Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Players

Before we can pursue the story of the mysterious book my mother told me about, back when I was a child, it is best to first take a look at the players in this story. For while it was that former enslaved boy who wrote the story I'm seeking, it was from his experiences on the land of my ancestor that he drew that narrative. Before we can trace that writer, we need to take a close look at the people documented as living where he grew up.

We'll start by looking at my third great-grandfather, George Edmund McClellan. What little I can tell you about him came either from the documents where I found his name listed, or from the few vignettes found online which mentioned his name in passing. In trying to seek out any further information, I was often stymied by the overbearing listings about another George McClellan, whose broader fame dwarfed any mention of my lesser ancestor. Thus, the importance of including his middle name.

My George McClellan supposedly came from the Barnwell District of South Carolina. Born in 1808, he eventually made his way to Florida territory, though based on the geographic location of the family of his first wife—Sydney, daughter of Job Tison from Pitt County, North Carolina, who settled in Glynn County, Georgia—I suspect George made a detour along the Georgia coast before heading inland from the recently-established Jacksonville.

Following what was known as the Old Spanish Trail—not to be confused with the later auto route by the same name, though parts of the 1920s route did overlay sections of the original trail—George McClellan was reported to have arrived in the area now known as Wellborn possibly as early as 1830. Land records show that he first claimed 560 acres of land there, but his holdings eventually increased to more than 2,000 acres.

George McClellan originally called his settlement Little River. There, he set up a post office, and the McClellan home was used as a relay station for stage coaches passing that way between Saint Augustine on the Atlantic coast, and Pensacola on the Gulf coast.

In the early years, McClellan was called upon to respond to the aftermath of raids by Native Americans, which possibly became the impetus for his involvement in the Seminole Wars, for which he organized his county's first militia unit in 1835.

Not long after that—having, in the meantime, fired off a letter protesting the lack of U.S. Army protection—George McClellan responded to the call for a constitutional convention, and became one of the delegates who, in 1838, drew up Florida's first state constitution.

Following his service in the militia in those early days, George McClellan served as a representative to the Florida state legislature, a Suwannee County surveyor and probate judge.

While all this civic involvement may be commendable, it is surely not lost upon even the most casual reader that a man as busy as this could not possibly have handled the farming of 2,000 acres—with only the farm implements of the time—without any help. True, he did have two sons who lived to adulthood, but before the time of the Civil War, the answer to this work dilemma was typically resolved by the purchase of human labor in the form of the enslaved. True to the times in which he lived, George McClellan reported the possession of fourteen slaves in 1850, which increased to thirty six by 1860.

Which one of those thirty six became the man who wrote the book my mother told me about, I can't say—but you know I'll try to figure the answer to that puzzle. My one clue was to compare the ages of that young man and my third great-grandfather's son, who was supposed to be of an age with this slave boy.

The only problem is, when I go back to the records to seek the answer, I realize the possibility that the whole story might have been romanticized over the years. For one thing, that son of George McClellan happened to be his youngest—at least, his youngest of the children he had with his first wife, who died in 1860. That son, William H. McClellan, was born in 1845. By the end of the Civil War, he would have been twenty years of age—not exactly the "child" the story seemed to represent. Even if we wind the story back to the pre-war era, that would put the two boys as teenagers. Though it would be unusual, one might allow that a young slave might be granted a sheltered moment at a tender age, but by, say, fifteen, I'd hardly expect the people of that era to abide his remaining in the home, rather than out in the fields.

Setting those doubts aside, though, let's examine what can be discovered about those slaves who were listing as living at the McClellan plantation, both in 1850 and in 1860, to see whether any might match the parameters the story seems to suggest.   


  1. I don't understand your doubts. Being old enough to work in the fields would not necessarily mean a slave and your ancestor could not have been friends. That friendship started well before the war. Another possibility is that the house slave's son might have worked in the house, not in the fields.

    1. You may be on to something, Wendy. A story told me by one of my mother's cousins last year--one I had never heard before--gives me an idea that this mother and son may have had an unusual relationship with the McClellans. The more I think about it, the more I believe delving into this other story may help understand the one I'm pursuing now. Of course, if I ever find that book, perhaps we can learn the truth of the matter from what we read there...

  2. Your story is deeply interesting. I look forward to watching you work on it. My own gr-gr-grandfather was born in 1808 in Edgefield District. His brother-in-law (born 1813) left SC and settled in northern Florida. I don't know yet if he fought there in Florida.
    I have letters written by my great-grandfather and his brothers (all young men) during the CW. As I am reading through these letters, I look on-line at snatches of the histories of some of the commanders of the CSA in SC, men who hardened their military experience fighting Indians in Florida. I am new to this kind of research, and am learning a lot from reading your blog. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Lisa, what a treasure to have all those letters! You know I'm jealous! And your comment brings up another point to pursue: could it be that a group of neighbors from the one location--for instance, South Carolina--together migrated to settle in northern Florida? I'm beginning to see possibilities that the story I'm pursuing may lead me back, through connections, to previous homes in other states.

  3. Your George McClellan was a pretty busy and high profile guy - that other George must have been something.

  4. Replies
    1. Fortunately, the SLIG course I attended last week provided me several ideas for how to tackle this puzzle. Always grateful for new research ideas.


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