Our Immigrant Ancestor

by Donald D. Erwin


James N. Irvine was born December 2, 1709 in Aberdeen, Scotland, and was the fourteenth great-grandson of Sir William de Erwin. He died February 27, 1770 on the Second Broad Creek near Salisbury, Rowan County, North Carolina. James married Agness Patterson about 1738 in Ulster, Northern Ireland. She was born about 1717 in Ulster and died in 1800 in Rowan County, North Carolina.

Irvine family records and traditions seem to indicate that most members of the early generations tended to remain in the general area of the town of Aberdeen, or in Aberdeenshire (Aberdeen County) in Scotland. It was not until the first half of the eighteenth century that adventure and opportunity in the Colonies began to tempt younger members of the family. It was also true that the time was long past when family wealth could support all members of the extended Irvine families. One can only suppose that it was in this type of atmosphere when our immigrant ancestor decided to make a new life for himself and his family in the New World.

It was about 1737, as religious and political tensions continued to mount in Scotland, which would soon fester and explode in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, that Alexander of Artamford and Crimond – who had recently inherited Drum Castle and had become the 16th Laird – sent James N. Irvine, one of his sons, to Ulster in Northern Ireland. James had been in some difficulty as a political activist, and he was directed to stay with the Edward Irvine family until his reputation waned somewhat in Aberdeenshire.

Oliver Cromwell died in 1658, but during his protectorate the economy of Scotland had collapsed. Even though they could now practice Presbyterianism without fear, many thousands of Lowland Scots families, including several Irvine families from around Aberdeen, moved to Ulster. They all tended to maintain their names, customs and religious faith, as well as their Scots identity. Some prospered initially, but the English systematically repressed Irish industry and commerce, and when their hopes and dreams of prosperity failed to materialize they looked to the New World for a new start. Starting about 1729, and for the next fifty years or so, great shiploads of families, Irish as well as Scots-Irish, poured out of Belfast and Londonderry.

It was in this economic atmosphere, while staying with the Edward Irvine family, that James met Agness Patterson, a young Scots-Irish beauty who immediately turned his head. Their relationship blossomed, and when James learned of Agness' father’s intention to emigrate to the Colonies he knew he would have to act quickly. James sent a message to his father, requesting permission to marry Agnes. Alexander immediately returned a dispatch indicating that he opposed the marriage, pointing out that it was his responsibility, as the head of the family, to negotiate the best marriage terms and arrangements. He further demanded that James return to Aberdeen at once.

 Despite his father's adamant disapproval, though, James and Agnes were soon married. They had decided that they would join Agness' family, the Edward Irvine family, and others, and go with them to America. Alexander was furious at his son's defiance, but he nonetheless soon relented and allowed James and his now pregnant wife to return to the Drum family enclave in Aberdeenshire. After the birth of Joseph, their first child, in 1738, the young family traveled back to the home of Agness' parents in Northern Ireland to prepare for their impending departure.

James’ father objected to the marriage, but tradition has it that his anger was compounded when he learned that James planned to abdicate his Drum estate responsibilities and emigrate to the Colonies. James was the sixth of nine children, but was the second of three sons. Normally he would not have been in line to inherit any if the lands and titles of his father, but Thomas, the eldest son, had died at three years of age. Thus, under normal conditions, James would have been the one chosen to take on the responsibilities of the estate at some point. He was not, however, listed as the heir apparent of Drum, and subsequent Drum documents seem to insinuate that he was dead. It is probable that James and his father had a huge falling out as a result of his plans, and that he was disinherited. In that era, in England and Scotland—if the anger of the parent was severe enough—being disinherited was the same as being declared dead. On the other hand, James was obviously not penniless, for he was able to book passage to Pennsylvania for himself and his family, as well as purchase land when they arrived there. The old Laird may have softened up enough to give James sufficient cash to get started in the New World, but with the admonishment, “Don’t come back!” James’ named his second child Alexander—undoubtedly in honor of his father—so perhaps he was not angry with his father in return.   

It was probably in late 1739, after sixty to seventy days at sea, that James N. Irvine—with wife Agness and infant son Joseph—arrived in William Penn’s colony with the Pattersons and his Irvine relatives. The trip across the Atlantic in a sailing ship, prior to the clipper-ship era, was a miserable experience. Gottlieb Mittelberger, who arrived in Philadelphia in 1750, described his voyage: “...bad drinking water and putrid salted meat, excessive heat and crowding, lice so thick that they could be scraped off the body, seas so rough that hatches were battened down and everyone vomited in the foul air, passengers dying of dysentery, scurvy, typhus, canker and mouth-rot.” Tradition has it, however, that the Patterson and Irvine families arrived in Philadelphia intact. They had survived the scurvy and various diseases that were so common aboard the ships of the era, perhaps by luck, but more likely because they were probably able to afford better accommodations than the average emigrant.

From the start most of the people in Penn’s colony made their living by farming, but—unlike the pioneers in New England—they did not settle in small farming villages. As a result of the generally peaceful nature of the local Indians—except on the western frontier—newcomers tended to build their farm homes on their farms. It was the above described scenario that the Pattersons and  Irvines found when their ship tied up in Philadelphia. It was a tremendous relief for the weary travelers to finally get their feet on land again. Philadelphia was a bustling city, with longshoremen unloading and loading the tall ships, and merchants hawking their wares in the crisp autumn air. It must have been an exciting scene for them, and a big contrast to the drollness and poverty of the Old World. After the long sea-voyage the Pattersons and the Irvines families were eager to begin settling in. Winter was just around the corner and there was much to do. Although William Penn had died some twenty years before, and the initial cheap land had become somewhat more expensive, the new pioneers were able to purchase tracts of undeveloped land near the growing Scots-Irish settlement in Chester County.

Even though it is likely that James had no first-hand knowledge of farming it is probable that his Irvine relatives and in-laws helped in the beginning. Even so, farming in colonial Pennsylvania would have been bone-numbing hard work. The first task—assuming that he purchased raw land—was to clear it. Of course he would have cut down a few trees for his log house, but he would ultimately need at least twenty or so acres to raise enough vegetables, corn, and other grains for his family and his animals. As time passed he would have cleared more land in order to raise corn and other grains to sell. He may have started out with just one horse or mule, but a serious farmer would have had at least one team of horses or oxen.

Visualize, if you can, how much labor it would take to remove just one tree that was perhaps eight inches in diameter. First he would have had to cut down the tree, then (assuming he had that team of horses or oxen) drag it away with his work animals. The next step would be to dig a big hole around the stump, cut off the roots with his pre-double-bitted-ax, drag the stump away, and then fill in the hole. All of this—without a bull dozer, dynamite or a chainsaw—would take a couple of days at least...for just one tree. The bottom line was that most of the early settlers did not remove the stumps, and some even followed the lead of the natives and girdled the trees at the base (cut through the bark all around the tree), then built a fire around the tree to hasten it’s death. After the tree died, sunlight could then reach the ground.

After he had a small plot cleared he would have had to prepare the soil for planting. The modern steel plow had not been invented yet, so he would have used a plow with a wooden mould board and an iron point, very inefficient by today’s standards. His harrow would probably have been made of wood also, with hard wood points to break up the dirt clods, but hoes and wooden hand rakes may have been used as well. The frontier farmer used a hand-scythe to cut his wheat and oats, then he had to place the grains on hard-packed earth and beat them with a bundle of twigs or similar item in order to separate the grain from the chaff—no threshing machines for almost another hundred years.

Few white colonists became full-time hunters, but most had a weapon of some sort, and supplemented their bland mush and porridge diets with venison and wild turkey. The famous Kentucky rifle had its beginning in Pennsylvania in the early 1700s. German settlers began lengthening and lightening the short-barreled Bavarian hunting rifle into the sleek and deadly favorite of future Daniel Boones. It weighed less than ten pounds, and took less lead and powder. Early settlers often treated the cattle and hogs brought from the Old Country almost like game. Turned loose to fend for themselves—except the family milk cow of course—the animals often grew as wild as the deer they supplanted. Hogs especially multiplied rapidly, feeding on acorns. Often it was necessary to “hunt” ones own livestock.    

After a time James leased an existing mill and began to earn a modest income from it, in addition to the cash received from his farm surplus. It is not known what type of mill he operated, but it would have been on the bank of a fast-flowing stream or river. It would have been powered by a water wheel, probably an undershot type. Through gears, the revolving shaft of the water wheel drove a vertical spindle that in turn turned the top stone of a pair of stones in the mill above. James’ mill would have ground corn for corn meal—the basic ingredient for mush, a common staple on the frontier—and wheat for flour. By changing the mill stones oats could have been rolled also, both for animal feed and for oat bread and breakfast porridge. He would have processed his own grains, but his cash income would have been generated by custom milling for others.

We know little else about the first ten years or so that James and his family lived in Chester County, but we can only assume that he prospered. By 1750 Philadelphia’s population had increased to 25,000, New York had a total of 15,000 residents, and the new port of Baltimore had nearly 7,000 inhabitants.

James Irvine and Agnes Patterson had a total of eleven children. They were: 

  1. Joseph Erwin, b. 1738 in Aberdeen, Scotland

  2. Alexander Erwin, b. about 1740, Chester Co., PA; died Burke Co., NC; married Margaret Patton, January 21, 1786, Salisbury, Rowan Co., NC

  3. Elizabeth Erwin, b. about 1742,Chester Co., PA; died Burke Co., NC; married William Dobbins, September 8, 1768, Rowan Co., NC. He was born about 1738 in Chester Co., PA.

  4. William Erwin, b. about 1743 in Chester Co., PA; died September 22, 1815, Salisbury, Rowan Co., NC.

  5. James N. Erwin, Jr., b. 1746, Chester Co., PA; died September 1794, Sandy Creek, Natchez, Adams Co., MS.

  6. Agnes “Nancy” Erwin, b. about 1747, Chester Co., PA; Salisbury, Rowan Co., NC.

  7. Isaac Erwin, b. about 1750, Chester Co., PA; died 1810, Copiah, Wesson Co., MS; married Margaret Robinson, 1773, North Carolina.

  8. John Erwin, b. 1752, Salisbury, Rowan Co., NC; died 1840 in Giles Co., NC.

  9. Jane Erwin, b. 1753, Salisbury, Rowan Co., NC; died in North Carolina; married Richard Graham, October 20, 1779, Rowan Co., NC.

  10. Mary Erwin, b. 1758, Salisbury, Rowan Co., NC; died in North Carolina.

  11. Isabel Erwin, b. 1759, Salisbury, Rowan Co., NC; died February 25, 1823, Sandersonville, Washington Co., GA; married John Johnston, December 11, 1771.

Joseph, James and Agness' his first child, had been born in Scotland, but their next six children—Alexander, Elizabeth, William, James, Jr., Isabelle and Isaac—were born in Pennsylvania. The last four were born in Rowan County, North Carolina.

As Pennsylvania’s population steadily increased, both from immigration and a high birth rate, the demand for land drove prices to a point that encouraged those seeking new horizons to look beyond Pennsylvania. Around 1750 rumors of new land grants in Virginia and the Carolinas began to circulate, and the old wanderlust many of us know so well excited the Irvines and the Pattersons. They had read some of Lord Granville’s advertisements, and were aware that many of their Scotch-Irish neighbors were selling out and moving south. Soon the draw of new opportunities was too strong to resist. As a result Edward Irvine and some of the Pattersons decided to move to Augusta County, Virginia, but James Irvine preferred the raw frontier of the Carolinas. He petitioned Lord Granville for land, and received a grant for two parcels along Second Broad Creek near the Yadkin River in North Carolina. Sometime between the birth of Isaac in 1750, and when James was born in Salisbury in the Province of North Carolina in 1752, James Irvine (now spelling his name E-r-w-i-n) moved his family southward on the Great Wagon Road.

James Erwin’s land was near Salisbury, in an area that would be designated Rowan County on March 27, 1753. But it was a long way and a dusty journey from Chester County in William Penn’s colony. On the march a group of rifle-bearing woodsmen on foot took the lead; behind them came the pack animals led by the older boys; next came the wagons. A small common herd of hogs and cattle, that would form the nucleus of the livestock in their new settlement, brought up the rear. Behind the animals were men on horseback to round up strays, and finally, a rearguard of riflemen, again on foot. Though the youngest children and many of the older women would ride in the ox-drawn wagons, the journey was not a pleasant one for anyone. A few of the travelers – other than those assigned to guard the animals – would have had riding horses, but most of the able-bodied family members of the wagon train would have walked alongside their wagons. An average day’s travel, for this type of combination train, did not exceed ten miles.

When the travelers reached the Yadkin River they most likely crossed the 300-yard-wide waterway by ferry at Ingles Crossing. On the opposite side of the river the Great Wagon Road broke up into a series of trails and old Indian paths, but Salisbury was only about twenty miles further on, and the path to it was well-traveled and obvious.

James and his family were products of a determined Scottish heritage, and it did not take them long to become established in the rugged frontier area. They built a large frame house and two mills along the river, and cleared fields for planting. They were soon harvesting crops of corn, wheat and indigo. It is recorded that James purchased several additional tracts of land to add to the ones obtained from Lord Granville.

Many colonists, during the years of the French and Indian War, left their homes and retreated to the more pacified areas along the coast. James N. Erwin and his family, however, were products of a determined Scottish heritage, and it did not take them long to become established in the rugged frontier area. They initially built a large fortified log house and two mills along the Yadkin River northeast of where Salisbury would be, and cleared fields for planting. They experienced occasional raids by roving bands of Indians, but these were minor distractions to the well-armed family, and they were soon harvesting crops of corn, wheat and indigo. It is recorded that James purchased several additional tracts of land to add to the ones obtained from Lord Granville.

The various operations on the sixteenth-century farm on the frontier were carried out with rude and simple implements. It can be logically presumed that it was no different on the James Erwin farm. Even so, the rich new virgin soil of the bottom lands, as well as that of the newly plowed uplands, produced bountiful crops. James Erwin, with his large family (six of his eleven children were sons), produced large crops of corn, wheat, oats and indigo. This was before the invention of the threshing machine, but the farmers of the day had worked out a labor saving way to separate the wheat and oat grains from the stalks and chaff.  The farmer, when building his log barn, would usually add a threshing or tramping floor—usually twenty-five or more feet square—in his log-barn. His wheat and oats were harvested by cutting the grain stems with a hand scythe while the wheat was still slightly green (to keep the grain heads from shattering). He and his sons would then tie the grain in bundles and leave the bundles in “shocks” (several bundles stacked together vertically) in the field to finish drying. When the farmer deemed that the time was right the shocks of grain were carefully brought to the barn loft which was located above the threshing room. When it was “tramping time” bundles of wheat were dropped on the floor from the loft. Teams of horses were then brought in to walk around and around on the grain until it was separated from the straw and chaff. Oat grains, however, being more easily crushed by the hard hooves, were  usually separated by hand with flails.

James and his sons would harvest the corn crop later in the fall. The process was known as “pulling and shocking.” The corn stalks were pulled from the ground (with the corn ears still in the husks) and placed vertically in shocks in the field to dry. When the corn had dried to the point that the corn kernels could be easily stripped from the cob the shocks were brought from the field into the barnyard. An evening was chosen for the husking, and one of the younger sons would be assigned the task riding around to the surrounding neighbors with an invitation to participate in the “husking party.” In some cases as many as fifty “hands” might show up for the event.

Prior to the arrival of his neighbors James, or one of his older sons, would have had a long rail placed in the barnyard, with an equal number of corn shocks placed on either side. The volunteers would start arriving about dusk, having already put in a long day in their own fields. Under light provided by lanterns and bonfires, two captains would be selected, and they in turn would chose their  teams. Then came the race. On a signal from James they would proceed to shuck the corn ears from the corn stalks and husks; then the ear of corn would be brought across the rail, which in turn scraped the corn kernels from the cob. The kernels of corn would fall down on a canvas or wooden receptacle below the rail, and the bare cob would be tossed aside. This was done with much shouting, side challenges, and chanting. There was usually a jug present as well, and as the shucking progressed it was oftentimes passed around several times before it was empty. The liquor added to the excitement, but it was considered bad form to get drunk.

After the corn kernels were separated from the cobs, and safely stored in the bins, it was customary for the farmer’s wife to provide a “shucking supper.” Agnes Erwin and her daughters probably worked most of the day putting the feast together. It would usually consist of ham, pork, chicken pie, pumpkin custard, sweet cakes, apple pie, coffee, sweet milk, buttermilk, and various fruit preserves. In short, a rich feast of everything that the farm produced. It required a good digestion system indeed to manage such a repast at ten or eleven o’clock at night.

James N. Erwin eventually acquired several hundred acres in addition to his original Granville land purchase. His holdings had the potential to produce much more than his family and his livestock could consume. The market for the surplus grain and indigo, as well as for the excess flour that had been processed in James’ mills, was several hundred miles away, but as time passed he shipped more and more of his excess to the central markets along the Atlantic.

There was always a “slack season” between the “laying by” (planting) of crops and harvesting time. That was the time for the James and his older sons to hunt squirrels, tramp four or five miles behind dogs on a ‘possum or coon hunt, stalk deer for winter meat, or go after a bear just for the sport of it. In the early days the waters of the Yadkin and Catawba Rivers had plentiful numbers of shad, trout, pike, bream, eels and catfish, and the Erwin fisherman seldom returned home without a heavy string of fish. Fishing was fun even then, but it was also something to do that was beneficial to the diets of the various family members. 

As time passed, and the area became more “civilized,” the tanner and shoemaker, the hatter, as well as the weaver, began to ply their trades around the countryside from horse-drawn wagons. There were traveling blacksmiths as well, but most farmers, and/or their sons, did their own blacksmithing The wandering tinker came around at intervals as well, with his crucible and his molds for spoons, plates and dishes. He would melt the broken pieces of pewter fragments that had been so carefully preserved by the farmer’s wife, and transform them into bright new pieces in his molds.

The women of the rural households had many talents that have been lost to their descendants. Almost every farm house in the 1700s had pairs of cards, and a large and small spinning wheel. James and Agnes Erwin had five daughters, and they would have learned early how to separate the wool and cotton fibers, and how to peddle and operate the spinning wheel. It was common for a visitor, as he or she approached the house after the morning chores were “done up,” to hear the deep bass rumbling of the large wheel, or the buzzing of the little flax wheel as its hooked “flyers” whirled the thread around until it was sufficiently twisted.

One of the weekly chores that took a lot of time and effort in the Erwin households in the early days was doing the family washing. Until the early 1900s the common practice was to boil soiled clothing outdoors in a big cast iron pot. On wash day a fire was built under the pot – with a little water in the bottom to keep it from cracking – and as the fire heated the pot water was added. If the family was fortunate enough to have a stream close by the women would do their work on the bank of the stream; if not they would have to draw the necessary water from a well. While the water was heating the clothes were rinsed in cold water to remove some of the dirt, and if there were stubborn spots, such as dirt on their men’s pants, they would be scrubbed on a scrub-board or on a flat rock. When the water boiled soap would be added. In the 1750s era, in fact for the next hundred years or so, the soap used in country households was homemade from animal fat and ashes. The next step would be to boil the clothes for about twenty minutes. The pot was stirred every so often with a large wooden paddle, allowing the soap to work through completely. What was being washed depended on how long they would be boiled. Men’s work clothing would, of course, require more time in the boiling water than a load of the family underclothing. When it was time to take the clothes out they were removed with the paddle and put into a tub of cold water for a first rinse.  After the first rinse they were wrung out by hand and then the process was repeated two more times in clean water.

It was a common practice to boil the least dirty items first, progressing down to the most soiled items last, usually without changing the water in the hot water pot. Water and soap would necessarily be added to the pot over the fire as the wash day progressed, and one person – usually a younger member of the family – would be designated to add wood to the fire in order to keep the water boiling. As the wash day progressed the clothes lines – probably strung between trees – gradually filled up.

The next step – also monumental – was the chore of ironing. All of the women’s dresses and aprons were ironed. The men’s work clothes were rarely ironed, but their Sunday white linen shirts would have been given the same attention as the frilly blouses of the women. Flat irons of various shapes and sizes were used, but the average iron weighed about four pounds. The smaller and lighter ones were used for ruffles and fancy items. They were heated on a cast iron plate in the fireplace in the cool months, and outside over a fire when the weather was hot. In later times they would be heated over the central woodstove or cooking range.  The average household probably had four or so irons so that as one iron became cool it could be returned to the hot surface and replaced by a hot one. The more desirable irons had a removable iron and wood handle that could be snapped off when it was heated. A portable ironing table, or “board,” was used so that it could be set up close to where their heat source was. In the winter it most likely would have been next to a window that allowed enough light in for the task at hand, and in warmer times ironing was probably done under a tree in the yard or under a lean-to next to the house.

It is known that Squire Boone, the father of the great hunter and pioneer Daniel Boone, lived near Salisbury on the Yadkin River at Alleman’s Ford. Daniel Boone’s grandfather emigrated from England to Bucks County, Pennsylvania in 1717 with eleven of his nineteen children. In or about 1753 – like James N. Erwin – Squire Boone felt crowded (near Reading Pennsylvania), so with his wife and minor children, he joined the migration south through the forests of Maryland and Virginia and settled on the Yadkin River. It is not known, however, whether the Erwins were acquainted with the Boones.

With so many families passing through Salis­bury during that time, inns and taverns werereally  needed. Travelers wanted suitable lodging for themselves and a place to stable their livestock, and Salisbury innkeepers were quick to fill the need. It is a matter of record that in 1755 James Erwin was issued one of the first licenses to operate an “ordinary,” or public inn. James called his establishment the “Red Raven Inn,” and it was in operation as late as 1772.

As it is with all families, sons and daughters grow up, marry and start their own families. Joseph, the eldest, born at Drum in 1738, traveled with his family from Pennsylvania to Rowan County in 1752, but in 1755 he returned to Chester County, Pennsylvania to marry Agnes Reed, his childhood sweetheart. He brought her back to Rowan County where, it is believed, his father helped him acquire land of his own.

Alexander, the second son, married Margaret Patton, but not until 1786, well after James had passed on. According to the tone of some of the Rowan County probate records James may have depended on him heavily over the years and was probably his second in charge. William, the third son, married Elizabeth Orde in 1768 in Rowan County; James Erwin, Jr. married Jennett Andrews in 1766; Isaac married Margaret Robinson in 1773; and John Erwin married Jane Brown in 1772.

Elizabeth, eldest daughter and third-born, married William Dobbins in 1768; Isabelle “Nancy” Erwin married James Patterson; Jane Erwin married Richard Graham in 1779; and Isabel, the  last-born, married Jared Erwin, perhaps a cousin. Mary Erwin, the next-to-last-born, may have died young for she is not mentioned in Joseph’s will.

Although at least three of his younger daughters were probably still in his household when he passed away in 1770, only his second-oldest son remained to help oversee his holdings. In his will he bequeathed 300 acres to son John, 250 acres to Alexander, and 200 acres each to Joseph and Isaac. He bequeathed five pounds to William, and ten pounds to James, Jr.

It is believed that all of his children save two lived and died in North Carolina. James Erwin, Jr. died Natchez, Adams County, Mississippi in 1794, and John Erwin died in Giles County, Tennessee in 1845. There are many Erwins in Giles County today, many of which are probably his descendants.

In his later years James N. Erwin became politically active. Court records indicate that he often served as a juror, and sometimes as a short-term constable when the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions was convened. It is recorded that on one occasion James found it necessary to appear in court himself as a plaintiff. It seems that a horse had bitten off the ear of his minor son James Erwin, Jr., and he was suing the owner of the horse for damages. It is unknown what the outcome of the suite was.

Although James was sympathetic to the revolution he did not have an opportunity to be involved in its outcome. James N. Erwin died in 1770. He left a will dated February 27, 1770, and it is recorded in Will Book A, Pages 26-27 in the courthouse in Rowan County, North Carolina.