Posted by Juliana Szucs on June 24, 2016 in Research

Today, the story of the Free State of Jones opens in theaters, starring Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight. The movie focuses on an unusual piece of Civil War history. During the Civil War, Newt led a band of Southern farmers from the Piney Woods region of southeastern Mississippi, in a rebellion against the Confederacy. Newt further fueled controversy after the war by marrying his grandfather’s former slave Rachel and fathering several children, in defiance of Mississippi anti-miscegeny laws.

Who was Newt?

Newton was the son of Albert Knight, whose father, John “Jackie” Knight, had moved the family from North Carolina to Georgia and then to Mississippi, where he first appears in the 1830 federal census of Covington County. The 1830 census showed that Jackie Knight owned 4 slaves at that time, but by 1860 that number had grown to 22, among them, Newt’s future wife Rachel.

1860 Slave Schedule for John Knight, Covington County, Mississippi
1860 Slave Schedule for John Knight, Covington County, Mississippi

By 1860, Newt had married Serena Turner and they had one son, George. He was a farmer with real estate valued at $800 and a personal estate valued at $300. His world was about to change though.

1860 federal census for household of Newton Knight, Jasper Co., Mississippi
1860 federal census for household of Newton Knight, Jasper Co., Mississippi

His grandfather Jackie died in 1861 and in his will, he dictates that “…to my son Jesse D. Knight I do Will and bequeath a certain negro boy named Jack and a certain negro woman named Rachel & Jeffrey her child.”

John Knight's will from the Ancestry collection of U.S. Wills & Probates
John Knight’s will from the Ancestry collection of U.S. Wills & Probates

The inventory of his estate sale, which runs for 3 ½ pages, values the farmer’s holdings at more than $2,000. Newt was among the locals at the auction and he bought 2 spades and a shovel, as well as 1 cross cut saw and sundries.

John Knight's estate inventory from the Ancestry collection of U.S. Wills & Probates
John Knight’s estate inventory from the Ancestry collection of U.S. Wills & Probates

By the time the executors had submitted the inventory, the Civil War was underway. A number of Knight family members served the Confederacy, including Newt who enlisted in the 8th Mississippi Infantry, Co. K, in August of 1861 for a one-year term.

Muster roll, from Confederate Records on
Muster roll, from Confederate Records on

In 1862, the Knights lost another family member when Newt’s father Albert passed away. In 1863, Albert’s brother Jesse, who had inherited Rachel, died of pneumonia while in the service of the Confederacy. Below is a page from his service record with the 27th Mississippi Infantry.

Jesse Davis Knight
From Confederate Records on




















The Free State of Jones

With the passage of the Twenty-Negro Law in October 1862, men who owned 20 or more slaves were exempted from conscription in the Confederate Army. This angered smaller farmers who owned few or no slaves. The sentiment of “a rich man’s war, and a poor man’s fight” drove many to desert, including Newt Knight and others from the area around Jones County, Mississippi.

After making his way home and seeing the devastation that the war had brought to the area, Newt resolved to fight the Confederate forces who took food and supplies from residents, leaving them with little or nothing to eat.

Forming the Knight Company, he enlisted other Confederate deserters and even young teens. They waged guerilla warfare on Confederate troops and supply wagons, ducking in and out of the swamps to evade capture. At one point they raised the American flag on the courthouse in Ellisville, the county seat of Jones County, although it’s unclear whether they officially seceded from the Confederacy.

The Knight Company came to the attention of General William T. Sherman and they are mentioned in his correspondence with Major-General Halleck on 29 February 1864, as recorded in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; Series 1 – Volume 32 (Part II), which can be found on the Making of America website.

Excerpt from "The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1 - Volume 32 (Part I), on the Making of America website.
Excerpt from “The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1 – Volume 32 (Part I), on the Making of America website.

Newton Knight continued to thumb his nose at the government after the war, taking Rachel as his wife and siring children with her. The Knights formed a bi-racial community that intermarried and lived in the area for decades after the war.

In 1920, Rachel’s daughter George Ann was able to bequeath land to her two daughters, and had already given her son land when he turned 21. She left him “my gun, my first looking glass, my old “Log Cabin” quilt, and a skirt I had when he was a baby.” Newton Knight is among the witnesses on her will.

Will of George Ann Knight from the Ancestry collection of U.S. Wills & Probates
Will of George Ann Knight from the Ancestry collection of U.S. Wills & Probates

Newton Knight died 16 February 1922 and is buried with Rachel in the Knight Cemetery. His tombstone inscription reads, “He lived for others.”

Juliana Szucs

Juliana Szucs has been working for for more than 20 years. She began her family history journey trolling through microfilms with her mother at the age of 11. She has written many articles for online and print genealogical publications and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Juliana holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program.


    • Juliana Szucs

      In 1870 and 1880, he is actually enumerated with Serena, but Rachel is living in the household next to it. Both women continued to have children throughout the 1870s. I didn’t have time to research her as much, but I believe she ended up living with one of her children.

  1. James

    Are you saying that it appears Newt was a bigamist, fathering several children with two women?

  2. Daryl Gambrell

    Newt’s First and only wife Serena Turner Knight late in life lived with one of her children and is buried beside her son Tom in Laurel, Ms.

  3. Karen

    Thanks Julia, I find it fascinating how just from this info you were able to tell a story. That’s very inspiring as I have records and bits of information on my family history.

    On another note; I was taken aback by your selection of words or more to the point “word” you chose to describe Newt fathering children with Rachel. Although I totally knew what the word meant, I did look it up to confirm that I was not being overly sensitive and taking the word out of context. “Siring noun: male parent of an animal” . Curious why you choose that particular word, was that an implication? Surely you jest?

  4. Deborah

    Related to sire
    dad, daddy, old man, pa, papa (also poppa), pater [chiefly British], pop, father
    Related Words
    paterfamilias, patriarch; father figure, father image; stepfather
    Near Antonyms
    disciple, follower, pupil, student, supporter

  5. Billy

    Though the census stated Newt was living with Serena and not with Rachel, this was probablya lie: it was illegal for blacks and whites to live in the same house. He was probably actually living with Rachel (who was continuing to have children with him). After Newt and Serena’s daughter Molly married Rachel’s son Jeff (not fathered by Newt), Serena moved in with them and stayed with Jeff after Molly’s death and his remarriage to a black woman.

    • Juliana Szucs

      Exactly. We can only draw conclusions based on available records and by knowing about the laws and prevailing customs of the times. This case is a good reminder of the importance of that. I’ve been reading “The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War,” by Victoria Bynum. It’s an interesting read that looks deeper at the family history going back to the Revolutionary era in the Carolinas. A lot of great social history in the book and talks about the various families of the Jones County area and the reasons some chose one side over the other in the Civil War. Thanks for the insights into Serena’s life later. I had seen the census record with her and Jeffrey, but time didn’t permit me to do more research on why she was living with him.

  6. Frances Gandy Walsh

    Serena C. Turner Knight, is the daughter of John Henry Turner, and Mary Elizabeth Duckworth (being 1c4r) and her grandmother was Ruth Welborn (my ggggAunt) and grandfather Williams Duckworth. It was noted in the movie that she packed up during the civil war and went to Alabama? I think it was noted by other researchers she went to Georgia…..I have no proof of this, because all her children were born in Jones/Jasper Co. Ms. If anyone has knowledge as to whose family she left to go stay with, I’d appreciate it. On the other hand, she did have Duckworth/Welborn families who married Knights, and went to live in Ashley, Arkansas (and I wonder if this was possible location), if she indeed left Mississippi. In the movie she shows up with one child to the Newt & Rachel Homestead, in fact there would have been more children (on both sides) and says to Newt that she just walked all the way from Birmingham, and had no where else to go. I know it’s a Hollywood movie, but I doubt very seriously that Serena walked up and down the Federal Road by herself, and her children. Women were not allowed to hardly go anywhere without an escort, a husband would never have allowed that, because she would have been subjected to violence against her. It just wasn’t believable. Another point, we can see that Serena Turner Knight in 1860 census, cannot read/write. I am not saying he didn’t teach Rachel how to read/write, but I can’t help but wonder why if the books where in her house, and the family bible (that was shown to exist in 1954 court case against Davis Knight), why didn’t he help her learn as well? Education is was very important, and I just had some general interest in this aspect of the movie. I think Serena was much like the other married women during the war, waiting for her husband to return to her, and he did, and then during reconstruction period things fell apart. Les we forget women did not have rights, not even to vote until 1920. Serena like Rachel did the best they could raising their families, make no doubt about that.

  7. Laura

    France’s Gandy Walsh: Interesting information as to Serena’s parentage. As to your question of the teaching of reading, I think that was indeed a problem in the movie. Though Newt was not illiterate, plenty of white folks, including members of his family, were. Also, if George Ann was illiterate (shown by the fact that her signature was an x on the will, cited in this article) why wouldn’t her mother have taught her, if indeed Newt has taught her? The family Bible in the movie doesn’t prove anything about literacy bevaise it’s an invention for the movie; the question in court in real life wasn’t whether Davis Knight was descended from Rachel or Serena. He was descended from both, because he was descended from the union of Rachel’s eldest son, Jeff, and Serena & Mewt’s eldest daughter, Molly. Hope this info helps.

  8. ashley Coey

    I am a descendant of Newton and Rachel Knight. I am glad to finally have heard the story of the start of my family. My mother’s maiden name is Knight. I will b doing an testing to learn more. Great article!

  9. Debbie

    I, too, was taken aback by Julianna’s reference to Newton “siring children” with Rachel. That’s not the common term for fathering a child. It’s pretty telling of Julianna’s sentiments.

  10. Amanda Cole Westfall

    Does anyone have any information about Newt Knight’s mother ,Mary Mason Knight, or her side of the family?

  11. Deborah Watson

    I see nothing wrong with the word sired. I read it in many articles and books. It has nothing to do with the black/white question at all in my opinion and has been used for many centuries in many different countries. The blog is well written and enjoyable to read.

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