By Dwight Williamson
There have been many notable figures who have made their homes in what is now Logan County. One such person that few people are aware of is a man who came from his native Philadelphia in 1852 to settle along the Guyandotte River to what was then sparsely settled western Virginia in what we now claim as the town of Logan. There is no record as to why this man made the long trek from the comforts of Pennsylvania to this rugged area, or as to why he left five years later, but allow me to shed some historical light on the gentleman who gave the small village the name of Aracoma and even persuaded authorities in Wyoming County to change the name of Cassville (formed in 1850) to what is still known today as Oceana.
For those who do not know, Oceana was the youngest daughter of legendary Indian Chief Cornstalk and Aracoma was his eldest daughter. Aracoma, of course, was a Princess who lived on “the islands” from 1765 with her white husband, Boling Baker, until 1765, when she died after being wounded during a battle between her tribe and white settlers from the Greenbrier Valley.
Thomas Dunn English was a physician, lawyer, journalist, prolific author — and he would become the first mayor of the town he got named as Aracoma, where he served from 1852 until 1857. In addition, he also served as assistant postmaster of the village that would in 1907 be rechristened as the town of Logan, yet another Indian name of legend.
Credit for discovering coal in Logan County is given Dr. English as records show he recorded 27 separate tracts of coal land during his residence in the county. Unable to transport the coal, English never profited and it would be some 50 years after his departure that the commercial mining of coal would begin to transform a sleepy little town into a hot bed of productivity, sin and corruption..
English had the reputation of being an eccentric, according to a 1942 account published in the Logan News, which was a rival publication of the The Logan Banner newspaper. The story said English had been in the habit of taking solitary walks along the banks of the Guyandotte and especially enjoyed admiring the skill of the lumberjacks who rode the rafts of logs that were floated down the river on their way to market. At the time, timbering was the only industry in the county. Those river bank excursions probably led to his writing of two poems during his stay in the area, especially the one titled “Rafting on the Guyandotte.”
The second poem was titled “Found Dead in Bed.” It was a story about a boy named Benny, who was said to be the son of a Mrs. Toney of Big Creek. The poem says that the mother had ”whipped” her son because he had allowed a traveling tattoo artist to tattoo a figure on one of his arms. His excuse that he wanted to be a sailor and that all sailors had tattoos did not fare well with the mother.
Thirty-one years after the boy left home a man about 40 years-old knocked on the door of the widow’s home one evening and asked if he might spend the night. The woman admitted the stranger, fed him and gave him the bed in the spare room. The next day he was found dead in bed.
After the coroner had completed his duties and the body had been prepared for burial, the widow by some strange impulse, pushed up the sleeve on one of the stranger’s arms and saw tattoo marks that identified the body as that of her son.
When Dr. English came to these parts he had been writing for newspapers, dividing his work mostly between New York and Washington. He also had written several books of considerable interest including his most famous one titled “Ben Bolt.” So why would such a person travel all the way to these rugged hills to settle? Perhaps we shall never really know, but the following information may indicate that English wished to get as far away as he could from a literary great that all readers should identify with — Edgar Allan Poe.
The two men became the most bitter of enemies in 1846, a feud which culminated in Poe’s successful libel lawsuit against English. The author of the famous poem titled “The Raven,” Poe described English as “a bullet-headed and malicious villain.” The two writers remained enemies for all of their lives. In 1896, long after English had left his home on the Guyandotte, he published his “Reminiscences of Poe” in which he depicted the famous writer as a “drunken, deceitful jerk”, who he suggested was virtually run out of Philadelphia in 1844 for reasons too scandalous for a gentleman such as himself to reveal. His writing revealed that he was a “near-constant companion and confidante” of Poe prior to the hatred that arose between the two talented men.
As a result of Poe’s libel suit, a New York City court ruled that English was “an unmitigated liar.” That embarrassment alone could have been the reason English sought the solace of the western and undeveloped frontier of what is now Logan County. The solitude of the mountains and beauty of the Guyandotte surely allowed him to escape from the rigors of the big cities of that time. Here, perhaps, English was able to gather his thoughts and clear his head from the literary pollution of New York, Washington and Philadelphia.
Though English wrote many poems and stories, in his 1843 publication of “The Doom of the Drinkers” the main character of the book was described as a “brilliant writer,” who was also a drunk and was the “very incarnation of treachery and falsehood.” The character, it was said, was intended to be a “cruel Poe caricature.”
After his five years in what is now Logan, a renewed Dr. English left West Virginia and reverted to journalism for a while, but then became active in politics, a taste for which may have been developed by his experiences in his Aracoma setting. As West Virginia was becoming a state in 1863, English became a member of the New Jersey State Assembly and from 1891 until 1895 he served in Congress. He died in 1902 at the age of 83 years.
With the exception of “Ben Bolt,” his literary labors seem to have possessed little of lasting value, but he surely left his mark in Logan; though we are left to ponder as to why a man of his stature would make these hills his home in the pre-civil war era. Still, one has to find it of interest that a guy who came 523 miles from Philadelphia to these Appalachians named two towns in honoring a noted Indian chief’s family. Though the town of Aracoma is now Logan, the unincorporated community just outside the town still bears her name, as did the famed Aracoma Hotel that once stood in Logan where an Indian graveyard was discovered during the hotel’s construction.
The versatile writings of Thomas Dunn English included poetry, historical and political works, fiction, ballads, lyrics,, fairy stories, biography, songs and at least 20 plays that were staged in New York.
Dunn obviously loved this state’s rivers and spent some time in the town of Gauley Bridge as a West Virginia historical highway marker there says that he wrote the ballad titled “Gauley River.” Another historical highway marker depicting him as mayor in 1852 can be seen near the Holland Lane intersection of Logan on Main Street.
Logan County has always been a place of great historical interest. However, I’m fairly certain that the literary giant, Edgar Allan Poe, never lived in these hills. And that, I’m sure, was just fine with our author of “Rafting on the Guyandotte.”
Dwight Williamson is a contributing writer and a former reporter for The Logan Banner. He currently serves as a Logan County Magistrate.
*Published with the author’s permission.