Recently, we discovered that one of Michael McDowell’s daughters was unknown, and he had three sons attributed to him that weren’t his children.
A chancery suit file from Hancock County, TN included a deposition from Michael’s son, John McDowell that was chocked full of wonderful information. I just wish he had told us who his mother was, but I digress.
That wasn’t all though. There was even more unexpected information buried in that file.
Michael’s Granddaughter – Margaret Herrell
Michael McDowell sold a significant amount of his land before his death, including two acres of land at the mouth of 4 Mile Creek to his granddaughter, Margaret Herrell, who was married to Anson Martin at the time. It’s unclear why he only sold two acres of land at the mouth of the creek. Did they construct a mill, perhaps? Two acres is not nearly enough to farm.
Two acres is about 208 feet by 416 feet, or the size of about two football fields. Of course a log cabin and barn would have been built there too.
We don’t know the shape of their two acres, but it would have been about this much land at this location, with the Powell River at right.
Anson and Margaret were married about 1828, but Anson died about 1845. In the 1850 census, Margaret, age 38, is enumerated with her 8 children in Hancock County, TN, next door to her parents who lived adjacent to Michael McDowell, her grandfather. Of course, next door probably didn’t mean literally. It probably meant that no other houses had been built between those homesteads. Next door could have been up the path along the river and around the bend, or even across the river. In fact, we know positively that Michael did live across the Powell River on Slanting Misery. Trust me, it was aptly named.
At one point a swinging rope bridge existed across the river at McDowell Shoals where the islands remain, today. I’m sure that swinging bridge was preferable to fording the river, especially since there was only one possible location and only when the water was low.
Regardless, I’d have stayed on shore. It’s a LONG way down. I can feel that bridge creak and swing, just sitting here. (Shudders!)
Margaret probably walked it unafraid. Maybe even helped to construct it.
This survey shows the various bends in the Powell River. McDowell Bend is located right next to Harrell Bend. The river snaked its way between the mountains on either side.
The 1850 Census
In the 1850 census, Margaret’s neighbor, Joseph Bolton was living with his first wife, Polly Tankersley who would pass away shortly thereafter, probably not long after June 1850.
Based on the birth date of Margaret and Joseph’s first child, it appears that were married by late 1850. Both had small children to raise, he had 7 and she had 9 that we know of, and the couple had likely known each other for the decade since Joseph and his wife, Mary, arrived from Virginia and became Margaret and Anson’s neighbors.
Joseph and Margaret’s first child together, Mary, was born in September of 1851 and their second and final child, named Joseph Bolton after his father arrived two years later.
In April of 1861, Margaret Herrell Bolton and John McDowell, her uncle, both gave depositions about Michael McDowell’s land.
Transcription of Margaret Herrell Bolton’s Deposition
John McDowell he say is 71 years of age and witness for the defendant taken upon notice on the 6th day of April 1861 at my house in the presence of the plaintiff and defendant William McDowel on a entry that he made. He made sugar for many years on it and rails. Michael McDowell made one entry he got his fire wood of it and maid rails of it.
Note – sugar would be referring to maple sugar, and rails would be referencing fence rails.
Margret Bolton witness for the defendant age fifty years. I know they made sugar up in that bent. She made sugar thair two years or more. She says that she got wood of that hill. Anson Martin made rails their.
The said witness being duly sworn to their age.
I was very excited to see Margaret’s signature, even if it is an ”X.” It’s still her mark, made by her own hand, as she touched this paper, 162 years ago. Other than her DNA that runs in the veins of some of her descendants, it’s the only tangible thing left of her on this earth.
Margaret, Margret or however her name was spelled probably would be shocked that a great-granddaughter, or anyone for that matter, would be looking at this document more than a century and a half later.
It appears that both John and Margaret both had to sign to attest their ages.
I can close my eyes and picture Margaret, at 50, and her uncle, sitting side by side as they gave their testimony to the clerk of court who was writing what they said as best he could. I’d bet her hair was graying and she might have pinned it up on her head so it wouldn’t look disheveled.
In the deposition, it says it is taken “at my house,” but I can’t tell if that mean’s John McDowell’s house or William McNiel’s house, or something else. The deposition is difficult to follow in terms of who is talking. Sometimes William quotes them, and sometimes he talks about what they said.
I wonder if Joseph Bolton hitched up the wagon with a team of horses, picked up John McDowell, and rode to town with Margaret and John. Did they visit William McNiel’s house in Sneedville, or did they simply visit one of the McNiel family homes, much closer to McDowell Bend. Probably down by or even at the old Walker homestead.
The McNiel families lived right across the road from the Walkers, up on the side of Powell Mountain. It would have been a good half-way point.
William McNiel was the only McNiel to live in town, but he surely visited his relatives from time to time and may still have owned family land.
This old cabin is gone now of course, but this old McNiel cabin reportedly belonged to William McNiel’s father, although I have doubts that it’s that old. Back in 1860, it would have been a mansion though, compared to a one room log cabin.
John McDowell and Margaret Harrell Bolton’s depositions were hand-written by William McNiel. I’d wager that was what happened. Everybody probably crowded round the kitchen table, such as it was, someplace nearby. Town was a really long way to go for an old man in his 70s bouncing around in a wagon with no shocks on those mountain roads. That trip would have taken a couple days each way – so better to meet closer to where everyone lived.
A Peek into Margaret’s Life
In her deposition, Margaret told about making “sugar, two years herself.”
Sugar means maple syrup which can only be made from sugar maple trees or their cousins, the black or red maple. Tennessee isn’t known for making maple syrup and is the southernmost part of the US range where sugar maples grow and that is cold enough in the winter.
This means that Margaret would have inserted taps into the maple trees just when the weather began to warm.
She would have hung buckets on the taps, allowing the maple sap to drain into the buckets for collection. Maples must be mature, at least 40 years of age, in order to produce sap, and can be tapped until they are about 100 years old. This means that these maples would have been original growth trees on Michael’s land.
The buckets of sap would have been taken home, probably by horse-drawn wagon, then boiled for hours to days in a “sugar shack,” or perhaps out in the open or under a lean-to, into maple syrup.
The Native people made maple syrup by making V shaped notches in trees and inserting reeds to drain the sap into “sugar buckets,” which is probably how the early settlers learned how to do the same.
Maple syrup and honey were the only ways to sweeten food. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup, or three buckets to a pint. Roughly four maple trees will yield enough sap for a gallon of syrup over the 6-8 weeks that the sap flows in the spring.
Maple syrup was a scarce and cherished commodity.
After gathering gallons of sap, it was brought back and boiled in large cauldrons over an open fire for days until it was thick. The sap had to boiled until it was “just right.” If you didn’t boil it long enough, it would be watery and spoil, and if you boiled it too long, it crystalized into sugar. If you boil it too rapidly, or too slowly, it affects the flavor and texture. If making maple syrup is beginning to sound like a form of food art, you’d be correct. Today, modern measurement equipment allows batches to be boiled accurately and consistently, but Margaret didn’t have any tools – just her own experience and what she was taught by her parents and probably Michael McDowell himself.
You can see a video of sugar-making today in Tennessee, here. It was much more difficult and labor intensive in Margaret’s day. No tractors or modern equipment.
Margaret’s Life with Anson Martin and Joseph Bolton
We know that between 1828 and 1845 when Anson died, they harvested wood and made rails for split-rail fences that would surround their homestead. Those fences would have functioned to keep animals inside, and perhaps to keep some animals out as well.
It’s interesting to note that in the 1850 agricultural census, Joseph Bolton (red underscore at top), who is still married to Mary Tankersley, only has 10 improved acres and 50 unimproved. He had one horse. Farmers worked the land and raised crops, both for food and to sell, by hand using rudimentary horse or oxen-drawn plows and such. The land on “Slating Misery” and that neighborhood earned its name. Farming that rock-strewn soil on those steep hillsides was anything but easy.
Margaret Herrell Martin (red underscore at bottom), a widow, on the other hand had 30 improved acres and 55 unimproved. It’s clear that she and Anson are not restricted to the two acres they purchased from Michael McDowell in 1833. Maybe that was the seed land for their farm.
By 1850, Margaret owned 3 horses, 3 milk cows, 3 other cattle, 4 pigs and 2 sheep – so clearly plenty of animals that needed to be confined within a fence or barn. We always think of the “poor” widow, but in this case, Margaret seems to be better off than her “soon-to-be” husband, Joseph Bolton.
However, after combining their assets and 16 children, they would have had 4 horses, 5 milk cows, 3 other cattle, 14 hogs and 17 sheep living on a total of 40 improved acres and 105 unimproved acres. I don’t know this, but I’d guess that the smaller of their two homes became the “starter home” for their children who were newlyweds. In fact, Margaret’s oldest child, Evaline, married Alexander Calvin Busic sometime in 1851 or early 1852, not long after her mother married Joseph Bolton. Evaline’s first child was born in December of 1852, just 15 months after her mother’s first child with Joseph Bolton.
And so it was on the land across the Powell River from Slanting Misery. The seasons came and went, the sugar ran and didn’t. Babies were born and many died. Families dug graves. Time for grief was short. Too much to do.
The fields were plowed and seeds sewn. Moonshine making followed the fall harvest and butchering season in a mountainous region far from the courthouse were lawlessness and white lightning became an art form.
The passes and valleys along the Powell River were and are steep and treacherous.
Powel River had to be forded, at least once if not twice to get to the McDowell and Herrell lands.
It was a LONG way down to that river. Margaret came from hardy stock who figured out how to make a life, and a living here.
Nobody bothered those tough-as-nails people up on 4 Mile Creek, at McDowell Shoals. Nosiree.
Mostly, they kept to themselves and married their neighbors. Deeds were passed hand to hand for generations.
Life was hardscrabble. People still live in some of those remade one-room cabins where entire families lived together. Children were raised, women wove fabric, made everyone’s clothes, cooked outside and washed in the river. During the all-too-often wars that took the men away, the womenfolk did it all, in addition to defending the homestead. Life was tough and people died young.
Those widows plowed fields, split firewood, and built rail fences, not to mention preparing the ingredients, cooking, making treats like maple syrup, and looking after children. And they did just fine on their own, thank you. I’d not advise poking around on their land or into their business. Just sayin’.
Margaret may not have been able to sign her name, or even know how to spell it, but she had many far more useful skills. Somehow, she managed to feed a passel of kids on just 30 acres of land for years, and maybe helped her neighbor, Joseph, to boot, when his wife was ill. Their decision to join forces and families was probably the best solution for everyone concerned. I’m certainly glad they did. Their youngest child is my great-grandfather, Joseph B. “Dode” Bolton who married the neighbor gal, Margaret Claxton, who lived in the next bend over on the Powell River.
Margaret Herrell Bolton was very clearly a force to be reckoned with. A pioneer woman in every sense and spirit of the word.
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