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The Legend of Newt Knight

If I close my eyes, I can still see him today, just as he looked back in 1955 when I was four years old. He stands forever in my memory in front of the Strand Theater, with his white beard down to the bib of his tattered overalls, selling peanuts and chewing gum and candy bars. That old man scared the bejeebers out of me every time Momma took us to watch the cowboy movies on Saturday afternoons.

It was a measure of courage to approach him, clutching your nickel in your sweaty palm, while he studied you with those old-man, blue-gray eyes. With my heart racing, he would pluck up my coin with his long yellowed nails and then examine it carefully before dropping it into his coin sack. The very second he handed me the little brown paper bag of peanuts I took off, fleeing back to my mother, dizzy from a peril survived.

It was decades later, long after his death in 1956, that I learned who the man was. His name was Thomas Jefferson Knight and he carried secrets that could turn my hometown of Laurel on its ear. I wasn’t’ the only one he scared. He had a few grownups shaking in their boots as well.

He was around long before Laurel existed, before the sawmills came, when Jones County was wild frontier. The farms then were small, remote, and self-sufficient. Most of the people were poor, with an independent streak a mile wide. They didn’t take kindly to authority of any kind, political or military or religious.

Over his lifetime, Tom witnessed it all—the disappearance of the great pine forests, the arrival of industry and commerce, and more significantly, Tom Knight had a first-row seat to the twin conundrums of Jones County. I’m talking about our conflicted history pertaining to Confederate patriotism and racial purity.

I guess there was plenty reason to fear him. That old man knew the ground from whence we sprang.

Thomas Jefferson Knight was the last surviving child of the infamous Captain Newt Knight, the so-called Emperor of the Free Republic of Jones. He began his life as a child raised hidden away deep in the swamps, watched over by a fierce army of renegades who had sworn dying allegiance to Tom’s bigger-than-life father.

We learn much about Newton Knight from the little book Tom wrote idolizing his father. He sold it for a dollar a copy along with his peanuts on the streets of Laurel. In Tom’s book, his father was a bona fide hero. At the beginning of the Civil War, Newt was a small farmer living near what would one day become Laurel. While serving in the Confederate Army, he came to the conclusion that the affair was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight, and decided he would have none of it. He deserted, returned home and gathered up a band of like-minded men, exerting military control over much of the county. Tom proudly boasted that Newt’s army fed the war widows, protected their farms from the Confederate cavalry’s foragers, and saved many from outright destitution. In Tom’s opinion, there was many a Jones Countian who worshiped this Robin Hood of the Piney Woods.

But Tom didn’t write down everything in his little book. There was a sizeable portion of his father’s story that Tom would just as soon people forgot.

The truth is, Newt’s rebellion didn’t end with the War. He also had some very controversial practices when it came to race. In addition to his white family into which Tom was born in 1860, Newt raised up a mixed-race family with Rachael, a former slave of his grandfather. There was established for eternity in Jones County two branches on the family, one known as the White Knights and the other Black Knights.

Not that such a thing was unheard of in those days. This wasn’t the Old South populated by rich planters, plantation houses and remote slave quarters. The fact is, very few Piney Woods inhabitants owned slaves. As for those who did, well, let’s just say it was understood that when there was only one field in which to work, and one table from which to eat, and only one or two shacks in which to sleep, Blacks and Whites were bound to share a unique kind of intimacy. The boundaries were not as rigid as many of many of my fellow Jones Countians would like to believe. Folks just didn’t flaunt it.

What I have told you up to this point can be pretty well documented, and has been by a legion of part-time Jones County historians.

But now I get to the part where beliefs diverge and a strongly expressed difference of opinion might get you shot. For instance, was Jones County of Civil War a true bastion of Confederacy or was it an independent nation or was it nothing more than a no-man’s land terrorized by renegades, outlaws and drunks?
Was Newt Knight a patriot, a traitor, or a mere opportunist?

When it came to his relationship with Blacks, was he an emancipator, a bigot, a lover of black women, or nothing more than a rapist?

I have heard each of these viewpoints expressed with great conviction by Jones Countians. Through listening to countless stories told by both Knights and non-Knights, by both Black and White, I’ve learned some people hold their beliefs about Newt Knight’s legacy with great fervor. I’ve been cussed out more than once for suggesting an opinion that ran counter to what folks have been raised up with.

So, it’s with some trepidation that I am going to share with you over the next few columns a few of the rich, complex and often very contradictory stories that I’ve been told. Since Tom is no longer around to set me straight, I can’t vouch for what is factually true or false. But what I can guarantee is that the stories that surround Newt Knight, shaped the customs, the beliefs, attitudes and prejudices of many a Jones Countian, including myself.

Inventing Newt Knight

Some people in Jones County claim two Bibles: The King James and The Book of Ethel, more commonly known as The Echo of the Black Horn. In 1951, Ethel Knight, a distant in-law of Newt’s, released her bombshell of a book. In it she spilled the beans, and named names while she was at it. Ethel simultaneously became the most praised and the most cussed-out woman in Jones County.

Ethel Knight had grown furious at how outsiders were portraying Mississippi in general and Jones County in particular. She was especially upset over the national attention given to the Davis Knight trial over in Ellisville. Davis Knight was a descendant of Newt’s on the black side of the family, but had been caught passing for white. In 1948, he was brought to court and sentenced to five years for marrying a white woman. It landed in the Mississippi Supreme Court. According to Ethel the national press was having a field day at our expense. She said she was sick and tired of watching outsiders “…distort the facts into wicked propaganda.” She wrote Echo to set the record straight.

Of course she wasn’t the first Jones Countian driven to revise Newt’s image. In 1865, to dispel the notion that the anti-Confederates led by Newt Knight were community heroes, the county changed its name for a while to Davis, after Jefferson Davis, hoping to remove all doubt as to their patriotism to the recently vanquished Confederate States of America.

Years later, as the stories about Newt became meaner and nastier, his son Tom wrote a book trying to redeem his dad. He claimed that Newt Knight wasn’t such a bad man after all. He was more like a Robin Hood of Jones County.

James Street, a Laurel newspaperman, came along in 1942 and penned the best selling novel Tap Roots, which for the first time raised the specter of race-mixing among the Knights. Though he didn’t use real names, everybody knew who he was talking about. I know of at least one family of black Knights, who at the time were passing for white in Hattiesburg, having to pack up and move to Memphis after that book came out. A few white Knights changed their name and moved to Texas.

The movie of the same title was released in 1948. About the only good thing the New York Times critic had to say about the film was that the star, Susan Hayward, was “… generously endowed by nature and further enhanced by Technicolor.” Still, it cemented Street’s depiction of the hero of the legend as an honorable man fighting for a noble, anti-Confederate cause. That same year Mississippi took Davis Knight to court for miscegenation. On top of that, Willie McGee had been sentenced to die and while the whole world protested his upcoming electrocution at courthouse. Once again Jones County had occasion to be splashed across the slick pages of Newsweek, Time, Life and Look. The sanctity and racial purity of the old Confederacy in Jones County was in shambles.

That’s where Ethel comes in.

She decided to fight back. She rifled through trunks and attics, poured through courthouse papers, studied Civil War muster rolls, tromped through overgrown cemeteries, interrogated the old timers, and pieced together the “authentic” story of Newt Knight. Somehow she even got Tom, Newt’s ninety year-old son, to renounce his childhood hero, his own father, on the jacket of her book. Once again, Newt was depicted as a bushwhacking, cold-blooded, no good deserter. A traitor to both his country and his race. For a long while, that image stuck with a large part of the county.

But now it seems the pendulum is swinging back again. Victoria Bynum, a Texas college professor has recently written a highly respected book on Jones County that returns a little luster to Knight’s hero status. She even presents his fathering two races of Knights in a more positive light. Producer Gary Ross, whose movies include Seabiscuit and Big, has bought the rights and will be filming “The Free State of Jones” in the near future.

You may ask, how could there be anything left to tell about this old man, born over 170 years ago?

Recently, I was startled when I sat down with members from the black side of the Knight family. It was like I stepped through the looking glass. I was familiar with all the books written by white folks about Newt, but now I was suddenly witnessing a piece of the mystery that has been mostly ignored—those legends passed down through generations of black Knights. In these stories the names were the same, Newt and Rachel and Serena, but the heroes and the villains were reversed. “Where did these stories come from?” I asked.

Yvonne Bivins, one of the people present, told me that when she was a child and there was bad weather, they all gathered at their grandparent’s house, the kids huddling by the fireplace. While the storm was brewing, her grandfather would say, “Be quiet. The Lord is working.” When the storm subsided, the old ones began telling the stories to the children. It had the sound of the sacred.

I came to understand that these stories were indeed holy work. Each story had a moral, and the stories handed down to black kids taught very different lessons than the ones handed down to white kids. That’s when I understood. Folks fill in the blanks of Newt’s story to bear out their own truth. If Newt Knight had never been born, we would have to invent him, just to talk about who we are.

That’s why the story of Newt Knight just won’t die. It insists upon being born again and again. The need for the truth is a powerful thing. We humans just can’t abide an unsolved mystery. We turn our mysteries into myths, and myths change to suit the times, like Oedipus Rex or the Iliad. Within the myth of Newt Knight lie the unresolved paradoxes of our age, about race and family and country. The Myth of Newt Knight forever poses the question, “Who are we, really?”

And the truth of the answer, like us, keeps evolving.

Ethel Knight: Conscience of the Confederacy

The Hornes probably knew Ethel Knight best. Carolyn and Keith looked after Ethel the last ten years of her life, following the death of her husband and all of her children. Ethel even willed the Hornes the publishing rights to Echo of the Black Horn because she believed they would keep it going.

And they have. Echo of the Black Horn is presently in its ninth printing and still sells strong locally. Along with the family Bible, it is a cherished item in many a Jones County native’s home. A good portion of sales are from people replacing the one they loaned out and never got back. This book has a habit of disappearing.

Keith remembers the day he took Ethel to her doctor in Magee. There in the waiting room was a copy of Echo with a hole drilled in it. “They had run a chain though the hole and attached to the table so nobody would take it home. No telling how many they had went missing.” It’s true once you get into it, whether you love it or hate it, you just can’t put it down.

Carolyn and Keith went over to Ethel’s house every Sunday and Ethel would cook for them. And while she cooked, she told stories. Carolyn got smart and began bringing a recorder to tape Ethel as she reeled off one priceless bit of Mississippi history after another. Carolyn says she has hours and hours of Ethel talking while pots clanged and dishes rattled in the background. One day, Carolyn says, there will be another book.

“We might have to leave home if it ever gets published,” Keith laughs.

I asked what motivated Ethel to write Echo.

“Having married a Knight herself, she wanted to clear her husband’s name,” Keith explained. “Newt’s whole family was a total outcast. They wouldn’t allow them in churches. Some of that still exists. It’s a prejudice. People don’t even know why anymore; they just know they aren’t supposed to like them.”

But some people are proud of their associations to Newt. In Ethel’s book there is the story of a raid on Knight’s gang. Newt escapes, fleeing into the woods. A woman runs along side him, carrying her infant, but she begins tire. Newt snatches up the child and carries the baby in the crook of his arm. “Tomorrow,” Keith says, “we’re going to interview that baby’s grandson. He’s probably over 65 now.”

“Everybody knew Ethel,” Keith said, “and Ethel knew everybody. And she knew everything about everybody. If she had been born twenty years later, she would have been Governor.”

People would call her all the time with questions about their ancestry. “Ethel was one of those people who just loved to do for folks. To help you out,” Carolyn told me. “Folks were always dropping by to ask her questions about their roots. White and black. She would take time to help them all. She was very generous with her information.”

In an age when there were so many Knights passing for whites, people also came to Ethel with more surprising requests. Carolyn told of a woman whose daughter was engaged to a Knight. She called up Ethel and asked, “Has he got any black in him?” Ethel confirmed that no, the man was not of Rachel, Newt’s slave wife’s, line.

According to Keith, whenever a person in Jones County says they are a Knight, there is always that suspicion. He mentioned one group of Knights who got so tired of it they moved to Texas and changed their names to McKnight, (We’ll find out how blacks feel about this mixed ancestry in future columns!)

In her book, Ethel takes a strong stand against “race-mixing” and lauds the ideals of the Confederacy. She even dedicated her book “…to the memory of the Noble Confederates who lived and died for Jones County.” Not very politically correct nowadays. I was curious to know how Ethel reacted to this new breed of historians revising Jones County history once more, especially considering how her own account of things stood for so long. I could just hear Ethel railing against this new set of outsiders coming into Jones County to twist “facts into wicked propaganda.”

Keith told me of an encounter Ethel had with a stranger who dropped by her house one afternoon. Little did Ethel know that this white woman pumping her for information would turn around and write a popular book casting Ethel as a racist, calling her research into question, and suggesting that Echo was little more than a thinly disguised defense of white supremacy.

When that new book hit the shelves, Ethel was 93 and legally blind. “I had to read it to her,” Carolyn remembers. “You can only imagine how she felt. That woman took some mean swipes at Ethel.”

Indeed, Ethel felt personally betrayed and defamed, and sure enough her trademark temper was on display. Ninety-three or not, she wasn’t going to take it lying down. When the author came to USM to promote her new work, Ethel decided she would go face the woman.

She made sure to arrive early enough to get a seat right up front. And there she sat, stiffly in the third row of the packed auditorium, staring down the professor with a defiant glare. “She didn’t say a word,” Carolyn remembers. “She was too much of a lady for that.”

She didn’t need to say anything. Coming to stand with her was an incensed contingent from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, folks who honor Ethel because of her unrepentant stand for the Confederacy.

How did the professor react?

“It must have rattled her,” Keith laughed. “She seemed to lose her focus for quite a bit.”

Who wouldn’t, I wondered, with the full moral weight of the Confederate Army bearing down on you?

Dispatches From Jones County: The Battle of the Newts

I don’t know if you’ve heard the cannon-fire, but the “Battle of the Newts” is raging hot and heavy again. It happens every few years, whenever somebody comes out with a new book claiming to tell the real story of how Jones County did (or did not) secede from the Confederacy and how the entire county was taken over (or not ) by a Rebel deserter by the name of Newton Knight and how he did (or didn’t) take an ex-slave woman as his lover.

Newt’s been dead nearly a century, but it’s just like him to get people taking potshots at each other. I can hear him laughing, “I don’t care what y’all say about me, but you better not forget me!” Well, I’m sure he’s loving this latest brawl over who the real Newton Knight was.

This most recent book, The State of Jones, (Doubleday 2009) was written by Stauffer and Jenkins, two Yankees who say they know Newt better than his own family, his neighbors, and his fellow Mississippians. They are convinced they have discovered what every slow-witted Southern writer who came before has missed. They actually say as much.

Those they discredit include Newt’s own son, Thomas Jefferson Knight who wrote the original book about his father, The Life and Times of Captain Newton Knight and his Company in 1942. And then there’s Cousin Ethel Knight, who wrote Echo of the Black Horn in 1951. She comes in for some pretty harsh treatment at their hands. And according to these two Northern know-it-alls, the exhaustively researched books of Mississippian Rudy Leverett (Legend of the Free State of Jones, Univ. Pr. of MS 1984) and Texan Victoria Bynum (Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War, UNC Press, 2001) can’t be believed as far you as you can throw them. When asked how they got to know the South better than Southerners, they had the gall to answer that had spent nearly two whole weeks in Mississippi.

Lord, I’ve was born and raised here, wrote two novels about Mississippi, and 40 columns on Jones County and I still can’t explain us!

There’s a good story in how this pair got involved with Newt to begin with. It started when another Yankee, one with a lot of money and Hollywood pull by the name of Gary Ross, found himself in Mississippi. Somehow he stumbled across Newt’s story. You have to hand it to the ingenuity of Northerners. They come into Mississippi, look around a couple of days and think to themselves, “Darn if these folks ain’t pitiful. Sitting on all this gold and either too dumb or too lazy to haul it across the street to the bank.”

Ross decides our story needs to be made into a major motion picture. Of course, give credit where credit is due. Ross’s instincts are usually pretty good. He had the same idea about “Seabiscuit” and look what happened.

I guess it was about this time he came across Dr. Bynum’s book, which had been selling pretty well since it came out in 2001. People thought her book was probably the last word on Newt Knight. But those same people aren’t aware that Newt’s mischievous spirit never sleeps.

Ross liked that book so much he bought the rights, everybody thinking he was going to turn Bynum’s work into a movie. But Ross had other plans for that book. He wanted to bury it. You see, it didn’t have the kind of ending that Hollywood likes. Newt needed to be updated for the new millennium. Ross thought it would be a better if Newt was a religious, morally upright abolitionist who was more liberal than John Brown, Abe Lincoln, and Jessie Jackson all rolled up together. And of course, every movie hero needs a good woman by his side. Why not make Rachel, the ex-slave woman, Knight’s one and only true love? (You still thinkin’ 1860’s Mississippi?) Ain’t Hollywood wonderful? I can already hear the swell of the violins in the background.

The next thing Ross did was find himself some local talent and said, “Here, take this woman Bynum’s research that I bought, and see if you can’t duplicate it. I want to publish my own book with my own ending and I don’t want to be beholdin’ to nobody.”

They did what he asked, and threw in a couple of conveniently never-before discovered “facts” as a bonus. Ross then took that information, along with his already written movie script and fat checkbook, and went on a shopping trip to Harvard. There he bought his own very own historian to “research” his book.

Then he found him a woman sports writer to make it read like a potboiler romance.

Their book came out in June and has already been shot full of holes in the renewed “Battle of the Newts.” Historians, incensed that history can be bought, rewritten and sold so blatantly, are lining up to write withering reviews in papers like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Dr. Bynum is coming out looking pretty good. Her research is holding up better than the Carpetbaggers; and her reputation as a historian, as well as her book sales, have soared.

There is one more piece of bad news for Ross and his army of scavengers. Universal Studios has put an indefinite hold on the movie because of the economy.
But the people I feel bad for are Tom and Ethel Knight, and their heirs, black and white. Every book, dissertation, movie script, and newspaper article in the last sixty years on Newt Knight quotes freely from Tom and Ethel’s books. To make their cases, authors, historians and movie producers and directors lift Tom and Ethel’s words right off the page. And in the next moment, talk about how racist or biased or ignorant they were. It’s like going to your neighbor’s well, drinking your fill and then cussing the water. And then everybody feels free to come back and help themselves to another dipper full.

But does anyone say thanks? No. In fact, nobody pays a dime for picking through these treasures. And I don’t use the word “treasures” lightly. The works they left behind are both remarkable labors love and a part of our Mississippi heritage. Whether they are factually accurate or not, or written through the distorted lens of racism, white supremacy or family myth, they were written by us, for us.

These two simple people, without nary a Ph.D. or Academy Award to their names, tried their best to make sure that the story of a people would live on after they were long gone. That deserves respect, not scorn.

The truth is if it weren’t for Tom and Ethel, the legend of Newt Knight would have stayed in the grave with him. Maybe that’s why Newt’s spirit is letting Gary Ross, a movie producer, have the last word. None of the three would admit it, but I think Ethel and Tom and Ross are a lot alike. They might have different politics, but they are all more storytellers than historians. They never let a few facts get in the way of a rousing tale, and that’s why Newt won’t die. He can be anybody you want him to be. It’s the storytellers who keep him alive and he knows it.

For columns on Newt’s family and ancestry, black and white, see:

Rachel Knight: Slave, White Man’s Mistress And Mother To A Movement

White Negro Communities: Too White To Be Black And Too Black To Be White


    • Matt Cleere
    • Posted August 18, 2010 at 11:33 am
    • Permalink

    You said that you heard many stories told to you personally from descendants of both “white” and “black” “Knights”. So tell me what you heard. Don’t drop a huge thing like that and just move on. I was conceived in Jones county, by a local and a yankee, go figure. I KNOW what it is like today. Kinda like this, let’s play “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue” again! You already know. Post some of the stories you heard. Frankly, I’m not interested in your opinion. Just spit out what you heard. I’m very very interested, especially if you quit coloring it with opinion. You heard some great stuff. Let me hear it (read it) verbatim. Thanks for your story. Be good.

    • Jonathan Odell
    • Posted August 18, 2010 at 1:24 pm
    • Permalink

    Keep reading, Matt. There are over 40 columns on this site quoting from those interviews I referenced. But be prepared. Since these were originally published as opinion pieces, you’ll have to wade thru my biases, judgments and conjectures as you go.

    For a historian’s take on the Knights, you might enjoy the site of the nation’s most recognized scholar on all things Newt, Dr. Victoria Bynum. Renegade South

    Thanks for dropping in. Hope you visit often.

  1. Hi Jon,
    Wonderful essay! Of course, I was the white “stranger” you mentioned who came to visit Ethel at her home (and made arrangements to do so before hand through a local resident). And, yes, I did characterize much of what Ethel wrote in The Echo of the Black Horn as racist in my own book, The Free State of Jones. I did so by quoting exact passages from her book.

    The Hornes tell a great story about Ethel sitting in the front row on the October evening in 2001 when I gave a presentation about my then newly-released book at the University of Southern Mississippi. However, I was not aware of her presence until after I had finished my talk and a Mr. Tisdale rushed up to ask me if I knew that Ethel Knight was sitting in the front row. And I never did know that a contingent of SCV was also there. What fun–wish I had known! Alas, presentations by historians rarely generate such excitement . . . .

    I am delighted that the history of Newt, Rachel, and their descendants is a living one, with the descendants themselves finally having the last word on who they are–even though they themselves will probably never quite agree on that!

    Keep up the great work.

    Vikki Bynum, moderator, Renegade South

  2. Vikki, thanks for dropping by. Yes, I wrote this column early in my research, before you and I became friends, collaborators, and co-conspiritors. During my interviews, I was repeatedly surprised by the variety of flavors a single event could come in. I guess we all tell our stories to reinforce our take on the world. I don’t envy you as a historian, being ethically bound by facts. I had the luxury of recording the stories from the standpoint of the tellers, who didn’t let facts get in the way of a good tale. Thanks for your sense of humor!

    • Janet Carver
    • Posted September 20, 2010 at 10:10 pm
    • Permalink

    Hello, Jon Odell:
    who are you, are you from Jones county. Are you refering to my Grandfather, Leonard Ezra and my Grandmother Necia Abigail Anderson Knight, they lived in Hattiesburg and moved to Memphis. I remember my mother saying how when they lived in Hattiesburg, people would walk on the other side of the street to keep from pacing by them, because of their Indian ancestry. I have just recently been researching my ancestors on the Knight side, and hope to see Yvonne Bivins, my cousin at the end of the month. My Uncle told me when he came to my mother’s funeral, Aug. 5th that Rachel was not black but Indian, how do I know what’s true are not true. I don’t care whether my ancestors are black or white I would just like to know some of them and their stories.

    • ginny welborn scharinger
    • Posted November 22, 2010 at 1:22 am
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    my grandfather was web welborn, son of suzan knight , (newt knights 6th child) i was raised with stories told by my father, aunts and uncles about my great great grandfather always with pride. I would really like to know more about my family . i also have that same pride and my children brag on the fact our lineage stood up for what they believed in .

    • Mary W. Tucker
    • Posted December 21, 2010 at 10:00 pm
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    I enjoyed your columns in the REVIEW..interested in the availability of your recent book…not available from BooksAMillion. My husband and I just dropped in on her on impulse one day (rude, right?).She was very warm and welcoming and we sat and chatted for a few minutes in a cozy room darkened against the heat of the day. Don’t recall actual conversation but that she was gracious and well spoken. Is your book avaiable?

    • Jon Odell
    • Posted December 23, 2010 at 3:27 pm
    • Permalink

    Hello, Mary. I’m glad you found something in the columns that interested you. It was fascinating discovering that the ground one is raised on hides so many well-kept secrets. As for the books: The View from Delphi is widely available–if you can’t find it in a bookstore, you can get it from Amazon or or BooksaMillion’s website.

    The new book will be released either next fall or early 2012. It’s called The Healing.

    I couldn’t tell from you comment who it was you dropped in on. PLEASE let me know. You’ve got me curious!

    • Jon Odell
    • Posted December 26, 2010 at 4:04 pm
    • Permalink

    Hello, Ginny! I grew up amongst the Welborns. Thanks so much for taking a look at the columns and dropping a line. What I have here pretty much exhausts my personal knowledge of the Knight Saga, and I’m wondering if you’ve been in touch with Victoria Bynum, author of The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War. If not you really need to visit her website and leave a note. She’s done extensive research on the Knights and their lineage! Here’s where you go:

    • Rebecca Knight
    • Posted May 9, 2011 at 8:28 am
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    I keep reading and reading would really like to find out a lot more seeing my grandmother was a Davis and my grandfather was a Knight born and raised in Jones County It really makes me wonder I have tryed to go back and trace my family tree but always get blocked ..

    • Jon Odell
    • Posted May 10, 2011 at 8:45 pm
    • Permalink

    Hello Rebecca, Your story sounds fascinating. There is a woman named Victoria Bynum who has done extensive research on Knight History. She know more than anyone out there and has written extensively on it. You can contact her through her blog: i hope you are able to find what you need to get your search for family underway.


  3. Rebecca,

    I hope you all will visit my blog, Renegade South, as Jon suggests. In fact, not only Knights, but folks with the surnames Collins, Welborn, Bynum, Sumrall, Valentine, and many more associated with the Free State of Jones will find discussions of their familes’ history on my blog: Come on over . . .

    Vikki Bynum

    • Jon Odell
    • Posted May 10, 2011 at 10:38 pm
    • Permalink

    Thanks, Vikki!

    • charlotte Ann Nichols
    • Posted June 9, 2011 at 1:45 pm
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    Hello,I am Charlotte ann Nichols.My Mothers Mother was Pearl Hazel Knight.Newt Knight,and Thomas Knight are my Great great uncles.

    • harold knight jr
    • Posted August 24, 2011 at 6:30 pm
    • Permalink

    looking forward to seeing this movie, I am a Knight also born of Harold Knight Senior, I am Harold Knight Jr. of SoSo miss. I have shared the book with a lot of people and they really liked it contents. they are facninated by the facts and characters that no one seems to have learned in school, or even heard of. I haven’t been to SoSo since my fathers funeral. but this movie thing really has me excited, I am US marine veteran and involed at a VA facility now everyone I know wants to read the book and see the movie. whats wrong people looking at and or precieving history that was broght to them in “closed” classes? The truth is only hidden from the eyes of our nation when we decide that it is okay to fight in a burning house, just quit it already, embrace the good of all who have lived and dies to make this country the great nation that is today, why are so many people bitter, our difference should be what unites us because no other place in the world has withstood the winds of change and been the example to all those who believe that all men are created equal and have the right to pursuit of happiness.

  4. I enjoyed the article. I don’t mind saying that after all these years, and re-writes, I don’t know what’s the truth. I know somethings, but not all. I’ll have to run this by my mother. She had to do a lot of research on this when my great uncle Jay Knight died, and had no will. Knights were pouring out of the woodworks, and she was appointed by the court to line up the family trees.

    • Jon Odell
    • Posted November 11, 2011 at 6:40 pm
    • Permalink

    Hello Lacy and I’m glad you enjoyed the column. I know what you mean about not knowing what the story is. So many takes on it, depending on whom you talk with. I think that’s one of the reason it still lives on! Have you even contacted Victoria Bynum or read her blog? Renegade South She is the historian I trust the most on the topic of Newt Knight and the Free State of Jones.

    • Lacy Blackledge
    • Posted November 25, 2011 at 4:17 am
    • Permalink

    I just found a pic of Rachelle Knight. I remember it now, and talked to my mother some today. Rachelle was obviously mostly Indian, not black. There may have been more mixture in there, and it definitely worked it’s way into later generations. My mom says she heard she was either Creek, or Choctaw. Found a good pic of my Great Grandfather Charlie as well. Still can’t find the pic of Newt we used to have. Anyway, thanks. I’ll check out Renegade South.

  5. Hello Lacy. I’d love to see your picture of Rachel, especially since many family members disagree over upwards of three photos so far said to be Rachel. I’ve written about the photos on Renegade South, beginning with the post,
    Would love to see your photo of Charlie Knight as well. If you like, I will post them on Renegade South, but only with your permission.

    Thanks, Vikki Bynum
    moderator, Renegade South,

  6. Rachel and Jesse Davis Knight had a son they named Jeffrey and a daughter they named Fanny. re: Stauffer and Jenkins. And the old man Jackie Knight willed all of Rachel’s on coming children to Jesse Davis, including those belonging to Newton.

    • Stephanie
    • Posted August 16, 2012 at 2:30 am
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    I would like to thank you for this article! My great grandfather was Web Welborn. I am very intrigued by my ancestors and eager to learn more! Learning more about my past has become somewhat of an obsession, & thanks to people like you I am able to continue learning. Again, thank you Mr.Odell. Stephanie of Mize, Ms

    • Jon Odell
    • Posted August 17, 2012 at 7:44 pm
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    Stephanie, it’s so great hearing from my fellow Mississippians and I’m so happy you like the columns. You come from a family to be proud of!

    • Charles Kelly
    • Posted August 19, 2012 at 12:57 pm
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    Great article!

    I knew Ethel Knight well and miss being able to go to her home and talk with her. It was always interesting. I’ve read Bynum’s book and of course Ethel’s book and have several autographed copies of Echo of the Black Horn. I even got to go on an adventure with her to Kentucky one time but that’s a story for another day. That woman had some grit I can tell you that. I look forward to reading more of your articles.



    • John Knight
    • Posted October 28, 2012 at 4:42 am
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    I stumbled on this article while searching for some information on the Jones County movie. Very interesting article and very informative. Being born and raised in western Oklahoma “our” Knight family never knew of Newton or his history. At least I never knew of it, sure wish I would have it would have been nice to hear story’s while growing up about our ancestry. It wasn’t until just a few years ago when my fathers 1st cousin (a retired history professor at Ft. Lewis College in Durango CO) uncovered our history.

    I am not a direct descendant of Newton, but of his brother; Ruben Knight whose family (it seems) moved to the Arkansas area after the Civil War. One point that you probably know; Newton’s Great Grandfather was a revolutionary soldier by the name of Miles Jesse Knight who fought in North Carolina where he was born and died. Another interesting point (at least to me…I am probably boring you and the people that will read this in the future) Every generation of Knight has at least one John, Jackie or Jesse.

    Again, thank you for the wonderful essay, it has rekindled my thirst for knowledge of our family and has convinced me that I must find a copy of Echo of the Black Horn. I have a copy of The Free State of Jones that Mrs. Bynum wrote. Very good book and I have loaned it out on numerous occasions…but unlike Echo of the Black Horn in Mississippi, I always get it back so no need to drill a hole and run a chain through it! :-)

    • John R. Graves
    • Posted November 6, 2012 at 9:14 pm
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    Mr. Odell: I was also born and raised in Jones County and I also remenber Thomas Knight selling his pencils and items and remember the day he started selling “The Echo of The Black Horn” from his hat. I remember almost having to step over him several times when he was sitting on the steps of The First National Bank. I took my son and found the grave yard where Knewt was buried in Jasper County.

    • Scott Williamson
    • Posted December 9, 2012 at 7:39 pm
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    Newt knight was actually my cousin an Mrs Ethel as well it’s kinda crazy to find out new things I had asked my grandpa Charles Williamson about the book that Mrs Ethel wrote an that’s when he said sit down son you have something to learn an thats when I found out they was are kin folks!

    • Chuck Shoemake
    • Posted January 5, 2013 at 7:43 pm
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    I’ve read both Victoria Bynum’s and Jenkins/Stauffer’s books in the past few weeks.I have Shoemake roots in Jones County going back to the 1830s. Other relations include Boyce, Pitts, Walters, Landrum, Sumrall and Holliman. Wil Sumrall is a relative of my great grandmother Elvira Ann Sumrall. Her Father, Henry, enlisted but was discharged only 3 weeks later. My third great grandfather, Linson B Landrum, deserted the Confederate Army and enlisted in the Union Army in New Orleans where he died in early 1865. Many other relatives followed in his footsteps. Nancy Walters is a distant relative. My second great grandfather, Elijah Shoemake, enlisted as a Blacksmith in Captain Turners Company, Light Artillery in April 1862 and near the end of the war was driving cattle for the Confederate Army. Two of his brothers and several uncles served in the infantry through the end and an uncle, Hugh Shoemake, died in battle. What I found most fascinating about the Jenkins/Stauffer book was the description of the area with the entry of the Knight family in the 1820s. This helped to personallize my family’s existance in the Jones County area from the time they arrived. What I didn’t like about Ms. Bynum’s book was I came away never wanting to read Ethel Knight’s book…which I now feel inclined to read. I am a regular visitor to “Renegade South” and will continue to be. I have read stories of familty members that I hold dear. My familty runs the entire gammet, and yet they were able to marry and raise families together even after the war. Elijah served most of the war and yet married the widow of Linson after the war. Wil Sumrall served with Newton Knight and yet his neice Annie married Elijah’s son Robert. I look forward to another visit to Jones County in the near future and will now see it through more understanding eyes. Thank you. Chuck

    • Samantha Loper
    • Posted January 7, 2013 at 8:00 am
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    I’m not here to say ‘oh i know them or related’ but I do want to say that I live in Jones County and have for 14 years, and that my family is from here. My husband (Loper) and I were looking through his geneology and he’s related to Welborn, Sumrall, Landrum, and Jones. I was just wondering…. Is it possible that his ancestors helped establish this county? :) This is so interesting to me. The high school I went to is right across the street from the Deason Home(Amos Deason) and that’s how I learned about Newt Knight in the first place.

    • harold knight jr
    • Posted February 27, 2013 at 10:17 pm
    • Permalink

    what u need to do is your homework wallace knight the first knight ot arrive in the british colonies bought with the the legind of the knight name given to the sarmation knights who decendants recieved their inheritance from WIlliam when he created the tesalant after fending off harold the saxon invader gave to the last of these great wariors the right tol carry thier station as their last name and heritage, so the knights are extracts of of white english blood and those brave warriors herealded by the roman army as the most courageuos fighters and warriors of their time still with us today demostrated by newton knight changing of heart and life to spawn the oppression of the weak, and those unable to fend for themselves Knights out their embrace your roots your blood line is that of the imfamous knights that rode with arthur that is why you do what you do ard you are who you are

    • Nate
    • Posted May 17, 2013 at 3:48 am
    • Permalink

    What exactly did you mean by “Who wouldn’t, I wondered, with the full moral weight of the Confederate Army bearing down on you?”? It sounds as if you are saying the confederate army has moral authority. We can not forget that the confederate army was fighting to maintain slavery, and that was morally repugnant. From what I have read about Ethel, she does sound like a racist to me, so if the author in question represented her as a racist, she was telling the truth. You cannot support slavery (anyone who supports the confederacy supports slavery) and oppose racial mixing and seriously assert you are not a racist.

    • Jon Odell
    • Posted May 17, 2013 at 4:02 am
    • Permalink

    Yes, Nate, you state the obvious. That piece was not written from my point of view, but from the POV of the Ethel supporters I interviewed.

    • Nate
    • Posted May 17, 2013 at 4:18 am
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    I am from Jones county, although almost certainly not related to Newt Knight in any way. I grew up hearing him spoken of badly, and I’m familiar with echo of the black horn although I never read it, but the more I read about him the more I like him.

    • Jon Odell
    • Posted May 17, 2013 at 11:01 pm
    • Permalink

    Nate, I found it fascinating discovering the various perspectives about Newt through the eyes from the citizens of Jones County. Whites, blacks, kinfolk–everybody had a different reaaction. Those that I put the most stock in personally were the black relatives of Newt. If you haven’t read their take, you can find them here:’s-mistress-and-mother-to-a-movement/

    and here:

    The way that white confederate loyalists have re-written the history of Mississippi, slavery and the Civil War is disgusting.

    • Jennifer
    • Posted May 30, 2013 at 8:54 am
    • Permalink

    I thank you for all of your interest in my FAMILY, but you really need to get a hobby and research your own family. John Jackie Knight was my 5th Great Grandfather and he had 11 children. His 1st born child named Albert and he was my 4th Great Grandfather. Albert had 9 children and my 3rd Great Grandfather was his 5th child and Newton was his 9th child. So on and if you are going to write about my family get your facts straight or stop writing. Consider this your warning. I have copied your blog and I have your name. When you do research get your facts straight and don’t misconstrue anymore misinformation about my peoples. You have you facts all wrong and it is written and I can put a suit on you for this. Like I said… Warning

    • Jennifer
    • Posted May 30, 2013 at 9:03 am
    • Permalink

    Also, my grandparents were 7th cousins and my genetics are thoroughbred all the way from England and Scotland. Ethal Knight was my grandmothers 2nd cousin. Ethal didn’t have to lie. All families have secrets but I will tell you I have printed every single thing that you hae written about my 4th great uncle Newton and I will be looking forward to seeing you soon.

    • Jennifer
    • Posted May 30, 2013 at 9:24 am
    • Permalink

    Also, Rachel was from North Carolina and given to my 5th great Grandfather and he gave her to Jefferson “Jesse” Davis Knight (John Jackie Knight’s 10th child) who then gave Rachel 4 children, then he “Jesse” willed her to his nephew Newton Knight whose wife Serena left him because he refused to get rid of Rachel and then he married Rachel and had 5 children with her and Rachel also raised Newton’s 8 children from Serena. So neither of them were bad at all!!!!!! Together they raised 17 children together. How would you work out in that situation?? I will be at my family Cemetary in Jones County, you are very welcome to come there and let me set MY family skeletons straight. Rachel is burried right beside her husband there. Ye who judge, shall be judged! Glad to help you with you interest in MY family history. By the way look up “The conspiracy of the gowry”. Ruffin / Ruthven from Scotland. My family has lots of books and hidden secrets! We are BLUE BLOODS! SHOULDN’T HAVE OPENED THIS DOOR!! YOU ARE NOW WHO DOOED!!! I am now researching yours, but I will posts only true facts about you and yours!!!

  7. Jennifer,

    Full disclosure: I, too, have written about your Knight family kin. And guess what? In my book, Free State of Jones, I mistakenly listed Newt as the eighth rather than ninth son of Albert. So, will you be suing me, as well as Jonathan?

    News flash: people don’t own their family’s history, as you seem to feel you do, and authors are allowed to express opinions, and even to make inadvertent factual errors, in their efforts to write either satire or history. It’s called freedom of speech. Can you imagine what the world of literature and history would be like if your sort of threats carried weight?

    Vikki Bynum

    • Jon Odell
    • Posted May 30, 2013 at 9:29 pm
    • Permalink

    Jennifer, as I say in the articles, I don’t know what the “real” truth is. No one agrees. So, I tell the story from many points of view, always citing the people I was interviewing. I talked with Ethel’s people, Rachel’s people, eye-witnesses, historians and genealogists. If you have additions or corrections to make to the record, please do so. Folks will be fascinated to hear your take on things. But if you are going to be rude, abusive and call folks names, you will be barred from this site. I hope you take this in the spirit it is meant. I’d love to hear from you if you agree to take a more constructive approach.

    • Jennifer
    • Posted May 30, 2013 at 9:52 pm
    • Permalink

    There are books in my family Jon that were and still are past down within our family that are not for sale but are for reading the truth. You should find someone in my family and sit down with them and read and look through it. I have always called it the Knight Book. I used my Grandmother’s book to research and make sure I wasn’t dating a cousin. It is a truth book. That is also how my Grandparents found out that they were cousins after 20 plus years of marriage. Wasn’t trying to be rude to anyone or ungly just defend my great family name. I know you can understand that. If people want to know about them, that is great but, I want them to know the facts and truth.

    • Jon Odell
    • Posted May 30, 2013 at 9:54 pm
    • Permalink

    Jennifer, because you consistently display a lack of common courtesy, your comments will be automatically sent to the spam folder and will not be published. I hope you find some healing for your anger.

    • Bob Jones
    • Posted September 7, 2013 at 4:37 am
    • Permalink

    Anyone have information on the geography of leaf river @reddocs ferry during newts reign

    • Christine Moody
    • Posted October 16, 2013 at 8:11 pm
    • Permalink

    I am a descendent of Newt Knight. I am not sure exactly how, though I believe he was an Uncle. I have tried for years to trace my families roots and so far have found nothing. My grandfather was O.J. Knight. He was born and raised in Jones County. He passed away when I was a little girl and we did not stay in close contact with his family since they were scattered all over the United States. I would very much like to find out what I can about our family history for my children. If you can help in any way it will be greatly appreciated.

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2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Newt Knight: Emperor Of The Free State Of Jones [...]

  2. [...] we discovered that both of us were writing about Newt Knight and the Free State of Jones (click here for his views on that story). Jon’s first novel, The View From Delphi, is a great favorite [...]

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