The past is the present for future generations who do not know their history

Hang down your head Tom Dooley…

Life Story of James Martin Isbell

Colonel James Martin Isbell was a noted local historian and author. James Martin Isbell was the son of Thomas Isbell and Lucinda Petty.James Martin Isbell was a grandson of Thomas Isbell and Discretion Howard Isbell.

James Martin Isbell married Sarah Louise Horton, daughter of David Eagles Horton and Sarah Jane Dula Horton. Sarah Louise Horton was the granddaughter of Nathan and Elizabeth Eagles Horton on her paternal side. She was the granddaughter of William S. Dula and Theodosia Beasley Dula on her maternal side.

Sarah Louise Horton Isbell was a second cousin of Tom Dula (Dooley) who was tracked down and captured by Colonel James Martin Isbell for the murder of Laura Foster. Colonel James Martin Isbell had previously led the search which located the body of Laura Foster. The song about Tom Dooley has been revived a couple of times over the decades, the most famous version being sung by The Kingston Trio; it was entitled Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley. The ballad was number one for one week in 1958. It has been re-recorded by many singers since.

Colonel James Martin Isbell was a second cousin of Col. Thomas Charles Land (1828-1912), who wrote the Ballad of Tom Dula (also known as “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley”), and his brother Linville Land who made the coffins of both Laura Foster and Tom Dula.

Tom Dula was a grand-nephew of the John Dula who got into a brawl with Thomas Isbell, grandfather of Colonel James Martin Isbell, on28 November28, 1796, during which Dula bit off Tom Isbell’s earlobe.

Ballad of Tom Dula by John Foster West: “Col. James M. Isbell, if we may believe the records, was more responsible for finding Laura Foster’s body…and…the prosecution of Tom Dula than any other individual. Col. Isbell was one of the aristocrats of Happy Valley. He was the great-grandson of Benjamin Howard…”

Colonel James Martin Isbell is cited as an authority in many local histories, pioneer North Carolina and Virginia accounts as well as several family histories. He is cited throughout records and newspaper articles of the Tom Dula murder trial, consistently referred to as Col. James M. Isbell.

“Col. James M. Isbell’s grandfather(sic), Martin, told him that Daniel Boone used to live six miles below James M. Isbell’s present home near the bank of the Yadkin river, on a little creek now known as Beaver Creek, one mile from where it flows into the Yadkin river, near Holman’s ford. The Boone house was in a little swamp and canebrake surrounding the point of a ridge, with but one approach—that by the ridge. The swamp was in the shape of a horse-shoe, with the point of the ridge projecting into it. The foundations of the chimney are still there, and the cabin itself has not been gone more than 52 years. Alfred Foster, who owned the land, showed Col. Isbell the cabin, which was still there during his boyhood, and he remembered how it looked. His grandmother, the wife of Benjamin Howard, knew Boone well as he often stayed with her father, Benjamin Howard, at the mouth of Elk creek, now Elkville.”[2]

“COL. JAMES M. ISBELL. According to the statement made by this gentleman in May 1909, Benjamin Howard, his (great)grandfather, owned land near the village of Boone and used to range his stock in the mountains surrounding that picturesque village. He built a cabin of logs in front of what is now the Boys’ Dormitory of the Appalachian Training School for the accommodation of himself and his herders whenever he or they should come from his home on the headwaters of the Yadkin, at Elkville. Among the herders was an African slave named Burrell. When Col. Isbell was a boy, say, about 1845, Burrell was still alive, but was said to have been over 100 years old. He told Col. Isbell that he had billoted Daniel Boone across the Blue Ridge to the Howard cabin in the first trip Boone ever took across the mountains.”[3]

Footnote 5: In the same book is the statement of James M. Isbell to J.P.A. in May, 1909, at latter’s home.[4]

Footnote 6: It [meaning the cabin of Benjamin Howard] “could still be seen, a few years ago, at the foot of a range of hills some seven and a half miles above Wilkesboro, in Wilkes county.” Thwaites’ “Daniel Boone,” p.78.

1885: The LENOIR TOPIC, 1(?) October 1885, p.4, printed a letter from W.E. White about Daniel Boone’s life in the Yadkin Valley area, which included, “Col. James Isbell, of King’s Creek township(,) could perhaps say something concerning Godfrey Isbell and Pendleton Isbell who were pioneers and also soldiers of Col. Cleveland’s command.” Godfrey Isbell had been bondsman at the marriage of Col. James Isbell’s grandfather Thomas Isbell to Discretion Howard.

Daniel Boone: Master of the Wilderness (1939), by John Bakeless, p. 438, footnote 32.2 gives a footnote citation as follows about the cabin and Burrell’s account of it: “Burrell, the old slave, told the story to Col. James Martin Isbell, of King’s Creek, N. C. Col. Isbell’s grandmother, Mrs. Jordan Councill, daughter of Burrell’s owner, verified the story. She had herself known Daniel Boone.[5]

Mrs. Jordan Councill was the former Sarah Howard, sister of James Martin Isbell’s grandmother. Mrs Sarah Howard Councill was Col.James Martin Isbell’s great-aunt.


Thomas Isbell and Lucinda Petty Isbell household is listed in the 1850 Federal Census record for Caldwell County, North Carolina. The census shows the parents of James Isbell, age 13. According to the census, the parents were Thomas Isbell, b. circa 1800 in N.C. and Luncinda Isbell, b. circa 1811 in N.C.

Name: Thomas Isbell
Age: 50
Estimated birth year: abt 1800
Birth Place: North Carolina
Gender: Male
Home in 1850 (City,County,State): Kings Creek, Caldwell, North Carolina
Household Members: Name Age
Thomas Isbell 50 *
Lucinda Isbell 39 *
James Isbell 13 *
Louisa Isbell 9
Cornelia Isbell 1[6]

Marriage:

Name: James M. Isbell
Event Type: Marriage
Event Date: 01 Mar 1857
Event Place: , Caldwell, North Carolina, United States
Gender: Male
Marital Status: Married
Spouse’s Name: Sarah Louisa Horton
Spouse’s Gender: Female
Reference ID: V. 1-5 p19
GS Film Number: 000590352
Digital Folder Number: 007613706[7]

Military Service during the War Between the States

James M. Isbell was Captain of Company A, 22nd N.C. Regiment. Three sons of John and Frances Knight Land (James, Thomas, & John) served under him until he was wounded and discharged. He was also a witness in Tom Land’s Confederate pension application, filed in east Tennessee.

Name: James M Isbell
Residence: Caldwell County, North Carolina
Age at Enlistment: 23
Enlistment Date: 30 Apr 1861
Rank at enlistment: 2nd Lieut
State Served: North Carolina
Survived the War?: Yes
Service Record: Commissioned an officer in Company A, North Carolina 22nd :Infantry Regiment on 30 Apr 1861.
Mustered out on 15 Jul 1861.
Enlisted in Company A, North Carolina 22nd Infantry
Regiment on 09 Aug 1861.
Promoted to Full Captain on 31 May 1862.
Promoted to Full 1st Lieutenant on 01 May 1862.
Mustered out on 13 Oct 1862.

Civic Duty

1864 – James Martin Isbell was a member of the North Carolina Senate for the 46th Senatorial District


1870 Federal Census:

Name: James M Isbell
Event Type: Census
Event Year: 1870
Event Place: North Carolina, United States
Gender: Male
Age: 32
Race: White
Race (Original): W
Birth Year (Estimated): 1837-1838
Birthplace: North Carolina
Page Number: 2
Household ID: 16
Line Number: 17[8]
Household Role Sex Age Birthplace
James M Isbell M 32 North Carolina
Sarah L Isbell F 31 North Carolina
John Isbell M 10 North Carolina
Mary V Isbell F 8 North Carolina
Thomas Isbell M 6 North Carolina[9]

Death of Mary Virginia Isbell:

Name: Mary Virginia Isbell
Event Type: Death
Event Date: 07 Feb 1940
Event Place: Lenoir, Caldwell, North Carolina
Birth Year: 1861
Burial Date: 08 Feb 1940
Cemetery: Isbell
Residence Place: Lenoir, NC
Gender: Female
Age: 78
Marital Status: Single
Race (Original): White
Occupation: None
Birth Date: 06 Oct 1861
Birthplace: Nc
Father’s Name: J M Isbell
Father’s Birthplace: Nc
Mother’s Name: Sarah Horton
Mother’s Birthplace: Nc
Reference ID: fn 2164 cn 279
GS Film number: 1943179[10]

Death of daughter Sarah Louise Isbell:

Name: Sarah Louise Setzer
Event Type: Death
Event Date: 18 Aug 1955
Event Place: Morganton, Burke, N. C.
Birth Year: 1875
Burial Date: 20 Aug 1955
Burial Place: Caldwell Co., N. C.
Cemetery: Grandin Bapt.
Gender: Female
Age: 80
Marital Status: Married
Race (Original): White
Occupation: Seamstress
Birth Date: 10 May 1875
Birthplace: Caldwell Co., N. C.
Father’s Name: James Martin Isbell
Mother’s Name: Sarah Louisa Horton
Reference ID: v 18A cn 18416
GS Film number: 1927217[11]

Death of daughter Sarah Frances Isbell:

Name: Sarah Frances Thomas
Event Type: Death
Event Date: 28 Sep 1964
Event Place: Lenoir, Caldwell, North Carolina
Birth Year: 1873
Burial Date: 29 Sep 1964
Burial Place: Caldwell County, North Carolina
Cemetery: Grandin Baptist Cemetery
Residence Place: Lenoir, Caldwell, North Carolina
Address: 208 Vance Street
Gender: Female
Age: 91
Marital Status: Widowed
Race (Original): white
Occupation: Housewife, Ret.Teacher
Birth Date: 03 Feb 1873
Birthplace: Caldwell County, North Carolina
Father’s Name: James M. Isbell
Mother’s Name: Sarah Louise Horton
Spouse’s Name: J. W. Thomas
Reference ID: v 27A cn 27083
GS Film number: 1953510[12]

James M. Isbell and Sarah Louise Horton Isbell are still head of household in the 1910 Census for Kings Creek, Caldwell County, North Carolina. They still have some children residing with them.[13]

His wife, Sarah Horton Isbell, died in Jan. 1919 and the death certificate stated she was a widow.

The original memorial created by Autumn on Find-A-Grave states:

Burial:
James Martin Isbell
Isbell Cemetery (uncertain as to the location)
  • His wife’s death certificate stated burial at Isbell Cemetery.

(Location of the Isbell Cemetery was probably at the site of the Isbell plantation.)

The joint tombstone of Colonel James Martin Isbell and wife Saray Horton Isbell’s grave is at Grandin Baptist Church Cemetery.

Biography written by Carolyn Murray Greer 13 Sep 2017

Sources

  1. Find A Grave Memorial# 52594193
  2. Western North Carolina: A History (1730-1913) By John Preston Arthur,1914), p.81
  3. Western North Carolina: A History (1730-1913) By John Preston Arthur,1914), p.82
  4. Western North Carolina: A History (1730-1913) By John Preston Arthur,1914), p.95
  5. “Trail of Daniel Boone,” Skyland Magazine, by John P Arthur, 1:652 (S 1914)
  6. 1850 United States Federal Census Record, Kings Creek, Caldwell, North Carolina
  7. Citing this Record: “North Carolina, County Marriages, 1762-1979 ,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:FZ1Z-X25 : 22 December 2016), James M. Isbell and Sarah Louisa Horton, 01 Mar 1857; citing , Caldwell, North Carolina, United States, p. V. 1-5 p19, Office of Archives and History, Division of Archives and Records. State Archive of North Carolina and various county Register of Deeds; FHL microfilm 590,352
  8. The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Publication Number: M593, GS Film number: 000552626, Digital Folder Number: 004277203, Image Number: 00052
  9. Citing this Record: “United States Census, 1870,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MW8H-C12 : 12 April 2016), James M Isbell, North Carolina, United States; citing p. 2, family 16, NARA microfilm publication M593 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); FHL microfilm 552,626
  10. Citing this Record: “North Carolina Deaths, 1931-1994,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:FPK8-Q9F : 17 July 2017), J M Isbell in entry for Mary Virginia Isbell, 07 Feb 1940; citing Lenoir, Caldwell, North Carolina, fn 2164 cn 279, State Department of Archives and History, Raleigh; FHL microfilm 1,943,179
  11. Citing this Record: “North Carolina Deaths, 1931-1994,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:FPDY-DBC : 17 July 2017), James Martin Isbell in entry for Sarah Louise Setzer, 18 Aug 1955; citing Morganton, Burke, N. C., v 18A cn 18416, State Department of Archives and History, Raleigh; FHL microfilm 1,927,217
  12. Citing this Record: “North Carolina Deaths, 1931-1994,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:FG1X-8VG : 18 July 2017), James M. Isbell in entry for Sarah Frances Thomas, 28 Sep 1964; citing Lenoir, Caldwell, North Carolina, v 27A cn 27083, State Department of Archives and History, Raleigh; FHL microfilm 1,953,510
  13. 1910 United States Federal Census, Kings Creek, Caldwell County, North Carolina
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