The Murder of Joseph H. James: Part I

Well, it’s time for another round of weird stories from my father’s side of the family.

My last name, like LeBron’s, is James – though that’s where the similarities end (no relation).

I’ve still not been able to trace my surname to the generation that brought it to America, however, likely owing to the fact that it’s a common surname and my ancestors who bore it to the “new world” were likely historical nobodies. (Not related to Jesse James, either).

I do know that my paternal line has been in North Carolina since at least the late 1700s, if not earlier.

But in this post, my loyal (two?) readers, I’m going to look at the life and untimely death of Joseph Harden James, my gr-gr-gr-grandfather.

Early Years

Joseph was born in 1843 in Stokes County, North Carolina, which is where most of my paternal lineage lived and many continue to live.

He was born to Jonathan James and Millie Catherine Boles. His younger sister, also named Millie, appeared in an earlier post as the mother of the tragic Edwards children.

But back to Joseph.

At the time of the 1860 census, the last federal census taken before the Civil War, Joseph was seventeen years old and living with his parents, his brother Leander, and his two sisters Millie and Mary. Neither of Joseph’s parents could read or write but they still owned a farm worth roughly $800.

The War

North Carolina seceded from the United States 20 May 1861 and not long after that, in June 1861 a regiment was formed of men from Davidson, Surry, Forsyth, Stokes, Rockingham, and Guilford Counties. The regiment, originally called the 11th NC Volunteers, would be renamed the 21st NC Infantry.

Joseph, though he was of age, did not join the Confederate Army until he was conscripted in August 1862 – four months after the Confederate government passed the first military conscription act in American history.

The 21st NC Infantry has been mentioned in my blog before. My gr-gr-gr-grandfather, John Kiser, was a soldier in Company G of the regiment. Joseph Harden was assigned to Company C.

Joseph, from what I can tell, was illiterate, so he left behind no written record of his experiences during the war. His military records show that he was conscripted for the duration of the war. However long the conflict would last would be his term of service. Assuming that he remained with his unit in uninterrupted service he would have seen the battles of Second Manassas, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Plymouth (NC), and Cold Harbor.

July 1864 found the 21st North Carolina under the command of Major General John C. Breckinridge (Breckinridge’s Corps). To help visualize the structure of Civil War era armies, here’s a little graphic assistance from, the website for the Civil War Trust:


The 21st NC took part in the Battle of Monocacy on 9 July 1864, just to the northwest of Washington, D.C. According to the National Parks Service, the fight at Monocacy was part of the Confederacy’s “bold plan to turn the tide of the Civil War in their favor.  They planned to capture Washington, D.C. and influence the elections of 1864.  On July 9, 1864, however, Federal soldiers, outnumbered three to one, fought gallantly along the banks of the Monocacy River in an effort to buy time for Union reinforcement to arrive in Washington D.C.”

A few days later, on 11 July 1864, the regiment was engaged in the Battle of Fort Stevens just a few miles north of Washington. Ultimately the Confederate Army withdrew from the vicinity of Washington after Federal reinforcements arrived to strengthen the city’s defenses.


Confederate forces began withdrawing from the area around Washington, D.C. into northern Virginia near Winchester.

The National Parks Service describes the Battle of Rutherford’s Farm:

On July 20, Brig. Gen. W.W. Averell’s Union division attacked Maj. Gen. S.D. Ramseur’s Confederate division at Rutherford’s and Carter’s farms. This sudden assault came in on the flank of Hoke’s brigade as it was deploying, throwing it into a panic. Ramseur retreated toward Winchester in confusion. Averell captured four pieces of artillery and nearly 300 men. With this defeat, Early withdrew his army south to a defensive position at Fisher’s Hill.

The 21st North Carolina Infantry was part of Hoke’s Brigade at that time. One of the 300 men captured by Averell was Joseph H. James. Joseph was processed at Atheneum Prison in Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia) before arriving at Camp Chase just outside Columbus, Ohio on 28 July 1864.

Joseph, described in his prison of war documents as being a farmer, aged 21, 5’9″ with blue eyes and dark hair, spent the remainder of the war at Camp Chase. He signed an oath of allegiance to the United States (by marking an ‘x’) in mid-May 1865 and returned to North Carolina sometime thereafter.


All of this was fairly easy to find out because the documentation exists.

However, Joseph was a farmer and illiterate, so I’ll never know much more than what military and property records tell me. I can’t know how he felt about serving in the Confederate Army and I can’t know how he got home after the war ended.

What frustrated me for years, though, was that I could not fix a date of death for Joseph. By looking at census records I could tell that he must have died sometime between 1880 and 1900 (remember, the 1890 census was destroyed in a fire) but I couldn’t determine an exact year. Also, if he did die during that time he would have been fairly young – 57 at the oldest.

It was several years ago that I began to seriously investigate Joseph’s death and, like with any mystery, fact would prove stranger than myth.

Family Man

Joseph married Amanda Timmons on 20 February 1866 when he was 23 and she was 30. Their only child, Harden Wilkerson James (my gr-gr grandfather), was born on 19 August 1869.

As of the 1870 census the family was living in the Yadkin District of Stokes County, North Carolina. Joseph was back to farming and his wife Amanda and son Harden are in the household.

By 1880, Joseph was living with his wife Salena and his two sons David and Riley in the Meadows District of Stokes County.

That’s when my focus shifted from “how/when did he die?” to “wait, what??”

Normally I would have assumed that Amanda, Joseph’s first wife, had passed away at some point between 1870 and 1880 but later research would reveal that she didn’t die until August 1899.

Sarah Salena George

Sarah was born in 1848 and was twelve years younger than Joseph’s first wife, Amanda.

Records show that her son Amos Thornton James was born in December 1874. Amos’ death certificate lists Selina George and Thornton James as his parents. Now, Joseph and Thornton are two very different names – so I have no idea why there’s the disconnect there. What I do know is that the informant for his death certificate was his second wife, Eliza, who was born almost a decade after Joseph Harden had died. It’s possible that Eliza knew little to nothing about Amos’ paternity. Still, I’m confident enough to make the connection.

Second Marriage

I do know that Joseph Harden James married Sarah Selena George in Carroll County, Virginia, on 4 July 1878. Carroll County is just across the NC-VA border from Stokes County, where Joseph and Sarah would be found living in the 1880 census. The marriage record correctly identifies Joseph’s parents and, interestingly, lists his marital status at the time as “divorced.”

Divorce wasn’t entirely unknown during this period in American history. Certainly, it wasn’t nearly as common as it is today but it did happen. Of course in the late 19th century women were almost entirely dependent on men so divorce would have been far less common if only out of practical concern.

So, in 1880 Joseph is living with his second wife, Sarah Salena, and their two sons David (b. 1877) and William Riley (b. 1878).

Now, you might be asking yourself: “Where’s Amos?”

I have no idea. Amos would have been about six years old at the time of the 1880 census but he wasn’t listed as living in the home. I don’t know where he was – which is annoying.

Also, David never appears again after the 1880 census. I do know that according to Sarah she gave birth to six children, five of whom were living as of 1910. It’s possible that David died between 1880 and 1900 – because as I’ve said multiple times now, the 1890 census was destroyed in a fire.

Sarah and Joseph would go on to have two more children together: Daniel King (b. 1881) and Sidney Manuel (b. 1883).


“What I heard was that he got killed by Slade George. George killed him with a goose-necked hoe.”

“A what?”

“A goose-necked hoe.”

That’s what my first cousin (two times removed) Marvin James told me over the phone in 2012 when I called him. He said that he’d heard the story from Aunt Zene (I mentioned her in another blog).

He apologized and told me that he was going out dancing and that he hoped I’d find what I was looking for. Marvin passed away in October 2014 at the age of 83 – I never met him in person but I wish I could thank him for putting up with my silly questions.

So in 2012, all I knew was the rumor that Joseph had been murdered for some reason by a member of the George family. The weapon? A goose-necked hoe.

Death incarnate?

That just sounded odd to me. For so many reasons. Of course, it was all I had to go on so I at least tried using that information but to no avail.

After talking to several members of my extended family I realized that there existed a sincere conviction that Joseph Harden was murdered. Some said with an ax. Some repeated to me the goose-necked hoe theory. Some said that he was murdered by one of Sarah Selena’s family members and some had no idea.

You have to realize that genealogy is not the straightforward, mind-opening endeavor that would like you to believe it is.

Genealogical research is a pain in the ass. Of course, the Internet has made the job much easier and much harder. Primary documents are being digitized constantly and, the Wal-Mart of genealogy, does a fantastic job of gobbling up access to these records.

The massive drawback is that people leap into genealogy with naive assumptions and high expectations. Using Ancestry, they add everything to their family tree that seems somewhat plausible exciting. Cherokee princess? Sure, why not? Descendant of a king of England? I knew it!

We all have to start somewhere but, as the saying goes, “Family history without documentation is mythology.”

The explosion of amateurism has created a minefield of incorrect and downright falsified information. This information then gets picked up by others who accept it without question, thus creating the impression simply by volume of use that the information is credible.

I’ve been doing this work since I was a wee lad of ten. I’m thirty-three now. I’ve spent cumulative weeks (probably) of my life engaged in digging up the dead (figuratively speaking). I’ve waded through an abandoned, heavily forested cemetery with a fourth cousin I’d only just met. I’ve called absolute strangers (distantly related, maybe) to ask about their parents. I’ve harassed (kindly and politely) my own grandparents with endless questions. I’ve ordered xeroxed copies of wills and court documents from the North Carolina Archives. I’ve spent nights looking at GIS maps and reading property deeds.


I’m a nerd. Obviously.

But in the early 2010s, I was consumed with finding out just what happened to my gr-gr-gr-grandfather, Joseph Harden James.

And you’ll just have to wait for the thrilling conclusion – but I’ll give you a hint.


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