Scott County Historical Society
Scott County, Virginia

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William Lawson: Scott County’s
Link With the "45"

By GEORGE THWAITES

     On a hill near Snowflake lies the Lawson Memorial Confederate Cemetery. It is now filled with headstones. In April of 1826 however, it was the site of a single grave.

     In recent years, a newer, granite monument was erected on the site of that grave. It is marked: William Lawson, Scottish Rebel.

     The story which lies behind this name is but one of the myriad personal sagas which insolubly link Scott County to the driving spirit of independence which led to the settlement of this countryside, and to the founding nation.

     Lawson was born in Montrose, Scotland on June 26, 1731. As yet a swaddled infant, he had emerged in the midst of a tumultuous and romantic period of British history – the bid for Scottish Independence.

     It is recorded that his mother was a widow, and speculated that his father was most likely killed in the first Jacobite rebellion which sought to reestablish the House of Stuart as the sole rulers of Scotland. The revolt was put down ruthlessly and James, the Old Pretender, had been forced to flee to France. Yet the strong yearnings for independence had yet to be wrenched from their homeland. It was within this seething social context that young Lawson was reared.

     In 1745 Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender, returned to Scotland to reclaim his throne and was greeted enthusiastically by the highland chieftains and the Scottish people. Rallying about "The Bonny Prince Charlie", thousands of spirited Scots took arms and proceeded to drive British out of Scotland, carrying the war into England itself.

     Exactly when John (sic should be William) Lawson became embroiled in this struggle is uncertain, but most likely he enlisted with his countrymen at the first opportunity (and surely to the great grief of his mother, he could hardly have been much older than 14 at the time).

     We do know that he was numbered among the 5,000 highlanders who met British troops commanded by the Duke of Cumberland on Culloden Moor on the fateful day of April 16, 1746. In 40 minutes 1,000 Jacobites lay dead on the moor, and the shattered ranks of rebels fled the pursuing redcoats in hopes of escaping the inevitable persecutions to follow. Countless captured chieftains would swing from gallows. Charles Edward would narrowly escape with his life.

     Young John (sic should be William) Lawson would find himself in a crowded and stinking prison in northern England.

     The fortunes for Lawson would be hard for some time, but it would turn out that his fate would be preferable to the disease and squalor which marked imprisonment in that day. England decided that the Jacobite remainder were too dangerous to release and too expensive to keep under lock and key. And while British treatment of rebel ringleaders in that day may be viewed as harsh by our standards, it is reassuring to note that the British remained a civilized and essentially compassionate nation.

     Thus John (sic should be William) Lawson was indentured to a British ship owner at a price of five pounds and place on a ship with 81 Jacobite comrades. He arrived in Virginia in August of 1747, and was soon bound over to a wealthy planter, who allegedly paid captain Richard Holme nice in tobacco for his new servant.

     Yet a young man who chafed beneath the yoke of British rule would hardly take well to indentured servitude. From the Master’s point of view, Lawson probably appeared to be lazy, mean-spirited, argumentative and good-for-nothing in general. From our point of view, however, we are likely to be more sympathetic with Lawson. Forced into unwilling servitude far from his homeland, this fiercely independent young Scot could not help but reassert himself through disobedience and outright rebellion.

     Lawson apparently strove to cause his master grief at every turn, and was quite willing to go to some extremes to accomplish this – though not without a wry touch of black humor.

     For example, Lawson was highly resentful of the fact that although the household boasted plenty of milk, he never received even the merest portion of it. One day the mistress told him to go out and feed the cows, than shortly after found him standing before the well with a shock of hay. When she asked him what he was doing, he curtly replied that he was feeding the only cow that ever gave him milk.

     Even during more mean spirited outburst he retained his sense of humor. While trying to eat dinner in the kitchen one day, one of the master’s expensive hounds kept flopping its tail into his plate. Lawson, in a burst of fury, cut the tog’s tail off, which caused a tremendous stir in the house. When asked why he did such a cruel thing, he replied that he had been told to eat everything they put on plate, so he did.

     But there was undoubtedly a measure of very shrewd reasoning behind Lawson’s outrageous behavior. By the time he finally ran away from the plantation, his master could hardly be enthusiastic about incurring any expense or trouble to fetch him back. In a sense, it was an example of the very reasoning which would lie behind Washington’s Revolutionary War strategies, albeit carried out on a less grand scale.

     From this point, there are large gaps in our account of Lawson’s life. Somewhere along the line he married a woman named Rebecca, who we assume now lies buried beside him. In the 1760’s he is recorded to have lived in the northwestern portions of North Carolina, where a great many of the old Scottish Jacobite clans tended to congregate. In the 1770’s and 1780’s, he and his family resided in Montgomery County, Virginia.

     On Sept. 13, 1777, at the age of 46, Lawson swore allegiance to the State of Virginia and the American cause as a member of Captain Daniel Trigg’s company of the Montgomery County Militia. This particular company was highly reputed as Indian-fighters, and conducted numerous forays against marauding tribes who were induced to raids by British guns and money.

     Perhaps Lawson’s greatest single moment of personal triumph occurred on Oct. 7, 1780, when he found himself among the Overmountain Men who fairly pinned back the ears of the British in the Battle of King’s Mountain. No doubt his memories of Culloden Moor played some part in his own battle-fury as he sent his bullets flying into the ranks of the surrounded redcoats. It was during this battle that he distinguished himself and received the rank of sergeant.

     It was also the battle in which he met and befriended Johnathon Wood, who is recorded among the men who originally petitioned for the establishment of what is now Scott County out of territories from Lee, Russell and Washington counties.

     His association with Wood, was undoubtedly a major impetus for his final settlement in this area. In 1796 he sold his 345 acres in what is now Pulaski County and traveled Southwest with his family, finally to settle on Big Moccassin Creek. On November 24, 1814, he and his family were numbered among the first citizens of newly formed Scott County.

     In April of 1826, the tumultuous life of John (sic should be William) Lawson came to a close. A year later wife Rebecca followed.

 

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