My Gutsy, Lusty, Barrel-chested Erwins

by Jan Erwin Dunham

Part Two (These were really the “Gutsy” ones!)


I concluded Part One of my story by saying that I would work backwards in Part Two, so here goes. My branch of the Erwin tree stems from Nathaniel Irwin/Erwin. He was born in Ireland about 1743, and died February 18, 1794 in York County, South Carolina. He married (1) Mary Faulk about 1765. Nathaniel and Mary had five children: Mary, Abigail, Alexander, Susannah and William. Nathanial wed (2) Leah Julian about 1782. She was the daughter of George Julian and Martha Denton. The children of Nathaniel and Leah were: Nathaniel, Jr., Sophia, and James. James was my ancestor. James was about seven when his father died, and shortly thereafter his mother married James Crow.

Probate records indicate that the Irwin and Julian families were not satisfied that Leah’s three youngest children were being properly cared for, as the children were taken from her and parceled out to various relatives in York County, South Carolina. The following York County court records tell the story:

York County Minute Book B, p. 148, February Court, 1796: On its appearing to the Court from sufficient testimony that Nathaniel Irwin, Sophia Irwin and James Irwin, the children of Nathaniel Irwin deceased, have not been taken due care of in their cloathing and education by their Mother Leah Crow (late Leah Irwin) and it appearing that Jacob Julian together with the said Leah is appointed by the will of the said Nathaniel Irwin dec'd to provide for & superintend the cloathing and educating of the sd. Children: the court do therefore order that the said Jacob Julian do take the said Children into his custody untill they shall be of legal age to choose Guardians for themselves, and that the said Julian do give Bond & security to the Court, that he will Cloathe & educate the said Children in a sufficient manner agreeable to an Act of the general Assembly in that case made & provided.

 York County Minute Book B, p. 178, February Court 1797: Nathaniel Irwin a minor, son of Nathaniel Irwin decd, came into open Court and chose Jacob Julian his guardian.

I also found probate records that indicated that shortly thereafter James went to live with older brother Alexander Erwin, who by that time was married (still in York County, South Carolina) and had two children of his own. In 1805 Alexander moved his family, including half-brother James, from York County, South Carolina to Maury County, Tennessee, where he purchased one hundred and twenty-four acres near the Duck River. He remained there until he died, and it was there that young James grew up.

I also located James Crow’s will in the York County probate records. Surprisingly, he made a provision for James, but not for his other two Irwin step-children. His will reads:

 I James Crow now being in parfect health & Sound in Mind & Memory & Calling to mind that it is appointed for all mankind once to die -- And as touching my Wordly property I will dispose of it in the following manner (that is to Say) 1st I will' allow that all my lawfull debts be first discharged out of my property -- 2nd I will & allow unto Jinney Crow my little Negrow Boy by the Name of Squire & likewise to be Schooled to Cmmon English Schollar & s'd Negroe to be put out to hire for the useof S'd Child, & allow the Sum of Forty dollars to be laid out by My Exers hereby named, if they see that there is occasion for Cloathing for the above named Jinney Crow -- 3rd I will & allow my Exe'tr to give unto my Stepson James Erwin when he arrives to the age of twenty one years, Forty dollars to be made & Raised out of my Estate, -- 4th I will & allow the remainder of my Negroes to be Sold at publick sale & my land likewise, and they money arising from the sames, & my whole Estate not already willed to be delivered to any one of my Brothers (Viz) Thomas, Robert, Jason, or John Crow & for that one to Divide the same into four equall divisions & for him to take one division and to give the other three divisions to three Brothers above mentioned -- 5th I allow that all my Estate to be collected as Soon as they moneys becomes dues and put out to usury at the best reate that can be obtained by my Exctrs untill it is called for by my Legaties -- 6th And lastly I do hereby constitute & appoint My faithfull Friends (that is to say) Hugh White Esqr. Capt. Thomas McNeal & Andrew Elliott to be my Executors of this my last WILL & TESTAMENT & I do hereby revoke disannull & forever forbid any other will by me made to be Virtueally and do hereby acknowledge this my last WILL & TESTATMENT Signed & Sealed this first day of December in the Year of our Lord one thousand Eight Hundred & in the twenty fifth year of the Independency of the United States of America.  Witness:  Jesse Betty  William White (Seal James Crow)  Probated -- Will Book "A" p 65, Case #54, File #79

James Erwin was born about 1787 in North Carolina, and died after 1858 in Drew County, Arkansas. He married Jeanne (Jane) Kennedy July 7, 1810 in Maury County, Tennessee. She was  born about 1789, and was the daughter of Alexander Kennedy and Mary Elizabeth Cathey. They had the following named children:

1.         John A. Erwin, born January 30, 1815

2.         James Lock Erwin, Jr., born April 16, 1817

3.         George Walter C. Erwin, born about 1822

4.         Harriett W. Erwin, born June 25, 1825

5.         Wiley H. Erwin, born about 1833

6.         Alethea A. Erwin, born about 1839

John A. Erwin was born January 30, 1815 in Maury County, Tennessee, and died March 10, 1852. He married Priscilla L. Erwin (a cousin) on October 24, 1838. She was born November 10, 1812 in Maury County, and died February 27, 1885. Their children were:

1.         James A. Erwin, born 1838 (died in Civil War)

2.         Darcas A “Dark” Erwin, (dau) born 1841(married William Henderson Isom)

3.         Jackson Yebeton Erwin, born 1844

4.         Ann Elizabeth “Puss” Erwin, born 1845, married Arnold Zellner

5.         Martin H. Erwin, born 1846, died 1854

6.         William Hockett  Erwin, born 1849

7.         Adgewillow W. “Aggie” Erwin, born about 1850

8.         John A. Erwin Jr. born 1852

The 1850 Slave Census for Marshall County, Mississippi indicates that the John Sr. and Priscilla Erwin family had eleven slaves. In Drew County, Jackson Erwin received land from his mother, became prosperous, and married. He built a fine home just off the town square of Monticello which burned sometime after he died.  At Priscilla’s death, her remaining children split the money from the sale of all of her considerable parcels of land, with the exception of Jackson. She stated in her will: “I have to fore given my son J Y Erwin more than I will be able to give my other children, I do not give or bequeath him any interest in the above described lands more than is deeded to him.”

 John A. Erwin, Jr. was born in Marshall County, Mississippi in 1852, a short time after his father died. He married Henrietta Isadora Jane Morgan in 1871in Drew County, Arkansas, in the township of Shanghai. The nearest post office was in Monticello. She was called Dora, and was born in 1854 in Marshall County, Mississippi. Her parents were Joseph Smith Morgan and Permillia A. Lockhart; both born in North Carolina. During their married life John and Dora lived in several counties in Arkansas, but mostly in Drew, Hot Springs and Yell.

In order to differentiate between all of the John A.’s in this Erwin family, I’m going to refer to the John. A. who married Dora as “John Jr.,” even though he was technically never a junior...and to further clarify things, I’ll refer to his father (John A. who married Priscilla L.) as John Sr.  I’m sure you’re confused by now, but it gets confusing to me too.

Dora & John Erwin, Jr.


The story is that John Jr. worked Dora to death, and I can see that happening. His family history was one of moving around from place to place, dragging the family along, but leaving much of the hard work to Dora. The deaths of several of their children may have been the result of these vagabond moves as well

It is said that John Erwin Jr.’s stature was like my grandfather’s; barrel-chested. I don’t know how tall he was, but I’m guessing that he was under six feet. In the photo he appears to be very handsome. He has a mustache, dark hair and dark eyes, and yet he has a haughty and brooding look about him. Dora, on the other hand, looks tired and worn out. She is plain-looking, and is obviously short, but still seems to have a haunting loveliness. The mystery in the family is the whereabouts of her grave. We’ve tried to find it in the three counties where they lived most of their lives, but so far without success. John Erwin Jr. married two times after Dora’s death.  He was, after all, a ladies man…to the end.

John Erwin Jr. was too young to participate in the Civil War, but his brothers did. They both fought for the Confederacy with companies raised in Drew County, Arkansas. James A. Erwin, the oldest, was killed in 1862 in Virginia. Jackson Erwin survived the war, and is buried in the Confederate section of one of the cemeteries in Drew County.

While John Jr.  was born in Marshall County, Mississippi, he was raised by his mother in Drew County, Arkansas. I say he was raised by her there because his father died several months before John A. was born.  His mother, Priscilla Erwin, was a strong, stern, and hard-working woman.  In 1854, after the death of one of her young sons, she moved her family, the plantation slaves, her household goods, all of her farm animals and equipment from Marshall County.  Her husband’s will had stated that she should be granted the right to do whatever she wanted with the home and possessions, and move anywhere she wanted to without having to supply a security, something not done that often in those days (see his will below).

 “Case #852 John A. Erwin; Will Filed May 24, 1852, Recorded Book #8, pages 273-274:  State of Mississippi, Marshall County.

Know all men by these presents that I John A. Erwin of the state and county above mentioned of sound mind but infirm body make this my last will and testament hereby revoking all others.  For and in consideration of the love and affection that I have for my wife Priscilla L. Erwin I bequest to her all of my property, both personal and real, and I do hereby empower her to sell or dispose of all or any part of my property either personal or real that she may think proper and to remove the balance to any portion of the United States that she may think proper to go. To be used by her in any manner than she may think best during her life and at her death whatever amount of property that she may have shall be divided equally amongst my legal heirs.  And I do hereby appoint my wife Priscilla L. Erwin my Executrix – to collect all debts that may be due to me and to pay off all of my just debts and for the love affection and confidence that I have in her my Will is that the Probate Count of our county and state require no security of her in testimony whereof I have hereunto put my hand and affirm my seal this the 20th day of March 1852.

Signed sealed and delivered in the presence of L. Robinson, Jho. H. Taber, Henderson Kirk (signed John A. Erwin X his mark).

With the exception of John Erwin, Jr., I don’t know what any of these people looked like. No photos survived, at least none that I know of.  Nor have I seen any photos of John Sr., although I did see one photo of Priscilla in the home of one of her great-grant nieces in Columbia, Maury County many years ago. That’s were I saw that “stern” look that stayed with me when I thought of her.

While researching census records I found that James A. was born in Mississippi, but Dorcus was born in Texas in 1840. That bit of information made me curious about their time in Texas, when Texas was a Republic. In investigating that timeframe, I discovered that John Jr.’s father, grandfather and several uncles were in Texas prior to 1840 in Robertson County, and that they all rode as Texas Rangers with Capt. T. N. B. Green’s company on the Trinity and Boggy Rivers (can anyone tell me where or what is the “Boggy River”? I still haven’t a clue what that River is or was.) as mounted riflemen and Indian fighters. They provided their own horses and rifles and were out in an area of the Trinity River that ran through Robertson County. That part of Texas had several Indian tribes that caused considerable trouble for the settlers, but the Comanche Tribe was the largest and most aggressive.

History relates that the Texas Rangers were formed to fight the Comanches in 1840. Looking at a Texas map of 1840 I can believe it!  Robertson County was a part of the land grant given  to Sterling Robertson of Nashville, Tennessee in 1830. This land grant, known as the Robertson Colony, was second in size only to Stephen F. Austin’s Colony. Very little has been written about the Robertson Colony, since most of Texas history is based on that of Stephen F. Austin. Even so, our Erwins, coming from Maury County, Tennessee, just South of Nashville, were an early part of Texas history.

Astonishing! Something that no one in my family had known, and they weren’t about to believe me until I went to Austin to search for the land records, and came up with copies of the letters from John Jr.’s uncle to Texas requesting their land and pay for the time they spent as Texas Rangers.  It seems that John Sr. and family had gone back to Mississippi where John Sr. and one of his brothers died within several months of each other.  And both died shortly before the baby, John Jr. were born.  Another mystery is what killed these supposedly healthy settlers just back from Texas.  As they were dead, it was left to another brother who had been with them in Texas to secure the land and money for himself, his father and his two dead brother’s wives.  I’m happy to tell you that the letter was successful and Texas did provide the land and money.  To make matters a bit worse though and take a lot longer to be finalized, it seems there was a mistake about the land provided to John Sr., as it already had been given to someone else.  So substitute land had to be found.

Now, back to the Will of John Sr. I’d like for you to see what conclusions you might draw.  Go back and re-read it and then let’s talk about it.

My conclusion is that John Sr. and Priscilla were considering moving everything to Texas.  Now Priscilla would have no family with her to help her raise her young family and farm the land.  She did, however, have brothers who left Tennessee and were farming land in Arkansas.  They would be near her and could help.  That decision was shared with the other young widow, Margaret Erwin, widow of John Sr.’s brother, James Locke Erwin.  So they both sold everything in Marshall County, and moved family, slaves and all to Arkansas.  About 1852 James Erwin, their father-in-law, had purchased many parcels of land in and around Drew County, Arkansas.  Another mystery, besides Priscilla’s brothers there, what would have convinced their father-in-law to move?  Well, those brothers of Priscilla’s were his nephews and she was his niece. The fact that the land in Arkansas was part of the Cherokee nation and was opened up to settlers may have been a deciding factor. Fertile ground and cheap land may have been what sealed the decision for all of them to go to Arkansas instead of Texas. It’s too bad that we can’t go back in time to solve our mysteries.

The time after the Civil War was extremely hard on these widows and their families; they lost sons to the war and suffered all of the privations that war brings. It seems that after the war  things weren’t  much better for them, as the taxes and new governments were harsh.  It is to their credit that they kept the land at all. I am constantly aware that some of my determination to keep on going comes from their genes.

John Sr. and Priscilla Erwin were cousins, but they were only half-cousins. Their fathers were half brothers. John Sr.’s parents were James Erwin and Jeanne/Jane Kennedy.  James was born in South Carolina and Jeanne/Jane was born in North Carolina.  James’ parents were Nathaniel Irwin and his second wife, Leah Julian (much younger than Nathaniel).  Jeanne/Jane Kennedy’s parents were Alexander Kennedy and Mary Elizabeth Cathey.  Priscilla Erwin’s parents were Alexander Samuel Erwin and Priscilla E. Webb.  Alexander S. and Priscilla were both born in North Carolina. Alexander’s parents were Nathaniel Irwin and his first wife, Mary Faulk.


There are so many other stories in this family that I can not imagine that I’ll ever live long enough to tell them all.  My children are grown and some have grown children of their own.  Most of them are not too interested in family stories, let alone genealogy.  I’m beginning to sound like my own grandmother, telling the same ones over and over.  It pleases me to be able to tell someone a bit about our family.  Their lives were full of hard work and adventure, but I’m sure they didn’t call it adventure.  It just sounds like adventure to us now. The young people of today cannot envision a life without the modern conveniences that most of us take for granted. Going without air-conditioning for a day is simply an inconvenience to our children and grandchildren; they can’t imagine life without it, much less the lifestyle  “back then” in the early 1800’s or before.


I’d love to bore you with the lineage of Nathaniel Irwin right on down to my grandfather, William Hockett Erwin.  But I won’t,  If you are interested, you certainly may contact me.  I’d love to hear from you.                                                                                                        


 ……………. The end …………..


I told you about my dad, James Norman Erwin, in the first segment of this story, but I just remembered another of his adventures, one his mother told me several times. When James (Shug) and his older brother, Pat, were teenagers they decided to brew some homemade beer. Well, they made a batch, bottled and capped it, and then buried it in the ground outside of their bedroom window. Their reason for burying the beer was never really clear to me, but perhaps they thought they needed a place for it to ferment, or it could be that they  were merely hiding it from their parents. In any event, after several very hot Texas days, the boys were surprised when the parched ground opened up with a loud explosion and their “green” beer spewed everywhere. I never learned the ingredients of their recipe, but whatever it contained the final product was certainly volatile. It wasn’t funny for them back then, but it is now.