Friday, June 28, 2024

The Four Wives of a Horse Thief

Oioovoo; oo
Davidson County, Tennesee, is the oldest county in central Tennessee. The Wheelers and the Johnsons are among the families that compile and compose the bones, the breath, and the symphony of Davidson. Among the oldest, the most rooted, and most populous of early residents, it was no surprise to come across them. My own children descend from one of these Johnsons who had migrated to Florida and would flourish in the form of their grandfather's mother.

I had came across the Wheelers in my search into the Leighs, and if they were truly the same family as the Lee's, who had migrated from Montgomery County, NC into Tennessee in the 1830's. Tennessee truly was a child of Carolina, and these families were no different. They were among the droplets of a flowing river that spread across the land from east to west, from north to south and created a country called America. The droplets of sweat off a man named Charley Wheeler flowed all the way into the 21st century.

I recall seeing Melinda Wheeler as a 56 year old "Grandmother" in the household of Alfonzo Brent, 
in the 1880 census of Davidson County, Tennessee, District Two. She and her family were nestled in among a group of Boners, families of the surname Boner, and that family was the one that Nancy Jane Leigh or Lee, had married into, Nancy Jane the probable sister of James Samuel Leigh and possible daughter of Alfred Lee and Nancy Culpepper Lee. You couldn't traispe among the clover of Davidson County in District 2 or District 5 in those days without stepping on a Wheeler in those days, and I had the feeling that Melinda was someone to look into, and indeed she was.

NameMalinda Wheeler
Birth DateAbt 1822
Home in 1880District 2, Davidson, Tennessee, USA
Dwelling Number103
Relation to Head of HouseGrandmother
Marital StatusWidowed
Father's BirthplaceTennessee
Mother's BirthplaceTennessee
OccupationKeeps house
NeighborsView others on page
Household members
Alfonso Brent18
James Brent20
Malinda Wheeler58
Rachel Wheeler36
Sarah Glyanp34
Wenney Wheeler32
Martha Wheeler30
Irene Wheeler9

However, this story is about Charley and the beginning of Charley's story started with a wedding, the wedding of Benjamin David Martin Wheeler and Melinda Johnson on August 18, 1841, in Davidson County, TN.

Charles Johnson and Nancy Whitley were the parents of Melinda Johnson Wheeler. Charles came from Onslow County, North Carolina, and established himself in Davidson as a fairly prosperous planter. He married Nancy Whitley there, in Davidson, in 1811. Nancy Whitley was also from North Carolina, but exactly where is unknown. I have Whitley's in my own family tree and they were populous in this area of North Carolina, and in the more eastern states before they arrived here. She very well could have been a relative of them. It is believed a lady named Mathilda was her mother. Charles and Nancy Johnson had 13 children, and smack in the middle would come Malinda in 1821.

Benjamin David Martin Wheeler also had North Carolina roots, having been born January 18, 1818 in Granville County, NC.  He arrived with his family to Davidson County when  he was just a boy. B. D. M. Wheeler was the son of Wiley Edward Wheeler and Mary "Polly" Wheeler. This may have been a cousin marriage, as it was common back then. You see, Wiley Edward was the son of Benjamin Wheeler and Winifred Turner. Polly was the daughter of Martin Wheeler and Celia Jones, all of Granville County, NC. These names would be reflected among the younger generations, as can be seen in the embodiment of them in Benjamin David Martin Wheeler. 

The Wheelers were typical in their middle Tennessee existence as a large rural, later 19th century family, and in its idiosyncrasies and all that entails. Widowed sons-in-laws married sisters, siblings married into the same families. Scandalous affairs took place. The Wheelers were typical in their atrocities.
There were 11 siblings that left a record of their existence, but of course there could have been more, stillborns, crib deaths, toddlers taken ill, but eleven we can put a name to.

- Mary "Nancy" Wheeler (1842-1908) Married Robert H. Brent and welcomed two sons, James and Alfozo. He died shortly after the Civil War and she remarried to John Henry Boner Jr. and had 8 more children. We'll dive into the Boners on another post, as they are another family married into the Leigh's
- Elizabeth Jane Wheeler was born about a year after Nancy. Her fate is unknown. It is most likely she married, as she was not buried in the cemetery with. her sister who died young.

- Rachel Wheeler (1845-1919) was called "Pony" and seems like a character. She had one daughter, Irene, with a Robert E.Collins, whom she probably did not marry, although her grandchildren seem to project that she had, although her daugher was a Wheeler until marriage and no record of a marriage appears. She did marry William James Hayes for awhile, but didn't really cotton to him, apparently. Finally, at the age of 45, she married a widower named Caleb Goodrich, and that shoe seemed to have fit. 

-Celia Paralee Wheeler (1846-1849) Died at the age of 3 of unknown causes. She was mentioned in the 1850 mortality schedules and was buried at Cane Ridge Cumberland Presbyterian Church Cemetery.

Tombstone of Celie Paralee Wheeler

Charlie, the protagonist of this post, was fifth born and first son.

- Susan Ellen Wheeler (1850-1915) First married Samuel Card, another recurring surname in this series, and after his death married Murray Richardson. She and Murray had three children Winifred Gertrude, Wilson Frank and Malinda Ann.

-Josiah Thomas Wheeler (1852-1915), was the second and youngest brother. He moved from Nashville to Knoxville, Tennesee to Kentucky to Delaware County, Indiana. He sold Bibles and worked as a Publishing Agent. He married Virginia Albertine Jarrett, a cousin. Her mother was Elender Wheeler Jarrett, sister of  Benjamin Martin Wheeler, whose own parents were first cousins. There were no children, which is probably advantageous.  They enjoyed getting their pictures made.

J. Thomas and Virginia Wheeler

- Sarah Ann Wheeler was born on April 2, 1853. She married and was no longer married, to a member of the Glymp or Glimp family, between 1870 and 1880. Afterwards, she married a Patterson. Her story is still open-ended.

-Winifred Evelyn "Winnie" Wheeler (1855-1942) Married William David Tanner. 7 children. 

-Martha Francis "Mattie" Wheeler (1858-1927), was the third wife of William James Hayes. He had previously been married to two of her sisters. They had 6 daughters.

-Virginia M. "Jenny" Wheeler (1859-1886) was the second wife of William James Hayes. She died at the young age of 27. They had 5 children.

-Some family trees include a son, David Martin Wheeler, who was born and died in 1860. 

All of the children settled in the Davidson or Rutherford County, Tennessee area unless otherwise stated.


Charles Wiley Johnson Wheeler was born on February 23, 1828, in Davidson County, Tennesee. Some folks toss a William in there, instead of a Wiley, but considered his paternal Grandfather was Wiley Wheeler, and he's shown as a toddler in the 1850 census, under the name "Wiley", we can be fairly certain the "W" in his middle names was Wiley. His other middle name was Johnson, his mother's maiden name. 

NameWiley Wheeler
Residence Age2
Birth Dateabt 1848
Residence Date1850
Home in 1850Davidson, Tennessee, USA
Line Number38
Dwelling Number43
Family Number43
Inferred FatherBenj M Wheeler
Inferred MotherMalinda Wheeler
Household members
Benj M Wheeler31
Malinda Wheeler28
Mary Wheeler8
Elizabeth Wheeler7
Rachael Wheeler5
Wiley Wheeler2
Susan Wheeler0
John Owen24

In 1860, he's a 12 year old, attending school, and helping out on the family farm with his siblings, and labeled by his formal name, Charles.

NameCharles Wheeler
Birth Yearabt 1848
Birth PlaceTennessee
Home in 1860District 3, Davidson, Tennessee
Post OfficeNashville
Dwelling Number374
Family Number574
Attended SchoolY
Household members
David M Wheeler41
Malinda Wheeler
Rachel Wheeler16
Susan E Wheeler10
Charles Wheeler12
Josiah T Wheeler11
Sarah A Wheeler7
Winnie Wheeler5
Martha F Wheeler
Virginia M Wheeler1

In 1870, he's a young man, working as a farm hand for his parents, and his grandfather, Wiley, is living with the family. 

NameCharles Wheeler
Age in 187021
Birth Dateabt 1849
Dwelling Number11
Home in 1870District 5, Davidson, Tennessee
Post OfficeNashville
OccupationFarm Laborer
Male Citizen Over 21Yes
Personal Estate Value400
Household members
Martin Wheeler52
Malinda Wheeler49
Nancy Brant27
James Brant9
Alfonso Brant7
Henry Bonner23
Richel Wheeler26
Saro Wheeler17
Thomas Wheeler18
Winny Wheeler15
Martha Wheeler13
Fanny Wheeler12
Wiley Wheeler73
Charles Wheeler21

The 1870's is when life begins changing for Charley. 

  • First on October 24th of the same year, 1870, GrandpaWiley Wheeler died at the age of 73
  • Then on June 21st of the next, 1871, his father, Benjamin David Martin Wheeler dies at the age of 53.
Finally on Christmas Eve, 1873, Charley marries his first wife, Sarah Elizabeth Leigh.

Sarah was the older of the two daughters of  James and Pembroke Jones Leigh, a neighboring Davidson County family who had settled on the Stone River. They were possible relatives of myself and who had originally brought Charley into focus. He is listed as "C.D.Wheeler", and it's possible he had a David thrown in there like his father, but he had Charles Johnson, the name of his maternal grandfather, and Wiley Wheeler, the name of his paternal grandfather, thrown in the mix, and that was certainly enough names for one child.

NameChas. Wheeler
Birth DateAbt 1848
Home in 1880District 2, Davidson, Tennessee, USA
Dwelling Number52
Relation to Head of HouseSelf (Head)
Marital StatusMarried
Spouse's NameSarah Wheeler
Father's BirthplaceNorth Carolina
Mother's BirthplaceTennessee
SickTyphoid Fever
Maimed, Crippled, or BedriddenY
NeighborsView others on page
Household members
Chas. Wheeler32
Sarah Wheeler26
Cate Wheeler2

Charley and Sarah would have one known child, a daughter named Cate, possibly short for Catherine, born about 1878. Living near them in 1880 was Charley's sister, Susan and her husband, Murray Richardson, and next to them, Mary Card, the mother of her first husband, Samuel Card,  who was living with her daughter and son-in-law, A. J. Jones, who may have been a relative of Sarah's mother, Pembroke.

The 1880 census gave some troubling information about Charley at the time. Under the column, "Maimed, Crippled, or Bedridden", they had marked "Yes" and by sick, the word "Thyphoid Fever". Charley beat the dreaded disease and lived to tell about it, however he may have passed it on to his family.

Sarah Elizabeth Wheeler
Birth Date12 Dec 1851
Death Date17 Aug 1880
CemeteryLeigh Cemetery
Burial or Cremation PlaceDavidson County, Tennessee, United States of America

Sarah Elizabeth Leigh Wheeler died just weeks after the 1880 census on August 17th at the young age of 28. There's a good possibility that she died of Thyphoid Fever. Sarah was buried in the Leigh Family Cemetery near Percy Priest Lake. It is unknown what became of their little daughter, Cate. She may have died of Thyphoid Fever as well, but her place of burial is unmarked or unknown.

After losing his wife, Sarah, Charley's life seemed to take a downturn. He appeared in court in several repetitive cases. I did not save them all. In January of 1881, he was charged with fraudulent breach of trust. 

In June of the same year, he was facing charges of larceny. Charley had gotten himself in debt. He may have been gambling, there's litte doubt he was drinking, as will be shown. He may have been an enamoring sort, on top of all that, however, with a winning personality. No pictures of Charley are available, but there are several of his brother, Josiah Thomas Wheeler, a traveling salesman, Printing Company agent and Bible colporteur.

Joshiah Thomas Wheeler

They were full brothers and likely held some resemblance, and Thomas was a handsome man throughout his life. Yet, while Thomas was an upstanding citizen throughout his life, Charely was not, and they may have held an affect on Charley, scurling his visage somewhat.

Not all things that befell Charley in 1881 could be considered bad. In November of 1881, Charley remarried to Pembroke Leigh, his sister-in-law.

The Tennessean

Sat, Nov 05, 1881 Page 4

Pembroke Leigh was the fourth and youngest child of Jamee sS. Leigh and Pembroke Jones Leigh. In 1881, Pembroke was 20 and Charley was 33. The problem presenting was not the age gap, but the fact that Pimmie, as she was sometimes seen, was not a single woman. In the 1880 census, Pimmie was found living with her first husband, Joseph Cummings, a carpenter in his 30's.

NameJoseph Cummings
Birth DateAbt 1845
Home in 1880District 5, Davidson, Tennessee, USA
Dwelling Number248
Relation to Head of HouseSelf (Head)
Marital StatusMarried
Spouse's NamePembrook Cummings
OccupationHouse carpenter
NeighborsView others on page
Household members
Joseph Cummings35
Pembrook Cummings16

She was not a widow. At the time of Charley and Pimmie's wedding, Joe Cummings was still alive. Eight years later, he would be found slumped over under a tree while out looking for work, dead from heart failure at 44. We are left to assume there was some sort of divorce or anulment between June of 1800 and November of 1881, or she just left him and committed bigamy with her brother-in-law. 

There were five children born to Pembroke Leigh Wheeler attributed to Charley, none were born the first 10 years of their marriage. What was happening between 1881 and 1891? The papers give a few hints.

In 1884, Charley inherited a bit of property after the death of his mother, Malinda, his father having passed a decade before. He was appointed executor of the estate, I suppose, from the fortitude of having been the oldest son.

In  1886, he was brought to court by H. C. Cotton in a civil case for unknown reasons. He was fined $30.50.

An article from 1889 insinuated that Charley and his 'partner', Ed Poston, had been horse thieves for some time. There was no doubt of their guilt, each blaming the other. It was simply a game to see who recieved the longest sentence, both facing a minimum of 10 years. They were charged with having stolen horses in Davidson and Rutherford Counties for at least a year. The next article predates the one above by about four months.

Charley had a lengthy career as a horse thief, apparently, and not a very smart one. He and Ed Poston, along with another unnamed individual, had rode into town just to run into the very three men they had stolen the horses from. In another article, they were sentenced, Charley to 10 years and Ed Poston to 16 years. It stated that Ed Poston was 25 years old and connected to "one of the best " families in Central Tennessee. They had charges in Sumner, Davidson and Rutherford Counties and that Ed had a long history of  horse thievery. Who was Ed Poston and how had Charley met his acquaintance? Something I'm curious about.

The sentence didn't seem to stick, or was else commuted.

In 1890,  Charley was a pallbearer for Miss Mai Ware. Then, on February 3, 1891 Charley's wife, Pimmie, gave birth to her first child, a decade into their marriage, a son Weakley Charles Wheeler. What took so long? Was Charley busy on the road stealing horses between 1881 and 1890? Or were other foul things afoot?

March 3, 1894 Pimmie sues for divorce from Charley. It was held over.

December 18, 1894 A second child, Lillie Bell Wheeler is born to Pembroke Leigh Wheeler.

January 15, 1894 Charley is arrested for being druck and disorderly.

April 5, 1895  Ethel Mable Wheeler is born to Pimmie Wheeler.

July 31, 1895 Charley is pardoned by the Governor of Tennessee.

February 19, 1896 This time Charley is suing Pembroke for divorce. It is eventually granted. Previously, it seems to have been dismissed because the couple reconciled. Pembroke never remarried, but lived to be nearly 100 years old, passing away in 1958, in the same general area she had always lived. 

Charley left Tennessee for Mississippi and never looked back. Or did he? The story of Pembroke and Charley was not over. Not yet. 

December 1, 1897 The newly divorced Charley married Julia Ann Umphrus (Humphries) in Tishomigo County, Mississippi.

NameC. J. Wheeler
SpouseJulie Ann Umphrus
Marriage Date1 Dec 1897
But wait, 

June 4, 1897 Lydia Jane "Lettie" Wheeler was born to Charley Wheeler and Julie Umphrus. 
So six months before he married Julia and 16 months after his divorce from Pembroke, Charley had a child with Julia.

A beautiful view of the Natchez Trace

The Natchez Trace is a beautiful scenic parkway that runs between Nashville and Tishomingo County, Mississippi. Charley Wheeler must have kept that road hot in his day.  It's an ancient trail that had been used by multiple Native American tribes, and by rail, the distance of 157 miles would not have been considered even a day trip, even at the turn of the century, 19th to 20th, that is.

March 10, 1898 Helen Irene Wheeler was born to Pembroke Leigh Wheeler in Davidson County, Tennessee.
To put that into perspective, 3 months after Charley married Julia Umphress and 9 months after Charley and Julia's first child was born, his ex-wife, Pimmie, had a baby girl attributed to him. Let's let that sit a minute and stew. 

October 24, 1899 Thomas Whitley Wheeler is born to Charley and Julia in Itawamba County, Mississippi. So they've moved, and their first son has been born, his middle name of Whitley being a nod to Charley's grandmother, Nancy Whitley Johnson. He was born 19 months after Helen Irene Wheeler and two years, 4 months after his full sister, Lettie.

September 10, 1900 Back in Tennessee, Pembroke Leigh Wheeler gave birth to her second son and last child, John Sanders Wheeler. This was 11 months after Thomas Wheeler was born in Itawamba.

February 15, 1901. In Burnsville, Itawambe County, Mississippi, John Henry Oakley Wheeler was born to Julia Umphress Wheeler, only 5 months after the other John Wheeler in Tennessee.

Now, it could be righteously asked, were all of Pembroke Leigh Wheelers' children Charleys? Actually, one could wonder, were any of  Pembrokes childen also Charleys? All I can say is that all 5 of Pembrokes children lived long lives. Of course, there could have been unrecorded infants that died young, but of the 5 known children, they lived well into the later half of the 20th century, passing away between 1968 and 1990, leaving throrough records, and every single one of them claimed Charley as their father. If there was any variance, it seems like Pembroke took it to her grave and if direct descendants are ever curious, DNA could solve that mystery.

Charley and Julia would also have 5 children, adding Maggie Helen Winifred "Winnie" in 1902 and Richard Leo Wheeler in 1904.

NameCharles J Wheeler
Birth DateFeb 1847
BirthplaceTennessee, USA
Home in 1900Burnsville, Tishomingo, Mississippi
House Number1
Sheet Number16
Number of Dwelling in Order of Visitation310
Family Number318
Relation to Head of HouseHead
Marital StatusMarried
Spouse's NameJulia Wheeler
Marriage Year1897
Years Married3
Father's BirthplaceNorth Carolina, USA
Mother's BirthplaceTennessee, USA
Can ReadY
Can WriteY
Can Speak EnglishN
House Owned or RentedRent
Farm or HouseH
NeighborsView others on page
Household members
Mary J Britton71
Charles J Wheeler53
Julia Wheeler28
Charley Britton18
Lettie Wheeler1
Whittey Wheeler1

In 1900, before the birth of the last three children, Charley and Julia were living in Burnsville, Itawamba County, MS, with Lettie and Whitley. They were not twins. Pembroke, at this time, was living upon the land her father left her, with her children, very pregnant with the last, Johnny, and claimed to be married. 

After his pardon and his move to Mississippi, Charley seems to have lost his impetousness and his indolence. Of course, he was now in his 50's. He farmed, became respectable, no more horse theft, no more out on the town getting soused..


Charley's third wife, Julia Ann Umphrus, was born on November 17, 1871 in Itawamba County, Missiissippi to  to Nathaniel Napolean Umfruss and Margaret Crofts Pollard. Her ancestors were Humphries, and somehow, after arriving to Mississippi from points east, Humphries was morphed into Umphrus or Umfruss, or an other phoentic transmutation of the sound of the name.

NameJulia A. Wheeler
Maiden NameUmfress
Birth Date17 Nov 1871
Death Date9 Sep 1905
CemeterySardis Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery
Burial or Cremation PlaceTishomingo County, Mississippi, United States of America
Has Bio?Y
FatherNathaniel Napoleon Umfress
SpouseCharles Johnson Wheeler
ChildrenLyddia Jane McNeil; Richard Leo Wheeler

After five children with Charley , Julia died on September 9, 1905, of unknown reasons  at the age of 33.

With five young children to raise, Charley was on the search for a helpmeet. Nearly two years later, he found one in the person of Miss Jennie M. Gattis of Alcorn County, Mississippi. Jennie was 29, which would have been considered an old maid in those days, and reason why she may have consented to marrying a man 30 years her senior with five children. On February 10, 1907, in Tishomingo County, Mississippi, Charley married his 4th wife, at the age of 59.

Jennie was the daughter of William Overton Gattis and Luda Jane Newcomb, and her family had deep roots in Mississippi. She was quick to bring another child into the fold, and her first, a daughter named Landie, arrived on January 9th,1908. Thier second sary 15, 1910, and named Oscar Edward Wheeler.

NameGennie M Wheeler
Age in 191032
Birth Date1878
Home in 1910Burnsville, Tishomingo, Mississippi, USA
Sheet Number9b
Relation to Head of HouseWife
Marital StatusMarried
Father's BirthplaceMississippi
Mother's BirthplaceMississippi
Native TongueEnglish
Able to readN
Able to WriteN
Enumeration District Number0119
Years Married3
Number of Children Born2
Number of Children Living2
Enumerated Year1910
NeighborsView others on page
Household members
Charles V Wheeler62
Gennie M Wheeler32
Lidie J Wheeler12
Thomas W Wheeler10
John H O Wheeler6
Magie W Wheeler7
Richard L Wheeler6
Landie M Wheeler2
Oscar E Wheeler0

The 1910 census was taken just a few months later and found Charley and his growing family back in Tishomingo, farming, with his five children by Julia and his two little ones with Jennie, ranging in age from 12 to newborn.

Two more children were born to Charley and Jennie, another son, Milton Lee Wheeler, on September 12, 1911 in Iuka, Tishomingo, and a daughter, Ruby Bell Wheeler, on August 11, 1913.

NameCharles J Wheeler
Birth Yearabt 1847
Home in 1920Beat 3, Tishomingo, Mississippi
House NumberFarm
Residence Date1920
Relation to Head of HouseHead
Marital StatusMarried
Spouse's NameJennie Wheeler
Father's BirthplaceNorth Carolina
Mother's BirthplaceTennessee
Able to Speak EnglishYes
IndustryGeneral Farm
Employment FieldOwn Account
Home Owned or RentedOwned
Home Free or MortgagedFree
Attended SchoolNo
Able to readYes
Able to WriteYes
NeighborsView others on page
Household members
Charles J Wheeler73
Jennie Wheeler44
Thomas W Wheeler19
John H O Wheeler18
Winnie P Wheeler17
Ludie M Wheeler13
Oscar E Wheeler9
Milton L Wheeler7
Ruby B Wheeler6

The 1920 census found the same group, with the exception of  Lydia, who married Sam McNeil in 1915. They were still farming in Tishomingo.  There would be no more children, and Charlie was growing tired. 

Tombstone of Charles W. J. Wheeler.

Charles Wiley Johnson  Wheeler passed away on June 2, 1922, at the age of 74. He was buried at Sardis Missionary Baptist Church, along side Julia, his fourth wife. Jennie would outlive him by 12 years, and reutrned to her home in Alcorn. After 4 wives and 15 children, Charley Wheeler , the Horse thief, was at rest.

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