Avenging Francis Bradley, the Mecklenburg Marksman: A Family Story

"Waiting for Cornwallis" by Bryant White (White Historic Art, whitehistoricart.com)

As I summarized in The ‘Battle at McIntire’s Farm’, on October 3, 1780 Lord Cornwallis sent Maj. John Doyle on a foraging party north from Charlotte with over 500 men and 40 wagons. Capt. James Thompson, Lt. Francis Bradley and twelve other Patriots ambushed them at McIntire’s, killing several of the British then harassing Doyle’s men during their panicked flight back to Charlotte laden with twelve dead, eight wounded, and only two wagons of forage. The humiliated Doyle may have always thought he had been defeated by a great troop of Americans. A quarter century on, the Royal Military Chronicle “Life of Lieutenant-general sir John Doyle” simply skipped the Charlotte interlude.[1] George Graham, one of the fourteen ambushers, told the story to his brother Joseph, who had been left for dead the day the British took Charlotte. Decades later, once Charlotte had a newspaper, Gen. Joseph Graham published the story.[2]

Contentious Confederate Maj. Gen. D. H. Hill welcomed Revolutionary stories in his Charlotte paper, Southern Home, founded in 1870, and reprinted Graham’s story on May 3, 1875 from an issue saved for half a century. At last, the marksmen Thompson and Bradley were being honored, for earlier in 1875, writing in Hill’s paper as “S. C. A.,” the Presbyterian minister Samuel Caldwell Alexander (a descendant of Mecklenburg Revolutionary heroes), had told of Thompson’s warning his “lady-love” that she might hear his rifle while she was in Charlotte selling poultry and eggs to the British. From “a thicket of Chinquepin bushes,” one hundred yards away, he fired, killing an officer, whose “blood spurted upon the young woman.” Thompson followed his fleeing sweetheart and reassured her: “his rifle never missed the mark,” so “she need never fear being shot when he pulled the trigger.”[3] In a parallel story, Bradley and his wife Abigail came into Charlotte during the occupation. Concealing himself in the same chinquepin thicket, he sent her to sell her butter to a “British chief.” An orderly came out instead: “While this orderly was looking at the butter, Bradley, who was almost a hundred yards distant, leveled on him and fired, killing him instantly.”[4]

  1. C. Alexander claimed that after the war was over North Carolina and Virginia riflemen staged a contest, seven shots each “at the distance of one hundred yards, and off hand.” Representing North Carolina, Thompson won. However, Hopewell Presbyterian Church records indicate that Thompson died at thirty on January 28, 1781.[5] Thompson was hard to mythologize.

Francis Bradley had been a popular, well-connected leader. In 1777 the first Mecklenburg military district was headed by “Captain Military Dist., John McKnitt Alexander” and “collector (tax), Francis Bradley.”[6] Bradley’s wife Abigail was the sister of Alexander, known as “McKnitt,” the secretary of the meeting in 1775 in which the patriots of Charlotte declared themselves to be a free and independent people. In 1780 at age thirty-seven Bradley was in his prime, physically magnificent as well as a champion shot – easy to mythologize. In his Sketches of Western North Carolina, the historian and physician C. L. Hunter said the tradition was that Bradley was “a large and very strong man, and a ‘terror’ to the British as well as to the Tories.”[7] Writing as C. L. H. in Southern Home, Hunter described Bradley as “the Robert Bruce of his day, and a match in bodily strength for three or four ordinary men,” yet “a quiet and peaceable member of society.” He was, Hunter said, “the ‘Hopewell giant,’” a man “of undaunted courage, and ever ready to engage in any daring enterprise, having for its object the liberty of his country.”[8]

An 1856 footnote in Joseph Graham’s posthumous history told how Frank Bradley was killed:[9]

When the British were on their retreat from Charlotte, near Old Nation ford, four of Bryant’s men agreed to desert and go home by travelling in the night and lying in thickets during the day; their names were John McCombs, Richard McCombs, _____ Griffin and _____Ridge. They had taken up in a thicket a mile from Bradley’s on the morning of the 14th October [a slip for November 14]. About mid-day Bradley took his gun and went out to hunt some missing cattle.

Bradley came on two of the Tories and began to question them, and finally took them prisoners. Tragedy followed:

The other two who had been lying about twenty steps off and whom he had not seen came behind him and seized him, a violent scuffle ensued until one of them got his own gun and shot him dead. Bradley was a very stout man and without weapons would have been a match for all four of them, a man of cool and deliberate courage, much respected by all who knew him and his death much regretted. A few weeks after his murderers went home, Richard McCombs and Griffin were killed, the others were taken and sent to Salisbury jail. On trial, Jno. McCombs turned States evidence and from him this account was obtained—Ridge was hanged.

So “John McCombs,” directly or indirectly Graham’s source, was spared, although Ridge was hanged at some unspecified time.

Because of complications in the estate of the Wilkes County man William Ridge, apparently the father of the hanged Ridge, many depositions taken over several years survive in the Ridge’s North Carolina Estate File for Rowan County.[10] Salathiel Martin testified on July 7, 1806 that some of William Ridge’s connections “murdered a certain Francis Bradley in Mecklenburg County that is Godfrey Ridge, Briam Combs and Jeremiah Combs as they returned home from the British camps.” Various deponents show the name in the 1856 history should have been Combs, not McCombs, and the two Tories most often remembered as the murdering brothers were Aberam or Briam (from Abraham, presumably) and Jeremiah. Apparently no one provides a first name for Griffin. William Ridge’s son Godfrey, who died “in or about the year 1781” (one person thought) is the most likely candidate for the fourth Tory.

In his January 4, 1875 article S. C. Alexander reported having years earlier learned from old Andrew Elliot (eighty-six in the 1850 census), who had heard the firing on October 3, 1780, that Bradley’s “murderers stole his buckles and gun;” in a later account Alexander added an adjective from Elliot: Bradley’s murderers stole his “silver” buckles and his gun.[11] In the Ridge file Michael Bacon in 1804 deposed that “Some of the Combs murdered a Mr. Bradley in Mecklenburg County . . . and was detected by finding in their possession the gun and sle[e]ve buttons belonging to the deceased.” Cyrus Hunter in his Sketches gave these details on Bradley’s stolen gun: “The rifle he carried for six years during the Revolution, and which did such telling execution, was the property of Major John Davidson (now in possession of one of his grandsons,) who, being a staff officer, could not make it perform, as it should, its death-dealing mission upon the enemies of his country.”[12] So the gun had been recovered, and should have had Davidson’s name engraved on it, if anyone’s.

Someone may have corrected Hunter, for in the March 14, 1879 article “Capt. Francis Bradley” he told the story as if Bradley’s name was on the gun. In a second 1879 article he said explicitly, “The gun, having the name of Capt. Bradley engraved on the barrel, and being found in the possession of one of the Tories who committed the murder, became the tell tale instrument by which the last of them was ferreted out and hung.”[13]

From boyhood, Cyrus Hunter knew stories about the Revolution in Mecklenburg County, for his father, Humphrey Hunter, had cheered the reading of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. As a soldier and Presbyterian minister he had been part of public life for decades. In “Capt. Francis Bradley,” Hunter explained that only weeks after his triumph at McIntire’s farm Bradley had “walked out with his rifle to drive up his calves from the woods, and meeting with four tories, one of whom pretended to be sick, he invited them to his house, probably with a view of having them arrested.” Three of them “grappled with him, but he proved more than a match for them all, by throwing them down, and placing them completely in his power.” Then “the sick Tory seizing Bradley’s gun which he had unfortunately let go from his hands, shot him in the head, killing him instantly.” His family and friends heard the report, and hurried to the scene. Hunter continued:

The tories escaped for the present, but only to meet a terrible retribution afterward. They were ferreted out by Bradley’s friends, and one after another of them were caught and executed in a summary way. Isaac Price, a gun-smith, who lived on the Catawba river, was the brother-in-law of Capt. Bradley, and had manufactured for him a handsome rifle, sometime before, with his name engraved on the barrel. It was this tell tale rifle that betrayed the last of the murderers, after the return of peace, who had escaped to the mountains of Burke [County] as a place of safety.

So according to Hunter the fourth murderer was not killed until after the return of peace, which came a little earlier to western North Carolina than the eastern part—possibly late in 1782, more likely 1783 or still later. Bradley, as Hunter knew, was the brother of Esther Bradley Price, the wife of the gunsmith Isaac Price. Frank Bradley had been brother-in-law to both Isaac Price and John McKnitt Alexander.

Isaac Price, a blacksmith and gunsmith, on the Catawba at the fluctuating border of North and South Carolina, had been made one of Thomas Sumner’s armorers, an “artificer” in “the State Service”—the state being South Carolina.[14] In his pension application, John Black says that after about ten days as a volunteer militia man in a North Carolina regiment he “was detached from the Army and put into an armory with one Isaac Price for the purpose of repairing firearms and making swords for the horse troops & mounted militia.”[15] Price did his best with the quality of the iron he had, but some of his swords broke in battle, as Joseph Graham recorded.[16] After the war, Price had other apprentices in his gold-smithing and gun-smithing factory.[17] And after the war Gen. Peter Forney and then Graham himself ran great furnaces.[18]

On November 14, 1780 Isaac Price may have joined in the hunt for the murderers of his brother-in-law, but a week later he had a new military responsibility. At Blackstock’s Farm some sixty miles south in South Carolina on November 20 General Thomas Sumter had been severely wounded. Carrying him away on a litter made of raw bull’s skin suspended between two horses, his protectors made their way north and left Sumter to recover in the house of his armorer, Isaac Price. The editors of Gen. Nathanael Greene’s letters locate Sumter as recuperating at the Price “Stone House,” but that was still occupied by its builder, Isaac’s father John Price. Never occupied by the grown-up Isaac, this notable structure was later inherited by his youngest brother Jonathan. Caring for Sumter and running the armory would have kept Isaac in place, especially when Nathanael Greene and John Rutledge, the governor of South Carolina, came together to consult him on December 8 – the Greene editors say at the house of John Price, his armorer, but his armorer was Isaac Price.[19]

The fourth murderer was punished belatedly, after peace had come.[20] Once Bradley’s family and friends had “ferreted out” the location of the fourth murderer in Burke County, Isaac Price “immediately gathered a few of his faithful friends, and proceeded to the place previously pointed out, and were successful in arresting the fugitive murder[er].” Hunter continued: “They started home with him, with a view of having him brought to a regular trial, but he proved obstinate, and refused to go with them. His captors threatened him with death in a speedy way, if he did not promptly yield. He told them he did not fear hanging, as he had been executed in that way once before, and buried, but had come to life again, and ‘dug out.’” Perhaps having heard from the Combs who turned state’s evidence that Ridge had been guileful enough to pretend to be sick and enlist Bradley’s pity, Price and his men were not amused or awed by Ridge’s claim:

This may have been mere bravado on Ridge’s part to bluff off his captors from their intended purpose, but they were made of too stern and patriotic material to be thus deluded. They replied that they would do the work effectually the next time by burying him with his face downward, so that digging would only take him deeper into the earth. The Tory still persisting in his stubbornness, his captors carried out their threat by hanging him to the limb of a tree, the common place of suspension during the war, until he was dead, and then true to their words, buried him with his face towards the center of the earth. And now since his captors have all passed away, no one knoweth of his place of sepulcher until this day.

Punishing the murderer privately might have skirted the 1783 Act of Pardon and Oblivion, but by 1879 all the avengers were dead and Hunter could tell his story.[21]

What Hunter told at last was an inside narrative which could have come from witnesses or from younger descendants of various family members. Isaac Price’s brother Jonathan was the husband of Elizabeth Ewart and son-in-law of Robert Ewart, the Committee of Safety man. That meant Jonathan was an uncle of Will Johnston, the son of Jane Ewart and Colonel James Johnston, a heroic leader at King’s Mountain. Will Johnston was the brother-in-law of Cyrus Hunter, both of them sons-in-law of the Revolutionary hero Peter Forney. Peter’s younger brother Abraham Forney, an uncle of Cyrus Hunter and Will Johnston, even as late as 1844 remembered the Revolution clearly: “During the war Maj. John Davidson and Robt. Ewart (a good Whig) very frequently came to my father’s, Jacob Forney, sen., to consult in favor of the Whig cause.”[22] Cyrus’s brother-in-law Will was the nephew of Elizabeth Ewart Price and Jonathan Price, the next occupants of the Stone House after John Price died. One way or another, from his father or the Forneys or from his brother-in-law Will Johnston or others of the Ewarts or Prices, one generation or another, Cyrus Hunter learned how Isaac Price, after the war, tracked down the fourth murderer and quietly took his vengeance.

Hunter relied on tradition, he said in 1877—which meant family traditions. Cyrus Hunter learned at least some of details from his brother-in-law, my double cousin Will Johnston (Jane Ewart Johnston’s sisters Mary Ewart Knox and Rachel Ewart Bell both being GGGG grandmothers of mine). Will was also the nephew of my aunt and uncle Elizabeth Ewart Price and Jonathan Price. Appropriately, an octogenarian two-time GGGGG grandson of Robert Ewart now tells the story of the fourth murderer in the Journal of the American Revolution. After all, my Uncle Jonathan would naturally have been among the few “faithful friends” who rode off to Burke County with Isaac Price to seize the fourth murderer of Capt. Frank Bradley and to bury him face downward, to claw his way to Hell.

 

[1] The Royal Military Chronicle (January 1812), 3:149-156.

[2] “Affair near Charlotte, 1780,” Catawba Journal, January 4, 1825.

[3] “Mecklenburg Centennial” (Southern Home, January 4, 1875). This was not another Presbyterian minister, Samuel Carothers Alexander, whose wife was a descendant of Isaac Price (see below) and who left Steele Creek because of his work in educating blacks.

[4] “Old Inscription,” the Charlotte Observer, May 26, 1875, perhaps by Col. Charles R. Jones.

[5] Charles William Sommerville, The History of Hopewell Presbyterian Church (Charlotte: Hopewell Presbyterian Church, 1939), 309. The 1996 application to the National Register of Historic Places for the church at 10500 Beatties Ford Road, Huntersville, N. C. says that on March 31, 1777 the land with the extant “Hopewell Meeting House” and graveyard was deeded to “John McKnitt Alexander of Mecklenburg County and Robert Ewart of Tryon County” for a new Presbyterian church and graveyard.

[6] Brevard Nixon, “As to Getting Data,” Charlotte News, September 19, 1915.

[7] Sketches of Western North Carolina (Raleigh: Raleigh News Steam Job Print, 1877), 141.

[8] H. L. C, in “Capt. Francis Bradley,” Southern Home, March 14, 1879.

[9] “Revolutionary History of North Carolina. British Invasion of 1780-81,” NCUM (March, 1856) 2:60. “Bryant” was the Tory Col. Samuel Bryan.

[10] Affidavits about Bradley are gathered in www.mindspring.com/~baumbach/cody/tory/bradley1.htm

[11] Presbyterian Standard, February 22, 1905, reprinted in the Charlotte Observer, April 11, 1915.

[12] Sketches, 142.

[13] C. L. H., “Rev. Hezekiah J. Balch—One of the Mecklenburg Signers,” Southern Home, August 29, 1879.

[14] A. S. Salley, Jr., Documents Relating to the History of South Carolina during the Revolutionary War (Columbia: Historical Commission, 1908), 93.

[15] Pension application of John Black, S9280, transcribed by Will Graves, Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Statements & Rosters, http://revwarapps.org/, quotation checked against the original manuscript on www.fold3.com. Bureaucrats triumphed by taking Black’s pension from him, his services as an artificer (gunsmith and swordsmith) not being strictly military.

[16] Joseph Graham recalled that at Pyle’s defeat “some of our blacksmiths swords broke others bent &c.” Earlier, in the Catawba Journal, May 10, 1825, Graham explained, “the materials being bad,” Price’s swords “were often broken” in battle. Pension application of Joseph Graham, S6937, http://revwarapps.org/.

[17] Robert A. Leath and William W. Ivey, “The Discovery of William Black,” The Magazine Antiques (July-August 2012, posted July 12, 2012).

[18] In 1791 Forney sold his ironworks to Alexander Brevard, John Davidson, and Joseph Graham. www.ncpedia.org/biography/forney-peter

[19] The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, eds. Richard K. Showman, Dennis M. Conrad, Roger N. Parks, Elizabeth C. Stevens (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 6:563, 603.

[20] See freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~beckenbachsimons/francisbradley2.htm

A descendant, Roland E. Bradley, in the Gastonia Gazette, May 16, 1976 said that Isaac Price summarily punished the last murderer “after the war.” Perhaps all this vagueness was a way of hinting at a story best not told.

[21] Burying a malefactor face downward was not common, but see Elizabeth F. Ellet, The Women of the American Revolution (New York: Baker & Scribner, 1850), 3:234.

[22] The Raleigh ­Register, October 25, 1844.

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