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Born in March 1756 in Lunenburg County, Virginia, John Stokes spent his early years in Halifax, North Carolina. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Stokes on February 16, 1776 gained a commission as ensign in the Sixth Virginia Continental Regiment. Promotions followed, and Stokes became a captain in February 1778. He served throughout the northern campaigns of Washington’s army, fighting at Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth.
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In the spring of 1780, Virginia authorities dispatched a detachment of Continentals under Col. Abram Buford to aid the besieged defenders of Charleston. On May 29, 1780, Banastre Tarleton’s British Legion defeated Buford’s force at the Waxhaws. Traditional accounts claim the engagement was more massacre than battle, and Captain John Stokes’s experience certainly supports that assertion. Stokes fell after receiving several cuts from a British dragoon’s saber, including the severing of his hand. By his own account, Stokes then pleaded with a British infantryman who offered him quarter to “finish him off.” The British soldier bayoneted him, as did another member of Tarleton’s Legion shortly thereafter, yet Stokes survived.
Stokes slowly recovered from his wounds, but never returned to service in the army. After the war, Stokes moved to Halifax, to live near his brother Montfort Stokes. Between 1784 and 1787, Stokes operated law offices in Rowan and Montgomery Counties. He also tutored several law students including Andrew Jackson. Spruce Macay wrote that Stokes’s law library “exceeded any other in the region.”
In 1788, Stokes married Elizabeth Pearson. Her father, Richmond Pearson, gave Stokes nearly 700 acres of land in the Forks of the Yadkin River. Stokes and his new bride settled there the following year, building a house near present-day Cooleemee in Davie County. That same year, he became one of the original trustees of the University of North Carolina in 1789.
Stokes also entered politics, joining Matthew Locke as a county representative to the North Carolina House of Commons in 1789. Later that year, Stokes took part in the constitutional convention in Fayetteville. A staunch Federalist, Stokes received an appointment as the first federal judge for the North Carolina district from George Washington after William R. Davie had turned down the post.
Stokes’s career as a judge lasted only one term. He died in October 1790 of “pleurisy of the brain” while riding home from his first court appearance in New Bern. Buried with full Masonic honors, Stokes left a widow and one child, Richmond Pearson Stokes. His father-in-law acted as administrator of his estate that consisted of 2,200 pounds sterling. Stokes County, created in 1789, is named in his honor.
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, IV, 453-454—sketch by James S. Brawley
E. M. Sanchez-Saavedra, Guide To Virginia Military Organizations in the American Revolution, 1774-1787 (1978)
The Heritage of Stokes County (1990)
Samuel A. Ashe, ed., Biographical History of North Carolina, VII (1908)
John L. Cheney, ed., North Carolina Government, 1585-1974 (1975)