On The Way Here

I have to open this post with an apology for the long absence. A combination of circumstances has me hopping every which way, leaving me little time for writing. I’ll share some of it another time, like the process of restoring a log cabin on the Sauk River of Washington State. Other stuff I’ll leave to your imagination. Just remember I’m a teacher and the end of the school year just passed!

Since one of my subjects is Social Studies and my fifth graders study the foundation of our country, it seems appropriate to observe Independence Day from a family history perspective.

Jesse Vawter

Born in Tidewater Virginia (his ancestors built St. Anne’s Episcopal Church near Tappahannock), Jesse apprenticed to become a wheelwright. In pre-revolutionary Virginia there was a wave of heartfelt religion, a rebellion against the official Anglican church. Jesse felt persuaded to become an exhorter in the Baptist faith. He was the first of my ancestors to migrate out of Virginia (we’d been there since 1619), moving to the hills of North Carolina. Still a young man, he traveled back and forth between his old and new homes. He was at his parents’ place in Orange County, Virginia, during the Revolutionary War. He was drafted to serve as his local militia’s man in Washington’s army, but given his skills, he wound up riding a wagon. After three months, Jesse fell gravely ill and he was released to the family of his fiancee, Elizabeth Watts. He was not expected to recover.

Jesse lived a long life. His many children raised many families, too. His gravestone at Wirt, Indiana, emphasizes his religious work, but a government-issued veteran's marker declares that he fought in the Revolutionary War.

Jesse lived a long life. His many children raised many families, too. His gravestone at Wirt, Indiana, emphasizes his religious work, but a government-issued veteran’s marker declares that he fought in the Revolutionary War.

Under Elizabeth’s nursing, Jesse beat the odds. When he was once again ambulatory, he and Elizabeth decided it was time to marry. Virginia officially decreed that it no longer required its citizens to be Anglicans. Baptists and other faiths were given the power to perform legal marriages. Elizabeth and Jesse must have been one of the first couples married after that decree. To perform the ceremony they selected a close advisor, Elijah Craig. Craig is more commonly known as the inventor of the technique that turns whiskey into Kentucky bourbon, but that happened later.

Jesse moved his new wife back to North Carolina in 1777, a year known as the Bloody Sevens because of all the conflict on the frontier. But they stuck it out near Holston (now in Tennessee) until Jesse took a little trip, a sort of Long Hunt. The Craigs and their entire church had moved en masse from Orange County, through Holston and the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky where they established a precarious settlement. Jesse traveled to Kentucky to inspect the new country and a friend of his (I’ve always suspected Elijah) convinced him that Kentucky would be a marvelous place to live.

There wasn’t even a wagon road through the Cumberland Gap yet when Jesse and his family set out for Kentucky in 1791. This was the time in which Indians were violently opposing settlement of Kentucky by Americans. Some of Daniel Boone’s most harrowing adventures and tragedies took place around this time. His son died along the trail the Vawters would take. They avoided conflict with the Indians, but found evidence of ambushes of previous parties. There was one tense moment when a greenhorn threw an armful of cane on a roaring fire, producing what sounded like a sudden attack. Elizabeth is said to have kept a hatchet handy, and she refused to even sleep the first night they arrived at the home of acquaintances in Kentucky.

The Vawters produced a number of Baptist preachers, including Jesse himself. By 1805, an old man with only one eye, Jesse moved his family  across the Ohio River into Indiana Territory. One of his sons helped to plat and develop the settlement that became Madison, Indiana, then moved further north to found other towns. Jesse is credited with performing the first Baptist funeral in Indiana, and with being the second Baptist preacher in the territory. There is a long list of little churches that claim to have been established by him as he visited the cabins and clearings of pioneers in southern Indiana.

He died and was buried near his home in a tiny settlement north of Madison, a place that now exists only in the name of the church he established there, Wirt. All the tombstones in the cemetery at Wirt were uprooted from the graves and placed shoulder to shoulder for display. This was to accommodate some construction at the little church.


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