Mahala Ann Hopkins was a mystery during my childhood in the 1950s in Northwestern Florida. She was my great great grandmother, but a woman everyone among my grandparents generation in Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida tried their best to erase from the family's collective consciousness. After many annoying inquiries on my part, what I learned was only that she was a white woman who ran off with a black man, after having had a child, my great grandmother, by my great great grandfather Gibeon Jefferson Sullivan, a local Civil War hero. It has taken almost 60 years of off and on research by myself and, earlier, by Dr. Neal Thompson, the best professional genealogist of his time in America, to piece together a coherent story.
The trail of discovery began with the death certificate of my great grandmother, Mary Ellen Sullivan. That document revealed that her mother's name was Matilda Hopkins. However, the 1860 census my great grandmother as living with my great great grandfather and his wife Susan Lane under the name of Ellen Evans. This fits with family tradition that my great grandmother was Gibeon Sullivan's illegitimate daughter and was raised by him and his wife Susan Lane. Obviously, in her childhood, possibly out of sensitivity to the feelings of Susan, Ellen bore her legal name which, under the common law of that era, would have been that of her birth mother at the time of her birth and not that of her biological father. Thus, her mother, at the time of birth, must have been an Evans who family name at birth was Hopkins. This, in turn, means that Evans was a name my great grandmother's mother acquired through marriage.
Help came through a descendant of Gibeon Sullivan and Susan Lane who also alerted me to the fact that my great grandmother's mother was, indeed, a woman by the name of Evans and that I could find her in the 1870 census with two other of her daughters by another man living in the vicinity of various close relatives of Gibeon Sullivan. Moreover, the just mentioned individual also informed me that one of the two daughters I would find later married a younger brother of Gibeon Jefferson Sullivan. Indeed, there was a Mahala Evans living in the right location who had a daughter Nancy who, indeed, could be shown to have married a younger brother of my great great grandfather, Gibeon Sullivan, which meant that Gibeon could not have been the father of this woman's younger children.
The death certificate could, therefore, be assumed to have used the maiden name of my great grandmother's mother as this woman's maiden name as her surname and to have perhaps purposely given perhaps a different name from the name she normally used, perhaps even a disused middle name, as her forename on her daughter's death certificate.
The search for a Hopkins/Evans marriage in Alabama turned up two such marriages in the 1840s and 50s in Alabama, both marriages being entered into by the same couple, Mahala Hopkins and Jesse Evans. The first time they got married was in 1844 in Mobile, Alabama, and the second time was in 1846 in Washington County, Alabama, a neighboring county of Mobile. Presumably, some type of legal impediment must have existed in 1844 which did not exist in 1846, but the exact nature of that impediment is still not clear.
Jesse Evans may be presumed to have died by 1850, when Mahala had a short relationship with my slightly younger great great grandfather Gibeon Sullivan which ended in the birth of my great grandmother Ellen Evans (later, at the time of her marriage, Mary Ellen Sullivan). According to a relative from a different line of the
Sullivan family, upon the marriage of Gibeon to the somewhat younger Susan Lane, Mahala brought her still infant daughter to Gibeon's house and left her saying "She's yours. You raise her." Considering the obvious awkwardness of the situation, Gibeon and his wife Susan seem to have done good job.
There was a long period of confusion on my part and Dr. Thompson's on account of the fact that there was a woman by the name of Mahala Ann Evans in the Illinois census of 1880 who was a widow and who had been born in Alabama in 1825 to a father born in Ireland. Assuming that this must have been the same Mahala Ann Evans appearing in the 1870 census in Washington County, Alabama, as a widow born in Alabama in 1825, things seemed extremely complicated, indeed. Moreover, this made the important question of the location and identity of the black man Mahala lived more of a mystery.
A recent closer examination of the 1870 and 1880 census entries, however, showed important differences between the two women. For one, the Washington County, Alabama Mahala Ann Evans was listed in the 1870 census as being able to read and write, whereas the woman in Illinois in 1880 was not. More importantly, in the 1870 census, if a person's parents had been born outside the United States, then their country of birth was supposed to be written down. In the case of Mahala Ann Evans in Washington County, Alabama in 1870, this was left empty meaning that both her parents had been born in the United States, whereas in the case of Mahala Ann Evans of Illinois in 1880, her father had been listed as being born in Ireland. Clearly, we were dealing with two women.
The only Hopkins household to have a daughter in Southern Alabama listed in the census of 1840 who could have been the right age to be Mahala Ann Evans of 1870 was a Samuel Hopkins of Mobile, Alabama, a merchant. In 1844 he married, Angelica Marinot Pescay, a well off widow of Catholic French origin in Mobile. This was the year that Mahala first married Jesse Evans.
It was possible to locate Samuel and Angelica Hopkins and their combined families in New Orleans in 1850 and in succeeding censuses and these censuses seemed to indicate that Samuel was a widower at the time of his marriage to Angelica who was a widow and that his youngest daughter had been born shortly before his marriage, indicating that his first wife had only recently died.
What was unexpected was that Samuel was listed as being born in Massachusetts and Angelica in Pennsylvania and that neither had any ancestral connection with the deep South of the United States. In an attempt to prove whether Samuel was actually the father of Mahala or not, it became important to establish his date of birth. On his death certificate, it was written that in March of 1885 when he died, he was 82 years old, meaning that he had to have been born between April of 1802 and February of 1803.
A search of Massachusetts records for a Samuel Hopkins born during this time frame came across exactly one who was born in July of 1802 and, more importantly, unlike for his siblings, there was no other information was available about him. His family was described as being of of Wilmington, Massachusetts. A further search showed that a marriage had taken place in 1824 in Massachusetts, between a Nancy Nichols, born in 1800 and a Samuel Hopkins, and that this couple thereafter disappear from the record in Massachusetts.
The 1840 census showed that Samuel Hopkins of Mobile was still less than 40, but that he was living with a woman who was 40 years of age or more and that in his household was a young woman of 15 to 20 and two young women under the age of ten. Everything fell in place, the ages of Samuel and Nancy and Mahala and Samuel's daughters in the later Louisiana censuses of 1850, 1870, and 1880 matched perfectly with the age ranges of the individuals described in the 1840 Alabama census. Taken together, they indicated that Samuel's first wife Nancy died, possibly in childbirth, in 1843.
Though none of Mahala's sisters left descendants surviving into the 21st century, Ancestry.Com DNA match checks did confirm a relationship with various individuals ancestral to Samuel and Nancy, thus confirming that Samuel and Nancy were, indeed, the parents of Mahala.
Concerning Mahala, as is mentioned above, she was born in 1825. In 1844 she tried to marry Jesse Evans in Mobile County. For some reason now unknown, she and Jesse Evans went two years later to Washington County, Alabama, to get married again when she would have turned 21. Interestingly, Mahala signed her own name, whereas Jesse used an X, confirming Mahala's claim in 1870 that she could read and write. Mahala and Jesse seem to have had a daughter born a year before their first marriage. As this daughter, like my great grandmother, always appears in the censuses as white, the presumption is that Jesse, too, was white and not the man Mahala later chose to live with.
An extensive search, however, has so far failed to locate an appropriate Jesse Evans (there are many, though, whose details don't fit). He does not seem to have had an independent household in the 1840 census or earlier and he does not seem to appear in the 1850 census or later, which would indicate a death not long after his second marriage. It is also not clear where Mahala was during the 1850 census.
Though Mahala Evans of Randolph County, Illinois, has sometimes been identified with our Mahala, it is not at all clear that this was the actual case, even though the age and place of birth match. What is clear is that Mahala had to have been in Alabama in 1851. Around 1854, genetic testing of her descendants show that she entered into a long-term affair with Jerome Chastang of Alabama and had at least two, but possibly as many as four daughters by him. Jerome was listed in the various Alabama censuses as mulatto and, under the laws of that era, marriage would not have been allowed with a white woman.
In 1870, Mahala appears in Washington County, Alabama, under the name of Mahala Evans with two daughters (Nancy, age 13, and Ann, age 11). Mahala's daughter Nancy later marries Gibeon Jefferson Sullivan's younger brother Thomas R. Sullivan and proceeds to have a census history as complicated as her family history. In 1870 Nancy is listed as white. In 1880, she and her husband both become black, but in 1900 her husband becomes white once again while she and her children become Indian. In 1910 she becomes a mulatto. When she dies, her death certificate lists her as white.
Mahala Ann Hopkins' life was
dramatic and complicated and still poses many unanswered questions, but,
nevertheless, the many records her life experiences engendered enables
the reconstruction of her immediate Hopkins ancestry when taken together
with autosomal dna data from David Cotton and another Ancestry.Com user
and with mitochondrial dna data taken from two female line first
cousins of David Cotton.
Concerning my great grandmother and Mahala's daughter, Mary Ellen Sullivan, she was well raised by her father and his wife Susan Lane. Though her father was illiterate, she was able to read and write. She was famed for her gentleness, her devotion to biblical study, and her good works. She married David Buford Thompson in 1876 and raised a large family, having had 9 children of whom eight were still alive in 1900, including my grandmother.