Iron Forge and Gillespie Rifles

The following information is compiled from a variety of newspaper articles, web sites and primary source research.

Today, there are monuments at the historical Sitton-Gillespie Cemetery in Mills River in memory of Philip Sitton and Mathew Gillespie.
The first Gillespie in the region, John, settled near Rosman in Transylvania County prior to 1800. He established a gun shop where the Gillespie rifles were made.
“The rifles were muzzle loaders,” the late local historian and genealogist Bert Sitton said. “Each gun, being handmade, had to have bullets made to its specific requirements.”
Pioneer Philip Sitton settled in the late 1790s on 3,000 acres of land on both sides of the South Mills River. He began operating an iron forge on what is known today as Forge Mountain.

 Iron forge

Using the iron forged by the Sitton family, “blacksmiths soon began turning out axes, hatchets, drawing-knives, chisels, augers, horseshoes, horseshoe nails, bolts, nuts and even pocketknives,” Sitton said.
“Most of the ore was mined at the headwaters of Boyleston Creek near Little Mountain and Sitton Creek, and hauled up and across Forge Mountain, and down to the forge on South Mills River, where sufficient water power was available,” he said.
During the making of the iron, the molten ore settled into a nest and the “slag” remained on top.
“Pieces of this slag can be found there to this day,” Sitton said. “And the earth is still black from the blacksmith shop which adjoined the iron furnace or forge.”
Mathew Gillespie, the son of John Gillespie, married Elizabeth Sitton about 1810. Mathew Gillespie then built a gun shop near the iron forge. The couple’s sons followed in the footsteps of their father.

 Gillespie Rifles

“The Gillespie rifle was long of barrel, slender and graceful of stock,” Sitton said. “No two were identical. Many were ornamented with inlays of brass, German silver or even coin silver.”
When men from Henderson County went to fight in the Civil War, many were carrying Gillespie rifles. Some of these rifles are in Civil War museums or yet undiscovered on Civil War battlefields, experts say.
The Gillespie long rifle is now a collector’s item. One is owned by the Pioneer Museum at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is not on permanent display, but is placed on display occasionally. One on display at the Vance Birthplace State Historic Site in Weaverville was stolen several years ago. Another Gillespie rifle, reputed to have been owned by Daniel Boone, is said to be in a museum at Harrodsburg, Ky.
“A Gillespie rifle today is worth in excess of $2,000, some going for over $5,000,” Sitton said.
Philip Gillespie, son of Mathew and Elizabeth Sitton Gillespie, was probably the best known of the Gillespie rifle makers of Mills River. Some Gillespie rifles will have the inscription P.G. stamped on the barrel. These rifles typically sell for about $3,000. In addition to making rifles, Philip Gillespie was a farmer, and also operated a distillery. In 1849, Philip purchased 347 acres of property from the estate of Philip Sitton, Sr., his grandfather. The property included the home of Philip Sitton Sr. and the iron forge that Philip Sitton established in 1804.
The Gillespie gunsmiths sold many of their rifles to the Confederate government. They were paid, if they were paid at all, in worthless Confederate money.
In October 1863, brothers Philip and Wilson Gillespie, and brothers-in-law, George W. Underwood and Robert O. Blythe, left Mills River and traveled to East Tennessee where they enlisted in the Union Army. On Jan. 7, 1864, Philip Gillespie was taken from camp, sick with diarrhea. He was taken to the home of Richard Wade near Maynardsville, Tenn., where he died Jan. 15, 1864. Wilson Gillespie died of typhoid fever in 1864 in Tazwell, Tenn. George W. Underwood died of disease April 8, 1864, in Clairborne, Tenn. Blythe was the only one of the four to return home after the war.
For more information on the Gillespie rifles visit:

 Lost Treasure

The late John Parris, a columnist for the Asheville Citizen-Times, once wrote a column on the legend of the lost treasure on Forge Mountain. The story is filled with inaccurate facts and wrong information, but this famous mountain legend is still passed from generation to generation.
“There’s a pot of gold and a cask of brandy hidden somewhere in the laurel-crowned hills hereabouts. For a hundred years folks have been trying to unearth this golden cache, but it has proved to be just as elusive as the proverbial treasure at the end of the rainbow.
“Philip Gillespie, a rifle-making man from a rifle-making clan, buried his gold and the brandy in an underground vault back in 1862 and then went off to fight in a war that swallowed him up.
“The spot he picked to hide his fortune was a secret he held unto himself, and the secret died with him on some unknown battlefield far from the hills of home (please note that he did not die on a battlefield).
“It’s locked in the ancient earth of Forge Mountain which stands like a grim prophecy here in the Pisgah wilds west of the French Broad and along the upper reaches of Mills River. The land hasn’t changed much since Philip Gillespie buried his gold and his brandy. It is essentially the same. And a soil that cannot be plowed under keeps its secrets.
“Be that as it may, folks keep right on searching because there is something in a Treasure that fastens upon a man’s mind. But, then, these are folks who never knew Philip Gillespie or his intentions. When he decided to offer his rifle-gun and his trigger finger to the Confederacy, (he had sold rifles to the Confederate government, but he joined the Union) he told a bunch of mountain men gathered at his gun shop here on Shooting Branch: “I aim to make certain no man ever spends my money or any red-legged revenuer ever lays eyes on my brandy.” And then he proceeded to do just that.
“The Gillespies had come out of Pennsylvania, out of Lancaster, where the patriarch of the clan had established a reputation as a famous gunsmith. A pioneering son named Mathew followed Daniel Boone down into the wilds of the Blue Ridge and then came on to Shooting Branch where he set up a gun shop near Philip Sitton’s iron works under the dark shadow of Forge Mountain. He married one of Sitton’s daughters. She gave him three sons. They became gunsmiths, too, and shaped the guns kelps hammered out by their grandfather. They added luster to the Gillespie name which already was synonymous with rifle-gun wherever frontiersmen gambled their lives on their trigger fingers.
“One of the sons was Philip. By the time he was 20; his gun-craft had earned him a right smart fortune and made him a man of property. Between his gun shop, which produced prime superfine rifles, and his apple orchard, which produced a right pert brandy by way of homemade distillery, the gold coins literally poured in and Philip Gillespie stashed them away in a leather poke. Taking a cue from his Scotch-Irish ancestors, he believed that any man had the inherent right to make and sell brandy, law or no law, and that the fruits of a man’s labors should not be taxed. He never had paid out any of his gold coins in tax on the brandy he made and he didn’t ever aim to as long as he lived.
“By the time the Civil War came on, Philip Gillespie had succeeded in keeping to his aim without too much trouble with the revenuers. He was still a young man when old Edmund Ruffin hauled off and fired the shot that started the Civil War down at Fort Sumter. News traveled slowly back in those days and it was some time before folks hereabouts realized what was happening. And when they did hear, it didn’t mean too much. Isolated as they were, they knew little or nothing about slavery or Secession. After all, none of them had slaves. (The preceding statements are not factually correct). But in time, the war became a real thing to them.
“It started when news seeped into Shooting Branch that workmen from the McKinney forge over on Bradley Creek had been conscripted and sent across to Davidson River where guns kelps were being turned out in large numbers. There was word, too, that gunsmiths from other parts had gone to South Carolina where they were hard at work turning out guns for Southern soldiers. It wasn’t long until every set of powder irons in the entire section had been pressed into use. Many of the farms were producing charcoal and salt peter for gunpowder. Over on Crab Creek a whole company had been organized and sent off to join the Union army in Tennessee. These folks had thrown in their lot with the Yankees, dividing many homes.
“By and by, a summons for enlistment in the Confederate Army reached upper Mills River and Shooting Branch. Guns were polished and grease boxes filled. Powder horns were fitted with new leather straps. Bullet ladles and bullet molds lay side by side with the stout shot bag of linsey-woolsey. Everything was ready for an early morning start. “But Philip Gillespie had one more talk to perform before he left for the fighting (Philip Gillespie was never drafted into Confederate service. He was past the mandatory age). It concerned his poke of gold coins, which now held a fortune of some $1,600, and 50 gallons of brandy. The gold mostly was Bechler coins, minted down at Rutherfordton. The brandy was in a stout barrel which a neighboring cooper had fashioned of oak staves and tied with hoops of tough young hickory saplings. It was built to endure ‘No sir,’ Philip Gillespie mused. ‘They’ll never find my brandy and collect any part of my hard-earned gold for tax.’
“So when night came on, he slipped out of the house with his poke of coins tightly packed in an earthen crock he had taken from his mother’s spring house. He moved off to the barn and hitched one of the oxen to a sled. He rolled his cask of brandy from its hiding place under some straw and loaded it on the sled. Then he set out for grim Forge Mountain. He had a pick and shovel with him, and he carried a rifle-gun. Somewhere in a cove up there, Philip Gillespie halted his ox and sled and dug an underground safety vault. He lined it with rock and built it to last and preserve his treasure. Finally he placed the gold and the brandy in the vault. He sealed the cache with more stones and then packed earth over it. And over the newly turned earth he spread leaves and brush to hide all trace of the thing he had done.
“Satisfied with his handiwork, he turned toward home. ‘I’ve hid it good,’ he told his folks, ‘Won’t nobody find it. It’ll be there when I get back.’ The following morning, Philip Gillespie said goodbye to his folks and marched off to war with his long-rifle in the crook of his arm, a rifle-gun he made with his own hands in his own gun shop. News of the war’s progress trickled into the isolated settlement and the news was not good, for the news was not of battles lost but of men of the settlement killed. It came stark and terse … “Killed at Seven Pines” . . .”Missing at Malvern Hills” . . .”Died of wounds received at Chancellorsville” … a roll call of home boys dwindling. Stragglers and deserters roamed the country, plundering and pilfering. Old man Philip Sitton was shot by a renegade as he stood in the doorway of his home (a search has not found documentation of this event). “The war went on and there was no word of Philip Gillespie. Then the war was over and those who had survived began straggling back. On Shooting Branch, they waited for Philip Gillespie, but he never did come back. Folks remembered his talk of hiding his gold and his brandy. So they started searching for the golden cache. They’ve been looking for it a long time now. It’s become a legend and a tale to tell around the fire. But the gold and the brandy are still there. For Philip Gillespie said he aimed to make certain that no man ever spent his gold or any revenuer ever laid eyes on his brandy.”

 Forge Mountain

The following was written by Jim Brittain in the spring 2006 edition of the Mills River Newsletter:
“Philip Sitton (1770-1843), a pioneer ironmaster and the patriarch of the Mills River Sittons, his wife, Winifred Bradley Sitton (1766-1841), and several children moved to South Mills River from Georges Creek, S.C., in the late 1790s. The state of North Carolina gave him a land grant of 3,000 acres as an incentive to construct and operate an iron forge. He selected a site for his first forge near the confluence of Bradley Creek and South Mills River.
“Although no contemporary description or drawing of his forge has been found, it is likely that it was an open-hearth type known as a ‘bloomery’ or Catalan forge. Surviving physical evidence in the form of large pieces of iron-rich black slag has been found near the mouth of Bradley Creek.
“Iron ore mined on the South face of Forge Mountain (known as ‘Iron Works Mountain’ in the early 19th century) was transported by ox cart or wagon through Vineyard Gap to the forge.
“Limestone was mixed with the ore to act as ‘flux’ to remove impurities, and charcoal produced locally from hardwood timber, served as fuel. A water-powered leather bellows forced air into the burning charcoal.
“The temperatures achieved in a bloomery forge ordinarily were not high enough to produce molten pig iron. Instead, a large mass of heated iron known as a ‘bloom’ resulted which could be converted to malleable wrought-iron bars by repeated hammering and reheating. A heavy water-powered trip hammer was employed to shape the forged iron into the desired bar stock which, subsequently, would serve the needs of gun makers and blacksmiths. When in operation, the forge was a very hot and noisy work place with sustained ringing of the reciprocating hammer against the anvil and the heat from the furnace and hot iron.
“After a few years, Philip and his family decided to abandon the Bradley Creek forge and install a new forge a few miles further down South Mills River. The new site offered a number of advantages including a new source of ore not far from the forge, a better site to develop water power, and better farm land for growing grain and  raising livestock.
“Also, the new forge offered better access to a labor force and good home sites for the extended family. The new forge and ‘other improvements’ are mentioned in an 1819 land deed. A water-powered grist mill was installed near the forge and provided stone ground meal for the forge workers and other residents of the community. A sizable work force was needed to mine and transport ore, produce the charcoal fuel, and other activities at the rural industrial complex. It was common practice for workers to be paid, at least in part, by meat, grain, and vegetables to feed themselves and their often large families
“The wrought-iron bars produced at the Sitton forge could be made into a remarkable variety of useful products by local craftsmen. Examples include door hinges, pot hooks, carpentry tools, horse shoes, plows, fittings for ox yokes, traps, and hunting rifles.
“In the early 19th century, Mathew Gillespie (1788-1871), an experienced gun maker, moved from the east fork of the French Broad River to South Mills River where he married Elizabeth Sitton (1788-1858), a daughter of Philip and Winifred. Gillespie established a gun shop near the iron forge and used wrought iron to fabricate his rifle barrels and gun locks. He and his five sons continued to produce the highly-prized weapons for several decades.
“Three generations of the Sitton family worked at the Mills River forge. Philip’s son, Lawrence Sitton (1794-1873), worked at the forge until it ceased operation during the Civil War. In 1812, he married Isabel Gillespie (1796-1880), a sister of Mathew Gillespie. A son of Lawrence and Isabel, Philip Lawrence Sitton (1814-1857), also worked at the forge until his death shortly before the war. In 1842, he married Nancy Allen (1825-1909) and they became the parents of several children including Silas C. Sitton (1848-1912).
“Although the forge did not resume operation after the war, Silas C. Sitton established a water-powered sawmill near the site of the forge and operated it until he was killed in an accident at the mill in December 1912.
“Bert J. Sitton, a grandson of Silas C. Sitton, recently installed new grave stones marking the burial sites of Philip and Lawrence Sitton and their wives in the Sitton-Gillespie Cemetery. This family cemetery offers a commanding view of Forge Mountain and overlooks the site of the Sitton forge, sawmill, and grist mill.
“Forge Mountain remains as a highly visible physical reminder of a vital 19th century industrial center in the heart of the Mills River community.”

 Gillespie family and rifles

The following article was also written by Jim Brittain in his column, “The History Corner,” published in the town of Mills River newsletter:
“My grandfather, William A. Brittain (1857-1930), owned a Gillespie rifle which proba bly was inherited from his father. William used it for hunting and hog killing and, in fact, called it his ‘hog rifle.’ After he died, the rifle became an exhibit at the Vance birthplace, northeast of Asheville. Subsequently, it was stolen and never recovered. The Gillespie rifles were produced at a shop on South Mills River prior to the Civil War and resembled the hunting rifles know as ‘Pennsylvania’ rifles or ‘Kentucky’ rifles.
“Mathew Gillespie (1788-1871), the patriarch of the Mills River family of gun makers, was a son of John Gillespie (1753-1822) and Jane Harvey Gillespie (1762-1808). Soon after the Revolutionary War, John and his family moved from an area near present day Clifton Forge in Western Virginia to George’s Creek, not far from present day Easley, South Carolina. John and Jane became the parents of six children, some of who were born after the move to South Carolina. In 1801, John sold a 550 acre tract of land on George’s Creek for $750 and moved to the North Carolina mountains. He acquired a 314 acre tract on the East Fork of the French Broad River to the east of present day Rosman. “He established a gun shop and his three sons, including Mathew, learned the craft from him. John died on a hunting trip to the Toxaway River in 1822 where his sons discovered his body after a three-day search.
“The Gillespies arranged to purchase the iron needed to fabricate their rifles from the Sitton forge at South Mills River. It had been established by Philip Sitton (1770-1843). In 1810, Mathew Gillespie married Elizabeth Sitton (1788-1858), a daughter of Philip. In 1812, Mathew’s sister, Isabel Gillespie (1796-1880), married Lawrence Sitton (1794-1873), a son of Philip Sitton. Mathew decided to establish his own gun shop at South Mills River near the iron works of his wife’s family. Mathew and Elizabeth became the parents of a large family of five sons and seven daughters. Their sons followed in the footsteps of their father and grandfather by learning the craft skill of gun making. Each of them inscribed their initials and the year on the rifles as they were finished. Mathew was a community leader who became a deacon in the Mills River Baptist Church near his home and served on the district school committee, along with his brother-in-law, Lawrence Sitton. Mathew and Elizabeth, along with other members of the Gillespie family, were buried in the Sitton-Gillespie cemetery on a hill near the sites of the iron forge and gun shop.
“The long barrels of the Gillespie rifles were fabricated from wrought-iron bars from the iron forge. Several bars were clamped around a small rod and welded together by a protracted process of repeated heating and hammering.
“Blocks of walnut or maple were shaped with wood-working tools into the graceful stocks which were characteristic of these rifles. The completed weapon was made ready to fire by first pouring a measured charge of black gunpowder from a powder horn into the muzzle. A spherical lead bullet pre-cast in a bullet mold to the proper diameter or caliber was wrapped in a greased cloth patch. It was inserted in the muzzle and forced into contact with the powder by means of a ramrod. A gun-lock mechanism was employed to ignite the powder in the barrel by means of a percussion cap where the trigger was pulled. The rapid burning of the gunpowder created sufficient pressure to propel the bullet toward a deer or other target. Of course, the rifle had to be reloaded after each shot so it was not a rapid fire weapon.
“It is not know how many Gillespie rifles were made, but a number of them have been preserved by collectors or descendants of the gun makers. Photographs and measured dimensions of several of the surviving rifles were included in a book on the Gillespie’s and their rifles published in 2004 by T.D. Glazener. One of the rifles described was made by Mathew’s son, Philip Gillespie (1815-1864), in 1845. It has a barrel of about 45 inches in length and a total length, including the walnut stock, of just over 5 feet. The caliber is 0.40 inches. It has a percussion lock but lacks the ‘patch box’ and ‘grease hole’ that some of the Gillespie rifles had. The various fittings were fabricated from either iron or brass.
“Philip Gillespie acquired a title to 347 acres of land on South Mills River in 1849. The property had originally been part of a 3,000 acre bounty grant from the state to Philip Sitton as an incentive to establish his iron forge. In addition to his gun making, Philip Gillespie farmed and operated a fruit distillery. He became the subject of local legend when he is supposed to have hidden a cask of his brandy and some gold coins prior to leaving Mills River in August 1863 to join Union forces in Tennessee. He died near Maynardsville, Tennessee, in January 1864, apparently without leaving instruction on the location of his treasure. Since then, many have searched for Philip’s brandy and gold but if anyone was successful, they have not claimed credit.
“Philip’s younger brother, Wilson Gillespie (1825-1864), and his two brothers-in-law, George W. Underwood (1820-1864) and Robert O. Blythe (1811-1866), also left Mills River to join the Union Army in 1863. Wilson and George died in Tennessee in 1864. Blythe survived the war only to die in a mill accident in January 1866.
“The advent of breech-loading and repeating rifles essentially ended the era of Gillespie style cap-and-ball, muzzle-loading rifles. However, in a concession to tradition, a special one-week season for deer hunting restricted to muzzle-loading rifles or shotguns is still scheduled each hunting season in North Carolina. Of course, most of the weapons used in these hunts have been modified to increase the accuracy and convenience of reloading as compared to the Gillespie rifles made before 1860.”