During a recent conference on the 300th Anniversary of the Tuscarora removal from North Carolina, I had the opportunity to join in rich discussions on the racial blending taking place in early Bertie County. Whether occurring naturally, or by force and through slavery or conquest; blacks, whites and Indians somehow melded to form the peoples many of us are today. It’s a time that differs greatly from what we hear in the standard dialogue of southerners and their unforgiveable sins as owners of slaves. I’m new to this, but I believe there was a time when the rules and morals were not as racially restricted as they are even today. Within the harsh truth of slavery, there was a fleeting moment in society when it was possible for blacks and even some Indians to own large tracts of land. Slavery was in play and yet free people of color advanced with little punitive retribution. It really was a fleeting moment in time when things were different.
Seeking from the conference experts their thoughts on the meaning of a family tax record, I presented the following:
Feb 1742, Bertie – Alice Thomas proved her rights vizt: Alice Thomas, James Thomas, Jacob Thomas, Mary Thomas whites & York, Rose, Ned, Simon, Philis & Penny Blacks. Ind.
Aug 1742, Bertie – Joseph Thomas on oath proved his rights to wit: Joseph Thomas, Anne Thomas & Michael Thomas & Mary Thomas white persons.
Concerned about Mary and Anne, what was the above entry saying about their race? You see, I’ve heard that a female should normally not be listed in a tax list unless she was a land owner or was either black or Indian. So, with it being proper for Alice to be listed, why was Anne and Mary listed? There are exceptions and I was told not to worry about it as following the death of Alice’s husband the record likely reflects land bequeaths to children coming of age. It was an imperfect system. The history gurus did point out however that they were seriously glad to see the term “Ind.” which is an abbreviation for Indian. They further commented that many people believe the Indians were not held in slavery and that they need to see these kinds of records. It appears in this 1742 entry that at least one of the above people York, Rose, Simon, Philis, or Penny was certainly Indian. The entry is proof that Indians lived in the widow Alice’s household as either slaves or for some other reason not disclosed. Were they slaves or could they otherwise have been indentured to learn a trade?
Alice’s son Joseph Thomas [II] wrote his last will and testament in 1752. However, the will was not probated until 1758. From the journal of Moravian August Gottlieb Spangenburg we know the coastal region was prone to influenza in the 1750’s. Did Joseph die from sickness?
In 1756, a portion of the Bertie County tax entry lists the following people:
You see Joseph Thomas [II] listed above in the year likely prior to his death. Notice the people surrounding him. There’s Arthur Williams who along with Joseph Thomas’ wife Anne were named Executors of his last will and testament. There’s also Henry Bunch who was black /person of color. Henry was a large land owner. Outside of farming his family was also house builders by trade. They may have built the original house at Hope Plantation. You’ll also see Joseph Collins in the list. A witness to Joseph Thomas’ last will and testament, Joseph Collins married Rachel Bunch, the daughter of Henry Bunch. His children are identified in tax lists as both mulatto and later as white. Joseph Collin’s daughter Elizabeth married Jonas Summerell, brother to Joseph Summerell who married Elizabeth, the daughter of Joseph [II] and Alice Thomas. You’ll see Isaac Bass who is from a black/mulatto family out of Nansemond County VA. Somehow his family connects to Samuel Bass who, in 1729, sold Joseph Thomas [I] his first piece of land in Bertie County. And lastly, you’ll see William Butler who in the late 1740’s was head of household of two free mulattos.
So, in that day and time can you imagine a community in which race and slavery was so very different than how we perceive colonial America today? In 1800 the namesake child of Henry Bunch was master to three slaves along with a white female servant. And as for Joseph Thomas [II], his last will and testament names negro slaves Rose Jack and Boson along with “my mulatto servant boy named Jacob.” The use of the word mulatto may indicate a person of color with Indian mix. And like his father, the estate inventory of Joseph Thomas [II] included a tomahawk. If only that hatchet could talk!
Following the death of Joseph Thomas [II], Samuel Butler was indentured to the widow Ann Thomas to learn the business of husbandry which is by definition the care, cultivation, and breeding of crops and animals.
Samuel Butler is the son of Mary Butler who is the daughter of Jethro Butler who was black/mulatto. In 1779 Samuel Butler of Camden South Carolina sold out land holdings to his Uncle Tobias Butler in Bertie.
I can only imagine the day and time where a young mulatto boy was indentured to a newly widowed white woman to learn the business of farming. What about her own children and the load she bore in raising them?
Anne Thomas, widow of Joseph Thomas [II] would soon marry again to John Hill Junior following her husband’s death ca. 1757. Some of her children known through Joseph Thomas’ last will and testament were coming of age. Others were indentured within and outside of the family to learn the various trades. And yet, I’ve learned there were even other younger children not named in joseph Thomas’ last will and testament. These children were appointed guardians following their mother’s marriage. More on them in my next post.
I could continue this line of thought as you know similar stories played out across the rural landscape of early North Carolina. We now know better! Judgement is passed as though how we see things today is the truth and the way it should always be. Morality is not a constant. Constantly changing, it’s redefined and proven forward by our own devises.
Slavery was a scourge and there’s nothing that can be said to make it right. And, to the treatment encountered by the American Indians; it must be said that was wrong too. I wish it could have been different. But, within it all, it’s important that we know and acknowledge a way of life which few of us realize as once happening.