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 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. It was not uncommon during the 18th and early 19th century for first cousins to marry. 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 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. He owned a farm of at least three hundred acres and at least twenty-five 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. Jackson’s followers would call 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

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 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 they 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.

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, they 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.” This is an example of the kind of gross 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. His body was found part in and part out of the water the next day when someone noticed the horse and wheels of the buggy.

Story of the Donald Stewart Property

Donald Stewart died in the waning days of the year 1829. He 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 and Isabella Robertson. When Susanna remarries to a man surnamed Duncan and moves to South Carolina, she “disposed of her life estate in the land.” Both Susanna and her new husband agreed to the will. 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. In 1832 a court case ensued to discover the value of what was left in the estate and who should lawfully receive it.

Kenneth McKenzie seems to have believed that he was entitled to a portion of the estate. Likely, though I have no evidence, he was related to Catherine Stewart 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 is on his way 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. Kenneth leaves Richmond County in 1832.

Kenneth’s son Duncan McKenzie in 1831 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 slaves 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.

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.

My 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.

(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 after1865, 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, 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.


“Administration Meeting.” The Raleigh Register. 29 Feb 1828, Friday. 2.

“After Slavery, Searching For Loved Ones in Wanted Ads.” All Things Considered with Ari Shapiro. National Public Radio. 22 February 2017. Accessed 3 October 2017.

“An Unkind Master.” The Charlotte Democrat. p2. 7 July 1857. Downloaded 1 May 2017.

Banks McLaurin, ed. Clan McLaurin Society Quarterly. Revised “F” Family Outline. Volume 8, #29, p. 15-18. 1976.

Browning, Mary “G.C. Mendenhall had slaves taken to Ohio to be freed.” 27 November 2013. accessed 1 October 2017.

“Died.” The Greensboro Patriot. p3. 6 January 1830. Downloaded 22 March 2017 from

Foote, Rev. William Henry. Sketches of North Carolina, Historical and Biographical, Illustrative of the Principles of a Portion of her Early Settlers. Robert Carter, 58 Canal Street: New York. 1846. 275, 276.

“Greensborough Academy.” Weekly Raleigh Register. 23 February 1821, Friday. 4.

Letter from George C. Mendenhall to Duncan McLaurin (?). 6 February 1831. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from Susanna Duncan to Duncan mcKenzie. 10 November 1831. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

Letter from George C. Mendenhall to Duncan McLaurin. 23 February 1832. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and manuscripts Library. Duke University.

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.

Letter from Anna D. Duncan to Duncan McLaurin. 21 July 1832. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscripts Library. Duke University.

Letter from Thomas R. Tate to Duncan McLaurin. 4 April 1842. Box 1. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscripts Library. Duke University.

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.

“The Late George C. Mendenhall.” 21 March 1860. Semi-Weekly Standard. First Edition. p3. Downloaded 1 May 2017.

Webster,Irene H. Guilford County, North Carolina Will Abstracts 1771-1841. “Donald Stewart.” Southern Historical Press.

Will of Kenneth McKenzie listing Duncan McLaurin executor. 28 September 1832. Legal Papers. Duncan McLaurin papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

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.

Words Between Sisters

Excerpt from Barbara’s 1817 letter to her sister Effy. 16 June 1817. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.

On June 16, 1817 Barbara McLaurin McKenzie wrote a letter to her favorite sister Effy because she was homesick for her family and “uneasy” about the health of her aging mother. Barbara was married to Duncan McKenzie, who farmed on the Peedee River within about sixty miles of Gum Swamp. Likely this was more than a couple of day’s travel in a wagon – less by horseback – yet still far enough away to impose an obstacle for very frequent visits. Barbara’s anxiety is palpable in these lines,

“Duncan came last night I was verry glad for we did not here a word Since uncle was down there I was very uneasy about Mother that she would be Sick this Summer I hope she will get well now my patience was a most out till Duncan came I kept dreaming every Knight of father and Mother and the all of you.”

The Duncan she refers to is probably her brother Duncan McLaurin. Barbara goes on to say in the letter that they are late with the crop and will not go down “till the Sacriment will be at the Hill” when she will stay a week. With the hopeful prospect of one or more of her sisters returning to PeeDee River with  her to visit a while, she remarks on the “Jelious pout” her sister Effy displayed when Barbara did not write her: “you Said I forgot you but not as long as I live & we did look for father and one of you every Saturday but you did not come.” This last was to be prophetic for Barbara, especially after she migrated with her husband and children to Mississippi. Sisters and brothers still did not come, and her life would become so busy and probably sometimes so grueling that she would want to write but either never did or her letters may not have survived in this collection.

A physical complaint Barbara expressed in this letter would also appear in letters written by her husband and children many years later from Mississippi. She had developed a pain in her hip which she blamed on a rough wagon trip, “I had a mity sore pain in my hip for … too weeks I did go one night to preaching we rid very fast I was thinking it was that rased the pain.” This pain would follow her the rest of her life, a challenging one for most yeoman farmer women. For example, the family had no chimney in their new home in Mississippi and would have to bake their own bricks, which was not necessarily a priority – the crops were. Though it helped that they moved onto already cleared land, no chimney likely meant cooking outdoors and moving heavy pots. According to later letters, the family had brought at least one enslaved woman with them from North Carolina, and possibly this was so that she could help Barbara when she was not needed to help in the fields.

Nevertheless, Barbara McLaurin, my second great grandmother, must have had a fine 19th century childhood. Probably born about five years before the turn of the 18th to 19th century, she likely spent a great deal of her time helping out on the family farm and enjoying the home that her father built when he purchased land near Gum Swamp at Laurel Hill, North Carolina. Born into the Hugh McLaurin and Catharine Calhoun McLaurin family, Barbara grew up enjoying a household filled with people and female companionship. Her many sisters by far outnumbered the two brothers, Duncan and John. By 1817 she and three of her older sisters were married: Jennett McLaurin (John) McCall, Sarah McLaurin (Duncan) Douglass, and Isabella McLaurin (Charles) Patterson. Three of her sisters would remain spinsters: Catharine, Mary, and Effy. Although Duncan never married, her brother John married Effie Stalker McLaurin.

Hugh McLaurin would likely not have concerned himself so much with educating daughters as with sons. Duncan, though only about four when he crossed the Atlantic, was by far the most literate of the children. His brother John was a farmer and less the man of letters – an infant when the family left Ballachulish in Argyll province for Wilmington, NC in 1790. Hugh may have worked in the slate quarry at Ballachulish, Scotland, for he came to America with finances enough to get him and his family across the ocean and to purchase property upon his arrival in the new land. The same need for readily available fertile land, affordably taxed, on which to establish a family farm must have been one motivating force that drove the Hugh McLaurin family from Scotland following family and friends that had gone before. They came to a new continent from Scotland in much the same way the Duncan McKenzie family was inspired to leave North Carolina for Mississippi.

Hugh named his new home and farm Ballachulish, after his hometown in Argyll, Scotland. In fact many Argyll families settled in North Carolina – McCalls, Stewarts, Calhouns and others – most of them becoming land and slaveholders. Many of them are buried in the old Stewartsville cemetery near Laurel Hill that survives today. Hugh’s home would pass from generation to generation, beginning with nephew Hugh McCall, to whom Duncan left all of his personal property upon his death in December of 1872. According to the record of Marguerite Whitfield, a McCall descendant, the property was still in the hands of the McCall family in 1977. A later descendant of the McCalls has photographs and remembers the house still standing in 1982.

From Ballachulish to Mississippi, Barbara’s words speak to a strong family relationship that spans the distance of frontier roads and dreams of a better life.


Bridges, Myrtle N. Estate Records 1772-1933 Richmond County North Carolina: Hardy – Meekins Book II. photocopy from the Brandon, MS Genealogy Room. “John McLaurin – 1864,” “Effy McLaurin – 1861,” and “Duncan McLaurin – 1872.”

Letter from Barbara McKenzie to Effy McLaurin. 16 June 1817. Duncan McLaurin Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Whitfield, Marguerite. Families of Ballachulish: McCalls, McLaurins And Related Families in Scotland County, North Carolina. The Pilot Press: Southern Pines, NC. 1978. (This text contains much valuable information, especially about the McCalls and about Scotland roots. However, the information on Barbara McLaurin McKenzie can be corrected with information from the Duncan McLaurin Papers and many other records. Also, two Effys are confused – Effy McLaurin, Barbara’s sister, and Effie Stalker McLaurin, John’s wife. Barbara’s sister Effy died in 1861, and listed Barbara’s children and grandchildren in her will. Effie Stalker McLaurin died in 1881 preceded in death by her husband and all of her children. Effie, John’s wife, is most likely the Effie that lived in her old age with the Hugh McCalls. Duncan McLaurin died in December of 1872, and his will was briefly probated within weeks of his death.)