Thursday, October 26, 2006

The privilege of owning old Gillespie-made rifles

Billy Harkins of Union County holds two Gillespie-made rifles. The long rifle was made for W. W. Carland of Henderson County, NC by Harvey Gillespie. The shorter "hog" rifle belonged to Billy's great grandfather, Bill Bowers. Indications are that it was made by Harvey Gillespie.

Perhaps James Butts and Billy Harkins are not the only two current citizens of Union County, Georgia who own original Gillespie-made rifles. But these two men have been generous in sharing information and pictures with me which they gave permission to publish through this column.

These two are proud owners of tried and true firearms made by descendants of the Gillespie gunmakers of East Fork, North Carolina, and of grandsons of the original John Gillespie, Sr.--John and James A. who migrated to Union County and Harvey who remained in Henderson County, NC. Each (and other Gillespie descendants) plied their gunsmith trade well.

Last week's column told of how James Butts became the privileged owner of a rifle which had been made for his grandfather, Sydney Harshaw. It was made by John Gillespie who migrated to Union County in 1849.

Billy Harkins of V Harkins Road, Blairsville, a carpenter by trade and a gunsmith by avocation and hobby, is the privileged owner of a Gillespie-made "hog" rifle owned by his great, great grandfather, Bill Bowers, who married Sarah ("Sally") Gillespie, daughter of Moses Gillespie.

Billy Harkins also owns a Gillespie-made rifle which was fashioned specifically for a W. W. Carland who lived in the area of Henderson County, NC. Billy Harkins found a date on that long rifle showing it was crafted in 1873. Neither of these rifles is signed, but through extensive research and stories passed down, the current owner has found earmarks to identify Harvey Gillespie as the gunmaker for both rifles.

It sounds easy to say, "Harvey Gillespie made these rifles," even though his signature, other than some characteristic "code" markings, does not appear on either of the rifles now owned by Billy Harkins. You see, there were several named Harvey Gillespie who made guns. One was John Harvey Gillespie (1810-1891), son of William, grandson of John, Sr. and Jane Harvey Gillespie (Jane's maiden name "Harvey" was passed along for generations, as was the custom then).

The Harvey Gillespie whom Billy Harkins believes made the guns he owns was a brother to John R. Gillespie and James A. Gillespie who migrated to Union County in 1849. But their brother, Harvey, remained in North Carolina.

Harvey Gillespie (June 18, 1820-August 19, 1877) was the son of Mathew Gillespie and his wife, Elizabeth Sitton Gillespie, their seventh of twelve children, five sons and seven daughters.

Elizabeth Sitton's father, Phillip Sitton, owned an ironworks located on the South Mills River near present-day Mills River, NC. Nearby on Queen's Creek, Mathew Gillespie set up his gunsmith shop, and all five of his sons, John R., Phillip, Harvey, James A. and Wilson learned the gunsmith trade while working with their father. The son named Harvey (as were the other eleven children of Mathew and Elizabeth Gillespie) was born in Henderson County, NC. Harvey was buried in Henderson County, as was his wife, Sarah Hooper Gillespie.

Billy Harkins is grateful to Vesta Waldroop Byrd who found the old Gillespie-made hog rifle stored in a building at their home. Knowing that the old rifle belonged to Billy Harkins' great grandfather, Bill Bowers,Vesta gave the rifle to Billy. Stories Billy heard in his childhood make the rifle very personal and treasured. One he especially enjoyed hearing was how his grandfather went out into the woods near Owltown Gap where he lived looking for wild turkeys. Bill Bowers found a flock, and giving good aim, shot and killed two turkeys with the same shot. Whether that happened near Thanksgiving or not, we don't know. At any rate, the Bowers family enjoyed a feast of wild turkey with all the fixings.

Billy is amazed at the true aim of both old rifles he owns. As he makes replicas of them, he is careful to get the best materials with which to make his copies and to craft them with precision as did the Gillespie gunmakers of long ago.

"Why did you decide to start making replicas of the rifles?" I asked Billy.

"I appreciate the tedious and precise work the Gillespie and other gunmakers did in crafting their guns. It took skill, patience and perseverance to make them. I am interested in helping to preserve old fire arms and other antiques from the folk art point of view. I enjoy attending gun shows and recently attended the annual show in Lexington, Kentucky. I have been invited to the Museum of Appalachia near Knoxville, Tennessee to show my guns."

Billy Harkins is a carpenter and especially enjoys custom carpentry such as making rails of laurel wood and custom-ordered furniture. Mantels are another of his specialties. "I've crafted and hung several mantels," he said. Toward the end of our conversation, he invited me to call him and come by to see his gunshop, his antique guns, and the replicas he makes. I asked if he would be willing to accommodate other interested persons and he gave me permission to list his telephone number. Just call him in advance at 706-745-9405 for an appointment. He also owns a very old powder horn and hunting bag, as well as the attachment to measure the amount of powder needed for the guns.

On October 19, he took Dennis Glazener of Midlothian, Virginia, author of the book, "The Gillespie Gun Makers of East Fork, NC" (2006), another descendant of the gunmakers of fame, to meet Mr. Odell Plott of Young Harris. Mr. Plott, up in years now, is still alert and active, and related to the Gillespies through marriage. He took Glazener and Billy Harkins to the spot just off Georgia Highway 76 near the Towns/Union line, almost directly in front of Zion Methodist Church, where John and James Gillespie first worked together in their joint gunsmith shop. After the accident with a barrel being loaded on the forge with gunpowder still in it, the brothers went their separate ways. John Gillespie moved closer to Young Harris, to a location on the now Plott Town Road. The house John Gillespie lived in is still standing. A flat spot near the house appears to be the location where his gunshop stood.

I've traced the Gillespies and their descendants through four lengthy columns. My deep gratitude goes to Dennis Glazener, James Butts and Billy Harkins for taking the time through published book, emails, pictures and telephone calls to give rich information about the family who, through several generations, crafted a product of necessity and recreation. These men generously shared their knowledge of the guns and their makers with me I feel almost as if I have walked in the footsteps of the John Gillespies, James, Harvey and others. Dennis Glazener and Billy Harkins have learned to build replicas of the famous guns. All, including James Butts, appreciate the guns that have lasted far longer than a century. They save the real implements. I like to think I save a portion of this rich heritage through words.

James Butts is pictured with his children, Logan and Morgan, holding a long rifle made by John Gillespie for Sydney Harshaw, James' great, great grandfather.

c 2006 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Oct. 26, 2006 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

James Butts – Proud owner of a Gillespie Rifle

James Butts is pictured with his children, Logan and Morgan, holding a long rifle made by John Gillespie for Sydney Harshaw, James' great, great grandfather.

Sidney Harshaw (1815-1875) was born in Burke County, NC. He was living in Union County at the time of the 1850 census. He owned thirteen slaves in 1850.

He met Salinda Plott (1835-1907) of the Plotttown section of Union/Towns counties. She was born in North Carolina. Whether she and Sidney met before they moved to Union County is not known. They were married August 31, 1854, two years before Towns was formed from a portion of Union. Her parents were George and Rebecca Land Plott.

Sidney Harshaw's estate covered the land that is now a part of Meeks Park west of Blairsville. He operated a grist mill. Sidney Harshaw's great, great grandson, James Butts, states that part of the grist mill can still be seen at Meeks Park after a century and a half.

Sidney and Salinda Plott Harshaw had seven daughters: Barbara Ann Harshaw (1855-1932) married Jacob Luther (Uncle "Boney") Colwell; Harriet Elizabeth Harshaw (1857-1917) married Hiram Theodore ("Red") Colwell; Sarah Cleopatra ("Clee") Harshaw (1859-1923) married Archibald Blucher Butt; Ellen Harshaw (1862-?) married Cicero Y. Rogers; Mary Harshaw (1863-?); Emma Lou Harshaw (1865-1943); and Julia Harshaw (1870-1939).

James B. Butts who now owns his great, great grandfather Harshaw's Gillespie rifle is the fifth generation of Harshaws. His descendancy comes through Sarah Cleopatra ("Clee") Harshaw Butt and Archibald Blucher Butt along this line: Their fifth child, Robert Bryan Butt (1897-1948) and Zora Gibson Butt (1907-1980) had a son, James Robert Butt (b. 1932), who married Betty Ann Davidson. James B. Butts and Jeff Butts (the fifth generation from Sidney Harshaw) were their sons. And now the sixth generation, Logan and Morgan Butts (Shelly Burks Butts is Logan's mother and Lisa Lovell Butts is Morgan's mother), can proudly display the Gillespie rifle of their great, great, great grandfather, Sidney Harshaw.

But the signed John Gillespie-made rifle did not always have a safe place with Sidney Harshaw's descendants. This is the story James Butts tells of how he came to receive the treasured firearm.

Emma Lou Harshaw died in 1943. Sidney Harshaw’s youngest daughter, Julia Harshaw, died in 1939. An estate sale was held following the deaths of these daughters. James Robert Butt, James Butt's father, remembers going to the estate sale with his father, Robert Bryan Butt. The Gillespie rifle was an item up for bids. Local blacksmith, Marion Jackson received the rifle at the highest bid of fifty cents! He took it to his blacksmith shop just off highway 129 north out of Blairsville, and put it on display.

Union County Historian Ed Mauney saw the gun and immediately recognized it for what it was--a treasured, signed John Gillespie-made long rifle. He offered Mr. Jackson $5.00 for it, and the blacksmith accepted his offer. Mr. Mauney did much research on the Gillespie rifles made at East Fork in North Carolina.

The gun changed owners again. Claude LaFayette Butt (1879-1960), a grandson of Sidney Harshaw (son of Archibald Blucher and Sarah Cleopatra Harshaw Butt), bought the gun from Ed Mauney for $15.00. Many will remember Mr. Claude Butt as the long-time Union County Clerk of Court. A state patrolman offered to pay Claude Butt $35.00 for the gun, but he refused, knowing that it was a family heirloom. The rifle passed from Claude Butt to James Robert Butt, great grandson of Sidney Harshaw and James B. Butts's father.

Ed Mauney (1897-1977) in his research found that the particular gun owned by the Butts family was indeed made in Union County after John Gillespie moved here. Its stock is of lovely curly maple and the gun, well crafted and lovingly preserved, bears the proud initials of its maker, "J. G." When Ed Mauney bought the gun, he also received a framed portrait of the gun's maker. That picture was used in Dennis Gillespie's book, The Gillespie Gun Makers of East Fork, NC.

[Note: Many thanks to James B. Butts of Blairsville for much of the information in this column, and to him and Jerry Taylor, Towns County Historian, for the descendancy chart of Sidney Harshaw's family. For questions or to contact me, I may be reached at e-mail edj0513@alltel. net, telephone 478-453- 8751, or mail: Ethelene Dyer Jones, 1708 Cedarwood Road, Milledgeville, GA 31061-2411. Best wishes to all, and may we ever be aware of our rich mountain area history!]

c 2006 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Oct. 19, 2006 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Brothers Philip and Wilson Gillespie--Casualties of the Civil War

In last week’s column we were introduced to the Gillespie gunmakers of East Fork, NC. Two sons of Mathew and Elizabeth Sitton Gillespie, John R. and James A., moved to Union County, Georgia about 1849 and set up gun making establishments.

Two of their brothers, Philip and Wilson, and their brother-in-law, George Washington Underwood, were casualties of the Civil War.

Mathew and Elizabeth Gillespie had a large family of twelve children. Two of their sons, Philip and Wilson, and two of their sons-in-law, Robert O. Blythe, husband of their daughter, Jane, and George Washington Underwood, husband of their youngest child, daughter Isabel, left Mills River, NC together on their way to Tennessee to join the Union Army. It is reported that they walked from Mills River to Asheville where they caught a train to Tennessee. After arriving in Tennessee, they worked for several days in the fall harvest of wheat and corn, and then enlisted on September 25, 1863 at Greenville.

Prior to joining the Union Army, Philip Gillespie (2/11/1815 – 1/15/1864) was a noted gunmaker, having learned in his father’s shop. At Mills River, Philip plied his trade, with his brothers John, James and Wilson, and his brothers-in-law Robert O. Blythe, George W. Underwood, and John Harvey Gillespie, his first cousin but also his brother-in-law, married to his sister Sarah, worked at the shop owned and managed by Philip. In addition to turning out many guns with the initials “P. G.” to identify them, Philip owned a large farm he had bought from his grandfather, Philip Sitton, Sr. (for whom he was named). He ran a legal whiskey distillery. He also operated the Sitton Iron Forge.

Up in Tennessee, the two brothers and two brothers-in-law were assigned on October 1, 1863 to Company F, 2nd Regiment, North Carolina Mounted Infantry, Army of the United States, at Knoxville.

How much action Philip Gillespie engaged in is unclear. He became quite ill and was taken from camp into the home of Richard Wade near Maynardsville, Tennessee. He died of chronic diarrhea on January 15, 1864, and was buried there the next day.

Philip Gillespie never married. Reportedly, before he left Mills River to enlist in the war, he hid a bag of gold coins and a cask of brandy somewhere on Forge Mountain near his home. But the treasures were never found. Several fine Gillespie rifles with his initials were his legacy left to posterity. He was perhaps the most productive and best known of the third generation Gillespie gunmakers.

Wilson Gillespie (02/15/1825 – 01/15/1825) was the eleventh child of Mathew and Elizabeth Sitton Gillespie. Wilson was first married to Rachel N. Taylor. She died shortly after the birth of their son, William Harvey Gillespie (1851-1920). Wilson married, second, Malinda B. Underwood., a sister to George Washington Underwood who married Wilson’s sister, Isabel. Wilson and Malinda had five children: Rachel, Mary Elizabeth, Martha E., Margaret J., and Thomas W. Martha died the day she was born (March 1, 1858) and Thomas died at age fourteen months in 1864. When Wilson left home to join the U. S. Army, Malinda had the responsibility of rearing their children, Rachel, Mary Elizabeth and Margaret. William Harvey Gillespie, her stepson, was living with his maternal grandfather, Jeremiah Taylor.

It is interesting that Wilson Gillespie and his brother, Philip, died the same day, January 15, 1864. Wilson became sick on November 24, 1863, shortly after his enlistment, and was taken to the army hospital at Tazewell, TN. The cause of his death was listed as typhoid fever. He was buried in Tazewell. It is reported that Wilson Gillespie had received no pay during his months in the army.

Malinda Gillespie, widow, made application for a pension, applying first on September 11, 1865, with the last appeal dated March 30, 1869. She was finally granted a small pension. She lived until May 21, 1921 and was buried far from her fallen husband in the Shaws Creek Campground Cemetery near Horse Shoe, NC.

George Washington Underwood, husband of Isabel Gillespie, died April 8, 1864. Details and place of his death are unknown to this writer. The only one alive of the four men who went with high hopes to defend the Union was Robert O. Blythe, husband of Jane Gillespie. However, since his death occurred on January 21, 1866, he may have returned home with an injury or illness from the war. He was 54 when he died and was buried at Beulah Baptist Church Cemetery in Henderson County, NC.

In Union County, Georgia, John R. and James A. Gillespie would have heard with great sadness about the deaths of their brothers Philip and Wilson and their brothers-in- law. George W. Underwood and Robert O. Blythe.

[Note: My thanks to Dennis Glazener and his book, “The Gillespie Gun Makers of East Fork, NC” (2004) for information for this article. He granted permission for the use of pictures to accompany this article. On the very day this article will appear in “The Sentinel,” he is in Union County, GA from Midlothian, VA. Local resident, Billy Harkins, also a Gillespie descendant, is showing Dennis Glazener where John and James Gillespie had their gunshop in Union County.]

c 2006 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Oct. 12, 2006 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 5, 2006

The Gillespie rifle-a trusted firearm

I wonder how many reading this column have heard of the Gillespie gunmakers or have a treasured firearm made by the Gillespie family of East Fork, N.C., (and elsewhere) passed down through many generations and kept as an heirloom?

I have recently been in touch with T. Dennis Glazener of Midlothian, VA. He is a great, great, great grandson of John Gillespie, Sr. of East Fork, NC, one of the earliest-known Gillespie gunmakers in America. John Gillespie, Sr. lived from about 1753 through April 7, 1822. Gillespie descendant, Dennis Glazener, since his retirement from Lucent Technologies in 1997 as Project Manager, has spent much of his time tracing the family history of the Gillespie gunmakers and even making replicas of some of the rifles in his own gunshop. His book, The Gillespie Gun Makers Of East Fork, N.C., published in March 2004, gives an interesting account of what Glazener has found thus far in his research.

It has been written that "many a mountain man who gambled his life on his rifle trigger swore by his Gillespie rifle." (The Ashville Times). Most Gillespie rifles made before 1830 were flintlocks. These were fired by rubbing metal to create a spark to ignite the powder. Even though other rifle manufacturers began to use other types of firing mechanisms, the Gillespies continued to make flintlocks even after the Civil War period.

The flintlock was a favorite of mountain men. Maybe they liked to smell powder burning and enjoyed the simplicity of the flintlock.

Another interesting fact about the Gillespie firearms is that no two guns were exactly alike. The gunmakers used creativity in the wood for the stock and the metals for butt plates, tangs, trigger and trigger guard, muzzle, and other appendages. Some are of silver and even gold was used on occasion, as well as pewter and iron. Not all Gillespie-made rifles were signed by the gunmaker, but those that were are, indeed, treasured highly. At times, since guns were designed and made for specific clients, the owner's initials and name were carved into the metal plate or elsewhere on the gun.

John Gillespie, Sr. of East Fork, N.C., taught three of his sons the gunsmith trade.

These were William Gillespie (12/28/1785-9/23/1851), Mathew Gillespie (7/23/1788-5/16/1871) and Robert Harvey Gillespie (2/1/1791- 5/29/1881). Two of Mathew Gillespie's sons, John R. Gillespie (12/6/1811- 1/15/1864) and James A. Gillespie (1/5/1822-3/17/1897) moved from North Carolina to Union County, Georgia and set up a gun-making shop.

John R. Gillespie (12/6/1811-1894) was the first-born son of Mathew and Elizabeth Gillespie, and a grandson of John Gillespie, Sr. His move to Union County, GA., was soon after March 24, 1849 when the Mills River Baptist Church records show he received "a letter of dismission" to move to Georgia. In those days, the church to which the migrant moved did not write for a letter; rather, the member took the letter with him as he moved to the new area.

The Union County, GA., census shows both John R. Gillespie and his younger brother, James A. Gillespie (1/5/1822-3/17/1897) living in Union County, GA., and their occupation gunsmiths. Records indicate that John and James worked together until after James married Elizabeth Daniel on Christmas Day, 1851, and they moved into Towns County. However, local legend has another story about why John and James split into separate locations for their gun making. James had placed a gun on which they were working on the furnace to heat so that some changes could be made in the barrel. As the story goes, unknown to James, the gun was loaded. It exploded, and John was injured. After this incident, the brothers went their separate ways, thinking for their own safety it would be better for them to work alone. Whether true or not, the legend seems very probable.

John R. Gillespie signed his rifles with his initials J.G. James A. Gillespie signed his guns with JA G. Some have surmised that the J. G. signed rifles are by the grandfather, John Gillespie, Sr. However, those guns found with the J G signature seem of later vintage than could have been made by John, Sr. who died in 1822. The elder Gillespie may not have placed his initials on any guns he made. Dr. John Burrison has a collection of James Gillespie tools and a rifle on display at the Atlanta History Museum Folk Life Center.

John R. Gillespie was married first to Kizzie Cook. They had no children. In 1880 he married Lizzie Justice. They had one daughter, Johnce. When John Gillespie died in 1894, he was buried in the Old Union Baptist Church Cemetery, Young Harris.

James A. Gillespie and Elizabeth Daniel had three sons: George Washington (1858-1941), Alexander Lafayette (1865-1941) and William Mathew (1868-1926). After James's death in 1897, his wife Elizabeth moved to Hall County, Georgia where she evidently lived with their second son who had moved there.

Union and Towns counties in Georgia can feel pride that two of the Gillespie gunmakers plied their trade here in the nineteenth century.

(Note: This story will continue next week. I have been in touch with two families in Union County who have Gillespie-signed rifles. Thanks is due Dennis Glazener for allowing me to use his book as a reference source for information in this column. If you wish to contact me, my e-mail is and my telephone number is 478-453- 8751. -EDJ)

c 2006 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Oct. 5, 2006 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.