William Gray, A Vintage Vignette

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William Gray
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
April 18, 2007

As either the bravest or the most foolhardy of men that I have researched, William Gray stands out among the pioneers of the Madison area. While he was a soldier from Virginia during the American Revolutionary War, that is not the reason for the prior statement. His most outstanding act was to get his wife, Eleanor Wardrobe Gray, sister of Lord Wardrobe of Scotland, to move with him onto Indian lands. He convinced a woman who had been raised in the castles of Europe to live in the American frontier of the early 1800s, with no “modern” conveniences or access to fine stores and society. No doubt Eleanor lived out her married life with little ability to stay in touch with her family back in Scotland, much less to have access to the creature comforts.

The Gray family appears in the public land records of Madison County in 1809, when William purchased the southeast quarter of Section 7 of Township 4, Range 1 West. That land today is just south of Interstate 565, north of Goss Road extending from Gate 9 on the arsenal, and east of Rideout Road (or Research Park Boulevard) toward the Space & Rocket Center. In fact, William served on the first jury empanelled in Madison County. When land became available for purchase west of the old Chickasaw Indian Boundary Line, two of William’s sons purchased land in Sections 4 and 5 of Township 4, Range 2 West on the second and third days of sales by the government. Their land was west of today’s Hughes Road and east of Balch Road. It ran from just north of the Madison Public Library almost to Gillespie Road.

Scrutiny of the old records indicates that William and Eleanor apparently lived in their last years with these two sons, James and David. The family cemetery is on David’s land, and graves are there for William and Eleanor, along with several of their children and grandchildren. In fact, the family cemetery became the burying ground for the Providence Cumberland Presbyterian Church that bought the 5 acres containing the cemetery from David in 1838. The church had bought land from Robert Payne in the adjacent area in 1832. The cemetery and church site are located just behind the Balch Road Self Storage facility owned by Gene Hailey. This could well be the same Cumberland Presbyterian Church that in 1869 bought a half interest in the meeting hall of the Masonic Lodge near Pension Row in west Madison in 1869. According to the deed, the church and the lodge agreed to avoid scheduling conflicting needs for the building and grounds. Meanwhile, the Gray family cemetery land was sold to Hezekiah Bailey and by 1856 was owned by Nathaniel Matson Gooch, whose heirs sold it in 1912 to the Gillespie family ancestors of Gene Hailey.

Eleanor died in 1822, just 4 years after it became legal for the family to live on what had been Indian lands. They likely were “squatters” on the land before legal purchase dates. She was 65 years old at her death. William was born in 1755 in Perth, near Edinburgh, Scotland. He lived until 1834. William and Eleanor were married in 1780, after the death of Eleanor’s first husband, a Blackburn. The Grays had at least 7 children, and their descendants married into the local Bailey, Gooch, Pride, Smith, Maxwell, Tribble, Betts, and Blackburn families, who all lived in the immediate area. Thomas Gray, a son of William and Eleanor, had a son named Pleasant who was born here but moved to Tennessee in 1826, where he got married and had 3 children before moving on to Texas. There, in east Texas, Pleasant Gray founded a town on a bluff that had a large spring at its base. He named his town Huntsville, in honor of and due to similarities with the county seat where he had been born and raised.

Strangely enough, for 21 years I have lived about a mile or so southeast of the Gray Cemetery, just across Hughes Road from James (brother of David) Gray’s land, and I lived for 15 years in Texas, where I frequently fished in the lake at Huntsville of that state. When I was a boy growing up in Mississippi, near Washington, the Territorial Capital outside of Natchez, our land had a Gray family as one of our nearest neighbors. It would seem that my paths and the Grays’ were destined to cross, even though we were about 150 years apart from one another with respect to the pioneer family from the Madison area. Through the years of my research, I have gained great respect for the man who took a bride from the castles of Scotland to live among Indians in the wilds of the American frontier. I can only imagine the comments that he received occasionally from his wife about the matter in their latter years. May they continue to rest in peace.

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