Monday, June 4, 2018

Rev. James Mitchell (1747-1841): "Father of Virginia"

Writing about James Mitchell presents a challenge I do not experience often when writing about my family history, the problem of choosing what to include from available published sources!

Presbyterian Minister

James Mitchell grew up in Bedford County, Virginia, where he attended the Peaks of Otter Church with his family. He made his first public profession of faith at age 17 and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in October 1781. He remembered preparing for his ordination when new of Cornwallis' surrender became known.

The Presbytery sent him to Kentucky but he was soon recalled to Virginia to take pastoral charge of the congregations at Cub Creek and Hat Creek. In 1785 he returned to Kentucky to become the first teacher at Transylvania Seminary. Attempts to open an institution of higher education began in 1780 when Kentucky was still part of Virginia. Eight thousand acres of land had been escheated, which was formerly owned By British loyalists. In 1783 the Virginia Assembly named the future institution the name Transylvania Seminary and proposed 12,000 acres of additional land be added. Thirteen trustees were appointed, met in November and named Rev. David Rice as Chairman of the seminary. He had removed to Kentucky earlier that year. The first classes were held 1785 in Danville, Kentucky, at the home of Rev. Rice, Rev. Mitchell's father-in-law. Rev. James Mitchell taught at the seminary for a year before being recalled to Virginia again in 1786. When he left, Transylvania Seminary was left without a teacher.

Rev. James Mitchell was installed as the minister of the Peaks of Otter Church in March 1786. This was the church of his youth and he served as its pastor until 1840.

In the spring of 1787 Hampden-Sidney College conferred him a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Hampden-Sydney College in 1787; courtesy of Hampden-Sydney College

About the time Rev. James Mitchell returned to Bedford County, the protestant religious revival which became known as the Second Great Awakening swept the county. The awakening "reflected Romanticism characterized by enthusiasm, emotion, and an appeal to the super natural. It rejected the skepticism and rationalism left over from Enlightenment."[1] Ministers were sent out to the backcountry and held camp revival meetings. The movement spread over a large portion of the Presbyterian congregations in the Shenandoah Valley and beyond the headwaters of the James River, including the Peaks of Otter Church. Several meetings of the ministers of different denominations were held at the church to discover the common bond of Christians and the common ground of fellowship. As a result, Rev. Mitchell became connected in the minds of many clergymen of the period with the revivals of religion and and was considered skillful in cases of conscience and the Christian experience. He was a member of the Commission of the Virginia Synod, an organization which sent missionaries to new settlements and Native Americans on the frontier.

Rev. Mitchell was described in Sketches of Virginia, at the end of his life as "a wrinkled, white-haired man of low stature, with a head and shoulders large enough for a taller frame; his manners simple, his dress approaching the antique, always neat and becoming; whom all called 'Father Mitchell.' ... He loved his God, and loved his fellow men, and loved to preach the Gospel; and in his 'quietness and confidence was his strength.' A laborious old man, he accomplished all through life more than his youth, or his abilities, or his acquirements or physical strength ever promised." John B. Smith, president of Hampden-Sydney, said that Rev. Mitchell preached the greatest sermon he ever heard.[2]

During his lifetime he had educated at the Augusta Academy; was principal of the New London Academy; and a trustee at Liberty Hall Academy, according to S. Bassett French. His last sermon was preached at the house of his sister-in-law, Mrs. Margaret Mitchell[3], on the last Sabbath of December, 1840.

New London Academy main building; from Historical Sketch of Bedford County,
Virginia, 1753-1907

Rev. J. G. Shepperson, who married one of Rev. Mitchell's daughters in 1848, was with James Mitchell the last days of his life wrote, "...Then looking around on the members of his family, who were present, he spoke as nearly as can be remembered -- 'I now affectionately commit to my covenant with God, my wife, my children, my grandchildren, and all connected with me, and all my descendants to the latest generations..."[4]

Personal Life

James Mitchell was born on 29 January 1747 in Pequea, Pennsylvania, to Robert "the Elder" Mitchell and Mary Enos. When James Mitchell was an infant, the family moved to Virginia, where his father first appeared in the deed books of Lunenburg County. The area where the Mitchell family settled became part of newly formed Bedford County in 1753.

He supposedly served for two months in the Virginia Militia during the Revolutionary War but felt camp life was undesirable unless of the greatest necessity. It should be noted that no record of this service has been located and no one has joined the DAR or SAR using James Mitchell as their patriot ancestor.

James Mitchell signed a marriage bond on 19 December 1782 to marry Frances Blair Rice, the daughter of Rev. David Rice and Mary Blair. Rev. Rice had given his written permission for the marriage on 13 December. Rev. Rice was the pastor of the Peaks of Otter Church.

Rev. David Rice's permission for the marriage of Frances Blair Rice and
James Mitchell; courtesy of DAR

In 1785 he purchased 500 acres of land from James Hylton, Sr., using a bond his father and brother co-signed as security. James Hylton gave James Mitchell a bond promising to provide clear title to the land, but died before he did so. His widow and executrix of his estate assigned the purchase bond to Jeremiah Hylton. He filed suit in Bedford Chancery Court for collection and received a judgment against Rev. Mitchell. Therefore, James Mitchell file suit in order to get clear title to the land to to receive an injunction against further collection attempts. What the final court decree was, we do not know as it was not included in the case file.

Rev. William Foote in his Sketches of Virginia, said Rev. Mitchell and his wife had 13 children, two sons and 11 daughters. "Of these, one son and four daughters died before him..." And my research revealed two sons and eight daughters, all of whom lived longer than their father. I am missing three of the daughters who predeceased their father. If Rev. Foote is correct, then one of the death dates for a daughter would be incorrect.

Proved Children
  • Catherine A. Mitchell, mentioned in James Mitchell's will (1836)
  • Nancy D. Mitchell, the Encyclopedia of Quaker Genealogy states she was the daughter of James
  • Susan F. Mitchell, mentioned in James Mitchell's will
  • Frances Rice Mitchell, named for her mother, Frances Blair Rice; the Encyclopedia of Quaker Genealogy states she was the daughter of James
  • Sarah Dodridge Mitchell, the Virginia Deaths and Burials Index, 1853-1917, listed her father as James Mitchell.
  • Martha D. Mitchell, mentioned in James Mitchell's will
  • Chalia Sarah (Mitchell) Jones, mentioned in James Mitchell's will
Possible Child
  • Mary Blair Mitchell, named for her maternal grandmother, Mary (Blair) Rice
No record I have found stated that Mary Blair Mitchell was the daughter of James Mitchell and France Blair Rice. However, Mary Blair was the name of her maternal grandmother and Mary Blair Mitchell's husband was Anderson Farris, who was one of the executors named in her father's will.

I have found no documented proof of a son who survived him as mentioned by Rev. Foote.


James Mitchell wrote his will on 8 March 1838 and mentioned his wife and four daughters, Catherine A., Susan F. Martha D. and Chalia S. (Mitchell) Jones, a widow of Rev. Farwell Jones.

When Rev. Mitchell breathed his last breath he was 95 years old. His wife, Frances Blair (Rice) Mitchell, was 20 years his junior but confined to bed by "bodily weakness" at the time of her husband's death. Rev. James Mitchell was buried in the Peaks of Otter Church cemetery.

According to R. D. Buford, the long-time clerk of Bedford County Court, "Rev. James Mitchel (the orthography he preferred)...left many worthy descendants, was tenderly loved and venerated, and often addressed and spoken of as the "Father of Virginia."

His wife was enumerated in the 1850 census as the head of household with daughters Susan, Catherine, and Martha, as well as her son-in-law John Shepperson. He was the Rev. J. G. Shepperson whose description of his father-in-law's last days were included in Foote's book. 

Rev. Mitchell's widow died in 1861 according to the DAR lineage books. If she was enumerated in the 1860 census, her age was incorrectly listed as 56. An F. R. Mitchell, who could have been Frances (Rice) Mitchell, lived in Rev. John G. Shepperson's household along with two unmarried women listed as S. Mitchell and C. Mitchell. These women were Susan and Catherine Mitchell, two of Rev. Mitchell's unmarried daughters.

Rev. James Mitchell was my five times great uncle.

[1] Second Great Awakening, Wikipedia (accessed 7 May 2018).
[2] Foote, William Henry, Rev. Sketches of Virginia, (Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott & Co., 1856), pages 133-141.
[3] ibid
[4] This would be Margaret (Bryan) Mitchell, widow of Rev. James Mitchell's brother, Daniel.

No comments:

Post a Comment