25 September 2018

Past Piedmont Chronicles - John Newton: Fact or Fiction

*originally appeared in About Covington to Madison magazine in 2010

Greetings...It's been awhile...good to be back with everyone again. In a previous column about the city of Covington, I had mentioned that there were possible questions regarding the truth about the namesake of Newton CountyJohn Newton. After that column came out, there were some questions in the community as to how accurate and fair my words may have been. In my defense, I used a lot of words like “seems like”, “may have”, and “possibly” and never, in my opinion, made an affirmative statement either way regarding the validity of the John Newton legend; however, ever since that column was published, I have been eager to get back to it and sort through it all and see if we can figure out one of history's mysteries—John Newton...fact or fiction? So here it goes...

As I mentioned then, Newton's legend came from the writings of M.L. “Parson” Weems who was perhaps best known for penning the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree. Most historians would agree that Weems was known for being a bit of a romantic and could stretch the truth a little bit sometimes. The basis for the legend is indeed factual. In 1779, a group of American soldiers led by Sgt. William Jasper rescued a group of American prisoners from a British regiment and killed or captured ten redcoats. Newspaper accounts from that time specifically mention Jasper but make no mention of a John Newton. In fact, it has been all but proven that John Newton was never mentioned until Weems released his second book, “The Life of General Francis Marion” in the early 19th century. That right there would make me lean towards fiction. But we'll reserve final judgment until the we cover all the bases. 

As a quick aside, you'll notice that Jasper and Newton Co. are side by side here in our neck of the woods. There are several other states in the union that have the same thing. In addition, there are other states where you will find a Newton Co. with a city of Jasper as its county seat, or a Jasper Co. with the city of Newton as its county seat. In all, there are upwards of a dozen instances where Jasper and Newton are in a close geographical proximity of some form. True or not, Newton and Jasper will always be intertwined and united in a shared legend.

Another crucial piece of the puzzle is a man by the name of Peter Horry. He was a Brigadier General in the Revolutionary War who served under Francis Marion and served over William Jasper. He was the one who provided Weems with much of the information for the book on Marion and whose name was also listed on the title page. It has been documented that he was livid with how the book turned out and accused Weems of exaggerating and fabricating several portions of the book, especially the part about John Newton, which Horry said was all a lie. 

From there, it starts to get a little confusing. And really, the more I got into this, the more unclear things seemed to get. For one thing, it seems like all of the negatives regarding John Newton ultimately comes from one source—Peter Horry. Could it be possible that he was unhappy with not getting more credit for his role in war? Did he possibly have an ax to grind? That's all pure conjecture on my part, but I really do have to wonder. As time went on and the legends of Newton and Jasper started to solidify as counties and cities were named in their honor, I wonder if he was a little jealous. Because here's the thing—some recent analysis has pointed to the fact that while there were four different John Newtons who served in the Revolutionary War, none of them were enlisted at the time of the incident. That 's originally what I thought was the “smoking gun”; however, those records are shaky at best (I mean...they're over 200 years old), and I wouldn't put too much credence in them. Also, many times, especially in that particular conflict, soldiers would continue to serve even after their enlistments expired. Besides, if there were no John Newton at all—why would Horry have spoken ill about him. And here's another thing—most of the “John Newton as Fiction” contingent has all basically come from one thing—a magazine article from the 1950's...seriously. One single article has been the basis for most of the anti-Newton stuff over the last 50 years.

To help shed some more light on this head-scratching mystery, I enlisted the aid of Jinx Faulkner. Ms. Jinx is a former Regent of the Sgt. John Newton Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. And while she told me she wasn't quite feeling 100%, she was kind enough to give me a few minutes of her time. Ms. Jinx was very frank. She readily admitted that she really didn't know with absolute certainty if the legend of Newton was completely factual. Of course...no one can make that claim either way as it all happened over 200 years ago and there just isn't much evidence out there. She did make it clear that she definitely did not believe in “the talk of him being a thief.” As I was speaking to her, I literally had a “light bulb” moment...an epiphany, if you will. Was the John Newton legend real? And then it hit me—are we not living in Newton Co.? Are we not next door to Jasper Co.? Are there not several other Newton and Jasper counties and cities all over America...always in close proximity? Yeah...I'd say the legend is pretty real. Is it 100% factually confirmed? Definitely not. Nor could one expect it to be. Unless new evidence presents itself (which seems very unlikely), we'll never completely know one way or the other. But I have kind of come around on this thing honestly. When I wrote the Covington column last year that first addressed this, and even as I started this current series, I felt like I would be in a position to give a definitive no to Newton's legend being truthful. But I just can't do it. My final conclusion would have to be....Who Knows? But I'd like to think that it he is real...that John Newton was a hero of the first order...a Real American Patriot!