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

33 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


      • I am happy to share any of my research. I have researched the Gooch family extensively. Vikki can share my email address with any of you.


      • Hello Renegade Vicki, I admire you and your work. I have been working on a word pile for the last 20 years, what I call a narrative historic novel, and it dawned on me, how similar one of my stories is to your unruly women. “The Sins of Ellianor Aldin”, a young widow, with 3 small children has an affair with a young man, 7 years her junior, Henry Thacker. An illegitimate child, Lettice Aldin, results, Vestry of Christ Church of Middlesex Virginia put her on trial for fornication. The trial is documented, Ellianor is fined in tobacco, her brother Richard Willis pays her fine and when Lettice is 3, she is bound out as an apprentice to Marvel Moseley. All is good with the church when Ellianor marries Richard Kemp. All these characters are wealthy landowners. Capt Richard Willis is fourth largest land owner, amassing land inherited by shipping settlers and indentured servants in the early 1600. He married Elizabeth Landon, dies and she married King Carter (Robert), the wealthy, largest landowner in those parts. Ellianor is my father’s ancestor and Henry’s sister my Mother’s ancestors. Martha Thacker Hickman had a daughter Elizabeth, my line and Edwin Hickman is Obama’s ancestor. Genealogy is wilder than my wildest dream.


      • About the Gooch family, I have an ancestor, Catherine Wilkes who had a child by William Claiborne II, Ursala Claiborne. When William returned from England, attending College, he married Catherine, they had a large family and lived at Romancoke plantation on the Pamunkey River. Ursala married George? Gooch. Tidewater Virginia, are these your Gooch people?


  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.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I am working on the wife of Alan Anderson of Ellisville Jones County Mississippi, I previously thought Mahalay was a Wade or some thought Shows but it has been reveled she is Mahalay Herrington. Also a new discovery is the first wife of Isaac Quitman Shows, was thought to be Martha E Woodward, no Martha E Dossett grew up not far from Quitman, Martha’s father is Hansford D Dossett, who you mentioned in your book, Free State of Jones. Quitman and Martha named their son Hansford J Shows, my grandfather. Also living near Quitman as a young boy was a black family Jack and Mary Shows, this after civil war, I’m thinking they are Shows slaves now free. Also scattered in the neighborhood are domestic black servants named Mary Shows, 20 years old;, Jemma Shows, 17 malahto,; Frances Shows 14, Black; Henry Shows 11 years old, malahto, just interesting.


  8. Hello Professor Bynum,

    I was researching the Williford family and I came across your work for Betsy (Elizabeth) Williford. I saw in your book, Unruly Women , that you mentioned Betsy had never married and had multiple illegitimate children, likely including Lewis Dillard Williford, my great great great grandfather. I would like to see the evidence behind this as I am actively doing research on the family again as one of the documents I believed was one of Betsy’s husband (1820 census) was really a completely garbled spelling of Winfree that looked like Williford and he had a very similar family structure to the Williford family.

    I have seen the bastardy bonds for Rowan County where Elizabeth (Betsy) had a child in 1815 and another in 1827. These birth years do correlate to her daughter and another possible daughter, and they are Susan Williford and Rebecca Jane Williford O’brien. The only two issues are that the Elizabeth in Rowan was the grand daughter of an English immigrant by the name of Joshua Williford, as he was the father of William Williford, the bondsman of the bastardy bonds involving the Elizabeth seen in Rowan County. However, I had seen a court case mentioned in one of the books from the Granville County Courthouse that showed that the Elizabeth from Granville County had been in the county by the time of the bastardy bond taking place in 1827 in Rowan County, as she had owed money to a David Young and a court case opened in 1829. She had first borrowed from him in November of 1824. The case said this money was to pay bonds but I do not think they are bastardy bonds, as they would have been recorded and no bonds were to be seen for these payments.

    Another thing is that I had taken the Ancestry dna test and had 5th through 8th cousin matches from Williford families that had been in America before the arrival of Joshua Williford. The ancestors of these Williford’s were descended from Richard Williford I of South Hampton County, Virginia and Abigail Askey Williford of Bertie County, North Carolina. One of the closer matches was a descendant of Micijah Williford, the son of the William Williford and Elizabeth Williford you had mentioned as possibly being Susan Williford’s grandparents or great grandparents, and the other matches mostly came from Richard Williford II’s descendants.

    Hearing back especially as late as this comment had been posted would be great! I am looking forward for any information you had gathered of Betsy.


    • Hi Steve,
      You’ve given me a lot to think about and research in my files! Thanks so much for coming forth with your family information. Elizabeth “Betsy” Williford was very illusive, and I struggled to figure our her connections. I will go back to my records, read your message very carefully, and see what I can figure out. Give me a little time, and I’ll be back ASAP.



      • A little more information on the Willifords in Granville I forgot to mention. William Williford and Elizabeth Williford sold their land in Granville and moved to the Mingo District of Sampson County. They sold over a thousand acres of land to a John Planter and wife. William Williford was the brother of Richard Williford II. Richard never set foot in Granville but their brother, John Williford, came with William to Granville by obtaining a land grant in 1763. He moved back to Bertie County around ten years later.

        William Williford and most of his family moved to Sampson County between the decades of 1790 and 1800. In December of 1802, a Tilly Williford was seen marrying a Thomas Robards in Granville County. I believe she may be a grandchild of William and Elizabeth Williford, as she was too far away geographically to be closely related to the families of Samuel Theophilus and Benjamin Crawford Williford, who were located in Person County at the time, however they would have been located really in Orange County on a modern map. This would also tie in with a theory of mine that involves a son in of William and Elizabeth staying in Granville on a small amount of land left behind, explaining why the Williford family would have been in Granville before the 1820s. I believe this Williford to have been named William Williford, and he would have been born around 1755 in Bertie and moved to Granville with his family. The William Williford seen transferring the land to Betsy could have very well been this William Williford.

        Another thing I’d like to bring up is that Lewis D. Williford’s mother’s maiden name was Dillard. I have found a Dillard family, that of Joseph Dillard and Mary A. Williams Dillard, who lived on a farm with a size of around 500 acres that was on both sides of House Creek in Wake County. This farm would have been around five miles from where the Williford farm would have been. This family had a daughter born around 1785, also named Elizabeth and she also went by Betsy. I personally believe that this Betsy was born in 1789 and was the elusive Betsy Williford that we are both trying to research.

        Betsy Dillard was seen marrying Thomas Brown around 1813 in Wake County, she was later seen in a marriage bond with a man named Albert Utley around 1814, meaning that she had been widowed earlier. There is no record of an actual marriage occurring between Betsy and Albert, and Albert’s will in 1826 showed he later married a woman by the name of Nancy. I had put a hypothetical tag on Betsy and changed the name to Dillard and added a male Williford into the equation (a son of the William Williford born around 1755) and added the Dillard family to Betsy Dillard on this family tree and connected it to ancestry Thru-Lines. The results after Thru- Lines updates showed 4 extremely distant cousins from Joseph and Mary Dillard. I believe these relatives to mostly be double cousins, as they share more DNA with me rather than the other members of my family tree.

        If Betsy Williford is Betsy Dillard Brown Williford, then that would also explain why she was marked as a widow in the 1880 census when she was living with her son Squire Williford. Also, the confirmed children of Betsy Williford would be Susan Williford, David M. Williford, Lewis Dillard Williford (David and Lewis were both sons as Lewis and David knew each other and two of their children married, David and Squire were also next door neighbors who knew each other and Betsy switched households between them between 1870 and 1880), Squire W. Williford, and James Williford, who has been seen in only two census records, however he might have lived into the 1880s as there was a J.W. Williford listed as a witness for Squire W. Williford’s second marriage with Susan Briggs Williford. Their likely children are Rebecca Jane Williford O’brien, who was born around 1828 and would have been too old to have been a grand child of Betsy’s, Rowan Williford Fowler, who was born in May of 1833, and Sally Williford, who was born in August of 1835.

        I believe that Sally and Rowan were both daughters of Betsy Williford because Lucious Allen Bullock, Squire W. Williford’s grandson, was ordered to pay Sally’s pauper’s support in 1914. She was listed in the 1900 census as a sister of Rowan Fowler (Williford) in Tally Ho and she was living with her. Also, Susan Williford had three more children that you did not mention. Their was an unnamed child in Susan’s first bastardy bond in 1830, whose father may have been John R. Hobgood, since the bondsman was Fowler Hobgood. Fowler Hobgood was also the bondsman for Susan’s son, Thomas Williford, born a bastard in 1836, and for a daughter of Susan and Peter Curtis’s named Eliza Williford. Eliza appears in the 1870 census living with Susan in Wake County (she left the Curtis family in the late 1860s and moved south). She was recorded twice as she left to live with the Jenkins family in Granville County. There is also a daughter, Ann Rogers Curtis, who moved to New York and married. The marriage record lists her parents as Susan Williford and Peter Curtis. I am going to the Granville County Courthouse to try and see if any Willifords other than Tilly married before 1830, as I believe that Betsy married a Williford of the name David Squire Williford between 1814 and 1815.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Steve,
      I have my files and book, Unruly Women, before me, and will attempt to answer a few of your questions. To make it easier for me to follow your statements while attempting to find the relevant material in my own files, I have added paragraph breaks to your posts and, in a few places, shortened sentences. I hope the paragraph breaks and shorter sentences will encourage readers to delve into the wealth of wonderful information you have provided.

      I must also point out that Unruly Women is a work of history, not a genealogical study. I used kinship links throughout the book as a way of explaining the history of people in this particular Southern locality. The genealogy was developed only so far as needed to tell those stories.

      Let me clarify your statement that, in my book, I “mentioned Betsy had never married and had multiple illegitimate children,” In fact, I never found a record of a marriage for Elizabeth “Betsy” Williford, but that does not mean that she never married. Second, Susan Williford is the only child that I documented for certain as being born to Elizabeth. Susan’s record of apprenticeship, dated 6 Nov., 1821 in Granville County, stated clearly that she was the “illegitimate child of Elizabeth Williford.”

      In footnote 3 of chapter four, I surmised that Elizabeth Williford may also have had an illegitimate son named James Williford. I based that supposition on the fact that a “Betsy” Williford, age 60, was living with 22-year-old James Williford in Knapp of Reeds Township, Granville County, NC, in 1860, according to the Federal manuscript population census. I also mentioned both Lewis and David Williford of Knapp of Reeds township in the same footnote. I did not identify them as Elizabeth Williford’s children, however, although it seems obvious that they were related to her. I did not make that claim because I lacked the evidence to do so.

      Let me say that I’m very pleased to read all of your evidence of kinships and possible kinships for Elizabeth Williford. I hope the wealth of information you’ve provided will be helpful to family researchers from the Williford and related lines. Thank you for sharing it here on Renegade South.



      • That is very interesting, Prof. Bynum. I completely understand that the book was about women of the south being unruly towards the societal norms of the antebellum south. I really would like to receive a copy of the information about Susan stated as being the illegitimate child of Elizabeth. My theory about the Willifords’ living on a piece of land that William Williford left one of his sons would still be plausible, but I do have one thing to question, and that is who stated that Susan was illegitimate and was she really, as what I personally believe is that the son who lived on the land that was left by William wanted to hold on to that small piece of wealth that his father, who was a planter, and wanted to keep every aspect of living that lifestyle and slowly went into debt and his descendants went into further and into extreme debt. I am not trying to argue about the validity of your genealogy on a book that is not even about genealogy in the first place, but I am very interested in these documents and I did try to find them and I couldn’t. My email is if you would like to contact me further so I wouldn’t clutter your comment section on your website with something that barely pertains to the book.


      • Hi Steve,
        I don’t mind providing information here on Renegade South. It may help other researchers as well as yourself.

        Your archival discoveries and your theory that the Granville County Willifords suffered an economic descent caused by increasing indebtedness is interesting and certainly plausible. It could explain why Susan was apprenticed, as the laws of NC specified that any children who were indigent, illegitimate, or free children of color were subject to being bound out to a person designated by the county court. This system provided free labor to many planters and farmers of the state, who only had to provide their apprentices with a certain level of training—usually farming for boys, spinning for girls—and a bag of corn, and a suit of clothes when they were released at ages 21 (boys) and 18 (girls).

        I do not have a copy of Susan Williford’s actual apprenticeship bond, but I took careful notes from it, so you should be able to order a copy from the state archives in Raleigh. The following information is from two documents that I found in the archives’ county court records:

        From the Granville County, NC, Apprenticeship Bonds, 1810-1823:

        6 November 1821: Susan Williford is bound to William Gordon. Her birthdate of 1 August 1815 was provided. Gordon was directed to teach her how to read and write and to learn “the art of a spinstress.”

        Also in the Apprenticeship Bonds: The November 1822 session of the county court reported that Susan Williford “illegitimate child of Elizabeth Williford, “bound to William Gordon,” “has been maltreated by the said William Gordon.” Gordon was ordered to appear at the Feb. 1823 court session to answer why Susan should not be removed from his custody and bound to someone else.

        I hope this is helpful, and that the archives staff can provide you with copies.



  9. Wow, Steve! You’ve really found a mountain of information on the Willifords. I’ve now begun reading through your information and comparing it with my own (which is miniscule in comparison!). I promise, I will get back to you with comparative comments.

    Again, thank you for providing all this information–for me, and possible for Williford descendants who hopefully will read your messages.



    • I went to the Granville County Courthouse and could not find any records of a marriage between a Williford from before 1820. This would have meant that the male Williford I believe was the father of those six or seven previously mentioned children would have been outside the county around the timeframe of Susan’s birth if the marriage was recorded. I had looked through my ancestry DNA results and I also couldn’t find any relations to the Rowan Williford family at all. I also edited my family tree to remove the Dillard family and the male Williford to adapt to the Rowan County Williford’s. This will hopefully reveal if I hadn’t looked enough and if the Elizabeth from Rowan is the Betsy from Granville. I had also looked at the William from Rowan in the 1820 census and found that there were two males under ten years of age, but there are also dozens of other records of a Williford patriarch with very similar family structures in the 1820s, and no records of a Williford patriarch or family in Granville had been digitized as of yet. I do believe that Betsy Williford was in Granville before 1820, as she was in the County around 1821. I also believed that the male Williford was hiding from everyone and openly having his wife, Betsy, lying to everyone to appear like he was dead. The explanation for this action would have been severe debt and not wanting to loose the tract of land he and his family had dwelled on. In the 1840 census, if you were to view the actual document or the picture, you would see a man listed in the ages between 50-59 section. I believe this to not be a lodger but to instead be the actual father of Betsy’s children from Susan to James. I believe this man to have the name David Squire Williford, as one distant cousin told me that there were two Squire Williford’s in Granville county, assuming there were no misread or misprinted documents, and David, after the eldest son’s first name. I will bring an update as soon as I find anything pertaining to any connection to the Rowan County Williford family.


  10. Thank you professor Bynum for telling me where these records about apprenticeship are located. I had tried searching the Granville County Courthouse for these and I repeatedly found nothing on the subject. I would like to add on to the theory of Susan really being legitimate as her father would have been in debt and daughters were seen as liabilities when they were generally not used for other than house keeping during those times. I believe her father had made Elizabeth lie about Susan’s legitimacy in order to lower the costs of living and this was around the time he would have been in the first stages of hiding from the courts and debt collectors. Also about Susan and Peter Curtis, were they partially the inspiration behind The Free State of Jones’s scenes where Mr. Knight and his fiancé were prohibited from marrying by the court system? I had seen the Netflix movie and when I found out that you wrote the book, that was a thought that instantly appeared in my mind. I absolutely loved the show as I have fascinating family tales from the civil war, including multiple southerners fighting for the Union and being rebels rebelling against the rebels. Thank you so much for this information!


    • Steve,
      Thanks again for sharing your extensive research on this website. Your theory that Elizabeth and her debt-ridden husband may have pretended to the court that Susan was illegitimate in order to have one less mouth to feed is certainly a possibility. Not knowing there was ever a husband in the picture, hiding or otherwise, I would never have thought of that! Actually, if true, it’s a story I would have wanted to tell in Unruly Women.

      In regard to your second question, I can see where you would wonder if Susan and Peter Curtis’s mixed-race relationship inspired me to write The Free State of Jones since there were illegal attempts to marry across the color line in both stories. But that wasn’t the case—it was Unruly Women’s Unionist community in Montgomery County that inspired me to write Free State of Jones. I knew about the Jones County Unionists’ effort to secede from the Confederacy, and that’s an important history that I was eager to research. I did not know about the mixed marriage between Davis Knight and Junie Lee Spradley until after I’d begun that research. But it’s really not a big coincidence; there were many mixed relationships throughout the South, despite their illegality.

      By the way, for people who are interested, the podcast play, “State of Mississippi vs. Davis Knight,” which I announced the debut of on Renegade South a month ago, has been up and running for some time. Episodes 1, 2, and 3 can all be watched by clicking onto the Wolverine Theatrics website at

      Episode 4 should be up on Monday morning. I believe there are five episodes in all. The play is much more detailed and accurate than the movie’s version. For those not familiar with Davis Knight’s trial, you can read about him here:



  11. Hello Prof. Bynum, I have looked further into the history of the Williford family and found out there was a massive error that disproved my theory, however I have not truly found and confirmed the father of Susan and the other siblings, but have found a much more suitable candidate that has multiple records on him along with actual documented interviews as well. Looking back on David S. Williford, my evidence was that there was a David in the 1820 census of Granville County and family claims of a David S. Williford existing as well. I had looked further at the census record I had found and it turned out to not have been a recording of a Williford, however it was the recording of a David N. Winfree, Which turned out to have also been incorrect to his family tree. I had looked for more proof of David S. Williford and had found nothing, and looking at the 1840 census, it is inconclusive as the older man seen recorded could have very well been a lodger. The name David Squire Williford is most likely a genealogical error of assumption, as a known mistake of the family is that Squire W. Williford, one of Elizabeth’s confirmed children, has been falsely claimed to have had the middle initial D. There is a very similar case with his brother David M. Williford, as he had had his name incorrectly translated from a hand written document to a typed document. My genetic test results are another interesting thing to look at, as my relatives that matched up with the Dillard family are also descended from other ancestors of mine in different parts of my family tree, creating a potential and likely false positive. The genetic connection to the Bertie Williford family is also likely to be more distant from what I had previously believed as well. Further research had found that there was a no land transfer from a William Williford to an Elizabeth Williford, however an Elizabeth Williford purchased a part of an estate previously owned by a Mr. Wilkerson, for which his son, the one who sold the estate to Elizabeth, was supposed to keep the estate in the family name, and thus a law suit developed later on around 1829. This estate was around the sassafras township in Granville County, as Elizabeth first surfaced in the census records in 1830, in the Northern Regiment of Granville County. Looking back at the William and John that came from Bertie, they had both disappeared from Granville before the 1790 census, William moved from Granville to Sampson with his family before the census had been taken and John may have moved back to Bertie County, taking his family as well. The only Williford to appear in the Records was Tilly, who married a Robards in 1804, who more than likely had been connected to the family line that moved through Wake County from Person and Warren down to Oglethorpe County, GA. No other family lines connected to the Elizabeth line have been found before 1850 (her descendants) in the Granville County and adjacent counties as well. From court records, Elizabeth had first purchased the estate in 1823, along with the apprenticeship of Susan Williford in the same year. The sever between Elizabeth’s line and the Bertie Willifords along with no confirmed connection to the Warren County line shows that Elizabeth was more than likely not originally from the area. Looking at the published Bastardy bonds of Granville County (which do not include bastardy bonds from some counties due to different reasons), no Willifords have been found in the Granville bastardy bonds until Susan Williford has her first child in 1830. However, in Rowan County, an Elizabeth Williford has been shown having a child around August of 1815, bondsmen William Williford, Elizabeth Williford, and a woman named Nancy. Looking at the genealogy of William, I have found that he had a mistress named Elizabeth, and had really came from Southampton County, VA. From this I had loosely had any information about him until I had further researched him, as I found out that his father, supposedly an English Immigrant by the name of William Williford Sr, was not his father as no ship records and other records even proving that William Williford (not the Rowan County William) came to America in the first place. I had found a lot more information about the Rowan County William as well, as that he was most likely the son of a William Williford and Mary Jordan Williford. The connection becomes obvious as multiple other Willifords that were neighbors and of a similar age are shown in the census records that have happened to have been the sons of William and Mary. Some records of the William Williford who’s wife was Mary Jordan recorded William as William Williford Sr. If this is true, then the Southampton County Williford’s would have branched out into Rowan County NC. Also, the Southampton Williford family is in fact related to the Bertie Williford’s as a member moved into Bertie and settled there as well. Now back to the subject of the William Williford of Rowan County NC, more evidence that arrises that point to a potential connection with the Elizabeth from Granville comes from the interview of the community that knew William and from William himself in an 1873 article of the Concord Times named “The Oldest Man in Concord”. The article mentions that he owned two houses within a mile of each other and that he had his wife’s family in his main house and his mistress’s family in the other. It also mentions that he had two large families between the two and that he had given some of the fortune he made to his children so the could have plantations, which could explain why three of Susan’s brothers; David, Lewis, and Squire, all had a considerable amount of money of the era in real estate in the 1850 census. Census info on the second household of William’s is only seen three times. One was of the 1840 census, which had a very similar structure to the known family of the Granville County Elizabeth, the 1850 census, which shows the family is considerably smaller, and it has incorrect information as well, as one of the alleged daughters was the daughter of William’s wife, Patsy, and the household also was recorded in the 1860 census, this time Elizabeth was not present, and it was rife with misinformation, as everyone’s birth years were estimated and a woman in the house that was know to be married at the time was recorded with her maiden name (Williford) and as living in the household as well, when she did not. More interestingly enough the known and confirmed relatives to this Elizabeth do in fact share names with the known family of the Granville County Elizabeth, such as Rebecca Williford. The estimated travel distance between Granville and Rowan (also lower Iredell, where the second household was located), was about three days of travel as well, so it may have been feasible that Elizabeth could have had a house in Granville and traveled down to William’s second house in Iredell County. I am still researching and trying to find as much information as possible and more possible candidates for Susan’s father, but this is an update to my research and a correction to the self-disproven theory I had brought up earlier.


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