by Frances G. Trimble
There is some confusion surrounding the origins of Alamo defender Marcus Sewell. Some sources say that he was born in England around 1806. He is also identified as being English on a bronze plaque at the Alamo. Other authorities state that Sewell was born in Tennessee having lived for a time near Huntsville, Alabama before his migration to Texas.1
Marcus Sewell's relatively minor role in the fight for Texas independence, combined with understandably poor record-keeping during a period of war and chaos, have contributed to confusion about the defender's true identity. There is also reason to believe that a general preoccupation with the more celebrated Texas defenders played a part in a 100-year-old failure to correct the errors. To the best of anyone's knowledge, Marcus Sewell was never quoted for publication, never ran for office, received only a minimal education, and was one of many rebellious citizens who paid the ultimate price for dissent. Sewell was the quintessential volunteer soldier; he was young, expendable, and uninteresting.
Shortly after his death, the admittedly meager threads of Marcus Sewell's brief life were woven together with those of a surveyor named J. S. McDonald. McDonald was born in 1814 in upper middle Tennessee and first set foot on Texas soil in 1837, arriving in Nacogdoches in the company of James C. Hill, also a surveyor.
McDonald's reasons for coming to Texas did not include Marcus Sewell. The most pressing incentive is a matter of historical fact. As the oldest son of the Reverend James McDonald, a Cumberland Presbyterian circuit rider and one of the first Protestant missionaries to venture into predominantly Catholic Texas, John Stewart prepared the way for eleven immediate family members who would arrive in 1839. The second reason is pure conjecture: McDonald may have migrated from Tennessee as one of a group of surveyors employed by the United States government to redraw the Texas-Louisiana boundary under the direction of John H. Overton.
Regardless of McDonald's personal goals, while en route to Texas he was asked to perform a service for a resident of northern Alabama named George Sewell. This transaction is described in a statement given in Smith County where Marcus First Class Headright was in 1854. The document reads in part:
The State of Texas, County of Smith
Personally appeared before me the undersigned authority James C. Hill who being by me duly sworn deposed and saith that during the year one thousand and eight hundred and thirty-seven one George Sewell, the Father of Marcus SewelI who was killed at Alamo, came to him and J. S. McDonald in Madison County, Alabama and requested that the said J. S. McDonald should administer on the Estate of said Marcus Sewell deceased as aforesaid. The said McDonald promised him that if he settled in the neighborhood where the said deceased had formerly resided that he would do so.
James C. Hill.2
Of equal importance is McDonald's own testimony to the Board of Land Commissioners for Nacogdoches County that "the deceased arrived in this Republic previous to the 2d May a.d. 1835 and that he was a single man and that said estate is entitled to one third of a league of land upon the condition of paying at the rate of three dollars and fifty cents for each labor of irrigable land two dollars and fifty cents for each labor of temporal land and one dollar and twenty cents for each labor of pasture land which may be licensed to said Estate by this certificate" which was issued April 5, 1839.3
The wording of the statement, including the descriptions of land types, was used throughout the Republic period and was a holdover from the days when Spanish and Mexican land law prevailed. The word "temporal" in this case refers to land irrigated naturally by rainfall.
The two documents provide insight into the process by which individuals secured land in Texas in the time period as well as evidence that Marcus Sewell had relatives in the southern United States at the time of his death who enlisted assistance with probate. These and other records pertaining to Sewell's estate are largely uncited references, and his life in Texas remains something of a mystery.
According to three men who knew him--John Dorset, Adolphus Sterne, and Louis Rose--Marcus Sewell was at the Alamo. The three men testified in 1838 that Sewell was known to them and that they understood him to be among the Alamo casualties. Rose, who left the Alamo before it fell, gave testimony that Sewell was within the Alamo walls when he departed.4
How was it that Marcus Sewell came to be among the 180-plus individuals who lost their lives in the Alamo on March 6,1836? According to information found in Sewell's military file at the Texas General Land Office, Sewell was among twenty-two members of the Gonzales Ranging Company of Mounted Volunteers "mustered into service on the 23rd day of February 1836" and killed at the Alamo. This list, "a true copy of the original," was certified to be correct by Byrd Lockhart, "aid de camp to the Acting Governor of Texas."5
According to one scenario, these volunteers joined in the storming of Bexar in January 1836. They remained at the Alamo, were present when Santa Anna began his siege in February, and were said to have known that they occupied a "death trap." This information appears to be largely valid, though Sewell's complete service history is unavailable for study due to a records preservation project underway at the State Archives. At the same time, it is doubtful that Marcus Sewell was ever a resident of Gonzales, as has been stated elsewhere, since probate records indicate that he resided in the Nacogdoches area at the time of his death.6
One can only imagine how news of the Alamo's fall was received in Madison County, Alabama. There are indications that Marcus' communications would have been missed and that his family would have experienced a full range of emotions over their loss. Reading between the lines of old deed records, one has the sense that Sewell was a well-loved son and nephew.
According to Probate Minutes, John M. Hill, a resident of Madison County, registered a gift on November 2, 1826, to "my nephew Demarcus F. Sewell, son of George Sewell." The personal property included a "chestnut sorrel mare eight years old . . . with her right eye out . . . a red cow and 3 (three each) 3-year-old heifers . . . 15 head of hogs . . . a feather bed and furniture, 1 writing desk and one walnut chest . . . two duck sic ovens and one lid and one small pot and five barrels of Indian corn . . . in consideration of the natural love and affection which I bear . . ." Though an exhaustive search of Alabama records has not been conducted, the assumption is that Marcus L. Sewell is the same person as Demarcus F. Sewell, and that the record commemorates a young man's rite of passage to adulthood and independence.7
By consulting the Fifth Federal Census, one finds that George Sewel(l) was between forty and fifty years of age in 1830. His wife was between thirty and forty years of age. Sewell had three sons and a daughter between the ages of fifteen and twenty and two sons and two daughters under the age of ten. If the assumption is made that Marcus was one of the three older males, the year of his birth would be between 1810 and 1815, and thus he was in his mid-twenties at the time the Alamo fell.8
Where was Marcus actually born? There are indications that several members of the Sewell family resided in Overton County, Tennessee. Family members Caleb, Isaac, E. G., and Jesse Sewel(l) are identified in Albert Goodpasture's oral county history as "Elders" of the Christian Church and residents. In this time period, members of the McDonald family were prominent members and ministers of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and were also residents of Overton County, as noted in Goodpasture's address.9
George Sewell's name appears in a public sale of 100 acres in Jefferson County, Tennessee, in December 1808, when he would have been approximately eighteen years of age.10
Further proof of George Sewell's residence can be found in militia records, which list him as having been commissioned on July 2,1808, as an "Ensign" in the 6th Regiment from Jefferson County, Tennessee. A William and a John SeweII residing in the same part of Tennessee were commissioned "Lieutenants."11
It is presumed that members of the Sewell family migrated to northern Alabama from Tennessee, as did many other settlers. Much of the area was developed by land companies formed in Tennessee following the opening to settlement of formerly Cherokee and Chickasaw Indian hunting-ground in the 1800s. Many early Alabama leaders were former Tennessee residents, including the first surveyor-general, Andrew Jackson's longtime friend and fellow war horse, John Coffee.12
The actual year of the Sewell migration to Huntsville, Alabama, is uncertain, though a purchase of land was recorded on September 25, 1830, when George SewelI acquired 51.37 acres in the "North Part . . . Fraction A, Section 21, Township 4."13
Though the birthplace of Marcus Sewell's parents is not known, the Seventh United States Census lists the birthplace of a younger son, also named George, as Tennessee. By 1850, neither George Sewell, Sr., nor his brother-in-law John M. Hill, were alive, though their descendants remained in the 35th District of Madison County. A James Hill, age twenty-seven, wife Nancy C., and their children resided in the same neighborhood with George Sewell, Jr., age twenty-one, and wife Sarah.14
As the designated administrator of Marcus Sewell's estate, John S. McDonald's activities were dictated by probate law. He was required to publish for a period of sixty days a notice of intent to administer an estate of a deceased soldier. This notice appeared in the Telegraph & Texas Register editions of the last quarter of 1838 and the first quarter of 1839. The notice, which lists six other administrators in addition to McDonald and seven deceased members of the Texan army, contains a typographical error: Marcus Sewell's surname is spelled "Sword."15
McDonald also secured the certificates of the headright and bounty warrant to which Sewell was entitled by virtue of his residency and service to Texas. He completed the circle of Marcus Sewell's estate when he, as the district surveyor of the Bexar land district, ordered a survey undertaken on March 8, 1850, by R. A. Howard and registered in January 1853. The survey, witnessed by Jno. Young and Miguel Garcia, chain carriers, was for 1,476 acres, three waterfront lots located "on the west bank of the Nueces River about 100 miles southwest of San Antonio."16
In addition to Headright and Bounty Warrant lands, a Goliad Donation certificate was issued in the name of Marcus Sewell in 1849 entitling "his heirs, administrators, or their assignees" to land. The acreage surveyed by virtue of this certificate is in DeWitt County, approximately ten miles southwest of Yorktown, Texas.17
Probate of Marcus Sewell's estate was conducted by Nacogdoches attorneys David Kaufman and C. M. Gould, who filed a Petition for Administration on November 15, 1837. Though the petition stated that "the Deceased at the time of his death possessed no real property," a subsequent inventory produced a ledger book from which an accounting of Marcus Sewell's day-to-day business affairs was extracted. The entries are reprinted in their entirety in the aforementioned R. B. Blake Collection. By examining a small portion of the information, the reader is able to see a clearer picture of who Marcus Sewell was and what life was like in Nacogdoches prior to the Revolution. For instance:
June 8 Cash present to an old man in price of Shoes .50June 28 at Fandango 5.00July 29 " outfit to go on Indian Expedition 11.00
Sewell was generous, he enjoyed a social life, and he was a joiner. In the span of two months, Sewell provided shoes to an elderly citizen, spent an evening dancing and perhaps gambling at a fandango, and purchased equipment to go on a foray into Indian country. Later entries include the following:
Nov. - " Cash of my wife to pay Roath (Roark?) 20.00
Attendance and refreshments for company while sick at my house 15.00
Washing and sewing 16.00
Sewell was apparently a boarder. At some point in time he had visitors and they became ill, and at one point he employed someone to do his laundry. Particular attention is called to the November entry which includes the words, "my wife." The existence of a spouse is never mentioned elsewhere, and the assumption must be that the unnamed lady preceded Marcus in death. The last entry in the ledger book is dated November 16, 1835. From that date forward, Sewell's life, and that of every person in Nacogdoches, became increasingly centered around a deteriorating political situation and desire for independence from Mexico. And, when the time came, Sewell did as other members of the relationship was brief and that the his family had done before: he served.
1 Ron Tyler, ed., New Handbook of Texas (Austin, Texas, Vol. 5,1995), p. 982.
2 Texas General Land Office, File No. 408.
3 Texas General Land Office, First Class Headright Certificate No. 691.
4 R. B. Blake collection, Archives from the Office of the County Clerk of Nacogdoches, Texas, 1744-1837, Vol. X, p. 148.
5 Texas General Land Office, File No. M-0001.
6 Edward A. Lukes, DeWitt Colony of Texas (Austin Texas, 1976), p. 191.
7 Pauline Jones Gandrud, Alabama Records (Atlanta, Georgia, 1954), Vol. 149, p. 41.
8 United States Fifth Census, Madison County, Alabama.
9 Albert V. Goodpasture (address), Livingston, Tennessee, July 4,1876. From the original transcript published in 1877 by B. C. Goodpasture, Nashville, Tennessee, 1954.
10 Sherida K. Eddlemon, Genealogical Abstracts From Tennessee Newspapers, 1803-18 12, Vol. 2 (Bowie, Maryland, 1988), p. 54.
11 Mrs. John T. Moore, Record of Commissions of Officers in the Tennessee Militia, 1 796-1817 (Baltimore, Maryland), Vol. 1, p. 58.
12 Northern Alabama. Historical and Biographical Illustrated (Birmingham, Alabama, 1888), p. 245.
13 Margaret Matthews Cowart, Old Land Records of Madison County, Alabama (Hunstville, Alabama, 1979), p. 174.
14 United States Seventh Census, Madison County,
15 Frances Moore, ed., The Telegraph and Texas Register, 1837-1838 (Houston, Texas).
16 Survey No. 262, Bexar Land District. Bounty Warrant No. 582, Texas General Land Office, Austin,
17 Survey No. 483, Goliad Land District. Donation Certificate No. 185, Texas General Land Office, Austin, Texas.
Frances G. Trimble
6603 Preston Trail
Houston, TX 77069