Joshua David “Dave” Barnwell (1829–1881), Part One by Bruce Whitaker

Joshua David Barnwell (1829–1881)

Joshua David Barnwell was born in 1829 on Hooper’s Creek in what was then Buncombe (now Henderson) County, North Carolina. The son of James Barnhill and Mary Lanning, he was named after his mother’s grandfather, Joshua Whitaker Sr. (1736-1798). (Most of the Barnhills changed their name to Barnwell in the 1830’s.) Dave grew up poor on a small farm and received no formal education; he always signed his name with an X. His Confederate records describe him as being five foot ten inches tall with black eyes, black hair and a dark complexion.
Joshua David became a successful farmer with over 500 acres of land on Hooper’s Creek. He raised sheep, turkeys, horses, hogs and cattle and planted corn, wheat, potatoes, hay, rye and oats. Barnwell also distilled whiskey, which was still legal at that time, but when Hooper’s Creek Baptist Church was built he was forced to move his still since the law at that time stated that you could not sell or make whiskey within so many feet of a church. A real estate investor as well, he owned a lot at the corner of Patton Ave and Haywood St. in Asheville and a rental house with land on the east side of Main Street in Hendersonville.
On March 26, 1851, Barnwell married Susannah Saphronia Clark, the daughter of James Clark. Saphronia was said to be an unusually beautiful woman. The couple lived in a two-story log house on the Hooper’s Creek farm. They had three children; James Clark, the youngest, died as an infant in the mid-1850’s.
Dave Barnwell bought his wife’s father’s 250-acre farm for $212.50 at the estate auction. On the morning of April 5, 1863 he went to Asheville on business, leaving his wife Saphronia and their two small children at home alone. That evening just before dark Saphronia was seen sitting on the front porch with a hymnbook in her lap, singing hymns. This was the last time she was seen alive. The next morning her two children, six-year-old James Riley and four-year-old Mary Elizabeth, came outside to play. The Barnwells’ two slaves, who lived in a cabin nearby, had not seen Saphronia that morning and asked the children where their mother was. The children said they had been unable to wake their mother. The slaves went inside and found her dead in bed, murdered with an ax. The slaves ran to the farm of a neighbor and told him to send for the sheriff. That morning Dave Barnwell left Asheville and headed home. He stopped at the “Old Good Luck Store” near his home to buy some snuff and there learned of his wife’s murder.
This event was during the Civil War, and Henderson County had no coroner. The Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions appointed Joseph Holbert to act as coroner. A grand jury found no evidence to indict anyone, and the murder was never solved. Some people suspected Dave had killed his wife; others believed Saphronia’s two sisters, who were known to be very jealous of her, committed the murder. The coroner’s report noted that Saphronia had bruises across her arms and breasts, indicating that a woman murdered her. (That reasoning makes no sense to me, but I am not a doctor.) But years later, when the house that Saphronia’s sisters lived in was torn down, a bloody dress was found hidden under the rock hearth, leading people to believe the sisters really were guilty.
Dave Barnwell volunteered for the Confederate Army in July 25, 1861, enlisting in Captain Frederick Blake’s Company called the Cane Creek Rifles. This became Company H, 25th North Carolina Troops. Barnwell was in the army less than a year; he then paid Christopher Columbus Williams to go in for him as a substitute, a practice that was legal during the first part of the war.
In 1864 Barnwell married his first cousin Sarah Lanning, born in Buncombe County on April 12, 1838 to William Lanning and Anna Justice. A short time after the marriage, the Confederate Army ran short of men and drafted the men who had paid for substitutes. It has been said that Dave Barnwell hid out to avoid going back into the army.
Near the end of the war, Yankee troops invaded Henderson County. They marched to Fletcher and then headed to Hooper’s Creek then up Cane Creek to Fairview. Dave Barnwell hid his liquor and prize black mare in order to keep the Yankees from getting them, but he only managed to save the whiskey. The horse, tied to a tree, got tangled up with the rope and her bridle and strangled herself.

Part two will be in next month’s issue.