William Hunter Cavendish
William Hunter Cavendish was an early pioneer who played an integral part in both the exploration and settling of the Greenbrier County region of West Virginia. He is an interesting figure for both what we do know and for the mysteries that surround his origins even today.
So who was William Hunter Cavendish? In simple terms, he was the Great Great Grandfather of Lucy Bell Brown on her paternal side. William’s daughter Sarah Cavendish married Thomas Brown, and to that union was born Tinsley Brown. Tinsley Brown was the father of James Clark Brown.
William’s early life is surrounded by a lot of mystery. It’s widely accepted that he was born in 1740 in Ireland. According to legend he claimed to be of illegitimate birth, his mother was an English woman named Margaret and his father was a member of the English noble Cavendish family. He is also said to have boasted that he was eligible to sit on the House of Lords in the English Parliament. So far as I have been able to locate these tales have never been proven and possibly never will be. It does however bear mentioning that several male members of the Cavendish family were notorious for fathering bastard children so it is possible.
William claimed to have arrived in Virginia colony when he was boy. So far no one has successfully proven when he came over but it is thought to have been sometime between 1750 and 1760. He made the trip with his mother and two half sisters. The family settled in Virginia. The family seems to have had at least moderate means with which to establish them in the new world. Margaret seems to have had the means with which to both transport her family without resorting to indenture and to acquire land when they arrived. At some point considerable attention had also been given to insuring that William was well educated, a detail that would play a huge role in his later life.
By the 1770’s William was located in the region that would later be named Greenbrier County. Records show that William was one of the first lawyers in the region and he was busily recording deeds and wills for his neighbors filling out elaborate court documents when many were signing with crude X marks. From 1778- 1782 he served as the quarter master general of Greenbrier in the Revolutionary War and gained even greater respect and influence.
On June 13, 1780 William married Jane Murphy. He was married possibly as many as three times during his life.
During the 1790’s William was busy helping establish local governments for the region and serving the community. He is reported as being the first County Clerk of Bath County in 1790 and one of the first lawyers to practice in Warm Springs. He is shown as the first clerk of both Greenbrier and Kanawha Counties during this same period. He also served as a delegate from Greenbrier County to the Virginia Legislature almost continuously from 1790-1804.
In 1796 he played a part in establishing Washington College at Lexington, Virginia. He is mentioned in the act creating the College on December 21, 1796 naming him to the board of Visitors with duties such as appointing the president and professors.
Tragedy struck in 1800 when his wife Jane died. Around this time he spent two years as the Sheriff of Greenbrier and lived in Lewisburg, the only period where he did not serve in the Virginia Legislature during his 14 years as a politician.
In 1804 William married again, to a Widow Alice McClintic with whom he would spend the rest of his life. He died in 1818 leaving a considerable estate which he split between his widow and grown children.
Was William the love child of English nobles or was it a creative tale spun by a lifelong politician? We will probably never know the truth. One thing is for certain, even nearly 200 years after his death, William Hunter Cavendish makes for an interesting page in the family heritage both for the things we know he accomplished in his life and for the things we are left to wonder.