Free, But Not Free: Uncovering Surprising History in Court Records

Genealogy research involves more than just collecting names, places, and dates. It also should entail a diligent attempt to uncover more about our ancestors’ lives – the good and the not-so-good – in order to understand and to provide more insight into our family history and American history. I continuously find it amazing at what all can be uncovered about enslaved people from court records. I’ve written about some of these discoveries. Here’s another case that literally made my mouth drop!

In 2013, after nearly 20 years of searching, I finally tied my father’s great-great-grandmother, Beady Bass of Hinds County, Mississippi, to a slave-owner. His name was Council Bass, who died in 1830 in Northampton County, North Carolina. In his 1830 will, an enslaved woman, ROSE, was noted as being “old.” I deduced that she was about 50 years old and had given birth to a number of children.

Genealogy research, naming patterns, and DNA evidence, collectively, have led me to propose that Rose was likely my 4X-great grandmother – the mother of Grandma Beady, and her siblings, Jackson Bass, Jemima Mayo, Barsilla Williford, Brittie Ann Bass Early, and Seneca Hatcher, who were also named in Council’s will. Aunt Brittie Ann died in 1914, near Ahoskie, Hertford County, North Carolina, at the reported age of 100. Her son, Goodman Early, reported on her death certificate that her parents’ names were Seneca Bass and Rosa Bass, both of Northampton County. This was the first record to provide a father’s name. See below.

Other research findings have led me to discover more about Rose’s life. These findings have led me to ask the questions – Was Grandma Rose allowed to live a relatively free life in Northampton County as an enslaved woman after Council Bass died? Was she able to earn money as a slave? Court records definitely appear to indicate this. Let’s examine the content in three pieces of court records and the 1830 census.

Record #1: Council Bass’s will, 2 September 1830, Northampton County, North Carolina

Council Bass wrote, “ . . . 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, & 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.” (Source: Northampton County Wills, Council Bass, 1830, North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998, accessed from Ancestry.com)

Five enslaved people, including Grandma Beady and her brother, Jackson Bass, were bequeathed to Elizabeth Bass, and the proceeds from their labor (hired out) and the rent of his land were to benefit Elizabeth. The proceeds were also to be used to support Sharper, Rose, and Peggy on his plantation. Elizabeth had married her cousin, Jesse Bass Jr., and they had moved to Hinds County, Mississippi. Council clearly wanted his son-in-law excluded from using Elizabeth’s inheritance. 

Record #2: The 1830 census, Council Bass, Northampton County, North Carolina

The 1830 census was taken shortly before Council Bass wrote his will on 2 September 1830. When the census taker visited his plantation, he recorded only one white person – a male who was between the age of 60-69. Three daughters were named in his will, and marriage records, censuses, and other records show that they all had married and started families of their own in different locations by 1830. Therefore, Council appears to have been living alone. His wife, Patty Griffin, whom he had married in 1782, had passed away. When he died shortly afterwards, Sharper, Rose, and Peggy were allowed to remain on his plantation “as long as they live,” per the instructions of his will.    

Record #3: Probate Record of Council Bass, Northampton County, North Carolina, 1830-1831

In Council Bass’s probate record, “negro Rose” was recorded as purchasing a barrel and peas from the estate for 5 cents. See below. Very interesting to see that an enslaved woman was allowed to buy goods from her deceased enslaver’s estate.

Source: Estate Records, 1766-1911, Council Bass, Northampton County, North Carolina, 1830, North Carolina Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998, accessed from Ancestry.com.

Record #4: Account Sale of Slaves, Probate Record of Bryan Randolph, Northampton County, North Carolina, 1839

Per his will, Council Bass appointed Bryan Randolph, who lived in the vicinity, as the trustee to be responsible for hiring out Grandma Beady, her brother, Jackson, and three others and to send the proceeds to Elizabeth, after subtracting money for the support of Sharper, Rose, and Peggy. Randolph died nine years later, about 1839. Researching his probate record proved to be very insightful! Turns out, he owned an enslaved man named Senaker, who was sold to “Rose Bass” for $25! See below. No white Rose Bass lived in the area, so this had to be my Rose. Senaker was likely her husband, the same “Seneca” who was reported as being Aunt Brittie Ann’s father on her death certificate. How interesting to see that my 4X-great-grandmother Rose was allowed to purchase her husband.

Account Sales, Estate Record of Bryan Randolph, Northampton County, North Carolina, 7 February 1839, North Carolina Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998, accessed from Ancestry.com.

Unfortunately, liked many enslaved couples, Seneca and Rose suffered the emotional pain of being separated from their children. Grandma Beady and her children were eventually taken away to Hinds County, Mississippi, after Elizabeth had petitioned the court in 1848 to retrieve her “legacy.” Their son, Seneca, was also taken to Hinds County, Mississippi. Council Bass had bequeathed him to his granddaughter, Eliza, who married Rhesa Hatcher, a mayor of Jackson, Mississippi. Their sons, Jackson Bass and Seneca Hatcher, lived adjacent to each other in 1870 in Hinds County, according to the census. Two daughters, Barsilla “Zillie” and Brittie Ann, were taken to the St. Johns community of adjacent Hertford County. Their daughter, Jemima Mayo, and her children were taken to Madison County, Tennessee. Nonetheless, their names were passed down among their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

To read about how genetic genealogy linked this family branch to the Igbo people of present-day Nigeria, see “Using DNA Painter to Verify Igbo Origins.”

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