Dictionary of Virginia Biography

John Early (15 September 1757–by 19 July 1804), member of the Convention of 1788, was born in Bedford County and was the son of Jeremiah Early and his first wife Sarah Anderson Early, who died about 1770. A first cousin John Early (1786–1873) became a bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church South. In 1779 Jeremiah Early died and left his share of the Washington Iron Works to three of his sons, including John Early, who sold his inheritance to his brother-in-law James Callaway in March 1781. The third brother had died by November 1780 and left John Early and his surviving brother his share, which gave the two survivors a one-third interest in the ironworks. Early held his interest until his death, although Callaway managed the business.

Early lived in a part of Bedford County that the General Assembly joined with a portion of Henry County in 1785 to form Franklin County. In addition to the 950 acres of land he owned in Bedford in 1782, Early bought 650 acres in Henry County in 1791. Later he hired an overseer for his farm there on which he raised tobacco and other crops. By the time of his death Early had acquired a total of 2,773 acres in Franklin County and owned another 1,242 acres jointly with one of his brothers. At that time he also held at least thirty-four slaves. On 20 February 1792 Early married Elizabeth Cheatham, in Franklin County. They had three daughters and four sons.

Early became a lieutenant in the Bedford County militia in 1783 and a captain the following year. He retained the latter rank in the new Franklin County militia until August 1793, when he received promotion to lieutenant colonel commandant, a post he held until his death. Commissioned a justice of the peace in November 1788, Early took the prescribed oath of office in February 1789. He remained on the county court until his death but ceased attending its meetings after November 1802. On 23 July 1803 he received a commission as sheriff.

Early represented Franklin County in the House of Delegates for the 1786–1787, 1787–1788, and 1788 assemblies, although he did not take his seat during the eight-day session in June 1788. He was not a member of the 1789 assembly but won election to the 1790, 1791, and 1792 sessions. During his six terms Early sat on the Committee of Propositions and Grievances. Beginning in 1790 he also served on the Committee of Claims, and for his final two terms he joined the Committee of Privileges and Elections.

On 3 March 1788 Franklin County voters chose Early as one of two delegates representing them in a convention called to consider ratification of the proposed constitution of the United States. The convention, to which his paternal uncle Joel Early had also won election from Culpeper County, met in Richmond from 2 June through 27 June 1788. John Early did not speak during the recorded proceedings, but on 25 June he joined his fellow Franklin County delegate, Thomas Arthur, in voting to require amendments to the Constitution before ratification. When that motion failed, Early voted against ratification. On the convention's last day he supported a proposal to reduce the taxation power of Congress.

In December 1790 Early was appointed a trustee to extend the navigation of the Roanoke River to the forks of the Dan and Staunton Rivers. A 1792 act of assembly creating two new towns in Franklin County named Early as one of the trustees for selling lots in Wisenburgh. That same year he served as one of Virginia's twenty-one presidential electors.

On 9 April 1804 John Early wrote a will in which he affirmed the freeborn status of an African American woman he had acquired in 1781 and also freed her six children. He died on an unrecorded date between 2 July 1804, when the county court recommended him to the governor for another term as sheriff, and 19 July, when the governor issued a commission to a new sheriff "in place of John Early deceased." His place of burial is unknown.

Sources Consulted:
Biography in R. H. Early, The Family of Early, Which Settled upon the Eastern Shore of Virginia … (1920), esp. 85–86; birth date in typescript Early family Bible records (1730–1779), Accession 36296, Library of Virginia (LVA); Franklin Co. Ministers' Returns (1786–1851); Land Tax Returns, Franklin Co. (1782–1785), Record Group 48, LVA; Franklin Co. Order Book (1800–1805), 320, 322 (quotation); John P. Kaminski et al., eds., The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution: Ratification of the Constitution by the States, vols. 810, Virginia (1988–1993), 9:588; 10:1538, 1541, 1557, 1565; Marshall Wingfield, An Old Virginia Court: Being a Transcript of the Records of the First Court of Franklin County, Virginia, 1786–1789 (1948), esp. 211; John S. Salmon and Emily J. Salmon, Franklin County, Virginia, 1786–1986: A Bicentennial History (1993); will and estate inventory in Franklin Co. Will Book, 1:242–244, 249–256.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Emily J. Salmon and John S. Salmon.

How to cite this page:
Emily J. Salmon and John S. Salmon,"John Early (1757–1804)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2018 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Early_John_1757-1804, accessed [today's date]).

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