Col. James Johnston, one of the earliest patriots of “Tryon,” afterward Lincoln county, was born about the year 1742. His father, Henry Johnston, was of Scottish descent. During the many civil and ecclesiastical troubles which greatly agitated England preceding the ascent of William, Prince of Orange, to the throne in 1688, and the ruinous consequences of the defeat of Charles Edward, the “Pretender,” at the battle of Culloden, in April, 1746, a constant tide of emigration was flowing from Scotland to the northern part of Ireland, or directly to the shores of the New World, then holding forth to the disturbed population of Europe peculiar features of attractiveness, accompanied with the most alluring prospects of future aggrandizement and wealth. Among the families who passed over during this period were some of the extensive clan of Johnstons (frequently spelled “Johnstone”); also, the Alexanders, Ewarts, Bells, Knoxes, Barnetts, Pattons, Wilsons, Spratts, Martins, with a strong sprinkling of the Davidsons, Caldwells, Grahams, Hunters, Polks, and many others whose descendants performed a magnanimous part in achieving our independence, and stand high on the “roll of fame” and exalted worth.
The name Johnston in Scotland embraces many distinguished personages in every department of literature. From one of the families who came directly to America in 1722 (“Lord William Johnston”) have descended in different branches, the late General Albert Sidney Johnston and General Joseph E. Johnston–illustrious, patriotic names the Southern people and a disinterested posterity will ever delight to honor.
The Johnstons in their native “land o’cakes and brither Scots,” had the reputation of being “heady,” strong-minded, proud of their ancestral descent, and were regarded, at times, as being rather “rebellious”–a trait of character which, in this last respect, some of their descendants strongly manifested in the late Confederate struggle, but in accordance with the most honorable and patriotic motives.
When Henry Johnston and his youthful wife settled on the western banks of the Catawba river, the country was then covered with its native forests, and over its wide expanse of territory, as yet but little disturbed by the implements of husbandry, the Indians and wild beasts held almost undisputed sway. The uplands were clothed with wild “pea vines,” and other luxuriant herbage, and cattle literally roamed over and fed upon a “thousand hills.” Every water course, too, bristled with cane-brakes, indicating the great fertility of the soil, and the sure road, under proper industrial efforts, to agricultural prosperity.
In the absence of family records we are left to infer Col. Johnston grew up to manhood, receiving as good an education as his own limited means and the opportunities of societies then afforded. It was then a gloomy period in our history. In 1765 the Stamp Act had been passed, which agitated the American Colonies from one extremity to the other. The dark cloud of discontent hung heavily over our people, too truly foreboding the storm of open rupture, and approaching revolution. During this exciting period he imbibed those patriotic principles, which, in subsequent years, governed his actions, and prepared him to cast in his lot, and heartily unite with those who pledged “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor” in the cause of American freedom. He emphatically belonged to that class of ardent young men of the Revolutionary period
“Whose deeds were cast in manly mold, For hardy sports or contest bold.”
Tradition speaks of the wife of Henry Johnston as dying comparatively young, leaving two children–James, the immediate subject of this sketch, and Mary–who married Moses Scott, settled near Goshen Church, in the present county of Gaston, and there ended her days. Moses Scott had three children–James J., William and Abram Scott. Of these sons, James Johnston Scott married in 1803, Mary, a daughter of Captain Robert Alexander, a soldier of the Revolution, and of extensive usefulness. He (James) died in 1809, in the twenty seventh year of his age, leaving two children–Abram and Mary Scott, the former of whom in this Centennial year (1876) still survives, having nearly completed his “three-score years and ten.”
Col. Johnston first entered the service as Captain of a company, in the winter of 1776, Col. William Graham commanding, against a large body of Tories in the northwestern section of South Carolina. This expedition is known in history as the “Snow Campaign,” from the unusually heavy snow, of that winter, and, in conjunction with the troops of that State, drove the Tory commanders, Cunningham and Fletcher, from the siege of the post of Ninety Six. On the retreat of these Tory leaders they surprised and defeated them with a loss of four hundred of their followers. The reader may be curious to know the origin of the name “Ninety Six” applied to this post, now constituting the village of Cambridge, in Abbeville county. It was so called because it was ninety-six miles from the frontier fort, Prince George, on Keowee river, in the present county of Pickens. No portion of South Carolina suffered more during the Revolution than the district around Ninety-Six. The Tories were numerous, bold and vindictive, and for that reason the gallant Whigs of that region frequently called upon their compatriots-in-arms in North Carolina, more particularly in Mecklenburg, Lincoln and Burke counties, for assistance in defending their homes and their property.
In this same year (1776) Gen. Rutherford called out a strong force of infantry and cavalry from Mecklenburg, Rowan, Tryon, (afterwards Lincoln), and other western counties to subdue the “Over-hill” Cherokee Indians, who were committing numerous depredations, and occasionally murdering the inhabitants on the frontier settlements. At that time the “Blue Ridge” constituted the bounds of organized civilization. The expedition, commanded by Gen. Rutherford, was completely successful, the Indians were routed, their towns destroyed, and a considerable number killed and made prisoners. Nothing short of this severe chastisement of the Indians for their depredations and murders would serve to teach them of the supremacy of the white man, and cause them to sue for peace. On this occasion many of the western patriots experienced their first essay in arms, and learned something of the toils and dangers of the soldier’s life.
During the war several expeditions were sent from the border counties of North Carolina to assist in pulling down the Tory ascendancy of the disaffected portion of upper South Carolina. In one of these expeditions Col. Johnston experienced an adventure–a passage at arms, which, as an incident of the war and characteristic of his bravery, is here worthy of narration. On Pacolet river, near the place where the late Dr. Bivings erected a factory, Col. Johnston, in a skirmish, had a personal rencontre with Patrick Moore, a Tory officer, whom he finally overpowered and captured. In the contest he received several sword cuts on his head, and on the thumb of the right hand. As he was bearing his prisoner to the Whig lines, a short distance off, he was rapidly approached by several British troopers. He then immediately attempted to discharge his loaded musket against his assailants, but unfortunately it “missed fire”, in consequence of blood flowing from his wounded thumb and wetting the “priming”. This misfortune on his part enabled his prisoner to escape; and, perceiving his own dangerous and armless position, he promptly availed himself of a friendly thicket at his side, eluded his pursuers and soon afterwards joined his command.
On the 14th of June, 1780, Gen. Rutherford, whilst encamped near Charlotte, received intelligence that the Tories under Col. John Moore had assembled in strong force at Ramsour’s Mill, near the present town of Lincolnton. He immediately issued orders to Col. Francis Locke, of Rowan; to Major David Wilson, of Mecklenburg, and other officers, to use every exertion to raise a sufficient number of men to attack the Tories at that place. On the 17th of June Gen. Rutherford marched from his encampment, two miles south of Charlotte, to the Tuckasege Ford, on the Catawba. He had previously dispatched an express to Col. Locke, advising him of his movement, and ordered him to join his army on the 19th or morning of the 20th of June, a few miles beyond that ford. The express, in some unaccountable way, miscarried. The morning of the 19th being wet, Gen. Rutherford did not cross the river until evening and encamped three miles beyond on Col. Dickson’s plantation. Whilst there, waiting for Col. Locke’s arrival, in obedience to the express, he received a notice from that officer, then encamped at Mountain Creek, informing him of his intention of attacking the Tories on the next morning at sunrise, and requested his co-operation. This notice was delivered to Gen. Rutherford by Col. Johnston at 11 o’clock of the night of the 19th of June, being selected for that duty by Col. Locke on account of his personal knowledge of the intervening country and undaunted courage. Col. Locke’s encampment was then sixteen miles from Ramsour’s Mill. Late in the evening of the same day, and soon after the departure of Col. Johnston to Gen. Rutherford’s camp, Col. Locke marched with his forces, less than four hundred in number, stopped a short time in the night for rest and consultation, and arrived within a mile of Ramsour’s at daylight without being observed by the Tories. The battle soon commenced by the mounted companies of Captains Falls, McDowell and Brandon. The Tories at first fought with considerable bravery, driving back the Whig cavalry. These, however, soon rallied, and, being supported by the advancing infantry, pressed forward under their gallant leaders with a courage which knew no faltering and completely routed the Tories, driving them, after an hour’s contest, from their strong position, and capturing about fifty of their number. This victory, occurring soon after the surrender of Charleston, when the Tories had become bold and menacing in their conduct, greatly cheered the Whigs throughout the entire South, animated them with fresh hopes, and nerved them on to future deeds of “noble daring.”
Gen. Rutherford, not leaving his encampment at Col. Dickson’s before daylight of the morning of the 20th of June, failed to reach Ramsour’s Mill until two hours after the battle. Col. Johnston there joined his command, and participated in the closing duties of this victorious engagement in the cause of American freedom.
At the battle of King’s Mountain Col. Johnston commanded the reserves, about ninety in number, which were soon called into service after the battle commenced. The decisive and brilliant victory of that memorable day has been so frequently adverted to in history that it is deemed here unnecessary to enter into particulars. Suffice it to say, it completely broke down the Tory influence in Western North Carolina, and its more rampant manifestations in upper South Carolina. It is known that Cornwallis, then in Charlotte, in a few days after hearing of the defeat and death of Ferguson, one of his bravest officers, marched from that rebellious town in the night and hastily retreated to safer quarters in Winnsboro, S.C.
During the progress of the war Col. Johnston was frequently engaged in other minor expeditions, requiring promptitude of action and unflinching bravery, in assisting to disperse bodies of Tories wherever they might assemble, and arrest obnoxious individuals when the peace and welfare of society demanded such service.
At the Provincial Congress which met at Halifax on the 4th of April, 1776, Colonel James Johnston and Colonel Charles McLean were the delegates from Tryon county. Colonel McLean was an early and devoted friend of liberty. He resided on the headwaters of Crowder’s creek, in the present county of Gaston, and commanded the first regiment which marched from Lincoln county against the Tories of upper South Carolina. This Provincial Congress was one of the most important ever held in the State. The spirit of liberty was then in the ascendant, animating every patriotic bosom from the sea coast to the mountains. At this assembly the military organization of the State was completed, and the following patriotic resolution unanimously adopted:
“”Resolved”, That the Delegates from this Colony in the Continental Congress be empowered to concur with the Delegates from the other colonies in declaring independence and forming foreign alliances, reserving to this colony the sole and exclusive right of forming a constitution and laws for this colony.”
This early action of the Provincial Congress of North Carolina is the first public declaration, by proper legislative State authority, on record, preceding the Virginia resolutions of the same character by more than a month, and of those of the National Congress at Philadelphia by nearly three months, now exulting in its “centennial celebration”. Near the close of the Revolution Col. Johnston acted for a considerable length of time as disbursing agent for the Western Division of the army. After the division of Tryon county in 1779 into Lincoln and Rutherford counties, he was elected to the Senate from the former county in 1780, ’81 and ’82. He also acted, for many years, as one of the magistrates of the county, and, by virtue of his office, was frequently called upon “”to make of twain one flesh” in the holy bonds of matrimony.”
Major John Davidson, who knew Col. Johnston long and well, always summed up his estimate of his character by saying, “he was a most excellent man, and never shrunk from the performance of any duty when the welfare of his country demanded such service.”
Several years previous to the Revolution Colonel Johnston married Jane Ewart, eldest daughter of Robert Ewart, a most worthy lady of Scotch-Irish descent. In 1775 Robert Ewart was appointed with Griffith Rutherford, John Brevard, Hezekiah Alexander, Benjamin Patton, and others, one of the Committee of Safety for the “Salisbury District,” which included Rowan, Mecklenburg and other western counties. The marriage connections of other members of the Ewart family were as follows: Margaret married Joseph Jack; Mary married Robert Knox; Rachel married Thomas Bell; Betsy married Jonathan Price; Sallie married Thomas Hill; Robert married Margaret Adams. At the battle of King’s Mountain Robert Ewart, James Ewart, Robert Knox, Joseph Jack, Thomas Bell, Jonathan Price, Abram Forney, Peter Forney, and other brave spirits, were in the company commanded by Colonel James Johnston, and performed a conspicuous part in achieving the glorious victory on that occasion.
Previous to the war Colonel Johnston purchased valuable land on the Catawba river, one mile southwest of Toole’s Ford, which became known in subsequent years as “Oak Grove” farm, deriving this name from several, native denizens of the forest which stood near the family mansion and cast around their beneficent shade. Here he was blest with a numerous offspring, and permitted to enjoy much of that dignified ease and pleasures of a quiet home-life which his patriotic services had assisted to procure. For many years preceding his death he was a consistent member and Ruling Elder of the Presbyterian church at Unity, in Lincoln county. His large experience, general intelligence, disinterested benevolence, unsullied integrity and great decision of character, all combined to make him eminently useful in the different relations of society and secure for him the high regard and esteem of all who knew him.
Colonel Johnston died with calm resignation on the 23rd of July, 1805, aged about sixty-three years. His wife died on the 17th of August, 1795; and both, with other members of the family, are buried in a private cemetery on the “Oak Grove” farm.