They Passed This Way

In previous issues of The Bagpiper we followed the unfolding story of the Irwyn-Irvine-Erwin family from the 1260s in Scotland to the emigration of James N. Irvine (Erwin) and his family to the Colonies about 1739, as well as  their struggles to prosper in Chester County, Pennsylvania. In this segment we will look over James’ shoulder as he scratches his wanderlust itch, and leaves Chester County for the anticipated greener pastures of the Piedmont area of  North Carolina.

Geography, as is often the case, had a direct effect on the colonization of Rowan County, North Carolina. Situated between the Yadkin and Catawba Rivers, 200 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, Rowan County offered the settler many attractive features. The rolling countryside, crossed by many year-round streams, made a pleasant setting for future homes and farms. The land was fertile, well watered, and virtually treeless except for occasional groves of oak and maple.

In addition, the area that would be designated Rowan County on March 27, 1753 was very accessible—for the time—as a result of two frontier thoroughfares; one ran east and west and the other north and south. The Trading Path stretched from Fort Henry near Petersburg, Virginia westward into Rowan County where it crossed the Yadkin River at Trading Ford, and then continued on to South Carolina and Georgia. The Great Pennsylvania Wagon Road started in Pennsylvania and went south through the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia into North Carolina as far as the Trading Path, which it crossed just east of the Yadkin at Trading Ford.

Historical background: For many years prior to 1729 the Province of Carolina belonged to eight English Lords, all of whom lived in England. They had full authority as to the disposition of the land as well as how the area was governed. Because of the relatively slow development of the province, and because the Lords received little profit from their holdings, a plan was devised to sell their holdings back to the King. One of the eight—Lord Granville—refused to go along with the plan. His share, which was one eight of the Carolina Province, was by deed transferred to him in 1744, and was designated North Carolina. At that time the eastern boundary of North Carolina, along the Atlantic, was roughly where it is today, but it stretched westward all of the way to the Mississippi River.

No political authority was included in the deeded transfer of land to Lord Granville. All governmental authority was vested in the Governor, as the King’s representative, and the elected assembly. On the other hand, the land administration set up by Lord Granville was beyond the control of either the Crown or the North Carolina Assembly. Because of this almost unheard of arrangement there was a large degree of heavy-handedness by the agents of Lord Granville. In the beginning the land was not deeded, but was—in effect—leased to the new pioneers as tenants. This arrangement, of course, was not popular, and settlement was slow. Around 1748 the tenant arrangement was abolished, and Granville’s agents began advertising in Britain and Europe. As a result the movement of settlers into North Carolina began to pick up, and by 1753 when Rowan County was established new residents were flocking in daily.


James Erwin’s land was near present-day Salisbury, 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, and behind them came the pack animals led by the older boys, followed by 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—including the James Erwin Family— 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 Pennsylvania 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.


Rowan County Demographics: John Larson, who traveled through the area in 1701, wrote in his journal: “The ’Chestnut-Oaks’ along the rivers are as tall as I have ever seen.” He further stated that the trees were so tall that his gun could not kill turkeys perched in the upper branches of the trees. This would seem to verify the name Yadkin (Yadkin River) which was derived from an Indian name referring to large trees. These trees provided a ready source for logs for the early log houses and barns, and a resource for the saw mills that would come later.

The land was fertile, well watered and virtually treeless except along the rivers and streams. The open country was covered with grassy meadows and pea vines, and was very suitable for grazing animals. It was also easy to clear for the planting of corn, grains, indigo and tobacco.

The first white settlers found that the streams had many varieties of fish, and that the wooded areas were home to many species of animals and fowl. There were, of course, certain predatory animals—such as panthers, bears, and wolves—that the settlers did not consider welcome neighbors. There were, in fact, so many of these animals that after 1769 Rowan County began paying a bounty on wolves and panthers to encourage their extermination.

The Indians: The Saura and Sapona Indian tribes had once lived along the Yadkin and Catawba Rivers, but were gone by the early 1700s, probably exterminated or absorbed by other tribes. The Catawba Indians replaced them, but they had moved further west when white settlers began arriving. The Cherokees were the largest Indian group in the Carolinas, and although their permanent settlements were beyond the Catawba tribe, near the Alleghany Mountains, their hunting and raiding parties ranged great distances.    

  From the outset Indians had, at times, posed an occasional  threat to the peace and happiness of the settlers. Beginning in 1753, however, the year Rowan County was created, the frontier began experiencing sporadic attacks by small groups of Indians. The Cherokees were normally allies of the English, but the French, in an effort to claim all of the territory west of the Alleghany Mountains, from Canada to New Orleans, had built some sixty forts along this line to consolidate their claim. They had also won over many of the Indian tribes, and encouraged them to attack English frontier settlements. The English counter-measure was the formation of the Ohio Company for the sole purpose of establishing English settlements on the east bank of the Ohio River. Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia sent young George Washington, with a company of militia, to the French to inform them that they were encroaching on land belonging to the King of England, and that they must move. When the French refused Washington attempted to remove them by force with his troops. This action started the French and Indian War, a war that would ultimately determine who would rule most of North America for the next several decades, and which culture would ultimately be embraced by most of the citizens therein.

As the French and Indian War progressed the natives, encouraged by the French, grew bolder, murdering and pillaging all along the Catawba and Yadkin Rivers. Several campaigns were mounted against the local Indian tribes by the English—the Cherokees being the most troublesome—but it was not until 1761, when Colonel James Grant and his troops destroyed the last of the warring groups in the area, that a relative peace returned along the frontier.

The Churches of Rowan County: The early settlers of Rowan County were religious people, and in many instances it was the search for religious freedom that brought the settlers to the New World and to the Carolinas. The population of Rowan County represented almost all of the nations of Europe. There were English, Welsh, Scots, Germans from the upper and lower Rhine, as well as the ever present “Scotch-Irish.” Later migrations would include the pure Irish, Hessians, as well as a sprinkling of French and Italian.

The Germans, who came to be known as “Pennsylvania Dutch,” were the second-largest group in Rowan County, and tended to be Lutheran, while the smaller groups of Irish, French and Italian were mostly Catholic. By far, however,  the Scots-Irish settlers made up the greatest portion of the citizens, and settled—for the most part—in the western part of Rowan, and were predominately Presbyterian.

In 1751 there were two main Presbyterian congregations in Rowan County. The Fourth Creek Presbyterian Church was one, and by 1773 there were one hundred and ninety-six heads of families—with one hundred and eleven different surnames—living within ten miles of the Fourth Creek Presbyterian Church, and belonging to the congregation. It is estimated that this represented a congregation of about one thousand.

The Thyatira Presbyterian Church at Millbridge, initially known as Cathay’s Meeting House, was the second, and had a similar number of families in its congregation. It is believed that most of the Erwins that lived in Rowan County in the second half of the 1700s belonged to this congregation. Many Erwins, as well as many members of the prominent Cowan family—including Thomas and Mary Cowan, parents of Catherine Nancy Cowan Erwin—are buried in the adjacent cemetery.       

Slavery was legal in the 1700s in English Colonies, and as time passed many of the early pioneers developed large plantations. As this evolution progressed it became economically feasible to utilize large numbers of African slaves. It is known that James N. Erwin eventually owned several thousand acres in Rowan County. Thus it would not have been unusual for James N. Erwin to have owned multiple slaves—especially as his sons began striking out on their own—but it is probable that when he died he owned only one, for in his will he says, ”...And also it is my will that my two mills and negro (singular) and the land whereon ye mills sold…”


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 northwest 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 and determined family, and they were soon harvesting crops of corn, wheat, oats and indigo. It is recorded that James purchased several additional tracts of land to add to the ones obtained initially 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. Documents of the period indicate that  James Erwin, with his large family (six of his eleven children were sons), was a very successful farmer.

This was an era 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 a “husking party,” and one of the younger sons would be assigned the task riding around to the surrounding neighbors with an invitation to participate. 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 split log 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 the participants  would proceed to shuck the corn ears from the corn stalks and husks, then the ear of corn would be brought across the sharp edge of the log 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 all 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 thousand 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 in Piedmont area 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. 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.


Salisbury: The story of Salisbury is one of evolution. One of the most necessary things after Rowan County was established in 1753 was a court and jail. The appointed Justices, after much discussion, agreed to establish the Rowan Court House near a main road where the current court house now stands. A settlement soon began to establish itself around it, and on February 11, 1755 Lord Granville’s agents granted 635 acres for a town site that was to be known as Salisbury.

With its geographical position at the crossroads of the two great pioneer thoroughfares through North Carolina, Salisbury soon became a thriving commercial center. The town of seven or eight buildings in 1755 could boast of having at least thirty-five homes, inns, or shops by 1762, indicating that more than 150 people were living in the township at that time. At least fifteen of Salisbury's inhabitants were tradesmen, and several professions were represented; Salisbury had two lawyers, a potter, three hatters, an Indian trader, a weaver, a tailor, a tanner, a butcher, two merchants, a wagon maker, and sixteen inns had been licensed in Salisbury by the end of 1762.


With so many travelers passing through Salisbury during that time, inns and taverns were really 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 N. 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. In those days innkeepers were not allowed to set the prices they charged for drinks, meals and lodging. The local court started fixing the prices that innkeepers could charge, and in 1755—after establishing the prices for wine, whiskey and beer—they then set the prices that the keepers of ordinaries, inns and taverns could charge for other things, such as:

A dinner of roast beef or boiled fish: one shilling

  • For breakfast or supper: six pence.

  • Lodging for the night, with a good bed: two pence.

  • For stabling one horse for twenty-four hours, including hay or fodder: six pence.

  • Pasturage for one horse: for the first twenty-four hours, four pence.

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, some of whom 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  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.                                                                                                                  »»»  

James and Agnes Erwin, and most of their children, lived out their lives in and around Rowan County, North Carolina. It was not until the latter part of the 1700s that their grandchildren began to look west and south for greener pastures. The next several segments of  They Passed This Way will deal with the migration of various branches of the Erwin family into Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana.                                                                                                                –Ed.