The Traditional History of Hugh O'Neall
The purpose of these pages is to study the documents which are left concerning the origins of our immigrant ancestor, Hugh O'Neall. On this first page, we will consider the earliest written American records (with, perhaps, an exception) concerning his origins and life. A later page, referenced at the end of this one, will continue with other documents, both earlier and later, American and Irish. We, ourselves, find this to be quite an interesting example of how genealogical data sometimes are produced and interpreted.
In 1854, Hugh's great-grandson, Judge John Belton O'Neall of Newberry, South Carolina, wrote a letter to George Thomas O'Neall, the son of his own cousin, William O'Neall. As far as we know, this is the oldest written record of Hugh's origins. Here it is.
Judge O'Neall was a respected member of the Bar of South Carolina and was quite a literary figure in his day, as was his cousin George Thomas O'Neall a couple of decades later. In 1859, J. B. O'Neall published a book, Biographical Sketches of the Bench and Bar of South Carolina, wherein he repeated a part of the same story, saying of himself, "His ancestry on both sides were Irish, his paternal great-grandfather [Hugh] belonging to the house of O'Neill of Shane's Castle, Antrim, Ireland." The only thing different here is the spelling of the name, "O'Neill", rather than the "O'Neale" of the letter of 1854.
In 1858, as the Civil War was approaching, Judge O'Neall wrote his magnum opus, The Annals of Newberry. Again, he recounts the story of his great-grandfather's arrival and settlement in the American Colonies:
"William O'Neall's father's name was Hugh; he was, I think, a midshipman in, or at any rate he belonged to, the English navy, and not liking his berth, while at anchor in the Delaware he jumped overboard, swam ashore, and landed near Wilmington, as well as I remember, at the little Swedish town of Christiana; this took place about 1730; here he lived many years, and married Annie Cox. On landing, to escape detection, he altered the spelling of his name, either from O'Neill or O'Neale to O'Neall; the latter is the tradition."
The good Judge seems to be uncertain here: "I think...", "as well as I remember...", "either... or". But the essentials of the story are the same: A young Irishman named O'Neill or O'Neale jumps ship and swims ashore, settling near or at Christiana, Delaware, marries a young lady named Ann Cox and founds a family. Judge O'Neall states in two of the three sources that Hugh was of the house of O'Neill of Shane's Castle, County Antrim, Ireland, but makes no other mention of Hugh's background or of the precise identity of his parents.
Subsequent writers on the subject have been less consistent. One book, whose title we will withhold from kindness, contains at least two different descriptions of Hugh's arrival in the Colonies, once describing him as a lieutenant in the British Army and once as a midshipman in the Navy; once saying he settled in Winchester, Virginia (which eventually did happen) and once in Christiana, Delaware. Caveat emptor.
When did Hugh's descendance come to be more precisely described and what other data exist concerning him? A very good question. Some of the answer can be found in the chapter, Who's Hugh?.
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