Now That’s What I Call Southern Gothic!

Of late, I have been reading books by Margaret Mitchell and William Faulkner; while at the same time I have been studying the probate records of an ancestor of mine who died intestate 185 years ago. As I am recounting my analysis from said study, I find the need to restrain myself from injecting too much drama into the proceedings laid before me.

The ancestor I refer to is one Patrick McMullan, a great, great, great, great-grandfather of mine who died in the year of our Lord 1836 on a rice plantation along the Savannah River in the county of Elbert in the great state of Georgia.

According to one of the documents in the probate records, William McMullan, a son of Patrick, and Patrick’s stepmother, Elizabeth Stowers McMullan, swore on a Bible in court of law that Patrick died without a will. This document is dated November 1836. Based on my analysis of the 171 images that make up the probate records for Patrick McMullan, he was land rich, cash poor, owned slaves, owed money, and had four minor children who were orphaned at the time of his death.

In the record I could see that over 1000 acres changed hands and Patrick’s estate owned at least 25 slaves. There were almost 20 legatees identified in the records and one of them was my third great-grandfather, David Dobbs. He was the husband of Patrick’s daughter, Elizabeth – one of at least three women in the records named Elizabeth McMullan.

Before continuing any further, and in the tradition of the opening pages of a 19th century melodramatic novel, I present for the reader’s benefit a cast of characters:

  • Elizabeth Prather, wife of James Prather, formally Elizabeth Stowers McMullan
  • James Prather – Elizabeth Stowers McMullan’s second husband.
  • James McMullan – half-brother of Patrick and son of John and Elizabeth. He died 1842.
  • John Sinclair McMullan – son of Patrick and Sarah
  • Sinclair McMullan – half-brother of Patrick and son of John McMullan and Elizabeth Stowers. He died 1844.
  • Ralph McMullan – son of Patrick. He died in Carroll County Georgia in 1855
  • Willis McMullan – son of Patrick and Sarah. He was born 1811.
  • Thomas Jefferson McMullan – son of Patrick and Sarah. He died 1885.
  • David Dobbs – husband of Elizabeth McMullan, a daughter of Patrick and Sarah. He was a former sheriff of Elberton Georgia and a colonel in the Georgia militia. (I only mention this because it adds some color).
  • Asa Dobbs – husband of Frances McMullan, a daughter of Patrick and Sarah
  • George Gresham – husband of Sarah Ann McMullan, a daughter of Patrick and Sarah. They were married 1837. She died 1883.
  • Ruben Brown – husband of Theodosia McMullan, a daughter of Patrick and Sarah.
  • Barnabas Barron – husband of Millicent (Millie) McMullan, a daughter of Patrick and Sarah. She died 1847. He was justice of the peace in Elbert county.

The four orphaned children were: Patrick Jr. (b. 1820), William Marion (b. 1823), Mary Catherine (b. 1823), and Susan Antoinette (b. 1833) McMullan.

The probate records seem to raise more questions than there are answers.

The identity of Patrick McMullan’s second wife and mother of the orphaned children is unknown to me. Her preexistence is merely implied by the record as she is not mentioned by name in the probate records. Patrick’s first wife, Sarah Walker died in 1818; therefore, Sarah could not be the mother of children born in the 1820s. There is an implication that the mother of the orphans was related to Patrick’s stepmother, Elizabeth, and her brother Thomas Stower, as they were both made guardians of the orphans.

In the publicly available archives of the state of Georgia, the documents, as they appear online, seem to be ordered in a chaotic manner. They are 171 images with numbering that begins with #138 and ends with #306. Some are mere cover sheets, while the majority of the other pages can be categorized into least three subjects: first, treatment of Patrick McMullan’s human property; including the disposal of his land; second, treatment of the minor children of Patrick McMullan and his mysterious 2nd wife; and thirdly, evidence of a lawsuit and other disagreements among the legatees.

I will start with the latter item as I hinted at this in a previous post. By this, I am referring to a notice that appeared in a Georgia newspaper in 1841. While I was searching the newspaper archives for my ancestor “David Dobbs“, I came upon a court order from the inferior court of Elbert County, Georgia, that was published on page three of the Washington News and Planters Gazette November 18, 1841 edition.

The court order appearing in the local paper of record for the County of Elbert, demands that 12 men and one woman appear in the court to “plead, demure, and answer to said bill.” The case referenced is that of Barnabas Barron and his wife Millie, the former Millicent McMullan, versus William McMullan, administrator, James Prather and his wife Elizabeth, administratrix, etc. of the estate of Patrick McMullan, deceased. The etc. who are identified in the body of the order are the 13 other adult legatees of the estate of Patrick McMullan. The other four involved, and not named in the lawsuit, were minor children.

The court case mentioned in the newspaper in 1841 is referenced twice in the probate records for Patrick’s estate; although, there are no details as to what the case was about. Nevertheless, it does appear that it was resolved amicably to the benefit of Mr. Barron and his wife ($98.65); with even greater benefit being enjoyed by the court which demanded a princely sum of $300 for whatever it did to resolve the matter.

The first indication of a problem with the estate occurs in images #167 and #169 this shows a bond of $50,000 posted by William McMullan, Jeremiah S Warren, Sinclair McMullan, Joseph R Holm, David Dobbs, and William White. The document dated September 1837 shows that it grants temporary letters of administration of the estate to William McMullan, David Dobbs, and William White. This coincides with the period in which David Dobbs and his family were in the process of relocating to the newly formed Cobb County beyond the Chattahoochee River, of which was until very recently within the territory of the Cherokee nation.

Shortly after being named a temporary administrator of the estate David Dobbs and Barnabas Barron addressed a letter to all the other legatees informing them to take notice that they the undersigned applied to the court of Elbert County for a “division of the Negro property” belonging to the estate of Patrick McMullan. Four months later, the court appointed five men to do the appraisement the human property of the estate.

The thing that seems to have triggered the request by David Dobbs and the other man for a court appointed appraisement of the “Negro property” is an earlier inventory that appraised the total value of 25 individuals at a mere $147. This paltry sum is confirmed in the final tally at the bottom of the third page of the inventory.

The court appointed five men to conduct the appraisement. In January, the court posted an estimate of the value of the human property at $13,475; divided equally among 17 legatees that was said to come out to $792.64 each. I guess that is assuming that the slaves were sold at auction; however, that does not appear to be how things went down. One assessment at $147 and a second at $13,475; that is a huge discrepancy!

Based on how I read that second appraisement, it appears that the slaves were not sold. It looks like some remained with the estate and were “highered” out and some were given to each of the legatees of the estate. For example, Wiggin, a boy, was valued at nine dollars in the original appraisement and in the second appraisement he was valued at $800. Ultimately, he was allotted to one of the minors, William Marion McMullan.

One entry shows David Dobbs receiving an enslaved man named Henry valued at $900. For reference purposes $900 in January 1838 was equivalent to $24,419.44 in 2021.

And another shows that David Dobbs “higher[ed] Negro girle [named] Lizar” for 6 and ¼ cents. I am not sure what “higher” means, but I think it is like renting a human being for one year.

Following are the names of the shadow cast of characters, the human property of Patrick McMullan’s estate: Jenkins, Henry, Wiggin, Stephen, Liberty, Henderson, Martin, Thompson, Wyatt, Seaborn, Lydia, Mitchell, Eliza, Louisa, Emily, Nancy, Ron, Prissy, Vianna, Lizar, Harriet, Pleasant, Liller, and Tilda.

The inventory of Patrick’s personal property reads fairly standard for a mid century southern plantation. There is livestock listed and household goods; including a Still appraised at $25.

One very interesting page within the records is a page titled “Sale of the lands belonging to the estate of Patrick McMullan, died in Elbert County, sold on the first Tuesday in August 1838 on a credit until 25 December 1838.”

This page lists four tracts that were sold from the estate. It appears each tract has a name such as the “Freeman tract” and the “Roundtree tract”. The largest of the tracts the “Prince tract” had 377 ½ acres. The four tracts totaled 1000 acres. In one of the other documents the “Jackson tract” is referred to as “Jackson plantation.”

About three months after the court appointed David Dobbs and others as the temporary administrators of the estate, Elizabeth McMullan along with her stepson William, who was Patrick’s oldest son, were made administrators of the estate.

I am convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that the woman referenced in the probate records as Elizabeth McMullan is the same Elizabeth Stowers McMullan who was the second wife of John McMullan, father of Patrick, and that she is also the same woman who was later referenced as Elizabeth Prather in the probate record for Patrick’s estate. It appears she married James Prather sometime in 1838. Further, I am convinced that she is kin to the four orphans of Patrick McMullan and a sister of the man named Thomas Stowers, who becomes the guardian of those orphans after Elizabeth marries James Prather. For one, in all three cases she appeared to be illiterate and had to make a mark (“X”) when signing their name. As to her relationship with the children my guess is that she is either a sister to their mother or her aunt.

The rest of the images in the probate record for Patrick McMullan pertain to the welfare of his four minor children who were orphaned at his death. There were two boys and two girls. The eldest son, Patrick Junior was 16 years old at the time of his father’s death. Next came Mary Catherine, who was 13 years old in 1836. She was followed by William Marion, who was eleven when his father died. The youngest child, Susan Antoinette was born in 1833, only three years before her father’s death.

Each year following the death of Patrick McMullan, the guardian for the four children was apparently required by the court to file a return of how much money from the estate was spent on each of the children. Given that Susan Antoinette would not be of age until 1854, one might expect that the records would go to that year. Nevertheless, as far as I can tell, the last return was filed in 1849 by Thomas Stowers, guardian for the children. In the itemized list provided, it shows Thomas having purchased bonnet ribbons, pink gingham, and a dress shawl for young Susan A. McMullan on May 2, 1848.

Here is a return for 1839, showing Elizabeth McMullan, guardian for the children, having purchased for Marion McMullan a white fur hat, a silk scarf and a pair of shoes, among other things.

Here we see in 1843, Thomas Stowers, guardian for Miss Catherine McMullan, purchasing for the minor girl some items including a Willow bonnet, fancy shawl, and kid slippers.

I do not see a closure of the guardianship for the two girls. I believe they did eventually marry but there is no indication of that in the probate records.

We see in the record where Patrick McMullan Junior, no longer a minor, received from his guardian, Thomas Stowers, $574.93 in full. The year was 1841. To make things even more confusing, I will tell you that Patrick McMullan, Jr. married a Miss Elizabeth Hawley, who then became the fourth woman to be known as “Elizabeth McMullan”.

The last two items on the last page in the probate records for Patrick McMullan are both signed by his son Marion McMullan. Entry number eight states that he “received from Thomas Stowers, my guardian, one negroe [sic] man named Wiggin, inful [sic] of all the negroe property belonging to me this 1st January 1847.”

Item 9 reads: “[Received] of Thomas Stower, my guardian, $839 and 91 ½ cents in full of the principal and interest of all the money [from the] hire of Negroes which I claim from said Guardian this seventh day of December 1847.” – signed Marion McMullan.

Soon thereafter, William Marion McMullan pulled up roots and moved to Newton, Mississippi where he died in 1909. What we do not know is the fate of the slave named Wiggin.

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