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Memoirs of Daniel W. Cunningham


The memoirs of Dan Cunningham located in the West Virginia Archives in Charleston, West Virginia are reprinted in the following pages. These pages may be considered inflamatory by some, and by reprinting them we do not wish to reignite old passions. Despite this, these pages may be found to be interesting by some readers. We have made no effort to verify the claims made by Daniel W. Cunning- ham in his manuscript, and offer them as his comments on the situation as he wanted people to view it in Jackson and Roane Counties, West Virginia. Obviously some of his claims are the results of his personal feelings and probably exaggerated. In places Cunningham ascribes statements and actions as fact when they were really only his opinion. Much of this virtrolic diatribe is rooted in the feelings that the Skeens-Counts gang as he termed them had done his family wrong and nothing was done to correct the situation by the courts. Mostly likely the Cunningham family was not entirely innocent in this feud, but it not the purpose of this reprint to correct Cunningham's mistakes or ascribe feeling or motives to him that may not have existed. For what it is worth, here is Dan Cunningham's Criminal History of Roane and Jackson Counties.

Charleston, W.Va.
Feb. 24, 1928.

Dear Sir:

I send a brief to you pertaining to many murders of Roane and Jackson counties. I do not wish to cast any reflections on your present county administration and the same in Jackson county. I refer back when Roane and Jackson counties were under the reign of Rebelism. This is why so many untimely graves are found in south west West Virginia and along the southern border of thee state. The war period I referred to, I obtained the reliable information from William Ray, who was one of the abused parties, postoffice, Sissonville, W.Va.; also Hardin Bostic, Wylie Berry, R. C. Dawson, John Bumgardner, my mother and brother, Nathan, that was murdered, and others. As to the cutthroat organization--that they were active for about three months before they broke loose in 1887. I refer the readers to Postmaster, Male Kerns, Kentuck, W.Va., Ben Poling formerly of Jackson county, now of Station B., Charleston, W.Va., and scores of others. As to the Asa Harper family, I obtained the information through eye witnesses. The murder of Deskins and the burning of Abe Looney's store, I received my first information from Deputy Sheriff, Cart, Mrs. Tom Deskins, Miss Booth, the confession of Mat Martin and the Eli Hambrick gang being near the Thompson farm the preceding evening to the murder of Thomas Deskins, some thirty miles from their homes pretending to be cow hunting and all carrying rifle guns. I want you to distinctly understand I do not wish to cast any reflections on the good citizens of Roane and Jackson counties; the citizens of the two Counties who are engaged in the pursuits of Education, agriculture and stock raising. I found a criminal taint of murder and arson extending from the Sandy Mountains of Virginia--Pine Mountains of Tennessee the Cumberland Mountains and on into Jackson and Roane counties, branching out to the Bogey (alias Buggr Hole) of Clay County and down on the Henry's Fork of Little Kanawha River. If you wish to publish a series of articles from this brief and others I can send, you are at liberty to use it.

Yours respectfully,
/signed/ Dan Cunningham

Shortly after the formation of Jackson County, in or about the year, 1840, my father, Joel Cunningham, settled in the southern part of Jackson County on the Poca River waters. The County at that time was one unbroken forest for miles around; there was no road and no way of conveyance, only to follow trails across the hills. My father built a shanty which protected him from the rough winds and rain. After this was completed he built a small log house on the run below the present site of the old homestead. About this time Silas Slaughter moved into the wilderness and settled on Bear Fork, a branch of Big Mill Creek. William Comer settled on Middle Fork. Mr. Robert Scarboro settled on Middle Fork near Kentuck. Down on the lower Middle Fork the Bumgardners, Rays and Lanhams settled. John H. Duff, the grandfather of Robert Duff, was an early settler near Kentuck, Jackson County. John H. Smith settled on the County line in Kanawha County the Dawsons, Berrys, Monks, Wines, Shafers, Trumans, Blackshires, Haynes and others settled and were all friendly to the Flag and Union in the Civil War days. After father had completed his first house he went to the Ohio River to move his wife into the wilderness; when he returned he found his home occupied by one John Ferrel, who had come from Sandy Mountains, Clinch River, Virginia. Some trouble ensued but at last everything was made satisfactory, and father built a house near the same place and moved into it. Shortly after this Wash Fields, John Hammon, Frank Skeens, Ab Kiser, Joe Skeens and Isaac Counts came form the Sandy Mountains in Virginia and moved into the same locality where my father lived. The County settled rapidly. Silas Slaughter, William Comer, William Ray, John Bumgardner, John H. Duff, and my father went to work to open a public road from Jackson C.H. to Charleston, W.Va. They were opposed by the above named Russellites and trouble began. The next step was to build some school houses. This was also opposed by the Russell County, Virginia gang and more trouble ensued. (Clinch River runs through Russell County). The Clinch River gang argued that to with-hold public improvements, as they had done in the Sandy Mountains of Virginia, they would never be bothered by land-jobbers. These people had settled on or squatted on the Bruen land of Jackson County, W.Va. This tract of land contained 52,000 acres--lying in Jackson and Roane counties--was patented by the Bruens in the days of George Washington or shortly thereafter. Later years Abel Sinnett of Charleston, W.Va. became a field agent for the Bruens, to look over their lands and eject all squatters found thereon. The above named Skeens, Counts, Kisers, Hammons and Wash Fields were considered trespassers on said lands. Some time after this they came to father and asked pardon for their past acts, and told him that in the near future they wished to hold a meeting in an out house, a new stable of his. The request was granted and shortly after dark, according to the statement made by mother, they began to gather; the leaders were Joe and Frank Skeens, Ike Counts, Abe Kiser, Wash Fields and others. Ike Counts called the house to order and father was made chairman of the meeting, as he was Justice of the Peace. Their object was to organize a consolidated band, and take an oath to protect each other, stop all public improvements and to prevent the Bruen land agents from coming into the County and to take the life of Abel Sinnett as he passed the half-way house between Jackson C.H. and Charleston, W.Va. Father was to decoy Sinnett into the woods and to pretend to be looking for a corner tree and they would shoot him, and by so doing the agents for this large survey of land would be afraid to come in. (Mr. Sinnett was an agent for the Bruens at that time). After they got through with their deliberations father frankly declined to have a hand in it and the feeling became more bitter than ever. Abel Sinnett was put on his guard. (Mr. Sinnett was a prominent Odd Fellow and died a few years ago in Charleston at a ripe old age.) Thus their hatred seemed to be their prevailing element towards faather. After this the old man, John Smith, a good and quiet citizen, occupied the house owned by John Ferrell, and which was built by father. It was customary in those days to let their horses run out in the woods. Smith had some trouble with one Joe Skeens and to wreak vengeance on Smith--Skeens caught a yearling colt and tied it to a tree, took his knife from his pocket and cut its throat from ear to ear. Isaac Smith, a son of the old man Smith, was passing and saw Joe Skeens do the barbarous act. He came at once to father and made complaint, aa warrant issued, Skeens was arrested, carried before father, had a hearing and was found guilty, sentenced to jail, and as the officers were en route with him to jail he skipped the guards and made good his escape. He and his band planned at once to kill young Smith to stop the prosecution, and Smith had to leave home to save his own life. Their next object was to assassinate father. Joe Skeens came to our house carrying a rifle gun and sat around until midnight. Father told him to go to be or to go home, so he chose the latter and left. About one hour later a noise was heard outside; mother went to the door and there stood Joe Skeens with his gun to his face pointed toward the door; she called father and told him Joe Skeens was at the door with his gun pointed toward the house. Father sprang from the bed, seized his gun, but Joe Skeens made his escape in the darkness. (My mother gave me the above informa- tion). About this time Richard Skeens came from Dumps Creek, Russell County, Virginia, formed an acquaintance with my sister, Caroline, and paid his respects to her. The time for their marriage was set, the hour was up and Richard Skeens and his friends, seventy in number, came to our house. My sister had gone--there was no wedding. Skeens accused father and brother Nathan of persuading her away, this so enraged them that the Clinch River gang banded together to take the lives of father and Nathan. It went on this way for some time until they found out that Keziah, another sister, (later of mother of Robert Duff assassinated) had persuaded Caroline to jilt Skeens, hatred settled on Keziah by this gang, and they even held malice toward her children. About this time party lines or political lines were drawn and the election of 1861 came on. The Clinch River gang of Rebels with all the cursedness that could be instituted, marched boldly to the election at Kentuck, Jackson County, W.Va., with guns and clubs in hand, and openly said no Union man should vote. Frank Skeens and Ab Kiser drew a gun on father and said he should not vote, but he voted. John Bumbgardner attempted to vote and Frank Skeens struck him with a club and he had to be carried from the polls. A row was the order of the day but the Union men voted. After Bumbgardner was struck by Skeens the gang attempted to drive father and my brother, Nathan, away, but failed. On the next day after the election in 1861, Nathan was working in garden on Second Creek, in Jackson County, and the first thing he knew a rock passed his head carrying his hat across the garden, and on looking up he saw Richard Skeens making at him with a knife in hand, my brother grabbed his gun and attempted to defend himself but the gun failed to fire the first trial, the second time however it went off and Skeens received a flesh wound. Skeens followed him into his house and a hard fight took place, they fought until exhausted, Nathan's dog playing a part of the times. After the fight Nathan came to our house, one mile away, and Skeens went to his friends. At daylight the next morning our house was surrounded by about thirty of the gang. The gang failed again. Nathan took refuge up stairs at our house. Some time after this fight the Skeens hissed big Bill Skeens on Nathan and another fight ensued. Nathan was whipping Bill Skeens when old Talkey Joe Kiser rushed in and tripped Nathan's feet from under him, but Nathan in this fight held his ground and Skeens left. Night after night passed and a gang of those fellows could be seen lurking around out house with guns in their hands. The war came in earnest, Nathan came home on Saturday night and went into the yard on Sunday morning, Frank Skeens with two other men slipped near our house and all fired at Nathan but missed their aim. About this time father went to Washington and received a commission to organize a Company of State Troops. He did this. By this time the gang named, in connection with others, were burglarizing the whole county. Skeens, Counts, and others raided Dan Rhodes store and mill at Cottageville, Jackson County, W.Va. They carried off a large quantity of dry goods, groceries, bacon and flour. This act licensed them to steal, they raided the Middle Fork of Poca, robbed every Union man's house, even taking the bed clothes and infant clothes from William Ray's house and many other houses. They arrested William Ray, Jr., James Short and Lee Clevenger and others, took their horses, tied the bed clothes on them and tied some of the captured men on top of the clothes, and put a noose around William Ray's neck and Lee Clevenger's neck, tied the line to the saddles and they had to follow the horses in this condition with hands tied behind them. Frank Skeens, Ab Kiser and Ike Counts were coming in the direction of home, loaded down with stolen household goods for their families, when all at once a sharp crack of a rifle was heard, Ab Kiser fell from his horse and began to pray. At this moment they were re-enforced and the few men who were trying to defend their homes had to flee for their lives. Father and his company arrested this thieving gang, charges were brought against them and some desired to put the leaders to death--this was over ruled by father. The then gang, afterwards Ku Klux, promised father then and there upon their oaths if he would liberate them they would take the oath of allegiance but as soon as liberated they forgot the oath and fled to Grass Lick, Jackson County, W.Va.--here they met with Jeffreys, Corbins and others. They wrote father they had laid down their arms after meeting with many of their friends, and all would become loyal to the Government and for him and his Company to lay down their arms and meet them on friendly terms at Jeffreys, now Kenna, Jackson County, W.Va. Father and his Company started to meet them but before they reached their destination a letter came to father signed by Skeens, Counts and Kiser to meet them at Corbins on Dirty Fork, one mile above Jeffreys, and in going to Corbins they had to pass a precipice, an excellent place for ambush. As the Company marched along the base of this precipice, all at once about a hundred shots were fired. James Hamilton and others were wounded and William Litten of Bell Grove, Jackson County was killed out right. It was said John Skeens, a son of old Frank Skeens, fired the fatal shot. The soldiers recognized Ike Counts, Frank Skeens, Ab Kiser and John Skeens. Father went from there to Spencer, Roane County and he and his company with others were shut up in town by a band of Rebel Bushwhackers or Snipers for quite a while, and during that siege many a poor fellow wank to rise no more. After the trouble ceased at Spencer, father and his Company went into the Regular Army, Regiment 7, Company E of said Regiment. In the latter part of December father was taken ill of a fever of which he died January 7th, 1862, at Buffalo, West Virginia. Father was connected with the organiza- tion of Jackson County, was a Justice of the Peace for twenty years in succession, and lacked one year of becoming high sheriff of Jackson County, when the old law was changed. Father was sent home and interred in the family burial ground. Nathan came home on furlough and while at home he was reported, and at daylight a gang of about one dozen men rushed into his house and shot him, a ball passed entirely through his body. He seized a rifle gun and fought his way out of the house, and ran one mile to our house. His clothes were literally cut to pieces with bullets. The men passed themselves off as Confederates, Jenkins Cavalry. Every time he breathed his clothes that hun in strings near the wound would draw in and out of the bullet hole. He soon recovered, however, and the bloody gang were not satisfied. They made some other attempts to take his life but failed. This gang to Dumps Creek, Russell County, Virginia, and from there to Dixie, and their depreda- tions in Pike County, Kentucky, Buchanan County and Letcher County, also Wise County, Virginia will be shown in the history of the Hatfields. They joined the Ku Klux band in the Pine Mountains of Tennessee. The writer some years ago followed the Ku Klux trail of blood all through the mountains of Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. When I say Ku Klux, I do not mean honest democrats, or men who were on the side of the lost cause who fought for what they thought was right, but I mean the men who were out for theft, murder and gain, those were the Ku Klux. This Ku Klux gang had but little respect for party affiliations. They came to their old homes at the close of the war and were not satisfied. The Board of Registration met at Jackson C.H. This Ku Klux band said the Board should not meet in Jackson County and do the work required. Through the instructions of the Governor, Nathan took ten men and went to the Court House and guarded the Board. They did not like this but at last when they wanted any writing done they would go to Nathan and have him do it for them. They would eat at his table and when out of sight would be talking about him, and all the time trying to devise some plan to take his life. Nathan was elected Assessor and Justice and served one term each. After this he was made Deputy United States Marshall under Major Hegman Slack of Charleston, W.Va. He was also Agent for the Bruens in their big land survey. This illiterate gang was not satisfied with the innocent blood they had shed and caused to be shed in the time of war, and the homes they had made desolate and the children they had left helpless and fatherless, and theft committed, not satisfied with that they went into distilling in violation of the Internal Revenue Laws and retailing also. Their first plant was on Second Creek in Jackson County. This unlawful work was reported to the Revenue officers, indictments were made and capias came into Nathan's hands. He made the arrests but took pity on the wretches and kept them out of jail. At this time litigation over the Bruen land was at a fever heat. The Skeens, Kisers and Counts were trying to gain their land by hard swearing and Nathan knew of their plans. They were uneasy for fear they would expose them. On the 9th day of August, 1877 [sic], Frank Skeens and his boys, Ike Counts' boys, Ab Kiser, Henry Kiser, Joe Skeens, Joe Kiser, Jr., and others, were seen in close confab, meeting at a tobacco barn in the woods near where Waid Counts lived. Nathan was then on the road to Charleston on business. Frank Skeens started on the road to Charleston August 10th, 1887, [sic] through a pretense, so he could prove an alibi. John Skeens, a son of Frank Skeens, and their spiritual adviser, went to B. N. Poling's store to prove an alibi and played marbles until twelve o'clock, noon, something he never did before nor since. Nathan was on his way home in company with a man by the name of Dan Roberts and his 11 year old son, Joel. (Dan Roberts was of Reedy, W.Va.) They passed Andy Hammon's house and Hammons came out and decoyed Nathan and his boy Joel at the same time giving Mr. Roberts a chance to get ahead. Nathan started and drove nearly one mile above Hammon's and started up the hill accompanied by his boy, Joel--drove about a hundred yards up the hill where a large stone about eight feet in diameter lay by the road side. Behind this rock were concealed a gang of cowardly, contemptible, dirty, illiterate, low-lived murderers. Nathan drove to the rock--they fired two shots--one took effect in his breast and the other in his abdomen, and his fingers on the left hand were shot off. He sprang or fell over the road where the cowardly hyenas were concealed. He recognized them and his boy Joel helped him back in the road. He started down the road holding his boy by the hand. Three more shots were fired at him and he said to his boy, "Go home and tell my wife (mother) that Waid Counts has killed me. Waid Counts you have killed me, don't kill my little boy." Those cowardly hell hounds saw he was badly wounded and followed him to the Creek. Pierce Skeens, a son of old man Frank Skeens, caught him by the arms and held them behind him and Joe Skeens struck him in the temple with a rifle gun, that was said to belong to Sam Hammons. This was old Joe Skeens, a brother of Frank and the man that cut Mr. Smith's colt's throat. He knocked Nathan down and the Ku Klux, C. C. Counts and Joe Kiser, took rocks that weighed about ten pounds and beat his brains out and left him for dead. His boy, Joel, went back to Andrew Hammon's and told Hammons that his father had been murdered just above. Hammons took the boy, went all around the neighborhood notifying the Clinch River gang but keeping it hidden from our people. Nathan's daughter Elizabeth was going on a visit and happened to come to the scene. He recognized her and asked for water and told her to take him out of that place. His daughter started to give him water and she was stopped by old Jake Kiser. In the very agonies of death he asked for water and help and the heartless demons refused to give him any aid. He lived for three long hours in that condition. Warrants were issued for Waid Counts and Joe Kiser. Joe Kiser and Cain Counts had set Nathan's barn and stable on fie May 22nd, 1877. He caught them in the act. The case was coming up at the September term of the Circuit Court the same year. V. S. Armstrong of Ripley, Jackson County, was then prosecuting attorney. The two men had a hearing at Kentuck before Squire Starcher of Ripley, W.Va.

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