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Mary Nash Witherspoon

(b. 1827)

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At a Glance

Mary Nash Witherspoon is the great-granddaughter of Dr. John Witherspoon, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence.


Mary Nash Witherspoon was the seventh and last child of Rev. Dr. John Knox Witherspoon, [Sr.] and Susan Davis Kollock. Although the Rev. Dr. John Knox Witherspoon, [Sr.] was  "born with a silver spoon in his mouth,"  a succession of misfortunes and his natural ineptitude with money always kept his family in dire need. In 1827, a few months before Mary's birth, fire destroyed the new farmhouse and school at the Witherspoon plantation south of Hillsborough, NC. The Rev. Dr. John Knox Witherspoon, [Sr.], never managed to get on his feet again.

Possibly no minister of the Presbyterian church in the Southern states had anything like the prestige and authority of the Rev. Dr. John Knox Witherspoon, [Sr.] in his early days. He inherited the most impresssive name in American Presbyterianism and was indeed a princeling of the American church. An irreconcilable difference with his Hillsborough, NC congregation over the question of slavery led him in 1833 to sever his connection with the Hillsborough, NC church and to accept the pastorate of Bethesda Presbyterian Church in Camden, SC. Mary was only six years old at the time; she was twelve when her parents returned to Hillsborough, NC in 1839 to try to make a living on the Tusculum Farm in Orange County, NC, although her father was then suffering with a fatal infection or growth in his chest.

The Witherspoon-McDowall Papers chronicle the heartbreaking attempts of the family to keep body and soul together. In autumn 1839, Mary Nash Witherspoon went to stay with the Dr. Edmund Strudwick's family in Hillsborough, NC and nominally at least attended the Burwell School. She could not pay tuition, but she taught Mrs. Burwell's (Anna Robertson Burwell ) younger children, a task for which she had real aptitude, thereby freeing Mrs. Burwell (Anna Robertson Burwell ) for other duties. She also took music lessons from Miss Caroline Heartt, which one suspects were free lessons.

Just when Mary's severe nervous affliction began to manifest itself is uncertain--but she experienced excruciating spasms, partial paralysis, and alarming mental lapses; first at intervals, then more frequently. There were periods of improvement--she even started a school at Tusculum Farm in Orange County, NC, the Witherspoon family farm, and in 1846 she taught briefly at Camden, SC. As her parents' fortunes and health went downhill, so did Mary's. When she slipped into insanity, and the spasms and pain became unbearable, her mother, Susan Davis Kollock, scraped together enough money to take Mary to Philadelphia, PA for treatment on two occasions.

Mary was in Philadelphia, PA when her father, John Knox Witherspoon, [Sr.], died penniless on the Tusculum Farm in Orange County, NC on September 25, 1853. Her mother, worn out and exhausted, died in Camden, SC a few months later on March 31, 1854. Two of Mary's aunts then attempted to commit her to a lunatic asylum. On April 7, 1855, the Sessions Book of the Hillsborough Presbyterian Church entered the dismissal of Miss Mary Witherspoon  "at her own request"  to  "connect herself with the Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, PA under the pastoral charge of the Rev. Boardman."  On November 14, 1857, there is the suprising entry in the Orange County Marriage Bonds of Mary Witherspoon's marriage to William G. Bowers by M. Baldwin. Nothing further is known of Mary Nash Witherspoon [1].

Biographical Data

Important Dates

Mary Nash Witherspoon was born on July 9, 1827, in Hillsborough, NC.

Places of Residence

Schools Attended




  1. Mary Claire Engstrom. The Book of Burwell Students: Lives of Educated Women in the Antebellum South. (Hillsborough: Hillsborough Historic Commission, 2007).