John Bethune was born in 1751 on the Isle of Skye. His father, Angus, was descended from a long line of ministers and physicians in the service of the McLeod chiefs. His mother, Christina, was the daughter of Donald Campbell, forester for the McLeods of Lewis and Katherine McDonald of the North Uist family of Baleshare. Angus had been out during the rising for Bonnie Prince Charlie. He was wounded and left for dead on the battlefield of Culloden but he recovered enough to find his way back home to Skye.
John was educated at Kings College at Aberdeen and ordained as a minister of the Church of Scotland in 1772. He was one of a group of young men who petitioned the king for a grant of free land in North Carolina. The petition was denied, but all seven of the petitioners went to North Carolina on their own.
John accompanied his mother, her parents, friends and family to the new land, North Carolina. John’s siblings Farquhard, Margaret, Katherine and Flora were part of the group. The family settled on McLendons Creek, west of modern day Carthage, in Moore County. He is said to have organized the Mt. Carmel Presbyterian Church in neighboring Montgomery County and was active in the Ottey Meeting Place that led to the founding of Bensalem Presbyterian Church near his home.
When the King’s standard was raised in the area calling for all loyal settlers to join together to support the King, Bethune joined the group, the Royal Highland Emigrants, as their chaplain. He was with the group at the disastrous battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge on February 27, 1776, and he was captured. He endured many hardships before he was finally exchanged and was able to make his way up to Halifax, Nova Scotia. He helped organize his fellow highlanders there into the Royal Highland Emigrants and became their chaplain. After the group dissolved, John moved to Montreal where he met and married Veronique Wadden. He gathered some of his fellow countrymen together and founded the first Church of Scotland in that City.
In 1787, Bethune moved to Charlottenburg in Upper Canada (Ontario) to claim his land allotment for his military service as chaplain. Always busy in Christian service, John is credited with bringing the Presbyterian Church to Ontario. His astonishing ledger of service is now preserved in Archives of Ontario in Toronto.
John and Veronique had a large family: (1) Angus who joined the Hudson Bay Company; (2) Cecelia; (3) Christine; (4) Norman who was a merchant and auctioneer; (5) John who became Principal of McGill College and Dean of Montreal ; (6) James Gray; (7) Ann; (8) Neil Alexander who was the Bishop of Toronto; (9) Donald, a steamboat captain. John’s great-great-grandson Norman Bethune was idolized by the Chinese people for his work as a field surgeon on the Long Walk with Mao Zedong during the Chinese war for independence. Rev. Bethune’s manse in Williamstown is now operated as a museum, a fitting tribute to his long life of service. He died on September 23, 1815, at Williamstown, Ontario.
Did you know that the tradition of Groundhog’s Day, when the groundhog predicts whether or not there will be six more weeks of winter, comes from the old Celtic tradition of Imbolc, also called St. Bride’s Day (Là Fhèill Bhrìde)? St. Bride’s Day, usually celebrated on January 31 or February 1, was the day celebrating the beginning of spring. On this day the Cailleach, the magical old hag of Gaelic stories, gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. If the weather on that day is bright and sunny, she will be able to gather more firewood, thereby insuring that winter will last longer. Therefore people hoped that Imbolc would be a day of bad weather so that the Cailleach would not come out to gather that last load of firewood.
On the last day of 1739, Ireland found itself in the grip of a mini Ice Age.
Rivers froze, mills seized up, and houses could not be heated above freezing point. In its wake came an ordeal by drought, flood, fire, famine and plague. The percentage of the population that succumbed during that famine was much larger than for the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s but the tragic events of that earlier time have largely escaped attention.
The Irish Famine of 1740–1741 was due to extremely cold and then rainy weather in successive years, resulting in a series of poor harvests. The cold and its effects extended across Europe, and it is now seen to be the last serious cold period at the end of the Little Ice Age of about 1400–1800.
“The Great Frost” struck between December 1739 and September 1741, after a decade of relatively mild winters. Its cause remains unknown. During the ramp up to the crisis in January 1740, the winds and terrible cold intensified, yet barely any snow fell. Ireland was locked into a stable and vast high-pressure system which affected most of Europe, from Scandinavia and Russia to northern Italy, in a broadly similar way. Rivers, lakes, and waterfalls froze and fish died in these first weeks of the Great Frost. People tried to avoid hypothermia without using up winter fuel reserves in a matter of days. People who lived in the country were probably better off than city dwellers, because the former lived in cabins that lay against turf stacks, while the latter, especially the poor, dwelt in freezing basements and garret dwellings.
The ice-bound quays and frozen coal yards temporarily froze the coal trade. When in late January 1740 the traffic across the Irish Sea resumed, retail prices for coal soared. Desperate people then stripped bare hedges, fine trees, and nurseries around Dublin to obtain substitute fuel. Also affected by the Frost were the pre-industrial town mill-wheels, which froze. Water powered the machinery which ground wheat for the bakers, tucked cloth for the weavers, pulped rags for the printers. As a result, the abrupt weather change disrupted craft employment and food processing. The intense cold even snuffed out the oil lamps lighting the streets of Dublin, plunging it into darkness.
The Protestants were the governing class who owned the land. They distrusted the Catholic rural majority because of their disloyalty towards the Hanoverian state, and “their apparent lack of enthusiasm for the kinds of improved farming that promised to raise the future value of landed property.” The municipal leaders (mostly Protestant merchants and members of the landed gentry), however, paid closer attention to the state of urban and rural artisans and tradespeople because of their salutary effect on the commercial economy on which the landowners depended. These leaders knew from experience that “an unemployed or hungry town often became a sickly town and such sickness might be no respecter of class or wealth.” This exactly happened to Ireland as the Frost continued.
The Great Frost affected the potato, which was one of the two main food sources (the other was oatmeal) in rural Ireland. Potatoes left in the gardens where they had ripened the previous fall (1739) were frozen, destroyed, and inedible, and furthermore could not even serve as seed for the next growing season. In spring 1740, the expected rains did not come, and though the Frost dissipated, the temperatures remained low and the northerly winds fierce. The drought killed off animals in the field, particularly sheep in Connacht and black cattle in the south, and struck farmers by destroying by the end of April much of the tillage crops sown the previous autumn (wheat and barley). Grains were so scarce, the Catholic Church in Ireland allowed Catholics to eat meat four days each week during Lent. The potato crisis caused an increase in grain prices, which translated into smaller and smaller loaves of bread for the old price.
By summer 1740, the Frost had decimated the potatoes and the drought had decimated the grain harvest and herds of cattle and sheep. Starving rural dwellers started a “mass vagrancy” towards the better-supplied towns, such as Cork in southern Ireland, where beggars lined the streets by mid-June 1740.
The soaring cost of food produced riots. Troops from the Royal Barracks killed several rioters as they tried to restore order. Similar skirmishes over food continued in different Irish cities throughout the summer of 1740. International war made things worse, as Spanish privateers captured ships trading with Ireland, including vessels bringing grain. Linen, salted beef and pickled butter were Ireland’s chief export earners and the war endangered this trade.
In autumn 1740, a meagre harvest commenced and prices in the towns started to fall. Cattle began to recover, but in the dairying districts, cows had become weak after the Frost. This meant that fewer calves, less milk, and less butter were future realities.
To make things worse, blizzards swept along the east coast in late October 1740 depositing snow and returned several times in November. Then a massive rain downpour occurred on December 9, 1740, causing widespread flooding. A day after the floods, the temperature plummeted, snow fell, and rivers and other bodies of water froze. Warm temperatures followed the cold snap, which lasted about ten days. Great chunks of ice careened down the Liffey River through the heart of Dublin, overturning light vessels and causing larger vessels to break anchor.
The strange winter of 1740-1741 pushed food prices back up, e.g., Dublin wheat prices on December 20 were at an all-time high. The widening war in mid-December 1740 encouraged people with stored food to hold onto it. The populace needed food, and riots erupted again in various cities throughout the country. By December 1740, signs were growing that full-blown famine and epidemic were upon the citizens of Ireland.
In the first week of July 1741, grain prices at last decreased and old hoarded wheat suddenly flooded the market. Five vessels loaded with grain, presumably from America, reached Galway in June 1741. The quality of the fall harvest of 1741 was mixed. The food crisis was over, however, and seasons of rare plenty followed for the next two years.
Documentation of deaths was poor during the Great Frost. Cemeteries provide fragmentary information. However it is said that 38% of the Irish population died during the crisis.
There was an upsurge in migration out of Ireland in the years after the 1740-1741 crisis, The year 1741, during which the famine was at its worst and mortality was greatest, was known in folk memory as the “year of the slaughter” (or “bliain an áir” in Irish).
At a time before and during the Civil War, Alexander Graham (1800-1865) and his wife, Elizabeth Purcell Graham (1806-1888) lived in a Greek Revival cottage on the east side of the Cheraw to Fayetteville Road, now Highway 401, two miles above Gilchrist Bridge on the Lumber River, in what was then the upper reaches of Robeson County. That part of Robeson County where the home was located was to become a part of Hoke County upon the formation of Hoke in 1811. Many of the Graham neighbors were related; Mrs. Graham’s sister lived across the road in a two story house (still standing), two of her brothers not more than two miles distant and an uncle at Mill Prong, three miles distant. All had large families. The Grahams, like their other neighbors, related and unrelated, were Presbyterian descendants of Highland Scots. Deep tragedy was unknown to them and while the Grahams had lost two children in infancy, six others had survived to reach their majority. Two sons served in the Confederate army. Their lives were tranquil until the arrival of General W. T. Sherman and his army.
On March 8, 1865, General Sherman crossed over the North Carolina line, having left a path of destruction in South Carolina, and camped near Laurel Hill Presbyterian Church, ten miles south of the Graham home. The Yankee soldiers thought the area looked “real northern like. Small farms and nice white tidy dwellings”. Torrential rains had set in and “the roads became a sea of mud and water.” Sherman remarked, “It was the damnest marching I ever saw.”1
March 8, 1865, the day the Federals crossed into North Carolina, was also a busy day for the Confederates. At 10:30 AM, a dispatch from General Beauregard in Charlotte to General Johnston in Fayetteville was as follows: “I respectfully suggest that Governor Vance and yourself call on the people residing along Sherman’s supposed line of march to remove temporarily all their supplies and animals at least twenty miles to the right or left of his flank routes.” At 12:15 PM, Major General Wheeler sent a dispatch to Major McClellan giving his opinion that “the main column of the enemy will move on the road from Cheraw to Fayetteville or on roads near to and parallel to that road as it passes through a fruitful country.” General Wheeler continued that the Confederates should take possession of the Gilchrist Bridge over Lumber River and the two bridges above it. A dispatch from Lt. Col. Montgomery to Major Taylor recited that all three bridges had been lost and the Confederates had retired to Antioch Church. At 4 PM, a dispatch from Asst. Adjutant General Anderson in Fayetteville to General Wade Hampton recited that the detachment at Antioch Church was “the only force known to us between this place and the enemy”.2
Antioch Presbyterian Church stands today between Red Springs and Raeford on Highway 211, some ten miles east of Gilchrist Bridge and the Graham home. The present church building was constructed after the Civil War but replaced an existing building on the same site.
On March 9, 1865, the Federals crossed the Lumber River at Gilchrist Bridge and entered Robeson County. General Sherman took refuge for the night in Bethel Presbyterian Church, also located in Robeson County, five miles north of Gilchrist Bridge and two miles above the Graham home, all in a “terrible storm of rain”. Sherman “stretched himself out on one of the wooden pews for the night.” Someone left a penciled memo in the Church bible, “Mr. McNeill will please pray for old Abe, – By Order – W. T. Sherman – Major General Commanding U. S. Forces.”3
In a typed narrative dated May 24, 1932, A. D. Currie recites his fateful connection to the last hours of the life of Alexander Graham. Mr. Currie, writing 67 years after the event, was likely a boy too young for Confederate service but not too young to have the event impressed on his psyche for the remainder of his life. Currie, from Laurinburg, served in the North Carolina legislature as a member of the 1925 House of Representatives.
Graham, though not privy to the correspondence between Beauregard and Hampton, had acted, according to Currie, in accordance with the spirit of the directive, Graham’s home being directly on the Cheraw to Fayetteville Road. Several days prior to March 9, 1865, Graham had removed, stored, and arranged his corn, wheat and meat in the barns and cribs at the residence of John C. Currie, the father of A. D. Currie, a distance of some nine miles from the Graham home, as it was judged to be a place of safety. Graham used two wagons and eight mules. The mules belonged to Graham’s daughter who had returned as a widow from her home in Mississippi in order to avoid Yankee depredations in that state. Her servant, Wash Wall, accompanied her on the return. According to A. D. Currie, Wash had been “raced and chased” by the Yankees in Mississippi and the daughter, while agreeing to help her father, admonished Wash to take particular care of the mules. On March 9, 1865, feeling insecure even at the Currie residence, Graham had Wash and another servant load the two wagons with meat and proceeded another two and a half miles from the Currie house and stationed himself between “two little hills”. Graham was armed with a pistol and shotgun and rode a black mare to accompany the two wagons. A. D. Currie loaned Mr. Graham his pistol and the sheepskin holder for the pistol which he had made himself. According to A. D. Currie, Graham stated “Let them find (me) if they can, and if they do, I will mount my black mare and make for Drowning Creek (Lumber River), jump off and swim across. The Curries did not have a horse and “shanked it off” to hide at the “head of a branch.”
In the days immediately following, those in hiding, returned one by one to the Currie house, now an “ash bed”, except for Mr. Graham. A servant reported that, while in hiding, she had seen Mr. Graham chased by Yankees and two former enslaved persons, one of whom bore a grudge for a recent punishment. There was a lapse of four days from the time Graham was seen by the Curries and the formation of a search party consisting of Dr. Colin Bethune, A. D. Currie, his twin brother Calvin, and another. They located the starting point of the two mile “race for life”. “The tracks of the victor and the victim were so well pressed in the soft ground that the rains for quite awhile made no signs of blotting out their tracks. They showed just where the race ended and death began – the animal circled around a big pine tree and Mr. Graham’s feet were against the big tree, his head pointing the way they came from.” Calvin was the first to sight “Mr. Graham’s white hair glistening in the distance.” The pistol and shotgun were gone, along with the wagons of meat, only A. D. Currie’s homemade pistol holder remaining. B y then, it was late in the evening and without means to carry the body, it was left on an improvised “cooling board” after “placing his stylish top hat on his face”. The next day, A. D. Currie was deputized by his father to measure the body for a coffin. Though his hair “stood on end”, A. D. Currie managed this assignment and, afterwards, as he had been instructed, he made contact with the community coffin maker. The coffin maker performed his function and even provided two oxen for transportation for the 12 mile trek to the Purcell graveyard at a speed, according to A. D Currie, of two miles an hour. This was his “job for anyone who might die. He made and furnished everything. If he ever charged one cent for anyone for such work, I would like to see the family who says he did.”
It was a time of great devastation and disorganization. The coffin maker dug the grave. According to A. D. Currie, the coffin maker and Graham’s widow were the only attendants. Wash “changing his camping quarters her and there” managed to save the eight mules belonging to the Graham daughter and according to A. D. Currie, had his revenge on certain individual Yankee soldiers, which is another story.
Within ten days of her husband’s death, Elizabeth Purcell Graham, was to face another tragedy. Her son, Thomas Scott Graham, was mortally wounded on March 19, 1865, at the Battle of Bentonville, and died in a hospital in Raleigh on March 23, 1865. The graves of the father and son rest in the Robeson County Purcell graveyard, now in Hoke County.
Shift forward to 1973. Ella Alderman McLean, the grandniece of Elizabeth Purcell Graham, and her son, Alderman McLean, contacted the author and urged a purchase of the old Graham house which had to be moved from its original site or face demolition. The house was purchased, moved four miles to the vicinity of the Riverton community in Scotland County, where it stands today, after renovation which was commenced with the enthusiastic assistance of the grandniece and her son. A kitchen annex was constructed using materials from another antebellum structure and today is a separate apartment. The house has several interesting features: an eight foot wide center hall paneled with heart pine, ceilings ten and a half feet tall, doors and windows of the same height, four chimneys, one for each of the four rooms. It sits on brick piers four feet off the ground.
The Graham family of two parents and eight children made do with this four room residence with a separate kitchen which probably contained a dining room. The house was located on a 430 acre tract belonging to the Grahams resulting from the 1851 division of the lands of John Purcell, the deceased father of Mrs. Graham. In the 1860 census, Graham was listed as a farmer with 800 acres of land.
Strangely enough, the story of Alexander Graham was not widely known. The Lumber River Scots, the family history for the Grahams, meticulously recites the birth and death dates for Mrs. Graham and all the children, yet it does not mention the birth and death dates for Alexander Graham nor the circumstances of his death. In addition to A. D Currie’s narrative, correspondence is available including a letter dated July 12, 1937, from Dr. William A. McLeod, Presbyterian minister in Texas, to Dr. A. C. Bethune in Raeford, referring to Alexander Graham as having been “killed in 1865 by Sherman’s bums”. The author through the years had noticed only the coincidence of the date of death on the tombstone of Alexander Graham, March 9, 1865, as being the same date that General Sherman spent the night at Bethel Church. Since Graham was sixty-five years of age in March, 1865, the author assumed that the stress of the arrival of Sherman’s army had resulted in a natural death for a man of his age at that time. The research and information from John C. Kelly of Rockville, Maryland, descendant of local families and native of Hoke County, and Dickson McLean, Jr. uncovered the answer to this mystery for which the author is much indebted.
1 The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett, University of North Carolina, Press, 1963, p. 301.
2The War of the Rebellion, a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1 – Volume XLVII, in three parts, Part II Correspondence, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1895.