Conflict – Heirs of Spencer Ariss Moss vs. James Moss

Two posts ago, I discussed my 10th great grandfather, Colonel Nicholas Spencer, his immigration to Virginia, his involvement in politics, and how his brothers and children died without heirs, leaving his granddaughter, Frances Spencer Ariss, as his only descendant who had children of her own. I also mentioned that her great grandson, Spencer Ariss Moss, was the last descendant on my side of the family to carry the name Spencer. Today’s post focuses on a court case revolving around Spencer Ariss Moss after his decease, during which case his heirs fought over the ownership of land and two enslaved people. The subject of the case is quite hard for me to wrap my mind around, but it does show how easily families could be divided over the inheritance of people. On a positive note, this case is particularly valuable to me as a genealogist as it clarifies familial relationships that aren’t always apparent in other public records.


John Ariss and his wife Frances Spencer (granddaughter of Colonel Nicholas Spencer) had four children – Spencer Ariss, John, Elizabeth, and Frances. Elizabeth married Thomas Sorrell, a builder who was apprenticed to one of George Washington’s uncles. Thomas and Elizabeth Sorrell had seven children, but only 6 were alive when Thomas wrote his will on 24 September 1774 – John Spencer Sorrell, Ariss Sorrell, Thomas Ballard Sorrell, Frances Moss, Hannah Stevens, and Martha Sorrell.

My 6x great grandmother, Frances Sorrell, married William Moss in the early 1760s. Their marriage produced six children: Catherine (my 5x great grandmother), Hannah Bushrod, Spencer Ariss, Margaret Blanton, Thomas Ballard Spencer, and William Washington. In the early 1800s, Frances, William, and their children migrated to Robertson County, Tennessee where both Frances and William died. It was in Robertson County that the court case took place, and it involved the estate of Frances and William’s son, Spencer Ariss Moss.

The Families

Spencer Ariss Moss was the last of William and Frances Moss’s children to die. The other five died previously, but only Catherine Swift and William Washington Moss left heirs. Spencer Ariss, though married, died childless in 1842. Below are the main characters in the case:

1. Spencer Ariss Moss: wife Hannah B. Moss, no children

2. Catherine (Moss) Swift (deceased): children Anthony Augustus Swift, Richard Swift (my 4x great grandfather), Frances Warren, Catherine Swift, Park Bailey Swift, Sarah Bush, Harriet Murray, George A. Swift, and Margaret Doulin.

3. William Washington Moss (deceased): children Elizabeth Sisk, William Moss Jr., Lucy Jones, Bushea White, and John B. Moss.

4. James Moss: nephew of Hannah B. (Moss) Moss.

5. Elizabeth Jones: niece of Hannah B. Moss, daughter of her sister, and wife of Anthony Jones.

The plaintiffs in the case were the above listed children of Catherine Swift and William Washington Moss. All of them were listed in the case as well as the husbands of the married women.

The defendant was James Moss, a nephew of Hannah B. Moss, Spencer Ariss Moss’s wife. Hannah’s maiden name was also Moss, and it was likely that she was a relative of Spencer’s on his father’s side. The other defendant was Elizabeth H. Jones, Hannah’s niece.

The Case – 1848

The heirs of Spencer Ariss Moss (his nieces and nephews) brought a suit in Chancery Court against James Moss, administrator of the estates of Spencer Ariss Moss and Hannah B. Moss his wife.

The beginning of the bill filed in the Chancery Court of Robertson County, Tennessee.

Bill – 29 April 1848

“Would show your Honor that in the year 1843 one Spencer A. Moss died in Robertson County, intestate and left no children or their descendants, nor did he ever have any children but leaving a widow Hannah B. Moss and your complainants, Children and Representatives of a Brother and Sister of the said Spencer A. Moss deceased, viz. William Moss and Katherine Swift formerly Katherine Moss. That said deceased also left bothe Real and personal property viz. a tract of land on which said deceased resided for several years and up to his death…Two negroes, viz. Boy Hardy now about 17 years old and Girl Nance now about 16 or 17 years old; also Horses, Hoges, Sheepe, Cowes, Corn, fodder, Wheat & Farming utensils & Household & Kitchen Furniture. Your complainants would further show your Honor that one James Moss at the May Term 1843 of the County Court for Robertson County qualified as the administrator of the said Spencer A. Moss deceased and entered into bond in said court with John B. Moss and Wm W Moss his securities for the faithful performance of the said Trust all of which is of Record in our said County…”

“Your complainants would show your Honor that the aforesaid Negros the residue of the Personal Property and the aforesaid tract of Land remained in the possession of the widow the said Hannah B. and the said James Admr. up to the death of the said Widow Hannah B. which occurred in September 1847. That the widow Hannah B. conveyed as your complts. are informed after the death of hersaid husband the Boy Hardy to one Jno B. Moss of this County but who is now dead, and that said boy Hardy is now in the possession of his widow and Wm Moss Jr administrator and that in the year 1846 She also conveyed…the Girl Nance to Elizabeth H. Jones the wife of Anthony Jones and that she is now in the possession of the said Anthony Jones…the said conveyances of said negros by the said widow Hannah B., if made were and are not legal as the said Widow was only entitled to one half of the Personal property of her deceased husband the said Spencer A. and that your complainants are entitled to the other half as suit to kin to the said Spencer A. being the children of a Brother and Sister of the said Spencer A. Moss deceased.”

“Your complainants would further show your Honor that the said James Moss admr. as aforesaid has never accounted for any — of said slaves nor has he accounted as before said for any thing of the whole of said estate…but that he has been tending or cultivating said farm for several years and is now planting a crop or said farm and that he has removed the rest of the buildings from the same so as to greatly impun the value therof…your complainants would further show your Honor that they claim the whole of said Lands which the said Spencer A. died seized and possessed as next of kin as aforesaid and they therefore pray your Honor to decree a sale of the same for the distribution amongst your complainants and that the said administrator James Moss be made to account for next and damages to said farm and lands to your complainants and that be surrender up the the title papers to said lands if he has them…”

“Your complainants further pray your Honor to decree said negroes to be surrendered and given up to be sold for distribution so that your complainants may receive their portion of the same.”

Cross Bill – 5 May 1848

In the cross bill, James Moss admr. answers the complainants’ charges against him.

James Moss explained the situation to the court as he saw it. In 1832, he began working for Spencer and Hannah, taking care of their business and farm as they were aging. Spencer promised to pay him, but never did, saying he would settle with James out of his estate when he died. Spencer died intestate in 1842, leaving Hannah a widow but no children. At the time of his death, he owned 167 acres and Hardy and Nancy. James sold the perishable items, but he understood that Hannah would have use of the land and the slaves until her death. After her death, he planned to sell the land and slaves and would keep the money to cover the costs of administering their estates and as payment for his labor over the years.

However, in 1844, without his consent, Hannah conveyed Hardy in a deed of gift to John B. Moss, son of Spencer’s brother William Washington Moss. In 1845, Hannah conveyed Nancy in a deed of gift to Elizabeth Jones. James Moss contended that both gifts were fraudulent, and that all parties involved took advantage of Hannah who was old and had memory problems. James, on behalf of Hannah, took this to court to attempt to undo the deeds, but her death in 1847 interrupted the proceedings, and Elizabeth Jones and the estate of John B. Moss still owned the two slaves. James asked the court to order a sale of the slaves and the land, and that the money be used to offset his expenses as administrator and to pay him for the work he performed for Spencer and Hannah Moss.

Interestingly, James Moss agreed with the Spencer A. Moss heirs that the two conveyances were not legal, but the two sides envisioned a different alternative outcome.


On 12 February 1849, 4 of the complainants – Anthony A. Swift, William W. Moss Jr., Campbell Jones (on behalf of wife Lucy Moss), and Harrison Sisk (on behalf of wife Elizabeth Moss) agreed to relinquish their rights to the estate of Spencer A. Moss if James Moss paid for all costs of the 2 ongoing court cases and if both parties dismissed the court cases.


Depositions were taken from Elizabeth Jones, Jane Lucas, Robert Coggin, John Davidson, Titus England, James Erwin, Elijah Warren, Stephen Jones, John H. England, and James Sprouse in the first half of 1850. By this time, the case had been dragging on for 2 years. The witnesses were asked about Spencer’s death, whether or not he left heirs, what property he died in possession of, and other details.

Elijah Warren testified that he heard Spencer say that Hardy and Nancy were going to go to John B. Moss and Elizabeth Jones. It was noted that the defendant’s attorney objected to this point.

Robert C. Coggin informed the court that he knew Hannah was the daughter of Robert Moss, who bequeathed her Hardy and Nancy upon his death. They were left to her alone, and not to Spencer, so she had full control over their lives. He also stated that Hannah told him about giving Hardy to John B. Moss and of her intention to give Nancy to Elizabeth Jones, and that she had the right to do that.

Elizabeth Jones also gave testimony supporting the actions of Hannah B. Moss. Elizabeth was the daughter of Hannah’s sister, and she had been “in part reared” by Spencer and Hannah. She informed the court that Hardy and Nancy were the grandchildren of Peg, a female slave given to Hannah on the death of Robert Moss, and that her descendants would therefore belong to Hannah. Spencer was only given a life interest in Peg and her descendants, but they in fact belonged solely to Hannah.

James Sprouse provided some interesting information, this time concerning the making of Spencer’s will. He stated that “the said Hannah B. seemed to be very anxious that he (Spencer) should make a will, but that said Spencer A. remarked that it was not necessary to make a will, that the negroes belonged to the said Hannah B. any how, he further states that the understanding in the neighborhood was & has been for a great while that the negroes came by the said Hannah B. & that they were hers, he supposes the boy Hardy was…worth about $600….”

On 7 October 1850 and 17 April 1851, the defendants objected to much of the information provided by the witnesses.

Decision – 23 September 1851

It was decreed by the court that the 166 acres should be sold, and as 4 of the complainants – Anthony A. Swift, William W. Moss Jr., Campbell Jones (on behalf of wife Lucy Moss), and Harrison Sisk (on behalf of wife Elizabeth Moss) – sold their interests in the land to James Moss, he was entitled to 4 shares of the profit. The other complainants were entitled to 1 share each.

Daniel H. Murray & wife Harriet, 1 share

Geo A. Swift, 1 share

Richard Swift, 1 share

Thos. S. Dulin & wife Margaret, 1 share

John Bruce & wife Katharine, 1 share

Seabourn Warren & wife Francis, 1 share

Reuben White & wife Hannah, 1 share

Thos. Bush & wife Sarah, 1 share

The children of Daniel Hackney: Wm. A., John W., and Margaret, jointly 1 share (for some reason, this family was not included in the original bill or cross bill. Daniel Hackney married Nancy Moss in Davidson County. She was a daughter of William W. Moss Jr. who died prior to the case. This is more evident in Wm. W. Moss’s 1842 will)


There are some fascinating aspects of this case. Not least is the depth of genealogical information embedded in the various court documents.  Three generations of the Moss family can be seen, and four generations of Hannah B. Moss’s family are identified. It also shows how the nieces and nephews of Spencer Ariss Moss really believed that the profits from his estate should go to his relatives, and not to Hannah’s relatives. Both sides also believed the other was taking advantage of certain parties. I also realized that the case files I have do not address what happened to Hardy and Nancy, the two enslaved people at the center of the case. I believe this was resolved later and under James Moss’s name. When I originally found the case, I was primarily interested in Spencer A. Moss, his sister Catherine Swift (my ancestor) and her children, so I did not make a copy of the other case. This, of course, was a mistake! It is so important to collect documents concerning siblings and not just direct ancestors, and I knew better than that. But that will leave me something else research the next time I am in Robertson County!