The Donald Stewart Property in Guilford County, NC

Duncan McKenzie’s letter to his brother-in-law on May 15, 1832 introduces a group of characters and a story. The story emphasizes the importance of land and property ownership to individuals in 19th century southern states and the difficulties in bequeathing to relatives a world away. The characters are his great Uncle Donald Stewart and wife Susanna and his father Kenneth McKenzie. Another more historical character peripherally involved with the Stewart property case is George C. Mendenhall, who writes several letters regarding the legal case.

Kenneth McKenzie (b. abt 1768 d. abt 1834) is the father of Duncan McKenzie. He was married to Mary McLaurin, who died about 1825 and is buried in Stewartsville Cemetery near Laurinburg, NC. Kenneth and Mary were probably both born in Scotland and likely came to the United States before or about the same time as the Hugh and Catharine McLaurin family. According to Marguerite Whitfield’s information, Mary was likely a sibling of Hugh McLaurin. This information is supported by Volume 8, Number 29 pages 15 – 18 of the Clan McLaurin Society Quarterly published from the late 1960s to the 1980s and edited by Banks McLaurin. If true, Duncan McKenzie and Barbara McLaurin would have been first cousins. Marriage between first cousins was not uncommon during the 18th and early 19th century. After Mary McKenzie died, Kenneth McKenzie evidently became restless to move east. He left a Power of Attorney and a Will with Duncan McLaurin before he left Richmond County some time during 1832.

Kenneth McKenzie’s Power of Attorney on October 11, 1831 as he leaves to move eastwardly does, “nominate constitute and appoint Duncan McKenzie and Duncan McLaurin or Either of them of Said State and County my Sole and lawful attorneys to ask demand Sue for recover and receive all monies or other effects … due or owing to me from my Uncle Dr. Donald Stewart’s estate …” In Kenneth’s will he leaves all of his property to his sons Duncan McKenzie and John McKenzie. He includes in this the property that “… ever will come in my name from or by Doctor Donald Stewarts Estate Deceased late of Guilford County in this State.” In other words, even in 1832, Kenneth was still expecting to inherit some of Donald Stewart’s property. Stewart had died in the very last days of 1829. By 1833 Kenneth is remarried and living on property in Smithville, NC (Southport today) near the mouth of the Cape Fear River.

Donald Stewart is Kenneth McKenzie’s uncle, who died in Guilford County, NC in 1829. According to The Greensboro Patriot newspaper of January 6, 1830, “Died, In this county, on Wednesday last at 7 o’clock P. M. Dr. Donald Stewart, a native of Scotland.” Stewart was a native of Ballachulish Appin in Lismore Parish, Scotland, but had lived with his wife Susanna in the United States for many years and was a naturalized citizen. A November 1831 letter from his widow Susanna Stewart, since married to Arnold Duncan, contains the copied text of Donald Stewart’s naturalization in the Petersburg District Court of Virginia during September Term 1807. The text states that Donald Stewart has resided in the U.S. since before 29 January 1795, at least two years in the U.S. and at least one in the Commonwealth of Virginia. He has also taken the oath of allegiance.  At some point the Stewarts moved to Guilford County, North Carolina, where Stewart owned a farm of at least three hundred acres and a number of enslaved people – meeting all of the definitive requirements of a plantation owner. 

Donald Stewart is listed among the managers of the Greensborough Academy in an article in the Weekly Raleigh Register of 23 February 1821. Dr. Donald Stewart is also mentioned in another Raleigh Register article dated 29 February 1828. He was a member of a committee formed to draft resolutions during a meeting held at the Greensborough Academy. The resolutions were politically in support of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay as opposed to Andrew Jackson. The committee also called for four people to draft an address to the people locally on the Presidential Election. During the election of 1828 the Democratic-Republican Party split. Nationally, the group that supported Adams and Clay called themselves the National Republicans. By 1832 the Whig Party would form in opposition to Jackson’s followers, who called themselves the Democrats.

One of Dr. Donald Stewart’s relatives in Scotland, Dugald Stewart of Ballachulish in Argyllshire, had fought in the American Revolution with the 71st Regiment of foot soldiers known as Fraser’s Highlanders. This group was involved in the bloody battle of Guilford Courthouse during which many Scots died. In a letter to Dr. Stewart dated October 25, 1825 Dugald says the following:

The regiment to which I belonged … was drawn up on the left of the British line along with the 23d, or Welsh Fusileers, with some other regiments. In the advance we received a very deadly fire from the Irish line of the American army, composed of their marksmen lying on the ground behind a rail-fence. One half of the Highlanders dropt on that spot. There ought to be a pretty large tumulus where our men were buried. — Dugald Stewart

Quoted from Caruthers by Rev. William Henry Foote, 1846.

George C. Mendenhall is another interesting character in the Donald Stewart property story and is of some historical significance to Guilford County, NC. George C. Mendenhall was an attorney in Guilford County. He also operated the family gristmill and sawmill. His grandfather, James Mendenhall had been the first settler of Jamestown in Guilford County. George Cameron Mendenhall is unusual due to the fact that he was a Quaker who also owned slaves. It seems that in 1824 he married Eliza Webb Dunn who had recently inherited quite a bit of land and twenty-five slaves. After a couple of years the Quaker Mendenhall was a widower, the father of a newborn son, and the owner of enslaved people. His second wife, Delphina Gardner, was also a devout Quaker, and reinforced George’s plan to gradually liberate his slaves. The Mendenhall plantation built by George’s brother Richard stands today in Guilford County as a historic site on which one can see an example of the log cabin slave quarters preferred by the Mendenhalls. Supposedly, they tried to keep families together and sometimes purchased family members that had been separated. It seems the Mendenhalls never sold any of their slaves. The highest total number George C. Mendenhall ever owned was purported to be about seventy. Since it was completely illegal in North Carolina to free one’s slaves there, Mendenhall found Quaker groups in Ohio that would find work for the slaves he freed in small groups over a period of time. However, the support for the slave system in the American South was growing as cotton production became more lucrative, ultimately drowning out the voices of abolition in the area. 

Mendenhall’s respect for the abilities of the enslaved population on his plantation is evidenced in an excerpt from Sallie Walker Stockard’s 1902 The History of Guilford County, NC. Though his intent was to free the people he owned, he apparently made an effort to teach a variety of vocational skills on his plantation:

In his store a negro clerk sold and bought goods. His harness shop was kept by a slave, a set of whose harness before the War took first premium at the State Fair. His carpenter helped to build the capitol at Raleigh, NC. His caterer was sent to wait on President Buchanan when he visited the University of North Carolina. George Mendenhall had a shoe shop; a work shop in which were made plows, rakes, hoes, etc; a large flouring mill, cotton gin, tanyard and farm, …  — Sallie Walker Stockard

Historical accounts of slavery such as Stockard’s that describe the institution in the very best light possible are common in early twentieth century publications. Though Mendenhall’s is likely an example of a well-run plantation, it was probably not the norm. The people on his plantation were still enslaved.

Evidently, his freeing slaves had not been popular with the Charlotte Democrat newspaper, for on July 7, 1857, the paper published an article called “An Unkind Master” that was first published in the Columbia Times. The article portrays Mendenhall as the type of slave master who would work people down, and when no longer useful, sell them to “shift for their own support in Ohio.” In the face of contrary evidence, this is likely an example of the kind of distortion of the facts common in our twenty-first century news, written to feed the beliefs of one side of an issue – in this case slavery or its abolition.

On March 9, 1860, Mendenhall was working at Stanly Superior Court. He left for home driving his buggy. The Uwharie River, which he had crossed at the same spot for many years, was quite full and rapid. Inexplicably, Mendenhall still tried to cross. The next day when someone noticed the horse and wheels of the buggy, his body was found part in and part out of the water

Story of the Donald Stewart Property

At his death in 1829, Dr. Donald Stewart owned substantial land and a number of enslaved people in Guilford County, NC. Stewart’s 1822 will is rather straightforward. He leaves his property to his wife, Susanna. Upon Susanna’s death the enslaved property was to be sold and the proceeds given to the children of Stewart’s sisters in Scotland, Catherine McKenzie, Isabella Robertson, and Jannett Hamilton of London. When Susanna remarries to Arnold Duncan and moves out of the state of North Carolina, she “disposed of her life estate in the land.” Both Susanna and her new husband of 5 February 1831 agreed to the will. In fact, a marriage contract between them, signed on the May term of 1831,  restates the text of the will and protects her rights to the Stewart property and property she inherited from her mother and brother John in Nottoway County, Virginia. 

A man named Henry Humphreys, a prominent manufacturer in Guilford County, was administrator for the property even before Donald Stewart’s death. Humphries had evidently sold many of the enslaved people and likely some of the land after Stewart’s death. Henry Humphries accrued enough wealth through merchandising and the sale of property to build the first steam-powered textile mill in the South located in Greenboro, Guilford County, NC called Mt. Hecla.  In 1832 a court case ensued to discover the value of what was left in Stewart’s estate and who should lawfully receive it. In 1822, Donald Stewart says in his will that his estate is debt free. Evidently, that had changed by 1832.

Kenneth McKenzie seems to have believed that he was entitled to a portion of the estate. In the face of the circumstantial evidence in a letter from Stewart and his will, Kenneth was probably related to Catherine Stewart McKenzie. More documented evidence is the Lismore Parish christening record of Allan McKenzie, Kenneth’s youngest brother, which shows him to be the son of Catharine Stewart and John McKenzie.

Kenneth mentions his hope of receiving an inheritance in both his power of attorney and the will he leaves in the hands of Duncan McLaurin. In 1831 attorney George C. Mendenhall writes in a letter to Duncan McLaurin that Kenneth McKenzie should come to Greensboro to discover the amount of the property sold and the names and value of the slaves sold. However, he also says this information can be easily obtained from Henry Humphreys and Stewart’s widow, Susanna. Mendenhall includes in this letter numbers that appear to represent the supposed value of the property. In 1832 Kenneth leaves Richmond County to settle in Brunswick County, NC.

In 1831 Kenneth’s son Duncan McKenzie communicates with his great aunt, now Susanna Duncan, regarding the possibility of purchasing the land. Duncan McKenzie has in his possession papers relevant to the estate. Duncan McKenzie offers to send the names of the children of Nancy, one of Stewart’s enslaved people that was left to Susanna. However, their names are already mentioned in Stewart’s will. Evidently, Nancy and her children were enslaved persons of more interest to the family than the others listed in the will. Possibly Duncan McKenzie was hoping to purchase reliable people at this time. He was known to have purchased one female enslaved person from John Fairly in the fall of 1832 before leaving for Mississippi.

In November of 1831, Susannah writes to Duncan McKenzie giving him a copy of the naturalization certificate of Donald Stewart. In February of 1832 George C. Mendenhall writes to Duncan McLaurin informing him that Susanna Duncan and her husband wish him to “come up to Guilford before or at May court.”

Stewart’s will itself contains a list of the enslaved people he is bequeathing to his wife: Nancy and her children Kathy, Donald, and Sandy; also Ally, Peter, Lucy, Libby, Ann, Jeanny, Jack, Tom, Henry; Charly, Jenny’s child; and all of their increase. His farm contains over three hundred acres. 

Twenty-first century sensibilities are struck by the matter-of-fact legal tone in which the lives of human beings are bought and sold with little thought to their own wishes and aspirations. Only monetary value appears at issue here except for the singling out of Nancy and her children. Evidently, many Quakers in Guilford County shared an anti-slavery sentiment, George C. Mendenhall was one of them.

(Wills, such as the aforesaid, and other personal papers kept by plantation owners, and more rarely by small farmers who owned slaves, are a valuable source of information for families with ties to slavery. Although some surnames were taken from plantation owners, this is not a hard and fast rule. Still, it is a place to begin. It is certain that enslaved people made individual choices regarding surnames as well as they did survival strategies. After the end of the Civil War, churches and black-owned newspapers across the country aided formerly enslaved people in finding family members separated by slavery. Ads would appear in newspapers, especially during and after 1865, that offered rewards for information about specific individuals.) 

In May of 1832, just months before he leaves North Carolina for Mississippi, Duncan McKenzie writes from Hickory Grove to Duncan McLaurin sending all of the information about the Donald Stewart property to Duncan McLaurin, who he believes is going to be present at Guilford Court for the review of the estate. An excerpt from Duncan McKenzie’s letter reveals the attitude the McKenzie’s had toward the management of the estate by Henry Humphreys:

but it will be Some Satisfaction to know the end of the administration of Humphreys on the estate — no doubt all is exhausted but that part held by the widow except the land and I expect if possible even that would have been embezzled as I do think Some was.  –Duncan McKenzie

According to a letter in June of 1832 from George C. Mendenhall, Duncan never made it to court. Mendenhall includes the following lines summing up the settlement:

… the final Settlement was made on the 23rd of May 1832 with Henry Humphreys Esqr Admr with the will annexed of Dr. Donald Stuart Deceased and there remains a Balance in the hands of Mr. Humphreys of $257.77 the Interest of which he will pay over to Mr. Duncan and wife — This Settlement is filed in court and I believe is correct — I was satisfied and Sanctioned it. – George C. Mendenhall

Oddly, even after the case appears closed, Mendenhall’s letter is followed by two interesting letters that appear to disagree with the settlement. Anna D. Duncan, likely a relative of Susanna’s husband, in a July 21, 1832 letter questions the report of the committee:

Mr. Humphreys made out the accounts gave it to Mr. Mendenhall to look over while he Humphreys red over the vouchers the committee were present but not one of them examd one voucher nor indeed did they stay until the vouchers were all read over it was concluded on that on the next morning Mr. Humphreys was to present the accounts for their signatures if this is the proper way to do business I assure you I am grossly ignorant. – Anna Duncan

Even more surprisingly, a full decade later in 1842 a man named Thomas R. Tate, executor of the estate of Henry Humphries and also the son-in-law of Humphries, answers an inquiry from Duncan McLaurin about the Stewart property. Tate explains the terms of Stewart’s will and seems to think there is little to question. He says he has not heard from Susanna Duncan and her husband since they left North Carolina. He ends his letter with an assessment of the land that is left and its value:

there is between two and three hundred acres of the land; and from what knowledge I have of the plantation the land is very poor and in all probability by the time disposition is made of  it will not be worth a great deal. – Thomas Tate

If nothing else, this last inquiry by Duncan McLaurin attests to his tenacity in following up on issues, especially those that involve his family members. Whether or not the value of any of Stewart’s property ever made it into the hands of his sister Catherine’s relatives, either in the US or in Scotland, is unlikely.


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Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 15 May 1832. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from George C. Mendenhall to Duncan McLaurin. 5 June 1832. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

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Power of Attorney from Kenneth McKenzie to Duncan McKenzie and Duncan McLaurin. 11 October 1831. Legal Papers. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Stockard, Sallie Walker. The History of Guilford County North Carolina. Gaut – Ogden Co., Printers and Book Binders. 1902. 80.

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Will of Donald Stewart of Guilford County, NC. 27 February 1822. Boxes 3, 4, 5. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.