The Colorful Pinkard Brannon of Rush Run - Part 1

 

I was intrigued with Pinkard Brannon the moment I heard his name. As it turns out, his life was as fascinating as his name. After much research, I found that his childhood is shrouded in mystery, with his parentage and ethnicity unclear, and his last days were marked by scandal and controversy. In between, he lived a long and eventful life with a number of interesting turns.  His story is a bit complicated, so first you’ll need some background. 

 

Pinkard Brannon (1827-1915)

Pinkard Brannon was born in September 1827 in Louisa County, Virginia, and he died at Troy, Gilmer County, on January 4, 1915, at age 87.  But he wasn’t always known by the surname Brannon.  Pinkard’s 1847 Louisa County, Virginia marriage record to Eliza Gibson gives his name as Pinkard Bramham. Because of his unusual first name, it’s pretty easy to follow him in census records even with many variations of his surname. In 1850 Pinkard was still living in Louisa County with his wife and two children, but he was going by a completely different last name: Napper. All four family members were listed as mulatto. One implication of this entry is that since slavery was still legal, Pinkard and his family were free mulattos. Federal census records of 1850 did not record the names of slaves, only those of “free inhabitants.” 

 

Listed on the same 1850 census page as Pinkard is 76-year old mulatto Mal Bramham. According to an ongoing DNA research project, Malachi “Mal” Bramham was the son of Gideon Gibson and Susanna Branham. We know that Malachi Bramham had at least two children with a woman named Rebecca Napper prior to 1840. It’s likely that Pinkard Bramham, who went by Pinkard Napper in 1850, was somehow related to Malachi Bramham and Rebecca Napper. But this is unproved speculation.

 

Sometime between 1854 and 1857 Pinkard, his wife and two children moved from Louisa County, Virginia to Rush Run in Conings, Gilmer County, (West) Virginia. Conings borders Doddridge County on Route 18 South near Fallen Timber, Cove District. Also moving from Louisa County with Pinkard were his cousin William Walton and brother-in-law Nathan Gibson. 

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Brannon Homeplace - built by Henry Brannon

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William R. Walton (1837-1924)

William R. Walton was born in about 1837 in Louisa County, a son of William W. Walton and Sarah “Sally” Branham. In a deposition much later, William Walton stated that he and Pinkard were first cousins, that their mothers were sisters. In the 1850 Louisa County census, William is living with his parents, but listed with his mother’s surname Branham, instead of Walton like his father. Sarah and all her children were listed as mulattos that year, again indicating that they were free inhabitants. 

 

Upon his arrival in (West) Virginia, William Walton married Mary Ellen Pearcy, daughter of Jabez Pearcy and Elizabeth Robinson of Porto Rico, Doddridge County. William and Mary Ellen Walton remained in Porto Rico, where they raised a family of nine children.

 

Nathan Gibson (1828-1896)

Nathan Gibson and his sister Eliza (Pinkard’s wife) were the children of Nathan Gibson Sr. and Lucy Shepherd. Nathan Gibson Sr.’s parents were William Gibson and Mary Adams Napper. In his 1823 will, William Gibson actually calls his son Nathan Napper, rather than Nathan Gibson. The Gibsons, Nappers and Branhams/Bramhams intermarried many times from generation to generation.

 

There is evidence to prove that these Gibsons descended from an American Indian woman named Jane Gibson. Some of her descendants were free, while others had been enslaved. Some researchers believe that Jane was a mulatto or a melungeon, rather than a Native American. Whatever the exact race, it was neither white nor black, which explains why Pinkard’s wife was listed as a mulatto in the 1850 census.

 

Nathan Gibson (Pinkard’s brother-in-law) married his first cousin Mary Jane Gibson in 1854, immediately prior to coming to (West) Virginia. Living first in Grant District, Doddridge County, and later in New Milton, Doddridge County, they had at least ten children.

 

Pinkard Changes Name & Race

By 1860 Pinkard Bramham/Napper had changed his name to Pinkard Brannon. From that time forward, in every official document that I could find, Pinkard and his family were listed by the Brannon name and as white rather than mulatto. Likewise, the Gibsons and Waltons were listed as white once they settled in Doddridge and Gilmer counties. It’s very possible that the three former mulatto families found that in their new home, they could blend in with the many recent German immigrants in the nearby St. Clara Colony.

 

Draft Exemption Denied

Pinkard Brannon lived not far from the man who established the St. Clara Colony, Doddridge County’s highly esteemed Joseph H. Diss Debar. On June 7, 1864, with the Civil War still raging, Diss Debar wrote a letter to Governor Arthur I. Boreman in which he presented a strong argument to have Pinkard and another man excused from military service. An excerpt from that letter:

 

“Not more than an hour ago I was requested by two neighbors from Gilmer to write to the proper authorities in order to get them discharged from Capt. Wiant's Co. of Scouts in which they find themselves enlisted, as they say, without their knowledge and consent. Their names are George Spurgeon and Pinkard Branham. ...They are both head of large families, with little or no help to tend their crops, and must inevitably be heavy losers by leaving home. Their families are very much distressed at this untoward occurrence and the men themselves distracted and unhappy to such an extent that in my judgment they will be entirely unfit for duties required of them, even if they possessed the courage and the active ingenuity, which ought to characterize a ranger, which is far from being the case.  ... Wiant can do no good with such men, no unwilling recruit will ever make a good scout. I promised those men to submit to you a truthful statement of their case. They cannot get substitutes; There are none to be had here.

 

“Spurgeon has a son in the 6th Va Inf, and thought when he engaged under Heckert, that the Scouts were but another name for the home guard and not subjected to regular military rule. I was under arms alongside of him two years ago during a scare at Troy, and am able to assure you that pay and rations would be wasted on him. Branham is no better, ..” 

 

Diss Debar’s arguments were of no avail, as both men ended up serving in Company C, 6th W.Va. Infantry, during the waning months of the Civil War. In his military descriptive roll, Pinkard was described as being 5’7” tall, with black eyes, black hair and dark complexion.

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Pinkard Becomes Timber Dealer

After the Civil War, Pinkard Brannon steadily acquired more and more land in Doddridge and Gilmer counties. Until 1880 his occupation had always been listed on census records as farmer. But shortly after 1880 Pinkard started dabbling in the timber business. Actually, his timbering went well beyond dabbling, according to documents filed at the Gilmer County courthouse in 1884:

“Trade-Mark

Notice is hereby given that I have adopted the following Trade-mark in my Business as Timber Dealer. To wit: “BBB”  Dated this First day of February 1884.

Pinkard Brannon”

 

With his brand new BBB trademark in hand, Pinkard immediately embarked on his first timber deal with his cousin William Walton. Their contract, filed in the courthouse that very same day, must have been written at least a couple of months earlier, based on a date specified within it:

 

“Pinkard Brannon now owns on his Bailey tract of land on Big Cove Creek in the county of Doddridge West Virginia about three hundred poplar trees suitable for marketing. It is therefore hereby agreed that said Watson shall cut said poplar trees into logs and cause the same to be hauled upon the banks of Big Cove Creek on or before the first day of January 1884 and shall then float said logs to the mouth of said Cove Creek and then raft and make the same ready in all respects to run to market in lockages of proper sizes on or before the first day of April 1884. All the timber and logs aforesaid to be owned, controlled and sold by the said Brannon, but the said Watson shall have for his work of cutting, rafting and floating the said logs all that may be realized from their sale after first deducting four and one-half cents per foot running measure for all logs from 18 inches in diameter and up to and including 24 inches in diameter, and five cents per running foot for all logs 25 inches in diameter and upwards. ... ”

 

Death of Pinkard Brannon

Timbering must have been a lucrative business for Pinkard Brannon, because by the 1900s he owned over 2,000 acres of land. When he died on January 4, 1915, his obituary on the front page of the Doddridge County Republican described the great esteem in which he was held:

 

“Mr. Brannon was a man of remarkable vigor, mental and physical -- one of those sturdy old oaks of a generation that is fast passing. A man of strict integrity, rigid economy and ceaseless industry, he accumulated a competency and more. In proportion to the opportunities of his day, he was successful, and in his character was that sterner stuff of which great men are made when larger fields are opened.”

 

Along with about thirty other family members, Pinkard and his wife Eliza, who died in 1906, are buried in the Brannon Cemetery, located on private property at Rush Run, near the border line between Doddridge and Gilmer counties.

 

More to Come

But this is not the end of Pinkard Brannon’s story. Next week I will tell you about his secret family and the numerous questions surrounding his probable offspring. Pinkard Brannon’s home was located near the mouth of Rush Run in Gilmer County.  Living just up the road at the head of Rush Run in Doddridge County was the Silas Greathouse family.  It was there that Pinkard found his Achilles heel … the wife of Silas Greathouse.

Pinkard Brannon’s Dark Sparkling Eyes - Part 2

Last week I introduced you to Pinkard Brannon, a hardworking farmer and timberman living on Rush Run in Gilmer County. If I had gone by census records alone, I would have assumed that he had only nine children with his wife Eliza, and had no ties, other than proximity, to Doddridge County. But a court case, ultimately heard by the  West Virginia State Supreme Court of Appeals, proved that Pinkard’s family life was much more complex than it appeared.  

 

On file in the Doddridge County Circuit Clerk’s office is a 600-page Chancery lawsuit between a court-appointed committee led by Leonidas H. “Lon” Barnett (plaintiff) and Burdock, Sheridan, Earl and Melissa Greathouse (defendants). This case centers around 199 acres of land on Bear Fork in Doddridge County that Pinkard Brannon had leased to the defendants in 1904 and sold to them in 1912. The committee (plaintiff) was formed at the request of two of Pinkard’s sons.

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Pinkard Mentally Incompetent?

The case begins on January 30, 1912 when Pinkard was adjudged non compos mentis (not sane) and deemed unfit to have entered into a contract to sell his own property to the defendants on January 2, just three weeks earlier. The object of the committee (formed at the behest of Pinkard’s sons John and Henry Brannon) was to prove that Pinkard was not competent enough to sell the 199 acres and that the Greathouses had manipulated him into deeding them the property, which they had been leasing from Pinkard since 1904.

 

The ruling of the Circuit Court in Doddridge County was in favor of the Brannon brothers, the contract was nullified, and the land ordered returned to the Brannons. But the Greathouses, who were all living on the land in question, objected and filed an appeal with the State Supreme Court. To represent them, the Greathouses hired prominent attorneys Jackson V. Blair and Anthony F. McCue. The Brannons’ committee was represented by R. F. Kidd, Linn & Byrne, and George W. Farr, the latter a former judge and Doddridge County prosecuting attorney.

 

A Family Affair

One theme that is consistent throughout the case is that Pinkard Brannon was somehow related to the defendants and other Greathouse family members, but no one seemed really certain which ones, or even how. At one point in a deposition, William H. Flesher said that Pinkard had asked him, “what was the general opinion of the neighborhood in regards to the Greathouse children?”  Flesher told Pinkard that folks were of the opinion that they were Pinkard’s children. 

 

About half of the witnesses deposed said that Pinkard was the father of three of the children thought to belong to Silas and Catherine Greathouse; namely Martha, Ruben and French. Another half said that Pinkard denied being the father of Ruben, but never denied being the father of Martha and French, who were children #5 and #12 for Catherine Greathouse. Many based their opinions on the darkness of the children’s hair and eyes because Pinkard was said to have coal black hair and  “eyes so dark they sparkled.”

 

It was established in court that Pinkard was indeed the father of the three male Greathouses in the lawsuit.  According to census records, Silas and Catherine had 12 to 14 children altogether. But census records can be misleading or simply incorrect. 

 

The case file states that defendant Melissa, the daughter of Silas Greathouse and Mary Catherine Lowther, was defendant Earl’s mother by Pinkard Brannon. 

 

It was also indicated in the court documents that defendants Burdock and Sheridan “Sherd” Greathouse were the children of Pinkard Brannon and Melissa’s unmarried sister Mary Greathouse, who had already died.

 

Specifics of the Case

The defendants swear that In 1904 Pinkard  leased to them 199 acres and that they had since “cleared and made permanent improvements on a large part thereof; built fences, houses and stables thereon and other buildings, and thereby have added materially to the value of said land.” They further stated that they “had been more filial and faithful in their services to him [Pinkard] than they have been,” a reference to Pinkard’s sons John and Henry Brannon.

 

The two Brannon brothers contended that the Greathouses, knowing that Pinkard was mentally weak, had convinced Pinkard that John and Henry were “planning to divest and strip him of his property and reduce him to a state of servitude” 

 

John and Henry Brannon further said that, “by continuous, persistent and undue persuasion and importunities, and undue, corrupt and overpowering influence exercised by them [the Greathouses] and the said C.F. Law over and upon the said [Pinkard] Brannon so wrought upon the mind and inclinations of the said Pinkard Brannon that  they procured from him a pretended deed for a valuable farm of one hundred and ninety nine (199) acres, situate on Bear Fork of Big Cove Creek, in the County of Doddridge, and State of West Virginia, for the feigned and fictitious consideration of four thousand dollars … that the money so paid at the time of delivery of said deed was the money and means of the said Pinkard Brannon drawn from the Auburn Exchange Bank...”

 

In other words, John and Henry Brannon were saying that their father, in an attempt to make it look like the Greathouses were paying him for the 199 acres, had actually withdrawn his own money for the Greathouses to use as payment to him. That does not really sound like the forethought of a crazy person to me. 

 

Who’s on Which Side?

A point of confusion is that on the surface, the case was between the Brannons and the Greathouses. But that’s only partly correct, as Pinkard Brannon himself seemed to have sided not with his sons, but with the Greathouses. In February 1912, through Catherine Greathouse’s daughter Martha Greathouse, Pinkard dictated a letter to attorney Jackson V. Blair, which stated "Sir, I have a law suit on hand, and I want to employ you for my attorney. I did not get justice.  And I want it removed to West Union, and I want you to employ three good Drs. [doctors] to testify whether I am capable of doing business or not. I want you to take charge of it at once.  I want you to get the Drs. and come at once to have me examined!"

 

Within weeks, Pinkard was examined by Doctors Pearcy, McGovern and Lawson, who all found him sane and competent.  This seemed to carry a lot of weight with the Supreme Court, not just the doctor’s conclusion, but also that Pinkard had the capacity to conceive and bring about his own mental competency examination. The Court was not swayed by an examination of Pinkard two years later by four other doctors (Chapman, Eddy, Woofter and Hall) which found that he had arteriosclerosis, a condition that could lead to senile dementia.  "But the only effect of Brannon's condition, according to the witness, was lack of positiveness in speech, a bad memory, and a desire to marry the mother of his daughter-in-law."

 

At some point Pinkard’s sons arranged with Pinkard’s grandson Hedgeman Burton, son of Elmore Burton and Sophia Brannon, to serve as Pinkard’s personal “bodyguard.” But Hedgeman’s real mission was to prevent Pinkard from associating with the Greathouses at all.

 

The Final Verdict

In the end, the State Supreme Court decided in the Greathouses’ favor, concluding that Pinkard Brannon had been mentally competent at the time of the transaction and that there was no reason to void the contract. So the Greathouses retained the 199 acres on Bear Fork of Cove Creek in Doddridge County that Pinkard had sold to them and where they had taken up residence.

 

Regarding Pinkard Brannon’s relationship with the three Greathouse sons he had fathered, the Court made this observation:

 

"Indeed, the evidence, though somewhat meager, sufficiently shows such relation by him to the grantees and recognition of a moral obligation on his part to make some provision for their maintenance and support.  With them he associated more than with those born to him in the marital relation."

 

This would indicate that Pinkard knew exactly what he was doing, despite the objections of his legitimate children. The case was decided by the State Supreme Court on February 4, 1916, a little over a year after Pinkard Brannon’s death. There’s no doubt in my mind that as the verdict was rendered, Pinkard’s dark eyes were sparkling from above in approval.