John Murray Forbes (1816-1890)

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John Murray Forbes
(no image known)
Sex: Male
Birth: November 17, 1816
Falmouth, Stafford County, Virginia
Death: May 24, 1890
in Warrenton, Fauquier County, Virginia
Burial: Thornton-Forbes-Washington Cemetery,
Fredericksburg, Virginia
Father: Murray Forbes
Mother: Sarah Innes Thornton
Spouse/Partner: Mary Elizabeth Semmes
Marriage: May 14, 1840
in Alexandria, Fairfax County, Virginia

         John Murray Forbes was a prominent lawyer in the Warrenton, Virginia, area. At one time, he served in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Through his mother, he was related to many prominent Virginia politicians, most notably George Washington. We have record that he attended the University of Alabama, then a newly established college, at the encouragement of his uncle, the Secretary of State in Alabama at that time. He is later noted to have had a suit of George Washington's in his possession. This suit later found its way to Mount Vernon. His marriage to Mary Semmes would appear to be the cause for the forging of a fine family heirloom in our family's possession that we call the Forbes silver pitcher. It is imprinted with "Forbes 1840", which would certainly seem to refer to this couple's marriage. Also worth noting is that John's brother James was killed by the same volley of friendly fire that mortally wounded famed Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson at the Battle of Chancellorsville. James was serving as a volunteer aid to Gen. A. P. Hill. Also interesting is the last duel fought in Northern Virginia was fought on John's property in 1881. Also interesting is that John finished the legal training of one James Keith, who would go on to serve on the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. A family History document had claimed that John was himself a Virginia Supreme Court judge, but I think this is the origin of that oral tradition.

         This John Murray Forbes is not to be confused with John Murray Forbes (1813-1898), prominent railroad magnate, merchant, philanthropist and abolitionist.


"Washington's Suit of Clothes" from the American Historical Register, 1895Edit

      Washington's Suit Of Clothes.—In Gen. Washington's chamber
at Mount Vernon, hanging in a glass case, is a snuff-colored broad-cloth
frock coat, a pair of short pants, a marbled-brown and yellowish vest, with
a square cut out of the back of the collar by someone as a trophy, and a
pair of long, white silk stockings, marked G. W., and carefully darned in
white silk by Mrs. Washington. This suit was highly prized by its last
owner, the late John Murray Forbes, of Warrenton, Va.; and at a noted
dinner at " Innes Hill," given to Senator Bright and the Warrenton Bar, in
1860, at which the writer was fortunate enough to be present, the clothes
were produced, and many of the guests, prompted by the desire to don a
suit once worn by our illustrious Washington, disappeared, in a few
moments reappearing clothed in the ancient relic !

      This excited peals of laughter, for the fat and lean, tall and short
guests presented each a different and ludicrous appearance. The owner
said he had only found one gentleman in his life-long acquaintance that
this suit hid ever been known to fit, and he was very tall, angular and
rather peculiarly shaped—a magnificient looking man. Below is given an
authentic history of the clothes, written by Mr. Forbes, and now in the
archives of Mount Vernon.

Catonsville, Va.                   Kate R. Forbes Witchen.

      This portion of the apparel of Gen. Washington, consisting of coat, vest, " small
clothes" and stockings, was given by his niece, Mrs. Jane Thornton, widow of Col.
John Thornton, of Culpeper county, Va., to her eldest grandson, Alfred Augustine
Thornton, who married my sister.

      When Mr. A. A. Thornton changed his residence in the Piedmont of Virginia to
make his home on the waters of the Ohio, in 1847, he deposited the suit with me, not as
a gift, but to be kept until called for by him ; and, if he never should require its return,
I was to make such disposition of it as I might think proper. It was kept by me with
assiduous and reverential care until March, 1862, when the Confederate army was
withdrawn from Manassas. Being then a member of the Legislature of Virginia, I
thought proper to remove my family from my home, near Warrenton in Fauquier county,
and the suit was then deposited, with other articles, with my neighbor, the late Mr.
Charles Kemper, for safe keeping. During the summer of 1862, while the Federal troops,
under Gen. Pope, were quartered in the vicinity of Warrenton, two persons, represent-
ing themselves to be Federal officers, entered the dwelling of Mr. Kemper, as he informed
me, and demanded the production of all the property left with him by me, of which
they seemed to have accurate information, accompanying the demand with a threat of
his arrest and imprisonment in the old capital at Washington, in the case of his refusing
to comply. The demand was complied with. After making a description in writing of
the other property, which was too bulky to admit of transportation by hand, they
enjoined upon Mr. Kemper its production when required by them ; but, returning the
clothes into the pillow-case in which they were kept, one of the two persons carried them
away on his shoulder when they left the house. This is the statement of facts narrated
to me by Mr. Kemper upon my visiting him in the fall of 1862, after the expulsion of
Gen. Pope's army by Gen. " Stonewall " Jackson from Northern Virginia. The clothes
were not seen by me again until May 23. 1877, when I went to Mount Vernon in
discharge of the duties of the office of " visitor," on behalf of the State of Virginia, to
which I was appointed by the Governor, in pursuance of the statute incorporating the
Mount Vernon Association of the Ladies of the Union. They were then recognized by
three other members of my family, who accompanied me, as well as by myself, and
identified to our entire satisfaction.

      It was a high gratification to find them, with other relics and memorials of the
most illustrious of the sons of Virginia, at his beloved Mount Vernon in the custody
and care of the patriotic ladies who honor themselves by their devotion to the sacred
duties of their position. It was also a gratification that my purposes should be in
accord with those of " Mr. William D. McGregor, of Hudson City, who rescued them
from oblivion and donated them " to the Ladies' Association, as stated in the label
found upon them in the glass case; for, on the morning of May 23, 1877, on the trip
to Mount Vernon, while standing on the wharf at Alexandria, I had stated to my friend,
Judge Ball, of Leesburg, that I would, if they were now in my possession, present
them to the Association.

      Accordingly, upon unexpectedly finding them at a late hour, when the regular
meeting of the Board of Regents and of the Board of Visitors was held, after making
the statement of the facts above set forth in execution of the authority vested in me by
Mr. Alfred A. Thornton, now deceased, I conferred upon the Ladies' Association the
right and title to the precious relics, with the limitation that, in no case at any future
time, the Association should, according to the provisions of its charter, cease to hold
Mount Vernon, the said relics are to revert to the State of Virginia, in the same man-
ner as the Mount Vernon estate is to revert to it.

      This written statement is made and signed by me at the request of the Board of
Regents, to be deposited among their archives, and to be appended to the suit of clothes
in the glass case at Mount Vernon in which they are kept.

John Murray Forbes.
" Ramsay," Fauquier county, Va., May 29, 1877.

"John Murray Forbes's Horseback Trip to Alabama in 1831" from The Alabama Historical Society, 1904Edit

Reprint No. 21

John Murray Forbes's Horseback Trip to Alabama in 1831



[From the TRANSACTIONS 1899-1903, Vol. IV]



By Thomas Semmes Forbes, Birmingham.

  So much occupied are we in the activities of the present and
plans for the future that the past is apt to be neglected, especially
the past of another people; and yet there a:e many for whom
every item of information concerning the Indian, even during the
last years of his sojourn east of the Mississippi is of the deepest
interest. For the benefit of these I take the liberty of recording
a few incidents of a trip on horseback from Virginia to Alabama
made in the summer of 1831 by my father th.; late John Murray
Forbes of Warrenton, Virginia. He left no written memoranda
and I give them merely from my recollection of what he used to
tell me.

  The son of Murray Forbes, he was born Nov. 17, 1816, in Vir-
ginia. Having passed through the local schools of his neighbor-
hood at Fredericksburg, and the age requisite for matriculation at
the University of Virginia, being sixteen, his father was persuad-
ed to send him to the University of Alabama then about to open
its doors for the first session of its useful career. Two of his
uncles resided in this State, one of whom, Colonel James Innes
Thornton, was secretary of state and dwelt at Tuscaloosa. At
that time Col. Thornton was in Virginia on a visit and it was to
his urgent solicitation that my grandfather yielded and permitted
his fourteen year old son to make a journey of about one thou-
sand miles on horseback and through an undeveloped country.
Col. Thornton purchased a fine pair of carriage horses while in
Virginia and brought back with him a negro boy, one of his fam-
ily slaves, who rode one horse while the Colonel drove the other
to a sulky. Their clothing was carried in large saddle-bags and
in the sulky box. Occasionally the Colonel and the negro, John,
would exchange and he would stretch his legs for a while in the

  They crossed the Tennessee river where Chattanooga now
stands, and I have often heard my father say that the only house
in sight of the ferry, which was in the Horseshoe Bend, was that
of the ferryman. No city at that place was dreamed of then.
What route they took from Chattanooga I never heard but I know
that they did not go to Huntsville, where Col. Thornton had lived
when he first settled in the State and which my father was anxious
to visit.

  They passed through Elyton, Jefferson county (near the pres-
ent Birmingham), and dined there, and the description given me
of the place as it was in 1831 would indicate that up to fifteen
years ago there had been few changes in the ancient capital of
Jefferson. It is natural to suppose that the road taken by them
from the site of Chattanooga to Elyton would be down Wills'
Valley along the present line of the Alabama Great Southern
Railroad. It was between these places that the Indian country
was entered. Col. Thornton, who had made the trip several
times, knew when to expect them. As their village was approach-
ed he ordered Jim, who was on horseback, to go ahead at a brisk
trot. This he did to have a little fun at Jim's expense. The boy
had already disappeared over the little hill when he was seen re-
turning at full speed, his arms and legs and the puffed out sides
of the saddle-bags rising and falling with every leap of the horse.
With wide open eyes showing large and white in his black face
and panting with fright, followed by a yelling band of Indians,
it reminded them of the scene in "Tarn O'Shanter" after the
alarm was given the dancing witches in "Kirk Alloway."

"So Maggy runs—the witches follow,
Wi monie an eldritch screetch and hollow."

  Poor Jim was persuaded to stop when he met his master but
the Indians had already given up the chase. They were willing
to scare the negro for the fun of the thing but they had no laugh-
ter for the white man.

  As soon as they saw the whites they disappeared, hiding behind
the trees and bushes. Nor could they be persuaded to come forth
until Col. Thornton had produced a pipe and tobacco and lighting
it took a whiff or two and then extended it towards the nearest
Indians. Before throwing off their sulky humor or coming from
their places of partial concealment one of the Indians asked in
characteristic monosyllables, "Georgians? Georgians?" "No,"
said Col. Thornton, "Virginians. Going to Tuscaloosa." The
Colonel afterwards explained that the Indians were at enmity
with the Georgians thinking that they had been badly treated by
them in the sale of their lands and their enforced removal west-
ward. However, when it was learned that they were not Geor-
gians, the Indians came forward and smoked and accepted some
beads and other trinkets as presents and gave every indication of

  By this time, their horses showing considerable signs of weari-
ness, they determined to stop a few days with a Mrs. Pack (or
Pacque). She was the widow of a half breed chief or headman
and was herself a halfbreed. Mrs. Pack must have been a person
of considerable prominence. She owned negro slaves and her
daughters were at a boarding school in Louisville, Ky. She had
quite a number of cattle and lived in a comfortable house. I have
been informed by Professor Samuel L. Robertson, of Birmingham,
that old Mrs. Barbara Pack kept a tavern at or near Lebanon in
DeKalb county and that he has frequently stopped there when a
boy accompanying his father who was an Episcopal clergyman.
He also tells me that she has left numerous descendants, some of
whom live in Jefferson county and are among our worthiest

  It is easy to imagine that an enterprising "young American"
after spending his first night with the Indians all around him
would be up with the lark. In this instance his energy was fully
repaid. He heard Mrs. Pack giving some orders to a group of
Indians which he made out as something about "a little blue
steer." When she saw him she asked him if he did not want to
see the Indians catch and butcher a beef, and being answered in
the affirmative, she called to one of the Indians and told him to
take this young man with him and that she would look to him
for his safety and comfort. He was conducted off some distance
to a thicket by the side of a broom-sedge field. Here the firebrand
carried by one of the Indians was applied to the dried sedge which
was soon ablaze in several places. It was not many minutes before
a herd of little cattle came rushing and snorting from the brush.
Immediately a dash was made into the herd by one of the Indians
and the "little blue steer" was singled out and given chase. He
ran him for a few minutes, turning him towards the starting point
where he was relieved by one of the others. The animal was
thus made to run in a circle. This was kept up until the steer
showed signs of fatigue. Then a fresh Indian, who had held him-
self in reserve, dashed up by his side and catching him by the horn
with one hand and the nose with the other threw him heavily upon
the ground and like a flash his knife was out and the animal's
throat was cut. Five or six Indians set to work to dress him and
ripping off the skin, they cut the disemboweled carcass into four
quarters, each one of which was shouldered by an Indian, a fifth
carrying the skin. The rapidity with which it was all done was
marvellous. For several days the party remained at Mrs. Pack's
eating the "little blue steer."

  They went as far as Demopolis where they visited the Glovers,
Col. Thornton having first married a lady or that family. Then
they came back to Tuscaloosa where my father matriculated. His
roommate was the late Judge Thomas A. Walker, of Calhoun
county. Among those who were with him at college and remem-
bered him pleasantly when I had the pleasure of conversing with
them were the late Doctors John B. Read and Wm. A. Cochrane
of Tuscaloosa. Doctor Read was fond of telling of a fight which
he and my father had at college.

  Professor Henry Tutwiler was a member of the faculty that
year and at the end of the session the Professor, scarcely more
than a boy, and his pupil returned to Virginia in the same stage
coach and during this long trip was cemented between the trav-
elers a friendship which had commenced at the University and
which was maintained through life.

Student record in 1901Edit

Forbes, John Murray, lawyer and planter, Fauquier Co., Va.

1831. Falmouth, Va. ; s. Murray Forbes; b. Nov. 17, 1816; Grad. in School, Univ. of Va., 1834; Commonwealth's Atty., Stafford Co., Va. ; Rep., Gen. Asscm., Va., 1861-62; m. Mary Elizabeth Semmes, Alexandria, Va., May, 1840; d. May 24, 1890.


Name Birth Death
Children of John Murray Forbes and Mary Elizabeth Semmes

Sallie Innes Forbes January 5, 1844
Fredericksburg, Virginia
September 13, 1881

Sophia Semmes Forbes May 1, 1846
June 18, 1865

Murray Forbes March 25, 1848
Fredericksburg, Virginia
?? ??, 1923
Warrenton, Fauquier County, Virginia

Mary Douglas Forbes March 15, 1852
Fredericksburg, Virginia
August 3, 1853
Fredericksburg, Virginia

Catharine Ramsay Forbes December 29, 1853
Rockhill, Fauquier County, Virginia
April 9, 1927
Birmingham, Jefferson County, Alabama

Thomas Semmes Forbes April 11, 1858
Innes Hill, Warrenton, Fauquier County, Virginia
May 27, 1939
Accomack County, Virginia


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