When Charlotteans think of the most prominent male figures in their city’s early beginnings, names such as Hezekiah Alexander, Ephraim Brevard, Andrew B. Springs and Edward D. Latta immediately come to mind. Along with those stately figures of the Queen City, John Wilkes, a Yankee who came to Charlotte shortly before the American Civil War, should also be considered one of its most influential citizens.
John Wilkes was born in New York City on 31 March 1827. His father, Charles Wilkes, was a lieutenant in the United States Navy and often went on exploration voyages during John’s childhood, which undoubtedly influenced John to join the Navy at age 14. John attended the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland in 1846 and after one year of studies, graduated 1st in his class of 135. He continued his naval service and went on numerous expeditions in the Pacific Ocean, sailing to places like China and Manila.
In 1853, John took a leave of absence from the Navy to go to Charlotte and supervise some of the mining operations his father had started in the region. Returning to New York several months later, he married Jane Renwick Smedberg, a member of the wealthy Smedberg family, in April 1854. He retired from the Navy later that year in October with the rank of lieutenant and shortly afterwards moved to Charlotte near the St. Catherine’s Mills.
Upon arrival, John quickly involved himself with industrial ventures. He purchased an operating flour mill from William R. Myers in 1859, which was already a successful business, and supplied most of the flour needed by the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He also had a majority
interest in the Mecklenburg Iron Works located across East Trade Street from the flour mill. Despite his Northern roots, John supported the Confederacy and joined the Charlotte Honor Guard. He was assigned the rank of Captain, which is how he gained his moniker “Capt. Wilkes,” a name used frequently in years following the war.
During the very early stages of Reconstruction, John found himself with no vocation after the United States government seized his businesses. In July 1865, he received a pardon from President Andrew Johnson for supporting of the Confederacy. The following month, in conjunction with a group of other local businessmen, he organized the First National Bank of Charlotte and served as its president for two years. In December 1866, he purchased the old Confederate Navy Yard from the U. S. government and restarted the Mecklenburg Iron Works, transforming it into one of the leading iron and brass foundries in the area.
Although John was very active with his commercial endeavors, he was as equally attentive to his personal and social life. He held numerous positions at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on North Tryon Street, including a vestryman, Sunday school teacher and a representative for St. Peter’s at church councils. In May 1897, he was the commencement speaker at the Annapolis Naval Academy, 50 years after he himself graduated. He also served several terms on the Board of Alderman helping steer the city towards new levels of growth during the late 19th century.
When John died on 5 July 1908, a great pall seemed to hover over the city. He was a renowned, leading citizen and contributed so much of himself to his adopted home for over five decades. Many of his employees at the Iron Works escorted the hearse from the Wilkes residence on West Trade Street to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church for his funeral. Scores of people of all races and social classes followed the casket to the family plot at Elmwood Cemetery, a moving tribute to the number of people he touched while working and living in Charlotte.