Joseph "Joe" Keener - A synopsis by Ed Bain  


A synopsis by Ed Bain

(b. 29 Nov 18O9 Washington County TN - d. 28 December 1873 Sylva NC)

Joe was born in Washington County TN in 18O9 and died in Sylva, Jackson County, NC on 28 Dec 1873.   Joe was married
on 5 Aug. 1834 in Haywood County NC (witnessed by Uriah Keener - probably Ulrich) to Margaret W "Peggy" Cunningham (b. 14 Mar 1811 Haywood Co NC - d. 3 Nov 1875 Sylva NC).  Peggy is the daughter of George Cunningham Sr and Peggy Hughes.  Joe and Peggy are buried in the Keener Cemetery which bears his name and was given by his fanily to the town of Sylva NC.  Joe and Peggy were life-long Methodists.

We do not know the exact date he removed with his father and other children from Washington County TN to Buncombe County NC, nor do we know how and where he obviously obtained an excellent education.  However, at age 24, his achievements and abilities were considerable as we find him with enough esteem and respect to be elected into the General Assembly of North Carolina as a Representative from Haywood County NC in 1838.

Joe Keener was a land surveyor by trade and a most active political and civic leader.  He is credited with having surveyed along with General Clingman much of the Tennessee North Carolina boundary as we know it today.  He was made a Master Mason in i853 in Mt Hermon Lodge # 118 of Asheville NC.  When Unaka Lodge #268 of Webster was chartered on 4 Dec 1867 Joseph Keener was the Senior Warden.  The following year he became Master of that Lodge.

In politics Joe was a Whig (accepted as the forerunner of today's Republican Party) and was considered a very powerful, prominate, and quite witty man.  Some articles refer to him as being one of the wittiest men in the State.  He was also considered a wealthy man with considerable land holdings which included the ownership of most of Kings Mountain and property from approximately the current site of the Moody Funeral Home in Sylva to the Dills or property in Dillsboro.  He held much of the better farm land along the Tuckasegee, Nantahala and Oconaluftee rivers.  He sold to the Cherokees large tracts of land along the Oconaluftee after many Cherokees returned from Oklahoma from the infamous "Trail of Tears" to assist the Cherokee people in the formation of the Cherokee Indian Reservation as it is known today.  In 1871 Swain County was formed and a supplementary bill was issued authorizing Joseph Keener and J R Dills to survey Swain County.

His son, John Sevier Keener, later sold land inherited from his father to the county for the site of the new court house in Sylva NC when the county seat was moved from Webster to Sylva in 1913-1914.  Keener Street, which leads from the fountain at the bottom of the court house hill to the court house, is named in his honor.  In May of 1839 Joe Keener sold his home in the Scotts Creek section and two tracts of land to John B Allison, another grand parent, and moved into the newly built Keener home place which was located between Sylva and Dillsboro on the south side of the highway on property which was later to be known as the Luck House.  This property is located across from Allison Motors and now occupied partially by tennis courts at the site of the Mark Watson Park in Sylva NC.  The original Keener house is described as being a large home made of logs, and having a "dog trot," which is a sort of open ended hallway in the lateral middle.  The Luck House which replaced the Keener homeplace was also built with a "dog-trot."

John Baird Allison served 6 consecutive terms as the sheriff of Haywood County.

Joseph was a Whig (now Republican Party) in politics and his political and civic career includes the following positions:

Member of The General Assembly from Haywood Co NC;
1838 House of Representatives
1840 House of Representatives
1844 House of Representatives
Clerk of Court from Haywood Co NC from 1850 until 1852.

On January 31 1851, the Act to form a new county named Jackson was passed.  On March 21, 1853, "In obedience to the provisions of a Statute of the General Assembly, a Superior Court of Law and Equity for the county of Jackson shall be held at the dwelling house of Daniel Bryson, senior and thereafter, until the court house is built at such place as the county court (a majority of the justices being present) shall direct, and after the court house is built the courts shall be held in such court house, and the superior courts shall be held at the same place as the county courts." When Jackson County was created as a County from Haywood and Macon Counties, a Court of Pleas and (Quarter Sessions convened at the dwelling of Daniel Bryson Sr and the first action of the County Court was to appoint Joseph Keener, Clerk of the Haywood County Court, clerk pro tempore.  The court proceed to duly appoint the Justices of the Peace which included John Baird Allison (another grandfather).  The court then proceeded to elect Joseph Keener as Clerk of County Court and John Baird Allison as chairman of the special court, or select court.  There was also a select court which met quarterly which conducted business of the county in addition to hear and act on cases under its jurisdiction.  Following the Civil War a new state constitution was adopted and the provisional county court, in existence in the state since colonial days and in Jackson County since its formation was replaced.  On June 8, 1868 the final session of the County Court of Please and Quarter Sessions was held with Joseph Keener as Chairman and the only business to draw a list of jurors for the July term of court.  This system was replaced by the County Commissioner System as we know it today.

His achievements in Jackson Co NC are as follows:

1853-54 Clerk of the County Court
1853-58 Superintendent of Education for Jackson Co NC

Member of The General Assembly from Jackson Co NC; 1862-64 House of Representatives 1865-66 Senate (representing Cherokee, Macon, Jackson, and Haywood counties)
In 1868 he was again elected to the House of Representatives but declared ineligible to hold this office by Governor Holden and a new election was ordered.  He was ineligible to hold certain other elected offices and be an elected state representative at the same time.

We also find Joseph resigning from the Board of Directors from the State Lunatic Asylum on February 13, 1866

When adjoining Swain County was chartered in 1871 Swain Co passed a supplementary bill authorizing Joseph Keener and J R Dills to survey the county. Swain County was created from Jackson, Macon and Cherokee Counties.

Rev Ulrich Keener brother to Joseph Keener, was considered a dominant figure as an early pioneer Methodist minister and was the itinerant minister in the Tuckaseegee Valley.  He was the first resident superintendent of the Echota Mission School.  His original log cabin residence still stands next to the United Methodist Church located in the Soco Community of Cherokee NC and bears his name as a sort of historic place and gift shop.  Rev Ulrich Keener had a large issue of 11 children and is further mentioned in this document.

Senator Isham Green Harris (b. 1818 in Franklin County TN -d. 1897 in Washington DC) Of Tennessee was a first cousin to Joseph and Ulrich Keener from their mother's side.  Senator Harris is the son of Isham Harris and Lucy Davidson.  He was admitted to the bar in 1841 and elected to the Tennessee Senate in 1847.  In 1849-1853 he was elected as a Democrat to the Thirty-first and Thirty-second Congress.  Harris, a States Right Democrat was elected Governor of Tennessee in 1857, and reelected in 1859 and 1861.  It was largely through his efforts Tennessee joined the Confederacy in May of 1861.  Forced by Union forces to flee the state, he served on the staff of General Albert Sidney Johnson until the General's death and then served in the Confederate Army at headquarters for the Army of the West for the last three years of the Civil War.  Since the Union had offered a $15,000 bounty for his capture, at the conclusion of the war he fled to Mexico, and later England, to avoid capture.  He was pardoned after the war and in l867 returned to Memphis to practice law.  From 1877 until his death in 1897 he was a prominent U S Senator from Tennessee and president pro tempore of the United States Senate.  His funeral was in the Senate chambers of the Capital and burial was later in Memphis TN

A near cousin of Joseph Keener was Bishop John Christian Keener of New Orleans and of the Methodist Episcopal Church - South.  Bishop Keener was born in the city of Baltimore 7 February 1819 and died in New Orleans 19 Jan 1906.  He was in the first graduating class of Weslyan University at Middletown CN in 1833.  He returned to Baltimore to run the family wholesale druggist business after the death of his father.  However he soon felt called to the ministry and was in 1839 admitted in Alabama; transferring to New Orleans where he was presiding elder, Chaplain of the Confederate Army West of the Mississippi; editor of the New Orleans Christian Advocate; a Bishop of the Church- founder of the Missions in Mexico; and the inspiring advocate or strong leader 0; all the great connected enterprises of the Methodist Church in that area.  Through all his eventful career, which spanned over fifty years in New Orleans alone, he was everywhere conspicuous and always distinguished.  He also edited the Post Oak Trit and is found on the editorial committee of The Methodist Hymnal.  A tribute to Bishop Keener is as follows: "In person, Bishop Keener was large and well developed.  He was portly with vigorous health and a strong constitution.  He had a florid complexion light hair, blue eyes and smooth features.  In repose he had a classic face and a transparent countenance.  When in the pulpit and under the glow of deep thought and strong emotion, there was something almost angelic in his expression.  He had the manner, the pose, the movement and the impressive presence of a leader of men.  To look at him was to recognize one on whom nature had lavished gifts and graces of an extraordinary character.  He bore all of the marks of a man born to rule.  He would have commanded attention in any of the influential walks of life.  As a preacher he was almost incomparable.  His sermons were masterpieces of pulpit eloquence and power.  A volume of his sermons would be a genuine contribution to our pulpit literature.  He was a scholar by training and habit but did not confine himself to theology and was learned in science and art and literature.  But with all his greatness, he was as simple as a child, and his heart was as tender as a woman's.  His genial nature and warmth continually brought him into sympathy and touch with the humblest of men."

Submitted by Ed Bain

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