CLAY-HILL-ON-THE-NEUSE

By  Mary Hilliard Hinton


The North Carolina Booklet,
Vol. III, pp 23-27, October 1903
The North Carolina Society Daughters of the Revolution, Publisher,
Commercial Printing Company, Raleigh


    As one journeys east from the capital of North Carolina over the Tarborough road, he sees on the right, after crossing Neuse River, a quaint colonial house standing high on a hill clearly outlined against the southern sky- a speaking memorial of a Revolutionary patriot, prominent during the latter part of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, and of a fascinating period that has passed away forever.  This is "Clay Hill," the home of Major John Hinton of the Revolution.  The antiquity and the very air of departed better days, and the gloom, which permeate this landmark of Wake county's early history, suggest courtly manners, stiff brocades, powdered coiffeurs, high-heeled slippers, knee-breeches and huge buckles.  Later the uniforms of buff and blue, and the intrusion of the Tories.  What a contrast to the valley below, where progress and invention have left their stamp!  There a modern iron bridge spans the Neuse, and the quiet is broken by the mighty rush of water over the dam, the buzz, ever constant, of an up-to-date electric plant, the puffing of a gasoline launch and the occasional passing of an automobile.  "Clay Hill" has witnessed many stirring events, and numerous interesting scenes have occurred within its walls. Could a fuller record of its past history be obtained, how valuable it would be to a student of social life in North Carolina, since the mode of living here represented the customs of the higher aristocratic circle in this inland section. Here a lavish hospitality was dispensed, some of the most influential men of that time in the State - names familiar in our history - having at one time or anther partaken of the courtesies of its genial host.  Here gay hunting parties, sumptuous dinners and large weddings were some of the occasions of gathering together the distant planters, statesmen, soldiers and their families- the beaux and belles of long ago.  Here has been known the vandalism of two wars and the secret meetings of the Ku-Klux-Klan.

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CLAY-HILL-ON-THE-NEUSE

    Major John Hinton came from an old and honored English family.  He was the eldest son of Colonel John Hinton, one of Wake's pioneers and Revolutionary soldiers, and of Grizelle Kimbrough, his wife.  He was born in Wake county, March 14, 1748.  During his childhood his home was a log cabin (the door of which was in the top of the house, entered by means of a movable ladder), surrounded by thousands of acres of primeval forest full of wild beasts and roving Indians.  This section was the hunting-ground of the Tuscaroras.  Near the site of Hinton's old home can still be found traces of an Indian burying-ground.  There were no neighbors in that vast wilderness.  Later, however, from the east came Colonel Joel Lane, whom tradition styles "a dressy widower," and settled at Bloomsbury; while some ten miles to the west Colonel Theophilus Hunter, senior, founded "Hunter's Lodge."  Between these families existed the most friendly relations, resulting in marriages.  Eventually the family of Nathaniel Jones located at "White Plains," about fourteen miles away.  Then, too, came Nathaniel Jones of "Crabtree", not a blood relation, though connected by marriage with the builder of "White Plains."

    Major Hinton, being the eldest son, soon learned self-reliance.  While his father was adding to his vast landed estate by taking up new grants of land, he also took up numerous grants from Earl Granville.  These contained about six hundred and forty acres each, the usual amount bestowed on the early settlers of the Province of Carolina.  After coming into possession of this inheritance on the death of his father in the spring of 1784, he was regarded as one of the three wealthiest men in his county, as well as one of the most influential.  There were large tracts owned by him around the present town of Raleigh.  On March 26, 1776, Colonel John Hinton sold his son John a tract of land containing 640 acres on Neuse river, for "the sum of one hundred pounds proclamation money," which shows the value of real estate at the beginning of the Revolution.   He owned a number of slaves who were fresh from the jungles of Africa.  These ignorant savages were soon enlightened in the arts of civilization and proved useful servants.  As a proof of the kindness of their master, these slaves were devotedly attached to him.

    On June 27, 1765, a the early age of seventeen, John Hinton, junior, married Pherebee, daughter of John Smith, the founder of Smithfield, North Carolina, and Elizabeth Whitfield, his wife.  The bride was but sixteen, having been born October 16, 1748, and childish even for her years.  Often she was frightened by the boyish pranks played by her husband.  The settled at "Clay Hill," where they lived happily till the war-cloud overshadowed the colonies.

    "Clay Hill" is the second oldest house now standing in the county, the home of Colonel Joel Lane at Bloomsbury (now Raleigh) being the oldest.  Major Hinton erected "Clay Hill" before the Revolution.  It is well built, only heart timber having been used, while the nails are of wrought iron.  Though more than a century and a quarter old, it is still in a fine state of preservation, and there is no reason, if care could be taken, why it should not stand many years longer.  At that time in this sparsely settled back country it was really and elegant residence, without a superior.  Such work then was a tremendous undertaking; on a river that is not navigable, with no town near by and only deep, muddy roads leading tot he outer world, made the task of building almost impossible.   The name naturally implies the character of the soil of that particular eminence- red clay.  The grounds were covered with the greenest grass, shaded by stately sycamores, tall elms, and cedars.  A neat white paling surrounded all.  The main entrance faced the rising sun.  A porch, whose slanting ceiling is plastered, supported by four small fluted columns, extends the length of the front side.  From this point one has a fine view of the surrounding landscape: for miles can be seen the graceful undulation of the hills, intersected with valleys, crowned here with forests, there with well-tilled fields.  Through it all slowly flows the Neuse to join the Trent at New Bern.  Bathed in the golden sunshine of autumn, softened by blue and purple tones, this is a goodly scene to gaze upon, recalling vividly that fairer "Land of the Sky."  The single front door opened into the parlor; on the right a door led into the small but inviting dining-room; into this opened the butler's pantry.  Through this butler's pantry all meals were brought from the outside kitchen (since destroyed) over the stone-paved walk.  Back of the dining-room was a bed-room without a fire-place.  The builder of "Clay Hill" deemed such a luxury as a fire in one's sleeping apartment unhealthy!  Adjoining this was a dressing-rooms and closets.  The parlors opened into a square back hall.   From this a stair-case, with a quaint, plain balustrade, leads to the upper story.  Here are a large hall-room and three chambers.  In the lower hall are two out-doors.  In this hall the last mistress of "Clay Hill" on summer evenings sometimes served tea from the daintiest china.  The wainscoting on the first floor was high, but was replaced later by some about nine inches deep.  The rooms, whose walls are hard-finished, are high-pitched; the wood-work is ornamented, but is not elaborate.   The small windows have tiny panes and blinds.  In the plan of the whole, convenience was regarded.  There is a cellar in which were stored choice wines.   Originally the house was painted white, the blinds green.  The furniture was mahogany and walnut.  The silver was of the severely plain colonial style, exceedingly white and only marked with the initial "H."  A certain ladle has been in the family for generations and descends to the eldest son, who has always borne the name John.  It is now in the possession of the seventh of the name, a resident of Georgia.  The family Bible also passed to that branch.  There was a large collection of handsome cut-glass and elegant china, a set of India china and other dainty pieces.

    Guests at "Clay Hill" could never forget the lavender scented linen and the spotless napery.  A few books composed the library.  There were many substantially built out-houses on the premises-in fact, all necessary to the management of a large, well-ordered plantation.   Some of these are still standing.  On the south was the garden- a typical old-fashioned one, intersected by carefully kept walks bordered with all kinds of flowers.   Here bloomed in perfusion roses, jonquils, hyacinths, crape myrtles, snow-balls, lilacs, sweet betsies, honeysuckle's and lavender, the very air being redolent with their heavy perfume.  All the herbs found a place here, viz., tansy, rue, thyme, sage, mint.

    John Hinton, junior, never wavered- his feelings were with the patriots.   Though loyal to the Crown till tyranny reigned, he decided to defend the rights of his native land, risking life and fortune in the long struggle. On August 20, 1775, the Provincial Congress met at Hillsborough and made preparations for the approaching conflict.  On September 9th Congress appointed officers for the minute-men in the different counties.  The officers chose for Wake were: John Hinton, Colonel; Theophilus Hunter, Lieutenant-Colonel; John Hinton, junior, First Major; Thomas Hines, Second Major.  Major Hinton was present with his regiment at the battle of Moore's Creek Bridge, February 27, 1776, and took and active part in that decisive engagement.

    During the war, Major Hinton was compelled to leave his family and home to the mercy of those most ruthless invaders, the Tories, but happily they escaped alive.  On one occasion, when he happened to be at "Clay Hill", a band of Fanning's fiends, knowing of his presence and that he had in his possession funds for the unrecognized government, came upon him at night. The guide to this band was an enemy whom Hinton had nonce found stealing at his fish-trap in the Neuse and fired him.  It was never forgiven.  This man remained in the yard as a sentinel while the gang forced an entrance into the house, breaking a panel out of the front door.  Major Hinton saw the hopelessness of his position, but determined to defend his sick wife and helpless children at all odds.  In the fierce struggle they fired upon him, wounding him badly.  They demanded that Major Hinton should relinquish at once his precious charge, but he refused to comply; whereupon they seized him, tying his hands in front, bound him to an arm-chair and beat him unmercifully; still that strong will yielded not.  As a last resort they threatened to hang him and made preparations for the act.  In the meantime a thorough search was made.  The coin, tied in bags, was locked in the secretary.   Suspecting this, they said they were going to break into it.  It was then that his wife said: "Don't break it open; I shall unlock it."  Throwing a blanket around her, she rose from the bed, unlocked the desk, lowered the lid and slipped the bags of money under the blanket and retired to the bed safely.  In the interval Major Hinton, unnoticed, undid with his teeth the knots in the ropes tied on his wrists, and, slipping out of the house, dispatched a message to his brother, Colonel James Hinton, to come at once with his troop of horse to his aid.  Thinking of some silver spoons that had not been hidden, Mary, their little daughter, snatched them up, and, escaping from the house in the darkness, rushed into the garden and concealed them in the bed of pinks, thus saving them.  The vandals seized upon the patriot's wearing apparel and the frightened slaves, and after finding their victim gone and hopes baffled, departed amid volleys of oaths which waxed but the stronger when the stolen clothes were found to be much too large.  Colonel James Hinton and his troop, coming up at this critical moment, started after the Tories in hot pursuit.  They finally succeeded in overtaking them on the Hillsborough road, nearer that town than Raleigh, and capturing some, hanged them to trees by the roadside as a reward for their fiendish conduct.  Then they returned to "Clay Hill" with the slaves.

    In 1779 Major Hinton represented Wake County in the General Assembly and again after the Revolution.

    In 1788 our legislators decided to have a permanent instead of a migratory capital.  Wake being the most centrally located county, it was voted that the site selected should be within her boundaries.  Nine commissioners were chosen to locate the seat of government.  Only six acted.  They were Frederick Hargett, Chairman; Joseph McDowell of "Quaker Meadows", William Johnston Dawson, James Martin, Thomas Blount and Willie Jones. It was Major Hinton's desire to have the capital on the banks of the Neuse where the little hamlet of Milburnie once stood.  His brother-in-law, Colonel Joel Lane, was equally ambitious to obtain the vote in favor of the present site on his land some six miles west of the Neuse.  These two were among the seventeen tracts offered.  On the first ballot the votes were cast as follows: Hinton's tract on the Neuse, three votes; Joel Lane's, two; the land of Nathaniel Jones of "White Plains" (near the present village of Cary), one. They adjourned to meet the following day, March 30, 1792, when Joel Lane found his land accepted, while Major Hinton's obtained but one vote. The decision was a most bitter disappointment to the latter, and from that time a coolness existed between the two families, supposed by some to have been due to the conduct of Colonel Lane on that occasion.  Tradition claims that he gave a dinner to the commissioners and that they partook too freely of the choice wines to vote clearly. Had Raleigh been situated on the river its scenic beauty would have been enhanced, though probably the course pursued has given better health to its inhabitants.

    The slaves formed an interesting, unique group in that colonial home. There was "Blind Jim" (totally sightless), who always saddled Major Hinton's riding horse and brought him to the front door.  Then there was that couple who came from Africa and who never learned to speak English well- Old Mingo and "Mammy Kizzy," who was a princess, the daughter of a king on the dark continent.  She wore bouquets of natural flowers in the holes in her ears.  As a dairy-maid she excelled.  She instructed the children and grandchildren in that especial branch of housekeeping.  Jeffrey was another trusted slave.  Major Hinton once sent him up the country horse-back.   He was much astounded some time later to see him return horseless.  Upon inquiry he learned that Jeffrey had swapped the horse for some reputed wonderfully fine species of peas!  They were planted and found to be equal to representation and ever after went by the name of "Jeffrey's peas."  The carriage driver, Buck, was a brother of "Uncle Brisco," who was Colonel John Hinton's body servant during the war, belonged to the "Gunny (a corruption of Guinea) stock," and was a remarkable negro.  He drove "Peacock" and "Phoenix" to the second carriage brought to Wake.  It was a high vehicle, entered by means of steps lowered from the back.  The old cook was an unusual character.  One day she went into the cellar for something for dinner, and could not resist the temptation of partaking of the rum.  When found and reproved, she replied, "So I suits master, I don' keer."  She prepared to perfection the Major's ideal spring dinner, "a boiled chicken and bag-pudding," as well as his favorite salad, a bunch of lettuce leaves and mint tied with a shalote and dripped in dressing.  There was one Johnson, an uncle of President Andrew Johnson, who was employed to superintend the women spinning.

    Of the many weddings which occurred at "Clay Hill" the first was that of Mary Hinton to Henry Lane.  Their daughter, Margaret Lane, was also married here to the brilliant lawyer, Moses Mordecai.  She was married in white satin, Empire style, and her trousseau contained enough handsome silk and satin gowns to satisfy the fastidious bride of the twentieth century.  It was here that Judge Henry Seawell, nephew of Nathaniel Macon, came a-wooing and won his beautiful bride, Grizelle, second daughter of Major Hinton.  These rooms in those days echoed with the exquisite music of his violin.   He had a most serious rival in Theophilus Hunter, junior, of "Spring Hill," wealthy, aristocratic and of prominent position, whom her parents preferred to the poor but handsome and gifted young lawyer, who came to the county with only his license and a horse.  This partiality was shown by the treatment bestowed upon their respective steeds.  When Theophilus Hunter, junior, rode over to "Clay Hill" to pay court to the choice of his heart, his horse was taken promptly, stabled, fed and groomed, while Henry Seawell's was allowed to remain tied to the rack and paw the earth in his fury and craving for feed and water!  At a hunting party the latter was given a bird gun and the poorest stand in the country, where deer were never known to pass.  Growing weary of ill luck, he retired to the house in quest of another dear, with domestication the object this time. He was more successful with the change, and that day won his suit.  They were married at "Clay Hill," April 17, 1800, by Cargill Massenburg.  After the marriage Major Hinton highly approved of his son-in-law.

    Major Hinton was a devoted Churchman, religiously observing all the feasts and fasts of the Established Church.  There is now in existence a prayer-book containing his autograph.  He was tall, large and fine-looking- a perfect gentleman, very refined, with elegant manners.

    One of the favored members of the house hold was the favorite dog, "Venture," an immense animal that always accompanied his master on his rides, faithfully guarding his horse when tied.

    Major John Hinton died October 19, 1818.  He is buried at "Clay Hill."  The grave-yard is back of the garden, surrounded by a rock wall.  His grave is marked by a plain granite head and foot piece and bears a simple inscription, now nearly obliterated by time's touch.  Beside his lie the remains of Pherebee Hinton, his wife, who died December 19, 1810.  Their children were:

    1. John Hinton of "Stoney Lonesome," who married Sally, daughter of Colonel Needham Bryan.

    2. Mary, who married Henry Lane. Her remains are interred at "Clay Hill."

    3. Samuel, who died soon after graduating at the University of North Carolina.

    4. Grizelle, born May 26, 1782, known to a large circle of relatives as "Aunt Seawell," who married Judge Henry Seawell of "Welcome," Wake county.

    5. Willis, who died young.

    6. Betsey, who inherited "Clay Hill" and died unmarried in May, 1865.

    Betsey Hinton, called by a host of loving relatives "Aunt Betsey," was the youngest child and a fine Christian character.  As a housekeeper she had no superior.   With her lived Mrs. Grizzy Ryan, youngest daughter of Colonel Joel Lane.  An overseer attended to the plantation.  In the sixties the old home experienced another warlike intrusion.  It was in the spring of 1865, when Sherman's Army was indulging in its "vandalic march," that the families on the adjoining and distant plantations flew to the Capital for safety.  No art of persuasion could prevail on the mistress of "Clay Hill" to leave, believing her presence would protect her property.  Some slaves and a few white women and children alone remained with her.   The enemy were scouring the country.  One night she retired, to be awakened by soldiers breaking into the house at the late hour; the yard and every building were filled with Federal soldiers.  An entrance was forced into her very room and this lady of eighty-odd years was driven from her bed.  After ransacking the premises, they departed to apply the torch to the paper mill at Milburnie.

    The great change of fortune and the weight of years were more than even that brave spirit could endure.  She died a few weeks after the surrender.  After her death the place passed to the nearest relatives out South, who sold it, and thus this historic home became the property of strangers, wholly unappreciative of its quaintness and history.  What a sad change!  To-day the fences and garden have disappeared, many trees have been cut down, cotton is cultivated on the once beautiful lawn, some of the out-buildings have been burned, others are dilapidated, and there are signs of decay and neglect about the old homestead itself.

    There are no descendants of Major Hinton's sons now living in North Carolina, the name in that branch having become extinct in the State.

    It is to be lamented that we Americans do not retain the English custom of entailing the family seat and revering every relic that bears on a noble past.

 

Bibliography

Hinton, Mary Hilliard, 1903. Clay Hill-on-the-Neuse, The North Carolina Booklet, vol III, no. 6, pp. 25-37


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