Anson County’s Mary Dunn: Patriot, herbalist, centenarian

By: Steve Bailey - Contributing Columnist

Note — The information for this column was collected from findagrave.com, but the contributors who collected this data to include on the Find a Grave website abstracted it from May Medley’s “History of Anson County, NC,” published in 1976.

Mary Ann Sheffield Dunn (1759-1862) and her husband Isaac Dunn (1754-1836) arrived in Anson County during the early part of the Revolutionary War. They settled on land that was a part of the Neville Bennett place, near the Bennett Family Cemetery, which is located less than half a mile on McRae Avenue behind the old Mini Mart building. Their home was a large log house. They came from what is now Moore County, North Carolina.

Stories are told that Isaac and Mary, both of whom were excellent in horsemanship, were being chased by the Tories one day. Isaac had their only child, Susannah, a baby daughter, in his saddle. Fearing capture, they picked up speed to outrun the enemy. Isaac reflected that he would be surer to meet death if overtaken, and signaled to his wife that he would toss the child into her arms. In a lightning move, the baby went through the air from the father to the mother, holding steady in her saddle. She caught the child, who lived to become the wife of William Bennett and the mother of 13 children. Susanna Dunn Bennett was born Feb. 25, 1777 and died July 5, 1848 in Wadesboro.

On another occasion, Tory scouting parties came to the home of Mary and Isaac, a mile or so east of Wadesboro. They were seeking Isaac’s whereabouts, but Mary met them at the door and refused to tell. A Tory saber grazed her forehead, leaving a lifetime scar. Had it not been for the hickory splints in her bonnet, she would have died from the attack. The splints broke the force of the blow.

Old accounts describe this famous woman as small and childlike. She wore white in the summer and indigo in the winter. She never said anything bad about anyone, and one day, some scoundrel challenged her to say something good about the devil.

“Well, he always minds his own business,” was her quick retort.

Her great love of people and children, mingled with her fine knowledge of mixing herbs for medicinal purposes, stand out as highlights in the life of Mary Dunn. The little woman weighing around a hundred pounds, and of fair complexion, was seen riding about the country to doctor the ill and to deliver babies. There were few, if any, trained doctors in the county in those days.

Her fame as a doctor spread to Rowan County. She was asked to go to Salisbury to treat a man who was not responding to other physicians’ treatment. The 60-mile trip and return was made on horseback, old stories reveal.

Mary was an excellent cook and her ideas on the preparation of food and sanitation were said to have contributed greatly toward the well-being of her patients.

She mixed her herbs and lotions in her own kitchen. She extracted juices from all the various herbs and roots grown in her garden and gathered in the woods. She made from these tonics, antidotes for poison, antiseptic washes, soothing syrups and medicines to relieve fever and cure stomach disturbances. She also made salves for wounds and sores.

Her best-known remedy was Grandmother Dunn’s Salve. She was country as “Grandmother Dunn.” The salve was used in the county for many years. It was made of heart leaves, sweet gum and mutton, which was all stewed together.

After the death of Isaac in 1836, Mary had her house moved and annexed to her daughter’s, Mrs. William Bennett. Her first will left her property and slaves to her son-in-law and daughter, but strange to say, they died 20 years before she passed away. Grandmother Dunn then went to live at the home of her youngest granddaughter, Mrs. Benjamin Ingram, whose home was near the Pee Dee River and site of Anson’s first courthouse.

At the Ingram home, this remarkable woman lived to be almost 103 years old. She died on May 11, 1862 as the tide of the Civil War was moving in. If her birth date as given on the tomb, 1759, is correct, she saw five generations rise, and lived through the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War and saw the approach of the Civil War.

A bronze tablet was erected in her memory on the giant boulder by the Thomas Wade Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1931. A fitting unveiling ceremony was held and was participated in by numbers of her descendants and interested citizens.

Forty years before the death of this famous woman patriot, she had her burial clothes prepared during a serious illness. She kept these garments, which were yellowed with age, when she died in 1862. But nevertheless, she was laid out in them at the final call, according to her request.

Steve Bailey is employed with the Anson County Historical Society and has specialized in local African-American family history for 20 years.

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Steve Bailey

Contributing Columnist