Sunday, June 29, 2014

Harmon’s Rockhouse

Harmon’s Rockhouse
by Terry Harmon, (c) 2014

According to on-line dictionaries and encyclopedias, a rockhouse is generally defined as a large overhanging rock, usually over a stream, so named because early woodsmen could obtain shelter from the weather in the area underneath its protruding upper ledge or in the cave which could often be found at the base of the rockhouse.  A rock shelter (also known as a rockhouse, crepuscular cave, or abri) is a shallow cave-like opening at the base of a bluff or cliff.  Rock shelters form because a rock stratum such as sandstone that is resistant to erosion and weathering has formed a cliff or bluff, but a softer stratum, more subject to erosion and weathering, lies just below the resistant stratum, and thus undercuts the cliff.  Many rock shelters are found under waterfalls.  Rock shelters are often important archaeologically. Because rock shelters form natural shelters from the weather, prehistoric humans often used them as living-places, and left behind debris, tools, and other artifacts. In mountainous areas the shelters can also be important for mountaineers.

            My first encounter with mention regarding a rockhouse in relation to my family was in “These My People: Wards of Watauga County, North Carolina,” which was written and published by Lennis [Dare] Ward Isaacs in 1977.  She states:


“There is a huge rock at the mouth of Phillips Branch that has always been called ‘Shupe’s Rockhouse,’ getting this name because a Shupe family once lived under this rock.  But the story has been handed down that Cutliff Harmon made this rock his home, living under it with his family after buying this land on Cove Creek until he could get a house built for his family.”


Supposedly, the family of William “Billy” Shoop/Shupe lived in “Shupe’s Rockhouse,” but he was not born until circa 1796, after Cutliff Harman would have lived there, so perhaps the Shupe connection to the rockhouse actually extended one or two generations further back to Billy’s father or grandfather, John Shoop Jr. and Sr., or perhaps the story has been reversed and what was originally known as Harmon’s Rock House later became Shupe’s Rockhouse.


            In “A History of Watauga County, North Carolina” (1915), John Preston Arthur mentions the “Harmon Rock-House”:


“Just before the Civil War, how long no one now knows, Noah Mast, claiming that he had loaned Hiram Hix a cross-cut saw, sued him for its recovery.  Hix had some affliction of the eye-lids, rendering it necessary that he should prop them open with his fingers in order to see.  He and his wife lived under a big cliff near the mouth of Cove Creek, called the Harmon Rock-House.  This cliff projected out a considerable distance and the open space was enclosed with boards and other timbers, thus affording some degree of comfort even in winter, the smoke going out of a flue built against the side of the cliff.”


Arthur also includes a footnote regarding “Harmon Rock-House”:


“The first white child born in Watauga County is said to have been born in this rock cliff; but its name is not known.”


However, in his “Additions and Corrections” at the beginning of his book, Arthur states:


“‘called Harman Rock House’ should be omitted [line] 26 [page] 202.”


This correction does not mean the Harmon Rock House did not exist, only that the rockhouse that Hiram Hix called home was not that particular rockhouse. 


It was not unusual in the pioneer days for individuals and families to live in rockhouses, at least temporarily.  Arthur also writes of settler Benjamin Howard’s rock house as well as a rock house on Rich Mountain.  According to Dare Ward Isaacs, the notes of the late, local historian Henry Hagaman stated that Thomas Curtis (a son-in-law of Cutliff Harman) came to this area to hunt wolves on Beech Mountain and lived under “the Curtis’s Rock” near the Cling Hicks place on the south side Tom’s Knob.  It is said that Cutliff Harman’s son-in-law and daughter, Duke and Elizabeth Harman Ward, also utilized a rockhouse.  Family tradition says that, after their marriage, Duke would go away hunting for several days at a time.  On these occasions, he would put a large board across a stream of water (perhaps Cove Creek) and a very dangerous bluff and take Elizabeth and their baby to a cave (perhaps the Harmon Rock-House) on the opposite side.  He would remove the board upon his departure to ensure their protection until his return.  Elizabeth was said to have been a brave woman, and while in the cave she would card, spin thread, and rock her baby’s cradle.  Some older residents of Watauga County have made reference to “the Eli Rock,” which may have been a Civil War hideout for a man named Eli Whitaker.  Interestingly, there was once an Eli Rock Mica Mine at Plumtree in Avery County.


      Also according to family tradition, sometime after his marriage (circa 1773) and while a resident of Randolph County, Cutliff Harman (ca. 1748-1838) was employed by frontiersmen Daniel Boone (1734-1820) and Col. James Robertson (1742-1814) to help transport goods from the Yadkin Valley of North Carolina to Sycamore Shoals near Elizabethton, Tennessee.  If this family tradition is accurate, this arrangement would have occurred prior to 1778, the year that Col. Robertson’s Watauga Association ceased to exist.  It is known that Daniel Boone and his family settled on the Yadkin River in North Carolina as early as 1761-62 and that, in the fall of 1766, they moved up the Yadkin to Holman’s Ford near the Brushy Mountains (near present-day Wilkesboro in Wilkes County).  The following year, they moved farther up the valley to the mouth of Beaver Creek.  In 1769, Boone made his first foray into Kentucky, traveling en route through present-day Watauga County where Boone had hunted since the early 1760s.  According to Boone’s son Nathan, their family moved from North Carolina to near Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga River in east Tennessee in 1772 or 1773.  Boone participated in the preliminary events leading to the signing of a treaty with the Cherokee Indians at Sycamore Shoals in March 1775 and immediately thereafter left to begin chopping out a road through the Cumberland Gap to Kentucky – first known as Boone’s Trace, later as the Wilderness Road.  If Cutliff Harman was employed by Daniel Boone, then it likely occurred between 1773 and 1775 when Cutliff would have been in his late twenties. 


      Arthur makes reference to “Rock House branch” in his discussion of [Daniel] Boone’s Trail in his book “Western North Carolina, A History (1730-1913):


“There is also a tradition that he [Boone] followed the Brushy Fork creek from Hodge’s gap to Cove creek; thence down Cove creek to Rock House branch at Dr. Jordan B. Phillips’….”


Arthur’s discussion of Boone’s Trail was guided by a number of interviews he conducted around 1909.  A summary of these interviews was published in more than one newspaper, one of them being The Evening Chronicle of Charlotte, North Carolina.  In the April 30, 1910 edition of that paper, Arthur shares the following:


“He [Dr. Jordan B. Phillips] thinks the trail followed by Daniel Boone ran through Rich Mountain gap down Brushy fork to the Shoop Rock house, just below Harman Cliffs, where Calvin Harman, a noted preacher used to live, and then crossed Cove creek at the mouth of Phillips branch, and up the leading ridge through or near Ward’s gap to Beaver Dams….  Thomas Anderson Cable, 63 years old, agrees that Boone’s trail came down Cove creek by Sugar Grove post office to Rock House branch….  Lorenzo Dow Ward, born on Rock House branch, near where he now lives at the foot of [the] road leading through Ward’s gap, May 26, 1834, and has lived close around ever since.  He has always heard that Boone’s trail was up Beaver Dams ridge, after following Cove creek to the mouth of Rock House branch through near Ward’s gap to where Harrison Farthing lives on Beaver Dams….  Joseph H. Mast was born within one-quarter of a mile of where he now lives (June 4, 1909) on the left bank of Cove creek, on the 9th of April, 1827, and has lived there ever since.  He has heard old people say that Boone’s trail passed from Boone down Cove creek to the mouth of Rock House branch one and one-half miles below Mast’s present home, and passed up and over leading ridge and over to Beaver Dams….”


It may be worth noting here that Joseph H. Mast was a grandson of Cutliff Harman and that Lorenzo Dow Ward and Thomas Anderson Cable’s wife, Sally Farthing Greene Cable, were great-grandchildren of Cutliff Harman.  Dr. Jordan B. Phillips’s wife, Sarah Anne Cameline Ward Phillips, was a sister to Lorenzo Dow Ward and also a great-grandchild of Cutliff Harman.


      Tradition also states that, on one particular trip to Sycamore Shoals (probably between 1773 and 1778), Cutliff Harman passed through the Sugar Grove area on Cove Creek.  At that time, this area had been a part of what was previously called the Washington District or Territory all the way to the Ohio River and later became Washington County, North Carolina.  By the time Cutliff actually relocated there (around 1798), it was within the boundaries of Wilkes County (1792-1799), then Ashe County (1799-1849), and eventually Watauga County (1849 to the present).  Cutliff liked the area so well that he decided to move his family there.  The State of North Carolina had granted 522 acres of land on Cove Creek to a James Gwyn (or Guyn/Quinn) on May 18, 1791 at the price of 50 shillings for every one-hundred acres, and the grant was signed by Samuel Johnston, Governor of North Carolina.  Cutliff bought this same tract of land “below the rock house” from Gwyn for 300 pounds North Carolina money, the transfer deed being dated August 6, 1791.  The deed was signed, or rather “X’ed,” by James “Quinn” with the witnesses being Richard White, Joseph Ford, John Tate, and W. (?) Flanary.  In later years the land was referred to as the Harmon and John Mast lands, John Mast having married Cutliff’s daughter Susan.


            Since Cutliff Harman is believed to have been employed by Daniel Boone and since he supposedly passed through the Cove Creek area en route to Sycamore Shoals, this may be an indication that the trail he followed was the same trail that Jordan Phillips, Thomas Anderson Cable, Lorenzo Dow Ward, and Joseph Mast described to Arthur, although there are conflicting accounts of Boone’s Trail following alternate routes. Perhaps Boone actually followed multiple trails at various times.


            Another early reference to Rock House Branch is found in a notice published in the April 6, 1893 edition of the Watauga Democrat of Boone, North Carolina.  The notice was regarding a mortgage deed executed to Henry Taylor by Levi and Elizabeth Moody on November 11, 1878 for a tract of land “lying in Laurel Creek township on the waters of Cove Creek and directly on the Rock House branch.”


            For almost twenty-five years, I have been a member of Willow Valley Baptist Church, which is located on Phillips Branch in the Cove Creek community and which is very near to the old Harmon cemetery where Cutliff Harmon is buried.  Dare Ward Isaacs lived her entire life on Phillips Branch and was a charter member of this church.  I knew her personally as well as her son, Earl Isaacs, who also attends this church.  Earl confirms that Phillips Branch was once known as “Rock House Branch.”  The branch was later renamed for Dr. Jordan B. Phillips, a well known and respected early Watauga County physician.  Dr. Phillips’s home sat where the home of the late Butler and Helen Isaacs now stands on Phillips Branch at the corner of Phillips Branch Road and Clark Swift Road.


            In his interview with Arthur, Dr. Phillips made mention of “Harman Cliffs.”  The earliest mention I find of these cliffs (or this cliff) is in the January 11, 1882 edition of The Lenoir Topic in Lenoir, North Carolina:


Herman’s Cliff on Cove Creek was beautifully festooned with hanging icicles during the sleet of week before last, so we are informed by a private letter from a friend.


            The Lenoir Topic mentioned Herman’s Cliff in several subsequent editions:


September 24, 1884


“Recently a lady from Mobile, Alabama, the Misses Cloer, of Patterson, and Mr. Spencer, of Mulberry, visited the celebrated marriage chamber of Herman’s Cliff, which is entered by a descending stairway of three natural stone steps.  It is a beautiful and lovely chamber midway in the face of a cliff 100 feet high.  The party seemed to take in all the inspiration of this grand and romantic cliff which, in all its grandeur and attractiveness, must be seen to be appreciated.  Cove Creek runs west almost to the base of the cliff, then turns directly south.  The panorama of the surrounding country, as seen from the summit of this cliff, forms a picture long to be remembered.”


January 20, 1886 (from a January 4 letter to the editor from the paper’s Sugar Grove, Watauga County, NC correspondent, only identified by the initials “N. N.”)


“The public schools are generally in session and well attended.  Mr. John Ward is now teaching our public school in a house almost under the drippings of Herman’s Cliff.”


[Note:  John Ward (1863-1947) was a son of Lorenzo Dow Ward and a great, great-grandson of Cutliff Harman.]


March 31, 1886 (also from a letter to the editor from the paper’s Sugar Grove, Watauga County, NC correspondent, identified by the initials “N. N.”)


“The public schools are generally closed, and subscription schools are taking their place to some extent.  Mr. John Ward is teaching a five months school in our district near Herman’s cliff, famous for its bridal chamber, and the home of the Indian or some prehistoric race, evidenced by a very bed of wood ashes containing bones of animals and a human skeleton, which the writer helped to remove to an adjacent field as a fertilizer; we mean the ashes, which was several hundred bushels.  Another remarkable feature of this noted cliff is a room near the top, in the face of the perpendicular wall.  This room, vault or chamber is 12 feet wide, high and deep with arched roof, as uniform and smooth as if cut with the sculptor’s chisel.  As stated heretofore, this room was explored by Andy Davis, in which was placed a sealed bottle containing THE LENOIR TOPIC and a county directory, which will be a memento of the exploration.”


July 19, 1893 (also from a letter to the editor from the paper’s Sugar Grove, Watauga County, NC correspondent, identified by the initials “N. N.”)


“I feel impressed to tell the readers of THE TOPIC of two partial skeletons found in our county whose antiquity apparently dates away back to the first pioneer settlers of our country.  The first one was found about the year 1845 in a cave, or in common parlance “Rock House,” on the bank of Cove Creek, known as the Herman cliff, which is some 100 feet high, a perpendicular wall with three rooms.  The upper room near the top, called the repository room from the fact of a bottle being deposited in it containing a copy of THE LENOIR TOPIC and a directory of our county officers.  This cave or room is some 10 feet in width, height and depth, and was entered from the top by Andy Davis.  He was secured and let down by ropes about the year ’80.  There was nothing found in the room that indicated that it had ever been explored before.  The next room midway the cliff was entered by a winding and descending stairway and is known as the marriage room.  Then comes the wide, deep room, cave or rock house at the base of the cliff, 200 feet wide or long in the front, and 50 feet deep in the center, the right wing of the room having a solid, bare floor of granite, the center of the deepest part of the room, the roof sloping down to the floor and rather narrow and depressed some three or four feet.  This narrow depressed extremity of the room contained some 100 or 200 bushels of wood ashes, in which was found (by the writer) a part of a skeleton of an unusually large person.  The skull, jaw bone, thigh and other bones were mostly sound.  This discovery was made by the writer while hauling out the ashes, to be used as a fertilizer.  The writer interviewed the oldest settlers then living and none knew how, when or by whom these ashes were burned.  As we have no tradition of the people or race who lived in the rock house, it seems like the skeleton is the remains of a prehistoric race, or at least of some very ancient date, perhaps some primitive tribe of Indians.  Be that as it may, it is evident that the huge pile of ashes was the product of many years of occupation.  It surely would be an important page of history if the mystery could be unraveled.”  (The remainder of the article deals with a skeleton found in another location unassociated with Herman’s Cliff.)




  • There are many rock cliffs in the Cove Creek area, particularly around present-day Phillips Branch, which was formerly known as Rock House Branch.  Several large rock formations with overhanging cliffs can still be seen along the stretch of U. S. Highway 321 from Cove Creek down the Watauga River as well as on Phillips Branch itself, one such formation adjoining the farm of the late George Harmon according to his grandson, Dan Harmon, who now owns the property.


  • Despite at least one assertion that Shupe’s Rockhouse was later called Harmon’s Rockhouse or Herman’s Cliff, these appear to be two distinct and separate formations.  In Arthur’s interview with Dr. Jordan B. Phillips, a distinction was made between “the Shoop Rock house” and “Harman Cliffs,” the former being just below the latter.  Dr. Phillips stated that the “Shoop Rockhouse” was just below “Harman Cliffs,” where Rev. Drewey Calvin Harman (Cutliff’s grandson) lived and across Cove Creek from the mouth of Phillips Branch.  Rev. Harmon’s old house still stands beside the former Howard Walker home almost directly across from the entrance to Phillips Branch Road.  Did Dr. Phillips mean that Shoop Rockhouse was where Rev. Harmon lived or that Harman Cliffs were at that location?  Or were both located there, the rockhouse being just below the cliffs but on the same side of the creek?


  • Harmon’s Rock House and Herman’s Cliff are almost certainly the same thing and named for the Harmon family.  Herman was another spelling of the Harmon name.  The original surname is believed to have been Hermann, later Harman and then Harmon, and the tombstones of Cutliff Harman’s son and daughter-in-law in the old Harmon cemetery are inscribed “Eli Herman” and “Rhoda, wife of Eli Herman.”


  • If Cutliff Harman really did live in a rockhouse, then it was most likely the one named Herman’s/Harman’s Cliff.  It is interesting to note that family tradition states he lived in a rockhouse, yet the 1893 news article states there was no tradition of the people or race that lived in the cliff.


  • Herman’s/Harman’s Cliff:
    • was located just above Shupe’s Rockhouse and a school house once stood almost under it
    • was on Cove Creek, the creek running west, almost to its base, and then turning directly south
    • was a perpendicular wall 100 feet high and had a summit that offered a panoramic view
    • had three distinct divisions:
      • an upper chamber near the top of the cliff, either 10x10x10 or 12x12x12, with a smooth, arched roof and apparently only accessible by rope
      • a middle chamber, entered by a winding descending stairway of three natural stone steps
      • a lower chamber at the base of the cliff, 200 feet wide or long at the front, 50 feet deep in the center, and with a 3-4 foot sloped, narrow depression and a partial granite floor


Despite these descriptions, I have been unable to substantiate the exact location of the Harmon Rockhouse, probably in part because overgrowth has obscured it over the decades.  I personally believe it could very well be (and have been told by some that it is) the huge rock cliff near Phillips Branch that can be accessed one road past the entrance to Phillips Branch Road on U. S. Highway 321. As you travel south from the Sugar Grove Post Office toward Watauga River, you pass Phillips Branch Road on the right. The next road (actually more of a dirt and gravel driveway) on the right turns sharply off of the highway.  This small road is just past the home of Mrs. Gladys Denney but before the homes of Frank Guy and Mattie Rominger.  As you journey along this very narrow, one-lane drive, you soon see a massive bedrock on your left, almost in the roadway itself, and opposite a house on your right.  After passing a second house on the right, the road dead ends at which point you must park and walk through a slightly overgrown area to the right until you reach the supposed rockhouse on the left.  You can actually walk partially inside a cave-like area as far as headroom allows, but that space is so small and tight, it is doubtful a family could have resided in that particular space, and because it is so close to the ground, it would not have offered much protection from animals, etc.  Whether this is the rockhouse Cutliff Harman dwelled in or not has not been proven.  It does not seem to coincide with the description of “Herman’s Cliff,” but perhaps there is more “living space” above the ground-level cave.  I also understand that a nearby farmer, Hard Shull (1867-1956), son-in-law of Dr. Jordan B. Phillips, used to shelter his horses here, but that he took them to an upper level of the cliff via a backside path from the direction of the former Shull farm (now the location of the former Victor Ward store), just south of the cliff.  I have not explored that, but perhaps that would shed additional light.

No comments:

Post a Comment