John Withers, A Vintage Vignette

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John Withers
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
November 26, 2007

Few people today know of pioneer John Withers (1770-1826) and his family that initially owned much of the land around the present city of Madison. John, born in England, came to America before the Revolution. He arrived in Madison County by 1808. He served as judge in the County Court of 1815. His fellow justices included LeRoy Pope (the “Father of Huntsville”) and Thomas Bibb (2nd Governor of Alabama). In 1809 he obtained land where Thornton Research Park is now located, south of Old Madison Pike around Quality Circle. His home was on the bluff overlooking the southernmost lake of Research Park. There are indications of a small cemetery atop the hill west of the house. Likewise, there are indications of a couple of rock-covered graves at the bottom of the bluff, on the west side of the lake. Withers owned another half section of land to the west, totaling 535 acres in all. The western parcel, along both sides of Indian Creek, includes the site of the Lanford-Slaughter house southward to Madison Academy and Alabama Highway 20 (Madison Boulevard).

Withers’ parents were William and Priscilla Wright Withers. John’s father descended from Lord Withers, and the family lived in Williamsburg, Virginia, on land they sold to Samuel Washington. John’s wife was Mary Herbert Jones Withers. Mary’s parents were Frederick Jones of Virginia and Susannah Claiborne, daughter of Augustine Claiborne, who married Mary Herbert. Mary Herbert’s mother was Mary Stith, who was Maid of Honor to Queen Anne of England, while her father was a son of Lord Herbert, direct descendant of the first Earl of Pembroke. Data in the Withers Family File (Heritage Room of the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library) shows ancestry back to Malcolm II, King of Scotland.

Eleven children of John and Mary Withers mentioned in his will and other documents were: Susannah Claiborne, William, Dorothea, Priscilla, Augustus Jones, Ann Eliza, Mary Dorothy, Jones Mitchell, Maria Herbert, John, and David Wright. After Mary’s death, which occurred in 1848, the will left the land jointly to Augustus and Jones. The will referred to David as “my unfortunate son”, for whom provisions were to be made. Records show Withers family members later involved in land transactions with such local notables as Reuben Chapman (a Governor of Alabama), Isham J. Fennell (a major landowner of the county), Mary Levert, James O’Shaughnessy, and members of the Collier, Scruggs, Humphrey, and Hardage families. John Withers attended medical school in New York and practiced in the Madison area, living from 1857 just west of County Line Road near the railroad, where there is another Withers family cemetery. His wife was Palmyra Jordan, daughter of Samuel Jordan, whose father (also a Samuel) came to Madison County in 1818. Dr. Samuel Withers, son of John and Palmyra, lived in Mooresville and married Emma, daughter of Charles Collier.

Susannah Claiborne Withers married Clement Clay, who became the 8th governor of the state. Jones Withers, a West Point graduate, became a Major General of the Confederacy. He also served as Private Secretary to his brother-in-law (Governor Clay) and became Secretary of the Alabama Senate. He moved southward, where he was editor of the Mobile Tribune newspaper and mayor of that city. Priscilla married William McDowell of Huntsville, and one of their children, Mary Eliza, married Dr. Claudius Henry Mastin who served on the staffs of Confederate Generals Bragg, Polk, and Beauregard. Claudius was a son of Francis Turner Mastin, whose father came to Virginia with Lord Fairfax. Claudius’ mother was Ann Eliza Caroline Levert, whose mother was a great-niece of Admiral Edward Vernon, namesake of Mt. Vernon, home of George Washington. Ann Levert’s father was Claudius Levert, who came to Virginia from as surgeon of Count de Rochambeau’s French fleet during the Revolutionary War. Two nephews of Claudius Mastin served as Mayor of Huntsville in the 1870s and 1880s. Mastin descendants owned considerable land south of today’s Madison. Sometimes it seems as if we need a sign in Madison to say “Walk with integrity, for the seeds of greatness have been sown here.”

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