Ahead of Their Time

In 1610, King James of England and Scotland made an effort to subdue and profit from his possession of Ireland by seizing land from the Irish and offering it up to some of his other subjects. Notably, many lowland Scots decided to jump islands and make a go of farming and herding on the new Ulster Plantation. They were fairly successful despite having to deal with justifiably surly dispossessed Irish natives. However, a century later the combination of unfortunate economic and religious policy from Great Britain combined with poor agricultural returns sparked a mass migration of these Scotsmen out of Ireland. They headed for a new adventure in America, where collectively they became known as the Scotch-Irish in reflection of their dual heritage.

banyan

A banyan tree. An actual descendant of the Wallace-Alexander-McKnitt family is in the branches of this “family tree!”

From 1717 until the American Revolution, the Scotch-Irish were a significant component of American immigration and appear in large numbers within this family as with many others, bearing names like McRee, McNeely, and Barnett. But the most influential Scotch-Irish in the family arrived well ahead of the big wave of immigrants. “Influential” is here meant two ways: these members of the family were quite important in their communities and rose to prominence and leadership particularly during the War for Independence. However, they were also influential in their large presence within the overall history of the family. For this part of the family tree, think banyan.

Sometime in the latter half of the 17th century, a closely-knit group of Scotch-Irish settled on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, across the water from the original Virginia settlements. There is a remarkable amount of disagreement about who exactly was in this group, when they came, and where they first settled, but there are a few points of near-consensus. There was a core group of Alexanders – seven brothers and two sisters and possibly their father – who settled on or near Manokin Hundred in Somerset County, Maryland. They intermarried with other Scotch-Irish families, particularly the Wallaces and McKnitts. At the very beginning of the next century, a portion of these combined family units founded a satellite settlement called New Munster in Cecil County, Maryland. As western portions of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina opened up in the 18th century, some of the Alexanders-Wallaces-McKnitts opportunistically moved into these new areas, with many eventually congregating in parts of the North Carolina Piedmont – particularly Mecklenburg County.

maryland1906m

Maryland in 1700 to 1740. Somerset County is in the lower right corner, Cecil County in the upper right.

The descendants of these early settlers appear throughout the family tree. The author of this blog can trace ancestry to at least 5 of the 9 immigrant Alexander siblings. Of the 8 families which provide structure for this blog, 3 of them have Alexanders, Wallaces, and McKnitts in their background – the Paysingers, Nelsons, and Thompsons – and that is without resolving multiple likely additions (see the discussion of Thomas Alexander Paysinger‘s middle name). Just to give a sense of it:

  • The grandparents of Jesse Wallace who married the Quaker Martha George of the Thompson family included Joseph James Wallace, Ezekiel Wallace, and Jean Alexander, whose ancestry traces back to two of the immigrant Alexander siblings Elizabeth and Samuel as well as immigrant Matthew Wallace (married to Elizabeth).
  • The great-grandmother of Elenor Thompson who married Pleasant Johnson of the Nelson family was Jemima Alexander who married Thomas Sharpe. The ancestry of her parents James Robert Alexander and Margaret McKnitt goes back to two of the immigrant Alexander siblings (Joseph and Elizabeth) as well as Elizabeth’s husband Matthew Wallace and immigrant John McKnitt.
  • The grandmother of Mary Adeline McRee of the Paysinger family was Ruth Alexander, who married John McRee. She also traces her ancestry back to Wallaces, McKnitts, and yet another immigrant Alexander sibling (James).

The number of intermarriages in this family early in its American history is dizzying, and duplicate names make fully mapping the relationships very difficult. It is perhaps easier and more useful to simply talk about the 17th and early 18th-century family as a collective, and this family descended from them all.

The family showed an early penchant for activism. Two William Alexanders and John McKnitt were among those signing a potentially treasonous Somerset County declaration pledging support for William and Mary after the 1689 Glorious Revolution deposed Catholic King James II in favor of his Protestant relatives. In Cecil County, their names often appeared as church elders or commissioners for the local government. However, it was during the Revolutionary War – when succeeding generations had moved to new frontiers in North Carolina – that the family would become particularly prominent.

Mecklenburg County was created in 1762. The chief appointive post in the colonial government was High Sheriff, and the first appointee was Moses Alexander, the uncle of Ruth Alexander. Moses was also a lieutenant colonel in the county militia, and between the two posts one of the most powerful people in the county. However, he was matched by his cousin Abraham Alexander, who was one of the first county Justices of the Peace as well as representing the county in the colonial assembly and holding the rank of captain in the county militia. Another cousin – and Jemima Alexander’s brother – John McKnitt Alexander was appointed to the all-important post of surveyor for western lands in North Carolina. Later, in 1768, John McKnitt’s and Jemima’s brother Hezekiah Alexander was also made a Justice of the Peace.

The number of prestigious posts in the colonial government held by the Alexander family was not happenstance. The royal governor of North Carolina was seeking allies in the western counties during the increasingly tumultuous 1760s and early 1770s, and because the Alexander-Wallace-McKnitt clan was so numerous, giving appointments to family members was an efficient way to curry favor. Initially the strategy worked and Mecklenburg County was supportive of royal governance when challenged by the Regulator movement. But after seemingly arbitrary royal decisions to veto acts allowing Presbyterian ministers to perform marriages and chartering the new Queens College (three Alexanders were founding trustees of this school, the first college in the colonies south of Virginia), the sentiment of the Alexanders shifted. In 1774, Mecklenburg County would follow the example of other communities and form a Committee of Safety – a democratic, local effort to take control of government away from royal authorities. Of the six members of Mecklenburg County’s Committee of Safety, four were Alexanders including Hezekiah, John McKnitt, Abraham, and Adam.

Then came news of the opening shots of the war at Lexington and Concord, and Britain’s declaration that the colonies were in rebellion. While there is some confusion in the historical record about what happened next, it is clear that on May 31, 1775, under the leadership of the Committee of Safety, Mecklenburg County adopted one of the most radical rejections of British authority to appear in the colonies – the Mecklenburg Resolves. The Resolves declared a suspension of British authority in the colony and announced that governing power would be invested in “the Provincial Congress’s of each Province under the direction of the Great Continental Congress.” Later, Mecklenburg citizens would recall another document that went even further in announcing outright independence from Britain, the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. North Carolinians would long assert that Mecklenburg County was thus the first to claim its independence, more than a year before July 1776 and the Continental Congress’s Declaration of Independence. However, professional historians have generally agreed that the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence was actually a later embellishment of the story of the Resolves, which were very radical in their own right but did not assert a complete separation from Britain.

No original copy of the Mecklenburg Declaration has ever been found. There is no trace of the document allegedly sent to the Continental Congress, and the copy retained in North Carolina reportedly was destroyed in a house fire at John McKnitt Alexander’s residence. The text of the Declaration and a list of 25 signers were later reconstructed from the memories of those involved. Either Abraham or Hezekiah Alexander chaired the meeting, John McKnitt Alexander served as Secretary, while Esra, Charles, and Adam Alexander were among the signers. Other signers included close relations of the Alexanders such as Robert Irwin, a general in the militia during the war whose wife Mary was Ruth Alexander’s sister. However, it is likely that the meeting and the document signed regarded the Mecklenburg Resolves, not the Declaration.

As political resistance turned into an active military conflict with the British government, North Carolina replaced the Committees of Safety with a statewide Council of Safety. The Council would govern both civilian and military affairs of the province during the war. Composed of two representatives from each of six districts, the two from the Rowan District were Jemima Alexander Sharpe’s brother Hezekiah and her eldest son, William Sharpe. Among other tasks for the Council these two served as Commissaries in charge of supplies for North Carolina’s militia. Robert Irwin and Hezekiah were then among the five individuals elected to represent Mecklenburg County at the Halifax convention that drew up North Carolina’s state constitution, while William Sharpe represented Rowan County. Sharpe would go on to a national role as a North Carolina representative to the Continental Congress from 1779-1781.

The influence of the Alexander-Wallace-McKnitt family continued thoughout the war and afterward. Many family members were given lifetime appointments as county magistrates. Robert Irwin, William Sharpe, and George Alexander served in the North Carolina General Assembly within the first dozen years of statehood. Moses Alexander’s son Nathaniel not only joined the General Assembly in 1797, but went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives and then became governor of North Carolina from 1805-1807. Nor was their influence only in the core counties of North Carolina. William Wallace and his wife (and cousin) Mary Wallis moved from Mecklenburg County over the mountains before the war and settled in the area that became Sullivan County, Tennessee. William was very influential in eastern Tennessee, participating in the founding of three counties – Sullivan, Knox, and Blount. He was one of the first justices of the peace in all three, beginning with Sullivan County in 1780.

hezekiah-alexander-house

Hezekiah Alexander House, from the website of the  Charlotte Museum of History

There are many more tales about this remarkable family, and fortunately there are more thorough sources available than this brief summary. Particularly useful and readable is Norris Preyer’s Hezekiah Alexander and the Revolution in the Backcountry. It is also possible to visit Hezekiah’s home which still stands on the grounds of the Charlotte Museum of History. Completed in 1774, it is the oldest surviving structure in Mecklenburg County and it serves as a tangible reminder of the family’s long history in the South.

 

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