Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Fathers Friday - Abel Lanham: From “Traitor” to Hero—An American Life (1762-1838)

Just so that you will not be alarmed by the title, let me say upfront that Abel Lanham was not a traitor to the patriot cause in the Revolutionary War, but we will get to the accusation anon.

Abel was the great-grandson of John Lanham (1661-1745), who had come to America from Wortham, England, in 1679.[i] He paid for his transportation by signing an indenture that bound him for five years to Col. Benjamin Rozier of Charles County, Maryland.[ii]  In Maryland in 1679, John married a woman named Dorothy (debate continues regarding her surname, either Shaw or Burch[iii]), and their son William Lanham was the grandfather of Abel Lanham.  The family lived in Prince George’s County, Maryland, for more than sixty years.  
Sample Indenture

Then William’s son John Lanham, father of Abel Lanham, moved from Prince George’s County (formerly Charles County), Maryland, to North Carolina, where his marriage to Comfort Brown was recorded in 1742.[iv]  John and Comfort were the parents of six children, the youngest being Abel Lanham, who was born in Mecklenburg County in 1762.

Eighteenth-century records, which present the name variously as both Lanham and Langham, show land grants to Abel’s father in both Anson and Mecklenburg Counties.  Interestingly, one of his Mecklenburg properties was a land grant for 150 acres on the Millstone Branch of Fishing Creek, near the property of Peter Kuykendal, whose daughter Jean became Abel Lanham’s wife on December 3, 1777.[v]  The Kuykendalls had been in the colonies since 1646, arriving from Holland and living first in New Netherland, later to become New York.  At the time of their marriage, both Abel and Jean were fifteen years old.

Much is known about Abel’s service in the Revolutionary War since he provided a narrative of  his military service in February 1837, when he applied for a veteran’s pension.  Perhaps it is better to let Abel tell his own story, presented here with its original spelling, punctuation, and capitalization:
First Broad River and Second Broad River can be seen
in the upper left corner of the map.
“I entered the service of the United States the 1st of March 1778, as a volunteer, and as a private, under the command of Captain Kerkendall [sic], in the Regiment of William Grimes in Rutherford County in the State of North Carolina.  We rendezvoused on a creek called Sandy run.  My Captain and company were detached from the Regiment and ordered to go in quest of outlying Tories.  We crossed 1st and 2nd broad rivers to the frontiers of the State for the purpose of intercepting men who were in the habit of doing mischief, and then fleeing to the mountains.  We also kept in awe [dread], such men as were inclined to harbour bad men.  We marched from place to place as necessity required, and kept the disaffected citizens from collecting together.  We took ten tories in our rout, and delivered them over to Col. [William] Grimes, who commanded our Regiment.  We were kept in the service scouting about from place to place until the last of May, when we were discharged by Col. Grimes; having been in the service three months.
“On the 1st of March 1779 I volunteered my service again as a private in the service of the United States, in Rutherford County State of North Carolina under the command of the said Captain Kerkendall, and Col. Grimes, we met at a place called the Cross roads, I was marched from there to the frontier settlements, to a fort called McFadden [near Rutherfordton], where we were stationed for three months for the purpose of protecting the citizens engaged in cultivating their farms.  We were engaged while there in marching about, sometimes across the Blue ridge, and in the [?] mountains, guarding the passes through which it was thought the Indians would attempt to pass into the settlement and then returned to our Fort.  We were discharged the first of June 1779, and returned home.
Blue Ridge Mountains

“From North Carolina I, the said Abel Lanham, went into South Carolina, on a visit to my sister, and whilst there I volunteered again as a private on the first of September 1781, in Orangeburg District under the Command of Captain [William] Young, my Colonel’s name I cannot now recollect, and joined Col. or General Sumpter at Orangeburg Court house.  Sumpter lay at Orangeburg Courthouse three months, during which time we had to subsist chiefly by foraging.  Whilst here we did nothing of importance and during this time [General Anthony] Wayne came on there on his way to Georgia. I was again discharged the first of February 1782.  I then went to Washington County, North Carolina (now Tennessee).  The first of September 1782, I volunteered again, in sd. County under the Command of Captain Samuel Ware, in the Regiment of Col. John Sevier, as a private.  This service I performed as a horseman.  We were marched against the Cherokee nation of Indians.  We started from the Big Island on French Broad river, and marched to Tennessee river, and crossed the same at an Indian Town called Chota—from there to Hiwasee river, passed Bulls town and crossed Cooses river to an Indian Town called Estanolee, from there to little shoemaker plains and from there to old Hiwasee Town [Hiwasee Old Town].  In this campaign we destroyed the Indian crops and fourteen towns and returned home December 1st 1782, when I was discharged. This was my last service as a soldier.”
Henry Timberlake's map of the Cherokee country, 1765, showing
Chote about mid-way in the S-curve.

Now let’s examine the bogus charge of treason.  On July 8, 1782, Abel Lanham and 110 other men were charged in Rutherford County, North Carolina, of having aided the king of England on October 1, 1780.  Specifically, the charge stated that these men “with force & Arms in the County aforesaid Wickedly & treacherously entending and Designing as far as in them lay to Overturn the present free Government of this State & reduce the inhabitants thereof Under the Power of the Army of Great Britain then & now at Open War with this State and the United States of America did then & there with force and Arms feloinously [sic] & treacherously Knowingly & Willfully did aid & assist the said King by Joining his Army Commanded by Major [Patrick] Ferguson and by bearing Arms in the Service of the said King Against the Good Government Peace and Dignity of this State.”[vi] 

Now, it is true that Major Ferguson was sweeping through the Carolinas to enlist loyalists to fight with him.  It is also true that on October 7, 1780, just six days after the alleged treachery of Abel Lanham and others, Ferguson was killed at the Battle of King’s Mountain.  It is interesting to note that one of the commanders of the American patriots at King’s Mountain was Col. John Sevier.[vii]  It is highly unlikely that a man who had been with Ferguson at King’s Mountain fighting against John Sevier would be fighting with him in September 1782—just two months after the charges of treachery were brought!  And a man who had been fighting with the patriots since 1777, at that!

Certainly the new government of the United States never brought charges against Lanham, and when he applied for a pension in 1837, it was granted in the amount of $20 per annum.  What’s more, his second wife, Sarah Nunn Lanham, was granted a widow’s pension in the same amount in 1840, retroactive to 1838, the date of Abel Lanham’s death.  At least one other person on the list of the accused has also been vindicated, Freeman Jones, who was also granted a pension after the war.[viii]

One might wonder why such serious, yet unsubstantiated, claims could be made, and in that context we have to look at what happened to loyalists.  Some escaped to Canada.  Some were tortured. Some were hanged.   But in all cases their lands were confiscated and sold, with the profit going toward the war effort.  Therefore, it was a temptation to unscrupulous neighbors to make false accusations and scoop up the land when it became available. 
A Tory under arrest by patriots

After the war, white settlers began to move westward and treaties were made with the Cherokee to establish what might be called “zones” of ethnic communities.  Tennessee would not become a state until 1796, but change was coming on as North Carolina started ceding land to the federal government.  Abel Lanham’s name emerges next in August 1795 when 600 acres in what would become Grainger County, Tennessee, were surveyed for him and another man, Alexander Martin.
Cherokee Territory, 1804

The dates of birth for the children of Abel and Jean are all post-war.  The first, Elizabeth, is reported by some researchers as having been born in Camden District, South Carolina and by others, Lee County, Virginia, but all agree her birth date was 4 March 1780.  This date was between Abel’s second and third deployment, and the war was still raging.   The second child, Robert, born 1786, probably in Claiborne County, Tennessee, is found in Jackson, Alabama in the 1840 census and died 1857.  The third child, Solomon, born 1 January 1788, identified his birthplace as Tennessee (or what ultimately became Tennessee) in the census record of 1850,[ix] so this puts us on firm ground as saying that after the war, Abel and Jean were among those who moved somewhat to the west of their childhood homes and settled in the Claiborne County area, where members of the family still reside today.

From 1784, when the 600 acres were surveyed for Lanham and Martin, until November 1837, Abel Lanham is on record both buying and selling land in not only Claiborne County, but Greene and Grainger Counties as well.[x]  In addition, he was active in the community.  For example, in about 1802, he was one of the commissioners selected to locate the seat of justice and lay out the town of Tazewell, Tennessee, where the first house was erected in 1803.  From 1810 to 1814, he served as a trustee for the county administration.[xi] 

Statue of Col. John
On 20 June 1797, Lanham was commissioned by John Sevier as a lieutenant in the regiment of Grainger County.  Sevier, under whom Lanham had served during the campaign against the Cherokee during the Revolution, was at that time governor of Tennessee.  Two years later, Sevier named Lanham justice of the peace for Grainger County.[xii]

Jean Kuykendall Lanham died 29 August 1810 at the age of forty-eight and was buried in the Lanham cemetery near Tazewell.  Between 1780 and 1808, Jean had borne thirteen children. On September 6, 1818, Abel married his second wife, Sarah Nun (Nunn), and from that union, eight children were born.

It is hard to say what caused Abel to fall on hard times in 1837 to such a degree that he sought a veteran’s pension for the first time.  In his statement given at the Claiborne County Court in August of that year, Abel stated that “he would have applied sooner, but he was then in independent circumstances, and was, as he thought, able to live comfortably without assistance from the government; he further states that he never intended applying for a pension whilst in affluence, but that misfortunes have of late come upon him and he has been forced to part with his property and is now reduced to want.”[xiii] 
Abel Lanham's Will
p. 1

On 3 July 1838, Abel Lanham wrote his will.  The heart of the will reads, thus, with its original conventions of language:

“I give and bequeath to Sarah my dearly beloved wife all and singular the remainder of my land and movable estate to be applied to raising my dear children or so much of my said estate as may be left after all my Just debts are well and truely paid. At the death of my wife Sarah if there be any property left it is my will that [it] be sold for cash and equally divided between my last children.  Likewise Sarah Lanham my beloved wife whom I constitute make and ordain my sole Exutrix of this my last will and testament.”[xiv]  He died about eight weeks later on 22 August 1838 and was buried beside his first wife, Jean, in the Lanham cemetery near Tazewell.
Graves of Jean Kuykendall Lanham (left)
and Abel Lanham (right)

But that is not the end of the story.  In 1974, Zella Armstrong published a book entitled Some Tennessee Heroes of the Revolution, based on the government’s Revolutionary War pension records.  On pages 20-21, she recounts the narrative that Abel himself provided in 1837, which appears above.[xv]  Then on 12 November 2005, 167 years after his passing, the people of Claiborne County, a place carved from the wilderness by Abel Lanham himself, was honored by the dedication of his grave.  Under the auspices of the Bonny Kate Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the General Joseph Martin Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution, forty to fifty people gathered by that simple countryside grave for the ceremony, which followed this program: 

Trumpet call by the Reverend Samuel Johnson

Presentation of Colors by Rutledge High School

Welcome by Patricia F. Hunter of the DAR

Invocation by June Burnett, DAR Chaplain

Pledge of Allegiance by Todd Williams of the SAR

Posting of the Colors by JROTC of Rutledge High School

Presentation of certificates by Virgil Herrell, Claiborne County Mayor

Historical narrative by Ollie Ellison of the DAR

Tribute in honor of Abel Lanham by Chuck Minton, great-grandson
Headstone of Abel Lanham,
Lanham Cemetery, Tazewell, Tennessee

In his tribute, Minton said, in part, “We are gathered here today in honor of an individual who believed, as most colonists of the 13 colonies did, in a dream to be free of tyranny. At the age of 16, the man who lies here in this cromlech took up arms to defend this dream. This dream is now called America. . . . From his youth to his death, Abel Lanham witnessed the birth of the United States and ultimately the birth of a county known by the name of Claiborne County.  This country and this county will always remember you, Abel Lanham, for a job well done.”[xvi] 

And so endures the memory of Abel Lanham, a man once falsely accused of treachery but now remembered and honored as an American hero.  It is the stuff of dreams and well illustrated by this American life.

[i]  U.S. and Canada, Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, 1500s-1900s.  Maryland, Year: 1679. 281. Ancestry.com.  Provo, UT, USA. 2010. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.

[ii] Charles Co. Ejectment papers: Rozier, Henry; MSA Maryland patent libers 16:71 and WC #2:130. Cited in Oran Stroud Lanham. “The John Lanham Family 1661.” Rev. ed. Clifford W. Lanham and Kevin W. Lanham, eds.  1.3.5. 2012. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.

[iii] Lanham, Howard G. “Controversies in Lanham Genealogy.” Angelfire. n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.

[iv] Yates Publishing. U.S. and International Marriage Records, 1560-1900. Ancestry.com. Provo, UT. Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2004.

[v] Jeff Barefoot. “Records of the Lanham Family of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky.” 1991. Available Ancestry.com.n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.

[vi] U.S., Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, 1800-1900. Ancestry.com. Provo, UT: 2010. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.

[vii] Michael Toomey. “John Sevier (1745-1815).” North Carolina History Project.  John Locke Foundation. 2015. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.

[viii] Doris Froehmer. “Re: Freeman Jones Sr.-1782 Rutherford Co. Court of Pleas & Quarter.” To Jones-Freeman-L Archives. Rootsweb. Ancestry.com. 28 Apr. 2002. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.  

[ix] 1850 United States Federal Census. Provo, UT:2009.  Ancestry.com Operations. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.

[x] Barefoot.

[xi] Barefoot.

[xii] “The Lanham Cemetery.” Claiborne County Cemeteries.  Rootsweb.  Ancestry.com. n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.

[xiii] U.S. Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, 1800-1900. Images 522-23. InteractiveAncestry.com. Accessed 26 Oct. 2015.


[xv] Baltimore:Genealogical, 1975. 20-21. Ancestry.com. n.d. 27 Oct. 2015.

[xvi] “Dedication of Abel Lanham Grave.” Claiborne Progress. 17 Nov. 2005. Cited in Joe Paine. Webworks. JoePaine.org. n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.

(c) Eileen Cunningham, 2015


  1. Your comment that the second child, Robert, died is incorrect or else I wouldn't be here today! Can I ask where you got that information? I would be glad to provide any info you need about him

  2. Thanks for the tip! I have changed my husband's tree and also the statement in the blog on the basis of a Findagrave memorial and a census record. However, the Findagrave memorial says that Robert "is believed to be the son of Augusta Abel Lanham and Jean Kuykendal." Is there documentation that would prove the link?

  3. When I contacted Chuck Minton for records, he said it's generally believed to be the case. There is a tax record in Franklin Co TN that lists Solomon and Robert one after the other in 1812 & that was a pretty good indication in my mind. I never came across another Robert Lanham in TN at this time. Solomon moved on to TX while Robert went south to Estill's Fork, Jackson County AL. Would you mind if I use your information regarding the treason issue in my research? I'll attribute the info to you

    1. I'm a descendant of Robert Lanham as well. Would like to compare notes. My line is as follows: Robert, Jacob Sr, Jacob Jr, Isaac N, Curtiss A., Harrison M., me.

    2. I am so sorry I didn't see this before. I hope you went ahead with your plan to use the "treason" information. It is all from public domain documents. If any sentences are quoted verbatim, it would be nice if you could give attribution. Thanks for asking.


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