An American Family History

Joseph Rhea

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 was born about 1715. He was the son of Matthew Rhea and Elizabeth McClain.

He married Elizabeth McIlwaine. Elizabeth was the daughter of John McIlwaine and Margaret Scott. Margaret Rhea Looney Renfro was his sister. She married Robert Looney and Stephen Renfro.

Joseph and Margaret's children may have included:
John Rhea (1753)
Matthew Rhea (1755),
Margaret Rhea (1757, married Robert Preston),
William Rhea (1761),
Joseph Rhea (1762),
Elizabeth Rhea,
Samuel Rhea, and
James Rhea.

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.

Joseph died in 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.

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.






from Notable Southern Families, Volume 2 by Zella Armstrong and Janie Preston Collup French

Joseph Rhea, (1715-1777), son of Matthew Rhea II and his second wife, Elizabeth (McClain) Rhea, was born in Parish Laughlin, Ireland, died in Piney Creek, Maryland.

He married (1752) Elizabeth Mcllwaine (1732-1793) (daughter of John Mcllwaine and Margaret (Scott) Mcllwaine, of Tifannan, near Londonderry, Ireland. A will executed in 1773 by her father, John Mcllwaine, shows that he possessed a large property in money, lands and leases). They had children:

John Rhea
Matthew Rhea IV
Margaret Rhea
William Rhea
Joseph Rhea
Elizabeth Rhea
Samuel Rhea
James Rhea

Joseph Rhea graduated at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, with honor and distinction, in1742; was a minister of the Presbyterian Church and had charge of a church at Fahan, Ireland, at the time he resigned to go to America.

Rev. Joseph Rhea with his wife and children, John, Matthew, Margaret, William, Joseph, Elizabeth, (Samuel and James were born later in America), sailed from Ireland and landed in America, at Philadelphia, in 1769.

He commenced preaching in Piney Creek, Maryland, in 1772. In 1775 he went to the Hoteton Country, Tennessee, to locate land, and there purchased about two thousand acres of land. In 1776 he joined as Chaplain, the troops under Col. Christian, and in this capacity campaigned into Virginia and 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...

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


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 2020
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