Told For The First Time: Origins of Gate City
From the Bristol Herald Courier
Sunday, November 15, 1964
By GORDON ARONRIME
On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving exactly one hundred fifty years ago (1814), the Governor of Virginia signed a bill appointing a group of men commissioners to consider possible sites for a county seat of the new county to be established in Southwest Virginia. The new County was to be named in honor of young General Winfield Scott whose 30th birthday would not be for another year and more, but who was certainly the most flamboyant hero of the day.
The county was organized by and selected the site offered by an act of the General Assembly which Governor Nicholas signed into law on January 4, 1815 and Scott County was struck off from bits of Lee, Russell, and Washington Counties. The organizing court met at the home of a man who had been but a short while in the area and who soon left the region forever, Benjamin T. Hollins. The original court was composed of men of varying qualities and abilities. Some, such as Colonel John Anderson of the Blockhouse, ancestor of the late Judge Joseph Anderson Caldwell of Bristol and Blountville, were men of distinction. Others, such as Rueben McCully were more acquainted with that glass of distilled liquid seen in modern of men of distinction, for poor Reuben was, by the record of the court minutes, drunk on the bench of the County Court for a solid year before he graciously resigned in 1830. Samuel Richie, another member of the court, added nothing to the moral distinction of the
members of the court, for he sent his wife packing and took one Frances Kendrick to his bed and board and lived with her for the rest of his natural days. And, if the court itself was composed of a very mixed lot, the old bag of tricks of petty politics was played in a manner that has, to this day, made Scott County legendary in the South.
Abundance Of Officers
There were officers for everything imaginable and some even unimaginable. The county was divided into two districts each provided with enough officers to populate even a present-day Department of Agriculture. There were two coroners for the county. There was even an escheator, though why such a relic from the Revolutionary days would be needed in 1815 is not clear. Rates for the taverns were set in terms that strongly reflected the reactionary flavor of the area, for the prices were fixed in shillings and pence, not dollars and cents, even though such had long been the standard currency of the land.
The county's first tavern license (or ordinary permit) was
to James Davidson. It is, in a way, with this James Davidson that the present article deals. The late Robert M. Addington in his little book on Scott County that was written with enthusiasm if not always accuracy, has adequately covered the matter of the beginnings of the county court. His account of the beginnings of Gate City, which also will celebrate its 150th anniversary this coming year, is both inadequate and inaccurate. It is to be hoped that the present article will correct this shortcoming and present the earliest history of Gate City in such a way that the town will be done justice. A list of sites proposed for the county seat was given the commissioners appointed for this purpose. These men were John McKinney, Johnathon Wood, Samuel Ritchie Sr., James Walling, James Moss, and our alcoholic friend, Ruben McCully and Abraham Fulkerson. They surveyed the proposed scenes and selected the site offered by
James Davidson Sr. The report to the court of the county was dated May 9, 1815 and trustees selected for the purpose were: John McKinney, James Moss, William H. Carter (Clerk of the new court), James Albert, and Samuel Ritchie Jr. Their instructions were:
"For the purpose of laying off a town and having the necessary publick buildings erected on the land pointed out by the Commissioners aforesaid. And also for the purpose of making the most advantageous sale in their power of the lotts in the town so to be laid off."
Lest the heart of any descendant of great-great-grandpa James Davidson Sr. beat with patriotic fervor, the reasons for such a generous donation of land should be pointed out. In Washington County, the land of Dr. Thomas Walker was selected and in Russell County that of Henry Dickenson, both having considerable influence on and bearing much pressure on the men so selecting the site for the county seat. The land donated was always in the midst of a tract of some hundreds of acres, thus sending the value of the surrounding land up to a very high price. Like all patriotism, this land donation had dregs in the last drink. But the motives of a long dead man are of little interest. There is a history connected with this tract of land which has never before been told and which is of considerable interest.
Plat Of The Town
First, however, there is the plat of the town with its 34 lots to be sold which is reproduced along with this article. This is the plat of the originally named town of Winfield, later called Estillville, and now Gate City. Each purchaser of the lot is shown, with his price paid, and the historical reference for the sale. The reason for the name of Winfield is easily and readily apparent to anyone who recalls the name of the new county. But, by the time the county was well organized, the fervor of the War of 1812 died down and the town was renamed for Judge Estill, a crusty disagreeable bachelor who dispensed justice spelled with a questionable "J" in area courts for as many years as Minos did in Ancient Crete. Whether, as did Minos, Judge Estill went to the underworld to continue his career is not recorded either in the Iliad or in the records of area counties. The streets were named Gaines and Jackson however, and that was in the full flush of the war fervor following
the 2nd War with England. Jackson Street still survives in this atomic age the 1812 title given it.
But the story to be told here is not of the first settlements of this town as much as the history that led to James Davidson having the site to offer for a county seat. He had not always lived on Little Moccasin Creek above the Gap. As a matter of fact, James Davidson came to Big Moccasin Creek in the very earliest times with his father, also James Davidson, and his brothers Joseph and John. His maternal grandfather, David Edwards had also come and had died in the spring of 1778. His mother's sister, Elizabeth, had married Jesse Cain, a sly rascal who somewhat embarrassed the family. But the whole large clan lived up near Houston's Fort on Big Moccassin Creek near what was to be forty years later, the line between Scott and Russell. The elder James Davidson had died in June, 1794, thus making it possible that in 1815 the presently discussed James Davidson would no longer be considered, James, Jr., but James, Sr. He had this second James Davidson, along with his b r o t her Joseph, fought at King's Mountain in October, 1780, and he died the last of April, 1826.
The history of the tract of land on which Gate City stands has, as stated above, a most curious history. It belonged originally to one Silas ENYART. The original owner of this tract of land, Silas ENYART, came to Scott county (as it is today), with his wife Sarah and their grown son John in early 1771 and settled on the land just through the Moccasin Gap. This was a daring deed, for Moccasin Gap was then a wild part of the frontier and only hardy hunters passed through it on their way to Cumberland Gap and the wilds of Kentucky. Daniel Boone went many times through the gap and doubtless stopped often at the home of ENYART. In Dunmore's War, the local high and mighties such as Arthur Campbell complained of the Indians ambushing them in Moccasin Gap. Yet, Silas and Sarah ENYART and their son John lived there through all this. Silas Enyart's original tract was two hundred acres and lay in the bend of Little Moccasin Creek from some distance west of Gate City's site to the
actual Moccasin Gap itself. Many stories are told of Silas ENYART. Governor David Campbell tells of his being a Tory during the Revolution and it is quite possible that ENYART, like many in the area, may have had Tory leanings. But, if so, he came out of the affray unscathed. He died in the opening months of the year 1789 and Sarah was appointed administrator of the estate with John ENYART (the son), Isaac Wainscot (who lived just west of the ENYARTS) and George Roberts as securities for the widow. Our story concerns this George Roberts.
A suit in District Court in Wytheville in the 1820s reveals the early history of this tract of land on which the Town of Gate City stands. Silas ENYART, whether or not a Tory, had to eat. He approached a young man named George Roberts, who may have been his son-in-law, about 1775 and asked if he would be interested in erecting a grist mill for the area on ENYART'S land. If so, ENYART told Roberts, he would give Roberts ten acres to include a mill seat. At that very early date, there were no mills in all of Scott County's present bounds except the mill at Patrick Porter's on Falling Mill Creek across the Clinch from Dungannon's present site. Roberts did, indeed, build his mill and furnished the citizens with flour of a sort for some years.
Roberts Expected Deed
Where was this mill of Roberts', this first mill on Moccasin's lower waters (for William Houston had a mill very early up near the present Russell County line). No one can say for sure today, but it was most likely well within the present city limits of Gate City about where Little Moccasin Creek curves sharply to the base of the Clinch M o u n t a i n after paralleling the town for some distance. Anyone following the stream in the bottom opposite front of the Court House can easily imagine where a sensible man - if Roberts could be called that! - would have put a mill. Anyhow, Roberts took possession of the ten acres and his mill secure in the belief that the land would be deeded to him by ENYART as promised. The 1770s wore on into the next decade.
In 1781, in August, there sat in Abingdon, the Commissioners for Washington and Montgomery Counties to hear claims for land settlement. The settlement right act of 1779 was being implemented. George Roberts went to Abingdon dutifully to support old Silas ENYART'S claim for right of settlement of his 200 acres from the year 1771. ENYART was awarded his land. Settlers were beginning to pour through his tract of land on their way to Kentucky via Cumberland Gap, the only real way to reach Blue Grass land in those days. These travelers, when they had some money in the complicated currency of that day when coin was weighed on scales to determine the value in different States, would buy flour to use on the way. George Roberts, for the first and only time in his life, was prospering.
In spite of the activities of the area, the Revolutionary War was being fought. In general Southwest Virginians knew little, and cared less, about the Revolutionary War. The present day descendant who thinks great-great something or other grandpa decided the fate of the Revolutionary War from Southwest Virginia is merely displaying his own abysmal ignorance. Most of the time, there were only a handful who really knew there was a War being fought; others were too busy trying to wrest a precarious living from the savage land and the landed savages to the southeast (the Cherokees) - There was, Of course, one Battle - and only one - in which the bobtail overmountain men made a contribution to the Revolutionary cause and that was the Battle of King's Mountain.
Many Scott county men fought in this Battle, men such as Johnathon Wood, Peter Morrison, and a man already mentioned in this article, James Davidson. This was, of course, the second James Davidson.
Almost exactly eight year after the Battle of King's Mountain, on October 1, 1789, Silas and Sarah ENYART sold their tract of 200 acres of land to James Davidson, Junior (the elder James Davidson did not die till 1794), the ENYARTS having moved onto a smaller tract on which they had survey rights later than the Gate City tract. By the following spring, early in the year, Silas ENYART was dead and his widow and son left the area. Their departure did not resolve the problem that had been raised over the mill of George Roberts and the land around it.
Mill Sees Sorry Days
Roberts had understood that he was to have had the ten acres as a gift for having established the mill and that 40 acres surrounding the original ten would be sold him to allow him a decent tract on which his mill could operate. It must be confessed that George was a rather engaging, but worthless, scamp and he allowed the mill to fall into disrepair as soon as the Kentucky travelers began going through less frequently and, stopping as they did at the Block House of Colonel Anderson, they filled up on provisions there, not stopping at the Roberts mill for provisions. Regardless of the quality of Roberts' mill or his activity, he claimed to have been promised by ENYART a deed to the ten acres and a right of purchase of forty more. He also claimed that when ENYART sold to Davidson and Davidson to Elisha Farris on August 18, 1789, he was assured of this right. However, Farris was killed by the Indians, with several members of his family, on September 11, 1791, so it is
impossible to say whether or not Farris had so promised. Anyhow, the land was eventually sold back to James Davidson, Jr., who made his "patriotic" gesture of offering the land for the courthouse to the county of Scott in 1815. The suit was filed just after the land got valuable enough to quarrel
Davidson claimed that the mill was, in, his superb phraseology,
"supposed to be kept up a good mill, but there was only shackling tub mill of little value on the land when I purchased it (1788) and it was possessed by one Tine (Valentine) Shoat who came on the land shortly after I purchased and this is the person to whom ENYART required me to deed
the ten acres to. The mill went to decay before I sold to Farris." Whether or not this was true, certainly there is no mention of the ten acres in either the deed 1788 or 1789 and Roberts lost his suit. But the Village of Gate City, then Winfield and later Estillville came into swaddling clothes oblivious of the quarrel about it and over it.
120 People In 1830
The lots were thirty-four in number, stretching along Jackson Street, still the main street of Gate City. Like the lots in most of the straggling little towns of Southwest Virginia laid out in the quarter century preceding and subsequent, these were quarter-acre lots. Of the 34, lots 21, 22, and 23 were not sold by 1821, and lots seven and eight were used as sites for the courthouse and jail. In the six years between the sale of the first lots on June 14, 1815 to Pascal Hamlin and Robert Dickenson, both scions of swashbuckling, piratical land grabbers, for $80, the trustees realized about $1,400 from the sale of these lots. As was true in all such towns, the lots had a repeated sale and re-sale in a rising and falling speculation. By midsummer of 1830, when the Fifth Census of the United States was taken according to the demands of the Federal Constitution, Estilville, as Winfield, was then known, and which we know today as Gate City, had a great mass of peoples within
its bounds that officially numbered 120.
By the time of the Fifth Census, the old mill built by George Roberts and contested by James Davidson, had fallen into total decay and even its site was forgotten and James Davidson and George
Roberts lay in graves equally unknown today. But the tiny town that had been begun on the site of what was
referred to so contemptuously as "a shackling tub mill" has continued and, after 150 years of official existence, continues to flourish and grow.