Bristol Herald Courier Article

Sinclair's Swashbuckling Adventure

Carves Rare Niche in Area History

By Gordon Aronhime Copyright 1979

Bristol Herald Courier, Sunday, January 6, 1980

Page 5A


Author's Note

This is the seventh in a series of articles dealing with the history of our area in the 18th century. At that time we were on the frontier and for a while The Frontier of the Nation. In keeping with the author's limited knowledge, these will be limited in area, time and scope. Lower Southwest Virginia counties of Tazwell, Smyth, Washington, Russell, Scott, Lee, Dickenson, Buchanan and Wise, as well as Sullivan County, Tennessee prior to 1778 will be covered. Sullivan was considered in Virginia and governed by Virginia prior to the line of 1779. 

The first series covers the exploration, early settlement and subsequent abandonment of this settlement, in the years 1742-1755. The second settlement began about 1760 and this will be the basis for the second series which will go to the formation of the nation in 1776 . The third series covers the Revolutionary period of mid 1776 to 1782. The final set will cover items of general interest and the post Revolutionary period through 1796.

It is absolutely essential to stress that this is in no sense meant as a history of our area. Instead, it is a series of varied and various articles dealing with aspects of the history of our area.  The articles will be printed in roughly chronological order.  Those who want a full, complete regular history of our area will have to look elsewhere. 

Those who might want to read about phases of the history of our area might find these articles readable, it is hoped, perhaps even informative and even possibly entertaining. 

In previous articles, the survey-explorations of Colonel John Buchanan between 1746 and 1750 have been considered in detail.   During his brief stay on the Holston in 1749, Colonel Buchanan only surveyed three tracts, all within present Smyth County. The first was by far the largest, lacking four acres of being one thousand.   It was located on the South Fork of the Holston River.    Like Davis' Fancy, surveyed a year later, it was done for a man who was both to own and live on it -- in this instance, Charles Sinclair. After nearly 250 years, it is still known as Sinclair's Bottom and is one of our most beautiful spots 

Charles Sinclair, for whom the tract was both surveyed and named, is now forgotten, his name alive in the area only in connection with the land he once owned. This oblivion is undeserved, for there has never been a man in our section who participated in such a swashbuckling, even improbable, adventure. Put in fiction, Sinclair's experience would have been disbelieved.   Yet, it is perfectly documented.

Sinclair's amazing journey came no closer to our area than the present town of Radford, but it forms an unique chapter in the annals of the first half of America's eighteenth Century. In this odyssey, Charles Sinclair was not the principal, but merely a passive participant. 

To tell this story, or any story, it is best to begin at the beginning, tell the known facts, go to the end, and stop.  But here there is no known beginning and only an uncertain end for who Sinclair was and from whence he had come are mysteries.  Prior to his survey of 1749 on the South Fork, Sinclair appears in the official records of Western Virginia only twice.  Both come after his great adventure. He is mentioned in 1746 in connection with a tract of 550 acres on a head branch of the North Fork of James River and again on Christmas Eve of 1748 (Christmas was not a holiday then) he is cited in the petitions to the court as having killed an "old" wolf, for which he was to get a bounty.

These records and the few of later years are scarcely enough to entitle him to separate notice, had he not be come fixed in the great adventures of the time. He must have been a very young man and most probably then unmarried in 1742. He was referred to at that period as "Charles Sinclair, Laborer" in the same manner that an other might have been called "John Smith, Farmer" or "Joseph Jones, Miller." Whatever his status then, Sinclair had a near neighbor named John Peter Salling,   The name, a German one, is spelled as Salling, Salley, and other ways, but here it will be Salling.  To the home of John Peter Salling about March tenth in 1742, there came a man named John Howard.

Howard was one of those self-destructive men who use considerable talents to destroy themselves.  Sometimes their self-destructive conflagration illuminates the page of history on which their exploit is written and sometimes it illuminates one of the companions, as in this case.


Howard lived on Shenandoah River prior to 1737 for in that October he petitioned the ruling body of Virginia, the Royal Council, in an unusual manner. He sought permission for himself "and others who were willing at their own charge to go on discoveries on the lakes and Rivers of Mississippi, and praying the Commission for, that purpose" to allow him Howard, "to command such men as may be willing to accompany him on such discovery, but with this caution that he don't offer any Hostility to any Indians or other he may happen to meet with nor go to any for or Garrison possessed by the French on the said Lakes or Rivers."


The Council granted the Commission and, on 3 November 1737, issued an order that Mr. John Howard receive forty pounds of powder, some bullets, and four kettles from the Royal Stores. However, in 1737, the western valleys of Virginia were very sparsely settled and it was more than four years later before Howard could implement his grandiose idea and carry out his Royal Commission.

So, with his paper from the Council in the name of King George II, his Napoleonic ideas, and his swagger, John Howard appeared at the door of John Peter Salling's cabin on the morning of Tuesday, March 10 in 1742.  With him was his young son, Josiah.  Salling lived in present Rockbridge County, Virginia, about five miles from that grand spectacle, Natural Bridge, which he had never seen.


In addition to his Royal Commission, his four kettles, his powder, his bullets, and his schizophrenic plan, Howard had the most powerful bait that could be had in the middle Eighteenth Century. This was the promise by the Council to give, wherever the winners might desire, land totalling 10,000 acres.  Howard had added the even more important assurance in writing that it should be shared equally with those who would accompany him on this expedition.


To some extent, land served as money in that day of expanding settlement, and certainly furnished a much more powerful magnet than common sense.   After some agonizing consideration, as he himself later wrote of it in his extraordinary journal, Salling "accordingly prepared for our Journey in a very unlucky hour for me and my poor family."   With Salling, John Howard and his son Josiah, two other men agreed to go. One was a man named John Poteet. The other was the laborer, young Charles Sinclair.

Tuesday, March 16, 1742, the five men - Salling, the two Howards, Poteet, and Sinclair - set out from Salling's home.   Five miles away, they came on Natural Bridge.  This seems to have been the first discovery of it.  Salling described it very well in his journal.  They then pushed on to the southwest over well-defined trails used alike by the Indians and the white Traders to the Indians.  At a distance which Salling estimated as 85 miles, they came to the New River.  It is interesting that from Radford to Natural Bridge by today's highways, the distance is given as 80 miles. When one considered that Salling reported Natural Bridge as five miles from his residence,  the accuracy of this German is amazing.

Howard, however foolish and swashbuckling he may have been, was certainly an ingenious man.  At the broad, northward-flowing New River, under his direction, the men killed five buffalo, skinned them, and saved the heavy fat.  Then they built a frame and sewed the buffalo hides together, using the suet to caulk it, and covered the frame with the hides, making a boat that was large enough to carry them and their supplies.  Like Winken, Blinken, and Nod, they set out in this boat to explore the unknown, their ammunition, utensils, and provisions all safely stowed away in the boat.

This boat, as any good dictionary will assure the reader, was a coracle and such a boat had been used by the ancient Britons.   Salling estimated they went down stream some 250 miles when, after many spots of white water, they came to a series of falls culminating in one they estimated to be thirty feet sheer.  All was surrounded with what Salling described as "inaccessible mountains."   This appears to have been in present Fayette County, West Virginia.   It forced them to abandon their coracle.   They divided the load and set out by land to the southwest, the only route that seemed open to them.


After 85 miles of hiking, they came to a small river (the northeast fork of Coal River).  On its shores, they built a small boat which held only two men and the provisions.   For two days, two men went in the boat and three on land until the small stream flowed into a much larger river. Here they "enlarged the barge," as Salling put it.  The "enlarged" boat held supplies, utensils, ammunition, and the five men.  Once more they started off by water.

On the shores of this river they found large lumps of black rock which they recognized at once as coal.   They then gave the river the name it yet bears of "Coal River."   Salling estimated they went 220 miles down this river - surely an exaggeration - and, in a country of diminishing mountains, this river joined what Salling termed "Woods River," as the New River was then called.   However, this was actually the Great Kanawa River around St. Albans, West Virginia.


On the sixth of May, they came to the Ohio. They found this river, which Salling called "the River Alleghany...which we supposed to be three quarters of a mile" wide.  He described the country near the confluence of the Ohio and Kanawa as "a large spacious open country on each side of the river and is well watered abounding with plenty of fountains, small streams and large rivers and is very high and fertile Soil.   At this time, we found the Colover to be as high as the middle of a man's leg."  Downstream, they passed the Falls of the Ohio, that part of the River at the present site of the City of Louisville, and on June 7 they came to the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi.


The five men were awed by The Father of the Waters.  Salling noted that the river was as wide as five miles in most spots and never narrower than one mile.   They found fish and game in abundance.  There were no inhabitants and the group enjoyed playing Tom Sawyer as they went down the river.   The journal noted that the current was "not swift but easy to pass either up or down the stream."   About nine o'clock on the calm, peaceful morning of July 2, they poled over to the west bank of the river and went ashore to prepare their break fast.   Concentrating on the coming meal, they were completely surprised and surrounded by a group of nearly one hundred men, a mixture of Frenchmen, Negroes, and Indians, all heavily armed. They were now prisoners of the French.

Sinclair and his four companions were shackled and taken down river the remaining hundred miles to New Orleans. Arriving there as prisoners, they were taken before the Governor of the colony.


Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville (1680-1768), the Governor of the colony, was a remarkable man. His father, Charles Le Moyne, had been an early colonist in Canada whom the great Louis XIV had ennobled in 1688. Charles Le Moyne, remarkable himself, had seven remarkable sons. They were all governors of French colonies in America or distinguished in other ways.   Bienville, the governor of Louisiana was the youngest but one of these seven sons.


At the time Bienville interrogated Sinclair and his companions, he was sixty-two years old.   As a youth, he had explored the lower Mississippi and the Red River of Arkansas before the end of the 16th Century.  Twenty years after these explorations, in 1718, he founded the City of New Orleans and intermittently between 1701 and 1743, he had been governor of Louisiana, then a vast territory.  By 1742, he was a bitter, cynical, aging man who had fallen out of favor with the court of Louis XV.   He had asked to be relieved of the difficult task of governor which had become wearisome to him. When the five Englishmen were arraigned before him,  he was a lame duck governor merely waiting out his term.


Bienville had the men brought before him one by one.  Each man was put under oath and minutely questioned.   As leader of the expedition, Howard was questioned first.   His son came next, and then the bold German, Peter Salling, followed by the man Poteet.  Finally, the illiterate lad, Charles Sinclair, came before the governor.   Sinclair was so terrified and so apprehensive that he became even less communicative than his usual silent self.  Though Bienville spoke English perfectly, he said to his guard in French, "Remove this oaf from my sight."  After Sinclair's dismissal, the five men were again re-united and brought before the imposing governor and questioned. Following this, they were sent to prison.


The five men received an indeterminate sentence.  In addition, they were given a daily ration of a pound and one-half of bread per day.   Also, each man received ten pounds of pork a month and nothing more.   After eighteen months, Governor Bienville was relieved as he had requested and the new governor allowed them only one pound of rice bread, a pound of rice per day and one quart of oil a month for each.


After more than two years had passed in close confinement, Salling, in connection with an unjustly-imprisoned but never named, Frenchman, concocted a plan to escape. On Thursday, October 24, 1744, using a file they had bought from a guard, they began to set themselves free.  At three in the morning of the 25th, they succeeded.


By a remarkable series of thrilling episodes, including killing two large bulls, skinning them and using their hides for a boat and shoulder blades tied to sticks for oars, they had a boat to take them across Lake Pontchartrain. Some frairs known to the Frenchman had provided them with guns, ammunition, and supplies.   By careful flight and avoiding the gendamerie, they reached the home of the Frenchman's father.   Here they were joined by a slave of the young Frenchman and again set out toward Florida, partly by boat and partly by land. By this time, it was the beginning of the year 1745.


Around Pensacola, Salling and Sinclair left the Frenchman and headed northeast. On March 16, 1745, they reached what Salling called "Fort Augustus in the Province of Georgia." It was exactly three full years since the fateful day they had left Salling's home. From Augusta, as the location of the fort is now known, they went to Charles Town (Charleston, SC), arriving there on April Fool's Day of 1745.


The thirteenth of April in 1745 did not come on Friday. It came on Saturday, but it proved just as unlucky for the two weary adventurers as if it had come on Friday, for they set out on a small sailing ship headed for Virginia on that morning.   At two that afternoon, the ship was captured by a French privateer.   Everyone on board was robbed then the two Virginians, with ten other Englishmen, were put in a tiny lifeboat with no provisions about noon on the fourteenth.   Twenty-four hours later, they drifted back into Charleston harbor.


Exactly a month later, on 17 May 1745, they returned to Salling's home. They had been gone three years, two months, and one day. It is not known whether or not either man had read DeFoe's great masterpiece which had been published a quarter of a century earlier.   Had they done so they would have felt a strong kinship to Robinson Crusoe.


After this adventure, Sinclair evidently married and he moved into the settlement far to the southwest then flourishing on Reed Creek on the west side of New River in present Wythe County.   Later, in 1749, Colonel Buchanan surveyed the thousand acre tract we call today Sinclair's Bottom for him, funds for it having probably derived from the results of his great adventure.   Although this survey came on 14 March 1749, Sinclair did not move there until around the summer of 1752.  His patent (or title) to the land was issued on 8 August 1753.  Governmental efficiency was just as low in the eighteenth century as it is in this supposedly enlightened day.   So, Sinclair, after his terrible adventures were nearly ten years behind him, began to settle down to peaceful farming of his huge, beautiful, but not very fertile tract.


He had little time to enjoy this peace on the South Fork. In early 1755, a wave of invading Indians swept down from the northwest and the Sinclair family fled with the other settlers in the area. Returning to his land on Reed Creek, he found this also too close to the scene of the French and Indian War, so he moved his growing family to North Carolina.


We know from the pension statement of his son, Robert, that they were living in North Carolina in the closing years of the decade of 1750-1760 and that Robert had been born in North Carolina in the latter year.   Unfortunately, the son does not give the county in which the Sinclairs lived.  Robert also informs us in his pension statement that his father moved the family to Virginia in 1768 and that is indeed the year in which the Holston-Clinch area began to be re-settled.


Sinclair's wife was named Ann. She bore him at least six sons - Joseph, Charles, John, James, Robert, and Alexander. Alexander, the youngest, was born in Sinclair's Bottom after the family returned to live permanently.   Whether there were any daughters is not a matter of record.  Charles was in bad health prior to their return to Sinclair's Bottom.  He made out his will before his return, but this will has never been seen.   It is mentioned in numerous land transactions concerning later sales of the family's holding at the Bottom and it is dated 5 July 1766.  When and where it was probated is not known. This is not surprising since Sinclair likely died around 1769 or 1770.   At that period, this area was first in Augusta County, then in Botetourt, and then in Fincastle before it was included, in 1777, in Washington County's formation. The courthouses for the three counties, including Fincastle which was dissolved in late 1776, were all very distant from the land in question and the will was never filed, apparently.


The five older boys left the area, going to Arkansas, to Missouri, and other distant points. Alexander and his mother moved northeastward, probably back to the land on Reed Creek. Ann died in September, 1789, and Alexander, then of age, was her executor. It is very likely that Charles Sincliar is buried somewhere on his beautiful tract of land that remains the only reminder of this man whose experience was certainly unparalleled in the annuals of our region.

[The family lived in Orange County, North Carolina and that is where Charles made and left his will. Several of his sons, Joseph, Charles, John & Robert, migrated to that part of Knox County, Tennessee, which became Anderson County (formed in 1801). Joseph is the only one who remained in Anderson County; the others continued westward.]