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The Wesley Avans Story

by

Mike Avans

An important member of the Avans family, Wesley provided a link from the pioneer life of the early 1800s to the post-Civil War reconstruction era. He was a grocer, lieutenant in the CSA, fought at Vicksburg, escorted Jeff Davis to surrender, was taken prisoner, and even prematurely proven dead in court. Wesley led an eventful fifty years and continued to influence the Avans family, even in death. Legal actions associated with execution of his will pitted brother against brother ultimately resulting in an Avans migration from Tennessee to Georgia and Alabama in the 1880/90s.

He was born in Monroe County, Tennessee, but records place him in neighboring McMinn County from about 1860. Both counties lie between the Appalachian Mountains and the Cumberland Plateau. I have not verified who his father and mother were. I believe, however, that they were John and Catherine Avans. John lived in the right counties at the right time and had a son the right age. Wesley's son was named John. In addition, McMinn deeds indicate that Wesley represented a Catherine Avans of Arkansas in a transfer of land sale in 1862.

Wesley was married at twenty-four. In the 1850 U. S. census, Wesley was listed as a grocer, married, and had a one-year-old son. He was the father of nine children, and he seemed to care a great deal for them. He gave each of the three boys a saddle and bridle when they came of age. This tradition played a big role in the history of the Avans family. Education also seemed a consideration of Wesley's. Both he and his wife could read and write English. In 1870, all of his seven school-age children were in school. He even made appropriation in his will for their education.

Wesley was conscripted into Company H, 43rd Infantry, 5th East Tennessee Volunteers, Gillespie's Regiment, CSA in 1863. Since there were no large plantations in these East Tennessee hills, slaves were not needed, and much of Tennessee was pro-Union. Many were forced into service or grudingly compelled by civic duty to fight. Wesley was first mustered at Riceville, McMinn County, Tennessee in December 1863 and served as a mounted infantryman. He is shown to be a lieutenant and a private.

He trained at Zollicoffer, Tennessee and then traveled to Kentucky. Some Kentucky ladies made a flag for his unit to carry into battle. When the siege of Vicksburg ended on 4 July 1863, there were over 975 holes made by shell fragments and bullets in this flag. The 43rd escorted President Jefferson Davis, CSA, to Washington, Georgia in 1865 where he surrendered to (or was captured by) Union troops. Members of the 43rd were detained. Most prisoners were paroled and released at the end of the war.

Meanwhile, back in McMinn County in May of 1864, Wesley's wife, Arte, was sued to sell the family property and pay the plaintiffs, Ruben Sharritts and Allen Ware, for the purchase of cattle. The judge would not hear the case because Wesley legally owned the property in jeopardy, and he was still alive but not returned from war. Finally, on 25 August 1865, the plaintiffs proved to the court that Wesley was, in fact, dead, killed somewhere on a distant battlefield. This made Arte the legal owner of all property. The judge then ordered her to sell family property and pay the plaintiffs, who apparently were no more than scalawags and carpetbaggers.

Imagine her despair. Her country had just lost a war; highwaymen and vicious killers dotted the Tennessee hillsides; her husband had just been proven dead in court; and, she had been ordered by the court ot sell her land. It must have seemed very desperate for a poor mother and five children.

In turn, imagine her amazement when Wesley walked in the door! He was not dead at all! He had been taken prisoner in Georgia, fell ill, and did not return until the fall of 1865. The judge reopened the case. Several newspaper ads were placed by Wesley in the Athens, Tennessee newspaper calling for the scalawags to reappear in court. Apparently, the scalawags had moved on to loot other areas and did not reappear. The judge finally ruled that Wesley had not been given a fair chance to represent himself regarding the land sale, and Wesley kept his land.

Wesley's death came three years later, possibly related to his illness during the war or its indignity afterwards. No record of his exact date of death or his grave site has yet been found.

His will reveals that he wanted all debts paid out of the first money that came into the executor's possession, generated by selling the following:

  • his lots in Calhoun, McMinn County, Tennessee
  • his horses, except wife to keep two mules
  • all his cattle, except two cows chosen by Arte
  • all his hogs, except those deemed necessary by his wife
  • all of the corn and other grain on hand, except that necessary to keep and supply his family
  • his ? that he owned with Sallie Mc? and Parkinson? (illegible)
  • his blacksmith tools
  • all other personal items unless his wife needed them.

    Secondly, he left all other real and personal property to his beloved wife until the youngest became of age or Arte remarried except for the following:

  • his daughter Ellen and husband, William Swafford to use W. B. Smith farm in17th Civil District of McMinn County rent-free until his youngest came of age or Arte remarried
  • B. E. (Bradford) and all his other children as they came of age to use as much of his land as desired
  • when his youngest came of age or Arte remarried, his estate be split up between all his heirs, if it can be done amicably, if not, sold and divided equally, his beloved wife to receive a child's share
  • no child to receive any profit from land that they do not live on and cultivate
  • Arte to get the profits from other land use
  • if land cannot be amicably divided, the executors should advertise the land, as provided by law, giving 12 to 24 months credit, given note and good interest-bearing security.

    Finally, it was his will and desire for the following:

  • his wife to give his younger children all the education and advantages possible
  • his wife to have his money until youngest came of age or she remarried so that she had the means to educate their children
  • his youngest son, John, to have a horse bridle and saddle out of his estate, when he came of age, because he had done it for his other two sons
  • Arte and his beloved son, Blassengil, to be the executors of the will.

    Set by his hand and seal, 20 September 1873, and witnessed by J. A. Akin and R. K. Callahan.

    The difficulty that resulted from execution of the will probably led to the migration of one son, Blassengil, to Alabama. Arte, Blassengil, and another heir sold their interests in Wesley's land before the youngest, Minerva, came of age in 1888. Probably since, in April 1885, Arte remarried William Swafford, her daughter's uncle-in-law. Most importantly, Artie's remarriage nullified the property use section of the will. Heirs sued to sell the land and equally divide the profits. Court battles followed, and I'm sure some sparks flew between those still living on the land and those who sold their interests.

    The last straw seems to be when the youngest son John sued Blassengil, in April 1884, to get his horse bridle promised him in his daddy's will in 1873. This land had been Wesley's gift to all his sons. Shortly after, Blassengil moved from Tennessee forever, through Georgia, to Alabama, where many Avanses live today. Blassengil's son was born in Georgia in 1885, so he must have left soon after his court date. Young John must have stayed since he is listed as a paid "scalp-hunter" in 1885/86. He was paid $.75 on 5 July 1885 for scalps probably collected on the Fourth of July holiday.

    My wife, Mary Jane, and I visited Monroe and McMinn Counties in July 1994. Several related Avans families lived in the area during Wesley's lifetime, but today none are listed in the phone books of either county. We found a little Avans information from the public librarian. On her advice, we left the town of Madisonville to search for Wesley's great-aunt Elizabeth's grave around the community of Big Creek. We were following an old winding road through countless curves. The country is beautiful with the Great Smokies always present in the near distance. Houses were becoming farther and farther apart, and the old church and graveyard we were looking for was no where to be found. The remains of the old barbed-wire fences along the weedy roadside seemed to threaten our trespassing. Just before turning around, we spotted an old church, the Big Creek Baptist Church! This was it. We turned into the newly graveled parking lot to locate dead Avanses. We drove around the church lot a few times, but there was no cemetery -- only an old house that was well-fenced and had been patched with tin roofing so many times it looked like a quilt.

    Finally, we noticed an old gravel road headed straight up a bald-topped hill. My wife and I bravely drove up the hill, where we found the cemetery! Apparently the church, too, had rested on this crest at one time but was moved. The cemetery was nicely maintained. We were somewhat surprised to find an old man cutting the grass. We began looking for Elizabeth's grave. Meanwhile, the old man continued to cut the grass and basically ignored us. After a few minutes the old man dismounted the mower and began to reset a headstone. Upon seeing this, I offered assistance. We began talking, and I found out that oddly enough his son had married an Ivans! He had moved here from Illinois, after his wife died, to be with them. In addition his in-laws, the Ivanses were to pick him up shortly. I have seen Avans spelled Ivans many times. Usually it is associated with one Ivans Avans, who, I believe, was Wesley's uncle and neighbor in Wesley's youth.

    Shortly the Ivanses arrived. One was tall, thin, blonde, and wearing an old ball cap; the other, his father, was short, dark-haired, with prominent belly, and drove a truck. I introduced myself and stated the purpose of the visit and the fact that we were probably related. They had no idea who their ancestors were and were of little help in my research. But they were friendly, and we talked for a good while. They assisted me in locating Elizabeth's grave which was very old but legible. In the end the Ivanses drove off with no mention of the bridle I knew I still probably owed them from 1884!

    Was this the first time the relatives of Blassengil had stepped on the traditional family soil since 1884? Was this the land that John P. Avans settled around here in 1800-1820? Was this where Wesley was born? I don't know.

    I also visited the Georgia mountains where Blassengil moved in 1884/5. There are still some listings for Avans in the phone book. Several graves were found, an Avans Methodist Church, and even a small community known as Avans, Georgia. A man named Terry Avans was pastor. He was at his mother's for Sunday dinner after church. I could kick myself for not stopping. I considered that they could be having a church social and would not be up to Avans hunting that day. If you coast down these mountains from Rising Fawn, Georgia just a short way, you will end up in Anniston, Gadsden, and other areas in Alabama of more recent Avans lore.

    by Mike Avans, March 1995

    Wesley Avans, b 1824 Monroe CO, TN d Sep 1873 McMinn CO, TN
    m 27 Dec 1840 TO
    Arteblessa "Arte" Brock

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    This site is dedicated to the memory of my mother,
    Beulah Cline Nipper, a beautiful product of the Knobs.