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Descendents rekindle Civil War tale of sheriff shot 150 years ago

fr sheriffnolandThe death of Haywood County Sheriff John Phillip Noland — a murder story set against the backdrop of the American Civil War — sounds as if it belongs in the pages of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain.


Like the plotline of the award-winning novel, Sheriff Noland’s was ambushed a gunned down on a remote mountain pass while chasing down men who deserted or evaded the war effort.

Although the true story of Haywood’s only sheriff killed in the line of duty harkens back to 1862, the long-since forgotten tale isn’t rekindled until the early 1980s with Sheriff Noland’s descendant Lynn Noland, a retired Waynesville attorney.

For years, Lynn Noland had been investigating his family tree and history because “nobody else was doing it,” he said. And as happenstance would have it, he stumbled upon a little known story of involving one of his ancestors.

One day out of the blue, a friend and fellow attorney Frank Ferguson began relaying the story of Sheriff Noland’s murder, asking if Noland had ever heard of the man.

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“I said, ‘Never heard of him. Never heard of the story,’” Lynn Noland said.

But soon, the life of Sheriff Noland became a decades long obsession for his descendent.

The account went like this: during the Civil War, Sheriff John Noland was charged with enforcing conscription laws, which required all able-bodied men to fight for the Confederate army. Sheriff Noland’s job was to find deserters hiding in the dark recesses of the mountains.

Two brothers, Bud and Harrison Robinson, were hidden out in Roger’s Cove above present-day Lake Junaluska — but Bud got caught before the pair could flee west away from the war. To get revenge on the sheriff, who had arrested his brother, Harrison devised a plan.

On Sept. 22, 1862, JoAnn Robinson rode into Waynesville to visit her jailed husband, Bud, before returning to the place where Harrison was waiting. Sheriff Noland, hoping to find criminals who had thus far evaded him, following JoAnn — not realizing he was following her to his death.

It was a setup: Harrison had sent JoAnn to town, knowing the sheriff would tail her, and as JoAnn approached, presumably with the sheriff on her tail, she would give the prearranged signal to Harrison and possibly other ambushers hiding in the woods. A heavy lead ball struck Sheriff Noland in the throat, killing him in a spot now called “Noland Gap.”

More than a century later, the tale of conspiracy, outlaws and murder enthralled the sheriff’s descendent Lynn Noland. But uncovering the details to piece together the chain of events proved difficult.

To find more information, Ferguson directed him to a lady living in Hazelwood. The woman not only knew the tale but also had among her possessions the outfit Sheriff Noland had worn the day he was shot — a black coat, black pants and a white shirt stained with blood.

“It looked like somebody poured chocolate syrup all over the shirt,” Noland said.

During the years, Noland continued to research Sheriff Noland’s life. And, one day in 2004, Noland found something that he didn’t know still existed — the cloth crimson rosette worn by Sheriff Noland on the day of his death.

A distant relative from Washington had the rosette, which was used as a sign of office during the Civil War. Since he had no heirs, the man requested that the piece of history be presented to the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office.

And finally last week, Noland presented the crimson rosette to Haywood County Sheriff Bobby Suttles at a short ceremony held at the sight of Sheriff Noland’s murder 150 years later.

“Today marked the culmination of a long task that should have been completed a long time ago,” Noland said.

The rosette, which is encased in a shadow box, is on display in the atrium of the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office.

“This is the first I’ve ever heard of a sheriff being killed in Haywood County,” Suttles said. “I was really amazed by (the story).”

The tale of Sheriff Noland’s demise was particularly fascinating to the couple that currently lives on the property where he was shot. Kathy Bell and her husband are both retired history teachers.

“Anytime you can get local history, it’s a story. It’s not just a list of facts and peoples names that you’re never going to remember,” Bell said.

The couple did not know the interesting piece of history that took place just at the end of their driveway until a couple weeks ago when Noland knocked on their door.

“He just sort of showed up on our door one day and said, ‘By the way, I have this story to tell you,’” Bell said.

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