TIMBER RIDGE — Some came from across the country — Colorado, New York, Texas, and California to name a few places. Others came from just up the road.
On Saturday, the descendants of one of the first European settlers gathered in Rockbridge County in an 18th-century cemetery outlined by red brick walls located in a pasture along U.S. Rt. 11 just south of Fairfield.
The crowd of 70 or so had come with the common purpose of unveiling and dedicating a new tombstone for Capt. John McDowell and paying tribute to the McDowell family who helped settle Augusta County at a time when the region was known as America’s western frontier.
The event marked the culmination of a five-day McDowell family gathering that saw family members and friends travel to a variety of historic spots associated not only with the McDowells, but with those other early Presbyterian families who had made the arduous journey from Ulster, a region in the north of Ireland, to Pennsylvania and then southwestward into the Valley of Virginia. Here they bought land, raised families, started commercial enterprises, and built churches and schools.
John McDowell, on whom much of the attention was focused on Saturday, and his wife Magdalena came to live in the area north of Lexington around 1737. Other members of their families and community from where they were born in Ireland settled in Augusta County as well, including John’s father Ephraim who was in his 60s.
John, an educated man with some training as a surveyor, was engaged by the major land proprietor in the area, Benjamin Borden, to survey and establish land claims for his property located in what today is southern Augusta County and Rockbridge. At that time, however, Augusta County stretched to the Mississippi River so it was all Augusta.
All went well for several years, but in December of 1742 a party of Iroquois was passing through the area and a misunderstanding with the local militia turned into a skirmish that left eight men dead on each side. Among the dead was Capt. John McDowell. He was buried in the cemetery and a crude headstone was erected.
Over the years many other family members, dozens and dozens in fact, joined John in the burial ground. John and Magdalena had several children before his untimely demise so the line of McDowells continued both in the Valley and across the country as American settlement crossed the mountains and moved west. One of their sons for instance was Samuel McDowell, who went on to follow in his father’s military footsteps with service in the French and Indian War, Lord Dunmore’s War, and the American Revolution. He was also a prominent political leader during the Revolution and, after the war, he moved to Kentucky where he became a federal judge.
Through the generations, there were other prominent McDowells, ground-breaking doctors and other leaders. The McDowell story is the American story and like many family historians these days, there is a quest to learn about the family’s roots.
Tim McDowell, a seventh-great-grandson of John McDowell, one of the organizers of the gathering and the inspiration behind the day’s events, noted that there is an old Irish tradition that says that among families there is always one person who is the story teller or the keeper of the family history.
“Every generation has one,” said McDowell, who hails from Colorado. “You know if it is you because you are considered the ‘weird one’ in the family,” he said jokingly. On a more serious note he added, “You are the ones who have been given the unique gift of passing on your family’s history.”
McDowell said that his father was one of those people. In 1996 he and his father traveled to the McDowell cemetery, only to find it badly overgrown. They actually had to locate and unearth John McDowell’s headstone.
Many individuals and groups have become concerned about what time and weather have done to the cemetery. In 2011 the Historic Lexington Foundation began organizing resources to restore and maintain the burial ground. More recently several dozen folks, many of whom are McDowell descendants, contributed to the cost of erecting the new John McDowell gravestone that was unveiled Saturday.
And so, as the reedy notes of Robert Mitchell’s bagpipe drifted across the ancient stones, and the red, white, and blue flags from many periods of American history gently waved in the slight breeze, a crowd gathered. Some in the crowd donned colonial outfits, others, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution ladies, were outfitted in color summer hats and white gloves.
Robert J. Gang III, master of ceremonies, regaled the crowd with John McDowell’s exploits. A flag that draped the new stone was ceremoniously removed, folded by American Legion post volunteers and presented to selected family descendants. Ephraim McDowell, the man who started it all and is almost certainly buried in the cemetery as well, was honored by posting a wreath on the McDowell family statute where another period flag was draped that then was also folded and presented to a family member.
Gang then brought his gun to his shoulder three times in a colonial salute to his ancestor. Horace Douty, the minister and historian of nearby Oxford Presbyterian Church closed the program with a rousing thanks for those who preserve history, ending with the traditional Irish blessing: “May the road rise to meet you, may the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face and until we meet again, may the Lord hold you in the palm of his hand.”
With the bagpipe notes again lingering in the air, the youngest generation of McDowells lifted the flags and recessed from the cemetery ready to carry their family’ story into the future.