Captain Thomas “Tommy” Foster, Part One

by Bruce Whitaker

Captain Thomas Foster was born in Augusta County, Virginia, on October 14, 1774. He was the son of William Forster II (March 31, 1748–April 2, 1830) and Elizabeth Heath (May 10, 1753–December 8, 1827). In 1786, when he was 12, Thomas’s parents moved to what is now Buncombe County. They built their home where the head of the McDowell Street viaduct is now located. At the time, it overlooked the swamps and marshes along the Swannanoa River. William Forster II and Daniel Smith were the first two European men to live in what is now the city of Asheville.

Thomas was the first person in the Forster family to drop the first “r” from his last name. Later, all the family, except his parents, changed their last name to Foster instead of Forster. He married Orra Sams in 1796. She was born in Wythe County, Virginia, in November 1778. She was the only daughter of Captain Edmund Sams (November 13, 1750–July 22, 1845) and Anne “Nancy” Young (November 1752–November 1845).

Captain Edmund and Nancy were both from Virginia. Edmund was a captain in the Revolutionary War and the first coroner of Buncombe County. He usually led the local militia against the Cherokee when they attacked the area around what is now Asheville.

Thomas and Orra Foster built their home in the area where Sweeten Creek runs into the Swannanoa River. Thomas soon owned almost all of what is now called Biltmore — from the present location of Mission Hospital down to the Ingles grocery store on Hendersonville Road, and from where the Swannanoa River enters the French Broad to near the site where Interstate 40 crosses Sweeten Creek Road.

When he was a young man, Thomas would turn his horse loose at night to feed on the cane and pea vine along the Swannanoa River. Early in the morning, he would walk along the river to locate his horse and bring it home. He said there were deer all along the river every day, and that if his family needed meat, he would shoot a deer as he walked. There were many panthers and mountain lions around, too, and Thomas would get in his boat and sail down the Swannanoa River and shoot them along the banks. That story comes to me from my grandfather Henry Harrison Ingle Sr. (1884–1973), who heard it from his grandfather, Benjamin Franklin “Frank” Foster Sr. (1817–1893), who was the youngest son of Thomas Foster.

Foster Alexander Sondley (1857–1931), who was the great-grandson of Thomas Foster, wrote that there were many fish in the Swannanoa and French Broad Rivers in the 1790s. Men would set fish traps in both rivers in the afternoon, and the next morning they would need to bring wooden barrels because they had so many fish to bring home.

Sondley wrote that Thomas Foster built the road from where Kenilworth Road enters Biltmore Avenue down the hill to the Swannanoa River, where Thomas had built the first bridge across the Swannanoa. The current Biltmore Avenue follows Foster’s road down the hill almost to the river. Sondley said that Thomas Foster owned a farm, a hotel, a grist mill and a sawmill, as well as a few other enterprises on his farm. Sweeten Creek was called Foster’s Mill Creek until around 1920.

Thomas Foster’s aunt, Jane Forster (1846–1924), was married to John Burton, the founder of Asheville. Burton owned the land where downtown Asheville is located. He laid the area off in lots and sold them. Thomas Foster bought lot seven on October 21, 1794, for which he paid his uncle 20 shillings.

When Asheville officially became a city in 1840, the state said that the main road through town was too narrow. Phillip Britain, Thomas Foster and Foster’s first cousin, James Gudger, were appointed as commissioners to buy the land to widen the main street.

Local historian Bruce Whitaker documents genealogy in the Fairview area. He can be reached at 628-1089 or [email protected].

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