The Immigrant Generation

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Who’s on First?

There is a great deal of uncertainty (and even controversy!) regarding the progenitor of this particular Bigham family tree. I’ve pored over stacks of documentation — both historical and contemporary — and even hired a professional genealogist to ferret out the “truth.” But the fact remains that the first Bigham that everyone agrees on is the William Bigham (1756-1842) who was among the first of the American-born generation of pioneers who settled first in Pennsylvania and ultimately in North Carolina.

Who William’s parents were is a question that, to my mind, has not yet been definitively answered. Even the DNA evidence appears inconclusive at this point.  The main problem stems from the fact that so many Bighams came to America at about the same time, from the same area, and settled in the same part of this country! To make matters worst, they seemed to have a fondness for the names Samuel, Andrew and William and for women named Agness and Sarah.

From what I can piece together, it appears as though six Bigham families (brothers, cousins or other close relatives) all born in Country Antrim, Ireland, came to America either together or about the same time:

  • William (b. about 1715)
  • Robert (b. 1716)
  • John (b 1717)
  • James (b. 1719)
  • Andrew (b. 1725)
  • Samuel (b. 1730)

They came with the wives and children, many of whom, naturally, were given traditional family Christian names. Altogether, it’s estimated that about 40 Bighams emigrated from the Irish Plantation in the mid-1700s. With so many similarly named Bighams taking up residence near each other, the family branches become as intertwined as grape vines.

In his essay, “The Bigham Carvers of the Carolina Piedmont,” (included in the book “Cemeteries and Gravemakers,” edited by Richard E. Meyer) historian Edward W. Clark admits the genealogy gets confusing. His source for details on the family was a direct descendent, David M. Bigham, who says there were four or five Samuel Bighams working in the area and no one even knows for sure how they were related to one another, let alone the other Bighams.

Some say there is DNA evidence that “proves” many of these Bighams weren’t related, but I find that hard to believe.  It can’t be simply “coincidence” that unrelated families who happened to be named Bigham or Bingham all came from the Ulster area to America at the same time and decided to take up residence next to each other.

As to which of these many Bighams sired the William Bigham of this line, there are four major possibilities:

1) Family historian Bill Bigham, author of “The Bigham Families of Steele Creek, Mecklenburg County, NC,” says it is Andrew Bigham (1725-1788) and his wife Agness and cites deed records and the elder Bigham’s will to substantiate his claim. This, to me is a very good possibility.

2) The next candidate is the elder brother of the Bigham immigrant group listed above: William Sr. The name of his wife is uncertain, although some believe it to have been Orr (I’ll get into that detail when I later talk about William Sr.).  There are several persuasive pieces of evidence to support this option. A number of extremely diligent family researchers — including Earl Pike — feel certain William, Sr. (known as William the Immigrant) holds the strongest claim to the title.  He points to the findings of the Bingham DNA Project as well as other evidence in support of this choice.

However, DNA testing shows how only how one person’s DNA compares with other individuals who have taken the same tests. A mitochondrial DNA test can tell you your haplogroup (which ancient population group you’re descended from). But unless at least one person in your same DNA marker group has documented proof that a direct lineage to a certain person exists, the test cannot indicate which historical indivual is your ancestor. If that were possible, we would know not only the identity of William’s father but of his father … and his father … and his father, but through time. The Bingham DNA Project managers themselves acknowledge the limitations of the tests when they state: “It appears that there are cases where it is impossible to tell whether  or not the Bighams and Binghams were separate genetic families.”

Despite my misgivings about the DNA test interpretations, I have to admit that the paper trail put together by Pike and several others definitely puts William Sr. as a top contender for the title of William’s “father.”

I’ll mention two other possibilities I’ve come across in my research, although neither appear to have enough evidence to support them:

Samuel Bigham and a woman named either Mary or Elizabeth — This is the theory espoused by Bessie Adcock Bingham of Bell Buckle, Tenn., whose handwritten genealogical record, “The Binghams in America,” is another standard reference for researching the family tree.

Hugh Bigham (1742-1793) and Margaret Duncan (1745-1793) are occasionally listed in family trees as William’s parents. I have yet to find any documentation about this couple that would lend credence to this theory. In fact, in almost all cases in which they’re linked to William, the date of his birth is incorrectly listed as 1766 (even though his marriage to Sarah Braly is noted).

I consulted as many other genealogical databases as I could. The much-lauded (but often mistake-riddled) LDS genealogical databases didn’t help arrive at a definitive answer. They have a single LDS pedigree chart, which takes the safe route and doesn’t list parentage for William. The only UK Genealogical Index for William shows Andrew and Agness. Out of six North American Genealogical Indexes, three show no parentage, one shows Andrew and Agness, one lists Samuel and Mary, and one lists only a mother whose maiden name was Orr.

Note: I am in the process of editing this page to include information on William Sr. — the other immigrant Bigham who holds a strong claim to the position as progenitor of this line.

Andrew Bigham, Sr.

His life in brief …

Andrew Bigham was born in 1725, in Antrim County, in what is now Northern Ireland (but was then still part of Ireland). His parents are often thought to have been James Bingham (1690-1733) and Joan Reilley (1695-1733), although since there is no evidence, this is conjecture only.

He was married to a woman named Agness, whose maiden name may have been Patterson.

His children included:

  • Agness (1751-1775)
  • Samuel (1753-1821)
  • John (1755-1826)
  • William (1756-1842)
  • Mary (1758-1795)
  • Andrew (1760-1834)

He immigrated to America sometime between 1730 and 1750. He lived in Pennsylvania for several years before moving to North Carolina.  He settled near Mecklenburg and spent the rest of his life there. He died June 3, 1788 and was buried in the Steele Creek Presbyterian Church cemetery near Mecklenburg.

NOTE: Although, for the most part, the surname Bigham (without the “n”) was used by the members of this branch of the family, there are times when it was written as Bingham. In at least one document, it was noted that the individual “made his mark,” indicating that he could not read or write — which made the spelling of the name somewhat irrelevant. Since at some time, the name morphed into Bigham and remained that way on my family tree, I’m going to use that variation unless there’s a pressing reason to reinsert the wayward “n.”

Andrew Bigham in America …

In one way, it doesn’t seem to matter much WHICH Bigham fathered William (a sacrilegious statement from a genealogical point of view!) — information on all of the first generation American Bighams is sketchy. Andrew was apparently born about 1725 in Antrim County, Ulster. His parents are often listed as James Bigham (1690-1733) and Joan or Joanne Reilly (1695-1733), but I find no real evidence for this guess.

As mentioned earlier, Andrew arrived in America with his wife and several young children in the mid-1700s. His daughter Agness and sons Samuel and John are thought to have been born in Ireland, in 1751, 1753 and 1755 respectively, whereas William stated — in his application for a Revolutionary War pension — that he was born in York, Pennsylvania in February of 1756. If these dates are accurate (a big “if”), that means the family would’ve had to have made the voyage in 1755 (after John was born). It’s romantic to speculate that William was conceived on that voyage to America — a new life for the new world.

Coming to America

However, many family genealogical reports state that the clan lived in Pennsylvania for a several years (and even worked there at the trade that would win them a fair amount of regional acclaim: carving gravestones).

My guess is that they arrived in America between 1730 and the early 1750s, and that most, if not all their children, were born here in the United States. It’s even possible that he met and married Agness here as well. Perhaps one day more records will be uncovered to solve this mystery but for now, all we can say with any certainty is that they arrived before 1756 and settled for a time in Pennsylvania.

They probably landed in Philadelphia harbor, a common port of entry for Scottish immigrants. Earlier Scotch-Irish, including other Bighams, landed further north, disembarking at Boston, New York and even as far as Nova Scotia. But by the mid-1700s, the huge influx of Presbyterian Ulster Scots was causing alarm among the New England Puritans who, although they left England seeking religious freedom, were reluctant to grant that freedom to others, particularly Presbyterians.

Philadelphia about 1750, as viewed from the New Jersey shore. (Drawing (ca. 1750) by George Heap, which was engraved and published in London, 1754. Library Company of Philadelphia.)

The immigrants’ most undesirable trait, however, may not have been their religion but their poverty. According to official records from 1729 to 1742, “fully two-thirds of the occupants of Boston’s almshouse came from Ulster. As early as 1729, an angry mob turned away a boatload of Ulster immigrants” (from “The Scotch-Irish Americans” by Robin Brownstein and Peter Guttmacher).

Pennsylvania governor William Penn was more welcoming. Philadelphia was already a large and growing city, but the rest of the state remained wilderness and Penn needed people to settle and “tame” his state. He offered free or cheap land and the Quakers’ well- known religious tolerance. The Scotch-Irish didn’t have to be asked twice. They arrived by the shipload, and at one point more than half the Pennsylvania population was made up of Ulster Scots.

But by the time the Bighams arrived, the “civilized” section of Pennsylvania — Philadelphia and some other coastal areas — had lost some of its allure. There were clashes between the aggressive, warrior-like Scotch-Irish and their pacifist Quaker neighbors, combined with the natural appeal a more independent community held for the Ulster immigrants.

The Great Wagon Road (click to enlarge)

By 1763, the Bighams — or many of them at least — had traveled down the “Great Wagon Road” to the southernmost part of North Carolina.

In 1764, the Presbyterian Synod of New York and Philadelphia established the Steele Creek Presbyterian Church, one of the first seven churches established in Mecklenburg County by Scotch-Irish settlers.

It was there, in the Steele Creek Church cemetery and other burial grounds in the area, that the Bighams were to make a lasting contribution to the region’s history as carvers of some of the most beautiful gravestones of their age. These monuments, many of which still stand today, represent a remarkable and nearly forgotten art, and reflect the transition from Ulster Scot immigrant to American patriot. The story of the Bigham gravestones and carving workshop is one of the most fascinating parts of the family history. (Be sure to take a look at photos taken by John Cox of many of these grave markers — they are among the most beautiful of the period).

The Bigham workshop was in business from about 1765 to 1820 and was headed for much of that time by Andrew Bigham — but which Andrew? Among the carvers known to have worked in the shop were an Andrew Sr., and an Andrew Jr., as well as a William Bigham. But the records never clearly state the relationships between the individuals. (I will be adding information on the Bigham stone carving workshop shortly.)

Since it seems unlikely that the family simply acquired the knowledge of stone carving in the mountains of North Carolina, my conjecture is that the family had been stone carvers — probably of grave markers — in Ulster. Andrew Sr. worked with his brothers and possibly some of their older sons. His own son William would still have been only a child when the workshop began, although by the time he was a teenager in the early 1770s, he no doubt worked alongside his father and uncles, as did most of the other boys. Also, it’s probable that the Bighams did not derive their sole income from this workshop, but were farmers. (More on life in colonial Mecklenburg to come … )

There are a number of land transactions and other legal records signed by Andrew and Samuel Bigham, and the name William Bigham frequently appears as a witness to these documents. In addition, in a deed dated January 7, 1771, a William Bigham and his wife, Sarah sold 300 acres to a Robert Brownfield. In the description of the land, the following appears: “Four acres of said land including the Old and New Meeting Houses the grave yard and spring on the North side of said Meetinghouses Only Excepted and Exempted in the Deed for the use of Congregation.” (Mecklenburg County Deed Book 5, p. 328.)

Steele Creek Church, c. 1883

Since the William Bigham who plays a key part in my own family tree was married to a woman named Sarah, it’s easy to assume they were the signers of this land. However, in 1771, “my” William would have been a mere boy of 15 — and not yet married. So, this was probably his uncle and yet another Sarah!

The one document for which there is a clear “ownership” is the will drawn up by Andrew Sr. on May 29, 1788. In it he gave his wife, Agness, “maintainance out of my estate.”

To his eldest child, daughter Agness Patten, he gave a cow & calf. While I had assumed that she was married by that time and he felt she had no great need for a greater endowment, family historian Bill Bigham added a notation to his narrative, saying that she was to inherit the animals “if she would come home.” The abstract of the will contained in “Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. Abstracts of Early Wills, 1763-1790,” by Brent H. Holcomb does not include this detail.

Andrew Sr. divided the remainder of his estate between four of his remaining five children — William, John, Samuel and Mary. To his youngest child, Andrew, he left five shillings. It’s fascinating to speculate whether this was a sign of the old man’s displeasure with his son, who had, according to Bill Bigham, moved to Virginia some time after the Revolutionary War, or if he had already received his portion of the inheritance before he left.

Bill Bigham also notes: “A detailed inventory of his possessions included a wide variety of interesting items, i.e., spinning wheels, gun and shot bags, candlestick snuffers, liquor kegs, “smith” tools, etc., all valued in pounds and shillings.”

The will was drawn up on May 29, just a few days before his death on June 3, 1788. He is buried at the Steele Creek Church cemetery, his grave marked with one of the most beautiful stones carved by the family he headed.

Andrew's headstone, photo taken by John N. Cox, with used with his permission. Click photo to see other Bigham grave markers on Cox's Flickr page.

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