When Charlotteans think of prominent 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—along with his wife Jane—a Yankee who came to Charlotte shortly before the Civil War, should also be considered as some of the city’s 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 first 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.
Jane Renwick Smedberg was born 22 November 1827 in New York City to Charles and Isabelle Gustavus who were prominent merchants. Jane and John were cousins, and the two became familiar with each other as classmates at Miss Rittenhouse’s School. John and his family moved from New York to Washington, DC in the 1830s. However, the families were very close and Jane frequently visited the Wilkes home in Washington. In 1849, while John was a midshipman in the U.S. Navy, he and Jane began frequent correspondence, eventually leading to their February 1853 engagement.
John and Jane married on 24 April 1854 in the bride’s home and arrived in Charlotte by train on 10 May 1854. The Wilkes quickly involved themselves in Charlotte’s society with John becoming involved 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 Civil War, Jane volunteered at the local hospital, but having three young children during this time prevented her from being more active.
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 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.
Jane devoted her time and talents to the completion of two hospitals, St. Peter’s for whites and Good Samaritan for black citizens. In 1875 the Church Aid Society organized a fundraiser and after four years of hard work and fund-raising St. Peter’s Hospital finally had a permanent location at West Poplar and West Sixth Streets. In 1882, Jane began raising funds for Good Samaritan, a hospital for black residents. She reached out to her extensive family and numerous friends, many outside of North Carolina. The Episcopal women in Charlotte held fundraisers, as did local children, and the hospital was completed in September 1891. Jeanie also remained active with the hospitals after they opened. Her letters reveal daily trips to one or both hospitals as well as preparing the annual reports for each hospital.
Although John was very active with his commercial endeavors, he was 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.
John died on 5 July 1908, 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.
When Jane died in January of 1913, Charlotte residents from every class and race came to pay their respects. The Bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina, the Right Reverend Joseph Blount Cheshire, officiated the service at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. Mourners overflowed the church and spilled outside. Flowers overwhelmed the chancel. Jeanie was interred beside her beloved Jack in Elmwood Cemetery. A small stained-glass window memorialized her at St. Peter’s Church, where it can still be seen today.
Annual Reports of Good Samaritan Hospital, Various Years. Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, Charlotte, North Carolina.
“The Autobiography of Jane Renwick Smedberg Wilkes,” (Typewritten) Wilkes-Smedberg Papers, Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, Charlotte, North Carolina.
Renwick Smedberg Wilkes, Jane. The History of St. Peter's Hospital, Charlotte, N.C.: for Thirty Years, from January 1876 to December 1905. (Charlotte, Elam & Dooley), 1906.
Wilkes-Smedberg Family Papers. Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, Charlotte, North Carolina.