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Petty Women, Fast Horses, and Plenty of Spirits – Oh, the goings on at High House!

03 Nov 2020 9:47 AM | Barbara Wetmore (Administrator)
Photo of the High House taken around 1887. These are likely members of the Williams family.

Robert Hoke Williams writes in his account The Ghost of High House:

Before the occupation of High House by Nathaniel Green Alford and wife Nancy Liles Alford, and the Williams family, [the house], located in Western Wake County, just beyond Cary, North Carolina, was the scene of petty women, fast horses, and plenty of spirits, as I have been told by my Dad. This house was built several years before the Revolutionary War of (1775 - 1781), and was the gathering place of the sportsmen of that time. Horse racing and whiskey were plentiful, and as will be at such gatherings, plenty of fist fights and shootings were displayed at times.

The house Robert Hoke Williams talks about was one of the earliest houses built in the western part of what would become Cary. One of its earliest known owners, Fanning Jones, was the grandson of Cary's first white settler, Englishman Francis Jones, who received considerable land near Crabtree Creek through a grant from Lord Carteret. Fanning and his cousin Henry Jones owned similar houses not too far away from each other. One was built around around 1803 and still stands on the south side of Chapel Hill Rd. just past the Maynard Rd. intersection; and one was built around 1760 and stood until the early 1900s near the southwest corner of the Maynard Rd. and High House Rd. intersection.

The house on Chapel Hill Rd., now on the National Historic Register, is known as the Nancy Jones House, named for Henry's wife who outlived him by 35 years and ran the house as a stagecoach stop between Raleigh and Chapel Hill. Nancy, by the way, was the daughter of Nathaniel Jones of White Plains who owned a considerable amount of land in what would become the eastern part of Cary. Henry was the son of another Nathaniel Jones, not related, who was called Nathaniel Jones of Crabtree to distinguish him from the other Nathaniel Jones to the east! If you're confused, think how these families and townspeople must have felt back then!

The Old Tory Driven from the Neighborhood

But enough about Henry and Nancy, the Nathaniel Joneses, and the Nancy Jones House. What we want to talk about is the High House, named for its tall physical presence and its location atop a hill not too far from the old Ralelgh to Haywood Rd. (We think this aligns in parts with the current Old Apex Rd.) Robert Hoke Williams describes the house and property when his father, William Adolphus (Dolly) Williams lived in the house in the 1860s timeframe:

The house was so named because it was situated on a hill, and as the architectural designs of that period called for, the main body of the house was connected to the kitchen by a walkway. It was set back by about 400 feet from the road with a few oaks in the front. The backyard contained one house for the house slaves, and during my Dad's time, Uncle John and Aunt Jennie held the honor of being the servants for the family. Between Uncle John's house and the orchard was a big well and water trough for watering the horses that was not to be placed in the stable lot. Beyond this were other houses for other slaves.

Back view of the High House.

Fanning Jones, an earlier owner of the house, was the son of Tignal Jones. Tignal was the brother of Nathaniel Jones of Crabtree, who built the Nancy Jones house. It's possible that Tignal built the High House. Though built earlier than the Nancy Jones house, the High House was similar in design to the Nancy Jones house and the two houses stood not too far from each other, as the crow flies.

Fanning seems to have been quite the character. He likely would have been one of the ones racing horses and drinking whiskey, and getting into fist fights, according to the legends Robert Hoke Williams' father told. Fanning tried to sell his house and land for several years and finally turned them over to an attorney in 1822 and headed for Tennessee. Tom Byrd in his book Around and About Cary gives us a possible reason why:

The name “Fanning” once struck terror in the hearts of North Carolinians because of David Fanning, “the most perfect scoundrel in the history of the state.” He led a band of Tories during the Revolution that murdered, pillaged, and even kidnapped Governor Thomas Burke and handed him over to the Britiish. David Fanning was a native of Wake County but fained his notoriety after moving to nearby Chatham. His connections, if any, with Fanning Jones are a mystery. Hope Summerell Chamberlain in her 1922 history of Wake County wrote:

There stands . . . a desolate house with vacant windows and grinning rafters, a high four-square old house, dating from the Revolutionary time, but which has been deserted many years. It stands near the town of Cary, to the west, and its story was told to me by an old lady who remembers traditions, and was somewhat kin to the former owner, Fanning Jones, but who was not proud of the relationship.

Whether his name means a relationship or connection with the notorious Tory Leader who stole the Governor, or whether it is merely a coincidence, no one can now declare, but he is said for some vague reasons to have forfeited the regard of his patriotic relatives, and to have been driven from the neighborhood for that reason. “The Old Tory,” they called him.

Another possible reason Fanning left for parts west is that his father, Tignal owned 2,100 acres of land in Tennessee and Fanning either desired to move there or found it convenient to to relocate there after being “driven from the neighborhood.” Fanning lived out the rest of his days in Tennessee and swapped the High House plantation land in North Carolina for land in Tennessee with John Ray and James Peters before he died around 1830.

New High House Owner Left Out of His Father's Will

John Ray and James Peters of Tennessee sold the High House plantation to Green Alford in 1833 (Wake County Deed Book 11, Page 176). Green Alford, often referred to as Nathaniel Green Alford (perhaps because his father fought under General Nathanael Greene in the Battles of Cowpens and Guilford Court House), was apparently somewhat of a character himself. His father, James Lodwick Alford left him out of his will, and Lodwick Houston Alford might have found the reason why, as he explains in EUREKA: PROVING AN ANCESTOR IN WAKE COUNTY, NC:

Meanwhile bits and pieces of information kept coming in . . . mostly from descendants of the nine daughters of Green and Nancy Alford. Most all agreed that Grandpa James Lodwick left Green and his children out of his will because he just did not like their mother Nancy Rose. But there seemed to be a curious absence of why Nancy might not have been liked by her father-in-law. You can imagine how the tongues of those nine daughters of Green and Nancy Alford wagged and passed on family lore to their children and descendants. There were hints that Green had become a notorious slave trader and mistreated his own slaves. Sometime after the death of his father in 1820, Green appeared to be in the money. Where and how did he get it?

It was not until a few years ago that some of the mysteries and questions surrounding Green Alford and his family began to clear up. Two excellent researchers. Elizabeth Dees and Madlyn Jamison found and began to publish "Bastardy Bonds and Records" in "Wake Treasures," the journal of the Wake County Genealogical Society. There before my bugged-out eyes in bold print was the name of my great grandmother Nancy Rose Liles. In the spring of 1813 she was observed, shall we say delicately, as being with child. The sheriff was directed to haul her up before some justices of the peace who demanded to know who the father was.

Green Alford then at age 26 had been sitting in judgement as a JP on other unhappy females in the same predicament. But his name does not appear in the record on the day Nancy was hauled up and there is no indication of who she named as the father. Twelve days later Nancy Rose Liles was back before the justices with two gentlemen who went her bond of fifty pounds and this time Green Alford was present. Five weeks later on 26 July, 1813 Green Alford and Nancy Rose Liles were married leaving us to guess who was the father of the child born about two months earlier. Now we had something specific to suggest why Major Tanner [James Lodwick] Alford might not have cared much for his daughter-in-law Nancy Liles Alford.

Green and Nancy went on to have 11 children, nine daughters and two sons, all raised on the High House plantation, with several of them inheriting the land and passing it on to future generations.

High House Passes to the Williams Family through Daughter Penina

After Green's death in 1848, one of his daughters, Penina, inherited a piece of Green Alford's land, Lot 3, as shown in this picture from the Wake County Wills, Inventories, Settlements Book 26:

Penina went on to marry Robert E. Williams and the Williams family came to be the owners of the High House until it was apparently abandoned in the early 1900s. We are working to determine how the Williams family came to be the owners of the house, as the house likely sat on the large lot labeled “Widows Dower.” Nancy, Green's wife, died three years after he did in 1851, and she left a share of her Widows Dower lot to Robert and Penina, so it's possible and likely that the house stood on that share of land.  We think we've been able to confirm this through tax records, but if any descendants of the Williams family know the details, please let us know!

Family Cemetery on the Land

Though the Friends of the Page-Walker had heard of a family cemetery that stood near the High House, we had never been able to find it . . . until a recent comment on our Facebook page included a map that showed us the way. While looking at the map, I realized that the location was very near my house, and I convinced my neighbor on one of our evening walks to go look for it with me. When we got to the intersection where the map indicated the cemetery should be, we saw a lovely little park with a tiered fountain, but no cemetery. We speculated that maybe there was nothing left to mark the cemetery and so a park was placed there instead. Still, I decided to get down on my hands and knees to look under the hedges along a fence toward the back of the park and when I did, I thought I saw a gravestone! Yes! It was a gravestone! It bore the name Stedman.

There were broken remnants of several headstones and one intact inside a modern fenced-in area. None were standing. They were lying flat on the ground, scattered around the ground, or propped up against a tree. The three legible gravestones bore the names:

Stedman, Ada L., b. 3 Jun 1866, d. age 29yr 7mo 18da, dau. o. Jos. B. & Mary D. Stedman

Stedman, Mary D., b. 24 Feb 1829, d. 7 Nov 1886, age 57yr, w. o. J. B. Stedman

Stedman, William A., b. 14 Nov 1860, d. 22 Jun 1890, s. o. Jos. B. & Mary D. Stedman

William Stedman's gravestone was the only one intact, though no longer standing.

Who were the Stedmans? One of Green's other daughters, Mary (also known as Polly), inherited Lot 5 from her father before she married Joseph B. Stedman. He fought in the Civil War and served on the first committee to establish public schools in Cary after the war. Mary also inherited a share of the Widows Dower lot after her mother died. This explains the presence of the three Stedman graves in the family plot.

Further investigation revealed that the developer of the neighborhood encountered the cemetery back in 2003 and was able to determine that at least 18 grave sites were in the cemetery, perhaps through an archeological survey. We are working to track that down. In a March 25, 2003 newspaper article in the Raleigh News & Observer, the developer, Michael Dean Chadwick, stated that once he knew there were at least 18 confirmed grave sites, he decided not to move the cemetery, but to leave it where it was and to build around it.

Who else is buried in the cemetery? Several family accounts state that Green Alford and his wife Nancy, along with other family members, and enslaved persons, are buried in the family plot that stood not far from the High House. There is a Find-a-Grave record and a cemeterycensus.com record that state that Green and Nancy are buried in the family plot along with their grandson, George Benton Alford near the Leslie-Alford-Mims house in Holly Springs, but we feel this is not correct, as George Benton Alford did not purchase the Holly Springs house until 1860 and would have been only 3 years old when his grandfather, Green Alford died. It is far more likely that Green and Nancy are buried in the family plot that stood near the High House, as family stories indicate, along with other family members and some of their enslaved persons.

Drowning, Death by Turkey Hunting, and a Wife Not be be Trusted

Combing through old newspapers, we found some interesting things happening on the High House land, or at least to the people associated with it. Among the many newspaper clippings we found was one about the unfortunate demise of Corbin Edwards (brother-in-law of Martha Alford Edwards), who drowned while attempting to cross the swollen Yadkin river while traveling to pick up his young son in Tennessee after the son had been visiting relatives. According to an eyewitness account from a family that was unable to rescue him, the struggle was “observed from its beginning to its awful close when man, horse, and buggy all disappeared beneath the unrelenting waves.” The Salisbury Watchman reported that “a half empty flask of whiskey in the unfortunate man's pocket left no room for doubt that intoxication was the cause of his death.”

Another family member met his end while hunting turkey. According to the newspaper account, Eldridge Austin, a relative of Martha Alford Edwards' through marriage, “had shot and broken the wing of a wild turkey and was running for his game when the sad catastrophe occurred.” Though the newspaper clipping does not give the details, we assume the sad catastrophe was likely a mishap with his loaded gun that resulted in a self-inflicted fatal wound.

But by far, the most eye popping clipping we found was this one by Penina Alford Williams' husband, Robert, who was clearly upset with his wife at the time for apparently spending too much of his money:

Mysteries and Hauntings

The intrigue surrounding the High House continues with a mystery about a buried treasure. In Around and About Cary, Tom Byrd recounts that Margaret Williams told of a treasure hunt by her father Leander Williams, who was born in the High House in 1883. After the family moved away, Williams had a dream about valuables buried in the hearth. When he learned the next morning that his mother had had the same dream, the two of them rushed to the house, only to discover that someone had already torn the hearth apart, brick by brick.  Perhaps the source of these dreams was this account in Tom Byrd's book of an encounter at the High House by General Sherman's troops near the end of the Civil War:

When the soldiers arrived at High House, they found an old black man apparently crippled by gout and with a heavily bandaged foot resting on the hearth.  What the soldiers never knew was that the foot concealed a removable stone under which valuables were hidden.

As for being haunted, there are stories of the ghost of a woman who has appeared both on the grounds and in the house when it was still standing. Robert Hoke Williams in his account The Ghost of High House tells of a legend that two men were in love with the same girl and one day while attending a horse race, one of the men in a fit of anger, during a quarrel with the girl, grabbed her and strangled her to death before he could be stopped.

One other tale of a sad and tragic death of a woman involves a possible first wife of Fanning Jones. This passage is from High House Mystery:

Some of the old fireplace brick remains, and a cemetery is located nearby. Only a few tombstones remain, so it is not known if Mrs. Fanning Jones is buried there. She died a tragic death only a few years after her marriage in 1799. The Raleigh Register September 8, 1806, reported that Mrs. Jones "... was found in a grove far from the house, depraved of all reason, where it is supposed she had been praying (having been very religious for some time past). She remained in the deplorable condition till her death... (on July 27, 1806)." (p.3)

Maggie Sears shared in an interview with Friends oral historian Peggy Van Scoyoc in 2012:

I’m not sure when it [the High House] burned down either, but it was when my father was young, because it was still there when his oldest sister when to college at Meredith [around 1910?]. Of course, that’s not the same Meredith grounds that it was then. But they would have to go down on the horse and buggy to pick the girls up when they went to school. He said whenever they got close to the old High House, the horse wanted to get spooked. I think it spooked him as [much] as it did the horse, so they were sort of glad to get by it.

The Founder of Holly Springs

Not all the stories surrounding the people who lived on the High House land are dark in nature. Green Alford's grandson, George Benton Alford went on to become the founding father of Holly Springs and is the Alford for whom the historic Leslie-Alford-Mims House is named.

George was the son of Green Haywood Alford, who married Rebecca Jones. She is known for thwarting “Sherman's bummers” by throwing scalding soup in their faces as they scouted the area ahead of Sherman's advance into Wake County. George had the story proudly inscribed on his mother's tombstone; the inscription reads:

A devoted Christian mother
Who whipped Sherman's bummers
With scalding water
While trying to take her dinner pot
Which contained a ham bone
Being cooked for her
Soldier Boys.

Rebecca's tombstone can be seen in the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church graveyard southeast of Holly Springs.

Picnics and Teas

On a further pleasant note, articles from the Raleigh News & Observer in 1924 and 1925 report that the faculty at Cary High School, including principal Marcus Baxter Dry and his wife, met at the High House property for a “gypsy tea” and a picnic where they gathered around a bright campfire and ate steak, wieners, bacon, and corn before being entertained with old-fashioned melodies. Another article tells of the Girl Reserve Club of Cary High School taking along provisions on a 2-mile hike before settling around a huge bonfire to toast bacon and hot dogs and hear historical events connected with the site. They declared it one of the best and most “wide awake” outings the club had ever had.

Whatever Became of the High House?

While the articles about the picnics and teas talk about the High House property in the 1920s, they do not indicate whether the house was standing at the time. However, another article by Paul Matthews in 1925 talks about “the outbreak of ghosts in those dilapidated premises,” implying the house was still standing, though apparently not in the best of condition.

Robert Hoke Williams tells us in his account:

I was about thirty years of age (1930) when I saw the site of the old place for the first time. I stopped over one day to see my half brother (William Ladd Williams) who at that time lived in the vicinity of the High House, and he drove me over to where the house once stood. All that was left of the old place were big rocks used for the chimney and pillars of the house. A short distance away was the family cemetery where my Great Grandfather (Nathaniel Green Alford) and Great Grandmother ( Nancy Liles Alford) along with other members of the family, and also a few of the slaves, were buried.

So it seems that sometime between 1925 and 1930, the house met its demise. Kris Carmichael, director of the Page-Walker Arts & History Center, remembers an older gentleman stopping into the center one day and telling that the house burned down sometime in the 20th century. Perhaps one of those campfires or bonfires got out of control. :-) If anyone knows the details of what happened to the house, please let us know!

Remembered by its Name

We frequently point out that long after the wooden structures, houses, barns and out buildings comprising the farms and plantations of the 1700s and 1800s are gone, all that often remains are the hardened gravestones and iron fences marking the spot where the owners and family members are buried and laid to rest. In the case of the High House plantation, we do have the remnants of a cemetery still standing. But we also have a road that bears its name. The next time you travel down what is now the busy High House Rd. extending from W. Chatham St. all the way to Rt. 55, think back on the early history of Cary when the High House was built, and on the many intriguing stories of the families who lived there.

Watch for a Live Stream Tour of the High House Family Cemetery Plot

The High House family cemetery plot is now privately owned. We obtained permission to visit the cemetery and plan to live stream a visit to the cemetery from our Facebook page on Saturday, November 7 at 2:30 p.m. so you can see it, too. Tune in . . .

Acknowledgements:  Thank you to fellow Friend, Carla Michaels, whose extraordinary research revealed important details and interesting anecdotes about the High House and its inhabitants; and to one of our Facebook Followers, Emily Brooks, whose personal interest in and research on the High House led us to the family cemetery plot and to remarkable family stories about the inhabitants of the house.

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