john mcwhorter settlement in rockfish valley colonial virginia
  McWhorter Lives and Times  

 In Search of John McWhorter

I know of several John McWhorters. I have a brother named John McWhorter. Both my father and grandfather were named John Robert McWhorter, like my brother, although they were both known as Bob. I met a number of John McWhorters in Ayr, Scotland, at the 2003 “Gathering of the Clan.” There is an erudite John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Berkeley, who happens to be African-American.

At Colmonell, Scotland, I’ve seen the grave of a John McWhirter. In Middleburg Cemetery, Casey County, Kentucky, John McWhertar lies buried. (Sadly, just in the last ten years, his headstone has deteriorated to the point that only “ertar” is still visible.) Revolutionary War pension records show that John McWhorter, presumably the Middleburg-buried John’s father, died in Kentucky in 1833, where he settled with his family after a long journey from Union County, South Carolina.

It appears that some thirty years earlier, this John traveled to South Carolina with his mother Eleanor, his brothers and one or more sisters. Many sources say the family came from old Albemarle County in Virginia, but by 2003 I had not yet seen the records showing that Eleanor and her children, with husband John McWhorter, lived on the banks of the Rockfish River.

On his McWh*rter Genweb web site (see this web site‘s links page), Alan McWhirter refers to this man as John of Va., one of the five progenitors of the American branches of the family. Where this John came from is unknown. Hundreds of other Scots or “Scotch-Irish,” however, followed the Great Pennsylvania Wagon Road south, when Indian raids in places like Lancaster County, Pa., became too intense. According to the Rev. Edgar Woods in “History of Albemarle County in Virginia,” the first settlers in the region came down the Shenandoah Valley, then crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east through passages like the Rockfish Gap. It can be found where I-64 crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The lure of new land may have drawn this man to Virginia, as it did many others. Land in the so-called back country was easy to get. The English colonists liked nothing better than to have Scots in the western hinterlands as a buffer between them and the Cherokee, Shawnee, Algonquin and Iroquois.

I make it a point to see records before I accept assertions that one person is the ancestor or descendant of another or lived at such-and-such a place. Not only is this a standard of historical accuracy, but it also makes for interesting themes for vacation travel.

In September 2003, the search for this John McWhorter in colonial Virginia put my husband Mike and me on the road to Richmond, even as hurricane Isabel churned toward the Middle Atlantic coast. The Library of Virginia in Richmond holds the land and court records of old Albemarle County, which other genealogists have cited in their accounts of the McWhorter family.

The Library of Virginia in Richmond is a dream to work in. The librarians are knowledgeable and eager to help. Banks and banks of microfilm cabinets contain land and will records back to 1748. There are dozens of microfilm readers and several reader-printers.

This means that having a co-researcher is a good idea. One of you can use the index films to locate the right microfilm reels while the other does the fetching and carrying. Then one can find the documents on the reels, and give them to the other for printing. Some of the images on the films, however, are very bad, making it necessary to transcribe with pencil and paper directly from the microfilm viewer. Old styles of handwriting and the elaborate language used in court records make this difficult.

Where was the home place?

It also tends to be difficult to tell exactly where a plot of land was sited. Corners were established at oak trees or “hiccory saplins” and distance measured in “poles.”  As McWhorters, however, we have the good fortune that James McCanne, who sold John McWhorter his first property, had set aside a lot for the Rockfish Presbyterian Church for a meeting house and school. The McCanne-McWhorter sale is not on file in Richmond, but it is referenced in the McWhorter-Patton document.

The Rockfish Presbyterian congregation continues to occupy the same property, locating the McWhorter land for us. It is located on the east side of Route 151, just south of the junction of Routes 151 and 6, within easy reach of I-64. (Thanks to Alan McWhirter’s web site for providing this information. The church’s address is P.O. Box 278, Nellysford, VA. 22958, phone number is 434-361-1221, and e-mail address is [email protected])

It is a beautiful spot, looking out to the Blue Ridge mountains from gentle hills. The land there is still farmed, but middle class suburbanization is not far away. No tumbledown shacks or toothless grannies left.

A few months after selling this 170 acres to Alexander Patton for 90 pounds, John McWhorter bought 237 acres from Alexander Henderson for 70 pounds, apparently pocketing 20 pounds from the difference. Land speculating in Colonial Virginia was a fast and furious game. The little guy rarely made money but, like the McWhorters, bought and sold property every few years. The faith in land’s appreciation in value could be misplaced, however. When Eleanor sold the Henderson property eleven years later in 1763, she only got 70 pounds. Still, many lost all they had.

Daily life in pioneer Virginia

The Library of Virginia contains an inventory of John McWhorter’s estate when he died in 1757. Although the microfilm is a very poor copy, it allows for some guesses about the kind of life he and his family led.

He owned a number of farm animals, including several “kine” which probably means cattle (just as hogs are often called swine), and “horse kine”  -- perhaps mules. Separately listed are horses, and “old horses.” They would be valued differently, one supposes. There are more than eleven “hoggs” as well as a “goos” and a gander. The horses were apparently used for riding, for John had owned saddlebags, a whip and a spur.

Like other pioneers, John had to be able to build and repair things. He left a set of “joyners tools” as well as a grindstone and a hatchet. His household implements included a loom, a wool wheel and a reel. Weaving was a relatively rare skill. Some pioneer households kept a disassembled loom in storage until an itinerant weaver made the rounds of the neighborhood. He would live with the family for several days while he wove the yarn spun and accumulated since the weaver’s last visit. The inventory included several yards of “Duroy cloath” and an old coat.

The family did not lack comforts. John owned a still and the “vessels belonging to same.” Besides distilling whiskey for family and friends, producing spirits may have been a way to convert locally-grown grain or corn to a more easily transported or higher value commodity. As the inventory did not include any plows, mattocks, scythes of other farming implements, perhaps his role in the economy was this form of manufacturing.

There is no mention of a gun, shaking our image of the pioneer as a Daniel Boone figure. Did some people live without a means of hunting or of defending their homes? Or some time before he died, did John give his weapon to a son?

The household also included a “smoothing iron.” There was a table, dishes, pots, pails, “knoggons” and chests. The family owned a slate, a Bible and some other books, suggesting that someone was able to read or write, at least a little. The affidavits prepared for John, the Revolutionary War soldier, were signed with Xs. Literacy must have been lost somewhere along the way.

This sums up about all we can know about this John McWhorter. He brought his family on one stage of the journey of the McWhorter clan around the world. He was willing to move on from one place to another to better their lives (or escape their problems). In the backwoods, a man had to be alert and resourceful. He had to be able to survive the harshness of bad weather, food shortages and hostile Indians. He had to travel far to conduct business. All in all, a man for his descendents to be proud of.

Last updated 11/25/2003      Copyright© 2003 by Karen McWhorter Wilhelm