William Rhodes: earlier settler, pirate

The pirate who settled in Greene County

June 1, 2017
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Bob Niedbala
This large mound behind the Econ Lodge in Franklin Township contains the Rhodes family cemetery.
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Courtesy Matthew Cumberledge
The gravestone of William Rhodes Sr., photographed in 1995, when the Rhodes Cemetery was accessible.
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Courtesy Matthew Cumberledge
Matt Cumberledge has done a great deal of research on the Rhodes family.

William Rhodes appears to be one of the more interesting persons to have settled in what is now Greene County following the Revolutionary War.

Rhodes was born in Rhode Island in 1759 and went to sea at the age of 16. He eventually became a ship captain and during the Revolutionary War, according to historical accounts, a privateer, or in other words, a pirate.

“There is some mystery about this man, who is variously described as a privateer, pirate, etc.,” says Howard L. Leckey in his book “From the Tenmile Country and It’s Pioneer Families.”

“With many vicissitudes his career seems checkered,” Samuel P. Bates writes in “A History of Greene County Pennsylvania.”

Following his exploits at sea, Rhodes settled near Fort Jackson, now Waynesburg, in about 1788 and ran a trading post before buying property in what is now Franklin Township, marrying and becoming a farmer.

His father had been a school master and it was said Rhodes was well educated. He also kept a journal.

“The manuscript is rather amusing and interesting, illustrated by drawings of his own, of ships, scenery, women, men, birds, fishes and animals, according to the fancy of this backwoods artist,” Bates writes.

Though Rhodes is mentioned in the histories of Greene County, his story was only recently brought to light by Matthew Cumberledge of Brave, a genealogist and historian who prepared a history of the cemetery in which Rhodes and several members of his family are buried.

Macaque in the trees
The gravestone of William Rhodes Sr., photographed in 1995, when the Rhodes Cemetery was accessible.
Courtesy Matthew Cumberledge

The cemetery on a hill top behind the Econo Lodge Motel, on what was Rhodes’ farm, is now threatened by work that was done to construct a new motel behind the existing one.

Excavation completed for the motel has left the cemetery at the top of a large earthen mound rising more than 25 feet high and measuring about 65 feet by 60 feet.

The motel owner, Nikita Lodging, had planned to preserve the cemetery by building a retaining wall around it and steps leading to the graves.

That has not been done and the matter is now before the Greene County Court. It appears the cemetery will end up either being restored under Nikita’s original plan or moved.

Cumberledge, who has always had an interest in history and old cemeteries, knew about the Rhodes’ cemetery and noticed its unusual condition about two years ago.

He completed research on the cemetery at the request of the Greene County Planning Department, which became involved in mediation as part of the litigation. It was then he learned more about Rhodes’ life.

“He was rumored to have been a pirate but what he probably was, was a privateer – a merchant who had less than honorable means of acquiring his goods,” Cumberledge says.

A privateer was kind of a “legally-sanctioned pirate,” he explains, a private ship owner who during the war was employed or persuaded by one side to rob the ships of the other side.

“There is a little ambivalence as to what side William Rhodes would have been on in the Revolutionary War,” Cumberledge says. “He may have had more British leanings than anything else, but it’s unknown.”

Leckey speculated Rhodes may have been associated with British because one of his letters indicated he was in London on one of his voyages during the war.

According to information which Bates attributes to Rhodes’ manuscript or journal, Rhodes was captured four times during the war.

In 1778, he was taken prisoner by the French and held for two years. After being released, he was re-captured on his very next voyage, then released through the influence of American friends.

In 1781, he was once more captured by the French and was again liberated. He was then captured by the British and held for five months before being released in a prisoner exchange.

Because of his imprisonment by both the French and the British, “he maybe did not have a country, per se, where his allegiances were all one way or the other,” says William Porter, a Greene County native now living in Georgia, whose fourth great aunt, Eleanor Porter Rhodes, was Rhodes’ wife.

To Rhodes, the issue may simply have been “who is paying me this month or where can I make some money,” says Porter, who also is familiar with the available historical information on Rhodes.

The historical accounts also mention a voyage Rhodes took to Barbados and a ship wreck off the coast of Cape Cod.

After years at sea, Rhodes apparently decided to settle down and came to Fort Redstone, now Brownsville, in 1788. He opened a small store at Fort Jackson and in 1793, bought 236 acres of land in what is now Franklin Township and began farming.

What brought him to this area is unknown. The area was still being settled and was considered the frontier, Cumberledge says. “This part of the country was opening up, land was cheap and you could easily settle here.”

At the time, there were still reports of Indian attacks.

Much about Rhodes, including his life at sea, remains unknown. Information in Bates’ and Leckey’s histories and other histories of the area only provide brief sketches of Rhodes.

Leckey mentions he had rescued some of Rhodes papers when he learned they were being thrown away and he provided copies to the Library of Congress. These include ledgers in which Rhodes kept the names of creditors from his business.

Macaque in the trees
Matt Cumberledge has done a great deal of research on the Rhodes family.
Courtesy Matthew Cumberledge

Cumberledge is now attempting to obtain these papers from the National Archives, hoping they also include Rhodes’ journal. These papers are the “source material” upon which the early historians relied to write about the man and his life, he says.

“I really can’t wait to hear back from the National Archives to see if I can get that journal,” Cumberledge says. “I think it will be one most fascinating things I’ve ever read, the way Leckey and everybody reference it.”

Though only limited information is available about Rhodes’ life, it appears he was an interesting man, Porter says.

It makes a “good story,” he says, “where you have an individual with the past that he had at sea, all of a sudden having this, I guess, epiphany, and heading west and becoming one of the important citizens of what was Washington County and would become Greene County.”

After having such a “colorful” life at sea, Rhodes came to this area, became a businessman, then farmer, Porter says. He also was apparently satisfied with the path his life took.

Porter refers to Bates, who quoted directly from Rhodes’ papers in which Rhodes wrote: “Settled for life, I hope. Here I began jogging for life and family, not in the least discouraged in my new profession.”

Rhodes and his wife, Eleanor, had seven children, according to a genealogy prepared by Cumberledge. He died Jan. 1, 1844, and is buried in the cemetery with his wife and several of their children and grandchildren.

Bob Niedbala worked as a general assignment reporter for the newspaper for 27 years in the Greene County bureau. He received a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Pittsburgh.

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