Wineka column: A treasure trove of history

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 10, 2009

By Mark Wineka
A couple of years ago Tripp Clement and his wife, Katherine, were rummaging through an upstairs room when a cardboard box fell on the floor.
Clement turned the box right-side up and spied a faded document on top. The flowing penmanship of another age made him stop and look more closely.
“Does that say 1756?” he asked. “Surely, that can’t be real.”
Clement was looking at some kind of indenture agreement, a contract on a creased, yellowed parchment possibly binding someone to work as an apprentice.
The writing and legalese of the day were hard for him to decipher, but it was clear the document was local and dated 1756. Clement felt some shivers down his back.
“There’s nothing like touching a piece of paper that’s 20 years older than the Declaration of Independence,” he says.
Tripp and Katherine gave a cursory look through the rest of the box’s contents and saw it was full of other documents from the 18th and 19th centuries.
In fact, the box had 220-plus years of history because it included correspondence related to Rowan County’s 225th anniversary in 1978. There were, for example, congratulatory letters to Rowan County from President Jimmy Carter and Gov. Jim Hunt.
Not long after the couple’s discovery, Clement tore a muscle in his abdomen that laid him up for two weeks.
He camped out on a downstairs couch in their 1854 house on West Bank Street and started a careful inventory of what Tripp nicknamed “the box o’ history.” It took him about four days, during which he mined a small treasure.
“Everything we found, basically, has something to do with Rowan County,” Clement says.
As Tripp reached deeper into the box, it became apparent that Mary Marshall Murdoch, Katherine’s mother, had at one time before her death started sorting through the materials herself, taking notes and placing things in envelopes.
Tripp had to handle everything like a surgeon making a delicate cut. He didn’t want to tear anything that had been folded into small squares and rectangles.
Much later, it would take six-and-a-half hours to have a professional appraisal.
Tripp and Katherine made sure the more significant documents went either to the Rowan Museum or the History Room at the Rowan Public Library.
“Katherine and I believe these things belong to the people of Rowan County,” Clement says. “It was just an unbelievable find.”
The museum has about 25 of the items; the library, 96.
They represent receipts, summons to court, tax assessment records, deeds, purchase lists, petitions, contracts, trial dockets and agreements.
Noteworthy finds include John Ellis’ 1847 application for a law license. Ellis went on to become N.C. governor ó the only governor from Salisbury and the first to serve during the Civil War.
There also was John Fulton’s 1802 petition to join the Old Cone Masonic Lodge. Fulton Street is named for him and, interestingly, today’s Fulton Masonic Lodge.
There’s an 1811 document reporting the capture of a runaway slave and the court dockets from 1845-47, filled with names still familiar in Rowan County.
Several papers represent receipts for materials probably used in the construction of Rowan County’s 1855 courthouse, which is today’s home for the Rowan Museum. One receipt shows a $37.52 expenditure for lumber.
As important and valuable may be important signatures on the papers. The documents are signed by the likes of plantation owner John Frohock, Adlai Osborne, Alexander Cathey, Charles Fisher Sr., Ellis and Fulton.
The origin of the box was a bit mysterious, but given the history and connections of Katherine’s family, it makes sense to have found a place in the Greek Revival house at 229 W. Bank St.
Andrew Murphy built the house in 1854. Historian Mary Jane Fowler says the wealthy young merchant was “a major mover and shaker” in Salisbury prior to the Civil War.
The youngest of his 10 children, Walter “Pete” Murphy, inherited the property. Murphy served in the N.C. House for 19 sessions, including two stints as House speaker. His son, Spencer Murphy, was editor of the Salisbury Post for 28 years.
Spencer Murphy’s daughter, Mary Marshall, married Seth Murdoch, who was Rowan County’s first manager, a position he held 19 years. Their daughter ó Katherine Lightfoot Deberry Murdoch ó represents the fifth generation in the antebellum house.
The historical finds may represent items kept by Andrew Murphy, given the dates on many papers. Pete Murphy, a lawyer, also could be a source. Or they easily could have been stored at the old courthouse, which eventually became offices for Rowan County.
Seth Murdoch might have saved the documents from disposal one day. It’s clear, for example, that Murdoch would have received the 1978 congratulatory letters about the county’s 225th birthday that were in the same box.
A lover of history, Mary Marshall Murdoch was meticulous and definitely would have seen the value of all the papers.
“None of it probably would have survived without her,” Clement says.
The runaway slave document, on permanent loan to Rowan Museum, is of considerable interest.
“It’s an unbelievable piece,” says Executive Director Kaye Brown Hirst, who uses white gloves when handling the document.
The paper dates to Feb. 6, 1811, and reports that a slave named John was in custody. John was 5 feet, 5 inches tall, had a right-eye blemish and a missing right forefinger. He was “downcast in his countenance,” the document says.
On his capture he was wearing a blue cloth coat and a new hat. He told authorities here that he belonged to Dr. Levan Dunnard of Norfolk, Va.
Holding the document up to some light, Hirst shows a watermark still visible in the page.
The trial dockets from 1845-47 also are at Rowan Museum and contained in a book with a linen cover.
“A number of these pieces will be put on display,” Hirst says. “We’re just pleased Katherine and Tripp are not hoarding all of them.”
The History Room at the library has the John Ellis law license application from June 13, 1847.
“We wouldn’t want people to handle that one much,” says Gretchen Witt, librarian for the History Room.
Most of the documents Tripp and Katherine provided for the library will be scanned so the images are available for viewing on the Web site.
“They are among the older pieces we have,” Witt says.
Sifting through some of the documents spread out on a conference table, Witt shows a 1761 receipt signed by Alexander Cathey; an 1806 summons directing the constable to bring someone to court; another summons from March 15, 1785; and an 1805 purchase list in beautifully written script.
When Witt reads passages such as “in the 41st year of our independence” to signify 1817, “I just think that’s kind of cool,” she says.
An 1855 document reveals that a “free boy of color” was apprenticed to a blacksmith. Witt says it’s important because it verifies that Salisbury had some freed slaves.
Witt also is impressed with the quality of paper used more than 200 years ago and how it has held up over the centuries.
While they have kept the oldest document from 1756 and a few others, Tripp and Katherine are excited that the museum and library now have new things never before seen by the public.
“They’re where they need to be and not in a box,” Clement says.