Calloway County, Kentucky; They Passed This Way


Kentucky County was formed in 1776 within Virginia. Prior to that time, from December 1, 1772 to December 31, 1776, the area was part of Fincastle County. During the four years of Fincastle’s existence many pioneers and land companies made their way to Kentucky. After the American Revolution was over, however, the floodgates opened, and many thousands of settlers from the eastern states migrated to the area, venturing down the Ohio River or through the Cumberland Gap by way of the Wilderness Road.

In 1780 Kentucky County was split into three counties. They were: Fayette, Jefferson and Lincoln. By 1790 the region had a population of more than 73,000. As the number of settlers grew there were increased demands for separation from Virginia. From 1784 to 1790, nine conventions were held at Danville to resolve issues related to separation. Finally, at the ninth convention, the delegates voted to accept the terms of separation offered by Virginia, and petitioned the Congress of the United States for statehood. At a final convention in 1792, a state constitution was drafted, and on June 1, 1792, Kentucky entered the federal Union as the 15th state, and the first west of the Appalachians. In addition to the three original counties six more were added: Nelson, Woodford, Mason, Madison, Bourbon, and Mercer. Isaac Shelby was elected as the state’s first governor. Lexington was briefly the seat of state government until, later that year, Frankfort was designated the permanent state capital. It has been calculated that at the time of statehood the white population of Kentucky was 51.6 percent English, 24.8 percent Scots-Irish, 9.0 percent Irish, and the remainder mixed between Welsh, German, French, Dutch and Swedish.

The original boundaries of Calloway County, located in the southwestern part of the state, included present-day Marshall County. It was created from a part of Hickman County by an act of the General Assembly on December 15, 1821. It came into formal existence on November 3, 1822, when the state legislature approved the act. It was Kentucky's seventy-second county, and Wadesboro was designated as the county seat.

In 1776 Colonel Richard Calloway, a Kentucky explorer and friend of Daniel Boone, moved his family to Kentucky. He became active in the affairs of the early settlements, and it was in his honor that Calloway County was named. Colonel Calloway is credited as being one who helped bring law and order to the frontier, and his life, though shortened by an early death in defense of the frontier, is one which the citizens of Calloway County point to with pride.

However, long before Calloway County was officially formed there was an influx of pioneers into the area from Virginia and the Carolinas. They settled in the northern part of what would be Calloway County because it was there that they found an abundance of water, game and timber. Banister Wade first visited the area as an adventurer in 1818, and he is credited as having established the first permanent settlement in 1820. It was named Wadesboro.

At right: The first Calloway County Courthouse at Wadesboro.

Wadesboro served as the county seat from 1822 to 1842. The community flourished, and at one time had over three hundred citizens. It became a center for land speculation when the surrounding public lands were offered for sale by the legislature. Many emigrants, as well as speculators, soon arrived in search of cheap land, which in 1827 was being sold for fifty cents an acre. As a result Wadesboro suddenly became a thriving town, with accompanying business activity, and law and order problems as well. The area lost its primary draw, however, when the government lands were sold off. The population of Wadesboro then declined rapidly, and the county seat was moved to the more active town of Murray.

Joseph Erwin was born February 4, 1769 in Salisbury, Rowan, County, North Carolina. He married Catherine Nancy Cowan there on May 17, 1792. She was born October 14, 1774, near Salisbury, and was the eldest child of Captain Thomas Cowan and Mary Barkley. Joseph and Catherine had the following named children:

      Thomas Barkley Erwin, b. September 16, 1793

Joseph Erwin, Jr., b. February 3, 1794

James Polk Erwin, b. March 7, 1796

Agnes W. (Nancy) Erwin, b. January 25, 1798

Eli G. Erwin, b. November 4, 1799

John Johnston Erwin, b. September 11, 1801

Squire Cowan Erwin, b. February 8, 1803

Katherine L. Erwin, b. April 17, 1805

Mary B. Erwin, b. January 3, 1807

William B. Erwin, b. January 25, 1809

Hezekiah Franklin Erwin, b. February 12, 1811

Margaret Clementine Erwin, b. August 8, 1813

Abel Alexander Erwin, b. October 10, 1815

Michael Lincoln Erwin, b. May 21, 1819

It was probably about 1812 that Joseph moved his wife and children to the south-central frontier of the new state of Tennessee. They may have stayed for a time in Maury County before moving on down into Giles County. The 1820 Giles County census shows Joseph Erwin, Sr. living in Giles County, Tennessee with his wife and ten children. His son, Joseph Erwin, Jr., is shown living next door with his wife and two small children as well.

 In the early years of the 19th century the pioneers along the Western frontier had particularly strong anti-British feelings. This was as a result of the British efforts to stir up ant-American feelings among the Indians. As United States-British relations became increasingly strained many Congressman from the frontier states, most notably U.S. Congressman Henry Clay, became ardent advocates of war against Britain. During the subsequent War of 1812 (1812-1815), Kentucky and Tennessee contributed more than their quota of soldiers to the U.S. military forces.

One such recruit was Joseph Erwin Jr. On December 10, 1812, in Rutherford County, Tennessee, at the age of eighteen, he enlisted for a term of two years in Captain Josiah Renshaw’s Company, a unit of the Second Regiment of Tennessee Militia Volunteers commanded by Colonel Thomas H. Benton. He was on active duty from December 10, 1812 to April 12, 1813 when he was released in Columbia, Maury County, Tennessee to inactive status. He was called back to active duty on September 26, 1813, and served until December 24, 1813. He was honorably discharged in Fayetteville, Lincoln County, Tennessee, with the rank of Orderly Sergeant.

The last of the Native American claims to Tennessee and Kentucky lands was eliminated in 1818 with what is called the Jackson Purchase, so named because General Andrew Jackson spearheaded the project. In this transaction the Federal Government purchased the Chickasaw Indian Tribe’s claim to lands in western Kentucky and western Tennessee. This set the stage for the next move of the Erwin family. At some point between the time of the 1820 census and the 1830 census, probably about 1827 when large tracts of the Chickasaw Hunting Grounds, or Jackson Purchase as it came to be known, were opened up to settlement, Joseph moved his family again, this time to Henry County, Tennessee. The Joseph Erwin, Sr. family, as well as the Joseph Erwin, Jr. family, are listed on the 1830 Henry County, Tennessee census.

Caroline Nancy Cowan Erwin died July 6, 1839 in Henry County. She is buried in the Palestine Church Cemetery just outside of Paris in Henry County. After Catherine died Joseph must have left the area almost immediately, for although sons Joseph Erwin, Jr. and John Johnston Erwin are listed on the 1840 Henry County census, he is not. It seems likely that Joseph Erwin, Sr., with Abel and Michael, his two youngest children, moved to West Point, Troup County, Georgia. Old letters indicate that Joseph Erwin, Sr. was living with or near sons James Polk Erwin and Squire Cowan Erwin in the vicinity of Starkville, Oktibbeha County, Mississippi in the middle 1840s. Family tradition has it that Joseph Erwin died about 1848 in Mayhew, Lowndes County, Mississippi, the county just to the east which adjoined Oktibbeha County. Over the years relatives have tried, but have not been able to locate his gravesite.

Most of the offspring of  Joseph Erwin, Sr. and Catherine Nancy Cowan eventually moved into Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Texas and Arkansas. Three, however, elected to remain in the area of Henry County, Tennessee and Calloway County, Kentucky, its neighbor to the north. They were:

John Johnston Erwin, the sixth-born. He married Sarah Maria Allison in 1825, and they had eleven children. John and Sarah are both buried in South Pleasant Grove Cemetery in Calloway County, Kentucky.

Mary B. Erwin, the ninth child, married Benjamin Huggs. She is buried near her mother in the Palestine Cemetery in Henry County.

Margaret Clementine Erwin, number twelve. Little is known about Margaret. What we do know is that she  she married a Mr. Callahan, that she died August 11, 1839, and that she is buried in the South Pleasant Grove Cemetery.

Joseph Erwin, Jr, and most of his children, eventually moved to Carroll County, Arkansas. The two exceptions were:

Elizabeth Catherine Erwin, their second-born child. She married Joseph M.W. Alderson January 1, 1841 in Henry County, Tennessee, and they had eight children. Elizabeth and her husband are buried in the South Pleasant Grove Cemetery near Hazel, Kentucky.

Joseph Lafayette (Fate) Erwin, the fourth child. He married Mariah (Maria) Anastasia Erwin, a first cousin, in 1849, in Paris, Tennessee. Their children were:

 Augusta Ann Erwin, b. February 12, 1850

Sarah Rebecca Erwin, b. April 1, 1851

Charles F. Erwin, b. February 12, 1853

Joseph Johnston Erwin, b. May 27, 1854

Oscar Lafayatt Erwin, b. June 14, 1856

Catherine Elouise Erwin, b. April 30, 1859

Thomas Washington Erwin, b. July 12, 1860

William Simpson “Simp” Erwin, b. February 28, 1862

Robert Lee Erwin, b. December 15, 1863

Harriett Malvina “Hattie” Erwin, b. July 13, 1865

James Franklin Erwin, b. April 1, 1867

Hubert Eugene “Hub” Erwin, b. September 24, 1869

Mary Gurtrud Erwin, b. June 7, 1873

Augusta, the first child of Fate and Maria Erwin, was born in Tennessee…all of the rest were born in Kentucky, probably near Hazel in Calloway County.

Joseph Lafayette Erwin served in the War with Mexico. He enlisted at Paris, Henry County, Tennessee on April 12, 1847 as a Private in "G" Company, 14th U. S. Infantry Regiment, and served at least sixty days in combat in Mexico.

Those of us who live in the twenty-first century can only imagine the hardships of pioneer life. The following is a transcription of a letter from Jane Allison Owens in North Carolina to her sister, Sarah Maria Allison Erwin in Calloway County. The original is in the possession Esther Erwin Morton of Calloway County. It can, perhaps, give us a fleeting insight of what they had to endure.

April 8th 1843


Mecklenburg County

North Carolina

Dear Sister

I take this opportunity of writing you a few lines by Mr. Wilson. He called to see Mother to day and told her that he lives close by you & that you were all well. we were very glad to heare from you & yours. we do not hear very often. I have been thinking of writing for a good many years but kept putting it off from time to time untill I am ashamed of it. I will try and do better for the time to come. It was not because I did not think of you but I dislike to write so much that I have not written but two letters in the last 10 years and 1 of them was to you & you never answered it. I should be glad to have a corespondance with you very much. if we cant see one another it is as little as we can do to write to each other and try and prepare to see each other in a better world where their will be no parting. we have had a great deal of sickness here. Last summer fall & winter their was but few families escaped Mr. Owens & myself were not sick but the rest of my family were nearly all --- My two children William and Joseph were very bad. Joseph died in 3 days after he took sick. he was a very fine smart child 2 years & 10 monthes old. Mr. Overman & Sister Ann lost their oldest Laura Jane in nearly 2 weeks after mine. She was 4 years and a few days old. It was a hard trial to part with them but he that knoweth all things knew what was for the best and we know they are gone to rest and all we can do is to try and prepare to meet them and I hope it will make us live better for the time to come. the rest of Mr. Overmans family were all sick but have got well now. they have 2 fine Daughters. the oldest they call Margaret Eliza. the baby they call Mary Cornelia. She was born the 19 of last august the day my youngest took sick. Mother and family were all sick and mother and Brother Tho have been sick nearly all winter but I am in hopes they will get well now. Mr. Kistler and Sister Margaret --- Children had their health as well as common. Sister Margaret health has been bad for several years. I dont think she will ever be stout again. She has had 5 Daughters but has but 2 a living Maria Ann & Martha Eliza. Brother Washington has settled in Concord. I paid them a visit in January soon after they went to house keeping. They are very well fixed. I think he has a very fine wife and [illegible] have to do well. we hear from them every week. they enjoy very good health at present. Mr. Overman & family are paying them a visit at this time and I think if you & your family were here you could do much better than there you have something here which would be a little start with what your friends could help you. we could help you more here than there. the times are very hard & monney scarce & hard to get. I think if you were here you could get a School and that would help you. what monney you have here is still in the Clerks hands and I think mind to come and live the balance of your days with us. I know you would be better satisfied after you were here a while. the place has altered a great deal since you left it. there is still a great many of your old acquaintances here that would be glad to see you. I want you to write as soon as you get this and let us know how you are we would be glad to hear every week if we could. Tell Mr. Erwin I say to remember the promise he made to me when he was here. I know he has not the power of himself but look to the one that has all power in his hands and if he does that in a right manner I know he will help him. I pray for him every day that he may turn to our Lord him and his family and be bright ornaments in the Christian Church on earth and still brighter in the heavenly [illegible] what a glorious meeting will be there. Fathers & mothers Brothers & Sisters & Children meet to part no more. pray my Sister that it may be our happy lot it is my sincere desire and prayer to you that it may be our [illegible]lot. we have Children gone before that are bright Cherubimsnin the heavenly Land that will be rejoiced to meet us. [illegible] if we were only prepared. what a happy Change from this world of pain and Sorrow to that Land of bliss where pain & sorrow & parting are known no more. Your mother & Brothers and Sisters Desire to be remembered to Mr. Erwin & yourself & Children. remember me to Mr. Erwin and your Children with a kiss and receive the same (page torn)  (corner torn off)

until Death affectionate Sister

write as soon as you I want to hear from you

 PS. I Join in [illegible] Jane in all Jane  (torn portion) she has said. also my Respects to your [illegible] and Mr. Erwin and your self

          C. Owens

Addressed to Mrs. Sarah M. Erwin Caloway County Kty

  By the politeness of Mr. Wilson


Kentucky, although a slavery state, grew little cotton. Like the other so-called border states, it maintained close economic ties with both the North and South. Still, the 225,000 slaves in Kentucky in 1860 were a major portion of the state’s labor force and was nearly twenty percent of the total population. Most Kentucky slaveholders were, of course, ardent supporters of slavery. However, a considerable number of Kentuckians were actively opposed to slavery, and had little interest in, or sympathy for, the South.

In 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected president as the candidate of the Republican Party, which opposed the spread of slavery. The cotton state of South Carolina had threatened to secede if the Republicans won, and in December 1860 it did so. Other slavery states followed in quick succession, and in February 1861 they formed a confederacy, the Confederate States of America. The Civil War (1861-1865) began in April 1861 when Confederate artillery fired on the Union garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor.

Kentucky’s governor, Beriah Magoffin, refused both the Union’s and the Confederacy’s call for volunteers. In May the state legislature resolved that Kentucky would take no part in the fighting, and Magoffin issued a proclamation declaring the state to be neutral in the conflict. Because of the state’s strategic location, neither side fully respected Kentucky’s neutrality. Recruiters from both the Union and the Confederacy enlisted Kentuckians. In Calloway County a large segment of the population supported the Confederate cause. It is estimated that as many as five hundred men joined the Confederate ranks, while only about two hundred enlisted in the Federal forces.

When Confederate forces moved into Kentucky in September 1861, however, the state declared allegiance to the Union. The Battle of Mill Springs, or Logan’s Crossroads, was the first major battle of the war within Kentucky.  It was

fought at Nancy in January 1862, and resulted in a Confederate defeat. Then, late in the summer of 1862, Confederate forces embarked on a bold campaign to take Kentucky. They pushed northward and westward into the state from central Tennessee, and defeated Union Army troops at Richmond and Munfordville. However, the main Confederate advance was halted at Perryville on October 8, 1862. The Battle of Perryville, also known as the Battle of Chaplin Hills, was the bloodiest engagement in the state’s history. More than 7,600 casualties were counted. No other large-scale battles took place in the state, although raids by Confederate General John Hunt Morgan gained a lot of publicity.  

In 1861 the Confederates erected Fort Heiman on the Tennessee River in the southeast section of Calloway County in an effort to establish control of the area. In 1862 Federal forces captured the fort and held it until 1864, at which time Confederate General Nathan B. Forrest moved into the area with a major force. The small Union garrison abandoned the fort, and General Forrest used it as a base for his successful assault on Johnsonville, Tennessee. In 1862 Union troops moved through Calloway County, arresting citizens on charges of disloyalty, and in 1863 a small force of Union soldiers occupied Murray for a brief period.

Although Calloway County was the scene of only minor skirmishes between the regular armies during the War, her citizens suffered from the raids of small bands of irregular marauders, wearing both uniforms, including the guerrilla band of the notorious Captain William Clarke Quantrill. These raiders, also called “bushwhackers,” plundered citizens of their food, money, and horses, and were responsible for as many as forty murders. Some felt that certain individuals used the upheaval of war to take advantage of their neighbors. Formal hostilities ceased with General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, but it took many years to totally erase the grievances, real and imagined, between friends and neighbors.

In many states, especially in the border states, families were torn apart as some members enlisted in the Confederacy while others volunteered to fight for the North. These divisions within families, and the breakup of lifelong friendships, were among the many tragic results of the war. The Erwin and related families were no different, and were very often split with regard to the Civil War. Most Erwins in the South did not own slaves, but even so they tended to embrace the Confederate views regarding the issue. Erwins on the Union side were just as adamant in their feelings . This, of course, often led to heated exchanges between family members. An example of this is illustrated in the following excerpt from a letter dated July 18, 1861. It was written by James H. Erwin in West Point, Georgia to John Johnston Erwin, his uncle in Calloway County: 

I am very sorry at the position the galant old state of "Kentuck" occupies at this time. How it is, that a Southern State can remain in a Government ruled by a black republican President, disregarding and trampling underfoot the plainest provisions of the Constitution and waging a war of subjugation or extermination upon Eleven States with whom Kentucky is connected by every consideration of interest, Patriotism and Sympathy is to me a matter of great surprise. Under such circumstaces Neutrality is an absurdity and Kentucky in attempting to maintain it is occupying the unenviable position of a Coward in the estimation of any Southern State. The people of the Confederate States are united and regard with contempt all Ideas and efforts at reconstruction. They could not be induced back in to the "Old Wreck" upon any terms. Looking at it from every stand point possible the conclusion is irresistable that those who are not for us in this struggle are against us. You are much mistaken in Southern Valor and patriotism when you think that it was our object to make Kentucky the battleground and then to retire with "forced armes" and not participate in the struggle. far from it. But if you people could be satisfied that Kentucky desired to cut loose from old Abe and his \ government and link her destiny with the Confederate States where God and nature designed her to be, thousands upon tens of thousands of the brave hearts and strong army from the Confederacy would flock to the standard and fight until "the last armed for expired" and until Kentucky should be again free and independent. And if Kentucky is afraid to strike for liberty and freedom and will manifest her willingness our Jeff will send a force sufficient to drive out every hessian from her soil, and if Kentuckians are unwilling to participate, they can flee to the "hills of [illegible] for safety." But I believe that Kentucky will get aroused from this lethergy and inactivity and vindicate her honor, unite with her sisters in a Confederacy that is destined to be unsurpassed by the world. In what I have said of Kentucy I intend nothing personal to yourself for I know you have not a nephew who esteems you more highly than I do. We are all entitled to our political opinions, and it is nothing strange if men should differ.


As in other families, there were Erwins in both armies. Over twelve hundred Erwins, from all states, fought in the war. The number of casualties was horrendous. Many of the battlefield wounds, which today could be safely treated, were eventually fatal because of the primitive field medical care available at the time. Many families lost several sons. Thomas Barkley Erwin, of Smith County, Texas, for example, sent four sons to war, but only two returned. Many soldiers, on both sides, died of illnesses related to poor sanitation, typhoid, influenza, and pneumonia. Others died in the prison camps because of poor medical care, dismal sanitation conditions, abuse, and general neglect. Both sides were equally at fault in this regard.

Following is a transcription of a letter from Col. John J. Erwin, CSA, captured at the Battle of Vicksburg , to his uncle in Calloway County:

 (Right hand edge of letter torn)


Camp Douglas Ill May 17th 1864


Dear Uncle,

For the first time since

my capture I seat myself

to address you. I expect

you will be surprised to

hear from me (so)

Far North, but such

is the fate of (war)

I have no news to

communicate (but)

my general good health.

I was captured at Jackson Miss on the 4th of Febry and arrived at this place about a (month)

afterwards. Like the

ballance of Confe(der) ate Prisoners I am here without mo(ney)

and as I am cut off from the hope of getting it from home must beg the favor of you to send me Ten Dollars by express. If an opportunity occurs please write to my family or to brother Harvy or Father. Give my best regards to Aunt Sarah and family and accept for yourself the best wishes of Your Nephew

Jno. J. Erwin

(Other-side of paper)


Direct your letter thus

Jno. J. Erwin

Co. H. 14 Ky Regmt

Camp Douglas 

 (Letter transcribed by Jean Erwin Gregory; original is in the possession of Esther Erwin Morton of Calloway County)


Editor’s note: Col. Erwin’s letter is dated May 17, 1864, and seems to indicate that he was captured February 4 of the same year. Yet the official history of  the Battle of Vicksburg  indicates that the battle started in March 1863 and concluded when the Confederates surrendered to General Grant’s army on July 4, 1863. Conclusion: Perhaps the transcription of the letter’s date is in error, and it could be that Col. Erwin was captured in a skirmish prior to the start of the major battle. 


Col. John Johnson Erwin was one of the lucky ones; he survived the rigors of Camp Douglas, and went home to Mississippi and married Sarah Steel in 1868. They had thirteen children, and he died after 1898.


As mentioned previously, approximately seven hundred young men, and a few older ones, went off to war from Calloway County. Some wore the gray and others wore blue, but they were all volunteers. They left with flags flying and  bands playing, and with mothers and sweethearts crying as they marched off. Many did not return, and still others returned maimed and broken. It is probably safe to say, however, that all who returned, whether all in one piece or missing a limb, were disillusioned and glad that the war was finally over, no matter which side was the ultimate victor.

For the most part, the physical wounds of those who survived healed rather quickly, but the mental wounds were often something else. Some never got over the horrors of the battlefield, and others nourished grudges against their friends and neighbors. In some cases it may have taken a generation or two, perhaps even death, for friends and neighbors to forget what had driven them apart. Families, however, were likely to brush aside previously-held ideological differences and move on. After all, a brother cannot long hold a grudge against his brother, or a father against a son...not if there was love present in the beginning.

The Erwins of Calloway County—which includes those who have strayed somewhat since WW2—are a unique group. They are proud of their Kentucky roots, and  most do not appear to be afflicted with the well-known Erwin “itchy-foot syndrome.” Other branches of the family seem to have a compulsion to look over the next hill, or next state, to see if the grass is greener there. Not so with most Calloway County Erwins.

It must be pointed out that the Erwin family of Calloway County is not made up of just those with the name; there are hundreds of others who are descended from the original Erwin settlers...and let’s not forget those who added additional surnames to the list of related families by wedding Erwin descendents.

All of the Calloway County “Erwins” welcome their wandering “cousins” with open arms and a hearty “Hi y’all,” and one can always expect to hear a sincere “Come back now ya’ hear” as one leaves. But what the hay, whether we stay in one spot or respond to the “itch,” we’re really only one family...many of us with blood in our veins from the Borderers and Highlanders of Scotland and the Scots-Irish of Northern Ireland, while others have roots in other cultures, from other parts of the world.  

Donald D. Erwin