Historic Carson House
The Historic Carson House, one of the oldest homes in Marion, North Carolina, played a pivotal role in the history of the region and beyond. Its story not only includes the first white settlers to the upper Catawba valley, Scots-Irish Migration to Western NC, The American Revolution, and Civil War, but its ties stretch all the way to the founding of the Republic of Texas.
Spaniards led by Hernando DeSoto were the first Europeans to set foot in what would become McDowell County in 1540. Although searching for gold, what they found was a thriving native population. Most likely these were Siouan peoples related to the Catawba of South Carolina.
By the time white settlers arrived two centuries later, they found the area inhabited by both Catawba and Cherokee peoples. Although the two Nations were historic enemies, oral tradition holds that in the distant past a great battle took place over control of the land. The battle ending in a draw, it was decided that the upper Catawba Valley would be set aside as neutral hunting ground that could be used and inhabited by both Nations.
John Carson and Scots-Irish Migration
John Carson was born in Ireland on March 24, 1752 to parents of Scottish descent. In his late teens or early twenties he traveled to the New World, arriving first in New York but later moving to Philadelphia. Like many Scots-Irish immigrants, he followed the Great Wagon Road south through the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and finally along the Yadkin River to Salisbury, North Carolina.
Like other late arrivals in the area, he found that most of the land had already been claimed, so he moved west. He soon found himself with other Scots-Irish immigrants in the Upper Catawba Valley. The first records of John Carson in the area of Rowan County date to 1775.
John Carson’s First House
In 1778, just three years after his arrival, John Carson received the first of his many land grants.
Colonial Land Grant Procedure
During the colonial period, land grants were usually kept relatively small. The fear was that large estates would spread the population out too far and restrict the growth of the colony. However, the 640 acre limit used in the flatlands was often waived in the mountainous regions of the state. It was also not uncommon for a single individual to receive multiple land grants, just as John Carson did in 1778.
The procedure for obtaining a land grant was the same no matter the size of number of the property. The person seeking the grant would find a tract of land that hand not already been granted. A surveyor would then locate the tract using the traditional English method of Metes and Bounds. That is, they would use existing physical features of the local geography along with directions and distances as well as other known tracts of land. Natural features like trees, boulders, and rivers as well as man made features like walls, roads, or structures could be used. All of that would be written down in prose style describing the entire perimeter of the property and returning to the start point.
Family Ties in WNC
After John Carson received these grants, he built his first home and married Rachel McDowell, daughter of local dignitary “Hunting John” McDowell. At this point the McDowells had been in the colonies for at least 2 generations. “Hunting John” received his first land grants in 1768. Both Carson and the McDowells came from large Scots-Irish families and would go on to lead the most powerful and important families in this part of Western North Carolina.
It was in this house where Rachel Carson gave birth to the first seven of John Carson’s children.
The Revolutionary War
At the time of the American Revolution, the area around modern day Marion was still part of Burke County. In the fall of 1780, local troops found themselves alongside the Overmountain Men who fought at Kings Mountain. “Hunting John” McDowell’s son Joseph, who McDowell county would later be named after, and William Lenoir are known to have fought at the battle, but there aren’t any records of John Carson at Kings Mountain.
Carson’s role in the Revolution was much more controversial and even led to a duel many years later when his son Samuel Price Carson was running for Congress. After British advances in South Carolina, Colonel Charles McDowell anticipated British raids into Western North Carolina. He suggested that some citizens of Burke County feign loyalty to the British in order to protect their livestock so that the whole community wouldn’t starve the following winter.
John Carson and others agreed. But others led by “Hunting John” McDowell refused, and hid their livestock in the forest. Three weeks before the Battle of Kings Mountain, British Loyalists under the command of Major Patrick Ferguson were scavenging in Burke County. John Carson and several other local man led Ferguson to a single herd of cattle. One version of the story states that once the British had slaughtered the cattle, it was revealed that the heard actually belonged to local Tories.
Whether Carson actually deceived the British or not is impossible to tell, but he did remain a respected member of the community for the rest of his life. In 1789 he was even elected as a representative from Burke County to the second convention that finally approved the US Constitution in North Carolina. His actions during the war, however, would lead to him being labeled a British Loyalist many years later.
Building the Historic Carson House
In the years following the Revolution, John Carson continued acquiring land through grants. Most of his holdings were in Burke County, but he also held land in Buncombe and Henderson Counties. By 1783 when he was granted the land where he would build his second house, he was one of the largest land owners in Western North Carolina and a wealthy land speculator.
His second house (the current Historic Carson House) started as a single two story log building. Unfortunately Rachel Carson died before the house was finished. John then married Rachel’s sister-in-law Mary Moffitt McDowell. Mary was the widow of Joseph McDowell one of the sons of “Hunting John”.
Mary and John Carson moved into the new house and John began raising a second family. He and Mary had 5 children together including Samuel Price Carson who would make a name for himself in the Republic of Texas.
Around 1800, a second two story house was built alongside the family home and connected by a breezeway. Over the next few years, the Carson home became the center of the community even acting as polling place for the district as early as 1810.
When the east-west passage from Morganton to Asheville opened in 1820, the road ran directly in front of the Carson House. Since the Carson’s home marked the halfway point on the journey, it became the obvious place for a stagecoach stop.
Soon after the completion of the road, Mary Carson died on July 6, 1825 at the age of 53. John Carson never remarried but took to life as a host to travelers who would stop at his home. The first records of lodgers at the Carson House date from 1828 and he was licensed as a tavern keeper in 1832.
Well known figures like Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, and John C. Calhoun are rumored to have visited the home. Of these supposed visitors, Davy Crockett is most likely to be true. He was a good friend of John’s son Samuel Price Carson and his ties to the Carolinas included his father fighting at Kings Mountain.
John Carson and Andrew Jackson were most likely antiquated. Both made fortunes in land speculation and Jackson presented Carson with a hickory cane in 1830 that can still bee seen at the Historic Carson House. But Andrew Jackson left modern day Western North Carolina for what would become Tennessee in 1787 and there’s no record of him ever returning. If he did visit John Carson in his home, it would have been at Carson’s original house that no longer stands.
John Carson died on March 5, 1841 at the age of 88. During his life he made a fortune in land speculation, married twice, and had 12 children. He built two homes, both of which were in Burke County where he served as constable, magistrate, and justice of the peace at various times. He was twice elected to the state legislature and helped represent Burke county at the convention that approved the US Constitution.
Slave Labor at the Carson House
Carson’s second house was most likely built by slave labor. In the 1790 census he listed 12 slaves, but by the 1820’s the slave population is estimated to have been around 60. As such Carson’s lands had a much larger slave population than other local estates. The farms and plantations in the WNC Mountains tended to be fairly small, especially compared to those in South Carolina around Charleston. Carson was one of the few land owners with many thousands of acres.
Carson may have also had so many slaves because of the slave trade. While he made most of his money in land speculation, he is also known to have sold slaves. He went as far as supporting an 1806 bill in the North Carolina Legislature banning the importation of slaves and indentured servants. While other people’s motivations for supporting the bill varied, Carson most likely saw an opportunity to weed out some of his competition in the slave trade.
Today, part of the Historic Carson House is dedicated to telling the stories of the enslaved people of North Carolina. Exhibits include artifacts of the era, transcripts of interviews with former slaves, and biographies of famous former slaves and their children.
The House After John Carson
John Carson had 12 children, but at the time of his death most of his surviving children were older had their own homes. Some like Joseph McDowell Carson made a fortune in the North Carolina Gold Rush that far surpassed what John accumulated in his lifetime. Only John Carson’s youngest sons were named in his will, so his vast holdings of land remained more or less intact, being split only two ways instead of 12.
Johnathan Logan Carson, known as Logan, inherited the house and began renovations that can be seen today at the Historic Carson House. A full length porch was added and the roof replaced and extended to cover the new veranda. The outside walls were covered with siding and sheeting placed on the inside to hide the log construction. Other additions were added to accommodate borders but the breezeway was left open to separate the family area from the guest area.
The Formation of McDowell County
In 1842, just one year after John Carson’s death, a new county was created from parts of Burke County and Rutherford County. Named after local Revolutionary War hero Joseph McDowell, the papers creating McDowell County were signed in the dining room of Logan Carson’s Home.
The North Carolina Legislature stipulated that court would be held at the Carson House for one week every quarter. Backcountry court in 1842 was far from the somber event we think of today. Neighbors would gather together for one week every quarter and forget about work. Drinking, horse racing, drinking, gambling, drinking, fights, and drinking were all cornerstones of court week.
Logan was raising his children in the home, and not wanting them exposed to the debauchery of court week, he sought a compromise. He donated a parcel of land that was not too close to his house where a new courthouse was built. In May 1845 the courthouse was opened and a new town was formed. Many locals had severed under the “Swamp Fox” Francis Marion during the Revolution, so the new town was named Marion in his honor.
The Civil War and Stoneman’s Raid
In the closing days of the Civil War, Maj. Gen. George Stoneman led a force of 6,000 cavalry and infantry into North Carolina from Tennessee. His plan was to cut off any escape routes for Lee after his eventual defeat in Virginia. Stoneman’s orders soon changed to “dismantling the country”. He was to travel through enemy territory freeing slaves, destroying railroads, gun factories, and anything else that could aid the Confederate resistance.
The story of Stoneman’s men at the Carson House was told many years later by Emma Lydia Rankin. She lived at the house at the time were she was the tutor to Logan Carson’s youngest daughter.
McDowell County previously never felt like part of the war. The closest they got to the outside world were discussions at the dinner table or perhaps a group of soldiers marching past the house.
In April 1865, that all began to change. American forces led by General Alvan C. Gillem were marching from Morganton to Asheville and the road ran directly in front of the house. Rumors had preceded Gillem’s march, so the family set about hiding any valuables they had and drove their livestock into the woods.
American troops arrived at the Carson House hungry and exhausted. The family steadfastly refused their pleas for help, so the soldiers searched the home for any supplies they could find. Finding little of value, they were forced to camp on the Carson’s property and forage for food. The family locked themselves away in an interior room until the soldiers moved on.
Logan Carson died without a will in 1866 at the age of 59. Claims against the estate came from far and wide. Most of the Carson land and livestock were sold off and his widow, Mary, was forced to petition the court for a share of her late husband’s estate.
She was awarded the house as well as some livestock, crops growing at hand, and some household items. She continued to run the boarding house for a time, but after her daughters married and left home she found that she didn’t need so large a house just for herself. Some time in the 1870’s she moved to Marion to live with her daughter Margaret. On February 29, 1884 she sold the home and two remaining tracts of land, and after 80 years the house was no longer part of the Carson family.
Samuel Price Carson
Among John and Mary Carson’s children to be born in the Historic Carson House was Samuel Price Carson on January 22 1798. Like his brothers and sisters, he received no formal education, but at the age of 19, he moved to the Green River Plantation owned by his older brother Joseph Carson. There he was taught grammar and reading, and he was groomed for a career in politics.
He was first elected to the NC Senate at the age of 25 and soon after elected to the US Congress at the age of 26 in 1825. When he ran for reelection in 1827, his opponent was Robert Vance, the first trained physician in Buncombe County. During the campaign, Vance accused Samuel’s father, John Carson, of being a Loyalist during the American Revolution.
With the honor of the Carson family at stake, Samuel challenged Vance to a duel. The duel was fought at Saluda Gap along the North Carolina/South Carolina boarder with David Crockett reportedly acting as Carson’s second. Samuel Price Carson was a much better shot than Robert Vance and easily won the duel, but the killing of Vance is said to have haunted him for the rest of his life.
On May 10, 1831, Samuel Carson married Catherine Wilson and the couple had a daughter. In 1833 after being defeated for a fifth term in Congress and with his health failing, he and his family moved west. Traveling first to Mississippi and then on to Arkansas, he eventually settled in Texas.
Samuel Price Carson was elected to the Convention of 1836 where he not only signed the Texas Deceleration of Independence bu the Constitution of the Republic of Texas as well. After the completion of the Texas Constitution, the delegates to the convention set about electing a government on March 17. Samuel Carson and David G. Burnet were nominated to serve as interim President, with Burnet defeating Carson by a vote of 29 to 23.
Carson was instead selected as Secretary of State for the Texas Republic. On April 1, 1836, he was sent to Washington DC to negotiate aid and recognition for the Republic. In May, President Burnet sent Carson a letter asking for his resignation due to his failing health. Carson didn’t receive the letter and only discovered that he had been replaced as Secretary of State after reading it in a newspaper. In disgust, he simply returned to his home in what would later become Hot Springs Arkansas.
Samuel Price Carson died at his home on November 2, 1838. He never lived to see his adopted home of Texas become the 28th state when it was annexed into the United States on December 29, 1845 under during the presidency of fellow North Carolinian James K. Polk.
Visiting the Historic Carson House
Some time after the home was sold by the Carsons, the breezeway was enclosed to turn two houses into one. But as time went on, the home fell into disrepair. Eventually the home was acquired by a group that sought to repair and restore the home, turning it into a museum. Thus the Carson House Society was founded and still today maintains the home and opens it to the public.
The Historic Carson House is located along US70 just outside Marion, North Carolina. The entrance is easy to miss. If you’re travailing from Marion, turn immediately after you cross the bridge over Buck Creek. If you’re travailing towards Marion, it’s just past the RV dealership.
The home is open from Wednesday through Sunday and home tours run $10. Each room of the house is set up with furniture and artifacts that that tell about a period in the history of North Carolina through the filter of the Carson Family. Much of the furniture isn’t original to the home, but period appropriate pieces from around McDowell County.
Part of the home is dedicated to the enslaved people of the Carson family. Much of the information is taken from “Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories”. During the New Deal, this WPA program traveled throughout the south recording the first hand stories of former slaves. Full archives are available online at https://www.loc.gov/collections/voices-remembering-slavery/about-this-collection/.
The tour also includes the barn that houses an array of historical farm tool as a swell as a number of horse buggies, sleds, and a covered wagon. The Carson House Society also hosts a number of events through the year at the home including candlelight tours, Revolutionary War Days, and a special Carson House Market. Visit their website for all upcoming events.