Jane Phillips: The Washington family dynasty of Kinston -- Part 5

Jane Phillips: The Washington family dynasty of Kinston -- Part 5

Eliza Heritage Cobb Washington was born in 1804 in Kinston and was the first daughter of John and Elizabeth Cobb Washington. John was a cotton planter with large land holdings in Kinston and surrounding counties. He also was a merchant and an astute business man.

She bore the names of two of her grandfathers. William Herritage was a member of the colonial aristocracy. He was well-educated, knowledgeable and he had the respect of colonial leaders. Herritage was a planter and held extensive land on the Neuse and Trent rivers. One of his land acquisitions was the land on the Neuse River where the town of Kingston was established. Herritage Street in Kinston was named for him

The other grandfather was Jesse Cobb, who was a wealthy farmer, Revolutionary War officer and politician in Lenoir County. It was reported in 1776 he saw action with the Continental Army in New Jersey and New York and endured the bitter winter at Valley Forge. He later served as a member of the N.C. Assembly that drafted the state constitution and the bill for erection of the state capitol.

Eliza’s childhood was spent in Kinston. In 1824, she was sent to Mrs. White’s school for young ladies in Raleigh. After completing her schooling in 1826, she lived with her parents until June 18, 1827, when she married the prosperous Richard Grist of Washington, N.C.

Grist had a mercantile and shipping business in Washington. His shipping records indicate he traded in many ports in the country and abroad. Grist operated a store in Washington with an extensive shipping interest handling tar, pitch, turpentine, rosin, barrel staves, peas, corn, hams and lard bound for the West Indies.

Naval stores and lumber products were traded for sugar and rum in the West Indies and then exchanged for salt in Buenos Aires. Salt returned to Washington to complete the triangle of trade. Grist also exported huge quantities of lumber and naval stores to Philadelphia in the 1830s, as well as turpentine to New York. He was a very wealthy man.

Eliza and Richard had three children, but two died in childhood. Their son, Richard Franklin Grist, was born at Eygpt Plantation near the Fort Barnwell area of Craven County. Eygpt was one of her father’s plantations. Eliza’s husband Richard died in 1834, but he left Eliza and their son financially stable. It enabled Eliza to live a life of comfort.

She was living in Kinston and it was here she become acquainted with Dr. Reuben Knox, who was born in 1801 in Blandford, Mass. Reuben was educated in Massachusetts and came to Kinston in 1821, where he began the practice of medicine. In 1829, the 28-year old physician married 20-year old Olivia Kilpatrick, daughter of Alexander J. Kilpatrick and Susannah Cobb, who was a cousin to Eliza. They resided on East Bright Street. Olivia Kilpatrick Knox died in 1839 at the young age of 30.

The 38-year old widower was left alone to raise three surviving sons under the age of 10. The widow and widower who were already friends and with young children to raise were drawn to each other. On July 28, 1840, they were married in Hillsborough in the home of Eliza’s sister Susan Graham, the wife of Sen. William Alexander Graham.

It wasn’t long before they moved to St. Louis, where they lived for the next 10 years. St. Louis was one of the fastest growing cities in the country and its population doubled during the time they lived there. Reuben set up a medical practice. He and Eliza became merchants and invested in properties around the area and engaged in various business ventures. Three additional children were born while they lived in St. Louis.

Eliza’s beloved brother, Dr. James Augustus Washington, died unexpectedly in 1849 at his home in New York. Many of their letters are in her collection. One can tell by reading the letters there existed an affection and bond between them that warms the heart.

Life went well, and Reuben and Eliza were becoming prominent citizens of St. Louis, but then came 1849 and the cholera epidemic that took the lives of thousands of people as it ravaged the town. It took a toll on St. Louis and Dr. Knox, who was busy treating the victims of the terrible disease. So busy he was unable to spend the time in taking care of his business interest and he received little compensation for his medical services.

Then amid the epidemic came a big fire that consumed 23 steamboats and the riverside commercial district, and he lost some of his business interest. He was exhausted and was feeling down. He and Eliza had worked so hard; he had wanted so much for his family and now he found himself emotionally wounded and physically tired.

New hope came for the future of his family as he began to take more notice of the news of the gold rush in California. A dream was born, and a decision was made. He began to plan, and it took about a year to put everything in order.

Reuben organized a wagon train and took with him two of his sons, a nephew and several slaves whom he planned to free in California. Elizabeth, with the couple's two youngest children, went to visit friends and relatives in Massachusetts and North Carolina. She and the children were to join Reuben and the older sons in California once a home and business had been established.

Reuben and the travelers with him experienced many adventures along the way, including an encounter with Indian tribes. His book, Medic Forty-niner, has a collection of his many letters that tells the stories of the trip.

Eliza’s son, Franklin Grist, attended the Bingham School at Hillsborough and later graduated from Yale in 1848 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. In 1848, while still a resident of New Haven, Conn., the talented Franklin, described as a "genre painter," exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York

In a letter to Franklin, Eliza advised him against “dandyism” and how she did not approve of it. In his letters to her, he spoke of matters that indicated he suffered from depression.

While Franklin was at Yale, so was his stepbrother Joseph Knox, who became a lawyer. He met his father in St. Louis and traveled west with him.

In the spring of 1849, Franklin joined a U.S. Army mission under Capt. Howard Stansbury going to explore and survey the Great Salt Lake area, which had been acquired by the United States the previous year. His job was that of a sketch artist and to help with the mapping. The 18 men composing the Stansbury expedition set out from Fort Leavenworth in May. Many of the handsome lithographs in Stansbury's Exploration and Survey of the Valley of the Great Salt Lake of Utah were based on Grist's sketches.

Stansbury Expedtion sketch by franklin Grist.jpg

Dr. Reuben Knox met up with his stepson Franklin in the Great Salt Lake area. Franklin joined up with his beloved stepfather and they all headed to Sacramento. In 1850, Dr. Knox established a mercantile business and began plans for a store in San Francisco. He soon leased the Novato Ranch, and it was here, he and his eldest son Joseph Knox, farmed and raised livestock.  

Dr. Knox wrote many letters from California to his family back East that related to personal and business affairs, which included ranching, merchandising and mining. His letter of October 14, 1850, mentions a "submarine armor," apparently worn to dive in search of metal in deep rivers or old mines filled with water. His aspirations had great promise.

However, in his letter of May 1, 1851, Knox mentioned a fire in San Francisco that destroyed many businesses and in which he himself suffered some financial losses.

One day on returning home by sailboat after a trip to San Francisco, strong winds came up and rough waters caused the sailboat to capsize. All but one person drowned. None of the bodies were ever recovered for burial. His last letter, begun on May 18, 1851, was completed May 27, 1851, the day before he died. What family that was in California returned east except his son Joseph.

In about 1858, Joseph married Maria Antionio "Mary" Ynitia, daughter of Native American Indian Chief Camillo Ynitia, the Last Headman of the Olompalis Tribe. They inherited the chief’s land in Mendocino County, where they raised two daughters and lived out their lives. Joseph died sometime after 1900.

Of Dr. Knox and Eliza’s children, two sons became doctors, one son became a lawyer and daughter Betty married a Dr. Hughes in New Bern.

Eliza never got to see California and now she found herself a widow for the second time. She made her home in various places from New Bern to Kinston, to Raleigh and to Hillsborough. She loved to travel and did so to visit relatives around the country.

At some point in time, Eliza became acquainted with Dorothea Dix, a mental health reformer. The mental hospital in Raleigh was named for her. Eliza received correspondences from her while she lived in St. Louis, Raleigh,and New Bern in 1848, 1849 and 1851.

Dix was campaigning for reforms in the treatment of the mentally ill. She wrote the Knoxes from Washington, D.C.; Germantown, Pa; Baltimore; Raleigh; Fort Chester, N.Y.; and Columbia, S.C.; to report on her travels, her efforts on behalf of state and national legislation to finance improvements in the care of the insane and her health. Perhaps Eliza met Dix when her brother-in-law was governor.

On returning from California, Eliza’s son Franklin went to Washington, D.C. Franklin worked there as a portrait painter and worked four years with the Department of the Treasury as a clerk in the Bureau of Construction and Repairs.

In the summer of 1855, Franklin decided he wanted to go to Paris and study art. He spent the next 15 years there, where he became a renowned art critic. About 1870, during the time of the Franco-German War and the rise of the socialist commune in Paris, Franklin got arrested as a German spy and was jailed. His arrest was short-lived. After he proved he was an American citizen and important connections came into play, he was set free.

At about this time, Franklin decided it was time to leave Paris and he traveled to Italy. For 20 years, he was in Florence, Rome and Venice. From 1885 to 1890, he served as the United States Vice Consul in Venice.

During the Civil War and reconstruction, Eliza sometimes spent time in Kinston with her brother John Cobb Washington, who had lost most of his fortune. She lent him thousands of dollars and he mortgaged his property to her. As Eliza grew old, she took up residence with her son, Dr. Augustus Washington Knox, in Raleigh. She passed away in 1890 and is buried in historic Oakwood Cemetery.

Advised of his mother's death in 1890, Franklin Grist returned to North Carolina where he lived with his half-brother, Dr. Augustus Knox, in Raleigh until he died of heart disease on Feb. 12, 1912 at the age of 83. He was never married.

Elizabeth Herritage Cobb Washington Grist Knox lived a good life, but it was not without personal loss. Two of the men she had loved had died, as had three of her children. The hardships of St. Louis had altered her life. The Civil War had taken a toll on her family.

But life’s trials had made her a strong woman and she developed good business sense in order to conduct her financial affairs. Through it all she had the love of family and friends. All her living children were successful. She was never without financial means and she had traveled extensively. Old John Washington would have been proud of his Eliza.

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