Grand Pockets’s Blog

Genealogy, Family, Poetry and Peeves

Conaway Big John Biography

Today, I’m giving a short synopsis of the story of Big John Conaway. My plan is that  following installments will cover his sons and daughters and their lines. John, through his son Edmund, and Edmund’s daughter Eliza, who married my great grandfather are my link to the fascinating history of West Virginia. Eventually I’ll get to other lines, like my Elledge surname, and the Flemings but let me build up some Conaway data first. Do you have a particular family line that fascinates you a lot for no real reason you can put your finger on? The Conaways are that line for me, so hoping I don’t raise the ire of other ancestors (please don’t hide behind those brickwalls, grandfolk) I’m starting this journey with Big John.

John “Big John” Conaway, son of John Spann CONAWAY, Sr. and Rachel WILLISON , was born on 17 Apr 1795 in Bean’s Cove, Bedford County, Pennsylvania. Some sources on the web show him born in Monongalia County, Va. but his father traipsed the countryside pretty steadily, as many men of that generation and place did, and I believe it likely John was born at his grandfather’s farm that his Uncle Jeremiah owned at that time, where his mother Rachel would have family around.

He shows up in Monongalia County, in the Fairmont area (which was founded as Middleton by Boaz Fleming) in the late teens and began building his life. Much of the land around was still complete wilderness and John was one of the hardy Scotch-Irish pioneers who slowly and steadily cleared the land, built farms, and towns and raised a civilization from the rugged forests and steep river valleys.

John’s father fought in the Revolution to birth our country and John was born barely 19 years after Jefferson penned the declaration of Independence but before he died he would witness the brutal Civil War, see a son die in that conflict, be a part of the taming of the new frontier beyond the Alleghenies that his father was a big part of opening up, and see a nation molded from the raw bones of mountains and arteries of wild rivers.

Too often, men of John’s generation of American pioneers don’t get their just due for the hardships and problems they faced just building up their farms and starting new communities. They started on the shoulders of giants, their fathers of the Revolution who walked the lonely Indian trails into unmapped lands but they ended as giants themselves and the marrow of who we are today as Americans.

John married Sarah Fleming on 10 Mar 1820 in Monongalia County, daughter of Alexander FLEMING and Mary E. FLEMING. Sarah was born on 13 Aug 1798 in , Monongalia County and died there on 24 Dec 1834 at age 36. She died during or soon after giving birth to John Coleman. Sarah lived her entire life in the area. They had six children altogether: Edmund Macauley, Andrew Fleming, Nathan P., Lydia Ann, Grafton Stump, and John Coleman. Edmund, the oldest, was reputedly the first child born in Middleton.

After Sarah’s demise, John was soon remarried, to Hannah Randall, daughter of Norman Marmaduke Randall and Elizabeth Martin, in September, 9 months after Sarah’s death. Quick remarriage when you had young ones was a necessity for survival. His land holdings steadily grew through the years, picking up a parcel here, another there, usually along Buffalo Creek, or Finches Run. In one particularly shrewd deal he bought 150 acres on Buffalo Creek for ten dollars from Asberry Roberts, land bounded by long time neighbors and kin, William Snodgrass and Andrew Ice. By the 1850 census he’d accumulated $3000 worth of real estate and $7000 by 1860 (with a personal estate worth $1000). In today’s money that seems paltry but it actually shows quite a prosperous operation.

John “followed various lines of business, among which were farming, stock-raising and stock-dealing on an extended scale for that day, and also stone-masoning. He was a democrat politically and a man of good judgment and of strict probity, and was frequently called upon by his party and the people of his district to serve them in offices of a political nature. In this connection he served as a constable, overseer of the poor and as justice of the peace. He was a pillar in the Methodist Episcopal church, serving in the capacity of deacon, exhorter and class leader. He was a useful man in the community in which he lived, a man who, by reason of his good judgment, strict integrity of character and kind spirit, was a natural leader among men.”  [Biographical and Portrait Cyclopedia of Monongalia, Marion and Taylor Counties, West Virginia, (Philadelphia, PA: Rush, West & Company, 1895), Marion County, p. 60.]

Alexander Fleming, Sarah’s father made a will in Nov 1847 in Marion County naming her. Although Sarah was dead by 13 or 14 years her father bequeathed her children by John Conaway:

“I also give to my grandchildren, being the children of John Conaway by my daughter Sarah, the like sum of one hundred and eighty dollars to be paid to them as above-mentioned by my sons Henry Fleming, William B. Fleming, and Ann Fleming, the wife of John S. Fleming, to whom I have willed my real estate, which said real estate is hereby made liable for the payment of the two legacies abovementioned to my grandchildren.” (Note: the other legacy paid to the children of his daughter Rachel)

John and Hannah had three more children after they married: Elizabeth, Martin V., and Nancy. Deed records particularly show quite a bit of interaction between these children (all 9 of them) and all wound up leading full lives, except perhaps, Nathan, who died in the Civil War. His life was certainly full, but also short, much like his mother.

Big John died on 16 Oct 1868 near Fairmont, WV at age 73. Some researchers list his name as John Spann Conaway. Personally, I haven’t found one document that lends credence to this John having the middle name of Spann. I think he tends to be confused somewhat with his semi-legendary father, Indian Spy, Revolutionary War soldier, frontiersman and long hunter, John Spann Conaway.

John and Hannah are buried in Conaway Cemetery, on the top of Hillcrest Rd, in Fairmont. Hannah died 17 November, 1868, a month and a day after her life partner. Sarah lays at rest in the Fleming Memorial Chapel Cemetery, on the front Lawn of the Presbyterian Church, on SR19 at the edge of Fairmont. Her stone spells the name Conway.
Anyone with info to add, documents to share to help make this bio more complete please let me know. Always willing to share what I have, and to pay your costs for copying or mailing.


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  1. […] The Biography […]

    Pingback by West Virginia’s Big John Conaway Biography « Grand Pockets’s Blog | January 23, 2009 | Reply

  2. Nice bio. I enjoyed it. I am from the Jeremiah Conaway line. Contrary to what has been written about him. My brother and I have done extensive research on the Thomas Conaway senior line. We are at a brickwall of sorts. No one knows when Thomas came to America or when he was born or married for than much. We have unearthed some direction of where he was from. A bio in Bulter county, KS, of Waitman Joseph of Joseph’s Mill in Virginia says this Thomas was from County Fermeagh, Ireland. This by Nancy Conaway dau. of Andrew from Thomas jr. line. FYI, Jeremiah, b. 1768/69 d. May 29, 1847 in St.Louis, Mo. Any further info would be great. It is nice to know where one comes from.

    Comment by Vincent DiBernardo | August 22, 2009 | Reply

    • Vincent, again you are a great contributor! I also am at a bit of a brickwall with Thomas. You have Dennis as his father but I have no evidence although I’ve seen that. It certainly fits better than anything else I’ve found. The Baron John line is completely off base. Do we agree on that? County Fermeagh huh? I’m going to have to dig in WVR and the Irish Records pages…

      Comment by Grandpockets | November 11, 2011 | Reply

      • Negative ‘Grandpocket’s’, I don’t know who the father of Thomas Conaway senior is. I think he came to america via Ireland. Where did he land? Philly, Va., MD? I live outside of philly and have not found anything thus far. I do believe he came up through VA, as Orrin Conway eluded in his book on the Conway/Conaway’s. Spending time in Winchester, fought in French and Indian War, helped built Fort Fredrick in MD.

        Comment by vincent dibernardo | April 1, 2012

  3. I have recently discovered your blog after finding that my great grandmother, Elisabeth Whoolery Conaway still has mineral rights in the West Virginia panhandle in Wetzel County on Fish Creek which she obtained from Thomas D. Conaway and wifeon July 8, 1905. Using your blog I traced my family back to “Big John” Conaway. The Fleming connection is interesting in that my father and grandfather both had the middle name Fleming and my son passed it on to his son Jacob Fleming Conaway. I also live on Fleming Island
    Fl which is named for George Fleming who came from Ireland and was granted 1000 acres by the king of Spain for his service in Cuba and he named the plantation Hibernia.

    Comment by Larry Joseph Conaway | October 22, 2011 | Reply

  4. Fascinating, Larry. The Fleming name was a proud one – probably because it links directly to the Scottish crown – I find many lines of the family use it as a middle name even 2 or 3 or more generations after branching from the Fleming tree. I wonder if your Fleming line from George is related to the WV Flemings of the Conaway link?

    Comment by Grandpockets | November 11, 2011 | Reply

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