Clay County, North Carolina

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Henry Clay


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1830s / From Cherokee County

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A History of Clay County

Clay County was formed in 1861 from Cherokee County. It was named in honor of Henry Clay, the noted U.S. Senator from the state of Kentucky. It is in the western section of the state and is bounded by the state of Georgia and Cherokee and Macon counties in North Carolina. The present land area is 214.70 square miles and the 2010 population was 10,587. Commissioners were directed to hold their first meeting in the Methodist Church near Fort Hembree. Special commissioners were named to select a site for the court house and lay out a town by the name of Hayesville. Hayesville, named in honor of George W. Hayes, has been the county seat ever since. 
According to the late J.V.A. Moore, a local historian, the first white man to settle in what was to become Clay County, was John Covington Moore. This was wild country in the second and third decade of the nineteenth century, abounding with dangers arising from sheer loneliness, from wild animals, and rough terrain, to say nothing of the fact that unfriendly Indians roamed across the length and breadth of the land. It would be impossible to document this episode, but it seems that no one has contested the distinction awarded to Mr. Moore.

The first immigrants moved into this section, which at the time was a part of Macon County, in the early part of the 1830s with only the protection they could afford for themselves. In 1837, General Winfield Scott was commissioned to "round up" all the Indians throughout this mountain regions, detain them in improvised stockades and take them to the Oklahoma Territory, which had been set apart by the United States Government as an Indian Reservation.

Captain Hembree was sent to this section of what was to become Cherokee County (in 1839) and constructed a stockade about a mile south west of the present town of Hayesville, where the Indians were held until they had all been captured and the infamous "trail of tears" began. This stockade was called Fort Hembree and around it grew up a business and civic center where the people would have the protection of the fort against the few Indians who had escaped the grasp of Captain Hembree's soldiers.

Exact dates are not available, but about 1838 there were three churches built in that vicinity. The first one was erected by the Presbyterian congregation on ground now known as the Presbyterian Cemetery and/or the Baptist Cemetery, just south of the town limits of Hayesville; the second was built by the Baptists on almost the exact spot where now stands the Church of God building, and in short order, the Methodists built a church about the center of what is now the Hayesville Methodist Cemetery.

The first post office in the southeastern end of what was then Cherokee County, was established in this general area and called Fort Hembree. It was opened January 8, 1844 with Jason S. Hyatt as the first postmaster. Others who succeeded Hyatt in this office were: William A. McCrary, William M. Sanderson, Joel Bowling and Robert B. Chambers (in that order). The Fort Hembree post office was discontinued as of December 6, 1866.

Counties do not beget counties; the State Legislature just takes a "rib" from one county and creates another. This process has been going on in North Carolina, in rather a haphazard fashion ever since 1791, when a sizable "rib" was carved out of Burke County, out of which the county of Buncombe was created.

As the white man moved farther and farther west, the population became more remotely located with reference to the center of government and the reach of protective agencies such as sheriffs' departments and the state militia. So, in 1808, in order to meet some of the urgent needs of the rugged pioneers, adolescent Buncombe suffered the loss of a "rib" under the legislative scalpel from which was created Haywood County.

A constant stream of people, hardy people, brave people, people looking not so much for fortune; but for a place where they would carve out for themselves a likelihood and a home, free from the dictates of circumstances that had followed them from distant shores, flocked to his region. Thus, in 1828, another operation set up the chartering of yet another new county, which was called Macon.

With the head of steam already built up in the great westward movement, it is understandable that it just took Macon eleven short years to "outgrow their britches" to the extent that in 1839 the General Assembly whacked off a considerable portion of Macon County's territory and called it Cherokee County.

Growing pains had already set in and, in 1861, Clay County, NC had its birth.

Back in the middle of the nineteenth century most of the area which now comprises Clay County, North Carolina, was a part of Cherokee County. Probably the most pressing argument for the forming of a new county was the fact that people living in the far eastern end of the county (Cherokee) could not travel to Murphy, the county seat, transact legal business in the court house and return home in one day's journey. It must be remembered that the only methods of travel were afoot, on horseback, or in a horse-drawn vehicle.

Mr. George W. Hayes, who lived in the general area of Tomotla, was running for the House of Commons 1860-1861 from Cherokee County in the fall election of 1860. It seems that he was having an uphill fight in his home territory; but when he brought his campaign to the southeastern end of the county, he found that his constituents here wanted separation from Cherokee County and a county seat of government of their own. By promising them that he would introduce legislation to form a new county, he captured most of the votes in this area and was able to swing the election. So in February of 1861 such legislation was introduced and passed by the North Carolina General Assembly. However, due to the American Civil War, Clay County did not send delegates to the NC legislature until 1868.

In recognition for his services in helping create the new county, the county seat was named Hayesville in honor or Mr. George W. Hayes. The new county was named in honor of the great Kentucky statesman, Henry Clay.

For the most part, Clay County was taken from the then Cherokee County. However, there was a small area taken from Macon County, moving the Macon County line from the crest of Chunky Gal Mountain to the divide between the Buck Creek watershed and that of the Nantahala River.

Probably due to the unrest and uncertainties growing out of the Civil War together with a lack of initiative on the part of would-be leaders and office-seekers, a formal government for the new county was not organized and a full slate of officials elected until 1868. This same year, May 7, 1868, a post office opened at Hayesville. Prior to this there had been post offices serving what is now Clay County at: Fort Hembree (1844), Tusquittee (1848), and Shooting Creek (1849).

Neighborhood post offices sprung up in rapid succession, until there was a total of seventeen other offices established within the bounds of Clay County. They were usually operated from a corner in a crossroad store or even in the dwelling house of the postmaster. These small post offices served the people for several years, until the advent of the Rural Free Delivery (RFD) Service which was brought to this area in 1903, when Route Number One from the Hayesville post office was established. Within a year there were four rural routes going out from the Hayesville post office. The small rural post offices were discontinued one by one, until, today there are only three post offices in the entire county: Hayesville, Brasstown, and Warne.

In order to have not only the conveniences of life; but the bare necessities, on which to even exist, a people has to either grow their products, manufacture them, or transport them. Until well after "the turn of the century," as the "old-timers" used to speak of the year 1900, everybody grew most of their foodstuffs on their own farm. They made their furniture from lumber cut in their own forest and their clothes from cloth woven in their home looms from wool garnered from sheep that they raised in their own pastures.

Every household had a milk cow, fattened hogs for their meat supply, and maintained a flock of hens for eggs and meat. Until about 1920, most of the county had "open range" for their cattle. By that is meant farmers had to build fences around the fields on which they expected to raise cultivated crops and they turned their cattle, hogs and sheep loose on whatever other land was available, whether it was their land or someone else's. Many larger farmers and cattlemen would drive great herds of cattle, hogs, and sheep to the mountains during the summer months, where they would grow and stay fat on wild vegetation. The mountains were covered with chestnut trees and the hogs would fatten on chestnuts and acorns from the mighty oaks. Each farmer would have a certain mark they would use in order to identify his stock. Usually this mark consisted of certain kinds and numbers of nicks in the right or left ear.

They would fasten a bell on their "lead cow" in order to find the herd more easily.

In a frantic effort to increase their acreage for cultivation and because there was no ready market for their timber, it was a common practice to cut down entire forests, pile up the logs and burn them. In many cases there would not be time for a complete clearing, so they would cut a ring around the biggest trees in order to kill them. It was a common sight as late as in the 1920s to see a big field of corn with giant oaks and poplars scattered over the field that had been killed and left there to decay.

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century and before, the citizenry of this mountain region came to realize that there were many items of necessity that they could neither grow on their farms nor make from their crude products. Among these such items as: farm tools and machinery, tools with which to build homes, clothing and shoes of a finer quality than they were able to make in their homes, salt, sugar, sewing thread, and a few occasional knick-knacks.

Some of the tallest tales to be heard by the "golden age club" of the early 1900s were reminiscence of those long hard wagon journeys "across the mountain" to Clarksville, Toccoa, and even as far as Gainesville, Georgia. Their load "going down," as the pioneer would say it, consisted of: dried apples, dried beans (better known as leather britches), clay peas, dried pumpkin, country cured hams and side meat, and rations enough to last them and their "stock" for three weeks.

On their return trip they would bring back such items as green coffee beans, sugar, salt, enough calico cloth to make each of the family's women folk a new Sunday dress. Except for one nice Sunday dress, the women of the house made their dresses as well as the men's clothes from rough cloth made on their home loom. More often than not among the items purchased on these long hard treks across the mountains would be a few small tools; a crosscut saw or hand saw, a new ax or drawing knife, and toward the end of the nineteenth century it might even have been a sewing machine or cook stove.

No one was so wise or foolish as to start this journey alone; not so much for the possible dangers anticipated but due to the rough terrain, steep a muddy roads there was always a need to help each other over rough spots. Each wagon was equipped so that four horses could be hooked to it; otherwise the entire load might have to be unloaded before the wagon could be pulled to the top of a hill or through a deep mud hole. By two or more wagons traveling together, they could haul almost twice as much with two horses since they could have the assist of the second team on the rough spots.

Most of the horses owned by Clay County farmers prior to 1900 were of the light-weight variety; either saddle horses or coach breeds. However in the early 1900s several people purchased stallions that were either purebred or part Percheron and Belgian. By the time, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the horse was replaced by farm tractors and trucks, the quality of horses had improved considerably. The oxen were employed extensively in the early days of the county, especially for pulling dead weight like logs on the ground or heavy equipment and grain thrashing machines and steam engines. They were not suitable for ordinary farm and road use due to their lack of speed.

Practically every reputable farmer was his own blacksmith. He could take a pile of scrap iron and make his own plow point or fire shovel. He could repair his wagon out on the road and when in his shop could make his own wagon including the wheels. He could shoe his own horses and sharpen his own tools.

The intrinsic values that can be lost in the burning of a building are sometimes enormous but the loss of material, upon which you cannot, in all fairness put a price, often becomes a tragedy. This was the case in the burning of the Clay County court house in Hayesville in 1870. Practically all of our local history became legend. There is no way in which many of the happenings in Clay County between 1861 and 1870 can be documented.

There seems to be no official record of the construction of a "make do" court house but excerpts from the minutes of the County Commissioners and from those of the Masonic Lodge indicate that there was some kind of house on the same ground where the present court house stands.

Commissioners minutes of November 2, 1885: "Ordered that a contract be made for renting the lower part of the Masonic Hall for county offices at $1.00 per month; after the window sash are put in and a good stove furnished. And the county officers be authorized as soon as practicable to remove the records, documents, etc. from the court house to said hall."

Lodge minutes of November 21, 1885: "Ordered that county pay to Lodge $5.00 per term of Court for use of Hall and lower room be hired to County Commissioners for term of one year @ $1.00 per month."

There is also record that Court was held during 1887 to 1889 in the Presbyterian Church.

Commissioners minutes September 5, 1887: "Contract to J. A. Slagle to remove old court house for $5.00 and all old materials."

On several occasions, the building of a new courthouse was mentioned in the deliberations of the governing body of county government.

For the record, then, we will say that there was a "make-do" building constructed after the 1870 fire on the same place that the present building stands; it having to be dismantled before the new one could be started.

On August 15, 1887 the County Commissioners: J. M. Crawford, Chairman, J. H. Penland, and A. B. Brown had before them plans and specifications for a new court house. W. G. Bulgin of Macon County had drawn up these plans similar to the court house that had been built in Franklin. It was ordered that they meet again on September 15, 1887 to open and consider bids for construction.

It was found that J. S. Anderson had submitted the lowest bid and he was awarded contract. The contract called for completion of work by the first day of October in 1888. Total consideration in the contract called for payment of $7,240 for all materials and labor. There were a few items that were apparently overlooked by the architect and when on November 5, 1889, when the building was inspected and accepted by the commissioners a total of $559.50 was added to the original contract for those extras; thus having a total cost to Clay County of $7,799.50.

The makeup of the County Board of Commissioners was changed by the death in September of 1889 of J. H. Penland. On October 7, 1889 T. H. Hancock was elected to fill the vacancy.

W. G. Bulgin was hired by the county to inspect and supervise construction. He was paid $1.50 per day. He was also paid $15.00 for drawing the plan and specifications.

Sufficient ventilation underneath the floor was evidently not provided in the original structure, since in only 21 years after construction the floor had to be replaced. A contract was awarded on February 10, 1912 to T. C. Lovin and George T. Love to put a concrete floor in the court house. This job called for filling in from the ground to a level of the old floor and bottom of doors, with rock; beating them down with hammers and then pouring a six inch layer of concrete on top of that. In consideration for the work Love and Lovin were paid $1,000.

County Commissioners responsible for the new floor were: W. S. Ledford, Chairman; E. V. McConnell and W. A. Cassada.

The first center of population was Ft. Hembree, a mile west of what is now Hayesville. Ft. Hembree was one of the forts in western North Carolina used in the roundup of the Cherokees in 1832 to hold Indians until they were sent off on the Trail of Tears to the west.

Mr. Garth Thompson was born at the fort and lived there until he was eight years old. In his senior year of high school, he helped tear the fort down. He recalls the following written in pencil on a closet door by a soldier, "We hope the white people at the land where the Indians go will like them and won't give them any trouble and they have good hunting."

The fort was originally built of logs. Later it was weather-boarded. The rocks in the chimney were dated 1817. The fort was built like a T and had four big chimneys with fireplaces upstairs. The biggest room was the dining hall. The fort had three staircases. Pillars were locust numbered with Roman numerals. The windows were locust locked with hickory pins. A big cellar was in the basement to preserve food.

The Indians stayed in a barn near the fort. The upstairs had a good floor and downstairs they kept horses. A blacksmith shop was nearby.

It is believed that the fort was named after Major Hembree who served at the fort. He was stationed out west before taking the position at Ft. Hembree.

According to Mr. Thompson, only five Indians ran away from the soldiers at the roundup of Ft. Hembree. The Indians did not give any resistance to being gathered up in Clay County.

When the Thompsons tore the fort down, they gave various parts of the house to members of the community. Houses were built from material from the fort. Rocks were given to the Methodist Church in Hayesville.

Major General Winfield Scott of the United States Army was in charge of removing the Indians. He assembled troops at thirteen stockade forts for the purpose of gathering and holding the Indians until they were sent to Oklahoma, over 800 miles away.

A hamlet grew up around Fort Hembree, one of Winfield Scott's corrals. It became a post office in 1843, and by 1850 had a small academy, run by John O. Hicks from Rutherford County. Both the post office and Hicks Academy later removed to Hayesville, just a mile away.

The Cherokee Indians were forced to move from the Southeast to the Oklahoma area as whites took over their land. The Indians were very close to nature and were part of the land. They called the land Mother Earth. It was very traumatic to remove the Indians from their land and send them out west. To the Indians, the west was the land of the dead and where people died. There was great psychological impact upon the Indians to remove them from their beloved land. One third of the Indians died in the journey known as the Trail of Tears.

Indian mounds have been found in various places in western North Carolina. The highest one is located in Hayesville. The mound stands in a field below the Community Center in town. Bones, pottery shards, and arrowheads have been dug from the mound. These mounds were built by Indian tribes who preceded the Cherokee Indians that were living here at the time the white men came.

The first white men to travel into the area that would become Clay County came here and lived among the Indians. The stories of these two races living together were not stories of bone chilling screams of war parties in the night nor white families scalped and burned out.

The stories that survive are those of admiration for a self-sufficient way of life. Stories of a people who knew how to live off the land and who knew of using herbs for medicine and how to find and preserve a winter's store of food.

Many families whose ancestors came here in the early days, when the land was being settled, claim Indian ancestors. A few place names in Clay County such as Hayesville, Ogden, Elf, and Warne are not Indian names, almost all the place names are Indian names.

The story of the Cherokee Indian is known to many in our area. When Europeans first came to this country, they found the Cherokee and recognized them as a tribe of advanced people. They had stone implements, including knives and axes. They hunted well, using the deer, bear, and elk for meat and clothing. They knew how to weave baskets and make pottery. They had already cultivated maize, beans, and squash. They lived simply in shelters created from a framework of poles covered with bark and cane.

President George Washington sought friendly dealings with them. In 1799, Dartmouth College established loans to educate Cherokee youth. Later, they adopted the American settlers' methods of agriculture. They built log cabins for themselves. The Cherokee Chief Sequoyah (George Guess) invented a system for writing the Cherokee language and almost the entire tribe became literate. The tribe adopted a written constitution. They started a newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix.

Under Chief Junaluska, the Cherokee proved valuable to President Andrew Jackson in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.

But pressures from the white settlers grew greater. Despite protests from many of the Cherokee, as well as from prominent white leaders of the day, the Cherokee were at last forced by President Jackson to move westward, leaving their land behind. While some members had signed the treaty of New Echota, agreeing on the move, others remained opposed. This issue split the Cherokee nation in two.

The Cherokee were gathered up and placed in forts (called stockades then), waiting to begin their sad journey. Some of these were located in western North Carolina - a large one at Murphy and a smaller one at what would become Hayesville.

The movement of the Indians westward was aptly called The Trail of Tears. On that long journey to Oklahoma, 25% of the Cherokee people died from disease and exposure. The summer of 1838 was extremely dry and certain river routes could not be used for passage. The Cherokee were given rations of flour and salt pork and many grew ill from the unaccustomed food. Epidemics of measles and cholera took many of their children.

In our area of the mountains, several hundred Indians escaped and settled in the place now known as Cherokee, North Carolina. Their number has increased to the thousands. At the Oconaluftee Indian Village, some of them keep alive the culture of their ancestors. It is a culture that has all but disappeared elsewhere.

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