By Richard Gwynallen
I have to admit to loving the sound of this name – perhaps because it’s so different from other names in our family tree. Generally regarded as a lowland Scottish name, Witherspoon is of Scots and northern English origin, derived from two Middle English words, wether ‘sheep’or ‘ram’ + spong or spang, a dialect term for a narrow strip of land. Therefore, Witherspoon refers to a person from a narrow strip of land where sheep are kept. The spelling Witherspoon is how the name in our family left Scotland for Ireland and arrived in this country, but other spellings in our family tree over the centuries include Wedderspone, Wydderspun, Wedderspoyn, Wethirspoon, Wydderspoon, Wetherspun, and Wythspone – at one point changing every generation until the spelling appears to have stabilized as Witherspoon in the 17th century.
The Witherspoons enter our more recent family line when Dorcas Witherspoon marries Joseph Murdock on 21 December 1809 in Iredell County, North Carolina, to become one set of my paternal great-great-great-great grandparents.
Fortunately, the Witherspoon line is very well researched. In this essay we’ll move back and forth in time a little, but we will center the story around John and Janet Witherspoon since John becomes thought of as the first head of the family in the American Colonies.
We are fortunate in having the actual words of one of the immigrating family members to rely upon. In 1780, Robert Witherspoon (1728-1788), a grandson of John and Janet, and a child during the voyage that brought the family to the American Colonies, wrote a history of the Witherspoon family and an account of their adventures in coming to South Carolina. This account is much quoted in various Witherspoon family trees.
So, we’ll start with Robert’s words:
“John Witherspoon and Janet Witherspoon were born in Scotland about the year 1670. They lived in their younger years near Glasgow, at a place called Begardie, and were married in 1693. In 1695, they left Scotland and settled at Knockbracken, in the Parish of Drumbo, County of Down, Ireland, where they lived in comfortable circumstances and good credit until the year 1734. He then removed with his family to South Carolina.
“We went on board the ship called ‘The Good Intent’ on the 14th of September, and were detained by headwinds fourteen days in the lough at Belfast. On the second day after we set sail, my grandmother, Janet, died and was interred in the boisterous ocean, which was an affecting sight to her offspring.
“We were sorely tossed at sea with storms, which caused our ship to spring a leak; our pumps were kept incessantly at work day and night for many days together and our mariners seemed many times at their wits’ end. But it pleased God to bring us all safe to land, except my grandmother, about the first of December.”
Who were John and Janet?
John and Janet were first cousins. They were both grandchildren of James Alexander Witherspoon and Louise “Lucy” Welsh or Welch. John’s father was James and Lucy’s son, David. Janet was the daughter of James and Lucy’s son, James. Lucy was an interesting character in her own right. She was born in France while her father, Rev. John of Ayr Welsh, was in exile under orders of King James VI of Scotland. John had started life as a border reiver, but got religion and became a Scottish Presbyterian leader, combining an anti-aristocratic politics with Presbyterian religious thought. A story for another time.
In Irish Immigrants in the Land of Canaan : Letters and Memoirs from Colonial and Revolutionary America, John and Janet are identified as “Scots Presbyterian weavers and farmers.” Their emigration to Ulster corresponded with a significant emigration of Scottish Presbyterians during 1690 – 1710, escaping economic distresses affecting southern Scotland at the time.
The trade they followed in Scotland seemed to carry over into their years in Ireland as the same publication refers to the third son of John and Janet, James, in 1725 as a ”weaver and reed-maker” when he married Elizabeth McQuaid “and settled at Cunningburn Mills, in the parish of Greyabbey on County Down’s Ard peninsula.” It was James’s and Elizabeth’s son, Robert, who would later write the 1780 memoir.
As a side note, a reed-maker could have been engaged in one or more typical types of reed-making work. Reed-makers: 1) Made weaving reeds – a reed is a comb-like device for ‘beating’ the weft thread into place as it is passed by the shuttle, the warp threads passing between the teeth of the reed 2) Made reeds or pipes for musical instruments 3) Made reed cloth 4) Made tapestry combs.
Some Witherspoon descendants refer to religious persecution as a driving reason for the Witherspoons quitting Scotland for Ulster and then emigrating from Ireland to the American Colonies. In fact, Robert Witherspoon references such in his 1780 memoir referring to harassment in Scotland by “Papists” and his family’s participation in field meetings. The reference to field meetings implies they were Covenanters, and certainly that is how their American descendants view them. However, as the editors of Irish Immigrants in the Land of Canaan : Letters and Memoirs from Colonial and Revolutionary America point out, persecution could not have come from Scotland’s Catholics who were a powerless minority. It could have come from the Scottish Protestant establishment under Charles II trying to bring the Covenanters in line with the established church. The reference to “papists” could just be an example of fitting the family story to the overarching Scottish and Ulster Presbyterian narrative of conflict with Catholicism. James II extended religious toleration to all but the most militant anti-monarchists. If the Witherspoons were anti-aristocratic Covenanters it seems they would have also been anti-slavery. If they ever did hold that principle the South Carolina Witherspoons certainly gave it up once in the American colonies. Further, at the time of the Witherspoon departure for Ulster the Stuarts had been overthrown, William and Mary had ascended to the throne, and Presbyterianism was resurgent in Scotland.
So, it is hard to know how much to credit the issue of religious persecution as a factor in their immigration, but it probably is fair to say that the Witherspoons could have been driven in part by fear of the established Anglican church interfering in their Presbyterian worship.
The Witherspoon emigration from Ireland was not spontaneous. In the early 1720s, an Irish-born Indian trader and colonial official in South Carolina, John Barnwell, had been advocating for a new line of forts and settlements to serve as a buffer protecting Charleston from attack by French and Spanish forces allied with Native nations. Barnwell died in 1724, but in 1731 the South Carolina colony’s royal governor, Robert Johnson, received instruction to establish “. . . 11 scattered townships, each 20 miles square, on various rivers in an inland arc around Charleston,” and encourage Protestant families to immigrate to the colony by offering “assisted passages, grants of 50 acres per person, tools, and a year’s provisions.” Ulster Scots were particularly targeted with wide-spread advertising in Ulster, and special privileges, including a subsidized Church of Scotland minister and guarantees against intrusion by the established Anglican church.
The Witherspoon family arrived in Williamsburg County., South Carolina, in three separate migrations between 1732 and 1736. Robert’s 1780 memoir states that: “It is to be remembered that we did not all come over in one ship, nor in the same year, for my uncles, William James and David Wilson, and their families, with uncle Gavin, left Belfast in 1732, and uncle Robert followed in 1736. As I said, we landed in Charleston three weeks before Christmas in 1734.”
In his memoir, Robert wrote: “My father brought the family [from the Ard peninsula] to my grandparents at Knockbracken about the 1st of May , 1734, and left us there until the 1st of September.”
Early Life in South Carolina
After landing in Charleston, South Carolina, in December 1734, John Witherspoon and his seven children, six of whom were married and brought children of their own, came up Black River as far as Potato Ferry; and, from this point, settled in various parts of the Township. They reached Kingstree in February 1735. The reality of their new life, 100 miles by sea or land from Charleston and a wilderness with the meanest of houses to occupy sank in. In his1780 memoir, Robert Witherspoon offers a clear picture of the provisioning of the family how surprised they were at their new circumstances. You can read this section of the memoir on pages 136 – 139 of Irish Immigrants in the Land of Canaan : Letters and Memoirs from Colonial and Revolutionary America.
Kingstree is the county seat of Williamsburg County, South Carolina. The original town was laid out as Williamsburg by the colonial Lords Proprieters . A lone, unusually large white pine was found along the Black River. Since tall white pines were ideal for use as masts for ships, the king’s broad arrow mark was put upon this tree to prevent anyone else from cutting it. It was never cut. Over time, the county kept the name Williamsburg, but the county seat became known as The King’s Tree, giving rise to its modern name.
In The History of Williamsburg (page 30), William Willis Boddie, writes: “John Witherspoon (1670 – 1737) settled on Boggy Swamp in Williamsburg (District, South Carolina) in 1734, and died in the fall of 1737. He was the first person buried at the Williamsburg (District, South Carolina) settlement and was also the first person buried at the Williamsburg Meeting house.” John helped build the Meeting house in 1736.
Wardlaw’s Genealogy of the Witherspoon Family, published in 1910, gives a cause of John’s death: “John Witherspoon, son of David, son of Rev. James Witherspoon and Lucy Welch, died of rose-in-the-leg (crysipelas).” Robert’s memoir also refers to the disease as “Rose-in-the-leg”, and adds “which occasioned a fever from which he died.” Wardlaw again identifies John as a weaver, so it seems he remained at the same occupation in the colonies.
Life on the South Carolina frontier took its toll. In addition to losing his grandfather, in 1737 Robert notes that his two-year old sister, “Sarah died in Charleston shortly after their arrival [in 1734], and was the first person buried in the Scotch Meeting House Yard.”
He further wrote:
“About the same time [of his grandfather’s death], 1737, my father had a daughter, Elizabeth, that died, aged three years, born at the place called the Bluff, where we lived.”
“… in the last awful epidemic that prevailed in Williamsburg in the year 1749 and 1750, usually called the ‘Great Mortality’, and which had carried off near eighty persons, many of them the principal people or heads of families – to remove by death my elder brother, David, and my sister, Jane, both in the year 1750. My father being then in a very feeble and infirm state of health and unable to attend to his own business, I left my own to take care of his. I remained with my parents until 1758, when, on the 2nd of March, I married Elizabeth Heathly, a young lady then in the eithteenth year of her age, and settled for myself four miles below King’s Tree and near the River.”
From this rough start the family proliferated and became one of the founding families of Williamsburg.
Boddie’s History of Williamsburg includes the below 1737 map of Williamsburg.
John Witherspoon is remembered by this plaque in the Williamsburg Cemetery where he was the first to be buried.
And on this plaque commemorating the church he helped establish in 1736.
An interesting note is that a James Witherspoon that arrived in 1734 appears on page 169 of a document called Scots on the Chesapeake. He is identified as a merchant based in Charles County. At present, I’m not sure if a James Witherspoon from our group arriving in 1734 was trading as far north as the Chesapeake or this James comes from a different group of Witherspoons arriving the same year.
It is likely we are descended from John and Janet’s son, Gavin, who was unmarried at the time of the family’s emigration from Ireland. This is believed to be a picture of Gavin.
The family moved up several notches from dirt cabins within a decade. This is the Witherspoon home built in 1749 and is now located in Fluitt-Nelson Memorial Park – Kingstree, South Carolina. Gavin inherited the house from his father James. It left the Witherspoon family when it was purchased by a Gordon family in 1826. It is the oldest surviving residential building in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina. During the Revolutionary War, the British army occupied the Witherspoon plantation. Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton made the property his encampment along with 100 British dragoons. In a twist of history, the use of the site by the British may have spared the house from being burned.
Several Witherspoons served in South Carolina revolutionary units, and summaries of each can be read in this Roster of South Carolina Patriots in the American Revolution.
Witherspoons in North Carolina
It seems that some of the family started branching out to North Carolina fairly early. We seem to be descended from Gavin’s grandson, William, who appears in the census of Iredell County, North Carolina in 1790. A bit of a mystery floats around the father. William’s father was John. However, some family trees list two children named John as sonsof Gavin Witherspoon, and there are two 1802 wills for a John Witherspoon, one recorded in South Carolina and one recorded in North Carolina.
Both John Witherspoons list a daughter Elizabeth and a William as children.
The South Carolina will is dated December 1802, and represents distribution of a plantation, with Elizabeth being the principle heir.
The North Carolina will is more complete in the listing of children, and more modest in the amount of land and property. John Witherspoon is found in Eugene Bean’s, Rowan County Record-Early Settlers as a settler in 1758. At that time Rowan County covered much of what is now northwestern North Carolina, including Rowan, Iredell, Catawba, Burke, Wilkes, etc. He was evidently a property owner, as his name is shown on the Tax List for 1759. Further, the Rowan County, North Carolina Deed Book 4, page 752, cites the recording of a deed dated “the 20th Day of January in the Year of our Lord one thousand, seven hundred and sixty two, Between James Andrew of the County of Rowan and Province of North Carolina, farmer, on the one part, and John Weatherspoons.”
John Witherspoon’s will, dated 11 March 1801, is recorded in Iredell County, Will Book 1, page 269, lists his children as heirs, including William, from whom we are descended. The inventory of John’s estate was dated 7 May 1802. It included 300 acres of land, 9 head of neat cattle, 4 head of sheep, 10 head of hogs, 3 beds and furniture, 1 Bible and 1 Testament, 1 Confession of Faith and other books. The inventory was signed by William Witherspoon and Isaac Witherspoon.
The Witherspoons were numerous, so it is possible that the two Johns had different fathers, one of which would not be Gavin. Therefore, it is possible that we are descended from a different son of the original John and Janet. In any case, the root of the family is the same, and we end up in North Carolina.
Reviewing census records from 1790 through 1830, the last census before William Witherspoon’s (1763 – 1833) death, it seems that while the South Carolina Witherspoons became a plantation family, the North Carolina Witherspoon’s settled into a more modest life as yeoman farmers, a class described more in the essay From the Farm to the City.
With that we will leave the Witherspoons for now in Iredell County, North Carolina, with William’s daughter Dorcus marrying Joseph Murdock, and giving birth in 1818 to James Murdoch, my 3rd great-grandfather, and the family line drew closer to our present generation.