Patriot Wreath for First American War

Although brothers fought brothers at the birth of this nation and later in the Civil War for its soul, I hope we will never have such violence here again. Sadly, this year’s political season  indicates a country still divided. On this Memorial Day weekend, the mention of selfless military service takes me back to the beginning, the fight for liberty on home soil.

Honoring James Greenlee Founding Father of Morganton, NC

Honoring James Greenlee
Founding Father of Morganton, NC

Last week in Morganton, NC, I visited the Quaker Meadows Pioneer Cemetery with a group of Daughters of the American Revolution to lay a wreath of remembrance on the tombstone which is inscribed: Here lies All That’s Mortal of James Greenlee Who departed this life November 8, 1813, Aged 73 years.

He was the son of James Greenlee and Mary Elizabeth McDowell who moved from England to Rockbridge, VA, to a new world of danger and freedom. When her husband fell ill and died in the summer of 1757, Mary raised the younger children with the help of her father, Ephraim McDowell.

James Greenlee, II, was born October 19th, 1740, in the middle of the Shenandoah Valley, now Rockbridge County, Virginia. He and his siblings were schooled by the first school of high grade west of the Blue Ridge, known as Augusta Academy later to evolve into Washington and Lee University.

According to, as a child, James Greenlee, II, lived in a cabin in the great wilderness, “teeming with bears, wolves, deer and bands of hostile Indians. He would have been 15 years old when the French and Indian Wars erupted.

James and his sister Grace Greenlee Bowman and her husband John, and an unknown number of others, left VA for North Carolina on the Old Wagon Road. The group reached Moravian settlements at Salem where it is very probable that the VA pioneers were deterred from coming directly to Burke County because of Cherokee raids in the Catawba River Valley. During the summer of 1776, war tribes crossed the Blue Ridge and murdered and scalped 37 settlers.

Upon hearing this information, the Greenlees and Bowmans proceeded to the homes of their relatives (Aunt Margaret McDowell Mitchell) in South Carolina. Most likely it was on this trip to SC that James Greenlee fell in love with his first cousin, Mary Elizabeth Mitchell, who he soon married in Charleston. She was the daughter of James Mitchell and Margaret McDowell, Mary Greenlee’s sister. After learning that the Rowan militia had driven the Cherokees back, the Greenlees and Bowmans made their way to Burke County, NC.

The Greenlees built a family of eight children, all born in Morganton, NC, but Mary died when their youngest son was eight days old.

James M. Greenlee III – b. March 29, 1771 who married Mary Poteat; and Sarah Hoard Hunter (2nd wife)
Daughter who died at a young age
John Mitchell – born June 25th, 1775 and married his cousin, Mary Greenlee of Virginia
Margaret Greenlee – born January 14th 1778 and died young
William M. Greenlee – born May 19th, 1779 and died young
Samuel Greenlee*** – born January 26th, 1782-84 and married Minerva Keziah Sackett, d. 5-5-1848
Ephraim McDowell Greenlee – born February 22, 1786 and married to first wife Sarah Carr Shaw; and second wife Sarah Hallingsworth Brown
David Washington Greenlee – born January 28th, 1787, married Mary Howard McIntire, and purchased ‘The Glades’ in Marion, North Carolina, built in 1770.

It should be noted that James and his sister were the first Greenlees to settle in Burke County. While many families abandoned their homes in search of safety, the Greenlees and the McDowells stayed and persevered. James’ Uncle Col. John McDowell (his mother’s brother) was killed by Indians on Christmas Day. Another member of his family, Mrs. Estil, was captured and carried away by Indians, to be rescued by her brother, Col. Moffet.

On their arrival in Burke County, James Greenlee and John Bowman were entertained by relatives (McDowells at Quaker Meadow), and upon learning of their desire to settle in Burke, Gen. Charles McDowell took both men to see “a fine tract of land embracing the lower valley of Canoe Creek and fronting the Catawba River at the mouth of that stream.” Both men wanted to purchase the land and at the suggestion of Joseph McDowell, Sr., the question of ownership was settled by a wrestling match, which James Greenlee won. His land on Canoe Creek remained in possession of his heirs for hundreds of years, and is now occupied by the Mimosa Hills Country Club of Morganton.

James Greenlee’s land acquisition did not stop there. A little hamlet called “Alder Springs” grew in the hills south of the Catawba in full view of the Quaker Meadows home. The 230 acres later became the town of “Morgansborough,” now Morganton. James Greenlee owned all of the best lands about Morganton as well as land in Yancey County, Mitchell, Rutherford, McDowell County, and Memphis, Tennessee. In fact, James Greenlee, II, would become one of the largest land owners in Western NC and Tennessee.

His lands in Memphis were awarded to him for his services in the Revolutionary War. He also owned farms northwest of Marion, in Turkey Cove, and land on Catawba River, where his youngest son, David Washington Greenlee settled as the owner of a large plantation. During the Revolutionary War, when James fought with McDowell’s army at King’s Mountain and Cowpens, the Torries, under Gen. Patrick Ferguson, robbed him of his stock and grain and took off with a slave. But they could not steal his land, and his authority grew.

Greenlee was a well known businessman and land inspector in NC, and when the Morgan District was created in 1782, Greenlee was selected as one of the military auditors who was in charge of settling all debts that occurred during the war. During and after the Revolutionary period, Greenlee acquired hundreds of acres of land in Burke and Buncombe Counties, where he continued to be a cattle raiser and slave owner.

When Burke was established in 1777, the governing body of the County was manned by the Justice of the Peace, and around 1792, James Greenlee was appointed to that position. He also became Coroner of the county at the time of its creation and held that position for nineteen years. However, his duties did not cease there. He was a member of the NC Convention in 1788, which rejected the U.S. Constitution. (He did not serve in the second Constitutional Assembly the following year, which accepted.) He did serve as Burke County’s High Sheriff from 1780-1783. His son Ephraim was a Justice of Burke County Court in 1827.

James Greenlee was known to be a Whig in politics, a supporter of the Revolution, as well as an elder in the Quaker Meadows Presbyterian Church. James was listed as a trustee of the Morgan Academy which was the first formal educational institution in the county. James Greenlee died on November 8, 1813 and is buried at the Quaker Meadows Cemetery in Morganton, NC, near his sister and many other relatives.

Quaker Meadows Cemetery Gates

Quaker Meadows Cemetery Gates

There are many Patriots buried in this Burke County pioneer cemetery whose lives entwined with those in my neighboring county of McDowell. After his first wife died, James married Ruth Howard. The name of “Ruth Greenlee” became synonymous with McDowell County historic preservation in the 1900’s.

The family of “Hunting John” McDowell had been in America for two generations. He came from Virginia to the South Carolina area because of the French and Indian War and in the 1750’s lived around Burke County where other members of his family had settled at Quaker Meadows. In 1768 he received a land grant for 640 acres on the Catawba thirty miles west, and he built a log cabin which stood directly across the road from the present McDowell House, an area known as Pleasant Gardens. He is buried in a private cemetery along a Catawba River trail.

His daughter, Rachel, married John Carson who began acquiring land grants in 1778. The house he built here for his family with seven children is currently a beautifully maintained historic site in Marion. The property and house were later owned by Ephraim Greenlee who built a brick house on the property. I suspect this was Ephraim McDowell Greenlee from Burke County, son of James Greenlee, II.

When Rachel died, John Carson married in 1797 Mary Moffett McDowell, widow of Joseph McDowell of Pleasant Gardens, and therefore the sister-in-law of his first wife. The two Joseph McDowells, one of Pleasant Gardens and one of Quaker Meadows, were apparently hard to keep separate during their lifetimes and since then as well. Both fought at King’s Mountain and were active in politics. To avoid confusion, they appended to their signatures the initials of their home. Joseph McDowell, Q.M., (Quaker Meadows) died in 1801. John and Mary Carson presented a writ of subpoena against his heirs in 1802. (From Carson House by Michael Hill).

Major Joseph McDowell who served in Griffith Rutherford’s campaign against the Cherokees is buried at the Quaker Meadows Pioneers’ Cemetery, laid to rest beside his elder brother Charles. They are the two McDowells who met under the Council Oak to rally the forces preceding the battle of King’s Mountain. There is a marker near the current A.J.’s Steakhouse in Morganton.

Colonel Alexander Erwin was a neighbor of the McDowells’ Quaker Meadows home. During the Kings Mountain campaign of 1780, Col. Erwin was away from his wife and six children fighting with the Burke militia when a party of Tories plundered his plantation, Cherryfields. His wife, Sarah, received a blow from a Tory saber. The gash across her head and shoulder contributed to her early death in 1785 at the age of 35. After the resolution of the war, Col. Erwin harbored deep resentment toward the Tories of Burke County. As first Clerk of Court, he was willing to allow Tory sympathizers to conduct business, but at the end of each day, he rode around the square warning all Tories to leave before sunset. He lived to be 79 and was laid to rest beside his wife near the cemetery gate. A chapter of the Sons of the Revolution was just started in Burke County and named The Colonel Alexander Erwin Chapter. It is rapidly growing.

A plaque reads: Quaker Meadows Cemetery honors the memory of the pioneers interred here who shared in the achievement of American Independence in the Revolution and in the founding of Burke County on the frontier.  June 1, 1777

The stones are made of limestone, easier to carve than granite, but they are disintegrating. DAR is working with the Preservation office in Asheville to save them and put them back together like a jigsaw puzzle. In Burnsville, June 4, there will be a program on cemetery preservation. June has been declared Cemetery Preservation month.

For this article I relied on spoken words at the wreath ceremony, and The Carson House of Marion, NC, A Historical Research Project by Michael Hill


Copyright May 29, 2016 Georgia Wilson

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