Lewis Sherley was a farmer, tavern owner and thoroughbred horse breeder who traveled from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, to the plateau of middle North Carolina, to the Bluegrass state of Kentucky, and finally to the prairieland of north central Texas
My first cousin five times removed, Lewis Sherley/Shirley was born in Madison County, Virginia, circa 1785. His mother, Delilah, was a descendant of immigrants from England. It appears that Delilah was about 17 years old and unmarried when Lewis was born. Within a couple of years she married Benjamin Fleshman and bore eleven more children, but Lewis did not take the Fleshman name.
Lewis married Elizabeth Harris Broaddus in Virginia in 1807. By 1818 they had five children, including a set of twins, and had moved to Caswell County, North Carolina. As an adjunct to his equine ventures, Lewis owned and operated the Red House Tavern near Semora, North Carolina. Semora was only five miles from the village of Milton, which was described by Tom Henderson in Plain Tales from the Country:
Milton was a place of renown, with a far larger population than she possesses today. There was much wealth and more aristocracy. Fast horses ran on her race-track, down on the bottoms of Dan River, beautiful and well-educated women graced her parlors and private dance-rooms, and dashing, daring young gentlemen drank convivially at her numerous public saloons and played poker for high stakes in the game, in the old hotel which yet stands as a ghost of the glory it once knew, which went on continuously from New Year’s Day to Christmas Eve, and then around the calendar again.
Lewis Sherley’s Red House Tavern was a popular gathering place for horse racing enthusiasts. Historian William S. Powell provided the following information in When the Past Refused to Die: A History of Caswell County North Carolina 1777-1977:
The account book for Red House Tavern contains entries that suggest the kind of entertainment available there. Guests sometimes rented space at the tavern and gave balls. Other guests stayed for many days at a time, consuming large quantities of cider, brandy, and whiskey. Glasses of toddy and juleps appear often in the accounts. An extra fee was charged for oysters, and “dinners during the races” were more expensive than at other times. Sometimes dinner was even served at the track. Ordinarily, dinner might be forty to fifty cents, but at the track it would be $2.00. Many account book entries include a charge for the guest’s horse, and occasionally during the season the book records that Shirley lent cash to his patrons. It was not unusual for many regular customers to charge drinks on an average of seven different days a month, but sometimes names appear up to 18 days out of a month. Whiskey was the drink most often consumed, and it was not unusual for up to 8 drinks to be charged to a man in one day.
In the May 6, 1819, edition of the “Milton [North Carolina] Intelligencer,” Lewis Shirley/Sherley advertised that he had purchased “the celebrated Imported Horse EAGLE” and that Eagle would be let to mares at the Red House Tavern at $50 the season. “And as to a race horse,” he said, ” England never produced his equal in his day, which may be seen by reference to the English stud book, in my possession, together with his blood and numerous performances.”
Eagle, a bay, was foaled in 1796, sired by Volunteer out of an unnamed mare by Highflyer. The breeder was Sir Frank Standish, 3rd Baronet of Duxbury, Lancashire. Eagle was said to be one of the finest horses ever seen and “superior to any horse in England of his time.” He was a full brother to Spread Eagle, winner of the 1795 Epsom Derby and half brother to Didelot, who won the 1796 Epsom Derby.
Eagle ran for seven seasons, exclusively at Newmarket, winning a number of high-stakes matches, sweeps and other races, such as the Craven Stakes (twice), over distances up to 3 miles. He came in third in the 1799 Epsom Derby. After his racing career, Eagle entered the stud at Newmarket where he spent 1806 and 1807 in the hands of Richard Prince. From 1808 to 1811 he was at Finchley with T. Hornby Morland, who wrote in The Genealogy of the English Racehorse:
In regard to size, grandeur and justness of foundation [Eagle] is allowed by all judges to be without exception the finest horse in this or perhaps any other kingdom; and I believe in the essential quality of speed he never has been surpassed by any horse since the time of his grandsire Eclipse; he also enjoys a most excellent constitution, having been eight years in constant training and never unsound or indisposed during the whole time. I received him from Mr. Prince in perfect health and fine condition and am happy to say he has never refused a feed of corn since that time.
Eagle was then purchased by Walter Bell and sent to Lexington, Virginia, arriving in December of 1811. There a poster gushed, “Eagle combines more power, beauty and speed than any horse on earth, more even than human mind can imagine.” In 1818 he went to North Carolina with his new owner, Lewis Sherley.
Lewis Sherley was apparently fairly successful in his dealings concerning Eagle, as it appears he maintained ownership and took Eagle with him when the family moved to Kentucky in about 1823. They resided in Oldham County; their tenth child was born in 1826, and the racehorse Eagle died that year at the age of 30. Elizabeth bore her eleventh child in 1827 and died one year later, at the age of 36.
Lewis was farming in Jefferson County in 1830, with 10 slaves but no wife or mother for his ten surviving children. That year he married Paulina Kellar, daughter of a Baptist preacher who had come to Oldham County from Virginia. The couple had six or more children, farming in Jefferson County on land valued at $6,000 (several million in today’s dollars) before the family moved from Kentucky to Collin County, Texas, in 1854. The Sherleys located southwest of Melissa before the town was established near a spring, referred to since as Sherley Spring. Two daughters of Lewis by his first marriage to Elizabeth Broaddus also came with their husbands, and five of the children of the second marriage established homes within a radius of eight miles from the homestead. There are many interesting stories of these Sherleys, to be shared with you another day.
Lewis died in Texas in 1867, at the age of 82; Paulina lived to be 81 and died in Texas in 1891.