yesterday's tennessee

Yesterday's Tennessee


Laura Waddle (Revised May 1998)

Mills Darden is listed in the Guiness World Book of Records as one of the world's largest men who ever lived. He weighed slightly over 1000 pounds when he died, various estimates place his weight then as between 1020 to 1080 pounds. He was about 7 and a half feet tall.

When Mills Darden died and since, articles about him have appeared in newspapers all over the country. Information in this writing comes from a large collection of news articles as well as things written about him in history books and elsewhere. Many legends were told about him and it is hard to sort the fact from the fiction. Nearly all the things written contradict one another, even about the names and number of his wives and the number of his children.

One myth that got started was about his origin. It said that Mills was a foundling baby, found by a Negro woman, when he was only a few days old near an old mill. When she found him, he began to cry and she soothed him saying "dar den" meaning "there then". From what she said and because he was found by an old mill, he was supposedly named Mills Darden. We know this was a myth and not true, for his father was John Darden and Mills is the given name used often among earlier Darden families.

Records have his name spelled as Mills but reports say that his name was pronounced as Miles. He was born Oct. 20, 1799 near Rich Square in Northampton County, North Carolina. About 1827-30, he and his first wife, Mary, came to Tennessee from North Carolina. They had at least three little daughters at that time and it is possible that there were other children born before that who are unknown as of yet.

The 1830 census lists him in Madison County, Tennessee. Madison County adjoins Henderson County on the west. By 1840 he was listed on the Henderson County census. Settling in Henderson County, Mills lived the rest of his life here and raised several children.

It was reported that as a farmer he worked actively, requiring three men to bind grain as he cut it. That he could single handedly pull a loaded wagon from a mud hole when lesser men could not budge it. He farmed until his increasing size made it difficult. By 1850 he had moved into Lexington and opened a tavern and inn on the court square. As this was during the stage coach days, he did a prosperous business. The inn became well known and was a favorite stopping place for travelers. He was naturally sensitive about his size, but was well liked by his friends and neighbors. There are no known pictures of him.

In 1845 at the age of 46 he weighed 871 pounds, but he continued to grow in size. Finally, about 1853, he moved to the country about 8 miles southwest of Lexington, where he lived until his death in 1857 at the age 56. He bought the Rankin Carver farm there and later the Jim Arnold place.

He was a staunch Baptist, and after breaking several benches he got the idea of spreading a blanket before the pulpit and lying down with a prayer book in hand.

Whenever he went anywhere he rode in a two-horse or ox drawn wagon. He would not permit himself to be weighed, but his weight was secretly found by measuring the tension on the springs of his wagon when he was in it, and later after he was gone, weighing them down to the same tension and calculating the weight required. The stories vary as to what was used to fill the wagon, from 100 pound sacks of sugar to rocks and scrap iron.

 In 1839 a coat was made for him by Jim Pinkston and Major T. A. Smith. Three men weighing over 200 pounds each, buttoned the coat around them and walked around the court square in Lexington. It is commonly stated that it took 13 1/2 yards of material to make him a coat, this might have been the one made 1839 or maybe one made later.

Other various stories about his clothes were that his trousers had a 72 inch waist and with the cuffs tied together would hold 10 bushels of corn. His old fashioned white hat looked like a beehive, being a size 8 1/2 and 27 or 29 inches around the crown. The State Historical Society had one of his hats at one time, but they do not have it now. His homemade shoes were styled like moccasins.

A couple of articles say his breakfast consisted of 40 biscuits, 1 pound of butter, 2 1/2 pounds of bacon, 18 eggs, and 3 quarts of coffee. Another article, which sounds more credible, said 1 dozen eggs, 30 buttered biscuits, 10 slabs of bacon and two quarts of coffee. A gallon or two of water at mealtime was said to have been usual.

The doors in his house had extra width and had 2 feet added in height. His bed and furniture were made of the heaviest oak, to bear his weight. When he went visiting he slept on the floor, because the bed was not likely to be strong enough.

In the later years he would have his slaves pour water over him in the summer to keep the heat from being unbearable.

An article by Tom Lawler in 1949 states that his uncle saw Tom Thumb sitting on Mr. Darden's knee, thus bringing together the world's largest and the world's smallest men.

Darden's size was believed to have been caused by a glandular deficiency, a malfunction of the pituitary gland. Doctors said that his death was caused by strangulation, by rolls of fat around the vocal cords which closed his windpipe. He died on Jan. 23, 1857 and was buried with the Masonic fraternity in attendance in full regalia. At his death he measured 6 feet, 4 inches around the waist. Most articles agree that his coffin was 8 ft long, 35 inches deep, 32 inches across the breast, 18 across the head and 14 across the feet, and it had 24 yards of black velvet to line it. Most sources say it took about 500 ft of lumber to build it, but different ones have anywhere from 100 to 520 feet given, and 3 pounds of nails. It took 17 men to put him in it, and a section of the wall had to be removed to bring it out of the house. He was buried on the farm where he lived, beside his first wife, Mary. Although his and Mary's grave markers are the only ones there, his later wife may be buried there, too. It has been reported that there were probably other people buried there as well as some of Darden's slaves. The grave site had once been included in a plowed field on the farm and the gravestones of Mills and Mary were destroyed during cultivation in 1973. Since that time the grave site has been restored and made into a historical marker, with new gravestones for them.

Repeated here are legends told about Mills even though no doubt some of them are probably stretched somewhat. The most consistent of all the stories seem to be; the stories about three men wearing his coat, the method of finding his weight, and the information about his coffin and burial.

Very little was written or is known about Darden's wives and family. To put all this together has taken a lot of research and contacts with Darden descendants (of Mills and of his sister, Patsy) from all over the United States. But gradually a good bit of information has been collected and put together on them. The Everett Horn Library in Lexington, Tennessee has a file of misc. material on Darden and any new information about his family and ancestry would be welcome.

His Parents and Their Family

Mills Darden's father, John Darden, was born about 1765 to 1774 and lived in Northampton County, North Carolina. When he died there about 1820, he had three other children living besides Mills. A deed showing the division of his land after his death, names his children living then as Mills, Clements, Mary Ann and Martha (Patsy).

The last daughter named above (Patsy) was born in 1808 and the mother of these children must have died between then and 1816 when John Sr. married his second wife, Lucy Johnson. After John Sr. died, his widow, Lucy, was remarried in 1826 to Joseph Bryant. In 1845, Mills and Patsy must have been the only surviving children of John Sr., as they were the only ones listed as heirs at that time — along with the Bryants: Emily, Moses, James, Margarite and Lucy B.

After her father's death, Patsy lived with an uncle, Tommie World, in Southampton County, Virginia, until her marriage to James C. West. She and James lived in Waverly, Virginia, raising a family of eight children. She died in 1878 and they are buried in the Spring Hill Cemetery there.

Various articles about Mills make mention of relatives. One article says he had sisters who lived on the Darden farm near Rich Square, North Carolina until their death. Another mentions that there was a niece, Mrs. Richard Johnson, who lived in Prince George County, Virginia. Also mentioned were two nieces who lived in Surry County, Virginia, Mrs. L.T. Harris and Mrs. Tom Atkinson.

His Wives and Children

Did Mills have two wives or three? What were their names? How many and which children did each wife have?

One news article quotes Darden's grandson, John W. Darden (son of Jep), "Mr. Darden says his grandfather first married a Miss Cheek and to this union 5 children were born, of whom his father was one and he later married a Miss Cooper and to this union 4 children were born..."

Another news article in the possession of Mr. Winfred Smith (a descendent of Darden's daughter Martha Darden Parrot) says of Mills, "He was born in Northampton County, North Carolina, Nov. 7, 1799; was married to Mary Jenkins in 1820. By this marriage he had 7 children and by his second marriage he had 4 children. He moved from North Carolina to West Tennessee in 1829...."

Family notes in a Scripture Memoranda in the possession of a descendant of Darden's daughter, Louisa Darden Strickland, states "Louisie Darden was born in North Carolina. her mother came from England, married Darden in America, later moving to Tennessee where Louisie was married." This would seem to indicate that Darden's first wife or her family came from England.

Darden's wife, Mary, has a marker beside Mills which says she died 25 Feb. 1837. Mills may have been remarried by the 1840 census as the census then shows in his household; a female age 20 to 30 (so she would have been born about 1810 to 1820) and also one age 30 to 40 (this one would have been born about 1800 to 1810). His age then would have been about 10 years old, so one of these could have been his wife. His daughter, Mary Darden Wadley, was born 13 Nov. 1848. Her death certificate gives her mother's name as Omelia Cooper and her mother's birthplace as Alabama. Was the female in Darden's household in 1840 the same one who had the daughter Mary in 1848?

The 1850 census has Tamesia listed with Mills, and the 1850 through 1870 census show her as born about 1812 in North Carolina. Records have various spellings of her name, such as Tomacia, Tomesia, Termetia and Thomasia. Tamesia has been the spelling used for this writing as that was the first found (on the 1850 census).

A birth date of 1812 would make Tamesia born later than the either women on the 1840 census, because IF the ages for them were correct they were both born before 1810. IF her birthplace on the census of North Carolina is correct, then it does not match the birthplace of Alabama as given for Mary's mother on Mary's the death certificate. But mistakes are often found on census and on death certificates because the information for them depends on the knowledge and memory of the informant, so neither can be depended on to be correct. Given the difference in the names and birthplaces of the information for Mary's mother on her death certificate and the ages that we have for Tamesia from the census, it poses the question, was Tamesia Mary's mother? Or was there a another wife besides Mary and Tamesia married to Mills between them?

An account item on the estate settlement of Tamesia's (appears to be spelled Termetia on this document) daughter, Tennessee, in Dec 1873 shows us that Tamesia was still living in the 1870's. The Civil War Tax assessment list, which was after Mills' death, has Mrs. Darden with 115 acres in District #6 and David Rice with 200 acres as guardian of the Darden heirs. I found one source that stated that Mills had been married 3 times, so I had concluded that he had three wives. Then after learning that Tamesia's name was Cooper, it would seem that maybe he was only married twice. Were Omelia Cooper and Tamesia Cooper the same person and the only later wife of Mills and the mother of Mary? Did he ever marry a woman named Cheek? Was his first wife, Mary, a Jenkins?

Nearly all of the information on Tamesia's ancestry came from Angeline Harris of Escondido, California, she did a great deal of research on the Coopers and also of Indian records such as bounty land applications. Her research reveals that Tamesia was the daughter of James and Delilah (Simpson) Cooper. James Cooper was born 1789 and died 1835/40 in Caswell County, North Carolina. Records of applications for benefits appropriated for the Eastern Cherokee Indians, made by family members, reveal that Tamesia was 1/8 Cherokee Indian. Tamesia's mother, Delilah Simpson was born 1794 in VA, and was married in 1811 to James Cooper in Caswell County, North Carolina She died about 1881 in Smith County, Texas. She and James Cooper resided in Alabama and Kentucky. Delilah second married James W. Foster who had been the husband of her deceased sister, Elizabeth. Delilah and Foster were later divorced.

Delilah was the daughter of James Simpson. James was born about 1756-1765 probably in Fairfax County, Virginia and died about 1810/11 in Caswell County, North Carolina. He was married about 1787 to Sarah Hornbuckle. Sarah's father was Thomas Hornbuckle and her mother was a Cherokee.

In putting together information on Mills Darden's children, the two older daughters were the last to be discovered. The 1850 census is the first one that gives any names other than the head of the household, and as Louisa and Martha were both married before that and gone from home, they were not named in Darden's household then. They were both found through information from their descendants. Were there any other children not identified yet? Who was the extra male in the household in 1830 and 1840? Was he an older son?

 Louisa M., Martha J., Ester Elizabeth, George, and Frances M. (Bug) were born before the first wife's death, making five known children that were probably Mary's. Jep Darden poses a little question. Conversations with Jep's grandchildren reveal that they have always believed that Jep was Darden's son. According to Jep's cemetery marker he was born May 28, 1837, and on his Civil War pension application, he states he was born May 1837 in Giles County, Tennessee. Mary's marker has her death date as Feb. 25, 1837, if that date and what we have for Jep's birth are both correct, he would have been born three month's after Mary's death. Also, no evidence has ever been shown to indicate that Mills or his wife might have been in Giles County, Tennessee at that time. Some stories say that Mills raised foster children, is that what Jep was?

The four younger children born after Jep were Virginia C., Mary F., Mills N., and Tennessee. The last one, Tennessee, would definitely have been Tamesia's daughter as she was born after 1850 when Tamesia was listed in the household with Mills. David Rice was appointed guardian of these four minor children after Mills Darden's death. More than one article states that there were four children by the second marriage so maybe these four children were all Tamesia's.

 In the 1850's a record book of the Female Academy of Lexington, Tennessee shows that Mills paid tuition of $3.00 each for three of his own daughters and for two other females. His three daughters would be Virginia, Mary and Tennessee. The other two would be Angleline Cooper and Annie Bass who were listed as 14 years old and living in the household with Mills in 1850. Indian applications show children of James and Delilah Cooper. Angeline Cooper was listed as one of their children, so this Angeline living in Darden's household was probably Tamesia's younger sister. These two other females may have been the foster children raised by Mills that have been referred to.

More on His Children

Louisa M. Darden, the oldest identified child of Mills Darden so far, was born in 1822. She was married about 1841/2 in Henderson County, Tennessee to Clement Wilkins Strickland. The story in her family is that Mills disinherited her because she married a man who already had six children. She and Clement moved to St. Clair County, Missouri by 1849. They had ten children, three born before they left Tennessee and the rest in Missouri. She died in 1891, about eight years after her husband, and they are buried in the Union Home Cemetery (also known as Twin Churches) in Dallas County, Missouri.

Martha J. Darden, born in 1824, married William H. Parrott. They were living in Madison County, Tennessee in 1850 with three small daughters, and moved to Jackson County, Ark. about 1855 to 1862. Martha had eight children, maybe more. She died in 1875, William died in 1879, and they are buried in the Parrott Cemetery in Jackson County, Ark.

Ester Elizabeth Darden (or the reverse, Elizabeth Ester) who was born in 1827, married James W. H. Knowles. J. W. H. Knowles and his father, Edmond, were among the most wealthy and prominent early settlers in the County. James and Ester had at least nine children, and lived out their lives in Henderson County, Tennessee. Their home, not far from the Chapel Hill Church, stood until about the 1970's. Ester died in June 1898, her husband died a little over a year later in 1899 and they were buried in the Chapel Hill Cemetery in Henderson County, Tennessee.

George Darden, was born about 1830 as he was listed as 20 years old on the 1850 census. He evidently served as a Confederate soldier and died in the Civil War at Atlanta, Georgia. This is the only information available that has been found about him found so far. This was given on an affidavit by his sister, Mary Darden Wadley, which is contained in the Civil War Pension Application of their brother, A. J. Darden. On her affidavit Mary stated that she remembered well when all three of her brothers went into the Confederate Army. That the oldest one, George, was killed at Atlanta, Georgia. This would seem to substantiate that Darden only had three sons. But if another had died younger, she might not have counted him.

Frances Marion Darden, who was called Bug, was born about 1835. He married Lucinda (Lou) Carver. According to that family's tradition, they moved to Jackson County, Arkansas by covered wagon in 1873. His sister, Martha Darden Parrot, had moved to Arkansas about 1855-1862, so he probably moved there to join his sister and her family who were already there. It is not known exactly when Bug died, but it would have been by 1883. Bug's brother, Jep, wrote to Lucinda from Ennis, Texas then, and the letter was addressed to her — so apparently Bug was already deceased by that time. Jep mentioned in one of his letters the fact that he had named his son after Bug. Lucinda and Bug had at least four children, three of which reached their majority. Lucinda died in the fall of 1902 and was buried in the Littleton Cemetery, in Jackson County, Arkansas.

A. J. Darden, called Jep, was born in 1837. His grandchildren say his name was Adnium Judson, and other variations that have been found are Admiran Jefferson and Jeff. As he was commonly known as Jep, that is what is mainly used for this writing. Jep first married Mary Ann Webb. They had at least two children before she died in 1876. He then married Nancy T. Cox (Nan) in Jan 1877 and they had two children. Jep served in the Civil War as a Confederate, in Company I of Capt. A. S. Sayles, 27th Regiment under Col. C. H. Williams. He became ill with typhoid fever in 1862, for which he was sent home. He had a long illness and didn't return to the war after that. He was in Ennis, Texas in 1883 when he wrote a letter telling about farming there. The following year he was back in Henderson County, Tennessee. Besides farming, Jep was also a carpenter. He died in Nov. 1910 and his wife, Nan, died a year later in Nov. 1911. Jep and both of his wives are buried in the Antioch Cemetery in Henderson County, Tennessee

Virginia C. Darden was born about 1842. She married Louis H. Norfleet (or Norflett?). Information on their family comes from the Henderson County, Tennessee 1870 census, which shows them with four children. Angie Harris found a marriage record in DeSoto County, Mississippi for an L. H. Norflett and Virginia C. Darden on 3 Mar. 1858. Angie also found on the De Soto County, Mississippi 1870 census a listing for a James Norfleet age 33, Angeline age 34 and 7 children. Living in the household with James and Angeline was a Delilah Cooper given as age 90 and born in Missouri. The age and birthplace does not fit for Delilah who was Angeline Cooper's mother, but it could have been in error. Was this Tamesia's sister, Angeline, and their mother, Delilah? It seems very likely. Maybe both Angeline and her neice, Virginia, married Norfleets and resided there.

Mary F. Darden was born in 1848. She married Henry Anderson Wadley in Feb. 1863, while he was on furlough from the Confederate Army in the Civil War. He was wounded in the thigh at the Battle of Shiloh and sent home. He never really recovered from it and died in 1878. Mary moved to Gibson County, Tennessee to live, probably after Henry's death, as he was buried in the Palestine Cemetery, Henderson County, Tennessee. Mary's children all lived in Gibson County, too, and Mary was buried there in the Hopehill Cemetery, instead of beside her husband.

Mills Newsom Darden (or reverse, Newsom Mills) was born about 1848/9, in 1860 he was listed as 12 years old, in 1870 he was at home with his mother age 21. He served as a Confederate in the Civil War. No further information about him has been found.

Tennessee V. Darden (Tennie) was born in 1853. She never married and died in 1873, eight days before her 20th birthday. She was buried in the Chapel Hill Cemetery, Henderson County, Tennessee. There is a page in the court records listing the accounts of her estate which had a total of $434.70 with charges against it of $434.43 — leaving a balance of 27 cents.


Unidentified Dardens buried at Old Hepzibah in Henderson County, — who are they?


Many newspaper articles on Mills Darden from all over the country.
Histories of Henderson Co., Tennessee and Northampton Co., North Carolina
Census, Cemetery Records, Court Records
Death Certificates for Mary Darden Wadley's and others
Letters written by Jep Darden
Old family records
Family data from many descendants all over the United States
Jep Darden's civil war pension application gotten from Angie Harris
Lots of Cooper and Indian application information research by Angie Harris

Submitted by:
Laura Waddle
436 Natchez Trace Drive, Apt. 19
Lexington, TN 38351-1694

See Descendants of Mills Darden, Laura Waddle

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