By Missy Craver Izard
Decades before an influx of Lowcountry landowners began looking for a reprieve from oppressive South Carolina summers in the mountains of Western North Carolina, Abraham Kuykendall was arguably the most prominent European settler to live in the area we now know as Flat Rock. According to Jennie Giles (www.hendersonheritage.com): “He bought 640 acres in Buncombe County (today’s Henderson County). He eventually owned 6,000 acres of land … records show that he owned most of the land in today’s village of Flat Rock and the surrounding area. He owned at one time more than 1,000 acres in what is now Flat Rock, years before any of the “Charlestonians” arrived in Henderson County.”
Abraham purchased the land in the late 1780s when he was nearly 60 years old. He and his wife came from Tennessee with most of their 14 children and possibly the younger children of his recently deceased brother. Giles continues: “Abraham Kuykendall and brother, Peter Kuykendall, moved with their families to Washington County, N.C., (now Tennessee) some time prior to 1782. Peter Kuykendall died in 1783 leaving a will with his “brother Abraham as executor.” After the estate was settled, Abraham and most of his children, along with the younger children of his brother Peter, returned to North Carolina in the late 1780s.”
The move to Flat Rock was to be the final stop for a man who lived an extremely long and accomplished life of adventure and mystery.
In her account of the life of Abraham Kuykendall, historian Jennie Giles writes: “Abraham Kuykendall was born in October 1719 in Orange County, New York. He was the son of Matthew Kuykendall and Jannetje Westphal or Cornelius Kuykendall and Marritjen Westphal. Respected genealogists disagree as to which of the two brothers and two sisters were his parents. He was baptized Oct. 18, 1719, in the Dutch Reformed Church in Deerpark, N.Y. He married Elizabeth Fidler in Kingston, N.Y., in 1743. His Kuykendall family originally lived in the vicinity of Kingston … located along the Hudson River between New York City and Albany.
(Elizabeth) was born about 1728 in Kingston, N.Y. She died after 1800 in Buncombe (Henderson) County and is presumed buried somewhere on the Kuykendall property in Flat Rock.”
During the course of their long marriage, Abraham and Elizabeth raised at least 14 children and lived in New York, Virginia (West Virginia) and in the lands that we know as S.C. and Tennessee before finally settling in N.C. Abraham also took up arms to defend North Carolina and later his new country during the Revolutionary War (1776-1781). Giles provides an account of Abraham’s service in the war:
“Abraham Kuykendall was listed as a corporal in Capt. Samuel Corbin’s list of men during 1747-48 when there was the so-called “Spanish Alarm.” He was 29. The Spanish attacks on North Carolina shipping and port towns were continuous from 1741 to 1748.
Abraham Kuykendall was appointed captain in the Tryon County (Old Tryon County) militia in 1770 and again in 1775. He was appointed captain of a Safety Committee (at the outbreak of the American Revolution) in 1776 in Old Tryon County.
In 1779, Tryon County was abolished and Rutherford County was created. Abraham was selected as one of the commissioners to select the site and supervise the erection of the courthouse, prison and stocks for the new county of Rutherford. He was also appointed a justice of the peace. He continued to serve on the Committee of Safety for Rutherford County and/or the militia during the Revolutionary War. He was in his 60s during the Revolutionary War.”
After moving to modern-day Flat Rock area around 1790, when he was more than 70 years old, Abraham finally settled down for good and proved to be a skilled entrepreneur as Gibbs tells us:
The veteran Kuykendall was one of what was to become Henderson County’s first settlers. He was awarded a land grant of 600 acres by the state of North Carolina in the late 1780s for his service during the American Revolution. Those 600 acres encompassed a large portion of what is Flat Rock today.
Abraham was an entrepreneur and he saw great opportunity in his land holdings. He eventually acquired over 6000 acres and he built a tavern and an inn on the Old State Road near where Mud Creek Baptist Church in Flat Rock sits today. It was the largest inn of its day in the area, and he built stables and corrals that could hold the livestock that were being driven to the markets in Columbia, S.C. and Savannah, Ga. The drovers could house their herds and livestock and stay for the night. He served some of the finest whiskey with his own distillery and his inn and tavern quickly gained a good reputation.”
When asked where she thought Kuykendall’s inn may have been located, Jennie Giles is less confident of its exact location. “Folks disagree on where the inn was. Based on deeds later, when children began selling the property, it may have been in the Argyle area. The Argyle land and where Kenmure is located today, were part of the Kuykendall land,” she says.
Abraham’s wife, Elizabeth Fidler Kuykendall, died sometime between 1800 and 1804. Her grave site is unknown. Despite being a very old man, he soon remarried. Giles tells us that “[Abraham] married Bathsheba Barrett Oxford, a widow, on Jan. 18, 1805, in Buncombe County (now Henderson County). He would have been 85 years of age when he married. His second wife was born about 1742. The four young children noted on the 1810 census were most likely grandchildren of his second wife, based on recent genealogical research.”
After a long and fruitful life, Abraham died in 1812. Remarkably, Abraham Kuykendall’s life spanned the colonial, revolutionary and frontier eras of the United States. According to Giles, “Abraham Kuykendall died … at the age of 93 and was buried somewhere near his home on his land in Flat Rock. It (has been) passed down through family stories that he was found dead in Pheasant Branch that flows between two hills on the Howe-Bailey land off Little River Road.”
Although there is a very impressive Revolutionary War monument erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), the marker in his honor at Mud Creek Baptist Church Cemetery is not where he is buried. It is said that large chestnut trees were cut down when he died and the trunks were split in half and used to line and cover the grave to keep wild animals from digging up the body. The actual location of his grave is unknown. However, even death could not put a final period on the story of Abraham Kuykendall’s life.
The Legend of Abraham Kuykendall
From an account on the website of the Flat Rock Chapter of the DAR, Abraham established a tavern between 1800 and 1804 known for good lodgings; its success made Abraham a rich man. He insisted that travelers pay in gold or silver coins and only accepted gold when selling parts of his huge tract of land. Soon the old soldier/pioneer/innkeeper had accumulated quite a fortune and began to fear for its safety.
There were no banks in this remote area (or anywhere in N.C.), so valuables were kept in strong boxes — large trunks made of thick white oak, held together with strips of iron and locked with large padlocks.
These precautions did not satisfy the aging Abraham, particularly since his young wife had a habit of spending her husband’s treasure on frivolous goods. Family tradition maintains that Bathseba liked fine clothes and jewelry purchased from itinerant peddlers who served as traveling department stores, bringing all kinds of goods to frontier women in isolated areas. They quickly learned that Bathseba was a good customer.
One dark night, old Abraham secretly transferred his gold and silver coins from his strong box to a large iron wash pot, an item common to pioneer households. He then awoke two of his servants to help him. He blindfolded them and ordered them to carry the pot down the road and into the forest with only a pine knot torch lighting the way. He guided them through the dense forest where he removed their blindfolds and had them dig a hole under a bent white oak tree near a clear sparkling branch. When it was deep enough to satisfy him, Abraham buried the pot, covering the spot with leaves and brush. He then blindfolded the young men and led them back to the inn.
On pain of death, he warned his servants never to tell a soul a single word of what they had done for him that night. Sometime after, when Abraham was 93 old, he set out alone to get some of his treasure for a business deal. Taking a shovel, he left the inn, never again to be seen alive. When he failed to return, a search party found him dead, lying face down in a mountain stream that flowed through the forest. Those who found him concluded that he had stumbled or tripped while trying to cross the branch, probably hitting his head. Either badly dazed or unconscious, he had rolled into the stream and drowned.
Only then did it become common knowledge that Abraham had buried his wealth in a large iron pot. The two frightened servants told the family what they could of that strange night, but all they could tell was that the money was beneath a large bent white oak near a mountain stream. Thus began a series of frantic searches along the banks of Pheasant Branch where Abraham was found and some still search today.
Soon after the old man’s death, stories began to circulate at the campfires and hearths around Flat Rock. People traveling at night during the full moon told of seeing the figure of a bent old man frantically digging first in one place and then another. Those brave enough to go after the phantom recalled how it disappeared before their very eyes.
The stories persisted and grew: One terrified traveler on horseback told of an instance when he was crossing Pheasant Branch as he heard the rattling of a wagon just ahead before catching sight of the figure of a solitary old man in a one-horse wagon. In the wagon beside the figure sat a large black wash pot. As the traveler drew alongside, the wagon, horse, man and wash pot aprubtly vanished.
Soon, all but the most foolish travelers steered clear of the vicinity of Pheasant Branch after dark, and family traditions kept the story of the gold and the ghost alive. Many have searched in vain for the treasure, including descendants of Abraham's two servants, but it has never been found.
An alternative version of the story (reported by Giles) tells us that Abraham fell ill just before he died and tried to tell his sons where to find the gold, but they could not understand him and the slaves could not provide any conclusive information regarding the location of the treasure. Giles also adds this to the legend: “Soon after the old man’s death, strange stories began to be told of people seeing among the trees at night the figure of an old man frantically digging in one place and then another. The figure would suddenly disappear. People began to call Pheasant Branch “bugger branch,” as they told disobedient children to behave or the “bugger man in Pheasant Branch will get you.”
Jennie Giles had occasion to spend time with fellow historian Louise Howe Bailey, who owned a home near the presumed site of Abraham’s demise, recalling the evening in her writings: “Louise sat with me on her porch overlooking Pheasant Branch and said she would often sit there at night watching for those mysterious lantern lights.”
Missy Craver Izard was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina. She resides in Flat Rock, North Carolina where her family runs a summer camp.