Man of Many Madisons

Hugh Barnett lived in four states but resided only in Madison County.

He was born in 1790, in the recently-formed Madison County, Virginia. Two years later Kentucky was carved out of Virginia to become its own state, and the county became Madison County, Kentucky. As a young man he moved to Madison County, Alabama where his children were born. And finally he led his grown family on a last move to Madison County, Tennessee in 1849. He died there in 1854.


Modern Google map showing the relationship and present driving distance between Madison Counties in Kentucky, Alabama, and Tennessee. Google doesn’t seem to offer a travel time estimate for horse-drawn wagon.

Hugh’s parents likely moved to the Kentucky frontier from Mecklenburg County, NC, where the Barnetts had a large presence within the Presbyterian churches of the area. Family stories identify them as part of the Scotch-Irish community – lowland Scots who moved to northern Ireland at the invitation of King James I beginning early in the 17th century, but a hundred years later decided to move on to the North American colonies. They came in large numbers in the middle of the 18th century, and were responsible for much of the frontier settlement in North Carolina. There are family legends that this particular Barnett name actually came from French Huguenots who settled in Ireland after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, but that assertion is difficult to prove.

The frequent movements of Hugh’s family were not uncommon in this era, as the availability of new land seemed an irresistible lure for frontier settlers. Moving came with a significant cost, however. Transporting a household and all its belongings over wilderness trails, carving a farm out of raw land using only hand tools, and building a new home would have required tremendous amounts of work. Choosing to undertake that process 2 or 3 times seems extraordinary.

Plus, there was an emotional toll. While extended families would often make these moves together, usually there were portions of the family that stayed put. In the days before modern transportation, there was no guarantee of ever seeing again those who remained behind. When Hugh Barnett made his last move to Madison County, Tennessee, several of his children came along with their own families. Fidelia Simpson Barnett, the wife of his son Matthew Huston Barnett, penned a poem expressing the anguish of leaving behind her home and family and friends.


by Fidelia Simpson Barnett

Come all ye Union ladies who are living in the State,
And listen to my story I am going to relate.
I lived in Alabama in that good old healthy clime,
Until we emigrated to this state in eighteen hundred forty-nine.

Our home was very pleasant, and with health we had all been blessed,
But my husband thought it prudent to go out further west.
I had been living there some thirty years with friends I love, I know
But I felt it was my duty – with my husband to go.

Our children were all small then and we thought it would be best,
To go to a new country away out further west.
So I left all my friends and kindred most dear to me,
And came with my companion to the State of Tennessee.

Then we laid in our rations, to do us on the way,
And started in November – it was the fourteenth day.
I left all my relations in the County of Limestone;
I had four living sisters, but brothers I had none.

I left my aged father there and sisters who were dear;
My mother – she had gone to rest – and had been several years,
But to leave my fathers house, and him to see no more,
That was the greatest trial that I had to endure.

When I bade them all farewell, ’twas then my heart did ache;
I shall never forget that day while I have breath to speak.
I took my sisters by the hand, but could not speak a word,
And then I left my native land, and trusted in the Lord.

I felt just like a lonesome dove, who had just lost her mate;
There were just me and my husband – and children we had eight.
I did the very best I could to try to hide my grief,
But my husband was very kind to me – that gave me some relief.

My father went to town with us, it was a town of fame.
It was the seat of Limestone County, and Athens was its name.
There in the street bade farewell to him and Uncle dear,
And there fell from all our eyes, many a bitter tear.

That day I passed the old graveyard where my dear mother lay,
Who often warned me in my youth, and told me I must pray.
I was her youngest child; of me she took good care;
She would make me read the Bible and say the Lord’s Prayer.

We were traveling right along the road where she had walked with me
And plucked the pretty flowers from off the redbud tree.
But she was gone and I went on with those I loved best;
I tried to be right cheerful as we traveled to the west.

That day we got to Poplar Creek and there we had to camp,
And when I got the supper done I lit the glimmering lamp.
The lamp that always shined so bright – it did not shine for me
When I thought of home and friends that I no more would see.

When I would travel all day long, tired and weary-worn,
I’d lie down within my tent and think of friends and home.
One day as I was traveling I saw the old mile post;
It said “To Athens forty miles” – and I thought that I was lost.

The children would get out and walk, and they would never tire
Looking at the telegraph and at the lengthy wire.
My little boys walked all the way – over hill and mound;
When they grew tired, would sit and rest upon the sandy ground.

My husband had trials and hardships on the road,
For he had to drive the wagon with such a heavy load.
The wagon it broke down one day and the children all fell out,
The only bad accident that happened on the route.

Sometimes I would go along cheerful – the weather cool and calm
But oft times think of those dear friends I’d left in Alabam.
At night I’d take my baby up, and nurse it on my knee,
With my little children by my side as close as they could be.

At night we would make the beds all down and the children go to sleep.
My husband he would take my child and I’d go out and weep.
I could almost see my father’s face, it appeared so plain
Then something seemed to whisper – “You shall see him again.”

When we crossed the Shoal Creek Bridge, I thought that it would fall.
Then when we came to Shoal’s Hill, that was the worst of all.
We drove along that winding ridge, along that crooked road,
And I could but sit and wonder at the wonderous works of God.

The road it was just wide enough for the wagon wheels to go,
And it made me almost shudder to look down so far below.
When we got to Savannah and crossed Tennessee River
I thought I really was gone from all my friends – forever.

But after traveling fourteen days and lying on the ground,
We found ourselves in Tennessee, in midst of Jackson Town.
Jackson was a pretty town, its houses were so white,
But we did not stay there long, for we got home that night.


Printed in Family Findings, Vol. II, No. 1, January 1970, pp. 14-16
Mid-West Tennessee Genealogical Society, 1970

It seems that Fidelia was not particularly enthused about this move, but it was not to be her last. She died many years later in Arkansas. As before, some of the family remained in Madison County, TN, including Matthew’s brother David Price Barnett who died in Madison at the age of 42 in 1862. David’s daughter Mary Ann married John Nelson‘s grandson John Pleasant Scarborough Nelson.

Genealogical Notes

For those with interest in genealogical details, I offer a few quick notes about Hugh’s father, James Barnett, whose name is known from family Bible records. For better or worse, there were a number of James Barnett’s floating around Kentucky and Mecklenburg County, NC, at the right time to be Hugh’s father. It is unclear which was actually Hugh’s parent, but there are two well-documented individuals of this name who almost certainly were not. They are:

  1. James Barnett, son of William Barnett and Margaret Spratt of Mecklenburg County, NC. This James was named executor of his mother’s will, dated May 22, 1816. However, Bible records in Hugh’s family show that Hugh’s father James died March 4, 1816 and had been in Kentucky since 1790 – a most unlikely executor.
  2. James P. Barnett, a Revolutionary War veteran who was born in Virginia. There are fairly persuasive arguments that this former soldier died in Lincoln County, KY in 1834, which doesn’t line up at all with the Barnett Bible records. In addition, documentary sources for Hugh’s brother John McKinley Barnett identify Mecklenburg County, NC as his birthplace, while biographical records for James P. mention him living in Guilford County, NC, but never in Mecklenburg.
  3. A more likely individual would seem the James named in the will of a Hugh Barnett who died in 1786 and is buried in the Sugar Creek Presbyterian Church cemetery in Mecklenburg County. Unlike the multitude of Barnetts named “James” there are not so many named “Hugh;” the coincidence of the name is likely a pointer to the correct Barnett family.

Other genealogists may feel like they have this right already, but for me the precise identity of James Barnett and his parents remains a mystery to be solved.


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