Mystery Man of Madison County

In 1818, the Chickasaw signed a treaty ceding the last of their territory in Tennessee to the United States – the area between the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers. Immediately, settlers from middle and eastern Tennessee, northern Alabama, and Kentucky began to move west into the newly available land. By 1821, there were enough new inhabitants to create local governments throughout the area, including that of Madison County. Among dozens of names on the petition asking the State of Tennessee to establish Madison that year was John Nelson, who was the great-grandfather of Edgar Luther Nelson and the original west-Tennessee Nelson in this family.


Map of Tennessee in 1818 before Chickasaw Cession. Compare to 1827 Map.

Despite much searching, the origin of John remains a Mystery. I love a good mystery, but only if I am eventually able to solve it, and this one so far has produced more frustration and less happiness. Even the John Paysinger mystery seems to have a closer ultimate answer, in part because the Nelsons suffer from the genealogical Curse of the Common Name. Both online and print-material searches for “John Nelson” – an unfortunately oft-used English name – provide many to pick from and little guidance as to relevance.

In this post, I will present the available clues and perhaps readers will eventually come forward to fill in the blanks. To be clear, my hope is to identify John Nelson’s parents, the full names of his wife or wives, and the communities where he lived prior to moving to Madison County. For readers who are most interested in family stories and less interested in genealogical minutia, feel free to skip on to another post, having gained the knowledge that John Nelson and his family were among the very first settlers in West Tennessee. Be warned, however, that there is a very interesting speculative tidbit at the tail end of this entry.

For those curious about the puzzle, here are the pieces:

  • John Nelson was born in North Carolina in about 1783 according to an 1850 census record and the 1880 census records of his children. The 1850 record unfortunately records his name as “John Wilson,” but the names on the record all match up with wife and children known from other sources with the exception of a 25-year-old apparent son named Garrett, who appears nowhere else.
  • John likely moved to eastern or middle Tennessee for a time before moving to Madison County. In census records, his eldest daughters list their birthplaces as Tennessee, but they were born in 1817 and 1818 which was before Madison County was open for settlement.
  • Based on ages of his children and widow Mary, he likely had a first wife who died sometime between 1825 and 1832, and was the mother of 6-7 of  his children. He then remarried to Mary, who lived until 1869 and was the mother of  at least 4 children. This speculation is based on a long gap in the birth dates of his children, and the fact that Mary was too young to be the mother of his oldest kids.
  • John was a fairly well-to-do farmer at the time of his death in 1856, holding about 325 acres of land and something over $2,000 in assets excluding personal possessions and real estate. The full transcript of the court papers regarding his estate will be appended to this post in the near future.
  • In the 1850 census, an Elizabeth Nelson who is similar in age to John shows up in his household, perhaps either a sister or sister-in-law.
  • A Garrett Nelson who is about 15 years younger than John appears in neighboring Gibson County in the 1830 and 1840 censuses, and then moves into the same neighborhood as John and his adult children by 1850. Garrett is married to Elizabeth Allen whose family is from Virginia. One of their daughters will eventually marry one of John’s sons.
  • There are three clusters of Nelson families in the 1790 and 1800 North Carolina censuses. They are in 1) Northampton County, 2) Iredell/Stokes/Rockingham/Guilford Counties, and 3) Craven/Carteret/Pitt Counties.
  • Goodspeed’s history of Madison County mentions “the family of the Nelsons and Hicks” at the end of a list of residents of Jackson – the county seat of Madison – in 1824. The Hicks are otherwise related to this family through the Blakemores, and are from Northampton County, NC. Goodspeed’s language seems to indicate that this is a single family, so perhaps John’s first wife was a Hicks? Keep in mind, however, that Goodspeed was written decades after the fact.
  • Lemuel Deberry was appointed guardian for John’s youngest son Nathan T. after John’s death, Nathan not quite being of legal age to look after himself (I suspect “Nathan Thomas Nelson” because there is a “Thomas” rather than a “Nathan” in the 1850 census). The extended Deberry family in Madison County also seems to have originated in Northampton County, NC.
  • The eldest son of John – James H. Nelson – named his eldest son John Pleasant Scarborough Nelson. The “John” is obviously for his father, and the “Pleasant” for Sedgious’ father. But what about the Scarborough? Could the name come from James H.’s mother?
  • The names, approximate birth years, and spouses of John’s children are as follows:
    • Mary Ann, born 1817, married Christopher L. Johnson.
    • Martha, born 1818, married John Allen.
    • Rhoda Ann, also born 1818 (twins!), married Tamsin P. Allen.
    • Elizabeth, born 1820, married Benjamin F. Bond and died sometime between 1850 and 1856.
    • James H. Nelson, born 1823, married Sedgious Johnson and then Christiana Thompson after Sedgious died in 1859.
    • John Nelson, born 1825, married Caroline McAfee, and then Mary Jane Nelson after Caroline’s death, the latter of whom who was the daughter of the aforementioned Garrett Nelson and Elizabeth Allen.
    • Garrett Nelson, also born 1825, appears in 1850 census record but is not mentioned in court proceedings surrounding John’s estate in 1856. Earlier census records are inconsistent, and other records for this individual have not been found.
    • Eliza Nelson, born sometime between 1826 and 1830, married William T. Allen.
    • Sarah A. Nelson, born 1833, married Miles C. Piercy.
    • Frances Nelson, born 1834, married William T. Allen after the death of his first wife – and her sister – Eliza.
    • William M. Nelson, born 1835, have not found a marriage record for him.
    • Nathan Thomas Nelson, born 1837.
  • It is clear that the family was closely connected to a family of Allens and to a lesser extent the Johnson family. Johnson family origins are known, and since James and Sedgious are grandparents of Edgar Luther Nelson there is more information about them here.

Here is a final thought that is likely completely unrelated to this mystery, but seems worth mentioning. While the presumption in the information given is that John Nelson followed the usual route of settlement, moving from North Carolina to eastern/middle Tennessee and then to western Tennessee, there were explorers, traders, hunters, and trappers who traveled west ahead of the agricultural land rush. This is potentially significant because there is a persistent rumor passed down through this family of having Native American heritage, specifically Choctaw, despite the fact that the Choctaw territory was really south of Tennessee in Mississippi. While family legend identifies Sedgious Johnson and her mother Eleanor Thompson as the partial Native Americans who bring this heritage into the family, written records seem fairly clear that Eleanor was from European-American families in North Carolina.

On the other side, the assumed first wife of John Nelson is completely unknown. And this is where it gets interesting. There was a band of Choctaw-related Native Americans in western Tennessee, north of the usual territory of the Choctaw. Their story is told in The Chronicles of Oklahoma:

From the grey shadows of tradition among the Choctaws comes the story of an unattached band of Indians known as the Shak-chi-homas, led by Cha-la-homa (Red Fox) as chief, with haunts along the banks of the Mississippi in Western Tennessee. The Shak-chi-homas appear to have entertained but scant regard for the Chickasaws and Choctaws who ranged to the south of this sector, and hunters and trappers of these tribes were cruelly slain. These killings provoked the massacre of the Shak-chi-homa warriors at their town near where now stands the city of Memphis, by the Chickasaws and Choctaws, which massacre is reputed to have taken place shortly before our war of the Revolution. Some 200 women and children were spared and carried away by the Choctaws, but the Shak-chi-homas as a tribe were completely wiped out.

An interesting touch of romance enters the picture in the story of Sho-maka, a captive maiden of the Shak-chi-homas, who was carried away and adopted by the Choctaws. This Indian girl married a white man by the name of Cole who subsequently escaped from an enforced residence among the Indians, and became the mother of Robert Cole who was to become a signer of the celebrated removal treaty and a Choctaw leader of much prominence during that period. Coleman Cole, a son of Robert Cole served as chief of the Choctaws in 1874-78 and was a very picturesque and interesting character. A daughter of Sho-ma-ka married Capt. Daniel McCurtain and another daughter married Garrett E. Nelson, a white man, and became the mother of Mahayia. It is of much interest to know that Mahayia, a granddaughter of Sho-ma-ka the Shak-chi-homa captive maid, married Cornelius McCurtain and became the mother of the three celebrated McCurtain chieftains of the Choctaws.

John Bartlett Meserve, “The McCurtains,” Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 13, No. 3, September 1935, p.298.

I do not actually think this story is a part of the family history, as it is difficult to imagine a scenario that matches up with a John Nelson born in North Carolina in the 1780s. However, the coincidence of the name Garrett Nelson and the family legend of Choctaw ancestry makes it worth mentioning amidst the clues that hopefully someday will lead to an understanding of John Nelson’s ancestry.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s