For much of its history, Mason County was an important crossroads and stopping point on the rivers, railroads, and highways that connected the Mid-Atlantic seaboard and points west. We are perfectly situated on the Ohio River, the easiest passage into the west until the railroads were built and still a major artery for industry. The two railroads that converge in Point Pleasant, now CSX and the KRR, were the most efficient routes between the southern West Virginia coalfields, the steel mills of Pittsburgh, and the Great Lakes shipping industry. And, at one time, two U.S. Highways once crossed Mason County (one has since bypassed our area).
That is why George Washington and Benjamin Franklin pushed for a new state with Point Pleasant as its capital. That’s why several of our earliest settlers, like Thomas Lewis, Jesse Bennett, and Daniel Boone, were major figures in Virginia’s early political landscape. And, that’s why we have a church designed by internationally famous architect Ralph Adams Cram, have hosted the Cincinnati Reds multiple times during preseason barnstorming, and had such notable visitors as William Lewis (of Lewis & Clark), George Rogers Clark, the General Marquis de Lafayette, and at least seven future presidents and presidential campaigns.
Our geographic location means that for three hundred years, Mason County has been both an endpoint for settlers and immigrants looking for a quiet but enterprising hometown and a jumping off point for those looking to travel further west, a place where someone could get firmly on their feet before moving to Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, or even California. And in two particularly famous cases, that’s exactly what happened.
There is a historical marker in Lakin that most locals drive past without even noticing, but if you happen to glance over, you’ve probably been a bit surprised to see the name of famous “Tom Sawyer” author and humorist Mark Twain. Twain’s true name of course was Samuel Clemens, named for his grandfather who was an early settler of Mason County.
The Clemens family, Twain’s grandparents and their children, his father John Marshall Clemens among them, moved here from Eastern Virginia in 1803 and settled on 120 acres purchased from the Hogg family. The elder Samuel was a mover-and-shaker like his future grandson, and he was one of the leading figures in the 1804 formation of Mason County, was appointed the county’s first commissioner of revenue, served on the county’s first jury, and signed on as the guarantor of William Droddy’s ferry across the Ohio River.
Had he lived, he would likely have been one of the leading figures in Mason County’s early history, but he was killed in a neighbor’s house-raising in 1805 when he was crushed between a log and a stump. The Clemens family stayed here for a time after his death, and John Marshall Clemens spent much of his childhood here, before they finally moved to Kentucky and on to Missouri. Today, all that’s left is the historical marker and Samuel’s unmarked grave somewhere on or near the Clements Tree Nursery property.
But for another, there’s even less to tell the story. In fact, without some deep digging, you’d never know that The Great Commoner, William Jennings Bryan, had Mason County roots.
Like the Clemens family, the Bryans came from Eastern Virginia and were early settlers here. Major Andrew Bryan and his wife, Parthenia, settled at Five Mile where they built a large Greek Revival plantation (since demolished). Andrew’s brother John, William Jennings Bryan’s grandfather, eventually settled in Gallipolis Ferry.
Andrew came here around 1808, not long after his parents’ passing, and soon married Parthenia Clendinen-Meigs, the widow of John Meigs. Their descendants include many of the McCullochs and McMullens, through their daughters. John apparently stayed in Old Virginia to settle the family estates, and it wasn’t until around 1825 that he moved west, bringing with him his wife Nancy and children John and Silas, William Jennings Bryan’s father.
Again, much like the Clemens family, the Bryans weren’t here long. Nancy passed in 1832, father John in 1834, and son John in 1835, and all three were originally buried in the Arrington-Long Cemetery. We don’t have death records from that period, but for so many members of the same family to die relatively young, my suspicion is that they fell victim to the 1832-34 cholera epidemic that was sweeping the Ohio Valley.
Silas, only 13 when his older brother died, was taken in and raised by his uncle and aunt. After their passing, Parthenia in 1839 and Andrew in 1851, Silas moved west to Illinois where he married Mariah Jennings and raised a family.
Their son, William Jennings Bryan, is of course known as the youngest person ever nominated for president by a major party, a leading figure of the Progressive Era, and one of the greatest orators in American history. His brother Charles was later the 1924 nominee for vice-president alongside West Virginian John W. Davis for president, whose campaign brought both Bryans back to Point Pleasant for a visit.
Information from various articles on the Clemens and Bryan families, and the 1987 History of Mason County.
Chris Rizer is the president of the Mason County Historical & Preservation Society and director of Main Street Point Pleasant, reach him at email@example.com.