A warts and all biography of a WNC original
I first encountered Robert Henry’s name some 30 years ago in Lyman Draper’s account of the Battle of Kings Mountain (Oct. 7, 1780). Robert (who was either 13 or 14 years old at the time) had been wounded when a British bayonet pinned his hand to his thigh. Later, the young soldier gave a graphic description of the battle, including the manner in which the bayonet was removed from his hand and thigh (a fellow soldier simply grasped the bayonet and stomped on Robert’s hand until bayonet was removed).
Later, I found a reference to Henry’s presence at the historic signing at the Mecklenburg courthouse some five years prior (Aug. 14, 1775), which he had attended with his father, Thomas Henry. When I realized that he could not have been more than 10 years old when he appeared at the Mecklenburg courthouse, I knew that I had stumbled on the beginning of a legend.
Shortly after young Robert’s father went off to fight the Cherokees, the Henry family acquired a tract of land in the Swannanoa Valley. The family prospered, and within a decade, Robert Henry, now in his mid-20s, was teaching school at Union Hill near Asheville. The history of Buncombe County is filled with “Robert Henry stories,” and by the time he resigned in 1797, Robert and his brothers were well-known public figures. However, by 1799, Henry had acquired a new profession. He became a surveyor and with an impressive staff of assistants. He undertook the establishment of an accurate western boundary between North Carolina and Tennessee. This was a grueling undertaking and required exceptional physical stamina. The expedition was plagued by bad weather, hazardous terrain, unreliable guides and lack of food. However, it was successfully completed with considerable fanfare.
Shortly after the completion of the survey, Robert’s name appeared again. He had become a popular lawyer in Buncombe and Haywood counties. In addition, Henry began to “practice medicine.” Now at some point, even the most credulous researcher may become skeptical of Robert Henry’s career. There seems to be scant evidence of Robert’s training in these varied fields, other than the fact that the Henry family was self-sufficient. Robert’s brothers and his other relatives proved to be shrewd and adept, acquiring wealth and political influence throughout Western North Carolina.
However, there were detractors. Nathaniel C. Browder, the author of the highly entertaining The History of the Cherokees and Those Who Came After (1970), notes that many of Robert’s exploits may have been total fabrications. In fact, in many instances, Robert Henry’s personal records and journals were the primary source of historians such as Draper, Soundley and John Preston Arthur. Could it be that Henry emerges as one of the most remarkable figures in the history of North Carolina because of his gift for self-promotion?
One of the most unflattering descriptions of Robert Henry is provided by Robert Strange, the author of Eoneguski, which is the first novel written by a native of North Carolina that contains descriptions of historic “events and inhabitants” of that state. Henry emerges as one of the novel’s most colorful characters, “Mr. Johns.” Strange describes Henry as follows: “In his countenance, there was a sneaking, craven expression, better becoming a criminal than an advocate.” Mr. Johns appears throughout the novel and is described as a coarse-spoken, vulgar man who is frequently drunk and extremely disheveled. According to Strange, Mr. Johns often appeared in court in his bare feet and “without his stockings.”
As disconcerting as this image may be, it is not necessarily at odds with Henry’s achievements. In fact, I believe Richard Russell’ primary achievement in writing this biography is that he weaves together all of the disparate threads of Henry’s life into a multi-colored tapestry or mountain quilt that blends the heroic, the coarse, the ribald and the gifted. In other words, Russell has created a “warts and all” chronicle of a remarkable man: flawed, talented, self-serving and memorable.
Much of the latter half of Russell’s biography deals with Henry’s land acquisitions. Prompted by his role in the American Revolution and his reputation as a capable surveyor, Henry was able to acquire thousands of acres of valuable land in Western North Carolina and East Tennessee. As a result, he became a crafty land speculator who used tracts of land as collateral in building and expanding his holdings. His business investments included the famous Sulphur Springs Hotel near Asheville, a highly successful mineral springs resort, complete with ballrooms and music. Henry and an associate named Reuben Deaver built and developed Sulphur Springs; however, the two men became bitter enemies who engaged in series of lawsuits that continued long after the resort, Deaver and Henry were gone.
Although the reader may be astonished by Henry’s talents, including teaching, law, medicine and surveying, it is discomfiting to discover that Henry never hesitated to use his talents to acquire impressive wealth. His surveying activities at the time of the Cherokee Removal enabled him to buy and sell and trade large tracts that had previously been owned by the Cherokees. In addition, Henry became a slave owner who treated his slaves as property that he could sell, lease and lend as he saw fit.
Finally, in the final years of his life, Henry engaged in endless lawsuits, many of them involving petty issues. He sued, or was sued by, his sons and in-laws, and he bickered endlessly over the ownership of livestock and furniture. He cast his own wife out, forcing her to return to parents’ home and developed a reputation as a slovenly drunk. Near the conclusion of this biography, Richard Russell notes that, despite his achievements, Henry seems to have vanished into obscurity. Quite frankly, I am not too distressed by that.
Near the end of his life, Henry read his daughter a lengthy poem that had been published in England that celebrated the brevity of fame, wealth and glory. Apparently, Henry heartily approved of its sentiments. The poem/ballad, titled “One Hundred Years Hence,” contains the following verse:
“The rich brawling lawyer with fool wrangling strife,
Will plead you a tune to the end of your life.
He will plead you a tune while a client’s in slavery
The pleader makes conscience a cloak for his knavery.
He boasts of his cunning and brags of his sence,
Knows not will become of us one hundred years hence.”
Robert Henry: A Western Carolina Patriot, by Richard Russell. History Press, 2013. 191 pages.