PBS documentary about early Mecklenburg settler has Rowan connections

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Frank DeLoache
Salisbury Post
A PBS documentary airing three times this week and next will display Rowan County’s living connections to one of the earliest English settlers to cross the Yadkin River.
The show, called “Fingerprints,” focuses on the discovery in 2007 of 13 graves under a parking lot at Carolinas Medical Center-Mercy, not far from downtown Charlotte. The graves, with some remarkably well-preserved headstones, belonged to John Spratt and members of his family and dated back more than 200 years.
The documentary about those graves and what happened to them first airs on WTVI-Channel 4 at 8:30 p.m. Friday. The station will repeat the program at 7 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. May 15, a Thursday.
The current story begins with trackhoe operator Kenny Seymour seeing something unusual in the chunk of red clay he pulled from beneath the layer of asphalt.
Seymour immediately contacted Bill Merritt, the man in charge of the expansion project for Carolinas HealthCare System, and Merritt immediately halted construction and walled off the area.
After that, Carolinas HealthCare spent more than $150,000 finding Spratt’s descendants and hiring an archaeology firm to carefully excavate the site.
Sarah Withers Keesee, a Salisbury native, saw an article in the Charlotte Observer and realized the construction workers had found the site of the former Thomas Spratt farm, which the family sold to Mercy Hospital decades earlier. Mercy Hospital was built in 1916, and any record of the farm site and cemetery had disappeared.
Keesee and her sisters, Martha Withers Agner and Elizabeth Withers Smith, and brother Dr. Abner Withers are members of the seventh generation descended from Spratt, whose name was also Sprot and Sprat.
The Withers family and their children and grandchildren have earned a prominent place in Rowan County history, and Martha Agner, wife of the late Dr. Roy Agner, has written several books of genealogy and history.
Smith said her sisters had known for a long time of their Spratt ancestry and had known that the family farm was buried under the grounds at Mercy Hospital.
The sisters contacted Merritt, the Carolinas HealthCare official guiding excavation of the graves. He brought them to the gravesite and put them on a committee to decide how best to honor their ancestor.
Smith’s husband, Neal, served in the N.C. legislature and died only a few weeks ago. She and her sisters and brother were present when the remains of Thomas Spratt and other family members were reinterred in the historic cemetery at Steele Creek Presbyterian Church. In the process, they met other prominent Spratt descendants such as U.S. Rep. John Spratt, a Democrat who represents the Rock Hill, S.C., area in Congress, and Jane Spratt McColl, wife of former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl.
She pays tribute to Merritt and others who took such time and care to give proper tribute to one of the first English setters to arrive in Mecklenburg County.
One historical summary says Spratt, his wife and their small family may have taken the first “wheeled vehicle” south across the Yadkin River, after traveling a “fur Piece” from the eastern shore of Maryland and Virginia. The family arrived here around 1740.
After resting a while near the “Rocky River” in what is now Cabarrus County, Spratt and his descendants settled in the area now known as Pineville, south of Charlotte.
History says the first court session held in Mecklenburg County convened in Spratt’s house, and his descendants married Polks, whose descendants eventually produced James Knox Polk, who was elected president of the United States.
“It is a fascinating story, and I just feel honored to have been able to participate in this effort” to reinter her ancestors’ remains, Elizabeth Withers Smith said last week. “And I want our descendants to know more about the people who came before them.”
Contact Frank DeLoache at 704-797-4245 or fdeloache@salisburypost.com.