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Brookneal Union Star (VA): "Rock Castle Was Built When Indians Were Here" (Friday, January 17, 1947)

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Brookneal Union Star (VA): "Rock Castle Was Built When Indians Were Here" (Friday, January 17, 1947)

William A. Roper, Jr. (View posts)
Posted: 1029168989000
Classification: Query
Surnames: Alexander, Withers, Payne, Roper, Manson, Pendleton
During a visit to the Campbell County Public Library main branch in Rustburg several years ago, I found amongst the library's local history files a copy of an article clipped from the Union Star (Brookneal, VA) entitled "Rock Castle Was Built When Indians Were Here: Only Fortified House in County Was Burned in 1945. Was Home of First County Clerk".

This article explains the history of "Rock Castle", the home of Capt. Robert Alexander (b Nov 1746 - VA; d 20 Nov 1820 - Campbell, VA), a Revolutionary War veteran who served as the first County Clerk of Campbell County, Virginia. The article includes a number of annecdotes about this man and his family. I have transcribed the full text of the original article below for the benefit of all descendents of Capt. Robert Alexander as well as those in Campbell County with an interest in county history.


The Union Star
Brookneal, Virginia
Friday, January 17, 1947

Rock Castle Was Built When Indians Were Here
Only Fortified House in County Was Burned in 1945. Was Home of First County Clerk

In a field near the "Cross Roads", about a mile or so east of Gladys, three gaunt, ghostlike chimneys rising above a rock foundation are all that is left of Rock Castle, the house that was pointed to as an outstanding exception to Thomas Jefferson's observation that houses built in the latter part of the 18th century only lasted fifty years. Rock Castle, one of Campbell County's oldest houses, was destroyed by fire in 1845 after standing for close to a hundred and seventy years.

Built about 1774 by Robert Alexander, who became the first clerk of the court of Campbell County, this old house was said to be the only fortified house still standing in the county within recent years. One can see narrow slits or loopholes in the rock foundation, built for defense against indian attacks, which were not infrequent in early days when the county was thinly settled. The house before it burned was of wood with dormer windows and a wide front porch. The stone basement with its dungeon-like appearance is said to have been used as a fortress. The house got its name from its massive rock chimneys and basement foundation, half of which was above ground.

Col. Withers Tells About Rock Castle
In his Autobiography, a copy of which is in the Patrick Henry Memorial Library, Brookneal, Col. R. E. Withers devoted several chapters to Rock Castle, where he was born and spent an eventful boyhood. Col. WIthers was a grandson of Robert Alexander, the first owner of Rock Castle. His father, Robert W. Withers, narried Susan Dabney Alexander, youngest daughter of Rock Castle's founder, and thus came into possession of the old place when Alexander died. Robert Alexander, father of Robert of Rock Castle, established the first classical school west of the Blue Ridge, which became "Liberty Hall Academy", and afterwards Washington College and Washington and Lee University.

Robert Alexander, so Col. Withers says, was a man of abrupt manners and many peculiarities, and at the same time highly respected throughout the county (in fact there were few who would dared disrespect him, as he was as handy with his old muzzle loading gun as he was with his language, his wit and his pen). When he was a boy his mother sent him to a neighbor's whom she had contracted to weave some cloth to make clothing for the family, and who had been very slow in getting the work done. She told Robert to tell the woman that the cloth was urgently needed; that her children were naked. On his way to the weaver's Robert considered that since he was clothed the woman might not believe his mother's statement that her children were naked, so to make it impressive he took off all his cloths, hid them in the woods and went to the neighbor's "in the raw". Needless to say he won his point and the cloth was delivered soon thereafter.

The old clerk kept his office in a house near a spring on the Rock Castle place, and when court was in session would drive to Rustburg in his coach-and-four with his books and records and his faithful servant Luke. As soon as court was adjourned he would hire himself to one of the local taverns and often returned home "in his cups," as the use of spirits was a universal custom in those days. On such occasions he would have Luke whip up the horses and go home at full gallop, with deed books, records and wills, and "Uncle Alec" Austin, his deputy, bouncing from front seat to back seat and back again, singing lusty songs and running everybody else out of the road. Robert Alexander thought so much of his servant Luke that he promised him his freedom when he died and while it was never put in writing, Luke reminded the family of the old man's promise after he died, and his word was never questioned. Luke was given his freedom and worked in his later years as an overseer to a planter on Falling River, coming back to Rock Castle once a year to see his "old mistress".

Old "Molly's Creek Church" On Place
In later years, Rock Castle was owned by the Clay family. Mrs. P. F. Hughes of Gladys was a Withers and is descended from the Withers who lived at Rock Castle. Down the road a few hundred yards from the ruins of the old house is a little cemetery enclosed by an iron fence, in which can be seen the gravestones of Dr. Robert Walter Withers, born February 22, 1795, died October 23, 1881, and his wife, Susan Dabney Alexander, born January 23, 1799, died February 14, 1882. Dr. Withers was one of three practicing physicians in the neighborhood, and when he wasn't practicing medicine he was hunting, for game was plentiful in the neighborhood in those days. The little burying ground was the churchyard of old Molly's Creek Church, the first church in the neighborhood.

This old colonial church, which was originally the Church of England, was later used by both Baptists and Methodists, as it was the only church building in the neighborhood at that time, and there were not many Episcopalians in the neighborhood. Capt. Alexander claimed the church, which is said to have been blown down in a storm about 1830, as his property because it was located on his land. He permitted any sect to hold services there who wanted to, but he was rabidly opposed to shouting and similar demonstrations. When meetings would get into full swing and the congregation would get warmed up to a shouting pitch, the old captain would fly into a rage and blast away out his window at the side of his church with his old muzzle loader; whereupon the "shouters" would leave the church through windows, doors, and any available exit. Col. Withers related that when he was a boy he used to pick the shot out of the weatherboarding of the church with his pocket knife to use for sinkers on his fishing line. HG.

[Photo of three giant chimneys standing in a field with caption below "RUINS OF ROCK CASTLE -- One of Campbell County's oldest and most historic houses stood near Gladys until just over a year ago."]

* * *

ADDITIONAL NOTES: Capt. Robert Alexander (b Nov 1746 - VA; d 20 Nov 1820 - Campbell, VA) was, as mentioned in the above article, the son of Robert Alexander (b ca 1710 - Ireland; d 18 Nov 1783 - Augusta, VA), the founder of Washington and Lee University, and his wife, Esther Beard, daughter of Thomas Beard. The younger Robert Alexander on 10 Mar 1774 married Ann Austin (b 10 Mar 1758 - VA; d ca 1815 - VA).

Robert and Ann Austin Alexander had at least five children:

i. Robert Alexander (b 1782 - Rock Castle, Campbell, VA), who served as Campbell County Clerk from 1819 to 1838.
ii. Sallie Alexander (b Rock Castle, Campbell, VA), who married Nathaniel J. Manson
iii. Mary Glenn Alexander (b 3 Oct 1793 - Rock Castle, Campbell, VA; d 19 Jan 1871) m William Garland Pendleton
iv. Catherine Wilson Alexander (b 17 Jan 1796 - Rock Castle, Campbell, VA; d 2 Aug 1838), who on 5 Dec 1812 married Nathaniel West Payne (b 11 Apr 1790)
v. Susan Dabney Alexander (b 22 Jan 1799 - Rock Castle, Campbell, VA; d 14 Feb 1882 - Buckingham, VA), who on 26 Feb 1819 married Dr. Robert Walter Withers (b 22 Feb 1795 - Fauquier, VA;d 23 Oct 1881)

I am NOT certain that this is a complete list of Robert and Ann Austin Alexander's children. I suspect that there were others.

* * *

The Col. Robert Withers identified in the article above was Robert Enoch Withers (b 18 Sept 1821 - Campbell, VA; d 21 Sep 1907 - Ingleside, Wytheville, VA), a physician who graduated from the University of Virginia. Col. Withers served in the 18th VA Infantry, C.S.A.. After the Civil War, he established the Lynchburg News in 1866. He served as Lt. Governor of Virginia from 1873-1875, United States Senator from Virginia from 1875-1881, and United States Consul to Hong Kong from 1885 to 1889. For more information about Col. Withers, see his biography in the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress at .

* * *

I am descended from Capt. Robert Alexander through his daughter Catherine Wilson Alexander (b 17 Jan 1796 - Rock Castle, Campbell, VA; d 2 Aug 1838). Catherine Withers Payne (b 1826), a daughter of Nathaniel West Payne (b 11 Apr 1790) and Catherine Wilson Alexander, on 17 May 1843 married Benjamin Eliscus Roper (b 8 Nov 1816 - Richmond, Henrico, VA; d 11 Apr 1871 - Lynchburg, Harris, TX). Benjamin Eliscus Roper was the son of Rev. David Roper, of Richmond.

For more information about Rev. David Roper and his family, see my Post on the RootsWeb Roper Message Board "Biography of Rev. David Roper, of Richmond, VA" at:

I Posted a copy of Rev. David Roper's Will in my message "Will of Rev. David Roper (b 27 Sep 1792 - Charles City County, VA; d 28 Feb 1827 - Richmond, VA)":

Some additional information about Benjamin Eliscus Roper also appears in my Post "Obituary of Mary Wither Roper (d 1941) of Houston, TX" at:

More information about the ROPER family generally may be found at the Roper Family History web site of Dr. L. David Roper at:

* * *

For additional information concerning Capt. Robert Alexander, see also F. Johnson's "Memorials of Old Virginia Clerks, Arranged Alphabetically By Counties, With Complete Index of Names and Dates of Service from 1634 To the Present Time, (Lynchburg, VA: J. J. Bell Company, 1888), pp. 66-79, 117-119.

Also mentioned in the article is Col. Robert Enoch Withers' book, "Autobiography of an Octogenarian", (Roanoke, VA: Stone Printing & Mfg. Co. Press, 1907, 550 pages). A copy of that book may be found in the University of Virginia Library.

* * *

I would also like to express my thanks to the staff of the Campbell County Public Library in Rustburg (and particularly Ms. Patrice Owen) for their help in locating the article transcribed above.
SubjectAuthorDate Posted
William A. Roper, Jr. 1029168989000 
Bob Miller 1046310144000 
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