Rachel Knight was born enslaved in 1840 and died a free landowner almost five decades later, her life bisected by the Civil War. Interest in her story often centers on her relationship with Newton Knight, a Confederate Army deserter who led a band of fellow deserters in raids against the Confederacy. In fact, Newton Knight’s rebellion against the Confederacy has generated two major book treatments and a Hollywood film, Free State of Jones (2016), starring Matthew McConaughey as Newton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Rachel. Despite such attention, the particulars of Rachel’s life surface only through census and land records while the rest of her story survives through family histories, with versions varying and sometimes conflicting among the branches of Knight family descendents. Reading between these sources nevertheless reveals a woman who navigated the transition from enslavement to freedom and secured a measure of economic stability for her family. Along the way she and three of her children converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, perhaps in a desire to secure a measure of spiritual stability as well.
Rachel was born in 1840 in Macon, Georgia, the daughter of enslaved parents Abram and Vina. In addition to her field and house labor as a young enslaved woman, Rachel may have been subjected to sexual assualt from her owner, his sons, or other white men in the area. She gave birth to her first child, a visibly mixed race daughter named Georgeann, at around age 15.
Soon after Georgeann’s birth, a pregnant Rachel was moved under unknown circumstances to Jones County, Mississippi into the household of John “Jackie” Knight in roughly 1856. Jackie Knight had moved to the Jones County area some forty years prior. He relied on the labor of and trade in enslaved people to generate his wealth, amassing a personal estate valued at over $25,000 by 1860 (over $1.9 million today). Rachel gave birth to her second child, Edmond, in 1857.
Rachel was a household slave, working in both Jackie Knight’s home and the homes of his children. Perhaps for the second time, she was sexually exploited by her enslaver’s son. No written records of Rachel’s thoughts exist, however her experiences to this point in her life recall those of Harriet Jacobs in her own memoir of enslavement: “If God has bestowed beauty upon her, it will prove her greatest curse. That which commands admiration in the white woman only hastens the degredation of the female slave.” In 1859 or 1860, Rachel gave birth to Jeffrey Early Knight. Jesse Davis Knight, Jackie’s second youngest son, was the father. Some time after Jeffrey’s birth, Jackie Knight revised his will to bequeath “a certain negro woman named Rachel,” along with Jeffrey, and any future “increase” to Jesse.
Family lore describes Rachel’s single-room cabin as containing a bed and a fireplace, draped with “dried red peppers and other drying medicinal roots and leaves.” Her descendents describe her as “unusually independent,” with her home and vegetable garden providing some autonomy. Tradition also holds that she had some skill as a folk doctor, knowing how to “treat fevers with mint and horehound teas, and aches and pains with a resin from crushed pine needles.”
The Slave Schedule of the US Federal Census of 1860 listed 22 enslaved people on Jackie Knight’s plantation. Martha Wheeler, at the time an enslaved girl on the Knight plantation, recalled at least twice that many in her later interview with the WPA. Regardless of the actual number, Rachel found a robust Black community on the Knight plantation. Fugitive slaves from other plantations could come to Rachel’s cabin assured of receiving medical aid, food, or directions through the swamp. Enslaved people shared information through a sophisticated grapevine, subtly absorbing the news and politics which white people discussed freely. As a household slave, Rachel could be privvy to these discussions, making her a key source of information within the enslaved community. She and others on the Knight plantation would have been keenly aware of issues leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War.
Jesse Davis Knight enlisted in the Confederate army in 1861. He returned home briefly in 1863, dying later that year of pneumonia in a military hospital in Atlanta. Rachel gave birth to his daughter, Francis (referred to as Fannie), in the spring of 1864.
Rachel likely knew, or at least knew of, Newton “Newt” Knight before the Civil War, as he was a grandson of Jackie’s and a nephew of Jesse Davis. Whatever their relationship was at that point, it would change over the course of the Civil War, with Rachel eventually becoming his “most reliable ally and source of sustenance.” Newt Knight enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1861; by 1862, he had deserted. The Confederate Army captured and courtmarshalled Knight, returning him to service under threat of execution. After continuing to receive poor rations and experience local abuses from tax collectors, and in particular to object to the “Twenty Negro Law” (a Confederate regulation that exempted one white overseer from military service for every twenty enslaved people on a given plantation), Newt and other Jones county men again deserted.
Newt would go on to lead this company of self-described Unionists in raiding Confederate supply lines and harassing Confederate regiments. Unable to return to their homes, his company evaded capture by hiding in the swamps surrounding Jasper and neighboring Jones County. There, Rachel and Newton became allies. Family tradition holds that they had an agreement: in exchange for food, clothing, and information gleaned from the loyal Confederate households she still worked in, Newton would “work to secure her freedom.” When the Confederacy dispatched bloodhounds to trackdown the Knight Company, she taught the deserters how to scatter red pepper to irritate the dogs’ noses and their wives how to hide glass shards and strychnine in the dogs’ food.
Eventually, Rachel and Newt’s alliance developed into an affair. While there is little direct evidence of their relationship, descendants agree that “Newton came to belong more to Rachel than to his own wife, Serena.” Martha Wheeler corroborates the family account with her own recollection: “Rachel was considered his [Newton’s] woman” and after the war “he moved her to his place.” They had their first child, a daughter named Martha Ann, between 1863 and 1865 (Martha Ann’s LDS baptismal record lists her birth year as 1865 and indicates that Newton was her father). Newton constructed a dwelling for Rachel near his own home (he continued to live with his wife, Serena) and Rachel began sharecropping on his land.
The 1870 Census records Rachel’s occupation as “keeping house” – right next door to Newton and Serena. Rachel headed a household with six children: Georgeann, Edmund, Jeffrey Early, Fannie, Martha Ann, and John Stewart. While Rachel is unambiguously recorded as ‘black’, her children, likely all fathered by white men, were listed as ‘mulatto.’ Newt Knight’s black and white families lived and worked side by side. This arrangement may have confused the census taker, who appears to have initially recorded Rachel Knight’s real estate and personal estate values as 120 and 400, figures matching those recorded for Newt’s household. The census taker dutifully crossed out and corrected his error; Rachel had no real estate, and her personal estate was revised down to 50.
In the coming years she and Newt would have three more children: Floyd in 1870, Augusta Ann in 1873, and John Madison “Hinchie” in 1875. Her status as a land holder would also change. On December 3, 1876, Newt deeded Rachel 160 acres of land, insuring her a measure of financial independence. By the 1880 Census, Rachel’s occupation would shift to ‘farming’ and she was labelled a widow, though there are no records documenting that she was ever legally married.
In 1881, missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began preaching in the Jones and Jasper County areas. Elder William Thomson Jr., a Scottish born missionary from Salt Lake City, Utah, baptized Rachel on July 21, 1881 and Elder Elam Wells McBride from Grantsville, Utah confirmed her on the same day. She was 41 years old. Two of her daughters, Fannie (daughter of Jesse Davis Knight) and Martha Ann (daughter of Newton Knight) would also convert within the follwing year. Her son John Stuart Knight would be baptized over a decade later.
The Knight family conversions soon gained public attention. In 1883, the Natchez, Mississippi Weely Democrat reported that “there is a Mormon church organized in Jones county, near the Jasper county line. It was organized last year by two missionaries from Utah. The congregation is a small one,” the paper suggested, with “Newt. Knight, his son, [and] their families,” among the members. While this and other newspaper accounts suggested that Newt also converted, no baptismal record has been found for him.
LDS membership records do indicate that Rachel, Francis, and Martha Ann moved to Colorado on November 13, 1884, though records of their arrival in Colorado have not yet been found. Apart from these documents, it is difficult to know the degree of involvement or influence that affiliation with the LDS Church exercised over Rachel or her children. The fact that her son John Stuart also converted in 1894, five years after his mother’s death, does seem to indicate an ongoing connection to the faith among some family members.
Rachel died in 1889 and was buried in the Knight Family Cemetary in Jones County, Mississippi. Newton lived increasingly with his black family after her death and eventually died in 1922; he is buried in the Knight Family Cemetary next to Rachel. Their relationship seemed widely known, if also widely disapproved of, by the white community. Newt’s obituary, published in the Ellisville Progress, ends by noting that “Knight ruined his life and future by marrying a negro woman.”
The ambiguity surrounding even basic facts of Rachel’s life would become a key point of contention almost six decades after her death in the case of State of Mississippi v. Davis Knight. Davis, a grandson of Rachel’s, was on trial for miscegenation. His attorney chose to argue that Knight was legally white, rather than challenge the constitutionality of the law. According to Mississippi’s legal terms, this required proving that Davis was less than one-eigth black. In turn, the prosecution had to prove that Rachel was “pure” black.
Hostile and friendly witnesses called to testify offered dramtically different recollections of Rachel’s physical appearance. Tom Knight, Newton’s estranged and avowedly racist son with Serena, reffered to Rachel’s “kinky hair…wooly head.” In contrast, witnesses more sympathetic to Davis described Rachel as “ginger-cake colored” with “long hair hanging down her back.” The jury ultimately convicted Davis Knight of miscegenation, however his lawyer quickly appealed the decision, citing the law’s unconstitutionality. Under the new threat of the miscegenation law being overturned entirely, the Mississippi State Supreme Court reversed the decision on the grounds that prosecutors had “failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt” that Davis Knight was one-eighth black.
Even today, Rachel’s descendants continue to debate which old photos might depict her. Uncertainty remains around not only her physical appearance, but also what she may have thought and felt throughout her life. The formerly enslaved woman Harriet Jacobs remarked that even after securing her own freedom, “The dream of my life” is to “sit with my children in a home of my own.” There is much we cannot know about Rachel Knight, but in her transition from enslavement to freedom we do know this: she did eventually sit with her children in a home of her own. In the fraught post-Reconstruction world of Jones County, Mississippi, she also embraced the Latter-day Saint message and may have found hope in its otherworldly promises too.
By Keely Mruk
With Research Assistance From Grace Soelberg
Brent, Linda (Harriet Ann Jacobs). Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, (Boston: 1861).
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Record of Members Collection, Mississippi (State), Part 1. CR 375 8, box 4255, folder 1, images 207-219. Church History Library. Salt Lake City, Utah.
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Record of Members Collection, Mississippi (State), Part 2. CR 375 8, box 4256, folder 1, images 23-24, 102. Church History Library. Salt Lake City, Utah.
Frost, Miegs O. “South’s Strangest ‘Army’ Revealed by Chief.” New Orleans Sunday Item, March 20, 1921.
“Jones.” The Natchez Weekly Democrat (Natchez, Mississippi). June 8, 1881, 2.
“Meridian Mercury.” The Natchez Weekly Democrat (Natchez, Mississippi). August 1, 1883, 1.
“Passing of Newton Knight.” Ellisville Progress (Ellisville, Mississippi), March 16, 1922.
United States. 1860 Census, Slave Schedules, Mississippi, Covington and Jones Counties. Entry for John Knight.
United States. 1870 Census. Mississippi, Jasper County, South West Beat.
United States. 1880 Census. Mississippi, Jasper County.
Wheeler, Martha. Supplement Series 1, vol. 10. Mississippi Narratives, Part 5, p. 2262 – 2271. George P. Rawick, ed. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972.
Bivins, Sondra Yvonne. “Part 2: Yvonne Bivins on the History of Rachel Knight,” Renegade South, September 11, 2009.
Bivins, Sondra Yvonne. “Part 3: Yvonne Bivins on the History of Rachel Knight,” Renegade South, September 15, 2009.
Bynum, Victoria. The Free State of Jones. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Bynum, Victoria. “The New Face of Rachel Knight?” Renegade South, April 30, 2009.
Bynum, Victoria. “Rachel Knight: Does a Photo of Her Exist?” Renegade South, January 13, 2009.
Grant, Richard. “The True Story of the ‘Free State of Jones.’” Smithsonian Magazine. March 2016. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/true-story-free-state-jones-180958111/
Jenkins, Sally and John Stauffer. The State of Jones. New York: Anchor Books, 2009.
Knight, Rachel. Findagrave.com.
 See Victoria Bynum, The Free State of Jones, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001); and Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, The State of Jones, (New York: Anchor Books, 2009). Gary Ross directed The Free State of Jones, released in 2016.
 This biography draws heavily from family interviews conducted by Victoria Bynum, Sally Jenkins, and John Stauffer. The authors retain possession of these interviews, so much of the family history referenced here is drawn from their published works: Bynum’s The Free State of Jones and Jenkins and Stauffer’s The State of Jones. Jenkins and Stauffer’s work largely corroborates Bynum’s. One notable difference is their insistence on the romantic nature of Rachel and Newton’s relationship; Bynum remains hesistant to draw such a conclusion. Both scholarly works mix family interviews with historical documentation and previously published Knight family histories. For a discussion on working with these published histories (in particular, Ethel Knight’s Echo of the Black Horn, a revisionist, Lost Cause narrative of the Knight family and the Civil War) see Bynum’s The Free State of Jones, Introduction and Epilogue.
 Her gravestone lists 1840 as her birth year, however her Church baptism records list 1839. The baptism records are also the source of her parents’ names. Rachel Knight, FindAGrave.com. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Mississippi (State), Part 2, CR 375 8, box 4256, folder 1, images 23-24, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.
 Jenkins and Stauffer, The State of Jones, , 62. The authors speculate that Georgeann and a later son, Edmund, resulted from the “sexual attention of a white master or young man in the Georgia household she came from,” causing her removal to Mississippi. See also, Bynum, The Free State of Jones, , 86-87. Rachel may have had another child shortly after Georgeann, another daughter named Rosette. The only source for Rosette’s existence comes from Ethel Knight’s The Echo of the Black Horn, a Knight family history that defends the Confederacy and vilifies Newton Knight and Rachel. Given that no other documentation of Rosette exists, Bynum posits that Rosette was a fiction created by Ethel to establish Rachel’s “Africanness as negatively as possible.”
 Jenkins and Stauffer, The State of Jones, 62. The idea that Rachel was purchased at auction stems primarily from Ethel Knight’s The Echo of the Black Horn. Jenkins and Stauffer argue that Jackie’s age at (around 80) would make a journey anywhere to purchase Rachel unlikely. Rather, they posit that an informal familial exchange may account for Rachel’s move, as Jackie’s brother lived and owned slaves in the Monroe, Georgia area, just north of Macon.
 Jenkins and Stauffer, The State of Jones, 46 – 47.
 Jenkins and Stauffer, The State of Jones, 63.
 Linda Brent (Harriet Ann Jacobs), Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, (Boston: 1861), 46.
 The Last Will and Testament of John “Jackie” Knight, excerpted in Jenkins and Staufer, The State of Jones, 70. Jackie Knight would die in 1861.
 Jenkins and Staufer, The State of Jones, 67.
 Jenkins and Staufer, The State of Jones, 67.
 Jenkins and Staufer, The State of Jones, 67.
 United States, 1860 Census, Slave Schedules, Mississippi, Covington and Jones Counties, Entry for John Knight.
 Martha Wheeler, ed. Rawick, Ther American Slave, Supplement Series 1, vol. 10, Mississippi Narratives, Part 5, 2271. Jenkins and Stauffer also note that Jackie Knight deliberately undercounted his slaves for the 1860 census in order to reduce his tax burden.
 Jenkins and Stauffer, The State of Jones, 67.
 Jenkins and Stauffer, The State of Jones, 68 - 69.
 Jenkins and Stauffer, The State of Jones, 155.
 Bynum, The Free State of Jones, 110, 206 - 207. Jenkins and Stauffer, The State of Jones, 70.
 Jenkins and Staufer, The State of Jones, 147.
 Jenkins and Staufer, The State of Jones, 96 - 97.
 Miegs O. Frost, “South’s Strangest ‘Army’ Revealed by Chief,” New Orleans Sunday Item, March 20, 1921. Though this purports to be a sort of “tell all” interview with the now aged Newt, he never mentions the assistance of Rachel.
 Jenkins and Staufer, The State of Jones, 146.
 Bynum, The Free State of Jones, 124. Jenkins and Staufer, The State of Jones, 148.
 Jenkins and Staufer, The State of Jones, 155. As the authors note: “Institutionally structured concubinage with white men was common in Rachel’s world, but love was not.” While the exploitation inherent to slavery cannot be ignored as cotext for considering the relationship between Rachel and Newton, the authors also argue that denying any emotional component of their relationship denies the reality of their experiences.
 Martha Wheeler, ed. Rawick, Ther American Slave, Supplement Series 1, vol. 10, Mississippi Narratives, Part 5, 2268.
 Record of Members Collection, Mississippi (State), Part 2, CR 375 8, box 4256, folder 1, images 23-24.
 Jenkins and Staufer, The State of Jones, 146.
 Bynum, The Free State of Jones, 206-207. United States, 1870 Census, Mississippi, Jasper County, South West Beat. Bynum has noted in her published works and website that the census takers sometimes misrecorded Rachel’s childrens’ names, ages, and relations. The names provided here are determined in conjunction with the family tree produced by Bynum, and so differ somewhat from the names listed on the census. Georgeann and Edmund are her first two children, father(s) unknown. Jeffrey Early and Fannie are believed to be the children of Jesse Davis Knight. Martha Ann and Stewart (also called John Stewart) are believed to be the children of Newt Knight and are recorded as such in their LDS membership records.
 Bynum, The Free State of Jones, 206 – 207.
 Jenkins and Stauffer, The Free State of Jones, 281 – 282. The authors hold a copy of the land deed. Rachel paid Newton a “fea simple” of $150, or less than $1 per acre. At that time, the price of unimproved land in the south averaged $2-8 per acre.
 United States, 1880 Census, Mississippi, Jasper County.
 The Natchez Weekly Democract (Natchez, Mississippi) reprinted from the Ellisville Eagle (Ellisville, Mississippi), June 8, 1881, 2. Local response to the LDS Church was initially frosty, with this newspaper further reporting that it was a “shame that our people will countenance their system of foul licentiousness and abominable doctrine of polygamy, which strikes at the very foundation of our Christian civilization and sanctity of religion.”
 Record of Members Collection, Mississippi (State), Part 2, CR 375 8, box 4256, folder 1, images 23-24, 102.
 “Meridian Mercury,” The Natchez Weekly Democrat, (Natchez, Mississippi) reprinted from the Meridian Mercury, (Meridian, Mississippi), August 1, 1883, offers one example of Newton’s reported conversion. While he did not convert, a few of his children by Serena and members of his extended family did convert. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Mississippi (State), Part 1, CR 375 8, box 4255, folder 1, images 207-219, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.
 For the move to Colorado, see Record of Members Collection, Mississippi (State), Part 2, CR 375 8, box 4256, folder 1, image 24.Kenneth Welch, another Knight historian, contends that Rachel actually moved to Utah, however shortly moved back to Mississippi after finding the climate “too cold.” Sondra Yvonne Bivins, “Part 2: Yvonne Bivins on the History of Rachel Knight,” Renegade South, September 11, 2009.
 John Stuart’s baptismal record described him as “mulatto” with Rachel Knight as his mother and the “father” column left blank. See Record of Members Collection, Mississippi (State), Part 2, CR 375 8, box 4256, folder 1, image 102.
 Jenkins and Stauffer, The State of Jones, 295 – 296.
 “Passing of Newton Knight,” Ellisville Progress (Ellisville, Mississippi), March 16, 1922. There is some debate over whether the woman in this quote actually refers to Rachel’s daughter, Georgeann. Newt did live with Georgeann after Rachel’s death, and some hold that Newton fathered children with both Rachel and Georgeann. Bynum, The Free State of Jones, 159. Jenkins and Stauffer, The State of Jones, 297.
 Bynum, The Free State of Jones, 177-190 and Jenkins and Stauffer, The State of Jones, 311-315 both offer more detail on the Davis Knight trial.
 State of Mississippi v. Davis Knight, Dec. 13 1948, case no. 646, transcript of the Circuit Court, Jones County, Mississippi, transcript, 11-12; Bynum, The Free State of Jones, 185.
 The description of Rachel’s skin-color comes from the testimony of Wiley Jackson, a local white man who reported seeing Rachel at church as a teenager. State of Mississippi v. Davis Knight, transcript, 109 -110; Bynum, The Free State of Jones, 183. The description of Rachel’s hair comes from the testimony of Dr. John W. Stringer, a local physician whose family traded with the Knights as a boy. He remained friendly with the Knight family throughout his life. State of Mississippi v. Davis Knight, transcript, 84; Bynum, The Free State of Jones, 183.
 Bynum, The Free State of Jones, 186.
 “Rachel Knight: Does a Photo of Her Exist?” Renegade South, January 13, 2009; Bynum, Victoria. “The New Face of Rachel Knight?” Renegade South, April 30, 2009; Bynum, Victoria. Both articles detail some of the continued debate around Rachel’s appearance. In the document reader at the bottom of this biography we have included both potential photos of Rachel Knight but have opted not to use one or the other as a featured photo because of the ongoing uncertainty about them.
 Brent, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 303-304.
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