Michael McDowell (c1747-1840): Elusive Death Record – 52 Ancestors #267

While an ancestor’s death record might not seem like much to write about – Michael’s is – at least to this descendant.

We’ve looked for informatoin about his death for what seems like forever.

Michael was a Revolutionary War pensioner, so you’d think his death would be recorded in his pension records.


Maybe on the Tennessee roster of pensioners and payments?


Well, then was he listed in the 1840 census in someone’s household as having been a pensioner?


1839 and 1840

I knew that Michael was taxed in Claiborne County, Tennessee in 1839 for 40 acres of land total, and that on June 20th, 1840, Michael sold 2 of those 40 acres to his granddaughter Margaret Herrell and her husband, Anson Martin.

Michael would have been 93 or 94 years years old. He was not listed individually in the 1840 census, but that’s not surprising. If he was alive, he would probably have been living with one of his children – at least one would presume, especially if his wife was deceased or equally as elderly too.

Michael doesn’t appear in his sons’ households, but in 1840, Rev. Nathan S. McDowell, not a son but possibly a grandson, has a male of age 80-90 that could be Michael living with him.

I would have thought that were the man living with Nathan, Michael, he would have been listed as a pensioner, but there was no such listing on the second census page.

Therefore, I initially figured that Michael gone by the census enumeration date of June 1st until I realized he sold land on June 20th, so he was very clearly alive then. Not only that, but he was healthy enough to sign the deed, possibly going to town to do so.

Given that information, Michael’s military service had probably simply been overlooked in the census. After all, he was a quite elderly man.

Obviously, the census can’t be taken everyplace on the same day, so the census is taken as of a specific date. At the end of the Claiborne County census, it’s signed as being completed as of October 1.

Maybe Michael had died between June 20th and October 1st? If that was the case, then who was that man living with Nathan and if it was Michael, why was his military service overlooked? Something doesn’t add up.

Speaking of adding up, even more confounding is the fact that Michael apparently died owning 38 acres of land.

Why was there no will or probate in the Will and Probate books? Why was there no deed recorded? One or the other had to have happened. You can’t just die owning land and have it flopping around in a the state of limbo. SOMEONE had to own it which means that the disposition of Michael’s estate had to be managed by an executor or administrator unless Michael sold the land before his death. But there’s no record of that either.

Surely, at his age, Michael had prepared a will? One would think.

Ummm, nope.

Michael was obviously an optimist.

Court Notes

The Claiborne County Court Notes are not indexed and published, at least not completely. I decided to read them page by page because I had at least three ancestors who died in the span of a decade or so, and I wanted to obtain as much information as possible.

In Michael’s case, I was hoping that I would find some evidence of at least a year, and maybe a month that he died.

I found quite a few McDowell references.

Michael’s son John was assigned as a road hand or was responsible for overseeing road maintenance. He was allowed to purchase a sledge hammer to break up unyielding rocks in the road. Backbreaking work, and Michael would have done that as a younger man. But that’s not what I was looking for.

I discovered that Nathan McDowell had a “sugar camp.” Interesting, but that’s not what I was looking for.

John, Michael’s son, and Nathan were assigned as jurors in court several times, commissioners and even guardians. That’s not what I was looking for either.

John P. McDowell, also related and probably a grandson, not to be confused with John McDowell was assigned as a Justice of the Peace. Still not finding what I was looking for.

But then…there it was.

The Death Record

On Monday, September 7, 1840, William McDowell, in his first court record ever, appeared in court at Tazewell, gone to do a son’s sad duty.

Michael McDowell death.png

Satisfactorily evidence was produced in open court to prove that Michael McDowell a pensioner departed this life on the 6th day of July 1840 and there upon came William McDowell and took upon himself the administration of said estate who gave bond and security that was accepted by the court after taking the oath requested by law.

Wow, that’s wonderful – not that Michael died of course – but that we found evidence of when. Happy dancing a little jig.

Hmm, I wonder was constituted “satisfactory evidence.” If Michael had a will, it would have stated that a will was produced, so there was none.

William McDowell was administrator, so that would mean an inventory would be filed. We’ll be able to see what Michael owned. We’ll discover what happened to his land, and we’d know if Isabel outlived Michael. It’s possible since a female of the same age was living with daughter Mary McDowell who was married to William Herrell.

Dead Silence (Pardon the Pun) and Unresolved Questions

I read the court notes through 1842 and nothing at all.



How is that even possible when an administrator WAS appointed. There had to be assets or an administrator would not have been required, nor would bond and security.

I discovered that the court records through 1850 had been at least semi-indexed by WPA back in the 1930s, but nothing there either.

One question answered, and several left twisting in the wind, like fall’s final leaves.

Michael died only 17 days after selling 2 acres to his granddaughter and that deed was recorded. Furthermore, Michael clearly had $50, a substantial sum in addition to his pension payments. That cash would surely need to be accounted for. Michael was no pauper.

Isabel could have still been alive and they had at least 6 living children, and possibly more, to share an estate. I had hoped to obtain a full list of Michael’s legatees in an estate settlement, but that didn’t happen either☹


Perhaps Michael had already given all his possessions away?

Buried on Slanting Misery

Standing at the top of the hill on Michael’s land, aptly named Slanting Misery, you’d never know you were overlooking the cemetery where Michael is assuredly buried.

Claxton land from Slanting Misery

The family stood in Michael’s field under that cedar tree, directly between me and the barn, on July 6th, or 7th at the latest, in the mid-summer heat of 1840, dug a grave and said their final farewells. Reverend Nathan S. McDowell likely preached Michael’s funeral sermon about everlasting life with a final Amen.

The heat was likely oppressive in the heavy clothing of the time, and the funeral probably correspondingly short.

Michael’s granddaughter, Margaret Herrell Martin who bought land just days before was probably pregnant for a child who would soon be laid to rest beside her beloved grandfather.

Margaret would have sheltered her 6 stair-step children as they ceremonially dropped their single handfuls of dirt onto the planks of their great-grandfather’s coffin after the wooden box was lowered into his grave – as was the custom.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

No stone marked Michael’s final resting place, or if one did, it was a wooden cross or a fieldstone. Perhaps that Cedar tree was planted in Michael’s honor or memory, to shade family members who came to visit.

Michael’s remaining acreage, along with his human remains, simply melted back into the remote, achingly beautiful, mysterious, Slanting Misery.



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19 thoughts on “Michael McDowell (c1747-1840): Elusive Death Record – 52 Ancestors #267

  1. Very well written! Seems like the brick wall I’m facing in 1920…. We’ll actilially even prior. Records are scarse, recorded with names being backwards ex Rivera Colon vs Colon Rivera . … Missing children, birth records not recorded because immediate death… Uggh … And frankly poor poor documents in some areas vs others. Lol

  2. Roberta it took me over 40 years to find where my 3 Great Grandfather John L MOSIER died. It actually was found by someone on Ancestry. And I was able to locate the sextons book with the listing for his death and that of his brother in the Mormon stronghold of Nauvoo, Hancock County, Illinois, USA. He was previously in Alabama in 1830. I think in TN in 1840 and then dies in 1845. In 1850 his sons are found marrying in Lee Co, IA but never are they mentioned on a census record that I have found. It maybe that their mother remarried and the are entered under her surname. You just never know!

  3. I heard from one of either Lee County or Claiborne County Historians, that a janitor had used pages of records stored in the basement to light the fire in the boiler for heat. That might be where the missing records went.

  4. That’s a bit like when I found the guardianship packet for my g-g-grandmother, Margaret Ellen Smith, in Delaware County, Indiana. I opened it with great excitement and found (drum roll please) the guardianship bond! That was it! Oh well, at least it proved she was the right age to be my g-g-grandmother.

  5. We do believe that my husbands 3rd Great-grandfather is Melungeon. My husband does have a DNA Kit# but no idea where to go to compare it to this blood line. Grand-fathers name was William Samuel Collins b. 17 AUG 1816 • Woodford County, Kentucky and died in Indiana. We have a photo of him and his wife who was his 1st cousin, Jemima Collins. If this makes sense that he could be, can someone tell us where to go to put his DNA in to check.

  6. Nice story, again.
    There should be a book of land records at the county court house, or the musty archives, which should show all transactions for that piece of land and it’s divisions up to the present including owner and seller’s names, and dates. This is in theory. Actually, sometimes when land changes hands it is not recorded promptly or properly. Forty or fitty years later the land ownership is sorted out, and a record should be there, sometimes in detail. There should be later tax records also. I doubt the janitor burned all records for Michael. There should be more, unless the whole court house burned, or the archived records were in a basement that flooded or there is a lazy county clerk on duty.
    In researching, I have found documents misfiled, indexed in one of the children’s or attorney’s names, filed in a different county when the county split, or the probate was filed in a different county or state where an earlier Will was written and recorded. I have found empty filed record jackets. There was one Probate continued 25 years later when the heir who had been using his father’s land tried to sell the land without ownership papers. All of the father’s the heirs had to be found. Those resulting documents were a researcher’s dream, and that son’s nightmare. There might be something else out there? Keep going back to this over time with different ideas.

  7. Thanks for sharing your strategy, victory and on-going struggles. It’s beneficial to see how different genealogy questions are approached and eventually solved.

    I would think the county would want their annual tax money for that land. I don’t know Claiborne County well enough but I assume that what I see on FS, the 1839 list in book form and the 1850 lists forward, is all that is available. If so, that’s entirely unfortunate.
    How about deeds naming any of the sons or sons-in-laws where they are selling land that you don’t find that they purchased? Was Michael’s land near the county line with Hancock County that was formed in 1844? I have an ancestor that died in 1807 in Christian County with many small children, KY. His estate was not settled until 1815. But even after that, the guardian of the heirs continued to be taxed on the land in until 1824. By then, the land was in newly-formed Trigg County. It was taxed continually over the years by the appropriate county until it was finally sold in 1827. Based on Michael’s age at death, all his heirs would be majority age by the time of his death. But there could have been some other reason for the estate to be settled many years later.

  8. Sorry Roberta, there were a number of records lost in Tennessee over the years, I remember in the main archives in Nashville, some that were not cataloged yet were just thrown in the trash, Once, when historians herefound out they were very upset. and someone lost their job… Some people just do not respect History as they should.. But Hope springs eternal and It could show up…

  9. I don’t mean to be an advertisement for the following companies, just to explain my information sources. I watched a series of webinars on Legacy Family Tree Webinars given by Craig Scott on Revolutionary War records. He talked about the Final Payment Vouchers Index For Military Pensions 1818-1864 that is on Fold3. I looked up Michael Mc Dowell (this is how it was spelled) and found one in Tennessee. The Agency of Payment was Knoxville, Tenn. Act of 1832. Date of payment was 1st qr.(quarter) of 1840. Craig Scott said that pensions were paid twice a year. This would have helped narrow down the time frame to search the court records. Maybe you already knew this.

    • I looked and didn’t find that. I’ll certainly look again. Maybe the space made a difference. Thank you.

  10. Pingback: Michael McDowell (1747-1840): Children & Land Dispute Revealed in Chancery Suit 21 Years After His Death – 52 Ancestors #389 | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

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