More than any other of our ancestors, Mary Jane Upton is the most elusive. We have more questions than answers about her life. Perhaps the primary reason for this is because family lore says she had Native American ancestry, and in the genealogical research world, this is a common claim. There is definitely something romantic about the idea, but it is often a “sticky wicket” to prove the claim. This is our dilemma!
We have been told that Mary Jane’s mother was a Cherokee woman who married a British soldier by the name of Upton. Even though none of the information has been documented, most family members believe there is truth to the story, myself included. Here is the story as related by Jim W. Kuhlman in his book, The History of the Nance Hereford Ranch.
It has been handed down, although there are no records, that George May married Mary Jane Upton on February 18, 1825. Another piece of history that has been handed down through the family was that Mary Upton was born on March 22, 1806, at old Fort Lewis, an army post near Chattanooga, Tennessee. Mary’s mother was a Cherokee maiden who married a U.S. Army officer. Although a marriage of this type might seem unusual, interracial marriages between the Indians and white Americans were fairly common even in those days…
When Mary’s mother’s tribe decided to leave the area near Chattanooga for the West, her mother decided to go along, so the father took Mary. According to a speech given by W. R. Smothers, son of Elsie Smothers, on June 9, 1973, at the dedication of a marker in memory of George and Mary Upton May, he said, ‘It is believed that her father was an Upton and he gave Mary to be raised by a foster mother that was either a sister or the mother of the young army officer.’ Her parents sent her to a Presbyterian Mission School for her formal education.
(Editorial Comment: It appears, but no accurate records are available, that her father was Isaac Upton. In the 1820 Census of Tennessee it lists a Samuel Upton family and a James Upton family in Franklin County, which is just west of Chattanooga, that had a girl in their family who met Mary’s age.)
In a letter written to me by Elsie Smothers in June of 1994, she writes: The father of Mary Upton was Upton (last name) and he was a British Army Officer. He and a group of soldiers were about to leave the area there in Tennessee, when Upton said to the men, ‘Before I leave, I want to go and get my daughter who is half Cherokee and take her to my sister where she will be able to get a good education.’
There are several different interpretations of the Army Officer and the Indian maiden and how the daughter Mary Upton was taken and raised. The mystery of who Mary Jane Upton’s parents really were, probably will never be completely solved, but it really makes quite a unique and passionate story. The move of the Indians and her family possibly took place in February of 1818, when Chief John Jolly (Ooleteka) and some three hundred thirty-one members of the Cherokee tribe left Tennessee for Arkansas. ‘John Jolly’ was described in ‘A History of Hamilton County (Tennessee)’ as ‘being half Indian, and dressed as a white man, I should scarcely have distinguished him from an American, except by his language. He was very plain, prudent, and unassuming in his dress and manners; a Franklin amongst his countrymen and affectionately called the ‘beloved father.
There is some speculation, although no proof, that Mary Upton May’s mother was a daughter of Chief John Jolly (Ooleteka). (Kuhlman, 24-26)
DNA TESTS DONE TO FIND PROOF OF CHEROKEE ANCESTRY
In an effort to find proof of Mary Jane Upton’s Native American ancestry, *Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) testing was done in 2008 on two female descendants, Jean Langley Casey and Joy Ann Lapham Wright. Testing was done by Family Tree DNA, Houston, Texas. Jean’s line of descent is – Mary Upton May, Charity Melvina May Nance, Sarah Viola Nance Pipkin, Willie Eugenia Pipkin Langley, and Jean Langley Casey. Joy’s line is – Mary Upton May, Sarah Arkansas May Clark, Charity Fedonia Clark Crabb, Mary Lorena Crabb Lapham, and Joy Ann Lapham Wright. In both cases the DNA HVR1 Haplogroup was found to be L3b. This haplogroup is found in Africa and is not one in which Native American ancestry is indicated. Of course, family researchers were disappointed to find no DNA proof in Mary Jane’s Native American ancestry in her maternal line. At this point, we definitely feel that we are up against an insurmountable “brick wall.”
Family researchers believe that Mary Jane Upton’s father may have been English or Irish and there is no indication that he had NA ancestry. Therefore, if she had NA ancestry, it is possible it was in her maternal grandfather’s line. From circumstantial evidence, some think her maternal grandfather was John Jolly (Ooleteka) and that his daughter Sarah or Sallie was Mary Jane’s mother. However, no documented information has been found that proves John Jolly had a daughter named Sarah or Sallie who married Samuel Isaac Upton.
When reading history of this era in America you realize very quickly how difficult it is to get verified information on an ancestor – unless they were a renowned historical figure. The research gives you a whole new appreciation of the work of historians, sociologists, and anthropologists. The convergence of people from various nationalities and ethnic groups, each with their own customs, religion, and world view, living in situations complicated by politics, war, and expansion, makes it quite challenging to find records to verify oral tradition and family lore.
WAS OLD FORT LEWIS MARY JANE’S PLACE OF BIRTH?
As mentioned, Mary Jane Upton may have been born at old Fort Lewis near Chattanooga, Tennessee. Here is a bit of information about this area found in two books, The Cherokees and Their Chiefs in the Wake of Empire by Stanley W. Hoig, and How to Research a Little Bit of Indian by Afton Reintjes.
Governors Glen (South Carolina) and Dinwiddie (Virginia) had different intentions regarding the Cherokees. Glen saw them as a protection against attack on South Carolina; Dinwiddie wished to use them in an offensive campaign to drive the French from the Ohio country. The two governors also quarreled over the building of a fort among the Overhills. Dinwiddie responded with only one thousand of the seven thousand pounds requested by Glen as Virginia’s share of the fort construction.
In the spring of 1754, as Glen had promised, South Carolina constructed Fort Prince George among the Lower Cherokees near Keowee…In 1756 he ordered a complete rebuilding of the fort and dispatched an agent to Chota to reassure the Overhill Cherokees that a second fort would soon be built there.
Taking personal charge of assembling and outfitting a three-hundred-man expedition, Glen was preparing to march in early June when he was succeeded as governor by thirty-four year old William Henry Lyttelton. In the meantime, Dinwiddie had learned of Glen’s plans. Not wanting to miss the opportunity of getting fighting help from the Cherokees, he hurriedly sent Maj. Andrew Lewis with sixty men, most of them laborers, with orders to build a fort near Chota under the terms agreed to the year before.
Lewis and his men were welcomed by Old Hop and his chiefs, but dissension soon arose. Some of the chiefs demanded two forts – one to guard them from enemies by land and another from those by water. There were others who were convinced that a fort in their country would lead to British domination, persuaded by the French agents that the British meant to enslave them. With the French and Indian War underway, the support of the various tribes had become a matter of fierce competition.
Not waiting for the arrival of the South Carolinians, the Virginians constructed a log fort on the north bank of the Little Tennessee a mile above Chota. When it was completed in August, Lewis found the chiefs reluctant to send the warrior help that Dinwiddie was expecting. Lewis could get only seven men and three women to accompany him back to Virginia. He recommended to Dinwiddie that a military expedition be sent to crush the Cherokees into submission. (Hoig, 28-29)
The fort built Aug 1756 by Virginia (Maj. Andrew Lewis) on the north bank of the Little Tennessee River, near Echota, Tennessee was never garrisoned. (Reintjes, 81)
MARY JANE UPTON MARRIES GEORGE MAY
As we see, there is much speculation about Mary Jane’s birth, ancestry, and early life. Nevertheless, from information on census records, we are reasonably sure she was born in Tennessee about 1806. At this time she and her family were on the edge of civilization. Evidently, after she completed some schooling, she met and married George May. Family records say that Mary Jane married George May February 18, 1825, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. On September 15 of that same year, Mary Jane gave birth to their first son, James A. Sanders.
Like countless other courageous folks of that time, the Mayes had a desire to move west. It certainly makes me wonder what inspired their bravery to venture into unknown territory. What was the source of their pioneer spirit? Could it have been their Native American connection?
George and Mary May came to Texas around 1830. She was the only woman to make the trip to Texas with a group of men, riding all the way on horseback, with pack horses carrying all their belongings, along with a young son approximately four to five years of age. Can you imagine a youngster making this long arduous trip across the hills and valleys? There is some indication that they were at Fort Gibson in Oklahoma territory in 1829. Sam Houston was there that same year. (Kuhlman, 27)
MARY JANE AND GEORGE MAY ARRIVE IN TEXAS
By 1830 George and Mary Jane May are in Texas, settling first in Nacogdoches. At one time this area was considered the “east gateway to the Texas territory.” About the time the May family arrived, they were among many immigrants from the United States coming into this Mexican province. Among this stream of people were various Indian groups which had been driven out of the Old South. There is evidence they stayed there for about five to six years, and we know those were tumultuous times as the “clouds of revolution” gathered. When the Texas Revolution began in 1836, Nacogdoches was a “seat of unrest and supplied the revolutionary cause with men and money.” (Handbook of Texas Online)
During these unsettled times, life went on for George and Mary Jane. On February 19, 1833, she gave birth to a daughter, Malinda Josephine. According to the Census Report of Williams Settlement, April 21 1835 (Nacogdoches Archives), the May family was continuing to live in the area. Listed are George May, 37 years old; Mary May, 29 years old; James Sanders, 8 years old; and Josephine M. May, 2 years old. It was only a few days later that they had another child. A son was born on April 30, 1835, and he was named after George and Mary Jane’s friend, Sam Houston.
Sometime in the late 1830’s George and Mary Jane moved to Marshall, a small village in Harrison County, Texas. It is believed they were living here when on January 11, 1838, Mary Jane gave birth to a son, Isaac Upton. It is possible he was named for Mary Jane’s father, but there are no records verifying information about her father. Unfortunately, the boy had a very short life, dying less than a year later on January 3, 1839. Even though it seems unbelievable, Mary Jane gave birth to another son, John F., on October 25, 1839, proving she was a woman of remarkable strength!
It is likely the May family stayed in Marshall for about 10 years. During that time, George May was commissioned as the first sheriff of Harrison County, and the May family continued to grow. A daughter was born on April 11, 1844, and named Mary Jane after her mother. Twin daughters, Sarah Arkansas and Charity Melvina, were born October 28, 1846.
Kuhlman states that the May family was living in Victoria County in 1849. It was there that George May wrote and recorded his last will and testament. By 1850 they had moved to Lavaca County and can be found on the U.S. Federal Census. The name is misspelled as “Mays.” George Mays (52) is listed along with Mary Mays (45), Josephine Mays (18), Samuel H. Mays (12), John Mays (10), Mary Jane Mays (8), Sarah Valani Mays (6) and Cherela V. Valani Mays (6). (Note the misspelled names of the twins.)
Regrettably the following year George May died, leaving Mary Jane a widow with a house full of children living in the small town of Hallettsville, Texas. Perhaps this felt like civilization to her after all she had endured traveling across the country and settling in some very primitive areas. Nevertheless, it seems to me she had some challenging times ahead of her. If the stories are true, I imagine she was up to the task.
MARY JANE UPTON MAY – TRUE PIONEER WOMAN
There are countless records, books, and stories about the brave people who moved into and settled the dangerous and primitive territory that became known as Texas. George and Mary Jane can be counted among its first citizens.
From letters and interviews with descendants, Jim Kuhlman and family members have gathered some interesting information and lore that shed light on our ancestor, Mary Jane Upton May. He tells about her ability to adapt to the pioneer way of life because she had been trained in the “Indian ways.” With her husband and children she traveled by horseback or wagon through unfamiliar and unfriendly territory, undoubtedly encountering a myriad of obstacles. Other written accounts of wagon train journeys tell of pioneers who, like George and Mary Jane, were faced with unfriendly Indians, swollen rivers, wild animals, the lack of food and water for the livestock, and the necessity of gathering firewood along the way to use for the campfires. Mary Jane gave birth to children when living on the edge of civilization and suffered the loss of their baby son. Like other pioneer women, she cooked over campfire and learned how to dress buckskin to make garments for her family. Because of her supposed Cherokee background, some say she may have assisted her husband in dealing with the Indians when he served as an Indian scout for Sam Houston.
In light of the information that Sam Houston was a friend of George and Mary Jane, Kuhlman shares an interesting story. Evidently one family member (descendant of Mary Jane) possessed a letter from Sam Houston thanking Mary Upton May for making the wedding dress and bonnet for his second wife, and Indian bride, Diana (Tiana) Rogers Gentry. Kuhlman adds that Mary Jane and Diana might have known each other when (and if) they attended the same missionary school in Tennessee and perhaps were even related. Of course, this is a speculation since there are no records available.
The years following her husband’s death must have been extremely hard for Mary Jane May. Being left a widow with six children, she faced difficulties that are unimaginable to most of us. I believe she was a woman of tremendous strength and courage. As a single mother she had to provide economic security for her family under very tough circumstances. With the help of her children, she managed by farming her land. This might have been too much for some women, but Mary Jane and her children were survivors.
In 1860 Mary May was continuing to live in Hallettsville, Texas with four of her children, John, Mary, Charity, and Sarah. Information on the 1860 U.S. Federal Census tells us that she was a farmer and that her son, John, was a farm laborer.
By 1870 Mary was still in Hallettsville but was living with her daughter Mary Jane Turk and her husband, William Harvey Turk. We know that she also lived for a time with her widowed daughter, Charity. Kuhlman shares this story given to him by Bennett Allen Nance.
Grandma May (as she was called by his father George Edward) ran the house with an iron hand. She smoked a corn cob pipe and trained my father in economics and some of the social ways of the Indians. She trained my father to be boss and the girls did the labor. She made the girls wait on my father and he was very spoiled. What success my father had as a good stockman, land trader and being very frugal was because of Grandma May’s training. (Kuhlman, 37-38)
Mary Jane Upton May died February 19, 1890, in Hallettsville, Texas and was buried beside her husband in the Hallettsville Graveyard. On June 9, 1973, descendants of George and Mary Upton May dedicated a memorial marker placed at the gravesite of their ancestors. The inscription on the back of the marker states:
George, son of John and Charity Taylor May, married Mary Upton on February 18, 1825, daughter of Cherokee Maiden and English Army officer. Surveyor, sheriff and soldier of the Republic of Texas. Personal friend of Sam Houston, James Bowie and Pres. Mirabou B. Lamar.
Many of us believe there must be some truth in the family stories passed down through the years that Mary Jane Upton had Native American ancestry – even without the mtDNA proof. Years ago people would not admit to their Indian ancestry and kept it under wraps. Because of this, it is not surprising that her children kept no records. We live in a vastly different world where people are proud to discover and prove Native American ancestry.
It goes without saying that we still have many unanswered questions. Where and when did the African ancestry enter the picture? How many hundreds of years ago did that occur? Who was Mary Jane’s maternal grandfather? If her father was Samuel Isaac Upton, who was he and where did his family originate?
Without a doubt, our ancestor Mary Jane Upton May was an amazing woman of pioneer stock. She faced challenges unimaginable to most of us living today and dealt with them courageously.
*Mitochondrial DNA: This mtDNA tracks the straight maternal line, mother to daughter. Y-DNA tracks the male line, father to son. A son may receive mtDNA from his mother but cannot pass it on. Both mtDNA and Y-DNA determine the ancestral origin and “haplogroup” of the person tested. Haplogroups are genetic population groups that identify where in the mtDNA tree of humanity you fit in. Haplogroups are what allow us to identify how large groups of people migrated starting from Africa over 60,000 years ago to different parts of the world. Lineages that historically remained in Africa include haplogroups L1, L2, L3, and M1.
In the case of the two descendants of Mary Jane Upton May, their haplogroup assignment was L3b. Part of the L cluster of haplogroups which has been concretely characterized as representing the original human mitochondrial lineage, haplogroup L3b is found in Africa. This haplogroup dates to approximately 20,000 years ago, and is detected in highest frequency in north and west Africa. Future work will further document the historical distribution of this haplogroup and closely related haplogroups of the L cluster. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Ancestry.com. 1850 United States Federal Census [database online]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009.
Ancestry.com. 1860 United States Federal Census [database online]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009.
Ancestry.com. 1870 United States Federal Census [database online]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009.
Family Tree DNA Genealogy by Genetics, Ltd., Houston, TX 77008, www.familytreedna.com
Handbook of Texas Online, “Nacogdoches County,” www.tshaonline.org/handook/online
Hoig, Stanley W., The Cherokees and Their Chiefs: In the Wake of Empire, The University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, 1998.
Kuhlman, Jim W., The History of the Nance Hereford Ranch, 1996.
Massy, Sara R. editor, Texas Women on the Cattle Trails, Texas A & M University, College Station, 2006.
Reintjes, Afton, How to Research a Little Bit of Indian, Family History World, 1989.
Tise, Sammy, Texas County Sheriffs, Oakwood Printing, Albuquerque, NM, 1989.
USGenWeb, Census Report of Williams Settlement, http://files.usgwarchives.net/tx/census/1835/1835ws.txt
Written by Lucy Ann Nance Croft, 2011