The MacAulays in the Post Bellum Period
The McAulay family suffered terrific financial reverses in
the Confederate war. Far wealthier families were wiped out,
but Neil McAulay was able to weather the storm. And when his
sons, Neil and Hugh, wanted to go to college during Reconstruction, he was able to send them.
His first step was to move his family from Statesville back
to the plantation at Coddle Creek where the economy was almost
self-sufficient and money, which could be used as capital, was
not needed. Relations with the slaves must have improved since
ante-bellum days; for many of the free Negroes remained on the
The essentially feudal character of the plantation remained
unchanged. The family held a paternalistic responsibility for
its laborers, continuing essentially pre-war relationships. In
January 1873, Neil McAulay made a brief note that might have
been made in January 1853, “Our black boy, Moses was taken a few
days ago with pneumonia but I think better this morning...”
Life on the plantation went on much as it always had. He wrote his son, Jesse, in Statesville, “Mr. Jefferson Hill was wanting beef, turkeys, chickens, etc. I want you to know what he will give for beef and poultry. We have four or five gobblers. If he will pay a fair price, he can have some chickens...I can kill all (the beef) I have mentioned for the college, but I want to hear what he will give for 5 or 6 bushels of Irish potatoes. (Let me know) what he will give for such and let me
know immediately as I want to kill as soon as the weather gets
Social life for the family continued very similarly to antebellum days. Isabelle McAulay enclosed a note to her brother in January, 1873, saying, “I am feeling grand.” On county news: “They had a party at Craven last week. Web (Neill Webster Macaulay) and Jess (William Jesse McAulay) said they had a gay time,
danced like everything.”
The times, however, were not economically promising. In
1872 Margaret McAulay married James Gray and the couple decided
to experiment with life on the “frontier.” It was not certain
where the “frontier” was (at least Arkansas or west of it), but
Margaret was unhappy. She wrote her unhappiness to her parents,
and her dislike of the quality of life on the frontier.
Neill and Melvina McAulay replied. She had spent early
years in Alabama, when it was a frontier area, and she agreed
the quality of life on the frontier was thin and superficial.
“...Glad to hear from you, but very sorry to hear you were not
well pleased with the country. You say it is wild, but little
attention paid to the Sabbath, and pleasure and profit are the
greatest sources of enjoyment. That is what I expected in all
frontier country newly settled. I would feel sorry to think
you would feel happy in such a society. Yet you are there,
with the only way to improve society for good civilized people
to go there and yield what influence they can to improve the
place. And if they find no improvement then it becomes them
only to leave.” The young couple did. They returned to North
In 1870 the younger McAulay brothers, Neill and Hugh, entered Davidson College, a Presbyterian school in North Carolina,. several miles from the family plantation. Later they
went to Erskine College in Due West, South Carolina, founded in 1839. Cousins and friends of their mother’s family were active in the teaching and administration, and because it was the official Associate Reformed Presbyterian College supported by the
district churches, this also influenced their choice.
From college Neil Webster McAulay wrote his father that he
was concerned about a group of fellow students from North Carolina who had gotten drunk. He was afraid their conduct would reflect on the other students from North Carolina, and he must have suggested talking to them about it. His father immediately stopped this attempt to mind someone elses morals. He wrote:
“You want the state to keep its fair reputation. That is very
recommendable in you, but you are only strictly accountable for
A buggy was usually taken from the plantation to the Davidson College railroad depot where the boys were always put on
the train for college. After Christmas vacation some baggage
was lost and Neil McAulay wrote his sons the following letter on
January 14, 1873.
Unfortunately, as is often the case in his letters, Neil
shows his tendency to stylization and scriptural artificiality.
Only twice does he slip into the Southern idiom, and only then
are we allowed a real glimpse of the rich farmer and spiritual
patrician: “The people around here is beginning to stir for
another crop—--A few more years will decide whether you will be
useful members of society or a common nuisance.”
Coddle Creek, January 14, 1873
Mr. H.R. & NW. McAulay Dear Sons:
I wrote to you on yesterday from Davidson College. Jesse
was there to inquire after your lost box. The helper gave him
a receipt which I send to you in this letter. He directs you to
show it to the railroad agent at your depot. Tell him it has
never arrived and he will look it up. The helper thinks it has
stopped at Columbia, South Carolina.
If you have not got it yet, give this matter your special
attention. I have no doubt but you will get them, but I know
you need them and I am sorry you have been deprived of the use
of them so long.
You say you have not money to pay the freight on them. I will risk sending you $5.00. I don’t like for you to be entirely out of money. I would send more but afraid to risk it as
your clothes miscarried. But I will send you in express or registered letter the amount you have to pay Mr. Kennedy as soon
as I can sell my cotton. I have been waiting for it to get
twenty dollars, but it rises so slow that I am getting out of
Get (money) from Miss Orr if you can; if not, let me know.
I can’t bear the idea of you not having a little money to buy
firewood and other incidental expenses. I expect to hear from
you today as this is Tuesday, our mail day, and I hope to hear
of your clothes arrival. If not, do as you are directed above
and you will get them.
I will send Webster (Neill Webster Macaulay) his initiation
fee (he had joined a fraternity) soon. But I do want you to
improve your time faithfully. I expect to hear a good report
from you in a few days.
I have no news worth your attention. Mary is at home.
Now I have had a chill, but better. Baba (Roberta) has had
chills, but able to start school again. In your last letter you
had been unwell and also Web was suffering under some unknown
disease. I hope today to hear you are both better and ready to
commence the new year with renewed vigor after your Christmas
I would be glad to hear your college is prospering. It appears to be going downward. I hope it will recuperate and move upward after the endowment is made up. I think Coddle Creek and Perth will pay their assessment. We are looking for Mr. Pressley around today, catechizing. (Mr. Pressley, minister)
Our neighborhood is enjoying tolerable health. Samuel
Riley’s youngest daughter was buried yesterday, disease pneumonia. The people about here is beginning to stir for another
Write soon and give all the news you can. How your college is prospering and you are both getting along. Tell me how
much money you will need, Hugh.
Improve your time, economize with your money, and do the
very best you can. Now is your seed time if you expect a bountiful harvest. Sow liberally now and improve every fleeting
moment. A few more years will decide whether you will be useful members of society or a common nuisance. As you sow so
shall you reap. Sow good seed and you will reap abundantly of
From your devoted and affectionate father,
Neil McAulay died of a tumor in the stomach. It was cancer. The family Bible states: “Our father, Neil McAulay, departed this life September 12, 1873. After nearly two months
of excessive pain and anguish he was called away at twelve
o’clock in the night, where long days and wearisome nights have
“The way in which he died was this. He lay sick in a
sleigh bed at Coddle Creek. His suffering, coming from cancer
of the stomach, was long and intense. The family early gathered about him, waiting for death, but it was two months in coming. He stoically refused laudanum or dope. He lapsed into a
coma some days before the end but, on the eve of the thirteenth,
he sat up in bed, looking at his family but seeing them not,
and recited in a resonating voice:
We shall endure throughout the night
But joy cometh in the morning.
He fell back onto the bed and into a light sleep. He was
silent for forty minutes. Near twelve o’clock he began to recite the Ninety-First Psalm. When he had finished, the clock
struck, and the end came while the clock was striking. His face
turned towards the east, a chime sounded, his shoulders slumped
and Neil McAulay of Coddle Creek was dead.
Melvina McAulay, who had real presence of mind, advanced to
the foot of the bed and led the family in reciting the First
Psalm, beginning: “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the
counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners.”
It was the custom in those days for a member of the family
to stay with the body until it was buried. At the end of the
psalm, Melvina seated herself in the rocking chair in the bed
room to signify that she would take the first vigil. The
shades were drawn to signal mourning. All the lights in the
room were extinguished except one by the bed. The family filed
out of the room, leaving Melvina McAulay alone with the body of her husband, rocking.
Neil McAulay was buried in the pleasant Presbyterian church
yard at Coddle Creek where he was an elder and his oldest son
was buried. Melvina was to be placed beside him a year later.
At his funeral the Thirtieth Psalm, which he had paraphrased on
his death bed, was read. As was the custom in those days, a
funeral sermon was preached and he was, with a hymn, consigned
to the ground.
Neil McAulay left one half of the plantation to his son,
Jesse, the oldest surviving boy and an excellent planter and
businessman, with the intention that Jesse should live on the
plantation and supervise it for the family. The other half of
the plantation was left to Melvina. Money had been settled on
Neill and Hugh, which they used chiefly for formal schooling in
colleges. This way of things lasted thirteen months.
Melvina McAulay died October 7, 1874, thirteen months after her husband. She had been genuinely fond of her husband
and his death was a blow to her. It is not known exactly from
what she died. She was a sufferer from arthritis, but it was
not felt she died of this.
She died in full possession of her faculties, in time to
call her family around her, giving them much practical advice,
for she had much initiative and was of a practical bent. She
was buried next to Neil, and instructions were found after her
death that the minister be instructed to preach her funeral
sermon from Psalm 30, chapter 5, the text, “Joy cometh in the
One of her obituaries read:
Died in Iredell Co., N.C.
October 7, 1874
Mrs. Melvina B. McAulay, in the 60th year of her age.
The subject of this notice was a native of Wilkes Co., Ga. She could remember when her parents moved to Dallas Co., Alabama. Her parents (Robert and Mary Grier) both died after their
removal to Alabama; she was then left an orphan but a covenant
keeping God who has said, “When father and mother forsake thee
then the Lord will take thee up,” was with her. He provided
her a home in the family of the Rev. Isaac Grier, then living
in Mecklenberg Co., North Carolina, her paternal uncle.
In her eighteenth year she married Mr. Neil McAulay.
About the time of her marriage she united with the church at
Sardis to which her uncle was preaching.
She was enabled through grace to live a consistent Christian life, admiring the doctrines and enjoying the consolations
of religion amidst all the changing scenes of life. For several years she was afflicted with rheumatic afflictions, so
that she was not able often to attend upon the public means of
grace. But when able, she could say with David, “It is good
for me to draw nigh to God.”
Her suffering for three weeks before her departure were
great, but she bore them with patience and resignation. Fully
sensible of the situation, and aware of her approaching dissolution, she called her children around her bedside, gave
them her parting counsel and dying benedictions, then ceased,
as we have every reason to believe and encouragement to hope,
from her suffering on earth, to enter into that rest that remains for the people of God. For a voice from heaven has said,
“Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth;
yes, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors and
their works do follow them.”
She was a loving and affectionate mother, and left nine
children to mourn her loss. May they never forget her lessons.”
Melvina McAulay’s will, written when she was “fully aware
of her approaching dissolution,” September 17, 1874, was to be
a major mistake for the family. It said, “My desire is that
the plantation on which I now live...and all my property of
every description be kept and held in common by my son, W. J.
McAulay and my single daughters, Mary, Isabella, Olivia and
Roberta so long as they remain single.”
Melvina’s plan was well-meaning. The plantation, supervised and half owned by brother Jesse, was to be held in trust for
the single daughters. But the plans went astray.
In the 1880’s William Jesse McAulay was drowned while swimming. He was married and his half of the plantation devolved on his widow whom the single sisters detested. The sister-in-law’s name was Alice, but the sisters summed her up by
calling her privately, “Old Al.” Neil McAulay’s old maid
daughters were clear eyed and sharp spoken; no fools themselves,
they could not suffer fools gladly. And when her husband was
drowned, Old Al sold her half of the estate, took the money,
and moved north. The sisters, whose brother had been killed in
the War, felt that water was heading for its own level. They
bade her a fond adieu.
The old maids, there were only three now, two had married,
had half the estate in trust as long as they were single, a
farm and no farmer. Under the terms of their mother’s will the
estate was in trust until the last single daughter was dead.
Olivia McAulay was to live until 1937. And as long as it was
in trust, the old maids had it all, but if they broke the trust,
all was to be divided equally among the children. So they kept
it in trust as security.
Roberta McAulay moved to Woodruff, South Carolina in 1887
to be near her brother, the Reverend Hugh. In Woodruff she became postmistress in 1897 and served until 1913. Her sister, Essie (Olivia Estelle), assisted her in the post office. The
other sister, Mary Heard McAulay, kept house. They adopted a
neice, Melvina Rea , whose mother, Isabelle McAulay, had died
in childbirth. They bought property for a hobby in Woodruff,
attended church, and became local characters of some color.
They became characters because they were clear eyed and
outspoken in a small town where most were afraid to be. And
they talked to the Lord forthrightly. When their niece dated
a man of whom they disapproved, one old maid prayed aloud at
family prayers, as they always called automobiles “vehicles,”
“May his vehicle wreck and he break his neck before he reaches
Woodruff.” Another time a guest had an epileptic fit at the
table. A small nephew asked about it, and an old maid aunt
replied tartly, “Tend to your own business.” Later another
aunt explained to the boy, “You never make comments about
guests or ask personal questions, even if they writhe on the
But the McAulay farm, of which they owned half, was not
farmed and lay fallow until it was finally sold in the 1930’s. Melvina’s will had caused an unfortunate tie-up of Neil McAulay’s
plantation and capital, it had placed in the hands of single
spinsters one half a plantation they did not live on, could not
farm, but stood to lose on if sold and divided. And the old
maid sisters were absentee landlords of the worst sort: the
big house, implements, barns, cabins literally rotted down in a
situation very similar to a ghost town.
And since Melvina McAulay’s will had read “all property of
every description to be kept and held,” the worthy idea of a
thrifty matron, Neil McAulay’s railroad stock, which at one time,
if traded and overseered by competent investment counsel, was of
some value, was found, long since worthless, in a trunk in a
deceased old maid’s attic.
N.B. After the death of Neil McAulay and during the latter part
of the 1870’s, a group of the descendents of Ewen McAulay met
in Charlotte, N. C. and agreed to change the spelling of
McAulay to the MacAulay, or a correct Scots spelling which is
Macaulay. They decided on Macaulay. In all probability they
met at Sardis Church.
Neil Webster Macaulay and some descendents of Daniel McAulay, including the Rev. Wm. Macaulay and his descendents,
were faithful to the agreement. Others returned to McAulay,
McAuley, McCauley as they had been accustomed. It is interesting to note the grave stones of Neil McAulay, his wife and
two sons in Coddle Creek Church yard. Macaulay is spelled
differently on each stone. Neill was also spelling variously
Neal, Neel, Neil and Neill. All these in his life time and
on important records he kept at Coddle Creek.
Roderick, father of Neill, often spelled his name McCauley
while, Ewen, his father, spelled it McAuley most of the time.
This was not considered a matter of great concern.
Dr. James MacLeod may be contacted through the Neill Macaulay Foundation.