Mary McDowell, the White Wife, 52 Ancestors #17

William Herrell was born in 1790 in North Carolina. In 1809, in Wilkesboro, he married Mary McDowell, born in 1785, the daughter of Michael McDowell who was born in 1747, probably in Bedford County, Virginia, and who died in 1834 in Claiborne Co, Tn. in the portion that became Hancock County later. Most of what we know about Michael is from his Revolutionary War pension application made in 1832. Michael is probably the son of an earlier Michael, who is probably the son of Murtough McDowell who died in 1752 in Baltimore, Maryland, but that is a story for another time.

The 1800 census of Wilkes Co., NC shows Michael McDowell, Jacob McGrady (the minister who married William Herrell and Mary McDowell), and both John Herrell Jr. and Sr. (spelled Harral) on adjoining pages. Based on this evidence, pending further investigation, it is presumed that Michael McDowell is Mary and John’s father and John Herrell Sr. is likely the father of William Herrell.

John McDowell states in his affidavit that he left Wilkes County about 1810 and that Mary and William were married about a year before that. We have every reason to believe that Mary McDowell and William Herrell relocated about that same time to the Mulberry Gap area of then Claiborne, and now Hancock County, Tennessee.

The early tax and census records of Wilkes Co, NC reveal that the Herrell (Harral, Herold, Herrald), McNiel, Vannoy, Sheppard, and McDowell families lived just houses apart. Those families also migrated about the same time to the area that was originally Claiborne County, Tennessee and would eventually become northern Hancock County, near the Lee County, Virginia line and lived in close proximity as neighbors there too. Today, both a Harrell cemetery and the cemetery on Michael McDowell’s land remain. The McDowell cemetery is shown below, under the tree.

McDowell cemetery

It’s unknown where Mary is buried, but probably in the Herrell Cemetery on River Road, shown below, in one of the many unmarked graves.

Herrell cemetery

The first record in the Tennessee-Virginia area we have shows Mary and William Herrell actually living in Lee County, probably just across the border, in 1812 when they purchased land.

May term 1813 – Oct. 10, 1812 John Claypool and Eliza his wife of Claiborne and William Harrold of Lee Co Va. for the sum of $200 a tract of land lying in Claiborne on the N side of Powell River including a stripe of land on the opposite side of said river included in a tract of land conveyed to William Bails by James Allen bounded as follows: Beginning on the back line in a deep hollow at two hickories and at a dogwood, thence to a white oak marked AB (with the right side of the A the same as the back of the B) thence to the south line of said tract containing 100 acres more or less it being part of a tract of 440 acres conveyed to said William Bails by James Allen as above said conveyance bearing the date Jan. 20 1809. Witnesses William Briance, Michael McDowel (his mark), William Hardy. Registered Dec. 3, 1813.

Slanting misery survery drawing

Their land was aptly named, Slanting Misery. Having climbed this land hunting for the cemetery, I can vouch for the appropriateness of the name. Below is a panoramic view of Slanting Misery.

Slanting misery panorama

William Harrell served in the War of 1812. Much of what we know about him and his family comes from his pension application papers, and those of Mary following his death in 1859. William served beginning January 14, 1814, and was discharged May 13, 1814, being in Solomon Dobkins company.

In terms of Mary’s life, she married in Wilkes County in 1809, moved to a new state and environment in 1812 and bought land with her husband. Three months later, her husband marched off to war, leaving her with at least one infant, if not 2 or 3 children by that time, and having to get the crops in the ground in the spring in spite of his absence. She could also have been pregnant at the time, given that women of that era were either pregnant or nursing for their entire married, reproductive lives.

In his deposition taken on March 5, 1855, William states that he is 65 years old and enlisted as a private in Captain Solomon Dobkins company of Tennessee Militia in the regiment commanded by Samuel Bunch in the “War with the Creek Indians,” and served 14 days. According to his military records, he served for 4 months, not 14 days. He could not have traveled to the area in Alabama where he served and back in 14 days.

On July 5, 1871, William’s widow, Mary states she is 86 years old and that she lived on Powell’s River in Hancock County. She further states that William was discharged at Fort Strother in May of 1814 and that William “helped to build Fort Williams in the fork of the Coosey and Talley-Poosey Rivers”.

She says that she was married under the name of McDowell in 1809 at Wilkesboro NC by Jacob McGrady and that William died on October 8, 1859 on Powell’s River.

John McDowell filed an affidavit in 1872 stating that he is 90 years old (so born in 1782) and was acquainted with both William Herrell and Mary McDowell before their marriage. He states that he was at their wedding. Further testimony in 1872 by the postmaster of Mulberry Gap, John Woodward, attests to the honesty of Alexander Herrell and James E. Speer as witnesses to Mary McDowell Herrell’s loyalty. Alexander is believed to be her son and James possibly her son-in-law. There are Spears buried in the McDowell cemetery.

John McDowell is mentioned in the early settlers of Lee County along with a Michael McDowell who is a Revolutionary War veteran, born in 1745 and serving from Bedford Co Va.

The known children of William and Mary McDowell Harrell are:

  • Mildred born 1816 married Hiram Edins
  • Nancy born 1820, never married
  • Mary born 1822 married William Edens
  • Malinda born 1829

All of the above daughters are unmarried and living at home in 1850 census.

  • Abel Herrell, born 1824 married Nancy ? probably about 1847, since in 1850 the census shows that they had Margaret M age 2.
  • Another possible son was Alexander Herrell born 1826 who married Lydia ? and in 1850 had Sirery E age 3 and James J age 2.
  • Daughter Margaret was born about 1812, married Anson Cook Martin who died about 1845, and in 1850 was shown with the following Martin children:
    • Evaline b 1830 married Alexander Calvin Busic
    • William b 1833 married Rachel Markham
    • John b 1833 married Hannah Eldridge
    • Selerenda b 1834 married Pleasant Smith
    • Manerva b 1838
    • Mary b 1839 married Edward Hilton Claxton
    • Malinda b 1842 married James Parks
    • Alexandria b 1844

All of the bolded individuals, if they had daughters who had daughters to the current generation, could provide the mitochondrial DNA of Mary McDowell. There is a scholarship for anyone who fits that bill. In the current generation, the candidate can be either male or female, because women give their mitochondrial DNA to both genders of children, but only females pass it on.

Margaret then married Joseph Preston Bolton about 1850 and had:

o   Mary Ann Matilda Bolton born about 1851 married Martin Mordicai Cuningham

o   Joseph B. Bolton born on September 18, 1853 and married Margaret Claxton (Clarkston, Clarkson) in 1870 in Hancock County, eventually moving to the little Sycamore Community of Claiborne County. Both Joseph and wife Margaret are buried in the Plank Cemetery. Their daughter Ollie Bolton, born in 1874, died in 1955 in Chicago Ill, married in 1893 to William George. Ollie Bolton was my grandmother.

Mary McDowell Harrell died sometime between 1872 and the 1880 census.

Unfortunately, we don’t have anything in her own voice except for her application for widow’s benefits. The application itself is actually a form.

From all outward appearances, Mary’s life seemed to be pretty routine for the time in which she lived. Unfortunately, we don’t even have a full accounting of all of her children. Many things have been pieced together.

But there was one thing that always seemed unusual to me. Mary, in fact, none of the Herrell’s were ever involved in any of the church records. This was a relatively small, tight-knit, community and there was only one, then two, churches. We have the minutes from both of them, and all of the other neighbors were members. Where was the Harrell family? Their eldest daughter Margaret Herrell joined after she married Joseph Bolton. But no place were her parents in evidence. Why? That is extremely unusual in this time and place.

Well, as it turns out, there was a skeleton in the closet. There was indeed another entire story, a drama, in fact, going on, perhaps not so quietly, behind the scenes.


It started to unravel back in 1983 – the secrecy I mean, when I received a letter from cousin Louise, who, in essence threatened my life if I ever told anyone while she was still alive. She was in her 80s then, so I think I’m safe now. However, if I turn up dead….hunt for Louise!

It seems that William Herrell had another wife, a black wife. Not only that, according to the family story, but he built the black wife a house on the other side of his property, that would be Slanting Misery, and he went back and forth between the two. As you might imagine, this was THE talk of the family, apparently, for generations, and cousin Louise remembered when she was small, which was the early 1900s, her family would still whisper about the young female slave William Herrell bought, and who would then become his defacto wife. It’s no wonder that not one Herrell set foot in church.

Ever the skeptic, I wanted to see if there were any records to support that claim. After all, there was another unrelated Harrell family living about 20 miles away in Claiborne County. Maybe they had the wrong William Herrell. It’s certainly possible. I mean, it’s not like he had an unusual name like Ebenezer.

On the 1830 census, William Herrell had no slaves.

On the 1836 tax list, William had one slave.

On the 1840 census, William had 1 female slave age 10-24, so born before 1830 and one young male slave child under the age of 10.

The 1850 census shows William with 1 mulatto male slave, age 12.

The 1860 slave census shows Mary Herrell and 5 others owning a 33 year old male mulatto slave. These 5 would have been William’s heirs.

The 1870 census shows Cannon Herrell, age 35, mulatto, living with Mary Herrell and her spinster daughter, Nancy.

1870 Herrell census

Cousin Louse did not know Cannon’s name, but other family members did. Cannon was believed to have been William’s son by Harriet, the slave. Whether she was really a slave, unable to leave, or not is questionable. Some say yes some said no. But one thing is clear – legally, Cannon was the property of William Harrell, and then his heirs of law, as evidenced by the 1860 slave census. That just hurts my heart.

Oral history tells us that Mary raised Cannon as her own child after his mother, Harriett, died. That she took him in with her children and raised them all one and the same. The same oral history tells us that Cannon cared for her in her old age.

Indeed, this seems to be confirmed by the 1870 census. He was 35 years old, clearly not a slave anymore, certainly marriageable, especially with assets, but still, he stayed and took care of Mary. In 1880, Mary was gone, Nancy was living in the house alone, and Cannon had married and was living in a house beside 2 of the white Herrell boys.

Cannon died in 1916 and his death certificate gives his mother’s name as Harriett Herrell and his father was “not given.” Cannon was born about 1838.

In 1838, William and Mary McDowell Herrell had been married for 29 years. Mary was born in 1785, age 53, too old to be having children in 1838. Her youngest child was 9 years old. Harriett, on the other hand, was born between 1816 and 1830, based on the census, and assuming she was at least age 13 when she had Cannon, she would have been born between 1816 and 1825. So in 1838, Harriett was someplace between 13 and 22, at least 30 years younger than Mary, and possibly more.

William was slightly younger than Mary, according to his deposition, born in 1790, but still, certainly old enough to have been Harriett’s father, and to know better. It’s difficult for me to believe that the relationship between William and Harriett was entirely consensual, especially given the bonds of slavery. How could she have said no, if she wanted to? Had be freed Harriet, and she stayed by choice, I would feel better about this. Hancock County was formed in 1845 and it’s records burned, so it’s possible that there are records we’ve missed. I find it unlikely that he freed Harriett, because Cannon, her son, is shown enslaved in 1860, legally, if not functionally.

The family story says William would live with one wife until she got mad and threw him out, then he’s go live with the other one until the scenario repeated itself. Maybe the women had a common bond in their dislike of the situation. I have to wonder how Harriett felt about this situation. Was her life better because she bore William’s child? Is that the best she could hope for? Sadly, she never lived to see emancipation. She died between 1840 and 1850, someplace between the ages of 15 and 34, depending on her actual birth year and when she died. In 1865, she would have been between 40 and 49, had she lived that long. Maybe she and Mary would have lived together with their children after William’s death.

I can only imagine the heartbreak that Mary must have felt, her marriage vows having been betrayed by William, and then the persistent presence of the “other woman,” Harriett, and then her child. The “other woman” was only a child herself and certainly did not have a say in much of anything, if anything at all. The other woman was also the age of Mary’s children, and Mary had to know that a slave didn’t get to vote in the matter. Worse yet, it’s likely that Harriett actually lived with William and Mary, at least initially, so this betrayal probably took place in her own home. This situation was clearly William’s responsibility and that was likely clear to everyone, which explains why none of the family attended church. Mary was also probably embarrassed, but there were very few options for her and none for Harriett.

This also wasn’t the deep south were these kinds of master/slave activities went on regularly and unnoticed by virtue of the massive number of slaves on hand and the “everyone does it” type of justification. Slaves were rare in Hancock County, very rare. There was no call for slaves as the ground was relatively nonproductive and could barely produce enough for one family. No slave labor was needed. This begs the question of why William bought a young female slave in the first place. I’d suggest maybe that it was to provide household assistance to his wife, but I’d also suggest that perhaps his wife would have chosen not to have that much help. I also have to wonder why Harriett didn’t have more children. Perhaps she died having a second or third child. Oral history says “children” not child. If they lived as a family in one house, that also explains why Mary took Cannon as her own. Cannon may never have known any mother except Mary, depending on his age when Harriett died. Regardless, Mary had to have a big heart to do that, to take Cannon, love and raise him as her own, given the circumstances. He obviously repaid her in kind. Family love sees no colors, even in the post-slave south. This also explains why my family for the next two generations lived in the “mixed race” area of Hoop Creek.

Oral history goes on to say that when William died, he left his land to all of his children, including his children by Harriett. I only found evidence of one of Harriett’s children that reached adulthood. In 1870, Cannon does have assets, but at the time William died, he would not have legally been able to leave anything to Cannon because Cannon was still enslaved. It’s certainly possible that Mary left Cannon something, but we’ll never know because those records were burned during the Civil War.

And now, the question that I know you’re all dying to ask. Was Cannon really the son of William Herrell?

A few years ago, I was contacted by descendants of Cannon Herrell. It was interesting to compare the family stories. It was evident that there was certainly a common thread in both families stories.

We undertook various DNA tests to determine just that. Was Cannon William’s son? Were we related?

Between the three of us, we spent quite a bit of time locating the right people to test, and convincing them of why we needed the test. Here’s a picture of the three of us when we started our journey of discovery.

Herrell reveal

And then, the time came. We elected to meet at the Cumberland Gap Homecoming that was sponsored by our Cumberland Gap DNA group, and we would reveal the results. Of course, we also used the opportunity to teach about how to utilize the various kinds of DNA.

On the first day, we did a teaser, a background story. We created a composite of all of the ancestor photos that we could find of both sides that would potentially be related if William was Cannon’s father.

Herrell collage

So, what do you think?

Is William Harrell the father of Cannon Harrell?



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16 thoughts on “Mary McDowell, the White Wife, 52 Ancestors #17

  1. wow Roberta.   I’m way behind in my 52 Ancestors, partly because of the recent death of my mother, combined with my blinding obsession of an NPE.  But, after reading this, I know just what to write and what direction to take.  thank you so much for sharing your family with us.

    Carla Wallain Davis


  2. Cannon may have been reported as a slave as a form of protection. You didn’t mess with someone’s property.

  3. So interesting! Although I think you’ve got enough people involved to prove that Cannon WAS William’s son, I’m not sure that you have enough to prove that he WASN’T. Right? A more recent NPE in one of your lines could skew the results. mtDNA wouldn’t be useful here, as neither William nor Cannon passed theirs down. If the man who tested is a straight-line descendant of Cannon’s, then his Y-DNA could of course be compared to his matches, who are hopefully (?) Ferrells. Ideally, you’d all match through autosomal DNA. Anyway, I voted yes. Looking forward to the answer!

  4. Thanks, Roberta, for sharing this story. The genealogies of so many mixed-race people remain locked away from sight by embarrassed (or worse) descendants of their common ancestors. I keep hoping that I’ll get a call one day with a story like this — not to mention the research chops to prove it!

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