Colorful – McCama W. Robinson

So, it has been several months since my last 52 Ancestors blog post. Life got in the way (in good ways!), and I just wasn’t able to keep up with everything! Now I have quite a few posts to catch up on, starting with a colorful character in my family.

McCama W. Robinson is one of those ancestors that keeps surprising me the more I delve into his life. Somehow, he is a mysterious character, yet I also know a lot about his personal life. I feel as if I know him really well, but I don’t know him at all. Like most of his male Robinson descendants (and some of their wives), his life was fairly well documented, and those documents reveal his complicated and interesting life.

I know almost nothing about McCama’s background. The 1850 and 1860 census give his age as 45 and 54 respectively, which places his birth around 1805/06. Both censuses record his birthplace as North Carolina, and in a letter to a Pennsylvania genealogist in the 1880s, his oldest daughter states that the Robinsons were of English extraction. And that is all I know about his origins!

McCama W. Robinson’s signature

McCama, a successful cabinetmaker, was living in Winchester, Tennessee by 1830 when he married Margaret Ingles Dixon, daughter of Ann Cochran Dixon and Sankey Dixon, a Revolutionary War officer who died when Margaret was 7 years old. Margaret and her mother Ann were living with Margaret’s oldest brother, Dr. Matthew Lyle Dixon in Winchester, and after McCama and Margaret’s marriage, Ann moved in with the newlyweds.

By 1834, McCama had the means to purchase a house and lot in Winchester, which he previously had been renting from Joseph Bradford. It was in this house that he and Margaret spent their early married years, and most likely where Margaret gave birth to their first four children – Rachel Ann, Samuel D., Elizabeth White, and William Darby. Four more children followed – Isabel, Sarah Sloan, Henry Clay, and Mary D.

From the outside, the family looks happy, but the domestic scene within the household seems to have been a complicated one. Public records exhibit conflicting images of McCama’s personality. On the one hand, McCama was hardworking and provided well for his family. He was an active community member, frequently serving as a juryman from the 1830s through the 1850s and as a road overseer in the 1840s. On the other hand, his frequent outbursts of passion led to involvement with the Franklin County court. McCama appeared before the Circuit Court several times during the 1830s, both bringing charges as the plaintiff, and more commonly, being accused of various offenses as the defendant. Franklin County’s court records prior to 1832 were destroyed, so only McCama’s legal problems from that year forward survive. McCama was first levied with three bills of indictment for assault and battery in the November 1836 term. In July 1837, after engaging in an affray, or a public brawl that disturbed the peace, with Powhatan Statum, McCama pled guilty for the fight and paid the fine and prosecution costs. The Circuit Court jury also found him guilty of the assault and battery charges, and as with the affray, he was responsible for the fine as well as the cost of the suit.

           McCama’s own cases did not prevent him from attending court in November 1836 to give evidence against Joseph Lockhart for “keeping a disorderly house.” Despite his lengthy and costly court proceedings, McCama was determined to pursue his case against Lockhart in 1838. Lockhart instead counter charged McCama with trespassing with force and arms, for which McCama was convicted and paid yet another fine. Including two additional suits he brought against William A. Caldwell and Henry Hamblin, McCama was involved in four cases in the Circuit Court in the 1830s. The court records indicate that McCama might have been difficult to live with, or, at the very least, had a tendency to bring unnecessary attention to his wife, children, and mother-in-law. To his credit, as the years passed his legal troubles lessened and he mainly appeared in court records being paid to build coffins for various paupers in the community.

Despite some of his questionable actions in public, he was also a somewhat forward thinking man, especially in regards to education. He sent his oldest son, Samuel, to Carrick Academy in Winchester, and based on letters written by Henry, the younger sons also likely attended. In 1831, McCama signed a petition to the Tennessee Legislature to open the Winchester Female Institute. All of his daughters demonstrated their education in one way or another, which leads me to believe they all likely attended the institute or possibly one in Nashville. Rachel Ann taught school, and Elizabeth married the John Sturtevant, the head of the Tennessee School for the Blind, where she taught classes. McCama helped to provide his children, boys and girls, with an education that helped them lead successful lives (with some monetary assistance from their grandmother Ann).

By the late 1830s and early 1840s, McCama’s legal problems gave way to financial ones. His mother-in-law, Ann, worked hard to receive a substantial $320 pension every year for her husband’s service in the war. She saved her money, and when in 1838 McCama sold his home and lot, Ann began negotiations to purchase a house in her own name. She purchased a house and 1 1/2 acres in the town of Winchester, and her son-in-law, daughter, and grandchildren moved in with her. Such an accomplishment for Ann might have been seen as a societal failure for McCama. Men coveted independence in order to satisfy their social expectations as patriarchs and successful providers for their dependents. Between his court drama and his inability to hold onto his real property, McCama instead had to yield authority to his mother-in-law.

Ann was very protective of her interests, and she kept very careful records of the debts owing to her because she had no intention of allowing people to borrow large sums without repaying her, including McCama. In the July Term of 1842 in the Circuit Court, Ann brought a suit against McCama for debt of over $700.  He told the court that “he can not gainsay the plaintiffs action against him and confesses Judgment for the sum of seven hundred and eighteen dollars and seventy eight cents.” The court determined that McCama had to repay the full sum as well as court costs. The court minutes does not specify the reason why Ann loaned such a large amount of money to McCama. In November, McCama registered a deed of trust between himself and Burr H. Emerson for Ann’s use, in which he conveyed some of his most valuable possessions. Many of the items pertained to his cabinetmaking business such as his tools of the trade – lumber, bed screws, varnish, and turning lathe – while others were products of his labor – dining room tables, bureaus, and sugar chests.  As McCama was “desirous to Secure and make certain the payment,” he agreed that if he did not repay Ann by May 12, 1844, Emerson “may expose the said property to public Sale, and sell it to the highest bidder for cash.” No records remain to tell the outcome, but as Ann did not haul McCama back into court, she must have received her money one way or another.

It seems that Ann was not very trusting of McCama, which makes me believe there must have been something else about him that isn’t explicitly stated in the public documents. I am inclined to think he must have been a heavy drinker, or have a temper, or just irresponsible with his finances. Whatever it was, Ann chose to bypass McCama when she wrote her will in 1845. She bequeathed to Margaret the house and lot purchased from Thomas Wilson, her “old negro man Andrew,” and her household and kitchen furniture. If Margaret died first, everything would be split among Margaret’s children. Nothing was left to McCama, not even a life interest in the house. At this time, both McCama and Margaret were in bad health, and their situations may have been why Ann wrote her will at this time.

McCama and Ann were both Whigs; McCama even named his son Henry Clay after the great Whig statesman. Evidence of his political leanings was documented in a newspaper article that appeared in The Tennessean, a Nashville newspaper, on 14 September 1882. Veterans of the Mexican War assembled in Nashville for a reunion, among them a man from Winchester who knew McCama in the 1840s. The story goes as follows:

“Rev. W. W. Estill, of Winchester, Tenn,. is here among the Mexican Veterans. He was Ensign of Co. E. Third Tennessee regiment in the Mexican War. The flag carried by him was one of the finest that was taken into Mexico by the U.S. troops. One side was the stars and stripes, made of silk, the other white silk, and was made by the Whig ladies of Winchester in 1840, the staff being made by M. W. Robinson, then a cabinet-maker in that place. It was carried by the Whigs of Franklin county through the campaigns of 1840, ’41, ’43, and ’44 and presented to Capt. George T. Colyar’s company in 1847. On being taken out for presentation to the company. Mr. Rboinson was among the group of citizens surrounding it, and, taking hold of the staff, remarked that he had made that staff in 1840 and had seen the flag in every political campaign since, and those who had carried it had stood nobly by it, and was proud to see his hand-work go forth in the cause of his country, and hoped that those to whom it was entrusted would carry it to victory and return it untarnished. That fine flag, however, was never returned.”

This anecdote shows that McCama was patriotic, talented, and politically engaged, with no hint to his issues. This story just demonstrates how all people, including our ancestors, are complicated beings with many different sides.

Despite McCama’s earlier problems, his cabinetmaking business flourished by the 1850s, allowing him to engage a partner, Henry Hall. After the initial investment of $500 in the company, three men labored for “average monthly wages of $75, [and] produced furniture worth $1,500 from 5,000 feet of lumber….” McCama earned at least $900 per year, almost three times the amount Ann received as her pension.  McCama placed an advertisement for the firm of Robinson and Hall in the first edition of The Winchester Appeal on February 16, 1856.  It announced to “their friends and the public generally” that their new shop was now located on the square, and they sold “furniture constantly on hand, or made to order.”

Ann died the next year, and her executor (notably not McCama) placed an advertisement in the paper for the sale of her house. Her granddaughter Elizabeth’s husband purchased the house, and the surviving grandchildren split the profits as their inheritance.

Soon, McCama’s life began to unravel. Perhaps McCama’s bad health finally caught up to him; he and Henry Hall placed a short notice in the newspaper announcing that “The firm of Robinson & Hall was dissolved January 1st 1859, by mutual consent.” In the 1860 census, McCama was still listed as a cabinetmaker. This indicates that despite his health, he still produced some furniture on his own. However, his circumstances proved insufficient to properly care for his three youngest children, Belle, Sarah, and Henry. On March 6, 1860, the County Court appointed G. A. Shook “guardian of the person and property of Bell W., Sarah S., & Henry C. Robertson [sic] minor children of M W Robertson [sic]. Seven months later, McCama petitioned the court to remove Shook as guardian because the children were “residents of Rutherford County Tennessee & that Jas. R. Mankin is their legal guardian in said county.”

After the court case, McCama disappears from public records. His son, Henry, sent McCama one letter dated July 8, 1861 while Henry was serving in the Confederate Army. That is the last time any mention of McCama was made during his lifetime. It is likely he died shortly after that, and it’s possible that one of Henry’s furloughs was taken to attend his father’s funeral. McCama was probably buried in the Winchester City Cemetery next to his wife Margaret, mother-in-law Ann, and children William and Mary. There is no headstone; therefore, no date of birth or death has survived.

 It remains unclear what prompted his scrapes with the law and troubles at home. His oldest son, Samuel, was an active member of the Sons of Temperance. Did this stem from dealing with a parent who drank excessively when he was a child? I will probably never know. But he certainly was a colorful character and no doubt would have been a very interesting person to know.