Multiracial Families/Communities

Unruly Women Among the Old South’s Upper Classes; Or, What You Might Discover in the State Archives

Unruly Women coverWhen I wrote Unruly Women, (published 1992) I focused primarily on showing how the lives of nonslaveholding women–poor white, free black, and farm women–were impacted by living in a slaveholding society. I was particularly interested in what sorts of behavior marked a woman as “deviant.” I soon discovered that women who crossed the color line, thereby blurring the boundaries of race in a slaveholding society, were most consistently hauled before court magistrates for their crimes of passion.

One women who did not make it into Unruly Women was Mary (Polly) Harris of Granville County, North Carolina. One reason I passed her over was because she lived a generation too soon for the framework of my study (1830-1865). It certainly was NOT because Mary obeyed the rules of society. But, unlike most unruly women, Mary’s behavior was rarely reported in court records, probably because she was from the slaveholding class, for whom personal matters were often settled privately.

Nevertheless, I did discover Mary Harris while working in the North Carolina State Archives in 1983, and I took notes on the interesting circumstances of her life, which included giving birth to children–lots of them–without the benefit of marriage. Nothing more defined a woman as “deviant” than this, and yet I didn’t discover Mary’s habits in the county court’s bastardy bonds, but, rather, in the estate papers of Amos Gooch, who died around 1821. Gooch was a Granville County bachelor who fathered five of Mary’s children: William, Nancy, John G., Jane, and Elizabeth (Betsy).

I was reminded of Mary Harris and Amos Gooch last week when I received an email from Daniel Mahar of San Francisco. Descended from one of Amos’s brothers, Daniel discovered Mary in the records of the North Carolina Archives many years ago, and wondered if I had also encountered her while researching Unruly Women. Daniel’s expansive knowledge of Mary’s life, as well as the lives of her children, stimulated me to return to my files and, with his help, piece together a fascinating chronicle of unorthodox living arrangements among members of North Carolina’s early slaveholding class. 

In 1804, Amos and Mary’s illegitimate daughter, Betsy, received a slave from her mother. The following year, Amos recognized Betsy as his daughter, and pledged in a guardian bond to support her and her slave. Eventually, Betsy Harris became Betsy Gooch. Curiously, the Gooch name was not bestowed on Amos and Mary’s other four children.

Among the descendants of Amos Gooch and Mary Harris, slaves and land were passed from one generation to the next, with courtroom battles occasionally fought over who deserved to inherit what. For example, Nancy Harris, the “natural born” daughter of Amos, owned four slaves when she died in 1826. After Nancy’s estate was dispersed, her half-sister, Susan Harris, sued its administrator, Thomas Jones, and won a judgment for $211.25 from the state supreme court.

That only begins the task of sorting out the tangled skeins of a distinctly unruly family of North Carolina’s early upper class. According to family researcher Arnom Harris, Mary Harris gave birth to a total of twelve children: five fathered by Amos Gooch; three of uncertain paternity (one of whom, Susan, appears either to have been mixed-race or the mother of mixed-race children); and four by Moody Fowler, whom Mary married in 1830 (yes, this unwed mother did eventually marry!).

Mary Harris’s life story raises intriguing questions about deviant behavior among upper-class Southern women; about interactions between Granville County’s “free black” population (which was overwhelmingly multiracial) and the white slaveholding class; and about the distribution of property among intricate kinship groups that included “legitimate” and “illegitimate” children.

Need I add that were I writing Unruly Women today, Mary Harris would be prominently featured?

Vikki Bynum

10 replies »

  1. Hi Vikki,

    Mary Harris. Indeed interesting! But then everytime I log on to your blog I find new things of interest. Enjoyed reading Yvonne Bivins’s family history and also looking at her family pictures.

    Eager for your latest book to arrive. And learning more about the continuing saga of the Knight and their allied families.

    As indicated oreviously, I throughly enjoyed reading ‘The Free State of Jones’. And continue to enjoy Dr G and the Mud Cats. Love the story telling mixed with the twangy blue grass sounds. A win win.

    My thanks to everyone who posts here. All new information is a treat.

    Warmest regards,

    Vikky (Wilburn) Anders

    • Vikky,

      Thanks for visiting Renegade South! I’m pleased that you have enjoyed my guest bloggers, including Yvonne Bivins and Dr. G (aka Gregg Andrews.) We’ll continue to do our best to keep it interesting.

      Vikki

  2. Good Morning,

    I am so excited to find your book: Unruly Women, as I believe that Elizabeth and Susan Williford may be family members of mine. The family tree was traced back to Lewis and Parthenia (Meadows/Milton?) Williford, but seemed to end there.

    With this new lead, we will hopefully trace back farther! I knew that my paternal grandfather, John Dillard (JD) Williford’s, family came from the Berea, Moriah, and Tally Ho areas of Granville Co. NC. Andrew Williford and Lillian Coleman-Williford were my great grandparents.

    I ordered it today!

    Thank you!

    Cynthia Williford Young
    Oxford, NC

    • The book sounds great. I will check out the bookstore this weekend.

      I am trying to extend my Williford family line beyond Lewis Dillard Williford and Parthenia Meadows Williford. I spent yesterday in the Oxford Library trying to find some connection to LDW’s parents. My earlier research found that Parthenia is the daughter of Jesse Meadows and Orpha Tippett. Parthenia also has a brother, Henderson.

      Where did you find the connection to the John Dillard family? I have suspected that Lewis’s mother was a Dillard but have never found anything to back it up.

      Are you related to the Buster Williford family?

      Please contact me with information related to the LDW family. You can contact me directly at jwilliford4@att.net

      Louis Jesse Williford, Jr. aka jesse

  3. Cynthia,

    I’m excited to hear from you, as Susan Williford and Parthenia Melton were fascinating women to research. Moreover, I did not know that Parthenia was a Williford, and would like to know more about her connections to Lewis Williford (a marriage, I assume?).

    Hope to hear from you again. In the meantime, I will check my own files for more info once I get them set up. I have just moved from Texas to Missouri, so all is in flux right now. I hope to change that soon, and get back to digging.

    Thanks for commenting!

    Vikki

  4. So, let’s go one better. Mary Harris was born Mary Gooch. She was the daughter of Roland Gooch and Lively Thweatt.

    Mary Gooch married Tyree Harris on August 2, 1790 in Granville County, NC with Benjamin Fowler serving as bondsman. I find this interesting since Mary later married Moody Fowler on September 7, 1830. Almost all records we have of Moody Fowler suggest he was born in 1793. Mary was at least close to 20 years his senior.

    Yes, she was married yet it is true nearly all 12 of her children were possibly born out of wedlock.

    Amos Gooch was her first cousin.

    I have a paper written by Arnom Harris that you might find interesting.

    Thank you for the read.
    Kirk

    • Kirk,

      Thanks for filling in more of Mary Harris’s life–and what an interesting life it was! Mary’s personal history reminds us of how important it is to stop and look at individual stories, which often contradict our stereotypes about “the way things were.”

      Would love to read the Arnom Harris paper that you mention.

      Vikki

      • Hi Vikki, I’m sorry I just saw your reply. I’ve looked all over for a direct Email for you here. How can I email the Word file on Mary Gooch to you?

        On another note, “Wow!” I stumbled on here while googling Mary “Polly” Gooch. There’s some really cool stuff here.

        As mentioned above, Mary Gooch married Moody Fowler. Moody’s borther, William Fowler, moved his family from Granville County, NC to Fentress County, Tennessee in about 1835.

        Do you know about Fentress County, TN? Sgt. York of World War I fame is from there. Anyways, during the Civil War, nearly all the men of Fentress County, Tennessee fought for the Union. Three of William Fowler’s sons served in Co. I of the 13th Kentucky Cav. Most of the mean in the 13th Ky Cav were from Tennessee. These men all mustered in at Columbia, Ky. Fentress County sits on the Cumberland at the KY/TN border. This was a hot bed for guerilla activity on both sides – mainly between “Tinker” Dave Beaty and Champ Ferguson – both from Fentress Co., TN area. They both ravaged the civilian population, killing at will. The men of the 13th Ky Cav ended up at the battle of Saltsville which is where Champ Ferguson committed the murders he was convicted of – referred to as “The Massacre at Saltsville.” I believe the killings were prompted by personal grudges from back home. There is a rumor that one of the men that champ killed was his own brother who was a union man. The likelihood the killings at Saltsville related back to Fentress County is very strong.

        Oh yeah, please let me know how I can send you the word file for Mary Harris.

  5. Kirk,

    Good to hear from you again!

    The Fentress County, Tenn., connection you describe is fascinating, especially because of its Civil War guerrilla activity. I am familiar with Champ Ferguson because historian Brian McKnight has a new book on Ferguson that’s just out.

    I will email you privately so that you have my email address.

    Vikki

  6. Hi Vicky,
    This was indeed one of the most exciting short articles I have read since my research began. It would be wonderful to read the full story.

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