A TRIBUTE TO JOEL YANCEY (1796-1865)
Garland M. Branch, Jr.
Niskayuna, New York
The following memorial tribute was copied in 1985 by Garland M. Branch, Jr., a great-great-grandson of Joel Yancey, from an old manuscript found by his mother, Ina Nulter Branch, among the papers of her mother, Ratie Lou Haymond Nulter, a granddaughter of Joel Yancey. This copy of the manuscript differs from an earlier version found in the old iron safe in Thomas McPherson's hardware store in Burnsville, WV. (Thomas was Joel's great-grandson.) The earlier version states that the widow of Joel Yancey, Elizabeth Brown, is still living, whereas the later version states that she died on the 24th day of September in 1888. Since both versions refer to "Col." Yancey's arrival in Braxton County "46 years ago", and since the U.S. Census record shows that his family was still residing in Albemarle County in 1840, one may deduce that the original manuscript was written about 1887 and his arrival in Braxton County occurred in 1841. This date is in agreement with old store records kept with the Yancey Mills ledgers in McPherson's safe which show that Joel had moved from Albemarle to Braxton County, WV before 1848.
Joel Yancey was born 2 Aug 1796 in St. Anne's Parish, Albemarle County, Virginia, a son of Col. Charles & Sarah (Field) Yancey, a grandson of Jeremiah and Margaret Mullins Yancey, and a great-grandson of Robert and Temperance Dumas Yancey. On 12 Dec 1823 he married Elizabeth Brown, daughter of Andrew and Mary Brown. Their 9 children were James Monroe, Ann Maria (Mrs. Thomas Byrne), Lucy W. (Mrs. Benjamin Wilson Haymond), Louisa (d.y.), Capt. John Hampton, Jeremiah Willis (d.y.), Andrew Jackson, Mary Jane (Mrs. James N. McPherson), Sarah Elizabeth (Mrs. John Wilson Haymond), and Francis (d.y.) On 15 Sep 1840 Joel sold his 1,488 acre plantation Olive Mount on Green Creek in Albemarle and invested his proceeds in timber lands in Braxton County beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley in western Virginia. He and his wife Elizabeth raised their family here in their home at the confluence of Oil Creek and the Little Kanawha River in Burnsville. Remaining loyal to their mother state of Virginia after the formation of the state of West Virginia, one son, John Hampton, served as a captain in the 31st Virginia Infantry, CSA, and with his mother and brothers moved west to Ohio, Kentucky, and Wisconsin after their father's death on 31 Oct 1865. Joel's death certificate shows that he died of "newmonia".
"The golden sun,
The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,
Are shining on the sad abodes of death
Through the still lapse of ages."
There are few places in our state around which cluster so many pleasant traditions, as that part of the Little Kanawha Valley, where Salt Lick and Oil Creek send in their purling waters to the beautiful river. There is not a silvery tributary running down from the hills, not a glen or chasm, but has some wild, weird romance of the days of old associated with it. Here the Indian faced the stubborn advance guard of civilization and many a sanguine battle was fought for supremacy of race. Far away from the bustle and noise of the busy world, where the white man lived in the triumph of peace, fostering with rude care and earnest effort, education, government, art and religion, the hardy pioneers lost much of their home influences and refinements and gradually and imperceptibly went down to semi-civilization, that strange condition of life from which evolve the truest heroism, the noblest impulses and most self-sacrificing principles of human nature.
The first settlers in this part of the country were very remarkable men and women, the men physically powerful with muscles and sinews strong and tough as hickory poles. They were educated too, these great ancestors of ours, well read in history and the Bible. Calm and reflective men were they, who looked into the dim future, and saw before them the splendid possibilities which it was their mission to reach by patient dint and unwearied perseverance.
In those days Clarksburg was the nearest store and from that old frontier town, the West stretched forth a dark, wild, mysterious wilderness, wild and mysterious as the wilderness of the Atlantic before the dauntless soul of Columbus.
These reflections welled up in my mind a few days ago, as I strolled into the old Byrne Grave Yard, up on the beautiful hillside opposite the mouth of Oil Creek. Here sleep the first early settlers, a race of people who left no vicious legacy to degrade posterity. Industrious, frugal, despising pride and scorning covetiousness; simple in manners and unassuming in deportment, humanity among them was no myth nor honor a stranger.
The Grave Yard is unfenced, and the headstones bearing "name and date" are many of them prostrated. Among the lichened tributes of affection I came across the name of one I knew many years ago, in the full freshness of his peerless manhood _ Joel Yancey. I sat on his grave, for awhile forgetting the world and its hollow mockery of civilization, and I mourned over "the departed glory of Israel" as a child would mourn over a departed parent.
Few men acquainted with Col. Yancey knew him. Well educated, extensively read on every subject useful and instructive, he despised the superficial gloss and glamour which are now regarded as education. In the field of philosophy and history he filled his mind with the beauty of knowledge and slaked his thirst for eternal wisdom at the fountain of the living waters of Christian truth.
Born in Albemarle County, Va., in Oct 1796, and educated in one of the best schools of the great, old Commonwealth, he was a true and noble type of the Virginia gentleman. He taught school for a few years, and afterward traveled extensively through the South. Returning home he was married to a Miss Elizabeth Brown of the same place, who was born in May 1797.
"Westward ho!" was the cry in those days: the spirit of adventure rose high and Col. Yancey, bold and adventurous, made up his mind to strike out for the Country of the Little Kanawha. His courageous wife seconded him in the enterprise and so packing up all necessary effects, father, mother and seven children started out on their rough journey. They arrived here about 46 years ago, and settled down in Oil Creek, close to the spot where the good old man "sleeps the sleep that knows no waking."
There were no railroads nor telegraphs in those halcyon days. The men cleaned out the forest and hunted; women assisted in outdoor labor, planting corn, hoeing and gathering it in, and on them also devolved the work of shearing the sheep, picking and washing wool, carding and spinning. They wove, cut out and made all the clothes and though the fashions were not then as elaborate and ornate as now, every garment seemed to fit well on the finely proportioned men and women of those days. A dude would be then as great a curiosity as an ourang-outang, and a woman could not be found demoralized enough to wear a bustle.
In such a condition of life Col. Yancey was at home, for the enjoyment of such a state of society, free from senseless restraints was the Acadia of his dreams. He brought with him a well selected library of choice books, and these he delighted to read in the winter's nights by the friendly light of the good old pine torch or tallow dip. He was chosen to fill important local offices, and as Magistrate was impartial and inflexible. His neighbors on all occasions sought his advice and from his judgment no appeal would at any time be made.
Col. Yancey was a pure, persistent democrat of the Jeffersonian school, and any principle that did not tend to embrace all the people for the good of all, and that had the least leaning toward class rule, he discarded as dangerous. He was simple and austere in his political life and held to the Declaration of Independence as the only true palladium of his Country's liberty. In social life he was agreeable, very cheerful and always gentle and refined. He was a Free Mason of high standing and a firm believer in the Bible.
When the war came on he was intensely Southern, regarding that terrible visitation as an aggressive attack on his favorite doctrine of State Rights. His two eldest boys went into the Confederate Army, one of whom, John, was Captain in the 25th Regiment. Harrassed and annoyed during the war, the good old Colonel's health gave way, and soon after the Confederacy went down, he also went down into his grave. He died in Oct 1865. Two of his sons are in the State of Kentucky, with one of whom, Andrew, the venerable widow lived, and died on the 24th day of September 1888. A third son lives in Wisconsin. His daughters, three in number, are married and living close to the old house.
I do not deem it wrong or impudent to make this humble effort to take from the Grave Yard on the hill over the Little Kanawha this memento of a good and true man. It would be well in these degenerate days, if West Virginians would visit occasionally the long-neglected "cities of the dead" and rescue from oblivion the names of those who in their day and generation were like Col. Yancey, kings physically and intellectually among men.
Those fallen pillars in the wilderness behind us should be lifted up to view, that we may take heart to find the lost path and so walk up to higher excellence.
Forty years ago I climbed the knob on which the cemetery was located and found the gravestone of Joel Yancey which had almost vanished in the turf. Unfortunately, the cemetery is no longer in existence. The graves were moved to another cemetery and the knob was demolished to make way for the new interstate highway that goes through the heart of Burnsville.