Johnson County Tennessee was once a peaceful and quiet community, where it's residents were too busy keeping themselves alive in a true wilderness, to be bothered by the color of their neighbor's skin or who his parents were. Unfortunately, in the years just prior to the Civil War, life began to change for our residents. Greed, prejudice, and political division began to turn neighbors and families against each other, and set the stage for a dangerous and bloody time in the history of Johnson County.
One family that dealt with a total reversal in their community standing was the Joshua Perkins family. It is likely this situation was not solely a matter of race, but that money may have played a large role. Perkins family were very well off, owning race horses, land, a ferry, a school, and an iron forge. Interestingly, there is mention of this Perkins family in a wonderful book, Paul Heinegg's Free African Americans of North Carolina and Virginia starting with Joshua F. Perkins' great great grandmother, Esther Perkins. Esther was the mother of "Old Jock" , who is a central figure in this trial, though he had passed on long before. Heinegg's book shows that Esther, who was white, gave birth to Jock, who was mixed race (mulatto). The Perkins claim they descend from a Portuguese ancestor, which is also a common theme among Melungeons (Melungeons are a race of dark skinned people unknown origins, found mostly in Eastern Tennessee and South Western Virginia.
In 1857, John R. White (b. @ 1812, son of Lawson and Mary Loyd White) was taken to court by his neighbor Joshua F. Perkins (b @ 1827, son of Joshua and Elizabeth Kite Perkins) because White was heard to say that the Perkins were Negro, and they should be taken to court and indebted for having white wives, and worse (see Trial Notes).
Perkins's attorney was T.A.R. Nelson, who's papers can be found at Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection in Knox County TN. In these papers are the notes Nelson made concerning the trial. Part of the notes are well composed statements and arguments, and other parts are quickly jotted down abstracts of testimony and affidavits. Some was hard to read, but all of it was fascinating! I have transcribed the bulk, leaving out just what was of little or no value to researchers. Please be sure to visit the McClung Collection to read the whole file if you can.
For the Plaintiff
For the Defendant
Instructions for the Jury
Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000
Pamela R. Cresswell
Special thanks to Billie McNamara for her leg work, and to Mary Floy Katzman for her patience!