Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Bryson City Race Riots of 1907 - 1908

In light of the race riots originating that are currently sweeping the country, I thought it might be of interest to post a short entry about a little-known fact:  Bryson City had its own race riots in the early 1900s.

Swain County's New Courthouse, early 1900's
Those individuals who do a great deal of genealogical and historical work within Swain County find it a source of frustration that in many cases, priceless documents pre-dating 1908 are unavailable.  The reason for this?  A fire which destroyed the county's courthouse in 1908.  Until the last 2 years, I had always thought it likely that the fire was simply the result of an accident. However, some time ago I had been forwarded a link of interest stating that the courthouse fire was, in fact, the result of arson initiated by some members of the black population.

Upon digging into this and accessing an online archival database of newspapers, I found that this claim appears to have some basis in fact, and was proceeded by a good degree of unrest.  Several newspapers across the country circulated this news brief:

"In a race riot between whites and blacks here yesterday, five men were shot and a number of others badly injured.  Revolvers, iron spikes, and rocks were freely used by both sides. 

The most seriously injured are Elmore Banks, eye shot out; William Jenkins, shot in head; James Shuler, shot in mouth; Frank Williams, shot in back; and Silas Cabe, shot in back.

A dozen or more negroes have been arrested and remanded to jail pending an investigation of the difficulty.  There is much feeling over the occurrence.

The trouble occurred at the Southern Railway Station, where a large number of passengers were in the waiting room of the station.  Bad blood has existed between the whites and blacks for some time.  The negroes have indulged in the practice of throwing heavy iron railroad spikes and rocks at white men at night.  Serious trouble had been momentarily expected and both whites and blacks have been armed for several days.

About twenty white men were standing on the platform of the station when a squad of negroes approached, stopped a short distance away, and without further warning began to shoot into the crowd, five of the men being struck before their companions had grasped the situation sufficiently to prepare for a defense."
                                                                      The Raleigh Evening Times, December 31, 1907

Two of the African-Americans who had participated in the riot, Lawson Howell and Will Trotter, promptly fled and hid out in the Balsam Mountains but were captured shortly thereafter.

Source:  The Raleigh Times, January 1, 1908

Apparently the Bryson City town council and Swain County commissioners took action immediately after the affray, passing a curfew applicable only to the African-American population, requiring them to be off the streets of town by 9:00 pm.  Any who were not would be arrested.  A few days later, this article was circulated:

"A special this afternoon from Bryson City, where occurred a shooting scrape between negroes and whites Sunday night, resulting in the wounding of several, says that Laston Powell (note: this is actually Lawson Howell) and Will Trotter, two of the negroes, believed to be ringleaders, have been held to the grand jury by the mayor of the city.  The negroes were not allowed bond.  Two other negroes, Tom DeHart and Carey Fisher, arrested charged with carrying concealed weapons, have been placed in jail.

The firing on the whites by the negroes Sunday night was sudden and without provocation.  A crowd of 40 or 50 white people were at the railway station while just across the tracks were a dozen or more negroes.  Bad blood had existed between the negroes and the whites for some time but no one expected any trouble.  Suddenly and without warning the negroes opened fire with shotguns and pistols.  The white men took to cover and then made reply with revolvers.  The whole population of Bryson City was aroused and shortly a dozen or more negroes were under arrest.  Feelings ran high and for a time it was feared that there would be serious trouble.  Elmore Banks is the worst hurt.  He received half a dozen shots in the head and face, one of the shots putting out his left eye.  Silas Cabe was shot in the arm and Will Jenkins was shot in the arm and through the lip.  Jim Shuler received a shot in the arm.

All is quiet at Bryson City to-day, so reports, say, and no further trouble is feared.  It is said that for several nights past the negroes have sought to terrorize the whites by throwing railroad spikes.  The people of Bryson City are not going to take the law into their own hands if they can avoid it but they are determined that the negroes shall behave themselves.  It is understood here that the negroes are sufficiently amused and that for a long time in the future they will give no more trouble."

                                                                                The Lenoir Topic, January 3, 1908

Apparently the white population was deceived.  According to several newspapers the following week, the African-American population revolted violently:

Race riots, which have been in progress at Bryson City for several days, culminated in the burning of the Swain County courthouse there.  The building was an old wooden structure and was completely destroyed.  All the records of the town and county were burned.  The fire was undoubtedly of incendiary origin, and it is believed to have been lighted by negroes in revenge for the recent drastic measures which have been taken by the authorities to suppress lawlessness.

                                                                                 The News (Frederick, MD) January 9, 1908

Swain County's Old Courthouse, burned 1908
Source:  Swain County Heritage Book

At this point, all records available in Swain County and online come to an end.  New entries in the town records (which were burned in the fire) are not re-initiated until late February, 1908.  Entries in the County Commissioners ledgers only discuss plans to rebuild the courthouse. 

Other than those African-Americans named above, I have no idea of who the other individuals involved in the riots were.  The only member of the African-American population who can definitively be excluded from the affray at the depot and the burning of the courthouse would seem to be Christenberry Howell.  Mr. Howell was the caretaker for the old courthouse, and was reinstated to his position once the new courthouse was built. 

Christenberry Howell
Source:  Swain County Heritage Book

It is known that Will Trotter was incarcerated for a time.  The Asheville Citizen reported that: 

"Sheriff Hunter will leave today for Clarksville, Georgia to get Will Trotter, alias John Johnson, who made his escape from the chain gang October 20th (1908) and was captured at Clarksville.  Trotter was sentenced in Swain County for a term of two years for assault with a deadly weapon and the Swain authorities asked Buncombe county to take charge of him.  The chain gang life did not suit Trotter and he left camp with 18 months to serve and he will yet have to serve this term because the time during which he has been enjoying freedom will not be counted off.  He does not wish to return and it was necessary for Sheriff Hunter to secure requisition papers."

                                                                                  The Asheville Citizen, February 24, 1909

Other than Will Trotter, the fate of the other defendants involved in the uprising are unknown.  I plan to make a trip to the North Carolina State Archives in the upcoming months and most definitely plan to look up the case.  If I can locate anything of interest, I will most certainly plan to post an update.


There is an odd postscript to this story.  On January 27, 1910, the new courthouse was rocked by a massive explosion resulting from men thawing dynamite over the courthouse stove in order to fish in the Tuckasegee River.  Barrett Banks (brother to Elmore, who was injured in the race riots just two years prior) was nearly killed.  Omar Conley was killed in the explosion; his brother, Clint, had been murdered less than 5 years earlier by Fred Howell, son of Christenberry Howell.

Fred Howell
Source:  Swain County Heritage Book

Individuals named in this blog:

Barrett Banks  (29 Jan 1887 - 11 Dec 1918)
Omar Banks (04 Aug 1884 - 22 Jan 1929)
Silas Cabe  (21 Jan 1876 - 04 Dec 1939)
Clint Conley (06 Jan 1891 - 21 Sep 1905)
Omar Conley  (Oct 1892 - 27 Jan 1910)
Tom Dehart (~1860 - after 1907) *son of Ruffin Dehart
'Bokara' Carey Fisher (~1883 - after 1910)
Christenberry Howell  (10 Apr 1856 - 03 Dec 1938)
Fred Howell  (10 Apr 1892 - 14 Feb 1954)
Landon Wesley Howell (1881 - after 1930)
Will Jenkins:  As there were several William Jenkins's living in Swain County at the time, the one referred to in this article is unknown at this time.
James Shuler (23 Sep 1876 - 12 Feb 1932)
Will Trotter (~ 1881 - after 1920)
Frank Williams:  Information unknown.  An African-American Frank Williams was living in Bryson City in 1910, but would have been a 13 year-old youth at the time of the riots.  Since the injured were said to be white, this does not appear to be the same individual.


Carol Cochran
Swain County Heritage book (1987)
The Charlotte News (Charlotte, NC) January 28, 1910
The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, NC) September 23, 1905
The News (Frederick MD)  January 9, 1908
The Raleigh Evening Times, December 31, 1907  
The Raleigh Times, January 1, 1908                                                                   


  1. How often do you post an article? I get an email notice only 2-3 times per year. When I open one I see several articles I have not read.

  2. Hi Jackie - I have not written a tremendous amount this year (I think that I've posted 3-4 times), as our family has had some challenges and free time has been pretty rare. Additionally, I am writing a short book about the Fontana removals which takes up my time. I hope to post a blog entry once a month next year.

    Thank you for reading!

  3. Well done - a nice reporting of facts (based on what was obviously a lot of digging) without editorializing. It is something that I personally had never heard of, and I'm led to wonder if even my parents knew of, since they never mentioned it.

  4. Thanks, partner. I had never heard of it either.....seems that such a historically important event would be well-documented.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Rather than try to explain my previous comment, I deleted it. I was trying to say that my direct ancestors would have had no involvement in the incident unless they stumbled upon it. They would have gone to the county seat to handle legal matters.They were all living in the valley of the Little Tennessee from Burningtown to Almond and over into Flats and Nantahala. Old Bill DeHart had gone to Alabama with the servant girl on his knee.

  7. Hi Ed - I can well-imagine that quite a few innocent people waiting for and/or departing from the train might have gotten pulled into the affray. I need to find out about Old Bill from you!

  8. William Martin (Old Bill) DeHart Jr. was the 10th child of William Martin DeHart and Sarah (Sallie) Lovelace. He was born on 22 Jan 1845 in Macon County, North Carolina and died in Pisgah, Jackson County, Alabama on 25 Jan 1926.
    Old Bill first married Mary Ann Walls daughter of Dred Walls and Viney Allen. She was born in 1845 in Georgia, probably Rabun County. She died in Swain County in 1921 according to her gravestone. Her stone is at Grave Gap (formerly known as Windy Gap.) I have yet to find a marriage record or a death certificate for Mary Ann. The 1860 Macon County census shows Old Bill living in DeHarts District. He was 14 years old and a farm laborer. Mary Ann is in the 1860 Rabun County census living in Warwoman. She is 15 years old.
    I have found neither of them in the 1870 census but presume they met and were married sometime in the late 1860’s as their oldest known child, Sarah Jane Levina Dehart (Aunt Sallie,) was born 24 Nov 1870 at Needmore in Macon County (Swain County was born the very next year.)
    The 1880 census shows Wm DeHart 33, married and living with Mary Ann 36. Listed are children Sarah J L, Harvey W and Leander M (Leander Martin Dehart was my Great grandfather.) Records show that there should be a 4th child, Andrew Jackson Dehart born in 1878 but he is not listed and should have been 2 at the time. A 5th child Pearson Patton DeHart, born 25 Dec 1883 would not have been in that census. The last entry for that household (and for the whole page) is Martha Tethrow, female, 20 years old, farming lab(or?).
    Old Bill Dehart is missing in the 1890 census. Well, you say “the entire 1890 US Census is missing.” But my great great grandfather William Martin DeHart was missing as in disappeared missing. One fall morning, sometime in the early 1880’s he loaded up a wagon with apples and headed off to market never to return. At the same time the servant Martha, also vanished. Is this mere coincidence? Not likely! Is this an alien abduction? Less likely! A case of requited love? Highly likely. Some insist that he had Mattie hidden under some hay on the wagon when he Mary Ann farewell and set forth into the unknown. Personally I would tend to believe G-G-Grandpaw would have told her to slip off down the road around the curve out of sight and he would pick her up. The Deharts are noted to be intelligent but not overly dramatic.
    The 1900 census of Whiton, Dekalb County, Alabama shows William M Dehart, 53 with a wife Martha L, 39, and 5 children. Both parents were born in North Carolina and all the children in Alabama. The oldest child William Cleveland DeHart was born 18 Feb 1885. So sometime between the conception of Pearson in early 1883 and birth of William in early 1885, Old Bill left his wife and 5 children, moved to Alabama, cohabited with her for about 16 years and had 5 more children. A marriage record has been found that indicated that a William DeHart and Martha Tetherow were married in DeKalb County, Alabama on 2 Feb 1904. That was 7 years after the birth of their last child. At that time Mary Ann was still alive and would live another 17 years. Family legend has it that Mary Ann never was” right” after her husband’s disappearance but she managed raise some of Swain and Macon County’s most upstanding citizens.
    I heard that Old Bill repented of his misdeeds and became a Christian before he died. I hope this I true because he caused a lot of pain to a lot of people when he simply disappeared. I don’t know if any of the family he left behind ever knew what had become of him. All his abandoned children lived well into their 80’s and 90’s. All of them married well and had many children and nice homes in the Needmore area until the invasion of the Federal Government which destroyed or disrupted the lives of most of Swain Countians.

    Merry Christmas

    PS: I am also posting this on my own little blog which a select few of the worlds finest souls have chosen to read.

  9. Bill Burnett, Great Grandson of A.J. DehartFebruary 27, 2015 at 9:46 AM

    Old Bill's NC children finally found out what had happened to their father, I don't know exactly when they found out so I don't know if Grandma Mary Ann Dehart knew since she died in 1921. When my Great Grandfather Andrew Jackson Dehart married his second wife after Grandma Sarah Simonds Dehart passed away in 1906 Grandpa Andy listed the location of his father on the marriage license as "lives in Alabama" so we may assume Grandma Mary knew also. I have pictures of Grandpa Andy, his brothers & sister with their half brother William Cleveland Dehart the oldest son of Old Bill's Alabama family at a Dehart Reunion possibly in the 1930s. I and several other of Old Bill's NC descendants have attended the Alabama Dehart Reunion and established friendships with some of our Alabama Kin. Some of our Alabama Kin have visited us in NC and we have shown them where their ancestors lived and are buried. There was and may still be hard feelings about Old Bill and Martha's actions but I know that his descendants in Alabama had nothing to do with their actions as did none of Old Bill's NC descendants so I see no reason for either group to hold ill will towards each other over the actions of Old Bill and Martha Totherow which transpired over a century ago.

  10. Thank you, Bill - this is wonderful information to have in combination with Ed's tale above.

  11. This is a very fascinating post. Out of all the family stories I have heard over the years, I have never known that my great grandfather, Chrisenberry Howell, and great uncle, Fred, were involved in a race riot. I did know about the killing by Fred Howell. I was told that he was being attacked by the White man he killed, but do not know the circumstances. Thank you for this information.

    1. Hi Ann, thank you so much for reading! I am very pleased that this has reached the great-granddaughter of 'Berry' Howell. I don't believe that Berry was involved in the riot, as he was the caretaker for both the old courthouse and hired back as caretaker for the new one; it seems illogical that the county would hire him back had he been one of those responsible for the destruction of the old structure. I hope you'll come visit the blog again!

  12. I truly enjoyed reading this article, as i am doing some digging of my own of family history.

  13. I subscribed. I came across this article by accident but I'm thankful. What great information to share. Thank you

  14. Fred DeHart was my father and Leander Martin DeHart was my grandfather. From what I am reading (VERY interesting by the way) Ole Bill would be my great grandfather? Nice to know we have family in Alabama and I would love to know more.