The Whitner family plays a significant role in the history of Anderson and Anderson County. While most in Anderson know of William Church Whitner from the statue of him in downtown and the stories of his hydroelectric plants, his grandfather and great-grandfather also were instrumental in shaping the community. The Whitner family did not start out successful. In fact, their story begins with a German orphan and who had an unstoppable drive to succeed in his new home.
January 1765. Hundreds of German immigrants arrived in Charleston as part of a wave of migration to the South Carolina colony. Many of them eventually settled in the township of Londonborough, a twenty-five thousand acre tract of land that had been set aside for them. The township was mostly located in today’s McCormick and Edgefield Counties with a small portion in southern Greenwood County, and was one of several such locations set aside for specific ethnic and religious groups that were being brought to the colony. The hope was that these townships would stimulate growth in the back country of South Carolina, but few of them survived for more than a few years, with the exception of the Camden Township.
Among those Germans arriving in Charleston as part of this wave, was the family of Johan Georg Weidners, age sixty-five. Weidners was traveling with his wife, Anna Maria Dullen, age forty-five, and their three children: Christian, age fifteen, Catherine, age eleven, and Josef, age ten. Within a few months of arriving, Josef was the only member of the family left, the rest having died from disease and fever.
The young Josef was now an orphan in a strange land. He had no family or anyone to care for him. He was placed in a school in Charleston where he remained, presumably under the care and protection of the German Friendly Society of Charleston, a charitable organization which offered aid and assistance to the growing German population in the city. The young Joseph received an education and was greatly influenced by the Patriot ideas which were spreading through the colonies.
The German community of Charleston strongly supported the Patriot cause during the Revolutionary War. In May 1775, the German Fusiliers was formed, the first native German military unit to be formed in the colonies. On January 12, 1778, at the age of 18, Joseph joined the ranks of the Patriot army. His name appeared in military records as “Joseph Whitener” and “Joseph White.”
During his first year, Whitner served under the command of General Francis Marion, the famed “Swamp Fox.” Whitner participated in the failed and devastating Siege of Savannah (September 16 – October 17, 1779). Afterwards, he was reassigned to the Pendleton District, where the Cherokee, incited by the English, were committing grave depredations on colonial settlements. He was given a command under Colonel Benjamin Roebuck’s battalion of the Spartan Regiment, which had been established in July 1780.
Whitner participated in many of the key engagements during 1780 and 1781 including Kings Mountain (October 7, 1780), Blackstocks (November 20, 1780), Cowpens (January 17, 1781), and the sieges of Augusta (April-Jun 1781) and Ninety Six (May 21 – June 19, 1781). A contemporary, Col. John Clark Kilpatrick, Sr., once remarked that that “[Whitner] never sent his men into battle, but always led them.” Whitner wrote an account of his experiences in the Revolutionary War.
At the close of the war, Whiter settled in Pendleton and became a surveyor and planter. He had become familiar with the territory during his military service and believed that it was ready for development and growth. He purchased land “above ancient boundary line on Eighteen Mile Creek, branch of the Savannah River” from David Waters of Abbeville County on October 5, 1791. Waters had received the land from Charles Steele in 1787, who had been granted the land by William Moultrie on July 4, 1785. Whitner also held the deed to Altamont Plantation, but he did little to improve the land. He later sold it to Col. Thomas Pinckney, Jr., around 1800.
Whitner was hired by Judge Lemuel James Alston in 1786, to survey a tract of land for a courthouse for the newly created Greenville County. His survey was completed on August 19, 1786, and included seventy-four acres of former Cherokee territory on the Reedy River which eventually became the center of downtown Greenville.
In 1789 he married Elizabeth Shackelford, daughter of William Shackelford, a Revolutionary War Patriot from Hanover County, Virginia. After his marriage, he changed his name to Joseph Whitner. Joseph and Elizabeth had five children:
- Benjamin Franklin Whitner, Sr., born September 22, 1971. His family eventually settled in Florida and became pioneers in the state’s citrus industry.
- John Whitner, born about 1795. He served during the War of 1812 and died in New Orleans in 1812.
- Rebecca Whitner, born January 10, 1795. Died unmarried in 1832 and buried at Old Stone Church.
- Joseph Newton Whitner, Sr., born April 11, 1799. The “father of Anderson.”
- Sarah Shackelford Whitner, born July 8, 1804. Married Dr. Frederick W. Symmes, a noted physician and planter in Pendleton.
There are reports of two other daughters, Elizabeth and Jane, but no additional information is known about them.
While his family grew, so did Whitner’s fortune. On January 26, 1796, he sold to Charles Rice thirty acres on the west side of Eighteen Mile Creek, part of 190 acres transferred from Jacob Rame to Whitner. In March 1797, Whitner accompanied Benjamin Hawkins, Gen. Andrew Pickens and Col. Kilpatrick on an expedition to mark the lines between the Native American lands and the United States.
Although Whitner held the deed to Altamont Plantation, he did little to improve the land. He eventually sold it to Col. Thomas Pinckney, Jr., around 1800.
Whitner’s household, according to the 1800 Federal Census, consisted of himself, his wife, their sons, Benjamin, John, and Joseph, and their daughter, Sarah. As a land owner, Whitner also owned slaves. In 1800, he owned seven.
In 1802, the construction of the Old Stone Church in Pendleton (then called Hopewell-Keowee) was completed. Although born a Lutheran, Whitner had converted to Presbyterianism, and his name appears in the church records as one of the principal contributors.
On July 4, 1812, Whitner was appointed by General Andrew Pickens to a commission that was responsible for drafting “certain resolutions” regarding the actions of the British navy which led to the War of 1812. Other members of the commission included leading figures of the Pendleton District: Dr. Edward D. Smith, Col. John B. Earle, Col. Andrew Pickens (son of General Pickens), Maj. John Taylor, Dr. William Hunter, Col. Obadiah Trimmier, John Wilson, Capt. David Sloan, and Maj. Michael Dickson.
Whiter, on December 1, 1812, was appointed by the state House of Representatives, along with Robert Anderson, Samuel Cherry, James C. Griffin, and Samuel Taylor, as a “commissioner to appropriate the securities hereafter to be given by sheriffs and other officers in Pendleton District.”
Whitner requested compensation from the State Committee on Claims on December 13 1813, for two horses that were lost in military service during the Revolutionary War. A week later, he was appointed to a commission by the General Assembly that was tasked with altering the western boundary of the public square of Pendleton to establish a circulating library for the community. The others appointed to the Commission of the Pendleton Circulating Library Society were Robert Anderson, Samuel Cherry, Joseph B. Earle, James C. Griffin, John L. North, Andrew Pickens, Jr., and John Taylor.
In 1818, Whitner became a member of the Pendleton Farmers’ Society, a local association of prominent farmers and plantation owners. The society, which had been formed in 1815, would hold regular meetings where they would discuss improvements pertaining to agriculture.
These appointments coincided with the growth of his influence in the Pendleton community. In 1820, the Federal Census recorded that his household included himself and his wife, three daughters (presumable these include Elizabeth and Jane referenced earlier), and eighteen slaves. The slaves included five males and seven females under the age of fourteen, two males and one female between the ages of 14 and 25; and one male and two females between the ages of twenty-six and forty-four.
Joseph Whitner died April 12, 1824, of apoplexy.
In the words of John C. Whitner, a grandson of Atlanta, Georgia:
“Thrown upon his own resources when but a youth, trained in the school of bitter experience, along and unaided, Joseph Whitner struggled against adverse circumstances and conquered them; deprived, when a child, of softening influences of home life, it is no wonder he was regarded as an austere man, but beneath that severe exterior there was a heart as warm as ever beat in human breast.”
Whitner was buried at Old Stone Church. From his humble beginnings as an orphan on the streets of Charleston, Whitner lived an amazing life. He fought in battles and surveyed the wilderness of South Carolina. He founded a family that would impact the history of the United States in ways that he could have never dreamed. His eldest son, Benjamin Franklin Whitner, had moved to Florida several years earlier. His other surviving son, Joseph Newton Whitner, remained in Pendleton, and he would become the “father of Anderson.”
Elizabeth Shackelford Whitner remained in Pendleton and outlived her husband for another thirteen years. She died on October 21, 1837. Her father was Second Lieutenant William O. Shackelford of the Fourteenth Virginia Regiment. Shackelford fought at the Battle of Germantown (October 4, 1777), and died the following month on November 23 of wounds he received. Elizabeth was laid to rest beside her husband at Old Stone Church.