Early American Gambrells

Nellie Rowland sent us the scans of a typed copy that was five pages long of a letter written by John Gambrell in 1927. It seems to be the source of information that has been parceled out (and uncredited) over family trees of Gambrells, so we digitized it and added links to each name to help folks follow along and read the original document so vital to Gambrell family trees today. Only slight modifications of the original have been made to correct minor issues. Here is the letter in full! Items in brackets [] are editorial comments by Clinton Macomber.

Lockhart, Texas
July 4, 1927

Mrs. R. H. Ward
Houston, Texas

Dear Cousin Ammie:

I have been endeavoring to reach answering your very interesting and most highly appreciated letter, 6th ult., but have been unable to do so until this holiday. Since business is suspending and the public are celebrating the day, I have found the time to reread the matter that you sent me addressed to you by Mr. Ozey Horton of Atlanta and check it up by my private data. I have also reread my carbon copy of my letter to you of February 8, 1921, which I take it, is the letter that he refers to as a letter from me to you that you had forwarded to him for his perusal.

Rechecking my statements in that letter to you, on the authority of your grandfather, James Madison Gambrell, and my father John Newton Gambrell, forty-five years ago [about 1882], while, I resided in Waco, I reduced to writing in my long hand their statements to me as to our family history. Substantially as they were made by them, as follows:

The GAMBRELLS, two brothers, came from France about 1676, went up the Potomac, and settled in Virginia and Maryland, having extensive holdings on both banks of the Potomac River. The old family graveyard with its crumbling monuments is near Manassas (adding to this from statements made to me by Dr. James Bruton Gambrell). He claimed to have data showing that while our ancestors were French Huguenots, they first took refuge in Ireland, and from Ireland came to America. His data confirms that of father and Uncle Madison. He further states that one brother settled on the Maryland side and one on the Virginia side of the Potomac. I would not undertake to state positively the source of my information, but I am under the impression that Uncle Madison told me, that these two brothers held their estate in common, but later became estranged from differences that arose on partitioning their estate, and they and their descendants drifted apart. I had it from Dr. James Bruton Gambrell that during the Civil War, and I think he said the second battle of Manassas, his company took position night in a cemetery, and engaged the Union Army either crossing or having crossed the Potomac into Maryland in retreating; and that he took position for protection, behind a tombstone, and when dawn came, he happened to read the inscription on the monument and found the name identical with his own, “GAMBRELL,” and upon further investigation he found himself in burial plot of the Virginia branch of the Gambrell’s from which we are descended.

In a letter to me, at another time, speaking of this same matter, he wrote, “at one time, one of the early Gambrells settled where the battle of Manassas was fought. I saw the family grave yard there with the tombstones marked.”

Upon his statement to me in writings, as follows, “Before the Revolutionary War, one of them (one of the early Gambrells) John Gambrell, my great grandfather, emigrated from Virginia to South Carolina. He soldiered with Marion, but having a stiff arm he never soldiered in the ranks. I have heard my grandfather, David Gambrell, tell of two of his thrilling adventures during the Revolutionary War. He had five sons—John, David, Matthew, etc. David was my Grandfather. My father [John Matthew Gambrell] was born in Anderson county, South Carolina: also my mother [Lettice Mattison Gambrell]. They came to Mississippi about 1842 and settled Tippah County.

To supply J. B. Gambrells “etc.” I again quote from my longhand notes, “John Gambrell, a grandson of one of these brothers, settled Anderson County, South Carolina, sometime before the Revolutionary War. He married Barbary Bruton, a descendant of a French family, early settlers in Virginia from whom the Bruton Memorial Chapel at Williamsburg is named.” Thus you see why his (J. B. Gambrell’s) name.

Further quoting from my notes: “To John Gambrell and Barbary Bruton were born five sons in order: Henry, David, James, John and Matthew,” and so my father and Uncle Madison filled out the “etc.” of J. B. Gambrell.

It may be interesting to you to know that one of these five brothers, on the authority of my father (I cannot recall which), was a one legged old bachelor, one-legged because he lost the other leg in the war of 1812. His wound was a constant irritant to his temper, and caused him to drink to excess, so that he frequently was drunk. Father was a favorite nephew of his, and as his home was not far from that of father’s father, Matthew Gambrell. As a boy father visited this uncle quite frequently. One day he became violently angry with father while in his cups and threw his crutch or wooden leg (I cannot recall which) at father, who was in the yard next to the porch, and then couldn’t follow it up. He insisted on father’s bringing it to him, but father was afraid to do so, but finally was induced to do so by assurances of his uncle that his assault was uncalled for and would not be repeated.

From the above family history you can readily see that John Gambrell who fought in the Revolutionary War, was the grandfather of my father and Uncle Madison, He was also the great-grandfather of Dr. J. B. Gambrell. Therefore, J. B. Gambrell, James Madison Gambrell and John Newton Gambrell were second cousins [actually 1st cousins].

Matthew Gambrell, my father’s father, was a Baptist preacher, as well as a Captain of Militia. In my former letter I erroneously stated that he was a soldier in the War of 1812. In this I was mistaken, as I since ascertained. He was not born until July 5, 1796, and died a suicide on August 12, 1843. I wrote you that he married Lettice Madison, a daughter of James Madison, and that James Madison’s wife [Frances Wyatt], the mother of my grandmother, was of the family of the Virginia Wyatts, prominent in the early history of Virginia. I note that Mr. Horton writes you that her name was “Mattison.” I am aware of that and was at the time I wrote you. You are therefore due this explanation. Your grandfather always wrote (and he wrote a very beautiful hand, speaking by the way). His name is James Madison Gambrell. I have it both from him and my father that their mother was a daughter of James Mattison who claimed to be a collateral cousin of the blood to President Madison. That the Mattisons were uneducated branch of the Madison family, but of very high intelligence and very highly respected, and that Lettice Mattison Gambrell was very proud of both her Madison and Wyatt blood. Uncle Madison accepted her statements as correct and he and father always assumed that, as is quite frequently in that day, when most people signed by mark, that her ancestry had become known as “Mattisons.” Since one of desire to claim relationship with a president, though ever so remote, I intend to seek more light on this matter among the relatives in South Carolina and will report them to you.

To Matthew and Lettice Mattison Gambrell were born nine sons and three daughters. One daughter died young [Pamelia Burton Gambrell]. Francis, a daughter, married a Campbell. Mahala, another daughter, married a Mitchell. Mrs Mitchell’s daughter, Mrs Ella Cox, owns the old Matthew Gambrell home, which as I understand it, was also the home of his father, John Gambrell. I am informed that the log home of John Gambrell in now the stable on the place, while the two story, frame dwelling built by Matthew Gambrell is still well preserved, though more than one hundred years old.

I have heard my father speak frequently of the Hortons but I cannot now recall whether he claimed any family connection with them. The same applies to Governor Brown, whom he claims to have known well. He regarded Governor Brown as an unusually brilliant man.

I overlooked the nine sons of Matthew Gambrell. I recall the names of only Madison, David, John Newton, Terry and Fuller. All nine enlisted on the side of the confederacy in the Civil War. Seven gave their lives in its defense. Only Uncle Madison [Rev. Madison Gambrell] and my father came out alive: Uncle Madison, by the Grace of God, my father [Dr. John Newton Gambrell] probably by the same grace, though he never appreciated it. In 1857 he sold his holdings, including his practice at Painsville, Alabama, and bought a new home in Texas. His wife [Harriet Harper Gambrell] died suddenly en route within the first-fifty miles leaving him with five daughters and one son, the eldest about twelve years of age, the boy a baby in arms. As all accumulations, had been invested in Texas, he had no alternative but to continue on to Texas. So he returned and buried his wife in her childhood home, and resumed his journey to Texas. The war came on, and found him divided between his duty to his country and his family. He enlisted, but because of the tender age of his children, was detailed or assigned to practice in the families of soldiers who enlisted from Walker and adjacent counties. He told me that at one time, when the Confederacy failed, because of inability, to keep up the necessary stocks of medicine and medicinal supplies in the commissaries it was maintaining for such purpose in each of these counties, he carried his entire cotton crop to Galveston and sold it, and bought ten thousand dollars’ worth of the most needed supplies and dispensed them under prescription to these families.

Mr. Horton mentions the fact, which I can testify to, that Uncle Madison read Greek and Latin “as fluently as most people could read English.” I have followed the text by the hour while he or father quoted Virgil or Horace, or the Bible or New Testament, as written in the Latin and the Greek. There are few university professors in this day that can do so.

I have never met a Gambrell who was not proud of his name. I know of none of the name who have attained to great eminence, on the other hand, they pride themselves on the fact that wherever you find them they are community lenders in religious, patriotic and social uplift, and fearless therein. Always esteeming principles higher than friendships, while commanding the respect of their neighbors they do not bind their affections to them with “Hooks of Steel.” Reverting to the severance of family relations between the two brothers in Colonial days, there must have been principles involved, and while I do not feel certain that it should be a matter of family pride, I have never known one of the name that could countenance or defend a shadowy deed or transaction even of a relative. And had the Gambrells a coat of Arms and were I called upon to write the Scroll thereon, I’d write with Pope these glorious lines:

“What conscience dictates to be done,
Or warns us not to do,
This teach me more than Hell to shun,
That more than Heaven pursue.”

When you wrote me in 1921, you were seeking the proof that would entitle you to admittance as a member of the Daughters of the Colonial Dames? In your more recent letter you do not state whether you have succeeded in making the satisfactory proof. There is the old burial ground in South Carolina of John Gambrell and Barbara Bruton Gambrell, his wife. You can trace back to them. Cousin Ella Cox I think has the old family Bible. Between it and the monuments you will likely be able to ascertain where in Virginia they were born. The Old Family Plot, prior to 1776, at Manassas, and the court records at Manassas and Williamsburg, if searched prior to 1776, might take you back to the original Frenchman from Ireland from which you descend.

I am not positive, but I state that it is well fixed in my memory, from just what source I cannot recall, that this French-Irish ancestor of ours was “Daniel” Gambrell. My understanding is that John Gambrell was his grandson. The search would cover Daniel Gambrell and his children, one of whom was the father of John Gambrell, three counties, three burial grounds, and three cemeteries. This might not be too complicated or expensive.

If the essential matter for admittance to the Dames of the Revolution is to trace your ancestry to a participant in that war you have only to trace to John Gambrell, and place him in that war. It has come to me from too many sources independent of each other, that he was, for me to doubt that; abundant proof thereof could be secured in South Carolina alone. The woods are full of Gambrell’s there, still nestling in the vicinity of the old home. The records of his old county, or the records of Marion’s army, with whom he is reputed to have served, either at the capital of South Carolina or at Washington, ought to contain his name. Especially if it be true that he served in any capacity on Marion’s staff.

Uncle Madison was born in 1816 and father was born in 1820, each less than fifty years after the Revolutionary War. Their four grand parents lived an average of more than ninety years, and lived and died within the same community where Uncle Madison and father were raised. I have heard them speak of having spent considerable of their time in the company of the old folks. Such statements as my father and Uncle passed on to me about the family history ought therefore to be more accurate than the usual hearsay. I think you can rely on them as reasonably accurate, and that you ought to be able to confirm them through the sources of evidence that I have suggested.

I shall write Cousin Ella Cox and invoke her assistance in correcting the above facts, if any are inaccurate; also in securing any additional information that she can give. I will write you later. I feel sure that she would be pleased to have you visit her. And that she will make your visit just as pleasant as she did that of my son, Tom.

I am enclosing a carbon copy of this letter, to forward to Mr. Horton, if you desire to do so. I would not care to have my version of the family tree printed in any form until verified.

Your grandmother Gambrell [Amaryllis Horton Gambrell] was a very sweet old woman, and I loved her very much. Like the Gambrell’s she was inordinately proud of ancestry. So much so that she would sometimes very delicately impress one with the thought that it had been quite a condescension for her to marry your grandfather.

With the understanding that the carbon copy of Mr. Horton’s letter to you was intended for me to keep, I am retaining it. I am returning J. B. Gambrell’s family tree, that you sent me after making a copy for my files.

I have heard my father speak frequently of Larkin Gambrell. Time and again he told me of that cold Saturday in 1832 or 1833, in the Spring when the sap was up. He, too, carried the family milling to Gambrells Mill that day, and nearly froze. He said the sap in the trees froze and that the trees were bursting with loud explosions that fright­ened him all along the way. Doubtless he met with Mr Horton’s father at the mill that day and they compared experiences.

I am sending this letter in care of Judge Ward since I cannot make out your residence address.

I have given this letter one half of my holiday. It has been a pleasure to do so. It was a greater pleasure to hear from you. I trust it will not be your last letter.

I regret to inform you that your cousin Mary [Mary Clementine Mooney Gambrell], my wife, is in very poor health. She has two leaking valves to her heart, and unusually high blood pressure. She has to rest in bed most of the time. I told her of your letter and that I was answering it, and she requests me to send you her love.

Your Cousin John Gambrell

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