Dictionary of Virginia Biography


William Christian (ca. 1742–9 April 1786), Continental army officer and member of the Council of State, may have been born in Augusta County. He was the son of Israel Christian, an immigrant from the British Isles who became a prominent merchant and county leader, and Elizabeth Christian, whose maiden name probably was Starke and who may have been responsible for the unusually good education that he and his sisters received. The sisters married into enterprising and influential families in western Virginia. Early in the 1760s Christian commanded a company of men in an expedition against the Cherokee Indians on the southwestern frontier, and later in the decade he read law in Hanover County with Patrick Henry. Sometime between mid-January and mid-March 1768 he married Henry's sister, Annie Henry. They had five daughters and one son.

In March 1769 Christian obtained a certificate of good character from the Augusta County Court in preparation for qualifying to practice law, but there is no evidence that he ever did. Early in his marriage he lived in a house his father provided in the southern portion of Augusta County, which in 1770 was organized as Botetourt County. In 1770 he moved to Mahanaim, in Dunkard's Bottom, in the region that in 1772 became Fincastle County. Although the efforts of his father to have him appointed surveyor of Botetourt County failed, Christian sat on that county court and became a justice of the peace of Fincastle County in January 1773. He won election to the House of Burgesses in 1773 and 1774 and was a member of the Committee of Public Claims in the sessions that met in May 1774 and June 1775 and of the Committee of Propositions and Grievances in 1774. At one of the final meetings of the burgesses in June 1775, he was one of four members, and the only junior member and only representative from a southwestern county, appointed to complain to the governor about his flight from the capital and the removal of the public arms from the governor's palace.

Christian was a member and sometime chair of the Fincastle County Committee during 1775 and 1776 and also attended the second and third of the five Revolutionary Conventions. He missed the first probably because of the need to bring the militia into the field in preparation for Dunmore's War, in which he commanded a company in the autumn of 1774. The third Virginia Convention on 17 August 1775 elected Christian lieutenant colonel of the newly created 1st Virginia Regiment, stationed in Williamsburg for defense of the capital. In February 1776 the Continental Congress took the Virginia regiments into the new Continental army and renewed the appointment of field officers. After Christian's brother-in-law Patrick Henry declined to continue as colonel, Congress promoted Christian to that rank on 18 March 1776, but he resigned the appointment during the summer, perhaps in order to accept from the governor's Council command of an expedition to attack the Cherokee on the southwestern frontier. After Christian and his men had destroyed Cherokee towns along the Little Tennessee and Tellico Rivers, he negotiated a peace treaty during the winter.

In the summer of 1776 Christian was reportedly elected to the new Senate of Virginia to represent the counties of Botetourt and Fincastle, but because he was in the field commanding the expedition he did not attend. During and after the Revolutionary War he remained active in the militia defending the frontier and supporting the campaign in the southern states. Christian made one or more trips to Kentucky, including one in 1781 and 1782 to negotiate a treaty with Indians in the Ohio Valley.

Christian served for a time as a trustee of Liberty Hall Academy (later Washington and Lee University). He won election to a four-year term in the Senate of Virginia in 1780 representing Botetourt, Greenbrier, Kentucky, Montgomery, and Washington Counties. In November of that year Kentucky County became extinct, and beginning with the 1781 session Christian's district included the new counties of Fayette, Jefferson, and Lincoln. Before his term ended, the General Assembly elected him to the Council of State on 27 November 1783. Christian took his seat on 23 December but attended few meetings between then and 18 March 1784. When the assembly voted on 17 November of the latter year to replace two members, as the constitution required, he lost his seat. By then Christian was planning to move to the West, where he had been acquiring land for a decade.

In 1785 Christian sold Mahanaim and moved his wife, their six children, and an unrecorded number of his more than forty slaves to Beargrass Creek, near the site of present-day Louisville, Kentucky. Two sisters and their families already lived in Kentucky, and Christian's widowed mother set out with her son but found the journey too strenuous and turned back. Christian put some of his slaves to work in his saltworks, known as Bullitt's Lick or Saltsburg, near present-day Shepherdsville, Kentucky. One of the more experienced military men in the West, William Christian commanded an expedition across the Ohio River the following spring and was killed in a fight with Wabash Indians on 9 April 1786 near the site of present-day Jeffersonville, Indiana. His body was buried on his property at Beargrass Creek.


Sources Consulted:
Hugh Blair Grigsby, "Colonel William Christian," Washington and Lee University Historical Papers 2 (1890): 52–56, with death date from gravestone inscription on 55; approximate birth year in Eliza Ramsey (niece) to Lyman C. Draper, 22 Feb. 1843, Lyman C. Draper Papers (Draper MSS) 8ZZ4, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, Wis.; approximate marriage date in William Wirt Henry, Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence and Speeches (1891), 1:122, and Augusta Co. Deed Book, 14:312–313; Christian letters in Draper MSS, in Campbell-Preston-Floyd Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., in Hugh Blair Grigsby Papers, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Va., and in Patrick Henry (Accession 39700, Thomas Jefferson (Accession 44393), Thomas Nelson (Accession 44502), and Benjamin Harrison (Accession 44660) Executive Papers, all Record Group 3, Library of Virginia (LVA), the last printed in part in William P. Palmer et al., eds., Calendar of Virginia State Papers and Other Manuscripts, 1652–1869 (1875–1893), 2:24–25, 199–200, 349, 540–541, 572, 3:331–333, 398, 406–408, 424–425; numerous references in William J. Van Schreeven, Robert L. Scribner, and Brent Tarter, eds., Revolutionary Virginia, the Road to Independence: A Documentary Record (1973–1983) and Henry R. McIlwaine et al., eds., Journals of the Council of the State of Virginia, 1776–1791 (1931–1982); election to and removal from Council in Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Oct.–Dec. 1783 sess., 65, and 1784–1785 sess., 24; will in Miscellaneous Papers, Filson Historical Society, Louisville, Ky.; accounts of death in Samuel McDowell to Patrick Henry, 18 Apr. 1786, and John May to Patrick Henry, 19 Apr. 1786 (the latter abstracted in Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser, 25 May 1786), both Patrick Henry Executive Papers, Record Group 3, LVA.


Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Gail S. Terry.

How to cite this page:
Gail S. Terry,"William Christian (ca. 1742–1786)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2006 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Christian_William_d_1786, accessed [today's date]).


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