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Rediscovery of cemetery brings Neil relatives to McMinn

Photo by Johnny Hutsell-Royster: Neil relatives clear family cemetery – Neil family relatives have rediscovered and cleared an old pre-Civil War family cemetery that lies between Niota and Englewood. The relatives became aware of the cemetery’s location about the time the Robert Peglow family began taking steps to clear and tag some of the stones when they realized a cemetery lay next to their farm. Pictured on the back row, left side of stone, are Jay Neil Sr., wife, Amelda New-Neil, Jay Neil Jr., wife Terry Neil and children Mason Neil and Jenna Neil. To the right side of the stone are David Lacy, Joel Lacy, wife Noelle Lacy, Kimberly Lacy and Sherilyn Lacy-Johnson (seated). Not pictured is the Peglow family – Robert and Susan, and sons Josh and George.


Source: The Daily Post-Athenian

ENGLEWOOD – A year ago in April, the Neil family began work in a newly-discovered family cemetery located off County Road 267 outside of Englewood that had remained neglected for decades in a tangled mass of undergrowth.

With information provided by out-of-state relatives, Sherilyn Lacy Johnson of Collegedale came to McMinn County and rediscovered the final resting place of some of her ancestors, but was dismayed to find trees and vines were growing rampant over the graves.

“I began frantically trying to clear the area, but soon realized I couldn’t do it alone,” she said.

Family members were notified across the country and many came to Tennessee for a cleanup and reunion.

Jay Neil Jr., who organized the “work bee,” was horrified at what he found when he first arrived in February to assess the amount of work to be done.

“This is not two days’ worth of work. This is two weeks’ worth of work!” he had declared. Around that same time, Susan and Robert Peglow, whose property adjoins the cemetery, realized there were graves in the overgrown plot of land next to their farm. They, too, had begun a campaign to find the family and get permission to clean up the grave sites. They enlisted help from the community and even their sons’, Josh and George, Boy Scout troop.

This preparatory work of locating and marking the gravestones helped and may have prevented damage to the stones when the later work began.

April 22 arrived and the Neil family set to work hacking away at vines and uncovering family roots in the barely visible but familiar names they found etched on the grave stones standing over the resting places of some 40 or 50 souls who had lived in McMinn County long before the Civil War.

By afternoon, the cemetery was completely cleared of brush, vines and small trees with only the silent stones and a few large trees left standing. The following day, the workers ground out 30 stumps and made plans to return the next spring for another “work bee.” The rediscovery of the Neil Family Cemetery resulted from a search that began in the early 1990s by Amelda (New) Neil, the wife of Jay Neil Sr., and the mother of Jay Neil Jr., the New Hampshire branch of the family.

Amelda stumbled across the existence of the cemetery while researching her husband’s genealogy. She had found records that indicated Jay Sr., was a direct descendant of John and Sarah Elizabeth (Lane) Neil – his great-great-great-grandparents.

Amelda wrote about her research.

“About 10 years ago I realized we knew nothing about my husband, Jay Neil Sr.’s people, and where they came from. Then a cousin, Carl Neil, who lives in Oregon, told me that Lea Neil, Jay’s great-grandfather, fought in the Civil War and had come from East Tennessee. His (Lea’s) father was Prior (Pryor) Neil and, maybe, his father was a John Neil,” she said.

With that much information, Amelda came to East Tennessee and began to research the McClung East Tennessee Historical Library in Knoxville where she found information not only on John and Sarah Lane Neil but also on his father, Peter Neil (Neal), the original family immigrant who came to America in the late 1700s.

Finding that John and Sarah Neil had lived in Athens, that information brought Amelda to the local E.G. Fisher Public Library. There, she met Martha Davis, who was knowledgeable about local Neil landmarks.

The Neils and Davises set up a time to meet and search for the cemetery, but after two hours, they had failed to find anything where it was believed to have been located. Then, Jay and Amelda had to return home to New Hampshire, but not before Amelda had absorbed a lot of family lore from Martha. She shared that information with both Carl Neil (in Oregon) and another distant cousin in Texas (Jan Wallace), whose name she had found in the McClung Library.

After these two made contact, Wallace shared a book with Amelda and also gave her directions to find the cemetery that lay “lost” in the woods.

Carl Neil passed that same information on to Sherilyn Lacy Johnson in Collegedale, who is John and Sarah Neil’s great-great-great-great-granddaughter. Sherilyn came to McMinn County and was able to find the cemetery west of Niota. Describing her experience, Sherilyn said, “I was deeply interested to learn of the existence of a cemetery where my great-great-great-great grandparents are buried. My husband and I followed Jan Wallace’s directions and we found the cemetery in the summer of 2001.”

“Standing beside the grave of my great-great-great-great grandmother, who had lived through the Civil War, I felt a part of a longer line of people and history than I’d ever felt part of before,” she said.

Amelda’s research had led her to learn her husband’s ancestry and also to the cemetery where some of his predecessors are buried.

Amelda shared the records she used to trace the family from Peter Neil (Neal), who was born between 1750 and 1760 in England. He later came to America, passed through Virginia and eventually settled in what would one day become Claiborne County in Tennessee.

Later, Peter moved to McMinn County after the census of 1830 and is believed to have died here around 1838, although his grave site is unknown. His will and probate records are filed in McMinn County.

Peter was believed to be the father of nine children and the oldest three may have been born in Virginia. Their names are believed to be Joseph, William R. Sr., Nancy, John, Peter Jr., Charles, Samuel, Jesse and Sarah.

The second generation of Jay Neil Sr.’s ancestry is linked to Peter’s son, John Neil, born around 1783 in either Virginia or Tennessee, who married Sarah Elizabeth Lane (Neil), who was born May 25, 1787, in Tennessee and was the sister of Russell Lane. John and Sarah were married Jan. 12, 1805, in Claiborne County.

John Neil died in McMinn County in 1868 at the age of 80 and Sarah died in 1877. The oldest grave in the Neil Cemetery is believed to be that of John Neil, and Sarah is also buried there.

The couple had 11 children: Mary “Polly,” Prior, Nancy, Malinda, William, John R., Olivia Clabourn, Sterling, Joseph, and Sarah E.

Their son, (Prior) Pryor Neil, was the next generation traced to the McMinn County Neils and is Jay Neil Sr.’s ancestor – his great-great-grandfather.

Prior, born Aug. 30, 1807, near Niota, died in 1863 in Meigs County. He was married Jan. 2, 1829, in Meigs County to Elizabeth Farmer, who died in 1875 in Tennessee. She was the daughter of a John Farmer. Prior Neil’s will was recorded May 5, 1863, in the Meigs County will book of 1858 through 1881.

Pryor Neil and Elizabeth Farmer Neil were the parents of Lea (Lee) Neil, (born 1829 or 1830 in Meigs County, who died in Georgia in 1878. He was a native of Polk County, Ga. Lea Neil married Sarah Hurst, who was born in Tennessee in 1841 and died in 1904 in Georgia. She was the daughter of Lewis Russell Hurst, who was born in 1808 in Tennessee and died in 1885 in Georgia. Sarah’s mother was Harriet M. Thomas (Hurst), and is believed to have been born in 1818 in Kentucky.

Lea Neil’s siblings were John C., Mary Jane, Louisa, Mahala R., Thomas Benton, William R., James K. Polk (Neil), Jeremiah Farmer, and Elizabeth Neil .

Lea and Sarah Hurst Neil were the parents of John Marcus Neil (born 1871 in Georgia, who died in 1923 in Idaho.

This John Marcus Neil is the father of J. Lee Neil, who was the father of Jay Neil Sr., Amelda Neil’s husband.

Today, Neil family descendants have spread across the nation and live from Maine and New Hampshire to Idaho and Oregon with points in between that include Tennessee, Georgia and Missouri.

In April 2003, the Neil family relatives returned to McMinn County and began a second “work bee” at the family cemetery. The silence was broken again by the sounds of chainsaws, weedeaters, a chipper and human voices that became excited when more than 10 additional previously unknown graves were discovered.

“We’ve made arrangements for the family to continue to maintain the cemetery and we believe that as long as the family keeps it up, it’s ours in perpetuity,” Amelda said.

“We’ve done this with the assistance of Carl Neil, a relative in Oregon who is an attorney. We’ve established a non-profit organization called the Neil Family Cemetery Association where family members can make tax-deductible donations toward the upkeep of the cemetery. Carl Neil did a lot to spearhead the organization,” Sherilyn said.

“But this is a duty and also a joy for us to take care of our ancestors in this way,” she added.