VI. The New River Ferry

U.S. Highway 52 bridge over the New River in southeastern Wythe County, Va., with Interstate 77 bridge at upper left

U.S. Highway 52 bridge over the New River in southeastern Wythe County, Va., with Interstate 77 bridge at upper left

Modern highways frequently follow routes used for travel in the colonial era by foot, horse, or wagon. Today, Interstate 77 in southwestern Virginia connects North Carolina with West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and Ohio. Beginning at least 200 years before Interstate 77 was constructed, the spot where that highway crosses the New River was the location of a ferry that connected a road to North Carolina with roads leading to the western portions of Virginia that later became West Virginia and Kentucky. Operation of a ferry at this location continued into the twentieth century and was discontinued only when U.S. Highway 52 was built in 1931 with a bridge across the river. (Note 1.)

Property Acquisitions

Shown here is a map of that area south of the river, generally known as Poplar Camp, outlining the extent of property owned by Jesse Evans, including the ferry’s location (“Jackson Ferry”) exactly where U.S. Highway 52 crosses the river.

Map of New River properties owned by Jesse Evans between 1795 and 1815

Map of New River properties owned by Jesse Evans between 1795 and 1815

The earliest history of the ferry probably cannot be reconstructed with precision. What Jesse Evans understood and recorded will suffice for the purpose of telling the initial history here. The following is his account in court papers he filed in 1812. (Note 2.)

[In the early 1770s,] a certain William Herbert became possessed of certain lands on both sides of New River, now in the County of Wythe, where the public road leading from the place now Wythe Court house, to Poplar Camp Furnace, and thence to North Carolina, crosses the said River. . . . William Herbert established a ferry at the place where the said road passes over the said River, whether legally or not [Evans did not know.] . . . Herbert devised the said land on both sides of the said river with the said ferry to his son William Herbert and died.

William Herbert the younger sold the said land on the north side of the said river to a certain William Carter, reserving one quarter of an acre on the north side of the said river for the use of the said ferry to be laid off one rod wide and forty rods long, crossing the said public road . . . which was supposed from the local situation of the place to include all the land on the north side of the said river which could be conceivably be occupied in landing on the said shore . . . .

William Herbert the younger sold the said land on the south side of the said river to his brother Thomas Herbert, with the right of the said ferry, and also the said quarter of an acre on the opposite shore, who after he had purchased the same, procured a legal establishment of the said ferry, as will appear by the Act of [the General] Assembly made for that purpose.

[Evans subsequently] purchased from the said Thomas Herbert all his right, title, and interest to the said land and ferry, and obtained deeds of conveyance . . . from the said Thomas Herbert and one other from the said William Carter, to whom the said quarter of an acre had by mistake been transferred and conveyed . . . .

Evans’s purchase of the ferry and adjacent land from Thomas Herbert took place in 1795, as reflected in the bond Evans provided to the county at that time as security for operating the ferry. (Note 3.) He failed to have a deed recorded at that time, but the county’s records contain many other references to his presence at the New River location in the years immediately afterward. By 1797, the ferry is referred to as “Majr. Evans Ferry” in the county’s order books. (Note 4.)

Old house near the ferry crossing

Old house near the ferry crossing

Near the ferry’s location is an old house, which area residents believe dates from the time that the Herberts owned the land. Whether the house was there when Jesse Evans and his family lived at the ferry, its site about 300 yards from the river crossing seems a likely spot on which to live and oversee the ferry, while farming the arable land in the valley of Shorts Creek (formerly known as Poplar Camp Creek).

Excerpt of Feb. 3, 1800 land grant to Jesse Evans (Land Office Grants 44, 1799-1800, Library of Virginia, p. 251)

Excerpt of Feb. 3, 1800 land grant to Jesse Evans (Land Office Grants No. 44, 1799-1800, Library of Virginia, p. 251)

Map showing general location of Feb. 3, 1800 land grant to Jesse Evans

Map showing approximate location of Feb. 3, 1800 land grant to Jesse Evans

At about the same time that Evans began acquiring land at the New River ferry, he also initiated an acquisition a few miles even further south. (Note 5.) This parcel of 100 acres was surveyed October 8, 1794, based on rights he acquired from John McCoy. Shown above is an excerpt of the Virginia land grant to Evans dated February 3, 1800.

The parcel is on Cranberry Creek, which is a tributary of the New River, although the exact location is probably impossible to determine. The land, which is several miles northeast of the town of Galax, was part of Grayson County at the time Evans owned it but is now part of Carroll County. Evans’s eventual sale or other disposition of the property has not been found in the records of either county.

Excerpt of 1797 petition in Herbert v. Evans (Common law case file 1801-43, Wythe County, Va.)

Excerpt of 1797 petition in Herbert v. Evans (Common law case folder 1801-43, Wythe County, Va.)

Thomas Herbert’s Lawsuit

Notable among Wythe County records related to the New River ferry is a lawsuit Thomas Herbert filed against Evans in 1797. Although the surviving documents don’t mention the ferry, the claim made by Herbert involves work that he provided at Evans’s “business” in 1796 and that Evans failed to pay for. (Note 6.)

Herbert’s petition begins:

Thomas Herbert complains of Jesse Evans . . . that the said Deft. [in] 1796 in the said County of Wythe, was indebted to the Plf. the sum of three hundred dollars for the work and labour, care, and diligence of the said Plf. before that time done, performed and bestowed by him the said Plf. and his servants and hired men, and with his horses, wagons, carts, & carriages, in and about the business of the said Deft. for the said Deft. and at his the said Deft’s special instance and request . . . .

April 12, 1799 entry referring Thomas Herbert’s claim to a panel of arbitrators (Wythe County, Va., Order Book)

April 12, 1799 entry referring Thomas Herbert’s claim to a panel of arbitrators (Wythe County, Va., Order Book)

The court eventually referred the matter to a panel of arbitrators in April 1799 and noted continuation of the matter in September 1799. (Note 7.) The referral order states that the arbitrators’ “award or the award of a majority of them is to be made the judgment of this Court.”

June 11, 1801 arbitrators’ decision in Herbert v. Evans (Common law case file 1801-43, Wythe County, Va.)

June 11, 1801 arbitrators’ decision in Herbert v. Evans (Common law case folder 1801-43, Wythe County, Va.)

The arbitrators issued their written decision on June 11, 1801. Evans won perhaps a partial victory in that the arbitrators awarded Herbert less than $100 instead of the $300 claimed.

The written decision, shown here, is noteworthy in that each participating arbitrator signed the document, which provides a single source for original signatures of many of the early leaders of Wythe County, including:

  • Alexander Smyth
  • Nathaniel Frisbie
  • James Newell
  • Stephen Sanders
  • Francis Carter
  • Jehu Stephens
  • James Austin
  • Daniel Sheffey

Other of the earliest records of Evans’s presence at the New River document his claim to 150 acres of land based on rights that he acquired from Robert Adams in 1796. (Note 8.) The stated boundaries of this parcel do not match existing topography but appear to describe land—including the New River itself—just north of and adjoining the western arm of Evans’s primary property. The 150-acre claim, for which he later obtained a survey and Virginia land grant, may have been made in order to acquire any islands or other land along the river’s bank that wasn’t already in private hands. (Note 9.)

Excerpt of petition in Pierce v. Evans (Chancery case file 1813-07, Wythe County, Va.)

Excerpt of petition in Pierce v. Evans (Chancery case folder 1813-07, Wythe County, Va.)

Dealings with David Pierce

Operation of the ferry across the New River was undoubtedly profitable but was not without its challenges. Operation required both men and horses every day and for long hours. By the time Evans acquired the ferry in 1795, he was able to rely on his sons for some of the labor. He also continued to own slaves which could be used for the purpose. The county’s 1800 tax list shows that Evans owned 10 slaves and 5 horses at that time. (Note 10.)

Some details of how the ferry worked can be found in court documents from a lawsuit filed against Evans by David Pierce (Peirce) after a disastrous crossing in 1806. (Note 11.) Pierce’s petition briefly described his claim:

Jesse Evans . . . kept a ferry boat on New River at the place where the public road crossed the said river leading from North Carolina to Kentucky and Tennessee. [He] undertook to carry a loaded waggon and two horses of the value of 100$ each . . . from the north bank of the said river to the opposite shore and in doing so suffered . . . the said boat to sink and the two said horses to be drowned . . . . [Evans was negligent] in not keeping a good and sufficient boat and not keeping good and sufficient horses or ferry men to toe the said boat . . . .

What Pierce’s petition failed to mention but was described in the ensuing depositions was that his wagoneer also was drowned when the ferry boat sank. Depositions from witnesses were taken in November 1812 for use at the trial. William Carter answered questions on three separate days, and a man named Coffin (his first name was written as Liby or Libny) who used the ferry several days after the accident also provided testimony.

More information about what happened at the ferry that February day in 1806, along with the complete text of the depositions, can be found on the page “1806 – Accident at the New River Ferry.” According to a note on the reverse side of the November 23, 1812 deposition of William Carter, the case was eventually dismissed in June 1813. Perhaps Evans and Pierce reached a settlement.

July 14, 1801 entry describing application for grist mill by David Pierce (Wythe County, Va., Order Book)

July 14, 1801 entry describing application for grist mill by David Pierce (Wythe County, Va., Order Book)

The two men were well acquainted with each other. William Carter’s deposition testimony contains a reference to some dispute between them that was ongoing even before the ferry accident.

By 1801, Pierce had purchased from Evans a small parcel on Poplar Camp Creek (now called Shorts Creek) where a grist mill and saw mill was operated. (Note 12.) The parcel’s location is shown on the map at the beginning of this Part VI. Pierce and his customers from the north side of the New River would have used Evans’s ferry frequently.

The eight-acre mill site is bisected by U.S. Highway 52 and is readily accessible today. It is easy to imagine harnessing the creek here to power a mill.

House at location of David Pierce’s mill on Shorts Creek (formerly Poplar Camp Creek)

House at location of David Pierce’s mill on Shorts Creek (formerly Poplar Camp Creek)

The accompanying photo shows a small house remaining on the site, although how much of that structure dates from Pierce’s day is hard to know. In the photo, the highway can be seen on the right-hand side, with the creek hidden in trees between the highway and house.

Oct. 11, 1810 application by Stephen Sanders, Jr., to establish ferry (Common law case file 1811-49, Wythe County, Va.)

Oct. 11, 1810 application by Stephen Sanders, Jr., to establish ferry (Common law case folder 1811-49, Wythe County, Va.)

Competition from Stephen Sanders

Even though the New River ferry was privately owned, it could be operated only with permission from the Virginia General Assembly—either by specific legislation or by a grant of authority to a county to establish public ferry service. Evans apparently believed that Thomas Herbert had obtained an act of the Assembly authorizing the ferry, although no reference to the ferry appears in Hening’s Statutes of Virginia. (Note 13.) No one seems to have questioned Evans’s right to operate his ferry, but he did face a challenge of another kind.

In October 1810, Stephen Sanders, Jr., who owned land on the north side of the New River, made an application to Wythe County to establish his own ferry service. (Note 14.) The county court ordered a jury to be formed to determine the matter, and the jury returned its finding on December 1, 1810. (Note 15.)

We the Jurors impaneled to view the land of Stephen Sanders Jr. proposed for a ferry across New River agreeable to an order of Court requiring the Sheriff to summon & impannel a Jury agreeable to the same, we being first sworn have viewed the same and are of opinion that it will be a publick convenience for the said Sanders to have a ferry from his own land to land of Jesse Evans on the opposite shore.

Evans filed exceptions to the proceedings with the county court on various grounds, but on June 11, 1811, the court decided unanimously to grant Sanders’s application. Evans appealed to the Superior Court of Law for Wythe County, and the matter came up for hearing on October 12, 1811. The Superior Court decided that it had no jurisdiction over the appeal, and the case was dismissed. That was not to be the end of the matter, although exactly which court or courts heard the various subsequent proceedings isn’t clear. (Note 16.)

Excerpt of Dec. 1, 1811 complaint by Stephen Sanders (Chancery case file 1813-02, Wythe County, Va.)

Excerpt of Dec. 1, 1811 complaint by Stephen Sanders (Chancery case folder 1813-02, Wythe County, Va.)

In December 1811, Sanders filed a complaint with the court claiming that Evans “with force of arms” had prevented Sanders’s ferry from crossing the river or landing on the opposite shore. (Note 17.) On August 24, 1812, Evans obtained depositions from Thomas Farmer, John Matney, and Benjamin Hunter for the purpose of showing that Sanders was making a practice of landing his ferry boat on Evans’s land on the north side of the river instead of on Sanders’s own land. (Note 18.)

On November 16, 1812, Evans sought an injunction from the Superior Court of Chancery for Wythe County, asking for a new trial of the question of the Sanders ferry. His motion described that because that appeal had been dismissed:

Stephen Sanders Junr, claiming right under the said judgment of the said county court to keep a ferry pays no regard to so much of the said judgment, as says he shall go from his own land and keeps his ferry boat on the known and acknowledged land of [Jesse Evans] on both sides of the said river because for a considerable portion of the year he would not otherwise be able to take in travellers. And [Jesse Evans] expressly states that his ferry boat is amply sufficient to give a speedy passage to double the number of travellers who pass that way.

He further states that the said Stephen Sanders will take in passengers on his return from your orators side of the said river at a reduced price, striving if possible to take away the whole of the profits of [Jesse Evans’s] ancient ferry . . . .

Nov. 17, 1812 order of injunction against Stephen Sanders (Chancery case file 1813-02, Wythe County, Va.)

Nov. 17, 1812 order of temporary injunction against Stephen Sanders (Chancery case folder 1813-02, Wythe County, Va.)

The following day, on November 17, 1812, the court signed a temporary order of injunction that would, at least, restrain Sanders from “landing or keeping his ferry boat on [Evans’s land] on the north side of New River.” (Note 19.) On May 12, 1813, Sanders filed his formal answer to Evans’s request for a new trial in the court of chancery. He argued that if the Superior Court’s dismissal was incorrect, Evans should have appealed to the Court of Appeals; if the Superior Court’s dismissal was correct, Evans had no further recourse. (Note 20.)

If the opinion of the Superior Court that it had not appellate jurisdiction was not correct certainly the Court of Appeals would have reversed the dismissal and directed the inferior court to proceed on the merits. If it was correct then it follows that the decision of the County Court was first and that the plaintiff had no right to be heard in any appellate court.

As to Sanders’s practices in operating his ferry, he admitted

that he takes passengers from the south side as he contends to have a right to do and that he has conveyed some at prices less than the law allows but this [Jesse Evans] has as much concern as if [Sanders] sold his corn at prices less than usual. [Sanders] denies that he either departs from or lands on [Jesse Evans’s] land; he has sometimes landed in the public road where [he] presumes [Jesse Evans] has no right of ownership, but generally has confined himself to his own land.

Excerpt of Oct. 15, 1813 settlement agreement (Wythe County, Va., Deed Book 1A, p. 9)

Excerpt of Oct. 15, 1813 settlement agreement (Wythe County, Va., Deed Book 1A, p. 9)

Evans prepared further for a trial by obtaining more testimony by affidavit on May 18, 1813, from John Matney, Thomas Farmer, and Elizabeth Blanshet (Blanchett) about the operations of the Sanders ferry. (Note 21.)

The issues were finally resolved by a written settlement that Jesse Evans and Stephen Sanders signed on October 15, 1813. The agreement was recorded as a matter of public record like a deed. (Note 22.) Sanders agreed not to operate a ferry at the location. In exchange, Evans paid him the equivalent of $330 and agreed to provide free ferry passage to Sanders and his family. The two parties also agreed to have each of their suits against each other dismissed. (Note 23.)

Jan. 11, 1814 entry granting Jesse a license to keep an ordinary (Wythe County, Va., Order Book)

Jan. 11, 1814 entry granting Jesse Evans a license to keep an ordinary (Wythe County, Va., Order Book)

Registration of still (Hugh McGavock Papers, Mss. Collection 1993.1, Kegley Library, Wytheville Community College, Wytheville, Va.)

Registration of still (Hugh McGavock Papers, Mss. Collection 1993.1, Kegley Library, Wytheville Community College, Wytheville, Va.)

Evans would sell the ferry and leave Wythe County in 1815. During his last year there, however, he expanded the services he offered by establishing an ordinary. The county’s order granting the license, shown above, describes the location of the ordinary as “at his own house near [his] ferry.” (Note 24.)

Evans had already established (probably some years before) a distillery business. His tax registration of a 135-gallon still is shown here. The date is uncertain, as the date on the form is “179_” with the last digit left blank. The document describes the product of the still as being “intended for sale.” (Note 25.)

Shot towerThe Shot Tower

Standing at the edge of the bluff overlooking the New River ferry site is an old stone tower built to manufacture lead shot. The tower is readily visible to motorists on Interstate 77. The site is now the Shot Tower Historic State Park and is open to the public along with the adjacent New River Trail State Park.

Some details about the history and function of the shot tower are provided by the Virginia Department of Conservation & Recreation brochure shown below.

Shot Tower Historic State Park brochure (Virginia Department of Conservation & Recreation)

Shot Tower Historic State Park brochure (Virginia Department of Conservation & Recreation)

Some sources, including this brochure, place the date of construction at 1807. That is unlikely, however. Jesse Evans had possession of the site and all surrounding property from 1795 to 1815, and no reference to the shot tower appears anywhere in records related to him. While it is conceivable that Evans had leased the land by 1807 to Thomas Jackson, who then built the tower, no such transaction has been found. (Note 26.)

The evidence in the public record would suggest that the shot tower was built after 1815, when Jackson purchased the land and ferry. That transaction was particularly complex and was executed in two stages: a contract of sale signed on May 19, 1815, and a deed dated September 1, 1815. (Note 27.) Neither the contract of sale or deed mentions the shot tower.

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Copyright 2012-2014 Gregory Hancks

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