John Herndon Graves

John Herndon Graves (1746-1829)

Battle of Guilford Courthouse

  • Born 1746
  • Married Nancy Slade 1770
  • Captain Revolutionary War
  • Wounded Battle of Guilford Courthouse
  • N.C. Legislator
  • Died 1829

Biographical Sketch

John Herndon Graves was born 1746 in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, to John Graves (1715-1792). The mother of John Herndon Graves has not been determined but, due to the closeness in ages, it is thought to be someone other than Isabella Lea (the only concensus wife of John Graves). John Herndon Graves died 1829 in Caswell County, North Carolina. He purportedly was a grandson (sixth great grandson) of Captain Thomas Graves, who was one of the original stockholders in the Virginia Company and, in 1608, was one of the settlers of Jamestown, Virginia.1 John Herndon Graves's father, John Graves moved his family to Caswell County in the 1750's. In 1770, John Herndon Graves married Nancy Slade, and they had ten children. After the death of his first wife in 1807, John Herndon Graves married Elizabeth Burton Coleman (the widow of Spilsby Coleman) in 1808. No children resulted from this marriage.

John Herndon Graves served in the Revolutionary War as a Captain of the North Carolina Militia. On March 15, 1781, he was wounded badly at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse and left for dead on the field. According to family tradition, a fellow soldier heard him moan, put him on a horse, and brought him to Yanceyville, where he recovered from his wounds.

He was an elected representative from Caswell County to the North Carolina General Assembly for the years 1788, 1790, 1791, and 1792. He also was a delegate from Caswell County to the State Conventions of North Carolina in 1788 and 1789 to consider and ratify the Constitution of the United States of America. The 1788 Convention met at Hillsborough, North Carolina, July 21 through August 4, 1788, without ratification of the proposed Constitution. A second Convention met at Fayetteville, North Carolina, November 16 through November 23, 1789. Note the following from Graves—Twelve Generations (Some Descendants and Kin (1608-1977), Louise Graves (1977) at 82-83, the publication upon which most of the foregoing is based:2

. . . . The records of both Conventions show John Herndon Graves' adamant stand for States rights, as evidenced by his voting "Nay" for adoption of the Constitution, believing proposed Amendments in the Constitution guaranteeing States rights should be adopted before ratification of the Constitution. The Constitution was finally ratified by the 1789 Convention, and the Convention "Resolved, unanimously, That it be recommended and enjoined on the Representatives of this State in Congress to make application to Congress, and endeavor to obtain the following amendments to the Constitution for the future government of the United States . . . ."

These first ten amendments to the Constitution became known as the Bill of Rights.

According to the 1809 Caswell County tax list, John Herndon Graves listed for taxation 2,849 acres of land. Of the 325 taxpayers listing taxes that year, only sixteen owned as much as 1,000 acres. Several of the ten children of John Herndon Graves and Anne (Nancy) Talbot Slade achieved prominence. However, one daughter is very well known for her famous husband, Barlett Yancey, Jr. A brother, Reverend Barzillai Graves, was a famous Baptist Minister.

Caswell County native and historian, Katharine Kerr Kendall, did extensive research on the Graves family (herself a Graves descendant), including John Herndon Graves. Following are her observations:

No biography has been written of him; no picture remains. The location of his mansion near Fuller's Branch has never been determined; his grave site is unknown. Not one person in a hundred you may meet around the public square in Yanceyville would recognize his name. Doubtless, John Herndon Graves (1746-1829) never heard of a "land use planner," but he at one time owned all the land at Caswell Court House, now Yanceyville, and he deserves the title of planner for his efforts to establish a new county seat. The only recorded events of his life are found in his land transactions, his will and estate settlement, and in his record of public service.

. . . .

By 1804 John H. Graves had purchased all acreage from the original buyers. . . . He now owned all the land at the new county seat of Caswell Court House. Between 1804-1811 he gave the land to his children with his five sons each holding a portion abutting the public lot or square as it is known today. That appears to be the reason there are five streets terminating at the square. The Graves sons sold large blocks of the Court House acreage to Thomas D. Johnston, Dr. N. M. Roan, and Ibzan Rice. Not until the 1830's did they dispose of any foot of land adjoining the public lot or square. A plat drawn in 1825 of the lot shows the Graves family living around the square. . . .

. . . .

John Herndon Graves was a wealthy man for his day. A gallant soldier, he had many plans for his land and his family. His interest and activity in government and politics showed his concern for the future of his county and state. Some of his descendants reside now on land he originally owned.

Source: The Heritage of Caswell County North Carolina, Jeannine D. Whitlow, Editor (1985) at 240.

It was the opinion of Katharine Kerr Kendall that John Herndon Graves "deserves the title of the founding father of Caswell Courthouse."



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