William Harrell/Herrell (c1790-1859), White Wife, Black Wife, 52 Ancestors #44

William Harrell or Herrell or maybe Harrold or Herrald or some other spelling derivative was born about 1790, judging from census records, someplace in North Carolina.

The early tax and census records of Wilkes Co, NC reveal that the Herrell (Harral, Herold, Herrold, Harrold, Herrald, etc.), 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, TN, that would eventually become northern Hancock County, near the Lee County, Virginia line and lived in close proximity as neighbors there too, along the Powell River.  Today, a Harrell cemetery remains.

But let’s start our story in Wilkes County, North Carolina, where William Herrell began his life, or at least where we first find him.

Wilkes County, NC

In the 1790 census, there is no Harrell or similar name in Wilkes County, but in the 1800 census, we find both John Harral Sr. and John Harral Jr.

John Sr:

  • 1 male 45 and over so born before 1755
  • 1 female over 45 so born before 1755
  • 1 male under 10 so born 1791-1800
  • 1 male 10-15 so born 1785-1790 (This is probably William who was born about 1790)
  • 1 male 25-44 so born 1756-1774 (this mark is very light and may have been a mistake or erasure) possibly James who has land in Wilkes in 1805
  • 2 females 16-25 so born 1775-1784

John Jr:

  • 1 male 16-25 so born 1775-1784
  • 1 female 16-25 so born 1775-1784
  • 1 female under 10 so born 1790-1800, likely close to 1800 since there are no other siblings

Therefore we would expect to find John Sr. someplace in 1790 with at least 4 if not 5 or 6 children. Obviously, William cannot be the son of John Jr., so he would be the son of John Sr.

We know that William was born in 1790 in NC. Therefore we would expect to find John someplace in NC in 1790.  Checking all of the Johns of similar names, we find only 1, in Bertie Co., that has the number of children (or more, not less) that we would expect John to have in 1790 based on the 1800 census in Wilkes County.

What we expect in 1790 based on the 1800 census:

  • 1 or possibly 2 males over 16
  • 2 or possibly 3 males under 16
  • at least 3 females

We find John in Bertie with in 1790:

  • 1 male over 16
  • 2 males under 16 (so one child was yet to be born either in 1790 or shortly thereafter, making Mary probably about 40 in 1790 or born in 1750 or so)
  • 5 females

Y DNA testing on a proven descendant of John of Bertie County could confirm or squish this possible connection.

Harrold Mountain

John Harrell (also spelled Harrold there, Herrell, etc.) died in Wilkes Co. NC in about 1825. His wife, Mary died about 1826. The 1800 census shows 5 children. His 4 identified children were born beginning in 1783, so he had to be born before 1760 or even earlier.

I visited Wilkes County in 2004 and my cousin, George McNiel, a local historian and avid genealogy researcher, was gracious enough to take me on a tour of all of my family lands. There is a mountain named Harrold Mountain today.

Harrold mountain crop

There is also a very old “primitive Baptist” church on Harrold Mountain and guess what the names are on probably 80% of the graves – yep – you guessed it – Harrold and Harrald.

harrold mountain church

My cousin George, quite a history buff, said this was the last one of the old local churches to flatten the top of the graves for mowing.  Apparently this particular denomination believed in rounding the tops of the graves – and keeping them mounded up. I don’t know why. They also had an outside eating area because they don’t believe in having food inside the church. These are still common practices of this particular denomination apparently, but many of the churches have modernized.

harrald cemetery wilkes county

harrald cemetery 2 wilkes county

The photo below is standing at the church looking across the road and at the beautiful view.

harrold country wilkes co crop

William Harrell married Mary McDowell, daughter of Michael McDowell. They were married by the Baptist Preacher, Jacob McGrady. Mary’s father was a Revolutionary War veteran. About 1810, William Harrell, his wife Mary McDowell Harrell, her father, Michael McDowell and her brother John McDowell would all move to the Powell River area of Claiborne County Tennessee, now in Hancock, near Lee Co. Va.

Just a few years later, William Harrell fought in the War of 1812 and it is through his pension papers that we gleaned a lot of priceless information about him and his family.

The 1800 census of Wilkes Co shows Michael McDowell, Jacob McGrady (the minister who married William Herrell and Mary McDowell), and both John Herrell Jr. and Sr. (spelled Harrall) 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.

The following photos were taken on Harrold Mountain on a beautiful spring day. It probably looks about the same today as it did when John Harrold lived there.  My husband was taking the photos and he liked the frolicking goats.

harrald mountain sheep

Claiborne County, Tennessee

About 1810, according to John McDowell’s deposition, Mary McDowell Harrell’s brother, this group of families moved to Claiborne County, Tennessee. In 1845, this part of Claiborne County became Hancock County. John signed an affidavit when Mary applied for a pension based on William’s service records that recounted their marriage in 1809 and subsequent move to Tennessee.

The Herrell family lived along the Powell Mountain on the Lee County, Virginia, Claiborne County, Tennessee border. The house, abandoned when I visited in the 1980s, may be the original Harrell homestead.  Mary Parkey, a now deceased local historian, said it was “Herrell” but she wasn’t positive about the specific line.  She too descended from the families in this area.

Herrell house Hancock Co

In 1812, William Harrell bought land in Claiborne County.

1812 – John Claypole to William Harrell – 1812 Claiborne County Deed book D p182 for $200

Claiborne County Court – 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 North 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.

According to Mary Parkey, these ruins are also on Herrell land.

Herrell foundation hancock co

War of 1812

William Herrell served in the War of 1812 and later filed for a pension. He also filed for bounty land in 1850 and received 80 acres (blwt22194) and in 1855 applied for and received another 80 acres (blwt7267).

He reportedly served 14 days in the War with the Creek Indians. However, I subsequently found that he served beginning January 17, 1814, and was discharged  May 13, 1814, being in Solomon Dobkins company.

Much of what we know about William and his family comes from his pension application papers, and those of Mary following his death in 1859.

The various spellings of his name on the following papers from William’s service records held in the National Archives are not typos.

William Harold is written on the top of the page, serving in Bunch’s Regiment 1814, East Tn. Militia, War of 1812.  He is a private, card number 38519847 and underneath it also says 9893 (under the 9847 part).  At the bottom of that page it says Allison’s Regiment E. Tn. Militia.

herrell war of 1812 muster

The next page says William Harrold or Herrald (the or Herrald is actually written above the name Harrold), ensign Benj. Austin’s, then private Col. S. Bunch’s regiment if the Tn. Militia. It says there is one page in the file of misc information.

Inside it says Wiliam Harrold, private, Capt. Solomon Dobkins Company, Col., Samuel Bunch’s regiment, war of 1812. Company payroll for Jan. 17 to May 14,1814 roll dated Mar. 21, 1814. Commencement of services Jan. 17, 1814.

Expiration of services Mar. 21, 1814. Term of service 4 months 5 days.  Pay per months $8 no cents.  Amount of pay $33.29.  Number days added for travelling allowance of pay – 8.

Next page says William Harold, Company muster roll for Jan. 17 to May 13, 1814. Roll dated Washington, Tn. May 13, 1814.  When joined – Jan 17, 1814. When discharged – May 13, 1814.  Mileage to residence – 120.  Present or absent – present. And then a note below that says “see Allison’s regiment E. Tn. militia.”

In 1815, William signed this power of attorney, apparently to collect his pay from his service in the War of 1812. It looks like he signed his surname Harrol, Harrold or Harrald.

The transcription is as follows:

State of Tennessee – Claiborne County: Know all men that I William Herrald a private in Ensign Benjamin Austin’s Company of East Tennessee drafted militia for divers and good causes and considerations me there unto moving have made ordained nominated and appointed and by these presents to make or ordain nominate and appoint Hugh Graham of said county my true and lawful attorney for me and in my name and for my use and benefit to ask demanded and release? of paymaster of the United States all such sums of money or other ?? that is owing to me from the United States for a four months tour of duty under the command of the said Ensign Benjamin Austin and in my name to grant and give receipts to the paymaster of the United States for the same as tho I were personally present at the drawing therefor any other lawful act that I could do touching the same were I personally present.

In witness where I have hereunto set my hand and seal this 8th day of September 1815.  In the presence of George Yoakum.

Signed Wm Harrold

William Herrell 1815 poa

This is the only known copy of William’s signature.

The last page has been taped and states that William Aklen? acting justice certifies that William Herrald (clearly Herrald here) personally appeared and sealed this document which is a power of attorney. Further down it looks like it was folded and on an outside place, says, “Power of Attorney” William Herrald but the e is under the tape and is could be an a, but it looks like an e.

On the bottom of this page, after another fold, and upside down, in another handwriting, it says simply, Wm Heral, ensign Austin’s company.

So in this one document we have his name spelled Harold, Harrold, Herrald, and Heral. It’s no wonder I can’t figure it out today!!!

In William Herrell’s deposition taken on March 5, 1855, William states that he is 65 years old and enlisted as a private in Captain Solomon Dobins (probably Dobkins) company of Tennessee Militia in the regiment commanded by Samuel Bunch in the “War with the Creek Indians,” and served 14 days. Given that William knows how old he is, and given that the deposition is in March, he has either had his birthday already for 1855 which means he was born in 1790, or he has yet to have his birthday which means he’ll turn 66 and was born in 1789.  He signed with a signature in 1815, but in 1855, he signed with an X.

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”.  Mary signed with a mark.

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 and Mary 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 Herrell’s loyalty.  Alexander is believed to be Mary’s son due to this affidavit and land transactions, but the relationship of James Speer, if any, is unknown.

Fort Williams and the War of 1812

Fort Williams, the fort that William Herrell helped to build, was located at the mouth of Cedar Creek and the Coosa River, shown below, in what is now Talladega County, Alabama.

Fort Williams War of 1812

Below, Cedar Creek, from the bridge over Cedar Creek, looking towards the confluence with the Coosa. This was the location of Fort Williams.

Fort Williams War of 1812 Cedar Creek

In March 1814, General Andrew Jackson mobilized the Tennessee Militia, made up of Volunteers from the East and West Tennessee Militias and the Thirty-Ninth U.S. Infantry for a full-scale campaign against the Creek Indians, known as Red Sticks. General Jackson’s army totaled about 3,000 men.

A large segment of Jackson’s army left Fort Strother on March 14, 1814 and marched 52 miles through the forest in 3 days to a point on the Coosa River in Mississippi territory, where a garrison was established and given the name Fort Williams (in honor of Colonel John Williams).

Preparations were made to march about fifty miles in a southeasterly direction to the Creek stronghold called Tohopeka (known to the whites as Horseshoe Bend).

The Battle of Horseshoe Bend was fought March 27, 1814 between the American army under General Andrew Jackson, numbering about 3,000, with about 200 Cherokee Indian allies, against an unknown number of Creek Indians. The location was on the Tallapoosa River in Alabama. The place was also called Tohopeka.

The Red Stick’s had built a barricade on the river, which eventually trapped them once Jackson’s soldiers surrounded them. Over 800 Creeks died as a result of the Battle.

Jackson’s force defeated the Creeks. The Creeks lost about 550 within the bend, which had been fortified, and more in the river. Jackson lost 50 killed and 150 wounded.  General Jackson’s dead and wounded were taken back to Ft. Williams.  The cemetery at Fort Williams became the final resting place of more than a hundred Tennessee militia and others. These others include Cherokee allies who fought with Jackson at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, but who were buried apart from Tennessee militia.

The original site of Fort Williams is now under Lay Lake in Coosa County, Alabama.

Fort Williams sign

Obviously, Solomon Dobkins company was part of the men who built the fort and fought in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. The question is, where was William Herrell during that battle?

From the Tennessee state archives, we find the following about Solomon Dobkins’ Company:

The officers and company were mustered into service January 10, 1814. The men are entitled to allowance of pay for 2 days and to the mileage shown above. (nothing shown above in transcription) Remarks: Attached to this company 4-27-1814, from Capt. Dobkins Company.

Bunch’s Regiment (1814) E. Tenn Militia. Peter Markham Sergeant, Capt John Hou’s (sic) Company, Col. Samuel Bunch’s Regiment, E. Tn Militia War of 1812.  Appears on company pay roll for Jan. 8 to July 21, 1814, roll dated July 29, 1814, commencement of service or of this settlement 4-27-1814. Expiration of service or of this settlement 7-29-1814. Term of service charged 3 months, 2 days. Pay per month $11.00, amount to pay $33.70. No days added for travelling. Allowance of Pay: 8  Remarks, joined 27 April 1814 from Capt Dobkins Company.

The 2nd Regiment of East Tennessee Militia was mustered from January 1814 to May 1814.

Andrew Jackson’s official report of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend (27 March 1814) mentions that “a few companies” of Colonel Bunch were part of the right line of the American forces at this engagement. More than likely, some of those companies included Captains Francis Berry, Nicholas Gibbs (who was killed at the battle), Jones Griffin, and John McNair. In addition, muster rolls show some casualties from this battle in the companies led by Captains Moses Davis, Joseph Duncan, and John Houk.

Other men from this regiment remained at Fort Williams prior to Horseshoe Bend to guard the post — provision returns indicate that there were 283 men from Bunch’s regiment at the fort at the time of the battle.

Since William Herrell was in Samuel Bunch’s regiment, he may well have been guarding the fort instead of fighting at Horseshoe Bend. I wonder if he was grateful to be relatively safe, or upset to miss the action.  He would have been all of 24 or 25 years of age.

Samuel Bunch’s regiment was in General George Doherty’s Brigade and many of the men stayed after the enlistment expiration of May 1814 to guard the posts at Fort Strother and Fort Williams until June/July. The line of march went through Camp Ross, a supply fort near present-day Chattanooga which was known as Ross’ Landing until 1838, Fort Armstrong located on Cherokee land, and Fort Jackson, a former Creek trading center in Alabama on the Coosa River.  Camp Ross location, shown below, today.

camp ross

Fort Strother, where William was discharged, is located at the red balloon, below, at the intersection of Ohatchee Creek and the Coosa River.

Ohatchee creek and Coosa

Here’s the Ohatchee and the Coosa today.

Ohatchee and Coosa boat ramp

The Tennessee State Archives provides this map of the Creek Campaign of the War of 1812, as it was called.

creek campaign map

It’s 282 miles from the Rob Camp Church near where William Herrell lived to Fort Strother, by road, today. If the men marched, on foot, 10 miles a day it would have taken them a month to get home.  They were allowed 8 days travel, which would mean they would have been expected to cover about 35 miles a day.  That would have presumed they had horses.  I also noticed that the mileage estimate was only 120, which may have been from Knoxville to some other location, but it surely wasn’t the entire distance.  One hundred twenty miles divided by 8 days equals 15 miles per day, which is much more reasonable, especially if on foot.

Sneedville to Fort Strother

Today, it’s about 60 miles, an hour’s drive, between Fort Williams at the Coosa and Cedar Creek, and Fort Strother at Ohatchee Creek and the Coosa. Then it would have meant expending considerable effort in very overgrown countryside.  A forced march of 52 miles took 3 days.

Fort Williams to Fort Strother

After William returned home from the War, life resumed and went back to normal. But what did normal look like in the early 1800s in Claiborne County, TN?

Day to Day Life in Claiborne County

The Claiborne County court notes tell us more about what was happening in the day to day life of William Herrell after his service in the War of 1812.

William Herrell was a juror several times between 1813 and 1819. To be a juror in this timeframe, one had to be a white landowner.  In this same timeframe, William also witnessed a deed of Levi Fortner to John McDowell, his brother-in-law.  William McDowell, probably another brother-in-law, was also a witness.

1819 – John and Lewis Campbell, 2 boys 10 and 7, children of Susannah Campbell bound to William Herrin? till age 21.

Aug. 16, 1820 – Road hands Thomas McCraty’s company south of Wallen Ridge includes William Harrell, John McDowell, Joseph Baker, William Baker, William Medlock, William McDowell and Robert G.? Parks. Residents had to maintains roads of a certain width.  This means fellings trees, clearing brush and moving animal waste off of the road.  In wet areas, plank roads were laid to keep the wagon wheels from sinking in the mud.

1835 – William Harrell to Ruben Dean Claiborne County Deed book M p 63 for $20

April 23 1835 – William Herrell of Claiborne and Ruben Deans of Claiborne for $20 a tract of land in Claiborne bounded as follows: Beginning on a stake in said Herrell’s line on the N bank of Powell River, then running up with the meanderings of the said river 35 poles connering? on the bank of said river on a sassafras and cucumber, then running northward up the hill to a post oak, then from the nest oak a straight  line crossing the hollow to a stake on said Herrell’s line thence running ? along said line to two hickorys connecting? said Herrells and Dean’s corner, thence running down the hill with said Herrell area? to Dean’s line to the beginning, containing 10 acres more or less.  Signed in the presence of Theoderick Moon, John Shak (Spak?), Andrew Deans.

William Herrell is shown on the 1836 tax list and on 1839 list with 180 acres worth $700, 150 school acres valued at $300, 1 slave valued at $500 and 1 poll. This record is important because it’s the first record of William owning a slave.  The slave was worth more than half of his land.

November 1836, the estate of James Walker has a note on William Harrell due Dec. 10, 1835 for $2.54.

William Herrell purchased something at the estate sale of Henly Fugate in 1838.

1838, Dec. – William Harrell, purchaser at the sale of Philip Bundren, bought a hammer and chain.

There was also a second Herrell family in Claiborne County. Fortunately, they were from the far southern part of the county.  Based on the neighbors, I have been able to isolate the northern William in the records.  At one time, a second William arrived from Wythe County, VA and joined the other “southern” Herrell group.  According to DNA tests, these two lines are not related.


The known children of William and Mary McDowell Harrell are:

  • Margaret, their oldest child, born about 1810, married Anson Cook Martin before 1830. Anson died about 1845 and about 1850, Margaret married Joseph Preston Bolton.

The daughters below were all unmarried and living at home in 1850 census.

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

There is some amount of confusion about the son or sons of William and Mary McDowell Herrell.

  • Abel (name smudged) born in 1824 (age 26) married Nancy, age 20, surname possibly Fury or Ferre, pronounced Fury or Furry, about 1847. In the 1850 census, they had one daughter, Margaret M., aged 2. The problem is that Abel’s name is probably actually Alexander. Abel may have been a nickname or it may have been written incorrectly/illegibly that first time.  There is no additional evidence of Abel.

In 1860, Alexander’s siblings deeded land to him.

In the 1860 census, Alex Herald, age 40 is married to Nancy, age 26. Children are Margaret, age 10, William age 8, Alexander age 5, Mary age 3 and Daniel age 1.

In the 1870 census, Alexander Herald is shown age 50 with William, age 16, Alexander 14, Mary 10, Daniel 9, Jehil? 7 and Henley 1. No wife is shown.

In the 1880 census, Elliczander (sic – I love this spelling) Harrell (indexed as Harsell), age 60, is shown with wife Nancy J. age 50 along with children William R. age 24, Daniel J. 18, Joseph H. 16, Henley 10 and Clinton 7.

Henley Herrell’s death certificate in 1924 lists his mother as Jocie Ferry, born in Hancock County, TN.

Based on the lack of Abel’s signature on the 1860 deed, and no mention of his heirs, it appears that Abel was actually Alexander.

Alexander’s descendants still own and farm some of the original Harrell land. They provided this photo of Alexander’s house, still on their land, and said that William and Mary’s house was an older house nearby.

Alexander Herrell House.

Dec. 10, 1892 – We Henley Herrell and Clinton Herrell have this day bargained and sold and do hereby transfer and convey unto James M. Martin his heirs and assigns forever all of our undivided interest in the to a certain parcel of land in the 14th civil district of Hancock Co adjoining the lands of J.E. Speer and others and bounded as follows…Beginning in the hollow on the North side of Wallen’s Ridge, thence with the hollow southwardly to a hickory on top of said ridge, thence westwardly with the top of said ridge to the top of the Middle Spur, thence northwardly with said spur to a Sycamore sprout in the hollow on the lower end of said spur corner between JM Martin and JE Speer, thence southwardly up the hollow to the beginning.  Signed.  No witnesses.

Henley and Clinton were the heirs of Alexander Herrell who died in 1891.

In 1892, the Martins are still neighbors of the Herrell family.

William Herrell’s Second Wife

When I say William had a second wife, I don’t mean he was married and his first wife died and he remarried. I mean that, indeed, he had two wives at the same time.  And no, he was not Mormon.  I can’t say what his motivation was, exactly.  I’d like to ascribe some positive motivation to William’s situation, but I think I’ll just have to let the circumstances speak for themselves.

All things considered, the wives probably had little choice in the matter.  You’ve already met Mary McDowell, but you haven’t met Harriett, William McDowell’s slave. Yes, Harriett was the second wife.  And no, they were not legally married.  Slaves could not marry and whites and blacks could not intermarry during that timeframe, so their marriage was not legal in the traditional sense.  Legal or not, they had a child, Cannon Herrell.

Many years ago, an elderly descendant from the “other Herrell line” in southern Claiborne County on the Clinch River, before we knew the two Herrell lines weren’t related, confided this information, and it appears to be about our William. Remember, back then, the two Herrell families didn’t know they weren’t related.

One of the Harrells bought a young female slave and built a house for her on the far edge of his property. His routine was to live with her until they had a fight, then he would go live with his wife until they had a fight …then start all over again. He had a house full of kids each place. In 1976 there were still both black and white Harrells in the area. William Guy Harrell, Jr., an attorney in Tazewell, had one of the other Harrells come in to his office for some legal work. When the matter was completed, the client asked, “What do I owe you?” Bill gave him a figure, but added, “I always give family members a 25% discount.” His client seemed embarrassed and said, “We don’t talk about that.” Hill told him, “I don’t mind being kin to you. Everything I’ve ever heard about you people is that you are law abiding, self-supporting people. I hope you don’t mind being kin to me.”

Whether or not this Harrell and my ancestor Drewry Harrell were related depends on who you ask. I really hope he is a distant relative because he was such an honorable man. In his will he left his property equally divided between his two families.

I have a hunch that this slave/wife was called Aunt Sukey. In that section of the country, older, respected blacks were called Aunt and Uncle. One time when Grandma and my great-grandmother were talking, they mentioned “Aunt Sukey” and did that thing adults do that all but screams to any child present, “You are not supposed to hear this!”

We’ve all seen it, and probably done it. The speaker throws a quick glance at the child and lowers her voice just a tad while leaning a bit closer to the listener. The voice is not lowered so much that the child can’t hear, and the leaning forward 3 inches is no deterrent either. The child remembers and 40 or 50 years later they understand.

I KNOW they were talking about the family… that is all they EVER talked about. All day long, every day.

By the way, the “nice little old lady” who told me this story also told me that if I ever repeated it, that she would have one of those voodoo priestesses (her words) in New Orleans stick pins in a voodoo doll of me. However, I think her death voids the threat, along with the other documentation found.  Never mess with little old ladies.  You never know what will happen to you.  Just saying.

Slanting Misery

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 1800 census of Wilkes Co 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 about 1810 and that Mary Mcdowell and William Herrell were married about a year before that. We have every reason to believe that William Herrell and Mary relocated about that same time to the Lee County or Mulberry Gap area along with the rest of the Wilkes County group.  They probably came in a wagon train together.

I first visited the Claiborne County and Hancock County areas of Tennessee in the early 1990s, the last of that series of trips being in the spring of 93. Subsequent family member health issues caused my next trip to be delayed until June of 2005.

During the June 2005 trip, I visited the land owned by Michael McDowell, William Harrell and James Clarkson. These families, along with the Boltons who lived nearby, would be forever intertwined.  Just down Mulberry Gap and over the mountain we find the McNeils and Vannoy ancestors.  They loved this place.


The following is a panoramic view of the land standing on “Slanting Misery” turning in a circle. Most of this land is across the Powell River, as it makes a peninsula here of the land we are standing on.  The only way to get to Slanting Misery is to ford the River.  Here’s the view upon arriving, and in the middle of the river.

Powell river pano 1

The panorama begins here, looking at the Herrell lands then panning to the Clarkson lands at the end.

Slanting misery pano 1

Slanting Misery pano 2

slanting misery pano 3

The last photo, below, is the hill that we climbed up to get the panoramic photos.  This is proof positive of why the land was called Slanting Misery – and I can personally vouch for its name!  It was over 100 degrees that day, and wading the river on the way back felt very, very good.  Fording the Powell River is the only way to this land unless you go all of the way around through Virginia.

slanting misery hill

Fording Powell River.  Sometimes the water is low enough that a 4 wheel drive vehicle can drive across.  Of course, if you judge incorrectly…getting a tow out of the river is a real challenge.  Don’t even ask how I know…

fording Powell River

In 1825, William Herrel had 50 acres surveyed on the Powell River. This may very well be the 50 acres referred to later as the widow Harrell land.

William Herrell survey

John McDowel, William’s brother-in-law, and John McCloud were the sworn chainers.

Another survey for neighbor Joseph Parkey shows this entire segment of Powell River complete with landowners names.

parkey survey 2 crop

On May 9, 1829, William Herrell served as a chain carrier for the survey of William McDowell, likely his wife’s brother, whose land abutted William Herrell’s on the Powell River.

william herrell 2 survey

William’s Death

William lived to be an old man by the standards of the day. His wife gave his death date in her pension application as October 8th or 9th, 1859 which means he was about 70 when he died, elderly for that time and place.  She said he died on the Powell River, near Mulberry Gap.  He died just a few years before Hancock County would be split and ravaged by the Civil War.  Given that he not only owned a slave, but the child of that slave was purportedly his son, I can’t help but wonder how the war affected his family.

I also have to wonder how it felt to own your son, like property.  Perhaps William never freed Cannon because Cannon was not of age.  Perhaps that was, in part, William’s way of protecting Cannon from a fate even worse.  Or perhaps people in that time and place didn’t think about those things like we do today – maybe William never thought about it at all, but I bet Cannon did.

There are no Herrell or Edins/Edens of any spelling shown in the 1890 veterans census for Hancock County, so apparently none of William’s sons or sons-in-laws served directly on either side in the Civil War, although everything and everyone in Hancock County was gravely affected.  Their neighbors served – some fighting for the Union and some for the Confederacy.

I wonder how Cannon felt, during that way, being both a slave and the son of the white slave-owner.  Surely, he must have known, or at least he surely knew of the rumor.  I have to wonder…why didn’t he leave when he was freed?  Maybe it was the mutual commitment between Cannon and Mary that kept him there.  He would have been the youngest child she raised, so perhaps always her baby.  Family oral history stated that they were very close – that she raised him with her own children, as her own, and he took care of her until she died.

Family oral history also says that William left land to Cannon as well as his children by Mary, but legally, I don’t think that was possible in 1859 unless he freed Cannon in his will. However, if he freed Cannon prior to his death, then Cannon would not have been listed as property in 1860.  However, it’s certainly possible that Mary took care of Cannon when she died.  Cannon apparently did well for himself, better than many others, as he had double the financial assets in 1870 of Mary and her daughter combined, just a handful of years after the Civil War officially freed him.  Cannon chose to stay with Mary and lived the rest of his life directly beside the rest of the Harrell family in Hancock County, his half-siblings, on William Herrell’s land.  A descendant of Alexander Herrell who still owns some of the original Herrell land today says that Cannon’s descendants’ lands are smack dab in the middle of the William Herrell land – adjacent his own.  Clearly, they were all family.

We don’t know where William Herrell is buried, but I was told that he rests in an unmarked grave with the rest of the Herrell family in the Herrell Cemetery on River Road.

herrell cemetery 2

Herrell cemetery

Was Cannon William’s son?

By now, you’re probably dying to know about that 2 wives scandal.

The church was a central focal point of the lives of most of the early settlers in this part of Tennessee, but never, not once, did I ever find any early church records for William Herrall or Mary McDowell Harrell or even the McDowells. They lived in relatively close proximity to the Thompson Settlement Church and then the Rob Camp Church spun off from the mother church, officially in 1845, yet they never attended.

The first name to appear in church notes is daughter Margaret Herrell Martin two months after her husband joined the church, in October 1833.

I have always wondered why, and I may have stumbled across part of the answer. I can’t speak about the time between 1810 when they moved to the area and 1836, but in 1836, William McDowell had a slave.  In the 1830 census, he did not.

Slave ownership in this part of Tennessee is rather unusual, because the ground is so rocky and poor that large farms were impossible and family plots were more the norm. Nonetheless, William had a female slave that we now know was named Harriett.  Indeed, Harriett was William’s black wife.  There is no record that she attended church either, and black people, including slave and free, were members.

When I wrote about Mary McDowell, I discussed this and the circumstances surrounding the situation as best we know them today. Harriett died in the 1840s, and her son, Cannon was the property of the Harrell family.  William died in 1859, and then Cannon became the property of his heirs.

Cannon was obviously freed during the Civil War, but he didn’t leave. In fact, Mary had raised Cannon as her own child after Harriett died, right along with her children.  Whatever Mary thought of William and Harriett’s intimacy, she clearly knew that Cannon had nothing to do with it.  Furthermore, Harriett clearly had no choice in the matter, and Mary had little choice to do anything other than cope the best way she could.  Feeding your children generally trumps a righteously deserved but financially unwise divorce.

One thing is for sure, the church would certainly have censured William, not for having a slave, because a couple of other church members had slaves….but for his illicit behavior impregnating a woman other than his wife as well as adultery. The church notes are full of those kinds of censures.  And if you had no intention of changing, then why bother with church at all.

In the 1840 census, William’s female slave was between the ages of 10-24 and was accompanied by a young male slave under the age of 10.

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

In 1860, William had died but Mary was shown along with 5 others as the owners of a 23 year old male mulatto slave.

In 1870, the first census to include former slaves, Cannon Herrell, age 35, a mulatto, is living with Mary Herrell and her spinster daughter. The family oral history that Mary raised Cannon as her own and that Cannon took care of Mary in her old age seems to be borne out by the 1870 census.

1870 Herrell census

There is something else very unusual about this census. Cannon had personal property of value, $800 worth of personal property.  That was a lot of money then, especially after the Civil War, and more assets than Mary and Nancy put together.  $800 would purchase about 250 acres of land.  Was some of that money an estate from his father?  We’ll never know, because the Hancock County courthouse records burned.

According to different sources, such as Cannon’s death record and the census, he was born sometime between 1830, before Harriett was owned by William Herrell, and 1838, clearly after William came into possession of Harriett.

Cannon died in 1916 at age 86 showing his mother’s name as Harriett Harrell and his father as “not given.” Maybe Cannon really didn’t know.  Or maybe, just like the man said to the attorney, people then just simply “didn’t talk about it.”  Sixty year later, that little old lady still wasn’t ‘talking about it” except in hushed tones and voodoo doll threats to keep “it” quiet.  I never was sure what the “it” was, exactly, that we weren’t talking about.  It could have been illegitimacy.  It could have been the master/slave relationship.  It could have been the black/white racial issue.  Maybe all of the above?  Well, no matter, we’ve broken the taboo and we are talking about it today!

Still, the question remains, however, whether Cannon was or was not the biological son of William Harrell.

A few years ago, I was contacted by a descendant of Cannon who was interesting in sorting through the facts and trying to determine if Cannon was William’s son. We began working together on the documents and such, and formed a close relationship during the process that endures today.  We documented out results, and the three of us returned home to the Cumberland Gap area to present our findings at a Cumberland Gap Reunion.

Decoding our family

Here are various photos of our family members.  We were looking for family resemblance.

Decoding family 2

We did find a male Herrell descendant of Cannon, but he was reluctant to test, so my two cousins, Denise and Carlos, decided to take the autosomal test. They both descend from Cannon’s son, William Emmett Herrell, so they certainly should match.  My line connects is back to William through daughter Margaret Herrell who married Joseph Bolton.

percentages of William

There is about a 30% chance that I would match either Denise or Carlos. Of course, this also means that there is a 70% chance that we wouldn’t match.  A match proves the connection.  No match wouldn’t prove anything except frustrating.

So, the big day finally arrived and our results were back.

Drum roll please…….


No match.

That’s right. Denise and Carlos match each other, but I don’t match either of them.  Talk about frustrating. And crushing….

There were several reasons why this might have occurred.

  • Mismatch may be due to genetic distance
  • William might have not have been Cannon’s father and people at the time knew that
  • William might have thought he was Cannon’s father, but he wasn’t
  • William may have been Cannon’s father with “undocumented adoption” downstream, between William and William Emmett.

I will tell you, this was disturbing news to us. We had formed a relationship with each other and this is not what we wanted to hear.

We were disappointed that we didn’t match, but we decided right then and there that the lives of our people were cast together, they lived together, they died together and they are buried together – and we are cousins regardless. We are proud of the fortitude of our ancestors and proud of our cousins and we decided to forge on with our project of discovery.  I am so glad that we did.

We really needed a Y-line test on Cannon’s Herrell’s direct male descendant.

I’m always telling people to look back at existing records with “new eyes.” I was so frustrated that I, thankfully, heeded my own advice. I wish I could tell you that I did this for the right reason, but I didn’t. I did it to see if I could track down a different Y DNA candidate who might be more willing to test.

Regardless of why I looked again, I was certainly glad that I did, because what I found in the 1880 census explained everything.  Do you see it?

1880 Cannon Herrell census

Emit and Clinton Harrel are shown as the step-sons of Cannon Harrel.  Talk about an aha moment!!!  No wonder Denise and Carlos didn’t match me.  They carried the Herrell last name, but they were Cannon’s step-children, not his biological children.

1900 Cannon Herrell census

Moving to the 1900 census, we find two additional sons born after 1880.

Thanks to cousin Kay, we found a new DNA candidate that descended through one of Cannon’s sons born after 1880, and he agreed to take Y DNA test.

Again, we mailed off a kit, and again, we waited, not very patiently.

Finally, the results were back.

Drum roll again…..




We were ecstatic, to put it mildly!

Kay’s brother matches exactly to two descendants of John Harrell, father of William Harrell of Wilkes County on the Y line of DNA. So, in one fell swoop, we confirmed Cannon’s father as William Harrell and William’s parent as John Harrell in Wilkes County.  John was the only Harrell male (by whatever spelling) in Wilkes County of the possible age to have had a son born in 1790.  William was the only Herrell male in Hancock County in the 1830s, so he had to be Cannon’s father.

In the article about Mary McDowell Harrell/Herrell, I inserted a poll where readers voted about whether you thought Cannon was the son of William, or not. Ninety percent of the voters believed that Cannon was the son of William, and you were right.  Eight percent were undecided and two percent thought that Cannon was not the son of William.

Just for fun, here’s a family gallery by generation as far back and Kay and I can go. Kay and I are one generation offset.  Margaret Herrell, William’s oldest child, was between 26 and 28 years older than her half-sibling, Cannon Herrell, William’s youngest, so there is another generation in my line.

Photo me


Kay Herrell my father

Kay and Roberta’s father, William Sterling Estes.

 Warren Harrell Ollie Bolton

 Kay’s father, Warren Herrell and Roberta’s grandmother, Ollie Bolton.

george herrell joseph bolton

Kay’s grandfather, George Cannon Herrell and my great-grandfather, Joseph “Dode” Bolton, first cousins.

George Cannon Herrell’s father was Cannon Herrell and Joseph “Dode” Bolton’s mother was Margaret Herrell. Cannon and Margaret were half siblings through their father, William Herrell.  Sadly, we don’t have photos of either of them, but we both carry some of their DNA.

Most of all, I’m thrilled beyond measure that we have been able to positively piece our family back together.  Without DNA, that simply would never have been possible.



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41 thoughts on “William Harrell/Herrell (c1790-1859), White Wife, Black Wife, 52 Ancestors #44

  1. Remarkable story, a mystery well-told. Congratulations on a good solve! Funny how we can look at a record and not see what is obvious the second (or third or 4th….) time around. This was a good example of a time DNA is a useful tool.

  2. What a amazing story! You keep me on the edge of my chair rooting for the family.I would say your lucky but to much hard work went into this to say that.Thank you for sharing with us.And congratulations on the new/old family members!

  3. Awesome! Glad to learn the rest of the story. 🙂 It is SO nice to have our research (or old family stories) proven through DNA. Congratulations, and thank you for sharing with us!

  4. BRILLIANT!! I love these who-done-it stories of yours. I was on the edge of my seat till the very end.Well, well done!

  5. I know you’ve said no before, but you must.. have to…put this in book form. Please! You’ve done all the work, why not? Everybody who follows your blog will want to keep it handy as a book and not try to find a particular weekly post…and many of us who haven’t already may find that we are somehow related to one of your 52 ancestors. I’ll buy ten and hand them out to friends and family, so please don’t deny us the pleasure of giving to those we love. 🙂

      • Such a win if you do a publication! I’d like one if you do decide to do it. I agree with the researcher who said the tension built and she had to quit reading. I too id the same. Like to receive an encouraging answer. Sue Knudsen

  6. My mother in law is a Harrell. I just checked to see if by chance she was related to an Estes on ftdna.com, but no luck. My brick wall is a George W Harrell born 1835 in Mississippi. He should be in the 1850 census living with his parents, but I can’t find him.

  7. My mother in law is a Harrell. I just checked to see if by chance she was related to an Estes on ftdna.com, but no luck. My brick wall is a George W Harrell born 1835 in Mississippi. He should be in the 1850 census living with his parents, but I can’t find him.

  8. Robert, great story with a happy ending. I have to admit that I skipped parts of it as the tension built up, I wanted to read about the ending (like skipping to the last page of a book). Shame on me!

    Glad that you find out you’re related, an unsolved mystery can be very frustrating especially after all the work you put in. I just wish I had more time to spend on Genealogy and DNA Genealogy.

    Thanks for this wonderful blog!

  9. Congratulations on the sleuthing and on finding the direct male descendant who could make it come true. Finding those links to pre-1850 people is such a rewarding PITA!

  10. In your blog of 11-2-14 you discussed a Harrell/Herrell/Harold family in Claiborne County, Tennessee.

    The child “Jehil” age 7 in 1870 is probably Jehiel. He turns up as “Joseph H.” age 16 in the 1880 census. Some variants of Jehiel start with Jo-. It is easy to see how “Jo Hile” could be formalized (probably by the census taker) as “Joseph H.”

    The Old Testament name Jehiel was often shortened and spelled phonetically as Hyal, Hiel, Hile, etc., as Protestant families moved westward and may have lost track of its Biblical origin.

    In those days, short forms of names were often taken from the back end of names, unlike today when that usage is uncommon.

    There were 10 men in the Old Testament in the books of Chronicles and Ezra named Jehiel. Some were associated with King David.

    Jehiel is often a pointer name to colonial southwestern Connecticut (accent on 2nd syllable, long first “e” and long “i”). They often migrated westward by way of New York State.

    Abel Herrell may have “reinvented” himself as Alexander Herald. Abel was an “old-fashioned” Bible name, and Alexander was a “new” name from ancient Greek history.

    In addition to usage of Jehiel and variants by Protestant families, Jewish families used Jehiel/Hiel/Chiel.

    In your 11-24-14 blog you mentioned:
    Sept. 15, 1828, Joheal Fugate
    Jan. 12, 1841, Johiel Fugate

    With 2 variants of the same name, Fugate was probably related to the Harrell family.

    –Ida Skarson McCormick, Seattle

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  13. Is there any HARRELL researchers from Bertie to Pulaski Co. GA who would communicate with me please? Based on DNA results I have no doubt that my mother and I have HARRELL bloodlines. I suspect either a female BUTLER (mother was a Harrell) or a Mary surname unknown who were from Pulaski Co. GA. I have already exhausted marriage records and hoping someone might help me who have been doing genealogy on this and also has DNA on file.

  14. Hello! Can you tell me how you know William Harrel & Mary McDowell were married by the Baptist Preacher Jacob McGrady? I descend from Jacob McGrady who resided in Wilkes Co, NC so am interested in finding anything that shows he was a Baptist preacher or the church he was affiliated with. Please email me at Deelite32@aol.com. Thanks in advance!


      • Thanks! I just reviewed her widower’s pension file and it states he was a Justice of the Peace and not a Baptist preacher. The 1810 Wilkes Co, NC census for Jacob McGrady lists him as Esq. so that seems to agree with him being a Justice of the Peace. Thanks again for pointing me in the right direction, much appreciated!

    • Hello Angela. Twas a beautiful story. I have a Harrell, Herrell ancestor in Wilkes, NC died in Wilson County, Tennessee. Like to share. There are Herrells also in Kentucky.

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  18. Could you possibly email me…I am searching for Robert A. Hearell (I know the spelling is different but I have military records for him with different spellings but I don’t remember what regiments or time frame off the top of my head). I show him as being born in Sumner County TN circa 1832, but no records can be found of him or his family. He had three documented wives, all named Nancy…I am wondering if this might possibly be the same as your Alexander Herrel/Harral (which I think was one of the spellings of his last name on military registers). I am trying to convince my dad to do a DNA test to see if we can break this wall. A comparison, when and if he does, would be wonderful…and even trying to verify without it would be welcomed…

    • I should add that my Robert A. Hearell migrated to Kentucky…so, unless your Alexander did, my quest hits another brick wall…sigh.

      • Hello again. My dad finally agreed and completed his DNA test. If you have time, can we compare the DNA to see if he is a relation to this Harral/Herral? Thanks in advance!

        • Absolutely. Did he test at Family Tree DNA. If so, could you please join him to the Herrell project so I can see his results compared to the rest of the men? Thanks much.

          • My Uncle William Phillips is my donor on ftdna Project Phillips.. Nancy Kiser is our project admin. His test kit is 267120. He is in the following Harrell Project. Harrell William Thielbahr, Roberta Estes. Sorry Im tardy in answering. Sue Knudsen

          • Roberta Im not real good at this. I did send you my Uncle William Marshall (Bill) Phillips kit. Let me know if you need more assistance. So now we have two wives right? Kate Johnson believes the father had two wives. I have always wondered how my William had a daughter which no one new until I just ran across her named Mahala. Sue Knudsen

  19. Thank you for sharing your story. It was like a novel, keeping me on the edge of my seat until the end. I was elated that you finally found a match. Very exciting.
    I have a Sarah Sally Herrold, Harrell, etc who was wife to my William Philllips and Im sure they married by 1801 when their first born son, Alpha Peter Phillips was born. They had 9 children by 1850 in Wilson County, TeTree DNA. nn. I have been trying to find where they married in North Carolina but believe she died in Wlson County, Tenn. William Phillips moved to Texas with 12 other families in 1851 and died bteween 1851 and 1860. I have two matches to William Phillips on Family I wish I could fins m=a Harrell match. Maybe some day. Thank you again.

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  21. Wow, this is great information. My mother and Kay are 1st cousins. This is awesome to read and know. Thanks for your diligence and hard work in piecing together.

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  23. Congratulations!! I am so glad you were able to reconnect to your family. That is one of the greatest feelings in the world. My Harrell line has hit a road block. Joseph Barton Harrell born in 1880 in Briceville, Anderson, TN. His parents names are William and Mary but I cannot confirm that. I am unable to locate his birth certificate or find him on the 1890 census. I have found him on the 1900 census where he is married and we have all the information going forward. He moved to Linton, Greene County, Indiana until his death. I am wondering if anyone else has a connection to him or Briceville, Tn.

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