Peggy and I had visited Antrim County, Northern Ireland in 2012. We had previously had the good fortune to track the Brysons from their arrival in Pennsylvania in the 1750’s through their moves to South and North Carolina. I will attempt to capture the historical period and the part played by the Brysons up to the beginning of the Revolutionary War.
Before I start tracing the family history of the first generation, here are some of the actual places where the early Brysons resided.
The scene and old graveyard near Sylva, North Carolina was one of our first stops in an effort to find the early Brysons. While none of our Bryson linage were resting here, many other branches were well represented. A gentleman who was raking leaves was quite amused when we told him that we were looking for Brysons. He pointed out the houses of several neighbors who were Brysons. He and his wife drove us to another graveyard where we came up empty.The picture below is from downtown Sylva. Notice the hills. There are plenty of them.
We knew we were in the Bryson homeland when we found the city named after Thaddeus Bryson. While he was not a direct ancestor, he is certainly in the family. The owner of the B&B was a retired judge who knew almost everything and wanted to make sure that we also knew it. We discovered that the magic phrase was either DAR or Daughters of the Confederacy. The mere mention opened the floodgates of local knowledge.
The jackpot. This cemetery next to the Sugarfolk Baptist Church in Elijay, NC is the final resting place of many a Bryson. It is near Beta off the Great Smoky Mountains Expressway and Scott’s Creek the probable last home of William Bryson, the pater familia of the clan. We did find the grave of his son, James Holmes and others. We did not find William or his relation Elizabeth Countryman, the Molly Pitcher of the South. Most of the gravestones from that generation are illegible.
Now for the history.
The Scots-Irish as we refer to them in the United States possessed a tumultuous history. Their history is one of conflict. As Lowland Scots they found themselves caught between the English to the South and their Highland neighbors. The Lowlanders were farmers and cattlemen. The fought continually with the Highlanders who viewed the Lowland farms as convenient places for resupply and plunder. During the wars between the Scots and English during the 1200-1300-1400-1500-1600-1700’s, the Lowland Scots around Glasgow were caught in the middle. They were compelled to defend themselves in a manner that became almost hereditary.
The English crown that controlled Ireland sought to establish loyal citizens in Ireland in the late 1500s and 1600s. Irish land had been granted to friends of the English King while Irish landowners were gradually replaced by the English. The largely Catholic Irish resisted the attempts of the Protestant English to dominate their Ireland and rebelled periodically. Poor Lowland Scots were induced to migrate across the narrow Irish Sea to settle in English owned Plantations. They received favorable land rents and leases in return for being reliable allies of the English throne. Their Calvinist-Presbyterianism was as hostile to the Irish Catholics as the Catholics were to them. During the English Civil War thousands were massacred by the Irish. The British at the end of their Civil War sent Oliver Cromwell to retaliate. Cromwell’s invasion led to the death of a much as one third of the Irish population. It is unclear as to what, if any, roll the Brysons played during this tragic period. We do know that the favorable land leases of the 1600s were less favorable as the Scots in Ireland continued to have children and their opportunities for bettering themselves diminished. By the 1750s it was time to explore options.
The colony founded by William Penn provided a glowing opportunity. Penn had plenty of land but faced a hostile population of Native Americans. His colony was originally dominated by pacifist Quakers and refugees from the religious wars in Europe. The Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites and others were not known for a warlike disposition. Penn began recruiting the Scots-Irish to shore up his vulnerable western frontier. The poor crop years of 1729 and the famine years of 1740-1 made emigration a favorable option. One major hurdle was the attempt by British land owners to restrict or slow down the departure of their tenants. The other was the nature of the crossing. Eight weeks in a cramped ship with poor food and water led to the death of many emigrants. We can infer that the Brysons had either the means to afford better food than steerage or that they were just plain hardy since they all survived the voyage. William and his two brothers, Hugh and John arrive at the port of Philadelphia in the 1740’s.
The English dominated Philadelphians wanted to settle these newly arrived Scotch-Irish to the west of the more gentle Germans. This was fine with the Scots since they had love for the English nor the Germans, although these factors were less important when love intervened as we will see later. Once they had found farmland, the immigrant was faced with a long and difficult process to acquire the land which sometimes lasted 50 years. The purchase had to approved by the Penns through an application, a survey and finally a land patent. While waiting for the process to be completed, the settler could be evicted for non-payment of property taxes even though their was no ownership. Needless to say that there was considerable frustration on the part of the settlers with limited legal recourse. Frankly, many decided to move beyond the reach of the law.
The arrival of the Brysons prior to 1745 coincide with the years of the French and Indian Wars (1756-1763). The Scotch-Irish were on the front lines in the wars with the Iroquois who were supported by the French. Two or three thousand settlers on the Pennsylvania frontier were killed while the settlers were left to protect themselves with little or no assistance from the English dominated eastern Pennsylvania. Despite the conflicts, the Brysons acquire land in Lancaster and eastern Dauphin Counties as well as extensive land holdings in Cumberland and Northcumberland Counties.
The son William marries Isabella Holmes at Mt. Joy, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He is around the age 29 at the time. Isabella was the daughter of James Holmes who was another Scotch-Irish immigrant from the same area of Northern Ireland as the Brysons. Isabella was born in Mt. Joy and is the earliest American born member of this line. There will be many more. Between 1745 and 1756 they will have five sons of whom our family is descended from two of the brothers, James Holmes and Andrew. More on that later.
It was during the time of the “Paxton Boys” in the fall of 1763 that William Bryson and Isabella complete the purchase of land in North Carolina and move south. They surely used the Great Wagon Road to move from Pennsylvania to North Carolina. This road was actually a track along the eastern edge of the Appalachian Mountains. The track followed much the gentler terrain of the Shenandoah Valley rather than that of the notorious Appalachian Trail of modern time.The land purchase of 554 acres near the future Mooresville and Iredell City (to the west of Charlotte) today lies mostly under the Lake Norman reservoir. John, the younger brother of William buys 300 acres of the original purchase from William in 1765. They both build homes along a ridge on the slope above their farms and the creek that went through their property. William and Isabella will remain on their land during the revolutionary war despite their many German Loyalist neighbors. They will raise their children and watch their children move to South Carolina. Isabella dies in 1789 and is buried facing east on the ridge near the family home. William starts to sell his land although he held on to Back Creek until 1795. He moved to South Carolina to farm with his children who were preparing to move back to western North Carolina. He will die around 1805 on Scott’s Creek near Sylva. It is probable that he lived with his son, James Holmes and James’ mother-in-law Elizabeth Countryman who is buried near Beta.