My sixth great-grandfather, James Billingsley, lost his life standing for the cause of American freedom. But it wasn’t in an exchange of gunfire. He stood against the Tories in his own front yard in Randolph County, North Carolina.
James had avoided Tory demands for coin until a fateful day in April of 1776. Tories hung him as an insurrectionist outside his home. His wife Elizabeth Crabtree Billingsley and sons, Walter and Basil, looked on. Six years later Elizabeth prepared a will leaving her “still,” at the time in the possession of her son John, to Walter and Basil. I have often wondered what her motivation might have been.
Perhaps it happened this way …
“Our grandfather, William Crabtree, did not emigrate to these lands in 1718 to be crushed beneath the boot heel of King George I. Nor will I submit to the demands of George III or his henchmen, I tell you.” In spite of having endured great sorrow, fifty-six year-old Elizabeth Billingsley could have passed for a woman ten years younger, both in appearance and strength of will.
“I and your son John aren’t King George’s henchmen, Elizabeth. Besides those days have passed.” Elizabeth’s brother, John Crabtree, held his hands up in a pleading gesture. “It’s 1782, and we’ve won our independence.”
“And at a heavy cost–the lives of many good men, including my James. He only stood against their unfair taxation on my still.”
She gazed out the window of her home in Randolph County, North Carolina. There–from their own grand oak tree with Elizabeth as witness–a rabble of Tories had hung James as a Revolutionist in 1776. The passage of six years had dulled the pain not a whit.
“Besides, the British roam our waters still,” Elizabeth continued, “and hold Savannah, Charleston, and New York. They tried to take our own Beaufort months past. When will they be at our door demanding our every quarter-guinea, as they did poor James. Or confiscating my still? I’ll show them insurrection if they set foot on this property!”
Three men stood on the far side of the room, their voices lowered but their ears attuned, Elizabeth knew full well, to the words passing between brother and sister.
“Be reasonable, ‘Lilibeth. It’s only a matter of time until the British give it up and go home.”
“Until a treaty is signed and our colony granted full statehood, I’ll not rest. I’ll protect the plantation. For James’s sake.”
“James left me this plantation for the duration of my widowhood. Walter and Basil are helping keep it up. When I pass on, it’ll be theirs, as James’s will attests. I want them to inherit the still, as well. ‘Tis my sole possession. James gave his life protecting it from those filthy Tories.”
“But you’ve given it to John.”
“Only to use, brother.”
“But he depends on it for a goodly portion of his income from the medicinal concoctions.”
“For now John’s property abuts this plantation. He has ready access to the still, but he’s looking west to Tennessee. And who knows what he might do with the still in that case? ‘Tis my desire to pass the still to Basil and Walter who witnessed their father’s death. Though Walter’s not but 21 and has admitted to wanderlust, he lives on the plantation still. Basil’s only a lad of 18. He’s promised he will never leave this land.”
“Hardly fair to John, ‘Lilibeth. I suspect you intend the still to watch over the tree when you’re not here to do it.”
“‘Tis more ‘n a tree. And more ‘n a mere still. You know it well enough. So … let’s be done with it. I’ve signed my will allowing John to keep possession of the still until I die. But when I’m gone, it’s Basil’s and Walter’s. It stays with the plantation.”
She motioned to the three gentlemen across the room. “Come here, Enoch Davis. You, too, Jacob Skeen and John Hinds. You’re my witnesses.”
To be continued …