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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
* 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.
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.
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."
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 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".