Among the early settlers

An American Family History

The Rhea Family of Sullivan County, Tennessee

East Tennessee is part of Appalachia. At the end of the French and Indian War, colonists began drifting into the area. In 1769, they first settled along the Watauga River. During the Revolution, the Overmountain Men defeated British loyalists at the Battle of Kings Mountain. The State of Franklin was formed in the 1780s, but never admitted to the Union.

Fincastle County, Virginia was created in 1772 from Botetourt County and abolished in 1776. It was divided into Montgomery, Washington and Kentucky Counties.

Joseph Rhea, (1715-1777), was the son of Matthew Rhea and his second wife, Elizabeth McClain Rhea.

He married Elizabeth McIlwaine (1732-1793) (daughter of John McIlwaine and Margaret (Scott) McIlwaine in 1752 . Margaret Rhea Looney Renfro was his sister. She married Robert Looney and Stephen Renfro.

Joseph and Margaret's children included:
John Angus Rhea (1753-1777),
Matthew Rhea (1755-1816),
Margaret Rhea Preston (1757-1822, married Robert Preston),
William Rhea (1760-1836, married Elizabeth Breden), and
Joseph Rhea (1762-1825, married Frances Breden).

In 1769, he resigned his position as minister of a church in Fahan, Ireland, and the family sailed to America. They landed in Philadelphia, then settled in north central Maryland in what was then Frederick County, but now is Carroll County.

Joseph began his ministry at the Piney Creek Presbyterian Church in Frederick County, Maryland, in 1772.

In 1775 he went to what is now Sullivan County Tennessee, to locate land and purchased about two thousand acres. In 1776 he joined the troops under Colonel Christian, and in this capacity as chaplain campaigned into Virginia and Tennessee. The following is from an orderly book, once the property of Captain Joseph Martin:

Six Mile Camp, Oct 5, 1776. Parole William Burge. General Orders:

Mr. Ray will preach on the Augusta Line at one o'clock, and Mr. Cummins on the Fincastle Line. All others who choose to attend may do it.

The church will be at the time to give warning, the men to attend with their arms by companies, and to observe as much decency and regularity as the ground will admit of.

In their capacity as chaplains, at this time, Rev. Rhea and Rev. Cummins were the first ministers to preach in the territory that is now Tennessee.

Rev. Joseph Rhea died in Piney Creek, Maryland, in 1777.

In the following year, 1778, his family moved, by wagons, to the land in Sullivan County, Tennessee, which he had purchased and which is still in possession of his descendants.

On October 25, 1790 Matthew Rhea was appointed first major in the Sullivan County Militia.

Sullivan County is in far northeast corner of Tennessee between North Carolina and Virginia and was originally part of those states. It was formed in 1779 when it was divided from Washington County.

Maryland was established with religious freedom for Catholics. The colonial economy was based on tobacco cultivated by Africans who had been enslaved.

The American folk hero, David "Davy" Crockett (1786 – 1836), grew up in East Tennessee.

John Rhea (1753-1839), son of Rev. Joseph Rhea and Elizabeth (McIlwaine) Rhea, was born in 1753 in Ireland

He graduated from Princeton University.

John Rhea was one of Rheatown's first settlers in 1771. It is in the upper east end of Greene County.

RHEA, John 15 Aug 1797 300 acres Warrant No. 14474 dated 26 Sep 1782 waters of Ready [Reedy] Creek a north branch of Holston River [SFHR]
adj: Joseph Cook, James Campbell, cave ridge

John Rhea assisted in the organization of the state of Tennessee, and the writing of its constitution, and was chosen the first representative from Sullivan County to the legislature.

In 1780, John was appointed to be the county clerk of Sullivan County, Tennessee.

In 1780 he participated in the Battle of King's Mountain.

In 1782 and 1787 John received warrants for land in Sullivan County, Tennessee. At that time it was in North Carolina.

When Tennessee was divided into three Congressional Districts in 1803, John was elected to Congress from the First District.

1809 Petition of John Rhea regarding lands south of the French Broad River. Sandin Carter also named.

In 1815 John was appointed by President, James Madison, as a commissioner to make treaties with the Choctaw.

In 1817 he returned to Congress where he continued to serve until 1823.

He was a Jeffersonian democrat and a friend of Andrew Jackson. Rhea County, Rheatown and Rhea Springs, Tennessee, were named in his honor.

John died in 1839 in Sullivan County, Tennessee.

Kingsport Times-News 
(Kingsport, Tennessee)
23 Feb 1964

John Adams, Jr. (1735-1826) was the second President of the United States (1797–1801), the first Vice President (1789–1797).


from Bulletin of The Genealogical Society of Old Tryon County, Volume XXIII, February 1995, Number 1, pg 30. Rutherford Co., NC., Deed Book Q, pg 193.

William Jinnins and wife Martha of Rutherford Co., NC.,
to John Rhea of same,
75 pounds,
250 acres on the west side of Robesons Creek,
granted 20 February 1771 to Thomas Robertson,
then conveyed to Martha Murgan 6 December 1786.
Wit. Abel Lewis, Clayburn Burnet, John Roe.
23 January 1797.

The Holston River flows from Kingsport to Knoxville.
map by Kmusser

Matthew Rhea was born about 1755. He was the son of Rev. Joseph Rhea and Elizabeth McIlwaine.

He married Jane Preston.

Joseph Matthew Rhea (1789, married Catherine Myers),
Robert Preston Rhea (1791, married Nancy Davidson),
Margaret Rhea (married --- Fickle),
Matthew Rhea (1795, married Mary Looney).

Rhea, Matthew
24 Jan 1797
100 acres
Warrant No. 9854
dated 21 Nov 1781
south waters of Beaver Creek a north branch of Holston River [SFHR]
adj: Miers, Laughlin, David Worley

The United States Constitution is the supreme law of the United States of America and was ratified in 1789.


William Rhea was born about 1761 He was the son of Rev. Joseph Rhea and Elizabeth Mcllwaine.

He married Elizabeth Breden.

They lived on Beaver Creek in Sullivan County, Tennessee

Margaret Breden Rhea (1798, married Samuel Netherland),
Elizabeth Rhea (married Rayburn Buchanan),
Joseph Campbell Rhea (1800),
James Dysart Rhea (1802),
Wlliam R. Rhea (1804),
Frances Rhea (1808),
John Rhea (1811).


Robert Rhea (1784-1841) (was born in Ireland and came to America with his father (1785) and located in Washington County, Virginia part of which became Sullivan County, Tennessee.

He married twice: First, Elizabeth Rhea (daughter of Rev. Joseph Rhea and Elizabeth (McIlwaine) Rhea); Second, Jane Scott (daughter of John Scott, a colonel in the Revolutionary War).


Samuel Rhea was born in 1795. His parents were Joseph Rhea and Frances Breden.

He married Ann M. Rutledge in 1826 and the couple had one son, Samuel Audley [Rhea] (1827-1865) who became a missionary and worked extensively in Persia.

After Ann (Rutledge) Rhea's death, Samuel married Martha Lynn in 1832.

Samuel and Martha's children included:
John Lynn Rhea (1832-1910),
Fannie Anderson Rhea Fain (1834-1903),
Mary Martha Rhea Earnest (1836-1894),
Joseph Brainerd Rhea (1838-1902),
James Alexander (1840-1871),
Robert Morrison Rhea (1842-1903),
Margaret Elizabeth Rhea Cowan (1849-1931),
Eliza Ellen Rhea (1844-1914),
William Lynn Rhea (1847-1923), and
Charles Stoddard Rhea (died in infancy).

Watauga Pioneer Neighbors

Tennessee was admitted to the Union on June 1, 1796. It was initially part of North Carolina.



Presbyterians are Protestant Christians. The denomination originated in Scotland and congregations are ruled by elected elders. Presbyterian theology follows the Calvanist tradition and emphasizes the sovereignty of God, the authority of the Scriptures, and grace through faith in Christ.

from Sullivan County, Tennessee, The Goodspeed Publishing Company, Chicago and Nashville, 1887

One of the largest and most highly respected families were the Rheas. Joseph Rhea, a Presbyterian minister, came to the Holston settlements from Maryland, and was upon one of the expeditions against the Indians. He returned to Maryland, but in 1776 he came again to the settlement, this time accompanied by his son, John Rhea.

He bought land on Beaver Creek, and while in Maryland the next year, preparing to move his family, he died. In 1778 Mrs. Rhea came with the family. Of the sons, John became the most prominent. He was the first clerk of the county court, and early became a leading attorney. In 1796 he was chosen a member of the constitutional convention, and also represented the county in the first and second General Assemblies. In 1803 he was elected to Congress, and continued a member of that body until 1823, with the exception of two years, 1815-17.

He never married, and died about 1837, leaving a large estate. He had six brothers: Matthew, Joseph, William, James, Samuel and Robert.

The indigenous population in the United States before the arrival of Europeans included many distinct tribes and languages

from Encyclopaedia of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America edited by Alfred Nevin

Amongst the earliest names associated with the origin of this church is that of the Rev. Joseph Rhea. He was a native of Ireland, and arrived in this country in 1769, landing at Philodelphia. To the Synod meeting in that city, May, 1771, The Presbytery of Donegal reported that he had been received as a member of that body.

In 1772 he removed his family to Taneytown, Md., and became preacher of the Piney Creek Church, which was on the waters of the Monocacy river.

He visited the settlements on the Holston river, Tennessee, in 1775, and, it would seem, again in 1776, when he bought the lands on Beaver Creek, now owned by some of his descendants. During these visits he must have embraced every opportunity of preaching to the settlers in their wilderness homes.

Having bought the lands just mentioned, and pleased with the inviting prospect which the country presented, he decided to bring his family and settle in this region. He returned to Maryland, sold his property there, and while preparing to move, died, in 1777. His widow and family, however, carried out his purpose of removing to Holston, and reached their new home in February, 1779.


from Washington County, VA Survey Records Abstracts 1781-1797, submitted to the USGenWeb archives by Rhonda Robertson

Joseph Rhea
245 ac
treasury warrant #15153
in Powells Valley on the waters of the Glade Spring branch and on the waters of Mount's Creek
beginning corner to Jester Cock's land
March 16, 1786

John Rhea
200 ac
reasury warrant #12563
on the waters of and on the south side of Powells River
corner to Isaac Chisman's land
on the south side of a branch corner to Charles Cox's land
April 25, 1785


Washington County Marriages

Rhea John married Blevin, Elizabeth on 01 August 1819

Colonial Maryland
Colonial New England
Colonial Virginia & West Virginia
Quakers & Mennonites
New Jersey Baptists
German Lutherans
Watauga Settlement
Pennsylvania Pioneers
Midwest Pioneers
Jewish Immigrants

©Roberta Tuller 2019
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