A New County
By the end of 1790, Jesse and Elizabeth Evans would have eight of their nine children, all still under the age of 13. (Note 1.) That year, Elizabeth’s father died. His will appointed as executors of his estate both his son John Breckenridge and son-in-law Jesse Evans. (Note 2.) At that time, Evans’s taxable personal property was listed as nine slaves and four horses. (Note 3.)
In 1789, a petition by residents of Montgomery and Botetourt Counties had been submitted to the Virginia General Assembly to form a new county. (Note 4.) Formation of the new Wythe County was approved that year and became effective in 1790.
The county was governed by a county court consisting of 12 or more justices, which initially included James McGavock, James Newell, William Ward, William Davis, Robert Sayers, John T. Sayers, John Stephens, William Thompson, Andrew Boyd, and John Adams.
At an organizing session on May 26, 1790, the court made appointments to the county’s militia, including appointing Jesse Evans as a captain. (Note 5.) At the same session, the court made recommendations to the governor for appointments to the position of justice of the peace, and Evans was one of the individuals recommended. (Note 6.)
Also during Wythe County’s first year, Evans joined together with Abram Goodpasture and Walter Crockett to contract to build a courthouse for the county. (Note 7.) The contract was recorded in the manner of a deed and included extensive details on design, construction and materials to be used—down to the interior and exterior paint colors. The full text of the contract, including images of the deed book pages, is on the page “1790 – Contract To Build the Wythe Courthouse.”
Various of these currents in Evans’s life are referred to on pages 24 and 25 of Wythe County’s first order book, shown here. On just these two pages (for Sept. 29, 1790) appear the following:
Jesse Evans took the oath of captain of the militia of this county. . . .
Ordered that James Findley, Jesse Evans, William Adams, Peter Binkley, & Joseph Crockett do review the grounds proposed for a waggon road from Fort Chizel [Chiswell] to the courthouse as reported . . . to the last court. Also view another way which will be shewn by Geo. Armbrister & report the conveniences & inconveniences attending each to the next Court. . . .
The last will and testament of George Breckenridge decd. was proved by the oaths of the witnesses thereto . . . Jesse Evans & John Breckenridge, the Execs therein named took the oath with securities entered into & acknowledged their bond according to law. . . .
An article of agreement & bond from the undertakers to build the courthouse retd. by the Comm. to court & O[rdered] R[ecorded].
Sometime during Wythe County’s first year, Evans had also begun serving as a deputy sheriff, although the record of that appointment has not been found. On January 24, 1791, his service in that role ended, as documented in the county court’s records. (Note 8.)
During this time, Evans continued to live at Cove Creek. In 1791, he sold his 75-acre parcel to Alexander Smyth, although that transaction was transitory because Evans repurchased the parcel from Smyth in 1795. (Note 9.)
In 1793, Evans acquired 176 acres that extended to the ridge now cut by Interstate 77 just north of Wytheville. (Note 10.) By that time, title to the adjacent Breckenridge property had been conveyed in full from John Breckenridge to his brother Robert. (Note 11.)
Evans’s land acquisition efforts at the beginning of the decade were not limited to Cove Creek. In 1790, he acquired from Robert Adams (assignee of Samuel McGraw) a claim on 1000 acres spanning Reed Creek, as initially documented in the county’s first entry book. (Note 12.)
The boundaries of this land may be impossible to determine with any precision because they are described in the entry book solely by the names of adjacent property owners: Stophel (Christopher) Simmerman, John Davis, John McNutt, George Kegley, Daniel Etter, Edward Murphey (Murphy), Peter Binkley, Charles Simmerman, and George Armbrister. (Note 13.)
Evans would never do anything with his rights to this tract other than sell in pieces. (Note 14.) The most detail available in surviving records has to do with a 265-acre portion of the 1000 acres. In 1793, Evans conveyed rights to the 265 acres to the Helvey family (siblings Susanna, Henry, and Jacob). (Note 15.) The accompanying map shows estimated boundaries of the Helvey parcel.
The Town of Evansham
The contract to build the first courthouse in Wythe County didn’t mention its location. It is frequently stated that the place that would become Wytheville was originally called Abbeville. (Note 16.) Whatever the place was called in 1790, there was nothing there at that time that today would be recognized as a town or village. (Note 17.)
Shortly after Wythe County was formed, the county court determined to establish a town where the courthouse and other public buildings were to be erected. To that end, Christopher Simmerman (Stophel Zimmerman) and John Davis provided 100 acres of land, an initial layout of lots was made by survey, and a petition was submitted to the General Assembly to formalize the undertaking. (Note 18.)
An act establishing the town of Evansham was approved by the General Assembly on October 29, 1792. (Note 19.) The full text of that act is included on the page “1792 – Acts Establishing Evansham and Academy.”
It is generally assumed that Evansham was named for Jesse Evans. He was one of the initial eight town trustees appointed by the General Assembly, along with Alexander Smyth, Walter Crockett, William Ward, Robert Adams, James Newell, David M’Gavock (McGavock), and William Caffee (Calfee). Evans was, however, only 33 at the time, and most of his public service was still in the future.
Although Evans was by now a veteran of the Revolutionary War, a former member of the House of Delegates, and a modest landowner, other Wythe residents surpassed him in all these areas. At the same time, there seems to be no other Evans (or Evansham) that would be a candidate for namesake of Evansham. (Note 20.) Why the town would be named for him, like the initial source of his wealth, remains something of a mystery.
The petition itself makes no mention of a name for the proposed town or of Jesse Evans. The request to the General Assembly was not a grassroots effort but was made at the direction of the Wythe County court only to resolve technical and legal issues that had arisen from town development that was already underway.
The journal of the House of Delegates records the progress of the act to establish the town, from the initial reading of the petition on October 4, 1792, to the recommendation of the Committee of Propositions and Grievances on October 6 that the petition was “reasonable,” to the first reading of the bill on October 23, to passage by the House on October 25. (Note 21.) Prior to passage, the House journal notes that on October 25 the bill’s “blanks” were “filled up,” perhaps adding details such as the names of the town and trustees. Then “Mr. Smyth (of Wythe)” was assigned to “carry the bill to the Senate, and desire their concurrence.” (Note 22.) The naming of the town may, therefore, have resulted from the presence of Alexander Smyth, Evans’s colleague, as a Wythe County delegate when the decision was made.
The Senate’s consideration of the matter was swift. On October 25, the Senate’s journal records receipt of a “Message from the House of Delegates by Mr. Smith [sic]” about a “Bill For establishing a Town in the County of Wythe.” The bill was reviewed and recommended by committee and then, on October 29, was read for the third time and “on the question being put that the same do pass,” voted “in the Affirmative.” (Note 23.)
In any event, as a trustee of the town, Jesse Evans’s signature appears on a number of the initial deeds conveying lots in the town to their initial purchasers. The deed shown here is one of the earliest.
The Academy at Wythe Courthouse
At the same time that Evansham was established, the General Assembly also chartered an “academy” to be located in Wythe County in response to a citizens’ petition. (Note 24.) The academy was to serve as a public school for the area. The petition described the public values behind the effort. (Note 25.)
[T]he general diffusion of science [is] the most likely means to preserve the blessings of Liberty to any people: For the unlettered man has no means to acquire knowledge but his own observation, while the scholar has the experience of past Ages open to his view, can see the rise & progress of oppression in other states, & so the better know how to guard against it in his own.
The full text of the petition and complete images of the signature pages are included on the page “1792 – Acts Establishing Evansham and Academy.”
The document contains dozens of signatures. The first few appear to have been written at the time the document was initially drafted and include Walter Crockett, Jesse Evans, John Adams, Robert Adams, Manassas Friel, John Johnston, and Abram Goodpasture. These individuals helped lead the effort to establish the academy and were among those who promised financial contributions. Evans himself promised 30 pounds, outstripping Walter Crockett’s promise of 20 pounds and various other promised contributions up to 10 pounds each. (Note 26.)
In addition to being instrumental in founding the academy, Evans was one of the initial 15 trustees named by the General Assembly. Other named trustees included Alexander Smyth, Walter Crockett, John Adams, James Campbell (McCampbell), and Robert Sayer (Sayers).
Copyright 2012-2014 Gregory Hancks
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