George Marcus Cunningham was born in the Cane Creek/Hooper’s Creek area of Henderson County on January 16, 1855. He was the son of Soloman E. Cunningham (1825–1862) and Sarah Sophronia Fletcher (1826–1893).
George Cunningham was six years old when his father went off to fight in the Civil War. Soloman Cunningham was a Captain in the Confederate Army when he died December 16, 1862.
George Cunningham had to grow up in a hurry. He was forced to go to work to help support his widowed mother and brother and sisters. George had a job driving a supply wagon by the time he was 16.
The railroad did not come to Buncombe County until around 1880. Men like George Cunningham would drive wagons from Buncombe and Henderson Counties to the nearest towns that were close to a railroad or a river that was big enough for a ship from the ocean. Cunningham had two routes. He would go to Greeneville, TN, which was served by a railroad and Old Fort which was near enough to the Piedmont that goods from the railroad were hauled there. George would pick up merchandise that businesses in Buncombe and Henderson County had ordered for their stores. The roads were so bad that supply wagons were often pulled with four to eight mules or horses and in some cases several yokes of oxen. These trips to Greeneville, TN or Old Fort took several days due to the bad roads and weather. The work was hard and dangerous. When night came the supply wagons would pull off to the side of the road and camp for the night. Soon there were regular campsites along the road. Several travelers often spent the night at each spot. The drivers would gather around campfires and exchange news, play music, and often play cards and drink whiskey.
George Cunningham pulled over at one of these campsites next to the Swannanoa River in Swannanoa on June 6, 1874. George found a man already camped at the site for the night. The man introduced himself to Cunningham as Daniel Sternberg and said that he was from Kansas and passing through the area on horseback.
Sternberg went to his saddlebags and got a deck of cards and a jug of whiskey. He asked George if he would like to play a game of cards. Cunningham said it was okay with him and the two men began to play cards. The came went on until late in the night. George finally won all the man’s money. Sternberg then bet his gold watch in an attempt to win back some of his money. George Cunningham won that as well. Sternberg grabbed the money off the ground and called Cunningham a card cheat. George grabbed an ax and told the man that no one calls him a cheat and told Sternberg to put the money back down.
He said Sternberg grabbed a split rail lying nearby and tried to hit him (Cunningham) with it. The rail hit the ax instead of George. He said Sternberg tried to wrestle the ax out of his hand.
Cunningham hit Sternberg over the head with the ax and killed him. The next morning locals found Sternberg’s body in the Swannanoa River near the road. They went and got Buncombe County Sheriff, J. M. Young. Sheriff Young caught up with Cunningham’s wagon late that afternoon. Cunningham told the sheriff that when he realized he had killed Sternberg, he was overcome with fear and panicked. He knew there were no witnesses and it would be hard to convince anyone it was self defense. He said that he tossed the body into the river, hitched up his mules to the wagon and headed to Fletcher to the store whose supplies he was hauling. Sheriff Young found Sternberg’s watch on Cunningham and arrested him for murder. He was taken to the Buncombe County Jail.
Most people in Asheville thought Cunningham was guilty. The folks around Fletcher and Cane Creek who knew Cunningham believed his story. His trial was postponed several times. The people around Cane Creek and Fletcher decided to go to Asheville and break George out of jail. Sheriff Young caught wind of their plan and took Cunningham to the Madison County jail. The judge decided it would be hard for George to get a fair trial in Buncombe County and he transferred the trial to Marshall.
George Cunningham’s trial took place at the Madison County Court House in Marshall. The trial did not last long. The case went to the jury. The jury found George Cunningham guilty of first degree murder in short order. The judge then sentenced Cunningham to be hung by the neck until dead on June 9, 1875.
Part 2 in next month’s Town Crier.
Local historian Bruce Whitaker documents genealogy in the Fairview area.