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.

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