Saturday, April 20, 2019

Witcher's Chapel - Easter Morning (April 21, 1889)

This Easter morning service exactly 130 years ago was nothing akin to the type of Easter service typically held at churches in the modern day. However, it also seems entirely appropriate to celebrate the homegoing of a clearly beloved community member on the day of the Resurrection. Best wishes to all my readers for a blessed Easter!
Interior of Palmer Chapel at Cataloochee
"Rev. P.P. McLean held a memorial service in memory of Eli Collins at Witchers Chapel Sunday April 21st 1889.
The morning broke in full splendor, solemn quietude pervaded the land. Before 9 o’clock the stillness was broken by the call to Sabbath school. At 10:15 we repaired to the place appointed where the men of God should stand forth and speak in memory of a sainted brother. The services were opened by appropriate singing after which the minister arose and said, “We might, as one of old, ask what it is that has caused this large assembly to come to the house of God this beautiful Sabbath morning. We presume it is because a servant of God has been called home to rest.”
A very appropriate hymn was then announced which was followed by scriptural reading suitable to the occasion. Then was read the life incidents of the deceased brother, followed by another hymn sung by the minister. He then announced the text and proceeded to its discussion which was clear, able, and forcible, making vivid to the minds of his hearers things that have been passed far down the vale of time.
The audience was large and attentive. A collection amounting to $3 was taken for foreign missions. Reception of members into the church, three. The services were concluded by appropriate singing and prayer.
Witcher’s Chapel was located in close proximity to the area which later became Judson and was named for William Witcher of Macon County.

The Witcher’s Chapel Methodist Episcopal Church South was located on the south bank of Alarka Creek and on the former Parch Corn Flower/Flour reservation (which Thomas Wentworth Pledge Poindexter purchased prior to the Cherokee removal) – which later became part of Judson. In September 1858, Elizabeth Poindexter, widow of T.W.P. Poindexter sold, for $1, a half-acre parcel to the trustees of the Witcher’s Chapel Methodist Episcopal Church South (consisting of Joel Sawyer, Edward DeLozier [her son-in-law], John Anderson, and James Ingram) for the purposes of constructing a church house for both school and church purposes. The building served for several decades as a church, school, and meeting-house for the community. 

Newspaper announcement of service times - Witcher's Chapel Methodist Episcopal Church South
Source: Swain County Herald, 24 January 1889

The name “Witcher’s Chapel” disappears from the written record (in the records that I have been able to access) after 1891. It is possible that it later became the Judson Methodist Episopal Church.

Eli Collins (ca. 1807 – 1889) was originally interred in the Judson Public Cemetery. At the time of Fontana Lake’s impoundment, his grave was identified (though was apparently only marked by a fieldstone). No discernible remains were found, therefore, it is likely that a symbolic shovelful of dark earth was dug and placed in a new container, and reinterred in Lauada Cemetery.

Judson, NC (1938). Thanks to Don Casada for identification of the church and cemetery.
Source: NARA Southeast

Sources:, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Cemetery Removal Records
Macon County, NC Register of Deeds
National Archives and Records Administration, Southeast – TVA Records
Swain County Herald, 25 April 1889 

Saturday, March 23, 2019

The Old Wikle Place

Old, abandoned houses - they capture my imagination. I love to wander through them, placing my hands on the walls......willing them to tell me their stories. All too often those stories remain hidden, but every so often I get lucky and am able find out more about them. I discovered one such home in July of 2018. 

On that day, I decided to take a drive out Needmore Road to take some pictures for a friend of mine, Edwin Ammons, who was born on Wiggins Creek and considers the area his home. He lives 2 hours away and has not been home for many years, but any glimpse he can get of his old stomping grounds is deeply meaningful to him. On this day, I drove further up Wiggins Creek than I have ever gone and happened upon an absolute treasure - the home you will see in the ensuing pictures. I shared these pictures with Ed and held my breath in anticipation that perhaps he could tell me something - and he delivered! I thought you'd enjoy what he had to say about this gorgeous place. 

The Jeff and Tiny Wikle home.
Photo by Wendy Meyers
"The old house is the Jeff Wikle place. Thomas Jefferson Wikle (1862 - 1950) and Haseltine "Tiny" Morgan (1869 - 1963) had lived there but he had died before I was born. Aunt Tiny had moved into town (maybe a nursing home) but I can remember her. She died in 1963. 

Jeff and "Tiny" Wikle, circa late 1940s
Source: Swain County Heritage Book
That place was really nice in comparison to others in the area at that time. It was built really well to have survived this long. I remember the living room, bedroom, the stairs and the loft bedrooms. I don't remember the kitchen but I remember the L-shaped back porch that the kitchen door opened out onto. And the long front porch.

Presumed to be the living room
Photo by Wendy Meyers
Stairs to the loft bedrooms. I love the seafoam green color.
Photo by Wendy Meyers
Loft bedroom on chimney wall.
Photo by Wendy Meyesr
Loft bedroom on front of home.
Photo by Wendy Meyers

Over the creek behind the house was the one and only three hole toilet I have ever seen. Two adult seats and one child's if memory serves me correctly. And there were hinged lids on them. 

The branch that runs behind the Wikle home.
Photo by Wendy Meyers

There was a road (probably the original) next to the bedroom end of the house and across it was a neat little workshop with anything and everything a farmer would need. A horse drawn mowing machine and a rake were parked there...the kind you only see as rusty decorations in front of peoples' lovely brick homes these days.

The Wikle home with view of the old road in front of it. The current property owners keep this road impeccably maintained.
Photo by Wendy Meyers

A little farther was a little branch that was spanned by a long flat rock. Where most people would have thrown down a log or two or just jumped across Uncle Jeff had made something that would potentially last for eons. The reason for the bridge is because the spring and spring house were up against the mountain where the modern road is. The spring house was as neat and well constructed as the rest of the place. Rock on the bottom where the water was and wood above. There was another smaller version of the rock bridge over the trickle of water that exited the spring. Good water it was! Travelers on the road above had a well used trail over the roadbank down to that little spring and there was always a dipper there. We didn't know about germs back then but fresh air and sunshine on both us and our drinking utensils would have eliminated the threat anyway."

Chimney of Wikle home
Photo by Wendy Meyers
Notes on the Wikles: Jeff Wikle was born in 1862 in Macon County, the son of Andrew Jesse Wikle and Sarah Ann Breedlove. Jesse Wikle enlisted in the Confederacy (the famed Thomas Legion) in 1862 and was never seen again. Jeff, his mother, his sister Arlecy, and brother Allen each went to their graves never knowing what had happened to him. His fate was not known to the family until the late 1960's, at which time it was discovered that he had been captured and transported to Fort Delaware, where he remained until his death in 1865 - less than a month prior to the end of the war. 

Jeff and Tiny married in 1884 when Tiny was but a young girl of 14 or 15 and their first child, Mose (named after Tiny's father), arrived the next year. They went on to raise a fine family of 10 - 6 boys and 4 girls. Jeff was a well-respected leader in his community and in fact served on the death penalty jury for the Ross French trial discussed in last week's blog article. 

 According to their biographer in the Swain County Heritage Book, Jeff and Tiny lived in this home for nearly the entirety of their married lives - over 65 years. 

Asheville Citizen-Times, 09 December 1981
Edwin Ammons
North Carolina Archives

Swain County Heritage Book

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Innocence Lost: The Murder of Ethel Shuler

One thing I love about old and established cemeteries in many places is the presence of grand old oak trees. These can be seen in many cemeteries in Swain County such as the Bryson City Cemetery and Watkins Cemetery.

The primary burying ground in the Birdtown area of Swain County for over a century has been the Birdtown Cemetery. It lies on a quiet hill above the Tsali Care Center on Echota Church Road off Highway 19. On the highest point of the hill upon which the cemetery resides rises an infamous oak, known as the "Chapel Oak", described in an 1892 federal document as ".....a mammoth oak, where in midsummer the Indians gather for church and Sunday-school services in preference to the old church (Note: this was the Echota church) or the schoolhouse a little beyond". 
The Chapel Oak, Birdtown Cemetery
Photo by Wendy Meyers
The Chapel Oak in 1892
Source: Extra Census Bulletin. Eastern Band of Cherokees of North Carolina. 1892  
One of the hundreds of graves the Chapel Oak overlooks is that of a 16 year-old girl, Ethel May Shuler. Ethel was born on May 1, 1895 in the upper Galbreath Creek area to George Ebenezer and Katherine Haseltine (Katie) (nee' Cline) Shuler. She had an older sister, Lettie, and another sibling whose name and gender are unknown but who almost certainly died early in childhood. At some point, she and her family moved to Goose Creek, in the Birdtown Community near Cherokee, where they farmed.

Grave of Ethel Shuler at Birdtown Cemetery. She is buried
beside her father, George, who died in 1910.
Photo by Wendy Meyers
Details of Ethel's early life are obscure, and I have been unable to even obtain a picture of her or of any member of her family. However, on Thursday, October 4, 1911, 16 year-old Ethel had a fateful encounter with infamy that would ensure that her brief and incomplete life was never forgotten - not just for the brutal manner in which she met her demise, but also for the speed with which the wheels of justice turned for her murderer.

On that day, she set out for Trantham's store, where she had an "uncomfortable" encounter with a young "half-breed" Cherokee man named Ross French, who had been in Birdtown playing ball. Unbeknownst to Ethel, as she left the store at approximately 5:00 p.m. to return home, she was followed by French. After she had travelled some distance and was presumably out of sight of anyone else, French seized his opportunity, pulled Ethel into the woods, and attempted to rape her. Ethel managed to hold him off for a time, hitting him on the head with a rock. Ultimately, however, her enraged assailant pulled out his pocket knife and slit her throat "from ear to ear". Ethel's body was found around 8:00 p.m. on the roadside.

Echota Church Road, where Ethel was killed and her body later discovered.
Photo by Wendy Meyers 
French was quickly identified as the perpetrator and arrested the next morning - he had hidden the clothes he was wearing at the time of the attack at his grandparents' house, however, his hat was found covered in blood. A lynch mob of nearly 200 individuals swiftly formed. Sheriff Robert Roane spirited French to Deputy Sheriff Sam Beck, who took him over remote mountain trails to Sylva - a distance of some 18 miles.  He was then transported to Waynesville via horse (which dropped dead en route) but the mob followed him and the Haywood County Sheriff had to call out the local 'military' to finally get him to safety in Asheville. During his circuitous journey to relative safety in Asheville, French confessed his crime to Sam Beck, and asked that his body be sent to his wife in Birdtown "when the law was through with him". Not without irony, however, his wife refused to have anything to do with him after he confessed and never saw him again.
Letter from Melinda French
Source: The Union Republican, 26 October 1911
French later retracted his confession, stating that he had only held Ethel's hand while his friend, Bill Craig, murdered her. He further stated that Bill Craig had paid him $60 to aid his flight from justice. However, no stock was put in this statement and the reporting newspaper stated, "It now appears he would be very glad of Craig's capture." (Note: after reading this article, my good friend and excellent genealogist/author Fran Rogers reached out to let me know that Bill Craig was a member of her extended family. Fran was extremely gracious in providing a picture of him for use on the blog. Thanks so much, my friend!)
Bill Craig (left), the man falsely accused by Ross French of Ethel Shuler's murder.
Photo provided by Fran Rogers
After only three weeks, Ross French was brought back to Bryson City to stand trial for his crime. On October 28th, 1911, after an exceptionally short trial of only two hours, he was found guilty and sentenced to death by a jury consisting of E.A. Bradshaw, John C. DeLozier, Tom Dowdle, W.A. Enloe, G.A. Holloway, W.M. Hoyle, Lee Herron, A.L. Kirkland, J.M. Parker, G.E. Tipton, and T.J. Wikle. There can be little doubt that his prior confession and expressed belief that he should receive the ultimate punishment was a strong factor in his conviction and sentence. On the same day, he was transported to Central Prison in Raleigh to await his execution.

A portion of Ross French's death warrant (November 1, 1911)
Source: North Carolina Archives
In the ensuing weeks, French met with the minister of the local African-American Episcopal Church, was converted to the Episcopal faith, and was baptized. His brokenhearted 82 year-old maternal grandfather, John Talala, and his maternal aunt, Sallie Thompson, arrived on November 21st to visit with him and to assist him in making his final preparations. French had little to his name, but bequeathed his yoke of oxen to his grandfather and the remainder of his estate to his wife. He was said to have made peace with his sentence, believed it to be just and correct, and implored his fellow Cherokees to not follow his example.

North Carolina's Electric Chair, used until 1938
Source: UNC Libraries
On November 24th, French, wearing a dark suit, his long locks shaved, was escorted into the execution chamber at North Carolina's Central Prison, and placed into the electric chair. He was said to have been calm with "typical Indian stoicism" (according to the newspapers) and watched as he was strapped in. At 10:34 a.m., the first jolt of electricity was applied to his body, followed by a second at 10:36 a.m. He was declared dead at 10:40 a.m., dying approximately 7 weeks after having committed his crime. His grandfather and aunt left with his body later that day to bring him home. He was 21 years old. Although his burial location is not fully known, at least one newspaper source places him as being buried in the Birdtown Cemetery in an unmarked grave.

Two unmarked graves at the Birdtown Cemetery. Ross French is likely 
buried in one of the unmarked graves in the old section of the cemetery.
Photo by Wendy Meyers
Postscript: Life went on for Ethel's family after the tragic events in the fall of 1911, but they retained her bloody clothing and personal effects in a trunk for decades after she had passed. In 1913, her sister Lettie gave birth to a baby girl whom she named for her late sister. Ethel's sad demise is still spoken of amongst the Birdtown elders and her extended family.

Sadly, among the witnesses to Ross French's execution was Hugh James "Odie" Lambert, Ethel's brother-in-law. According to individuals with whom I communicated, Odie Lambert always regretted being at French's execution. It is little wonder. Twenty-five years before, as a 12 year-old boy, he watched as his wrongfully-convicted father, Andrew Jackson Lambert, was also executed for murder.

Trunk of the Chapel Oak, Birdtown Cemetery
Photo by Wendy Meyers

Asheville Gazette-News 13 October 1911
Extra Census Bulletin. Indians. Eastern Band of Cherokees of North Carolina. (Washington, D.C.; United States Census Printing Office), 1892.
North Carolina Archives
Peggy Lambert
The Charlotte Observer, 25 November 1911
The Daily Times (Wilson, NC), 13 October 1911
The Lexington Dispatch, 11 October 1911
The Raleigh Daily Times, 24 November 1911
The Union Republican, (Winston-Salem, NC) 12 and 26 October 1911
The Western Sentinel (Winston-Salem, NC) 24 November 1911
The Wilmington Dispatch, 21 November 1911