Sunday, April 19, 2015

Four Generations of Enslaved Ancestors Held By One Trust

A scan of the will of Council Bass, September 2, 1830, Northampton County, North Carolina (Source)

This weekend, numerous articles reported that actor Ben Affleck asked Dr. Henry Louis Gates to exclude the fact that one of his ancestors was a slave-owner in the PBS series, “Finding Your Roots.” He wanted it hidden. This was revealed from a hacked Sony e-mail written on July 22, 2014, that was recently placed on WikiLeaks.  The question many are asking is WHY?

Perhaps Affleck failed to realize that the long-lasting institution of chattel slavery was deeply interwoven into America’s historic fabric for hundreds of years. Hundreds!  Although American chattel slavery was the most inhumane form of slavery on this earth, why cover it up? It happened and it happened for a long time. Unfortunately, slavery was part of the foundation of America’s growth and development. 

During this dark time in our American history, enslaved African Americans were considered property. That “property” was subject to many legal transactions because our enslaved ancestors were basically expensive “material goods.” These inhumane legal transactions can be found in many county court records. Here is one of many that I recently discovered in my own family history that is the focus of this blog post (not Affleck). Four generations of ancestors in one family were held by a legal trust for nearly 20 years.

Two years ago, I finally broke down that 1870 brick wall with my great-great-grandfather, Jack Bass, and his family. According to the 1870 & 1880 censuses and his Freedman’s Bank application, he was born in or around 1845 in North Carolina. His Freedman’s Bank application, dated January 16, 1871, asked the question, “Where Brought Up?” Grandpa Jack reported Mississippi. This led me to theorize that he was likely transported to Mississippi from North Carolina at a young age and had spent most of his childhood in Hinds County, Mississippi near Jackson.

When I found the huge clue that enabled me to knock down that 1870 brick wall, as explained in The Ancestors Spoke: Another Longtime Brick Wall Crumbles!, my theory turned out to be accurate. Not only that, I also discovered that Grandpa Jack was born under a legal trust that his mother’s first enslaver had established via his will. His family were not residing on the farm of their legal owner at the time of his birth. This legal trust had held Grandpa Jack, his mother, his grandmother, and his great-grandmother in North Carolina. Four generations!

Approximately 15 years before Grandpa Jack Bass was born, Council Bass of Northampton County, North Carolina wrote his will on September 2, 1830. He bequeathed Grandpa Jack’s mother Beady – my 3rd-great-grandmother – and other family members to his daughter, Mrs. Elizabeth Bass Coggins Bass. Yes, both her maiden name and her last married name was Bass. According to NC marriage records, she had married Jesse Bass Jr. on January 16, 1828. He was her second cousin. Shortly after their marriage, Jesse and Elizabeth migrated to Hinds County, Mississippi by 1830. He was reported in the 1830 census in Hinds County. This was Elizabeth’s second marriage, and she was presumably in Mississippi when her father wrote his will.

Per Council’s will, Elizabeth was given land and slaves, and those slaves – my family – were to be held in trust strictly for Elizabeth’s benefit. Council obviously did not want his cousin/son-in-law to benefit at all. This seemed to have been the main reason why my ancestors were held in North Carolina for the next 18 years after his will. In 1830, Council Bass made the following special bequeath to Elizabeth in his will. Notice his phrase in red.

Item 2nd: I convey all of my land on the South side of the Road leading from Bryans Crossroad to Rich Square including my dwelling house with the following Negroes that is to say, Harry, Beady, Hezekiah, Jackson, and Willie unto Bryan Randolph in trust for the benefit of my daughter Elizabeth Bass during her life and after her death I give and bequeath the said land . . . with the negroes Harry, Beady, Hezekiah, Jackson, and Willie unto her surviving children to be equally divided amongst them. . . . It is my will that the trustee Bryan Randolph pay unto my daughter Elizabeth Bass annually the amount of the rent of said land and hire of said Negroes after reserving what may be necessary for the support of the three old Negroes, Sharper, Rose, and Peggy which I wish to be maintained on the plantation as long as they live unto my daughter Elizabeth for her own use and benefit and the same be not subject to the order or use of her husband in any way whatsoever.

Based on census records, death certificates, and other evidence, I have determined that the lot of slaves bequeathed to Elizabeth were children of Rose, including Grandma Beady. Circumstantial evidence, such as naming patterns, strongly suggest that Peggy was Rose’s mother. Sharper may have been Rose’s father, but I am still looking for more evidence to prove it. Council Bass bequeathed other children of Grandma Rose, my 4th-great-grandmother, to his other two married daughters, Martha Mayo and Charlotte Holloman, and his granddaughters, Susan Crisp and Eliza Coggins.

In his will, Council Bass appointed a neighbor named Bryan Randolph as the trustee. Randolph was responsible for hiring out my family and keeping an accurate accounting. The proceeds from the hiring out of my enslaved ancestors, as well as from the rent of his land, were to be paid annually to Elizabeth. My enslaved ancestors were transferred to Bryan Randolph’s farm after Council Bass died, shortly after he wrote his will. His will was probated in December 1830.

I learned from online family trees that Bryan Randolph died in 1838. Luckily, FamilySearch has digitized many of North Carolina’s estate records, and I decided to take a look at Randolph’s estate file, all 436 images! Lo and behold, among his thick estate record was a complaint titled “William Britton vs. Jesse Bass and wife, October 1838.” Those images can be seen here.  Apparently, Jesse & Elizabeth Bass were not happy with William Britton, the named executor of Bryan Randolph’s estate and the new trustee of Council Bass’ property. They petitioned the court to appoint someone else. Also, Randolph’s estate file contained an accounting of the hiring and keeping of Grandma Beady, her three children, and her brothers, Harry and Jackson, for the years 1837, 1838, 1839, and 1840. Interestingly, in 1840, Elizabeth Bass was paid over $700.

An accounting for the hiring and keeping of Grandma Beady, her three children (unnamed), and her brothers, Harry and Jackson, in 1839 from Bryan Randolph’s estate record. (Source)

I also learned from online family trees that William Britton had died in 1844. I decided to find his estate records to see if I could learn more. Since William Britton was appointed as the new trustee of Council Bass’ property, will my ancestors be found in his records? The answer was YES. His estate records were also found on FamilySearch. Thankfully, his estate record only contains 45 scanned documents, and among those 45 pages was a complaint titled, “The Bill of Complaint of Richard O. and William J. Britton, Administrators of William Britton deceased vs Jesse Bass and wife Elizabeth.” This complaint was filed in 1846 because Jesse & Elizabeth believed that Richard and William J. Britton were not keeping an accurate accounting of the hiring of negroes left by Council Bass for Elizabeth’s benefit. In that 1846 complaint, the slaves now named were Harry, Jackson, Grandma Beady and her children, Eliza, Jemima, Hetty, Peggy, and Jackson, and “old Peggy” and Rose (Source). The second Jackson was Grandpa Jack Bass, my great-great-grandfather! “Old Peggy” was likely Grandpa Jack’s great-grandmother – the mother of Grandma Rose, who was the mother of Grandma Beady. Based on my calculations, she may have been around 90 years old!

To add, another eye-catching document in William Britton’s estate record was a petition issued by Elizabeth Bass on January 25, 1848, to move her slave inheritance – my ancestors – to Mississippi. Her husband Jesse Bass had recently died, leaving her with two young daughters; the probate court of Hinds County, Mississippi had appointed her guardianship. In the petition, she claimed that my enslaved family would be more valuable to her and her daughters if they were in Mississippi with them (Source). Knowing that her father’s will specifically requested that Jesse have no control over her slaves, perhaps Elizabeth felt confident in petitioning this move after Jesse’s death. 

Nonetheless, her request was granted, and Grandpa Jack Bass and his family were transported to Hinds County, Mississippi around 1849. He was only a young boy, no more than 4 years old. (Note: His father Tom Bowden was left back in North Carolina.) I can’t help but wonder if his great-grandmother Peggy – my 5th-great-grandmother – had lived two more years to make the trip. That trek to central Mississippi from northeastern North Carolina, adjacent to Virginia, was a 900-mile journey that likely took weeks by uncomfortable, wooden wagons and by feet. I wonder . . . .

Jan. 25, 1848 Petition: “….The defendant Elizabeth further assuring & with that the property mentioned in complaint Bill viz the slaves will be much more valuable to herself and her children if removed to the State of Mississippi where they all reside. In view of these considerations she is desiring that this Honorable Court will issue a surrender of the said slaves to the defendant……” (Source)