Analysis:McSpadden-Walker-Cowan-Thompson in Jefferson Conty TN

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The following analysis touches on several families of interest to Southwest Virginia researchers, and in particular the McSpaddens, Walkers and Cowan's. At issue is the reconcilation of information provided by a authoritative Wigton Walker research (Emma Siggins White, whose work is documented in Source:White, 1902, and a 1796 affadavit left by Elizabeth Thompson in Jefferson County, TN.


White's Story

Emma Siggins White (White 1902:180, 181), the family historian for the Wigton Walker Family, tells us that James Walker son of Samuel Walker, [1] married one Jane Thompson about 1786. He died soon after leaving two children:

  • Elizabeth Lyle Walker (1789-?) who married a "Thomas McSpadden" of Rockbridge County about 1809
  • Jane Walker who married John Ritchie

White gives the children of these two families. The list for Elizabeth and Thomas includes James Walker McSpadden(1810->1896) of Alvarado Va, who turns out to be important for answering certain questions about the family history.

Elizabeth Thompson's Affadavit

In 1796 Elizabeth Thompson, widow of William Thompson, gave an affadavit in Jefferson County TN concerning her husband's estate, and identifiying his three daughters, viz:

  • Esther, eldest; wife of John McSpadden, of Jefferson County; was born in the county of Antrim on 08 August 1756
  • Mary, second; wife of Samuel Weir, of Sevier County; was born in Antrim 01 November 1758
  • Jean, third and youngest; wife of Andrew Cowan, of Jefferson County; was born in Antrim in August, 1761. She first married ______ Walker and had three children by him.

Esther and Jean figure prominently in the following analysis. Mary Thompson Weir (or Wear as it is sometimes written) does not figure into this story.[2]


At first glance, the discussion in White, and Elizabeth Thompson's affadavit have very little in common. True, both involve marriages to McSpaddens, and both involve marriages to Walkers, but they are in different areas, at different times. Taking each item at face value we'd not expect to find much of a connection here. Closer examination, however, shows that these two elements, White's discussion and Elizabeths affadavit, are more closely related than is immediately apparent.

As it turns out, closer examination shows these two items are referring to the same people---just by different names. Here, its important to emphasis that of the two sources, Elizabeth Thompson's affadavit is much more authoritative than White 1902. The reason for this is that it's a record of information related by someone in a positon to know the facts, the mother of the three daughters. We might quibble that the extract we are using to examine this record is flawed, or that she might have misremembered some details, but on the whole what she has to tell us has great credibility---simply because it is found in an original record [3] contemporary with the events described.

White is a noted genealogist, well versed in the Walker family history, and her work is often the best available for Wigton Walker researchers. However, in this case she was not contemporary with most of the events she describes, and relied on the correspondance of various family members who presumably knew the facts of the matter. There are elements in her presentation that have ring of authority. For example, her statement that "James Walker McSpadden resided in Alvarado Virginia. He was living in 1896, aged 86; very feeble; was born about 1810" is clearly based on correspondance, either with James Walker McSpadden, or with a correspondant, presumably a relative, who knew him. The point that he was living in Alvarado in 1896, (when White was collecting her information for her work published in 1902) is highly credible as it speaks to contemporary information that a family member could reasonably be expected to know accurately. Stating his age as 86 in 1896 and that he was born about 1810, also sounds credible, but in truth is less credible than the datum that he was still living at the time. The reason for that is simply because his DOB, though presumably well known to the correspondant, is open to more interpretation than the fact that he was still living. People have been known to make errors about near kins date of birth. The DOB in this case is probably correct, its just that it is slightly more prone to error than the fact that he was still living in 1896. As a result, these specific elements (his Age, DOB, and place of residence) are most likely to be correct. In point of fact, we can confirm some of this independently of White 1902. For example, a James W. McSpadden age appears in the 1840 Washington County census, and is appropriately aged to have been born in 1810.

White was working with bits and pieces of family history, and put things together as best she could, given what she was told. As it turns out, what she wrote only dimly reflects the underlying truth. To get at that underlying truth, we need to start with whatever contemporary original records we can locate that bear on the problem. In this case, our best starting point is the Affadavit of Elizabeth Thompson.

Elizabeth's Family

Notable Southern Families

A tell tale that something is amiss in White 1902 is the point about Elizabeth Lyle Walker marrying a Thomas McSpadden of Rockbridge about 1809. The reason this tells me something is wrong is because I couldn't find any clear evidence of McSpadden's in Rckbridge in later years. Specifically, they are not listed in the 1820,1830,1840, or 1850 census---possibly they're there under an unrecognized spelling variant, and possibly they left the area after 1809----but in researching the McSpaddens, I'm under the definite impresson that the family left the area sometime after the end of the Revoultion, and well before 1800. Can't be sure, because I've not done an exhaustive search of the later Rockbridge County records, but I don't think they were there. So I started searching around for the disconnects or explanation for what's in White.

Here's the story that I believe is the answer. This is in part based on another family history in "Notable Southern Families", which includes a discussion of the Lyle family. Written shortly after White 1902, its similar in style, constantly alluding to family documents and such, but rarely saying exactly what things are based on. But fro what they gave, I think I can distill a better explanation of what's going on with the White discourse, and how it ties into the Elizabeth Thompson affadavit of Elizabdth Thompson.

As it turns out, Elizabeth's tale is fairly complicated.

Elizabeth was born in Ireland, to Mathew Lyle and Esther Blair. As the story goes in Notable Southern Families, Mathew immigrated to America about 1740, and aquired land on Borden's Grant. Oddly, daughter Elizabeth remains behind to be brought up by her grandparents. (an inheritance is invoked in "Notable" to explain this, believe it as you will). Elizabeth grows to adulthood, and marries one William Thompson. She and William have three daughters, but William dies young. The Widow Thompson soon remarries to a Mathew Donald (or Donnell), a cousin of William. In due course, the Donnels set sail for America in 1775. They soon find themselves on Borden's Grant, where Elizabeth's father is living. Mathews Land is immediately adjacent to that of a Thomas McSpadden in the area just south of Timber Ridge MH. Thomas was one of the early settlers in the area, and supposed to be one of the founders of Timber Ridge. Thomas had six sons, all but one of whom left the area shortly before the Revolution, settling on Laurel Fork of the South Fork of the Holston River. The community of Alvarado is about one mile to the south of the point where the Laurel Fork enters the South Fork of the Holston.

The one son who remains behind is John McSpadden. Father Thomas has probably already died, and John is the one who apparently ends up with the family property adjacent to Mathew Lyle. And Mathew now has a granddaughter Esther Thompson, whose of age to marry. And in due course John McSpadden marries his neighbors granddaughter Esther. Grandaughter Jane also marries---her husband, as it turns out, is a James Walker (and probably the son of Samuel of the Natural Bridge line). And in due course, Jane and James have a couple of children, Jane and Elizabeth. Unfortunately, James dies in 1791, leaving a widow with two fatherless children.

And it is just about this time that John McSpadden decides to move south to Jefferson County TN, where he settles himself down in/near Dandridge in Jefferson County--not far from where an Andrew Cowan and wife Mary have settled. Apparently John is joined by at least two of his brothers from Laurel Fork, who've apparently decided that they had better opportunities in TN. (Another brother, Thomas moved west to the Cumberland Settlements. While a fourth, Moses remains in Southwest Virginia, living not far from Alvarado.) Also joining John in Jeffrerson County are

his motherinlaw Elizabeth Lyle Thompson Donnell (and perhaps hubby Mathew Donnell), his sisterinlaw, Jane Thompson Walker and her two other daughters, Jane and Elizabeth.

(Mary Thompson, his other sisterinlaw marries a Samuel Wear (Weir) but I've not figured out where Mary and Samuel were living. NE TN would be a good guess)

And in due Jane Thompson Walker meets and marries neighbor widower Andrew Cowan.

Jane Thompson Walker Cowan's two daughters Elizaberth Walker and jane Walker, grow to adulthood and in due course marry

Notable Families tells us that Jane marries John Ritchie Inman, while Elizabeth marries---ta da! Thomas McSpadden, son of John McSpadden---which makes it a cousin marriage.

And from this latter marriage of Elizabeth Walker and Thomas McSpddan, arises a son James Walker McSpadden, who, in due course moves back to SW VA where he apparently marries, and dies sometime after 1896. Stangely there's evidence that the line of Moses, the brother who remained on Laurel Fork when everybody else moved to TN, died out. I can speculate that James W.'s move back to Washington County is to occupy now vacant family land. Interestingly enough, there are other family members who eventually gravitate back to this same area though I've not explored this in sufficient detail to say much about what's going on with that.

Overall, I think this gives a reasonably satisfacotry storyline pointing to confusions embedded in White 1902. I'm guessing that White ony had a partial data set, and because of the similarities of names, multiple marriages, and intermarriages, was unable to sort the facts out. Notable families could have some of their information wrong as well. However, where we have solid original sources to point to (such as Elizabeth Thompsons affadavit of 1796) we seem to get confirmation of the data in Notable Families.

and for anyone in need of a score card to keep track of all of these folks, here's a family relationship diagram


  1. Son of John Walker II of the Wigton line, in White's treatment. DNA evidence has shown that that White had a substantial confusion in her family history, conflating two entirely separate lineages that happened to a) live on Borden's Grant, and b) intermarry. Samuel is the Samuel who lived near Natural Bridge. His lineage is commonly referred to as the Natural Bridge line, as opposed to the Walkers Creek line that lived in the northwests quadrant of Borden's Grant.
  2. Mary Thompson Weir is worth further examination as she may be important for figuring out the relationships between various Weir and Wear families of East Tennessee, particularly as discussed by Source:Frizell and Edwards, 1978. That, however, is an entirely different problem, and is not being spoken to here.
  3. In the BCG sense of the word.