The Witt brothers Joseph Witt, Caleb Witt, and Elijah Witt — the three sons of Charles Witt — and their brother-in-law Thomas Jarnigan all received land grants in Tennessee in the 1780s. There has been considerable confusion over the dates, locations, and nature of these grants. Many family researchers have assumed that these grants are proof of Revolutionary War service. In fact, they were not.
This is an attempt to clarify the details and to explain why these grants were not related to Revolutionary War service.
Tennessee Land Grants
The new state of North Carolina, which claimed most of what later became Tennessee, froze land grants in 1781 and passed an act in 1782 setting aside a huge military reservation east of the Tennessee River. The primary purpose was to discharge the state’s obligation to its Revolutionary veterans by awarding land grants whose size would be determined by military rank and length of service. The act provided that soldiers who served at least two years in the Continental line (not the militia) from North Carolina could apply to the Secretary of State for a warrant, which could be redeemed for a land claim in this reservation. These warrants are numbered and recorded in the Secretary of State’s office in North Carolina, and do not include any Witts. A special land office to process these military claims was opened in Knoxville with Col. Martin Armstrong its entry-taker. By 1791 nearly three million acres had been claimed based on these military warrants, mainly by assignees who purchased them from soldiers. In each case, the military warrant is attached to the grant, with any assignments written thereon. In addition to these military grants, settlers already living in the area as of 1 June 1780 were allowed “preemptive grants”, and another 300,000 acres were granted in Knoxville to these settlers. In this case, the entry taker noted that the basis of the claim was “prior right” rather than a military warrant.
But North Carolina had another problem. The coffers of the state had been much depleted by the war, and the state owed an enormous debt. In particular, North Carolina needed to redeem the IOUs (called “specie certificates”) which it had issued during the war. On 26 April 1783, North Carolina passed a “Land-Grab Act”, opening up land in the Tennessee military reservation to any citizen of North Carolina who was willing to pay 10 pounds per 100 acres. The act further provided that specie certificates could be redeemed only for land in this reservation, and conversely that the purchase money for these grants had to be paid in specie certificates. Although this act was in effect for only seven months, four million acres were granted in this manner, much of it to land speculators. These grants are easily identified because the entry-taker noted the purchase price in each claim, and because they were filed at a special land office set up for that purpose. The special land office to record these purchase claims was opened in Hillsboro, Orange County, North Carolina on 20 October 1783 with Martin Armstrong’s brother, John Armstrong, as the entry-taker.
The Witt Land Entries
Joseph Witt and Elijah Witt made consecutive entries for purchase grants in Hillsboro just two days later. Thomas Jarnigan, their brother-in-law, made three claims the day before and after. The “Land-Grab Act” was repealed after only seven months, and the Hillsboro office was closed on 24 May 1784 after a tidal wave of entries by land speculators. Elijah Witt and Caleb Witt filed consecutive entries in Hillsboro on 17 May 1784, just a week before these claims were cut off. Thomas Jarnigan was also at the office that day to file another claim himself. When this office closed, no grants had yet been issued, but there had been many thousands of claims. Claims entered before the act’s repeal were permitted to be perfected. All of the grants to the Witts and to Jarnigan were eventually recorded on 1 November 1786.
The process for obtaining these purchase grants was to first stake out the land, then travel 200-odd miles to the Hillsboro land office to file a claim, giving a description of the land, and then pay for it with specie certificates. The entry-taker first drafted a document describing the claim. After a waiting period to allow for conflicting claims, an order was drafted to a surveyor, who then surveyed the land and filed the survey with the land office. A second copy of the survey was attached to the grant. Once completed, the grant files were forwarded to the governor’s office twice a year for signature. Once issued, the claimant filed the grant and survey in the county in which the land was located. All other documents, and the survey original, were retained by the Secretary of State. All these documents are preserved in the North Carolina Archives, and copies of some of them were later made for the Tennessee Archives. At each step, the claimant paid small fees to the officials involved, even the chain bearers. The lack of hard currency to pay these fees sometimes resulted in a lengthy delay in completing these steps. The land descriptions below are from the claimant’s entry document, which is much more interesting than the survey because they are in the claimant’s own words rather than in metes and bounds.
The Witt Grants
- Joseph Witt’s entry of 22 October 1783 was for 160 acres “including Joseph Witt’s improvement” on the “north bank of the French Broad River at the mouth of Buffaloe Creek beginning at…the mouth of John Walker’s spring branch, running along a boundary between me and him, then turning down the river…” (John Walker had entered his claim the day before.) The survey was made a year and a half later on 26 May 1785 and the grant was issued on 1 November 1786. This land was east of what would become the town of Dandridge, perhaps within a couple miles of the original town on what was called Inman’s Bend. John Walker’s land, which bordered Joseph Witt to the north, included the bend where the French Broad River turns sharply west.
- Elijah Witt’s entry of 22 October 1783 was for 200 acres on the north side of the “Chucky” River on both sides of “a creek called Long Creek … including the first fork where the old war path crosses the creek & a cabbin & a body of low ground that is below the ford & a plantation.” His second entry on 17 May 1784 is for another 200 acres on “the first fork of Long Creek that runs into the creek on the north side, beginning at the branch above Dan’l Hutchinson’s improvement and down both sides of the creek so as to include the improvement.” There is actually a record elsewhere showing the serial number of one of the specie certificates he used to pay for the land. His land joined one of Thomas Jarnigan’s grants at a corner.
- Caleb Witt’s entry of 17 May 1784 was for 200 acres “on a branch of Long Creek…beginning at a tree branded thus, CW…including my own improvement”, bordered by the land of John Lyne, George Eagan, and Thomas Cannon.
- Thomas Jarnigan (the Witts’ brother-in–law) entered claims in Hillsboro on 21 and 23 October 1783, and on 17 May 1784. His claim of 21 October included land on both sides of Long Creek from the fork mentioned by Elijah Witt to its intersection with the “Nalachuky” River. The claim of 17 May 1784 adjoined that earlier claim on Long Creek. His claim of 23 October 1783 was actually a transfer of an earlier claim by George Russell in 1782 and was for land on the south side of the Holston River “beginning at a very remarkable rock that stands on the edge of the water commonly called the Chimney Rock.”