Buckingham County deed books contain only one known reference to Martha Bryant McFadden. On the 12thof November 1878, Martha purchased her family cemetery for $50 from William M. and Fanny Perkins:
“… eight acres of land situated in the County of Buckingham and state of Virginia adjoining Frank Ware, Wm. McFadden and others, the said acres to include the family graveyard of the family of Martha A. McFadden who was Martha Bryant and being compactly situated around it, the said eight acres to be cut off at the expense of the said McFadden from the Bryant tract so as to make the graveyard as near in the center as may be practicable.” (1)
The purchase was made almost eight months after the drowning deaths of Martha’s husband, Allen McFadden, son James McFadden and grandson, James Woody. Newspaper accounts in the weeks following their deaths indicate their bodies were not recovered. Martha’s purchase of the cemetery strongly suggests that their bodies were later found and interred in the family burying grounds.
The deed specific references to Martha’s maiden name of Bryant and the Bryant tract, as well as the proximity to William McFadden infer that this was perhaps an historic burial site for Bryants and McFaddens. Eight acres is a very large family cemetery.
This cemetery does not appear to be associated with any of the Bryant or McFadden cemeteries found in the four volumes of Buckingham Burials. More research into the Bryant, Perkins and McFadden real estate transfers may shed light on the cemetery location. Sadly, the Buckingham County records burned in 1869 and pertinent deeds were probably destroyed. The location of the McFadden Cemetery may remain a mystery.
Rest in peace Allen McFadden, James McFadden and James Woody.
Allen McFadden, James McFadden, James Woody, John Dawson and George Roberts drowned in the James River on the evening of March 18, 1878, Newspaper accounts describe a scene of despair. Family members at the scene included a “widowed mother”, a “widowed wife and two sisters of the young men”. Unnamed and known to the public only by their shared loss, who were the survivors of the dead?
The “widowed wife” was Martha Bryant McFadden. She was born in Buckingham County about 1815, making her 63 when her husband, Allen McFadden, died. (1) Allen and Martha married about 1839 and were the parents of eight known children, including James McFadden, who drowned with his father and nephew. James, born about 1853, was 25 at the time of his death. (2) Martha lost her husband of 39 years, son and grandson in the James River that dreadful evening in March.
Mahala Dawson married John Edward McFadden on 15 January 1867 in Buckingham County. (3) John was the oldest son of Allen and Martha McFadden. Her younger brother, John B. Dawson, died in the James River with the McFaddens. Mahala’s older brother, William (age 14), died in 1866 of dropsy. (4) Standing on the banks of the James River in 1878, Mahala had lost her only surviving brother, and three in-laws.
The “widowed mother” (and sister) was Elizabeth “Lizzie” McFadden, oldest daughter of Allen McFadden. (5) Lizzie was born in Buckingham County about 1840 and probably died there after 1900. She married John W. Woody on 5 December 1861 in Buckingham County. (6) Lizzie’s husband died in 1866, leaving Lizzie a widow with two young children, James and Cary Ann “Kate” Woody. (7) James, “little Jimmy”, was born about 1862 and was sixteen years old when he drowned. Jimmy couldn’t read or write, and at sixteen, was already a laborer bringing in cash to support his widowed mother and younger sister. Cary Ann “Kate” Woody, fourteen years old, was probably with her mother at the scene of the drowning. (8) She married Joel F. Wilkerson about 1880 and made her home in Buckingham County until her death 15 August 1930. Kate and Joel had thirteen children and, along with many of their thirteen children, are buried at Woodland Methodist Church in Buckingham County.
Rebecca Ruler Roberts was pregnant with their eighth child when her husband, George Roberts, drowned in the James River. He was “a faithful colored man….good and well disposed.” (9) Rebecca, age 33, was probably born into slavery. She married George about 1865 after the war and emancipation, and quickly started a family: Clayton Thomas Roberts (1865-1943); Mary Agnes Roberts (1866-1947); William H Roberts (1867-1943); Willie A. Roberts (1869-1938); George Roberts (1872); Sister Roberts (1873); Martha A. “Maddie” Roberts (1874-1964); and Bell Roberts (1878). (10)
Rebecca supported her family as a washer woman, doing the laundry of neighbors. She remained a widow and lived a long life in Howardsville, dying there 23 February 1930. She was 84 years old. (11)
(1) 1850 U.S. census, Buckingham Co., VA, Roll: M432_937; Page: 394A; Image: 445, Ancestry.com (2) James was age 7 in the 1860 census and 17 in the 1870 census. He appears in the household of Allen McFadden in both enumerations. 1860; District 1, Buckingham, Virginia; Roll: M653_1337; Page: 856; Image: 399. 1870; Slate River, Buckingham, Virginia; Roll: M593_1637; Page: 377B; census records viewed on Ancestry (3) Kidd, James Randolph., and Jeanne Stinson. Lost Marriages of Buckingham County, Virginia: Drawn from a Newly-Recovered Marriage Register, 1854-1868 & from Federal Manuscript, Newspaper & Printed Sources. Iberian Pub., 1992, p. 60. (4) Kidd, James Randolph., and Jeanne Stinson. Lost Marriages of Buckingham County, Virginia: Drawn from a Newly-Recovered Marriage Register, 1854-1868 & from Federal Manuscript, Newspaper & Printed Sources. Iberian Pub., 1992. p. 129. (5) Elizabeth is age ten in the household of Allen McFadden. 1850 U.S. census, Buckingham Co., VA, Roll: M432_937; Page: 394A; Image: 445, Ancestry.com (6) Kidd, James Randolph., and Jeanne Stinson. Lost Marriages of Buckingham County, Virginia, p. 152. (7) Albemarle Co., Virginia Death Register 1853 -1887, Reel 1, Library of Virginia ILL Film. (8) 1870 U.S. Census; Slate River, Buckingham, Virginia; Roll: M593_1637; Page: 377B (9) Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Alexandria, Virginia, United States of America) · 22 Mar 1878, Fri · Page 2, Newspapers.com (9) 1870 U.S. Census; James River, Buckingham, Virginia; Roll: M593_1637; Page: 285B (10) Ancestry.com. Virginia, Death Records, 1912-2014 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA.
The James River flows gently along the northwest border of Buckingham County. The calm waters are popular with fishermen, kayakers and tubers. The width isn’t more than three hundred feet and the James River is easily crossed by four bridges in Buckingham County. It’s hard to gaze on the river today and imagine the tragedy that befell the McFadden family on the 16thof March, 1878.
The winter of 1878 brought a lot of snow to the western Virginia mountains. On January 8, the Staunton Spectator noted a foot of snow on the ground, adding “it was colder here than it has been for many years.” It was 12 degrees below zero!  A report from Buckingham County said, “The deep snow which fell last week is still on the ground “waiting for more” as the weather prophets say…”  On February 5 another dispatch read, “…deep snow has covered the ground and intense cold has been experienced in all the country north of the James River…” 
The cold spell in the mountains continued until early March when the Richmond Dispatch wrote, “The late very mild spell of weather has brought the apricot and many of the peach trees out into full bloom …”  Mild weather also melted the mountain snows, filled the creeks and swelled the James River.
On Saturday night, March 16, 1878, Allen McFadden (third great-grandfather of my husband, Jesse Crews) heard calls from the other side of the James River. His son, James McFadden, wanted a ride across the river. The ferry had washed out a couple of days earlier and after working across the river, James wanted to go home. Allen’s sixteen-year-old grandson, James Woody, was with James, along with John Dawson, only brother of Mahala McFadden, Allen’s daughter-in-law. A neighbor, George Roberts, was there, too.
Allen McFadden was an imposing man. He stood over six feet tall and at age 65 still did some farming and milling. He had survived Gettysburg and certainly didn’t expect to die crossing the James River. Allen probably didn’t hesitate to take the canoe and paddle across the James to fetch his family home.
Their tragic deaths were reported in newspapers around the US. This story from the Alexandria Gazette provides the best report. 140 years later, the story is a sad reminder of the grief and sorrow felt by the remaining McFaddens and the Roberts family.