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History: Frontier Justice - How Pelham received its name

Some may find it just coincidental - we think it's part of a vast eternal plan - that in the span of a few days, Prudence Hutchison Westholm has revealed the source of the name for the Hutchison Community (History: The story & Lineage of C.R. Hutchison & Sons), and today, Mike Watson details source of the name Pelham Branch and Pelham Branch Road, for the stream and the Highway which flow at the foot of the hill on which the Hutchison Community Church, the center of the village still stands
Readers may remember that this scene was re-enacted in the Columbia Cemetery in October 2011 on the annual Ghost Walk, and about two months later at the Adair Public Library for a meeting of the Adair County Genealogical Society. Re-enacted by several Adair County residents, namely, one of the finest troupes to ever tread the boards: Barry Jones, Ken Hill, Kenneth Bennett, Gary Pike, Mr. Richard Phelps and Tom Gentry.

By Mike Watson, Adair County Historian

There are many, many beautiful spots in Adair County, or perhaps one could say there are very few ugly spots in Adair County. The area along Pelham Branch, as it has been known since (our) antiquity, has long been a tranquil region, often a place of contemplation. But that may not have been always so. Judge Rollin T. Hurt, famed jurist from Columbia, wrote of an instance of frontier justice at the hands of some of the earliest settlers of the area.


Previous to the organization of Adair County, and when there were no courts before whom offenders could be brought, except those so far away as to be not readily available, our ancestors dealt out justice in their own way. There were no jails in which to confine offenders and no means of collecting fines and judgments. If a suspicious character came into their midst, the intrepid settlers often applied the doctrine of locking the stable door before the horse was stolen. The enforcement of such doctrine is invoked in the history of the Pelhams.

About 1799 or 1800 three men, two of whom were named Pelham, built a cabin on the banks of Pelham Branch and took up residence. They gave no account of where they came from, nor the cause of their coming. A suspicion grew that they were murderers or thieves and if not molested would soon be plying their trade again. The scattered citizens held an informal meeting. Colonel William Casey, Major Nathan Montgomery, and Captain John Butler, as the natural leaders, were to call on the Pelhams and to require them to state their business and intentions, and give an account of their lives and history. Information of this reached the ears of the Pelhams. They said that if such a visit should be made to their cabin, they would shoot Casey and unmercifully beat Montgomery and Butler. The reason for different punishments was that Casey was a very large man and physically powerful, while Butler and Montgomery were of a size they could easily handle. The Pelhams did not fully appreciate the men whom they were threatening.

Casey and Montgomery went to the home of Butler to get his assistance in dealing with the Pelhams. Butler was absent from home, but two half-grown boys of the family accompanied Casey and Montgomery to the Pelhams.

When the party arrived at the Pelhams, true to their threats, one of them attempted to shoot Casey. Casey, too quick for him, seized and disarmed him, took him out of the house, threw him upon the ground, sat astride his body and calmly awaited developments. Montgomery, as was custom of that day, wore his hair plaited in a long queue that hung down his back. As soon as he entered the house, one of the men instantly sprang forward, seized the queue, wound it around his hand, and with his free hand began to beat upon Montgomery's head and face.

Montgomery was at a great disadvantage and rendered nearly helpless to defend himself. The Butler boys became alarmed at the turn of affairs, drew their knives and made ready to stand their ground, to give assistance in a desperate way. Casey knew Montgomery's abilities and did not become excited nor move from his position astride the prostrate Pelham. He directed the young Butlers not to interfere nor attempt to give any assistance to Montgomery, and assured them that all would be well.

The struggle between Montgomery and his adversary went round and round the room for a time. Montgomery gradually broke Pelham's hold on his queue. He gave a terrific blow to Pelham's face that sent him across the room and against the back wall in the fireplace. Before Pelham could recover, Montgomery gave one furious kick after another on Pelham's face, and completely put him out of the fighting. The third man attempted to interfere, to rescue his companion from the pounding Montgomery was giving him, but the young Butlers, with the courage of their race, warned him not to interfere, and facing him with knives in hand, compelled him to desist.

A neighbor, hearing Pelham's cries for help, ran to the house and stopped his further punishment. Concluding from the conversation and conduct of the Pelhams that they were undesirable citizens, the two unharmed ones were tied to a tree and forty lashes administered upon each of their backs. The one who had fought Montgomery was considered sufficiently chastised and further punishment was not administered. They were warned that their removal from the country would be acceptable, and they did so without delay and were heard from no more.

The beautiful stream, which has its source near Columbia and empties into the Russell, has borne the name of Pelham from the names of the men who were so summarily dealt with upon its banks ever since.

Readers may remember that this scene was re-enacted in the Columbia Cemetery in October 2011 on the annual Ghost Walk, and about two months later at the Adair Public Library for a meeting of the Adair County Genealogical Society. Re-enacted by several Adair County residents, namely, Barry Jones, Ken Hill, Kenneth Bennett, Gary Pike, Richard Phelps and Tom Gentry.

Don't forget your ancestors, they'll haunt you!


This story was posted on 2013-02-17 09:48:38
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