The remote waters of the West Fork of the Little Kanawha River,
a settlement place in Washington and Lee Districts
By Bob Weaver
Introduction - Adam O'Brien and Peter McCune were early comers to Calhoun in Washington District. You will read about the ill-fated death of Mike Fink and his Indian opponent, the trading of a wife for a deer skin, murderous incidents along the West Fork, a 14-year-old bride, religion coming to the backwoods, desperate Indian battles, the Hell-fired Band and most importantly the life and times of 109-year-old O'Brien.
Early West Virginia explorer Adam O'Brien had no moss growing under his feet, the defiant adventurer ignored the King of England not to come west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
O'Brien was a man on the move, always looking around the next bend.
From the backwoods of Potomac River country and what was to become Monongalia County, to the deep forests of Calhoun, Gilmer, Braxton and Clay, O'Brien wandered the primitive trails and river banks, sometimes as an Indian scout, sometimes as a paid militiaman, but always seeking his fame and fortune.
He sometimes traveled an Indian foot trail from Harrison, Lewis and Gilmer that likely cut through Bear Fork country, down Crooked Run to Orma, and on to the Elk River, and other times he followed the rivers and streams.
Born in 1727, he was a healthy, vigorous man who generally walked where he wanted to go, with some accounts saying he lived to 109. He is said to have crossed paths with Daniel Boone, whose legend has him staying for a time in a cave on Walnut in Calhoun County.
O'Brien also crossed paths with early explorers Elias and Jesse Hughes, and their comrade William Lowther. The Hughes-Lowther trio explored much of the territory along the Little Kanawha Indian trail between Clarksburg and Parkersburg in 1772. Christopher Gist explored sections of the Little Kanawha into Wirt County about 1752, and other early explorers came through northern Calhoun as early as 1752.
Trail blazer O'Brien was an early comer in the 1700s to what was to become Calhoun County. By the early 1800s he was living on the West Fork of the Little Kanawha near his son-in-law Peter McCune, Sr., who had married his 14-year-old daughter, Christina, in 1871.
His wandering ways may have started after being disappointed in a love affair with Isabel Burgoyne, the only daughter of Revolutionary General Burgoyne.
O'Brien's connection with Peter McCune's family began in 1780, when he and his family sought refuge from the Indians who were on the warpath in Harrison County. O'Brien took his family inside Fort Richards near Clarksburg, where Revolutionary War soldier Peter McCune, Sr. was a guard. Rev. Elijah Runion was to give oath that he had witnessed the marriage of Peter McCune, Sr. to the young O'Brien girl, and that he had advised Christina to stuff handkerchiefs in her bosom to appear more mature.
Peter McCune, Sr., undoubtedly one of Calhoun's imminent historical figures, was born in 1748 in Ireland, enlisting in the Continental Army in 1777 under Captain John Lewis and Colonel Henias Morgan of the 2nd Virginia Regiment. In 1778, he re-enlisted at Petersburg, serving three years against the Indians and the British and was
discharged at Wheeling in 1781.
In 1778 McCune received 400 acres of land on Rooting Creek, Monongalia County, in compensation for his military service. In 1810, he built the first cabin in Dekalb District, Gilmer County at the mouth of Leading Creek. By 1815 he had moved to the West Fork of the Little Kanawha River, Washington District. Christina O'Brien McCune declared she had ten children, most of which were born from her marriage to Peter. Peter McCune, Sr. died in 1832 at 84 and is buried outside the fence of the Knott's Baptist Church near Orma.
Adam O'Brien made up for lost time after being scorned by Isabel Burgoyne, having many women friends along his tomahawk route. He had at least four wives and fathered many children, some of whose descendants have lived in Calhoun these past 150 years.
He had a wife and family on Steer Creek, Braxton County, another on O'Brion Creek in what is now Clay County, with a third wife dying of exposure after she was evicted from a cabin on land claimed by O'Brien. Only two of his wives first names are known, Elizabeth and Margaret. Some records indicate he may have been married to more than one women at the same time.
O'Brien was a character in an often told legend about his fellow traveler Mike Fink, who died in personal combat with an
Indian on the head of Fink Fork of Beech, not far from Minnora. The incident began while O'Brien and Fink were
watching a salt lick along a trail about 1780. Col. D. S. Dewees (1821-1905) in his "Recollections of a Lifetime"
Fink Grave site Near Minnora - Explorer O'Brien accompanied
Mike Fink on his fatal encounter with an Indian in 1780
"These two adventurers, seeking a new country, conquesting for hunters and backwoodsman's paradise, when a small
party of Indians in quest of revenge, seeking to strike a blow upon the usurper of their homes and hunting grounds...coming
unexpectedly together, the Indians firing upon Fink, who together with O'Brien retreated up the branch (Fink Fork),
wounded Fink in the heel, whose wound becoming so painful against they reached the low gap, that he advised O'Brien to
seek his own safety, and leave him to his fate...He dispatched one of them (an Indian), which he in return was laid low in
death...O'Brien in a few days returning with others, found the two common enemies cold in death's embrace, whereupon
they were buried by O'Brien."
Dewees said the graves were marked with rocks during his lifetime. Today they are recognized by a more official marker
and a historic road sign.
O'Brien acquired land in many different counties. He was granted 400 acres on the West Fork River of
Harrison County and 400 acres on Lost Creek. F.J. Baxter's "Notes of Braxton County" states that O'Brien assisted in
making the first survey of Braxton in 1784. O'Brien moved all his
family, except his wife, from Harrison County to what is now Braxton in 1795, settling at Sutton.
Alexander Scott Withers wrote in the, "Chronicles of Border Warfare" that O'Brien may have been indirectly responsible
for the Indian attack on the Benjamin Carpenter family in 1793 along the Elk River. Withers alleges that the Indians followed
trails blazed by O'Brien and discovered the Carpenter settlement.
Withers said: "Adam O'Brien, moving into the same section of country in 1792...incautiously blazed trees in several
directions so as to enable him to readily find his home...It was upon these marked traces that the Indians chanced to so
fall, and pursuing it came to the deserted cabin of O'Brien." It was upon leaving the O'Brien cabin the Indians came upon
Benjamin Carpenter, killing him, and scalping his wife.
A story about O'Brien appeared in a May 1838 issue of "The Southern Literary Messenger." An
anonymous writer tells of an earlier encounter with O'Brien in Preston
County at "Gandy's place," known far as being the worst house on the
road. The reporter visited with O'Brien during the
course of an evening, who said he was ninety-three-years old.
The reporter said O'Brien was on his way to Clarksburg to "ferret out a land
title," stating he had walked the distance of about 125 miles
from Kanawha County at the rate of about 25 miles a day. He
told the reporter that his youngest child was a year old and that his
oldest was 64. He recounted his loss of his third wife because of
exposure after they were evicted from a cabin while his wife was ill.
"One of these here speculators had brought suit against me for my
settlement, and what with bad management and hard swearing and
perjury, he gained it. And the sheriff came one snowy day in
January, with a writ of possession to turn me out, and out we went.
I took my poor wife to an old cabin that had but half a roof on, and
she never came out of it until she came out a corpse," said O'Brien.
Poet-historian, Colonel John L. Cole related a story
told by Ephraim Bee, who had spent considerable time in the wilderness area as a neighbor to Adam O'Brien and his
Bee said O'Brien complained about the
advent of preachers, sheriffs, and lawyers into the backwoods. He
made one exception, the Rev. Barnabas Snow Cook, who was one of the
noted characters of his day, and among the first clergymen to come to Calhoun. Bee related how a time came when Rev.
Cook was leaving the West Fork of the Little Kanawha, and was separating from his flock.
composed a valedictory hymn for the occasion, in which he referred to all members of
"So fare-ye-well Adam O'Brien.
And good-by Peter McCune,
If one jump don't take us to heaven,
Light, and take a new jump from the moon.
Rev. Barnabus Cook was taken into the McCune-O'Brien clan with his marriage in 1820 to Peter's daughter, Christina,
named after his wife. Rev. Cook likely preached the first official sermon in Washington District, representing the "Christian
Church," which was founded in Kentucky in 1804. The church later merged with the Disciples of Christ. Cook, along with
Elijah McCumbers, preached the gospel in the greater Kanawha County region for 25 years.
Cook was also a squire or Justice of Peace, dealing with disputes up and down the West Fork. Col. Dewees said he
attended a hearing before Squire Cook in 1841 regarding a case where Daniel Cogar had sold his wife to Timothy
McCune for a deer skin. McCune failed to deliver the skin. Squire Cook ordered McCune to pay up, and judgment was
awarded to Cogar, the deer hide plus court costs.
O'Brien's dislike for intruders spilled over to Daniel McCune, a son of Peter, who lived directly across the West Fork
from Arnoldsburg on McCune's Run. He was a member of the "Hellfired Band" that roamed Calhoun, Braxton, Gilmer,
Clay and Roane "protecting" the area from outsiders.
Daniel McCune, Joseph Parsons, Alexander Turner and Jackson Cottrell were convicted of the murder of West Forker
Jonathan Nicholas, an "intruder" in 1843. McCune and his cronies wandered the region and lived in camp. Col. D. S.
Dewees said they "desired to live a roving life, discouraging improvements of every kind, such as clearing of land, making
settlements,opening up roads, organizing churches, and civilization in general."
The renegades were sentenced to a penitentiary in Richmond, Virginia, all dying there except Jackson Cottrell, who was
pardoned. Cottrell was the grandson of Thomas Cottrell, who Dewees said was "the old and original Cottrell of all the
Cottrells of the West Fork," who married a daughter of Adam O'Brien, and was a brother-in-law of Peter McCune,
Lacy O'Brien Boggs, a granddaughter of Adam O'Brien and daughter of John and Mary (Mace) O'Brien,
became part of the legend of Booger Hole, Clay County, having been shot in her home about 1916 by parties unknown in
the murderous hollow not far from Big Otter. (See "Hurrah For Booger Hole - Murder And Myth in A Clay County
Holler" under PEOPLE, HUMOR AND HISTORY 8/15/03)
Some of the O'Briens and McCunes moved to Roane County, but both are connected to regional families, including
Cottrell, Mace, Nutter, Carpenter, Truman, Tanner, White, Wright, Rogers, Parsons, Bush, Boggs, and many more.
Bruce and Norville McCune, descendants of Peter McCune, in front of homestead on Crooked Run (2001). They have old Peter's razor and a lock of his hair