Last week’s column read into the history of a bed warmer at the Vance Birthplace and a washboard at the Zachary-Tolbert house. Here, two more artifacts tell their stories, one from the Smith-McDowell House and the other from the Old Buncombe County Genealogical Society.
Daniel Smith’s musket
“Long Tom” is the name that Buncombe County pioneer Daniel Smith gave his 6-foot-long flintlock rifle.
He had it during Rutherford’s Campaign against The Cherokee in 1776. He used it at the Battle of Kings Mountain, the decisive defeat of the British by Revolutionary “Overmountain Men” in 1780.
He “was sentimentally proud of his revolutionary services, (and) frequently referred to that in conversation,” his friend David Lowry Swain, state governor and then UNC president, testified in 1845 in support of the Smith children’s pension application.
“Long Tom” went with Smith to Western North Carolina, where he settled in 1785, avenging the murder of his wife’s uncle, settler Col. Samuel Davidson, by Indians in Swannanoa. After building a home on a hill (probably at the site of present-day Fernihurst) above what is now called Nasty Branch south of Depot Street, Smith took his rifle with him to the public square in newly created Asheville, where he was “almost daily seen,” historian Foster Sondley noted in 1912, “mounted on his large white horse,” acknowledged as a legendary “Indian killer.”
For two generations, leading up to and after the Revolutionary War, Western North Carolinians had lived with constant violence, fighting a civil as well as a frontier war.
Smith had been assigned command of several forts that guarded the upper Catawba frontier against the attacks of the militant faction of the Cherokee. The primary fort under his command was Davidson’s, located on the plantation of Samuel Davidson (at present day Old Fort, NC).
Smith “maintained a warfare, generally single-handed, against the Cherokee Indians for many years, and not less than one hundred are said to have ‘bitten the dust’ from the effects of his unerring rifle,” J.P. Davison wrote in the “Asheville City Directory and Gazetteer of Buncombe County” that he compiled for 1883-84.
Smith’s firearm was presented at the unveiling of the monument for Samuel Davidson’s grave in 1913, and historian Foster Sondley described it in his speech.
“This gun,” Sondley said, “is as a smooth bore, or musket, with flint lock and rifle sights, the bore being a little larger than that of an ordinary fowling piece. The length of the weapon is six feet, and that of the barrel alone is fifty-six inches; while the stock, smaller than usual at the butt, extends underneath the barrel clear to the muzzle. ‘Long Tom’ was capable of carrying a large ball or several shot, and was a most formidable engine of destruction.”
Some say that Smith had gotten his rifle from Europe, but Steven Riess in his book, “Sports in America from Colonial Times to the 21st century,” states, “In the early 1720s, German and Swiss gunsmiths in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, began to manufacture flintlock rifles, a model that became popular by the 1740s, especially among market hunters and Indian fighters, because of its long range accuracy.”
The rifle, which got the names “long,” “Pennsylvania,” and “Kentucky,” was accurate to 200 yards.
The rifle hangs in a case on a wall at the Smith-McDowell House and Museum, originally built by Smith’s son, James McConnell Smith, in 1840. It is operated by the Western North Carolina Historical Association (wnchistory.org, 828-253-9231). Find good information about Daniel Smith at caswellcountync.org/genealogy.
World War II poster
In 1948, American Publishers of Conyers, Georgia, assembled photographs of 937 Buncombe County WWII veterans for a giant poster that hangs at the Old Buncombe County Genealogical Society. Retired Col. Bascombe Jay Wilson had retrieved the poster from his late mother’s Vanderbilt Apartments home in 2001 after his own miraculous escape from death.
Wilson, coming from Colorado, had been traveling on I-40 to his mother’s funeral when, entering North Carolina, his van hit an oil slick and tumbled three times over down an embankment. After a trip to an emergency room, he went to take care of his mother’s estate and found the poster.
On the bottom row of the poster, Wilson’s father, Leslie Wilson, a communications technician for the Army’s Antiaircraft Artillery, poses comfortably in a peaked cap. The faces that join him speak of Americans’ confidence coming away from World War I and coming out of the Depression.
Leslie Wilson’s younger sister, Alice Wilson Lynch, recalls her brother’s off-limits room, where he tinkered endlessly with his crystal radio set in the 1920s. After graduating from Woodfin High School, Leslie married his school sweetheart, Ida Lee Silver, and went to work at the Enka rayon plant. He joined the army at age 29. When he returned, Enka rehired him, and he started a family.
During the Korean War, Leslie’ son, Jay, volunteered as one of the airplane watchers atop the Buncombe County Courthouse. He met many WWII veterans and researched his father’s career and local history.
“Asheville was one of the secret cities in World War II,” Col. Wilson says. “The City Hall was the headquarters of the Airways Communications Service, precursor of the Air Force. From there, officers controlled worldwide communications for the war. The Weather Records Bureau, moved to the Grove Arcade, made critical forecasts that helped determine the outcome of the war. Asheville housed many other important government functions, having been chosen for its secure position among the mountains.”
Rob Neufeld writes the weekly “Visiting Our Past” column for the Citizen-Times. He is the author of books on history and literature, and manages the WNC book and heritage website The Read on WNC. Follow him on Twitter @WNC_chronicler; email him at RNeufeld@charter.net; call 828-505-1973.