Jennie “Bahn” McNeill Grave

A Revolutionary Wrangler

Location


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Coordinates: 35.1926, -78.9866.

Type: Stop
Tour: Tory War
County: Cumberland

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Drive to the back-left corner of the parking lot at the Church of the Covenant. To find the grave marker, look toward the back edge of the cemetery—to your left if facing the church—for what looks like a model of the Washington Monument. Though visible from a distance, a relatively easy stroll takes you to the resting site of a remarkable woman and her remarkable marker.

Monument at back of graveyard
View of the grave from the parking lot (AmRevNC photograph)

 

Small boy in a blue shirt that says, "Do Whig Out!"

 
Small boy in a blue shirt that says, "Do Whig Out!"

Description

Marble obelisk on a darkened base with small ones on each corner
(AmRevNC photograph)

If Janet Smith McNeill had lived in the Wild West a hundred years later, she would have been a famous “cowgirl,” as they were called at that time! She and her husband Archibald may have been the biggest cattle ranchers in America before the war. Scottish-born in 1720, she probably migrated in 1739[1] and settled with her parents in today’s Harnett County (north of Fayetteville). Nothing is known of her childhood. After her marriage she would sometimes lead cattle drives on her own, taking as many as 1,500 head to the nearest markets in Petersburg, Va.

McNeill was a hard-nosed business person. When one Virginia farmer refused to sell grain for her herd, she had her ranch hands tear down his fences so the cattle could feed themselves. No doubt the man underestimated the petite, fair-skinned redhead nicknamed Jennie “Bahn” (Gaelic for “the Fair”) by her neighbors.

At some point she visited Philadelphia and met Benjamin Franklin. He so impressed her that his name was given to children for multiple generations in her family. Yet when the war broke out, she officially declared herself neutral—for business reasons. This may seem unusual, but historians estimate there were as many “neutrals” during the war as there were Patriots or backers of the king. (Archibald’s choice in that decision, if Jennie gave him one, is unrecorded.)

Families often split their loyalties, and hers was no exception. Five out of her six sons fought with Loyalist militia, and the other with the Patriots.[2]

After the war Jennie and Archibald moved about 6 miles east of here. Despite her death in 1791 at 71, there was yet another chapter to be written about her.

Monumental Bad Luck

This stone obelisk from Scotland marks the grave of Jennie and Archibald. Even the stone has a story.

The McNeills’ sons had the column and a base imported from Scotland to Wilmington and then floated up the Cape Fear River to Fayetteville. As the pieces were being unloaded, the base toppled over the side of the barge, and for years lay on the river bottom. The obelisk was brought to the family graveyard on a bluff overlooking the river. For years it laid there on its side.

The base was eventually recovered and stored temporarily in a building at a stoneyard. But the building caught fire as the base was being prepared, and it dropped into the basement. Apparently too difficult to retrieve from the rubble, over time the base and the site were covered over and lost. Not until the 1920s did a descendant have a new base made, and the obelisk was finally raised and inscribed.

However, its saga was not yet over! Years later the mining company Martin Marietta leased the land that was the McNeill homesite to build a quarry. It obtained permission under state law to move the family graves here. The traveling monument made (hopefully) one last move in 2008.[3]

A platter inherited by McNeill from her parents is displayed at our Scottish Heritage Center stop.


[1] Exhibits, Scottish Heritage Center, Laurinburg, N.C., 2020.

[2] In addition to the other footnoted sources, “Stop” information comes from one of two guidebooks; NCpedia; the online essay for the relevant North Carolina Highway Marker; and related Sight pages (see “About Sources“).

[3] ‘McKay-McNeill Family Cemetery Relocation’, Walter Wells <http://www.walterwells.ca/Family%20Tree/more%20mcneill%20info.htm> [accessed 21 April 2020]

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