By Adam Estabrook
On October 1, two streets will have new names. The front portion of Hunting Hills Lane, from State Farm Road to the bridge, will be called Martin Luther King, Jr. Street, and the entirety of S. Water Street will be called Burrell Street.
This decision came on August 15 at a Boone Town Council meeting, to honor Dr. King’s legacy, as well as the legacy of a lesser-known figure of Boone’s history: a slave named Burrell. Sam Furgiuele, a lawyer and member of the Town Council, pushed especially for the latter.
Sam explained in an email, “It’s not surprising that there is little information about Burrell on the internet, since with few exceptions, American history hasn’t exactly honored the achievements of many slaves. The story is compelling for several reasons and has what I consider enormous local significance.”
To help fill this historical gap at the meeting, Mary Moretz, a former Watauga County Commissioner, presented her research and knowledge of Burrell, whom she deems “an iconic pioneer.”
“Although little is known about [Burrell],” she told the council, “much is known about him considering he was a slave. When women and minorities are even mentioned in history, we know that something happened that was outstanding.”
Few settlers went west of the crest of the Appalachian Mountains until after the Revolutionary War, which ended 1783. With the French and Indian War having concluded in 1763, the British issued the Proclamation Act of 1763, establishing the Proclamation Line at the Appalachian crest prohibiting settlers from crossing, which angered the colonists. After all, the land they had fought so hard to win was now off limits to them, partly due to fear from the British of future wars which were unfeasible financially.
In spite of the line, there were plenty who crossed it. Indentured servants crossed in search of land and a place to live. Herders and hunters also crossed in search of lands to claim or hunt, two of which were Benjamin Howard and Daniel Boone.
Burrell came as one of Benjamin Howard’s herders, when Benjamin Howard crossed the Proclamation Line and claimed the entire Boone Valley as his western lands. His neighbor and friend, Daniel Boone, would visit and share in his hospitality, having also settled in the mountains, although Boone claimed only the right to hunt. Burrell played an essential role in Boone’s hunts and travels, credited as a guide for him and his parties, as well as being responsible for leading Boone across the Blue Ridge to the Howard cabin on Boone’s first ever trip across the mountains.
In addition to his relationship with Boone and Benjamin Howard, we have a rough idea of his age, as well as a little of his life up until he died. Burrell was born around 1745, near the same time as Benjamin Howard (born 1742). When Burrell wasn’t assisting Boone and his parties, he tended Benjamin Howard’s herds, grazing his cattle throughout the valley. When Benjamin Howard died in 1832, Burrell was still alive, and was notably willed to Benjamin Howard’s daughter, Mary.
On this, Mary Moretz posed the question, “Why would he will an elderly slave to his daughter Mary rather than to his sons?” She then answered, “I believe it was because Burrell was his treasured friend as well as servant…I feel certain Howard knew that Mary would take care of this now elderly servant.” And this seems to be the case, as Mary left Burrell specifically to her own daughter Prudence, who in turn allowed Burrell to remain in his cabin on the Yadkin river when she eventually married and moved into what today is Ashe County.
Burrell lived to be over 100 years old, his final years spent among his people. Mary Moretz noted toward the end of her presentation, “The fact that Burrell lived to be over 100 years of age speaks loudly to me that he was cared for, that he was respected and, yes, even loved.”
Following his death, he was given a burial – another peculiarity for a slave – beneath a large black pine some distance from the white folks’ graveyard. The view overlooked Yadkin Valley and the delta of Kings Creek, his grave marked by two flat stones, which endured a century before they were stolen away.
In addition to the street name, Mary Moretz has also petitioned for a statue of Burrell to be commissioned and stood beside the Boone Cabin marker, which was actually the “Howard Cabin” where Burrell guarded Benjamin Howard’s livestock and hosted hunters such as Daniel Boone.