William Lenoir was born in Brunswick County, Virginia, on April 20th, 1751. He was the youngest of ten children born to Thomas and Mourning Crawley Lenoir. When he was eight his father moved the family from their Virginia plantation to Tarborough, North Carolina, where the farmland was more fertile. He received little education in his younger years due to his fatherís death in 1765. The fourteen-year-old was left to help support his family. Despite this setback, Lenoir continued his studies in his spare time, and in 1769 he opened an elementary school in Brunswick County, and another one in Halifax County the following year. In 1771 Lenoir married Ann Ballard. The couple had their first child the following year, and Lenoir found that he could not support his growing family on a teacherís salary. Deciding to join the more profitable profession of land surveying Lenoir studied up on the job and in 1775 he moved his family to western North Carolina, current Wilkes County, where more surveying jobs of the were found. He settled near Wilksborough and at the beginning of the Revolutionary War he was an active Whig who was clerk of the Surrey County Committee of Safety.
When the Revolutionary War began in 1775 Lenoir enrolled in the local militia. In 1776 he was given command of a ranger company in the Blue Ridge Mountains. These men were to defend white settlements against Native American aggression. Lenoir was a lieutenant under Gen. Griffith Rutherford in the 1776 campaign against the Cherokee, and afterwards was a captain under Benjamin Cleveland, fighting the loyalists. He fought at the battle of Kingís Mountain and was wounded in the side and arm.
In 1776 Lenoir was appointed Wilkes County justice of the peace and in 1778 he was chosen as the clerk of court for the county. Later, due to his good work in the former positions, he was elected to the North Carolina House of Commons in 1781. He served three terms there and was a member of the state senate in the years 1784-85 and 1787-95. For his last five terms Lenoir was speaker of the senate. In 1788 and 1789 he was sent to the Constitutional conventions as a delegate and voted against the Constitution because it did not contain a Bill of Rights. In the later year he was also chosen as a trustee for the newly formed University of North Carolina.
After the Revolution was over Lenoir continued to be involved with the state militia. During the 1790ís he encouraged the units of the Fifth North Carolina Division to keep in practice due to the threat of war between Britain and France, and in 1795 he was commissioned major general in charge of the Fifth Division. In this position he worked to get extra weapons for his men and encouraged stricter military regulations. In 1812 he worked with over one thousand men against Great Britain, but he later resigned rather than work under a political opponent he disliked.
Throughout his lifetime Lenoir was a prosperous planter and indulged in land speculation. On his plantation he sold crops, operated a blacksmith shop, bred horses, and lent money; more money was made from leasing land to small farmers. In his land speculation Lenoir enjoyed some moderate success in his holdings of over 10,000 acres, but in 1795 he made a poor profit. A member of Rousseau and Company, Lenoir managed the sale of over 100,000 acres to Pennsylvania agents and made very little money from it. Land ownership also brought more troubles in the form of confiscated land. During the Revolutionary War Lenoir and others confiscated land from a British agent who had been holding the land in trust for the Moravians of Forsyth (then Surry) County. In 1793 the Moravians took the people who then held the land to court to get the land back. The courts decided that the Moravians still had a right to the land that had been held in trust for them and Lenoir lost several thousands of acres.
Lenoir and his wife, Anne, had nine children together: Mary, William, Ann, Thomas, Elizabeth, Walter Raleigh, Eliza, Martha, and Joyce. Ann died in 1833 at the age of 63, and Lenoir outlived her by only six years. Throughout his life he was a Freemason. He died and was buried at Fort Defiance, Wilkes County, NC on May 6th, 1839.
After his death a town, county, and road in Raleigh were named in his honor, as well as a building at the University of North Carolina. A portrait of him hangs in the South Building at that same college.
"The county of Lenoir in the East and the town of Lenoir in the West appropriately commemorate the name of a patriot, in war and in peace, whose virtues his contemporaries most highly appreciated." (1905. Ashe, Samuel. A Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol. II, p.217.)
William Lenoir was born on May 20, 1751 in Brunswick County, Virginia. He was the youngest of ten children. His father died when he was eight years old, which limited his access to formal education. Lenoir was, however, "gifted with natural intelligence, and animated by a spirit to excel" so "he acquired through his personal exertions a fair education." (1905. Ashe, Samuel. A Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol. II, p. 217.)
When he was twenty years old, Lenoir married Ann Ballard of Halifax County. (1905. Ashe, Samuel. A Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol. II, p. 217.)
Lenoir was involved in the Revolutionary War from the very beginning. "When the troubles with the mother country began, in 1774, young Lenoir fervently espoused the cause of the people, and joined the association that was formed in the summer of 1774 in Edgecombe County, and ever afterward was distinguished by his patriotism." (1905. Ashe, Samuel. A Biographical History of North Carolina...Vol. II, p. 217.)
In March 1775, Lenoir moved to the Yadkin Valley, ending up near the Mulberry Field Meeting House in Surry County, which is now the city of Wilksboro. The settlement was near a sizeable Indian population which was none to friendly to the white settlers. (1905. Ashe, Samuel. A Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol. II, p. 217.)
Conflict broke out between the two groups shortly after Lenoir moved to the area. "Almost immediately after his location in Surry, young Lenoir was engaged in defending that frontier settlement, and in 1776 he accompanied General Rutherford in his expedition against the Cherokees, and from that time onward he was almost constantly engaged in suppressing the Tories, who were numerous in Surry and parts of Rowan County." (1905. Ashe, Samuel. A Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol. II, p. 220.)
By 1780, Lenoir was a captain under the command of Colonel Benjamin Cleveland. (1905. Ashe, Samuel. A Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol. II, p. 220.)
At the Battle of King's Mountain, Captain Lenoir was shot in the arm and the side, and a third bullet passed through his hair, narrowly missing his head. (1905. Ashe, Samuel. A Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol. II, p. 220.)
In 1781, Lenoir had another near miss at the battle when he was "near Haw River, where he had his horse shot under him and his sword was broken in a hand-and-hand encounter." (1905. Ashe, Samuel. A Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol. II, p. 220.)
Lenoir served bravely throughout the war and was an "active and zealous and efficient supporter of the cause of independence." (1905. Ashe, Samuel. A Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol. II, p. 220.)
Lenoir also recognized the bravery and patriotism of women during the war. He said of these women, "It was their heroic conduct that inspired their husbands and sons in the cause of liberty. They urged the men to leave home and to prefer to die rather than be slaves." (1905. Ashe, Samuel. A Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol. II, p. 220.)
Lenoir remained in the army after the Revolutionary War ended, eventually rising to the rank to major-general, a position that he held for eighteen years. (1905. Ashe, Samuel. A Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol. II, p. 220.)
Lenoir was also active in civil affairs. He was appointed a justice of the peace by the same convention that drafted the North Carolina Constitution, and he served in that capacity for sixty-two years. He also was a surveyor, chairman of the county court, and clerk of the Superior Court in Wilkes County. He served in both branches of the North Carolina legislature and was speaker of the Senate for five years. Lenoir also was a member of both the North Carolina convention of 1788, which rejected the United States Constitution, and the convention of 1789, which ratified the Constitution. "In both of these conventions he took an active and distinguished part, insisting strenuously on the necessity of requiring certain amendments to the Constitution to guard and protect the rights of the State." Lenoir was one of the original trustees of the University of North Carolina and was president of the Board for two years. (1905. Ashe, Samuel. A Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol. II, pp. 220-21.)
Lenoir was just as "distinguished for his moral worth" as for any of his public achievements. "In private life General Lenoir was as distinguished for his moral worth and generous hospitality as in public life he was esteemed for his unbending integrity, firmness, patriotism and intelligence. No one surpassed him in kindly disposition and in deeds of charity. Successful in his efforts to provide a competency for his family, by his will he made liberal provisions for the poor of his neighborhood. Indeed, no man in the State of North Carolina was more highly esteemed for his virtues and worth than General Lenoir." (1905. Ashe, Samuel. A Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol. II, p. 221.)
General Lenoir never lost his vigorous desire to serve North Carolina. "To him was accorded not merely length of days, but almost uninterrupted health, and it is narrated that at the age of eighty-eight years he rode on horseback fifty miles to attend the superior Court of Ashe County, crossing the Blue Ridge, and also attended the court of his own county, a distance of twenty-four miles from his residence." (1905. Ashe, Samuel. A Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol. II, p. 221.)
Lenoir died May 6, 1839, and was buried in the family burial plot. (1905. Ashe, Samuel. A Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol. II, p. 221.)
Ashe, Samuel, ed. Biographical History of North Carolina, Vol. 2. Greensboro, NC: Charles L. Van Noppen, 1905.
Fiske, John, and Wilson, James Grant, editors. Appletonís Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Volume 1. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1888-1889. Reprint. Detroit: Gale Research, 1968.
Powell, William S., ed. Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, Volume 1. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.