When I started researching my family history in 1993, I easily traced one of my father’s lines back to my great great grandfather, John “Jack” Bass of Warren County, Mississippi. According to the censuses, he was born around 1845, in North Carolina. Like many, I hit that infamous 1870 Brick Wall after finding him in the 1870 U.S. Federal Census. Where in North Carolina was he from? Why and how did he end up in Mississippi? Who were his parents and siblings? If he had been enslaved, who was the slave-owner? Fortunately, I found the answers to these questions.
Eight years later, I finally had a major breakthrough in February 2001, when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) of Salt Lake City, Utah released the Freedman’s Bank Records CD. The Freedmen’s Saving and Trust Company was a federal banking system established shortly around the end of slavery to assist recently emancipated African Americans and others in establishing a savings account. The bank’s purpose was to encourage freedmen to save their money and invest in their own banks. Due to corruption and mismanagement, the bank collapsed in 1874. The bank records can now be researched online at www.discoverfreedmen.org or on Ancestry.com here.
On 16 January 1871, Grandpa Jack Bass traveled to Vicksburg to open a bank account. He completed an application, and it provided crucial information about him and his family. To my surprise, he also signed his own name! He named the following family members: wife, Francis Ann; father, Tom Bowdin; mother, BEDY; one brother, Oscar Birdsong, and two sisters, Mimy Hatchel and Eliza Newman. In 1870, Eliza and her family were Grandpa Jack’s next-door neighbors. I did not know that she was his sister. Later censuses recorded his sisters’ birthplace as being North Carolina, too. Who brought them to Mississippi? Under what circumstances?
Per the 1870 U.S. Federal Census, two older men, Senaker Hatcher and Jackson Bass, ages 54 and 56, respectively, who lived adjacent to each other, resided in Hinds County, too. Interestingly, Aunt Eliza Newman named one of her sons “Senaker.” The 1880 U.S. Federal Census recorded North Carolina as their birthplace, too. Senaker Hatcher and his family had moved to Cairo, Illinois by 1880, and Jackson Bass’s presumed daughter, Emeline Bass, was in his household. She was recorded as being Senaker’s niece. My initial thought was that Grandpa Jack and his siblings were connected to them, somehow. But how? I faced a family puzzle that involved four surnames, Bass, Bowden, Hatcher, and Birdsong. Whew, what a hair-puller!
I researched the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules and censuses to see if any slave-owners with those surnames resided in Hinds County. Several Basses and only one Hatcher were found in Hinds County. His name was Rhesa (Reese) Hatcher, who was the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi in 1869 and again from 1871-1872. He had migrated to Mississippi from Burke County, Georgia. I discounted him as the possible last slave-owner for two reasons: (1) He had migrated to Mississippi from Georgia not North Carolina, and (2) his wife Eliza’s maiden name was Coggins, not Bass, Bowden, or Birdsong, although she was born in North Carolina, according to the censuses. Discounting him and his wife for over a decade turned out to be a big mistake!
On 18 June 2013, the ancestors nudged me. The research of Grandpa Jack had been on my mind. I got this sudden urge to google the name “Rhesa Hatcher,” whom I had discounted. The results of my google search was another major breakthrough! The following deed transcriptions were found on the Hatcher Family Association’s webpage that was transcribed from the North Carolina Genealogical Society Journal (Volume VI, Number 1, February 1980). It was a huge eye-opener!
BASS, Elizabeth of Hinds County, Mississippi, 1 Aug 1849, appoints David A. Barnes of Northampton County, North Carolina, attorney, to recover “a certain negro man slave for life named Henry aged about forty years which Counsel Bass late of the county of Northampton aforesaid deceased..” bequeathed to said Elizabeth for her “natural life with the remainder to my children, to wit — Eliza J. P. Hatcher (formerly E. J. P. Coggins) [present husband of Eliza Hatcher is R. Hatcher], Mary H. Smith (formerly Mary C. Bass) and Elizabeth C. Bass.
HATCHER, Reese and his wife, Eliza J. P. (formerly Eliza J. P. Coggins, daughter of Elizabeth Bass), both of Hinds County, Mississippi, 27 Dec 1847, appoints Elizabeth Bass of said Hinds Co., attorney, “to go to the County of Northampton in the State of North Carolina” to receive “the legacy bequeathed by Council Bass first to Elizabeth Bass during her natural life, and to the heirs of her body after her death…”
I had hit pay dirt! This major clue pointed to Rhesa Hatcher after all. Turns out, his wife, Eliza J. P. Coggins, was the daughter of Elizabeth Bass, and Elizabeth’s father, Council Bass of Northampton County, North Carolina, had left them a “legacy” that they wanted to bring to Mississippi. Although not stated, this “legacy” strongly suggested slaves.
Hot on the trail, I googled for more information. I typed “Council Bass” in the search engine and found the following excerpt in Google Books from Paul Heinegg’s “Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina from the Colonial Period to about 1820”: – Will of Council Bass of Northampton County, N.C., Sept. 2, 1830. Probated Dec. 1830. Legacy to daughters, Martha Mayo, Elizabeth Bass, Charlotte Holloman, and granddaughter, Susan Mary Ann Crisp, trustee Bryan Randolph; left 22 slaves to his heirs [Will Book 4:74].
I now had a new mission – to determine the names of the 22 slaves in Council Bass’s 1830 will. Because enslaved African Americans were considered as “property,” wills, probate and estate records are the most valuable resources in tracing enslaved ancestors. They often contain the names of slaves frequently listed in the wills and estate inventories. Who will I find in Council Bass’s will? The answer to that question was at the State Archives of North Carolina in Raleigh, and the timing of this discovery was perfect!
My friends, Eddie & Laurie Pratcher of Memphis, TN, had asked me to speak at their 2013 Pratcher Family Reunion, to be held in ten days in Raleigh-Durham. This was their first reunion in North Carolina, after discovering that they descend from a free man of color named Aaron Pratcher. Aaron’s enslaved children were taken away from Northampton County, North Carolina, after the death of their owner, Margaret Haynes, the widow of Eaton Haynes. One son, Joseph, was taken to Hale County, Alabama. Another son, David, who was Eddie’s great great grandfather, was taken to Panola County, Mississippi, and another son, Allen, was taken to Lafayette Parish, Louisiana. Those sons kept the Pratcher surname, but never saw their parents and each other again.
To research my new, major clue, I drove down to North Carolina a day earlier than I had planned. I arrived at the State Archives on Friday morning, June 28. I told the archivist at the front desk that I wanted to find the will of Council Bass, dated 2 September 1830. She retrieved a box of the original will records for Northampton County. With acid-free gloves on and a racing heart, I grabbed the folder labeled “Council Bass, 1830,” opened it, and started viewing the 183-year-old, fragile documents.
My brick wall had finally crumbled! Grandpa Jack’s mother Bedy, my great great great grandmother, and other first names I recognized – Jackson and Seneca – were mentioned in Council Bass’s will. My mouth dropped. I wanted to turn flips inside the Archives. Council Bass wrote the following:
In the name of God Amen, I Council Bass being of sound mind and memory this the 2nd day of September in the year of our Lord 1830 do make and publish this my last will and Testament, as follows:
Item 1st: I give and bequeath unto my daughter Martha Mayo all my land on the north side of the Road leading from Bryans X Road to Rich Square to her and her heirs forever. I also lend unto her during her natural life the following negroes that is to say: Rose, Mima, Archie, Nancy, Alfred, Isaac, and Goodson and after her death I give and bequeath the above named Negroes to her surviving children to be equally divided amongst them to them and their heirs forever.
Item 2nd: I convey all of my land on the South side of the Road leading from Bryans X Road 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 . . . 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 whatever.
Item 3rd: I give and bequeath unto my granddaughter Susan Mary Ann Crisp negroes, Zina, Mary Jane, and Andrew to her and her heirs forever also one bed and furniture.
Item 4th: I give and bequeath unto my granddaughter Ann Eliza J.P. Coggins negroe SENECA to her and her heirs forever, also one bed and furniture.
Item 5th: I give and bequeath unto Charlotte Holloman my daughter two negroe girls named Barsilla and Brittania to her and her heirs forever.
Item 6th: I leave all the balance of my estate that is not all ready given away to be sold by my executor for the payment of my just debts and it is my will and desire that all my Negroes remain in the care of my executor for the payment of my debts on year from the first day of January after my death, them to be delivered as heretofore mentioned after the payment of all of my just debts. It is my will and desire that the residue should there be any, in hands of my executor be equally divided between my daughters Martha Mayo, Elizabeth Bass, and my granddaughter Ann Eliza J.P. Coggins.
My mouth dropped even wider when I also found the following petition among the estate papers of Council Bass’s father, Jethro Bass, who died in 1795, in Northampton County. This 1795 petition was summoning Council Bass to appear before the court in regards to the estate of his late father. The county clerk who signed the petition was Eaton Haynes. I sat there frozen in my seat. The ancestors had truly spoken!