The curious tale of Isaac Wise

tamrawilson Uncategorized

Recently my book club discussed A History of Catawba County by Charles Preslar. In 1954, Preslar, a local reporter, wrote the county’s story including the legend of a local patriot, Isaac Wise.

The Wises are said to have lived at the head of the South Fork River. On a modern map, that’s near the intersection of Highway 10 and 321 in Mountain View.

Preslar wrote, “In the 1770s and 80s, Tryon, Lincoln and Burke were conceded to have been ‘hot-beds’ of Toryism. A study of pension applications reveals that each year from 1776 to 1782, there were ‘routes’ from a few days to three weeks into these counties to put down uprisings and to disperse Tory groups.”

Three years before Preslar’s book was printed, the Catawba County Historical Association had marked the young hero’s grave. The site later became Haas Cemetery southeast of Newton.

As the story goes, Isaac Wise, age 17, was hanged in 1776 for spying against the Crown. He was captured by Tories near the home of Simon Haas who lived near what is now Prison Camp Road and hanged on the spot. Haas later removed the body for burial nearby. His wife, Susanna, furnished her best linen sheet for a shroud.

Three years later, Simon Haas died of an apparent heart attack while stopping for a drink on Smyre Creek. He was laid to rest next to Wise. It was fitting since Haas had served the patriot cause in the North Carolina militia.

For generations after the war, Preslar noted, Catawbans were intent on “forgetting the war’s misery, and there was little interest in stirring up old bitterness, as the area was evenly split Whig and Tory.”

Wise’s story was passed down by word of mouth. Details were lost, and likely facts were distorted.

Preslar’s account had Wise fleeing the South Fork community for Salisbury, when he was caught by a band of Tories at the Haas property. It was believed the Wises had come from, Salisbury, though some others claimed the Wises originated in Bertie County on the Carolina coast.

What is certain is that Wise met with vigilante justice. In order to hang the teen-ager, the Tories needed rope, and Martin Shuford was dispatched on horse to find it. The horse stumbled and threw the rider, who fell on a tree root face down and broke his nose. Shuford ever after became known as “Crooked Nose.” He died after being wounded in the Battle of Ramsour’s Mill in 1780.

So we know as much or more about the man looking for rope to hang Isaac Wise than we know about Wise himself.

Was Isaac Wise a patriot?

Historian Gary Freeze posed the question in his book The Catawbans Vol. I. He could have been a patriot hanged by Tories or “could he have been a petty criminal executed for his misdemeanor,” Freeze wrote. Who is correct? There appears to be no documentation for Wise save a tombstone erected 175 years after his death.

If Wise was indeed a spy the legend goes, who or what had he seen? What secret had he told? That’s the problem with legends. We don’t know the facts.

Wise was not a common name among local settlers, save for Daniel Wise, who was presumably Isaac’s father. Daniel is said to have fled eastern North Carolina with his family because of his Tory sympathies.

The name “Isaac” carries extra meaning for our legend, too. Think of Abraham in Genesis, who was asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. In Isaac Wise’s case, any intervention by God apparently fell on deaf ears, assuming his father was present.

History proves that at the time of Isaac Wise’s death, western North Carolina was embroiled in the rebellion. Emotions ran high. The Battle of Quaker Meadows took place in July 1776 near Morganton. The engagement was part of a campaign against the Cherokee who had allied with the British to harass settlers.

We modern Americans like to think of our colonial counterparts living idyllic lives until the American Revolution came along, but the notion that most colonists marched with George Washington is a fallacy. History tells us that what is now Catawba County was deeply divided, as were much of the 13 colonies. Families switched allegiance at will to protect their lives, their livelihoods and property. And who could blame them? Hanging is serious business. The punishment is final.

American patriots, often little more than ragtag bands of determined freedom fighters, won independence from Great Britain by a hair and a prayer.

Isaac Wise is remembered because he died heroically.

As my book club discussed, western Catawba County was largely settled by Germans who, for the most part, had little interest in stirring King George’s pot. Many had sworn allegiance to the crown upon their arrival in the new land. Some of them had fled the wretched Seven Years War in the 1750s and 60s. Becoming involved in more bloodshed wasn’t their cup of tea.

Yes, I have oversimplified a complex chapter of history. The problem I have with Isaac Wise’s story is that it’s not complex enough. So many loose ends make us fill in our own blanks because we want to know the rest of the story.

The reason the legend continues, of course, is because Isaac was a tragic hero who “wisely” chose the winning side. His story stirs our hearts.