One Last Word
One Last Word
From The State Magazine, August 31, 1963.
Printed with the permission of the publisher.
One fantastic episode in the history of the Bechtler family is hardly ever mentioned in articles about the famous mint-owners. We ran across it in Clarence Griffin’s Sketches of North Carolina History.
Christopher Bechtler was convicted at Shelby for an aggravated case of stealing and sentenced to ten years in the pen. This Bechtler was the son of Augustus Bechtler, and grandson of Christopher who had founded the mint. The family meantime had moved to Spartanburg, where the younger Chris turned out to be a black sheep.
After serving two years, he escaped.
Now enters George Johnstone, of Montgomery County, an innocent bystander. He was appearing as plaintiff in a land case in Asheboro. Unluckily, into the courtroom happened Capt. J. M. Flemming, who had been warden at the penitentiary while Christopher Bechtler was an inmate. He made inquiries about Johnstone and learned he had settled in Randolph County during 1888, one year after Bechtler’s escape. Flemming was satisfied that Johnstone was the convict, and exposed him. The defendant in the land case had the plaintiff arrested as an escaped convict, and though Johnstone protested vigorously, he could not produce any witnesses to establish his identity. The judge ordered him returned to the pen.
Johnstone gave his lawyer the names of people in Montgomery and the name of a man in Atlanta who could identify him. His attorney wrote to these people but did not receive a single reply. This convinced the lawyer that Bechtler was lying. He dropped the case.
Poor Johnstone languished in jail until January 1901, when Col. Cebron L. Harris, 79 years old, and former resident of Rutherfordton, visited the prison on business. He happened to see the supposed Bechtler, and immediately declared he was not the convict at all. He swore he had known Bechtler before the Civil War and knew the family well. Another lawyer was employed, a writ of habeas corpus issued, and Johnstone, with the positive testimony of Harris, was turned free. The matter was clinched by the fact that Johnstone did not have on his leg the marks of a dog bite Bechtler was known to have borne.
Griffin does not say whether Christopher ever was apprehended nor whether the luckless Johnstone ever was compensated for his outrageous imprisonment.
One of the last acts of royal Governor Martin was a plan to gain help from the Cherokees and other Indians, the scheme calling for a general uprising against frontiersmen from the Ohio River to Alabama. Attacks on border towns were soon reported, one incident being at Crooked Creek near Old Fort, where several were killed. In July of 1776, Rutherford informed the council that the situation was critical; already 37 had been murdered in Rowan County in two days. Within a week he had 2,500 men under arms and on the frontier. From Old Fort (then Davidsons) he crossed the mountains at Swannanoa Gap (Ridgecrest) with 2,000 footmen, 80 cavalry and 1,400 packhorses.
This large force moved with such rapidity that it was 50 miles inside Indian country before its presence was discovered. It drove up Hominy Creek to Pigeon River, then to Richland Creek and thence to the Tuckaseegee River. Destroying villages, the army hurried along the Little Tennessee River to the Valley River and Hiwassee settlements. From thence Rutherford crossed the Nantahalas, avoiding a planned ambush at Wayah Gap. The last of the Cherokees on this side of the Smokies fled either into Tennessee or to Alabama, and within a month Rutherford was back home, his mission terribly accomplished.
On his way back, Rutherford marked his road through the mountains and the route ever since has been known as Rutherford’s Trace. Highways later followed some of the same route.
Rutherford’s army was a motley crew of riflemen, dressed in the clothes of the huntsman. It gave several North Carolina soldiers their first taste of warfare. Rutherford was made a brigadier-general and had a brigade at Camden, where he was taken prisoner. Later exchanged, he was in command at Wilmington when it was evacuated. After serving as senator from Rowan, he moved to Tennessee where he had a legislative career and where a county also is named in his honor.