John Jones Phips: From Virginia to Western North Carolina by 1797

John Jones Phips is discussed at length in a letter by Waightstill Avery, written in Burke County, North Carolina on 31 May 1797. That letter, along with a lengthy document written by John Jones Phipps, appeared in the North Carolina Journal, published at Halifax, dated 3 July 1797, p. 4. Based on information traced below, it would appear that John Jones Phips was born about 1755 or earlier.

One possibility, but not the only one, as to the identity of this John Jones Phips is that he could possibly have been the John Phipps of Virginia, then North Carolina, and finally Kentucky, for whom a Revolutionary War pension file is extant. That John Phipps was born in Charles City County, Virginia in 1753, so the dates fit. He later lived in Surry County, Virginia, then, after the war, in Orange County, North Carolina until he moved into Kentucky, so the locations fit.

John Jones Phips was well acquainted with boating on the James River, a river which runs past both Charles City County and Surry County, Virginia. He later appears in western North Carolina. John Phipps of the Revolutionary War pension application came into Orange County, North Carolina and later moved to Hopkins County, Kentucky. In between, he could possibly have been in Burke County, North Carolina.

In his letter, Waightstill Avery refers to the James River and “the Atkin river.” What is now known as the Yadkin River was, at one time, known as the Atkin River. The Yadkin flows for 215 miles and is one of North Carolina’s longest rivers. Most of the letter’s focus, however, is on the Catawba River, which flows from western North Carolina into South Carolina. Both the Yadkin and the Catawba have their origins in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The will of Waightstill Avery, by the way, is extremely lengthy and begins by discussing his college degrees. He also refers to pondering “Standing before the throne of God, of beholding Jesus Christ in glory.” The will was written in Burke County on 20 February 1819 and is the first in a collection of loose wills covering the period 1793 to 1905.

To the Printer of the North-Carolina Journal.

By means of your useful paper, I request you to convey to the inhabitants of Mecklenburg, Iredell, Lincoln and Burke, the information contained in this letter and the enclosed certified opinion of John Jones Phips, in respect to clearing the Cataba [i.e. Catawba] river for inland navigation.

Mr. Phips has spent a great part of his life in boating on James river, was one of the first who successfully navigated the Atkin river, and is reputed to be a good Judge of, and well skilled in the business. His opinion appears to correspond in many particulars, with the opinion of those Commissioners appointed by the county courts, in virtue of the acts of 1784 and 1785 (Iredell’s Revisal, pages 536 and 563) and also with the opinion of those appointed in the year 1795, by the General Assembly. Those were in both instances appointed for each county for a distinct part of the river detached from the other parts: And those appointed for one part, did not examine all the other parts of the river: And although the gentlemen appointed in 1795, made an attempt to assemble, and form a general meeting from the four counties, I have heard that some members failing to attend, a general meeting was never assembled; so that no one of them took into view the whole river and all its parts, or made any statement of the comparative expence as Mr. Phips has done, in his large statement that would have been too long for publication in your paper. But leaving out the smaller shoals of little account, by comparing the several parts of Mr. Phip’s certificate and the said acts of 1784 and 1785, it will appear, that Mr. Lemburg will have to clear one half of two out of thirteen of the most expensive rapids and shoals – say equal to the entire expences of one only.

The author, at this point, notes specific amounts of work to be done in each of the separate counties of Iredell, Lincoln, and Burke. Reference is made to conveying wheat and tobacco. He continues with other benefits to be derived from clearing the river. The letter is signed,

Swann Ponds, Burke county, May 31.

This is immediately followed by the testimony of John Jones Phips regarding the matter:

I John Jones Phips do hereby certify, that on request of several gentlemen n Burke county, I have examined the Cataba [i.e. Catawba] river, from Col. John Carson’s, in the upper part of Burke, to South-Carolina; paid particular attention to the rapids and shoals, and made an estimate of the expence for clearing them for boat navigation – The ten shoals and rapids most expensive to clear as as follow: . . .

. . . I do further certify, that being well acquainted with boating on James river, and the Atkin river, it is my opinion that the Cataba river will, when cleared, be better for boating than the Atkin, and as good as James river; and that the expence of clearing, will not exceed the former estimate, reported to the General Assembly by the Commissioners, viz. 3200l. [i.e. 3200 pounds] but may be considerably less.

I do further further certify, that I have this day viewed and examined four shoals and rapids in Col. Avery’s district of six miles, which have been thought difficult to clear, and I am of opinion that he hath cleared them sufficiently for a boat with ten hogsheads of tobacco to pass up or down at a common time, with perfect safety, and as much ease as common river boating, and that he hath completed about one half the labor of clearing out eight shoals and rapids in his district of six miles.

I am further of opinion, that on a division of the river into twenty five districts of six miles each, eight of those districts would be worse and more expensive to clear than Col. Avery’s, and that the other sixteen would be better and less expensive to clear; and that Col. Avery will be able completely to finish his district before the last of July with no greater exertions than he has already made, if the season proves favourable; and that equal exertions of others who live near the river, would clear out the whole, from Col. John Carson’s to South Carolina, by the last of August. Certified this 31st of May, 1797, by me

Based on area naming conventions of the era, a close relationship between John Jones Phips and the Jones family can be assumed. That relationship could have involved a blood relationship, such as perhaps his mother’s maiden name. Jones is obviously a common name, yet we have noted an unusual concentration of occurrences of the Jones name in connection with the Phips, Fips, Phipps, etc. name in Virginia.

In addition, the documents by Phips and Avery indicate that Phips had spent “a great part of his life,” as Avery termed it, “in boating on James river.” This would, of course, indicate that John Jones Phips had come from Virginia.

Avery wrote of efforts to clear the Catawba River, making way for navigation along that river in the North Carolina counties of Mecklenburg, Iredell, Lincoln, and Burke. The published documents emphasized Burke County.

Burke County, North Carolina was created in 1777 from Rowan County. Then in 1791, parts of Burke and Rutherford County became Buncombe County. Later, in 1833, parts of Burke and Buncombe Counties became Yancey County.

As we noted in an earlier post, William Jones was born in Henrico County, Virginia about 1760, according to Revolutionary War pension records. He enlisted in Henrico County, Virginia and moved to a part of Buncombe County which later became Yancey County. He died in 1835 in Yancey County, North Carolina.

William Jones had married a woman named Dorothy. Dorothy’s sister was Nancy Phipps. Nancy Phipps, according to pension records, was born about 1778 in Wythe County, Virginia. Nancy was living in Yancey County in 1855, when she was 77.

Yancey County was, as already noted, created partly from Burke County. The present-day counties of Yancey and Burke are not adjacent, but are very close to each other. John Jones Phips, again, appears to have been closely associated with Burke County after living in Virginia.

It would appear likely that this John Jones Phips was related in some way to Nancy Phipps, sister of Dorothy who married William Jones. It would also also appear that John Jones Phips had moved into Burke County or that area after previously living on or near the James River in Virginia.

The James River flows through or alongside the present-day Virginia counties of Alleghany, Botetourt, Rockbridge, Amherst, Appomattox, Nelson, Buckingham, Fluvanna, Cumberland, Goochland, Powhatan, Henrico, Chesterfield, Charles City, Prince George, Surry, and James City. As already noted, William Jones was born in Henrico County, and we have noted various Phips connections in several of these counties, especially Buckingham, Cumberland, Goochland, Charles City, Surry, and James City.

John Jones Phips, it would seem, was likely the same individual who appears in other records in Burke County, North Carolina as John Fips, Fipps, Phipps from 1791 to 1800. Assuming that this was the same John, then it would appear that John Jones Phips must have been born about 1755 or earlier.

A Josiah Phips also shows up in Burke County, in the 1800 census. Since he was born about 1775-1784, a likely scenario would be that he was perhaps the son of John Jones Phips. The name has been carefully examined in the 1800 census and is clearly that of Josiah, and not that of the more common given name Isaiah. A George Fipps, born about 1766-1784, appears in the 1810 census in Burke County. Jacob Phipps sold Burke County land in an 1824 deed which was not recorded until 1832.

A Burke County, North Carolina timeline:

  • 1791: John Fips signed order for road from “Buck to head of the Adkin” (i.e. Atkin, later the Yadkin) in Burke County
  • 1793: John Fipps signed Burke County petition for road from Indian Grave Gap in Wilkes County to iron works being built on Gunpowder Creek
  • 1795: John Phipps in Burke County tax list with 3,981 acres
  • 1797: John Phipps in Burke County tax list with no acreage listed
  • 1797: John Jones Phips in Burke County, with extensive experience on the James River in Virginia, testified regarding navigability of the Catawa River in North Carolina
  • 1800: John Fipps in census in Burke County: Free white males: 2 under 10, 1 16-25 [born about 1775-1784], 1 45+ [born about 1755 or earlier]; free white females: 2 under 10, 1 10-15
  • 1800: Josiah Phips in census in Burke County: Free white males: 1 16-25 [born about 1775-1784]; free white females: [none]
  • 1810: George Fipps in census in Burke County: Free white males: 1 under 10, 1 26-44 [born about 1766-1784]; free white females: 1 under 10, 1 16-25 [born about 1785-1794]
  • 1824: Jacob Phipps sold land on Cox’s Creek in Burke County to Jacob Honeycutt, not recorded until 1832

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