As the year winds down and we begin to think about the new year and new beginnings, we bring you a blog post from our recently graduated Master of Library and Information Studies graduate intern, Tim, about the namesake of Forsyth County. We hope you enjoy the post and we thank Tim for all his work with us this past fall. Best to you all in 2016!

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Figure 1: Idealized sketch of Benjamin Forsyth by Winston-Salem’s own Joe King. To see a more accurate picture of what Forsyth may have looked like in uniform, see below. To read more about Joe King, read Fam’s excellent blog post here. Source: Adelaide Fries’ Forsyth: A County on the March (1949).

He was called “an excellent officer” and “that intrepid officer.”  Others called him “that great big, good-looking damned fool” or “the raider.”  General Izard, however, had this to say about him during the attack at Odelltown: “The Indiscretion of poor Forsyth prevented the entire success of the [ambush]—he has paid for it with his life.”  Loved by some for his boldness and flashiness and reprimanded by others for his rashness in battle, he was a colorful figure to those who knew him.  Yet for most of us 200 years later in Forsyth County, North Carolina, we know little about him, lost to the annals of history books.  So who was Benjamin Forsyth?  And where did his family go?  Read on.

Early Years

Some sources say he was a native of Stokes County while others state he was from Virginia.  Adelaide Fries, in her book Forsyth County gives the fullest account of Forsyth’s family life.   Regarding his early life, family tradition has it he was born sometime in the 1760’s most likely in Hanover County, Virginia to a James and Elizabeth Forsyth.  He possibly came from a line of Forsyths  who had their origin in Northampton County in the 1640’s. An Edmund Scarborough, Jr. transported 40 Englanders as indentured servants to the New World where one of the immigrants, John Forsith, made his home.  Not long after, the Forsiths made their way to St. Martin’s Parish in Hanover County.  In a couple early Hanover County land record books, there is a Benjamin Forsythe who bought and sold a few land parcels in the 1780’s, one of which was the “Scotchtown” plantation where Patrick Henry once lived.  Henry wrote his “Give me liberty or give me death!” speech and married at this residence. Forsyth then disappears from the records and shows up in Stokes County purchasing land in 1794.

Figure 2 Scotchtown Plantation in Hanover County, Virginia. Was this the one-time home of Benjamin Forsyth? Source from Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

Figure 2: Scotchtown Plantation in Hanover County, Virginia. Was this the one-time home of Benjamin Forsyth? Source:  Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

The problem with Fries’ narrative is that as a result of the Civil War, many Virginia county records were lost or destroyed.  The paper trail is so full of holes that it’s nearly impossible to tell a cohesive story of where and when Forsyth lived in his early years.  

Figure 3 Early map of Virginia and its counties, 1770. Forsyth's probable birthplace of Louisa County is number 34 on the map. Source from Library of Congress.

Figure 3: Early map of Virginia and its counties, 1770. Forsyth’s probable birthplace of Louisa County is number 34 on the map. Source: Library of Congress.

One clue that corroborates evidence of Benjamin’s parentage is found in a book by a Rockingham County DAR chapter called Early Families of the North Carolina Counties of Rockingham and Stokes with Revolutionary Service.  There is a James Forsyth(e) listed, born ca. 1747 in Virginia and died before the end of 1777, likely in Louisa County, Virginia.  A DAR application stated that this Forsyth served in Capt. Hancher’s company for about five months before his service ended on 2 Nov 1775.    A marriage bond also shows that one James Forsyth married an Elizabeth Jones, daughter of Edward Jones on 2 Oct 1768 in Louisa County. If these two individuals are Benjamin’s parents, then Benjamin was more than likely born sometime between 1769 and the early 1770’s and agrees with Fries’ assessment that Forsyth’s father died while he was young.  This book however has it that Benjamin was born in 1774.   A sister also appeared to be born to this union, Sarah (Sally) Forsyth, who married one Mr. Chandler.  Her whereabouts afterwards are unknown.   After James Forsyth’s death, Elizabeth re-married a gentleman by the name of John Whitworth sometime around 1780 in the part of Rockingham County that was once Guilford County.  From this union was born Edward Whitworth, Samuel Jones Whitworth, Elizabeth Whitworth, and Effie Whitworth, all half-siblings of Benjamin Forsyth.  If Benjamin was born in 1774 or even slightly earlier, it’s not possible that he is the same Benjamin Forsythe who was wheeling and dealing in land in 1780’s Hanover County.  He likely was living with his mother, stepfather and half-siblings in either Rockingham or Guilford County before making his final move to neighboring Stokes County.        

Early Stokes County Years

Figure 4 This map gives the political boundaries of North Carolina in 1800. Forsyth lived in Germanton during this time, the county seat of old Stokes which would be located about the center of Stokes County shown here.

Figure 4: This map gives the political boundaries of North Carolina in 1800. Forsyth lived in Germanton during this time, the county seat of old Stokes which would be located about the center of Stokes County shown here. Source: The Formation of the North Carolina Counties: 1663-1943 by David Leroy Corbitt (1950).

As previously mentioned, Benjamin began to show up in Stokes County land records in December 1794.  This would make him either 20 years old or in his early 20’s.  He obviously was a man of some means as he made numerous transactions of land.  Stokes County land records show he made 34 purchases of land and 40 sales of land between 1794 and 1811. In 1802, county tax records show him listing 8,000 acres of real estate and 3,000 acres in 1810.  He therefore was obviously one of Stokes County early land brokers.  Unfortunately, it also comes as no surprise with so much land that he was also a slaveholder.  The 1800 and 1810 censuses list 2 and 13 slaves, respectively.

Not long after residing in Stokes, he married Elizabeth Bethenia Hardin Ladd, daughter of Constantine Ladd and Elizabeth Bostick, who lived in Bethania.  The marriage bond is dated 4 Oct 1797.  To their union, six children were born:  Elizabeth, Sally, Effie, Bethenia, James, and Mary.  More on these children later.  

Political and Military Life

With a family military background, it’s no surprise that Benjamin found his way into military life as well.  He was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the 6th infantry regiment of the US Army on 24 Apr 1800. For unknown reasons, this commission was brief as he was honorably discharged on 15 Jun 1800.  A few years later before he re-entered the military world, he served as state representative in the NC general assembly for Stokes County in 1807 and 1808.  While in his second year in office, he also was commissioned as captain of the 1st Regiment of Rifleman on 1 Jul 1808.

Side note #1

It appears Forsyth was a skilled horseman as well.  An entry from the Weekly Raleigh Register in September of 1809 advertised the “Germanton Races,” a horse racing competition held in Stokes County.  In it, they mentioned the previous years winners where Forsyth acquitted himself well.  “…Second day, two mile heats; purse won by Capt. B. Forsyth, on a horse called Tickle Toby, five years old—beating a horse called Whiskey, entered by Capt. Jno. Bostick.”

Figure 5 The officer on the right in the foreground is most likely how Benjamin Forsyth would have looked in uniform ca. 1814. The riflemen under his command in the background are shown with green smocks.

Figure 5: The officer on the right in the foreground is most likely how Benjamin Forsyth would have looked in uniform ca. 1814. The riflemen under his command in the background are shown with green smocks. Source: U.S. Army Center of Military History.

It was near the end of April 1809 that Forsyth took his rifle regiment down to Salem from Germanton.  An entry from the Salem diary explains it thusly:

“Captain Forsyth came from Germanton with a recently enlisted volunteer company of riflemen, and will soon go to New Bern and from there to New Orleans.  The captain wished to give his company the pleasure of seeing our town, and at the same time show us their new uniforms and military drill.  They marched into town in military order, with trumpet and fife, and paraded and drilled in the Square in front of the boarding school.”-Salem diary 29 Apr 1809

They stayed for a couple more days taking in church services and conducted drilling practices in front of the Gemein Haus.  The diarist concludes with this entry on the 1st of May.

“The company of riflemen paraded and drilled on the Square; and as they left they fired three rounds with their guns, one in front of the Sisters House, one before the Boarding School, and one at the Gemein Haus; then they departed for Germanton, content and thankful for all that they had seen, heard, and enjoyed.  Many of our members provided them with food and drink while they were here.  Many declared that they would never forget Salem.  The officers also expressed their thanks, especially the captain, Mr. Forsyth…”-Salem diary 1 May 1809

It wasn’t long after returning home to Germanton that Forsyth’s Rifles were on the move again.  On 25 May 1809, the Weekly Raleigh Star had this to say:  “Captain Forsyth’s company of Riflemen passed through this city on their way to Washington this state.  It consists of seventy fine tall young men, dressed in green uniform, handsomely equipped and well disciplined.”  The North-Carolina Star added that Forsyth’s band “are to be stationed, we understand, at the Mulberry Fields, on the frontiers of Georgia.”  Forsyth and his Riflemen’s whereabouts between this time and 1812 are sketchy.  It is believed that they were stationed in Norfolk, VA for a time before making their way to New York.

Figure 6 This map shows the northern theatre of battle during the War of 1812.  Many of the noted areas where Forsyth and his riflemen encountered battle include Fort George, Sacketts Harbor, Ogdensburg and Plattsburgh, where he eventually lost his life.

Figure 6: This map shows the northern theatre of battle during the War of 1812. Many of the noted areas where Forsyth and his riflemen encountered battle include Fort George, Sacketts Harbor, Ogdensburg and Plattsburgh, where he eventually lost his life. Source: Wikipedia.

To discuss all the movements of Forsyth’s rifle regiment from 1812-1814 would require a blogpost in itself so here are the highlights:

Raid on Gananoque, Upper Canada

As a regiment of light infantry, Forsyth’s Rifles were built for skirmishing and fast maneuvering.  On 21 September 1812, Forsyth and approximately 100 troops left their base at Ogdensburg, NY on a number of boats south down the St. Lawrence River surprising a force of approximately 40 militiamen under British colonel Joel Stone in Gananoque.  Stone’s forces were quickly overtaken and Forsyth’s forces were able to seize many British arms, government stores, food and burned the government depot.  

After this successful mission 24 Oct 1812, Forsyth boldly wrote President Madison stating how he had been a captain for the last four years and deserved a breveted promotion for keeping his regimental enlistments full for the required five-year terms as well as for his own “long and meritorious service.”  On 20 Jan 1813, Madison honored this request nominating Forsyth for promotion to major.  He later received brevetted promotion to lieutenant colonel on 6 Feb 1813.  

Raid at Elizabethtown, Upper Canada

The latter promotion likely occurred because of Forsyth’s exploits at Elizabethtown (now Brockville), also in Upper Canada.  Just a couple days before, British troops had seized American troops in Ogdensburg.  Forsyth and another band of approximately 200 men marched north to Morristown, NY and crossed the St. Lawrence River to surprise attack the British in Elizabethtown where the American prisoners were being held.  The British were overwhelmed and Forsyth freed the American prisoners while also taking 52 British prisoners, only at the cost of one American wounded.

Battle at Odelltown, Quebec

His bold and daring actions would get to best of him however the following year.  While primarily patrolling the area around Lake Champlain in early and middle 1814, he would be killed in an ambush attack in Odelltown, Quebec.  Here is an article from the Weekly Raleigh Register of 15 Jul 1814 that explains the incident.  Note the date at the top of the article is incorrect and more than likely should be July 1.

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Figure 7:  Article from the Weekly Raleigh Register 15 Jul 1814, courtesy of newspapers.com

And so ended the life and military career of Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Forsyth.

Side note #2-The Missing Portrait?

While researching newspapers.com, I came upon this article from the Newbern Sentinel of 29 Jan 1820.  As far as I had heard, there was no known portrait of what Benjamin Forsyth looked like.  Yet this article gives hope that somewhere, perhaps locked away in a relative’s attic, there may indeed be an existing portrait of Forsyth.

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Figure 8:  Clipping from the Newbern Sentinel 29 Jan 1820 courtesy of newspapers.com

After Death and the War

Once the news came down that Forsyth had died, it wasn’t long before his wife Elizabeth settled his estate.  With six young children it must have been a trying time to decide what to do next or where to go.  Eventually, she moved west sometime in 1814 or 1815 to live with or near Benjamin’s half-brother Edward Whitworth in Bedford County, Tennessee.  

Not long after this time, the North Carolina General Assembly wanted to do something to honor Forsyth’s service during the war.  While inspecting Elizabeth and her family’s financial situation, the committee decided that she wasn’t in dire circumstances to warrant support but did decide to put aside some money in a fund to support his son James’ future educational expenses.  They also decided to present the son a sword as gratitude for Forsyth’s service.  The House and Senate adopted this resolution on the 22nd and 23rd of December 1817.  For some reason, it seems Elizabeth did not receive news of the Assembly’s resolution until much later as she wrote the Assembly sometime in late 1819 about the family’s current financial state.  “I have sent my children to school as much as my situation would admit” she said.  James also was currently in bad health with a probable case of kidney stones.  Because of this, she felt it was in James’ best interest to attend school in Tennessee for the time being.  She signed the letter “Elizabeth B. H. Cowan” revealing the fact that she had married earlier in the year to one William Cowan.  Two of her daughters also had wed the same year, Elizabeth to Samuel Smalling and Sally to Lemuel Perry.  

So where did the children go from here?  Obviously with the death of the only son (see below), the Forsyth name ended.  Yet his name was passed on through the family’s descendants.  

As previously mentioned, Elizabeth Bostick Forsyth (c. 1798-?) married Samuel Smalling in 1819 and stayed in Bedford county throughout their lives.   One of their children, Benjamin Forsythe Smalling had a least six children of his own, two of them named Forsyth and Benjamin Forsyth Smalling.  

Sarah (Sally) Almond Forsyth (c. 1800-?) also married in 1819 to Lt. Lemuel Perry.  They eventually made their way to Tippah Co., MS and had at least four children, one of who was Benjamin Forsythe Perry (1831-1909) who married and lived out his life in Sumner Co., TN.  

Effie Jones Forsyth (1803-1881) married in Bedford County in 1825 to George Walter Higgs and had a large family.  They later moved to Brazos County in the Republic of Texas in 1838 (6 years before it received statehood).

Bethenia Harding Forsyth (1805-1859) married William Marshall Perry in Perry Co., AL in 1823.  One of their children was William Forsythe Perry (c. 1844-1878), a civil war soldier who died in McCracken Co., KY.

Mary Ladd Forsyth (1812-1860) married John Alfred Medlock on 5 Mar 1833 in Fayette Co., TN and moved to Tippah Co., MS in 1842.  They eventually settled in Saline Co., AR in 1858 where Mary died two years later.  One of their children was John Forsyth Medlock (1840-1920) who lived out his life in Arkansas.  

And what happened to young James Newton Forsyth, only son of Benjamin?  He returned to North Carolina in 1823 and entered the Academy in Hillsboro. By the next year he was attending the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill where the NC General Assembly made good to support his education costs.  For unknown reasons however, he was dismissed from the university the following year and the assembly rescinded money to support any further educational expenses.  Notwithstanding this, they still appropriated $750 to put in a stock to draw interest of which James would be able to draw from on his 21st birthday.  The reason they retracted their offer to support James’ education was due to his enlistment in the Navy, where he entered as a midshipmen, commissioned by his ex-officio guardian NC Governor Hutchins G. Burton.  

Sadly, he never reached his 21st birthday, having died at sea on the U.S.S. Hornet somewhere off the coast of Tampico, Mexico:

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Figure 9:  Clipping from the Fayetteville Weekly Observer 18 Feb 1830 courtesy of newspapers.com

Forsyth’s Legacy

Just twenty years later, when state legislators decided to create a new county from Stokes, it was only fitting that it was honored with the name of Forsyth.  Yet just 35 years after the fact, some folks even then had no idea who Benjamin Forsyth was, confusing him with (I think) former US Secretary of State from Georgia, John Forsyth.  

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Figure 10:  Clipping from the Carolina Watchman 14 Dec 1848, courtesy of newspapers.com

Having achieved the recognition of having a county named after him, other individuals made attempts in the 20th and 21st century to honor his legacy.

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Figure 11:  Clipping from the Winston-Salem Journal 30 Jun 1914, courtesy of newspapers.com

 

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Figure 12:  Clipping from the Daily-Times News (Burlington, NC) 24 Jun 1939, courtesy of newspapers.com

Figure 7 Taken from digitalforsyth.org, a picture of the highway marker in Germanton in 1948. Is this a picture of the Forsyth house?

Figure 13: A picture of the highway marker in Germanton in 1948. Is this a picture of the Forsyth house? Source: digitalforsyth.org

And here is a link to a resolution by the Forsyth Board of Commissioners on 28 July 2014 to recognize the service of Benjamin Forsyth.  

Lastly, the Winston-Salem Journal wrote this article about Forsyth a few months ago.  I’ll  leave with what Jerry Rutledge stated about Forsyth and his memory:

“I grew up here and I wondered who was Benjamin Forsyth and why does it matter. And I found that he was better known in northern New York than he was in Forsyth County, a county which was named after him.”

Hopefully this blogpost will help address the lack of coverage about Benjamin Forsyth and his accomplishments during War of 1812 and garner more attention for the county’s namesake.   

 

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