When contemplating this question, we might think of the King of England or possibly some local Stanly County family who made it big. But Stanly was not formed until well after Revolutionary War and there’s nobody to my knowledge whose station in life rises to the level of a person I have in mind.
In 1790, at the age of 16, Anna Marie Brodeau married William Thornton, aged 31. Dr. William Thornton designed the United States Capitol Building and is considered the father of the United States Patent Office. Following the discovery of gold in Cabarrus County, North Carolina, William purchased over 50,000 acres of speculation land encompassing much of what is present day Stanly County. The following map I put together from original Secretary of State land grant survey plats show just how far Thornton’s lands reached. It was his intention to start a lucrative business known as the North Carolina Gold Mining Company.
After his death in 1828, William Thornton’s land passed to his wife Anna Marie by way of last will and testament. Though the gold mining venture failed, Anna continued selling off parcels of the land well beyond the 1842 formation of Stanly County. By rights, Anna was clearly the largest land owner in Stanly County. But, this fact alone is not why I believe her to be the most important land owner.
Celebrating something good within America’s most tragic moment, a well-done segment on CBS Sunday Morning portrayed the August 1814 burning and fall of Washington, DC. Two hundred years ago this very month, the British burned our capitol during the War of 1812. The TV story celebrated Dolly Madison by highlighting her saving of a famous portrait of George Washington.
Anna and William Thornton were friends of Dolly Madison and lived close to the White House. On that fateful day, Anna retreated to a friend’s mansion on the Georgetown Heights, overlooking the Potomac. From their location, Anna and her host wrote of the unfolding situation while recording the movements of Dolly Madison. And seeing that the Patent Office was about to be burned, William Thornton himself made it to town where he persuaded the British to spare the building. Today, what was first a hotel, and later the first patent office, now houses the United States National Portrait Museum.
Years later, following the death of our first president, Anna Marie Thornton lobbied Congress on behalf of her friend Martha Washington. Though it was Martha’s wish for her husband to be buried on the family estate, the prevailing powers were adamant that he should be interred at the newly constructed monument bearing his name. Anna’s effort must have been of help as George Washington was laid to rest at Mount Vernon.
Later in life, a Supreme Court Case arising from Stanly County, North Carolina names Anna Marie Thornton in connection with the title history of her land holdings. The case includes her deposition along with a copy of the deed of sale for the large tract of land. Recently, I was contacted by the editor of the William Thornton Papers as it had been previously believed that there was no existing copy of Thornton’s land deed in North Carolina. You see, besides the copy found in the court case, the original had been destroyed when the Montgomery County, North Carolina court house was burned in 1843 by Elijah Spencer, an arsonist. And, the only other known copy was recorded in Washington DC only to be destroyed by the very same fire that Anna witnessed in 1814.
Along with being Stanly County’s largest land owner, Anna Marie Brodeau Thornton’s time and place in history helped to make our country what it is today. Anna’s diary can be found in the Library of Congress and there’s much information available on the events of 1814. One particularly good blog can be found at Washington Burning: Ladies of the Capitol