By Stephen D. Bowling
In the city of Jackson and Breathitt County’s long history, several families played a vital role in the county’s development and then suddenly disappeared. At one time, the Cockrell, South, Hargis, and Hagins families made up a large portion of the population. These prominent names are rarely mentioned today, and very few of the county’s residents still carry these surnames. The careful historian and genealogist might find several other names to add to this list, including the name of a large family that thrived in Jackson for more than one hundred years.
The Cardwell family first came to Jackson when Breathitt County was heavily involved in the struggle to break away and be recognized as a separate county. In the spring of 1839, a tall, thin man named John Cardwell moved to what is now Breathitt County and settled on Panbowl near the present site of the factory at Lakeside Estates. John was a well-traveled man. He was born at Bunker Hill in Fauquier County, Virginia, on January 17, 1790. In 1812, John Cardwell volunteered to serve in the Army of the United States during the War of 1812. After leaving military service in 1814, John received an annual pension. He continued to live in Virginia until a young lady drew him away.
In 1822, John followed the moving family of his future wife. The Watkins family moved to a small village about ten miles from Knoxville and bought a large farm. John followed and married Arminta “Ara” W. Watkins in 1822. Arminta was born on May 13, 1799, in Wilkes County, North Carolina.
For six years, John and Arminta continued to live with her parents, and, in 1828, they moved to Williamsburg in Whitley County, Kentucky. Then in the 1830s, John moved the family to Harlan County and remained there until 1839.
A hatter by trade, John opened a “general mercantile” store when he moved to Jackson. He later won an appointment as Post Master from October 1, 1849, to June 13, 1851. After his retirement in 1851, John and Arminta lived out their days in their home in Panbowl. John died on February 11, 1876, and Arminta followed on March 13, 1891. Together they raised seven children in Jackson: John Watkins, William Daniel, Isaac Newton, Thomas Perrin, Maranda Elizabeth, Edward, and Arminta.
The first of their children was John Watkins Cardwell. John W. was born on June 6, 1824, near Knoxville, Tennessee. He married Celia South, the daughter of Jeremiah W. South. They produced four children who all played important parts in the history of Breathitt County. Evora, their first child, married Greenville T. Strong, who was the son of Edward “Red Ned” Strong and was himself a very powerful man in the county. Their second child was Blackstone Cardwell who married Sarah “Sally” Bowman. Blackstone served two terms as Breathitt County Circuit Clerk.
John W. and Celia Cardwell’s third child was Edwin B. Cardwell. He was born on September 7, 1861, and died on June 14, 1888. He married Sally Jane Combs the daughter of William Mason Combs. Edwin served three terms as Breathitt County Circuit Court Clerk before he was accidentally killed by his brother-in-law, Nathan Combs. The fourth child of John W. Cardwell was John J. “Big John” Cardwell. “Big John” married Demia Back and served as Jackson Postmaster from 1866 until 1887.
The second child of “Old John” was William Daniel Cardwell. William D. was born on January 5, 1826, in Tennessee. He moved to Kentucky with his father and never married. He worked as a clerk in the old store of Thomas Sewell, which used to stand near the present sight of the South Jackson Bridge. William served as Captain of Company G of the Three Forks Battalion of Kentucky State Troops during the Civil War. After the war, he was appointed Postmaster for Jackson and served from February 20, 1887, until April 30, 1887. He lived the remainder of his life on Cane Creek.
The third child of “Old John” was Isaac Newton Cardwell. Isaac was born on September 27, 1827, in Tennessee. He attended the University of Knoxville and qualified to practice law. He volunteered and served in the Mexican War as a Sergeant in the 5th Tennessee Infantry. In 1853, he moved to Kentucky and settled in Booneville where he opened his first law office. With the coming of the Civil War, Isaac again volunteered for military service with the Federal Army under the 7th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry. In 1864, he moved his office to Irvine in Estill County and practiced there until 1872. In 1872, he left his practice and served two terms in the Kentucky Legislature. He died and was buried in Frankfort.
Thomas Perrin was the next child of John and Arminta Cardwell. T. P. married and remained in Breathitt County. His wife, Ellen South, daughter of Jeremiah Weldon South, bore six children, all of whom were involved in the Hargis/Callahan/Marcum/Cockrell feud. At his father’s death, T. P. bought his father’s farm on Panbowl and raised his family there. T. P also served as Postmaster of Jackson from December of 1857 until March of 1866.
He served Breathitt County in the Kentucky House of Representatives from 1864-1865 and in the Kentucky State Senate from 1865-1869. T. P Cardwell was a well-known enemy of the Hargis family. Of T. P’s four sons, all four of them were either killed or wounded during the Breathitt County feuds, and Dr. D. B. Cox, T. P.’s son-in-law, was also allegedly killed by members of the Hargis family.
“Old” John’s daughter, Maranda Elizabeth Cardwell, married Alfred A. Little and had three children; two daughters and one son. Alfred served as First Lieutenant of Company E of the Three Forks Battalion under Captain William Strong.
Edward Cardwell was the last of John and Arminta’s natural children. He was born on March 25, 1833, in Harlan County, Kentucky. He married Emaline Hargis, the daughter of John “Bally John” Hargis. Together they had one daughter. After the death of Edward, Emoline married Alfred Cope and moved to Oklahoma.
John and Maranda Cardwell adopted and raised a young girl by the name of Arminta. Arminta was born on January 25, 1851, and married William Mason Combs. They had no children, and Arminta died on December 18, 1920. She was buried with her husband near her adoptive parents.
There is no Cardwell Cemetery in Breathitt County that can be called a family cemetery. There is a T. P. Cardwell Cemetery on Panbowl that has been virtually destroyed by vandals over the years. Many of these family members can be found at the Marcum Heights Cemetery or the Combs Cemetery on Hurst Lane in Jackson.
Today few, if any, citizens boast the name of Cardwell. Several descendants of this family still remain in the county, but they carry other names. We can only ask why this very prominent family disappeared from this area. Common sense tells us that the name is not passed on through the daughters, yet physiology cannot explain why this family had such a high frequency of female children. Above all, the most deciding factor that erased the Cardwell name from Breathitt County was most certainly the feuds, turmoil, and death that violence left in its wake.
© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling
Nathan Combs, if it’s the same one mentioned in your article, was mom’s father. I had no idea he accidentally killed his brother-in-law. If memory serves me right, Nathan Combs was jailer for a while, and his wife cooked for the inmates. (Her name might been America Combs, not sure, but she is one of my ancestors.)
When Nathan was killed, his younger children were sent to a home in Tippen, Ohio. They caught the train at Haddix for the trip. The mother still had other child to support and raise during the Depression, as a widow/single mother. Nathan had been in a certain political position that took care of their own members, and they covered the expenses of the trip, possibly the cost of the “home”.
Mom told me about her older brother, Thomas Asbury Combs, that “stole” her and her younger brother, Brack (Breckinridge?) out of the “home” later. Mom, Cindarella Combs, said she hated coming back to old Clayhole Gap, which ran across the valley from Riley Branch where Fred Napier’s house was, over to 476 side, where Brack and his wife, Lena Combs, lived for a long time.
I remember seeing Brack row a boat across the river every morning so their children could go to school. His kids packed their good shoes with them and changed into them once they got up the hill from the creek. They were always clean and neat children.
Mom wanted to go back to Tippen then. “There was nothing back here.” She had got accustomed to what she considered modern conveniences of the time, such as electric, hot and cold running water at the home. They also went to the movies on a regular basis while living there. The children were all on a schedule to wash up and eat. Each child had separate towels and wash cloths to use that were frequently laundered. Each child had a house number and a child number. Mom actually liked living there, and returned to the general area when she got old enough to work.
Correct me if I’m wrong on the jailer part.
Thanks. Anna Hardin
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This is the same Nathan Lee Combs who served as a Deputy Sheriff in Wolfe County and was on his way to becoming the elected Sheriff when he was killed by Arlie Maloney in 1921. Do you happen to know where Nathan is buried?
Mom was born in 1915, so the timeframe would be right. However, I thought she said he was jailer in this county. Maybe I’ve got the names mixed up. George Combs maybe? Idk. I would have to pull my records out. Steve and Phillip Hardin have a lot more genealogy records than I do. Moms siblings were Thomas Asbury Combs, AbbaDean, Prod as mom called him (for the Prodical son, who was married to Katherine) and Brack.
All these names in our ancestory. I get them confused. America Combs owned a large portion of land on Troublesome at one time. Mom said she was one of the first people in the county to own a motor vehicle. Absolum Russell owned a lot of land too, but sold most of it while drunk/coerced. Russell’s Branch aka Falcon Coal. Very interesting story there.
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