Saturday, February 16, 2013

Fearless Females: The Life and Times of an American Rev War Heroine - Mary Sheffield-Dunn

Copyright 2013 by Family Roots and Branches, a division of Teak Publishing. Reproduction of this and any other article on this blog is permitted as long as full credit is given to the author and source (Larry Van Horn's Family Blog)
I love a good family story and the one told in this post is one of the best I have found in many years of research. First I wish she was a direct line ancestor, but since she isn't I still get to claim her as my own  -- my 5th great grand aunt.

Some of the material has been passed around among my Sheffield cousins on Ancestry via our trees so I do not claim to be the originator of any this material. I will provide it here in case others who are related have not picked up on it yet. There is also some new material I have uncovered below from an old Smith family history book that I have not seen circulated before. IMHO she was truly a remarkable woman, patriot, mother, and is an inspiration to us all.


Mary Sheffield is the daughter of John Sheffield (Moore Co) and Hannah Melton (some say it might be Smith but based on DNA testing I believe it is Melton). She was born 17 Dec 1759 in Moore County, NC and died 11 May 1862 in Anson County, NC. Mary is buried in he Bennett Cemetery, Wadesboro, Anson County, NC next to her husband Isaac Dunn. Her Find-A-Grave Memorial can be seen by click here.

She is buried near the log house where she lived for much of her 103 years. A massive boulder adorned with a D.A.R. plaque memorializes the life of this remarkable woman known throughout the area as "Grandmother Dunn."

She was a well respected nurse and a midwife at the outbreak of the war when she promptly joined with her husband Isaac, to aid the American cause. At times, she could be found by Isaac's side while he fought in Colonel Thomas Wade's regiment.

Rest in Peace Aunt Mary.


Source: Mary Allen Huntley, The Charlotte Observer, Sunday, December 27, 1931, Section Three, Page 5.

Mary Sheffield-Dunn marker in Bennett Cemetery (Photo courtesy of Ron Ruiter and Ron's Road Trips Blog)
           An event long planned reached its culmination on December 2 when a tablet was dedicated to one of Anson county’s pioneer women, Mary Sheffield Dunn. On Highway number 20 two and a half miles east of Wadesboro stands an antebellum house, the home of William and Susannah Dunn Bennett; a short distance in the rear is a beautiful wooded knoll, well elevated above the field and rod and on the crest two stones mark the burial place of a husband and wife who established here a home in the early days of this country.

            Side by side in this quiet spot sleep generations of Bennetts and old tombstones keep their silent vigil, reminding those who pay an occasional visit and the passerby that it is appointed unto man once to die. Unlike most old burying grounds, this one has always had care and attention and is still used by some lines of the Bennett family as the last resting place of their loved ones. This accounts for its well kept condition.

            This is truly God’s acre, guarded by this huge granite boulder placed as though He Himself chose to mark the resting place of these His children. Flowers grow and bloom upon the graves, while from the trees overhead the wood winds breathe low threnodies and cast their peaceful shadow as if to sanctify the place. Such was the setting where occurred the unveiling.

            The beautiful bronze table has been welded onto the boulder and two large American flags were draped over a section concealing the tablet; evergreens banked the base and sides of the bounder and a large laurel wreath, a testimony of approval and gratitude, was placed directly under the tablet by Judge Barrington T. Hill. A representative crowd from the county had gathered and at 2:30 assembly was sounded on the bugle by Scout Charles Ross, after which Mrs. Benjamin Ingram, regent, called upon Mr. Caligan of the Presbyterian church to make the invocation; the flag salute was led by members of the C. A. R.  chapter, followed by a few, well chosen remarks of the regent expressing her thanks to all who had contributed to the success  of the occasion, and voicing the joy that she and her chapter shared in this patriotic service. At this point two attractive little girls, descendants of Grandmother Dunn, Sheffield, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Francis Liles, and Sarah Dabney, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. R. T. B. Little, pulled the cords which disclosed the tablet. Two more charming children could not have been chose for the part, and very gracefully did they recognize the applause of the audience.
         The inscription follows:

            This Marker is dedicated to Mary Sheffield Dunn, 1759-1862; whose patriotic services and kindly ministries to the sick and unfortunate during the Revolutionary war merit the homage of countless descendants and deserve the grateful recognition of succeeding generations. Erected by Thomas Wade chapter, D. A. R., Wadesboro, N. C., 1931.

            The regent expressed the regret of Mr. Frank Dunlap at being detained in Raleigh and unable to fill his part on the program. She then presented Clark of Court, R. E. Little who read an interesting sketch expressing the appreciation of the descendants for the honor done their ancestor, whose strong traits of character, untiring energy and high ideals of service enriched this community. He commended the Thomas Wade chapter for their splendid work in preserving history. Mrs. Mary B. Little, daughter of Col. R. T. Bennett, told of her plans to form an organization of the Bennetts and to hold a reunion in the spring of 1932. She exhibited the canteen (which she owns) of Rev. William Bennett, chaplain of Wade’s Minute Men – Continental Army, also a lovely teapot which was owned by Grandmother Dunn and from which she poured her tea; this belongs to Mrs. Francis Liles.

            The connections of the Bennett family are past numbering and many have brought honor and esteem upon the name. This county would be less rich, were it not for the sturdy virtues of the Bennett off springs. Perhaps none have to a larger extent enjoyed the confidence of the public than one whom the older people of today love and remember, Col. R. T. Bennett, the great-grandson of Mary Dunn, able jurist, superior court judge, member of congress. All these places of honor he adorned as one of his gifts and nature could, but the one which pulled the tightest around his heart was the one his valor, courage, and powers of leadership won for him, colonel of the 14th N. C. Regiment, C. S. A. He loved the cause with his whole heart and his men as devotedly, those ties of friendship made between leader and men were never broken, save by death. Time and again he was honored by his fellow men, but it never exceeded his gratitude.

            Following this the sketch of the life of Mary Dunn was ready by a four times great-granddaughter, and follows in full. She acknowledges her indebtedness to Gen. W. A. Smith’s book, The Family Tree, to Mr. R. R. Bennett for personal recollections, and to Mrs. Mary B. Little and Dr. J. H. Bennett for information gathered from their fathers.

            Anson county, rich in historical spots, personages, and traditions has been slow in giving public recognition to these and many are unknown to the present generation, despite the fact that this is the chief aim of our historical organizations. I am happy to greet you on this long planned for and much talked about occasion to unveil this tablet marking the burial place and commemorating the life and services of one of the pioneer mothers,

            Grandmother Dunn, whose life and labors blessed this land in the yesteryear's and whose ideals  and principles live on in her countless descendants. Strange as it may seem, it took one from a distant country to awake and arouse our conscience to this neglect and to stir within us a determination to make safe for all times the name of Grandmother Dunn, and this one was Mrs. J. G. Boylin, “Cousin Bert” as she was affectionately called by so many.  Born with a love of history, an intense interest in humanity and events, and full of patriotism bequeathed from her illustrious forebears, she came to this country, the pretty bride of Mr. Charles Ingram, the great-grandson of this good woman, and into the very home where the last years of her life were spent. It seems an unusual commingling of fate that it should thus have happened.

            “Cousin Bert” heard eagerly the thrilling events in the life of Grandmother Dunn, from the lips of her own grand-daughter, Nancy B. Ingram, and assembled dates and data, familiarizing herself with the country history, and when largely through her influence and helpfulness, the Thomas Wade D.A.R. chapter was organized she was chosen regent, and those of us who were associated with her bare testimony that her chief objective is being fulfilled this day. I like to think and I verily believe that her spirit hovers over us, and she shares our job and pride, may she also be conscious that today we not alone mark the grave of this worthy ancestor, but pay a tribute of love and appreciation to her, whose wonderfully sweet spirit, unselfishness and patriotism gave us the impetus for this work.

            Mary Sheffield, the daughter of Joanna Sheffield, was born either in England or Scotland in 1759 and her parents soon after came to this country and settled in Moore county. Her mother’s maiden name was Joanna Smith, her father’s given name has been lost to history. In 1796 she married Isaac Dunn, the son of Bartholomew and Ruth Dunn, and soon afterward moved to Anson county.

            Their first home was built near where the present barn on this plantation stands. It was a large log cabin with a loft, close by the house stood a large log smokehouse, the repository for good eats and her medicines, and nearby under a walnut tree was the cider press.

            This plantation belonged to Neville Bennett, who had come from Maryland and had married a Miss Dumas, a woman said to have weighed 400 pounds. The chair she used is reported to still be in existence, owned by some descendant in Montgomery county, as that section of then Anson county was her birthplace. 

            Soon after Neville settled here, his brother William left Maryland to join him, with his wife, who was a Miss Huckster, and two children Elizabeth and William, an infant son. The trip proved too much for h is wife and she died and was buried in Virginia. William arrived at his brother’s home and gave his two children into their care and rearing, as they had no children of their own. One child, Susannah, was born to Isaac and Mary Dunn, and she in her teens became the wife of this William Bennett, the mother of 13 children, the forebears of the countless Bennett descendants.

            Isaac Dunn and his young wife reached Anson county during those stormy days following the battle of Alamance, the spirit expressed in that well nigh immortal petition to His Excellency Governor Tryon could not be subdued, and that great principle that “taxation without representation should always be associated” was uppermost in the thought and acts of the patriots.

            They had waited hopelessly for redress, they were now ready to fight, and, if need be, die to secure their rights. Isaac and his wife caught the dauntless spirit of those patriots and threw themselves with all their energy into the fight against the Tories. He joined one of the companies of Captain Thomas Wade’s Minute Men and judging from the many encounters and traditions left to us, there was no patriot more zealous for the cause, nor more aggressive in the fight for freedom.

            So offensive was he to the Tories that he became the target of their attacks. The Tories scouting around through the country, spying on the patriots and trying to force them to lay down their arms and take the oath of allegiance to the king, made more than one visit to the home of Isaac Dunn. They were determined to rid the country of him and when on one occasion they reached there to find the door barred they opened fire, shooting holes through the door, which Mr. Roland Bennett, her great grandson, recalls having many times stuck his fingers through, and years later removed this door.

            Again they came searching for him, but the quick wits of Grandmother Dunn had hurried him into a place of hiding, and failing to find him, they demanded to know his whereabouts, receiving no answer a Tory raised his saber and struck her a blow across her head that only the hickory splints in her bonnet prevented from being a fatal blow. A scar on her forehead was evidence of this encounter as long as she lived.

            Grandmother Dunn was an expert horsewoman and always kept a fiery steed for her own use, and ‘tis said rode after she was past 90 years of age. Another story comes down to us that she and her husband were being pursued by Tories, they snatched their baby girl, mounted their horses and set off to find a hiding place; fearing lest they should be overtaken, and Isaac realizing that he would be killed if captured and perhaps the baby stolen or killed, threw the child to its mother as the horses galloped at full speed. The child landed safely in its mother’s arms and they successfully eluded their pursuers.

            Grandmother Dunn, scarcely more than a child in size, and weighing less than 100 pounds, was a pretty little woman, fair complexion, neat figure, kindly in her dealings, and a great lover of children.

            This picture is left to us by those who knew her. ‘Tis said that she always had something kind to say about everyone and once upon a time when someone challenged her to find something good to say about the devil replied, “Well, it can be said of him that he minds his own business.”

            She seems to have inherited and acquired a wonderful acquaintance of the medicinal value of herbs and roots, and as there were few doctors among the colonists, and one in this community, she became the physician for a large section of the county. In her own kitchen, she extracted the juices from all the various herbs and roots grown in her garden and gathered in the woods far and wide, and those she made into stimulating tonics, antidotes for poison, antiseptic washes, soothing syrups, medicine to ally fever and cure stomach disturbances, and salves for wounds and sores.

            Perhaps her best known remedy was “Grandmother Dunn salve” and the formula I’m told is still being used in the county. Heart leaves, sweet gum and mutton suet stewed into a salve.

            Her fame spread beyond her own community, she was called to go to Salisbury to minister to a sick man, whose illness had failed to yield to the medical doctor, the trip was made on horseback as all her visits were. We wish that the length of time required for the trip and the outcome of the patient’s illness had been left to us.

            She was attendant at the birth of scores of the babies born during her lifetime, and the late Mr. W. O. Bennett, used to recall the memory of her riding her horse in a swift gallop to his mother’s home in 1840, when she was past 80 years of age, and how some hours later she came out to tell her grandsons and granddaughters that a baby brother, Risden Tyler, had been born.

            She was an excellent cook and her knowledge of proper food and their preparation and her ideas of sanitation were conducive to the good health of her family and her many patients. ‘Tis said she always wore white in the summer and indigo blue in winter, and the style of making was never changed. She was not unmindful of the need that women have always felt for toilet articles and she was an adept at extracting and combing the delicate odors of the rose, lilac, lavender, rosemary, and sweet spices into perfumery; and making cosmetics to beautify the complextion (sic) and soften the skin; and dyes and tonics to hide the gray hairs and promote growth.

            Isaac Dunn by trade was a hewer and would take his own negroes and hired white men and go wherever the call came to fell a forest, on one and perhaps other occasions, he went as far away as Alabama.

            After his death in 1836 Grandmother Dunn’s house was moved and annexed to her daughter’s Susannah Bennett. There she lived until after the death of her daughter after her youngest granddaughter Nancy married Benjamin Ingram and established their home at the mountain in Lilesville township, she went there to spend the remaining years of her life, given every comfort and loved devotedly by these grandchildren.

            Her room was the front room on the left of the present house and is still designated by the owners as “Grandmother Dunn’s room.” Here she received the visits of her numberless kin and countless acquaintances who had shared her healing and kindness, and whose gratitude led them to seek her.

            To the friends and grandchildren she never tired of relating the thrilling experiences of her life which covered three wars, the Revolution, War of 1812, and the Mexican war, and was projected into the Civil war for more than a year, the anxiety of which bore heavily upon her.

            She lived to see five of her own generations and among this many saying treasured, was the one uttered when told that her great-great-great granddaughter had given birth to a daughter—“Arise daughter and go to thy daughter for thy daughter’s daughter has a daughter.”

            While not a member of any church, she was a firm believer in God, a universalist in faith, and a great student of the Bible, many times had she read it through, and knowing the scriptures, she had striven to live up to its requirements  and claim its many [note: missing text in original] confined to her bed and chair and attended by her faithful servants, Charlotte and Martha, surrounded by loved ones she died May 11, 1862. One of her great-granddaughters, Mrs. Charlotte B Dunlap, a girl of 12 years, recalled looking at the corpse, and how horrified she was to see her dressed in an aged yellow dress, and then the story was told her, how 40 years before she was sick unto death, and her burial clothes were made ready. After she recovered she packed these away and gave orders that when the end came she should be dressed in these.

            And now, it is particularly fitting that this chapter which numbers among its membership many of her descendants and whose first regent was the wife of her great-grandson, should pay this honor to her memory and commemorate her life service in this tablet, attached to this boulder, which the Creator Himself placed h ere as impregnable and imperishable as her principles and ideals in life. May her many fine traits of character, her loyalty, heroism, unselfishness, and unfeigned faith in her God live on in this and succeeding generations.

            Mr. J. F. Allen, chairman of the board of county commissioners, graciously accepted the tablet in the name of the people of Anson county, and expressed their pride in this laudable work, after which Mr. Hammaker of the Episcopal church pronounced the benediction.
Two captions under photographs:

           The only living great grandchild of Mary Sheffield Dunn, Roland Risden Bennett, born, 1850, son of Risden Bennett. Children — Sarah Dabney Little, Caroline Hill and Sheffield Liles.

Tablet to memory of “Grandmother Dunn,” on huge bolder on graveyard near Wadesboro, recently unveiled and two little descendants of “Grandmother Dunn,” who unveiled the tablet—Sarah Dabney, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. R. T. B. Little, great-granddaughter of Col. R. T. Bennett and Sheffield, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Francis Liles, great granddaughter of Nancy B. Ingram.

Tombstone of Isaac Dunn
Tombstone of Mary Sheffield-Dunn

           And then there is this remarkable account of her life from the William Alexander Smith. Family tree book: genealogical and biographical, listing the relatives of General William Smith and of W. Thomas Smith, page 22.


           Mary Sheffield became the wife of Isaac Dunn. She was the most noted and notable woman of Anson County. She was very fair and comely. Her elegant form was proportioned after the Grecian model of womanly perfection as seen in sculpture. Wiser than most people in her day and generation she was thoroughly acquainted with the medicinal quality of herbs and roots, nature's remedy for the ills of man and beast.

           Known far and wide as a doctor, she went her rounds as a practicing physician. She did not prescribe mineral medicaments but used herbs: wormwood for vermifuge; fever-few for tonic; balsam for wounds and sores; hoarhound for coughs and colds; snake root for a cathartic; sotherwood, a near specific for that terrrble disease diphtheria; rue for a narcotic. Rue was sometimes called "Herb of Grace" because it afforded relief from remedies for the various ills to which flesh is heir. A famous salve for healing old chronic sores, known as "Grandmother Dunn's Salve", she made of heart leaves, sweet gum and mutton suet. This salve was famous in her day and since. Spice wood, spice bush, for fevers, vermifuge; hornseed for ergot; coltsfoot, snake root, Indian wild ginger, bearberry, foxberry, snake head, sometimes called turtle head, mother's wort or feather feet; devil's bit or bitter grass; all of these she used as stomach tonics; devil's bite for a diuretic; smilax, sarsaparilla for rheumatism; pepper wort as an antiseptic; partridge berry, an anodyne which she probably got from the Indians as it was a famous Indian remedy, cand!e berry, a species of spice or cloves, brake or female fern, used for tapeworm; Indian turnip, dragon turnip, pepper turnip, remedy for asthma, croup etc.; ladies' slipper, ladies' smock and bleeding heart, antispasmodic; dog's bane or ipecac, monk's hood, wolf's bane, a cathartic; she sought blazing star, gay feather in meadows and damp places, which she prescribed as a diuretic; willow water flag, remedy for toothache; heartease for skin diseases; blow root to regulate the pulse, and hundreds of other indigenous herbs with medicinal properties familiar to this learned woman.

           A scientific cook, she used thyme, sage and other herbs in preparation of food suitable for her patients. She also prepared perfumery from lavender, rosemary, roses, sweet spices and other sweet smelling herbs and flowers. We always associate lavender with dainty, refined ladies. Cosmetics for beautifying the complexion and improving the skin came under manipulating hands.

           More than all, she was famed as an accoucher, her services being in great demand over a wide scope of the country. She named an infant daughter of her grandson, L. D. Bennett, after herself, Mary, and, like Anna, the prophetess, "She blessed the child". As the spirit of Elijah descended upon Elisha, the spirit of Mary Sheffield was bestowed in large measures upon her great grandchild, Mary Bennett. With the blessing came the gifted insight of reading characters of men, resembling, in this respect, "Napoleon the Great". With the blessing came the ability of foretelling coming events. With the blessing came hauteur and high notions which would have been termed arrogance but for her sunny smile — that noblesse oblige so graciously worn upon all occasions and which won the hearts of those who knew her.

           With the blessing, the great grandame bestowed the knowledge of herbs and their medicinal qualities: that love of roses possessed by "this dreamer of dreams"; that graceful carriage and queenly walk. With the blessing came that artistic preparation of food and that orderly housekeeping for which she was famed. With the blessing came the skill in needlework, in tapestry work and painting in oil, both landscape and portrait. Mary Bennett inherited all of this and more. Mary Sheffield Dunn was a Universalist in her religious belief, grounding her belief upon the "Universality of the Atonement." "For, as by one man's disobedience all men were constituted sinners, so by the obedience of one shall all men be made righteous and that not of your selves — it is the gift of God." Again "As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." "For I am persuaded that neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities nor powers nor things present nor things to come nor height nor depth nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." God is infinitely wise and good and holy — and created man in his own image for man's good and it is incompatible with the All Wise and good God to condemn His creatures to everlasting punishment. Thus she argued and it is said she was so thoroughly conversant with the scriptures she could maintain her position against all parties.

           She became the wife of Isaac Dunn in 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence. Independence was to be won only after a terrible struggle of seven long years. Embracing the Patriot Cause, a member of Captain Thomas Wade's Company, Isaac Dunn and his young wife had to endure the enmity of the Tories. In Anson County there were many honorable men who from infancy were taught the Divine right of kings and non-resistance. Kings could do no wrong and it was high treason to resist the authority of the Crown. These were loyalists at heart and verily believed it right to harass, plunder, pillage and devastate the property and homes of the American patriots who dared to resist tha king's authority. These loyalists, called Tories, formed themselves into bands, organized under military officers, and went from settlement to settlement and from house to house in pursuit of the patriots, the enemies of King George III, God's vice-regent on earth. By night and by day they proceeded to wreak vengeance on the patriots.

           At set of sun information was received by Isaac Dunn at his home that a band of these Tories was approaching. Hastily he saddled a horse for his wife and one for himself, snatched up their baby, mounted and fled.

           "Weel mounted on this gray mare, Meg, A better never lifted leg. And scarcely he Meggie rallied. When out the hellish legion sallied. "

           The Tories were hot foot on his track behind him. Seeing he would be overtaken and probably killed, while riding at a sweeping gallop, he tossed his baby into the arms of its mother and made his escape. Neither the mother nor the baby were harmed. It was Isaac Dunn they were pursuing with murderous intent because Captain Wade's company three weeks before had retorted upon them, burning, pillaging, and destroying their homes. Those were fearful days, when brother fought brother, father fought son and devil take the hindmost. The patriots were in the large majority and won. Often it was "Escape for thy life, look not back behind thee."

           Mary Sheffield Dunn was a superb horsewoman and sat her horse elegantly and stately. As she was not slothful in business, so also she contributed to the necessity of the saints and was given to hospitality. Blessed with health and strength she went in and out before this people and came to the age of 104 years and died. Truly she lived a life of service to humanity. Thus passed from earth to Paradise a benefactress of her country.

           "Whose life was a song, God wrote the words. Which she set to music; The refrain was glad, or sad — at her pleasure. Her life work of service evidenced the Measure."

           It can be said of her as of Abraham, "She died in a good old age and full of years."