Governor Gabriel Holmes: Notable Son of Pioneer Family

This series of articles on Governor Gabriel Holmes will focus on four locations in Sampson associated with his life and death. The significance of Locations 1 and 2 are discussed in the first article. Later articles will discuss the significance of Nos. 3 and 4. 1. Site of Sampson Courthouse, around which the Town of Clinton developed. 2. Site of Belmont, where Governor was born in 1769. 3. Site of 3,000-acre turpentine plantation on which Holmes lived while Governor and where he died in 1829. 4. Site of John Sampson Cemetery in which the Governor’s body was re-interred in 1984 after buried for 155 years at Belmont.

Gabriel Holmes Jr. was born in 1769 — exact day unknown — on the family plantation, Belmont, which was located about two miles north-northwest of what is now the Sampson County Courthouse. Congressman Gabriel Holmes died on September 26, 1829, on his 3,000-acre plantation near what is now Roseboro while the Congress of the United States, of which he was a member, was in recess. During the 60 years between his birth and death, Gabriel Holmes “went places,” and that included a three-year stay in the “Executive Mansion” in Raleigh.

The Governor’s parents, Gabriel (Sr.) (1719-1785) and Mary Caison Holmes (ca. 1730-1800), were among Sampson’s pioneer settlers. They moved into the area from their native Edgecombe County by the late 1740s. Gabriel (Sr.) bought his first 100 acres of land in June 1750 from Colonel John Sampson for whom Sampson County would later be named. (Duplin Deed Bk. 2, p. 218) The deed identifies Gabriel (Sr.) as a resident of Duplin and the waterway on which Sampson sold him land as “Gabriels Branch.” This would indicate that Gabriel and Mary arrived in Sampson while the area was still part of New Hanover County. Thus, they would have seen Duplin County created out of the “upper reaches” of New Hanover in April 1750 and Sampson County created out of western Duplin in June 1784. They also would have seen Sampson County’s first courthouse rise among the trees in what was practically their backyard.

Colonel Sampson sold Gabriel Holmes a second tract of 260 acres in 1762 that encompassed the earlier 100-acre purchase. (Bk. 4, p. 4) Then in 1778, Holmes received a 700-acre land grant that wrapped around three sides of the 260 acres purchased from Sampson. (Duplin Land Grant File No. 1730) The beginning corner of the grant was “near Gabriel’s home-place [and] at the cart path that leads from Gabriel Holmes’ to Col. John Sampson’s.” Thus, Belmont appears to have been where the Southeast Business Center is now located on North Boulevard in Clinton and about two miles west of where Colonel Sampson lived in what is now the 500 block of Beaver Dam Drive in Clinton.

Gabriel Holmes Sr. expanded his land holdings through five more land grants and several more land purchases. A 1784 tax list shows him owning 2,500 acres and 12 slaves. The location of most of Gabriel Holmes’ land can be seen on the Duplin-Sampson Land Grant Map for the Clinton North Quadrangle. That map shows Gabriels Branch flowing into the north side of (Wheats) Beaverdam Swamp and Beaverdam Swamp draining most of present-day Clinton. As the years passed, Gabriels Branch became known as Williams Branch, Williams Old Mill Branch, or just Mill Branch.

Gabriel Holmes Sr. had a brother, Edward, who moved down from Edgecombe County, also. Edward Holmes made his will in January 1761 in which he names “my beloved brother Gabriel Holmes executor of his estate. (Duplin Will Bk. A, p. 466) The will, which was probated March 1761, dispenses only personal property, and that goes to Edward’s son John and his daughter Mary. In 1778, John Holmes buys land about three miles northeast of Belmont, where his Uncle Gabriel Holmes Sr. is living. But John soon sells his land and moves away, leaving his Uncle Gabriel’s family with the only Holmes name in the county. (Duplin Deed Bk. 5, p. 381; Bk. 8, p. 240).

Mr. and Mrs. Gabriel Holmes Sr. were parents of seven children: daughters Ann, Dorothy and Penelope; and sons Hardy, Lewis, Owen, and Gabriel Jr., the future governor. In June 1785, Gabriel Sr. died without a will “but seized and possessed of a considerable quantity of land.” Ordinarily, the Court appointed an administrator when a person died without a will, but in this case, the four sons of the deceased “settled the estate” themselves. The formula they followed was a common one used at the time: daughters got slaves; sons got land. No record has been found showing how the slaves were divided among Ann, Dorothy, and Penelope Holmes.

Deeds recorded in Bk. 9, pp. 418-20 & Bk. 10, pp. 32-33 reveal how the sons divided the land. The oldest son Hardy Holmes (1750-1828) took no land for himself, indicating his father had already helped him. Part of that help came in 1780 when Gabriel Holmes Sr. deeded his son Hardy two land grants, totaling 159 acres, that he — the elder Holmes — had received in 1763. (Duplin Land Grant Files Nos. 262, 263; Deed Bk. 7, p. 59) That was the beginning of “Gilmore,” a plantation of 1,000 acres that Hardy Holmes developed on Gilmore Swamp about six miles northeast of the Sampson Courthouse. Some researchers believe Gabriel Holmes (Jr.), the Governor, once lived on Gilmore Swamp, too, but this writer has found no records supporting such belief.

Hardy Holmes had begun making his mark before his father died in 1785. In 1776, when North Carolina declared its independence from Great Britain, Hardy marched off to fight in the Revolutionary War as a lieutenant in the Continental line. Although wounded, Hardy returned home a captain, joined the State Militia, and rose to the rank of brigadier general. When the Sampson Court of Common Pleas and Quarter Sessions, the county’s governing body, held its organizational session in July 1784, its second order of business was to elect Hardy Holmes as the county’s first sheriff. Hardy and his brother, Lewis, traveled to Hillsborough in 1788 to represent Sampson at a Constitutional Convention called to decide if North Carolina should join the federal union. Like most other delegates, they voted “no.” Hardy went the following year, 1789, to a second Constitutional Convention (held in Fayetteville) to consider again the federal question. This time he and the majority of the delegates voted “yes” after being told of the amendments, now known as the “Bill of Rights,” proposed for the constitution. Hardy ended his long career of public service by serving 34 years as clerk of the Sampson Court. The Fayetteville Observer in its November 27, 1828, edition reported that General Hardy Holmes of Sampson County had died on the 22nd of that month at the age of 77. He and his wife, the former Feriby (Feraby) Moore, are buried in the Thomson-Moore Cemetery north of Turkey. They had no children.

Lewis Holmes (dates unknown) received 1,050 acres, the second largest share of his father’s estate. To this inheritance, Lewis added both land purchases and land grants. Then in October 1794, Lewis Holmes sold all of his Sampson land, some 1,380 acres, and disappeared from county records. (Bk. 9, pp. 413-417) Legend says, “He went South.” Lewis was making his mark, too, when he headed South. He had served on the Sampson Court, represented the county during three terms of the General Assembly, and with his brother Hardy, attended the first Constitutional Convention at Hillsborough.

Owen Holmes (1762-1814), third son of Gabriel and Mary Caison Holmes, received only a modest share of his father’s estate, suggesting that he, too, had already benefited from his late father’s generosity. The 425 acres that he did inherit ran along the north bank of Beaverdam Swamp and was said to include the place where Owen was then living. Owen Holmes married Nancy (Ann) Clinton, a daughter of Richard Clinton for whom the Town of Clinton is named. Richard Clinton was the Duplin County Register of Deeds when Sampson County was created out of western Duplin in 1784, and he continued in the same post in his new county. He also provided — for a token fee of five shillings — five acres of land on which Sampson erected a courthouse. Then when Richard Clinton died suddenly in 1795, Owen Holmes, his son-law-law, succeeded him as the Sampson Register of Deeds. Along with holding public office, Owen amassed much property and fathered eight children, only three of whom were “of age” when he made his will in November 1813. 1  Named in the will, which was probated at the February 1814 Court, are his widow Ann; three daughters: Ann, Penelope and Mary; and five sons: Gabriel, James, Owen Jr., Richard, and Hardy. The children’s inheritance included over 1,500 acres of land, about 30 slaves, a water mill, and a new plantation house that is said to have stood near the present site of Hog Slats, Inc. on Five Bridges Road, Clinton.

As a youth of 16, Gabriel Holmes Jr., the future Governor, was attending Dr. McCord’s Zion Parnassus Academy in Salisbury when his father, Gabriel Sr., died suddenly in June 1785. When his father’s estate was settled, Gabriel Jr., as the youngest son, was to get 1,770 acres of his late father’s land upon the death of his mother Mary. The land was in seven tracts, and they included the 260 acres Gabriel Sr. had purchased from John Sampson in 1750 and 1762 and the 700 acres he had acquired in an adjoining land grant in 1778. In other words, Gabriel Jr. was slated to get Belmont, the family home-place. For the first two years after his father’s death, young Gabriel stayed home with his mother and farmed. He then went up to Massachusetts and studied at Harvard College (University) for three years. This was followed by a law apprenticeship, which enabled him to pass the bar. In the meantime, 23-year-old Gabriel is charged at the May 1792 session of the Sampson Court “with begetting a bastard child on the body of Nancy Moore.” He accepts responsibility for the child and promises it will not become a ward of the county. Also in 1792, a site near the Wake County Court House is selected for North Carolina’s permanent capital, later named Raleigh. The following year, 1793, Gabriel Holmes is elected to his first term as one of Sampson’s two representatives in the General Assembly. The Assembly meets that year in Fayetteville, but by the following year, (1794) facilities are ready in Raleigh for them to meet there. Then in January 1795, 25-year-old Gabriel Holmes marries Mary (Polly) Smith Hunter, the youngest daughter of Colonel and Mrs. Theophilus Hunter (of Spring Hill), two of Wake County’s most prominent citizens. 2

The November 1800 Sampson Court grants Gabriel Holmes administration of his mother Mary’s estate, proving she was dead by this date, and giving him full title to Belmont and 1,770 acres of his father’s former land. About the same time, the State grants him an additional 1,223 acres east of Belmont. (Sampson Land Grant Files Nos. 269 & 938)

Thus, at the age of 31, Gabriel Holmes (Jr.) appears to be on his way domestically, economically and politically. Read Part II of Tom Byrd’s series on Governor Holmes in a future issue of The Huckleberry Historian to see how the journey ends. You may be surprised!

  1. Sampson Deed Bk. 29, pp. 29-31. Why the will is filed in a deed book and not a will book is a mystery.
  2. A letter from General Theophilus H. Holmes, the Governor’s son, to Judge A. A. McKoy of Clinton, written in 1871 and published in the December 1981 edition of The Huckleberry Historian, contains part of the above information on the Holmes family. Another helpful source was The North Carolina State Guide, an official record of state office holders.

Endued with the “value of learning,” 18-year-old Gabriel Holmes left the family plantation in Sampson County in 1787 for far-away Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Harvard University. During his three-year stay there his classes were in Harvard Hall, erected in 1764.

Among the artifacts in the Sampson County Heritage Museum is a mantel that Historian Claude H. Moore, 1916-1994, said was built in 1760 and came from the home of Governor Gabriel Holmes. Thus, the mantel must be from Belmont, the Governor’s boyhood home where he was born in 1769. The mantel now served as a prop for other museum artifacts.