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Friday, February 5, 2021

Wood County Pioneer: Alexander Henderson, Jr.

 A duel was fought in Belpre, Ohio on October 8, 1805. That caught my attention. I had never heard of this or any other duel in the Ohio Country. It seemed out of character with practices of that time, though the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr had taken place just a year earlier. The duel combatants were Alexander Henderson, Jr. and Stephen Wilson, both of Wood County, Virginia (now WV). Here is a newspaper account from the Virginia Argyle on December 4, 1805, likely reprinted from the Ohio Gazette:

We understand that a Duel was fought on the 8th (of October, 1805) in the settlement of Belpre, Ohio, by Stephen R. Wilson and Alexander Henderson both of Wood County, Virginia. The distance agreed upon was fifteen steps, and to wheel and fire; when the word was given, they both advanced, the one in a deliberate walk, the other at full speed, till when within an arm’s length of each other, when they both fired and fell side by side. Mr. Wilson received a ball in his knee which shattered it to pieces. Mr Henderson a ball in his thigh near the upper joint, which it was feared would deprive him of his life; but we understand that they both are in a fair way of recovery. - Ohio Gaz

I discovered this curious and underreported event while reading The Hendersons: One Family’s Legacy by Pamela Brust. This book chronicles the fascinating story of the Henderson family of Wood County, West Virginia. Alexander Henderson, Jr. was an early area pioneer with numerous Marietta connections. I was captivated by his life of pioneering successes sadly intermingled with tragic low points. Alexander Jr. was known by his nickname (shared with his father), "Sandy." He was described as "fair, blue-eyed, handsome with a most cheerful and genial disposition."

Alexander achieved a number of pioneering "firsts" in his Wood-Washington County community:
  • One of the first settlers in what is now Wirt County WV, then a remote wilderness
  • Fought in the first (and probably last) recorded duel in Ohio
  • One of the first area settlers who successfully overcame a permanent disability
  • Was a Captain in the first Wood County militia
  • One of the first magistrates in Wood County
  • One of the first, with his brother, to alert President Thomas Jefferson of Aaron Burr’s allegedly treasonous plot
  • A charter member of the first Washington/Wood County Agricultural and Manufacturing Society board
  • Worked as cashier at the first chartered bank in Ohio - the Bank of Marietta
  • Was one of the first members and vestrymen at St. Lukes Episcopal Church in Marietta

Also, he had or learned many skills: farmer, hunter, land broker and developer, civic leader, socialite, banker, judge.

But there were devastating low points with life-changing impacts.
  • The duel which inflicted permanent physical injury, making him “a cripple for life.”
  • The deaths of two of their children as young adults in the bilious fever epidemic of 1823.
  • Bankruptcy in 1826, requiring all of his assets to be sold to meet debts, from which he never recovered.
The Henderson family American patriarch, Alexander Henderson, Sr., was a wealthy businessman and politician from Dumfries, Virginia. He was a close friend and associate of George Washington - on whose advice Henderson Sr. purchased land in western Virginia. Washington also owned land in the area, including the “Washington Bottom” area of Wood County. Three of the Henderson sons, John G., Alexander Jr., and James settled on Henderson land located in today’s Wood, Wirt, and Pleasants Counties. John G. was the first arrival, in 1797; Alexander Jr. followed in April, 1799. They brought slaves from Dumfries to help them clear land and raise cabins.

Life was rough and dangerous on the Western Virginia frontier. The early days of their habitation were challenging. John Glassford Henderson, Alexander Jr.'s brother, mentioned numerous setbacks and financial losses in his journal - horses lost, damage from windstorms, livestock killed by bears, illness and injury of their slaves. There was the constant threat of disease; malaria, smallpox, and similar epidemics were commonplace.

With the help of his brother and their slaves, Alexander Jr. carved out a homestead known as "Beech Park" near Burning Springs along the Little Kanawha River. He returned to Dumfries and married Jane Hutchinson Lithgow, known in the family as "Hutchie," on May 21, 1801. The wedding was performed by Mason L. Weems, author of the "Life of Washington" and creator of the well known George Washington cherry tree tale. He was also pastor of the Pohick Church where Alexander Henderson Sr. attended and was a vestryman along with Virginia luminaries George Washington, George Mason, and others. Sandy and Hutchie returned to their wilderness home at Burning Springs on August 28, 1801. 

Beech Park: Copy by author of image from The Hendersons, One Family’s Legacy, by Pamela Brust


They settled in. Before moving west, Hutchie had sought a neighbor's help to learn the pioneer skills of spinning and weaving. Author James Callahan includes a quaint description of her adaptation to frontier living: “It was a new experience for her. She had been reared in luxury and was a petted beauty, unused to any kind of hardship. She took up the duties of life (in the wilderness) with good cheer and resourcefulness, and in her cabin in the wilderness, five miles distant from a neighbor, learned to spin and weave......” She became quite skilled in making coverlets, quilts, and other adornments which later became family heirlooms. 

She gave birth to their first child, George Washington Henderson, in 1801. He grew up to be quite successful and established Henderson Hall plantation. Two other children, John Alexander (1803-1823) and Mary Page (1805-1823) followed but died as young adults from a malaria epidemic which swept the area in 1823. 

Alexander, Jr. and his brother John G. were active in civic activities and social life of the area. Early accounts mention their involvement in land brokerage. Alexander was appointed as a captain in the militia. He is listed as one of several Justices in Wood County, Virginia in an 1811 document. They were acquaintances of Harman Blennerhassett, prominent socialite, owner of the island Blennerhassett Mansion, and associate of Aaron Burr in the “Burr Conspiracy.”

Alexander’s life took an unexpected and tragic turn in 1805 when he fought the duel with Stephen Wilson. The two had been at odds for some time. Observers noted that Wilson was the primary instigator of ill will. Alexander called Wilson a “paltroon and coward” in response to an accusation from Wilson. Wilson then challenged Alexander to a duel to be fought on a bluff overlooking the river in Belpre, Ohio. That location in Ohio was probably selected since dueling was prohibited in Virginia.

It’s likely that Henderson’s family and friends tried to dissuade him from dueling. He had three young children and was otherwise well established in the Wood County community. Why risk his life answering a spurious accusation from a scoundrel like Wilson? His granddaughter-in-law, Anna Rosalie Henderson, years later voiced eloquent dismay at his choice to duel: “From the wound inflicted by this duel....,a hearty young man 27 years of age was made a cripple for life.......What unspeakable folly of theirs, handicapped for such a trifle? What a trial it must have been to his wife, what ceaseless regret to himself.”

The report of the duel suggests that they were almost face to face when shots rang out. I thought that duelers stayed some distance apart. Both were seriously wounded but survived. Alexander was thought near death at one point but gradually recovered. Sadly, he was left with permanent disability, unable to walk without a crutch. He could ride a horse but only with a side saddle; some of those saddles remain at Henderson Hall.

This article appeared directly under the newspaper report of the Henderson duel. It recounts a threatened duel from 1753 in Massachusetts. The would-be duelers were arrested and pleaded guilty. Their sentence was “to be carried with a rope about their necks to the gallows in a carat and to sit on the gallows with the rope about their necks for the space of an hour and afterwards to be committed to jail...for twelve months...” Apparently the judge - and the editor of this newspaper decades later - were serious about making a public statement to discourage duels.

Disability did not slow Alexander Henderson Jr. down. He resumed his business, family, and social activities. Shortly after his recovery, he was in the national spotlight with his brother John G., testifying at the trial of Aaron Burr. Harman Blennerhassett, a friend of Alexander and his brother, had tried to recruit the Alexanders in late 1806 to the Aaron Burr project. The Hendersons were shocked at Blennerhassett’s description and apparent endorsement of Burr’s treasonous-sounding plan. They contacted their father Alexander Henderson Sr., who in turn alerted President Jefferson. Jefferson dispatched John Graham, Governor of the Orleans Territory and a person known to Alexander Sr., to the Ohio Valley to learn of Burr’s plans. Graham talked to the Alexander brothers and Blennerhassett himself. He then left to alert Ohio governor Edward Tiffin, urging action to thwart the planned actions of Burr and his agents.

A few years later, Alexander Jr. and his family moved to Marietta to take advantage of educational opportunities there for the children. He lived at 126 Second Street in a brick house. While in Marietta, he worked at the Bank of Marietta from 1815-22 and was treasurer of Marietta schools. In 1819 served on the first board of “Agriculture and Manufacturing Society of Washington County, Ohio and Wood County, Virginia.” It was set up to encourage and support farming activity in the area. He was also a faithful member and vestryman of the St. Luke’s Episcopal church in Marietta.

Alexander and his brother John G. developed a substantial farm at Cow Creek in 1806 near Willow Island in Pleasants County Virginia. The family referred to it as the Cow Creek farm. Lewis Summers kept a journal of his visit to the area in 1808. He mentions the Henderson farm: “this farm contains 2,000 acres, about 200 in corn, expect to make 2,000 barrels. They work 30 hands. Stock of hogs, cattle, and horses fine.” Henderson built a home there in 1814 which still stands today, used as an office by Solvay Technology Solutions.

Cow Creek Farm home built about 1814, at Willow Island, now in use as an office

Alexander Jr.’s family lived there when tragedy struck in 1823. Their son John Alexander and daughter Mary Page died within days of each other of “bilious fever” (believed to be forms of Malaria and Yellow Fever) in December of 1823. There was a substantial epidemic at the time. Read more about it by clicking here. Their oldest son George Washington (GW) Henderson was studying law in eastern Virginia at the time and escaped the illness.

Loss of children from illness was common in those days. It must have been devastating. GW and his wife Elizabeth Tomlinson Henderson would lose seven children to illness decades later. Elizabeth wore a brooch  with locks of her deceased children’s hair and often experienced bouts of depression. Her journals mention her faith as a major support. Such must have been the experience of Alexander Jr. and his wife Jane.

Their woes were compounded as financial setbacks occurred in the 1820’s. He had purchased land near Cow Creek from relatives thinking he could pay for them over time. But he could not. There were also land ownership disputes with other parties. His son GW returned to the area from law school to recover from the financial problems. Such efforts failed. All of his property and possessions had to be sold in September of 1826 to settle debts. Apparently there were bitter accusations from his some of his siblings. 

Alexander sadly recorded his thoughts in a notebook: “I am 49 years of age, and we are about to stripped of all that we have....The prospect is gloomy indeed. I have struggled hard, have endured great privations...I came to Wood County 27 years ago last April when it was nearly a wilderness and assisted not a little to open farms for my brothers and sisters benefit. Far from meaning to act dishonestly toward my brothers and sisters I have, as I live, done the best in my power to advance their interest. More might be said on this subject but I forbear.” 

It was an embarrassing, disappointing outcome for such a talented and capable leader. Thereafter he lived with or near his son George Washington Henderson. Despite the setback, Alexander and John’s pioneering efforts assured that the Henderson family would continue to be an economic, social, and political force in the area for many years to come.

Sources:
Brust, Pamela Douglas, The Hendersons, One Family’s Legacy, Bloomington IN, AuthorHouse, 2019

Callahan, James Morton, History of West Virginia, Old and New, Volume 3. Chicago and New York: The American Historical Society, Inc., 1923

Cunningham, Connie, “Echoes from Henderson Hall: The History of One Pioneer Family Settling in the Ohio Valley,” a master’s degree thesis, Marietta College, 2005

Henderson Hall website, history section, https://hendersonhallwv.com/

House, John A, “Pioneers in Wood County, WV”, a paper document published in 1936, viewed at http://wvancestry.com/ReferenceMaterial/Files/Pioneers_of_Wood_County_West_Virginia_Vol_1.pdf

Newspapers.com, searches for reports of the 1805 duel

Wikitree.com, Alexander Henderson (Sr.) (1737-1815)

WikiTree.com, Alexander Henderson Jr. (1778-1838)

Williams, H. Z., History of Washington County Ohio, Cleveland, H. Z. Williams and Bro, 1881

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