Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Irish John


It was likely in the early years of Augusta County, Virginia, when my seventh great-grandfather John Lewis acquired the nickname, Irish John Lewis. According to his headstone, he did claim to have been born in Ireland—County Donegal, specifically—but with a name like Lewis, it could easily have been assumed he was more Welsh than Irish. According to family reports, though, his roots may actually have been French.

It was what prompted John Lewis' arrival in colonial Virginia about which I am more curious, however. Explaining the setting of the Lewis family's arrival, one genealogy paints his newly-adopted home as "a dense and unexplored forest" which only years later became Virginia's Augusta County. Upon his arrival there, John Lewis became one of its pioneers.

There was a reason why John Lewis left his comfortable home in Ireland. The 1906 Genealogies of the Lewis and Kindred Families gave hints about the episode which ousted him from his Irish home. Lewis was apparently "compelled to flee the country" on account of "having to slay his Irish landlord." Author John Meriwether McAllister speculated that in the far western reaches of the Virginia colony, the Lewis family would be "too far removed from royalty to be any longer the victim of tyranny."

While that may sound like rhetoric fitting for a colonial settler leading up to the American Revolution, John Lewis supposedly arrived in Virginia much earlier than that—in 1732. Of course, I wanted to learn more about that story. Through some stroke of serendipity, I discovered there actually is a Wikipedia entry on John Lewis, which provided a succinct recap of Lewis' escape from Ireland. Better than that, the article also included footnotes, leading me to further sources.

One such account of the event—though painted in the prose of a much earlier era—was the 1845 book by Henry Howe, Historical Collections of Virginia. Howe's painting of the encounter which prompted Lewis' decision to emigrate was as "the result of one of those bloody affrays" in which "a nobleman of profligate habits and ungovernable passions" had decided to repossess the Lewis property under "an alleged breach of condition." The nobleman with his posse surrounded the Lewis home, made his demands—which were rebuffed by Lewis—and fired a shot into the house. This killed Lewis' brother and injured his wife, enraging Lewis, who then rushed out to fight his assailant. In the end, Lewis had killed both the nobleman and one of his assistants, prompting those witnesses and Lewis sympathizers to advise him to "fly the country."

Whether that incident actually happened as the 1845 account painted it will be hard to determine. The Wikipedia article on John Lewis noted that two of three historical writers disputed the narrative. Indeed, a supposed diary of John Lewis' wife Margaret which provided a recounting of the incident, first appearing in a magazine version in 1869, was only in 1976 revealed to actually be a hoax

With such a rocky road leading to Lewis reality, how is one to determine the truth of the matter? It hardly seems likely that I'd find a contemporaneous newspaper account of the crime from one of the least-populated counties in Ireland.

What I can do, however, is look for documentation of what became of Irish John Lewis, once he arrived in Virginia, through to his death near Staunton in 1762. And, having achieved such a goal, I'll be satisfied with my progress.

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