The Legend of John McMullan

Joel Chandler Harris, author of Uncle Remus and B’rer Rabbit fame, wrote in his Stories of Georgia [1898], “The Revolutionary War in Georgia developed some very romantic figures, which are known to us rather by tradition than by recorded history.” This recalls one of my ancestors who is associated with a “tradition” surrounding his occupation during the American Revolutionary war. I was introduced to this family legend about twenty years ago as I was just learning about the family tree of my maternal grandfather. My third great-grandmother, Elizabeth McMullan, wife of David Dobbs, was a granddaughter of John McMullan (McMullin), a wealthy rice planter who lived in Elbert County Georgia in the early part of the 19th century.

According to the legend, John McMullan was born in Dublin Ireland around 1740. Other versions of the story have him coming from someplace else in Ireland. It is said that he was a sailmaker while he was in Ireland, but after arriving in America in the 1770s, he became a tailor.

The McMullan family lore says that John McMullan was the tailor who made George Washington’s uniform when he was elevated to commander of the Continental Army in 1776. This story was made public in a newspaper article 1919. According to the article, a descendent of John McMullan owned a wooden tool chest that is said to be the box that McMullan kept his tools of the trade as a tailor. After the Revolutionary war, McMullan, who lived in Virginia and was married with children, eventually settled in Georgia on land that he received as a headright grant.

 John McMullan’s plot on Liberty Hill Rd.,
north side of Big Cedar Creek, Elbert, now Hart County, Georgia

Muster records from the Revolutionary War, place John at Valley Forge during the terrible winter of 1778. John is mentioned in Georgia’s Landmarks Memorials and Legends by Lucian Lamar Knight (1914) in the Hart county chapter (p. 676)

Studying genealogies compiled by other people, I have learned that John McMullan first married Theodosia Beasley sometime in the late 1760s and had by her five children, one of whom was my fourth great-grandfather, Patrick McMullan. It is not clear how the marriage between John and Theodosia ended. Yet, in more than one un-sourced family history the story is told that Theodosia abandoned her family with John in favor of another man named William Dula.

Most accounts agree, Theodosia was the daughter of James Beasley and Ann Reynolds. Her name is given as either Theodosia Beck Beasley or Theodosia Beasley. Her birth date is given as May 1755 or 1757. One story is that she first married John McMullan, an Irish immigrant around 1769 and had 5 children. They then separated and she married William Dula on Apr. 5, 1790 in Wilkes Co., North Carolina. They had 7 children. William died in 1835 and she followed 9 years later.

Another account I found gets really specific yet provides no sources: Theodosia was married (pregnant) at 14 to an older man John McMullin age 29 having 5 children with him. Her father paid McMullins and the children to move out of NC to Georgia so Theodosia could live with legally as a wife to Dula. [She is] buried in Horton Family Cemetery in Caldwell Co NC USA.

In light of evidence I have found, some details are in jeopardy; for example, it is not clear when this separation occurred. According to Virginia, Orange County Marriage Records, 1757-1938; Theodosia’s son, Patrick was married to Sarah Walker on 5 January 1792 at St. Thomas Parish, Orange county, Virginia and Theodosia Beazley is on the record as his mother.

The Newton (Mississippi) Record 1919

In addition to my 4th great-grandfather, Theodosia’s other children by John McMullan were James, Mary, John, and Katherine.

Also, it appears that John McMullan remarried before leaving for Georgia. According to other un-sourced family history records, John McMullan married a woman named Elizabeth Stowers in Orange county, Virginia and by her, he had ten more children; three of whom were born in Virginia. Judging by the year his fourth child by Elizabeth was born, the family arrived in Georgia before 1799. Children of John and Elizabeth were Nail (Neal), Jeremiah, Lewis, Sinclair, Fielding, Thomas, Nancy, Elizabeth, Daniel, and Lavenia.

To me, it does not seem likely that John would have been allowed to re-marry if he were still legally married to Theodosia. It seems like there must have either been some legal proceeding to end the marriage or her death.

I will warn up front, that like a 19th century novel there are characters in this story that bear the same names. Between the probate records for John and son Patrick, there are two Johns, two Patricks, and four Elizabeths. I will also warn that like any 19th c. Southern planter, some of the property of the estate is human property.

John McMullan died in December 1817 in Elbert County Georgia. He left a last will and testament. I found the probate records for both John McMullan and for his son Patrick McMullan who died in 1836, also in Elbert County Georgia. In the case of both records, my third great-grandfather, David Dobbs appears as either a witness or an administrator of the estate. David’s other connection to the McMullan family is that he married a daughter of Patrick McMullan in 1819.

John’s will was read out in January 1818. This year was a part of time in American history known as the Era of Good Feelings (1817–1825). In the aftermath of the War of 1812, the feel-good fever of American nationalism ran high while the country was being run by a virtual one-party system under the leadership of President James Monroe. When the President made his goodwill tours in 1817 and 1819, he donned a Revolutionary War officer’s uniform and tied his long, powdered hair in a queue according to the old-fashioned style of the 18th century. Nostalgia for the days of Revolution was the order of the day as many patriots and heroes of that time were dying off. At least five Dobbs males were named James Monroe, including my grandfather, a brother who died in infancy, their father, and an uncle who was born during the Era of Good Feelings.

July 4th, 1819 – John Lewis Krimmel (public domain)

Before this inquiry into the details of John and Patrick’s estates, I knew only scant details about the family branch of my third great-grandmother Elizabeth McMullan Dobbs. She was born 16 May 1800 in Elbert County Georgia and she died before the Civil War on 6 March 1859 at Marietta Georgia. The memorial on her tombstone at city Cemetery in Marietta reads as follows:

Mrs. Elizabeth M Dobbs
consort of Col. David Dobbs
d. Sunday, 6 March 1859
aged 58 yrs. 9 mos. 21 days
In life, she was a devoted Christian,
having been a member of the Baptist Church 38 years…

I know that her sister, Frances McMullan, was married to David’s brother, Asa Dobbs, and that they too, went to Cobb County in the 1830s.

One of the challenges encountered when reviewing the records of both John and Patrick is the way in which the documents appear in the probate records – many items lack context and are not in chronological order. This is not so much an issue with John’s probate records, which consists of 25 images, but as I got into the probate records for Patrick McMullan which consists of over 170 images, I was immediately reminded of something out of a Charles Dickens’ novel, specifically Bleak House.

In the opening chapter of Dickens’ 1852 novel, the reader is presented with a chaotic scene taking place in a London Chancery Court. At the center of the novel’s plot is a seemingly never-ending legal case in the Court of Chancery known as Jarndyce and Jarndyce. The reason for the case is that a testator had written several conflicting wills. Most of the characters in the novel have some interest in the case; some of whom are minors whose very future in society depends on the outcome of the case.

In the end, although the case is settled, all funds of the estate were eaten up in court costs and attorney fees. Reminiscent of the fictional Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, in Patrick’s records we are presented with a cast of characters, four orphans under guardianship, and at least one court case. Bound up with this, hovering in the background, is a shadow cast of characters – the human property of the estate whose fate depended on the will of the old master or, if lacking mention or the absence of a will, on the good graces of their new masters – the administrators of the estate.

The Last Will and Testament of John McMullin Sen. 1818

The will of John McMullan begins, as any good Will should, with a long yet very effective run-on sentence: “In the name of God Amen I John McMullan senior of the State and County of aforesaid being Very Weak of body but of perfect mind and memory and calling to mind the mortality of body and knowing that it is appointed for all men once to die to make this my last Will and Testament, that is to say, principally and first of all I give and recommend my soul into the hands of Almighty God who gave it, and my body I recommend to the Earth to be buried in decent Christian Burial at the discretion of my executor and as touching such worldly Estate as it hath pleased God to bless me with in this World I give and dispose of the same in the following manner and form (two wit)”

I am a bit critical of the writing because it is possible that my third great grandfather, David Dobbs, composed the will in his capacity as an attorney; an occupation he appears to have shared in partnership with his older brother John and younger brother, Jesse.

Following the heading, John provides instructions for the executors to first pay off all his lawful debts out of his estate. This is followed by an itemized series of bequeathments to different parties. First up is John’s second wife, who is identified as Elizabeth McMullan, alias Elizabeth Stowers. To her, he leaves 100 acres of land including the house and Plantation on which they now reside. This includes his entire household and kitchen, furniture, and Plantation tools with all the stock of horses, cattle, and hogs. Three slaves are identified by name as part of this bequeathment. They are “a Negro fellow named Kato, a Negro woman slave name Sarah, [and] a Negro woman named Millie.” It says that this property is “to be held and enjoyed during her natural life or widowhood.” Meaning it is hers until she either dies or remarries. (This is an important point because it appears that at sometime following the death of her stepson, Patrick, she does remarry).

In the third item, he lists all of the children by his first wife: his son James, eldest son; Patrick, second son; John, his third son, and his daughters, Mary, now Mary Powell; and Katherine, now Katherine Shiflett. To them he leaves the sum of one dollar, stating that this is “their full share of [his] estate having before this time given them all that [he] intend[ed] or conveniently could share as their part except the sum of one dollar to each as above mentioned and to them bequeathed.”

One thing that complicates things for me is that I do not know how old all of his children were. It is believed that Patrick McMullan was born about 1772 and that he died at age 64 in 1836. This makes his second son Patrick to be about 45 years old in 1818. We know from his will that Patrick owned his own plantation and was well off in 1836. We will be looking at Patrick’s probate records after looking at John’s will.

Following the symbolic token of one dollar each to the children of wife number one, the next 11 items are bequeathments to the children of wife number two and from what we will see next, John McMullan was land rich and cash poor.

According to the will, in 1818, John was survived by seven sons and three daughters by his second wife, Elizabeth Stowers. To each of his sons he left land and to each of his daughters he left slaves.

To Nail, his eldest son by Elizabeth Stowers, he left 98 ½ acres of land. To son Jeremiah he also left 98 ½ acres. To Lewis he left 70 acres. To Thomas he left 200 acres that are now owned by Elizabeth Stowers McMullan and will become his when she either dies or remarries. To his son Fielding, he left the sum of $300 that is to be raised out of the auction of his personal estate that is either heretofore bequeathed or not bequeathed and shall be paid to him within the term of two years after John’s decease. To his sixth son Sinclair he leaves 100 acres of land of the tract on which John now resides and which joins land owned by Benjamin Neil and John Dobbs. (And here is the first mention of the Dobbs brothers. John is the elder brother of David Dobbs.)

Then to his seventh son Daniel and his heirs he gives the tract of land he has bequeathed to his wife Elizabeth McMullan. So, in other words when Elizabeth Stowers McMullan either dies or remarries that land will go to Daniel, minus the portion given to Thomas and Sinclair.

To his daughter Nancy, now Nancy Mills, and her heirs, he gives “one Negro girl slave named Dicey and her increase.”

To his daughter Elizabeth, he gives “one boy named Edmund to be hers and her heirs forever.”

To his youngest daughter, Lavinia, he gave one Negro woman named Millie to her and her heirs, to be by her possessed after the estate which I hereby vested to my wife Elizabeth McMullan alias Elizabeth Stowers is terminated and the increase of the said Negro woman if any before the commencement of my said daughter Lavinia’s estate there in and after my decease.

I think that this a long-winded way of saying that after Elizabeth Stowers either dies or remarries this slave named Millie or Millie’s offspring will become property of John’s daughter Lavinia or her heirs.

They did indeed have this idea that the institution of slavery was going to last forever and when I think of that, I realize how much different their worldview was than mine is today. So, much so that I have trouble wrapping my head around the fact that I am separated from that era by only four or five generations.

Finally, item 14 states that it is John’s will and desire is that all the property bequeathed to his wife Elizabeth McMullan alias Elizabeth Stowers after the termination of her estate (either she dies or remarries) therein be sold and the proceeds of said sale be equally divided among his seven last mentioned sons: Nail, Jeremiah, Lewis, Thomas, Fielding, Sinclair, and Daniel and that they would share and share alike.

John’s eldest son by his second wife, Nail and one of his son-in-law James Mills are named as executors in a last will and testament that was signed, sealed, and published on 6 December 1817. The document is witnessed by Benjamin Neal, David Dobbs, and John Dobbs.

In the next pages, is an oath sworn by James Mills and Nail McMullan that they will faithfully execute the will by paying first the debts and then legatees. This is followed by John and David Dobbs swearing in court that they are witnesses to a true copy of the will.

Following the pages of the will, there is a two-page inventory of the goods and chattel of John McMullan deceased. This inventory reads more like “Little House on the Prairie” then it does “Gone with the Wind”. There is a very frontier feel to it. In addition to listing personal property, the inventory also lists human property. The personal property listed is primarily household furnishings. For example, John owned 11 “sitting chers” and a pine table with tablecloth. He owned 10 books and a Bible. There are three beds with bedroom furniture, listed along with four quilts. There is a cotton wheel, one shotgun and shot bag. It lists dishes, cups, and saucers. One cutting knife, two hogsheads and meal tubs, a pine desk, stone jug, and one case of bottles and crocks; and so on. There is livestock listed consisting of five horses, five cows, eight hogs, and 17 pigs.

While most items are appraised at less than $10, the highest valued item listed in the inventory is “one niggrow [sic] girl named Jany” who was valued at $225. There is one other human being listed in the inventory and that is the man Cato, mentioned in the will, whose value is listed at $50. It is unknown as to why the other slaves mentioned in the will are not listed in the inventory.

Although there is a “black walnut chest” listed, this does not match the description of the legendary toolbox which was described in 1919 as being made of cypress. According to the article that appeared in the 08 May 1919 edition of The Newton (Mississippi) Record, the toolbox became the property of Patrick McMullan following the death of his father, John. When Patrick died in 1836, the box was handed down to his son William, then to his grandson J. P. McMullan. According to the article: “…after the death of JP McMullan, the chest was obtained by WJ McMullan who now owns and prizes it much more than any money value that could be put on it.” It states that “WJ McMullan was the only one who knew anything of the original history and line of descent of the historic old box, which has been in America 159 years.”

Following the inventory, there are about a dozen pages that make up the annual returns that the estate must report to the county court, showing any income made by the estate and any debt payments going out. This part of the record appears to be incomplete only because there is a return for 1818, followed by return for 1823, and then 1819. In the return ending 1818, Elijah Dobbs and six others were paid amounts ranging between five dollars and one dollar. For example, it shows that on October 29, 1818 Patrick McMullan was paid five dollars. This same return also shows a payment to Patrick McMullan on the same date for $20; however, this item is scratched out. The return for 1819 shows that Patrick McMullan was paid $20. The date on the record says December 1817 but this is more likely to have been 1818. As a matter of reference, 20 dollars in 1818 was worth 400 dollars in today’s money.

Finally, the return for 1823 shows that Patrick McMullan was paid $4.93 and three-quarter cents in July 1822. There were approximately 15 other payments to other creditors totaling $289.78 ½ cents.

Interestingly, there is no mention in the records of the $300 payment owed to his son Fielding.

Next up, part two, where I will be examining the probate record for Patrick McMullan (1772-1836).

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