This is an edited and amended version of an article first published in 2005 in the Hendersonville Times-News.
By Jennie Jones Giles
In the late 1790s, Philip Sitton obtained 3,000 acres of land in Mills River to build an ironworks. He became known as the “pioneer ironmaker of Western North Carolina.”
He built the ironworks at the mouth of Bradley’s Creek and mined the ore on the Boyleston side of Forge Mountain. The mountain took its name from his forge.
He and his wife, Winifred Bradley Sitton, were buried on a hill near the home place, overlooking the site of the old iron forge.
This graveyard is known as the Sitton-Gillespie Cemetery.
One of the Sitton’s daughters, Elizabeth, married Mathew Gillespie, who set up a gun shop alongside his father-in-law’s ironworks.
Their grave sites can also be found in the historic cemetery.
The Gillespie long rifles became a frontier legend. It is said that no two were identical.
Five of the Gillespie sons also became gun makers. Of these, Philip Gillespie was the most famous.
Local legends are told that Philip Gillespie saved the gold coins he received in payment for his guns. Before leaving to join the Union Army in the Civil War, he hid the gold somewhere on Forge Mountain. Gillespie died in the war.
For generations, people have searched the mountainside for the hidden gold, to no avail.
The historic cemetery of 1.13 acres off South Mills River Road, past the Mills River Baptist Church, contains the grave sites of about 36 members of the Sitton and Gillespie families, along with persons from the Cairnes, Jenkins, Underwood, Blythe and McMinn families.
It is well maintained and in good condition.
The Sittons and Gillespies were charter members of the Mills River Baptist Church (South Mills River Road).
“There is an old deed where the graveyard was deeded in the 1830s to the Mills River Baptist Church,” said descendant Bert Sitton. “But later, it appears it went back to the family.”
When the last Sitton on the home place sold the property, the deed said “except the little place laid out for the graveyard,” Sitton said.
“The family has been taking care of it,” he said.
The Mills River Baptist Church was deeded three cemeteries over the years, the Rickman, Sitton-Gillespie and Whitaker.
This historic family cemetery is located on top of a ridge with a beautiful view of Forge Mountain and the South Mills River Valley. To get to the cemetery, one must climb a steep unpaved road from the intersection of South Mills River Road and Silas Sitton Drive. The oldest dated grave is 1841.
There are two memorial markers and one grave marker for Union veterans. The memorial markers are for Philip Gillespie and Wilson Gillespie.
Philip Gillespie enlisted in the 2nd N.C. Mounted Infantry and died of dysentery in 1864 in Maynardsville, Tenn. Wilson Gillespie enlisted in the 2nd N.C. Mounted Infantry and died of typhoid in 1864 at Tazwell, Tenn.
Silas C. Sitton enlisted in the 3rd N.C. Mounted Infantry, Co. I, a month before the war ended. He died in 1912 in Henderson County,
There are two Confederate graves at the family cemetery.
Huett Allen enlisted in the 56th N.C. Infantry Regiment, Co. G, Henderson Blues. He was wounded at the Battle of Plymouth (lost right thumb). He was home sick when he died of his wounds in August 1864.
Harry Leander Jenkins enlisted in the 7th Battalion N.C. Cavalry. Later, this battalion was consolidated into the 65th Regiment N.C. Troops (6th Regiment N.C. Cavalry). He served through the war and surrendered at Statesville. He died in 1890.