Tuesday, December 11, 2007

* William Coffield Fields III

9th Great Grandson of the Reverend Robert Bracewell

Published on Sunday, December 09, 2007

Bill Fields mastered the region’s history

By Roy Parker Jr.

William Coffield Fields III, who died Wednesday, ranks as the crown prince of local history in Cumberland County for the past half-century or more.

Thanks to his indefatigable zeal for getting it right, Cumberland is a leader in North Carolina in publishing the basic stuff of its history.

In 1976, he abstracted and edited the minutes of the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, the basic unit of local government in colonial and antebellum days. In 1994, he published a two-volume abstract of the county’s earliest deed books, covering the years from 1754 to 1785.

In my own amateur quest for local history, Bill was always my biggest fan and most enthusiastic mentor.

He was an encyclopedia of genealogical knowledge of the first families of the Cape Fear River corridor. You would think he knew everybody in Cumberland from 1754 on. He was in fact descended from the early sort. He followed the trail of every member of the Evans and Gibson families, no matter how cold the clues. He died on his riverside ancestral home where the ghosts of colonial ancestors were always warmly present.

When we jabbered about local history, we would get more and more exercised about arcane stuff, especially from the earliest days.

He and I agreed that we really didn’t care much for history if it didn’t happen before the Declaration of Independence!
Intellectual honesty

His fierce commitment to truth and his intellectual honesty led him to totally revise some of his earliest findings, even if they had to do with his beloved family lines.

For instance, he was the early biographer of his notorious ancestor, Farquhard Campbell (1730-1808), and like others before him assumed that the 1762 official town of Campbellton was named for him.

But Bill concluded it wasn’t so. Colonial governors didn’t name towns for their surveyors. He told me to find out which Campbell it was. He suspected John Campbell of Bertie County, a powerful member of the colonial legislature and buddy of the royal governor. I found that John Campbell of Bertie was granted a free lot in the riverside layout surveyed by Farquhard Campbell. That’s him, said Fields.

Similarly, he put me on to the big error in the tenacious historical myth that Robert Cochran was the first owner of the waterwheel mill that started the Cross Creek settlement, supposedly dating from 1765. Thanks to research he recommended, we were able to anoint John Newberry for the honor and push the starting date of the settlement back to 1754.

While he was the crown prince, Bill was like all other generous local history folks I have known. He was quick to give credit to others. He acknowledged he stood on the shoulders of those who came before him, especially the late Jack Crane. And to the hard-working crew of ladies from the county genealogical organization, who faithfully produced the first drafts of his abstracts of court minutes and deeds.

Bill’s devotion to genealogy and history was just one area of his artistic and intellectual prowess. He trained and made his living as a classical painter, and portraits by Fields hang in homes and public venues in Fayetteville, in Chapel Hill, and even in Europe.

As the first graduate with a fine arts degree from the University of North Carolina in 1938, his first work was as administrator of arts programs under the New Deal’s Federal Arts Project.

He was a lifelong zealot for the importance of art in the schools.

He was also a lover of music, active in the North Carolina Symphony organization and the Fayetteville Symphony.

In the universe of the mind, Bill Fields was a veritable constellation of enduring contributions to his place and times. I am grateful to have shared the last 30 years with him.

Roy Parker Jr., the Observer’ s retired contributing editor, can receive messages at roypark2@aol.com.