When 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?