John H. Wheeler, diplomat and head of the U.S. Mint in Charlotte, was born in 1806 in Murfreesboro, the son of John and Elizabeth Jordan Wheeler. His father, an influential and wealthy merchant, sent him to Hertford Academy and then to Columbian College in Washington, D.C. where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1826. After reading law under Chief Justice John Louis Taylor, Wheeler was admitted to the bar, and in 1828 received a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina.
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Shortly before his graduation, Wheeler was elected to the North Carolina House of Commons from Hertford at age 21. He unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1831. In 1837, President Andrew Jackson appointed Wheeler the head of the Charlotte branch of the United States Mint. Wheeler resigned four years later and in 1842 was appointed state treasurer. In 1852 he returned to the North Carolina House representing Lincoln County.
Literary scholar Henry Louis Gates in 2002 prepared a preface to a slave narrative by Hannah Crafts, published in a new edition as The Bondwoman’s Narrative. In that preface Gates contended that, while enslaved, Crafts was owned by John H. Wheeler.
An avid reader of history, Wheeler devoted much of his time between his resignation from the Mint and his return to the General Assembly reading and writing. In 1851 he published Historical Sketches of North Carolina from 1584 to 1851. In 1861 he edited and published The Narrative of Colonel David Fanning.
In 1854, President Franklin Pierce appointed Wheeler ambassador to Nicaragua; however, he was recalled two years later after helping aid Tennessean William Walker’s attempted coup within the nation. After his diplomatic post, Wheeler became superintendent of records for the Department of the Interior.
Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, Wheeler returned to North Carolina and resumed writing historical works. A staunch Unionist, Wheeler nevertheless utilized a Confederate blockade runner to escape to Bermuda, Nova Scotia, and then London, in order to catalogue British documents pertaining to North Carolina. In 1865 he returned to the United States, and moved to Washington, D.C., where he held several minor government jobs.
In 1870 Wheeler gave the commencement speech at the University of North Carolina and was appointed president of the school’s historical society. Five years later he helped found the North Carolina Historical Society. He married twice, and had one daughter and two sons, one of whom fought for the Confederacy, and one for the Union. Wheeler died on December 7, 1882, and is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, Washington, D.C.
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, VI (1996), 167-168 – sketch by H. G. Jones
Randall O. Hudson, “The Filibuster Minister: The Career of John Hill Wheeler as United States Minister to Nicaragua, 1854-1856,” North Carolina Historical Review (July 1972): 280-298
William Walker, The War in Nicaragua (1860)
Henry Louis Gates, ed., Hannah Crafts, The Bondwoman’s Narrative (2002)
John Hill Wheeler Diary and Manuscripts, Manuscripts Division, Library of Congress
John H. Wheeler, as seen in front plate of his Reminiscences, courtesy of Documenting the American South.