William McNiel (c1760-c1817), Battle of Brandywine Survivor, 52 Ancestors #83

Before we talk about William McNiel, let’s talk about the name McNiel, McNeil or however it’s actually spelled.  The family story says that it was originally McNeil in Scotland, but that there were three brothers (yes, the three brothers story) and they argued on the way over to the colonies about religion.  Our Reverend George McNiel changed his name from McNeil to McNiel so that his name would not be the same as his brothers.  This sounds doubtful, because one Thomas McNiel is found in Spotsylvania County and is believed to be George’s brother.  Had the three brothers gone their own way after a dispute serious enough to merit name changing upon landing on the colonial shore of Virginia, you wouldn’t think they would both choose to settle in the same county.

There are other versions of the name story in other lines of the family.

The family story goes on to say that Rev. George McNiel was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in Scotland but here in the US, converted to the Baptist faith and was ordained in that church in 1776.  We have not one shred of evidence confirming any of this, and it’s not for lack of trying.  The Reverend George is not mentioned in any of the Virginia Baptist or Presbyterian Church records that I’ve been able to find, and they do exist.  I first find George mentioned as having preached at a Baptist church in Grayson County, VA, and then in Wilkes and surrounding counties.  Note that Grayson was not formed until 1793 from Wythe which was formed in 1790 from Montgomery which was formed in 1777 from Fincastle which was formed in 1772 from Botetourt which was formed in 1770 from Augusta which was formed in 1738 from Orange County.

One story says that Rev. George met his wife, Miss Coates and married her in Grayson County, VA, but if that is accurate, given that they married pre-1760, then how did George’s son William get back to Spotsylvania County to serve in the Revolutionary war in 1777?  Migration was east to west, not west to east.  And Grayson County wasn’t formed until 30 years after they married, although someone could have been referring to a location that was located in Grayson County at the time they were speaking.

So, if the rumor about Miss Coates and Grayson County is true, and they married before William was born, then it would have had to have been in Augusta County prior to 1760, and there is absolutely no record of George McNiel, by any spelling, in Augusta County.

George may have converted to the Baptist faith about this time, and Miss Coates may not have been George’s first wife…  We know George was eventually a Baptist preacher…of that we are sure.  His name appears as helping form the Beaver Creek Church in 1779 and in various church and association records until his death.  His grandson tells of him fighting the regulators in 1771 at Alamance Creek, after which he fled into Grayson County for safety for a short time, before returning to Wilkes County.  However, much of the rest of the story doesn’t add up with the records we do have available.

William McNiel was born about 1760/61 or possibly earlier in Virginia, probably Spotsylvania Co. but we don’t really know for sure.  One researcher gives his birth as Oct. 28, 1757 which could be true, but he doesn’t provide any source. It is about the right time.

We do know that William’s father, the Reverend George McNiel was in Spotsylvania County as early as 1754, according to court records where an apprentice was bound to him, so it’s likely that William was born in Spotsylvania County, especially since he served from there in the Revolutionary War some two decades later.

The Revolutionary War

McNeal, William rev war

The first hint we had the William McNiel served in the Revolutionary War was contained in a letter written in 1898 by George W. McNiel, Sr., son of Thomas McNiel who was a brother to our William McNiel.  In the letter, which was about the Reverend George McNiel, he states, “His son, William McNeil, volunteered in the war of Revolution, and his son, Joseph McNeil said he would volunteer and go with William, but he was not old enough.”  He goes on to say, about William, that he “moved to the State of Tennessee, Clayborn County.”

That confirms unquestionably that we are talking about the same William.

William McNiel’s records from the National Archives tell us the following:

William McNiel/McNeal/McNeil, born in 1760 in Spotsylvania County, served with Captain Thomas Posey’s Company, 7th Virginia Regiment (Company Pay Roll and Company Muster Rolls are dated 1777 and spell his last name McNiel, McNeal, and McNeil), commanded by Col. Alexander McClennahan. His papers say that he is being paid from June 77 through Nov. 1777 and that he is in a rifle regiment. He is paid 6 and 2/3 dollars for one month’s pay. On his November 1777 pay voucher, it says on the bottom that he enlisted in the Light Horse service the last of November, so he may have actually served longer in a different unit.  This does tell us one thing…he had a horse.

On September 11, 1777, William McNiel participated in his first battle of the Revolutionary war at the Battle of Brandywine, PA. Brandywine would become the largest Revolutionary war battle fought in the Northern Campaign. The battlefield is shown below.

Battle of Brandywine battlefield2

“BrandywineFieldToday” by AlbertHerring at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

William fought for his life in this field.

The Virginia line was located on the right flank with 2 brigades from the Pennsylvania militia line. The Virginia line was to prevent a possible British flanking maneuver from both the North and South. The Virginians were unable to prevent the British from performing the flanking maneuver and were soon forced to retreat to a church on the battlefield named Birmingham Meeting House, shown below, in 1974.

Birmingham Meeting House

At the Birmingham Meeting House, the Virginians put up their greatest stance against the British on a hill nicknamed Battle Hill. The British assaulted the Virginians at Battle Hill five times before the Virginians were forced to retreat.

Battle of Brandywine battlefield

“Brandywine Osborne’s Hill View” by Djmaschek – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

These Virginians had refused to give up an inch without a fight. After the battle the wounded were taken to Bennetts farm located 10 miles from Brandywine.  William McNeil helped escort some of the wounded to Bennetts farm after the battle.

Battle of Germantown

“Germantown” by Christian Schussele – Public Domain. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

William’s next battle was at the Battle of Germantown, depicted above, on October 4, 1777, less than a month after the Battle of Brandywine.  At Germantown, the Continental army forced the British to barricade themselves into a mansion called Chew House, shown below.

Chew HOuse

“Cliveden-Chew-Front1” by Djmaschek – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Americans began firing their cannons. The Cannon fire was so loud that blood began to pour from the cannoners’ ears. The Continental soldiers were winning the battle until General Adam Stephens showed up in a drunken stupor and accidently began firing on the Continental line.

This was William McNeil’s last battle.  He was probably very glad to go home.  Any romantic veneer that warfare holds for an inexperienced young man was assuredly gone by now.

Moving to Wilkes County, NC

The Reverend George McNiel had moved to Wilkes Co. NC by 1778 and William likely accompanied George, given that William was as yet unmarried.  George may have been traveling back and forth between Spotsylvania County and Wilkes County because there is a deed witnessed in Spotsylvania County in 1786 by George McNiel for John Shepherd.  George’s son, William McNiel had married John Shepherd’s niece, Elizabeth Shepherd in 1781/1782 in Wilkes Co. NC.  I’d wager that the Reverend George McNiel was the marrying minister.

The Robert Shepherd Bible states that the Shepherd family moved from Spotsylvania County to Wilkes County in December of 1777. It’s likely that William and the Reverend George McNiel both moved about this same time, perhaps with several families forming a wagon train for help and protection along the way.  Maybe it was during this move that William McNiel and Elizabeth Shepherd began to court.

In 1783, William’s father, The Reverend George McNiel, was one of several families that established the church at Deep Ford Hill in Wilkes County on land owned by John Shepherd, adjoining the land of his brother Robert Shepherd, father of Elizabeth Shepherd, by then the wife of William McNiel.

William McNiel and his wife Elizabeth Shepherd were assuredly a part of this church as well as whatever organization unofficially preceded the official church formation.  Neither the church, about where the gas stations sits today, nor the cemetery, where the trailer sits today in the photo below, still exist.

Deep Ford cemetery

In Wilkes County Deed Book A1, Page 186 – In April of 1785, William McNiel witnessed a deed with Francis Kerby and Stephen Shepherd for a land sale between Owen Hall and John Shepherd Sr.

William McNiel first appears in Wilkes County tax records in 1786, he is living three houses away from his father, George McNiel.  William owns no land until 1792, according to tax lists, by which time William has been married for about a decade.

In 1792-1793 he owns 60 acres, but then we don’t find William again on the Wilkes County tax list until 1797 when he owns 530 acres and he and his family are living beside Nathaniel Vannoy. William McNiel’s daughter, Lois, would marry Elijah Vannoy, Nathaniel’s nephew, around 1807.

It looks like William begins to accrue land about 1778, but he pays no taxes on land until 1792, so what happened to this land is a mystery.  Perhaps he bought and sold it on speculation.

Land Entry Book, Wilkes County, NC 1778-1781, Page 337 – Sept 7, 1778 – Alexander Gilreath enters 100 acres on the north side of New River including Walls improvement.  Alexander Gilreath marked out: Wm. Macniel written in.

Wilkes County Court Minutes Vol II, January 1785-November 1786 – October 24, 1787 – William NcNall serves on a jury.  This entry is quite interesting, because at that time, one had to own land to serve on a jury, but the land and tax records don’t reflect that.  Maybe William McNall is not the same person as William McNiel.

Wilkes County Deed Book D, Page 115 – on February 16, 1790, William McNiel witnesses a deed with Nathaniel Judd and William McQueary from James Sartain and Robert Shepherd for 70 acres on both sides of the south fork of Reddies River.  Robert Shepherd is William McNiel’s father-in-law.

Wilkes County Court Minutes Vol III, April 23, 1792 – Ordered John Robins, Jr, Robert Sheppard, William McNiel, John Sheppart Sr, Rowland Judd Esq, Rowland Judd, Nathaniel Judd, Asel Cross, Stephen Sheppard, John McQuary Sr, John McQuary, James McNiel, David Owen Sr, John Judd, John Trye appointed a jury to view road from Deep Ford on Redes River to Elijah Denneys over said River.

In 1792, William McNiel serves on a jury and is assigned with Francis Vannoy, James McNeil, Robert Sheppard and others to view the road round Samuel Carter’s Mill pond where water overflows on Redies River.

Wilkes County Will Book 1, February 4, 1793 – William McNiel along with John Sheppard Jr. and Stephen Shepherd witnessed a power of attorney from James Brown from the state of Georgia to Robert Shepherd to convey unto John Forester 200 acres of land and 100 ac whereon Fielding Forester and Benjamin Bruce now live.

Wilkes County, Deed Book D, Page 360 – February 17, 1794 William McNiel along with William Colvard and Samuel Robinett witnessed the sale of land between Rowland Judd and James Shepherd, 150 acres above the mouth of Mill Creek.

Wilkes County Court Minutes Vol IV – In November, 1795, William McNeil, Esq., swears an oath relative to a deed from Thomas Robins to John Forester.  Note that now William is referred to as Esquire, a title of rank, respect or office.

Wilkes County Court Minutes Vol IV – On February 4, 1796, William McNiel along with James McNiel, Robert Sheppard, Francis Vannoy, John Sheppard and others is assigned to view the road from oldfields on New River to the Puncheon Camp on the ridge.

Wilkes County Court Minutes Vol IV – On August 2, 1796, William McNeil overseer on the road from Punchen Camp Creek to Oldfields on New River.

Wilkes County Court Minutes Vol IV – On January 31 ,1797, William McNiel serves on a jury.

Wilkes County Court Minutes, January 25, 1797 – Ordered that William McNeil be appointed Collector Capt. Judd’s District instead Samuel Burdine.  That William would be appointed tax collector indicates he is well-respected and trusted.

In 1799 Ashe Co. NC was formed from part of Wilkes and we find William living in that area.

In 1799, William McNeil obtains land grant, and this grant suggests that he has other grants or has purchased other land and his new grant abuts that land.  The New River runs on the north side of the mountains in what is now Ashe County.

Page 734 – June 17, 1799 – NC Grant No 1877 to William McNeil for 73 acres on the South fork of the New River with his other lines.

Abstracts of Wilkes County Land Grant Files – File 1586.5 William McNiel received grant #1877 dated June 7, 1799 for 73 acres of land on the north side of the south fork of New River at his other line. This is based on warrant/entry number 506 dated Sept 2, 1794.  The grant itself is recorded in book #104, page 21.  Chain carriers were James McNiel and Thomas Caloway.

Page 754 – June 7, 1799 – NC Grant # 1878 to William McNeil 100 acres on the north side of the South Fork of New River, conditional line between James Calloway and McNeil.  Notice this grant is consecutively numbered after his first grant.

Abstracts of Wilkes County Land Grant Files – File 1587.5 – William McNiel received grant no #1878 dated June 7, 1799 for 100 acres of land on the north side of the south fork of New River adjoining James Calloway.  Based on warrant/entry number 505 dated Sept. 3, 1794.  Grant is recorded in book 104, page 21.  James McNiel and Thomas Calloway chain carriers.

I don’t know exactly where this land was, but I do have a suspicion.

The New River is in what is now Ashe County, which was formed in 1799.  The Shepherd family lived all along what is the north fork of Lewis Creek which reaches almost the entire way to the top of the mountains where the Blue Ridge Parkway is today.  Calloway Gap is the way through the mountains to descend into the South Fork of the New River on the other side.  The map below shows present day Ashe County with Wilkes directly below.  The Purlear area on 16 is the area where the Shepherd’s lived and where the Deep Ford Hill and Church was located.

Ashe County

The map below shows the South Fork of the New River at the top arrow, Calloway Gap at the middle arrow, and the uppermost part of the North Fork of Lewis Creek at the bottom arrow.  These locations really aren’t terribly far apart – well – if you’re a crow.

Ironically, I have driven this section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, but it was years before I realized the connections I had here.  At that time, the connection that drew me back year after year was purely in my heart.

New River Ashe County

Wilkes County Deed Book F1 – Page 189 – October 13, 1803 – From George Lawreance to William McNiel of Ashe County, NC for $400, 320 acres on the south fork of Lewis Fork…top ridge…Beech Hill.  Signed by George Lawrence and witnessed by Joseph McNiel, Thomas McNiel and George McNiel.

Page 131 – October 8, 1804 – From William McNiel to Isaiah Case for $400, 320 acres on the south fork of Lewis Fork, signed by William and witnessed by Andrew Vannoy and Joel Vannoy.

In 1805, William McNiel lost his father.  Reverend George died on June 7, 1805.  He was likely buried the next day in what is known as the McNiel Burying Ground in Parsonville, NC – on his land on Lewis Creek.  William would have been about 45 years old.  William was lucky to have his father as long as he did, but that doesn’t make the pain of his death any less.

William McNiel serves as the administrator of his father’s estate, as shown in the Wilkes County Will Book 2 Abstracts, entry 245.  At the August court term in 1808, William submits the inventory of the estate of George McNiel and wife, 1 negro man at 35 pounds VA money and 1 negro girl at 40 pounds VA money – signed William NcNiel administrator.  I’m unclear as to the meaning of “and wife” and have asked a historian at the archives in Raleigh to check this original record.

In February 1810, William moved back to Wilkes County from neighboring Ashe County and purchased 150 acres on the North Fork of Lewis Creek, probably not far from where the Reverend George McNiel had lived.

Wilkes Deed book G and H, Page 178 – February 3, 1810 – From James Steward and William McNiel of Ashe County NC for $200, 150 acres on the waters of the North Fork of Lewis Fork, it being the place where William Yates now lives.  Signed by James Steward and witnessed by Alexander Brown and Thomas Brown.

The last record in Wilkes County of William is the land record where he sells the land “where he lives” to his daughter Lois, and son-in-law, Elijah Vannoy.  There is a persistent rumor that Elijah and Lois had eloped.  If that is true, then apparently things had been smoothed over by 1810 – or William was resigned to their marriage since it was a done deal and they had children by then.

Wilkes Deed book G and H, Page 175 – December 31, 1810 between William McNeel and Elijah Vannoy for $250, 150 acres on Boller Creek, a fork of Lewis Fork, place where William McNeel now lives.  Witness John Forrester and John Forrester Jr.  Signed by William McNeel.

Taking a look at a current map today, there is a Boiling Springs Road that runs along a branch that dumps into Lewis Fork – so I’m betting this is where William’s land was located.

Boiling Spring Wilkes Co


William is facing a crossroads.  His father has died.  We believe his mother died in the late 1780s, so there is nothing to hold him in Wilkes County now.  Furthermore, his own children are marrying as well.  Sarah has probably married Joel Fairchild, Lois has married Elijah Vannoy, George has married Nancy Baker.

If William is ever going to move west and settle elsewhere, he has to be doing that pretty soon, or forever lose the opportunity.  I have to ask myself, what would possibly cause a man who is comfortably established at about age 50, a landowner, to up and sell everything to move to the undeveloped frontier to find himself chopping original growth trees down on rough mountainsides – 30 years after he did it the first time.

Was this the pioneer equivalent of a mid-life crisis?  Instead of a new girlfriend and a corvette, you strike out to homestead new land and chop trees to prove your strength and youthful vigor???

Or was it because his children could not afford land in Wilkes County, so the entire family went where land was more affordable?  Was leading the way William’s way of preventing his family from being split as his children would assuredly leave for parts unknown, one by one, being scattered to the wind?  Did he hear his three married children discussing moving westward to settle and decide that he could either lead or get left behind?

One thing is for sure, a large group of Wilkes County families wound up in the same five or 6 mile radius (area of about 6 (NS) x 16 (EW) miles) of northern Claiborne County on both Little Mulberry Creek and Blackwater between Wallen Mountain and Newman’s Ridge about this same timeframe – so it must have been a much discussed destination location.

Wilkes transplants in Claiborne

On To Claiborne County, Tennessee

By about 1811 or so, William McNiel and Elizabeth Shepherd McNiel would leave Wilkes and Ashe County forever, moving to Claiborne County, Tennessee.  Elizabeth, now age 44 or 45 would have her last child about the time they set out on their journey.  The McNeil book by Hayes says that William’s children were all born in Wilkes with the possible exception of William, their 10th child.

All of their married children and spouses accompanied them as well.  No child left behind.

There is a very interesting story about how this caravan of settlers got to Tennessee.  Elijah Vannoy’s daughter said they traveled by flatboat and the journey took two years.  This story is told in detail in the Elijah and Joel Vannoy stories, as Joel Vannoy, Elizabeth and William’s grandson, was reportedly born during this journey to Lois McNiel and Elijah Vannoy.

By 1816, the family was definitely living in the Claiborne/Lee Co. area of Tennessee, purchasing land on the North side of Powell Mountain near Mulberry Gap and then later, in the Pleasant View area. In his only transaction in the new neighborhood, William witnesses a land sale to his son George.

In 1816 Levi Carner sells to George McNiel a tract of land lying on the N side of Powell Mountain near Mulberry Gap containing 69 acres for $525.  Signed in the presence of William McNiel, James Anderson and Burrell G. Sullivant.

In 1817, Levi Keanus sells land to Neal McNeal on Mulberry Creek adjacent Josiah Ramsey.  Joel Fiarchild, William McNiel and John NcNeal all sign as witnesses.  However, in 1823 when this deed was registered, the sale was proven by the oath of Joel Fairchild.

In 1819 George McNiell to John Stokely part of land where McNiel now lives lying in Claiborne on Mulberry which was sold to John McKean, 5 acres to include storehouse.

There is no 1820 Claiborne census and William is not shown in the 1830 census. Elizabeth is shown in 1830 but not in 1840.  Were William or Elizabeth, his widow, alive, they would have surly filed for a Revolutionary War pension based on William’s service when pensions became available by an act of Congress on June 7, 1832.

I’m fairly certain William was gone by May of 1823 when William Inglebarger sells land to Neal McNeal and the transaction is signed by his mother, Elizabeth, his uncle, John McNeil and Joel Fairchild.  None of the witnesses can write and all signed with an X.

By 1834, the McNiel family, William’s children, were selling their land on Mulberry Creek and was buying land on Little Sycamore Creek, about 17 miles away.

McNiel Mulberry to Little Sycamore

Elijah Vannoy and Lois McNiel’s son, Joel Vannoy would follow to Little Sycamore some years later, in the 1860s.  Eventually, the Vannoy and McNiel families would comprise a big part of the Little Sycamore population.

In 1834, Nancy Hill, widow and her children sold the lands of James Hill decd to Neal McNiel, land lying on the waters of Little Sycamore Creek of the Clinch River.

In 1830 John Carmack conveyed the lands on the waters of Little Sycamore to John McNeil.

In 1848 Neal S. McNiel sells to John McNiel Sr. the land in Claiborne County District 8 containing by estimation 820 acres – William Houston’s corner of one of his Joab Hill tracts and near Peter Peck’s corner to the old James Hill line to a stake in John Bartlett’s line.  Witness RC McNiel.

Obviously Neal had accumulated quite a bit of land.

Since we don’t know when William died, we also can’t pinpoint where he was buried.  William is very likely buried on his son Neil’s land or the Elijah Vannoy land in Hancock County.  The Vannoy and McNiel families lived adjacent in what is how Hancock County and in the 1830 census, Elizabeth, William’s widow is living on her son Neil McNiel’s land.

Touring the Neighborhood

In the article about Elizabeth Shepherd, we found the land in Hancock County (formerly Claiborne) where Neal McNiel was living in the 1830s when his mother, Elizabeth, William McNiel’s widow, was living adjacent to him, according to the census.  We know that William was gone by then.  Our last whisper of William McNiel in Claiborne County was in September of 1817 when he witnessed a deed for his sons.  If William died then, he left Elizabeth with son William Jr., probably just a toddler, and children from that age to adulthood.  Her survival at that time probably depended heavily on her adult children and

There are so many questions that remain.  For a man who was quite involved in real estate and owned land in Wilkes County, why did he purchase none in Claiborne?  His sons did.  Did he give his sons or his children money and decide simply to live on their land until his death?  Was he ill or injured?

This location in Turner Hollow is where Niel McNiel’s land was located, and William’s son-in-law, Elijah Vannoy owned land located at the red balloon.  It’s a good bet that William lived with one or the other, or someplace in-between.

McNiel Vannoy land

Recently, my cousin Dolores was kind enough to take pictures of the land in this area when she visited on a genealogy adventure.  Thank you so much cousin Dolores.

To help understand what you are looking at the next few photos, let’s first look at the map of the landowners in the area.  The dot on the map above in Turner Hollow is the land shown on the map below.

Josiah Ramsey land - Niel McNiel

Cousin Dolores took the following photo from Eli Davis’s land looking toward Wallen’s ridge, meaning that she was most likely looking right at and across Niel McNiel’s land.

McNiel Hancock Wallen

This next photo is Back Valley Road near Fortner, which is shown on the following map.

McNiel Hancock Wallen map

This location would have been on Niel McNiel’s land

McNiel Hancock Wallen2

So if William didn’t live on this land, he certainly saw it regularly and it probably looked much the same then as it does now.

McNIel Hancock Wallen 3

I wonder if old William can see us today viewing the same vistas that he looked at as he looked over these fields.

McNiel Hancock Wallen 4

Did he look at these mountains and think about Wilkes County?

McNiel Hancock Wallen 5

I want to drink in what he saw and I’d so like for him to tell me about these fields and lands himself.

McNiel Hancock Wallen 6

The hills in this area are more rolling than the land in Wilkes County.  This could have been part of the allure of moving.

McNIel Hancock Wallen 7

Nothing more American than barns – although William’s barn, if he had one, would have been much smaller.

McNiel Hancock Wallen 8

William is assuredly buried here someplace, but where?  There is a Davis family cemetery on the Eli Davis land.

McNiel Hancock Wallen 9

What a beautiful place to spend your life, not to mention resting eternally.  He is assuredly buried someplace on these lands.

I don’t know, but I suspect that William died about 1817.  He stopped witnessing things and being involved in any way.  He had a long history of public service in Wilkes County and there is no reason to think that would change unless his health changed.  Secondly, his daughter Lois named a son born about 1816 William Vannoy.  William may not have gotten to spend much time living in Claiborne, now Hancock, County at all.

William’s Children

Many of William’s children carried on the tradition of local involvement and public service.

  • Sarah or Sallie McNiel, named after Elizabeth’s mother and possibly William’s mother as well, was born about 1784 and married Joel Fairchild in Wilkes County. They moved to Claiborne County where Sallie died on January 2, 1861 and is buried in the Fairchild Cemetery in Hancock County. She had 5 children.
  • George McNiel, named after William’s father, was born on September 21, 1786 in Wilkes County and died in 1870 in Claiborne County, TN and is buried in the McNiel Cemetery, probably on his own land. He married Nancy Baker in Wilkes County in 1809, having 11 children, and married Matilda Yeary in 1845, having two more children. Where he lived when he died is unknown but the land he purchased in 1816 was near Mulberry Gap on Powell Mountain.
  • Lois McNiel born about 1786 and married Elijah Vannoy about 1807 in Wilkes County. Lois died in the 1830s in Claiborne, now Hancock, County, TN. She had 10 children.
  • Neil McNiel was born about 1792 in Wilkes County and died in 1839 in Claiborne County, TN. He is likely buried on his own land, but whether he is buried in Hancock County or in Claiborne in the Little Sycamore Community is uncertain.   Neil married Elly Ramsey, daughter of Josiah Ramsey, pioneer settler of the Ramsey family and neighbor. They had only three known children, although there were likely more.  Elly is likely buried in the old Josiah Ramsey cemetery, and Niel could be buried there beside her.
  • Mary was born about 1792 in Wilkes County. She married Robert Campbell in 1817 in Claiborne County and died in 1881 in Bradley County, TN. I show only one child for her, Anderson, but I have a very difficult time believing she didn’t have additional children.
  • Nancy McNiel born in 1794 in Wilkes County married Alexander Campbell in 1815 in Claiborne County and is shown with only 3 male children. She died in 1839 in Hancock County.
  • John McNiel was born July 1, 1803 in Ashe County, NC and died in 1882/1883 in Claiborne County. In 1824 he married Elizabeth Campbell, sister to the spouses of two of his siblings. They had 8 children.

John McNeil b 1803

  • Elizabeth McNiel, named after her mother, born between 1800 and 1810 married Andrew McClary. The 1840 census shows them with 2 daughters, but I can’t find the family in 1850.
  • Jesse McNiel born about 1806 in Ashe County, died in 1890 in Claiborne County and married Bettie Campbell in June 1837. I have no information about their children. In the 1850 census, Jesse is living with his brother. I don’t find him in the 1860 census.
  • William McNiel, named after his father, was born about 1812, although where is uncertain. He could have been born in Claiborne County. In 1839 he married Nancy Gilbert and in 1849, he married Nancy Carter. I have no record of children for William and I do not find him in the 1850 census, although in 1860 we do find him in Hancock County with 3 children and he lists his birth location as Tennessee.

Some of William’s children were merchants in the small town of Sneedville, as told in various local history books.

At Greasy Rock, later known as Sneedville, Hancock Co., a store was opened in front the of the dwelling of Mrs. Elizabeth Campbell facing Main St. by Robert and Alexander Campbell and William and John McNeil with William McNeil as manager.  John McNeil eventually settled on Little Sycamore in Claiborne County where he was engaged in farming.

Little Sycamore Baptist Church in Claiborne County was built on land donated by John McNiel in 1840.  John NcNiel was trustee and the leading man in the organization and in the affairs of the church until his death in 1882.  The original church was built of logs and the plaster on the walls was mixed with cow hair to hold it together.  The hair came from John McNiel’s tannery nearby.  Members would come to church in the daylight, but would return home in the dark by the light of pine torches.

The church was used during the Civil War as a hospital for wounded Confederate soldiers.  Local people came to help tend the wounded.  Those who died were buried in the cemetery above the church, but some were removed and taken to their homes after the war.  I would not be the least bit surprised if John weren’t buried in that same cemetery

William’s son, John, seemed to have taken after his father in a number of ways – not the least of which was in the establishment of a Baptist church.


I was very fortunate that a McNiel cousin was willing to DNA test several years ago.  To date, there is still only one known cousin who has tested.  Ironic given that the Reverend George McNiel had many children and descendants.

However, that known cousin has several matches that are quite interesting and prove that other McNiel families, by other spellings, in other places are indeed from the same original family line.

  • Thomas McNeil married in 1750 Rombout, NY
  • Hugh Neel b 1750 Ireland
  • William McNeill b 1851 Blackbraes, Stirlingshire (a mining location in the central lowlands of Scotland)
  • Shamus O’Neal b 1775 County Mayo
  • Aystin McGreal b 1780 County Mayo
  • Maurice McNeely from County Antrim, Northern Ireland
  • Roger McNally from County Monaghan, Ireland (border between Northern Ireland and Ireland)

There are really two things I’d like to solve utilizing DNA.

First, was Thomas McNiel in Spotsylvania County the brother of Reverend George McNiel?  Maybe better stated, do they share a common paternal ancestor?  Clearly Y DNA testing cannot prove that Thomas was George’s brother, but it can certainly prove that he wasn’t.  Thomas is believed to have migrated to Caswell County, NC where he died before December of 1781.  He had sons, John, Thomas and Benjamin.  Several years ago, I was corresponding with a lady who descended from this line and there were males at that time.

I would very much like to confirm Thomas as a probable brother to George, or put that speculation to rest forever.

Looking at my cousin’s Y matches, I don’t see any evidence that Thomas’s line has tested nor do I see any matches to that line on his Family Finder results.

I then checked the Family Finder results of other McNiel descendants – and found no matches to the Thomas of NC either.  However, there’s nothing to indicate his line has ever tested.

I checked Y search, and no McNiel’s are found by any surname spelling who descend from Thomas.

I checked the MacNeil Y DNA project to see if someone listed Thomas, and so far, nothing, although there are several who list no “most distant ancestor” information, and Thomas could be one of those lines.

I decided to do a search at Family Tree DNA, utilizing their new search function, on Thomas McNiel who married Ann Tolbert to see if anyone has a tree uploaded on Family Tree DNA who descends from this man – and there are at least two – although we can’t tell is this is a Y, mitochondrial or autosomal test.  I sure wish there was a way to contact these people, but as of today, there isn’t, nor is there a way to determine if you match these people aside from going through each and every tree that has a McNiel listed in the matches list under ancestral surnames.

Secondly, I very much want to match a McNiel who knows where their family was from in the British Isles – and I don’t mean a large city.  What I’m looking for is the ancestral village.

When I look at my cousins matches, he has Y DNA matches with several O’neals, some Neils and Neills, a couple McNeills, one McNellis, one McNece, one McNally, one McNeely and a McGreal from County Mayo – but no specific location in County Mayo is listed.

Mayo map

County Mayo is in the western part of Ireland and is not in the English plantation area which is today, Northern Ireland.

Then, we also find County Antrim in Northern Ireland, County Monaghan in Ireland, bordering Northern Ireland and then Stirlingshire in Scotland.  Certainly nothing definitive.

If you look at my McNiel cousin’s 67 marker European matches, you’ll see the following map.

McNIel 67 marker match map

This northern Ireland location is very suggestive of an ancestral location for our McNiel line, but the Mc part of McNiel suggest perhaps Scots-Irish, as does the northern Ireland grouping of matches.  Northern Ireland was the Ulster Plantation region.

We’ve made progress over the years, but we’re just not quite there yet.

Hope springs eternal.

I guess one might say that the paternal McNiel ancestors “got around,” leaving their DNA scattered across Ireland and Scotland and the name spelled just closely enough to be confusing – and intriguing!  Nothing like a good family mystery to peak your curiosity!

Of course, with this line being descended from Niall of the 9 Hostages, it’s possible that some of these various lines simply adopted the surname based on their ancestral heritage and are not actually descended from a common ancestor since the advent of surnames.  Generally, when people of the same surname match, the assumption is that the common ancestor is since the adoption of surnames…otherwise the surnames wouldn’t match.  In this case, with the widespread fame of Niall of the 9 Hostages, I don’t think the common surname can be assumed to mean that the common ancestor occurred after the adoption of surnames.  Leave it up to my family to cast doubt where others find certainty!



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14 thoughts on “William McNiel (c1760-c1817), Battle of Brandywine Survivor, 52 Ancestors #83

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  2. I must cmmend you on your work. Seems like a lifetmes work. I and my sister are just now starting our search. All have done DNA testing except one brother. I nee to buy another kit. We are McNeal of Bedford County, VA. But, all my father’s family is from Anniston, AL. I was excited to read of the McNeil DNA Project. I find you story so informative. All. Our DNA test are on Ancestry.com. I thought each companies test would be shared automatically. How can we add them all together? We are all missing a lot by not sharing

    • I would certainly like to know if our McNeal/McNiel/McNeil families are from the same McNeil root, so to speak.

      There are a couple of different answers to your questions.

      First, the companies are all “for profit” companies, so they are competitors and certainly don’t share. Each company has different tools, etc. For autosomal DNA, which is the only kind of testing that Ancestry does, you can download your results to GedMatch for free and compare there. But not everyone does that, so you really still need to test at Family Tree DNA too. Earlier Ancestry tests, the V1 tests before May of 2016, can be uploaded to Family Tree DNA for $39. After that, Ancestry changed their chip, so you need to retest at Family Tree DNA.

      Second, there are different types of DNA. To see if your McNeal is the same as my McNiel, one of your McNeal brothers will need to take the Y DNA test at Family Tree DNA. You can read about the different kinds of tests and what they do in this short article: https://dna-explained.com/2012/10/01/4-kinds-of-dna-for-genetic-genealogy/

  3. How does John Mcneil and Mary (Polly) Russel fit in with with all the Mcneals? Mygggrandmother was Martha Jane Mcneal,Jefferson Jackson Mcneal, then John Mcneal. Cannot getpast that and have read a lot of mcneal/mcneil/Mcniel etc I just got my dna results with 34% Ireland. Maybe I can figure this out.

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  7. Excellent work although it is never enough. I too live in Hancock co. Tn. on Newmans Ridge and my grandmother is Minnie McNiel Maxey Daughter of William A. McNiel & Margaret Lawson McNeil. 1861-1936.
    Mulberry Gap & Little
    scymore is very close by, also the son of John McNiel and the Mcniel funeral home is close. Love the mountains and the county and familiar with most it. Would appreciate any info that you would have to offer and the same back to you. Feel free to email me.


    May god Bless us all Delmas Maxey

  8. I’ve been told that in the early 1900s a McNiel/McNeil was married to a full-blooded Cherokee woman. She gave birth to twin boys and the mother died shortly after birth. When the twin boys were grown the argued over the true spelling of McNiel. One brother began living as McNeil and the other as McNiel. So generation after generation, there are mixed spellings throughout the same family.

    • The two name spelling has been occurring for longer than 1900. Interesting that rumor though.

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