Sallie, Sarah or Mary maybe Coates (c1740 – 1782/1787), Mystery Wives of the Reverend George McNiel, 52 Ancestors #85

Sometimes when we get back to these end-of-line females, their genealogy facts become very tenuous, and we find that we are missing more information than we have.

Sarah Coates, at least we think that the names of Sarah and Coates or Coats go together as one person, was married to the Reverend George McNiel.

She may or may not have been his first wife, and for all we know, Sarah and Coates may not have been the same woman.- although we don’t have any reason to think otherwise, well, except for that pesky little death and taxes issue.  Yes, death and taxes still “get you,” even in genealogy!

Let’s take a look at what we do have.

Joyce Dancy McNeil, now deceased, was a cousin to me on two different lines, McNeil by marriage through her husband, historian George McNeil and through the Wilkes County, NC Vannoy lines in her own genealogy.  Joyce was an extremely thorough genealogist and I was so glad to find her early in my searching.  Sadly, by the time I was able to visit Wilkes County in 2004, Joyce had passed on.

Joyce and George had researched the McNeil family extensively.  I was confused because some researchers listed the Reverend George McNiel’s wife as Mary and some as Sarah.  Joyce told me that there was a deed in Spotsylvania County, VA that George McNiel witnessed, as did a Mary McNiel.  Researchers presumed that Mary was George’s wife.  Indeed, she may have been, but there is no proof of that.  It would be interesting by process of elimination to see who else Mary could have been at that time.  Unfortunately, that deed is not included in the book “Spotsylvania County, 1721-1800, Being Transcriptions from the Original Files,” so I have been unable to verify this information.

To the best of my knowledge, no one has completely extracted the Spotsylvania County records for McNiel, and this should be done.

Unfortunately, we don’t know where they lived in Spotsylvania County.

The next information comes from a letter written by George’s grandson in 1898.  In the letter, he says that George McNiel married a “Miss Coats” in Virginia.  Another source, a pamphlet written in 1905 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Reverend George McNiel’s death (and setting of his headstone), says that marriage occurred in Grayson County, which wasn’t formed until 1793, long after George would have been marrying Miss Coats if she is the mother of some or all of his children who were born between about 1757 and 1782.  In the 1750s, when George would have been marrying, that area, now Grayson County, would have been Augusta County.

It’s also reported that George fled into Grayson County, VA for safety in 1771 after scuffling with the Regulators and after the battle of Alamance.  It was additionally stated that he lived in Moore County, settling there in 1745-1750.  Again, Moore County, North Carolina wasn’t formed until in 1784 from Cumberland which was formed in 1754 from Bladen.  The problem is that we have records for him in Spotsylvania County during this time.  In fact, as late as 1775 he was still purchasing land in Spotsylvania County.  He sold his land in Spotsylvania County in 1778, but unfortunately, his wife did not release her dower rights and sign as well.  For us, that’s a significant lost opportunity.

We do know through church records that George was in Grayson County, but that was in 1800 when he was clearly traveling and ministering as a circuit riding minister.

Joyce also said there was evidence that George’s first child was born before his arrival in America.  If this is true, then that child’s mother clearly did not survive until the end of George’s life.  However, if her name was Mary, and she preceded “Miss Coates” who George is reported to have married in Virginia, then this may be true.  The problem is, of course, that we don’t know when George married Miss Coates so we have no idea which of his children might have been by a first wife, Miss Coates, or yet another wife.

The first child we have any record of is Mary, born in 1757, but how that birth date was attributed to Mary, I have no idea since there seems to be very little information about her.  In the book, Genealogy of the McNiel Clan written by the Johnson Hayes, published in 1934, Mary is shown as being born in 1771 and as having married in 1803 to Henry Miller, but no birth date or other information for Mary is given.

What I do know is that our first record of George McNiel is in Spotsylvania County, in 1757, so we know he was here in the colonies by that time.  Whether he was married upon arrival, or if his first child was born before arrival or in transit, we don’t know.  Daughter Mary was reported to have died in 1850, but I can’t find her in the census.

There is reason to think George may have had three wives, or, I hate to even suggest this out loud, because I do NOT want to start a rumor, but George could have had 4 wives.  Let’s look at the evidence and hints.

In 1782, in Wilkes County, there was a bill of sale between John Stubblefield and Jacob Nichols that was witnessed by George and Sally McNiel.

Miss Coates first name may have been Sarah, known as Sally.

On the Wilkes County 1787 tax list, there were categories for a number of things, including the number of white females.  That number was 0 for George, as it was three years later, in the 1790 federal census.  George’s first wife, whatever her name, had died after the birth of her last child in 1782 but before 1787 and George was single for at least three years, from 1787-1790.  He obviously remarried sometime between 1790 and June 1805 when he died, because he had a wife, Sarah, living at the time of his death.

In 1808, William McNiel was administering the estate of both George McNiel and his wife, Sarah McNiel.

So, what do we have here?

  • A possible wife before coming to the US, who could be the Mary who witnessed a Spotsylvania County deed that reportedly exists but that I can’t find.
  • A marriage, possibly in Grayson County, to one Miss Coats.
  • A possible wife, Sally, in 1782.
  • No wife in 1787 or 1790.
  • A wife, Sarah, at George’s death in 1805, who died by 1808.

Clearly, in my case, the woman I’m most interested in is the one who was the mother of my ancestor, William McNiel, born about 1760.  Given that this is before George is apparently preaching and traveling, I’m guessing that William’s mother would likely be Mary in Spotsylvania County, assuming Mary was William’s wife – and I’m not at all sure that is a valid assumption.  It’s no wonder that so many descendants have simply given this woman the name of Mary Sarah” or “Sarah Mary” Coates and let it go at that – never mind that it’s very likely wrong on at least two if not three counts.

One thing is clear, William’s mother is not wife Sarah who died just after Reverend George died in 1805, and whose estate was being probated in 1808 – because this wife Sarah was not married to George in 1787 or 1790.  In fact, George could easily have married a Sarah Coats in Grayson County after 1790 when we know he was in fact there preaching.  But why, if this is the case, would that be the only wife his descendants mentioned and not the mother of his many children?

I surely wish this story didn’t have so many “could haves” and questions – but sadly, that is all that I do have or even might have.

Why didn’t any of George’s descendants think to add this tidbit of information – George’s wife, his helpmate?  Even if George had only two wives, or three, or even four – it’s still remarkable enough to talk about.  I find it rather unbelievable that George’s descendants could not even remember the first name of “Miss Coats.”  Lastly, this woman (or women) deserves a medal, not have their names forgotten, because the wife is the one who maintained everything at home while George was out and about preaching, saving souls and founding new churches.  And that wife, if she was a second or third wife, was likely raising his children from previous marriages in addition to her own.

How many children did she bear in his absence, and was she even able to obtain the assistance of a midwife?  Who would have ridden for the midwife, if George was gone?  While the traveling preacher tends to be venerated, in this case, at least, it’s the name-forgotten wife who stayed at home and held everything together without the assistance of her husband.  She should be celebrated.  She is the unsung heroine of the story.  The fact that her name has been forgotten just makes the irony even greater and the story sadder.

We know that George and his then-current wife had children from around 1757 until the last child was born in February 1782 – although there is a very large gap between Mary born in 1771 and Thomas born in 1782 which could potentially alert us to the death of a wife and a remarriage.  It could also be that several children died, or George was gone much of the time.  It was about 1776 when Baptists began to be allowed to preach freely, which corresponds with the time in which the family legend claims he was ordained a Baptist minister.

We know that George and his wife lived on Lewis Fork Creek, right across the road from where the Elder George McNiel Cemetery is located today.

Elder George McNiel gravesite

This satellite image shows the location in more detail, but the cemetery is not visible from the road and a local person would have to be a guide.

Elder George McNiel gravesite satellite

When historian George McNiel and I visited this cemetery in 2004, George told me that the Reverend George McNiel and his wife lived directly across the road from the cemetery, in a cabin behind the house that belonged to his granddaughter – which was  in ruins with only the chimney standing in 2004, below.

George McNiel land

As we walked George’s land, this misty apparition appeared in a clearing.  Was George or his wife or maybe his granddaughter with us that day?

George McNiel granddaughter land

George’s wife did pass away before 1787, leaving him with this child who was still either an infant or a toddler plus 4 additional underage children, not to mention the older ones still living at home.  This must have been a terribly sad day in the McNiel cabin on Lewis Fork Creek.  George must have wondered what he was going to do.  It’s actually amazing that he did not marry for more than 3 years.  I would wager that his older married children took the younger ones to raise.  He certainly couldn’t do that while visiting, circuit riding and establishing churches throughout the region.  Not to mention, by 1802, George was also the register of deeds for Wilkes County.

Even though her grave is unmarked, George’s wife, mother of his children, probably Sallie, is surely laid to rest in the McNiel cemetery located on George’s land, near where George himself was laid to rest as well, some 20 years later.

George McNiel cemetery2

Today, the cemetery is overgrown and it’s not evident from any distance that it is a cemetery.  At least the cattle aren’t, or weren’t, allowed to graze in the cemetery.

George McNiel cemetery

As you get a little closer, you can make out the ghostly shapes of the abandoned monuments.

George McNiel tombstone

In addition to the Elder George McNiel, whose stone, set in 1905, a hundred years after his death, is shown above, several generations have been buried here as well, including son Thomas born in 1782 and several of Thomas’s children.

However, there is one thing we know, concretely, about George’s wife – she was a Baptist – at least eventually.  We have no records of George preaching in Spotsylvania County, but records abound after 1779 – which is while George’s wife was still alive.  In fact, based on the 1782 deed, her name was likely Sallie.

After all of this thrashing around in the mud is done, we actually know very little.  We’re still not sure of George’s wife’s name.  We’ve introduced even more questions in an already tenuous situation.  No one is going to thank me for this article:)

Aside from extracting the Spotsylvania County records, which is now on my to-do list, how else could we unravel this riddle?


Finding people who descend through all female lines to DNA test is sometimes difficult due to all of the generational name changes.  However, it has been successfully done in other lines, so it’s not impossible

Mitochondrial DNA is passed from mothers to all of their children, but only passed on by the females.  So, anyone who descends from the wife of George McNiel through all females will carry her mitochondrial DNA.  In the current generation, the descendant can be either a male or female.

If we were able to test mitochondrial descendants of the daughters of George McNiel, we could verify that they were all born to the same mother.

Unfortunately, my first problem is that I have no information about the eldest daughter, born in 1757, no information about the children of Elizabeth McNiel and what information I do have about Polly is that she had 4 sons who would not have passed on her mitochondrial DNA.  Not looking good so far, but maybe there is more information to be had, currently unknown – and maybe it will be the descendant families that provide the info.  Fingers crossed.

  • Mary Hillary McNiel born 1757 – no further information and it is unknown if this information is accurate or if this person even existed. If so, Hillary could be a family surname.
  • John McNiel born 1759 married Fanny Cleveland.
  • William McNiel born 1760/1761 died circa 1832 in Claiborne Co., TN, married Elizabeth Shepherd (my line).
  • James McNiel born circa 1763 died August 1834, married Mary “Polly” Shepherd.
  • Benjamin McNiel born 1765 married Elizabeth Lips.
  • Joseph McNiel born 1767 died circa 1855 married Hannah Wilson and Elizabeth Powell.
  • Elizabeth McNiel born about 1767 (per an 1857 deposition where she says she is 90 years old when applying for her husband’s Revolutionary War pension and bounty land in Watauga Co., NC,) married in 1785 to Robert Bingham in Wilkes County, NC. Children unknown.
  • Mary “Polly” McNiel born 1771 married Henry Miller in1803 in Wilkes County. Four known sons.
  • Thomas McNiel born February 1782, died 1865, married Miss Parsons.

George McNiel was a minister.  I can’t believe that his Bible hasn’t turned up in the descendants someplace, complete with a list of wives and children.  You KNOW he had at least one Bible, and probably multiples.  Maybe he wore them out!


No pictures of George McNiel’s children exist, but there are two photos of his grandchildren.

The Reverend James McNiel, below, born in 1816, was the son of Joseph McNiel and Hannah Wilson.  Joseph was the son of Rev. George McNiel and whichever wife, probably Sallie, he was married to in 1767 when Joseph was born.

James McNiel

A second grandson is also memorialized by a photograph.

George W. McNiel, Sr. was born in 1825 and died in 1914.  He is buried in the Elder George McNiel Cemetery and was the son of Thomas McNiel, born in 1782 and a Parsons woman.  His father, Thomas was born in February 1782, the son of Reverend George McNiel and probably the Sallie who had died by 1787.

George W. McNiel

A third grandson, Elijah McNeill, son of James McNeill is shown below, courtesy of his descendant, William McNeill.

Was George, above, holding a Bible, maybe his grandfather’s Bible? What other book would be important enough to include in a “formal” dress up picture?

Elijah McNeill grandson of rev George

Did any of these grandsons look anything like either the Reverend George McNiel or his wife, whatever her name?

My ancestor, William McNiel, was born about 1760, so he is most likely to share a mother with James McNiel born in 1763 or Joseph McNiel born in 1767 than with Thomas born in 1782 – although all three of these men could clearly have shared the same mother.

We don’t have the answers to all, or even many of these questions today, but maybe, just maybe, someday we will.



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15 thoughts on “Sallie, Sarah or Mary maybe Coates (c1740 – 1782/1787), Mystery Wives of the Reverend George McNiel, 52 Ancestors #85

  1. More familiar surnames! We have McNEEL in Hardy and Pocahontas cos. WV… other surnames you mention are in our FF matches… pat davis in CambridgeOH

  2. You mention that his wife did not sign a dower release in 1778. No children were born between 1771 and 1782. Doesn’t it seem likely that he was a widower by 1778 and that was why his wife did not sign?

  3. Thank you, I am all ready to go look for your family now. 😀. You have given me good ideas to track down my Thomas E. Wall (1834-1915) and his father John H. Wall (1815-1899) in our family. I am connecting with others who are searching too. I will use this as a check list for us. It is hard when each generation moved to kind of new frontiers that didn’t have as many records or even the towns that ceased to exist after they left. Few records to work with, less info on census documents etc. My father has his DNA done, I am working on others to test theirs too. But it is a hard sell for sure! Good luck on your search, I will continue mine. Kimberli Wall Hartwick

    Sent from my iPad

  4. Hey, Cuz! I love your blogs, especially on the McNeil line. I am from James McNeil’s line, and have been to all of these places – your research is wonderful! Alas, I don’t have any other insights into George’s Wives Tales either, and neither does anyone else that I have talked to in our family – how frustrating! It makes you want to go out and scream , “Document, people, document!” It’s so important, especially in this digital age. Love your work- Keep on blogging!

    • Hi, I’m also descended from Elder George down through James too. I recently did the Ancestry DNA test and ordered the FamilytreeDNA too. I’m having a lot of fun with it, but also frustrated with so many unknowns about Elder George!

  5. The name Mary for the dughter may be the clue to the wife’s name. As you are well aware, names were used over and over and some names followed a pattern. My Scottish ancestors did this so everyone is named either John, after the father, or Agnes, after the mother. Makes me crazy trying to keep them apart!

  6. (1) Sallie was a nickname for Sarah. Later Sallie/Sally became a name in its own right, like so many other nicknames. Sallie and Sarah could still have been 2 different people.

    (2) The name Mary Hillary McNiel b. 1757 is odd because before the Revolution middle names were reserved for royalty. Middle names were illegal in the colonies, too. They were Baptist and not baptizing infants, so perhaps they thought they could get away with it. People with middle names born before 1776 mostly acquired the middle name after the Revolution when middle names became popular. Surnames for the middle names of women became popular after the Revolution.

  7. (1) Sarah/Sallie/Sally: In family history, it is well to suspect these are the same person. However, especially in the 1800s and 1900s, Sarah and Sally/Sallie often became names in their own right, and today we think of them as separate names.

    Sarah in the Bible, wife of Abraham, was originally Sarai, which was a different name with a different meaning in Biblical Hebrew. However, in family history usage, the principle is that they could be considered variants of the same name. One could be used to name a child after the other one in the family.

    The main reason for Sallie/Sally to be used as a nickname for Sarah is twofold: “R” is harder for young children to say. “R” and “L” are semi-vowels (not consonants, despite what we were taught in grade school) and routinely substitute for each other in names and other words.

    Another linguistic variant of Sarah is Sadie, which comes from a British dialect, as in Caddie for Carrie (Caroline) in the children’s book _Caddie Woodlawn_ and as in “veddy meddy Christmas.”

    (2) Very few people in England and its colonies had middle names before the American Revolution. Especially among those who were baptized as infants, the clergy would have enforced it. If someone born in the colonies before the Revolution has a middle name, we need to search diligently for a reason. (a) Some people like the Revolutionary hero John Paul Jones adopted a middle name in adulthood. (b) Sometimes moderns interpret a nickname as being a name. I regularly find my ancestor Ann “Nancy” (Penick) Pulliam (born about 1788 in Virginia) as being Nancy Ann (Penick) Pulliam in print or online. Moderns don’t realize that “Nancy” was one of the nicknames for “Ann.” (c) If someone came from somewhere besides the British Isles to Colonial America, like the Germans, they may have 2 or 3 given names, and the name next to the surname was the call name in the Old Country. The first name was a saint’s name; the person would be called by it if it was a solo name. When they arrived in America they would usually drop the saint’s name and go with just one middle name as the only given name, according to American custom.

    (3) Although I learned most of what I know about the linguistic behavior of names long ago and have been lecturing on aspects of this subject since the 1970s, the website is particularly informative. It has different sections for given names and surnames. With its “family tree” feature one can follow how a place name became a surname, how a given name became a surname and then a given name again (such as Hillary), how a given name changed genders, and the many variants of names in various languages.

    –Ida Skarson McCormick,, Seattle

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  9. My name is Jason Coats and my Coats ancestors have lived in North Carolina since at least the late 1700s and supposedly moved here from Virginia. I have DNA matches that claim to descend from George McNeil and Sarah “Sally” Coates. I would love to research this connection.

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