Friday, July 3, 2015


James Sims (1754-1845), Gunsmith of Nicholas County

James Sims, my 5th great-grandfather, was a gunsmith and blacksmith. The Sims rifle was praised for its accuracy.[1] In his book Gunsmiths of West Virginia, on p. 105, James P. Whisker wrote he had never seen a Sims rifle. Several descendants of James Sims owned rifles in 1947 when interviewed by William H. Maginnis and in 1993 as related to me in 2002 by Rose Mary Sims Rudy. William Sims, who made the rifle, was a gunsmith of wide fame according to J.T. Peters and H.B. Carden.

I used to correspond with a "relative" who has since died (1998). He sent me this photograph of the "Mountain Rifle that William (Billy Gunsmith) Sims made." It was in his possession at the time the photo was made in 1993. We talked just before he died and he was giving it to his son!! He was responsible for securing a grave marker for our ancestor James - the date was assumed to be 1838.  In correspondence he stated "his great uncle Eugene Simms reported that James was still drawing his RW pension when he died."  He says that the Mountain Rifle has been in the family for many years passed to him by his grandfather and father. William Sims is written on the barrel. His father once told him of a wild hog chasing him up a tree and his brother coming to his rescue with this gun.


Nicholas County was the early stomping ground of the Sims family. When James Sims settled there with his large family the county had not yet been formed from Kanawha County. James brought his Negro slaves and the tools of his blacksmith and gunsmith trades with him. Rev. Shirley Donelly, well-known for his column "Yesterday and Today" in the Beckley Post- Herald, wrote, "His rifles became noted and won an enviable reputation. Some years ago, one of these guns was shown to me but they now have all but disappeared from local circles. The Simms rifle ranked with the fine rifles produced in Raleigh County by James A. Honaker, J. B. Honaker, Joseph Carper, and Samuel Carper, as well as the Henderson rifles of Summers County and the Miller rifles of Monroe County."[2]


James Sims, a native of Culpeper County, may have learned the blacksmith and gunsmith trades before 1780 in Falmouth or Fredericksburg, both in Stafford County. Fredericksburg was a center of the iron industry in colonial times.[3]

James moved to Lowmoor, then Bath County, Virginia, about 1787 where he engaged in rifle making.[4]

A family tradition tells of James Sims, learning of the illness of his dear cousin Frances Sims Morris, wife of Joshua Morris, going to Kanawha Valley:

Following her death (Phebe), James Sims married Nancy (sic, Elizabeth) Cotton. Soon after this marriage, he went to Kanawha Valley to visit a cousin and also visited the Henry Morris home on Peter’s Creek. Henry tried to persuade him to buy near him, but James being a great hunter, said, “No, this section is too thickly settled.” So Henry took him on a hunting expedition down Peter’s Creek, out across the Little Elk Mountain and started down Little Elk Creek where they found signs of bear, deer and wild turkey. James Sims then said, “Henry, if I can buy land on this creek, I’ll be your neighbor soon.” The land belonged to John Jones who lived at what is now Pratt. He had married a Morris and had purchased thousands of acres of land. He at once went to see Mr. Jones and they soon agreed on a price for 500 acres on Little Elk Creek: a plug horse and a flint lock rifle. As soon as he could make arrangements, he moved his family there.”[5]

This colorful family history must be taken with a grain of salt. No court record of the above transaction has been found. The Kanawha County Clerk's office has a deed dated 8 April 1800 in Deed Book A page 391 in which John Jones conveyed 123 acres of land on Gauley to James Sims for the sum of five shilling.


In 1926 Peters and Carden were given a similar account of the story. The old plug horse and rifle were still part of the deal but the tract of land was 600 acres.

James Sims, great-grandfather of Miletus Sims (who is now living at Swiss and is 94 years of age), came from Culpepper county, Virginia, in 1795, and bought a 600-acre tract of land from Morris and Jones for which he paid on (sic, one) old plug horse and a muzzle-loading rifle. This tract of land was partly in Nicholas and partly in Fayette county.[6]

Col. Edward Campbell, author of a series of articles which appeared in the Chronicle in 1883, wrote about James Sims:

Going up Gauley River to the mouth of Little Elk, which empties into the river two miles above the ford, we come to the settlement made by J. Windsor. James Sims also made a small improvement at this place. He came from Jackson’s River in Bath County, Virginia. He was a gunsmith and blacksmith, and did but little farming. He had a large family of children, both male and female. Mr. Sims also brought the first darkies that were ever seen in these parts. He had two sons that were also gunsmiths and made the best of rifle guns. As these guns were much in demand with the increasing settlers they did a lucrative business. They both married young, and settled near their father and did some farming in addition to their work on guns. James lived to see his family settled here and elsewhere. His sons, William and Martin, remained here until they were old men and died leaving large families. James Sims was said to be 90 years old when he died.[7]

Col. Edward Campbell, the son of John Campbell and Nancy Hughes, was born in 1800 and acquired the basics of an education from his parents. Shortly after the formation of Nicholas County in 1818, he was appointed a justice of the peace and travelled throughout the county performing legal services for many of the outlying settlers who found it inconvenient if not impossible to make the long trip into Summersville. Campbell possessed an extraordinary memory for names and facts about the earliest inhabitants of Nicholas County, and some sixty years following his days as a travelling justice, he wrote down his reminiscences of the early settlers and the way in which they lived. Campbell’s memoirs have always been held in high esteem by historians, and where validation is possible he has seldom been found in error in any of his remarks.[8]

After Indians were driven away from the Kanawha valley about 1794, gunsmiths and hunters were still in demand in this region because of the abundance of wolves, bears and other wild beasts. Among the gunsmiths and hunters of the period were James Sims of Gauley river and his son, William.[9]

When William H. Maginnis wrote this statement in 1947 several guns made by William Sims were known to still be in existence. William learned his trade from his father James who turned the business over to his son. No known gun made by James has been preserved.


On 8 June 1802 James Sims and his son William were seen on a list of men to whom $2.50 was paid for each wolf-scalp presented. Part of the routine work, as seen in the minute-book, of the Kanawha County court was the payment of bounties for scalps of wolves.

Miletus Sims (1831-1927), who was about 14 years old when his great-grandfather James Sims died, described him as "a physical giant, fair of complexion, a great hunter and woodsman and inclined to thrift. He built the best house on Gauley in those days - two story, hewn oak logs and a massive chimney."[10]

Mrs. Ruberta Malva "Bertie" Simms Wicker, a daughter of Miletus, wrote a three-page missile to Rev. Shirley Donnelly in 1969. "His (Miletus) grandfather, William Sims, was a fine gunsmith and lived at the mouth of Little Elk, now Swiss, W. Va. There the family built a log cabin that was two stories high. It had a little ladder arrangement in one corner, where they could climb up to shoot at the wolves which prowled through there at that time. I remember the house very well as I am now 97 years old."


In 1835 James Sims was 80 years old when he sent this statement or letter of reply to the Pension Bureau following  questions of the authenticity of his claim to be a veteran of the Revolution. James mentions he gave a new rifle and $500 in continental money to one William Noll (?) whom he hired as a substitute, most likely about 1775. Was this new rifle one of the first he manufactured? [11]


James Sims Pensioner Serv 9 mo. Receives $30 pension. I the undersigned James Sims in pursuance of the requisites of the Secretary of the War gives the following narrative ________ services as a Soldier in the War of the Revolution & statement of my age to-wit. I am in my 79th year of age. I am a native of Culpepper County & lived in that county during the War of the Revolution. In my nieneteenth or twentieth year of age (I cant tell in what year) I was drafted for 3 mo. & marched from Cupepper Country under Capt. John Tults (?) (don’t recollect the names of his subaltern officers) Capt Tults company was attached to a Regt commanded by Col Jno Slaughter which went from Culpepper. The Regt. Marched to Norfolk. Can’t recollect the names of any towns through which we marched on going to Norfolk. We were discharged at Norfolk in time to get home before the three months expired. In less than one year after the preceding term, (I cant tell in what year) I was drafted again for 3 mo. And hired a substitute whose name was William Noll (?) gave him $500 in continental money and a new rifle gun. In the year in which Cornwallis was captured at Yorktown I was drafted again for 3 mo. Set out from Culpepper under a Capt. Whose name I have forgotten. We were preparing to set out on the march for nearly one week, when the news of Cornwallis’ defeat was received & we were ordered to return home & done so, having been in service this latter term about one week – I was a Sergeant & they ended my services — Saml Price wrote my Declaration to whom I gave this same narrative of my service. That I now give. I agreed to give him $20 if he brought me my money In ______________of all which I hereto subscribe my name. Jany 10, 1835
James      X      Sims

The original Revolutionary War application papers were sent to W. G. Singleton, U.S. District Attorney, at Winchester, Virginia, on 13 March 1835. Upon an examination of his claim by the U.S. District Attorney, James Sims' name was dropped from the pension rolls, 21 March 1835, as it was shown that he did not render the alleged service.

Although James Sims' service during the Revolutionary War was not accepted as proof for a pension, the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) have accepted his "providing supplies" and approved him as a Revolutionary War patriot. How I would love to find a document showing he provided arms of his own making.

Please visit my blog to read more about my 5th great-grandfather, click   James Sims

© 2015 Cathy Meder-Dempsey

[1] William Griffee Brown, History of Nicholas County, West Virginia, Dietz Press, 1954, p.375
[2] Rev. Shirley Donnelly, "Nicholas County Had Fine Gunsmith, Too," Beckley Post Herald, 24 September 1965 p. 4.
[3] William H. Maginnis, "Guns Made by Pioneer on Gauley River," The Charleston Gazette, Sunday, 10 August 1947 p. 20.
[4] George R. Penick Jr., comp., The Penick Papers (a Sims family compilation) (compiled in 1978-1980).
[5] Lela Wolfe Prewitt, “James Sims of Culpeper, Fayette & Nicholas Cos., (W) Va.,” Ancestors & Descendants of Thomas Sims of Culpeper County, Virgina Edmund Butler of Virginia and Kentucky with Allied Families & Other Culpeper Data, Compiled and published by Lela Wolfe Prewitt, Fairfield, Iowa, 1972, p. 156.
[6] J.T. Peters and H.B. Carden, History of Fayette County, published by the Fayette County Historical Society, Inc., 1926, page 610.
[7] Edward Campbell, “Early Settlers of Nicholas County, Virginia,” Nicholas County, (West) Virginia Records of the Pioneers 1818-1860, p. 63
[8] Ibid., p. 54
[9] "Guns Made by Pioneer on Gauley River"
[10] Ibid.
[11] James Sims, Revolutionary War Pension Application papers, File No. S.19494

Illustrations by Jeff Prechtel

We are grateful and very pleased with this wonderful article  Cathy Meder-Dempsey shared with us.