When I turned toward researching Reuben Wood himself, I was surprised to discover that a genealogical sketch of his life had been written by none other than Senator Sam Ervin, Jr., of Morganton, a great-great-great-grandson of Reuben Wood. An entry in the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, summarized a manuscript written by Senator Sam, which stated :
“My mother’s… great-great-grandfather, Reuben Wood [was] an old-time lawyer of Randolph County, North Carolina, who practiced as a trial lawyer in virtually every superior court and county court of pleas and quarter sessions which sat in the vast region lying between his home in Randolph County and Jonesboro, Tennessee.”
It appears that Reuben Wood was the first resident of Randolph County actually licensed to practice law in Randolph County. How had this man been so thoroughly forgotten in his own home county?
Reuben Wood’s father, John Wood (b. 23 May 1716- May 3, 1794), was a native of Middleborough, Massachusetts. He had four children by his first wife Sarah Clement, one of whom, Zebedee Wood (26 Feb 1745- 11 July 1824), became Reuben’s partner in Randolph County government. Soon after the birth of Zebedee, John Wood moved his family to the town of Mendam in Morris County, New Jersey, where his next son was born and Sarah died, perhaps from complications in childbirth. With four children under ten, John Wood quickly remarried and father four more children by his second wife Sibbel [Sybil] Wilborne. Reuben Wood (circa 1755- July 1812) was born to John and Sybil in New Jersey, but his brother David, who arrived in 1759, was born in North Carolina, indicating that the family had moved once again.
Surely the boy Reuben came to North Carolina with his family; but the “History of Morris County, New Jersey” lists a Reuben Wood from Mendham as a member of Captain Cox’s Company of the 3rd New Jersey Regiment in 1776. Perhaps he returned to attend school—Princeton is close by—and lived with his mother’s relatives. Even if so, both Reuben and Zebedee were soon involved with the militia in Randolph County. Zebedee Wood was one of Randolph County’s first militia captains in 1779, at a time when the militia captain’s district was the fundamental governing unit of the county. In 1779 Reuben served as lieutenant (second in command) of Captain Thomas Clark’s infantry company, which “rendezvoused at Salisbury & marched to Charlestown under Col. Archibald Lytle a Continental Col. & joined General Lincoln” in the defense of Charleston. Whether Reuben was still there when Charleston fell to the British in May, 1780, is unknown, since in November 1779 he had married Charity Hinds, probably a sister of his militia commander Captain John Hines, whose “Light Horse” Company Wood joined as lieutenant in 1780. Hinds was one of the most active captains in the new county, and spent a great deal of time in 1781 and 1782 jousting with the Tory guerrillas led by Colonel David Fanning.
By 1782 Wood was no longer serving in Hinds’ company; he must have taken time in the early 1780s to further his education. There is no mention of him in county court records before1782, and those minutes are missing between 1783 and 1787; but suddenly when Book 3 opens in September 1787 Reuben Wood is listed as “State’s Attorney,” the equivalent of the modern District Attorney. The educational gap between 19 year-old militia lieutenant in 1779 to State’s Attorney by 1787 was not as deep then as now; no law schools and graduate degrees were available, so a prospective lawyer apprenticed to his trade by “reading” law with an established attorney. It could not have hurt his chances for employment that brother Zebedee was by then one of the Justices of the Peace who ran the county court.
[Rowan County Courthouse in Salisbury]
Where Reuben Wood received his legal education is an open question, but closely available was his immediate predecessor as Randolph County State’s Attorney. When the county was formed in March 1779, one of the very first orders of business was to hire as State’s Attorney Spruce Macay [McKay] (?-1808), who also served as the Rowan County State’s Attorney. Macay was the son of Rowan County Sheriff James Macay, and graduated from the College of New Jersey in 1775. He served as State’s Attorney in Rowan until 1785, when he may also have resigned his Randolph position. Macay left the practice of law in 1790 when he was elected a Superior Court Judge, but in the 1780s at least one soon-to-be-famous lawyer read law with him: Andrew Jackson (1767-1845). The 17-year-old Waxhaw native moved to Salisbury to live with McKay and study the law in 1784. After two years with Macay, Jackson moved on to study one more year with another Salisbury lawyer John Stokes (March 20, 1756 – October 12, 1790), a crotchety veteran who would emphasize his points in court by banging the silver knob that replaced a hand he lost in the Revolution. In September 1787 Jackson was licensed to practice law in Rowan County, and on December 11, 1787, “Andrew Jackson, Esquire, produced a license from the Honorable the Judges of the Superior Court of Law & Equity Authorizing him to practice as an Attorney in the Several County Courts. Took the Oath prescribed and proceeded to practice in said Court.” One of the Justices of the Peace sitting at that session of court was Zebedee Wood, and Reuben had been practicing as State‘s Attorney for the County since at least June of that year. So perhaps Reuben Wood and Andrew Jackson were “classmates“ in the law office of Spruce Macay; that they were practicing members of the Randolph County Bar at the same time is a fact.
[Bust of Andrew Jackson, ca. 1812]
Reuben Wood temporarily “resigned“ his office as State‘s Attorney several times in the 1788 so that other attorneys could handle particular cases. One of his replacements in 1788 was John Louis Taylor (1769-1829), a Fayetteville resident and graduate of William and Mary. Taylor became a Superior Court Judge in 1797 and in 1810 was appointed the first Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. Part of the reason Wood couldn’t represent Randolph full time was that he had also been appointed State’s Attorney in Burke County for the years 1788 and 1789. Burke County then encompassed all of western North Carolina, including the huge undeveloped territory which would become Tennessee. Burke County’s quarter sessions began on the first Monday of the month, so Wood may have had trouble getting back home in time for the regular second Monday beginning of Randolph Court.
[Burke County Courthouse]
There are claims among some secondary sources that Reuben Wood and his brother Zebedee were both attorneys. I have seen nothing to indicate this, and the confusion apparently begins with a misreading of the suffix “Esq.” which court records attach to both their names. In modern American useage “Esq.” [an abbreviation for ‘Esquire’] indicates that the subject is a lawyer. In the 18th century America it was used to denote anyone who held an office of trust under state government, such as Justices of the Peace, Sheriff, Clerk of Court, Register of Deeds, etc., also including all attorneys. In English useage of the time, “Esquire — A rank next below that of Knight… this title is held by all attendants on the person of the Sovereign, and all persons holding the Sovereign’s commission being of military rank not below Captain; also, by general concession, by Barristers at Law”. Reuben Wood was entitled to the honorific as an attorney; Zebedee Wood as both a militia captain and as Justice of the Peace. According to NC law at the time, an attorney was not allowed to practice as an attorney if he accepted a commission as a Justice of the Peace, so obviously in the Wood family, brother Zebedee was the politician and brother Reuben the lawyer.
That didn’t mean that they didn’t serve together at times. Both were among the county’s delegates to the North Carolina Constitutional Conventions of 1788 and 1789.
The first, meeting in Hillsborough, considered the arguments of Federalist party managers and overwhelmingly rejected ratification of the proposed U.S. Constitution. The Anti-Federalists, who feared a strong central federal government, objected to the document without some guarantee of basic personal freedoms. Ratification was rejected by a vote of 184-84, with six members abstaining to vote. Interestingly, Reuben Wood was Randolph County’s sole abstention; the rest of the county delegation voted unanimously to reject.
The second convention, meeting in Fayetteville, ratified the Constitution upon the promise of the future Bill of Rights. An attempt to add amendments to the Constitution strictly limiting the Federal government’s control over the states was defeated 187-82. Then the Constitution was ratified by a vote of 194-77. On this occasion, Reuben Wood voted with the majority both times, and Zebedee Wood voted with the losing Anti-Federalists. Nathan Stedman, their Randolph County co-delegate who had voted against ratification in 1788, abstained from both votes- therefore not siding with either brother!
[Early Buncombe County Courthouse]
Their tours of service together didn’t end with the Constitutional Conventions- in 1791 both brothers were elected to represent Randolph County in the General Assembly: Reuben in the House of Commons and Zebedee in the State Senate. The next year Reuben continued his long-distance commutes to court, as he was hired by the Justices sitting at the organizational meeting of the Buncombe County Court to serve as that county’s first State’s Attorney. With Randolph court being held beginning on the second Monday of each quarter, and Buncombe court being held beginning on the third Monday of each quarter, Wood’s travel time on horseback must have made continual service in both next to impossible. But riding the circuit of the county courts became Wood’s professional life. As Sam Ervin writes in the DNCB:
[Jonesboro,”The Oldest Town in Tennessee”]
“With horse and saddlebags, Wood attended virtually all of the courts that sate in the vast territory between his home in Randolph County and North Carolina’s westernmost county town, Jonesboro, which now lies within the boundaries of Tennessee. He was among the lawyers considered by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1788 for appointment as attorney for the Washington District, embracing practically all of the territory that subsequently became the state of Tennessee.” The man Reuben Wood lost the Tennessee District Attorney job to: his brother at the bar, Andrew Jackson, who used it as his springboard into state politics and ultimately, the Presidency.
[President Andrew Jackson, 1844]
Reuben Wood resigned the Buncombe County position in April of 1795. He was at least 40 years old at the time, and either the harsh demands of life in the saddle or his growing family must have dictated that he stay closer to home. The number his books which were authored or published in the 1790s also argue that he then had more time to read and expand his library. Starting in the 1780s Reuben and Charity Wood had a family of eight children, four sons and four daughters, half of whom were still living at home at the time of the Census of 1810. With more than 600 acres of land to tend in the Polecat Creek/ Sandy Creek area, with eight children, and with the head of the family often gone for weeks or months at a stretch, it’s understandable that Reuben Wood gradually became a substantial slave owner.
[Burke County looking towards Tennessee]
Senator Sam Ervin observed of his ancestor, “Unlike most of his contemporaries at the early NC bar, he devoted his chief efforts to the law rather than to politics. As a consequence, he became noted as a wise counselor and skillful advocate.” Wood’s politics in truth may not have been suitable for either federal or state politics: his vote in the 1788 constitutional convention did not benefit the Federalist positions of James Iredell/ Alfred Moore/ William R. Davie, who later received appointments from Washington and Adams; his vote in 1789 also would not have endeared him to the Jeffersonian party where his brother Zebedee had voted the straight line. One political plum that Reuben Wood did receive late in his career was an appointment by the legislature as a “Counselor of State” from 1800 through 1806, which apparently was a something of an “in-house counsel” position giving advice to the Governor.
It’s possible that one reason he accumulated such a large personal collection was so that he could accept young men as law students. When Andrew Jackson switched over to study law with John Stokes, he was following Spruce Macay’s recommendation to study with the man whose law library “exceeded any other in the region.” Wood’s collection would certainly have given him that reputation; even in 1821 the library of the Dialectic Society at the University in Chapel Hill was just a little more than twice its size. Looking at the men who married his daughters gives us some evidence that Wood set about training a new generation of lawyers. Joseph Wilson (1782-1829), a Quaker native of Guilford County, was Reuben Wood’s only confirmed student; he was licensed to practice law in 1804 and settled in Stokes County, where he served in the legislature. From 1812 until his death he served as State’s Attorney in the western district of North Carolina, the same job Reuben Wood had started twenty years before. Wood became so identified with bringing law and order to Western North Carolina that he was subsequently known as “the Great Solicitor.” Wilson’s brother Jethro Starbuck Wilson also likely studied with Wood; he married Wood’s daughter Laura (b.ca.1786), became a lawyer and went into practice in Charlotte. Further along the distaff side of the family tree, Senator Sam Ervin’s mother Laura Theresa Powe was the great-grandaughter of Mary and Joseph Wood’s daughter Laura Theresa Wilson (1808-1848), a family line which included five additional lawyers.
It’s not clear that any of Reuben Wood’s own sons followed him into the practice of law. In fact, their relationships do not appear to have been close. Oldest son John L. Wood was excluded from the draft will his father wrote, and appears to have left Randolph County for the western territories at an early date. When his father died, he was contacted in Tennessee, and his descendants settled in Arkansas. Son Albert L. Wood was left only a life estate in part of the family property by his father, and soon followed his brother West; his family settled in Missouri. There is some indication Joseph Wood became a frontier doctor; his family settled in Texas. Youngest son Edwin may have been his father’s favorite; could he have been working to follow his father into the law? Unfortunately, Edwin only survived his father by two years, the only one of the children to die so young.
Some sudden illness apparently came upon Reuben Wood in the summer of 1812; as is the case with many lawyers, his own personal affairs were not in good order. He owed a number of outstanding debts, and he was owed payment for work done for clients on credit. He drafted a will, obviously on his sick bed, which was not properly signed or witnessed, and was never probated. Reuben Wood died at home in late July, 1812. Though he had wanted young Edwin to settle the estate, his brother-in-law Joseph Wilson took over, appointing guardians for the three minor children, settling the widow’s petition for dower support, conducting the inventory and the sale of Wood’s personal property. It is unknown how long Charity Wood survived her husband. All of the children had left Randolph County and all of Reuben’s real property had been sold by 1825, and so far no reliable records mention Charity. The location of the burial plot of Reuben Wood, Edwin Wood and perhaps Charity Wood is also unknown. Brother Zebedee and his family, who lived not far away from Reuben, are buried at Shiloh Methodist Church, near Julian.
Trying to reconstruct a man’s private and professional life almost 200 years after his death is not an easy task even when sources are plentiful. With the early founders and leaders of Randolph County, the sources are scattered, many puzzle pieces are missing, and without personal letters, journals or diaries, intellectual opinions and internal motivations are hard to imagine from the bare legal records that remain. Reuben Wood’s library offers a rare window into his mind, his interests, and his education- the only insight available, since absolutely nothing remains of his home, his grave, his physical existence. Perhaps the list of his books in Will Book 4 really is Reuben Wood’s most appropriate memorial.
Thankfully, the internet has now made research into Reuben Wood’s library much easier than it was just a decade ago. A study of the books Wood read and chose to purchase adds color to the picture of him outlined by Senator Sam Ervin in 1972: not just a hard-working, circuit-riding trial lawyer, but a philosopher of the law, a deep thinker on topics of constitutions and government, economics, and ethics. Well-educated in the classical tradition, and committed to educating others, he established a tradition of professional and public service that has endured down to the present day. Even after uncovering, sifting, and organizing all this information about Reuben Wood, it still surprises me that he and his brother Zebedee have been so completely forgotten by the county they served. A contemporary of the Founding Fathers, Reuben Wood should have been remembered as our Randolph County Adams, Jefferson or Madison. This is an attempt to correct that oversight.