Sumner County: Jonathan Pryor Who Was in Nashville Penitentiary


Where’s the Pony Express when you need them?! The records I’ve ordered are drifting in S-L-O-W-L-Y. I received parts of a lawsuit filed against Jonathan Pryor of Sumner County, TN in the 1850’s. To get an idea of Jonathan and his neighbors I’m going to refer to the 1850 Census.

Sumner County, TN – 1850 Census – Dist 17
House 83 David TAYLOR 48 VA, Frances (Russell) 51 VA, Elizabeth 17, Edmund 15, Mariah 11, Matilda 10
House 84 James TAYLOR 26 TN, Catherine (May) 22, Thomas 1, William 21
House 116 Jonathan PRYOR 30, Ellen (Lee) 30, William 4, Philip 6/12
House 120 Major May 45, Jane 40, Elisha 15, Mary 8, James 10, Joseph 5 (no birthplaces stated)

In 1850 Jonathan was living near David Taylor, brother in law of John Pryor and William Pryor and brother of their respective wives Massey and Spicy nee Taylor. He was also near Major May who had Jonathan’s children in his household at the time of the next census in 1860.

The lawsuit paints a sad picture of the Jonathan’s circumstances in the 1850’s. His friend William Equnels (sp?) stated in a sworn statement that he had know him for 4 years, he was insolvent and he had nothing but a tract of land. He also knew Jonathan owed debts. In 1856 his land was sold by the county (back taxes?) and Jonathan reclaimed it only to have it sold at the instance of Von? and James Partin. Equnels? purchased the land. He described Pryor as “trifling” and that he had never made much money and “he is a bad pay master.”

In the paperwork I found that an answer was filed by William E Prior and Mary E Prior, minors. This is helpful because we have long suspected that Jonathan was the father of William E. and Mary E. (Mary Pryor Kincaid), however since he was never counted on a census with both of them in the household more proof was needed. The answer to this suit refers to Jonathan as “the father of said minors.” This seems to be the proof!

The answer dated 26 September 1860 also states their mother was Eleanor Prior. That’s OK because she seems to be referred to as Ellen on the census and Ellen N on other parts of the suit. I think she’s the same person. It also states she was dead which makes perfect sense because Ellen is on the 1850 census and missing from the 1860 census.  And here comes the whollop! The answer also states “their father is unfortunately confirmed in the State Prison and they are left in a dependent condition without means of support and of tender years.” Bingo, this IS the Jonathan Pryor who was in the State Penitentiary (he was received into the prison on 12 March 1860!

The decree in the case is also helpful. Perhaps because of the Civil War, the case wasn’t heard until 12 May 1866. It gives the boundaries of Jonathan Prior’s land– it was bordered by Eli Reddick on the north and James Byron on the south, and Asa Martin on the west.

It’s revealed in the case that in 1854 Jonathan was indebted and conveyed the land to his wife. This move sounds like a an attempt to avoid debt. An additional statement in the file from William Cooley (or Cooly, Coolie) states that Jonathan was in debt to him in 1854. Cooley, though, states that even when imprisoned, Pryor paid him what he owed.

Some of names of creditors I picked out of the very wobbly handwriting were Lewis L. Martin, Syrus Stewart (Cyrus Stewart?).

Jonathan was incarcerated in 1860 for a “malicious stabbing”. William and Mary, children from his first marriage, went to live with Major May and family. His second wife, Eliza Beasley, filed for divorce in the same year and asked to go back to her maiden name– her “good” name probably to separate herself and her children from her disgraced husband. And then the Civil War broke out 13 months into his sentence! The divorce was granted after the war,  so presumably Jonathan was still alive at that time. If he were dead then Eliza wouldn’t have needed a divorce decree.

The book Tennessee Convicts: Early Records of the State Penitentiary, Volume 2, 1850-1870, by Charles A. Sherrill is the best source for the information on John Pryor and many other convicts in TN. I’ve taken numerous names out of the book and attempted to locate the men after their terms were served and was unable to do so. It’s unknown if John Pryor survived the Civil War and survived his term in the penitentiary.

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