A little background of the area

The last part of this article, "Tourist in Dooley land" has been moved to an article of it's own, and this article will be expanded in the near future.

This article should probably have been brought as the first one, but unfortunately I hadn't written it yet when I started the Tom Dooley pages. The idea is to give a brief description of the history, geography and natural beauty of the country, where the Dooley story took place. This article completes with a short guide on how to locate the actual places connected to the story.

The events referred to in these pages took place in the small town, or rather settlement Elkville in the years just after the Civil War. Elkville was and is near present day Ferguson in the western part of North Carolina in the United States, approximately 175 miles west of Raleigh, the state capital and about 40 miles from the Tennessee border, using present day roads.

The Europeans come to North Carolina

The first Europeans came to what later became known as North Carolina, around 1567. This first colonists were Spaniards lead by Juan Pardo. They built a fort near the present city of Morganton in the western part of the state, about 30 miles southwest of Elkville. Later they buildt five addititional forts, but the small force of only 120 Spaniards were probably to few to man all six forts, because 18 months later all of the Spaniards who manned the six forts had been killed by local natives.

Queen Elizabeth the First granted Sir Walter Raleigh rights to some land in what is now the northern part of the state. Here Raleigh tried to establish colonies at the end of 1580s, but none of them survived. Around 1650 colonists moved south from Virginia to what would later become the Eastern North Carolina, and the English king, Charles the 2nd gave permission to found a new colony, which was named The Province of Carolina, taking its name after the Latin name of the king, Carolus. In 1729 after a prolonged turmoil, this colony was divided in two, so-called "royal colonies" , North Carolina and South Carolina.

In the middle of the 1700s, the number of immigrants in the area grew considerably. Not least Englishmen, Scots, Irish and Germans settled in the area, but also people from other nations. When the American Revolutionary War broke out, the colonists in North Carolina supported the uprising, although only 7,800 men joined the rebel army under General Washington. This was the smallest force relative to the population of any of the 13 rebellious colonies. About 10,000 more enlisted in various local militias.

When the revolution was over many people from North Carolina moved into what is now called Tennessee, an area for which North Carolina claimed the right. On 21st of November 1789 North Carolina joined the Union as the twelfth of the thirteen former colonies. At the same time the colony transferred the rights to the so-called Washington Territory (present day Tennessee) to the federal government.

Native Americans

When the whites came to Carolina, the area had already been inhabited by Native Americans for many thousands of years. When the Europeans began to settle in the area, it was already inhabited by a number of tribes, that only a few Europeans if any (and maybe even some Americans) have never heard of. These tribes belonged to three different language families, which meant that languages ​​were interrelated in the language familiy, while languages ​​across language families had nothing to do with each other. This indicates, that the tribes were not related cross language families, and they did spend a lot of time making war on each other, sometimes allying themselves with former enemies, to fight former friends and so on.

Oconaluftee Indian Village in Cherokee
Cherokees showing how the tribe used to weave. Picture is from the Ocanaluftee Indian Village in Cherokee, North Carolina.

In the coastal area lived members of the Algonquian language families with tribal names like Chowanoke, Pamlico, Coree and Machapunga. In the southeastern part of the area lived Siouan spekaing tribes like the Sheraw, Caponi and Catawba and further inland in the highlands and mountains lived two Iroquois-speaking tribes, the Cherokees and Tuscaroras. Later (in the beginning of the 1700s) another Iroquois-speaking tribe, the Meherrin arrived in the area. The Tuscaroras were allied with the Meherrins during the so-called Tuscarora War between 1711 and 1715, where the two tribes fought against the English, Dutch and German colonists in North Carolina. After the war, many Tuscaroras and Meherrins fled north. Another language family, The Muscogee, was represented west and south of present day North Carolina in Alabama and Georgia, western Tennesee and Mississipi. This language was spoken by the Creeks, Chocktaws, Chickasaws, Alibamu and Miccosucee. The Creeks used to live in North Carolina as well, but had probably been removed from the area by the Cherokees.

In the western mountains of North Carolina the Cherokee tribe was dominant. The tribe, that probably numbered between 50,000 and 75,000 members, when they met the first whites in 1541, originally controlled an area of more than 135.000 square miles (which would make it the fifth largest state in present day USA after Alaska, Texas, California and Montana). The area included parts of eight of today's states, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia , North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. The Cherokee area in ​​North Carolina stretched from the Blue Ridge Mountains and Great Smoky Mountains in the west and well into the Piedmont further east and it was inhabited by the so-called Middle Cherokee, one of three distinct groups of Cherokees. The two other groups were the Lower Cherokee, who lived in South Carolina and Upper or Over Hill Cherokee who lived in the present states of Tennessee and Kentucky and later also in Georgia and Alabama.

When I go into these details abouth the Cherokees, it is partly because it is another interest of mine :-), but also because the area where the Dooley story takes place, had previously been controlled by this particular tribe. The most important Middle Cherokee town, Kituwa, was about 125 miles southwest of Elkville. In 1838, most of the Cherokee tribe was removed from the area by the U.S. military on what later became known as The Trail of Tears. The county still had a number of old people, who remembered the time, when the Cherokees was around in numbers, and some may even have taken part in the removal. A few Cherokees stayed behind in North Carolina, primarily in and around what is today known as the Qualla Boundary, home of the current Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, near the former "capital", Kituwa. In the area around Elkville, there weren't many Cherokees left in the 1860s if any, but there were around 5-600 Cherokees distributed throughout Wilkes county.

Counties (counties)

Today, North Carolina is divided into 100 counties. A county is an administrative unit, that can be compared to what we in Denmark formerly called "amt".

Originally, there were not as many counties as there are today, but gradually, as more and more people entered the area and more and more cities and other settlements arose, these very large counties were split. Some were split once again, then later was merged with parts of other counties to form new counties. The story of Tom Dooley mentions four different counties. The murder was committed in Wilkes County (which gets a section of its own below), not in Iredell as stated on the homepage of North Carolina State Archives. Many of those involved in the case lived in Caldwell County and a few in Watauga County, where two of those involved escaped to after the murder, and Tom Dooley was convicted and hung in Iredell County. Also, the state capital, Raleigh, named after Sir Walter, was mentioned in the story, but only because the state capital was home to the Supreme Court, which dealt with the appeals that were made during the trial of Tom Dooley.

Iredell County is located south-southeast of Wilkes County and this county only got included in the case, due to the fact that Tom Dooley's defence lawyer felt that the case could not get a fair trial in the Wilkes County Court, and therefore requested a change of venue. The county seat of Iredell County was and is Statesville, where the trials of Tom Dooley took place. This town was North Carolina's capital for approx. one month towards the end of The Civil War, when the government fled from Raleigh, which was threatened by the Union Army.

Blue Ridge Mountains
View of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Blowing Rock in Watauga County.

Caldwell County is located southwest of Wilkes County. The county seat is Lenoir, but this town played no part in the case. Caldwell County was created in 1841 as parts of Burke County and Wilkes County was separated from these counties and merged to form the new county. Already in 1847, parts of the new county merged with parts of Wilkes County and Iredell County to form Alexander County and the following year Caldwell County again had to abandon territory as part of the county, along with additional parts of Wilkes County, Ashe County and Yancey County was used to form Watauga County. These changes of county boundaries meant that many of the cast of characters of the Dooley case, who previously had all lived in the southwestern part of Wilkes County, were now living in different counties. Tom Dooley and Ann Melton and their families still lived in Wilkes County; Pauline Foster lived in Watauga County, while the victim Laura Foster and Tom's "nemesis", the witness Elizabeth "Betsy" Scott and his "persecutor" James Isbell all lived in Caldwell County. We know where most of the involved lived, namely in the settlements King's Creek and German's Hill in the eastern part of the county, very close to the Wilkes County border.

Watauga County is located west of Wilkes County and the county seat is the city Boone. As already mentioned, the county was created in 1849, when most of the main characters were young children. Watauga County is bordering Tennessee, and it was through this county that Tom Dooley traveled when he left Elkville after the murder. It was also here that the  key witness for the prosecution, Pauline Foster lived before she arrived in Elkville. Unfortunately, we do not know today exactly where, but I assume that she came from a place near the border of Wilkes and Caldwell County, perhaps in the area called Elk or what was called Stony Fork. Both areas had until the creation of Watauga County been part of Wilkes County.

Watauga as well as Caldwell and Wilkes counties are located in the eastern part of the Appalachian Mountains, specifically in the eastern foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Wilkes County

Wilkes County currently has about 70,000 inhabitants (2010 census), but in 1866 there were far less, just under 16,000 people. The county seat is Wilkesboro as it was then, and in Wilkesboro the county jail and the courthouse was found as they are today. It was in the old, now demolished courthouse, that the trial against Tom Dooley started. The county was created in 1777 from parts of Washington Territory (now Tennessee) and parts of Surry County. Later the county was repeatedly decimated because parts of it were separated in connection with the creation of other counties. The first time was in 1799, when the northwestern parts of the county was used to form a new county, Ashe County. As already mentioned, the county lost several areas again in 1841, 1847 and in 1849.

W. Scott-Kerr Reservoir

The W. Kerr Scott Reservoir on the Yadkin River between Wilkesboro and Ferguson.

The county seat,Wilkesboro, is situated in a place originally called Keowee in the Cherokee language, which means Mulberry Field, and on the location on the south side of the Yadkin River, in which Wilkesboro is nowadays located, was a small Cherokee village. The town of Wilkesboro was founded in 1800 by the revolutionary general and statesman William Lenoir. He wouldn't name the city after himself, so he named it after the county, which in turn was named after John Wilkes, an Englishman who had spoken the colonial case in the English Parliament. After Lenoir's death, the next major town along the Yadkin River was named after him instead, and it is the one that now is the county seat of Caldwell County.

The county is located on the eastern slopes of the Appalachian Mountains in the foothills of Blue Ridge Mountains. In the western part of the county, mountains reach up to around 3,900 feet, while it only reaches 1,250 feet in the eastern part of the county. The county's highest point is Thompkin's Knob, which is 4,078 feets above sea level. The southern county border runs through the Brushy Mountains, an isolated offshoot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The highest point in the Brushy Mountains, Pore's Knob is only approx. 12 miles east of Elkville. Brushy Mountain is separated from the Blue Ridge Moutains by the Yadkin River, and it was along its banks and in the mountains or hills surrounding the valley that the people involved in the case lived.

Despite the fact that the area is quite high by Danish standards, Wilkes County was  considered "lowland" by the residents of Watauga County, which was even higher in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The highest point in Watauga County, Calloway Peak is almost 6,000 feet above sea level, and the county seat Boone at 3,300 feet is the highest town with more than 10,000 residents throughout the eastern United States.

Along the Yadkin River stretches a fertile river valley, which before the Civil War was home to large plantations run by slave labor. In 1860 the number of slaves amounted to more than a third of North Carolina's total population of about 1 million people. The western counties had a relatively smaller slave population, and Wilkes County counted fewer slaves than most counties with less than 10 % of the population being slaves. Today the valley is still known for it's fertility, and while there were previously grown much tobacco in the area, nowadays more and more vineyards takes over, and the area is also quite suitable for viticulture.

The American Civil War

In April 1861 the American Civil War began when the cannons at Fort Johnson near Charleston in South Carolina opened fire on Union troops at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. The first state that had seceded the Union, was  South Carolina, who left the Union as early as December 20th, 1860. Later several states followed, but even though North Carolina was one of the so-called slave states, it wasn't eager to leave the union. Only on May 20th, after President Lincoln had urged North Carolina to attack it's sister state to the south, the state chose to leave the Union and as the last state join the "Confederate States of America". The decision was made only after a referendum, but in spite of the state's reluctance to leave the Union, North Carolina supplied the largest number of soldiers to the Confederate Army of all the Confederate States, namely 125,000. More than 40,000 of these soldiers never returned to their homes, and those who did not die in the battlefield died from hunger or diseases. Among those who failed to return home from the war, were Tom Dooley's two brothers, John and Lenny. Many of those who did return, was marked by the war in the same way as those who returned from Vietnam. That not all supported the southern cause though, is shown by the 15,000 men from North Carolina that enlisted in the Union Army.

It was a soldier from North Carolina who was the Civil War's first casualty in the Battle of Bethel. In the battles of Gettysburg and Chickamauga regiments from North Carolina penetrated farthest toward the enemy, and when the war ended at Appomattox Court House* in April 1865, it was a regiment from North Carolina who fired the last shot. This has led to the adage: "First at Bethel, farthest at Gettysburg and Chickamauga and last at Appomattox."

* Actually the war did not end at Appomattox. The peace here was only made for the eastern theater. Only on June 23rd 1865 did the final troops surrender. This was "The First Indian Brigade of the Army of Trans-Mississippi" commanded by Brigadier Stand Watie, a cherokee chief and the only native american to acchieve a generals rank.

Memorial in WilkesboroThe Civil War is still not forgotten in Wilkes County as the text on this stone from 1998 tells.

When the state had relatively few slave owners, why did such a large number of residents join the Confederate army? This may be illustrated very well with what happened in just Wilkes County. Of the approx. 16,000 inhabitants in the county about 13,000 were white, 250 were so-called free blacks, while 1,300 were slaves. The rest was mainly Cherokee Indians and immigrated Asians. The number of slaves was therefore much less compared to the number of whites than in the state as a whole. Among the Asians, who lived in Wilkes County was the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, who had settled in Wilkesboro in 1839 after having toured throughout the United States. In Wilkesboro, they opened a general store. They were not succesful though, so the two brothers moved to Traphill in northern Wilkes County, where they settled as farmers. They were married to two sisters Sallie and Adelaide Yates. No one thought that there would be children of these marriages, but Eng and Sallie had a total of 11 children, while Chang and Adelaide had 10. The two sisters later fell out, which was hard on Chang and Eng who had to build two houses. They then spent three days with Sallie and her children and three days with Adelaide and her children. When this became too much for them, they went on a tour where they displayed themselves and held lectures for a year at a time. On these tours, they usually brought along one or two children each. They both died at 30 minute intervals on January 17th 1884, but I digress.

When the vote on whether North Carolina should secede from the United States took place in 1861 only 51 voters in Wilkes County (adult white men - no one else had the right to vote) voted for secession, while 1,891 voted in favor of remaining in the Union. When the war later broke out, and volunteers we called for, 358 men from the county volunteered at once and many more did so later on. One of these first volunteers was James Melton, husband of Ann Melton. Why is it, that so many volunteered, when they did not want to leave the Union? This was probably not caused by a desire to preserve slavery. Not many of them owned slaves and besides, most of the few who did, knew that the days of slavery were numbered anyway. The reason was rather that most people had more feelings for their state than they did for the Union, and when the state went to war, even against other states, they backed it up in full. This can be illustrated with a few quotes, not from a man from North Carolina, but from Virginia, namely Robert E. Lee, who was to become Commander of the Confederate army.

When Lee just before the Civil War broke out, was asked by the U.S. Secretary of War if he would take command of the Union Army, he replied: "
With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have therefore resigned my commission in the Army, and save in defense of my native State, with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword..."

The fact that Lee was opposed to slavery, even though he actually had owned slaves before the war, according to a statement he made after President Lincoln had issued the so-called 'emancipation proclamation' in 1863, where he released the slaves in the rebellious South. On this oaacation Lee said: "So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that Slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interest of the South. So fully am I satisfied of this that I would have cheerfully lost all that I have lost by the war, and have suffered all that I have suffered to have this object attained."

Although Lee was from Virginia, many well known Confederate leaders came from North Carolina. These include General Braxton Bragg, Maj. Gens Dorsey Pender, DH Hill and Stephen Ramseur, Brigadier Generals Lewis A. Armistead, Junius Daniel, J. Johnston Pettigrew and Alfred Scales, as well as many, many others. The soldiers from North Carolina fought bravely in many battles and was nicknamed "The Tar Heel Boys" because they stood so firm in many battles, it looked as if their boot heels were glued to the ground with tar, which, incidentally, was one of North Carolina's main sources of income. This nickname has since given its name to the entire state, which today is known as, "The Tar Heel State". Tom Dooley and many others from the area where he lived, wer among those who volunteered in the war's first year.

After The Civil War

The time after the Civil War was called "the reconstruction period". This era had actually started already during the Civil War, with the initial thoughts on how to integrate those states that had seceded back into the Union, when the war was over. When President Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865 it had the consequence that the so-called "radical Republicans" took power in Congress, and in contrast to both Lincoln and his successor Andrew Johnson, the radicals wanted to pursue a hard line against the South. The leading Southern politicians were stripped of their powers, and most were arrested and imprisoned in Washington. To avoid complete anarchy, the South were placed under military control. The former Confederate states were divided into five military districts. North and South Carolina accounted for Second Military District, which was under the command of Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles. Sickles was a very controversial person already before and during the Civil War, where he had lost a leg at the Battle of Gettysburg. He ended up being ousted as head of the military district, and later became U.S. ambassador to Spain.

Already in 1862, when Union troops had conquered parts of North Carolina, President Lincoln appointed a military governor. His name was Brigadier Edward Stanly and he only served for about a year, becaused he disagreed with the president, about the emancipation proclamation. Stanly closed two schools for colored children in New Bern and was removed by the president. Stanly by the way was an uncle of confederate brigadier Lewis A. Armistead, and the two of them were born in the same house. In 1866 the president appointed a governor of North Carolina, William Holden, whom therefore was not democratically elected for his first period, and, like the Legislative Assembly, the governor was  subject to the head of the military district.

The reconstruction era was characterized by confusion, weak laws, weak authorities and distinct corruption, and political animosities often had strong impact on the decisions taken. It was in this politically unstable period that the case against Tom Dooley took place, and it can not be excluded that politics played a role in the outcome, as I have mentioned in previous articles.

The Nature

Yadkin River

The Yadkin River, where it is bridged by NC Road 268 in Ferguson.

The nature around Wilkesboro and Elkville is characterized by mountains and the Yadkin River. Today the river is dammed just outside Wilkesboro, which has formed an artificial lake, W. Kerr Scott Reservoir, but back in 1866 it floated freely towards the Atlantic Ocean from its source in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The river meanders much and changes direction several times. From its origin near Blowing Rock it runs due south for a few miles, then turns sharply left and runs in a north-easterly direction for many miles before it again turns sharply and runs south once again. The section of the river between the town of Patterson in Caldwell County and Wilkesboro is located on the stretch where the river flows to the northeast, and it was here that the events took place. The valley of the Yadkin River is fertile, but surrounded by low mountains or hills that is stony and overgrown with shrubs and trees. The valley along this part of the river is known as "Happy Valley".

Not least on the river's northern side, where most of the people lived, the hills raises fairly steep from the river valley. Because of the age of the mountains and the erosion that has taken place, the mountains consist of a plurality of ridges spaced with low valleys. These ridges and valleys are typically perpendicular to the river valley, which forms the basis for an lot of smaller streams flowing from the hills into the Yadkin River. Among these streams are Elk Creek, which in 1866 formed the county line between Wilkes County and Caldwell County. Today, the border is approx. half a mile further west on the other side of a ridge. Another of these small streams are Reedy Branch east of Elk Creek, along which, small farms were situated. Barely a mile and a half north of the river extends a ridge, that is roughly parallel to the river. On the north side of this ridge runs Gladys Fork Road and it was near this road that did not exist in 1866, that Laura Foster was murdered.

The whole district and the rest of the Blue Ridge Mountains is a very scenic area, if one likes winters with snow, summers, where the mountains are covered by fog or haze and autumn, when foliage gives the landscape some amazing colors.