Sunday, March 22, 2009

Leroy Couch of Couchtown

In Battle's History of UNC, on page 607, Kemp P. Battle relates the tale of Leroy Couch and the long forgotten community of Couchtown: "The name of a singular character should be recorded - Leroy Couch, a white man. He once owned, it is said, considerable substance, but lost it by dissipation. He seems to have no kin. He sought no acquaintances. He bought or squatted on an acre near the eastern edge of the town and with the remnants of his possessions lived a hard, squalid and solitary life."

In the 1850 census Lee Couch is listed with wife Sally and children William (15), Louisa (12), and Jonathan (9). But by the 1860 census he was listed as living alone, so something must have happened to his family. Both census entries list him as owning real estate.

Battle continues: "In some way it was discovered that he was a faithful and skillful nurse and, on petition of nearly the entire student body, he was employed for years in all cases of severe sickness among the students."

Perhaps Mr. Couch's family died of disease and he gained experience as a nurse through their suffering. Battle's statments about the student petition are confirmed by a petition contained in University Papers #40005 from 1853 or 1854, which recognizes Lee Couch, who "has devoted himself entirely to [the students'] service." The petition continues: "The College servants for some year or two past have been-as they say-unable to perform the various duties assigned to them."

Battle's History continues: "Without pretending to independent knowledge, he implicitly obeyed the doctors, watched his patients with unsleeping vigilance and rendered the needful service with regularity. When the University was closed [2/1/1871], as if his mission was finished, he returned to his solitary life, was extremely poor, but never begged and, when decrepit, died in the county home for paupers."

Here again, independent records support Battle. The County Home death records include this item:
Lee (Leroy) Couch
Born: c. 1800 [the 1870 census gives his YOB as 1802]
Died: June 25, 1876
Race: White

Battle further relates: "Two or three other houses were built near his, and the settlement, seperate from the village habitations, was called Couchtown. Handsome residences extend to this distant and obscure hamlet." In his prior book Sketches of the History of UNC, Battle also mentions that in the 1850's the University grew so much that students "overflowed the old buildings and were camped in little cottages all over the town from Couchtown to Craig's." In response, New East and New West were completed in 1859 to accomodate the expanded student body. Battle also mentions Couchtown in Volume II of his History on page 92: "When [Francis and Robert Winston's] reached the boundary line of Chapel Hill at the hamlet of Couchtown, the hilltop on the Durham road, the elder suddenly leaped from the vehicle and dashed forward with the amazing speed for which duck-legged youths are often famous, shouting, 'Hurrah! I am the first student on the Hill!'" This was at the reopening of the University in 1875.

In all, it would appear that Couchtown was somewhere "near the eastern edge of the town" [Boundary Street], at "the hilltop on the Durham road" [Franklin Street] at a place to which "handsome residences" extended in 1907. I assume that this was in the vicinity of Davie Circle.


  1. Regarding Battle's comment "all over the town from Couchtown to Craig's" -

    Battle elsewhere explains where Craig's was:

    "James Craig lived in the house still occupied by one of his descendants in the extreme western part of the village. He was a quiet, reserved, good man, so absent-minded that on one occasion he rode on horseback to New Hope church and then walked home about seven miles, forgetting that he had a horse, saddled and bridled, hitched near the church door. I heard President Andrew Johnson, in a speech delivered from President Swain's front steps, tell how, when on his way from Raleigh to seek his fortune in Tennessee, having walked from Raleigh, 28 miles, penniless and weary, he begged for a supper and a night's lodging at James Craig's. With softened voice he spoke of the cordial hospitality with which he was received, and how after abundant meals and a good night's rest he was cheered on his lonely journey by kind words and a full supply of food in his pockets.

    "For many years "Craigs," or 'Fur (far) Craigs,' as the place was called, to distinguish it from a Craig residence nearer the village, was a favorite boarding house for those not adverse to long walks. Dr. Hooper tells in his 'Fifty Years Since' how ambitious 'spreads' of fried chicken and other dainties were served up to parties of students, seeking a change from the monotony of the ancient Commons. I remember that on one sad occasion a squad of unfortunates, among them one destined to be an eminent Confederate general, whose hands bore the signs of the presence of the dreaded sarcoptes scabei, were quarantined at this remote spot in sulphurous loneliness, under the sway of the terrible demon, 'Old Scratch.'"

    Interesting to note that both Couchtown and "fur" Craig's were used as quarantine sites for the sick.

  2. I came across an interesting map today:

    Chapel Hill about 1875 to 1885: a map by H.D. Carter and accompanying notes made from information given by Julia Hooper Graves and Lucy Phillips Russell.

    I'll probably have more to say about this map later, but it is the first map I have seen that shows where Couchtown was. And, as I had surmised, it was about where Davie Circle is today.

  3. Deed Book 46, page 129-141 is a deed from the estate of "Leigh" Couch to David McCauley, apparently for the land that had ben Couchtown.

  4. Apparently Elisha Mitchell took a dim view of Mr. Couch:

    "A man of the name of Couch obtained leave of Mr White who owns a piece of land adjoining that of the Trustees to erect a small cabin on his ground. Couch of whom I can hear no good in any quarter thought it safer though warned by some who knew of his proceedings that he was over the line and trespassing, to place his building on the ground of the the Trustees so as to be able to plunder his wood and also be close at hand to supply the students with whiskey, whores, fighting-cocks, and other articles of the kind whenever any might imagine themselves to stand in need of them. I have during the vacation taken it upon myself to forbid him to go any farther with his work and he is wrathful on that account. The whole matter wants some regulating."

    - Letter from Elisha Mitchell to Charles Manly , December 27, 1849