bellefonte, and an enormous limestone slab, rude and uncut, was placed over his grave, where it still lies half-buried." In 1850 this was replaced by a plain marble slab, bearing the inscription recorded in the preceding chapter.