John “Deaf John” Barnes/Barns (1741-1822)

DAR Patriot fought under Washington at Valley Forge-Participated in the War of Regulation-Powerful Patriarch-Wilkes NC Planter-Pioneer Industrialist

May 28, 2016 ©Dr. Linda S. Kimberling  Click here for her bio.

Publisher: Barnes-Oxford Genealogy Research Foundation, Inc.

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Early Life John Barns entered the world on 1 July, 1741, in the middle of 18th-century colonial America. To place it in perspective, Benjamin Franklin was inventing the stove, times were hard, and the era turbulent in Kennett Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania (Lambert, n.d.). Many Scotch-Irish immigrants settled in Chester County, including John’s father, Brinsley Barns, who was 28 and his mother, Elizabeth Lindley Barns, 20 years old (Family Data Collection Births). Barely 60 years earlier William Penn settled the Pennsylvania Colony when he received a charter from King Charles II of England granting him acreage to liquidate a debt. This new Colony was a haven from religious persecution and the groundwork for separation of church and state (History of William Penn, n.d.). John’s arrival was on the cusp of the 1776 American Revolution fought to ensure the British did not overstep their authority by excessive and unauthorized taxation of the new American people. It was against this backdrop John was born, raised, and developed his beliefs and values about family, work, religion, and freedom. As the second of eight children, John no doubt experienced hard work caring for his younger siblings and contributing to their livelihood. He carried out daily chores, cleared stones and foliage before even subsistence-level farming would be productive in the poor soil of the early American Colonies. John had three sisters, Mary Barns Carter (1734-1823); Anne Barns Hobson (1744-1775); and Lydia Barns Teagues (1751-1810 or after); and five younger brothers, James “Handsome Jim” Barns (1748-1832); Brinsley Barns, Jr. (1749-1816); Thomas Barns (1750-1823); and Jehu Barns (1751-1833)—all of whom were born by the time John was 11 years old.2 Along with his siblings, John was very likely raised in the Quaker lifestyle as his mother was a confirmed Quaker (Women’s Minutes, 1741, December 26; 1753, May 5). However, contrary to the Quaker lifestyle, “Elizabeth Barns [was] disowned…for drinking hard liquor…” (Women’s Minutes, 1753, September 1; 1753, October 6). While there is no evidence that Brinsley, his father, was a confirmed Quaker, he engaged in Quaker conventions and ceremonies as documented in many of the congregation’s meetings (Kennett Monthly Meetings, 1692-1821a-d); Men’s Minutes, 1753). This means the Barns’ children (if only loosely) were likely raised to live “…in daily obedience of God. Simplicity, honesty, and order were valued. Card-playing, dancing, and liquor were forbidden, and anger often repressed. Emphasis on humility and pacifism helped prevent domination and use of violence” (Brady, 2009). John was a second-generation Irish Immigrant. As with most fathers, John’s life migration reflects he was strongly influenced by his father’s skills, prominence in the community, and future wealth. His father, Brinsley, hailed from Dublin, Ireland, arriving in the Map of Ulster-Scott area of IrelandNew World circa 1734. Living in Ireland in the early 18th century, likely he was skilled in farming and animal husbandry. However, the Kennett Township, Chester County, PA Tax Records reflect Brinsley was an Inmate from the years 1734-1735, and 1747-1748, meaning that he was “older than 21 years old and non-land owning” (Barnes, 2007, p. 1-7; Tax Records, 1735, 1748). Even so, he may well have engaged in tenant farming activities while living in Kennett Township to provide for his growing family when arriving in the Colonies. One could presume that John learned these same skills at the knee of his father. When John was 12, his family moved from Kennett Pennsylvania (Kennett Monthly Meeting Minutes, 5, Sept 1753) to Orange County, North Carolina, which later became Chatham County. In Orange County, his father received 640 acres of land along the Rocky River at the mouth of Mudlick Creek from the Earl of Granville. The Earl offered the land free “to people who would settle and farm the land”. It was at this time Brinsley was officially considered a planter or farmer (Barnes, 1998, p. 1-54b, p 1-6c). Clearing virgin fields and planting were back-breaking work with “oxen and horses for power, crude wooden plows, all sowing by hand, cultivating by hoe, hay, and grain cutting with a sickle, and threshing with flail” (Growing a Nation). John’s father was considered a prominent colonist by having received a large tract of land (i.e., more than 50 acres) (Growing A Nation). Through John’s family connection, opportunities were many, and it is easy to see him as an upstanding citizen with a prosperous future as well. Young Adulthood Ruth Elizabeth Fischer caught John’s eye in his early twenties and they married when he was 22 years old in Swedes Church, Philadelphia, PA on 1 January 1764, just one year after his brother James married Sarah Carter in the same church (Philadelphia Marriage Records, p. 299). Swedes Church was steeped in tradition dating back to 1646. However, some of the earliest known examples of breaking from segregation occurred by the Swedes’ minister who “…baptized over 20 Africans as members of Gloria Dei, making it one of the first multiracial congregations in the country” (The Swedish Colonial Society). As with any young man, courting was most certainly a magical time for John involving far different practices than contemporary dating. For example, Bundling or Tarrying was practiced commonly in the colonies where “young couples thinking of marriage would share a night in the same bed fully clothed or bundled.” To ensure modesty and restraint, a board or other barrier might have separated the enamored couple (Courtship in New England, 1760). In 1767, John’s father conveyed one-quarter section of his original 640 acres in Orange County, North Carolina, to the new couple (North Carolina Deeds, 1767). And, their family of 11 children grew, including: Thomas (1763-1861), Edward (1765-1840), Brinsley (1766-1830), James (1768-1859), John Jr. (1770-1830), Elijah (1777-1840), Ruth Barns Fortner (1778-unknown), Elizabeth Barns Fortner (1788-unknown), Luranah Barns Teague (1779-1840), Joshua (1798-1872), and an unnamed daughter who married Robert Mitchell (Barns, Last Will and Testament, 1821). Political Unrest and Military Service In the same year John and Ruth wed, William Tryon was appointed the lieutenant governor of North Carolina. Not long after, he disenfranchised the colonists of North Carolina by enacting policies and practices that resulted “… in excessive fees, higher taxes…lack of colonial representation, and…corruption of the royal government in charge of the colony” (Martin, n.d.). Eventually, a group of men rejecting the taxation formed in the North Carolina Piedmont region and they were called Regulators. In 1768, John and his brother James, with their father, Brinsley, with over 480 Regulators signed the Petition protesting Tryon’s actions (Documenting the American South, 2010a). The Regulators “rioted throughout the North Carolina countryside until the movement culminated in the Battle of Alamance” in 1771 (Martin, n.d.). While the Revolutionary War did not officially begin until four years later, many historians believe the Battle of Alamance was the “spark that ignited our American Revolution” (Price, 2016). In 1772, John with his brother Brinsley Barns, Jr., joined the local militia serving in Captain Brook’s Company, Chatham County, NC (Militia Muster Roll, 1772). Regulators signing the petition, or having any part in the Battle of Alamance:

“had to swear allegiance to the King of England or flee their former homes. Many of those patriots in the Anson County—now Montgomery Chatham—gathered up their families and belongings and fled across the Cherokee line—that is the boundary between Tryon’s domain and the Indians, said to have been between here [Alexander County] and Statesville” (White, n.d.).

Brinsley, Elizabeth, and their sons James and John (now 30 years old) with their respective families were part of this mass exodus of refugees who fled westward into Indian country (Barnes, 1998, p. 1-46). The first battles of the American Revolutionary War began 19 April 1775 at Lexington and Concord, and little more than a year later on 1 Oct 1776, John enlisted in the Continental Army. He enlisted in Captain John Kingsbury’s Artillery Company (U.S. Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783, p. 81; Documenting the American South, p. 735). The North Carolina Kingsbury’s artillery unit was independent, and North Carolina was the only state to have an independent artillery company. which was part of the Continental Army

Revolutionary War Artillery Crew
Revolutionary Artillery Crew
Source: 1771 Encyclopedia Britannica

During John’s tenure serving the North Carolina Artillery Company, he “…served with General George Washington’s Continental Army for over two years. Valley Forge and the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse among others. It [the North Carolina Artillery Company] was sent South to help defend Charleston, S.C. and was surrendered with General Benjamin Lincoln’s Southern Army” (Locke’s Militia & Kingsbury’s NC Artillery; Revolutionary War 101).

John Barnes - Revolutionary War Pay Voucher
John’s Payroll Stub
Source: Fold3 Military Records

The last Revolutionary War Service record located for John was dated 1 Apr 1779 showing he served three years and 4 months.  On this date, the record reflects he was a Gunner at the rank of sergeant and a casualty. Beneath his rank is the following descriptive note: “charges only as Matross” (U.S. Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783, p. 4). A Matross assisted the gunners in loading, firing and sponging the guns, and ranked as a private only. Since no application for pension was filed by John, nor any record found for pension benefits paid to him or his descendants, it is impossible to know the purpose of this note. It may have been that as a result of John’s undefined casualty, he would have been paid at the lower rate of a Matross if he applied for a pension; or it may have indicated that any continued service would be in the role of Matross due to his casualty–despite his rank of sergeant. Finally, there are many legends and stories that tell of John standing too close to a cannon or shotgun resulting in his nickname Deaf John. Certainly, his valiant military service as a Gunner would have created a prime opportunity for this event to occur. Prospering Family By 1790, the Revolutionary War was long over and John’s family had grown to 8 children. His father and many of his siblings including Reuben, Edward, Solomon, and Jehu all lived in the Wilkes County community (Federal Census, 1790a). Legend has it that John and his brother James lived alongside each other and were so close that people didn’t know whose children belonged to whom. John and James’ Quaker upbringing would support this notion, especially as they were starting out life with small children. Quaker families were expected to remain close as detailed in the Friends Journal:

“Parents could not count on living until all their children were grown, and they expected relatives to be willing to help raise them if necessary. Those who lived into old age could hope that a son or daughter, niece or nephew, would care for them. If a family was slipping into poverty, more prosperous brothers and sisters would help. As some Quakers acquired wealth in the 1700s, relatives might loan money or invest in new business ventures together.” (Brady, 2009, p. 2).

However, if this legend is to be believed, it was a short-lived period in John and James’ lives. James returned to Anson County, NC (Federal Census, 1790b) and moved to Rockingham, NC, (Federal Census, 1810), only living in Wilkes County for about a decade around the turn of the century (Federal Census, 1800). John, however, remained in Wilkes County, North Carolina, from his arrival circa 1772 until his death, and prospered there as a planter and plantation owner from the early 1790’s {map of NC}. North Carolina was a thriving state at this time, ranking third in the population of the early day United States (North Carolina Business History, n.d.). Through multiple transactions wherein he paid cash outright or received a grant from the State of North Carolina, John acquired approximately 1,200 acres of thickly forested, good bottom land mainly along the Lower Little River from 1798 through 1818 (Kimberling, 2016). The Lower Little River is located approximately 9 miles west of current day Taylorsville Township, NC on US 64 and south on state HWY 127; and 15 miles east of Lenoir, NC on US 64 (Google Map Satellite). During North Carolina’s boom of the late 18th Century, John was industrious building a plantation, owning six slaves, and operating a gristmill, sawmill, and distillery (Barns, 1821; Federal Census, 1820). A plantation of approximately 800 acres was considered average size, producing an upper-middle-class quality of life for the Antebellum Plantation period in American history (the University of North Carolina, n.d.)  Click link to view John’s land transactions.

Antebellum Plantation
Antebellum Plantation
Source: University of NC, School of Education

The location of John’s plantation, next to the fast-running Lower Little River, would have been necessary to turn a water wheel that provided the power for the mill to grind grain, corn, and wheat into meal and flour.

18th Century Gristmill
18th Century Gristmill
Source: Lenoir Museum Cultural Complex

Few farmers could afford to own their own mills; therefore, they would bag the grain and haul it by boat or horse to the closest local mill for grinding John’s mill would have been available by boat or horse to meet community needs.

18th Century Saw Mill
18th Century Saw Mill

The sawmill would have been run by the same power source as the gristmill. In addition to constructing his own home, it is likely the enterprise cleared hardwoods from his mass acreage allowing John to serve as a purveyor of lumber for the Wilkes County Community. The slaves who worked the plantation along with any indentured servants he may have employed, likely cut the timber and drug the logs pulled by horses to the sawmill. Family Strife In May of 1790, John’s father, Brinsley, composed an Articles of Agreement with his younger son Jehu. The Agreement provided lifetime care for Brinsley in exchange for Brinsley’s remaining estate of 290 acres and the home residing on the property (Barns, 1790). Brinsley died on November 4, 1794. No other Will for Brinsley Barns was found. It appears his son, Brinsley II, considered the Articles of Agreement to be his father’s Last Will and Testament, which he contested via power of attorney (Wilkes County Court Minutes, 1795a). Brinsley II and his brother John “apparently had misgivings about their brother Jehu and the Last Will and Testament of their father” because they both contested the arrangement (Barnes, 1998, p,1-60d). Since Brinsley II lived in Fayette County, KY prior to 1792 and was unsuccessful at overturning the Agreement between Brinsley Sr and Jehu, his brother John contested the Agreement on 7 May 1795 (Wilkes County Court Minutes, 1795b). The dispute between John and Jehu was ongoing as late as August 1797 when Jehu Barns entered a plea of trespassing against John Barns (Wilkes County Estate Records, 1777-1945). Clearly, the length of time and number of cases filed between the brothers, excoriating one another publicly, must have left permanent emotional scars. Hugh Barnes (2016) wrote an excellent, in-depth review of Jehu Barn’s life, litigation of his father’s last wishes, and subsequent murder. A Legacy By all accounts of the era, John was a self-made man of upper-middle-class means and a self-proclaimed planter (a.k.a. farmer) in his last Will and Testament.       [ Actual Will ]  [ Transcribed Will ] A Most of John’s land in Wilkes County was sold and conveyed to others via deed instrument while he was alive [ Purchase and Sale of Land ] (Kimberling, 2016). He bequeathed an unknown amount of land referred to as “the land I now live on” or “a tract of land lying between…”, six slaves (i.e., Phillis, Sam, Bill, Squire, Joshua, and Polley), a gristmill, sawmill, distillery, two colts, a mare, a cow, and furniture, clothing, etc. In addition to the value of the physical assets and land he bequeathed, John had $1,559 in cash remaining after settlement of his financial debts—equal to roughly $28,000 in today’s economy (Barns, 1821). John’s wife, Ruth, survived him by 18 years until 1840, and she, their children, and grandchildren were identified in his Will. John clearly expected the gristmill and sawmill would continue operating past his death. We know this because he bequeathed portions of the gristmill and sawmill to his sons Brinsley, Edward, and daughter Ruth, stating: “the said owners of the mills is to have all privileges at and round said mills to keep up and tend the same as if the land was their own” (Barns, 1821). To be successful in the family-owned business, his adult children needed a cordial rapport among one another—which history tells us, sadly John himself did not maintain. John Barns lived a long and productive life. He was 80 years old when he died in an era adults expected to live to 40 years old only (Life in the Early 1800s). In that time span, he sacrificed his home, fleeing westward as a refugee from Governor Tyron, and fought in the Revolutionary War to defend the freedom that we hold dear to our quality of life. His plantation proved he was a pioneer of agriculture and industrialization, witnessing inventions of the steam engine, cotton gin, smallpox vaccine, and primitive automation of the grist and sawmills—all improvements to health and productivity of his time. John’s descendants, from his 11 children to his great-grandchildren in modern day America, all have benefited from his work ethic, ingenuity, and sheer tenacity.

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__________________________________________________________________________ 1Brinsley Barns and his son John initially spelled the family surname as Barns without an ‘e’ on legal documents and census records, and occasionally both spellings are contained in the same document. In his Last Will and Testament, John spelled his name “Barnes”. Ancestry states that the name Barns originated as an occupational name for someone who lived by or worked at a barn, barns, or granary.

Recent DNA testing has revealed that Solomon Barnes, Sr. is not a brother as had been previously reported.  An Amendment to this article was published in October 2017 to view it click here.


1. Barnes, H. (2016, April 5). Jehu Barnes: His death, a family affair. Retrieved on April 25, 2016 from

2. Barnes, W.E. (1998, 2007, 2012, 2014). Descendants of Brinsley Barnes and Elizabeth Lindley along the lineage of Willard Howard Barnes and Ethel Garnell Davis. Unpublished Manuscript.

3. Barnes, W.E. (1998, 2007, 2012, 2014). Descendants of Brinsley Barnes and Elizabeth Lindley along the lineage of Willard Howard Barnes and Ethel Garnell Davis. Unpublished Manuscript. p. 1-51, 1 and 1b.

4. Barns, B. (1790). Articles of Agreement between Brinsley Barnes and Jehu Barnes. Superior Court, Wilkes County, NC, p. 278. In Barnes, W.E. (1998, 2007, 2012, 2014). Descendants of Brinsley Barnes and Elizabeth Lindley along the lineage of Willard Howard Barnes and Ethel Garnell Davis. p. 1-62. Unpublished Manuscript.

5. Barns, J. (1821). Last Will and Testament. North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998. North Carolina Division of Archives and History. Probate County: Wilkes County, North Carolina.

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46. White, W.E. (n.d.), A History of Alexander County. Alexander County Library. In Barnes, W.E. (1998, 2007, 2012, 2014). Descendants of Brinsley Barnes and Elizabeth Lindley along the lineage of Willard Howard Barnes and Ethel Garnell Davis. p. 1-32. Unpublished Manuscript.

47. Wilkes County Court Minutes. (1795a). Volume IV, 5 Feb. North Carolina.

48. Wilkes County Court Minutes (1795b). Volume IV, 7 May. North Carolina.

49. Wilkes County Estate Records 1777-1945, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, NC.

50. Women’s Minutes. (1741, December 26). Kennett Monthly Meeting, p. 132. Kennett, PA. In Barnes, W.E. (1998, 2007, 2012, 2014). Descendants of Brinsley Barnes and Elizabeth Lindley along the lineage of Willard Howard Barnes and Ethel Garnell Davis. p. 1-21. Unpublished Manuscript.

51. Women’s Minutes. (1753, May 5). Kennett Monthly Meeting. Kennett, PA. In Barnes, W.E. (1998, 2007, 2012, 2014). Descendants of Brinsley Barnes and Elizabeth Lindley along the lineage of Willard Howard Barnes and Ethel Garnell Davis. p. 1-22. Unpublished Manuscript. Women’s Minutes. (1753, September 1).

52. Women’s Minutes. (1753, October 6). Kennett Monthly Meeting, Kennett, PA. In Barnes, W.E. (1998, 2007, 2012, 2014). Descendants of Brinsley Barnes and Elizabeth Lindley along the lineage of Willard Howard Barnes and Ethel Garnell Davis. p. 1-24. Unpublished Manuscript.

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