First elected to the General Assembly from Newberry District in 1816, O’Neall served one term. He failed to win a second term in 1818 because he had voted to increase the salary of state judges.

John Belton O’Neall. South Carolina State Museum.

Jurist, author, social reformer, entrepreneur. O’Neall, the son of Hugh O’Neall and Anne Kelly, was born April 10, 1793, near Bobo’s Mill, Newberry County. Educated first at the Newberry Academy, in 1811 he entered the junior class at South Carolina College, where he served as Clariosophic Society president and graduated second in his class the following year. After teaching for six months in Newberry, O’Neall commenced the study of law with John Caldwell, his brother-in-law, and was admitted to the Columbia Bar in 1814.

O’Neall joined the state militia in 1813, serving as an artillery officer and judge advocate in Colonel Starling Tucker’s regiment during the War of 1812. Three years later O’Neall was appointed aide-de-camp to General Andrew Pickens. By 1827 O’Neall had risen to the rank of major general of the Third Division.

First elected to the General Assembly from Newberry District in 1816, O’Neall served one term. He failed to win a second term in 1818 because he had voted to increase the salary of state judges. On June 25, 1818, O’Neall married Helen Pope, daughter of Sampson Pope and Sarah Strother of Newberry. The couple had six daughters, all of whom predeceased their parents. O’Neall returned to the House of Representatives in 1822, 1824, and 1826, serving as Speaker from 1824 to 1828. While a member of the House, he served on the committee of grievances, inland navigation, internal improvements, judiciary, and roads, bridges and ferries. His support for a $10,000 relief bill for the heirs of Thomas Jefferson caused his defeat in the 1828 November elections, and his retirement from the House.

The General Assembly elected O’Neall as an associate state judge in 1828. After two years of riding the circuit, he was elected to the court of appeals, serving with William Harper and David Johnson until 1835. That year, in two appeals cases, O’Neall and Johnson declared that the state’s oath of allegiance established during the nullification crisis was unconstitutional. This decision displeased the General Assembly, so they abolished the court of appeals. However, as a staunch Unionist, O’Neall remained true to his convictions, then and for the next twenty-five years. He was named justice of appeals at law, a position he held until 1850. From 1850 to 1859 O’Neall served as president of the court of appeals at law, followed by four years as chief justice of the state. As a jurist, he authored legal treatises and state law digests. Negro Law of the Carolinas (1848), an attempt to guarantee legal protection for slaves while regularizing judicial administration between slaves and free, was one of his most important. A prolific historian as well, O’Neall’s most significant endeavors were Biographical Sketches of the Bench and Bar of South Carolina (1859) and The Annals of Newberry (1859).

Although born a Quaker, O’Neall became a Baptist and a leading Baptist layman. He served as president of the Newberry Bible Society and State Baptist Convention, and as a member of the Furman Institution’s Board of Trustees. Throughout his life O’Neall participated in educational institutions, serving as a trustee of Newberry Academy, Erskine College, and South Carolina College. He actively championed female education by writing articles and giving speeches, serving as a trustee of Johnson Female Academy as well as introducing and supporting the State Baptist Convention’s resolution that established Furman Female College.

In 1832, to save a friend, O’Neall gave up alcohol and six months later stopped using tobacco. He became an ardent supporter of the temperance movement, joining first the Head’s Springs Temperance Society in Newberry and serving multiple years as president. Later he led the South Carolina Temperance Society for twenty-two years. After joining the state’s Sons of Temperance in 1849, he was elected president in 1850 and two years later president of the national organization. O’Neall campaigned for temperance by writing and speaking as well. His column, “The Drunkard’s Looking Glass,” appeared in the South-Carolina Temperance Advocate regularly.

A successful planter and businessman, by 1860 O’Neall owned two plantations valued at $60,000 and eighty-three slaves worth $160,000. For more than twenty years as president of the Newberry District Agricultural Society, he encouraged diversification of crops and sponsored annual meetings that attracted many farmers from all over the state. As a businessman, O’Neall was instrumental in founding the Greenville and Columbia Railroad, serving as its president and director for nine years. Additionally, he was a director of the Bank of Newberry and incorporator of the Southern Mutual Life Insurance Company.

A versatile man of strong convictions, O’Neall worked tirelessly to better his profession, his district, his church, and his county. He died December 27, 1863, and was buried in Rosemont Cemetery, NewberryCounty.

Moore, Alexander, ed. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina House of Representatives. Vol. 5, 1816–1828. Columbia: South Carolina Depart- ment of Archives and History, 1992.

O’Neall, John Belton. Biographical Sketches of the Bench and Bar of South Car- olina. 2 vols. Charleston, S.C.: S. G. Courtney, 1859.

Pope, Thomas H. The History of Newberry County, South Carolina. 2 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1973–1992.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title O'Neall, John Belton
  • Author Roberta VH Copp
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date July 9, 2020
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • Original Published Date June 8, 2016
  • Date of Last Update October 20, 2016