William Horatio/Horace Billings was born in Grayson County Virginia to Richard Billings and Mary Moxley on or around October 25th 1837, .
Date of Birth
October 25th 1837
Date of Death
February 21st 1935
Donna Caroline Osborne
Abigail Billings (listed in 1850 census as “Abg”)
John Grover Billings
Lela Cleo Billings McMillan
Lula Billings Jones
Mary Billings Anderson
Nancy Vera Billings Collins
Parl Bowers Billings
Roscoe Lake Billings
Rosea Billings (1880 census, died before 1890)
William E Billings (1880 census, died before 1890)
Unidentified child with Rocksy Anderson (see Bastardy Charges below)
This list of children was compiled from multiple census records and sources, [5,9, 10].
William Billings, known colloquially as “Wm,” “W.H.,” “Bill,” and to some family as “Uncle Billy,” is well documented in family records, court documents, the census, and historical texts from Alleghany and Ashe counties in North Carolina and Grayson County in Virginia.
It is most likely that his middle name was Horace based on family recollections and his death certificate, [2, 12]. However, it remains unclear as there is significant variation across sources.
Earliest Census Records and exact age
He is listed in the 1850 US Census in “District 19, Grayson, Virginia,” although his age is listed as being nine years old. He appears again in Grayson County in 1860 listed as nineteen. By 1880 he has relocated to Alleghany County in North Carolina where he is listed as 31 years old. His birthplace is listed as North Carolina in the 1880 census, but as Grayson County in most other documents. The reason for the discrepancy in age listings is unknown as the other details in each census record verify that the correct Billings was identified.
Acceptance to the University of Virginia
In a letter dated July 8th 1861, William Wertenbaker informed Billings that he was selected to be the State Student for his Senatorial District (39), and that at his earliest convenience he would notify the faculty of his acceptance, . Kirt Van Daacke of the UVA history department was kind enough to search the University’s JUEL database and determined that Billings apparently never matriculated for the 1861-1862 year. This is likely because of enlistment for service in the Civil War, .
The Civil War Period
Billings served in the Quartermaster Corps during the Civil War in Grayson County Virginia and later in life he received a pension from the state of North Carolina for his service. His application for a confederate pension, approved in December 1931, states that he enlisted in the Corps in August or September of 1862 and was often seen around the county resupplying confederate troops, . His wife applied for and received a widow’s pension on his death.
In June 1863, Billings purchased two slaves for approximately $1000 each, . This was five months after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, but as North Carolina was a Confederate state that did not matter. The slaves would not be legally free until December 1865 when the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution was ratified. The ultimate fate of these two slaves (as well as the seven owned by Billings’ father and uncle) is unknown.
Billings continued to live in Grayson County until at least 1870. He purchased land near Brush Creek in 1867 and was awarded land from his brother Alfred’s estate by the courts in 1869, . The courts also awarded Billings control of his brother John’s estate in 1870, which included land near Brush Creek. John preceded their father, Richard, in death and Richard was the original executor of John’s estate. When Richard died on or around 1870, the courts gave both estates to Billings, .
Move to Piney Creek, Marriage
Billings purchased a farm from J M Parsons in Alleghany County in 1871, . Shortly after the purchase, he received a letter from J R Parsons that accused him of stealing grain from Parsons’ farm that joined his, and with interfering with fences.
In 1874 Piney Creek erected its first post office, although the local post was established in 1860. Billings’ was appointed Postmaster for the 1874 term.
Billings’ first appearance in the North Carolina census is in 1880 when he shows up in Piney Creek, now married to Caroline with two small children. Both of these children died before 1890.
Marriage and Bastardy Charges
Billings married Donna Caroline “Callie” Osborne of Ashe County North Carolina on May 6th 1876, [1,4]. They were married 58 years until his death, having seven children together. Two of their children, Rosea and William E, were listed in the 1880 census but appear to have died young from unknown causes.
Mrs. Billings was known to go by Callie, which is a nickname for Caroline, . One source recounts the funny story of Reverend Sam Brown writing “Callie” in place of “Nannie” when Nancy Billings, a daughter of the Billings’, married Porter Collins, .
In 1876, Wm was charged with bastardy for fathering a child with Rocksy Anderson out of wedlock, . Ms. Anderson did not have the money to raise the child on her own and was about to turn it over as a ward of the county. Wm claims that he paid her somewhere between $5-$20 in his testimony, but the details are vague as to whether or not she received all of that money. He settled the case for $60.00 in 1877. That would be about $1300 today according to internet inflation calendars.
Billings was a farmer, merchant, and landowner. He is remembered locally for his farm and others that he owned, with local legend holding that he owned or controlled over 5000 acres in Alleghany and Grayson counties, . Tax records held by the family account for 1200 acres in those counties, .
Public records and family accounts also show that Billings consistently retained “Mineral Rights” to land that he traded. This may be because of his experience with the “Billings Mine,” (documented elsewhere), or because of land grab practices that were going on in the greater Appalachian region around the same time. These practices, which were institutionalized into law in West Virginia and other states, provided legal if not dubious avenues for corporations and governments to cease farm land where minerals were known to exist, .
Billings is most remembered more for the production of “Billings Bitters,” (also known as “Stomach Bitters extracted by W. H. Billings, Piney Creek N.C.”), a moonshine-based product that was marketed as a cure-all for most conditions of the day. At least two recipes for the bitters exist. Permission was granted by the treasury department in July 1888 to sell the product as medicine, which provided tax exemption for Billings, . The 1888 recipe is primarily alcohol based, but a later recipe from 1903 was based on vinegar. The 1903 recipe also received a tax exemption. The bitters were produced on Billings’ farm in at least two barn-like structures, one of which was adjacent to his house and another that is still partially standing across the street. The large barn adjacent to the house was removed sometime after Billings’ death, but it is depicted in photographs and remembered by family, .
As a moonshiner, Billings was active as early as the 1860s. Family documents include advertisements for rye whiskey auctions in Marion, Virginia from 1867, . Likewise, Billings was arrested, sued, and/or found guilty of multiple moonshine related infractions during his life.
The author’s father, Jack, provided a first hand account of Billlings’ death. Jack visited Billings on his deathbed in 1935, . Jack vividly remembers Billings’ long white beard and other details about the visit, including the weather outside. After visiting Billings, Jack played outside of Billings’ house with his aunts Lula and Cleo, Billings’ daughters. Billings died of pneumonia and old age on February 21st 1935 home, . Legend holds that the next day a team of horses was required to drag his casket up the hill through the deep snow to the family cemetery, now known as the Solomon Parsons and William H. Billings Cemetery, .
Billings’ farm was sold by the county for back taxes and purchased by his daughter, Lela Cleo Billings McMillan.
Billings left a watch to his son Roscoe Lake Billings, which has been passed from youngest son to youngest son, starting at least with Billings’ father Richard, . No written information about the tradition or the watch exists, including precisely how far back the watch goes. The watch was made by M. J. Tobias in Liverpool, England in the early 1800s.
Numerous sources describe Billings as being survivor of small pox, which he allegedly “brought back” from the Civil War and passed on to his family, [9,10]. It is not clear if this story is about a first marriage and children or if it is about Billings’ parents and siblings. If it is about Billings’ parents and siblings, it must be untrue: his siblings John, Alfred, and Abi all lived beyond the Civil War and his father lived until 1870. The origin of this story and further details are likely available with enough digging as a small pox outbreak was no small matter.
Billings and his family owned at least one mine and orchard in addition to their farms in Brush Creek, south of Independence, Virginia, [6, 9, 10]. At least one family cemetery existed in the area, [9, 11]. The author has identified five previously undocumented cemeteries near the old Billings property in Brush Creek that will be the subject of a future article.
Billings is the author’s great grandfather.
Shown above: William H. Billings with daughter Cleo Billings McMillan (center) and wife Donna Carolyn Osborne (right). The identity of the man in the back left is unknown. Image credit: Taken by the author of the original in the collection of Vicki and Bill Maxwell, .
Shown above: The William H. Billings house in approximately the 1950s (left) and the 1970s (right). The image on the right shows Cleo Billings McMillan in the front center. The woman on the swing is believed to be Evalyn Billings Carson, daughter of John Grover Billings. Image credit: The left image is from the National Park Service. Ownership of the right image is unknown.
Shown above: William H. Billings’ death certificate. Image credit: Found on and taken from public records using Ancestry.com.
Shown above: A label for Billings Bitters. Image credit: Taken by the author of the original in the collection of Vicki and Bill Maxwell, .
Shown above: A copy of a photograph that, according to the research of Everett Osborne, is a picture of a young Billings, . Date and location are unknown. Billings appears to be holding a jug of moonshine and wearing old army clothes.
1 – Death Certificate (shown above).
2 – Private collection of Vicki and Bill Maxwell.
3 – Private communication between the author and Dr. Van Daacke, October 16th 2018.
4 – Civil War Pension Application. North Carolina State Archives via FamilySearch.org. Retrieved and archived on December 18th 2019.
5 – Bastardy Charges. Alleghany County Justice Court. November 6th 1876.
6 – Private communication between the author, his father, and Herbert Barr.
7 – Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia. Steven Stoll. Hill and Wang. November 21st 2017.
8 – Order Books FHL Film #1,976,153, 1870-1873.
9 – The Billings Families of North Carolina and Virginia, Noami B. Gordon, Alice M. Billings, and Lewis W. Billings, 1991.
10 – Alleghany County Heritage – North Carolina, Alleghany County Historical-Genealogical Society Inc, 1983.
11 – Private Communication between the author and Bill Maxwell.
12 – Private communication between the author and his father.
13 – Private communication between the author and Harold Billings.