James Mitchell Alexander, Part One

by Bruce Whitaker

James Mitchell Alexander was born on Bee Tree Creek in Swannanoa on May 22, 1793. His grandfather, John Alexander, is believed to have been born in Pennsylvania. John married Rachel Davidson, who was the sister of Major William Davidson and Samuel Davidson, the second European to move to Buncombe County. John Alexander lived in Lincoln County during the Revolutionary War, and moved with his wife, Rachel, to Swannanoa by 1790.

James H. Alexander, the son of John Alexander and father of James Mitchell Alexander, was born in what was then Mecklenburg (now Rutherford) County, NC, on December 23, 1756. He moved with his parents to what was then Lincoln County, NC. James fought for the American side in the Revolutionary War. Foster Alexander Sondley said that James fought at Cowpens, Musgrove Mills and Kings Mountain. He captured a camp chest said to belong to Cornwallis (probably Colonel Ferguson) at the Battle of King’s Mountain. The chest was still in Buncombe County as late as 1930. James Alexander married Rhoda Cunningham on March 19, 1782 in York District, South Carolina. She was the daughter of Humphrey Cunningham and Rhoda Summerville.

The first recorded deed for James Alexander, from March 1, 1798, was for 100 acres on Bee Tree Creek. I am sure he had already moved there at least five years before this date. It is sometimes hard to find old documents, such as deeds, either because they were not recorded or were destroyed by fires at the courthouse.
James Alexander and most early settlers were often attacked by the Cherokee. The Cherokee learned quickly that if they killed a settler, then a large company of settlers would attack and kill many Cherokee and destroy their villages. So instead, the Cherokee would wait for the men to leave the farms and then scare the remaining women and children, steal supplies, cut open featherbeds, and destroy furniture. This sort of attack usually did not provoke a large-scale reprisal.

Once, James Alexander was coming home and heard Cherokee yelling and saw a fire in his front yard. He hid in the bushes along the trail he knew the Cherokee would use when they left his home. A short time later, several came up the trail and Alexander stepped from the bushes and fired his gun. The Cherokee quickly scattered. James’s little granddaughter ran out to meet him as he arrived home. She said, “Grandfather, did you kill them?” He said, “My little girl, I did not look to see.”

James became one of the most successful and respected people in Buncombe County. He and his wife Rhoda had 10 children. Their fifth child was James Mitchell Alexander.

Children of successful men usually marry children of other successful men, as was the case here. James Alexander married Nancy Foster, the daughter and oldest child of Captain Thomas Foster and Orra Sams Foster, on September 8, 1814. (James and Rhoda Alexander’s fourth son, George Couples Alexander (1790–1880), married Elizabeth Foster (1799–1884), also the daughter of Captain Thomas Foster.)

Nancy Foster was born in what is now known as Biltmore on November 17, 1797. She and James apparently lived in Swannanoa the first year of their marriage. In 1815, James decided to move to Asheville. The land he acquired bordered what is now called Biltmore Avenue on the east, Patton Avenue on the north, Coxe Avenue on the west, and, roughly, Hilliard Street on the south.

He built a large house facing what is now Biltmore Avenue and lived there until 1828. It was the site of what later became a hotel, believed to be the first in Asheville. He also operated a saddle and harness shop on the property. The Alexander house, which became known as the Hilliard house, was torn down in 1889 to widen the street (South Main, now called Biltmore Avenue).

Local historian Bruce Whitaker documents genealogy in the Fairview area.

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