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The following series will be articles written by Carolyn Crabtree about some of the families with Irish roots that settled in Boyle County.


James Gillespie Birney

James Gillespie Birney was born about 1767 in County Cavan, Ireland.  He was about sixteen years old when he immigrated to America and settled first in Philadelphia, PA.  He found work as a clerk in a large wholesale and dry good house and stayed there for five year.  He obtained on credit goods to be shipped across the mountains to Pittsburgh and down the Ohio River to Maysville.  From there he came to Danville in 1788 and started a store located between lots 2 and 3 on Main Street in Danville.  He later had other stores, a bagging and rope factory in Danville.  During the War of 1812 he supplied armies in the West and South and was considered to be the wealthiest man south of the Kentucky River at the time [The Kentucky Advocate, 26 January 1893].  He owned a large brick home on Third Street halfway between Main and Broadway, where Chase Bank’s parking lot and drive-through bank is now located.

In April 1791 James married Martha/Maria Reed, daughter of John Reed and Lettice/Elizabeth Wilcox.  She was the sister of Sarah Anne Reed, wife of Willis Green.  John Reed was a member of the Presbyterian Church and James Birney had a strong dislike for Presbyterians.  He was active in establishing the Episcopal Church in Danville.  Martha’s parents apparently objected to the marriage but allowed it anyway.

James and Martha had two children:

  1. James Gillespie Birney, born Feb 1792 in Danville, Mercer County, Kentucky who became a strong abolitionist even though his father owned slaves.  James married Agatha McDowell, daughter of William McDowell, son of Judge Samuel McDowell and brother of Dr. Ephraim McDowell.  His wife apparently held the same views about slavery as her husband.  In March 1835 Birney organized the Kentucky Anti-slavery Society in Danville.  He announced that he would be publishing an abolitionist newspaper called “The Philanthropist” but on July 25, 1835 a public meeting was held in Danville protesting the publication of the newspaper.  The next month James was forced to leave Danville; he moved first to Cincinnati and then to New York.  James Birney freed his own slaves in 1835 and had such strong convictions against slavery that when his father died, James Birney II took his inheritance in slaves and immediately set them free.  In New York in 1840 Birney became the first anti-slavery candidate to run for the Presidency and in 1844 ran on the Liberty Party.  He received 64,653 votes during the election.  Birney was educated at Princeton and practiced law in Alabama and Cincinnati.

  2. Anna Reed Birney was born in 1793 and died in Frankfort, KY in 1859.  She married Judge John Jay Marshall, born in Woodford County, KY and son of Humphrey Marshall and Mary Marshall.  John Marshall was the Judge of Louisville’s Circuit Court from 1836-1846.  One of their sons was General Humphrey Marshall, whose son became Judge Humphrey Marshall. 

Several descendants of James Gillespie Birney became high ranking officers during the Civil War and judges in other states.  James Gillespie Birney III was educated at Centre College, but later settled in Bay City, Michigan when it was a frontier town.  He served as a Colonel during the Civil War; was an attorney in Michigan and became a Senator and the Lieutenant Governor of Michigan.  Another son of James II and Agatha McDowell Birney was General William M. Birney.  He fought at the first Battle of Bull Run with the first New Jersey Infantry.  He rose through the ranks and became a Brigadier General, stationed with black troops in Maryland.  He and his troops were sent to South Carolina and Florida and fought there.  The Third Division of X Corps was formed in Virginia under Major General Benjamin F. Butler; General Birney and his troops joined with them.  He also was a professor of English Literature in Paris, France.

 Submitted by Carolyn B. Crabtree


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