- 1 The (Variously Spelled) Whisnants Before North Carolina
- 2 Huguenots
- 3 Huguenot Refugees from the German Palatinate (and Some by way of England)
- 4 The Visinand/Whisnant Sojourn in William Penn’s Quaker Province
- 5 Home on Cocalico Creek, Lancaster County
- 6 Down the Great Wagon Road
- 7 A New Life in the North Carolina Piedmont
- 8 References:
- 9 Share this:
- 10 Related
Well, let’s see, then: Whisnant, I am informed after a 0.54 second, 1600+ hits search on Google, is of Anglo-Saxon origin (interest perks up), derived from Old English wis, meaning wise or learned person (yes, of course that increases the appeal). But a quick online definition check says wis is “a form derived from iwis, mistakenly interpreted as I wis I know, as if from Old English witan to know”). And my trusty old print copy of the Oxford English Dictionary presents a history of the word too complicated to help much here.
In any case, if one asks (more humbly and judiciously) where the Whisnants came from (sorry, friends and relations, even though the earliest documentable reference turns up in the year 1242, we’ve got to walk this lonesome valley not only by ourselves but also crestless). One also quickly learns (as I have noticed personally all my life), that “Whisnant” gets spelled pretty much however anyone is of a mind to, and pronounced in some ways one might not even have considered possible.
A few of some eighty spellings researchers have thus far encountered (not surprising, given that in German, initial w is pronounced as v, as in welt, initial v is pronounced as f, as in von, and terminal d as t, as in und): Fisinant, Visinand, Visinant, Whiissanhunt, Whisante, Whisenant, Whisenhant, Whisenhunt, Whisennand, Whisenun, Whisinand, Whisnand, Whisnant, Whisonant, Whistenant, Whistnant, Whysenhunt, Wiseant, Wissenandt, Wissenant. In a pinch, even Hunt has served. So much for my etymologically-based Anglo Saxon forbears.
But since it is not my purpose to trace Asbury Whisnant’s or Sarah Ella Austin’s lineages back to the dawn of time or forward to the current generation in the familiar genealogical way, many of the spellings can be ignored. “Visinand” and “Whisnant” (and several minor variations upon them) prove sufficiently productive. And for Asbury Whisnant’s ancestors back through the relevant three or four generations, more than the necessary information is available through Raymond Whisnant’s excellent Whisnant Surname Center.
I intend only to establish (briefly and schematically) the family’s origins in Switzerland and Germany, to dope out why they left, to examine the few available details of their lives during the two or three decades they tarried in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County, and then follow them (and streams of others) down the Great Wagon Road (around 1750, it seems) to piedmont (later western) North Carolina.
My grandmother Whisnant’s immediate Austin forbears (more difficult to check out, I’ve learned) were–so far as I now know–already in North Carolina when the Whisnants got there in the mid-eighteenth century. So they will not appear until the next post, which focuses (necessarily synoptically) on both families in the North Carolina “down-mountain” counties in the nineteenth century.
The (Variously Spelled) Whisnants Before North Carolina
For a century and a half at least, the French-speaking (or so it appears from their children’s names) Visinands were born, married, did their work, raised their children and died in or near the Swiss village of Corsier[-sur-Vevey], in the Canton of Vaud, about a kilometer north of Lake Geneva, and later around Hassloch and Edenkoben, near the Rhine River in southern Germany’s wine-producing region.
If this were an Old Testament account, it would be time for the begats, but I don’t do begats. So: Guillaume (born before 1570 in Maracon) moved to Corsier and started the line, so far as is yet known. His son Jean (b. before 1584), grandson Estienne (b. 1610), and great-grandson Francois (b. 1647) were all from Corsier. But at some point Francois moved 300 or so kilometers down the Rhine to Hassloch, Germany (south of Mannheim) where his son Philip Peter was born in 1684. Philip Peter and his wife Helena baptized five of their six children there (1711-1722). I know nothing of their lives in Hassloch, where they lived for twenty years before emigrating to Philadelphia. By 1711, Hassloch–in what much later came to be called the Rhineland Palatinate–was already more than a thousand years old, and had been predominantly Protestant for nearly two centuries.
Sometime during the summer of 1731, Philip Peter Visinand (then in his mid-forties), his thirty-six year old pregnant wife Helena, and (it appears) two of their four sons, Johann Peter (b. 1714) and Johann Adam (b. 1719) filed onto the Lowther (or Snow Lowther, indicating it was a “Snow-class” ship) in Rotterdamwith thirty-three other passengers. After stops in Whitehaven and Dover, where it picked up forty-five more passengers, the Lowther set sail for Philadelphia, where it docked in mid-October. By then it had an additional passenger, Philip and Helena’s daughter Mary Magdalena, born at sea.
Why would they have chosen to embark upon so lengthy, expensive, and risky a voyage? It was a 500+ kilometer, four- to six-week trip down the (probably) Neckar and then the Rhine rivers from the Hassloch-Edenkoben area to Rotterdam. From there nearly 5,000-miles and many more weeks at sea lay between them and Philadelphia. The sometimes dangerously overloaded vessels were infested with vermin and rats, the rotten food was so bad that there was an on-board market for mice and rats, and hygiene was terrible. Why, indeed, did they choose to go? That is a key question of this post.
As is usual with emigrants (whether refugees or not), both push and pull factors were involved. To understand the former for Philip Peter and Helena Visinand, two terms turn out to be key: Huguenots and the Palatinate. Being only vaguely familiar with either, I looked them up. Hold on; this will be very quick, but the links will lead to more detail if you wish.
Following the lead of John Calvin in the 1530s, Huguenots formed the Protestant Reformed Church of France. Within several decades, their numbers grew to two million. They were strongly critical of Catholicism in all its aspects, and Catholics (outnumbering them by 8:1) both returned the criticism and raised the ante dramatically.
From 1559 to 1561, Mary Queen of Scots helped haul French Huguenots before Catholic tribunals, which delivered them to torture and burning. Between then and 1598, eight civil “wars of religion” focused repeated violence upon Huguenots, especially dramatically in the Massacre of Vassy in 1562, in which more than sixty Huguenots were burned to death in their barn-church.
A decade later (autumn of 1572) thousands of Huguenots (estimates range from 5,000 to 30,000) were slain in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in and around Paris.
This vicious persecution by Catholics caused Huguenots (eventually at least a half-million of them) to board ships they hoped would carry them to safety in England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, the Dutch Republic, and Cape Colony in South Africa, as well as several of the English colonies of North America that were willing to accept them.
Scores of ships, each carrying up to two hundred passengers, including dozens of Huguenots, began to leave as early as the 1550s, increased dramatically from 1687, spiked again after the brutal winter of 1709, and continued for many more decades. The eminently useful genealogy site The Olive Tree presents valuable descriptive data on some of these “Huguenot ships.”
The three-masted, 150-foot Voorschotten left Delftshaven, Holland on the last day of the year 1687, and others followed in rapid succession. Designed for 150 passengers, it carried 192. Among the twenty-two French Huguenots were Phillipe and Anne Fouche(r) and their three young children, a carpenter, and a wagon-builder. Three and a half months later the Voorschotten dropped anchor in Table Bay, South Africa.
Following several weeks behind it, the Oesterland carried twenty-four French Huguenots, including farmers, a doctor, and a carpenter. The intrepid couple Isaac and Susanna Taillefert were traveling with six children (age one to fourteen). Disaster struck the Berg China, out of Rotterdam, carrying some “orphan girls” and thirty-four Huguenots. Of its 175 passengers, nineteen died at sea, and fifty more arrived ill. Its predecessor De Scheide had been fortunate to make the trip without sickness or death.
By 1700, at least twelve Huguenot-bearing ships had departed for South Africa, but also in that year the Mary and Anne struck out from London to James City, Virginia carrying 167 adults and 38 children. A month later, the Peter and Anthony followed. The departure of these two ships signaled, it turned out, that a large part of the Huguenot out-migration stream would run not from France to South Africa, but from the German Palatinate through Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and London toward the British colonies in North America. Why did this happen?
Huguenot Refugees from the German Palatinate (and Some by way of England)
Wherever they were (especially in the German Palatinate) in the 17th and 18th centuries, Huguenots were suffering and fleeing. And as refugees generally do, they were looking for the quickest and best refuge they could find. In the opening years of the 18th century, it looked for a short time like the North American British colonies might be a good bet.
Trying to locate and describe “the Palatinate” is like trying to hit a moving, continually reconfiguring, target. For our purposes, one can think of it as a heavily Protestant area straddling the Rhine River, more or less in southwestern Germany. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the area experienced repeated military invasion and prolonged political and religious turmoil and repression, the hardships of which fell heavily upon the lower classes.
Conditions became far worse during several brutal, famine-producing winters (most
dramatically that of 1709). “Birds froze in mid-air,” notes Wikipedia‘s synoptic article, and “casks of wine, livestock, whole vineyards were destroyed by the unremitting cold. With what little was left of their possessions, the refugees made their way on boats down the Rhine to Amsterdam [or Rotterdam],” bound for England, where the government of Queen Anne was sensitive to their plight. Huguenots from the Palatinate responded in droves to the queen’s invitation. During the summer of 1709, more than 13,000 came into London.
But the Queen’s altruism was tempered by British self-interest: the seemingly unstoppable flood of in-migration brought with it the financial burden of social support, social strain, disease and death. Something had to be done.
After an early effort to send Huguenots to bolster the Protestant minority in Ireland failed, it occurred to policy makers that, channeled into the North American colonies, they could turn into a twofer: problems at home would decrease, and a new labor force could boost production of hemp and tar for the British navy while guarding against incursions by Indians and the French. In late 1712, government support for the refugees stopped, and the Palatines had to look (and go) elsewhere.
During the next few years, a thousand or so were sent to settle along the Hudson River, where German/Palatine place names are still prominent. By the 1730s, they had docked in Boston, Albany, Baltimore, and elsewhere. And from about 1727 through the mid-1750s, scores of ships left Rotterdam for Philadelphia, their passenger lists made up almost exclusively of “poor Palatines.”
The Visinand/Whisnant Sojourn in William Penn’s Quaker Province
The rush to Philadelphia from the Palatinate–of which the Visinand/Whisnant family was a part–was prompted by devout and determined Quaker William Penn (1644-1718), who arrived in New Castle in 1682 to take possession of vast lands given to him by King Charles II to settle a debt.
For years, Penn had roundly denounced Catholics as “the whore of Babylon” and Puritans as “hypocrites and revelers in God,” and pursued his longtime commitment to religious,
electoral, freedom, justice for Indians and immigrants. The Quaker province of Pennsylvania was to be a “Holy Experiment” in virtue, equality, and fairness, with Philadelphia as its capital city.
Soon Penn began to sell land to immigrants, and beginning with the William & Sarah in mid-1727, shiploads of Palatinate Germans started to arrive. The Lowther was the seventeenth among them, and Philip Peter and Helena Visinand, their new baby, and two teenage sons disembarked.
In the 1730s, Philadelphia didn’t look a whole lot like the capital city of any “Holy Experiment.” It had maybe 3000 inhabitants, and its unpaved streets were littered and dirty. Even Philadelphia merchant/poet Joseph Breintnall, trying to put the best face on it in his “Plain Description of One Single Street in this City,” admitted that it was rather a mixed bag:
At Delaware’s broad Stream, the View begin,
Where jutting Wharfs, Food-freighted Boats take in.
. . .
Wide opes the Street, with firm Brick Buildings high:
Step, gently rising, o’er the Pebbly Way,
And see the Shops their tempting Wares display;
. . . Here, if Ails molest,
Plain surfac’d Flags, and smooth laid Bricks invite
Your tender Feet to Travel with Delight.
. . .
’Twixt, and beyond all those, . . .
The forging Shops of sooty Smiths are set,
And Wheelwrights Frames—with vacant Lots to let:
A Neighbourhood of Smoke, and piercing Dins,
From Trades, from Prison-Grates and Publick Inns.
Rather overdone, it seems fair to say, but Philadelphia was already a major port, had a newspaper and a library (of which Breintnall was Secretary), and Benjamin Franklin had arrived a few years earlier to play a major role in its development. But even the earliest of its historic “buildings fair” did not appear until several decades later. Christ Church, established in 1695, was still in its original small wooden building; a grander edifice did not begin to rise for another thirty-two years.
Home on Cocalico Creek, Lancaster County
In any event, the Visinands did not tarry long in Philadelphia. Instead they headed westward for about sixty miles, into heavily German Lancaster County. Seeking their own kind, as new immigrants do, they became part of the recently formed Muddy [Moden] Creek Reformed congregation on the headwaters of Cocalico Creek. The log building (apparently not erected until about 1736) had dirt floors, wooden benches for seating, and the only heat during the hours-long sermons came from an indoor firepit. But the congregation–dirt floor or no–afforded welcome cultural and theological support.
Muddy Creek was a new little church, without its own minister, but Philip Peter and Helena had their newborn daughter baptized there soon after they arrived in October. Although details are scant, it appears that the family was able to establish itself rather quickly and solidly on the Cocalico. Philip Peter and Helena’s grandson Philip was born to their son John Adam (b. 1719) in 1736. In 1737 Philip Peter managed to get a grant of land adjacent to Muddy Creek church, where he established a farm.
Their shipboard-born daughter Mary Magdalena married a local German man, Christian Lutz, when she was only fifteen or sixteen (ca. 1746-47). No details about their offspring, if any, have come to light, and many of the sandstone grave markers in the church cemetery have not survived. But the couple apparently chose to remain in the area near the many Lutzes, the descendents of whom were still scattered around the county a century and a half later.
Philip Peter died in 1744 and Helena in 1750; both were buried in the Muddy Creek cemetery. About 1758, Mary Magdalena’s husband bought the family land–signaling, perhaps, that the Cocalico/Muddy Creek Church phase of their life was drawing to a close.
Down the Great Wagon Road
By the time the Visinands arrived in Lancaster County in 1731, population pressures in the Pennsylvania backcountry were already making land scarce. Before another decade had passed, second- and third-generation German families were casting about for better opportunities.
The floods of immigrant Scots-Irish Presbyterians who were traveling down the Great Valley on the Great Wagon Road (as well as inland from the North Carolina coast) pointed the way to opportunities in the North Carolina backcountry, where new counties in the Piedmont were being established as immigrant population rose.
Probably sometime between their mother’s death in 1750 and the early 1760s, at least Mary Magdalena’s brother John [Johann] Adam (b. 1719) and his son Philip (b. 1736) joined the stream heading down the Great Wagon Road. Other members of the family may have gone as well, but trying to figure that out from the cascading number of Philips, Johns, and Adams in the genealogical record is beyond our scope and need at present.
In any case, if the experience of those of the Visinand/Whisnant family who took the Great Wagon Road south was not atypical, they would have made the trip in a Conestoga wagon,
a locally-built conveyance, the construction of which provided work for numerous woodworkers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and turners. John Adam Visinand, a blacksmith, may well have worked in the industry. Such wagons appear to have been the dominant image evoked by “the Great Wagon Road.”
The Great Wagon Road, it turns out, was not the “Great” road implied by its name (some referred to it as the “great bad road”). Instead it was–as a contemporary map showed–a related system of more or less parallel, more or less road-like tracks headed generally southwest from Market Street in Philadelphia, passing through North and South Carolina, and ending in Augusta GA.
More specifically, from Philadelphia the road ran west toward Gettysburg, then south to Hagerstown MD and Winchester VA, then through the Shenandoah Valley to Roanoke before reaching the North Carolina border, where it entered through (later) Stokes County.
From the outset, traffic was a problem. Lines of wagons filled with land seekers heading south met northbound lines of wagons filled with produce for faraway markets. And both had to contend with drovers moving herds of animals (turkeys, hogs, mules, cattle) on foot.
So far as is known, the Visinand family left no record of their passage down the Great Wagon Road, but fortunately a group of twelve Moravian brothers set out at about the same time (October 1753) to build the first structure (the Single Brothers House) at Bethabara (now within Winston-Salem as Bethabara Historic District).
One of the brothers kept a detailed journal describing their six-week journey. Even at its best, the road was barely worthy of the name in many places: wagons had to be unloaded and reloaded to navigate gulleys, streams and rivers, and to climb or descend hills; small animals shot along the way supplemented a few provisions proffered by kindly Germans; a mill now and then supplied food for the horses; axles broke, and high water was dangerous; heavy rains wet everything, including firewood, through the wagons’ oil-treated canvas tops; and sections of road had to be cleared with axes and grubbing hoes to make them passable.
Despite the rigors of the trip, the Moravian brothers held a lovefeast when they reached their destination in mid-November, and one of them composed a hymn of celebration for the occasion:
We hold arrival Lovefeast here,
In Carolina land,
A company of Brethren true,
A little Pilgrim-Band . . .
None of the genealogical or other available records of the Visinand travelers refer to anything musical, but it is conceivable that–devoutly Calvinist as they were–they and some of their Reformed Church fellow travelers marked their arrival with a good Calvinist hymn.
A New Life in the North Carolina Piedmont
If you have stayed with me along this by now rather extended blog post road, you deserve a break and a commendatory star, and are excused from composing and singing a “Now come all ye bloggers and listen to me . . . ” to mark the occasion. When next we see them (or a single line of them), the Whisnants will be settled in the down-mountain counties of western piedmont North Carolina.
Daniel W. Bly, excerpt from From the Rhine to the Shenandoah, Shenandoah Germanic Heritage Museum; FindaGrave.com; Internet Archive Book Images; Daniel Miller, Early History of the Reformed Church in Pennsylvania” (1906); NCpedia; William T. Parsons, excerpt from Pennsylvania Germans: A Persistent Minority in Look Backward; “Passenger Lists” in The Olive Tree Genealogy; “Descriptions of Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia before the Revolution,” National Humanities Center; William S. Powell, North Carolina Through Four Centuries ( 1989); Milton Ready, The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina; Raymond C. Whisnant, Whisnant Surname Center; USGenWeb Archives; Wikipedia.