Marking Time: Traveling Through the Past in Henderson County


Roadside taverns.

Gambling.

Murder.

Welcome to Henderson County.

Henderson County of the early to mid-1800s, that is. A typical Western North Carolina mountain county, the area carries some interesting historical baggage – an illegal duel and an infamous Civil War raid, for instance.

From Bat Cave at the foot of the Blue Ridge to Little Pisgah, the county’s historically relevant events, locations and people are marked and noted for anyone who is interested in learning about them on 16 roadside markers.

The markers are part of North Carolina’s Highway Historical Marker Program. For years the markers have sparked the curiosity of many residents and visitors alike and are probably responsible for more recent residents’ appreciation and understanding of the area’s history.

“Being a native of Henderson County, these historical markers are a source of pride to me and I hope to others too,” says Mike Hill, who oversees the state’s historical sign program from Raleigh. “They offer people a brief introduction into the history of North Carolina and maybe gets them interested in learning more about their local history.”

More than likely, though, many folks who travel the county’s highways hardly notice the black and silver markers with their brief notations of days-gone-by.

Illustration by James Flames

Illustration by James Flames

The Vance-Carson Duel

It began with a little political mud slinging between friends and ended with the death of one of Henderson County’s earliest congressman.

As Samuel Carson ran for re-election to Congress in 1826 he faced his old friend and the former congressman Robert Vance. Boyhood friendship soon turned to adult rancor. At a debate in 1827, Carson called Vance a diminutive dwarf (he was five foot six) and Vance retorted that Carson was a coward, referencing his family’s supposed allegiance to the British during the American Revolution.

Both men agreed that a duel was the only way to defend their honor.

Although dueling was against the law in North Carolina, most of the state heard about the duel. The location was supposed to be secret, but many folks as well as some prominent men found their way (including Davy Crockett), according to The History of Western North Carolina, by John Preston Arthur. Nobody seems to know what Crockett was doing at the duel.

In the 1973 edition of The State magazine, author Hamilton Cochran writes “the duel between these two brilliant men of powerful families took place at Saluda Gap, just over the South Carolina line, on November 5, 1827.”

At the time, the duelers’ seconds attempted to have the duel in South Carolina, where it was still legal, but the site they selected was indeed in what at the time was Henderson County.

One shot mortally wounded Vance. He was taken to a nearby hotel where he died. His grave is in the family burial ground on Reems Creek, near Asheville. Carson later went to Texas, where he held political office and was a signer of the Texas Declaration. Most agree today that the site of the duel was in the section of the county once called the “Dark Corner.”

In his book From the Banks of the Oklawaha, Frank L. Fitzsimons writes “The people who lived in the Dark Corner were good people, honest, dependable, churchgoing and good neighbors…nearly everybody who lived in the area, though, made illegal whiskey; blockade liquor. The Dark Corner was famous for the clear, potent whisky …”

Today the area is in the protected lands that make up the Greenville Watershed in South Carolina.

Illustration by James Flames

Illustration by James Flames

Howard Gap Road

If you go to Patty’s Chapel Cemetery near Fletcher on Howard Gap Road you’ll find the grave where George Cunningham was supposedly buried on June 9, 1875.

The Howard Gap Road was the route used by early settlers and traders entering Western North Carolina. It begins near Fletcher and the French Broad River south of Asheville and heads south. It predates the Buncombe Turnpike that follows a similar route into South Carolina. The road runs for about 65 miles, 30 of those in North Carolina.

First used by Indians, Howard Gap Road was traveled by livestock drovers and tradesman. One such traveler was Cunningham, who hauled wagonloads of goods to the stores in the area.

On these trade routes regular campsites, taverns and roadhouses sprung up to accommodate the drivers who stopped to rest and many times hang around with other drivers telling stories, drinking moonshine and gambling.

On one such stop Cunningham met a stranger and began to drink and play cards, according to Frank Fitzsimons’ book From the Banks of the Oklawaha. It wasn’t long until the 19-year-old boy had won all the stranger’s money and his watch, which lead the stranger to accused him of cheating. In the ensuing struggle Cunningham kills the man and later admits to the sheriff that he hit him with an ax handle in self-defense.

Cunningham was convicted of murder and sentenced to hang.

On the day of the hanging a newspaper wrote: “George Cunningham made a farewell address to approximately 1500 people in which he denied to the very last that he had deliberately killed the stranger. He warned the people of the evils that could result from drinking and gambling. After this he was taken to a pen 20 feet by 30 feet located behind the jail. The pen was surrounded by a board fence 15 feet high. He died without a struggle.”

But did he really die?

Historians suggest that Cunningham was not dead when he was cut down from the hangman’s noose and that his body was replaced in the casket, while en route from Marshall to Fletcher for burial, with an old oak log and a bottle of perfume — the log for weight and the perfume to hide the smell of a decomposing body.

The story goes that somewhere between the gallows and Patty’s Chapel Cemetery, Cunningham escaped.

In the 1950s, after years of rumors, the remaining family of Cunningham had his grave opened. When the dirt was removed and the casket opened, a professor of chemistry determined there were no signs of bones, teeth or hair, “or anything resembling these things,” according to Fitzsimons’ book.

Illustration by James Flames

Illustration by James Flames

Stoneman’s Raid

For a man to be immortalized on a historical marker for leading a Civil War raid in Henderson County, you would think he would have at least visited the county seat.

But according to historical accounts, Major Gen. George Stoneman was never in Henderson County.

It was March 1865, and Stoneman was commander of the Union army District of East Tennessee. His orders were to march through Western North Carolina “to destroy and not to fight battles,” according to The story of Henderson County, by Sadie Smathers Patton.

Historians wrote that Stoneman and his Union soldiers tormented county residents. Though some of his troops did make it to Hendersonville in April 1865, they were back on the road to Asheville within hours, according to A Partial History of Henderson County, by James T. Fain Jr.

Fain writes that residents, especially wealthy ones, were more likely to be robbed and murdered by bands of desperadoes’ left over from the war called “outliers” than by Stoneman’s men.

Out of this terror many stories grew of jewelry, gold, silverware and cash being taken away in the dead of night and buried in secret places hidden from the clutches of bandits or Union soldiers.

One such tale goes like this:

The trouble for Abraham Kuykendall was that his ingenuity was better than his memory.

Abraham kept a tavern near Mud Creek Church and reputedly lived to 104 years old. Legend has it that when he sold his property he was paid off in gold coins. He blindfolded two of his servants, led them through the forest one dark night, and directed them to dig a hole for the money.

Some time later he had use for some cash, but he was unable to remember where he had buried it. While searching for his treasure, he fell and died from injuries. A lot of people since have tried to find Abraham’s Gold, but so far with no luck.

SIGNS OF THE TIMES

In 1935, the General Assembly authorized the establishment of the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program, one of the oldest such programs in continuous operation in the United States. The silver and black markers are a familiar part of the state’s landscape since the first one was put in 1936. To date more than 1,400 state markers have been erected. At least one stands in every county.

VANCE-CARSON DUEL

On Nov. 5, 1827, Robert B. Vance, former N.C. Congressman, was fatally wounded in a duel by Samuel P. Carson, his successor. 1/2 mile S.E. SR 1265 (Old US 25) south of Tuxedo.

HOWARD GAP ROAD

Route used by Indians & settlers in crossing the Blue Ridge. Named for Capt. Thomas Howard, 1776 militia leader. US 64 at Howard Gap Road north of Hendersonville.

STONEMAN’S RAID

On a raid through western North Carolina Gen. Stoneman’s U.S. Cavalry passed through Hendersonville, Apr. 23, 1865. US 64 at I-26 northeast of Hendersonville.

To learn more about the historical sign program see the book Guide to North Carolina Highway Historical Markers or visit www.ncmarkers.com

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