Backcountry Legends of a Southern Minister’s Death in the 18th Century

Exploring the circumstances of the death of Reverend William Richardson, an eighteenth-century Presbyterian minister in the Waxhaw district of South Carolina.

By Dr. Daniel W. Patterson
Professor Emeritus of English and Folklore
The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill


The True Image, Daniel W. Patterseon

The True Image explores the history and output of Scotch-Irish stonecutters in the early backcountry of Pennsylvania and the Carolinas. For none of them do we have any personal information—not a diary or journal or letter, not even a mention of them in anything but official records like deeds, probate files, and court minutes. Many of the gravestones they made, however, still stand in the Presbyterian churchyards of specific communities. Their dated stones memorialize particular people. Elsewhere the lives of these people and their neighbors are more fully recorded. So we can learn the context in which the stonecutters worked. Both
historical documents and oral lore have preserved it. I draw upon these in trying to glimpse and understand the world shared by stonemason and patron. The gravestones, in fact, offer additional ways to enter that world, for they were its sculpture gallery. The inscriptions upon them also compose an anthology of favored verse, and the cemeteries themselves must have prompted storytelling by people passing through. They certainly led William Henry Foote, a minister and early Presbyterian historian of the region, to open chapters about individual churches with descriptions of gravestones and tales of people they commemorated. The stones helped him and others carry history in mind, mull it over, debate it, hold up the lives of earlier generations as warnings or models. In Chapter 6 of The True Image, I too take the reader past some of the stones and stop to tell stories they prompt. The excerpt that follows offers ones that circulated after the death in 1771 of the Reverend William Richardson, pastor of Waxhaw Presbyterian Church in Lancaster County, South Carolina. The accounts have a wide range of implications.

The Reverend William Richardson

The Bigham gravestone for the Reverend William Richardson stands in a Davie Family enclosure at Waxhaw Presbyterian Church. The front of this memorial is engraved with an armorial design, a portrait of the minister in his pulpit, and a capsule biography:

He lived to Purpose:
He preach’d with Fidelity:
He pray’d for his People:
And being dead he speaks.

The rear of the stone adds one factual detail:

He left
to the amount of
£ 340 Sterg
To purchase religious books for
The Poor.[1]

This is a thin presentation of the life of the minister. Richardson was born in Egremont, in present Cumbria, England, the youngest son in a family of apparently fairly well-to-do drapers. He studied for the ministry at the University of Glasgow, emigrated to America in 1750, and became a protégé of an important New Light minister, Samuel Davies of Virginia. Sent as a missionary to the Cherokees in October 1758, Richardson was out of his depth and had no success whatever in the assignment. He converted no one, resigned, and left expecting war.

Daniel W. Patterson (photographer), The Reverend William Richardson headstone(1771), detail of the lower front, Waxhaw Presbyterian Church, Lancaster County, South Carolina. Gravestone attributed to the Bigham workshop.

But on his way to the Cherokee country Richardson had acted at the direction of the presbytery to install the Reverend Alexander Craighead in the Rocky River Presbyterian Church. The next year he married Craighead’s eldest daughter, Agnes, and was himself installed as the minister at the Waxhaw Presbyterian Church in Lancaster County, South Carolina. He induced his sister Mary and her husband Archibald Davie to send his namesake, their five-year-old son William Richardson Davie to him in America and then to come themselves and settle on land adjoining his own in the Waxhaws. Richardson served with distinction until his death twelve years later. His personality was conciliating enough to attract Presbyterians from several mutually antagonistic groups into the Waxhaw congregation, and he established and ministered at times to some twelve other churches in the region.

It was his death, however, that most generated legends—and at least four different interpretations of the event. Truth is hard to reach in these materials, but exploring them does yield insights into the backcountry Presbyterian culture. The earliest account was written by the Reverend Archibald Simpson, a friend of Richardson since their student years at the University of Glasgow. Simpson too had emigrated to America and held a Presbyterian church near Charleston. In his diary entry for August 26, 1771, a month after Richardson’s death, he wrote,

On Friday night, when I came to town, was informed by report of the death of my dear friend and comrade, the Rev. Mr. Richardson, and this day had it confirmed. This has afflicted me much, and is, in many respects, the loudest call I ever met with to prepare for the eternal world. Oh! that I may be ready and may give up my accounts with joy! His death is a very great loss to the part of the country where he lived. He was a burning and a shining light, a star of the first magnitude, a great Christian, a most eminent minister of Jesus Christ. He left a disconsolate widow, but no children. His death was something remarkable. He was of a strong and robust make, and in general healthy, but of a heavy, melancholic disposition, subject from his very youth to vapory disorders. His labors for some years were very great. About three or four years ago he began to decline; his vapory disorders increased, his intellect seemed to fail. He turned very deaf, and lost much of his spirits and liveliness in preaching, but was still very useful to his own people. About three months ago he seemed sickly, but his people and family thought he fancied himself worse than he was, as he did not keep his bed, but appeared as usual, and only kept his house. Some time in June [i.e., July] one of his elders was visiting him, and in order to divert him had entered into some argument with him, in which Mr. R. talked with a good deal of spirit, and afterwards went up stairs to his room, but was to be down to dinner as usual. Accordingly, when dinner had waited for some time, they went up stairs and found him dead on his knees, one hand holding the back of a chair, and the other lifted up as in prayer. So that he seemed to have expired in the act of devotion, and to all appearance had been dead some time: a most desirable death indeed. O Lord God! let me die the death of the righteous, and let my latter end be like his.[2]

Map of South Carolina Waxhaws region, 2012. Map shows location of Waxhaw Presbyterian Church in Lancaster County, South Carolina.

This account stresses several years of physical and mental decline and, underlying it, a temperament vulnerable to depression. This tendency is reported also in several other Presbyterian ministers of the region, including Richardson’s father-in-law Alexander Craighead, James Hall in Iredell County, and Henry Patillo in Orange. David Caldwell’s son Samuel Craighead Caldwell had a more severe mental disturbance and had to leave his Sugaw Creek pulpit. The Reverend Eli Washington Caruthers defends another, the Reverend Richard Hugg King, against the suspicion of his congregation that he must be “a little disordered in his mind” but reports that there “had been a case or two of religious melancholy among his relations on his mother’s side.” Caruthers also describes the religious melancholy that afflicted a daughter of David and Rachel Caldwell.[3] The zeal with which New Light Presbyterians emphasized guilt and sin had its debilitating side.

A differing account of Richardson’s death was recorded by a waspish Anglican itinerant named Charles Woodmason, who had met Richardson and regarded him as a cut above the other Presbyterians. In a “Memorandum” written at some later time, Woodmason recorded that the minister

was found dead on his Knees in his Study, with a Bridle round his Neck, reaching to the Ceiling. He was leaning against a Chair (as was his Custom in Prayer) and his Hands uplifted. In this Posture He was found by a female Servant. The Wife pretended Great Grief—sent for the Neighbours &c. the Elders met—and all concluded that it was an Act of his own thro’ Religious Melancholy—Therefore (to bring no disgrace on the Kirk) they called no Coroner, but buried Him as next day—the Widow following the Corps with Great Sorrow to the Grave. But some that knew the Temper of the Wife and her Relations—made this Affair Public—And it was insisted on that the Corps should be taken up out of the Grave and examined which was done. And Marks of Strangulation found on the Neck—and Bruises on the Breast. On Examination of Persons, it appeared That all the Servants were sent abroad into the Field that Morning and none left in the House but the Wife—And that her Brother had been there in Interim for a short Space. It was found too that no Man could destroy himself by the Manner in which the Bridle was found about his Neck. And it was more than probable that it was put round the Neck, and the Body plac’d in that Posture after he was strangled.[4]

Daniel W. Patterson (photographer), The Reverend William Richardson headstone (1771), Waxhaw Presbyterian Church, Lancaster County, South Carolina. Gravestone attributed to the Bigham workshop.

Woodmason’s account incorporates details about the death that had circulated as gossip and settled into legend, but they are intermixed with mistaken information and with his own biases. He apparently mistook Richardson’s brother-in-law for his wife’s brother, Thomas Craighead, who later became pastor of the Waxhaw church but was in 1771 living in North Carolina. It was also Woodmason’s mistaken belief that Richardson had married the “Daughter of his Predecessor in the Meeting House, one Campbel.” Her father, Woodmason charged, “had bred up his Children in all the Bigotry and Zeal to the Church of Scotland, as possible—And this Zeal had infected his whole Flock.” Their childless marriage, he believed, added to Mrs. Richardson’s “Melancholy and Splenetic Disposition.” Richardson’s congregation, he says, refused to allow him to introduce Watts’s hymns or the Lord’s Prayer in services, but he used both in his family devotions “to the Great Disgust of his Wife and her Relations. Thro’ these People he led a most bitter Life—and was very unhappy.”

Woodmason’s attack on Mrs. Richardson tells more about the animosity between Anglicans and the Presbyterians in the backcountry than about the Richardson marriage. He was resentful, for example, that one of his communion services was intentionally “interrupted by a Gang of Presbyterians who kept hallooing and whooping without Door like Indians.” He calls them “Ignorant, mean, worthless, beggarly Irish Presbyterians, the Scum of the Earth, and Refuse of Mankind.”[5] Richardson’s own will, however, undercut Woodmason’s view of his wife. He provided for her with care uncommon in the era. The will implies genuine affection rather than “a bitter Life” and unhappiness with her.

A third account was given by George Howe in his History of the Presbyterian Church in South CarolinaIt opens with a concession that the circumstances of Richardson’s death “are differently rehearsed by the popular traditions.” Howe chose, however, to set down a view much more sympathetic to Mrs. Richardson:

According to one story, which has the appearance of truth, Mrs. Richardson had gone early in the day to a social gathering, “a quilting,” leaving him alone. He had recently fitted up a room as a library and study in the upper story of his house, which was his constant resort. During the day, his brother-in-law, Mr. Archibald Davie, had been at the house and saw nothing unusual about him. Late in the evening, Mr. William Boyd, of Rocky Creek in Chester District, which had recently been settled by emigrants from the north of Ireland, came to the house, requesting on the part of that people, that he would make an appointment among them for religious service. At the same time Mrs. Richardson returned, and to Mr. Boyd’s enquiry for Mr. Richardson, replied that he was probably in his study, and immediately withdrew to prepare dinner for her visitor. Mr. Boyd being desirous of an interview with Mr. Richardson, knocked at the study door, and receiving no reply, ventured to look through the key-hole, and saw him, as he supposed, on his knees at his devotions. After waiting for a considerable time, Mr. Boyd expressed to Mrs. Richardson some anxiety for an interview with him, and she ascended the stairs, and on opening the door, uttered a piercing scream which brought Mr. Boyd to her side. They found Mr. Richardson dead, in a kneeling position, and a bridle around his neck. The neighbors were called, and the facts made known. An apprehension prevailed among these friends that the interests of religion and the fair fame of so eminent a minister would suffer, if he should be known as a felo de se. The circumstance of the bridle was therefore suppressed, and he was said to have died at his devotions. Mrs. Richardson, who was a lady of much personal beauty, married in the course of the year Mr. George Dunlap, a gentleman of worth. The marriage was perhaps regarded as more hasty than a proper respect for Mr. Richardson’s memory would justify. The circumstances of Mr. Richardson’s death became more and more public, various tales and unfounded suspicions grew into greater consistency as they passed from mouth to mouth, until the cruel suspicion arose that Mrs. Richardson herself had a hand in her husband’s death. This proceeded so far, that a most superstitious and revolting test of her innocence or guilt was at length resorted to. About a year after his interment, the whole community was collected around his grave, the body of Mr. Richardson was exhumed and exposed to view, and Mrs. Richardson was subjected to the shocking ordeal of touching his corpse, on the absurd idea which at that time prevailed, that blood would flow, if the murderer should touch the corpse of his victim. She was compelled by the cruel necessity of the case to lay her hand on the forehead of her deceased husband, and tradition says that Archy Davie, the brother-in-law of Mr. Richardson, pressed her hand down upon it. The afflicted woman could not restrain her tears, but wept aloud. Yet nothing unusual followed; no divine interposition resolved the mystery, and the transaction was ridiculed or sadly deplored by the majority of the people as a farce discreditable to those who had been the chief actors in it. The belief, however, continued in the minds of some, that Mr. Richardson had died by other hands than his own.

Howe, placing his trust in the reading that the Reverend Simpson gave of Richardson’s mental instability in the last years of his life, assumed that the minister committed suicide. He wrote that the doubts of those who questioned this “were all founded on the popular belief among Christians, that God would never so forsake his children as to leave them to the awful death of a suicide. It is forgotten in all this, that the people of God and his ministers are not exempted in this life from any of the forms of human disease—that the diseases of the mind are as real as those of the body, and are often connected with them—and that one of the most frequent results of mental malady is the attempt to put an end to one’s own life.”[6]

This view, then, attributes the trial by ordeal to two beliefs traditional in the Presbyterian community, one deriving from early folklore and the other from an assumption locally held by people of faith. Both beliefs would have gone unquestioned in the early seventeenth century. As an educated Presbyterian in the mid-nineteenth century, Howe had discarded them. A century earlier in the Carolina uplands the age of reason had produced as yet only a community divided in its opinions about the two beliefs.

The Richardson case has been revisited in the past decade by Peter N. Moore, a historian studying the Waxhaw community. In his reading, “no compelling historical evidence” supports the legend of the trial by ordeal; he argues that Woodmason, had the story circulated in his time, would surely have used it to ridicule the Presbyterians. Moore thinks the “focus on supernaturalism and folk justice” hides the actual issues in the episode. He sees these as “the complex relationship between kinship, gender, and inheritance law” in the colonial era. In support of this position, Moore establishes the date of Agnes Craighead Richardson’s remarriage to George Dunlap. It took place two years after the death of her first husband, a properly respectful period.[7] He accepts Woodmason’s report that a bridle was associated with Richardson’s death and that the corpse was probably exhumed and examined. He then asks why—”if Agnes neither hated her husband for his religious views nor longed to remarry”—was she the object of such suspicion. His answer is that this question “goes to the very heart of eighteenth-century backcountry society and culture, where gender and kinship interlocked to safeguard the social power of propertied men and place widows in a potentially vulnerable position.”[8]

Waxhaw Presbyterian Church, Lancaster County, South Carolina. Built around 1800, it was the third meeting house of the congregation. This is the only known photograph of a meetinghouse the carvers themselves would have seen. Courtesy of Nancy Crockett.

Richardson’s will left his widow the house and its desirable 150-acre tract of land, and his slaves, livestock, most of the household furnishings, many books, and all tools, and in addition the monies owed Richardson by various debtors—in sum, at least seventy percent of Richardson’s personal estate. The rest went to nieces and nephews and two acquaintances. To his brother-in-law Archibald Davie he left only his bridle and saddle and instructions to pay to Davie’s two youngest children a £100 balance on a note Richardson regarded as owed to himself.

To Moore this suggests that the source for the rumors and hostility to Agnes Richardson was an envious and frustrated Archibald Davie, angling to get her to leave the community or remarry and forfeit the inheritance, which would go to his oldest son, William Richardson Davie, a minor. Archibald Davie would then manage the estate. But Moore goes a step further. He concedes that Richardson may have committed suicide, but argues that murder was also a strong possibility. His candidate for the murderer is Archibald Davie, who, by Howe’s account, came to Richardson’s house the day the minister died and was the chief actor against Agnes during the exhumation. “If Davie were bitter about Richardson’s generous provisions for Agnes,” Moore writes, “he would have been furious” when he learned that Richardson bequeathed the debt Davie owed him to Davie’s own two children and “perhaps even furious enough to return the ironic gesture by strangling Richardson with the very bridle he had willed to Davie.”[9]

Moore’s theory assumes the accuracy of the reports that Richardson died strangled by a bridle, that Davie visited Richardson on the day of his death, and that later Davie himself pressed Agnes’s hand down on the forehead of her dead husband. It also presupposes that Davie knew the contents of the will before Richardson’s death. These four assumptions, however, also remain unproved.

Moore sees Agnes Richardson as a woman likely to rouse antagonism and also vulnerable. She was, of course, well connected. Her father Alexander Craighead and her brother-in-law David Caldwell were two of the ministers most respected by Presbyterians in the Carolinas. But the father was dead, and Caldwell lived 130 miles away. In the Waxhaw community she had no authoritative male relative who could quash rumors or face down her accusers. Other versions and interpretations of the legends give glimpses of the liabilities of the Presbyterian temperament, the antagonism between Anglicans and the Presbyterians from Ulster, and the gradual shifts in certain Presbyterian beliefs. To these Moore’s exploration of the material adds understanding of the precarious position of “a woman suddenly occupying a prominent place in a man’s world, standing uncertainly on the shifting line that defined gender norms in early America.”[10] One further question the entire story raises is what effect the death and the surrounding circumstances had upon Richardson’s namesake, William Richardson Davie. He left no record of this, but took training in law rather than the ministry and found rationalism more convincing than Christianity.



  1. The stone and that of the minister’s sister Mary Davie are now inside a brick-walled enclosure built in 1927. General William Richardson Davie‘s tomb dominates this Davie memorial. It stands at the east side, at the end of a path from the entrance on the west. The stones of William Richardson and Mary Davie were removed from their original sites in the churchyard and placed alongside the path, facing south, each protected by a sheath of granite that partly overhangs both faces of the stones. Consequently, neither one can now be photographed in its entirety with the intended play of sunlight and shadow. A murky shot of the William Richardson stone used in Peter N. Moore’s World of Toil and Strife: Community Transformation in Backcountry South Carolina, 1750–1805 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007), 39, illustrates the problem. Moore’s article “The Mysterious Death of William Richardson: Kinship, Female Vulnerability, and the Myth of Supernaturalism in the Southern Backcountry,” North Carolina Historical Review 80, no. 3 (July 2003): 283, has a photograph of a rubbing of the same stone. It leans against a tree and is partly illuminated by sunlight. Text carved in relief is nearly invisible in this rubbing. After hearing me lecture on the Bighams, Daniel and Jessie Lee Farber photographed the stone with sunlight streaming up across the surface from a mirror held below. I photographed sections of the stone separately with a light held above and to the right to imitate lighting seen by the carver. I know of no photograph of this or the Mary Davie stone that is satisfactory.
  2. George Howe, History of the Presbyterian Church in South Carolina, 2 vols. (Columbia, SC: Duffie and Chapman, 1870–73), 1:418–19.
  3. William Henry Foote, Sketches of North Carolina, Historical and Biographical: Illustrative of the Principles of a Portion of Her Early Settlers (New York: Robert Carter, 1846), 193, 218; Eli W. Caruthers, A Sketch of the Life and Character of the Rev. David Caldwell, D.D. Near Sixty Years Pastor of the Churches of Buffalo and Alamance: Including Two of His Sermons, Some Account of the Regulation, Together with the Revolutionary Transactions and Incidents in Which He Was Concerned, and a Very Brief Notice of the Ecclesiastical and Moral Condition of North-Carolina while in Its Colonial State (Greensborough, NC, 1842), 258–61; Raleigh, North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Division of Historical Resources, State Archives, Private Collections, Eli W. Caruthers, “Richard Hugg King and His Times: Reminiscences of Rev. Eli Caruthers, of Orange Presbytery, NC (Prepared by order of Presbytery, Copied by Davis Foute Eagleton, Great Grand Son of Rev. Richard Hugg King. Austin College, Sherman, Texas, October, 1912),” typescript, 60.
  4. Charles Woodmason, The Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of the Revolution: The Journal and Other Writings of Charles Woodmason, Anglican Itinerant, ed. Richard J. Hooker (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1953), 133–134.
  5. Woodmason, 17, 60.
  6. Howe, Presbyterian Church, 1:417–18.
  7. Peter N. Moore, “Mysterious Death,” 289.
  8. Woodmason, 290.
  9. Ibid., 296.
  10. Ibid.

Further Reading

Originally published by Southern Spaces, 10.30.2012, republished with permission in accordance with the Budapest Open Access Initiative.