A Witcher Family Genealogy
John and James Witcher
of Bedford County, Virginia
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The intent of this article is to identify and document the 1763-1770 presence of John and James Witcher in Bedford County, Virginia, as well as attempt to determine who was related to these two individuals.
Based on records which I have recovered from Bedford County archives, it is my belief that from these two Witcher men most—perhaps all—of the earliest Virginian Witchers descend.
Many have been under the impression that Revolutionary War soldier, Major William Witcher, migrated to the American colonies from England, and from him all Witchers in America descended. This assumption has been developed from the accounts of others who themselves had this story rehearsed to them.
As I began to seriously research original court dockets and records relating to the first Virginian Witchers, it was discovered that in fact William Witcher could not possibly have been the progenitor of all those first Witchers documented to have lived in the mid-section region of early Colonial Virginia. However, this discussion is not meant to elaborate that point. By clicking here you can read an extensive manuscript which expounds this subject by reconstituting a twenty-eight year period of the life of Major William Witcher, from 1757 to 1785.
William Witcher was simply one of other Witcher’s who settled the original Halifax County region of Virginia. Other than William, men such as Edward, James, Ephraim, Henry, Daniel, John, and Ruben are identified in that area’s first county court records. Who these eight men descended from is the scope of this essay.
Just to the north of Halifax County, Virginia—from which Pittsylvania County was formed in 1766—is Bedford County, which in 1752 was formed out of Albemarle and Lunenburg Counties. Currently, these two counties—Bedford and Pittsylvania—share a common border.
On February 7, 1763, James Witcher presented to the Bedford County court one “wolfe head” for bounty. The record reads, “This day James wicher brought before me one old wolfe head & took oath proscribd by law sertifyed under my hand this 7th day of February 1763 Wm Irvine” On the back of this loose clerk paper is the following, “Pay the within to Hugh Innes on order James Witcher”
This bounty record is fascinating, because as a loose clerk note it survived in a box for over 250 years in this small, rural Virginia courthouse! As a record it undeniably identifies the first James Witcher known to have lived in the region at that time, and as far as I know, this is the only record found to date for this previously unknown James Witcher. We are very much in debt to the 1763 Bedford County clerk—William Irvine—who stashed this invaluable document and the modern clerk, Karen Rowlett, who took her time and effort to locate it. Thank You!
If for obvious reasons we presume this James Witcher to be at least twenty-one years of age when this bounty was awarded, as he almost certainly was, then we may safely assume the bounty record indicates this James Witcher was born previous to 1742. This is an important date to keep in mind, 1742.
From early Pittsylvania County tithable records, we know that another James Witcher resided in Pittsylvania County as of 1770. He assuredly was not the son of Major William Witcher, as many have asserted, but neither was he the James Witcher found in the 1763 Bedford County bounty record.
For matter of convenience, the James Witcher in the 1770 Pittsylvania County tithable record will be called “Patriot James Witcher,” as he is the individual whom subsequent court documents indicate fought in the Revolutionary War. Click here for details of this man’s life and proof that he was neither the son of Major William Witcher nor the James Witcher found in the Bedford County bounty record.
As you will note in that essay, Patriot James Witcher indicated in his pension papers that he was born September 20, 1750, thus indicating he was twelve years of age in February of 1763, when the Bedford County wolfe head bounty was submitted for payment.
I will present forensics which could indicate that James Witcher of Bedford County may well have been the father of Patriot James Witcher. This presumption is not purely subjective, but based in part on minuscule evidence found in the earliest dockets of Pittsylvania County court records.
Firstly, Patriot James Witcher was in and out of Pittsylvania County during the 1770s. This man’s transient behavior is identifiable because of Pittsylvania County’s earliest tax lists. Records for Lord Dunmore’s War indicate that a James Witcher, from Bedford County, was paid in 1774 for his participation in that conflict against Native Americans in the region. From this record I oft wonder if Patriot James Witcher was in and out of Pittsylvania County because of his family ties to Bedford County, perhaps family ties to James Witcher of Bedford County.
It’s also notable that in March court of 1774—the same year James Witcher is fighting in Lord Dunmore’s War—Daniel Witcher appears before William Witcher’s court in Pittsylvania County, on behalf of James Witcher. This suit was prosecuted against John (illegible) and Peyton Smith, with Daniel Witcher being James’ assignee. That suit resulted in James Witcher being awarded twelve pounds of “current Virginia money.”
In the Virginian colonial county court system, more that one Gentleman Justice served the needs of the people within a particular county. In Pittsylvania County, at least six justices were available at any given time to adjudicate local cases. It’s important to note that James and Daniel Witcher appeared before Justice of the Peace William Witcher, a man who would be commissioned as Captain and later as Major in the Pittsylvania County militia.
It is my assumption that if this Daniel and James Witcher were Justice William Witcher’s brothers, he would not have adjudicated their cases and most certainly would’ve recused himself due to the obvious conflict of interest. However, William Witcher did judge a couple of their lawsuits, so I therefore suspect Patriot James Witcher and Daniel Witcher were first cousins to William Witcher, with James and Daniel’s father possibly being the James Witcher who received the 1763 Bedford County bounty.
On September 23, 1771, Justice William Witcher signed off on a civil settlement between plaintiff John Carter and defendants Govin Dudley and James Witcher. Justice Witcher awarded both parties damages.
Later, on April 3, 1776, Justice William Witcher ruled in favor of William Herndon, thus requiring that George Phillip and Daniel Witcher pay Herndon “twenty pounds of current Virginia money.” I seriously doubt that the plaintiff—William Herndon—would have tolerated a father-son judicial duo in that courtroom. Where I’m from, we’d call that a “kangaroo court!”
The only judicial rulings I’ve seen involving Witchers being litigated before Justice William Witcher were cases involving James and Daniel Witcher. I conclude, therefore, that these two men were not William Witcher’s brothers. Circumstantial evidence, but still it’s evidence.
Before I move beyond the 1763 bounty record paid to James Witcher, I want to reiterate a few details found within that clerk note. For one thing, this document indicates that “James Wicher” … “took oath as proscribd by law.” I find no precedent that a minor had legal standing to take this kind of oath before a colonial court. Secondly, this bounty was paid to “Hugh Innes” on “Order.” The bounty money was assigned to Hugh Innes, probably to satisfy a debt, a debt which would not be owed by a twelve year old minor. These seemingly trivial points gain significance when attempting to determine if this individual was Patriot James Witcher, who later in his life stated under oath that he was born September 20, 1750. My point is that a twelve year old boy did not assign this bounty to Hugh Innes, therefore the James Witcher who was paid this bounty was certainly not Patriot James Witcher.
It’s also interesting that the bounty was paid to Hugh Innes. I recognize this name as one very prominently established in Pittsylvania County as of 1767. Hugh Innes was a Gentleman Justice of the Peace in that county when the first tithable list was taken in 1767. That list included Daniel, John, and William Witcher, which thus indicates these men then resided in Hugh Innes’ militia district. In my mind this further establishes a direct family connection between the Witchers in Bedford and Pittsylvania County. In fact, as far as I could determine, it wasn’t until the late 1770s that the Innes name began to appear in the Bedford County records; again, thus indicating the debt was paid to the prominent Pittsylvania County justice.
I did audit the Bedford County court order book for 1763 and did not locate this bounty record listed in that year’s expenditures. This is not explainable, but then again, I’ve never noticed these old court books to be in excellent order. The order books were updated when the clerks gathered their loose notes together and so transcribed from the daily notes into the order or minute books. I expect the record of this loose bounty receipt was never entered into the books, so it’s no less than a miracle this little slip of paper even survived these many years. I have provided an image of this important record below, which interestingly may also indicate a level of literacy for James Witcher, as it appears he signed his own name. If James was illiterate, he would have noted his approval of the assignment of his bounty by signing with an X, a practice very common for illiterates of the period.
As I flipped though over a 1000 pages of those early Bedford County records, I was delighted to find a November, 1756, court entry, which set the amount of tithable tax due from each tithable person in the county. “Ordered that the sheriff collect from each tithable person in their county twenty-five pounds of tobacco toward defraying the county levy.” I also observed the amount paid for a wolfe head bounty was 100 pounds of tobacco. So, the economics of hunting one wolfe was such that it satisfied four years of personal taxes. Quite a motivation to hunt this predator.
James Witcher is not the only Witcher found in early Bedford County records. There was also a certain John Witcher living in that county, at least as of 1769. In May of that year, John Witcher gave permission for his “spinster” daughter, Sarah, to marry George Russell. It should be noted that the term spinster meant, “An unmarried woman, typically an older woman beyond the usual age for marriage.” Was Sarah above, say, thirty years of age when she married Mr. Russell? Who knows, but she probably wasn’t eighteen either.
John Witcher of Bedford County seemed to be educated, as his permission slip granting Sarah the right to marry was apparently written by John himself, as evidenced by the lack of an “X” for his signature. It should also be noted at this point that William Witcher, who I strongly suspect was a son of this John Witcher, was very educated. The Witchers of Bedford County, at least some of them, appeared to possess varying levels of literacy, important skills if one were to advance in prominent Colonial society.
Before I present brand new evidence pertaining to John Witcher of Bedford County, it should be noted that old-world family memories survive among Witcher descendents currently living in the northern region of Georgia. These individuals continue to live within miles of the original homesteads settled in the early 1800s. Most are direct descendents of Ephraim and Betsey (Fips) Witcher.
These cousins testify that, many years ago, elderly Witcher men rehearsed stories to them of the first Witchers which settled in Virginia. These first Witcher pioneers were John, James, and a certain man named Earl Witcher. The account is such that John and James settled in the Virginia back-country, but Earl went “back to England.” I give great credibility to this version of family history, as it was told to me by a long cohesive, old-world Witcher clan, before I ever discovered evidence relating to John and James Witcher of Bedford County, Virginia.
In my search for evidence of John Witcher of Bedford County, I have flipped through many pages of that county’s initial records. It seems the earliest Witchers of Bedford County left an insignificant footprint on that county’s landscape. They probably owned no land, as a deed record has not surfaced, which coincidentally probably explains the apparent exodus of their matured children to the newly opened lands just to the south, in Halifax County.
As pointed out, Sarah Witcher did marry a man named George Russell. Probate records, which are found in the Bedford County courthouse, indicate in the mid-1770s, Mr. Russell was involved in a dispute originating in Fredrick County, Virginia, where George Russell was previously an overseer for Charles Buck in the year 1759. Aside from the interesting details of the probate records, this suit could shed light on where the Witchers may have migrated from. Different family groups were known to migrate together, so this clue may be worth checking into. At any rate, it is fascinating information, as it relates to our 6th or 7th great uncle.
We do know that Witchers resided in Bedford County as of November, 1766, as three distinct court docket entries indicate some sort of tiff going on between the Witchers and a family named Talbot.
The Talbot family of Bedford County was well established and prosperous in the 1760s, at least according to the records I’ve read. Apparently, someone in the Talbot family owed money to a Witcher. The November 26, 1766, order book entry does not give the first name of the Witcher suing the Talbot, but this hearing, along with two subsequent hearings in January and February, 1767, indicate that a Witcher family was resident in Bedford County. Plaintiffs were always residents of the county where the suit was filed; defendants may have resided anywhere. I presume this unknown Witcher male to be John Witcher, but it could have been Reuben Witcher, or even James Witcher of Bedford County. Unfortunately, we may never know for sure who this individual was.
Interestingly, after I had located and studied the earliest Pittsylvania County tithable records, I noticed in the 1773 and 1775 records an indication of a John Witcher Sr., who apparently was alive at the time. It’s not that the records specifically listed a John Witcher Sr., but William Witcher’s “son,” John Witcher, was listed in William’s household, and another John Witcher was listed by himself as “Junr,” thus indicating that another, older John Witcher must have been alive in the county, but not enumerated. I now believe this third John Witcher was John Witcher of Bedford County, who by 1773 had finally joined the rest of the Witcher clan in Pittsylvania County. I believe by 1773 he was above sixty years of age and thusly exempted from paying the tithe tax.
As in 1773 a John Witcher Sr. is likewise alluded to in the 1775, Pittsylvania County, tithable list, but never again after that year. Based on these two pieces of micro-evidence, I assume that the potential father of William Witcher had died in 1776 or shortly before that year’s tithe list was taken, in May.
I do not know exactly when John Witcher of Bedford County moved to Pittsylvania County, but based on a newly discovered February 28, 1770, road order record, we can know that as of that date, John Witcher was still living in Bedford County, Virginia.
This court order is extremely informative, as it is a road order, issued by the county to men of tithable age. As was the custom of the time, men who were subject to the tithe tax were at times called upon to build and maintain roads, as part of their taxable duty to the county.
This is what happened on February 28, 1770, when the following court order was issued, “It is ordered that the following hands be added to John Childs road in order to put it in repair to wit John Anthony, Steven English, JNo Witcher, Steven Haile….”
This road order informs us that as of February, 1770, John Witcher of Bedford County was still of tithable age. However, due to his age, I believe he was at the very end of this duty to the county and would shortly thereafter be exempted from owing the tithe tax. This was a common exemption for men who did manage to survive to the then ripe old age of around sixty. It’s my opinion that as of 1770, this John Witcher was close to that age. I base this assumption on the absence of any subsequent record for John Witcher of Bedford County and the ensuing evidences of this older John Witcher in the 1773 and 1775 Pittsylvania County tithable records. By the time he was residing in Pittsylvania County, John was apparently of tax-exempt age.
Therefore, I estimate John Witcher of Bedford County was born around 1710.
Who were the children John Witcher of Bedford County?
I do think Justice of the Peace William Witcher may well have been one of John Witcher’s sons. We know for sure that John Witcher of Bedford County had a daughter named Sarah. Maybe the Ephraim Witcher who married Betsey Fips was also a son of John Witcher.
As I pointed out earlier, I can reasonably assume Daniel and Patriot James Witcher were not William’s brothers. So these two men may well have been sons of James Witcher of Bedford County. We can speculate that since the John Witcher in the 1767 Pittsylvania County tithe record migrated with Daniel Witcher—first to Montgomery County and then Tennessee—it could therefore be guessed that the sons of James Witcher of Bedford County were Patriot James Witcher, Daniel Witcher, and John Witcher..
Rueben Witcher is a signatory in the August, 1777, Pittsylvania County Oath of Allegiance, and in May of 1778, Edward Witcher is exempted from paying Pittsylvania County tithable tax. I have no clue whatsoever as to whom these two men may have descended from.
Henry Witcher is found in a June, 1762, Amelia County tithable tax record. Since he is listed in the household of William Wyle, I could presume that Henry was not yet twenty-one years of age in 1762. As Henry Witcher is later found in a January 20, 1763, Halifax County estate record, I could speculate that he was twenty-one years of age at this point. All pure speculation, but we have no other clues relating to Henry Witcher, or who his father might have been.
I would like to note one more find from the early Bedford County records.
The Atkinson name was located in the 1750s records, and locating that name in Bedford County records may be of significance. I am left wondering if perhaps a young William Witcher, who may have been living with his father in Bedford County, met his sweetheart and soon to be bride, Lydia Atkinson. Could it be that William Witcher followed the Atkinson family into the newly opened Pigg River area of what was then known as Halifax County? Perhaps it was from his Atkinson father-in-law that William purchased his first tract of land in Halifax County, in 1758.
This essay is a collection of my Bedford County findings and conclusions. Only a few fragments of evidence remain of the very earliest Witchers in this part of Virginia. While I’ve acknowledged my conclusions as speculative, those speculations arise from some basis of fact, unless otherwise noted. Also, for every one individual discovered in these old records, there must’ve been many others who passed without any record of their life. But then again, I believe memories of our lives never disappear; we only need to wait till that Day, when all will be revealed.
I have included images of the court documents I’ve referenced in this essay. They are at the bottom of this page. Based on the type of browser you’re using, you may have to scroll down a bit to see them.
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