Rewriting the Biography: The Livelihood of James SIMS (1754-1845)

After working on the census records of James SIMS and his sixteen children I’m taking a break from researching this family. But before we put them to bed for a while, I would like to share information from a post I wrote in 2015 as a guest blogger on Mark Smith’s blog Hampshire County Long Rifles. 

When Mark requested permission to re-post the biography of James SIMS I’d written in 2002 on his blog, I came up with a different idea. I suggested writing a shorter piece on James SIMS and his sons’ work as gunsmiths. It was a wonderful opportunity to focus on an aspect of my ancestor’s life which I knew little about. The original post can be found here: James Sims (1754-1845), Gunsmith of Nicholas County

The Livelihood of James SIMS (1754-1845)

Several articles written between 1883 and 1983 tell of my 5th great-grandfather James SIMS being a gunsmith and blacksmith, however, I would like to begin with an interesting document found which gives another source of income.

The Kanawha Wilderness

Jeff Prechtel Art & Illustration – used with permission.

In the early days when James SIMS lived in the wilderness of western Virginia, the county court of Kanawha offered a bounty for scalps of wolves. On 8 June 1802, James SIMS and his son William SIMS were seen on a list of men who received $2.50 for each wolf-scalp presented.1 These payments were part of the routine work of the Kanawha County court as seen in the record book of the period.

Record Book of Kanawha County, Virginia

There is no mention of how the wolves were killed – by using pits or snares or by gun or other methods. However, Mrs. Ruberta Malva “Bertie” SIMMS WICKER (1871-1971), a daughter of Miletus SIMMS (1832-1927), wrote a three-page letter to Rev. Shirley DONNELLY in 1969, which included the following:2

His (Miletus’) grandfather, William Sims, was a fine gunsmith and lived at the mouth of Little Elk, now Swiss, W. Va. There the family built a log cabin that was two stories high. It had a little ladder arrangement in one corner, where they could climb up to shoot at the wolves which prowled through there at that time. I remember the house very well as I am now 97 years old.

James SIMS gives a new rifle gun to a substitute

Jeff Prechtel Art & Illustration – used with permission.

In 1835 James SIMS was 80 years old. He sent this statement (letter of reply) to the Pension Bureau following questions of the authenticity of his claim of being a veteran of the Revolution. James states he gave a new rifle gun and $500 in continental money to one William NOLL whom he hired as a substitute, most likely about 1775 as James was born in 1754 and was about twenty or twenty-one at the time.

Was NOLL the name he meant to give in the statement? Could the substitute have been a NALL or NALLE?  Perhaps his uncle William NALLE or a NALLE cousin? Was the new rifle given to the substitute one of the first James manufactured as a young man?3

MRIN02312 James Sims RW 27 croppedJames Sims Pensioner Servd 9 mo. Receives $30 pension. I the undersigned James Sims in pursuance of the requisites of the Secretary of the War gives the following narrative of my services as a Soldier in the War of the Revolution & statement of my age to-wit. I am in my 79th year of age. I am a native of Culpepper County & lived in that county during the War of the Revolution. In my nieneteenth or twentieth year of age (I cant tell in what year) I was drafted for 3 mo. & marched from Cupepper Country under Capt. John Tutt (don’t recollect the names of his subaltern officers) Capt Tutts company was attached to a Regt commanded by Col Jno. Slaughter which went from Culpepper. The Regt. Marched to Norfolk. Can’t recollect the names of any towns through which we marched on going to Norfolk. We were discharged at Norfolk in time to get home before the three months expired. In less than one year after the preceding term, (I cant tell in what year) I was drafted again for 3 mo. And hired a substitute whose name was William Noll (?) gave him $500 in continental money and a new rifle gun. In the year in which Cornwallis was captured at Yorktown I was drafted again for 3 mo. Set out from Culpepper under a Capt. whose name I have forgotten. We were preparing to set out on the march for nearly one week, when the news of Cornwallis’ defeat was received & we were ordered to return home & done so, having been in service this latter term about one week – I was a Sergeant & they ended my services — Saml Price wrote my Declaration to whom I gave this same narrative of my service. That I now give. I agreed to give him $20 if he brought me my money In witness of all which I hereto subscribe my name. Jany 10, 1835
His
James      X      Sims
Mark

The original Revolutionary War application papers were sent to W. G. Singleton, U.S. District Attorney, at Winchester, Virginia, on 13 March 1835. Upon examination of his claim by the U.S. District Attorney, James SIMS’ name was dropped from the pension rolls on 21 March 1835 as it was shown he did not render the alleged service.

Although James SIMS’ service during the Revolutionary War was not accepted as proof for a pension, the Daughters of the American Revolution have accepted his “providing supplies” and approved him as a Revolutionary War patriot. Were the supplies he provided arms of his own making?

Memoirs of Col. Campbell

Col. Edward Campbell, the son of John Campbell and Nancy Hughes, was born in 1800 and acquired the basics of an education from his parents. Shortly after the formation of Nicholas County in 1818, he was appointed justice of the peace and traveled throughout the county performing legal services for many of the outlying settlers who found it inconvenient if not impossible to make the long trip into Summersville. Campbell possessed an extraordinary memory for names and facts about the earliest inhabitants of Nicholas County, and some sixty years following his days as a traveling justice, he wrote down his reminiscences of the early settlers and the way in which they lived. Campbell’s memoirs have always been held in high esteem by historians, and where validation is possible he has seldom been found in error in any of his remarks. They were published in the Chronicle in 1883.4

As James SIMS had died only 35 years before Col. Campbell’s memoirs were published, one can imagine they had known each other well enough for the Colonel to write the following without embellishing.5

Going up Gauley River to the mouth of Little Elk, which empties into the river two miles above the ford, we come to the settlement made by J. Windsor. James Sims also made a small improvement at this place. He came from Jackson’s River in Bath County, Virginia. He was a gunsmith and blacksmith, and did but little farming. He had a large family of children, both male and female. Mr. Sims also brought the first darkies that were ever seen in these parts. He had two sons that were also gunsmiths and made the best of rifle guns. As these guns were much in demand with the increasing settlers they did a lucrative business. They both married young, and settled near their father and did some farming in addition to their work on guns. James lived to see his family settled here and elsewhere. His sons, William and Martin, remained here until they were old men and died leaving large families. James Sims was said to be 90 years old when he died.

An old plug horse and a muzzle-loading rifle

In 1926 J.T. Peters and H.B. Carden, authors of History of Fayette County, West Virginia, wrote that William SIMS, one of the older sons of James SIMS, was a gunsmith of wide fame. They also related a story likely heard from James’ great-grandson Miletus SIMS who was living at the time.6

James Sims, great-grandfather of Miletus Sims (who is now living at Swiss and is 94 years of age), came from Culpepper county, Virginia, in 1795, and bought a 600-acre tract of land from Morris and Jones for which he paid on (sic, one) old plug horse and a muzzle-loading rifle. This tract of land was partly in Nicholas and partly in Fayette county.

No court record of the above transaction has been found. The only land James acquired and retained until his death was the 123 acres of land on Gauley conveyed to him by John JONES for the sum of five shilling on 8 April 1800.7

1800 Land Deed John and Frances Jones to James Sims

Descendants who owned Sims guns

After Indians were driven away from the Kanawha valley about 1794, gunsmiths and hunters were still in demand in this region because of the abundance of wolves, bears and other wild beasts.

Among the gunsmiths and hunters of the period were James Sims of Gauley river and his son, William. 

And so begins newspaper reporter William H. Maginnis’ article written for The Charleston Gazette in 1947.8 Several descendants of James SIMS who owned rifles were interviewed by the reporter.

No known gun made by James had preserved according to Maginnis although several made by his son William, who learned the trade and took over the business from his father, were known to exist and were owned by the following descendants. [Note: Near the turn of the twentieth century several lines down from James SIMS began using SIMMS, with a double M, instead of SIMS for their surname.]

Agnes Eugenia “Jean” SIMMS (1897-1965), the 2nd great-granddaughter of James through his son Charles and the 3rd great-granddaughter of James through his son William, is seen here holding a rifle and a toothpuller made by her ancestor William.

Newspaperarchive.com : accessed 15 February 2006

Mayme Hazel SIMMS (1897-1984), a great-granddaughter of James through his son Charles, got her gun from her father Aaron Floyd SIMMS (1862-1940).

Cecil Ray SIMMS (1897-1979) also owned a Sims gun. Like Mrs. WHITE he was descended twice from James SIMS, a great-grandson through son Charles and a 3rd great-grandson through son William.

The Hughes family on Bell Creek near Swiss also owned one of these family treasures. James SIMS had two daughters who married HUGHES men but only the male descendants of Peggy who married Matthew HUGHES remained in the Swiss area.

Jeff Prechtel Art & Illustration – used with permission.

Mr. Maginnis thought it probable that James SIMS, a native of Culpeper County, may have learned the blacksmith and gunsmith trades before 1780 in Falmouth or Fredericksburg, both in Stafford County, Virginia. Fredericksburg was a center of the iron industry in colonial times.

The reporter also spoke with Eugene Norton SIMMS (1864-?) before his death. Eugene’s father Miletus SIMS (1831-1927), who was about 14 years old when his great-grandfather James SIMS died, described him as “a physical giant, fair of complexion, a great hunter and woodsman and inclined to thrift. He built the best house on Gauley in those days – two story, hewn oak logs and a massive chimney.” 

Sims rifle compared to Honaker and Carper rifles

Rev. Clarence Shirley Donnelly (1895-1982) wrote a well-known column in the Beckley Post-Herald titled “Yesterday and Today.” Several of his columns mentioned James SIMS, his descendants, and his enslaved people.  One of these compared the SIMS rifle with several other fine rifles produced by well-known gunmakers in the area.

His rifles became noted and won an enviable reputation. Some years ago, one of these guns was shown to me but they now have all but disappeared from local circles. The Simms rifle ranked with the fine rifles produced in Raleigh County by James A. Honaker, J. B. Honaker, Joseph Carper, and Samuel Carper, as well as the Henderson rifles of Summers County and the Miller rifles of Monroe County.

Rev. Donnelly wrote of Nicolas County being the early stomping ground of the SIMS family and that James brought enslaved persons and the tools of his blacksmith and gunsmith trades with him when he came with his large family to the area before the county was formed from Kanawha County.9

A plug horse and a flintlock rifle

Lela Wolfe Prewitt who compiled genealogy information on the SIMS families of Culpeper County, Virginia, included an interesting family tradition in her work. It tells of James SIMS, learning of the illness of his dear cousin Frances SIMS, wife of Joshua MORRIS, going to Kanawha Valley about 1796.10

Following her death (Phebe), James Sims married Nancy (sic, Elizabeth) Cotton. Soon after this marriage, he went to Kanawha Valley to visit a cousin and also visited the Henry Morris home on Peter’s Creek. Henry tried to persuade him to buy near him, but James being a great hunter, said, “No, this section is too thickly settled.” So Henry took him on a hunting expedition down Peter’s Creek, out across the Little Elk Mountain and started down Little Elk Creek where they found signs of bear, deer and wild turkey. James Sims then said, “Henry, if I can buy land on this creek, I’ll be your neighbor soon.” The land belonged to John Jones who lived at what is now Pratt. He had married a Morris and had purchased thousands of acres of land. He at once went to see Mr. Jones and they soon agreed on a price for 500 acres on Little Elk Creek: a plug horse and a flint lock rifle. As soon as he could make arrangements, he moved his family there.”

Frances SIMS was the daughter of Thomas SIMS Jr. and Mary NALLE. The statement of Frances and James being cousins should not be misconstrued as they were not cousins through their paternal SIMS side. Frances and James were first cousins through their maternal lines – Mary NALLE being a sister of James’ mother Agatha NALLE. After proper analysis, this part of the story appears believable.

However, once again the old plug horse and rifle are seen as part of the land deal.  Since the 1926 telling, the acreage has decreased from 600 to 500 acres in this version but is still four times the amount of land seen on the 1800 deed. Did the story originate in 1800 when James bought the land? Did he offer a horse and rifle instead of hard cash for the land he bought from JONES? Or did Melitus SIMS elaborate on stories told by his father William Jr. or his grandfather William Sr.?

Others who mentioned rifle making

In the late 1970s, George R. Penick Jr. noted that James SIMS moved to Bath County, Virginia, about 1787 where he engaged in rifle making.11

In 1983 James P. Whisker, author of several books on gunsmiths, wrote he had never seen a Sims rifle but heard of them through Rev. Donnelly’s writings.12

Mountain rifle made by William SIMS

Rose Mary Sims Rudy related the following to me in 2002 about a gun known to be in the possession of a descendant in 1993.

I used to correspond with a “relative” who has since died (1998). He sent me this photograph of the “Mountain Rifle that William (Billy Gunsmith) Sims made.” It was in his possession at the time the photo was made in 1993. We talked just before he died and he was giving it to his son!! He was responsible for securing a grave marker for our ancestor James – the date was assumed to be 1838. In correspondence he stated “his great uncle Eugene Simms reported that James was still drawing his RW pension when he died.” He says that the Mountain Rifle has been in the family for many years passed to him by his grandfather and father. William Sims is written on the barrel. His father once told him of a wild hog chasing him up a tree and his brother coming to his rescue with this gun.

1993 photo courtesy of Rose Mary Sims Rudy

Once again a story passed down in the family is in error. James SIMS was not drawing a pension for military service during the Revolutionary War. However much the stories differ from the records found, the rifle theme seems to be consistent from as early as 1883 when Col. Campbell wrote:

He was a gunsmith and blacksmith, and did but little farming.

Occupations on the census

Col. Campbell was a witness from the time James SIMS and his son William SIMS lived while the other persons who wrote about them were not and relied on information passed on to them.

Another source which comes to mind which includes occupations would be the census.

1850 U.S. Federal Census of Nicholas County, Virginia for William Sims, a gunsmith

William SIMS Sr. lived long enough to be enumerated on the 1850 census where his occupation was listed as Gun Smith.13 Previously in 1820 and 1840 when professions were included on the census, he was seen as engaging in manufacturing. His brother Martin SIMS supposedly set up a gun and blacksmith shop with him in Summersville. I have not found the source of this statement or been able to confirm it. In 1820 Martin was seen as engaging in manufacturing on the census while in 1840 and 1850 his employment was farming. Their father James probably turned the business over to William, and perhaps Martin, by 1820 as James was seen employed in agriculture in 1820 and 1840.

Tools of trade in an inventory?

What other documentation would possibly prove the occupations of my 5th great-grandfather James SIMS? An inventory of his estate might include the tools of his trade.

In the Order Book 1844-1871 of Nicholas County, I found entries concerning the appraisers of the estate of the deceased James SIMS as well as an entry made when the appraisement and bill of sale of his estate were presented to the court and ordered to be recorded. Where were they recorded? They were not found in Will Book 1. The book is incomplete. There is a gap between the terms of April 1844 and November 1865 with only one entry for October 1856. Two decades of records which should have been recorded in the will book are missing.

I questioned other researchers familiar with Nicholas County earlier this year. One person who had visited the courthouse said at least two will books are missing and the clerks are unsure of what happened to these books.

James SIMS earned his living as a blacksmith, gunsmith, and farmer as seen in the records, the memoirs of a witness from his time period, and the stories passed down through the family. He also supplemented his income by collecting a bounty for a wolf-scalp. Was this the only time he collected a bounty? Being a great hunter, he likely also secured the necessities of life by hunting game and selling hides.

Regarding the artwork featured in this post

After I wrote the original post for Mark Smith in 2015, he gifted me the original sketches he had commissioned from his artist friend Jeff Prechtel to illustrate the article. Written permission was obtained earlier this year from Jeff Prechtel to use the images of the original sketches.

© 2018, copyright Cathy Meder-Dempsey. All rights reserved.

Rewriting the Biography: The Livelihood of James SIMS (1754-1845)

  1.  Kanawha County, West Virginia, County Court Record Book, 1788-1803 (images), FamilySearch (Salt Lake City, Utah : Filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1967), FHL Film 530753, DGS 8218841, image 218 of 291, p 395. 1802 James Sims and William Sims on wolf-scalp bounty list. (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CSG6-X9SZ-Q?i=217&cat=55519 : accessed 13 September 2018). 
  2. Rev. Shirley Donnelly, “Yesterday And Today – Hinton Woman, 97, Writes Well, Spells,” Beckley Post-Herald, Thursday, 9 January 1969, p 4. 
  3.  U.S. Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, 1800-1900 (index and images), Ancestry (Original data: Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Record Group 15. NARA microfilm publication M804, 2,670 rolls. National Archives, Washington, D.C.), image 243 of 1164. Pension Application File SR19464 for James Sims. (www.ancestry.com : accessed 7 October 2011). 
  4. Edward Campbell, “Early Settlers of Nicholas County, Virginia,” Nicholas County, (West) Virginia Records of the Pioneers 1818-1860, Upper Glade, West Virginia, Webster County Historical Society, Inc., 1985., p 54. 
  5. Ibid., p 63. 
  6. J.T. Peters and H.B. Carden, History of Fayette County, published by the Fayette County Historical Society, Inc., 1926, p 610. 
  7.  Kanawha County (West Virginia), County Clerk, Record of deeds, 1790-1946 (images), FamilySearch, (126 microfilm reels of original records at the Kanawha County courthouse, Charleston, West Virginia), Deed books, v. A-B 1790-1804, image 206 of 468, Deed Book A, p 91. 1800 Land Deed John and Frances Jones to James Sims. (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CSG6-FSQG-6?i=205&cat=56556 : accessed 6 February 2018). 
  8. William H. Maginnis, “Guns Made by Pioneer on Gauley River, Mute Testimonials of Settlers’ Lives” (The Charleston Gazette, Sunday, 10 August 1947 p. 20). (Newspaperarchive.com : accessed 15 February 2006). 
  9. Rev. Shirley Donnelly, “Nicholas County Had Fine Gunsmith, Too,” Beckley Post Herald, 24 September 1965, page 4. 
  10. Lela Wolfe Prewitt, “James Sims of Culpeper, Fayette & Nicholas Cos., (West) Virginia,” Ancestors & Descendants of Thomas Sims of Culpeper County, Virgina Edmund Butler of Virginia and Kentucky with Allied Families & Other Culpeper Data, compiled and published by Lela Wolfe Prewitt, Fairfield, Iowa, 1972, p. 156. 
  11. George R. Penick Jr., comp., The Penick Papers (a Sims family compilation) (compiled in 1978-1980). 
  12. James P. Whisker, Gunsmiths of West Virginia, 1983, page 105. 
  13.  1850 U.S. Federal Census, (index and images), Ancestry, citing Seventh Census of the United States, 1850 population schedule, National Archives and Records Administration,Washington D.C., NARA microfilm publication M432, 1009 rolls, Roll M432_963, Virginia, Nicholas County, District 43, sheet 360A, lines 33-35, HH #272-272, William Sims household. (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 14 April 2018). 
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