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

18 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.


  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

      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!


  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,

      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.


      • 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.

    • This identification of Mary Harris that yo have is incorrect and comes from assumptions made by early genealogists, but has been disproved as the Harris are found in KY or TN. Before more records were readily available it had been assumed that Amos married his widowed cousin and then when the records surfaced that he adopted his natural born child Elizabeth as his heir, it was clear they never married which never sounded right in the first place.

      It was through the reading of the extensive court cases over the Gooch and Harris estates plus the bastardy bonds that it was clear that Mary Harris was a poor white woman without family in Granville or for some reason alienated from her family. Though there are several Harris families in Granville, records have proved no connection to them and her early history is a mystery.

      Bastardy bonds show her having several children out of wedlock including a mix race daughter, who later become an heir to Amos Gooch’s estate when a half-sibling died. It would be highly unlikely that a woman of Amos’ class would have been this visibly living against the middleclass values of her tie.

      Amos Gooch only formally recognized one of her children,though his last will left a sizeable part of his estate to several of Mary’s white children and the assumption is that these are her children by Amos. DNA testing has not disproved this and it seems likely that once Mary’s daughter Elizabeth was adopted that she cemented her ties with Amos though the birth of other children, but the DNA was not conclusive.

      After Amos’ death and the death of one of her children she became a woman of property and of slaves and thus was able to Mary Moody Fowler and enter into the middleclass of Granville, no small accomplishment. Especially as the Gooch family contested Amos’ will and lost to Mary and her children despite the many connections and influence.

      • Thank you, Daniel, for these corrections about Mary Harris. It is so very easy to merge two different people who share the same name and live in close proximity to one another.


      • Daniel, are you the Gooch family researcher referenced in the ‘rootsweb’ entry for Gideon Gooch, Sr.? My family descends from Gideon. I would like to ask you a few questions, please.

    • Are you related to Mary? We believe she may be my 3rd great grandmother! Would love to talk with you. Sincerely Charlea Harris in Virginia

  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.


  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.

  7. Wow, thank you Vikki. It seems you have solved the mystery of where I get my 2% sub Saharan DNA. I have a lot of slave owners in my ancestry so I was searching everywhere but I kept gravitating to my Jones County Mississippi Shows family. I kept digging around Mahaly Wade often called Mahala Shows ( another mystery) because the name means Indian woman. She married Alan Anderson son of Isaac Anderson decedent of the Norfolk Anderson slave family owned by John Fulcher and freed to be free people of color. My DNA points to a 100% Congolese ancestor born between 1720 and 1800 the rest is 97% European. My John Adam Shows who signed the charter for Jones County was married to Nancy Robertson the sister of Rev Norvell Robertson that you write about in your Free State of Jones. Thanks again for your fantastic research and publication.

    • Morna, I find your post fascinating, intriguing, and a confusing! I’d like to connect the dots, so let me begin with your ancestor, Mahala Wade/Shows, who you say married into the mixed-race family of Andersons from Granville County, NC, earlier freed by John Fulcher in Norfolk Virginia. (For those who want to read the mixed-race Anderson history, see You say Mahala married Alan Anderson, son of Isaac Anderson, but the only Isaac I know of was a wealthy slaveholder from Jones County, MS, and not, at least to my knowledge, a mixed-race descendant of the Norfolk, VA, Andersons. Did Mahaly and Alan Anderson migrate to Jones County from Granville County? Or was it Isaac Anderson who migrated from Granville to Jones County? I’d also like to know more about Mahala’s connection to John Adam Shows of Jones County.

      Finally, how do the ancestors you have named reach back to the 100% Congolese ancestor born between 1720-1800 that your DNA identifies? The Virginia/North Carolina Andersons would already have been mixed-race by then, so I assume it would have been an ancestor of Mahaly’s, right? I hope that you can elaborate on your research, because the connections you describe between Granville, NC, and Jones, MS, are truly fascinating.


      • Thanks again for clearing this up. I need to curb my enthusiasm and do the research before leaping to conclusions over a name. Isaac Anderson the wealthy slave owner who married Sarah Deason is my ancestor. Isaac and his first wife Tracy Powell’s son Alan Anderson married Mahalay Wade, some say Shows. Sarah Wade who married James Shows son of John Adam Shows, first Revolationary War Veteran and signer of Jones County charter is reported as the mother of Mahalay. Some have her birthday as 1815 before Sarah married James others show 1818 after. The eye brow raises when Alan and Mahalay’s daughter Emilene Anderson marries John Jones Shows the son of James Shows, her Uncle. Anyway when I saw the name Isaac Anderson in your writing and I knew you had researched Jones County extensively I bit the wrong bite. Had my doubts when my Isaac’s father was James but was hanging on as I would love to be apart of Fulcher’s Anderson story but not. Just got back from trip to Jones County. Toured Deason house, Isaac’s graves with his two wives and in Fellowship Cemetery found Mahalay and Alan, JJ and Emeline Shows, their son Quitman Isaac and Martha Woodward Shows and my grandmother’s parents David and Sarah Nall. John Adam Shows has a new tombstone in Johnson Cemetery but his wife Nancy Robertson is unmarked she is sister of Norvall Robertson. I believe they are buried on their homestead. A little story, when Alan Anderson died Mahalay painted his coffin black with charcoal and egg whites to make it shiny, blackened her face climbed up on top the coffin in the wagon and rode to the gravesite, pronounced, ” I think it looks good”. If we talked to anyone in Ellisville long enough we’d find a relative we shared. John Adam Shows lived just south of Newt Knight and there were at least 2 marriages between Serena’s sisters with Shows. Thanks again, I love and appreciate your work.

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