Presentation at Cowee School reveals interwoven lives of people past and present

As part of Cowee School & Heritage Center’s monthly Speaker Series, historian Barbara McRae presented “Three Women of Cowee” Monday, Feb. 18th. The next topic in the series is “The History of Needmore,” March 18th at 6:30 p.m.

Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer

Speaker Barbara McRae, with Kathie Gibson Parris and her son, Stacy Guffey, director of Cowee School Arts & Heritage Center. All three are in some ways related to the people who were the subjects of McRae’s history presentation, “Three Women of Cowee.”

Local historian and Vice Mayor Barbara McRae had no idea she would become personally connected with the subject she chose for the monthly Speaker Series: Where We Live, History, Nature, and Culture, hosted by Cowee School Arts & Heritage Center. Her topic, “Three Women of Cowee” was presented to a full house at the Cowee School auditorium Monday evening, Feb. 18. 

For many months, she has researched the history of three Macon County pioneer women: Jane Black Gibson, Charity White Gibson, and Betsy Jane Gibson Grant. How their lives are interwoven through much of the 1800s, and their relationship to a prominent Baptist minister, Samuel Gibson, was the purpose of McRae’s presentation, which she officially titled “The Gibson Girls: Appalachian Style.” Extensive research into these people’s lives involved visiting cemeteries, viewing public records, and reading old newspaper articles. What McRae did not expect to learn, especially since she is not a native of Macon County, is that she is distantly related to Charity White Gibson.

“I’ve been interested in genealogy since I was a kid, and I’m especially interested in local history,” said McRae. “It’s like being a detective. It’s frustrating sometimes because some people leave such a small imprint. You find a tidbit here and there until a picture begins to emerge. And then it’s just so fun to learn about these people’s lives. I had no idea Charity was my great, great, great aunt.” 

A few other attendees who came to listen to the presentation in the Cowee School auditorium learned much about family members they knew only through passed-down stories. Stacy Guffey, director of Cowee School Arts & Heritage Center introduced McRae by saying, “She knows much more about my family than I do.”

Guffey and his mother, Kathie Gibson Parris, who also attended, said afterwards they had no knowledge of some information shared by McRae. “We heard stories from family members,” said Guffey, whose great grandfather’s great grandfather was Samuel Gibson, “and we’ve heard the names of these women, but not much else.” 

Through a detailed slide and expository presentation, McRae first outlined the numerous roles of pioneer women – expressing the adage, “A man can work from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done.” Macon County and surrounding areas in the 19th century were remote, rural, and rustic; most young girls and women were required to card, spin, weave, knit, and sew to have clothing, and then washed clothing by hand and mended it. In addition, they cooked, cleaned, gardened, farmed, tended animals, and sometimes hunted. 

“They had hard lives, but they often had joyful lives,” shared McRae, adding, “The most I might have done as a girl was to set the table.”

Church was central for many isolated families. And the Baptist denomination was the most prevalent during the time period because ministers were not required to obtain a theology degree from a seminary – as was the common practice of other denominations, such as Methodist and Presbyterian. McRae explained, “There was much weight in the sincerity of [a Baptist’s] calling.”

Ministers traveled by horseback to various congregations planted in valleys and hollows (hollers) tucked throughout the Western North Carolina Mountains. Samuel Gibson was born in 1794 and died in 1878. He is buried at Shepherd Cemetery in Cowee. His father, born in England, became a patriot and fought against his countrymen in the Revolutionary War. When the War of 1812 came about, Samuel was of age and signed up to play the fife as an Army company musician. McRae explained the danger of this job: front lines – plus, the instruments signaled specific “messages” to soldiers near and far. 

In her 30s, he received a “calling” to become a minister and was baptized in the Oconaluftee River in Cherokee in 1834. He settled in Macon County and farmed four days of the week and ministered three days. Plus, he was a skilled woodworker – and, considering his father’s rebellious stance in the Revolutionary War – he, too, went against peers during the Civil War, expressing allegiance with the Union. 

McRae shared that she could not discuss the women in Samuel’s life without conveying a little of his foundation. He married Jane Black Gibson. They had a son, John, who married Mattie – and the couple had 15 children, the oldest of which was Betsy Jane. 

The family’s main conflict occurred in 1866. It was that year that both Samuel’s wife, Jane, and their daughter-in-law, Mattie, died. Samuel was 72 years old.  By the end of the year, he had married Charity White, 66, who was the unmarried daughter of another area minister. Before he died, 12 years later, his oldest daughter, Betsy Jane, lost her husband. Betsy Jane and six children came to live with Samuel and Charity. The two women – stepmother and stepdaughter – stayed together until Charity died in 1882.  

“Charity’s name describes her character,” explained McRae. “Everything I discovered about her shows that she gave of herself her whole life.” 

While researching, McRae found not only Samuel and Charity’s marriage certificate, but also Samuel’s Service Pension Widow’s Brief, which offered Charity payment for his service in the War of 1812. 

On June 10, 1938, Betsy Jane Gibson Grant was supposedly the oldest woman in Macon County. Born June 9, 1840, she had just turned 98 when The Franklin Press and the Highlands Maconian featured her in an article about her long life and the Gibson reunion in her honor. Betsy Jane would live another 17 days after her last birthday celebration, and those who knew her expressed that she never lost her sense of humor.

McRae said Betsy Jane was an exceptional communicator of history, sharing with a journalist before she died that it took a week to travel by mule-drawn wagon to Tennessee as well as how she used black and white walnuts to make a brown dye. 

“The Women’s History Trail was my inspiration for this program,” said McRae. “I just have such a personal interest in these lives after so many years of living here.” 

The next topic in the Speaker Series at Cowee School is “The History of Needmore,” to be presented by Paul Carlson March 18. Other upcoming topics are listed on the Cowee School website. The Speaker Series is offered, free to the public, every third Monday at 6:30 p.m.