Lois McNiel (c1786-1830s), Eloped?, 52 Ancestors #77

Lois McNiel or McNeil, depending on which way which side of the family spells the name, has always been one of my favorite ancestors because of the wonderfully romantic love story associated with her and her beau.  Women in the south at that time didn’t have boyfriends, they had beaus.

You see, we have the picture of the cabin she reportedly eloped out of, right out of that top window, into the waiting arms of her true love, Elijah Vannoy.

McNiel cabin

I was a bit younger when I first heard this story, and I thought it was just about the most romantic story I had ever heard, and it happened right in my own family.  I mean, so in love that one would climb out of the upper window, doubtless in the dead of night, drop into the arms of her love, probably in the moonlight, and then dash off to the courthouse to get married.  I could literally see Lois, every step of the way, eloping.  How romantic!

I could see myself doing that too, well, assuming I could find a young man who was game and who wouldn’t drop me, or worse yet, not show up.  Nothing worse than being stood up on your elopement.  Lois didn’t have to worry about that – she had Elijah.

Who wouldn’t want to be that much in love?  I knew that Lois and I were certainly kindred spirits.

Now, I know that the logical group of my readers are already asking questions…like how did Lois get from the window to the ground?  How did they manage to get to the courthouse?  Wouldn’t her father go straight there, at dawn’s first light, and be waiting for them when the courthouse opened?  Who would have signed their bond, something required at that time?  And more logical questions.  Damned logic anyway.

Yes, indeed, there are questions and, ahem, issues with this story.

First, this photo was probably taken in Hancock County, Tennessee, given where it came from, clearly after color photography was available, and we know that Lois McNiel and Elijah Vannoy were married in Wilkes County, NC, in 1807 before migrating to the part of Claiborne County that is now Hancock just a few years later, in 1811 or 1812.  To the best of my knowledge, no one knows exactly where, in Wilkes County, William McNiel lived, so one certainly wouldn’t be able to take a photo of a cabin in a location we don’t know where is.

So, this cabin clearly could have been the cabin of her parents, William McNiel and Elizabeth Shepherd, in Hancock County, but Lois didn’t elope out the window, because she was already married before the family arrived in Claiborne (which became Hancock) County.  Lois and Elijah could easily have lived in the same cabin with her parents when they first arrived in Claiborne County, but any exit out of this window wasn’t Lois getting married.

Wilkes County, North Carolina

Lois was about 21 when she married, born in about 1786 in Wilkes County in the area of the county known as the New Hope District.  Her father would not have been back from the Revolutionary War long.  Lois was either the oldest, or one of the oldest children.

The Vannoy, McNiel and Shepherd families lived in the New Hope area along the north fork of the Reddies River and intermarried considerably.

Church Wilkes County

This is the land of quaint little churches, hills, mountains and dense forests.  This is Appalachia at its best.  The Blue Ridge.

Wilkes Vannoy road landscape

And of course, beautiful streams, carving their way through the countryside, running headlong for the rivers down the steep slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Here, the north fork of the Reddies River runs parallel with Vannoy Road, crossing under Buckwheat Road.  Lois assuredly knew this creek well, and perhaps she and her siblings even waded here on hot summer days, splashing in the refreshing water.

North Fork Reddies River

In 1810, Lois’s father, William McNiel sold land to Elijah Vannoy, so whether or not Lois eloped with Elijah, with or without her parent’s blessing, apparently her father recovered enough to sell them land in 1810.  Of course, their first (surviving) child, Permelia, was born earlier that year.  Lois’s marriage to Elijah would last until her death, sometime between 1830 and 1840, in Claiborne County.

Westward Bound – Giving Birth on the Trail

Apparently the McNiel and Vannoy families like stories, because the next story is about their move to Claiborne County in 1811 or 1812.  There are two parts to the story.  The first part is about the trip being via flatboat and taking two years.  That sounds like a tall tale to me, but it was written in a letter and told by Elijah’s daughter, so there is likely some truth in it, someplace.  You can read that entire saga in Elijah Vannoy’s article.

The second part of the story is that Lois’s son, Joel, was born during this journey.  Whether the family indeed traveled by flatboat, around Florida and back up the Mississippi to Tennessee, or whether they did like every other pioneer family and loaded everything into a wagon and started overland….it’s still likely that indeed, Lois had a child mid-journey.  “Aunt Lou” reported that child, Joel, to have been born in 1812, but Joel’s tombstone shows his birth as May 8, 1813.  I’ve seen tombstones be wrong, and I’ve seen aunt’s be wrong too…so one way or another, it’s still a good story, and it’s likely to be true or Aunt Lou wouldn’t have said that Joel was born during the journey.  She was 15 years younger than Joel, but she would have had first person knowledge of what her parents said about Joel’s birth…and they were there.

I can’t even begin to imagine leaving in a covered wagon, or a flatboat, being pregnant.  Those wagons had no shocks and the “roads” were entirely full of potholes and ruts.  Those women could count, and they knew at least roughly when they were due.  Woman have been “counting on their fingers” comparing birth dates to wedding dates for centuries.

But Lois apparently departed pregnant.  Perhaps that’s when the wagon train, or the flatboat was leaving and she had no choice.  Women in that time were not exactly always in charge of their own lives.  Plus, they were either pregnant or nursing most of their pre-menopausal lives and if there was in fact a group of people who traveled together, there was no convenient time when no one was pregnant, so babies got delivered when and where they decided to arrive.  I wonder if the wagons even stopped for the duration or if they just kept rolling and the baby got delivered in the back of a moving wagon, assuming it was not night time when they would have been stopped anyway.

Claiborne County, Tennessee

We don’t know where Lois and Elijah lived, exactly for the first few years they were in Claiborne County, but we do know where they lived in 1825 when Elijah applied for a land grant.  In the survey, it says that his land includes the improvements that Elijah had made, which means clearing land to farm and building some sort of house, and that he lives north of Mulberry Creek.  It’s certainly possible that they sought out this land and settled there upon arrival in Claiborne County, but didn’t file to own the land for another decade.  One had to pay to file and pay to have the land surveyed (one cent per acre) and then pay to have the survey recorded.  It was five years from the time the grant was filed in 1825 until it was surveyed in 1829 and then registered in 1830, so perhaps the grant and survey were more of a formality than anything else…albeit an important one…especially if Elijah had died in that limbo time.

I have seen lawsuits about a person filing for a claim where someone else was living.  One could call them claim-jumpers, but they were opportunists taking advantage of a multi-year delay or procrastination.  Let’s face it, first one to the land claim office wins.  It was risky not to file.

Vannoy acreage

In 1830, Lois and Elijah were happily living on Mulberry Creek with their 3 male and 6 female children, according to the census.  They had probably lived there for nearly 20 years, and it definitely felt like home.  By then, Lois would have been about 43 or 44.

Vannoy spring

Lois would have used the cool spring waters of the spring found on her land to keep her milk and butter fresh, as the spring water was a consistent 50 degrees or so and was unquestionably the coolest place on their land in the summer.  Maybe a walk down to this spring was a respite for her.  Maybe she cooled her feet in the stream too, and reminisced about the Reddies River days of her childhood.

Lois’s last child we know of was born about 1825, but since Lois died before Elijah, and the Hancock County courthouse records burned after Elijah’s death sometime after 1850, there is no will – so there is no official list of children.  Most of what we know has been reconstructed by family members who were alive in the early 1900s and by documents such as the census.


Things seems to be pretty stable for the first 20 years or so in Claiborne County, but after 1830, things began to unravel.

The next ten years are questionable in terms of what happened in which order.

In the 1830 Claiborne County census, Lois’s mother, Elizabeth McNiel is listed, age 60-70, so born 1760-1770.  With her are two males, one 15-20 and one 20-30, likely her youngest two sons, Jesse and William McNiel.  William McNiel, Lois’s father, has passed on.  There is no 1820 census, so we don’t really know when he died.

It’s certainly possible that William died about the time the family made the move.  In fact, it’s possible that he died before they moved to Claiborne, or in route, as he does not once appear in any Claiborne County records, but his sons do.

So Lois may have named her son, born about 1816, William in honor of her father who had recently passed.

Lois’s mother died sometime between the 1830 census and the 1840 census.  In 1830, Elizabeth is living just 7 houses from Lois and Elijah.  Elizabeth is living beside Neal McNiel, her son, who was granted land on Mulberry Creek in 1818, so we know they are near neighbors to Lois.  Unless Elizabeth died suddenly or Lois predeceased her, you know that Lois was with her mother, at her bedside, in her final days and hours.

I’d wager that Elizabeth is buried in the same family cemetery where Elijah Vannoy and Lois McNiel Vannoy are buried.  That’s the cemetery we can’t find, of course.

By 1840, ten years later, Lois herself, not yet 55 and maybe not much more than 45, had passed away and was probably buried alongside her mother.  Since Lois and her mother both died in the same decade, we really don’t know who died first, or if they both became ill from the same disease and perhaps died about the same time.  Lois’s son, William, also died sometime between 1835 and 1839, but we’re not sure when.

Other than possibly William, Lois outlived all of her children, or at least the ones we know about because they lived to adulthood.  Based on the birth years of the children we do know about, it looks like Lois may have lost 4 young children, including her first child, born something between her 1807 marriage and the 1810 birth of Permelia. The first child would have died in Wilkes County, the second probably in Wilkes as well, but the third and fourth, in the 1820s, would definitely have been in Claiborne (now Hancock) County and buried on the land along Mulberry Creek.  It’s sad that the only hint we have as to the existence of these children is a gap in the “normal” birth timing of the children who lived.  However, that’s often the case.

Pioneer women were tough.  They had no other choice.

Returning Home

Sometime prior to 1940, several descendants from the Vannoy family decided to take a picnic and go up to Hancock County and see the old homestead where Lois McNiel and Elijah Vannoy lived.  Even then, they had to find a “local” to show them where the house was located.

Vannoy homestead picnic visit

The man in the photo in front of Elijah Vannoy and Lois McNiel’s cabin is James Hurvey Vannoy, born in 1856, who would have been the grandson of Lois McNiel Vannoy.  The fact that he is holding flowers makes me wonder if they had located the cemetery at that time.

It’s hard to believe that it has been 75-100 years since this photo was taken, and nearly another 100 years since Lois passed away.  We may have lost her grave, but she is still there, someplace nearby, on the waters of Mulberry Creek, near the spring branch that kept her milk and butter cool.

If I could ask Lois three questions, I’d ask her if she eloped out a window to marry Elijah Vannoy, I’d ask her if she gave birth on the way to Claiborne County, as the family story says and I’d ask her about that flatboat story of how they traveled between Wilkes and Claiborne Counties.

Lois’s DNA

One piece of information we don’t have about Lois, but could obtain if the right people were to test, is her mitochondrial DNA.  That could provide us with information that tells us her ethnic group and where in the world her ancestors might have been from.  It could also help us identify those ancestors.

Mitochondrial DNA is passed from mothers to both genders of their children, but only female children pass it on.  Therefore, to test today, one must descend from Lois through all females to the current generation.  The current generation can be either male or female.

If this fits your situation and you have already tested, please let me know.  If this fits your situation and you have not tested, I have a DNA scholarship for you.

Lois McNiel had the following female children who married and had daughters:

Permelia Vannoy born 1810 married John Baker and had daughters:

    • Sirena Baker born in 1839, married Samuel P. Jones and had daughters Mary (b 1857) and Permelia (b 1860)
    • Nancy Jane Baker born about 1845

Nancy Vannoy born in 1810 married George Loughmiller and had daughters:

    • Mermelia born about 1839
    • Mary born in 1844
    • Elizabeth born in 1848
    • Sarah born in 1850
    • Marty born in 1852
    • Lyda born in 1853

Sarah Vannoy born in 1821 married Joseph Adams and had daughters:

    • Nancy Jane Adams born in 1849, married Franklin Skaggs and had daughters Ann and Lyda
    • Rebecca Elizabeth Adams born in 1853, married William Leroy Throckmorton Bee Boren and had daughters Julia, Laura and Sally
    • Margaret Ann Adams born in 1857, married John Ward and had daughters Mary, Sarah and Emma, died in Oregon



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19 thoughts on “Lois McNiel (c1786-1830s), Eloped?, 52 Ancestors #77

  1. Very well written! I have learned that most of the family stories have a kernel of truth even if the rest of the story can be disproved. Unfortunately, disproving parts of ‘old family stories’ can get you in a lot of hot water with the older generations who grew up with these stories! I have one aunt that doesn’t want to discuss any family history with me ‘because I get it wrong and ruin it’. :laughs:

    I do have a DNA question for you. My great-grandmother married the brother of the man who fathered her first child in an assault. Or, as she put it “He took advantage of me.” Edgar OR Andrew assaulted her and she married Harry. Now, Edgar was married to her sister Annie. The daughter she gave birth to, is my grandmother. Would there be any way to tell which brother did the ‘taking advantage of’ with DNA?


    • If you could get several descendants of each man to test, you “might” be able to determine which group of people are you are more closely related to. However, I don’t think I would ever be confident of the outcome. You are far enough removed that the range of shared DNA overlaps for the levels of relatedness you would be expected to share.

      • Thanks – yeah, I’m not THAT vested in it, but was curious. How about if that great-grandmother’s mother ( who was attacked and molested during a raid by local Native American’s on her father’s trading post) gave birth to a child out of wedlock – is there a chance it would tell me who my relatives were there?

          • I have not had my DNA done yet. (Disability income, can’t afford it.) And I know the story to be true as I found two items – a documented report of the attack and a notation next to the child’s birth record, explaining the situation.

  2. Roberta, Do you know about the Greenbrier McNEILs and McNEELS, Pocahontas Co. WV, and the Hardy Co VA(WV) fams, too? I have an Elijah Davis family; his sister Martha m John McNEEL, c1760ish, and they were among the first settlers at today’s Hillsboro, Little Levels, PocahontasCoWV… I’d like to compare our atDNA at GEDmatch… are you there? I tested at FTDNA/Family Finder [F244618], my Davis cuz ‘M.M.’ at AncestryDNA [A459618]. Elijah Davis 5th cuzs have tested, too. We have oodles of atDNA matches w/ folks in the Carolinas, KY/TN. Pat Davis in OH

  3. Maybe, Just Maybe, the wagon that they rode on was made FROM at flat-bottomed boat!!! I know that most of the Shot-Gun houses in New Orleans are made from the barges that floated ‘down’ the Mississippi and it was too hard or too expensive to drag them back up the river so people pulled them apart and made houses from them.

    Great story!!


  4. Hi Roberta!

    Love the story. Just wanted to let you know that I do have Vannoy’s amongst my matches on chr. 2. Also do come across the name estes in my matches trees.

  5. I enjoyed the story too Roberta. If we aren’t careful, we just might find out we are kin to each other, as the McGee’s, Sizemore’s and Berry’s all lived in the Hawkins and Hancock counties the same time yours did. My GG grandpa Robert was born in Hawkins in 1812. I have had my DNA done as I have always heard I had a full blood great grandmother on my mother;s side of the family.
    My great grandmother looks indian, but it must have been further back. I am C, so know that somewhere back yonder there is a Indian female.

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