His life in brief …
William Bigham was born on Feb. 19, 1756, in York County, Pennsylvania (according to his own sworn declaration). While there is disagreement about his parentage, it’s believed that he moved with his family to Mecklenburg County, North Carolina between 1756 and 1765.
He served as a volunteer for the Americans in the Revolutionary War, and was wounded at the battle of Hanging Rock. He was discharged in 1780 and returned home to North Carolina.
Although no record of the marriage can be located, he apparently married his first wife, whose name is uncertain, in about 1782. This can be assumed from the fact that family records show the birth of two children (Jane Virginia and William) prior to his marriage to Sarah Braly (sometimes spelled Brawly, Braley, or Baroly) on November 7, 1797.
Sarah was born June 10, 1769 in Rowan County, N.C., and died Nov. 2, 1846 at the age of 77. Her own pedigree is a long and distinguished one. Her father was John Braly, and her mother, Sarah Carruth (whose line can be traced back to 16th-century Scotland).
William’s children included:
By his first wife:
- Jane Virginia Bigham (1785 — 1873)
- William Bigham (1790 — 1865)
By Sarah Braly:
- Hugh Braly Bigham (1798 — 1862)
- Nancy Bigham (1802 — ?)
- Samuel Bigham (1803? — 1865)
- Margaret Bigham (1804 — ?)
In 1800 or 1801, William moved to Lincoln County, N.C.; in 1816 he moved to Rutherford County, Tennessee.; and in 1817, he moved to Bedford County, Tenn., where he died on July 24, 1842.
NOTE: There are many unanswered questions about William’s life and this narrative should be considered a “work in progress.” I’ll continue conducting research and add to — or make corrections — as needed. If you find any errors or have additional information about him or any of the people, places or events on this website, please contact me.
PDF of selected source documents, including census records, etc. (VERY large file)
William’s early life …
Genealogically speaking, with William Bigham we are finally on terra firma. There are ample records and documents to develop a fairly complete timeline for his life, and a definite and traceable line to the present generation.
Of greatest importance and value for family historians is his application for the federal pension due him as a veteran of the American Revolutionary War. To qualify for his pension, he was required to supply such basic information as date and place of birth, along with a detailed account of his activities in the fledgling U.S. military.
Although some still insist that William was born in Ulster, in his application he stated that he was born in York County, Pennsylvania, on Feb. 19, 1756, details of which, he said, were recorded in his family Bible. While some people did lie about such things in an effort to make them instantly American and distance themselves from the old country, it’s highly unlikely that the strict Presbyterian family would have done so — particularly not in the Bible!
And yet, his younger brother, Andrew, stated in his own sworn pension application deposition that he (Andrew) was born in 1760 in Ireland. Clearly this doesn’t jive with William being born four years earlier in Pennsylvania. It’s nearly inconceivable that their parents moved back to Ireland in time to have Andrew and then crossed the ocean once more.
The truth may never be known, but it could be a simple matter of one or both of the brothers having been mistaken about the dates and places, with the failing memory of old men taking the blame. Or, William may have decided to create a fiction to make himself “more American.” Or perhaps they weren’t brothers after all. Family historians will be debating and researching these questions for many years.
According to “Architectural Inventory of Rural Mecklenburg County,” written in 1987 by Mary Beth Gatza, quoted in a report by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, the Bighams operated their grave stone carving workshop in the North Carolina Piedmont area from about 1765 to 1820. Since William’s extended family was part of that enterprise, this puts their arrival in North Carolina sometime between 1756 and 1765.
In his youth, he probably worked on the family farm (almost all residents of the area were farmers, particularly the Ulster Scots who had worked the land for generations) and also possibly in the stone carving workshop. As noted in the story of Andrew, Sr., whom I believe to be William’s father, it isn’t known for sure which of the many Bighams actually made the grave stones, which gained widespread fame even in their day.
The Revolutionary War …
Although we can only make guesses about his youth, things come alive in 1776. When the colonial patriots rose up against the British, it isn’t surprising that the young man volunteered to serve in the military. Many of the Scotch-Irish did, as much to get back at the English as to show loyalty to their new home. So many, in fact, that one unnamed Hessian officer proclaimed in 1778: “Call this war by whatever name you may, only call it not an American rebellion; it is nothing more or less than a Scotch Irish Presbyterian rebellion” (quoted by numerous writers, including James G. Leyburn, in his book “Scotch-Irish: A Social History”).
The deposition William gave when applying for his pension gives a brief account of his service, starting with his stint in a North Carolina company commanded by Capt. Robert Erwin. His first action was an expedition against “the hostile Cherokee Indians” that got underway about the first of August 1776. Erwin’s company was attached to a Regiment commanded by Gen. Griffith Rutherford.
The statement notes that he “was marched to a place called the middle Settlements in the Cherokee Nation, but the enemy had all fled and the Americans set fire to their houses and burned them down.” The soldiers continued the push and “killed an Indian and took some prisoners, among them was two white men one by the name of Scott and was marched back home to Mecklenburg County, N. Carolina.”
William was honorably discharged in November but volunteered again after the siege of Charleston, serving as a “Minute Man” under Capt. David Reed. He was “marched in pursuit of Tories on the Yadkin River,” the report notes. “He states the Tories they were in pursuit of had been routed by another company of Whigs. He was then marched to Ramsour’s Mill in Linden County in the state of N. Carolina and from that place was marched back home and dismissed till further orders.”
Although no more was said about that episode, the Battle of Ramsour’s Mill took place on June 20, 1780 and is considered a major conflict of the war. William either didn’t engage in battle at Ramsour’s Mill or walked away unscathed, which made him far luckier than the estimated 150 men who died or the equal number wounded.
He wasn’t as fortunate six weeks later when, on August 6, he fought at the battle of Hanging Rock in South Carolina. It was during that battle that he was wounded in his left thigh “by a ball passing through it and was told by Doct. Knox who dressed his wound, that a small part of the thigh bone was knocked off.”
Years later, in the WPA History of Pontotoc, Mississippi, his wound would be described in a vivid manner: “It was said that so large a ball went through his thigh that for a long time a silk handkerchief was drawn through it when it was dressed.”
He was hospitalized for five weeks, and as soon as he was fit to return to duty, joined up with Capt. Brownfield (succeeding Capt. Reed, who’d been killed at Hanging Rock) and was marched to the Shallow Ford crossing of the Yadkin River in Rowan County, and from there on to Stokes County and Gilford County.
William told the pension investigators that Brownfield issued a proclamation promising that anyone who’d stay in the service for an additional six weeks would receive credit for three months’ service. After his six weeks were up, he stayed on for three more days in anticipation of a battle between Gens. Greene and Wallace, “and was afterwards discharged making a term of Service in all of about Seventeen months more.”
Returning home and getting married …
By 1781, the war was over and William had returned to North Carolina. Within the next couple of years he apparently married, although no record has been found of such a liaison or even of the woman’s name. Some family historians say there is evidence to believe her surname may have been Orr, possibly because of the WPA history of Pontotoc County that mentioned a woman named “Orr” as William’s mother’s maiden name. It could be that the oral histories being taken for that book were off a generation. Research continues…
Yet, family records show he fathered a daughter — Jane Virginia in 1785 — and a son, William Bigham in 1790 or 1791. Since he didn’t marry Sarah Braly until 1797, one obvious likelihood is that there was a previous wife. At least one person’s family tree identifies the mystery woman as Francis “Fanny” Reid, a connection I’ll continue to investigate.
Another possibility is that the dates normally found for Jane Virginia and William, Jr. are incorrect. But at least we can be fairly certain about William, Jr., since his age is listed as 60 on the 1850 census, making the year of birth about 1790. The Daughters of the American Revolution genealogical database agrees, listing his birth year as 1791, prior to the marriage of William and Sarah.
Hugh Braly also poses little problem. That year’s census records his age as 51, giving him a birth year of 1798.
It’s harder to be certain about Samuel. I can find no primary source documentation for him. Bigham family historians usually list his year of birth as 1802 or 1803. (NOTE: If you have any evidence concerning Samuel’s birth year, please e-mail me.)
The females, of course, are the most difficult since almost all of that era married and took their husband’s names. Without a definite record of a marriage, it’s hard to trace them. Still, we are “lucky” (considering the circumstances, that’s an unfortunate word) when it comes to Margaret. According to several accounts, she was declared insane on Dec. 5, 1842; her brother-in-law Josiah Duncan (her sister Nancy’s husband) was appointed her guardian. On the 1850 census, Margaret is listed as living with the Duncans in Marshall County, Tenn., with an age of 42, making her year of birth 1804. On that same census, Nancy’s age is given as 48, meaning she was born in 1802.
That leaves only the first born, Jane Virginia Bigham, and she’s proving to be somewhat elusive. There are two ancestry files on the LDS Family Search database showing that she married a James Clark in Mecklenburg on Sept. 16, 1812. This jives with what a few other people have on their family trees. But again, there’s no primary source information to confirm this.
In her will (which I’ll discuss more a little later) Sarah names only Hugh and Nancy (leaving Margaret out for obvious reasons), reinforcing the notion that Jane and William were not her biological children (why she left Samuel out is another mystery).
All that just to “prove” that William had a first wife! But that’s what genealogy is all about.
Thankfully, we know a lot more about his second wife, Sarah Braly. Granted, there are a number of variants for the spelling of her name, with Brawley, Braley and Baroly all being seen in various accounts. Still, the marriage record index for Rowan County in North Carolina clearly has her name as Braly.
The marriage took place on Nov. 7, 1797 and although no records have been found to confirm this, my guess is that they were married at Steele Creek Presbyterian Church, where so many Bighams had served as elders during the previous decades.
From North Carolina to Tennessee …
According to his pension deposition, in 1800 or 1801 (even he couldn’t remember the exact date) William moved about 40 miles west, to Lincoln County, North Carolina.
But, perhaps feeling the desire for independence that flowed through him as strongly as his Ulster Scot blood (and probably desiring more land than the by-then crowded North Carolina could offer), in 1816 he moved to Rutherford County, Tennessee and the next year to Bedford County, Tennessee.
The records of North Carolina Land Grants in Tennessee 1778-1791 show two entries for a William Bigham, both for land in Greene County granted in 1787. According to the excellent explanation on the Tennessee GenWeb Project:
“When North Carolina gave up her claim to TN, the Secretary of State of the U.S. requested a list of the lands that had been granted in that territory so the right of ownership could be protected. Microfilm #68, Roll #1 is a microfilm copy of this report as it was reported to the President by Thomas Jefferson. (The original report from NC has not been found.) There is also a note that 2,275 more warrants had been issued to officers and soldiers of the Continental Line for which grants had not yet been made.
“From Goodspeed’s History of TN -1887- the following information was given on the grants. A soldier received 640 acres; Non Commissioned Officer 1,000 acres; Lt Col. 5,700; Commandant 7,200; Col. 7,200. Brig. Gen. 12,000; Chaplin 6,200; soldier who had fallen in the defense of his country received the full amount of his grant.
“Any family that had previously moved into the area reserved for grants was given a grant of 640 acres. Nothing indicated that residence was required to receive a grant, therefore, it is possible grants were given to many people who never were residents of TN. There were also many people who lived in TN but received the title to their property in some other manner and do not appear on this list; i.e. purchase or other land acts.”
The next document was provided to me by long-time family historian Knox Bigham:
“On Sept 8, 1818, John Haywood of Davidson Co, TN, conveyed to William Bigham, of Bedford Co, TN, 145 acres on West Rock Creek, Bedford Co, TN, for the sum of $1255.00: beginning on the east bank of said creek at an elm in the south boundary line of said Haywood which elm is the beginning corner of William Davis, thence west 205 poles to a beech poplar and ash, thence north with the patent line 150 poles to a beech and dogwood , thence east 118 poles to a small dogwood, thence south 32 poles to a sugartree, thence east 88 poles to a stake, thence with Davis’ line to the beginning.”
On Jan. 17, 1838, the state of Tennessee passed the Boundaries Acts of 1837-38, which set the border between Rutherford and Bedford counties. The act read: ” SECTION 1. That the line heretofore run and marked, and now known as Cotner’s line commencing at a point eleven and one half miles due west from Shelbyville, and running thence due north to the Williamson county line, and the line run and marked, and known as Bigham’s line, commencing at the same point, and running thence in a southwardly direction to the Lincoln county line, be, and the same is hereby established and made the dividing line between the said counties of Bedford and Marshall.”
If Bigham’s line was, in fact, a reference to the land owned by William Bigham, that would mean he lived near what is now the thriving city of Shelbyville, in an area that was then very much the frontier. Interestingly, there are still many Bighams living in the area.
On June 7, 1832, the U.S. Congress passed an act liberalizing the pension benefits that could be claimed by Revolutionary War veterans. Under this new law, veterans who had served less than two years but at least six months could qualify for pensions regardless of “need.”
His last years …
On November 6, while still living in Bedford County, the 75-year-old William appeared before the clerk of the “court of pleas and quarter sessions” to apply for his pension and provide the details of his life and service required by the government. It’s this all-important document, more than any other, which provides the dates and places that allow us to track William from 1776 to the 1830s. Several friends and neighbors — William Alexander, Abraham Talley, Wm. McGreggor (Greggory?) and the Rev. George Newton of Shelbyville, a Presbyterian clergyman — testified as to the veracity of his claim. “…he is reputed and believed in the neighborhood where he now resides to have been a soldier of the Revolution and that we concur in that opinion,” they stated in the sworn deposition.
The court was not fully satisfied, however, and William was required to submit additional information and secure a statement from another Revolutionary War veteran, 76-year-old Richard Brown, who vouched for William’s service.
In his affidavit, he swore that William “served as volunteer in said state [North Carolina] in the war of the Revolution at different periods and under different officers a term of nine months and that the said Bigham served as a minnit man (sic) on various occasions and under different officers but the precise time of said terms of service deponent does not distinctly recollect, and further this deponent saith that the said Bigham was a faithfull and active Soldier in the said war of the revolution and from long acquaintance with said Bigham said deponent has no hesitation in saying that full credit is due to any statement he may make relative to his Services as Soldier of the revolution.”
Finally, William’s application for a pension was approved and he received $63.32 a year until his death on July 24, 1842. Just days before, on July 17, he dictated his nuncupative (oral) will, in the presence of three witnesses, Josiah Duncan, Jane McKnight and Robert Davis (Duncan was his son-in-law but I haven’t yet figured out the identity of the other two).
NOTE: Although the will notes William was living in Marshall Country, he hadn’t moved. In 1836, the Tennessee Legislature formed a new county called Marshall out of parts of Bedford, Lincoln, Maury, and Giles counties.
Will of William BIGHAM
(from the Marshall County Will Book A pg 65)
We Josiah Duncan Jane McKnight & Robert Davis do state that the nuncupative will of William Bigham was made by him on the 12th day of July 1842 in our presence to which we were requested to bear witness by the Testator himself in the presence of each other that it was made in his last sickness in his own dwelling house and the same is as follows, to wit: It was his will and desire that after his decease his beloved wife Sarah shall have Benjamin (commonly called big Ben) Celia the wife of Ben, and their children during his wife Sarah’s life & at her death to be disposed of as she may think proper. Made out by us and signed this 19th of July 1842.
Robert Davis (Seal)
Josiah Duncan (Seal)
Jane McKnight (Seal)
State of Tennessee }
Marshall County. } County Court Oct term 1842
Personally appeared in open court Robert Davis, Josiah Duncan and Jane McKnight subscribing witness to the within will who being first sworn here in open court proved the due Execution of the same as the law directs. Witness my hand at office this 3rd day of October 1842.
M. W. Oakley Clerk
Probated October 3, 1842. Will Book, p.65.
This will brings up a point I haven’t yet touched upon: the Bigham ownership of slaves. Although the realization came as a shock at first, it shouldn’t have. According to the National Endowment of the Arts article about slavery in Tennessee, “Slavery was a part of everyday life in Tennessee during this time [1820 to 1860]. About one in four of all the people living in Tennessee in 1860 were slaves. Although slavery existed throughout the state, most slaves lived in Middle and West Tennessee. The majority of African Americans who lived in the state were slaves. Twenty-five percent of white families in Tennessee owned slaves.”
Most white Americans who discover “slaves in the family” find it hard to reconcile how otherwise good, brave, and even noble people like their ancestors could have engaged in such an abominable practice. We like to remind ourselves that even Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, as if that eases the guilt. Knowing that it was “the norm” in the region gives us another way to lessen our sense of shame, even when we realize logically that we don’t carry the burden of their dishonorable deeds any more than we can take credit for their praiseworthy ones.
We also take heart in knowing that at least some slave owners were not brutal to their slaves, even if the institution of slavery is in itself the essence of cruelty. I like to think that Benjamin and Celia and their children were at least not beaten or otherwise mistreated, and that they were kept together as a family out of an innate sense of humanity and compassion on William and Sarah’s part.
Sarah’s will (Marshall County Will Book A, p.156) gives me even more reason to believe this might have been the case. Just four and a half years after the death of William, who had been her husband for more than half a century, Sarah died. In her will, probated Nov. 20, 1846, she left to her son Hugh B. “her Negro man Ben and his children, namely Joe, Rufus, Lila, Samuel, and Anderson, but she enjoined it upon him not to part the Negroes.”
She also gave Hugh “one bed and furniture, her corn and hogs, her cupboard and tableware, bureau and clock; and to her daughter Nancy Duncan one cow and calf, her mule heifer, and whatever else she may choose to keep except articles otherwise disposed of.”
She made no provision for her daughter Margaret, who had been declared “a lunatic” and was under the guardianship of Nancy’s husband, Josiah Duncan.
And with her death, the story shifts to my great-great-great-grandfather, Hugh Braly Bigham.