Dorothy (Branch) Benton & her brother John battle a ghost / John Branch & the War of 1812 / Branch family history & North Carolina politics

     One of the more interesting families from which I descend is the Branch family of Halifax Co., NC.  There’s a little known incident on my “limb” which led me to collect a large amount of material.  Genealogists might learn something of value from it.

First, let’s set the stage:  John Branch and Dorothy Myra (Branch) Benton were brother and sister, children of William Branch Jr., a deputy sheriff in Halifax Co., NC.  For the purposes of this essay, it doesn’t matter if they had the same mother (they probably didn’t).

Dorothy married Nathaniel Benton, son of Jesse and Nancy (Gooch) Benton.  Nathaniel was brother to Thomas Hart Benton, United States Senator from Missouri.  Nathaniel and Dorothy were the great-grandparents of Thomas Hart Benton of Neosho, MO (1889-1975), celebrated muralist and painter.  The couple resided in Dyer Co., TN along with John Branch.

On 26 Sep 1835 in Dyer Co., TN, Nathaniel Benton, Dorithy Benton, John Branch, Thomas H. Ham, and William R. Pate bound themselves unto Joel A. Light and Stephen D. Light in the sum of $4,000.00 for a tract of 315 acres, which was part of the grant of 5,000 acres to the heirs of Jesse Benton.  (Dyer Co., TN Deed Book C, pp. 428-429.)  John Branch wasn’t married to a daughter of Jesse Benton.  His partcipation was acting as security for his sister in the transaction.  Thomas H. Ham married John Branch’s daughter Frances.

William Branch Jr. (who predeceased his father 30 Sep 1793), father of John and Dorothy, was the son of William Branch Sr. (Halifax Co., NC Deed Book 16, p. 133).

William Branch Sr.’s will, proved Halifax Co., NC, Feb Court 1794 (Will Book 3, p. 218), named the following:  wife Elizabeth Branch;  son Nicholas Branch; son John Branch; daughter Elizabeth Marshall; daughter Mary Scurlock; daughter Sarah Hill; daughter Ann Fleuellin; daughter Jane Overstreet; and daughter Martha Dillard.

William Branch Sr.’s daughter Elizabeth Marshall wound up a wealthy widow in Williamson Co., TN.  In her will, made 10 Nov 1853, she freed her slaves Manuel, Carey, Phederick, Suckey, Dick, Tom, Becky, John, Margaretts, and Henry.  It was this language that ignited a firestorm:  “I want my land that I live on after my death sold to the highest bidder, on a credit of twelve months and the proceeds of said land to be divided between my ten slaves to support them until they may make a start.”  She also bequeathed the rest of her estate to the same slaves.

Here’s why Elizabeth Marshall was angry with her family:

This Lawsuit is recorded in Williamson Co., TN:  “Elizabeth Marshall vs. George A. Conn 1847  She is aged 93 years and was married to -– Marshall and he is now deceased.  She has never remarried and has no children.  She owns considerable estate.  In 1833, Conn who married a distant relative of her’s, persuaded her to let Nicholas Branch live with her as she was living alone.  He was her nephew and without a home.  In 1834, she purchased a slave Fed from Thomas Parham.  Branch and Conn induced her to move to the western district of Tennessee in the fall of 1834 and said they would move to Haywood County where her old friend Joshua Farrington lived.  Branch was to live with her and Conn and his family to live nearby.  They had no money.  She placed money with them to be invested in land in the western district, about $2000.  They went to Fayette County and Branch collected money as her agent in Williamson County.  She sent for Farrington and told him of the situation and he started court proceedings.  Conn sold her land to -– Wilson for $1500 and collected the money.  She resided with Conn 18 months after returning to Williamson County.”  [Lynch, Louise Gillespie.  (1978).  Miscellaneous Records Williamson County, Tennessee Volume 2.  Pub: The Author.  p. 72.]

Dorothy Benton and relatives of Elizabeth Marshall sued James A. Hughes, executor of Elizabeth Marshall, to overturn the will.

The following is a transcription of the plaintiff’s petition:

“Dorothy Benton et al vs James Hughes

Issued 20th June 1854

Came to hand same day issued & executed by summoning defendants and delivering a copy of the Petition this 28th day of June 1854

FB Haynes Shff

To the Worshipful the County Court of Williamson County in the state of Tennessee.

The petition of Dorothy Benton John Branch George A. Conn & wife Martha would respectfully represent to your Worships that Elizabeth Marshall departed this life in the County of Williamson in the state of Tennessee in the year 1853 at the advanced age of One hundred years or thereabouts —

She died Seized and possessed of Considerable property real and personal At the January term 1854 of this Worshipful Court, James Hughes presented to the Court for probate a paper writing purporting to be the last Will and testament of the said Elizabeth Marshall and the same was admitted and letters testamentary issued to the said James Hughes the executor nominated therin No citation issued by the executor to the next of kin of the said Elizabeth Marshall nor were they or any of them present when the said pretended will was [?] — and it was only proven in common for we your petitioners constitute some heirs and next of kin of the said Elizabeth Marshall and they deny that said paper is the last will and testament of her the said Elizabeth Marshall and they desire to contest the same as a Valid will.  Your petitioners ask for a citation to the said James Hughes to appear before this court and propound said will in solemn form –

They ask that the probate heretofore granted be set aside – that they have leave to contest the validity of the said supposed will – that this order be made transfering the same according to the provisions of the statutes in such case made and provided to the Circuit Court of said County of Williamson that an issue of devissant vel * now may be made up and tried — Your petitioners pray for general relief in the premises — And that a copy of this petition together with a citation issue to the said James Hughes requiring him to appear and propound said supposed will in solemn form

S Venable Atto for Petitioners”

{* “devissant vel” may mean “actual devisees.”  JTC.}

Williamson County court records show that on 12 Mar 1855:

“This day came the parties by their attorneys, and by consent it is ordered that Nancy Capps and Mary Knight be admitted defendants in this cause, and permitted to contest the validity of the paper writing purporting to be the last will and testament of Elizabeth Marshall.”

In court on 28 Mar 1855:

“Dorothy Benton, John Branch & George A. Conn Nancy Capps & Mary Knight the defendants come and say that said paper writing is not the last will and testament of the said Elizabeth Marshall deceased, and that she did not devise and bequeath as is in and by the same set forth and expressed, and of this they put themselves on the …, and the plaintiff doth the like.”

Nancy Caps was Nancy Scurlock who married Benjamin Caps 11 Nov 1824 in Williamson Co., TN.  George A. Conn married Martha Dillard 25 Jul 1822 in Rutherford Co., TN.  I can’t identify Mary Knight, but she was in some fashion a descendant of William Branch Sr. 

On 31 Mar 1855, the Williamson Co. court issued its decision:

“It  is therefore considered by the court, that the said paper writing is the last Will and testament of the said Elizabeth Marshall deceased, and valid, and that it be established as such, and that the said Elizabeth Marshall thereby did devise and bequeath, as is in and by the same set forth and expressed.” 

The court allowed the defendants to recover their costs from James Hughes.

Sounds like it was over, doesn’t it?  It wasn’t.  There were suits and counter suits.  Dorothy Benton and her relatives overturned the will.  Accounts dated March 1865 show that Fed, John, Dick, Tom, Henry & Susan, and Margaret had been hired out—that is, “rented” to others, and the payments, which were substantial, duly entered into a register.  The estate of Elizabeth Marshall was an Administration with Will Annexed.

(J.H. Conn was Josephus H. Conn.)

Randal McEwing summed it all up on 15 Mar 1865, just weeks before Lee’s surrender at Appotmattox Court House:

“I was the Attorney of James Hughes as Adminstrator or Executor of Elizabeth Marshall deceased — I know that the settlement of the Estate was attended with great difficulties and there was a large amount of litigation in settling the same Besides these law suits there was land notes to be collected and slaves to be hired out year after year and the hires to be collected &c. have my personal knowledge of the difficulties attending the Administration.  I am of the opinion that six hundred dollars would be a just and moderate compensation for his services as Executor or Aminstrator.”

This ledger recorded earnings from hiring out slaves:

(Records like this should be abstracted and put into a database.)

How had Dorothy Benton and her relatives prevailed?  In 1847, Elizabeth Marshall stated her age was 93; so she was about 100 years of age when she died.  I don’t have a court record stating the basis upon which the will was overturned, but the defendants probably argued because of her extreme old age Elizabeth Marshall was not quite right in her mind when she gave her wealth to her slaves.

The end of the Civil War rendered the accounts superfluous.  The remaining slaves gained their freedom, but they had to make their own start.

Bounty land warrant files for veterans who served in the War of 1812 often contain useful information similar to pension files.  Most soldiers were deceased by 14 Feb 1871, when Congress passed a pension act for War of 1812 veterans, so bounty land files are a valuable substitute.

The War of 1812 was fought from 18 Jun 1812 to 17 Feb 1815, although the British had ratified the treaty ending the war on 27 Dec 1814.  The celebrated Battle of New Orleans, which made Andrew Jackson a hero, was fought on 8 Jan 1815, after the treaty.

Among the items in the bounty land warrant file for my 4th great-grandfather, John Branch, was this handwritten note:

At the time he applied for bounty land, John Branch was a resident of New Madrid Co., MO (the section which later became Pemiscot Co.).  He stated he had served in a company of mounted horse, and had volunteered in Giles Co., TN in Oct 1814.  Service records like this document his enlistment:

John Branch, son of William Branch Jr. * of Halifax Co., NC, served as Postmaster of Cottonwood Point, Pemiscot Co., MO (Pemiscot Co. was formed from New Madrid Co. in 1851).  A brother  to Dorothy Myra (Branch) Benton, ancestor of American painter Thomas Hart Benton, he and Dorothy resided for some years in Dyer Co., TN.   John Branch was a second cousin of Confederate Brigadier-General Lawrence O’Bryan Branch, killed at Antietam.

His grandfather, William Branch Sr., had been captured and paroled by the British during the Revolutionary War, and is qualified as a Patriot by DAR.  William Branch Sr. secured a land grant of 5,000 acres on the Duck River in Bedford Co., TN.  It was inherited by John Branch upon the death of William Branch Jr.

The tract was the subject of much litigation.  In 1812 it was sold to satisfy a court order and purchased by John Warren, who had married Nancy (Bradford) Branch, widow of William Branch Jr.  John Branch was not raised by the Warrens.  His grand-uncle, Lt. Col. John Branch (brother of his grandfather, William Branch Sr.), was appointed his guardian.

Another John Branch, a son of Lt. Col. John Branch mentioned above, had a long and distinguished political career.  He served as Governor of North Carolina, a United States Senator and Congressman, Secretary of the Navy under Andrew Jackson, and Governor of Florida.


Haywood, Marshall DeLancey.  (1915).  John Branch 1782–1863 Governor of North Carolina, United States Senator, Secretary of the Navy, Member of Congress, Governor of Florida, etc. Raleigh, N.C.:  Commercial Printing Company.

* William Branch Jr. (died 30 Sep 1793) married Nancy Bradford in 1790 in Halifax Co.  There is no date on the bond, but it was numbered 45 of the 69 issued that year.  Nancy Bradford was certainly the mother of Dorothy Myra (Branch) Benton (born ca. 1793).  She was probably not the mother of John Branch (born ca. 1790), as he was raised by his grand-uncle Lt. Col. John Branch.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, “Nancy” was sometimes used as a nickname for “Ann.”  John Branch named a daughter Ann Bradford Branch (wife of William Kimbrow), who was also sometimes called Nancy.  The wife of John Branch was named Elizabeth, but her maiden name is unknown.

The Will of William Bradford of Halifax Co., made 1 Aug 1822, in which he names “my half sister Nancy and her husband Henry B. Bradford,” appears to rule out William Branch Jr.’s wife Nancy as a daughter of Col. John Bradford of Halifax Co.  William Bradford was without doubt Col. John Bradford’s son by 3rd wife Elizabeth Smith.  Col. John Bradford’s daughter Ann was by 2nd wife Dorothea Miriam Burgess.  Since John Warren, second husband of Nancy (Bradford) Branch, died on 24 Nov 1848 in Bedford Co., TN, his wife cannot have been the daughter of Col. John Bradford.

Kinship terms used in old documents often had broader meanings than they do today, but in the instance of William Bradford’s will there is no doubt of the identity of Nancy, wife of Henry B. Bradford.  William Branch Jr.’s choice of the name “Dorothy Myra Branch” for his daughter doesn’t necessarily mean her grandmother was Dorothea Miriam (Burgess) Bradford, despite similarity of names.  That his son John Branch named a daughter “Ann Bradford Branch” suggests that John Branch’s wife Elizabeth may have been a Bradford.  The Bradford family was prominent in Bedford Co., TN, and the marriages for that period are lost.

Onomastic evidence in this case appeared conclusive, but the weight of other evidence disproves Nancy (Bradford) Branch Warren as a daughter of Col. John Bradford.  This underscores the danger of relying upon onomastic evidence as sole “proof” of a genealogical link, even though it is ostensibly persuasive.

The origins of the Branch family of Halifax Co., NC are obscure, although they appear to have settled in NC early in the 18th century.  There is no known connection to Christopher Branch of VA.

~ by Jeffrey Thomas Chipman on December 10, 2014.

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