Sunday, February 1, 2009

James Welborn of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky

James Welborn of Muhlenberg County
By Gail Jackson Miller

By 2 July 1803, James and Elizabeth Welborn had settled in southern Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. Census records recording the birth places of their children suggest that they probably had come from North Carolina. They found the land of Muhlenberg County to be made up of hills and valleys covered by a continuous hardwood forest. The trees were so large and provided so much shade that little underbrush grew. Gigantic oak, poplar, hickory, walnut, and beech trees grew over most of the county with tall pines overhanging the cliffs near Clifty Creek in the extreme south.

Settlers from the Carolinas typically entered Kentucky by the Cumberland Gap. The Welborn's probably traveled with a larger party of friends, neighbors, or other people going to the same place. Often, people would gather in western Virginia or eastern Tennessee waiting for a larger group to gather for travel. Census records including Lenny, the last Welborn child born outside Kentucky, suggest that she may have been born as the Welborns were making their way from North Carolina and preparing to come to Kentucky. Perhaps Lenny was born as they waited for this larger group to gather prior to coming through the Gap.

The couple traveled with at least four young children: Nancy, Thomas, Rober and Fanny with the baby, Lenny perhaps being born along the way. Travel was difficult, especially with the young children. Everything that they would need in the new country had to be carried in by pack horse. Men frequently walked carrying rifles to guard the pack horses. Women often carried their babies as they walked or rode. Very young children might be placed in cages or baskets made of hickory and placed on the sides of a gentle horse. Slightly older children rode a horse with large rolls of bedding placed before and behind.

Land was a driving force for the mass movement of settlers into Kentucky after 1800. Parents with children wished to locate where their children could find homes around them when they married. James Welborn followed this model as he settled on his first acreage of Clifty Creek in 1803. He had probably built a rude cabin and was growing a corn crop by the time he appeared in the 1803 tax list. Settlers were required to occupy the land, plant a crop, and live on the land for a year to gain possession. His claim registered on the land the next year established his residency.

During these early years on the 200 acre Tolbert tract, James probably built a one-room cabin. It may well have been sililar to others in Kentucky during this time period. Danile Drake (circa 1790) describes his family's first cabin in Kentucky as being "about the size and form of [his daughter's] dining room - one story high - without a window - with a door opening to the south - with a half finished wooden chimney - with a roof on one side only...." They may well have lived in this first cabin "on the waters of Rocky Creek on a ridge between said creek and Hazel Creek" for several years. In October of 1807, Robert Dudley, assignee of James Welborn, entered a claim on the property. It is unknown how or if Robert Dudley was related to Elizabeth Dudley Welborn, but the Welborn's continued to appear on the tax list with this property until 1809.

Corn was a staple of pioneer life. Undoubtedfly, James Welborn also planted a crop of corn. Corn would grow in the newly claimed fields still dotted by the large trees killed by belting. Even though the fields were still mangled with roots and covered with sticky burrs, corn with only moderate cultivation would yield 60-80 bushels per acre. It not only provided nutritious food for humans but for every domestic animal as well. Pumpkins might have been grown between the stalks of corn, turnips in some corner, and melons planted in the center of the field not visible to the trespasser.

Kentucky's first surviving census was taken in 1810. The Welborn household was made up of the nine oldest children: Nancy, Thomas, Robert, Fanny, Lenny, James Dudley, Elizabeth, William, Willis, Ransom, Jessie and Benjamin. James and Elizabeth, an unknown male between 10-16, an unknown older male above 45, and an unknown female above 45. Mostly likely by this point, James had added to his original cabin. Maybe he added an adjacent cabin which shared a common chimney stack; the "saddle-bag" house, or maybe the second cabin had a wall in common creating the "double pen." Both types of houses were common in this area of the upper south.

In 1812, James Welborn was taxed for a new piece of property and was probably living there, waiting to become eligible to claim the land. Frederick Phillips had a tract on the Hynes fork of Bateast Creek surveyed in 1804. James Welborn, as an assignee of Phillips, entered his claim 20 January 1815. By this time, James and Elizabeth's older children were marrying and settling down with their own families. James and Elizabeth sold 84 acreas of the 200 acre tract to their son, Robert in 1817. Two years later, they sold the remaining 116 acreas to Robert Dudley. Robert Dudley then sold the entire tract to James and Elizabeth Welborn's son, Thomas.

By 1820, James had purchased the tract of land he would live on the rest of his life from John and Polly Vaught. The Vaught's sold James Welborn the "Benjamin Biggerstaff survey" on 11 Dec 1819. By this time, James Welborn was becoming a prosperous land owner probably living in a larger home. An inventory of his furniture at his death, included a cupboard, a desk bureau, five beds, thirteen chairs, a table, two chests, and several other pieces simply called "furniture". His house would certainly have been larger to accommodate this much furniture.

James and Elizabeth may have lived in a large type of house common to the area. Two separate cabins or pens were built and connected by a covered passageway called a dogtrot. Generally one pen was used for general living and the other as a kitchen and dining room. The dogtrot was a cool place for the family to eat in summer. Sleeping was done in the attic which may be been reached at first by a ladder. Later a porch would probably have been added to the front of the house. The chimney was probably dressed sandstone, a common type of chimney in the large houses. Thomas Welborn was one of the best stone-masons in the county and James Dudley Welborn also listed himself as a stone-mason in the 1850 census. Perhaps James' sons helped him build his chimney or maybe James Welborn also had these skills and had taught his sons.

The 1820 census showed the Welborns household to be composed of a large number of men and male children. The three males under 10 would have been Ransom Dudley, Jesse K., and Benjamin R. The two males, age 10-16, were most likely Willis and William. The teenage male, age 16-18, would have been James Dudley. The male over age 45 years was the father, James Welborn. Another male, age 16-26 years, cannot be identified at this time. Women in the household included the mother, Elizabeth age 26-45, the unmarried daughter , Elizabeth age 10-16 and one unknown child under ten. With this amount of male farming help, James continued to buy and farm new land. These sons would also need land when they came of age. James continued to acquire property: an 8 acre tract from Abraham Vaught which added to his "Biggerstaff survey, a 200 acre tract from Simeon Vaught, a 50 acre tract from Abraham Billings, and a 50 acre tract from Peter Boggess. All of this last land ended up with his sons.

Religion had become a more important aspect of pioneer life in southern Muhlenberg County by the time the Welborn family had come to Muhlenberg County in 1803. "The Great Revival", originating among the Presbyterians in 1796 in Logan County, continued to affect religious life in the area. Powerful Presbyterian and Methodist preachers held meetings which attracted people from all over southern Kentucky and northern Tennessee. Congregations gave way to "shouts of joy", "falling exercises", and "the jerks" as these camp meetins continued across several days.

Hazel Creek Baptist Church had been organized 3 Dec 1798 in the southern part of Muhlenberg County where James and Elizabeth Welborn would settle. Benjamin Tolbert, who had commissioned the survey for James and Elizabeth's first land, was the first pastor. Brother Tolbert, a native of North Carolina, was the pastor until 10 Nov 1834. Perhaps the Welborns were attracted to the plain-spoken style of Brother Tolbert or perhaps to the kinship of the common bond between North Carolineans. Regardless of the reason, Benjamin Tolbert became their pastor.

The Baptists of Muhlenberg County generally did not participate in the "exercises" of the Great Revival, although certainly individuals were affected. Even though the original rolls do not mark the dates or circumstances surrounding their membership, perhaps James and Elizabeth Welborn were caught up in the zeal of the times. James and Elizabeth do appear on the membership roles of Hazel Creek Baptist Church along with most of their children and their spouses.

Sabbath services were one of the most important social encounters for the pioneers. Because the pioneers had to come from such great distances to church, services were not usually held weekly. From the organizions of Hazel Creek Church until 1844, services were held on the first Saturday and Sunday of each month. In 1810, at another Baptist Church in Kentucky, Daniel Drake recalled "neighbors shaking hands and inquiring after each other's families: a little group learning against the fence in conversation: another seated on a bench talking it over; another little party strolling among the graves and squads of children sitting or lying on the grass to rest themselves." Hazel Creek with its central location and quiet cemetery must have displayed much the same scene.

Even though Sundays were a guarantee of social contact, there was another important day for socializing each month for the men. On court day, "the Kentuckian is willing to exchange, or swap, everything he owns from his bluegrass farm to his jack-knife. One can trade extensively on court day without having a cent of money; the only currency he need have is a young filly or a foxhound. Dogs are legal tender in Kentucky. Every month, men from all corners of the county went to Greenville to shop, socialize, trade, and see the spectacle. It was no considered proper for women to appear on the crowded streets during court day, but the number and activity of men and boys gathered on that day gave the town a festive atmosphere.

James Welborn was no immune to the draw of court day, sometimes conducting business and participating in court activities. He appeared in the court records on court day on 23 April 1804 when he claimed his first 400 acres of Muhlenberg County land between Rocky Creek and Hazel Creek. He served as a juror for the circuit during the March 1805 term. James Welborn acted as a security for John Eaves, Constable for Greenville 18 April 1808. No doubt he was present on many other occasions siply to socialize and trade.

Until 1850 and the Third Constitution of Kentucky, every white man over the age of sixteen and under the age of forty-five was considered to be soldier. Soldiers reported to the mustering place about six times a year: the company musters took place in April, June, August, and September; the battalion muster took place in May; and the regimental muster occurred in October. Up until about 1820, the citizen soldiers actually met for the purpose of drilling. Every man furnished his own gun. James Welborn may well have carried the shotgun or the rifle mentioned in the inventory of his property after his death. Other men who had no firearms to bring would enter the drills with a trimming sapling or corn stalk. The "Corn Stalk Militia" provided a day for gathering, drilling, bragging and gaming.

At the age of 55, James Welborn would not have been considered a young man. The hard work and deprivation of pioneer life must have taken their toll. As James Welborn approached the end of his life in the fall of 1826, a host of extended family and friends probably gathered around the Welborn home, still most likely composed of James, Elizabeth, and their five youngest sons. Friends and neighbors would have taken turns staying through the night at the sickbed. As death approached by the end of September, friends and neighbors not only were needed for comfort but as witnesses. John Howel, Matthew G. Willis, and James' son-in-law, Thomas Newman, were all present at James' bedside when he wrote his will on 30 September 1826. The family and the land had to be protected even in his death.

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