Sometimes all it takes is being in the right place at the right time to become part of an area’s history.
Or, in this case, to have an 1880s misspelling live on as the name of Jackson County’s largest town.
The oft-repeated tale around town until 2011 was that Sylva’s name came from a “wayfaring Dane” – William Demetrius Sylva – who arrived in Webster in January 1879 and worked for and stayed with E.R. Hampton and Judge Riley Cannon. Hampton, the man who owned much of the land where present-day Sylva is located, asked his young daughter Mae what he should call the post office he planned to charter. Mae, who had taken a liking to her father’s young employee (Sylva was in his early 20s at that time), told her father to call it “Sylva.”
The only basis for this story is a 1924 letter written by William Sylva himself. He addressed it to “Postmaster, Sylva, N.C.” and described his time in Jackson County, including how the post office came to be named after him. However, his name was Selvey, not Sylva.
Local historian George Frizzell uncovered the name discrepancy after noticing inconsistencies in Herald reports over the years. He started combing census records for a William D. Sylva but instead found William D. Selvey.
Longtime Sylva librarian Sadie Luck is known to have been the caretaker of Selvey’s original letter. She showed it to R.L. Madison, founder of Western Carolina University, who took it to H.T. Hunter, then president of what would become WCU, in 1933. The transcription Hunter had made survives in WCU’s Special Collections. A 1932 Asheville newspaper story, likely written by a young John Parris, must have been based on the original letter, because it differs slightly from the transcription. The letter has not been seen since Miss Sadie died in 1971.
In his letter, Selvey reports that he lived in Cleburne, Texas, which is in Johnson County. One of his daughters, Will Lena Selvey Wheeler, corresponded with Sam Monteith around 1951 and shared family news. She visited the town she said was named for her father in 1956 and spoke to the Sylva Herald’s J.D. McRorie, who reported Wheeler said the family spells the name “S-e-l-v-a.” A later column McRorie did after interviewing Monteith says “the family spells the name S-y-l-v-i-a, according to Mrs. Wheeler, but Bill (as he called the town founder, whom he knew as a child” spelled his name S-y-l-v-a.”
All the Texas census records Frizzell located, as well as an obituary and tombstone, list the man who inspired the town’s name as “William D. Selvey.”
Another Selvey daughter, Maude, who never married, said her grandfather, William’s father, was from Georgia and died in the Civil War battle of Vicksburg. An 1860 census finds a James “Silvey” living in Pickens County, Ga., with a 3-year-old son William.
Frizzell’s research indicates Selvey’s mother was likely Mary Broom, who was born in 1835 in Jackson County, though the Canada area was still in part of Haywood County at that time. So rather than being a stranger to the area, the young man could have visited here before. Genealogy/census records reveal that Allen Clifton Broom from South Carolina moved to then-Haywood County and married Sallie Queen. They had two children, Mary, born in 1835, and William L.D., born in 1837. Sallie died in childbirth in 1837, Allen left for Tennessee, and the children were raised by Sallie’s relatives. Mary was taken in by one of Sallie’s brothers, Lewis, who married Sally Palmer and moved to Georgia. An 1850 census record from Pickens County shows a 15-year-old Mary Broom living in the household of Lewis and Sally Queen, listed as a stepdaughter.
The 1860 census shows Mary living in Union County, Georgia, with James Silvey and their 3-year-old son, William. An 1880 census from Monroe County, Tenn., shows Allen Clifton Broom, now remarried, with a household that includes a 21-year-old grandson, William Selvey.
The William Sylva/Selvey who wrote the 1924 letter definitely lived in this area around the time the post office was named. His letter includes a number of specific references and names that Frizzell verified.
Given the historical record of his family origins, the idea that Selvey was Danish is puzzling. The only thing Frizzell found to back that assumption is a reference in the Sylva/Selvey letter to another letter (see below) he received that was mostly in “Danish.” Monteith said his friend Bill Sylva spoke fluent Spanish, so the “Danish” might be a misreading of Selvey’s handwriting. The WCU transcription says his address in Cleburne was on “Shard” Avenue, while the Asheville newspaper story, based on the same letter, gives his Texas address as “Shaw” Avenue. Cleburne doesn’t have a “Shard” but it does have a “Shaw.”
Did the man pronounce it one way and spell it another? Did Hampton hear something that sounded like “Sylvey” but decide he liked the “Sylva” spelling better? Did Sylva’s name get misspelled when he moved to Texas? Did he deliberately change the spelling? He may not have been Danish, and it’s possible he wasn’t a stranger; Sylva/Selvey was never forthcoming about himself.
His 1924 letter contains the following passage.
“I got the second letter that came to the new office,” Sylva writes. “It was mailed at Fort Gibson, Cherokee Nation, and was forwarded from Webster. I left it on the table as don’t think any of them could read it as most of it was in Danish. I don’t think I received more than 3 letters all time I was there and did not tell no one where I come from. Henry Brendle was the sheriff. He come down one Sunday and attempted to interview me. But I had learned to say my little piece long before I met him.”
In that 1956 Herald interview, Monteith, who contacted Sylva’s family in Cleburne around 1951 – the occasion of Jackson County’s centennial – described the same incident.
“We were on the north side of the creek (Scotts Creek), sitting there talking on an old log,” Monteith told McRorie. “My uncle was sheriff of Jackson County at the time. Sylva had become acquainted with him. ‘Wonder what the sheriff is coming down here for,’ Bill said. ‘Bet he’s going to question me ... if he does, you let me do the talking.’ The sheriff began questioning Sylva, and when he left he didn’t know any more than he did when he first got there.”
Monteith also cast doubt on the Danish connection, saying that Sylva spoke Spanish fluently – “better than he could speak English,” and said it wasn’t easy to learn anything about Bill Sylva.
“It was difficult to learn anything of Bill’s past – from him,” Monteith said. “I always wondered where he learned to speak Spanish, and I asked him several times but never got no answer.”
On the Cleburne, Texas, 1910 census there is a W.D. Selvy (not Sylva or Selvey), age 50, married to Abbie L., age 33, with a daughter Lena W. (age 13, born in Texas), a son Richard P. (age 8, born in Oklahoma), and a daughter Mauda (age 6, born in Oklahoma), and that information mostly agrees with what was learned from the two Selvey daughters who were in touch with The Herald.
Family members told The Herald in 2011 that they have long been aware of the spelling discrepancy.
Selvey’s granddaughter, Gene Anne Huddleston of Cleburne, Texas, and great-grandson, Keith King of Georgetown, Texas, both said they remembered Lena Selvey Wheeler and Maude Selvey discussing the fact that the town named for their father is called “Sylva.” “My grandmother (Lena) and great aunt (Maude) told that story,” King said. “I heard about a little girl naming the town. We had to assume they didn’t know how to spell Selvey.”
That’s where things stood until 2013, when W.D. Sylva/Selvey’s great-granddaughter Carol Sullivan and her husband, Roger, stopped by The Herald office because they’d heard the town was named for her ancestor. After they returned to Texas, Roger, who described himself as the family genealogist, looked through a box of family papers and found a 1924 letter addressed to W.D. Sylva from early industrialist E.L. McKee. Sullivan faxed The Herald a copy of that document.
Frizzell took McKee’s letter and researched every line in it, proving that the letter McKee sent on Oct. 27, 1924, was an answer to the letter that arrived in Sylva earlier that year. McKee’s typed reply leaves no doubt that McKee thought the name of the man he had once known was “Sylva,” as he addressed the letter to “Mr. W.D. Sylva, Cleburne, Texas.” The letter’s first line, after the “Dear Will” greeting, states “I call you Will as I have always known Will Sylva ...”
McKee typed the letter himself, noting that he chose to do so rather than dictate it to his stenographer, on Sylva Tanning Company (Tanners and Extract Manufacturers, Sylva, N.C.) letterhead. McKee writes “I know all about the history of Sylva that you speak of and that it was named after you. Some say it was named Sylva meaning Sylvan (woods) However, I knew that suggestion of the name came from your name as you were at Hamptons at the time.”
The mystery of what Sylva/Selvey was hiding resurfaces in the McKee letter.
McKee writes that “You speak of not telling people much about yourself. Were you running from the sheriff (!)
“Yours very truly, E.L. McKee”
The exclamation point above is standing in for a series of dashes, which Frizzell thinks were meant as an underline emphasizing McKee’s inquiry as to whether Sylva/Selvey was “running from the sheriff.”
In a postscript, McKee adds that he supposes “Henry Brendle is dead as he left the country soon after you did” and that he hopes Sylva/Selvey can visit Sylva.
Paired with the corroboration provided by McKee’s reply, the 1924 letter sent by the man who wanted to be known as William Sylva provides an eye-witness account of Sylva’s formation.
The man McKee knew as Will Sylva, but who was really William Demetrius Selvey, died in 1927. He never again visited the town that was named after him.
Lynn Hotaling was editor of The Sylva Herald for 18 years, retiring in January 2016. She is the author of two books on local history.