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William Godfrey "Fishing Bill" Barrett(1827-1924)

The following is a biography on my great great grandfather, William Godfrey "Fishing Bill" Barrett, put together from long going research done by two of my cousins and myself. Enjoy!

William Godfrey "Fishing Bill" Barrett

Here is a man that has reached something of a legendary status,at least within the genealogical circles of his descendants. Throughout the years virtually nothing was known of the man other than the few mentions of him from census records and the small handful of old family stories passed down through the generations. Much information has been accumulated about his spouse, descendants and even his own ancestors over a long period of time and for many years, about the only thing known of him was that he was born in North Carolina, moved to Georgia by 1850 marrying his 1st cousin and left not long after the birth of their son. It was commonly thought that he went southward to around Hall County, Ga. and raised a family there. There are also two versions of the anecdotal story of how he departed from his family and Towns County to never return. The first and most well known is that he left the house to go fishing one day and after having been gone for a significant amount of time, the search for him revealed nothing but his cane pole propped up against a tree and the bait can lying on the ground beside it. This is the version that famously, or infamously, gave him the moniker,"Fishing Bill". The other version of his legendary departure was that he was going to the mill on Hall Creek to get some corn ground and after a long absence, it was discovered that he had indeed made it to the mill but the only evidence was his empty sack hanging on a nail and that he was never heard from again. Over time, other stories of Fishing Bill came to light in a piecemeal fashion including one from colinear family descendants in Rabun County, Ga. about how he was living next to his father in Shooting Creek, NC in the 1880's and died shortly after being gored by a bull. Another old story tells of him courting a younger woman who lived near the Hall/White county line. He had gotten her pregnant and left her with the promise that they would be married upon his return from urgent family business up in the mountains. Though he did periodically go back to the mountains to visit his kinfolks, he never returned to his 'lady-in-waiting'. Whether the story is fact or made up, it does lend creedence to his being a womanizing scoundrel! There is also a strange speculative story told by one of Fishing Bill's grandchildren about how a really peculiar little old man with a scary looking white beard came to their house when he was a very young boy around 1910. His father was adamant that the kids stay away from the old man and made them go to bed early while he stayed and slept in the front room with the visitor. The next morning, the old man was gone and they never saw him again. The latter story adds further to the element of mystery surrounding Fishing Bill as it makes one imagine the old man,for good or bad, finally coming full circle with his son after a life of separation. Either way, through all the old stories and the scattered scant facts, Fishing Bill himself remained stubbornly elusive through the years. Whether or not he left while going to the mill or going fishing is not truly known but as the famous Mark Twain quip goes,"The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated" is a fitting fact regarding his having been killed from the goring by a bull. It has often been said that truth is stranger than fiction and where Fishing Bill is concerned it is definitely much more interesting, at the very least.Since the advent of digital record keeping has come about and the ease of modern communication, we will attempt to construct a timeline of this man who has for so long been little more than a mystery wrapped in an enigma postscripted with a question mark!

William Godfrey "Fishing Bill" Barrett was born in the Paint Fork of Big Ivy Creek in Buncombe County, NC near Barnardsville on 10 Jan. 1827 and was the eldest child of Andrew(1805-1891) and Mary "Polly" Arrowood Barrett(1811-1886). His great grandfather, John Barrett(1752-1840), was a Baptist minister, Revolutionary War soldier and patriarch of the family who had settled the area before 1800 after moving down from Halifax, VA. The area of that period is now called "Old Buncombe County" which refers to the pre-1808 breakup of the original county for the formation of other counties(Yancey,Haywood,...etc.). By 1830, John was almost 80 years old and had contractually transferred his properties over to his son(William's grandfather),David Barrett(1785-1850) to "subsist free from want" for the remaining years of his life. Sometime after John's death in 1840, David sold all of the properties where thereafter he and many of his progeny moved to the Bethabara section of Cherokee(Clay) County, NC. Shortly after settling there, Andrew and Mary Polly moved on down to Union(Towns) County, GA with their children and were enumerated in the 1850 census there. There have been variations on William's year of birth as the 1850 census shows him as being born in 1833 which seems to be the most commonly birthdate used in the plethora of family trees and older articles written on Barrett histories. His obituary from 1924 lists him as being 97 years old and his indigent pension applications of GA and NC list him as being born on 10 Jan. 1827 and that being by his own hand is most likely his actual year of birth.

In just a few short years after the family had moved to Georgia, Union County underwent its transformation as the eastern part of its territory along with the western tip of Rabun County were merged to form the new county of Towns, named for former Georgia Governor, George Washington Towns in 1856. Around the same time as Union and Rabun counties were going through their transmogrifications, Andrew and Mary Polly's family relationship were as well. The ink had only barely dried on Towns County's charter when on May 1857 the celestial couple sued for what would become the first divorce case to be judicated in the new county court where it was granted, finalised and judgement signed on May 1858. William left Towns County shortly after his parents divorced going back to Buncombe County and settling in the Township of Leicester. It was in Leicester that he met Elizabeth "Eliza" Towe(1836-1889), daughter of Charles(1798-1858) and Sarah West Towe(1798-abt.1865) who like William's family had moved to Georgia(Gilmer County, in their case) in the 1840's but returned to Buncombe County by the mid-1850's. William and Eliza were married on 5 Dec. 1859 and in quick fashion Eliza became pregnant with their first child, Delia Virginia Barrett(1860-1932), who was born on 8 Sept. 1860. The 1860 census listed Eliza's widowed mother living with them as her father had died a year before they were married. It is at this juncture of time that we actually begin to see the emergence of the restless nomadic spirit that truly is "Fishing Bill Barrett". While Eliza was well into her pregnancy with their first child, William up and left home for whatever reasons beknownst only to him going back to Towns County to visit his father for a while who by that time had married a 16 year old girl named Mary Shook(1842-1923)...33 years younger than himself! While on sabbatical hiatus at his father's, he quickly became much better acquainted with his 1st cousin,Cecelia Arrowood(1835-1917), the daughter of Nathaniel(1810-1905) and Sarah Barrett Arrowood(1813-1893) and within a short period of time a whirlwind relationship developed between the two resulting in Cecelia becoming impregnated and the couple getting married around the middle of 1860. In June 1861, she gave birth to their son, James Marion Barrett(1861-1948). When James was only a couple months old, William was once again overcome with that overwhelming urgency to leave and it is here that he pulled the disappearing act for which he is so famous(or infamous), becoming hitherto and forever known as "Fishing Bill"! It has most commonly been thought that when he departed from Towns County, leaving his bride holding the "proverbial" bag....with a new child in it that he made his way down to Hall County around Gainesville and raised another family there, but the fact is that he actually went back to his home in Leicester,NC.

The Civil War had begun and had been a few months going when he returned to Buncombe County and to his other wife. It is very well possible that he had full intentions to join the army, but preferred to do so in Buncombe County with gentlemen whom he was familiar with from his youth, just as he and his brother-in-law would serve in the same unit. Within a brief period after his homecoming to the arms of his first wife, she became pregnant with their 2nd(his 3rd) child and on 10 Mar. 1862 gave birth to a son, John Edward Barrett(1862-1863). The boy was named after the brother of Fishing Bill's father who had settled in the Hall/Habersham County area by that time. Unfortunately, John Edward only lived 18 months after his birth and died on 22 Nov. 1863 while his father was away in the army in Mississippi.

Fishing Bill had left Leicester in late June 1862 when John Edward was only 3 months old to enlist in the Confederate army and was mustered into Company C of the 60th North Carolina Infantry Regiment which formed in Greenville,TN in June of 1862. This particular unit participated in campaigns throughout Tennessee, Vicksburg,MS and Georgia. The following is a summary of his military record from 1862 through 1864 as per the book,"North Carolina Troops,1861-1865: A Roster,Vol.14", published by the North Carolina State Department of Archives and History:

BARRETT,W.G.,Private,60th Inf. Reg't,NC

1).Enlisted in Buncombe County on 8 Jul. 1862 for the war

2).Deserted at Murphreesboro,TN.,28 Oct 1862

3).Hospitalized at Dalton,GA.,30 Dec 1862 with typhoid fever.

4).Released from hospital 13 Jan 1863

5).Returned to duty 28 Apr 1863.

6).Reported on detail as a hospital nurse at Lauderdale Springs,MS., from 24 Jun through 31 Dec 1863.

7).Reported absent sick(suffering from epilepsy); Jan. - Jun. 1864.

8).Dropped from the company rolls in July-August 1864,"for prolonged absence without leave". *Survived the war.

*He had listed in his 1908 pension application that as of Dec. 1864,

he had been sent home on sick furlough in a "hospital detour and

the furlough was renewed at Ashville,NC just before the surrender.

The summary of his service shows him as being back and forth, or on duty and out a lot due to sickness or for whatever other reasons. By the end of 1862, Fishing Bill had slipped in from the war and Eliza became pregnant with their 3rd(his 4th) and final child and on 30 June 1863 gave birth to a daughter, Mary Isabella Barrett(1863-1928). As far as it is known, he did not go back to his Georgia wife, Cecelia. It is not known whether they ever saw each other again all though it is possible. It is also important to note here that as of the writing of this biography, no "official" papers or documents have yet been located or discovered showing them to be married, however, Cecelia did take his Barrett name as her own and was placed on the "Georgia Salt Ration List" during the war which could only have been done by actual proof of marriage. One may speculate that they simply "jumped the broom" in front of family witnesses but it is most likely that they were married by a circuit riding preacher who filled out the marriage certificate paper for them. It is also worth noting that Cecelia was left on her own in the high mountain wilderness of Upper Hightower to raise young James and her other children the best she could, enduring a long and terribly daunting life that in the end left her ravaged, both physically and mentally. Details of Cecelia's life have been chronicled in an excellent biography by Jerry A. Taylor in "Hearthstones of Home",Vol.1 and is a highly recommended addendum to this article.

By May of 1865, the merciful conclusion of the Civil War was reached and found our intrepid hero home on sick furlough when the surrender was officiated. After the war, Fishing Bill pretty much managed to anchor his tap root to his home in Buncombe County for a few years, staying with his family and raising their young daughters. The 1870 census lists him as the head of the household with his wife and two daughters,however, Eliza's mother had passed away in 1865 sometime after the end of the war. The 1870's saw the family settled in for the duration,that is until around 1878 when he once again left the mundane climes of home and hearth for another extended sabbatical hiatus that would last for the better part of 30 years! The first leg of his journey was to visit his father in Clay County,NC. The 1880 census lists him as living beside his father which means he actually took up residence there for a little while. Andrew and Mary Shook Barrett had had 7 more children, being half siblings to Fishing Bill and the rest of the first batch from Mary Polly Arrowood[Barrett]. It is actually humorous, of a sort as to how mysterious he was, even to the contemporary people who actually knew him. During the 1880 census taking in Buncombe County, he was listed as "absent" in his household and when asked about his place of origin, Eliza put forth,"Suppos'd from Georgia". In allowing that he was supposed to be from Georgia showed that even his wife knew little about him. It is not really known the exact length of his stay in Clay County, but sometime during the early 1880's he moved down to Hall County. As mentioned before, he had served in the same unit during the war with his brother-in-law, Jonathan Alexander Wilson(1838-1914) who had married his younger sister, Minerva Elizabeth Barrett[Wilson](1840-1917). Jonathan and Elizabeth had moved from Buncombe County to Union County,GA in 1867 and then to the Airline section of Hall County in 1877 where he had gotten a job working in a cotton mill. Fishing Bill took up residence beside them and lived there for almost 30 years while only sporadically leaving to go back to the mountains. According to his pension application, his time in Hall County was spent mostly farming,"fishing a little" and earning an income on his fishing of "$20 per year". He would fish and sell his catches on the local markets around Gainesville. There is a hint of humorous irony in that Fishing Bill actually did some fishing for a living, but it could have possibly lended credibility to his nickname as well.......we may never know!

As Fishing Bill domociled in Hall County working away at his farming and fishing enterprises, he rarely went back to the mountains to see his families but in 1886, his first need to venture out came with the death of his mother, Mary Polly Arrowood[Barrett]. He had received news about the probation of her will and made the journey to Union County,GA to attend. After the divorce of his parents in 1858, Mary Polly had taken custody of the 4 youngest of Fishing Bill's siblings and went north to around Knoxville,Tennessee by the beginning of the Civil War. She strongly encouraged the two oldest boys, David(1842-1864) and George(1844-1864) to join the Union army. They did and both were killed in action in 1864.....George in Maryland and David in Virginia. Mary Polly collected a pension from the deaths of her boys and eventually moved back to Georgia where she bought a tract of land with a house in the Choestoe area of Union County. The two youngest children, Andrew(1848-1910) and Edith Clara Barrett(1849-1937), stayed in the Knoxville area, marrying and raising families there. After the reading of his mother's Last Will and Testament and having collected his proverbial "Buck Ninety-Eight", Fishing Bill returned to his life in Gainesville. His 1st wife, Eliza, died in 1889 and was buried in the Leicester Episcopal Cemetery. It is not known if he ever went there in the event of her passing, though it would make logical sense that he would go there to visit her grave at least sometime shortly afterwards. He did leave Hall County sometime around or just before 1900 and stayed with his eldest child, Delia Virginia Barrett Meadow's family where he was listed in the 1900 Buncombe County census. Not long afterwards, he returned to his home in Hall County,GA.

After 1905, we see Fishing Bill approaching 80 years old and his health going into decline. In 1907, he applied for his Indigent Pension in Hall County where he attributed "age and poverty" on the grounds that he "had not been able to do but very little manual labor in the last 20 years". By this time, Jonathan and Elizabeth were also aged and getting to poor health. With his options wearing thin, he began looking more to being with his children in the hopes that they would care for him during his twilight years. He stayed in Hall County until around 1910-11 when he left there permanently to find a place to settle for the last days of his life. He was not listed in the 1910 censuses of Georgia or North Carolina as he was most likely somewhere in transit toward his destination. By 1912, he had finally made his way back up to Buncombe County where he moved in with his youngest daughter, Mary Isabella Barrett Fore's family. He once again applied for his pension there in 1913 and in 1915 was placed on the Indigent's List. In 1917, his wife in Georgia, Cecelia Arrowood Barrett had died and was buried in Burch Cemetery,Sunnyside,Towns County,GA. The 1920 census of Buncombe County lists him as still living with his youngest daughter and the Ashville City Directories show him as living in the Westwood Place and Arlington areas from around 1913 through the early 1920's. He spent the last years of his life living with both of his daughter's families, hanging out with his grandchildren and reading his Bible. On 12 May 1924 at 12:05p.m., 97 year old Fishing Bill died at the home of his eldest daughter and on 13 May, he was laid to rest by his first wife, Elizabeth "Eliza" Towe Barrett in the Leicester Episcopal Church Yard Cemetery in Buncombe County, NC. His death notice listed that he was survived by a sister, Clara McNish of Johnson City,TN. Edith Clara Barrett McNish was the youngest child of Andrew and Mary Polly Arrowood Barrett and the youngest full sibling of Fishing Bill.

Thus ends the saga of the man known as William Godfrey "Fishing Bill" Barrett. Using facts from census and military service records, his own words from pension applications and old family stories, we have managed to build his timeline and hopefully pieced together the best possible telling of his story to give a VERY long awaited sense of closure to many of his descendants...particularly in Georgia! The icing on the cake is that we can now see his photographic image, thanks to his grandchildren and great grandchildren in Buncombe County. Soldier,farmer,fisherman,eccentric,nomad, bigamist,macroscopic patriarch and an educated man that could read and write quite well. Whatever you the reader may think about him, it is important to remember that many of us owe our very existence to this unique and interesting man!

-----First Marriage-----

William Godfrey "Fishing Bill" Barrett(1827-1924) married Elizabeth "Eliza" Towe(1836-1889) on Dec.5,1859 in Buncombe County,NC. They are buried in the Leicester Episcopal Church Yard Cemetery,Buncombe County,NC.

Children of William and Eliza Barrett are:

1).Delia Virginia Barrett,born in Leicester,Buncombe County,NC on Sept.8,1860. She married Robert Mitchell Meadows(1862-1932) Oct.5,1884 in Buncombe County,NC. She died on Nov.12,1932.They are buried in Bell Methodist Church Cemetery in Buncombe County,NC.

Children of Robert Mitchell and Delia Virginia Barrett Meadows are:

(1).Lydia E. Meadows, born 8 Aug 1884, Buncombe County, North Carolina; married James Floyd Clevenger, 28 May 1903, Buncombe County, North Carolina; died 16 Mar 1978, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania.

(2).Fred Vernon Meadows, born 31 Oct 1886, Buncombe County, North Carolina; married Esther M. , 5 Dec 1912, Multnomah County, Oregon; died 28 Mar 1967, Multnomah County, Oregon.

(3).William R. Meadows, born 5 Jun 1890, Buncombe County, North Carolina; married Daisy Sams, 22 Sep 1912, Buncombe County, North Carolina; died 24 Jul 1950,Buncombe County, North Carolina.

(4).Arthur Lee Millard "Artie" Meadows, born 26 Mar 1893, Buncombe County, North Carolina; married Lottie Wyatt, 4 Sep 1917, Buncombe County, North Carolina; died 4 Sep 1917, Buncombe County, North Carolina.

(5).Edna Earl Meadows, born 28 Mar 1895, Buncombe County, North Carolina; married John M. Lee, 8 Nov 1913, Buncombe County, North Carolina; died 4 Mar 1985,Transylvania County, North Carolina.

(6).Essie Mae Meadows, born 22 Apr 1898, Buncombe County, North Carolina; married Rex Selmon Smathers; died 24 Dec 1983, Buncombe County, North Carolina.

(7).Roy McKinley Meadows, born 28 Apr 1901, Buncombe County, North Carolina; married Frances J. Johnson, 21 Nov 1921, Buncombe County, North Carolina; died 8 Jan 1969, Buncombe County, North Carolina.

2).John Edward Barrett,born in Leicester,Buncombe County,NC. on Mar.10,1862.He died at the age of 18 months on Nov.22,1863. He is buried in Buncombe County,NC.

3).Mary Isabella Barrett,born in Leicester,Buncombe County,NC on June 30,1863. She married William Joseph Fore(1857-1942) on Jan.29,1880 in Buncombe County,NC. She died on Nov.3,1928 in Wake County,NC. They are buried in Leicester Episcopal Church Yard Cemetery,Buncombe County,NC.

Children of William Joseph and Mary Isabella Barrett Fore are:

(1).Dora Annie Fore was born on 21 Oct 1881 in Buncombe County, North Carolina. She died on 16 Oct 1963 in Nash County, North Carolina.

(2).George Robert Fore was born on 23 Nov 1883 in Buncombe County, North Carolina.He died on 6 Jun 1924 in Buncombe County, North Carolina.

(3).Arie Eva Fore was born on 17 Jun 1886 in Buncombe County, North Carolina. She died on 30 May 1969 in Nash County, North Carolina.

(4).Edward Fore was born on 18 Mar 1889 in Buncombe County, North Carolina. He died on 14 Mar 1890 in Buncombe County, North Carolina.

(5).Ernest Garland Fore was born on 29 Dec 1890 in Buncombe County, North Carolina.He died on 22 Oct 1959 in Kings County, New York.

(6).Arthur B. Fore was born on 4 May 1893 in Buncombe County, North Carolina. He died on 23 Dec 1915 in Buncombe County, North Carolina. He was buried in Leicester Episcopal Church Yard, Buncombe County, NC.

(7).Bessie Addie Fore was born on 12 Feb 1896 in Buncombe County, North Carolina.She died on 26 Feb 1994 in Nash County, North Carolina.

(8).Bertha Alma Fore was born on 20 Oct 1904 in Buncombe County, North Carolina.

-----Second Marriage-----

William Godfrey "Fishing Bill" Barrett(1827-1924) married Cecelia "Granny Cil" Arrowood(1835-1917) sometime in 1860 in Towns County Georgia. Cecelia is the daughter of Nathaniel "Big Nate" Arrowood(1810-1889) and Sarah Barrett(1815-1893). She died in 1917 and is buried in Burch Cemetery,Sunnyside,Towns County,GA.

Children of William and Cecelia Barrett are:

1).James Marion Barrett,born in Towns County,GA on June 1861.He married Mary Marinda "Rindie" Hooper on Aug.17,1876 in Towns County,GA. He died on Jan.5,1948 in Towns County,GA and they are buried in Burch Cemetery,Sunnyside,Towns County,GA.

Children of James Marion and Mary Marinda Hooper are:

(1).Haseltine Barrett was born in Towns Co,GA 24 Aug 1877.She married Nelson Govan Chastain.Nelson was born 17 Jan 1870 in Towns Co, GA.

(2).Lillie Barrett was born in Towns Co, GA 8 Feb 1880.She married Jewell Victor Burch.Jewell was born 1 Mar 1873 in Towns Co, GA.

(3).James Virgil Barrett was born in Towns Co, GA 8 June 1882.He married Etta Kirby.Etta was born 29 Sept 1885 in Towns Co, GA.

(4).John H. Barrett was in Towns Co,GA in 1885. He died in 1900 in Towns Co,GA.

(5).Harrison S. Barrett was born in Towns Co, GA 8 June 1888.He married Lizzie Powell.Lizzie was born 26 Aug 1890 in Hiwassee, Towns Co, GA.

(6).Oren L. Barrett was born in Towns Co, GA 30 Sept 1889. He married Ora Burch. Ora was born 27 Feb 1895 in Towns Co, GA.

(7).Celia Barrett was born in Towns Co, GA 30 Oct 1893.She married Oren Burch. Oren was born 27 Sep 1885 in Towns Co, GA.

(8).Avery E. Barrett was born in Towns Co, GA 27 Jan 1894.He married Tassie May Sims.Tassie was born 10 May 1896 in Towns Co, GA.;He married Ola Shook on 21 Mar 1929. Ola was born 21 Feb 1912 in Towns Co,GA.

(9).Nola Jane Barrett was born in Towns Co, GA 5 April 1897.

(10).Robert Barrett was born in Towns Co, GA 28 July 1899.He married Carrie Bryson.Carrie was born 19 March 1902.

(11).William Duquesne Barrett was born in Towns Co, GA 27 Sept 1902.He married Estella Gertrude (Stella) Burch. Stella was born 2 Dec 1905 in Sunnyside,Towns Co, GA.

(12).Cicero Barrett was born in Towns County,Ga 21 Jan 1905.He married Pauline Burch on 20 Aug 1929. Pauline was born 25 Dec 1910 in Towns Co.,Ga.

By Thomas Wesley Barrett

Based on the extensive research of

Jerry A. Taylor & Jason Lee Edwards

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Comment by Kate Steere on August 24, 2020 at 4:47pm

Thank you for sharing his story. :)




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