Was He, or Wasn’t He? A Case of Mistaken Identity #blackhistory #historyresearch #heritage
Updated: Feb 13
The night was wintry and cold in late November 1858 when the enslaved women, Celia, age twenty-two, and Eliza, age twenty, escaped the Stephen “Friel” Nuckolls household in southeastern Nebraska. John Williamson, a free African American from Iowa, guided them through the dark to the Missouri River where they boarded a skiff and crossed the icy waters, heading for their first stop on the Underground Railroad at Civil Bend, Iowa.
So starts my recently completed Master’s thesis, which focused on two enslaved women, Celia and Eliza Grayson, who emancipated themselves on the evening of November 25, 1858 from Nebraska Territory.
For more about Celia and Eliza Grayson and how their actions challenged the expansion of slavery into the West and tested the theory of Popular Sovereignty, see my thesis (just completed so wait a few weeks) at ProQuest Dissertations/Theses www.proquest.com
In the process of writing a thesis, many questions arise. Some are critical to the thesis argument, while others are not. The question of what happened to another enslaved person from the same household, Shade “Nuckolls,” is not central to the thesis, but it is an important question nonetheless. It is time to return to the question.
Historians have mentioned Shade’s fate, most of them building from a short sentence in Andreas’ History of Nebraska, in which J. Sterling Morton of Nebraska City (Founder of Arbor Day) asserted that Shade left enslavement with Celia and Eliza. Another version of the story relates that both Shade and another enslaved man named Shack left BEFORE Celia and Eliza.
But the story gets better. After escaping enslavement, Shade “Nuckolls” (taking the name of his enslaver) made his way after the Civil War to South Carolina, where his fellow citizens elected him in 1868 to the South Carolina legislature. There is an African American named Samuel Nuckles (sometimes printed as Knuckles) who served in the South Carolina legislature. Since Shade may have been a nickname, and many enslaved people changed their names after the war to emancipation names, some authors have concluded that Shade was, indeed, Samuel Nuckles.
A happy ending.
Some Facts About Shade
To investigate whether Shade Nuckolls of Nebraska Territory and Samuel Nuckles of South Carolina were the same man, we need to research the sources as best we can.
First, Shade “belonged” not to Stephen “Friel” Nuckolls of Nebraska City, but to Friel’s father Ezra Nuckolls. A letter in the History Nebraska archives contains a paragraph about Shade. On January 5, 1857, Friel Nuckolls’s brother, Heath Nuckolls, wrote to his “Papa,” Ezra Nuckolls:
I think Friel will send Shade home. The reason Friel concluded to keep Shade he beged so that it made him and Lucinda sorry for him. He seemed to take it very hard when he heard he was to go home. He has not been worth anything to Friel for the last 3 or 4 months. When he is well he is a first rate negro.
So, Shade lived in Friel Nuckolls’s household, but only on loan or hired out from Ezra Nuckolls. This fact does not preclude the possibility that Shade left the Nuckolls household with Celia and Eliza later, but it does provide a small window into the conditions of his enslavement and other possible residences.
In 1857, the year before Shade supposedly left the Nuckolls household with Celia and Eliza, Ezra Nuckolls died in Atchison County, Missouri. Although Ezra Nuckolls specified in his will that he did not want any of his slaves sold, the Nuckolls heirs petitioned to sell them because an equal division of Ezra’s enslaved people was impossible. One of Ezra’s other sons, Lafayette Nuckolls, bought Shade from his father’s estate for $600. It is not certain where Shade lived following the purchase in 1857. However, Nebraska City conducted its own census / tax assessment in 1858, and “S. F. Nuckolls” was listed with 3 enslaved people. More than one reference agrees that Shack belonged to Friel Nuckolls and worked as a pressman in Nebraska City. It is safe to conclude that Nuckolls had Celia, Eliza, and Shack in the 1858 assessment. It seems likely that Shade resided with his new owner Lafayette, or in Missouri on Nuckolls land there.
Great Excitement! Enticed Away!
When Celia and Eliza left on a cold winter’s night in November 1858 to cross the Missouri River into Iowa on their journey to freedom, their enslaver, “Friel” Nuckolls placed an advertisement in the next issue of the Nebraska City News.
Nebraska City News, November 27, 1858, p. 3, Col. 3, History Nebraska library microfilm.
There is no mention in the announcement of Shade or anyone else beyond the “two female
servants” who were “enticed away” by a “vile white-livered Abolitionist.” It makes no sense that Nuckolls would have left Shade out of the newspaper announcement if he had left along with Celia and Eliza. Other histories added another enslaved person, Shack, to the list of fleeing slaves. Yet, only Celia and Eliza are mentioned. We can only conclude that if Shack and/or Shade left enslavement, it was not at the same time as Celia and Eliza.
Where was Shade? After 1857, Shade’s new “owner,” Lafayette Nuckolls, suffered from ill health and moved around. He traveled between Colorado and Iowa. In early 1860, Lafayette went to Texas and was shot and killed there. Whether Shade accompanied Lafayette in his wanderings is unknown. Lafayette had a wife and two young children as his heirs. A few months later, Shade reappears in the records. He is listed in the 1860 census in Iowa—a free state—with another Nuckolls brother, Columbus Nuckolls. The 1860 census lists Shade as a black laborer born in Virginia, age 28, with an estimated birth year of 1832. Then, he drops from the records.
Stories later surfaced that Shade was the identical man who served in the South Carolina legislature in 1868—one newspaper cited a letter that his former owner, Friel Nuckolls, received to that effect. Friel Nuckolls did send a letter to Nebraska regarding one of his former slaves, but the letter was about Shack (who Nuckolls reported went to Mississippi), not Shade. It may be that later authors confused the two accounts.
Whether the South Carolina representative named Samuel Knuckles (or Nuckles) was Shade or not, his position as one of the first black representatives to a state legislature deserves attention. The online cemetery database “Find A Grave” lists Samuel “Shade” Nuckolls (1815-?) merging the men’s identities, with the odd detail that the South Carolina legislator was buried at Turkey Creek Ranch Cemetery near Morrison, Jefferson County, Colorado. Not coincidentally, this site is where Columbus Nuckolls was buried.
Was the Honorable Samuel Nuckles of South Carolina a “Black Carpetbagger?”
"Radical Members of the First Legislature After the War, South Carolina" (Library of Congress). Samuel Nuckles is in the fourth row, on the far right.
That an African American man named Samuel Nuckles or Knuckles served in South Carolina’s legislature is well-documented. In the aftermath of the Civil War, and with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment which recognized their citizenship, African Americans began to flex their rights as citizens. The Charleston (South Carolina) Mercury announced the 1868 delegation from Union County, South Carolina, as Abram Dogan and Samuel Nuckles, “negro preachers who derive their surnames from their former owners,” with only one of the “worshipful trio,” James H. Goss, a white man. There appears to have been some shuffling around regarding the election results, because by May 1868, the Yorkville (SC) Enquirer listed Union County’s representatives as Samuel Nuckles, June Mobley, and Simon Farr, while Goss moved up to serve in the United States Congress.
Samuel’s first confirmed appearance in the U.S. Census was as a freedman in 1870. According to this census, Samuel “Knuckles” was born circa 1811 in South Carolina. His wife was “Siller” (also seen as Celia and Priscilla), age 57, born in South Carolina. Also in Samuel’s large household was another presumed father, Hannibal Littlejohn, age 23. Hannibal does not have an identifiable wife, but he has children Samuel, age five, Convers, age three, and little Marietta age two months. This suggests a theory that Hannibal, too, may be some relation to either Samuel or his wife Siller, and that Hannibal’s wife died at or soon after childbirth in 1870. Indeed, Hannibal Littlejohn’s son Napoleon had a death certificate that listed his father as Hannibal Littlejohn born in South Carolina, and his mother as Lucinda Knuckles, although her relationship to Samuel is not known.
Census ages are often inaccurate, yet the large discrepancy in ages between Samuel “Nuckles” of South Carolina (born circa 1811) and Shade “Nuckolls” of Nebraska and Iowa born (circa 1832) poses serious challenges to the continued assertions that the men are the same individual. Moreover, the 1870 South Carolina census has a long list of children born to Samuel, with the oldest, Rachel, age 24, with an estimated birth year of 1846. Listed above Samuel and “Siller” we see Ferdinand Knuckles, age 26, who is a candidate to be another child of Samuel Knuckles, which further research confirmed to be the case.
None of these findings are definitive, but it suggests that Samuel Knuckles was native to South Carolina and had “married” by 1844 and 1846 in South Carolina. Thus, my thesis concluded the story was probably a case of erroneous, merged identities. At the same time, it is still possible that “Siller” is a second wife and that some of the children were his stepchildren, so more research was needed.
Despite his service in the South Carolina legislature, the Yorkville (SC) Enquirer published a short death notice for Samuel “Knuckles” in 1873, rather than a full-blown obituary that might have supplied more details about his life. It read, “Rev. Samuel Knuckles, a colored Baptist minister, formerly a member of the State Legislature for Union county, died at his residence in that county on Friday of week before last.”  It is possible that Samuel “Nuckles” was buried at the Mulberry Chapel Methodist Church, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. According to researcher Evan Kutzler there is “neither a headstone nor an obituary in the graveyard,” but the “Littlejohn family and Nuckles’s descendants state that Nuckles was buried there around 1900." The burial date of 1900 is wrong given his 1873 death notice, but with the burial of other family members at this location, the Mulberry Chapel graveyard may be Samuel Nuckles’s last resting place.
The Ku Klux Klan attempted to create an atmosphere of terror
Despite the hurdles of incomplete and conflicting information, we have more details about Samuel’s life from his own testimony before the U. S. Congress’s “Report of the Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States,” made to the two houses of Congress, February 19, 1872. This source quoting Samuel serves as the most credible account about his origins.
What prompted his testimony were the outrages perpetrated in South Carolina in response to African American political activism. Not only did Samuel vote, he ran for office and won. The 1868 campaign in South Carolina was characterized by intimidation and violence, particularly in certain counties, including Samuel’s own home county of Union. Although not as bad as the Abbeville District, during the 1868 election at Santuck, Union County, “a mob permitted only those with Democratic tickets to vote.”
The Klan attempted to create an atmosphere of terror in which Negro voters would be eliminated and victory in a crucial contest thereby assured for the Democrats. The Klan resorted to murder. At least eight Negroes were killed in incidents ranging across three counties.
As bad as things were in 1868, the 1870 election was worse, with a “major outbreak of terror in South Carolina.” The Ku Klux Klan was even better organized than in 1868, and acted as a virtual arm of the Democratic party. The establishment of a “Negro militia” to prevent election fraud may have been a factor. However, when the Democrats failed to attain a majority in Laurens County, Democrats disarmed the black militia and several Republicans were killed.
After this incident the Ku Klux Klan sprang into action, and among the counties affected was Samuel’s home county of Union. There was a “mass lynching” there, supposed to be in response to the Union militia killing of a peddler named Stevens. The black perpetrators were jailed and the Ku Klux Klan stormed the jail in two raids, executing twelve African American prisoners.  After these incidents, Samuel was called to Washington DC “to lay before the President the facts connected with the late outrages in Union.”
Samuel's Testimony Answers the Research Question
This important investigatory report to Congress included Samuel Nuckles’s testimony made the year before in Columbia, South Carolina, on July 20, 1871. Samuel called himself a “refugee” from Union County, as he had not been able to live there safely since he left his home to serve his community. Before he was elected to the South Carolina legislature, his residence was north of Pacolet, fifteen and a half miles above Union Courthouse. He had been renting ground on “Mitchell’s plantation.”
According to Samuel, when he left his home in Union County to attend the November 1868 session in Columbia, he decided to return home during the Christmas holiday recess. When he reached Union village, two of his sons stopped him and advised him not to go home, as they had received threats that Samuel would be killed. He also received notice that he should resign. When asked how he received notice, he replied that the notice appeared in the local newspaper, the Unionville Times.
After testifying that he had talked with people who had been whipped and threatened by the Ku Klux Klan, the questions took a different turn. When asked his age, he replied he was “about fifty-seven years old.” Then followed a question about his education, to which Samuel replied he could read and write a little, but he had never gone to school, having learned to read and write “some few years back.” He said he had been “hard-down slave,” who was “bred and born in Union County, on North Pacolet, fifteen miles above Union Village. His 1870 residence was as a tenant farmer on Mitchell’s plantation, which was also fifteen miles above Union Village in the Pacolet area.
Samuel Nuckles would have no reason to lie about his age or his origins in the year 1871. Given all the evidence, we can conclude that Samuel Nuckles was not the former enslaved man called Shade, who had once resided Nebraska Territory.
This study shows how stories can evolve and take on a life of their own, appearing in newspapers and even in published histories. In the end, Shade’s fate remains a mystery. If anyone has evidence of what happened to Shade after his brief appearance in the 1860 Iowa census, I would be most grateful to receive it.
For more on Samuel Nuckles’s life before the war: see, “Who was Samuel Nuckles’s Enslaver?” on this blog site. https://www.discoverancestry.org/post/who-was-samuel-nuckles-s-enslaver
 Biographical Sketch of Rev. John Todd, of Tabor Iowa, 1906, Wilbur H. Siebert Collection, Ohio State Historical Society (OSHS), digital images, www.ohiomemory.org , citing OSHS MSS 116 AV, box 45, F02 020; Ibid., Ellen Gaston Hurlbutt letter; Nebraska City News, 4 Dec 1858, reported that a skiff had been borrowed to transport them across. See also the Clarinda (IA) Advantage, November 27, 1858, describing the weather as cold, with an occasional shower of snow. Their ages are derived from the Ezra Nuckolls Account Book, folder 1, box 2, series 2, Nuckolls Family Papers, RG 2325, History Nebraska Archives (hereafter Nuckolls Family Papers), which furnishes their birthdates.  Andreas, History of Nebraska, Part 4, Otoe County; “Shade and the two girls were smuggled away by the managers of the underground railway,” quoting J. Sterling Morton. Morton, who lived in the same town, must have known the truth of the matter, but he let this assertion stand.  Nebraska Daily News Press, November 14, 1929. The story about Shade resembles the story about Shack, with some variations. “Letter of S. F. Nuckolls,” Transactions and Reports of the Nebraska State Historical Society, 1 (Lincoln, NE, State Journal Co. 1885), 34, asserts Shack went to Mississippi and served in the legislature there; James C. Olson, J. Sterling Morton (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1942), 51, repeats Nuckolls’s story, saying Shack “was reported to have become a colored carpetbagger, and to have gone to Mississippi where he was last heard of as taking part in the deliberations of a Reconstruction Convention.”  Heath Nuckolls to Ezra Nuckolls, January [no day] 1857, folder 5, box 1, series 1, Nuckolls Family Papers, History Nebraska library and archives, Lincoln.  Atchison County Missouri Probate Court, Ezra Nuckolls probate packet #1956 (1857), Rock Port. See also, “Lafayette got Shade,” in a letter from Lucinda Bourne Nuckolls to her parents, November 2, 1857, Brett Conover collection.  “Letter of S. F. Nuckolls,” Transactions and Reports of the Nebraska State Historical Society, 1 (Lincoln, NE, State Journal Co. 1885), 34; James C. Olson, J. Sterling Morton (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1942), 51, repeats Nuckolls’s story, saying Shack “was reported to have become a colored carpetbagger, and to have gone to Mississippi where he was last heard of as taking part in the deliberations of a Reconstruction Convention.”  Otoe County Nebraska Treasurer, 1858 Tax List/Census, 2, Nebraska City, RG 210, History Nebraska Archives, Lincoln.  “Great Excitement: Escape of Negroes: $200 Reward!” Nebraska City News, November 27, 1858.  Ibid.  “Death of Lafayette Nuckolls,” Nebraska City News, March 24, 1860.  1860 U. S. Census, Mills County, Iowa, population schedule, Platteville, p. 8 (stamped), dwelling 72, family 55, C(olumbus). Nuckolls household, image database, Ancestry.com.  Charles R. Nuckolls, The Roses: The Nuckolls Family, The Lyman Family and One Hundred Fifty Immigrants Who Helped Shape America (New York, Bloomington, Ind.: iUniverse, 2010), 198, “Slave Auctions Held in City in Early Days,” Nebraska City News Press, 23 Dec 1954, repeated the South Carolina story.  . “Letter of S. F. Nuckolls,” Transactions and Reports of the Nebraska State Historical Society, 1 (Lincoln, NE, State Journal Co. 1885), 34.  Find A Grave, database and images, www.findagrave.com, Samuel “Shade” Nuckolls (1815-?), Memorial ID 167836915, citing Turkey Creek Ranch Cemetery, Morrison, Jefferson County, Colorado. Efforts to contact people in Jefferson County to check burial records have been left unanswered.  Charleston (SC) Mercury, 24 Feb 1868; (Columbia SC) Daily Phoenix, May 21, 1868; See also, Monroe N. Work, Thomas A. Staples, H.A. Wallace, Kelly Miller, Whitefield McKinlay, Samuel E. Lacy, R. L. Smith and H. R. McIlwaine, “Some Negro Members of Reconstruction Convention and Legislatures and of Congress, The Journal of Negro History, Jan., 1920, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Jan., 1920), pp. 63-119.  “Result of the Election,” Yorkville (SC) Enquirer, 7 May 1868, p. 2, Col. 7.  1870 U.S. Census, Union Co., SC, Draytonville, p. 8 (written), dwelling 56, family 57, Samuel “Knuckles” household, digital image, Ancestry.com.  Napoleon Littlejohn’ death certificate furnishes his parents’ names: South Carolina Death Records 1821-1968, image database, Ancestry.com, entry for Napoleon Littlejohn, Cherokee County, SC, town of Limestone, died 31 Oct 1936, citing certificate #015408.  U. S. Congress, Report of the Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States, made to the two Houses of Congress February 19, 1872 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1872), Vol. 4, 1179. Henry Nuckles testified that he was Samuel Nuckles’s son and he had a brother Ferdinand.  Yorkville (SC) Enquirer, 16 Oct 1873, death notice for Samuel Nuckles, the representative to the South Carolina legislature. The National Register for Historic Places registration form relies on oral histories to furnish a death year of 1900. The form cites an interview with Essie “Nuckles” of Pacolet, as a daughter-in-law of Samuel Nuckles in 1967. However, Essie was almost certainly a granddaughter-in-law who never knew Samuel Nuckles, and is found in the 1940 census with her second husband Wylie “Knuckles,” son of Ferdinand Knuckles, Samuel’s son. Thus, her information may not have been accurate and Samuel Nuckles’s death in 1873 suggests that surviving members of the family may have later mixed him up with a son of the same name.  Evan Kutzler, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Mulberry Chapel Methodist Church, Cherokee County, South Carolina. https://evankutzler.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Mulberry-Chapel-ME-Church.pdf . Kutzler cites a series of 1967 interviews, some with in-laws of Knuckles, as well as two Littlejohns in 2010. Clearly a 1900 burial is incorrect; but it seems probable that he was buried there in 1873. The application states that “conflicting narrative exemplify an unfortunate aspect of Mulberry Chapel Methodist Church’s history: aside from the deed and the oral histories, almost no records exist.”  U. S. Congress, Report of the Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States, made to the two Houses of Congress February 19, 1872 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1872. Digitized online at www.archive.org  Herbert Shapiro, “The Ku Klux Klan During Reconstruction: The South Carolina Episode,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 49, No. 1 (Jan., 1964), 37.  Ibid., 34-55.  Ibid., 40-41; and Elaine Frantz Parsons, “Race and Violence in Union County, South Carolina,” in Ku Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).  Yorkville (SC) Enquirer, 23 February 1871. Another African American, William Whipper representative of Beaufort County, was in the three-man contingent, the other being Warren D. Wilkes of Anderson.  Report of the Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States, 1158. Digital images at www.archive.org  Ibid. Unfortunately, the newspaper listings at Chronicling America report extant dates of November 27, 1868 and December 18, 1868, with significant gaps in coverage.  Ibid., 1161.