This essay is intended to timeline a twenty-eight year period of the life of Major William Witcher, who as an adult lived within the area we know as Pittsylvania County, Virginia. This man was a Patriot, and as such, invested his life in the fledgling American democracy.
Much confusion has shrouded the true identity of Major William Witcher and his children. The uncertain identity of the many same-named Witcher men who lived in those earliest times has resulted in critical genealogical mistakes.
In family research, when one discovers who someone was not, we’re much closer to knowing who they really were. Therefore, to clarify the true identify of William Witcher, his accomplishments, and William’s children, I present an analysis of long forgotten colonial court documents, which clearly itemize the earliest Witcher men, who originally settled the Pittsylvania County region of Virginia. In so doing the family relationships of same-named individuals, such as William, John, James, Daniel, and Ephraim Witcher, will emerge from the obscurity.
Using unpublished Pittsylvania County titheable tax records, I will present evidence which may even indicate who William Witcher’s father was. Plus by logic-checking these early tax and court records, we can speculate with some certainty the years of birth for many of the earliest Witchers mentioned in this manuscript. Also, I have inserted three of the many court cases adjudicated by William Witcher over his more than twenty years of service, as well as interesting facts about William’s involvement in the Pittsylvania County Committee of Safety and his other court related duties.
Due to the length of this writing, I will first conveniently summarize possible years of birth for the Witchers explored in this timeline. These dates are not restatements of previous family researchers, but are arrived at by carefully juxtaposing tax and court documents against colonial laws.
First, within this essay, records of three John Witchers will be examined. One is the potential father of William Witcher Sr., whose assumed birth would have been before 1713. We will also examine another John Witcher, which I presume to be the brother or first cousin of William Witcher Sr., and was probably born around 1723. Lastly I will present the records for a third John Witcher, the son of William Witcher Sr., who was almost certainly born in 1757.
Next, two Daniel Witchers will be investigated. One is the presumed brother or first cousin of William Witcher Sr., and would have been born no later than 1745. The second Daniel is estimated to have been born around 1765, he being the son of William Witcher Sr.
Two William Witchers will be researched. The first is William Witcher Sr., whose birth date was no later than 1737, the second William was born around 1762, he being the son of William Witcher Sr.
One Ephraim Witcher will be examined. From the Pittsylvania County tax records, we now know that this Ephraim was born before 1751, and he was not the son of William Witcher Sr.
Finally, James Witcher is identified as having been born on September 20, 1750. This James is not the son of William Witcher Sr., despite numerous claims to the contrary.
At the bottom of this essay, I have provided numerous images of the invaluable colonial records from which I refer to.
Most researchers state that Major William Witcher was born in England, though no evidence has ever been presented to validate this claim. In one variation of this common story, two original Witcher immigrants came over from England, with William Witcher sailing on the top deck, and his twin brother stowed away in the belly of the ship.
A more credible memory of the origins of the Pittsylvania County Witchers comes from a direct Witcher ancestor who now lives in Georgia. This modern descendent resides in the same area populated by Witchers in the very early 1800s. These old world memories were shared in conversations with a Witcher grandfather who said that, “Three Witcher brothers came here in the 1600s, but one returned to England. If I recall correctly, their names were John, James, and Earl, with Earl being the one who returned.” This recollection seems more in line with other published memories which persistently recollect the name John Witcher as the original Patriarch.
However, the only known record of a Witcher immigrating from England in the colonial years was for a certain Henry Witcher, who came to the American Colonies in 1642. He was an indentured servant, who received passage to the colonies on the ship of a certain Captain Samuell Mathewes.
It is generally unknown to family researchers that many Witchers lived in Pennsylvania and the New England area years before William Witcher made his initial appearance in Virginia court records. In fact, names such as Moses and Morrill Witcher are recorded in the Massachusetts archives of the Continental Army. Also, individuals such as William and Chase Witcher are found in New Hampshire records for the mid-1700s time period. Even earlier records, dating back to the mid-1600s, have been located for Witchers in the New England area. My unconfirmed but educated guess is that the earliest Henry Witcher arrived in the mosquito ridden, Virginia tidewater area, but eventually migrated to the much more hospitable New England region after his servitude was completed. It should be noted that the name Henry has been given to many Witcher men through the centuries, including my grandfather Henry Witcher.
To date, I have not located a single descendent of the earliest New England Witchers, which by itself is strange to me. If you are one of these descendents, I would very much love to hear from you.
If we have any hope of determining where William Witcher Sr. migrated from, we must first understand the history of Virginia, one of the original American Colonies.
Prior to 1714, due to Indian skirmishes, Virginians were prohibited by law from settling what we now know as the western parts of Virginia, including the geographical region of Pittsylvania County. Eventually, westward expansion was allowed, especially around the time of the French-Indian War.
When researching the migration path of the Witchers in early Virginia, it’s important to know that Pittsylvania County was formed in 1766 out of Halifax County, which itself was formed out of Lunenburg County in 1752.
Lunenburg County was formed from Brunswick County in 1746. Brunswick County was formed out of Prince George County in 1720, and in 1703 Prince George County was formed from all of the original area of Charles City County south of the James River.
Eight years before Pittsylvania County was formed, William Witcher suddenly appeared in Halifax County records, which, as we will recall, was formed out of Halifax County in late 1766.
Written in Halifax Order Book 2, a young William Witcher was compelled by the court to fill the vacant office of constable. “On the motion of Stephen Clement, he is exempted from being constable and William Witcher is appointed in his stead and it is ordered that he be summoned to the next court to be qualified.” My copy of a transcription of this record fails to indicate the precise date of this court, but it appears from other records within the transcripted page that this court was held in 1757.
Understanding the requirements for the office of constable will help us know more about William’s social standing in 1757. The county court appointed constables, one for each precinct, whose general duty was to maintain the peace within his district. Major requirements were that one was literate, knowledgeable of tobacco cultivation, and had the free time to make the required inspections of tobacco fields in early fall. Constables served for one year, and were directed to present themselves in court to be sworn into office. Since William Witcher was appointed constable, we know that by 1757 he was educated and enjoyed some level of financial freedom.
By 1758 William Witcher had purchased land in Halifax County from William Atkinson, who was an individual which William seemed to have a very close association with. The deed record indicates that both William’s were “planters.” This is not as innocuous a term as one might think. The title “Planter” was purposely employed to indicate social status. Planters were men who bent their backs and hardened their hands in the field. They were not entitled to be accorded the dignity of a Gentleman.
However, within only a few years, William Witcher would no longer be referred to as a planter, but would be accorded dignity by being referred to as a “Gentleman” in the many court records that would later document his life.
In March court of 1759, through an assignee named William McDaniel, William Witcher receives a bounty of “100” for an old wolf head, perhaps referring to a bounty of 100 shillings of Virginia currency, or perhaps 100 pounds of tobacco.
In late 1759, the vestry in Halifax County appoints “persesioners” according to law. As Halifax County records indicate, in early 1760, William Witcher, along with William Atkinson and Richard Shockley, “do pursesion the bounds of every person,” on the part of Pigg River which they were assigned,” with Witcher showing “one tract,” and William Atkinson Sr. and Jr. each showing “one tract.”
In 1760 May court in Halifax County, James Dillard sues William Witcher, along with Joseph Ray and Robert Grymes. For reasons appearing was the “suit dismissed.”
During 1761 August court in Halifax County, the will of James Bobbit was proved. William Witcher, William Atkinson, and two others were ordered to estimate the value of the estate. The returns on the estate were not presented to the court until July 25, 1763, when William Witcher, William Atkinson, and A. Bearden made their return.
Finally, in an early Halifax County record dated March, 1765, William Witcher was with John Witcher and William Atkinson as they served as witnesses to the last will and testimony of John Justice, Sr.
On November 6, 1766, Pittsylvania County was formed from Halifax County. From this time forward, William Witcher’s land on Pigg River was located within the boundaries of this newly formed county. As we will see, William would have a significant impact on Pittsylvania County’s early development, as well as play a part in this nation’s fight for freedom from the British Empire.
If one is to properly retrace the life of Major William Witcher of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, care must be taken to identify the other Witcher men who are found in county records for that period. With this in mind, it seems the best way to accomplish this task is to carefully sift through the Pittsylvania County tax records for the period 1767 through 1786.
For times sake, as much as possible, I have truncated my conclusions from the Pittsylvania County tithable records. In so doing I will not carefully exhaust every assumption, but instead, for your research convenience, I have provided images of these previously unpublished source materials at the bottom this essay. These records will include Pittsylvania County tax records, Camden Vestry records, as well as a variety of Halifax and Pittsylvania County court records, from which I will cite, as the history of Major William Witcher’s life is unfolded.
When reviewing county tithable records for the pre-American Revolutionary War period, it is critical to understand the laws relating to who was and who was not subject to taxation.
Tithables are best understood as a tax on labor levied against, “All male persons of the age of sixteen years and upwards, and all negroe, mulatto, and Indian women of the same age, except Indians tributary to [the] government and all wives of free negroes, mulattoes, and Indians, except as before excepted,” and “Excepting such only as the county court, for charitable reasons appearing to them, shall think fit to excuse.”
It’s critical to know that the tithable was a labor tax levied against the individual, not the household. The one responsible for paying this tax can be generalized by saying that the master of a household was responsible to report and pay the tax for his slaves, indentured servants, overseers, and male children over the age of 16 and under the age 21.
Generally speaking, freeman over the age of 21 years of age were responsible for paying their own tax, and would therefore be listed on their own, even if they were living on someone else’s property.
Colonial law was unbendingly strict when it came to the tithable tax. Any fudging on the numbers resulted in huge fines, and neighbors were awarded handsomely for turning in any tax cheaters. So, it can be known that under normal circumstances, any taxable individuals were duly reported as the law required.
Applying our knowledge of colonial tax laws allow all sorts of useful assumptions to be made, such as the age and relationship of male children, as well as inferring years of birth for at least some of the Witchers of this county and their relationships to one another.
Before I begin with the 1767 Pittsylvania County tithe record, I will point out that the earliest county tax records indicate the order of birth for the first two of William Witcher Sr’s children, and in so doing, identify that William Witcher’s sons seem to have also been listed by order of birth in his last Will and Testament.
According to extant tax records, John Witcher Jr. was apparently William Witcher’s first born son. This John Witcher was born in 1757.
William Witcher Jr. was the next son to be born; according to the tax records, his birth being in 1762. William Jr. apparently was not living on his father’s plantation by twenty years of age.
Accordingly, the will of William Witcher Sr. lists his male children in the following order: John Jr., William Jr., Daniel Jr., and then Ephraim Jr., James Jr., and finally Caleb Witcher. From the tithable tax records, we know John, William, and Daniel Jr. are listed by order of birth in William’s will. Since that listing is exactly repeated every time, it seems apparent that an attempt was made to order his sons by seniority in the last will and testament of William Witcher Sr.
It should be noted that William Witcher was no stranger to the colonial legal system. He was quite acquainted with court etiquette, rules of order, and colonial jurisprudence, since for many years after 1768 he served as a Justice of the Peace, as well as a wide variety of other public and civic duties. In fact, as of 1767, William Witcher is mentioned in court records as being a “Gentleman,” a term which denoted a privileged social rank. Gentlemen were at the top of the colonial social strata, being followed by planters, yoemen, servants, and then slaves. Because William Witcher was educated, enjoyed social status, and was familiar with decorum, I believe he understood the significance of listing his sons by seniority within the body of his will.
As a Justice of the Peace for Pittsylvania County, William Witcher was responsible for collecting a list of taxable individuals within his militia district. The extant lists collected by him are for the years 1770-1785, except for 1779, when William was busied with his role as a militia captain in the Revolution. I am confident that a very responsible William Witcher would have meticulously listed all eligible Witcher kinfolk in his list of tithables, therefore, I place a very high level of confidence in the accuracy of the information he provided in his lists.
The 1767 Pittsylvania County tithable record is extraordinary, in that it serves as a beginning census for the newly formed Pittsylvania County. Since William was not set as a Justice of the Peace until December 22, 1769, this first tax list was taken by a certain Hugh Innes, and it dutifully identifies three Witcher men and the amount of land they owned.
In this first tax list William Witcher is identified as responsible for 2 tithables, those being himself and a negro named Sawney. He also is recorded as owning 100 acres of land. This is without a doubt the 100 acres he purchased in July of 1758 from William Atkinson; prime land on the north side of the Pigg River, sold to William for a paltry five shillings. This land was part of a patent for 150 acres made to William Atkinson on June 1, 1750. The deed record from “planter” William Atkinson to “planter” William Witcher states, “…relation to may more fully appear.” This land purchase may be a clue as to who William’s wife was.
Since careful examination of these early Pittsylvania County tax lists reveal that William’s son John Jr. was born in 1757, we then can know William was married as of 1756. Unfortunately, the identity of William Witcher’s wife is yet unproven, as not a single record of dower, vestry record, or marriage bond is known to exist. However, family and internet folklore swirls around the names, Ann Major, and Lydia Atkin/son, as women who were married to William Witcher. Again, I have seen no proof that William was married to either of these two women.
In fact, the earliest records for Pittsylvania County appear void of any evidence that a family named Majors ever lived in the county. I have not conducted an exhaustive search for the Majors surname, but I have not stumbled across that name in my research.
However, families named Atkins and Atkinson were abundant in the area, and court records reveal an obvious relationship between William Atkinson and William Witcher. Since William Witcher bought his first land in Halifax County from a man named William Atkinson, 100 acres of prime riverfront land, for a sweetheart price of five shillings, around the time his first recorded son was born. This all lends credibility to the suspicion that John Witcher’s mother was indeed a woman born an Atkinson. This woman was probably the Lydia Atkinson ancient memories so faintly recall. I highly suspect that William Witcher bought his land in Halifax County from his father-in-law, William Atkinson Sr.
The 1767 Pittsylvania County tithable records also list John and Daniel Witcher. These were not William Witcher’s sons; as we will see in this essay, this fact is irrefutable.
Actually, the John Witcher listed in the 1767 tax list was almost certainly older than William Witcher, as in March court of 1783, John Witcher was granted an exemption from paying the tithe tax, a motion most usually approved by the courts when a man exceeded the then ripe old age of 60-something. Knowing this, it could then be speculated that this particular John Witcher was born around 1723.
In the 1767 tithe record, both John and Daniel Witcher only owed tax for themselves, thus indicating they owned no of-age slaves, and any male children were under the age of sixteen or over twenty-one years old, as of June, 1767. It should be noted that the tithe records for the period 1767-1786 never list tithable children for these two men. Click here to read about this Daniel Witcher.
John and Daniel Witcher are also listed as owning 191 acres of land. This land is undoubtedly the acreage sold to them the previous year (July of 1766) by William Witcher.
In 1766, John and Daniel each bought one-half of the 382 acre property which was sold to William Witcher for 40 shillings by the English Crown on June 27, 1764. Two year later, William then split this land patent in two, and 191 acres were then sold to both John and Daniel.
Interestingly, this original land patent is under the name “William Wickett…three hundred and eighty two acres...in the county of Halifax on Harping Creek.” Study of later deeds of sale to a certain Mr. Lackey by John and Daniel Witcher will identify this very 382 acre tract of land, which was situated on Harping Creek, in what later became Pittsylvania County.
When John and Daniel Witcher sold this land, the dower records fortunately identity the names of their wives. In March court, 1773, Daniel Witcher records the sale of his property on Harping Creek to Alexander Lackey. In this sale, Daniel’s wife “Susanna” releases her dower rights. In the next year, during March court, 1774, John Witcher’s wife, “Ann,” releases her dower rights to the same Alexander Lackey. The land sold by John and Daniel was the sum of the 382 acres they had bought from William Witcher in July, 1766.
The next Pittsylvania County tax record I’ve been able to locate is the 1770 tithable record. This document is interesting as James Witcher is listed in tax records for the first time. He too is not a son of William Witcher (as many suppose), but is one who obviously migrated into Pittsylvania County between the end of 1767 and May of 1770.
Actually, careful examination of these early tax and court documents reveal the fascinating one-by-one migration of the original Witcher men into this region of Virginia.
As already proven by court records, William Witcher was in the region by at least 1758.
Next there lived a certain Henry S. Witcher, who we know resided in the area because of a January 20, 1763, Halifax County record, which notes that Henry was paid money due from the estate of a certain William Crawford. Actually, to the east, in June of 1762, this Henry Witcher was apparently working in Amelia County, for one year only. Henry Witcher was listed in the household of William Wily, along with three slaves. Since Henry was not listed on his own, or as an overseer, I suspect this Henry S Witcher was under the age of 21 as of 1762.
Four years later, the 1767 tax records indicate that Henry S. Witcher was not in the newly formed Pittsylvania County, but his name was replaced by John and Daniel Witcher. Actually, after the 1763 Halifax County estate record, Henry Witcher is never noted again in these very early Pittsylvania County records, therefore I assume he had died by 1767.
By 1770 James Witcher had migrated into Pittsylvania County, as he then appears in the tax rolls. I am certain this James Witcher is the same individual who later fought in the Revolutionary War, and finally moved to Smith County, Tennessee, and who in his last years (1830s) applied for, and received, a veteran’s pension. This particular James Witcher notes within his pension application that he was born on September 20, 1750.
As of 1770, the tithable record indicates that James Witcher did not own land in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, and in fact, later records seem to indicate the only land this particular James Witcher ever purchased in this county was a 160 acre parcel bought in 1781 from Ephraim Witcher, which James then sold back to the same Ephraim four years later, in 1785.
This James Witcher was in and out of Pittsylvania County between 1770 to 1785. However, he was active enough in county politics to sign the 1776, “Ten-Thousand Name” petition to the English Crown, a petition which attempted to pressure the Church of England to grant liberties to Baptists. James also signed the August, 1777, Oath of Allegiance list, which JP William Witcher circulated in his militia district, identifying Patriots for the cause of liberty. Most interestingly, this James Witcher is the individual who Captain William Witcher, on June 23rd, 1779, released from duty in the Pittsylvania County militia, after the Battle of Stono Ferry in South Carolina.
Finally, as we will see, Ephraim Witcher had migrated into Pittsylvania County by the year 1773, as we will then discover him enumerated in the 1773 tax rolls. In his initial appearance in the tax list, Ephraim is listed as responsible for 1 tithable, that one of course being he. It is an indisputable fact that this Ephraim was not a son of William Witcher Sr., for as of the 1781 tax roll, William’s son Ephraim had not reached the age of sixteen and was therefore still not even listed in William Witcher Sr’s household.
James and Ephraim Witcher were initially enumerated in the 1770 and 1773 tax rolls; James in 1770 and Ephraim in 1773. Since they were not previously listed in the county tax records, I feel it’s safe to assume that they, along with Henry, William, Daniel, John, John Sr., and perhaps Edward Witcher, had migrated into the region. Based on the 1777 Oath of Allegiance list taken by Willliam Witcher, we also know Rueben Witcher had appeared from somewhere. This man was not in any Pittsylvania County tax list up to this time (not that I have seen), and we also know he was not William Witcher's son Rueben Jr. The identity of this man is unknown to me, but I presume him to be a brother or cousin of William Witcher.
One by one, over a thirteen year period, perhaps up to nine Witcher men migrated into this newly opened region of Virginia. But from where did they come?
I have my serious doubts that these earliest Pittsylvania County Witchers emigrated from England, especially not William Witcher, who by 1767 was already a fairly wealthy man of good reputation, and who was apparently highly educated. Instead, I suspect this Witcher clan first migrated from older colonial frontiers, perhaps from Pennsylvania, probably from the New England area into the Bedford County, Virginia area. Click here for more details about the Witchers of Bedford County, Virginia. As I have previously noted, apparently the New England area of New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Massachusetts did contain a healthy population of Witchers since the mid-1600s. Perhaps those New England Witchers may well have descended from the original Henry Witcher, the indentured passenger of Captain Matthews’ 1642 journey to the New World.
Through treaty and sword, the native population within the New River area of Virginia was subdued by British authority, and so pioneers flooded into the region, not only Witchers, but many other families too, such as the Morrisons, Daltons, Atkinsons, Graves, and Wards, all looking to better their way of life.
Now we return to the second Pittsylvania County tithable list, for the year 1770. When it was gathered, William Witcher’s slave Sawney was no longer listed, but instead, two other slaves are named: Trim and Nell, for a total of three tithables in William’s household.
For his militia district, Justice of the Peace William Witcher collected and presented his 1770 tax list to the court, in what would become for him an annual tradition for years to come. From this tax list we know William was still farming his 100 acres of land on the Pigg River, and as was the custom of the time, squirrel scalps were presented to the court, apparently 5 per taxable person. In William’s case, as he was responsible for three tithables, he presented a total of 15 squirrel scalps. It must be remembered that these types of bounties were a desperate attempt to control the destructive rodent and predator populations of the day. One of these eradication programs in Pennsylvania resulted in over 600, 000 squirrel scalps being presented to the court in 1749!
As we noted, James Witcher is listed in the 1770 tithable list, he being responsible for 1 tithable (himself). James indicated he was not an owner of land in Pittsylvania County, but he did present his 5 squirrel scalps to the Court.
In 1770 John and Daniel Witcher also listed themselves with their 191 acres of land. They too presented the court with 5 squirrel scalps apiece.
Pittsylvania County court records prove the order was given to collect taxes in years 1771 and 1772. Unfortunately, these lists may be lost, as they have not been located, at least not that I know of.
However, beginning in 1773, ten concurrent years of Pittsylvania County tithable/census lists are available. From these invaluable records, we can identify the probable years of birth for William Witcher Sr’s first three children, those being John, William, and Daniel.
In 1773 William lists John Witcher as a “son” in his household. This is an extraordinarily important record, as the law mandated the age at which one was to begin listing a son as a tithable. We know for certain that sons over sixteen and under twenty-one years of age were to be listed, if those sons were living in the father’s household. Therefore as we advance through the subsequent years of tax lists, we can know for certain that this John was born around 1757, and was undoubtedly William’s oldest living son as of 1773.
The 1773 tax list contains another extraordinary record. This and the 1775 Pittsylvania County tax list indicate three different John Witchers were living in Pittsylvania County.
As in 1767 and 1770, the 1773 tax lists “John Witcher.” However, in 1773 this particular John Witcher has the title “Junr.” inserted next to his name. I do not feel it was accidental that this John was identified in such a way. The record is crystal clear, well written, and not confusing to read. Remember, Justice of the Peace William Witcher intimately knew his clan, he was well educated and must’ve comprehended full well colonial tax laws, and what qualified or exempted a man from being listed as a tithable.
It is my educated assumption that between June of 1770 and May of 1773, a much older John Witcher had arrived in Pittsylvania County; or perhaps John Witcher Sr. was in the region much earlier, but the 1773 listing of William’s son John motivated him to further qualify who was who, since by then there apparently were three John Witcher men residing in the county.
We know colonial law would exempt certain persons from paying taxes when their age threshold exceeded 60 years of age. Therefore, since this unknown John Witcher Sr. was exempted, it’s not unrealistic to calculate that John Witcher Sr. would have been born before 1713. I expect he was born quite a bit before 1713. I feel certain this John WItcher Sr. is the same John Witcher who was the father of Sarah Witcher and so signed a marriage bond for his daughter in Bedford County, Virginia, in 1769. This John is probably the father of William Witcher, at least in my way of viewing this. Click here to read more about the John and James Witcher of Bedford County, Virginia.
So, in 1773 according to the highly legible tithable records, three different John Witchers must have been alive in Pittsylvania County, as of May that year.
One was the “son” of William Witcher.
Secondly, one was John Witcher “Junr,” who was earlier listed in the 1767 and 1773 tax lists.
Thirdly, there was yet another John Witcher who would have been known to the Witcher clan as John Witcher Sr., who was over 60 years of age by 1773 and therefore exempted from paying levies.
As further evidence of this man’s existence, I will point out that some publications contain faint ancestral memories of a John Witcher, who folklore indicates was William Witcher’s father. I suspect the evidence found in the 1773 tithable record may indeed indicate this very man.
Applying what we know about pre-revolutionary colonial tax laws, we can hazard educated guesses about when these three different John Witcher men were born.
John, the son of William Witcher Sr., was born in 1757.
John, who was known in 1773 and 1775 as John “Junr.,” was probably born around 1723. (Further down in this essay, I explain this conclusion)
Finally, the mysterious John Witcher Sr. would have been born before 1713, perhaps much earlier. As previously mentioned, I feel this John was the father of William Witcher, and evidence of him is found in Bedford County records.
Returning to the 1773 tithable record for the household of William Witcher, two slaves are named, those being Trim and Nell. With the newest addition of John Witcher being added as tithable, William is listed as responsible for a total of 5 tithables.
As noted earlier, Ephraim Witcher makes his first appearance in the 1773 Pittsylvania County tithable list. Ephraim is listing as being responsible for 1 tithable, that of course being he. Ephraim remains constant in the Pittsylvania County tax records until years 1782-1784, when other court records validate that he had briefly moved to his land holdings in nearby Montgomery County, Virginia.
However, by 1785 Ephraim Witcher repurchased the land he four years earlier had sold to James Witcher. By then, Ephraim was once again firmly established in Pittsylvania County, at least until his move to Surry County, North Carolina in 1793.
It is irrefutable that this Ephraim Witcher is not a son of William Witcher Sr. The father and date of birth of this Ephraim Witcher is unknown (Perhaps his father was John Witcher Sr). However, from the tax list we can know that this particular Ephraim was born by at least 1751, perhaps before. We do know this is the Ephraim who married Betsey Fips sometime before November of 1778.
This Ephraim Witcher is the individual who signed the Oath of Allegiance pledge, which was administered by William Witcher in August of 1777, and is the same Ephraim Witcher who signed the 1776, “Ten-Thousand Name” petition to the English Crown which pressured the Church of England to grant liberties to Baptists. Click here to read more about the life story of this Ephraim Witcher.
Daniel and John “junr” Witcher are still listed as they were in 1767 and 1770, with 1 tithable apiece.
It is interesting to note that James Witcher is absent the county in 1773 and 1774 (he apparently was often in and out of the county). However, a Pittsylvania County, 1774, March Court record indicates that James sued two men over a debt owed to him. Peyton Smith and John (last name illegible) confessed they owed James the sum of, “twelve pounds of current Virginia money.” James is represented in that court by his “attorney,” which the record indicates is Daniel Witcher, the “assignee of James Witcher.” This record seems to further validate that James Witcher was absent the county as of March of 1774, which of course the tax records do indicate.
The 1774 tithable records for Pittsylvania County, Virgina, indicate only a few changes from the year 1773. James Witcher was still absent the county, and Ephraim and Daniel Witcher were still listed for 1 tithable apiece.
However, by 1774 William Witcher had added another slave to his household. The name of this individual was Tener. In the household of William Witcher, his son John is still listed as a dependent, over 16-year-old member (though the word “son” had been dropped in this year’s record). Also, in this year John Witcher, who was not the son of William, had the word “Junr” omitted from his name. However, as we will see in the 1775 tax record, this title would be reapplied, thus indicating that John Witcher Sr. was still alive as of May, 1775.
In 1775, the year the War of American Independence began, Pittsylvania County tithable records indicate James Witcher had reappeared in the county. As I had previously noted, while William Witcher was serving as Justice of the Peace, he was responsible for naming tithables within his militia district. Therefore the random coming and goings of James Witcher did not escape the watchful eyes of William, and as a result in 1775 James Witcher was dutifully listed as one who owed tax to the county.
William Witcher’s household listed the same 5 tithables as in 1774, while Ephraim Witcher was still in the county, owing his 1 tithable.
Daniel Witcher would again be found in 1775 Pittsylvania tax record, while John Witcher had the title “Junr” reapplied to his name. Since William’s son John was still listed in William’s household, the title junior after this particular John again indicated an elder John Witcher was still alive in the county. Three John Witchers were alive in Pittsylvania County during the year 1775. However, this would be the last year the 1767-1786 Pittsylvania County tax records indicated such a thing. I therefore presume that John Witcher Sr. had died before June of 1776.
During the year of 1775, the political landscape of the colonies had dramatically shifted the population onto a war footing. In February of 1775, the English Parliament declared that the colony of Massachusetts was in a state of rebellion against the Crown. By April of that year, an order was given to disarm and arrest the ring-leaders of the American rebellion.
On the night of April 18, 1775, British troops were dispatched to seize ammunitions stored at Concord, Massachusetts. Riders such as Paul Revere sounded the alarm that, “The British were coming!” and in so doing, allowed time for local Minutemen to form a defensive line against the advancing British troops. On this day, April 19, 1775, a shot rang out which was heard around the world, and the Battles of Lexington and Concord marked the official beginning of the War of American Independence.
A few years before the official beginning of the Revolutionary War, local self-governing committees were rapidly organizing within the thirteen colonies. These were called Committees of Safety and were comprised of Patriots within the different counties throughout the American colonies. These groups became De Facto, provisional governments which eventually wrested central authority and control away from the British Crown. The first committee was apparently formed in Boston, November 2, 1772. Soon afterward, the Virginia Assembly had followed suit, drafting and printing their own complaints and resolutions, and counties within Virginia soon followed suit.
These committees tested personal loyalties to the patriot cause and meted out punishment, including banishment, to those who were found to be Tories or Tory sympathizers. Serving on the Committee of Safety was not for the faint of heart, as it amounted to high treason against the Crown. While these committees rooted out, punished, and shunned British sympathizers, they themselves were identified as enemies of the Crown and subject to the penalty of high treason.
According to a William and Mary quarterly publication, printed in April of 1897, a Committee of Safety for Pittsylvania County was chosen January 26, 1775. Included in this list of thirty-one men was William Witcher.
Days later, published within the Virginia Gazette, on February 11, 1775, is a very significant notice, submitted by the newly organized committee. Here is a partial transcription from this very old newspaper article: “The freeholders of the county of Pittsylvania, being duly summoned, convened at the courthouse of the said county, on Thursday, the 26th of January, 1775, and then proceeds to make a choice of a committee, agreeable to the direction of the General Congress, for enforcing and putting into execution the association, when the following Gentlemen were chosen for the fame, VIZ…. Abraham Shelton…William Witcher…Chrispin Shelton… [thirty-one men total]….During the time of choosing the committee, the utmost good order and harmony was observed, and the inhabitants of the county then present (which was very numerous) seemed determined and resolute in defending their liberties and properties, at the risk of their lives, and, if required, to die by their fellow sufferers (the Bostonians) whose cause they consider as their own….after which the committee rose, and several loyal and patriotic toasts were drank, and the company dispersed, well pleased with the behavior of those people they had put their confidence in….Ordered that a copy of the above proceedings be inserted in the Virginia newspapers.”
As we will see, it was this committee which later that year, on Wednesday, September 27, 1775, chose William Witcher to serve the militia in his district as Captain; a militia which itself would soon serve under the direction of General George Washington’s Continental Army. Later in this essay we will briefly discuss William Witcher’s involvement in the Revolutionary War.
The year of 1776 must have been chaotic in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, as court records indicate a very marked diminishment of civic activity. In some instances, monthly court records indicate only a few legal matters were reviewed, and very few deeds were recorded. July court, 1776, was convened with William Witcher and three other gentlemen justices sitting on the bench. The Declaration of Independence would be signed on the fourth day of July, but two days earlier, in the Pittsylvania County courthouse located in Calland, William did manage to adjudicate a few cases, such a charge of felony against a certain Philip Jacob, in which Philip was found innocent and released from the barr (prison).
The 1776 tithable records for Pittsylvania County indicate that William Witcher still had 5 tithables in his household, himself, his son John, and the three slaves, Nell, Trim, and Tener.
In this 1776 record, James and Daniel Witcher are gone from Pittsylvania County, and future tax records will indicate their absence lasts until 1778, when they both reappear, only to both disappear again the next year (1779).
Ephraim and John Witcher are again listed in 1776 as responsible for 1 tithe, that of course being themselves. It should be noted that this Ephraim Witcher probably married Betsey Fips between this year (1776) and November of 1778, at which time court records indicate Betsey was the wife of Ephraim Witcher. As a side note, as of this writing, I have seen no evidence concerning who this John Witcher's children were. From her release of dower in 1774, I do know John Witcher was married to "Ann."
The 1777 tithable record contains some very tantalizing clues about which John Witcher had received military commissions during the Revolutionary War. In Pittsylvania County, January court, 1778, John Witcher produced his commission appointing him Ensign, and later in May of 1778, he produced to the court his commission promoting him to rank of 2nd Lieutenant within William Witcher’s company of militia. Was this John Witcher the son of William Witcher, or was the man commissioned 2nd Lieutenant the older John Witcher, who was then living in Pittsylvania County, Virginia?
When William Witcher presented his list of tithables to the court in 1777, he noted that he owned 100 acres (as in previous years), but very strangely, he only reported 3 tithables in his household, those being his slaves, Nell, Trim, and Tener. For the year 1777, his son John Witcher’s name was noticeably absent, and next to William Witcher’s name was written the word “Lists.”
According to early colonial tax experts, such as the author of the book, “Sunlight on the Southside,” if the word “lists” was written next to the head of a household, such a notation indicated that the head of that household was exempted from paying the tithe. Usually this meant the head of that household was taxed in another county, where he probably also owned property. However, individuals serving in the war effort were also exempted from this tax, and was the case for William Witcher.
I strongly suspect that when the 1777 list was collected, William Witcher’s company of militia was still activated, and he and his son John Witcher were out of the county fighting the British sympathizing Cherokee Indians, a campaign which is part of public record. As pointed out it must be considered that Virginia tax laws exempted individuals who were at that time activated in their militia. Certainly exemptions seen in 1777 tax list indicates both William Witcher and John Witcher were out of the county serving as active fighters within the Pittsylvania County Militia.
It’s obvious that William and his son John Witcher were not listed as taxable in 1777. However, the second John Witcher was present; he being listed in the tithable records as responsible for 1 tithe (himself) and owning 60 acres. The amount of land then inventoried by John was less that the 191 acres listed by him in the 1767 and 1770 tax records, but he had sold that land in 1774. According to deed records, the 60 acres he did list had just been bought by him.
It should also be noted that in just a few more years, this second John Witcher would apply for and received tax exemption status in 1783. This exemption was usually granted due to the elderliness of the individual, often a threshold age of around 60. This would indicate that as of 1777, this particular John Witcher would have been around 54 years of age. Since these were planters and not trained military warriors, its seems more logical that the much younger and scrappier twenty year old John Witcher (the son of William) would be the one who received commission in the Virginia militia.
In this year (1777), Ephraim Witcher continues to be listed as responsible for 1 tithable, and he is not listed as owning any land. This corresponds with deed records with indicate that Ephraim will not purchase his first tract of land in Pittsylvania County until 1779, when David Polly sells him 302 acres of land.
In the next year William Witcher and his son John (now registered as “John Junr.”) are listed in the 1778 tithable list, along with, “negros Trim, Tener & Nell.” However in this year’s tax list, William is responsible for 6 tithables. The newest addition to the list is “William Witcher Jr.,” the next born son after John Witcher. William Junior’s entry into the 1778 tax list indicates that he had by June of 1778 turned 16 years old. This of course indicates that William Witcher Jr. was probably born around 1762.
Since we know when William’s sons John Jr. and William Jr. were born, we then can know William Witcher Sr. was married during the years of 1756 and 1761, presumably to the same woman during the period between those years. There is a noticeable gap of new sons being identified in the subsequent tax years. In fact, William’s next born sons Daniel, Ephraim, James, and Caleb, are not listed by name in any tax list predating 1786.
However I believe careful examination of certain court records will reveal that William Witcher’s son, Daniel Jr., was born around 1765. This potential date of birth indicates that Daniel’s mother may have been the mother of his two older brothers, John Jr. and William Jr. We can arrive at this supposition by examining two important court records, Daniel Witcher Jrs. first purchase of land and the 1781 and 1786 tithable lists.
First, on April 7, 1787, a certain “Daniel Witcher Jr.” registered in the courthouse his purchase of land from Edward Polley. Colonial law dissuaded infants (those under 21 years of age) from purchasing land. With this in mind, Daniel Jr. would have almost certainly been at least twenty-one years of age when he registered this deed from Mr. Polley. This land purchase would indicate Daniel Witcher Jr. was born no later than 1766.
Secondly, by 1781 Daniel Witcher Jr. had not been listed in his father’s household, which would indicate that William’s son Daniel was not 16 years of age by the time the 1781 tithable list was gathered. This of course indicates that Daniel would have been born no earlier than 1765. However, a 1786 Pittsylvania County tax record does list Daniel Witcher "junr," thus indicating he was twenty-one by 1786. Subtracting 21 from 1786 gives also reveals a possible birth year of 1765.
Therefore by juxtaposing the Polley deed record against the 1781 and 1786 Pittsylvania County tithable records, we can safely calculate that Daniel Witcher Jr. was probably born in 1765.
If William Witcher were married to both Lydia Atkin/son and then later to Ann Majors (as many speculate he was), I suspect his first wife was Lydia and her sons were John, William, and Daniel.
An absence of sons in the subsequent tax records seem to indicate its years before William Witcher’s next-born sons are of age. Therefore I suspect his next three sons (Ephraim, James, and Caleb) were the offspring of William’s later wife, Ann Majors. As I mentioned before, the earliest Halifax and Pittsylvania County records appear void of the name surname Majors, but William Witcher was intimately involved with the Atkinson family. Perhaps William met Ann Majors during his travels as a militiaman, of course all pure speculation.
It’s very relevant that no dower record has been located for William Witcher’s wife, and I have scoured both Pittsylvania and Halifax County records, not a single dower record has surfaced. The only realistic explanation is that William’s properties were sold during the years he was single.
With this in mind I will now point out that William Witcher did sell land to John and Daniel Witcher in 1766, but notably there was no record of dower for those two land sales, as law required if he were married. I can only conclude that by 1766 William Witcher’s first wife was dead, and based on the evidence that Daniel Witcher Jr. was born in 1765, Daniel would’ve been the last child born to William’s first wife. It can even be wondered if Daniel Jr’s mother died from complications while giving birth to him.
Returning to the Pittsylvania County tax records, in 1778 James and Daniel Witcher reappear in the county, and the tax records indicate that each one of them are responsible for 1 tithe apiece, that being themselves. After this year, Daniel would again disappear, this time for five years. During those years I am certain this Daniel Witcher had relocated to his Montgomery County, Virginia, land holdings.
The eldest John Witcher is again listed in 1778 as owing for 1 tithe, as well as Ephraim Witcher, who by now was probably married to Betsey Fips. As in the previous years, Ephraim Witcher is also taxed for 1 tithe.
William, Daniel and Ephraim Witcher were also found in Pittsylvania County estray records for 1778.
Estray records are notifications made before the public of stray animals which are found, usually on the property of the individual reporting the find. These records are entered into court records called books of estray. In early 1778, in Pittsylvania County, Daniel Witcher, Robert Dalton Jr., and Robert Dalton Sr., subscribed an oath to the appraised value of a stray heifer, it being valued at, “one pound, fifteen shillings.”
The next record in the Pittsylvania County book of estrays is for a stray hog, which Ephraim Witcher’s new mother-in-law (Tabitha Phipps) had found on her property on Pigg River, at the mouth of Cedar Creek. The hog had, “some black spots and marked with a crop in the left ear and a swallow fork in the right [ear] Certified under my hand this 4th day of April 1778, Wm Witcher.” That same day, Tabitha’s son-in-law (Ephraim Witcher) was sworn to view and appraise the “stray hogg.”
On this one page, within the Pittsylvania book of estrays, three Witcher men are noted: William Witcher, Daniel Witcher, and Ephraim Witcher, along with Tabitha Phipps, the mother of Ephraim’s wife Betsey.
The tithable records for the year 1778 are void of the name Edward Witcher, and he is never found in preceding or successive tax records. Yet in May court of 1778, Edward Witcher petitioned the Pittsylvania county court to, “exempt him from payment of public and county levies in the future.”
There is no record of this Edward Witcher found in any court document, so his identity is completely unknown. It may be that he was a severely disabled son of one of the local Witcher men, or Edward Witcher may have been an elderly man who had migrated into Pittsylvania County, as other Witcher men before him had done. The words “Exempted…for reasons appearing” are inadequate for us to assume who Edward Witcher was. Perhaps someday other records relating to him may be found.
The year 1779 must’ve been a chaotic year within Pittsylvania County, Virginia. Unlike previous years of tax lists compiled by William Witcher, the 1779 tax records for William’s district are un-thoughtful and messy. The list was gathered by someone whose signature I cannot make out. William Witcher did not collect that year’s tax list, as he was distracted with military duty during the first half of 1779.
In 1779, as we will see later in this essay, Captain William Witcher’s company of Pittsylvania County militia was again rotated into the service of the Continental Army. The 1779 tithable list for William’s militia district evidences this particular deployment.
These annual tax lists were due in the county courthouse by June. As Revolutionary War pension requests later confirmed, William Witcher was in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 20, 1779, fighting under General Benjamin Lincoln, at the Battle of Stono Ferry. As a result of this deployment, Captain William’s household only listed his son William Witcher, and three slaves, Trim, Nell, and Tener.
In the previous year William Witcher’s son William was identified as William Witcher Jr. However in the spring of 1779 the enumerator only identified William Witcher’s son as “William Witcher,” not designating his seniority.
I feel it is completely reasonable to assume that when the 1779 tax list was compiled, William Sr. was absent the county commanding his militia, while his son (who was then seventeen years old) managed the plantation, awaiting his father’s return.
Another item of interest in the 1779 tax record is the significant detail that John Witcher is no longer grouped under his father’s household, as he was by June of 1779, twenty-two years of age.
In 1779 John is listed separately in the Pittsylvania County tithable records as responsible for 1 tithe, and for the first time the county’s older John Witcher is designated as Senior. William Witcher’s son John is not listed as Junior. The enumerator simply listed this man as “John Witcher.”
It is interesting (and notable) that John Witcher appeared in Pittsylvania County court in March of 1779 to produce a commission appointing him Second Lieutenant in the militia of “this county,” and he, “took the oath by law prescribed.” This oath was witnessed by the court ten months after John Witcher’s previous May of 1778 appearance, where he then made public acknowledgement of his promotion to, “second lieutenant …to Captain William Witchers Company of Militia in this county.”
The March of 1779 court appearance and his subsequent listing in the 1779 tithables both motivate me to believe that William’s son Lieutenant John Witcher was in Pittsylvania County during the spring of 1779. Whether he later marched with Captain William Witcher at the Battle of Stono Ferry is to be determined.
After re-appearing in the 1778 tax records, Daniel Witcher is again absent from the 1779 tax records and will be for the next six years. He had presumably relocated to nearby Montgomery County, Virginia, a supposition Montgomery County deed records seem to support.
James Witcher is also absent the 1779 tithable record. However, we do know something about his whereabouts. According to an 1832 pension application, James Witcher affirmed that he had marched with Captain William Witcher in the Battle of Stono Ferry. Shortly after that battle, Captain Witcher gave his handwritten and personally signed release to James Witcher. At the bottom of this essay, I have provided an image of this note, which is currently preserved in the National Archives. It states, “This is to certify that James Witcher a soldier in my company of malstia from Pittsylvania County Virginia under David Mason Col. Command of the Virginia Brigade has served his time out and is discharged given under my hand and command this 23rd day of July 1779, William Witcher Capt.”
As in the previous six years, Ephraim Witcher is listed as responsible for 1 tithe. We do know for certain that Ephraim Witcher was now established with his new wife, Betsey (Fips) Witcher, probably on the 302 acres he had just purchased from David Polly, for 15 pounds. I do not know Ephraim Witcher’s function in the Revolutionary War. I feel he was enrolled in a Pittsylvania County militia company, but no substantiating evidence has been located. However, there are some clues which allow us to form an educated guess about Ephraim Witcher’s involvement in the war.
For one thing, Ephraim Witcher did sign the Oath of Allegiance, which was circulated at the order of the Pittsylvania County Committee of Safety. Secondly, the Commonwealth of Virgina’s General Assembly mandated in May of 1777 that, “All free males between 16 and 50, with certain exceptions, were to be enrolled and formed into companies of 32 to 68 rank and file. These companies were to be organized into regiments.” This information is taken from The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 22, No.1.
Since we know Ephraim Witcher did take an oath supporting the Patriot cause, and he was in Pittsylvania County during the duration of the war, and Ephraim’s age would have compelled him by law to be enrolled and formed into a militia company, we can safely assume he did fight in the Revolutionary War as a patriot. In addition, the National Archives possess one payroll record in which an “Ephraim Witcher” is paid “50.” This payroll record is presented as a Revolutionary War government artifact, and the Ephraim Witcher who was paid is the only adult Ephraim Witcher known to be alive at that time. Also, I do recognize some of the surnames on this payroll slip, they being families who did live in Pittsylvania County in the 1770s. I have provided an image of this document at the bottom of this page.
By August court of this year (1779), William Witcher was once again seated at his bench, along with Gentlemen Justices, John Owen and George Carter.
Apparently Captain William must’ve performed admirably in the Battle for Stono Ferry, for in November court of this year, Captain William Witcher produced a commission from the Governor of Virginia appointing him to the rank of Major of the Pittsylvania County militia. Replacing him as Captain is Henry Conway, and the same record indicates that John Witcher’s command as Second Lieutenant is accordingly transferred to Captain Conway’s militia.
In the month of October, around two months after his return from the Battle of Stono Ferry, William Witcher resigned his position as a vestryman in the Church of England.
Records from the Camden Parish in Pittsylvania County state that, “At a vestry held for Camden Parish at Pittsylvania Courthouse on Saturday the 2nd, of October 1779,” certain gentlemen vestrymen were present: Crispin Shelton, Benjamin Lankford, Abraham Shelton, John Wilson, Thomas Terry, Jr., Buckley and Daniel Shelton, all “Gentlemen Vestrymen.” In this meeting, Vestrymen William Witcher and Ruben Payne presented themselves before their peers and promptly resigned, and in so doing William Witcher concluded his twelve years of service to the Church of England at Camden Parish.
After Pittsylvania County was calved from Halifax County, Camden Parish was formed to represent the Church of England in the newly formed county. The most able and prominent citizens were chosen to serve the new parish as vestrymen. These individuals were not clergy, but were respectable men who were tasked with managing the temporal affairs of the Church of England within their parish. William Witcher was one of eleven men initially chosen to serve in this capacity.
William had officially received his appointment as a vestryman on the 22nd day of January, 1768, when on that day he presented himself to the Pittsylvania County court to take, “the usual oaths to his Majestys person and government and repeated and subscribed the Test.”
I’ve handled the first vestry book of records for Camden Parish. Despite its rumored demise, it does exist, at least these earliest records do. From that book two records of interest are provided. Firstly, page one, on which William Witcher subscribes, “in vestry to be conformable [to] Doctrine and Discipline of the Church of England as is by Law established,” and secondly, page thirty-five, which records the moment William Witcher resigned his position in the parish, on October, 2, 1779.
Several modern publications assert that within the Camden Parish record book is an authorization for Hugh Innes and William Witcher to hire the lowest bidder to build the “Chappell of Ease,” which was ordered to be constructed near John Willcox’s place. It was to be 24 feet by 20 feet in size, using round logs for the body, a clapboard roof, with benches. Another vestry record is purported to show that Hugh Innes and William Witcher were to receive bids to, “build near Snow Creek Chapel…the size of the former,” assumedly indicating another vestry chapel was to be built.
A little over two weeks after he had resigned as vestryman (probably in preparation for his impending actions against the parish), William Witcher and three other men liquidated Camden Parish’s glebe. The glebe was 588 acres of prime farming land which was located on both sides of the Banister River. William Witcher was one of four Commissioners of Trust who, “agreeable to an act of assembly passed October 1, 1778,” authorized them to liquidate the church holdings. This land was sold to Epaphroditus White, for the sum of 5150 pounds of, “current money of the Commonwealth of Virginia.” The price for this land seems expensive, but probably reflected the impact inflation was having on the wartime economy of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
In 1780 Major William Witcher was once again gathering Pittsylvania County’s list of tithables.
As in 1778 William Witcher household listed 5 tithes, one being William Sr., then his son William Witcher Jr., as well as three slaves, Trim, Tener, and Nell.
John Witcher is listed for 1 tithe. I do not know if this was John Senior or John Junior. However, since the following year only lists a John Witcher Jr., and knowing that John Witcher Senior had a verifiable presence in nearby Montgomery County during the 1780s, I feel it safe to assume that the 1780 tax list is enumerating William Witcher’s son, John Witcher Jr.
Both James and Daniel Witcher are absent in the 1780 Pittsylvania County tax list.
A 1781 Pittsylvania County land deed record indicates that Daniel Witcher was in Montgomery County. This deed of sale between Robert Dalton and Daniel Witcher states that Daniel was “of Montgomery County.” Therefore we can assume that in 1780 Daniel Witcher was residing in nearby Montgomery County, Virginia.
According to pension records located at the National Archives, James Witcher had re-enlisted in the summer of 1780 for three months under Captain George Parrish’s Company of Virginia Militia. James was in a battle with the Tories at the Shallow Ford of the Yadkin River in North Carolina, and was discharged in October of 1780. Almost certainly this second enlistment explains his absence from Pittsylvania County when the 1780 tax list was taken.
Finally, as in previous years, Ephraim Witcher is found in the 1780 list as responsible for 1 tithe. It is notable that in this year Ephraim Witcher received a land patent dated September 1, 1780. Thomas Jefferson, then acting on behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia, is listed as the agent who grants the land to Ephraim Witcher, 400 acres, in Pittsylvania County, on the banks of “Reddys Creek,” for 40 shillings. Of course the land grant was issued under Thomas Jefferson’s authority, not by him personally, but interesting none-the-less that this future president’s name is found on this document.
Also, on the 18th day of May, 1780, we know for certain that Ephraim Witcher was at the courthouse in the new Pittsylvania County seat of Chatham, Virginia. The Pittsylvania County estray records indicate that Ephraim Witcher had found and was claiming, “One dark bay mare, about four feet, six inches, eight or nine years old.” This horse was found on “Reddy Creek,” presumably on Ephraim’s newly acquired land on “Reddys Creek.” The horse was appraised at 400 pounds of “current money,” this exorbitant price reflected the rampant inflation which by then was spiraling out control and would plague colonists during the remainder of the revolution. The estray record was signed by the presumed brother of Ephraim Witcher, Justice of the Peace/Major William Witcher.
Later that year, Major William Witcher would announce in the September Court of 1780 that he was resigning his commission as Major in the Pittsylvania County militia. Robert Williams, Gentleman, was recommended in his room.
Two months later, in November court of 1780, a certain William Witcher, "Gentleman," was appointed, “Commissioner of the Grain Log,” which must have been a unique term meant to refer to the Commissioner of the Specific Tax. This commissioner enforced the new Specific Tax Law, which was enacted during the Revolutionary War to assist in funding the war effort. In May of 1779, a legislative act imposed this tax, which was payable in crop commodities to provide for “armaments” for the defense of Virginia. The law required that “for every man above sixteen years old, and every woman slave of like age” one bushel of wheat, or two bushels of Indian corn, rye, or barley, or ten pecks of oats, or fifteen pounds of hemp, or twenty eight pounds of inspected tobacco were to be delivered to a commissary appointed to receive the same. In 1779 the counties were required to appoint commissioners for each consecutive year thereafter for four years, and the act empowered these individuals with authority to determine when and where the tax was to be collected.
In 1781 the Specific Tax Act was modified to incorporate the specific tax concept into the payment of the tithe. The modified act allowed citizens to discharge the duties of their labor tax (tithe) by payment in either commodities or in money.
Of interest is a September, 1781, Pittsylvania County court record which indicates that William Witcher “Jr” was “allowed” 1000 pounds, “as Commissioner of the Specific Tax due for the year 1781.” In this 1781 record, it is apparent that the William Witcher Jr. was the Commissioner empowered to collect this tax.
The 1781 tithable list denotes that William Witcher was responsible for 6 tithables, those being himself, his son William Jr., and four slaves, Trim, Nell, Tener, and a new individual called Chester.
Ephraim Witcher is once again listed in the tax records as being responsible for 1 tithe. Not until the 1782 Montgomery County tithable record is a slave listed in Ephraim’s household. In the 1785 Pittsylvania County tithable list, that slave was identified as “Sall.” This is significant as in 1778, the Pittsylvania County court had awarded Ephraim’s young, newlywed wife Betsey a slave due her from her father John Fips’ estate. However, it wasn’t until the 1782 tithable list that this slave was listed in Ephraim’s household. My assumptions are that it was three years before Betsey was able to retrieve Sall from the individual who had possession of her when the court suit was initially filed in 1778. Click here to read more about this court battle.
It is also of interest that in November of 1781, Ephraim Witcher sold some of his land holdings in Pittsylvania County to James Witcher, who by that year was back in the county. After Ephraim had sold this land, by June of 1782, he had moved upon his property in nearby Montgomery County. By the end of 1783, Ephraim had sold the remaining land in his original 302 acre track on Reedy Creek in Pittsylvania County. The deed for this sale describes Ephraim Witcher as “of Montgomery County.” Also, the 1782 Montgomery County tithable list records this Ephraim Witcher as living in the county.
In the 1781 Pittsylvania County tithables list, James Witcher was listed as responsible for 1 tithe. As just noted, upon his return from duty in the Virginia militia, James purchased from Ephraim Witcher 160 acres of the 302 acres Ephraim owned on Reddy Creek. This 160 acre purchase was for the exorbitant price of 10,000 pounds of current money. It was only two years earlier that Ephraim had bought the entire 302 acre tract for 15 pounds of then, “current money of Virginia.” This transaction was during the worst of the inflation suffered during the Revolutionary War. Oddly, just four years later, Ephraim Witcher would repurchase this very piece of property back for the much reduced price of 100 pounds. So was the wild fluctuation of the currency in those days! I will also note that the dower for this sale to Ephraim Witcher indicates that this James Witcher was married to a woman named “Mary,” I presume to be Mary Colley. To read more about this James and his wife Mary, click here.
Finally, in the 1781 tithable list, John Witcher Jr. is listed for 1 tithe. This is of course the son of William Witcher. The older John Witcher had migrated to Montgomery County, Virginia, as we will see in the next year’s tax records.
In November 1781, after the Battle of Yorktown, the tide of war had turned significantly against the British. Sensing victory was only a matter of time, the Virginia legislators enacted comprehensive reforms to the state’s tax system, reforms which were to take effect in 1782. One of the changes included moving the tax day from the 10th day of June to the 10th day of March. By that day liable persons were required to present their returns to a county-appointed tax commissioner for their district of residence. Also, the rewritten tax code defined two set of tax lists, personal property and land tax. Persons who were chargeable were understood to be heads of households containing tithables or those owning personal property subject to tax.
The County sheriff was responsible for collecting the tax, and in that effort, designated prominent men of the community to assist in this task. Typically company militia commanders were employed in this duty as they already had in their possession lists of all men aged sixteen years and over.
This explains the purpose of an order given at a court held February 19, 1782, in which William Witcher, Gentleman, was appointed to, “take a list of the Enumerated Articles liable to tax agreeable to an Act of Assembly…in Captain Black’s Company.”
The list I possess for 1782, which was collected by William Witcher, is very different from previous and following year’s tax lists. In fact, the list looks more like a census record than a register of who is taxable. The handwritten header states, “A List of Soles Taken by me Wm Witcher in the District of Captains Tuggles and Daltons Companys in the year 1782.” This record indicates the total number of white and black individuals within a household but does not specify who within those households are taxable. Since the list is not for “Captain Blacks Company,” as specified by the February 19, 1782, Pittsylvania County court order, I assume this record to not be a list of tithables but rather a census of some sort for households within the districts of Captain’s Tuggle and Dalton. In fact, this same sort of census will be repeated in 1785, a year in which I will provide two distinct lists, one a census and the other a list of tithables.
I have taken care to point out these contradictions, because since this particular 1782 record is not a list of tithables, we cannot apply the same logic checks to this record as we have to previous tithable lists. This record does, however, enlighten us to the total number of persons within these households, which is important in its own right. I suspect this 1782 record is a list of households from which the 1782 tithable list was later prepared.
In this 1782 census record, William Witcher’s household contains 6 whites and 8 blacks. Again, we have no clue who among these fourteen souls are liable for taxes. I highly suspect that among the six whites in this household are William’s younger children, perhaps being Daniel, Ephraim, James, or Caleb, or one of William Witcher’s daughters.
William Witcher Jr. is listed in his own household with 3 whites, probably himself, his wife, and a child.
James Witcher is also listed with 3 white people in his household. It needs to again be restated that this in not William Witcher’s son James, but is the James Witcher who was born September 20, 1750, and was married to “Mary,” fought in the Pittsylvania County militia, and was probably a cousin of William Witcher Sr.
This 1782 record identifies two John Witchers in Pittsylvania County. One is identified as John Witcher “Senr,” and is listed as having 4 whites in his household. A second John, identified as John Witcher “Junr,” is listed as having 5 whites living in his household.
Strangely enough, a John Witcher is also listed in the tax list for nearby Montgomery County in this same year, along with Daniel and Ephraim Witcher. It once again appears that three John Witchers were alive at the same time, two in Pittsylvania County and one in Montgomery County.
However, there could be a simple explanation to this riddle. It may be that John Witcher Senior was counted in both places during 1782. First off, recall that this 1782 census record is not a tax record. It may be that this census counted John Witcher Sr. before he made his move to Montgomery County. At any rate, since this conflict is not repeated in future records, I feel this conflict is an explainable anomaly.
As noted, Ephraim Witcher had just moved from Pittsylvania County to his property in Montgomery County and is therefore not listed in this Pittsylvania County census. However the 1782 Montgomery County tax records indicates Ephraim was liable for 1 white tithable and 1 slave (no doubt his wife Betsey’s slave Sall.). We also know from deed records that Ephraim had moved to the same general location on the New River which Daniel and John Witcher had just previously moved to. These three men, Ephraim, Daniel, and John Witcher of the 1782 Montgomery County tax list, are the same three individuals listed in the 1773 Pittsylvania County tithable list, and are the same three men who will be listed in the 1785 Pittsylvania County list, as records indicate they had moved back to the Pigg River area the county.
In February Court, 1782, William Witcher, Gentleman, “came into court and refused to qualify under his commission as sheriff of this county…” The office of Sheriff was a rigorous responsibility which required great effort in, not only law enforcement, but the collection of taxes due from the county. I expect that William was not of a mind to tackle this responsibility, as he would have been personally liable for the full amount of taxes due from the county to the state and county government. This financial liability required that the sheriff be a man of substance, and this is why the man who held this office was typically bonded by wealthy friends.
Finally, a 1782 record of estray indicates “William Witcher” of Pittsylvania County found on Pigg River, a small white cow, marked with a short “swallowfork” in the left ear. “Appraised to six shillings.” April 12th, 1782 Henry Conway.
A tax list for the year 1783 was accumulated, as is apparent from a March 18, 1783, court session. William Witcher, Gentleman, is appointed, agreeable to an act of assembly, to, “Take a list of the enumerated Articles liable to a Tax…in Captains Loddwick Tuggles and Robert Daltons Company…” However, as of this writing I have not located either the 1783 or 1784 tax list for Pittsylvania County.
A peace treaty was signed in 1783, and order was being restored within the states. As the new Republic Age was beginning, it is obvious from land deeds dated from 1783 that inflation was quickly receding and economic normalcy was returning.
Daniel Witcher bought 100 acres of land on February 25, 1783, from George Herdon, for 75 pounds. Six months later, on August 14, William Goad bought 150 acres of land (for 10 pounds) from Ephraim Witcher “of Montgomery County.” Interestingly, less than two years earlier, Ephraim sold 160 acres to James Witcher for 10,000 pounds, which of course is a huge price difference for nearly equal portions of land.
In March Court of 1783, William Witcher, “Gentleman,” was in court petitioning that his slave Nell be exempted from tax in the future, and “for reasons appearing to the court,” that requested was granted. These types of exceptions were granted due to physical disabilities or age. I suspect that Nell was old. We first observe Nell in William Witcher’s household thirteen years earlier in the 1770 tithable records.
From 1782 through 1785, land tax records indicate at least three land patents had been awarded to William and John Witcher.
A list of taxable property was again taken by William Witcher in 1785. In this tax record, unlike the previous years tithable lists, horses and cattle are counted. Also age thresholds are clearly written in the record. Whites “over 21,” Negros “over 16,” and Negros “under 16” were to be identified and taxed. By this time, the taxation of whites under the age of 21 had been stopped, which is unfortunate, as the names of William’s children are not therefore noted. However, for 1785 a list survives which (as in 1782) seems to be census of Pittsylvania County households from which the “List of Taxable Property” was accumulated.
The first 1785 list we will review appears to be a census list of total white people as well structures on the property. Slaves are not included in this list, so one may assume all small children and spouses are included in the total number of “whites” counted per household. For the sake of clarity, I will refer to this list as the 1785 Census of Pittsylvania County.
In this census record, William Witcher [Senior] has 5 whites living in his house. I assume this to be William and some of his children, such as Ephraim, James, and Caleb. I suspect that his wife was deceased by time. William is listed as have 2 dwelling houses on his property, as well as 1 barn/tobacco house, 1 dairy/meat house, and 13 cabins. These cabins were probably nothing more than shacks provided for his slaves.
This 1785 Pittsylvania County census lists only one John Witcher, while the 1785 list of taxable property for that county includes two Johns, one junior and one senior. I feel certain the John Witcher listed in this 1785 census is the son of William Witcher Sr., and John Witcher Sr. was probably living within one of the households being counted, but as such was not named in the census.
John Witcher was listed in the 1785 Pittsylvania County census as have 4 white people living in his household; himself and almost certainly his wife and children. He is marked for 1 cabin on his property.
William Witcher Jr. is listed as having 3 white people in his household. This is of course the son of William Witcher Sr. He too is listed as having 1 cabin on his property.
James Witcher had 5 white people living in his household. No doubt those people included himself, his wife Mary, and perhaps three children. This is not the son of William Witcher Sr., but is the Patriot James Witcher whose pension papers indicate was born on September 20, 1750. This would of course mean that this James Witcher was thirty-five years of age at the taking of this census. The record notes that James had “1” cabin on his property.
It is very interesting that only William Witcher Sr. is listed as having “dwelling houses” on his property, and “2 dwelling houses” at that. The other Witcher families must have lived in the cabin structures they indicated were on their property. During these early years, the term “cabin” did not necessarily denote a log home, but was meant to indicate a substandard dwelling (we would know it as a shack), as compared to a more substantially built home, which itself may or may not itself have been built out of logs. At the bottom of this manuscript, I have included an image of one of these “dwelling houses” on the Pigg River property in which William Witcher is purported to have lived.
Lastly, the 1785 Pittsylvania County census indicates that Daniel Witcher had “10” white people living in his household, with two “cabins” on his property. As I have previously stated, by 1785 the tax laws had been modified so as to exclude as taxable individuals under the age of twenty-one. Daniel Witcher Jr. (William Witcher Sr’s. son) had not quite reached age twenty-one by the time the 1785 list of taxable property was collected, therefore, (as we shall soon see) he is not found in that list. However, Daniel Witcher Sr. was listed in the 1785 property tax list. Therefore we can assume that the Daniel Witcher listed in the 1785 Pittsylvania County census record is the Daniel Witcher who first appears in Pittsylvania County tax records in 1767, and as such is not the son of William Witcher Sr..
Next I will provide the property tax information for the Witchers in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, for the year 1785. By comparing the 1785 county census against that year’s tax records, strong conclusions can be made.
William Witcher “Senr” is listed as having “1” white “over” 21 years of age. Individuals younger than twenty-two years of age are not listed in this tax record. The names of William’s slaves are Trim, Chester, Tener, Tamor, Bob, Fanney, Abraham, Sam, and Jacob; nine total. This list does not include Nell, who was exempted in 1783. Three of these “Negroes” were over 16, while 6 were listed as “under” the age of 16. William owned 7 horses and 20 cattle.
Ephraim Witcher (who was not the son of William Witcher Sr.) is listed for 1 white and 2 slaves, they being Martin and Sall. I assume Sall to be the 1 “Negro over 16,” but I know her to be the slave given to Ephraim’s wife Betsey when she was six years old, when her father John Fips gave Sall to Betsey as a gift. Click here to read more about this event. Ephraim Witcher, who had just previously relocated back into the county from Montgomery County, is listed as owning 3 horses and 4 cattle.
There is also a record called the “half Tax for the year 1785,” in which Ephraim Witcher is listed. No other Witchers are listed, and I expect this record is one fragment remaining from a complete list now lost. An image of this sole record (along with all the available tax records from 1767-1785) is proved below.
William Witcher Jr. is listed for 1 white “over 21 years” of age, and 2 horses and 5 cattle. This William is the son of William Witcher Sr.
Daniel Witcher “Senr” is listed as having 1 white “over 21 years” of age. Therefore, when compared with this year’s census, nine other white persons must have been living in the household of Daniel Witcher Sr. in 1785. Daniel had 1 “Negro over 16,” and 2 under the age of sixteen, for a total of three slaves. He also is listed as have 2 horses.
Finally, two John Witchers are listed, one “Jun,” and one “tax free.”
We know the John Witcher who is listed in 1785 as “tax free” was exempted from payment of levies in March court of 1783, almost certainly due to his age, he by then probably being over age sixty. This John is surely the same John Witcher who was taxed in the 1767 Pittsylvania County tithable records, along with William and Daniel Witcher. I think this John was born around 1723, based on his 1783 court exemption from paying taxes. This John Witcher is listed as owning 2 horses and 8 cattle. Since he was not listed in this year’s census of households, I suspect he was living within someone else’s household.
John Witcher “Jun” (who is my gggg-grandfather) is listed for 1 white “over 21 years.” In 1785 John Witcher owned 2 horses and 4 cattle. This John Witcher is the son of William Witcher Sr. and was born around 1757. It was from to this John Witcher that a daughter named Tempy was born. Tempy married her cousin, James Witcher, who was the son of my other gggg-grandfather, Ephraim Witcher. Ephraim Witcher had married Betsey Fips, who was daughter of John and Tabitha Fips.
The last year of tax records which I will review is the Pittsylvania County tax list for 1786, which was gathered by William Ward.
In the 1786 tax list, William Witcher reported 1 white tithable in his household “over 21 years” of age. In this years tax list (unlike the previous year’s tax list), provision is made to list white tithables over 16. With this in mind, interesting comparisons can be made between 1785 and 1786, perhaps proving the presence of very young children, female children, and even a wife in the household. In this 1786 tax list, William Witcher reports no white boys over 16 years of age in his household. He does list 7 slaves under the age of 16 and 3 slaves over the age of 16. William listed that he owned 7 horses and 21 cattle. This is William Witcher Sr’s household.
In the 1786 tax list, William Witcher “Junr” lists 1 white tithable “over 21,” and none listed as over 16. This man indicated that he owned 1 horse and 4 cattle.
In this same list, John Witcher (senior, who had previously been exempted from paying levies) lists no tithables, but reported 2 horses and 10 cattle.
John Witcher “Junr” is listed in 1786 as being responsible for 1 tithable “whites over 21,” and no tithable listed over 16 years of age. This John also had 2 horses and 4 cattle.
During the tax year of 1786, Daniel Witcher listed 1 “whites over 21,” and no whites over 16 years of age. He did list 2 “slaves under 16.” Daniel inventories 2 horses and 10 cattle.
Daniel Witcher “Junr” (no doubt the third born son of Major William Witcher) lists 1 “whites over 21” years of age, and 1 slave “under 16.” Daniel reported that he owned 2 horses and no cattle.
Ephraim Witcher (who was not the son of William Witcher Sr.) reported 1 tithable “whites over 21” years of age, 1 slave over 16 years of age and 1 slave less than 16 years of age. Ephraim reported that he owned 3 horses and 14 cattle.
Finally, James Witcher (the Patriot soldier, not the son of William Witcher Sr.) reported 1 tithable white over the age of 21. His livestock count was 1 horse and 8 cattle.
As we have seen, these early tax records have provided invaluable, forensic evidence into the identities of the first Witchers of Pittsylvania County, Virginia. By carefully examining them, we can glean significant insight into were who the sons of Major William Witcher (and who they were not). Even more clarity will be provided should the Pittsylvania County tax records for the years of 1782-1784 be recovered.
This writing is intended to document twenty-eight years of William Witcher Sr’s life, from his 1758 appearance in Halifax County, Virginia, through the year 1786. With this in mind I will now backtrack and briefly document William’s participation in the establishment of the two different county seats in Pittsylvania County (Calland, and then later Chatham), as well as provide a few transcriptions of some interesting early cases William presided over as a Justice of the Peace. I will conclude this manuscript with a very small reference to Major William’s military deployments in the Revolutionary War.
As we have discussed, Pittyslvania County was formed out of Halifax County on November 6, 1775. There are contradictions about the date Pittyslvania County was formed (many note it became a county in 1767), but I have chosen to refer to the information provided by the very reliable genealogical website, FamilySearch.org.
The first county seat of Pittsylvania County was Calland, which was located about eleven miles west of Chatham, the current county seat.
Calland, Virginia, was named after Samuel Calland, which records indicate was a native of Scotland who had immigrated to Virginia just before The Revolution. Samuel was a very successful merchant whose general store became a popular fixture in the new community. When Pittsylvania County was initially formed, the area around Calland’s store served as the county seat, at least until the end of 1776, when Henry County was calved from Pittsylvania County. Once Pittsylvania County was divided, in 1777 the county seat was moved further east to the then more centrally located area of present day Chatham.
It is important to note that all pre-August of 1777 court proceedings for Pittsylvania County were held in Calland.
It is unknown where the very first court was held (presumably in a prominent citizens home), but by 1770 court orders were being issued which demanded the completion of the county’s first courthouse. In March of 1770, in one of the first cases heard by a recently inaugurated William Witcher, court records indicates that James Roberts was delinquent in his duties to build the courthouse, which in September of 1767 he was ordered to construct. A transcription of that court states, “It appearing to the court now here that James Roberts Gent has failed to build a sufficient courthouse for this county agreeable to the contract made and entered into in September one thousand and sixty seven. Whereupon it is ordered that … the said James Roberts shall give bond with sufficient security to build and complete the said courthouse within two months from this time that he be immediately after presented to the general court.”
The Pittsylvania County Historical Society notes that Calland’s clerk building was built around 1770. This small, but beautiful, building has been completely restored and is one of two surviving buildings from the original Calland community. Measuring 19 by 24 feet, this brick building was built to replicate buildings found in colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. I strongly suspect this building was the work of James Roberts, who finally finished in 1770 what he had three years earlier been tasked to do. I have included images of this building at the bottom of this manuscript.
This small building apparently served the judicial needs of the county until a new courthouse was erected just east of the first court building. According to the Pittsylvania County Historical Society, a second building was erected around 1773, which is now identified as the “Courthouse and Gaol” (prison). This brick building is much larger and has a basement with bars on the windows, presumably once serving as the Pittsylvania County prison. I suspect that a May Court, 1774, record may be referring to this very building. This records states, “Robert Williams Peter Copeland and James Smith are appointed to let to the lowest bidder the .… and building of Barr in this courthouse.” Then two months later, in July of 1774, William Witcher and “Archd” Hughes are identified as the Gentlemen appointed to, “view the repairs of the prison,” and, “reported that it was done agreeable to contract.”
I mention these events because it’s fascinating to know, that within these two structures, William Witcher sat as a Justice of the Peace, reviewing hundreds of cases from 1770 till late 1776, after which his court was relocated to Chatham. Amazingly, in an image I provide below, one can view the inside of the second courthouse and see the actual spot the Justices sat as they litigated the very cases we are now so fortunate to review.
Knowing where the pre-1776 cases for Pittsylvania County were held, I will now provide a small sampling of three cases heard by a panel of justices which included William Witcher. One is the whipping of John Still Holt for vagrancy; another is the unfortunate hanging of man named Champion for “felony and burglary,” and lastly, for a man named Jesse, whose hand was ordered to be burned for burglary.
Firstly, on the 24th day of August, there was the case for a man named John Still Holt.
“At a court held for Pittsylvania County on the 24th day of Augt. 1775 Present his majesties justices John Donolson. Peter Copeland William Witcher & … Huges [all] gent
John Still Holt being brought before the court as a vagrant & it appearing to the court the said Holt is vagrant. It is ordered that the sherif do sell the said John Still Holt to the highest bidder agreeable to Act of Assembly. and that if no person will purchase the said Still Holt that the shf. do give him 30 lashes at the public whipping post.”
Secondly, in March 1771, the sad case of a man named Champion.
“At a court of … held at Pittsylvania [county] courthouse on the 29th day of March 1771 for the trial of Champion a negro man slave belonging to Robert Garrot of Caroline County for felony & burglary. Present his majesties justices Thomas Dillard. Hugh Innes. Peter Copeland. George Jefferson. Wm. Thomas. & Wm. Witcher.
The said Champion being led to the Barr in custody of Archibald Gordon gent. shf. of this county to whose custody for the cause aforesaid he was committed & it being demanded of the said Champion whether he is guilty or not guilty of the fact wherewith he stands charged. Answered that he is not guilty. Whereupon the court proceeded to examine divers witnesses as well as on behalf of our Sovereign Lord the King as on behalf of the prisoner at the Barr. On consideration whereof it is the courts opinion that the said Champion is guilty of this said felony and burglary & therefore it is ordered that he be removed to the gaol of this county thereto remain until Monday the 15th day of April; & that he be conveyed to the common place of execution & there between the hours of one & four o clock in the afternoon be hanged by the neck until he be dead & the said Champion is valued by the court to sixty pounds current money which is ordered to be certified to the next general assembly. Tho. Dillard
Lastly, on the second day of August, 1775, the case for a man named Jesse.
“At a court held at Pittsylvania [county] courthouse on the 2d day of August 1775 for the examination of Jesse a negro man slave belonging to Samuel Damon for felony. Present his majesties justices Archibald Gordon. Hugh Innes Crispen Shelton & Wm Witcher [all] gent
The said Jesse was led to the barr in custody of Thesps. Lacy gent. Shf. of this county to whose custody for the cause aforesaid he was committed & it being demanded of the said Jesse whether he is guilty or not guilty of the fact wherewith he stands charged answered that he is no wise guilty. Whereupon the court proceeded to examine divers witnesses as well on behalf of our Sovereign Lord the King as the said Jesse. On consideration whereof it is the opinion of the court that the said Jesse is guilty of the felony aforesaid therefore it is ordered that he be burnt in the hand & then be discharged out of custody. Arch. Gordon”
Such was the matter of law and punishment in colonial America before the Revolution of 1776, during a time very much unlike today’s system of justice.
The March of 1771 court saw a gentleman named George Jefferson sit as one of the Justices along side William Witcher. It is an interesting thing to note that some family researchers indicate this George Jefferson was a cousin of Thomas Jefferson, and as such, I speculate that William Witcher may have met Thomas Jefferson.
As the year of 1776 was closing, the county seat for Pittsylvania County was preparing to relocate to the current location of Chatham. In June court of 1777, on the 26th day of June, pursuant to a previous court order, surveyors presented, “the line to center for the courthouse, we find the center of the line…. on the land of Francis Polly.” The next entry in the Court Order Book is a record appointing prominent men to, “view the most convenient situation for building the courthouse of this county, and make a report thereupon here to the next court.”
In July Court, 1777, the Justices of the Peace for Pittsylvania County, including William Witcher, registered this agreement regarding the location of the new courthouse in the present day location of Chatham. “On a Vien of the Magistrates for setting the courthouse of this county a majority of them have agreed that the same shall be settled and established on the land of Jeremiah Worsham near Cherry Stone Meeting House Spring and thereupon it is agreed by the court that the next court to be held for this county be at the place aforesaid.”
From the July of 1777 court record, we can know that the first court held in the new location on Cherry Stone Meeting House Spring (in current downtown Chatham) was in August of 1777. I wanted to establish this timeline as I thought it was of interest as it relates to the Committee of Safety’s indictment of Samuel Calland, the founder of Calland, Virginia.
It will be remembered that William Witcher was a member of the Pittsylvania County Committee of Safety, and that the Committee of Safety was an ad hoc provisional government, which temporarily provided a continuation of public services until the states could reconstitute themselves apart from Great Britain’s rule. These committees were in direct rebellion to the authority of the Crown, and in their rebellion, they tested the loyalties of all inhabitants of the county in which they served. Those who failed to sign an “Oath of Allegiance” to the cause of the Patriots were duly hauled into court and examined. Such was the case for Samuel Calland, who stood before William Witcher and others in the courthouse at Calland.
Here is the transcript of that January, 1777, examination of Samuel Calland, “At a court continued & held for Pittsylvania county on the 24th day of January 1777,” was “Present John Wimbish. Benj. Lankford. Crispen Shelton. William Witcher. Abra. Shelton Wm Todd. William Short & George Carter [all] esqs….Order that Gabriel Shelton do summon Samuel Calland & the revd. Lewis Gwilin to appear here on the 5th [of] Feby. they being natives of great Britain. To show cause why they do not depart this colony. Agreeable to the Act of Assembly in that case made & provided. John Donelson esq.”
This January court then moved on to examine the loyalty of others who refused to sign the Oath of Allegiance.
When the next month arrived, a court was held in Calland, and Samuel Calland was again summoned to appear before the Justices.
Here is a transcript of that February, 1777, examination of Samuel Calland, “At a court held at Pitts. Courthouse on the said day the 5th day of February 1777. On the examination of the subjects of great Britain Present Benj. Lankford. Crispen Shelton. William Witcher. Aba. Shelton. William Short & George Carter [all] esqs. It appearing that Samuel Calland one of the said subjects has been duly summoned. & it appearing to the court that the said Calland being legally called before the committee for the said county in _____ last to take the oath prescribed by ordinance in that case made & provided. who refused the same. declaring himself a subject of the King of great Britain & still has shown himself unfriendly to American Cause & it appearing to this court that the said Calland has intermarried with a native of this county at or near the time the said Act of Assembly took place [next entry] Ord. that the clk of this court transmit a copy of the above to the governor & council with a copy of the former order of last court.”
I have provided the transcriptions of those forgotten events as they well serve the purpose of revealing the scope of the Committee of Safety as well as the part the Justices (including William Witcher) played in testing the loyalties of the inhabitants of Pittsylvania County. I also found it ironic that the man, after whom the county seat was named (Samuel Calland), refused to swear allegiance to the cause of the Patriots, and then only months later the county seat would be relocated miles away from Mr. Calland’s establishments. I know the matter of relocating the county seat was to centralize the courthouse within the redrawn boundaries of Pittsylvania County, but in doing so, I expect the Patriots felt no lost love regarding any financial disadvantage felt by Samuel Calland. I will note that Samuel Calland must have eventually relented and pledged his allegiance to the fledgling Patriot cause, as this man is often found in later county records, including an 1808 Pittsylvania County obituary for this Samuel Calland.
William Witcher, in August of 1777, was appointed one of four men to obtain bids to build a prison and the new courthouse on Cherry Stone Meeting House Spring. The hull of the courthouse was to be “thirty two by twenty four shingled ruff the plan to be shown that day.” This record is found in a Pittsylvania County Minutes Book. The next month, in September Court of 1777, records indicate persons were appointed to, “view, lay off and mark the nearest, best and most convenient way for a road from this courthouse to Mark Chelton’s.”
Records indicate that by the end of 1782, a new courthouse would be relocated to higher ground, just a little further up the small hill. This would be Pittsylvania County’s fourth courthouse in which William Witcher would serve.
The location of the first Chatham courthouse is nothing more that a large overgrown gully. Nothing of that small building remains but memories retained in Pittsylvania County’s first court records. We can know from these records that the earliest Witchers in our clan met often under the trees of that "holler." However, due to the inaccessibility and impractical geography of a courthouse located on a creek, the new courthouse was built a few hundred yards away on higher ground.
In March court of 1782, William Witcher was one of the “Gentlemen” appointed to, “view and fix on a place for the courthouse of this county on the land of James Johnson and make report to the next court.” This court order resulted in a deep division erupting among the merchants of the community then known as “Pittsylvania County Courthouse.” Merchants who were located around the old courthouse in the ravine lost customers to the new businesses which had popped up around the location of the new courthouse. Those desperate businesses then petitioned the Virginia General Assembly in 1807 to move the courthouse back to its original location of Whittle Street. The General Assembly decided the courthouse was to remain at the new location, and so the town was then named “Competition,” until 1852, when it was renamed Chatham. One year later, in 1853, still further up the small hill, a new courthouse was built. This beautiful Greek Revival design courthouse stands to this day in downtown Chatham, still serving the citizens of Pittsylvania County, Virginia.
No doubt William Witcher spent countless hours within the walls of four different Pittsylvania County courthouses, from 1767 into the 1790s, even serving the public at an earlier time in Halifax County, as Constable in 1758. William not only served his county and church as a Justice of the Peace and Vestryman, but he was a Patriot in the truest sense. Putting his neck on the line by rebelling against the King as a member of the Committee of Safety, he also commanded men in the Revolutionary War in several military campaigns against hostiles in Virginia and South Carolina, including the Battle of Stono Ferry, in 1779. Due to the exhaustive length of this essay, I will provide more detailed information about William’s involvement in the Pittsylvania County militia in another essay which can be accessed by clicking here.
I have personally visited the gravesite of Patriot William Witcher. The only hope of finding the DAR monument is to plug in GPS coordinates and follow the directions to a certain house, in which lives individuals, who in my case, were willing to arrange a guided trip deep into the Virginia woodlands, where the old Witcher family plot is well hidden under the canopy of trees.
Once I walked upon the small family graveyard, I was struck by the poetry of a huge oak tree which grows directly in front of William’s field-rock grave marker. This oak (which I expect could have been alive when William was buried) looms above all the other trees of the forest and seemed to me a metaphor of William Witcher’s footprint on the American landscape, the younger trees bearing testimony to his offspring and their part in the development of our wonderful national heritage.
Because of William Witcher’s participation in the Revolutionary War, the Daughters of the American Revolution genealogical society have assigned William Witcher Patriot status; his Patriot number being A126994.
This essay does not cover the life of William Witcher beyond 1786, after which he continued to acquire land and expand his wealth, out of which he contributed to his community until his last days. When William sensed his death was near, he drafted a final will, in which he listed his children and his last wishes. Those children were listed as, sons John Jr., William Jr., Daniel Jr., Ephraim Jr., James Jr., and Caleb Jr., and daughters Elizabeth and Rachel. Of course this will only listed living children at the time of William’s death.
William Witcher died sometime after the 8th day of December, 1807, and before the date the will was proved in court on 18th day of July, 1808. Since a substantial estate was to be probated, I expect little time was wasted proving the will. Therefore I suspect William died around June of 1808.
The estate was inventoried on August 4th, 1808. The personal property was valued at almost 1900 pounds of then current Virginia money, not including the value of land and buildings. Included in this inventory was a family bible, which hopefully will one day be discovered. Miracles do happen!
I have provided many images of the court records from which I referenced, including the very important tithable and property tax records.
Important: Depending on your browser, you may have to scroll down quite a bit in order to view the images I have provided.
Wayne Witcher, ggggg-grandson of William Witcher.
Major William Witcher
-born before 1738-
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A Witcher Family Genealogy