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Heritage \ People \ James G. Birney \ Old Kentucky Newspapers \

Local History, Number V
Contributed by Bryant of Danville, KY (March 2003)

The Kentucky Advocate - Thursday, January 26, 1893


Historic Families, Early Politics, and General Reminiscence.


(Historical facts suggested by files of "The Olive Branch"
a paper published in Danville in 1826.)

Among the letters advertised in "The Olive Branch" of July 7th, 1826, as remaining uncalled for in the Harrodsburg post office was one for James Birney, who then lived near Danville. As has been stated, Mr. Birney was a native of Ireland. He was born in County Cavan, about 1767 and embarked at Dublin for the United States in 1788, being then a strapping Irish lad of sixteen, with very little money, but with that deficiency largely compensated by a large fund of mother-wit and an uncommon share of shrewdness. Arriving in Philadelphia, he immediately obtained employment as a clerk in a large wholesale and retail dry goods house. There he remained five years and then, having obtained on credit a large stock of goods, he shipped them across the mountains to Pittsburgh, thence down the river to Maysville, and from that point along the old buffalo trace to Danville, where he opened a store in the autumn of 1788. Danville was then the Capital of the Kentucky District of Virginia and the centre of the political strifes, of the legal business, and the social life of all the country West of the Alleghanies. Every year he was accustomed to go to Philadelphia for his goods, which he conveyed to Danville alternately in covered wagons, on flat boats, and on pack horses; convoying his purchases personally with a considerable part of men armed with trusty rifles. With all the thrift which was native to the Irishmen of Ulster of Scotch descent, he succeeded rapidly and as he prospered he established branch stores at Stanford and other places and bagging factories and rope works at Danville and at other points -- he was in fact, the leader in all commercial enterprises and manufacturing industries south of the Kentucky river, and he was reported to be, and probably was, the wealthiest man in Kentucky on this side of that stream. He organized and was President of the first bank established in Danville. In the war of 1812 he was a contractor on a large scale for furnishing supplies to the armies in the West and South, meeting all is engagements punctually, and in this way rendering great public service. He had a winter home in Danville and a country seat at "Woodlawn" now owned by R.G. Evens.

James Birney was an aggressive man, not classically educated, but a well-read man of strong mind, decided in his friendships and animosities, sharp at a trade, a friend of education and material progress, a staunch "Old Federalist." David Bell was at first one of his clerks and afterwards for a time his partner. His successor in business was Maj. Jas. Barbour.

He was active in establishing the Episcopal Church in Danville; it can scarcely be said of him that he cared for that or any other form of religion; but he had an active and positive dislike for the Presbyterians. Against the remonstrances of her family, and in spite of all they could do to prevent it, about two years after he came to Danville he married Martha Reed, one of the daughters of John Reed and Elizabeth Wilcox. John Reed was also an Irishman, of English descent, and a Presbyterian, who had left Ireland for political reasons about 1745. Elizabeth Wilcox was a native of Virginia -- a descendant of the John Wilcox who was a member of the House of Burgesses in 1640. This first wife of James Birney had two children, James Gillespie and Anne Birney, and then she died, in 1795, and was buried at the VanMeter place. The simple inscription on her tombstone reads:

"Sacred to the memory of Martha, mother of James and Nancy Birney."

The son was the Abolitionist. The daughter was the wife of Judge John J. Marshall; -- the mother of Gen. Humphrey Marshall. After her death, James Birney married one of her younger sisters, who also died within a year.

Your correspondent, Miss Polk, is mistaken in saying that her uncle, Clement Polk, married a Birney. These two children were all that James Birney ever had. His only known relative in this country besides them were his sisters, Mrs. Doyle, a childless widow, whom he brought from Ireland after the death of these two wifes, and who lived with him until her death in 1834; and another sister -- the mother of the late John Whelan and Miss Jane Whelan. When an old man he married a third wife, a Miss Richardson, by whom he had no issue. The wife of Clement Polk was a sister or a niece -- I think a niece -- of this third wife.

The sisters of James Birney's first and second wives were the wives of Willis Green, of Edward Hughes, Thomas Ball, and of Rev. Baker. Their brothers were John Reed, the Clerk of Washington, who married Margaret Rogers, a cousin of Felix Grundy, and was the father of the wives of Judge Cyrus Edwards of Rev. Samuel K. Nelson and of Sidney Clay -- the latter better known as Mrs. Isabella Weisiger; Jonathan Reed; who married Anne, daughter of Richard Gaines, and was the father of the two wives of Judge Paul J. Booker, of Springfield, of Mrs. Dr. Carter, of Columbus, Ohio, and of the late Wm. D. Reed and Hon. Thomas Buck Reed, U.S. Senator from Mississippi. The latter married a Miss Richardson, the sister of James Birney's third wife. The mother of John R. Ford was another of these Richardson sisters and the last wife of the late James Gillespie was still another. The wife of Clement Polk had lived in Mr. Birney's house, as an inmate of his family, because of her kinship to his third wife. Your correspondent is mistaken in saying that James G. Birney presented to Clement Polk a bill of sale for eight valuable negroes. The transaction was as stated in the diary of James G. Birney, made at the time of the occurrence. The negroes were given to Mrs. Polk (not to her husband), by James Birney (not by James G. Birney), and they were indebted for their freedom to James G. Birney, and not to Clement Polk.

Old Kentucky 1893 Articles
Some Very Old Papers
The Polks
Local History, No. V
Local History, No. VI
James G. Birney, No. VII
James G. Birney, No. VIII
James G. Birney, No. IX
James G. Birney, No. X
People Referenced
Baker, (Rev.)
Ball, Thomas
Barbour, Jas. (Maj.)
Bell, David
Birney, Anne
Birney, James G.
Birney, James G. Sr.
Booker, Paul J. (Judge)
Carter, Mrs. (Dr.)
Clay, Sidney
Doyle, Mrs.
Edwards, Cyrus (Judge)
Evans, R.G.
Ford, John R.
Gaines, Anne
Gaines, Richard
Green, Willis
Grundy, Felix
Hughes, Edward
Marshall, Humphrey
Marshall, John J. (Judge)
Nelson, Samuel K. (Rev.)
Polk, Clement
Polk, Miss.
Polk, Mrs.
Reed, John
Reed, Jonathan
Reed, Martha
Reed, Thomas B.
Reed, Wm. D.
Richardson, Miss.
Rogers, Margaret
VanMeter, Mr.
Weisiger, Isabella Mrs.
Whelan, Jane
Whelan, John
Wilcox, Elizabeth
Wilcox, John
Subjects Referenced
Bank president
Columbus, OH
County Cavan, Ireland
Dublin, Ireland
Danville, KY
Episcopal church
Harrodsburg postoffice
Kentucky Distric of VA
Kentucky river
Mayville, KY
House of Burgesses
Irishmen of Ulster
Old Federalist
Philadelphia, PA
Pittsburg, PA
United States
U.S. Senator
VanMeter place
Woodlawn, KY

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