James Lee Claxton or Clarkson was born about 1775, but our first hint of him is found in Russell County, Virginia in the court records that begin in 1799.
The surname, Claxton, has become Clarkson in several subsequent generations – but even today, in Claiborne and Hancock Counties when people refer to this family who spells their last name Clarkson, it’s pronounced like Claxton or Claxon.
I’m transcribing the names as they are spelled in the records, but I’m referring to James as Claxton. His earliest records are found spelled that way, as are most of his DNA matches.
Russell County, VA
In the Russell Co., VA Court Minute Book 3, 1799-1808:
February 25, 1800, Page 47 – James Claxton, Surveyor of the road in place of James LeMarr and that John Tate furnish a list of tithables.
June 13, 1800, Page 62 – John Tate assigned to furnished Thomas Johnson and James Claxton, surveyors of the road with a list of tithables.
August 26, 1800, Page 80 – Commonwealth vs James Claxton, dismissed.
I’d love to know what that was about.to
February 24, 1801, Page 109 – William Tate, Jr. be surveyor of the road in place of James Claxton and that Thomas Johnson furnish him a list of tithables
March 24, 1801, Page 118 – Commonwealth vs James Claxton, dismissed.
Again? Maybe this has something to do with why his position as surveyor of the road was assigned to William Tate.
February 23, 1802, Page 177 – Zachariah Fugate, Peter Counts, Richard Davis, James Claxton, to view a road from the forks of the road where it takes off Davises until it intersects the road the side of John’s cabins.
James couldn’t have been in too much trouble, since he is still given a position of responsibility.
June 22, 1802, Page 195 – Commonwealth vs Nathan Hobbs, presentment, Jury: Littleberry Robinson, Edward Monahon, Jacob Castle, Peter Starns, Thomas Stapleton, William Hall, John Williams, Robert Lawson, James Claxton, Henry Goodman, John Hall and Peter Alley, def found not guilty
The fact that James Claxton is on a jury list strongly suggests that he is a landowner, but no land records for James have ever been found in Russell County.
Tax lists exist for 1787-1800, 1802 and legislative petitions exist for 1785 and 1810. Some are only partial lists.
The first year that we find James Claxton mentioned is in 1800 in the lower district of Russell County. The upper district is missing.
This timetable is reasonable, because that’s about the time he married Sarah Cook, whose father, Joel Cook also lived in Russell County.
In 1801, we again find James in the lower district and Clayton, John and Joel Cook in the upper district.
In 1802, we find James Claxton in the Upper District of Russell County, along with Joel Clayton, George John Cook. The tax list is in alpha order, so we don’t know the proximity to each other.
However, there were no other Claxtons by any spelling of the name. Where did James Lee Claxton come from, and why?
Don’t I wish I knew!
Not long after they are married, James Claxton and his bride, Sarah Cook, migrate south across the border of Virginia into Tennessee.
In Russell County, Sarah’s father lived near present day Honaker, Virginia. The wagon trip to Claiborne County would have taken between 6 and 11 days and covered about 110 miles. A 2 or 3 hour drive today, through the mountains, but then it would likely have meant that Sarah seldom, maybe never, saw her parents again.
James and Sarah weren’t the only people from Russell County moving south. The Riley family and likely other Cook family members as well accompanied them and are found as their neighbors in their new location on Powell River.
Claiborne County, Tennessee
Claiborne County at that time encompassed the current Claiborne and Hancock Counties. Hancock was split from Claiborne in the 1840s, so the entire time that James Lee Claxton lived there, it was Claiborne.
The northern part of the county, now Hancock County, where James lived, is quite mountainous and the mountain ranges form the border with Lee County, Virginia.
The Powell River, where James Lee Claxton settled snakes between those mountains, having cut its way through granite – undulating back and forth and back and forth. You can see those bends in the river, below.
The location below, with the red arrow, is Claxton’s Bend where James Lee Claxton lived.
We don’t know exactly when James moved to Claiborne County, but we do know that he is not found on Russell County, VA tax lists after 1800. His eldest son, Fairwick, reports that he was born in 1799 and that he was born in Virginia, so that too is a clue.
Mahala, the next oldest child born in 1803 claims that she too was born in Virginia.
We first find James in a Claiborne County record in 1805.
It would be safe to say they moved between 1803 and 1805, although birth locations gleaned from census records have been known to be wrong before.
Claiborne County, TN Court Notes
June 16, 1805 – page146 – William Bales overseer of the road from Williamson Trent’s to the Bald Hill near Martin’s Creek intersecting the Virginia line – hands Nathan Morgan, William Morgan, Mark Morgan, Zacharish Stephens, James Claxton, William Allen, Charles Rite, George Spencer, Elijah Smith, Joseph Mourning, William Hatfield, Henry Smith, Jacob Smith, William Evans, John Allen, James Allen, John Riley and John Parrot.
Sept 1805 – page 164 – James Claxton appointed constable, took oaths and gave securities John Husk and Isaac Southern
Sept 1805 – Henry Fugate allowed the following hands to work on road on the North side of Wallen’s ridge in Charles Baker’s company:
- Nathan Watson
- David Watson
- James Poe
- James Hist or Hust
- James Morgan
- John Colter
- Isac Armstrong?
- John Jones
- Thomas Jones
- Elisha Jones
- John Rash
- Zach Stephenson
- William Pice
- Isaac Southern
- Charles Baker
- William Crosedale
- William Parton
- Shelton Parton
- Drury Lawson
- James Claxton
- Goen Morgan
- William Morgan
- Obediah Martin’s hand
- William Martin
- Johnston Hanbleton
- Gainford Grimes
- William Rutherford
- Jacob Smith
- Elijah Smith
- Henry Smith
- Mark Foster
- Aleander Richie
- William Dohely?
- Thomas Harrison
- Isac Fauster
Road lists are wonderful resources, because they give you in essence a list of the neighbors who live along that road. Everyone was expected to help. Later, we’ll recognize John Riley as a close friend, swearing he had attended James’ wedding, and he’s on both of the above lists.
The Martins are the Martin’s who lived at Martin’s Branch, quite close to the Claxton’s on the Powell River.
Sept. 1806 – page 71 – John Ryla admin of estate of William Ryla decd and for that purpose entered into bond of $1500 for the lawful discharge of his duty – Isaac Southern and James Claxton securities.
Note, that’s really John Riley.
May 1808 – page 184 – Deed from John Cage to Henley Fugate and John Riley 640 ac – witness James Claxton and William Bails
May 12, 1817 – page 342 – Sarah Claxton to administer the goods and chattels, rights and credits of James Claxton decd – bond Josiah Ramsey
Sarah Claxton be allowed $15 out of estate of James Claxton decd for her serviced rendered in the administration of estate.
August 11, 1817 – Sarah Claxton administrator of the estate of James Claxton decd returned inventory of personal estate – order of sale granted to sell personal estate of deceased.
Is that not sad? It’s bad enough that she lost her husband with a houseful of children, and now she has to lose everything else as well. Men were presumed to own everything and the widow was provided only one third of the value of the estate.
Unfortunately, there is no estate inventory in any of the surviving books.
Feb. 11, 1818 – page 41 – On motion William Graham and Mercurious Cook appointed commissioners to settle with Sarah Claxton administrator of James Claxton decd and make report to the next court.
The great irony is that this was exactly three years to the day after James’s death.
I had always wondered if Mercurious Cook was a relative of Sarah’s, but if he were, he would not have been appointed to settle with her on James’s estate.
James married in 1799, but he was dead by 1817, less than 18 years later. Early deaths always make me incredibly sad, because I know full well what that means to the widow and children.
How did James die? We’ll find out shortly.
By 1810, James owned land in Claiborne County.
1810 – John Hall to James Claxton, 1810, book C-58 (looked up in later Hancock County book for description – 100 acres on the North side of Powell River, Hobbs line, granted in grant 2051 to John Hall from the state of Tn.) – this is the power of attorney to Walter Evans to sell his land entry “after it ripens into a grant” to James Claxton – dated October 29, 1810, registered April 1811
1811 – John Hall to James Claxton, 1811, D-94 for $10 – original states Dec. 4, 1811, John Hall of Sumner County and James Claxton of Claiborne, $300, 100 acres adjacent the land of Thomas Hobbs on the North side of the Powell river, bank of Powell river, up said river, land originally contained in grant 2051 granted to said Hall by the state of Tn. Oct 27 1811. Signed John Hall by Walter Evans his attorney.
By piecing deeds and surveys together over time, we know that the Claxton family all lived adjacent.
Fairwick Claxton, James’s son, was granted land in 1833 which abutted his brother Henry’s and his mother Sarah’s land.
The Claxton’s lived on the Powell River, at a place still known as Claxton’s bend.
We are quite fortunate for an 1834 deed that lists the children of James Claxton and Sarah.
1834 – Fairview Claxton to Sarah Claxton, 1834, Book O-233 for $70.00 – original reads March 27th, 1834, between Farwick Clarkson, Andrew Hurst and wife Mahala, John Plank and wife Elizabeth, Levi Parks and wife Susannah, John Collinsworth and wife Rebecca, Jacob Parks and wife Patsy, heirs at law of James Clarkson deceast of the one part and Sarah Clarkson widow of the aforesaid James Clarkson decd of the other part, all of Claiborne Co. Tn. In consideration of:
- Farwick Clarkson, $70 (signs with a signature – but all of the rest make marks. Fairwick’s wife is not included for some reason.)
- Andrew Hurst and wife Mahala – $70
- John Plank and wife Elizabeth – $70 or 20 (Debra’s note marked through)
- Levi Parks and wife Susannah – $70
- John Collensworth and wife Rebecca – $20
- Jacob Parks and wife Patsy “Polly” – $20
To Sarah Clarkson, widow aforesaid, 100 acres, Claiborne on the North side of Powell river where Sarah lives and land that was conveyed to James Clarkson from John Hall of Sumner Co. Tn. – beginning at Hobbs line, bank of Powell river. Witnessed by John Riley and Johiel Fugate. Registered Jan. 1, 1841
Yep, that’s James original land from 1810 and now Sarah owns it free and clear, in fee simple.
And again, we find John Riley involved with the family.
Visiting the Claxton Land
In 2005, with the help of a local woman who was able to find the “ford” crossing the Powell River, I was able to visit the Clarkson land. Actually, this was rather happenstance, because I was actually looking for the McDowell Cemetery. What I didn’t realize at the time, is the wonderful vista it would provide of the adjacent lands on the Powell River.
It was also before the days of Google maps, and before my visit to the Clarkson/Claxton cemetery in which I was trapped in the cemetery with a cousin by a lovelorn bull. So, at the time I first visited and forded the Powell River, I didn’t know exactly where the Claxton land was, but I knew that is was nearby because of the hand-drawn surveyor’s map that so helpfully labeled Claxton’s bend.
The McDowell land is within sight of the Claxton land and because the McDowell land is high, appropriately known as “Slanting Misery,” even yet today, you can climb to the top of Misery Hill and view the surrounding lands. And trust me, having done it, not once, but twice, in the dead of summer, it’s very aptly named.
On the map above, the Claxton family cemetery, where I’m sure that Sarah is buried, along with her son Fairwick and many other family members is shown with the left red arrow.
The middle arrow is where I waded, yes, waded, across the Powell River and the right arrow is the location at the top of the hill on Slanting Misery where I climbed to survey the area.
Here’s a closeup on the Claxton Family Cemetery, now called the Cavin Cemetery, named after the current owners. It’s fenced and located in a field at the intersection of Owen Road and River Road, shown above. You can see the square fenced area.
Do you want to come along on my little River adventure?
Actually, I had to go twice, because I was unable to find the McDowell Cemetery the first time. I’ll spare you the story about the bull chasing us away the second time. It seems that every farmer in Hancock County has their own bull. In Indiana, where I grew up, farmers shared one bull – but he was always an extremely happy bull.
The first visit was much more serene, probably because I didn’t realize the level of bull-related danger, so come along.
To begin this chapter of our story, let’s look at the Powell River as seen from Cumberland Gap.
If you wonder why I love this country, one look at this picture and you don’t have to wonder anymore.
The Powell River cuts a deep swath through the mountains in both Claiborne and Hancock County, Tennessee. This picture is looking east towards Hancock County from the summit and overlook at Cumberland Gap.
The Powell River is certainly not a small river, and it can vary from lazily running along to a raging torrent, depending on the water level and the rain.
It’s pretty daunting to look across this river and not to know how deep it is. However, the only other option was to attempt to drive, and I can swim a lot better than my Jeep.
And yes, for the record, I DO know how difficult it is to get yourself removed from being stuck offroad in Hancock County. Let’s not talk about that right now. I’m still embarrassed.
This is a really bad photo of me screwing up my courage and wading the river. I was half way across when I realized my partner in crime, or supposed partner in wading, was still standing on the riverbank. Her excuse was that she was going to take my picture. I really think she was waiting to see if I was going to have to swim for shore. For the record, it wasn’t deeper than about 3 feet which is why we had to look for the “ford” which is notoriously shallow. The locals told me that the alternative was a 25-mile drive – through the mountains, on two track roads. I’ll wade, thank you.
If you’re wondering what I had in the bag, it was a camera and notes about how previous searchers found the cemetery years before, with a hand drawn map. It didn’t help.
It started out with “cross the river.”
So far, so good.
Then “follow the road…”
What road? Where?
…to the well.”
“…near the barn.”
Ok, I should be able to see something as big as a barn.
What barn? Where?
You get the idea.
Standing in the middle of the river, looking towards McDowell Shoals. The local folks said there used to be a swinging rope bridge across the river above that island, until it got washed away in a flood. Now THAT made me feel a LOT better. They said it was some hellatious flood.
I don’t know which flood swept this bridge away, but the floods in the region are legendary. The rivers drain the mountains and then empty into each other.
This photo is of the 1977 flood in Sneedville, the county seat of Hancock County where the Clinch River did a great deal of damage. The Powell River empties into the Clinch. Sneedville saw about 15 feet of water and the river was about 33 feet above normal and believed to have been about 10 feet higher than in the previous all time high recorded in 1826.
Here’s a picture of the Powell River somewhat upstream, near the Cumberland Gap, during the 1977 flood. It would have been worse downstream.
So, maybe Slanting Misery wasn’t so miserable after all and provided a safe retreat in a flood.
I do wonder how the Claxton land fared in the floods. It was quite a bit lower.
A report prepared by the US Department of the Interior after the 1977 flood, from which these flood photos were extracted, reported that the 1977 flood resulted from 3 days of rain that saturated the ground, followed by another 4 days of rain a couple days later that caused most of the water to reach the streams as surface runoff. The second rain event dumped more than 15 inches of water on the area.
The 1977 flood levels were the greatest since 1826 on the Powell River. The Claxtons would have been living on their land in 1826, although James.had already died, so Sarah and her children would have had to deal with whatever happened.
In any case, the Powell river can be quite powerful, especially when upstream creeks and rivers receive rainfall. Had I known that, I might have been watchful of the weather – but ignorance is bliss.
I climbed to the top of the hill on Slanting Misery and recorded the vista for posterity. And am I ever glad that I did, because this is the land of not only the McDowell family, but the Claxtons and (not pictured) the Herrell’s, all of whom intermarried.
The land beyond the barn (yes, THAT barn) is the Claxton land, laying across the river that you can’t see, of course, because it’s in the “dip” between the trees. And yes, you CAN see the barn from on top of the hill, but not from the river level. They probably built the barn where it wasn’t subject to the annual spring floods.
This land is as beautiful as it is remote.
There is nothing like looking at the land of your ancestors to make your heart skip a beat.
Three families that lived here, the Claxtons, the McDowells and the Harrells would intermarry to create my grandmother, Ollie Bolton.
Five generations of ancestors lived on this land as neighbors. The blood of my kinfolk waters this land and has for more than 200 years.
James Claxton’s Death
I was invited to Alabama in July of 2006 to give a DNA presentation. I wasn’t too cracked up about that – Alabama in the dog days of summer – but I decided to go anyway. DNA evangelists, in those early days, took every opportunity to spread the word.
My one and only visit to Alabama would prove to be quite interesting, in a very unexpected way, having nothing to do with the speaking engagement.
I realized after I accepted that invitation that my ancestor, James Lee Clarxton, had died at Fort Decatur, Alabama on February 11, 1815, a casualty of the War of 1812, albeit through disease and not direct warfare. Still, he died in the line of duty, a place he would never have been if he were not serving his country, far from home, in the middle of winter, with little or no food.
More than two years later, on August 11, 1817, Sarah Cook Claxton, his wife, was appointed administrator of the estate of James and the estate was settled May 11, 1818.
I wonder if that means that Sarah wasn’t informed of his death until two and a half years later. Surely not, but why the delay in probating his estate? Typically estates were probated within 30 days – generally at the next court session. But not James’s.
In 1815, Sarah would have only been married for about 15 or 16 years. She and James had 8 children, although some of their birthdates are uncertain and conflict, unless there were twins.
- Fairwick (or Fairwix) was born 1799/1800, died Feb 11, 1874 and married Agnes Muncy sometime around 1819.
- Mahala was born in 1801, died in March 1892 and married Andrew Hurst.
- Elizabeth was born about 1803, died in 1847 and married John Plank.
- Mary Polly was born about 1803, died in 1887 and married Tandy Welch
- Susannah was born about 1808, died in 1895 in Iowa and married Levi Parks.
- Rebecca was born in 1808, died in 1880 in Union Co., TN and married John Collingsworth.
- Martha Patsy was born in 1811, died in 1898 and married Jacob “Tennessee” Parks.
- James born 1810/1815 in the 1840 census with a wife and 2 daughters, but by the time Sarah die in 1863, neither he nor his daughters are mentioned as heirs
- Henry was born 1813/1815, died August 1838 and married Martha Patsy Gillus Walker.
Sarah, James’s widow, seemed to be quite independent. She never remarried, even though she had small children. She lived 48 years as a widow, not passing away until December 21, 1863, and did things that most women didn’t do during that timeframe. For example, she obtained not one, but multiple land grants.
In 1834, Sarah purchased 100 acres from the “heirs at law” of James Clarkson i.e. their children: Fairwix, Mahala, Elizabeth, Susanna, Rebecca, and Martha. Children Mary (Polly) and Henry are not mentioned in the deed. Henry probably was still living at home but Mary (Polly) had been married to Tandy Welch for fourteen years. Perhaps she received her inheritance when she married.
James’s Pension Record
Most of what is known about James Lee Clarkson/Claxton and his family is taken from the service and pension files of the National Archives. The pension file is voluminous, containing thirty-nine pages. It’s always a good day when you receive a thick envelope from the archives!
In the 1850’s, Congress passed several acts benefiting military survivors and widows. It was during that period that Sarah Clarkson applied for both his pension and bounty land. We know about his death because Sarah applied for both.
According to the Treasury Department letter dated Dec. 30, 1853, James Claxton enlisted on November 8, 1814 and died on February 11, 1815. His widow, Sarah, had received a half-pay pension of $4 per month under the Act of April 16, 1816.
Hancock Co, State of Tennessee – On this 8th day of March 1851 personally appeared before me a JP John Riley of Hancock Co., Tn. and John Taylor of Lee Co., Va. who being duly sworn according to law declare that Sarah Clarkson is the widow of James Clarkson decd who was a private in the company commanded by Capt. John Brockman in the 4th regiment of East Tennessee militia commanded by Col. Baylis – in the War with Great Britain declared by the United States of the 18th day of June 1812. That said Sarah Clarkson was married to James Clarkson decd in Russell Co. in the St. of Va on the 10th of October 1805 by one John Tate a JP in their presence, that the name of the said Sarah Clarkson before her marriage aforesaid was Sarah Cook, that her husband the said James Clarkson died at Fort Decature on the 20th of Feb. AD 1815 and that she is still a widow, and they swear that they are disinterested witnesses. Signed by both John Riley and John Taylor and witnessed by AM Fletcher. Sworn before William T. Overton JP
John Riley again. A disinterested witness means that they don’t stand to benefit from the statement.
A second sworn statement is given below:
On March 8th, 1851 personally appeared before me Sarah Clarkson aged 76 years a resident of Hancock Co. Tn. who being duly sworn according to law declares that she is the widow of James Clarkson decd who was a private in the company commanded by Capt. Brock (number of regiment not recollected) regiment of E. Tennessee militia commanded by Colonel (too light to read) in the war with Great Britain declared June 18th, 1812. That her said husband was drafted at Knoxville Tn. on or about the 13th of November AD 1814 for the term of 6 months and continued in actual service as she is informed and believes in said War for the term of 3 months and 7 days and died at Fort Decatur or near there on or about the 20th of February 1815 as will appear on the muster rolls of his company on account of sickness. She further states that she was married to the said James Clarkson in Russell Co. VA on October 10th 1805 by one John Tate JP and that her name before her marriage was Sarah Cook and that her said husband died at Fort Decatur as aforesaid on the 20th of February AD 1815 and that she is still a widow. She makes this declaration for the purpose of obtaining the bounty land to which she may be entitled under the act passed September 25th, 1850. Witness Fairwick Clarkson (possibly others as the bottom of page is cut off) and she makes her mark.
James Lee Claxton’s death date is given variously as February 11 and February 20, by different sources.
In another statement, Sarah gave her marriage date to James Lee Claxton as October 10, 1799 which meshes better with the births of their children. By 1805, James and Sarah were living on the Powell River in what is now Hancock County, Tennessee, raising a family. Their oldest son, Fairwick (Fairwix, Farwick, Farwix), also my ancestor, was born in 1799 or 1800.
A third document tells us a little more about the circumstances of James death.
State of Tennessee, County of Hancock, on the 29th day of August in the year of our Lord 1853, personally appeared before me a JP within and for the county and state aforesaid. Foster Jones and Tandy Welch citizens of said state and county who being duly sworn according to law declare that they were personally acquainted with James Clarkson decd (sometimes called and written Claxton) who was a private in the company commanded by Capt. Brock in the 4th regiment as well as recollected of E. Tennessee militia commanded by Col. Bales in the War with Great Britain declared June 18 1812 and that the said James Clarkson (or Claxton) sickened and died before the expiration of the time for which he engaged to serve in the said war and he belonged to the said company and regiment to which we did and that we each of us have applied under the act of Sept. 28 1850 and obtained land warrants for our service in said war. Tandy Welch and Foster Jones both make their marks, AM Fletcher a witness and Stephen Thompson a witness.
Another statement indicates that both Tandy Welch and Foster Jones witnessed the death of James Claxton.
Tandy Welch, the man who was at James’ side when he died, five years later, on June 22, 1820, married James’ daughter, Mary.
On November 29, 1853, personally appeared before me Mrs. Sarah Clarkston, a resident of Hancock County aged 79 years…widow of James Clarkson…married about 1799…drew 5 years half pay in 1816…obtained 40 acres of land bounty dated Sept. 22, 1853 number 92928.
The War of 1812 is a rather neglected war, as they go. We don’t know a lot about where these men were on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. What follows is a little information about his regiment from The Regimental Histories of Tennessee Units During the War of 1812.
The 4th Regiment, along with Colonel William Johnson’s Third Regiment and Colonel Edwin Booth’s Fifth Regiment, defended the lower section of the Mississippi Territory, particularly the vicinity of Mobile. They protected the region from possible Indian incursions and any British invasion. These regiments were under the command of Major General William Carroll. They manned the various forts that were located throughout the territory: Fort Claiborne, Fort Decatur, and Fort Montgomery, for example. Sickness was rampant in this regiment and the desertion rate was high. The regiment mustered in at Knoxville and was dismissed at Mobile.
And then this from one of the soldiers, Thomas David, at Camp Montgomery who kept a diary:
I now volunteered again and under Capt Henry Lane subsequently attached to Gen McIntosh. [Jones’ Regiment] I think it was the latter part of October 1814 that we were mustered into service at Fort Hawkins, and went soon (well supplied) to Fort Decatur, on the Tallapoosa river. We built boats to carry provisions down the river. We started overland to Fort Claiborne [Louisiana]. We got there eight days before the boats arrived with the food, and there was none at the Fort. We had bad times, some suffered extremely, some died. Before our supplies came reports came that the British had taken Fort Bowyer at Mobile point, and an attack upon the town fort was expected. What were we to do?
Sarah initially had problems collecting James’ pension and bounty land due to the difference in the spelling of his last name, Clarkson, under which she applied, vs Claxton. I fully understand that, because I have issues with James’s records today for the same reason.
Sarah did collect a widow’s benefit of half pay, $3.85 a month, for five years, although exactly when is unclear. During the 1850’s she also received a land grant of forty acres. However, she filed a deposition in March of 1854, claiming she was entitled to 80 acres. The 40 acre grant was cancelled (a copy of the cancelled certificate is in the pension file) and the 80 acre grant approved. In the for-what-it’s-worth category, the scanned version of his pension file at Fold3 is significantly incomplete. More than half is missing, so I’m glad I ordered it from the National Archives years ago.
Sarah’s monthly pension ceased when the Civil War began. After the war, her son, Fairwick, filed an oath of loyalty in order to apply for restoration as administrator of her estate since Sarah had died. He also vouched for Sarah’s loyalty and testified about Sarah’s “heirs to wit”. Sukey Parks, wife of Lewis Parks, is said to have moved to Iowa some 20 years ago, Farwix and Polly are residents of Hancock County, Patsy and Mahala are in Claiborne County, and Rebecca is listed as living in Union County. Rebecca is reported as “disloyal”, meaning Confederate, but that “cannot be proven from personal knowledge.”
We know from James’s records that he was buried at Fort Decatur, on a hill not far from the fort. He never came home. I wonder if Tandy Welch and Foster Jones, two of the local men in his unit, bore the responsibility of telling her about his death after they were discharged later in 1815. The war of 1812 ended just a month after James died – on March 23, 1815.
I decided that since I was going to Alabama anyway that I’d like to go and find James’ grave at Fort Decatur and pay my respects to him where he is actually buried.
That sounded much easier than it was to prove to be.
First, I had to find Fort Decatur.
I began by trying to find the location of Fort Decatur. After many frustrated attempts, I finally discovered that the Fort was not preserved, but neither was it destroyed. It was simply abandoned and allowed to decay.
In subsequent years, the site had been purchased with a significant piece of other property by Auburn University for their Experimental Agricultural Farm. So one can get to the fort, if one can find the fort, which is another matter altogether. But then again, I thought, how difficult can a fort be to find?
I would discover that the answer to that question is not what it appeared.
I was fortunate to locate two local men who knew the area well and were raised there. Unfortunately, neither was able to accompany me during my visit. I arrived on a Sunday morning in one of the most remote places I’ve ever been. I pulled into the parking lot of a very rural church to ask directions, and the children were actually frightened of me. They literally ran inside to hide. I was both confused and felt terrible.
Then I realized I was literally right down the road from where the Tuskeegee Sylphilis Study infamously took place. Some things cast a very long shadow.
The local people didn’t even know there WAS a fort. Actually, I think they thought I was crazy. And the Experimental Agricultural Farm was completely deserted.
Fortunately, my friend had sent me an old drawing of the fort made shortly after its construction. It is located between the railroad tracks, which were not there when the fort was built, obviously, and the bend in the river.
I would wager that James is buried on that hill behind the fort. The documentation said it was near the spring.
My friend also sent me a photograph of the monument at Fort Decatur. It was placed there in 1931 by the Alabama Anthropological Society (which ceased to exist long ago). The inscription on the plaque reads:
Built by the 3d U. S. Inf.
You can see that it is illegible, but illegible or not, monument itself should at least be visible as it’s pretty good size, and fenced – right?
Fort Decatur was built by a contingent of NC militiamen in 1812/1813 as a fortification in the War of 1812 when our country was fighting with the English.
The Indians were backing the British because the British told them that if they won, they would return all of their lands. The Creek Indians were a particular stronghold, and these forts along the Alabama Rivers, plus some in Mississippi and Louisiana and Northern Florida provided protection for the then sparse residents and also for locations from which to fight.
Fort Decatur was relatively small, as forts go, and was only a militia stronghold, not a hospital or supply fort. Many of the soldiers from Fort Decatur traveled between Fort Montgomery and Fort Claiborne in Louisiana. Other contingents built other now defunct forts at the convergence of the Coosa and Talapaloose rivers – Fort Williams and Fort Strothers, also nearby, a large supply fort. Davis’s journal said that his regiment was dispatched, on foot, to Fort Claiborne but they beat the supply boat by almost 2 weeks and had nothing to eat. Getting troops someplace was one thing. Feeding them was quite another.
The regiments that were at Fort Decatur were devastated by famine, starvation and associated diseases. They probably also had typhoid, given the descriptions of what was going on. One soldier said that they lost 50% of their men, which according to the roster, is accurate. Most of the deaths were due to disease and starvation, not fighting the Creeks. All of this was incredibly sad, especially when I think of my ancestor’s last days.
I hate to think his death was for naught, but given that the war ended a month later, and that he wasn’t killed defending his country, but died a miserable death instead – I do feel that his life was wasted in the sense that his death was premature and pointless. I have to wonder what prompted him to join.
Most of these men didn’t even have horses, as soldiers had to supply their own, and they marched from Knoxville to Alabama, on foot, in the winter. Those who survived were discharged in May and then walked home again. In addition to James, there was a drummer and a fifer, typically boys between 12 and 15, as only 16 and over were allowed to fight. One of those young boys was possibly the brother of James’s wife, Henry Cook – so Sarah lost her husband and possibly her little brother or a nephew as well.
Very interesting indeed, and a devastating chapter in a War whose soldiers probably didn’t even understand why they were fighting. They were “drafted” or volunteered in the militia because they had no other choice. Both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War were passionate wars with a purpose, regardless of your perspective. This one was just something that had to be done.
Ironically, the Fort was built across from a very large Indian village that spanned 4 miles on the bends of the river. In 1815, the Indians came to the fort to ask for peace. Eventually, they were removed to Oklahoma along with the Cherokees. Some left and joined the Seminole in Florida.
One of the reasons I was able to find information about the fort is because the Governor of Tennessee, John Sevier, also died at the fort just a couple of weeks before James Claxton. Sevier was buried outside the fort on a hillside. The fort itself was built on the top of an Indian mound. Some years later, a contingent of men returned to Fort Decatur and exhumed Sevier, bringing him back to Tennessee and reburying him in Nashville. The location of Sevier’s body was marked at the time with a marble marker. Other graves were either entirely unmarked, or with wooden crosses. Given that half the men were dead, the other half likely sick, most of the graves were probably unmarked.
During a stop in the Tennessee archives in Nashville on my way to Alabama, I was able to unearth a great deal of information about the trip to exhume Sevier, but nothing that would definitively locate the cemetery or burial location today. Some think Sevier may not have been buried with the rest of the men, but I bet he was.
On the map below, the fort is marked, along with Sevier’s gravesite. Reports of the cemetery said it was near a spring, which is shown on the original drawing.
The roads have changed from the time that the “old Federal Road’ ran alongside the original Fort. The map below shows the current configuration.
A current topo map insert is shown below as well. Armed with all of this information, how could I fail to find the fort? The men who had grown up locally played on and in the fort as a child.
I gave this personal version of a scavenger hunt my best effort.
I found Milstead, which was located right on Highway 40. I found the University of Auburn farms, and the 4 brick houses where I’d guess the students stay. Not a soul was anyplace on the land. I went behind the big yellow building to the brick house back there too, and saw the road going on back. I followed the road, thinking either I’d find someone to ask or I’d find the fort. The road (2 track) went back and then along the railroad for maybe 1/8th mile, then crossed over the railroad track. From the maps I had found, it looked like the fort was between the railroad and the river, and that it was where the river bent to the west leaving the tracks. I have a GPS unit in my car, and I was at that location, and there is a hill, but the kudzu was so thick that I couldn’t see anything. I followed that road on for a ways and it shortly turned towards the river and there were “no trespassing” signs, which I ignored (against my better judgment) and followed the road down to the river. I thought maybe I could see the fort from that road down by the river, but I couldn’t.
I took a photo, which I now can’t find, and I left before someone started shooting at me. The area looked like it was privately owned after crossing the railroad track. In retrospect, I think I probably went too far. With kudzu covering everything, and I mean literally everything, it was impossible to tell.
I returned home very disappointed. It was a relatively miserable and disheartening trip. I seldom fail at finding something – especially a something that large.
I don’t mind tramping through the woods in 100 degree heat to find an ancestor – but not finding something as large as a fort, being miserable and having driven for more than 900 miles for the privilege was hard to bear.
My cousin, Daryl, and I were planning to return the following year, but life interfered and we have been unable to return to find the fort.
Fortunately, an unlikely source, YouTube has come to my rescue. Someone took a video “tour” of Fort Decatur, so we can all enjoy the visit.
Apparently nothing, or not much, is left of the original fort itself, just the earthworks. In part, this explains why I was unable to find a “fort.” Knowing that James died there while watching this video was a very moving moment. I couldn’t be more grateful for this man’s kindhearted posting of this video.
Above is a clip from the video within the “fort” itself, and below, the ditch that surrounded the fort.
And look, there’s that marker in the video! It does still exist. I guess this is the closest thing to a grave marker that James Lee Claxton will ever have.
I found the location on Google maps, but try as I might, I can’t see the marker or the remains of the fort. However, the bend in the River is distinctive and we know that the fort is located right beside the river, about where the T is in Tallapoosa.
The tiny village of Milstead is in the lower left corner. The Auburn farm is the circle driveway and the farm to the left of the circle driveway. I believe they own the area from 40 to the river.
The fort would have been located in the forested area below, between the hill and the river, and the gravesite wouldn’t have been far. Looking at this area today, compared with the map that shows John Sevier’s grave, it certainly looks like the gravesites were near the railroad.
Utilizing the various maps and hints, I think that the fort is right about where the tip of the red arrow is located, below. The green area below the fort would be the hill, as draw on the original map and current day topo. The two blue arrows to the left would be the old road that fords the river, and the road approach on the far bank. The two blue arrows on the right side are the spring and the stream. This leave, of course, the hill in the middle between the fort, the railroad tracks,and the various blue arrows. If James was buried on the hill, near the spring, he could have been buried on the right side of the hill area, probably not far from the road cut today, which you can see between the right blue bottom arrow and the railroad tracks..
Additional research and working with the University revealed that during the time when the railroad tracks were laid that human bones were unearthed and pretty much ignored. I have to wonder if those bones were the bones of the men who died during the War of 1812. We know that several soldiers died at this location, roughly half of the men stationed here were reported as deceased during their enlistment, although only about 6 were noted on the roster as having died in January and February.
However, given that the fort location was near the Indian village and mound, the bones uncovered could also have been Native bones. None were salvaged. They were quickly “reburied” by recovering them with dirt.
I know that the chances of me going back to Alabama AND finding Fort Decatur are slim to none, but I have certainly gotten closer to the gravesite of James Clarkson than any other family member ever has. I paid my respects, such as they were.
I suspect James’ widow, Sarah, always wanted to visit his grave. She never really got to say goodbye. His youngest children never knew him.
Tandy Welch, James’s future son-in-law was with James when he died and was probably one of the men who buried James. Sarah and his children would have had to be content to know that at least James had two old friends with him, Tandy Welch and Foster Jones. James too would have taken comfort knowing that Tandy would help look after his young family. That’s probably how Tandy came to marry James’ daughter.
Sarah never remarried.
James Claxton’s Y DNA
We had two burning questions when we began DNA testing on the Claxton line.
First, were the various groups of Claxton, Clarkson, Clarkston and similar surnames one group, or many?
To some extent, we’ve answered that question.
There are several unrelated groups of men, as you can see when looking at the Claxton Y DNA project. By the way, we welcome all Claxton and Clarkson descendants, so please test at Family Tree DNA and join the project. If you are a male Claxton or Clarkson, take the Y DNA test at 37 markers or above, in addition to the Family Finder test. For everyone else descended from any of these lines, take the Family Finder test and please, join the Claxton project.
What is surprising is that some men found in or near the same geographic locations do not have matching Y DNA, meaning they don’t share a common direct paternal line.
In some cases, based on their genealogy, we know these men who don’t match are truly descended from different lines. In other cases, we may have encountered some new lines, meaning those through uncertain parentage or adoption whose surname has remained Claxton, but their Y chromosome is reflective of a different ancestor. We consider those “new” Claxton lines, because they are clearly Claxton from here forward.
Our second question was the geographic origins of our Claxton line. Where did our ancestors live before they immigrated? Of course, the best way to tell would be for a Claxton male from that location to take the Y DNA test, and match our line, but so far, that hasn’t happened.
One of our Claxton men took the Big Y test. Thank you immensely!
The Big Y test scans virtually the entire Y chromosome for mutations called SNPs that point to deep ancestry on the paternal line. In our case, the Claxton’s terminal SNP, meaning the one furthest down the tree, is haplogroup R-FGC29371. This by itself doesn’t mean a lot, but in context, it does.
This Claxton cousin’s closest matches on the Big Y test are men with the following last names:
This suggests that he doesn’t necessarily match these men in a genealogical timeframe, and in fact, he doesn’t match them on the regular STR marker test panel at Family Tree DNA – but it means that those families and his are probably from the same place at some time before the advent of surnames.
Utilizing the SNP utility at Family Tree DNA, we see that there are only three locations of clusters where this SNP is found, so far, and all 3 are in the UK.
Of course, as luck would have it, one is in Ireland, one in Scotland and one near the Scotland/England border.
The Unresolved Mystery
We still haven’t identified the parents of James Lee Claxton. I’m firmly convinced that his middle name, Lee, given in 1775 when middle names were only purposefully given, is a clue. Middle names at that time in the colonies were generally only bestowed when they were family surnames. Everyone having surnames came in vogue not long thereafter, but I strongly suspect Lee is a family name.
Unfortunately, Lee is also a rather common name, but I have been on the lookout for decades now for any Lee or Lea connection. So far, that has been another blind alley wild goose chase…but hey…you never know which of these goose chases might actually net something! One thing, none ever will if we don’t pursue those geese.
In a future article about James’ potential father’s, I’ll step through what we’ve done and who we’ve ruled out.
In the mean time, nearly 13 years after founding the Claxton/Clarkson surname project, I’m still waiting for that person to test someplace in the UK that will match our Claxton line.
While waiting for that person to test, I’d settle for a definitive line out of Virginia, perhaps!
If you are a Claxton male, please consider both Y DNA and autosomal testing (the Family Finder test) at Family Tree DNA and joining the Claxton project.