Michael McDowell (1747-1840): Children & Land Dispute Revealed in Chancery Suit 21 Years After His Death – 52 Ancestors #389

My wonderful cousin, Tom, found something that doesn’t relate to his family, but certainly relates to mine. Thank goodness he remembered that Michael McDowell is my ancestor.

Tom found this because John McDowell was married to Nancy Busick, a family he is researching.

This 1861 chancery suit in Hancock County, TN was related to land title and begins, here.

William Overton claims that he purchased 97 acres of land from William McDowell on March 20, 1846, but that McDowell did not have clear title to the land. Michael McDowell, the father of William McDowell had grants from the state of Tennessee for a portion of the land sold to Overton; specifically, a grant for 15 acres and one for 25 acres.

Three acres had previously been purchased of Michael McDowell and Overton says he paid Michael McDowell for those acres. That portion is not in dispute.

Overton claims that William McDowell never had title to the rest of the land that was previously owned by Michael McDowell, except as one of the heirs of Michael, his father. The suit complaint stated that Michael, who “died a good many years ago leaving a number of legitimate heirs so that William McDowell’s interest therein was only an undivided portion. He never had any conveyance from his father for the land.”

According to Overton’s court filing regarding the balance of the land, “William McDowell had once made an entry but never claimed the same out of the office and never procured the grant. Some time since William McDowell died, William Franklin McDowell is his executor and brought suit against complainant for the balance of the purchase price.” Overton had stopped paying the note to William McDowell because he didn’t have clear title. Thank goodness for title companies today.

Several depositions were included that indicate that this land had been in dispute for some time already and that the local court had failed to provide the hoped-for relief. Unfortunately, Hancock County’s records have burned, twice. It’s nothing short of amazing that the chancery records survived.

Here’s a transcription of the pages that Tom found, downloaded and sent along to me. This is not the entire suit.


In chancery at Sneedville. [Sneedville is the county seat of Hancock Count, TN.]

William D. Overton vs William F. McDowell

The deposition of John McDowell, a witness on behalf of respondent taken upon notice before me on the 17th day of August 1861 in presence of complainant and respondent’s agent.

The said John McDowell aged about 78 years being duly sworn deposes as follows.

Question 1 by respondent: Mr. McDowell please state how many children Michael McDowell had and also give the name of each child.

Answer: There was 8. Ned McDowell, Michael McDowell, John McDowell, Dolly Herrald, Lute McDowell, Nancy McDowell, William McDowell and Sally McDowell.

Question 2: State where Ned McDowell died and whether or not he left children and how many.

Answer: I think it has been about two years. He left some children but I don’t know how many. When he was out here last he had six children.

Question 3: State how long Michael McDowell Jr. has been dead, whether his children are dead or still living and whether his children left any descendants.

Answer: I can’t tell, but I think it has been 30 odd years and the last account I had from his children they were all dead, but don’t know that it is so. I don’t know whether his children left any descendants or not.

Question 4: Please state if you are the John McDowell you speak of as being one of the children of Michael McDowell Sr. and state your age.

Answer: I am and my age is about 78 years.

Question 5: State whether Dolly Herrold formerly Dolly McDowell is yet alive, how old she is, and state when her husband died. State when she was married to Mr. Harrell?

Answer: She is yet alive, she is about 75 or 6. I cannot tell when her husband died, but I supposed two years next October. The time of her marriage I can’t tell.

Question 6: State whether Lute McDowell is now dead and how long he has been dead, and state also whether he has left any children, giving the number, names and ages.

Answer: I understood he was dead but don’t know it to be true. He had children but I don’t know how many. They had a Syntha, William and John. The rest of their names I don’t know, nor none of their ages.

Question 7: State how long Nancy Bradford, formerly Nancy McDowell has been dead, when she was married to Bradford. State how many children she left and give the names and ages of each.

Answer: I cannot tell, she has been dead a good many years. Don’t recollect what time she was married. I know one of their children’s names, Michael. Don’t know the number nor their ages.

Question 8: State when Sally McDowell died and state whether she was ever married or had children.

Answer: I can’t say how long. She was never married nor had any children.

Question 9: State if the William McDowell mentioned in the pleading in this case as being the testator of William F. McDowell is the same person you speak of as being the son of Michael McDowell Sr. State when he died.

Answer: He is the son of Michael McDowell Sr. He died 3 or 4 years ago.

The depositions are hand-written by William McNiel.

The Survey

One additional item of interest in the chancery suit packet is the survey made in 1867 to sort this mess out.

Today, the aerial of this land looks like this.

The red pin is the McDowell family cemetery where many family members are buried, including John who testified in the deposition.

I cropped and rotated the survey so north is up.

The lands in dispute are the surveys that include the dotted lines. Michael owned more acreage than this during his lifetime, including most of the land in Slanting Misery. Son John obviously wound up owning the cemetery land.

Additionally, John had applied for his own grant in 1825 that included the tip of Slanting Misery adjacent his earlier grant.

Ironically, I have no idea of the outcome of this lawsuit. It was not contained in the packet, which is not unusual. For me, the important part was the historical information in the depositions.

How Does This Information Stack Up?

This was a bit surprising, because there are children of Michael listed that I didn’t know about, and also children who I was fairly certain existed, with names, that John doesn’t list.

I wrote about Michael here, here and here.

I wrote about his wife, Isabel, whose surname is unknown, here.

Let’s compare information.

John’s Deposition Information I Had (Incomplete)
Ned McDowell died circa 1859 – at least 6 children Edward McDowell 1773-1858 Pulaski Co., KY – 12 children
Michael McDowell Jr. died before 1830, children decd by 1861 Michael McDowell born before 1774 – 3 children
John McDowell – gave deposition John McDowell May 10, 1783 – Nov 17, 1877, 11 children
Dolly McDowell Herrald – born 1785/86 – living in 1861, husband died c 1859 Mary McDowell 1785-aft 1872 married William Harrell – 6 children
Lute McDowell – believe dead, had more than 3 children, remembers Syntha, William, John Luke McDowell 1791/2-1879 Dekalb Co., TN – 5 children
Nancy McDowell – deceased several years, multiple children but only one name recalled – Michael Nancy McDowell c 1795-1850/60 DeKalb Co., TN married Thomas Bradford – 8 children
William McDowell – died 1857-1858, at least one son William Franklin McDowell William McDowell 1795-1857/8 Hancock Co. TN – 1 known child
Sally McDowell – never married, no children
James McDowell – born circa 1779 – died circa 1831 Pulaski Co., KY
Nathan S. McDowell born 1797 – no known children
Elizabeth Caroline McDowell born 1789 married John Boyle in 1822 in Wilkes County, NC

I’m presuming here that Ned and Edward are the same person.

James McDowell is found in Wilkes County, NC, in 1801 and a James is found with Edward in Pulaski County, KY in 1820. The James who witnessed the deed in 1801 would have been born in 1779 or earlier. He may or may not have had any connection to Michael.

In 1820, that James is too old to be a son of Edward, so I have no idea who he is or how he connects. These may be two different men. It makes me wonder if perhaps Michael was raising other McDowell children, like maybe nephews. Clearly, John knew without question who his siblings were.

Michael McDowell granted a deed to “W” McDowell and “S” McDowell in 1833 “for love.” No one knew about Sally whose name was probably Sarah before this deposition, and since Nathan’s middle initial was S., it was widely accepted that the “S” who received the land was Nathan. This deposition has caused me to reevaluate that assumption, and at this point, I believe that the “S” was Sally and the “W” was William. Michael, who would have been 86 years old in 1833, was trying to take care of his children, and in particular, his daughter who had never married and would have been about 44 years old. Sally was apparently deceased by 1850 because she is not recorded in the census.

There is no other connection between Nathan and Michael, so it’s certainly possible that Nathan was a descendant of the “other” McDowell Family out of Virginia. He may have circumstantially wound up in Claiborne County.

There is also a John P. McDowell that is associated with Michael McDowell who was born about 1802. It’s unlikely that he belonged to Michael and Isabel, especially since we know that John McDowell is Michael’s son, but he could have been another nephew or a grandson.

I believe Elizabeth Caroline McDowell who married John Boyle in 1822 was simply misattributed as Michael’s child based on the Wilkes County connection. Michael McDowell was not living in Wilkes County in 1822, so it’s very unlikely that his daughter would be marrying there a dozen years after he left. It’s possible that Elizabeth Caroline is somehow connected to the James McDowell in Wilkes County.

Thanks to this deposition, we know which children were Michael’s and which were not.


I’m rather stunned that John gave an approximate age of 78, twice, and not an exact age. Did he not recall? I do realize that ages were much less specific in that time and place. Perhaps people didn’t celebrate birthdays within families. A few months earlier in April 1861, John gave his age as 71 and signed as to his age.

John’s not alone though, because I’ve seen people giving approximate ages for themselves, and, like John, different ages at different times in historical documents. Not much was written down back then. If they didn’t have a family Bible, or it burned, those dates were probably not recorded anyplace and they relied on the “best of their recollection.”

I’m even more surprised that John didn’t know if his siblings were deceased. This also means that my ancestor, Mary McDowell Harrell, whom John called Dolly, also wouldn’t have known for sure if her siblings were deceased. I had presumed that a letter would have been written when someone’s child, or sibling, died, and that everyone back home would have quickly shared the news when the letter arrived. This makes me wonder why that didn’t happen.

In a deposition for Mary McDowell Harrell in 1872, when he says that he is 90 years old, John stated that he was at her wedding in Wilkes County, NC. He gave an approximate marriage date for her of 1809 based on the fact that they left Wilkes County (for Claiborne) in 1810 and they were married about a year before that departure. He didn’t mention that in the 1861 deposition.

We do know that Ned, who was actually Edward, came back to visit according to John. That trip, from Pulaski Co., KY, would have been about 120 miles, so about a 6-day journey each way on horseback. He clearly wouldn’t have returned home often, and it’s unlikely that his family came along, especially given that his wife was not from the Claiborne/Hancock County region. A wagon trip would have taken even longer.

I’m surprised that John only knew the names of four of his nieces and nephews – one of Nancy’s sons who was named after Michael McDowell, and three of Lute’s children, whose name was actually Luke.

I’m guessing that John did know the names of Mary’s children because she and her husband William Harrell were neighbors to Michael McDowell and therefore to her brother John, and William McDowell’s land as well.

Unfortunately, John was not asked about William McDowell’s children. It was probably assumed that topic was taken care of since Overton had sued William’s son.

Based on the census and where John McDowell is buried, in the McDowell family cemetery on Michael’s land, it appears that John lived on at least part of Michael’s original land.

It’s ironic that we only have the name of one of William McDowell’s children, William Franklin McDowell, the man who was suing to collect the balance of the money for the land that his father, William, apparently sold but did not have title to.

Obviously, Mary McDowell’s nickname was Dolly, but never have I seen it recorded as such anyplace. Normally the nickname for Mary is Polly, but unless John was wrong or misunderstood, hers was Dolly. Clearly, in the intervening years since her death in 1859, her descendants living a hundred years later didn’t know her name. The last of her great-grandchildren’s generation was dying by the mid-1900s and many families had moved away. My grandmother died in Chicago in 1955.

I don’t think there was anyone who knew any stories about Mary/Dolly or her life, or even the names of ancestors three or four generations back in time. We found her through genealogical records, not oral or written history. I began doing genealogy in the 1970s and there was no one who knew anything about those people or generations that far back. Not even the nickname the family called her. Ironic that I’ve been calling her Mary as long as I’ve known about her, but her nickname, and the name she was called every day was very clearly Dolly. I can’t help but wonder if she’s breathing a sigh of relief someplace that we finally know her by her everyday familiar name. Or maybe she’s still frustrated because it was actually Polly.

The existence of Michael’s daughter, Sally McDowell was a surprise too. Before the age of detailed census records listing the names of every family member, the only hint as to the existence of a child who never married and never lived on their own would have been a mystery hash-mark entry in the 1790-1840 census for an unknown child, or perhaps a will. Michael had no will and while William McDowell was appointed as his estate administrator, no inventory was ever filed in court. Clearly something was very strange about Michael’s estate and the fact that the court failed to oversee the process. Perhaps this fell between the cracks when Hancock County separated from Claiborne, but that process didn’t begin for another couple years.

Sally is clearly gone by 1850 and I can’t locate her with any of her three local siblings in 1840, so she may well have been deceased by that point in time.

In the 1800 census, Michael McDowell has three daughters which accounts for all three female siblings that John named.

In the 1790 census, Michael has 4 males under 16, so born between 1774 and 1790. In 1800, he has only two boys under 10 who would not have been born in 1790. What happened to the rest of those boys on the 1790 census? We know from later records that at least 3 of 4 didn’t die. We know for sure that Edward, Michael and John were born in the 1780s. Luke and William were both born in the 1790s. That still leaves one missing son born in the 1780s, which we thought was James – but all of the boys born in the 1780s are missing in the 1790 census. No wonder genealogists are so chronically confused.

Additional Records

For those researching the John McDowell family, additional records can be found in the following references:

  • Coleman vs John McDowell – land 1888 & 1890


  • John McDowell – debt 1888


  • John McDowell vs G. B. Short et al 1878 and 1880, answer, order, estate
  • John McDowell vs Josiah Ramsay 1890 debt


  • Catherine Short vs John McDowell 1881, 1882, 1888 civil suit and land



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4 thoughts on “Michael McDowell (1747-1840): Children & Land Dispute Revealed in Chancery Suit 21 Years After His Death – 52 Ancestors #389

  1. Age, are you kidding?
    Since adulthood I have always had to calculate mine from my birth date.
    I meet really old people who think young and young people who think old.
    I always know my age approximately, but when someone asks for the exact number I calculate it. That does not seem to be unusual among people I know. Perhaps moreso in my case as my birthday is close to another major day of general importance.

  2. Michael’s son William had at least one child Reuben Alwayne McDowell. Reuben was my gg grandfather. Evidently no one paid much attention to the 1850 census with William and Sally in Hancock Co. TN.

  3. Michael Jr’s son William possibly had at least one son, Reuben Alwayne McDowell, my gg grandfather. He has been overlooked for years. No one paid much attention to the child with William and Sally in the 1850 census of Hancock Co. TN

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