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Into the Tennessee Frontier; Chattel Slavery

The Nodding Caravan: Into the Wilderness of Eastern Tennessee.   At some point between 1778 and 1784 – when, exactly is not clear — Daniel McCray decided to join a collective of relatives and friends who gave up their lives in Northern Virginia to move to new Appalachian frontier country in what was then Washington County, North Carolina. Today, that area is in far Eastern Tennessee. Among those in Daniel’s group were: his father-in-law and mother in-law, William Nodding Sr. and wife Mary; Sarah’s sister also named Mary, along with her husband Samuel Bayless, who was from a family that had already settled in that part of the frontier; and, William Calvert, who was a descendant of the family of Calverts who received the first charge to run a colony of settlers for Maryland.

Philip McCray, in his 1993 The McCrays of America, supra, and other sources share a legend that William Nodding Sr. led the group in a caravan.[1] Phillip gives the year at 1784. One version of the caravan story refers to the “Wilderness Road”, a portion of which you can still travel today as a tourist.[2]  I’ve seen no hard proof for the caravan story. In any event, this was still during the Revolution, the ending date of which is often cited as occurring in 1783. The D.A.R.’s Patriot database is normally reliable because the certifications are based on hard research. It recognizes William Nodding as a Patriot for being a Grand Juror in Washington County in 1778-1779. Of course, we would have to see the records ourselves, but this would suggest a much earlier move for the group than 1784. But, in any event, the McCrays and the Noddings were situated in Washington County at least by about 1781, when Thomas McCray was born.[3]

A word about the Noddings: lots of people online seem to have researched these ancestors but I haven’t seen solid evidence of the surname’s origins. We can tell that Nodding (and its variants Notting, etc.) is a very English name. Phillip McCray writes that a distant cousin did a lot of research on them and concluded this particular family line was originally from Yorkshire. But exactly when they came over is unknown. I have looked myself for documents on the Noddings but have come up empty handed, so I am relying on the second-hand, unsourced reports of others. (In any event, there would seem to be interesting research on that subject.) William Nodding Sr.’s will was probated in Washington County in 1812. One researcher estimates William Nodding Sr.’s birth as 1728 due to his appearance on the tithables list (i.e., Colonial Virginia tax tables of adults aged 21 and over) in 1749.[4] And no source I have seen has revealed whether he was born in England or Virginia.

In 1781, as the Revolution raged on, Eastern Tennessee was still part of Washington County, North Carolina. We would need to verify the legal descriptions of the land to which the Noddings and McCrays moved, but I do believe they were not far from what is today Jonesborough, TN. This is about 15 or so miles from Elizabethton, which just several years earlier was the situs of the well-known Watauga Association settlement. This was a community in the Eastern Tennessee wilderness in which newcomers formed a semi-autonomous government. Historical sources on this community are interesting to read, and I am sure there are also many books to read. The Watauga Association of Genealogists seems to be a comprehensive source for research on this subject.[5]

Tennessee Counties 1790

(source of map unknown)

It’s not clear why Daniel McCray and William Nodding wanted to drop everything they had back home in Virginia, and move to the Eastern Tennessee frontier. However, I note that Samuel Bayless, the husband of Sarah Nodding’s sister, was also from a family that at least one source says was recorded as among the early families in the Watauga settlement.[6]  So, I am guessing Samuel sold his in-laws on the benefits of moving to the area. I also suspect that additional research will show they could earn cheap land as settlers. Both Daniel McCray and William Nodding received land grants in Washington County.

Exactly what William Nodding and Daniel McCray did after settling in the area needs much more research. I think the answer must lie in what events were happening in that area at the time. For starters, both Daniel and William Nodding contributed to historical events of the time. A D.A.R. listing for William Nodding became a member of the Grand Jury in Washington County, and some online bios of Daniel indicate that he became involved in military activities in support of the Revolution after moving to Washington County – although I haven’t seen any specific proof of these asserted facts (and admittedly I haven’t looked for it yet, either).

The British were overall opposed to the Watauga and other frontier settlements outside of the established Colonies, and persons who relocated to such areas were generally rebels who sought self-governance and strongly opposed the British. I would expect this would be the case for someone such as Daniel, who himself as likely oppressed by the English as a Scotsman, and more than happy to fight them in new territory.

The Noddings, McCrays, and Baylesses were all founding members of the Cherokee Baptist Church, at that time a frontier church.[7]

Something else historically significant was also occurring – specifically, the long-term war between the native Cherokee and the European immigrants who were trying to push them out of the way. Now, this is another area that I am trying to tip-toe around, given people spend years studying this subject. This subject is fascinating. But also like so many other subjects I touch upon here, this one is very deep and requires more work to be precise and accurate.[8]

But without coming across as too simplistic, we can confidently say this: over a period of many years, the Cherokee fought against the British; but during the Revolution many of them joined forces with the British to stop the Revolutionaries from infringing on their land. So, the settlers were fighting not only the British, but also bands of Cherokee. And in fact, the British used the Cherokee as their foot soldiers and funded their efforts. The fighting that took place between the rebels and the Cherokee became known as the “Cherokee-American Wars”.

Based on all of the circumstances, I am strongly suspecting that both Daniel McCray and William Nodding became involved in the Cherokee-American Wars. Exactly in what way I leave for further research.

The Slaves in the Nodding and McCray Households

Now I will touch upon another subject that is always difficult, but necessary in order to understand how our ancestors lived: the slaves in their lives.

I have not verified the full extent to which surviving evidence shows Daniel McCray or William Nodding owned slaves, but it appears they each owned slaves both in Virginia and in Tennessee. William was apparently much wealthier and owned more than Daniel. We have time and space here only for so much discussion, but I need to remind readers what I flag in the Preface: just because these two individuals were heroes of the American Revolution does not mean they did not also engage in acts that we today would consider evil. Genealogical write-ups of Revolutionary ancestors are unfair to the reader when the stories focus only on the heroic acts of the ancestors while glossing over inconvenient facts — such as owning slaves, murdering Native Americans, and engaging in wholesale environmental destruction. Equally so, just because these men (and women) may have done these things does not mean that they are not today entitled to full consideration as heroes of the American Revolution: they absolutely were heroes, and we owe our existence here in no small part to them and their kind. Our Patriots (with a capital P) were still Patriots so long as they were loyal to and fighting for the cause of the United States of America as against all other nations in the world (including both England and the Cherokee Nation). We must never forget many of them also committed unspeakable acts in furtherance of white supremacy. That doesn’t make them less patriotic, we just need to remember all material facts.

Again, we take our ancestors as we find them.  And that includes the good and the bad.

I really wish I had more information about the slaves owned by the Noddings and McCrays. More to the point, this fact alone causes me to ask many questions. Like, how did they treat them? What did they have them do? Other than the mere fact that they claimed ownership over other human beings, were they as brutal an unkind as slaveowners are portrayed on television?

Unfortunately, we don’t have anything like a personal journal to inform us. But we do have one source of clues: both Daniel and William mentioned slaves in their wills. I think you can still find online the original hand-scripted versions of the wills, although I prefer the transcripted and typed versions found on places such as

Daniel McCray’s will:   In the case of Daniel, he apparently died 3 months after he wrote his will, which was recorded after his death at the courthouse in Jonesboro, Washington Co., TN.

In his well, Daniel wrote:

March the first 1819. It is the Request of Daniel McCray that Jane Jenkins shall have my three beds and [beds] and furniture and pots and chest and [haveler] and smoking iron and forty dollars for Sally Harris this being her part, four horse beasts that they ought to [of] had. Know all men of the County of Washington and State of Tennessee that I Daniel McCray do certify this to be my last will and testament that after lawful debts be paid that my negro man Alleck shall have the choosing of his own master and mistress amongst my Children and they shall not sell and run him out of the County and whosoever he chooses for master if it be more than their share he must pay to the others as I allow all my children to have an equal share of what I have. I leave Henry McCray and Thomas McCray to be my executors. And I leave [Amelia] McCray ten dollars.

 Daniel McCray

Witnesses: George Hayse, Charles Jinkins and Joseph Jinkins.” [9]

So, okay. All readers are encouraged to make their own interpretation of this. Here is mine: I cannot describe this as anything more than a classic case of paternalism. On the one hand, Daniel’s clearly attempting to be “fair” to Alleck by giving him a choice of which of Daniel’s children would be best to be master. At a mimimum, Daniel was at least aware of the possibility that his offspring could behave as pieces of s**t towards Alleck – hence the reference to the ban on Alleck’s sale and the prohibition against running him out of the county. It seems as if Daniel may have honestly felt he was taking steps, in his own, narrow racist slaveowner perspective, to make things less miserable for Alleck.

Of course, what Daniel does not do is release Alleck from bondage. I would thus conclude the underlying situation was not really changed much for Alleck after Daniel’s death.  But I sure would love to know how long Alleck was with Daniel, and which of the children he chose, and what happened to him later in life.

William Nodding’s will:  Now on to the slaves owned by William Nodding, my/our 6th great-grandfather.  William had more property, and more slaves, than did Daniel. But this by no means suggests William had great slave-holdings: only 8 individuals were acknowledged in his will. There were many others who had many more slaves than William.

William’s will, which was probated in 1812, read as follows:

“In the Name of God Amen. I, William Nodding of Tennessee State, Washington County, (farmer) being frail in body but in perfect mind and memory, thanks be unto God, calling into mind the mortality of my body and knowing that it is appointed for all men to once die do make and ordain this my last Will and Testament that is to say, first of all, I give and commend my soul into the hands of Almighty God that gave it and my body I recommend to the earth to be buried in a decent Christian burial at the discretion of my executors nothing doubting but at the general rescereation [sp] I shall receive the same again by the mighty power of God and as touching such worldly estate where it has pleased God to bless me with in this life. I give demise and dispose in the following manner and form. After my just debts and funeral charges are paid, I give and bequeath unto my beloved wife Mary Nodding all the lease that I took from Daniel McCray for the land where the said McCray now lives which lease is for my life and Mary Noddings’ life. I also give and bequeath unto my daughter Sarah McCray a tract of land as is supposed two hundred acres which her husband Daniel McCray has a deed of conveyance from me for together with one Negro man named Toney in their possession to be set free in the year one thousand eight hundred and six on the twenty fourth day of December. I also give her my smallest still together with my household furniture and moveable effects which negro and effects to are in their possession.

 I also give unto my daughter Mary Bayless sixty two acres of land which Samuel Bayless her husband hath taken a deed of conveyance from me for together with a man of color named Tom in said Bayless possession, said Tom to be set free on the fourteenth day of February in the year one thousand eight hundred and seven.

 I also give to my daughter Elizabeth Calvert seventy five acres of land now in possession of William Calvert her husband, by deed from me together with the following persons of color Bet, Dark, Linn, Peter, and George now in possession of said Calvert and all set free by my directions at the age of thirty five years except George who is free at twenty five years by an order of last County Court of our County at the petition of said William Calvert to possess the above paying John Brown’s five orphan children two hundred and fifty dollars in property the persons decreed to said Calvert are of following ages: Bet, thirty years of age the eleventh day of February last; Dark, eleven the sixth of May last; Peter six the twentieth of this instant; George, three the fourth of May last.

 I also give to my daughter Ellinor Hill my girl of color named Millie now in her possession to be free the twenty fifth day of June, one thousand eight hundred and twelve. And as touching the posterity of any of the slaves of persons of colour heretofore named in this will I declare and will them their birth free as white people are by law except the future children of Bet who are to serve twenty five years and their children free born.

 I also give to John Brown’s orphan children two hundred and fifty dollars to be paid by Calvert aforesaid. I also constitute and ordain Daniel McCray and William Calvert the sole executors of this my last will and testament and I do hereby disallow revoke and disannull all and every other former testament wills legacies bequeaths or executors by me in wise before named willed or bequeathed ratifying and confirming this and no other to be my last will and testament. In witness whereof I here unto set my hand and seal this twenty fourth day of October in the year of or Lord one thousand eight hundred and four.

 Signed sealed and published and declared by the said William Nodding as his last will and testament in the presence of us who in his presence and in the presence of each other have and here unto subscribed our names.

 William Nodding (seal) (his “x” mark) William Bayless Rueben Bayless Hannah Bayless

 The foregoing will was proven in court by the oathes of William Bayless and Reuben Bayless two of the subscribing witnesses thereto at May Sessions 1812, and ordered to be recorded.”[10]

My analysis: Whoa! I need to preface by stating that this document really needs comment from an expert on chattel slavery who can help us interpret the significance of the devises used, and their historic context. How common was it for slave owners to structure the bequeathing of slaves (or devises) in this manner? I have no knowledge in this area save that which I expect most other Americans share, and my background in wills and estates law is limited to generalities. And, I have not myself done any additional research; for instance, I have not researched the individual children of William who received ownership of the slaves, or the slaves themselves. There should be much more to research, even for the amateur genealogist: we have not only online sources through the Family History Center, there is also the Watauga Association, and additional surviving records we might fight scattered across the universe of libraries and courthouses.

That said, here are some initial thoughts on the document:

A)      Obviously, on its face, the document affected the fundamental rights of the named slaves. Under the express terms of the will, Toney was to be freed by 1806, and Tom was to be freed by 1807.  I cannot find a specific source for William’s death, but the document was dated itself 1804. And yet, it was apparently not recorded in probate until 1812, and only under a declaration of oath of witnesses William, Rueben, and Hannah Bayless. Thus, by the time the Bayless family members gave their oaths for William’s will in 1812, Toney and Tom should already have been granted their freedom under the plain terms of the will.

B)       It matters that the oath givers were members of the Bayless family. The name would have made them highly respected, credible witnesses in the community – witnesses whose declaration filed in the courthouse would come with some significant weight. I suspect they were related to the Samuel Bayless who we discuss above as being from the Watauga Association community and then travelling with the McCrays and Noddings from Virginia to Eastern Tennessee. (I also have not done research, but suspect this Hannah Bayless might be William’s daughter, and William and Reuben Bayless his grandsons. Someone has done that research.)

C)      Now, at least in principal, we’ve stumbled across a legal recognition of freedom for Toney and Tom. At first glance this seems really exciting. At least at first, I feel a sense that this gave them overdue relief of the kind those of us born and living free cannot possibly imagine: FREEDOM. But – a will does not tell the full story. I would still like to know more about the quality of their lives after being freed.  For instance, what were their ages? If they were young enough, I am hoping that they still had a chance to  – and realized – a dream of moving out of the area or even up North, becoming employed and paid for work, or starting a business. But if Toney and Tom had already put in decades of service and were older, they may have been declared “free” but then left impoverished and homeless, without any means to support themselves as they aged. I hope not! But the practice of freeing older or sick slaves was not uncommon.[11] Freedom for the older slaves meant that William’s daughters Sarah McCray (who inherited Toney under the will) and Mary Bayless (who inherited Tom) might be deprived of using their services, but also would be released from having to care for them as they got older. So, it would be nice to know what came of Toney and Tom.

D)       The will also refers to the five individuals “Bet, Dark, Linn, Peter, and George” which William devised to daughter Elizabeth. My early 19th century Tennessee courthouse English is failing me. But the oath states that they are varied in ages from 3 to 30, as of the date of probate, each to be released at aged 35 years old, making their release dates staggered according to age. The youngest slave child, George, would still have over three decades to go before freedom.

E)         And it’s clearly not a good story ending for Bet, or any of her “unborn children”. Bet might herself technically be allowed to go free a few years after the will probate, but her children were required by the last substantive codicil in the will to serve 25 years. How free was Bet if her children were to be born and kept as slaves? To care for them when they were growing up, she would have to stay. Did she perhaps have a place to move to? And if she moved, did she have visitation rights? On the other hand, I have an eerie feeling that freeing Bet would have just allowed the legatees (Elizabeth and her husband), to separate Bet from any children Bet was expecting at the time William made his will.

F)        Finally, the referenced “girl of color named Millie”, left to William’s daughter Eleanor (sp. Elinor) was at least set to become free in June 1812 — the very month after the May,1812 probate date. If Millie was indeed herself a young woman and decent health, we can only hope that she thrived. Would love to find out what happened to Millie.

G)       And through all of this analysis, I cannot help but wonder: were these terms even honored? Did the slaves even know about these terms, since likely they were not allowed to learn to read? So many questions!!

I really would be interested in hearing from anyone who is both informed and knowledgeable about this area of legal history and can add anything to help us understand the will.

I also want to hear from anyone who may have specifically researched the history of the slaves owned by Daniel McCray or William Nodding. The passage of time, the fact that more detailed records about slaves were not always kept or preserved, and the fact that many old records were lost or destroyed, all conspire to suggest that this may be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Still, I would like to send this shoutout to anyone who might be reading this who has information.

A few more points about slavery to add to the overall historical context of these wills:

A)   First, since the Noddings and McCrays were devout Baptists, I cannot but help to think they used Biblical passages to justify their moral decisions. Slavery would not come to an end in Tennessee until the end of the Civil War in 1865. This was over five full decades after William’s will was probated. Still, by 1804, when the will was written, the ethics of human bondage had already been fiercely debated in other parts of North America for over a century. Several states had already become free, beginning in the late 1700s. Indeed, Ohio had just been admitted as a free state in 1803, due to the Northwest Ordinance, passed in 1787, that prohibited slavery there.[12] So, unless William and Daniel were completely clueless about goings on in the world, we can probably suspect that they each made a specific calculated decision to not be “woke” to the human misery they were causing, and to “keep” slaves as personal property notwithstanding the ongoing debates. Because, “Bible”.

B)      William and Daniel must have maintained a complex dynamic with their slaves during the Revolution. We can see at least William was listed as a slaveowner in Loudon County, VA before the group migrated to Tennessee. To the extent William and Daniel were active in supporting the Revolutionary cause – in combat or not – they would have been dependent on their slaves to support their family farms and operations. But at the same time, African-American slaves were heavily recruited by British Loyalists; the Loyalists promised that, in return for working with the British, the British would reward them with freedom and great rewards including in some cases opportunities to move to Canada.[13] Indeed, at Daniel McCray’s own Battle of Monmouth, African Americans fought on both sides![14] (In the end, the British badly burned the slaves by accepting their enlistment and support of fighting, and then largely failing to keep the promises they made. That had to have had catastrophic personal outcomes for the slaves that risked their lives but then found themselves with no protection and support or freedom.) We don’t know if any of Daniel’s or William’s slaves were likely to flee to the British or to leak American military secrets or slaveowner vulnerabilities to the enemy. But the chance of that happening had to have been on the minds of William, Daniel and others in the community who were slaveowners.

C)        As to at least Daniel, I think he represents a lot of other immigrant slaveowners in that he obviously did not seem to care about the irony of owning slaves when he himself probably came from a state of poverty, misery, polluted, unsanitary, and violent existence in Scotland. But refusing to respect irony is a classic pattern in American history. Immigrants come from horribly impoverished and difficult backgrounds, and then when they are here and finally able to be in power themselves, they oppress others.


[1]   Some other sources I have found indicate that it’s not clear if the group travelled at one time, or in successive waves; the latter scenario seems to make more sense to me since they were landowners in Virginia and moving even in those days even along a wagon trail would have been a massive personal undertaking but even then it might not have been practical to travel at one time in one large group.


[3]    This was evidenced at least by the fact that Daniel’s son Thomas McCray was reported in the 1860 census as being 79 years old, and born in Tennessee, which makes him born in Tennessee in 1781. Other researchers may have additional evidence of Daniel’s and the Noddings’ arrival in the area by this time.

[4]   Information lifted from story found on “This research was shared by Andrew Hill. Original document prepared and maintained by  Robert Fillerup – a descendant through William and Elizabeth Nodding Calvert.”

[5]    They seem to offer access a lot of really cool information for anyone serious about researching. Check them out:   For general summaries of Watauga, see the Wikipedia entry at:;  and the North Carolina History Project at:

[6]     See;  and

[7]    Philip McCray, The McCrays of America, supra., p. 132.

[8]      The interested researcher will find many places on the web to start pursuing more information and analysis of this aspect of American history, and our ancestors’ roles in it. Here are several links, all of them accessed as of September 2019, that seem like excellent beginner sources for the curious:

For specifics in connection with the Watauga Association:

Some more general sources:,_Tennessee_Genealogy

[9]    Tennessee, Wills and Probate Records, 1779-2008 for Daniel McCray Washington, Will Books, 1779-1858 (transcription on

[10]    Washington County, TN Will Book, Vol 1.pp. 88-89; transcription from

[11]    See, e.g., Henry Louis Gates Jr., Slavery, by the Numbers, in The Root,

[12]    See, e.g., Kathleen Logothetis Thompson,  When Did Slavery Really End in the North? ,; and, Wikipedia entry Slave States and Free States,

[13]      See Simon Schama, Dirty Little Secret, in the Smithsonian Magazine, May 2006 edition, ; see also, general Wikipedia entry African Americans in the Revolutionary War,; and

African Americans and the War for Independence, American Battlefields Trust website,

[14]      Schama, Dirty Little Secret, supra.


Me (on the phone): "That's "C-r-e-s-a-p".

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