Multiracial Families/Communities

“Free People of Color” in Old Virginia: The Morris Family of Gloucester County, a Case Study

Back in 1977, when I was a junior in college, history became a personal venture for me when an African American friend told me that his ancestors were from Virginia, but that he had always heard that they were not slaves. African Americans from Old Virginia who had never been slaves? That got my attention!

 A brand new history major, I decided on the spot to research my friend’s family history. Soon I was delving into microfilmed and published records from colonial Middlesex and Gloucester Counties of Virginia, where I did indeed find the ancestors of my friend—and many more—living as “free people of color” in colonial and antebellum Virginia. The following is their story.  

Vikki Bynum

During the transformative years of 1680-1730, as slavery overtook servitude as the favored system of labor among planters in the English colonies of America, a small but significant population of free people of color emerged in Virginia’s Gloucester and Middlesex Counties. We know very little about their individual lives beyond their names, racial designations, and ages as recorded in church and court records. We know, for example, that Elizabeth Morris, a servant of Middlesex County, was of mixed ancestry because the vestry book of Christ Church Parish described her in 1706 as “A Mulatto Woman.” (Note 1)

That same vestry book identified Elizabeth’s white master and mistress as “gentleman” Francis Weeks and his wife, Elizabeth. The Weeks family owned a number of slaves, raising questions about why Elizabeth was not also enslaved. Perhaps her mother was also a servant, or perhaps Elizabeth was the child of an enslaved woman and a white slave master who subsequently freed her.

Long before the rise of the cotton South in the post-Revolutionary United States, people of European, African, and Native American ancestry struggled against systems of bondage in the American colonies. In the first half of the seventeenth century, as tobacco profits flourished, settlers in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay region took advantage of England’s head-right system to build vast plantations. For every person that they brought to America—including those held in bondage—fifty acres of land was granted. Although servants were entitled to collect their fifty acres of “freedom dues” after fulfilling labor contracts, high death rates allowed many planters to add those acres to their own burgeoning estates.

The same high death rates made the purchase of slaves a risky venture; transporting servants was the safer investment. Thus, although not enslaved, many seventeenth-century whites entered the New World in bondage. By 1681, there were some 15,000 mostly-white indentured servants in Colonial Virginia, compared to some 3,000 African slaves. That would soon change, however. In 1676, Bacon’s Rebellion graphically revealed the potential for revolution among the servant class. As more and more servants lived long enough to press their claims for land, Virginia planters turned to slavery as a more controllable and profitable system of labor.

Map of Virginia highlighting Gloucester County

As slaves increased in number, so also did Virginia lawmakers’ efforts to construct a bi-racial society that clearly differentiated among people on the basis of their race as well as status. An Act of Assembly, enforced in 1715, directed that individuals of African ancestry be labeled as such. A clerk of the Abingdon Parish of Gloucester noted in that church’s records that “A list of negros [sic] born in the Parish” was now required by law. Before 1715, he explained, “negros” had been listed “promiscuously among the whites.”  (Note 2)

Abingdon Episcopal Church, White Marsh, Gloucester County, Donated by Frances Benjamin Johnston.

But even in this deliberately bi-racial society, a third category of race and status intruded: that of free person of color, with “color” often meaning light brown. Elizabeth Morris’s designation as a “Mulatto,” which technically meant half African, half European, should not be taken literally. Virginia officials used the term rather loosely; it might mean that an individual was born to a mixed-race couple, or simply that one or both parents were of mixed ancestry. Mainly, it meant that a person’s skin was lighter in tone than that of enslaved Africans being forced into the colony in ever greater numbers.

Elizabeth may have had connections to the white Morris family that was among the earliest to settle this region of Virginia. Thomas Morris was clerk of Gloucester County in 1657 and 1661, while Richard Morris was minister of Christ Church Parish upon its establishment in 1666. Another Morris, George, surveyed lands for building the parish.

The birth years of Elizabeth’s children make it likely that she herself was born between 1670 and 1690. During those years, Thomas Morris’s two sons, James and Thomas Jr., owned 670 acres of land that they inherited from their father. Any of the above men might have fathered Elizabeth, or once held her as a slave. Or, perhaps there was a daughter or sister who engaged in an interracial affair that resulted in her birth. (Note 3)

One thing is certain: Elizabeth is the earliest identified ancestor of the free Morrises of color from whom my friend descended. Whether or not she was ever enslaved, it’s also certain that this “Mulatto Woman” lived during a volatile period of early Virginia history. As English settlers struggled to dominate the New World, they discovered that white indentured servants, slaves, and Indians could be a dangerous mix. In 1663, more than a decade before Bacon’s Rebellion rocked the colony, an uprising known as the “Servants Plot” was narrowly averted in Gloucester County.

Servants Plot Marker

Betrayed from within by an indentured servant, the Servants’ Plot was brutally quashed. Literally, heads rolled, their bloody stumps posted atop chimneys in gruesome displays reminiscent of the Old World’s London Bridge. Yet again, in 1722, threats of insurrections by slaves and free people of color re-emerged in the region of Gloucester and Middlesex Counties. Rumors of uprisings ignited the fears of whites, who responded with passage of draconian laws.

In 1724, Virginia lawmakers decreed that “Negroes, mulattoes, and Indians, bond or free,” convicted of fomenting conspiracies or insurrections would “suffer death and be Utterly excluded the benefit of Clergy and all laws made concerning the same.” Unsupervised meetings were forbidden among all “Negroes or other slaves.” Slaves “notoriously guilty” of running away could be ordered by the court “to be punished by Dismembering Or any Other Way not touching Life.” (Note 4)

Land rich and labor poor, white masters, including several Morrises, rapidly replaced unruly servants with chattel slaves. Between 1770 and 1782, William Morris, white, of Petsworth Parish owned 99 acres and five slaves; in neighboring Mathews County, a William Morris, Sr., white, owned 343 ½ acres and ten slaves. (Note 5)

Rosewell Plantation Ruins, Gloucester Co. Built in 1725 for planter Mann Page, this mansion of Flemish bond brickwork was patterned after the elaborate London homes of the era.

As a result, Elizabeth Morris’s children and grandchildren would grow up in a world increasingly defined by slavery. Although they were not themselves slaves, neither were they fully free. For several generations, they or their children remained in a cycle of servitude.

Servants, like slaves, were forbidden by law to marry, which increased the number of illicit births among them. Elizabeth’s pregnancy violated the terms of her indenture contract and resulted in her children being born into servitude. Between church and courthouse, the new family was alternately blessed and condemned. On March 15, 1705/06, Christ Church baptized Elizabeth’s newborn son, James Morris, while the Middlesex county court ordered its sheriff to administer 25 lashes to Elizabeth’s bare back as punishment. A year later, the process was repeated. Her newborn daughter Winnefred, born May 9, 1707, was baptized by Christ Church, while the court once again ordered the mother whipped for giving birth out of wedlock.

And so it went. Like her children, Elizabeth’s grandchildren were indentured, beginning when daughter Winnie gave birth to her own daughter, Biddy, at age fifteen. A second daughter, Betty, was born in 1728, but died less than a year later. By 1742, Winnie had three sons: Francis, George, and James. (Two other children, Thomas, born 1843, and William, born 1845, were likely sons of Winnie’s older brother, James Morris.)

Five years before her death in 1745 at the age of thirty-seven, Winnie was identified in the records as a free woman. Still, her children remained in servitude. Sons George and James were ordered “bound out” by the courts after Virginia’s race-based laws required that all “Mulattos and Indians” be apprenticed, or bound, to a master until age 31, regardless of their mother’s status. This apprenticeship system was adopted widely throughout the South, although the ages of release were lowered to 21 for males and 18 for females during the nineteenth century.  Until after the Civil War, apprenticeship functioned as a system for socially and economically controlling free people of color. (Note 6)

As they “aged” their way into freedom, the Morrises intermarried with other free families of color—notably those with the surnames of Lockley, Driver, Lemon, Blufoot (Blueford), and  Thias—and built large families. By the late eighteenth century, members from these families were landowners. By 1799, “Mulattoes” James and Seth Morris together paid taxes on forty acres of land. By 1821, James was deceased, and Seth Morris was the sole owner of the forty acres. (Note 7)

During the same years, Virginia slaveholders pushed for greater restrictions on free people of color. In 1793, the state required that “free negroes or mulattoes” register their status with the town clerk. Failure to do so could result in imprisonment. In 1806, it forbade them the right to bear arms without a license (after the Nat Turner Rebellion  of 1831, the right even to obtain a license was denied). How, one wonders, did men feed their families without the ability to hunt animals? Even the major occupation of Gloucester free men of color—netting oysters—was compromised by restrictive laws. In 1811, the legislature passed a law stating that:

Any waterman of color found strolling from his boat may be whipped any number of lashes, not exceeding twenty, if he is not going directly to or from any spring for the purpose of getting water.  (Note 8)

And so, as the nineteenth century progressed, the Morrises endured the indignities that accompanied the antebellum South’s evolving caste system. In December 1822, the registration papers of “William Morris, a free tawney man, no. 44,” and “Deanna Morris, a free mulatto woman, no. 45,” were examined by the court, and “found to be truly made.” The couple had passed muster and could continue to live in the conditional freedom accorded people of their status. (Note 9)

William’s racial designation, “tawney,” indicated a skin tone lighter than that of a “Mulatto” or “black” person. In 1823, Betty Morris and Mary Morris were likewise described by the court as tawney, while Lucy Morriss and Warner Morris were described as Mulattoes. No matter how light their skin, however, the Morrises would never be considered “white”; at least, not as long as they remained in Gloucester County, where officials knew the family’s racially-mixed background.

The forced apprenticeship of free children of color continued until after the Civil War. In the years following the Nat Turner rebellion, however, there was much talk of removing all “free Negroes” from the commonwealth, in which case, contracts specified, the apprenticeship would be voided.  By 1838, however, that plan no longer appeared feasible, and the caveat was dropped. (Note 10)

After May, 1838, a typical apprenticeship contract was that of “free boy” Lewis Morris. In February, 1840, Lewis was ordered bound to Robert P. Russell “until he attains the age of 21 years to learn the art . . .  of a shoemaker. And it is ordered that he keep said boy until he is fifteen years of age free of charge and to pay thereafter $10 a year and furnish him with an extra suit of clothes the last year of his apprenticeship.” Russell would thus benefit for years from the free labor of Lewis, depriving his mother, Winney Morris, of both the labor and companionship of her child.  (Note 11)

Though rare, apprenticeship contracts were sometimes successfully challenged by parents. In March, 1840, just one month after her son Lewis was ordered apprenticed to Robert Russell, Winney Morris managed to have the contract rescinded “for reasons appearing to the court.” Unfortunately, the court did not identify those reasons.

Twenty years later, also on unspecified grounds, Lucy Morriss challenged the legality of her twelve-year-old son Phillip’s apprenticeship to Isaac Woodland. In November, 1860, the court summoned Woodland to appear in its chambers “to show cause if any he can why the indenture of the said apprentice should not be revoked & annulled.” The outcome of that suit is uncertain, but it may be that the sectional crisis between North and South had begun to disrupt local communities, making apprenticeship contracts harder to enforce. (Note 12)

We do know the outcome of a suit against Tom Morris, a “free boy of color.” Like many a servant boy before him, Tom played hooky from his master’s home. From August until October, 1860, Henry Rilee lodged accusations that Tom had “deserted the service of said master.” The court ordered the missing boy to appear at its December term to answer charges. Tom, however, did not show up in court–not in December, and not in January, 1861, either, when he was ordered again to appear. By 1861 the South’s secession from the Union loomed on the horizon, and lawmakers may have concluded they had far more to worry about than the whereabouts of one rebellious teenage boy. In a decision that surely must have pleased young Tom, the court dropped Rilee’s case and ordered Tom Morris’s apprenticeship “revoked and annulled.”

The Civil War and Reconstruction soon revolutionized the world of free people, slaveholders, and slaves. The existence of the slaveholding South’s free people of color, like that of its Southern Unionists, was forgotten by many people.  In modern-day Gloucester County, however, the history of  the Morris family’s distant ancestors survived in the long-held tradition that “we were never slaves.”

Victoria E. Bynum

Follow-up posts: January 15, 2013, “Nathan Crowell on Racial Identity: Free People of Color in Old Virginia revisited.”;

Wayne K. Driver, ” ‘Free Negroes’ and ‘Mulattoes’ in Gloucester County and the Tidewater Area of Virginia prior to 1800.”


1. C. G. Chamber, compiler, Vestry Book of Christ Church Parish, Middlesex County, VA, 1663-1767 (Richmond: Old Dominion Press, 1927), p. 58.  (Hereafter cited as Christ Church Parish.)

2. Abingdon Parish Register, Episcopal Church, Gloucester County, 1678-1761

3. Polly Cary Mason, Records of Colonial Gloucester County, Virginia, (Newport News, Va: George C. Mason, 1948) vol 1-2; Christ Church Parish, pp. 6, 9.

4. Christ Church Parish,  pp. 189, 190

5. Mason, Records of Colonial Gloucester County, vol 1.

6. Christ Church Parish, pp 58, 222, 245, 270. The information on the Morrises from Christ Church Parish records is available online in Paul Heinegg’s Free African Americans. 

7.  Gloucester County, VA, Land Tax books, 1782-1850 (microfilm)

8.  June Purcell Guild, Black Laws of Virginia (Negro Universities press, 1969), pp. 5. 19, 97.

9. Gloucester County, VA, Court Minutes, 1822-1825 (microfilm).

10. Ibid., 1834-1839.

11. Ibid., 1839-1842.

12. Ibid., 1858-1867.

63 replies »

  1. Vikki: a very interesting and informative post. Clearly the Free People of Color in the antebellum South occupied a strange world between slavery and the range of freedoms enjoyed by whites — with propertied white males at the top of the heap. And, clearly, conditions were only marginally better for them in the North. As your post shows, whatever “middle group” Free People of Color sought to occupy was never really secure. Their status remained at the mercy of highly volatile white attitudes. News, rumors, and petty jealousies could result in drastic changes in their status, usually for the worst.

    While the U.S. Census is introducing newer methods of recording mixed-race heritage, we both know — and I’m becoming ever more aware — that America has always had a sizable percentage of persons with mixed lineage, whether physically discernible or not. The stories of how such persons managed to deal with their fate of serving to blur society’s desired racial constructs are generally overlooked but nearly always fascinating.

    Ed Payne


  2. Vikki,

    You did it again! What a fascinating bit of history. Thank you! Thank you! Not only do I continue to value your terrific writing skills, I also greatly appreciate the fact that you included links to other historical sites pertaining to early colonial VA history.

    When it comes to the head right system, here’s a tidbit of valued information that I learned nearly twenty years ago while attending a lecture By genealogist George Switzer, Ph.D. According to Switzer, the headright system was corrupt. No good means of record keeping. Therefore a number of early colonists in VA would transport a group of their indentured servants from one port in VA to another thus claiming to have transported them directly from England. Thus, more land issues over and over while not


  3. (Forgive me) I don’t get this posting stuff right. This is a continuation from above. As I was saying…….the headright system was rigged. At the time of this lecture, I wondered how Switzer knew this as factual. (No opportunity to inquire)…fast forward. Ten thousand hours later, I learned how it was determined that this headright system was rigged. Thus involved scanning over 35,000 names. My eyeballs have never been the same. But yes, I was able to verify for my own satisfaction a much rigged system.


    • Hello Vicky,

      I really enjoyed your article. I found you by accident while researching my “Free Person of Color” family from Robeson, Wake and Nash Counties, North Carolina. My book about this subject is just being published. “Thomas the Melungeon: Free Person of Color Civil War Soldier” I have been working on my Free Person of Color as well as my European and Native American Ancestors for years and discover more each day. I have proven my European Ancestry back to 1583 and my Free People of Color research is still a work in progress.

      My research has taken over ten years of diligent research and I have used multiple sources to prove my ancestors. You have covered must of the subjects of my research In this informative article. My FPOC ancestors originated in Charles City, VA in the mid 1600s. Have you done any work I that county?

      Thanks again,

      Gigi Best


      • Hello Gigi–After receiving your message of today, I searched and found this earlier message–the one you sent back in April. I’m so sorry to have neglected to answer it. Part of the problem is that it was posted as a reply to Vikky Anders’s November, 2010, message, and therefore did not appear in chronological order.

        Your work sounds fascinating, and I would love to read “Thomas the Melungeon.” Has the book been published yet? If so, please leave information as to where It might be purchased!

        In answer to your question, no, I have not done research in Charles City, Virginia, records.

        So sorry to be so late in responding to your message!



      • Hi Vikki,

        Thank you for responding. My book published in May of this year and my FPOC are the Lucas/Locus(t) family. I also used Paul Heinegg’s book, along with Coy Robbins and many other sources in search of my family history. My book covers other Free People of Color family members who married into my Locust family of Charles City, VA and Robeson, Cumberland, Wake, Wilson, Lenoir and Nash Counties in NC. They can be traced back to 1665 in VA.

        Many other Melungeon families intermarried with them and they traveled to Lick Creek and Lost Creek, IN and Belmont, OH beginning in the 1820’s when life came increasingly unbearable for them in NC. They were kidnapped, indentured and were forced to pay discriminatory taxes. The were forced out of VA in the mid 1700’s because they were not allowed to continue their Free Status there. They subsequently moved to NC and later to these Western States where they purchased land and lived among the Quakers. This link takes you to the book

        Kind Regards,



  4. Middlesex Co VA. Christ Parish records. Love it! This is where I can nail down my own Wilburn ancestors. All good looking of course. well, I’m merely supposing this to be true. As evidence shows my emigrant VA Wilburn guys are not related to the ancestors of the Welborns of Jones Co MS. Vikki, you did it AGAIN!


  5. Good stuff. My earliest American ancestors owned land and, presumably, slaves in the 1670s across the river in Lancaster County. I had never heard of the Servant’s Plot.


  6. Thanks Ed, Vikky, and Chris (yes, I know it’s you), for your comments. As researchers yourselves, you all know how difficult it is to pull together so many disparate pieces of evidence for such a long period of time. I wanted to tell an interesting story, but I also wanted to place that story in historical context. As Ed notes, there is so much to learn about the shifting history of racial identity and status in ordinary court and census records.

    And Vikky you are surely correct that the head-right system was corrupt. I have not researched it as you have, but that was an age of vast commercial overreach (nice way to refer to greed, huh?).

    Chris, I had never heard of the Servants Plot either. I came across it while researching colonial insurrections on the internet. Kind of surprised me; thought I was more knowledgable about revolts and uprisings. Bacon’s Rebellion gets the lion’s share of attention, but I’d like to know more about this one.



    • “you all know how difficult it is to pull together so many disparate pieces of evidence for such a long period of time.”

      No kidding. That you make it look so effortless is impressive.

      Last I heard, Holly Brewer is doing a new history on Bacon’s Rebellion. Don’t know what her take is, but it should be good.

      I’m totally stealing that 1811 waterman’s law from you for use in the classroom. Talking about the violent outrages of slavery is one thing, but explaining the day-to-day constructions like this is a whole new level of headache, I think. Hell, Virginia could have passed that law in 1911… and probably tried to!


      • Thanks, Chris. I love it that you’re going to use the waterman’s law in class. I so agree that it is often the day-to-day “headaches” of life under a caste system that really tell the story.

        I’ll watch for Holly Brewer’s study!



  7. This is actually quite good, and thank you for posting it. It would be great to talk with you further about the free families of the area. My maternal grandmother’s mother’s family is from Gloucester County. And we are Pattersons, Fraziers, Hobdays, Carters, Ransomes, Bluefords, Drivers, Tabbs, and probably Paynes as well. I would be surprised if there weren’t some connection to the Morrises.


  8. Hello, I’m not certain if my prior post showed up, as I have been having trouble with my computer. I did want to thank Ms. Bynum for putting article together. It’s always good to find out more information about the free communities of Virginia. It would be great to talk with you further, as I am trying to assemble something of a family tree. My great-grandmother, Florida Patterson, was from Abingdon, in Gloucester County. And in addition to being Pattersons, we are Fraziers, Bluefords, Hobdays, Carters, Ransoms, Drivers, Burrells, Peytons, Lomaxes, Carys, Rosses, and Paynes too I believe. There is a lot of guesswork going into the project-the more accurate information to be folded in, the better 🙂


    • Thank you for both your posts, Nathan; I’m pleased that you found my essay on the Morris family interesting and useful to your own family research. I know that the Morrises intermarried with the Lemonses, and I believe I have evidence in my files that they also intermarried with the Bluefords and the Drivers. Most likely, of course, they intermarried with the other families that you name as well, since, legally, they were not allowed to marry people designated “white,” or slaves. That left them with a fairly small circle of potential marital partners unless they moved out of the Gloucester area.



  9. Vikki, I am fascinated by your research and the stories presented. I descend from John P. Gibson, b. circa 1799 in SC, who later lived and died in MS. Have been unable to connect John with other Gibsons in SC and MS. Some of what I have read indicates SC Gibson family may have been bi-racial, as well. If you have found anything about this family in your research, I would be interested in your findings.


    • Janice,

      Nice to hear from you. I came across a good deal on the SC Gibsons (esp. Gideon Gibson, a political figure) while researching my book, The Free State of Jones. I included a bit on them in that book. The Gibsons are well-known for having been light-skinned “people of color,” much like the Morrises of Gloucester County. “Gibson” is also a common Melungeon surname.

      I am away from home (and my files) right now, so I can’t authoritatively say more than that. I believe that historian Paul Heinegg (whose work can easily be found online) has included a good deal about the Gibsons in his studies of mixed-race people of the Carolinas.

      Good luck, and hope to hear from you again


  10. I enjoyed reading your paper. I spend a great deal of time rummaging through old papers and books in New Kent County as I do my genealogy research and have been very surprised at the large number of free black people/families living and working in New Kent County in the many years leading up to the Civil War. I never heard anything about them ‘way back’ when I was in school. Guess there are just some things that aren’t deemed important enough to even bring up!

    Again, thanks for sharing a most interesting work.



  11. Thank you for your comment, Sandi. I’m always glad to hear from folks who enjoy discovering the less-known histories of our past!



  12. Vikki,

    Thank you for this article. As a descendant of the Morris, Driver, Lemon, Thais (Polly) and other families from Gloucester County, VA, this research has been very informative. I have been researching these families since 1988 and have often been surprised by what I have found. I started off my research with the knowledge from school text books and the book/movie titled “Roots”. Needless to say I was quite confused when I found three ancestors (DRIVER) that served in the Revolutionary War. My great (2X) grandfather, Addison Driver, married to a Caucasian woman (Elizabeth Collier). My great grandfather (2X), Elijah Morris owning over a 100 acres of land during the period of slavery. The Rev. William Lemon preaching in an all-white church (Petsworth Parish) in 1780. I can go on and on with more examples of what I have found in my research and how it changed the way I now think of history during this period.

    Reading this research has “wowed” me even more. I again thank you for not only doing the research, but also publishing it. It helps to confirm some of the things I found since my journey into genealogy and history.



  13. Wayne,
    Thank you for your kind words, and thank you also for taking time to share your research and family history with Renegade South. I see that you share some of the same ancestors (Polly Thias and Elijah Morris) as my friend, though he is from the Morris line.

    Like you, I am delighted over and again by the factual histories of our ancestors that are rich in detail and surprising in what they reveal about the past.



  14. Hi,
    I’m not familiar with your writing or research, however, one thing immediately jumps out at me after reading this. I hope you’re not offended by reader/critic commentary, but it was so compelling that I could not resist. It left me hanging and longing for more !!!!!!!!!lol Where can I find more like this ? After looking at Census figures all day long, I found this feature so refreshing. The way you weave the facts into a story line makes it so much easier to digest. Great Job !

    I would like to know if you have one on the Hill family. They seem to show up wherever many of these families show up. I found my ancestor Rachel Hill b. NC on Surry NC 1830 and 1840 as FPOC and on Wythe county VA. in 1850(no 1860) It differentiates her son(my ancestor) General Hill as mulatto as well as herself, but his siblings are Black. It seems a lot of Hills were free. They are also in Stokes county(Sauratown) tied to the Morrises

    The other side of my family are Richardsons of Henry county Va. and Rockingham county NC always labeled Mulatto every census. Both sides of these claim Native American and some have White ancestry. I have gotten that info from persons who would be over 100 years old now. Both sides of my family seemed to always been free. I did see another woman from Surry county NC filing for Cherokee allotment funds in about 1906. Thanks, C. Gray


    • C. Gray, it’s great to hear from you. I would have moderated your comment sooner, but was thrown offline for a few days by a tornado. I will consult my files for possible information on the Hill family.



    • C. Gray,

      I’ve now had time to consult my files for Gloucester and surrounding counties in VA. Did not have any info on Hills in them, unfortunately.

      I appreciate your compliments on this article. I have researched FPOC throughout my academic career as a historian, and Gloucester is where that research began. For my doctoral dissertation, I shifted to a region with many more surviving records–the Piedmont of North Carolina. Specifically, I studied Orange, Granville, and Montgomery counties and wrote a history of both white and free women of color from the period 1830-1865. That dissertation became the book, Unruly Women: the Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South.

      Wish I could have found more on your ancestors!.



      • Hi Vicci, I have a gr gr grandfather John Henry Morris, who is listed as a mulatto, he was born in Indiana, I have seen a picture of him and he is very, very light skinned, he married Anna Daniels. He was born in 1823, that is as much as I can find out. He and his wife also lived in Illinois, then migrated to Kansas. I was so hoping to find something in your article regarding Elisabeth Morris, do you know of any migration of the Morris’s from Virginia to Indiana a free state? At one time Virginia ordered all free mulatto’s to leave or be enslaved. Sheila


      • Very interesting, Sheila. I will check my records, and I invite other Morris genealogists to do the same.



      • Thank you for your response, I hope that some information regarding John Henry Morris, will turn up, that would be a dream come true, thanks again. Sheila


      • Sheila,

        Since census records indicate that your John Henry Morris was born around 1823 in Indiana, and that John Henry’s father was born in Kentucky, his mother in Indiana, it is difficult to connect him to the Morrises of Gloucester County, Virginia. His ancestry may indeed date back to the colonial Morrises of Virginia, but if so, his forbears would likely have left sometime around the American Revolution. Kentucky became a state in 1792, early enough for John Henry’s father to have been born there.

        For what it’s worth, I did find a John Henry Morris in the Gloucester County court minutes of 1834-1839. In May, 1837, John Henry Morris and Elizabeth Morris were registered as free people of color in county court. In November, 1837, a white citizen named Thomas E. Cathill moved to have John Henry Morris bound to him as an apprentice until he reached the age of 21. Part of the terms of that indenture was that John Henry would be delivered to the commonwealth of VA at the time that a law was passed mandating the removal of free people of color from the county.

        The reason for the special terms of that contract was because in the aftermath of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, Virginia entertained the notion that it would soon expel all free people of color from the state because such people were considered a threat to the stability of slavery. (The state never did so, however.)

        Perhaps the Gloucester County John Henry Morris was kin to your Morrises. The only other possibility for a link that I can think of is that the family may have fled Virginia in the wake of the oppression against free people of color that followed the Nat Turner Rebellion. If so, they may have chosen not to tell census takers the true place of their birth. That’s certainly a long shot, but not out of the question.



      • Thanks Vicci, I will look this over carefully, anything is possible, what are the chances of another John Henry Morris, oh what a mystery. Thank you so much for looking, and of course census takers made mistakes sometimes, or they may have tried to conceal where they came from, I have seen that more than once, then later on they have their true birth place on a census record, but, you know it is them because of all the same people in the family. Thanks again, Sheila


      • Sheila,
        I agree, there is an intriguing possibility that the John Henry Morris mentioned twice in the Gloucester County court minutes might be your ancestor. I wish he had a more unusual name; that would make it more likely. But the age seems right, since the John Henry being apprenticed by the Gloucester county court in 1837 was likely a teenager, which is consistent with a birth year of around 1823.

        The Morrises also had motive for leaving Virginia, and no doubt some did. With the oppressive situation facing free people of color after the Nat Turner Rebellion, combined with increasing tensions between the North and the South over slavery, many free people headed to free territories during this period, and Indiana was an especially popular destination.

        As you state, the censuses are an imperfect record of the truth. But, yes, with detective work, we can still find our ancestors despite the discrepancies in ages and birthplaces that often occurred over the decades. I wish I still had access to the court records of Virginia rather than just my notes. However. Wayne Driver (who wrote the second article on the Drivers and Morrises of Gloucester) has told me that he will check his records as well.

        Good Luck,


      • Thank you so much Vikki, for consulting with the gentleman that wrote the book on the Morris’s, I don’t even know which county in Indiana, he came from, that is what makes it hard. My gr grandfather Thomas Dowling Underwood, married Emma Morris, daughter of John Henry Morris. Thomas Underwood, was born and raised in Terre Haute, Indiana, so I wonder where they met? Indiana, or Illinois, because I remember that Emma Morris, was born in Illinois, but, John Henry Morris and Anna Daniels her parents were both said to be born in Indiana, so the census say. Thomas Dowling Underwood, was the son of Macom Underwood, who was the son of John Underwood, who came from Richmond County, North Carolina, and migrated to Terre Haute, Indiana, and founded the Underwood Settlement, there are many articles written about him and the Underwood Settlement. There is also an Underwood cemetery, in Terre Haute, Indiana, and John was also a conductor in the Underground railroad, there is an article online regarding that as well. John Henry Morris and Anna Daniels-Morris, lived in Illinois, for awhile as I mentioned, before finally taking up roots in Kansas. Again, thank you for your help, I have a real passion for knowing who I come from and where my ancestors came from. Have a great day, I look forward to hearing from you again, Sheila


      • Thank you so much for looking. I spoke with another prominent researcher and he seems to think that they would likely be the Hills out of Halifax Va. and Caswell N.C. because of their migration patterns. They went from there to Surry, Surry to Wythe, Wythe Va. to Tennessee. From what I gather looking at my DNA matches, most of them went on to become White, but its hard to tell. In her Guion Miller though she(my ancestor) gives her mother’s name as Polly Johns, but it doesn’t say maiden or married. I’m still digging. I have had breakthroughs(it does feel like that took years of searching. Let you know when I come up with something, if not you know I croaked over.


  15. Update: Hi, hope all is well with you. I finally was able to get to the bottom of my Hill family mystery. My ancestor was the daughter of a woman named Polly Johns. Her granddaughter filed a Guion Miller application which supplied me with enough info to take my research a lot further back. This Johns family was rather large and comprised a significant portion of the Buffalo Ridge Cherokee and Monacan groups. I also took a DNA test for myself and the oldest living member of my family coming back with 5.2% Native American dna and 30% European. My own had a little less White, but more Native American

    Sub-Saharan African
    West African
    Central & South African
    Nonspecific Sub-Saharan African

    Northern European
    East Asian & Native American
    Native American
    Southeast Asian
    East Asian
    Nonspecific East Asian & Native American
    0.1% Unassigned


  16. Also have descendants through a woman named Rachel Findlay who was involved in a “freedom by descent” case.


  17. Hello, anyone and everyone. I am certainly thrilled and excited to have been initially introduced to this amazing website by renagadesouth. I have been searching and searching for years & years trying to find some info on my Morrris ancestors (my mother’s people) Now, I have more hope & it seems there is a great possibility that the Morrises of Gloucester Co, Va are more than likely my ancestors. I intend to read in more debt all of this and plan to go back to study more closely the website by P Heinegg in hopes of tying some of the facts together. I am proud to say that my gr gr grandfather Elijah Morris born, betw 1822-1824 somewhere in Va was listed & recorded as a Civil War Vet, USCT upon his burial in Albia, Iowa 1891. In his later years, he worked in the Albia, Iowa coal mines. Now, PERHAPS, I can shed some light on his family? Thank you so much for the hope. There is another person I’d like to thank but at this moment I don’t have his/her name available but plan to post another comment shortly giving that person “due” credit. (-:


  18. I have found connections from the Morris family that is mentioned to several families in North Carolina. Richardson, Hawleys and Mayho. I’d love to share or assist anyone with those connections


      • Thanks for both of your comments, Rosetta & Vikki. However, since I have been unable to trace my gr gr grandfather further back than 1824 (as being born somewhere?? in VA), I cannot ask more questions… It appears that when he was born he could have been born in Ky, Va or W. Va due to the way the 3 states may’ve been geographically divided back then (which makes things more confusing). I don’t even know what city he was born in or what town he mustered into the Civil War from…


  19. Hi Virginia,

    I’m not certain that you are referring to the same Elijah Morris of Gloucester County that my friend (who inspired my research on the Morrises) was descended from. Have you read the article elsewhere on this blog by Wayne K. Driver? If not, click here to read it:

    I am in Texas for the winter and therefore don’t have access to my Morris family files, which are stored at my Missouri home. But if you think you are descended from the Morrises that Mr. Driver and I discuss, I will try to put you in touch with him, and I will access my files after I return home on March 1.

    Best of luck,


    • Hello again. (about a year later). Still trying to find out info on my gr gr gr grand Father, Elijah Morris – Since last years conversations on thisLeave a Reply

      blog? I wrote Nat. Archives and sent $ to rcve info concerning Elijah’s war records, was hoping to find out from those records about where he mustered in (what state), city etc. I received a considerable amnt of paper info on his time after getting out of the service, I was disappointed & unable to get any personal information concerning his family & their possible whereabouts. I rec’d nearly 80 pages, paid about $80 to the Nat. Archives regarding him attempting to receive his war pension after being mustered out of service. The document told of his wounds resulting from the Civ. War & how it affected his job performance while working in the Albia, Iowa coal mines later in his life! I would like to find out from “Any Historians” here, how I’d be able to find out how Nat Archives compiled the Civ War records or (their source) on Elijah Morris. Shouldn’t there be some sort of history on him prior to him being mustered?. Wouldn’t he have had to sign some documents prior to becoming a soldier? I have searched for a phone # or address in which to contact National Archives but have not found anything. No place in Iowa has any records of Elijah other than U S Census they are from when he was with his children in Iowa. Thank you very much for any advise you may have.


  20. I have found this article most enlightening. I have been trying to trace my Morris ancestry for a number of years. The trail stops with Francis and Ann Morris who appear in the US Census for 1820 for Mathews County. According to the Census, Francis was 45 or more years of age. He was a merchant and there were six other members of the household. There were three other males,,two of which may be identified as his eldest son, Edward (born about 1799) who was a blacksmith, and my ancestor, Wm H. (born about 1814) who was a student at the time. There were two women in the household, Ann and a daughter who can be identified as Catherine (who married an Iverson from Middlesex county and died in the Yellow Fever Plague of 1855 in Portsmouth, Virginia).

    Other than his name on death certificates of Edward and Wm H, no other mention of Francis can be found in historical records.
    The family, with Edward as the head, moved to Portsmouth, Virginia sometime before the 1840 census. Ann’s death is noted in the records of the 1855 Yellow Fever Plague.

    On moving to Portsmouth the family thrived. Both Edward and Wm H. were active in the Baptist Church and each had large families. Wm H. became a wholesale grocer, cotton broker and founding member of a bank. In the antebellum period,as a Deacon of Court St Baptist Church, Wm H. was in charge of the Negro congregation for a number of years.

    Members of my family have had their DNA read in recent years. It is interesting to note that a small percentage (1.5% – .5%) of sub Saharan lineage is found. .This would accord with having an African ancestors sometime back 5 or 6 generations.

    Your article is food for thought. Many Thanks

    Wm Gilbert Morris


  21. Wm. Gilbert Morris,

    Thank you so much for writing! Not only am I pleased beyond words that my essay gave you “food for thought,” but also that you provided such good information for others who may descend from this line!



  22. Hi Vikki,

    Many people get too tied up with what the Free People of Color, Melungeon, Mulatto ancestors looked like. My great grandfather was the son of an Anglo man and an African American mother and he was considered Mulatto and he looked Anglo. On several census he was listed as Mulatto, Colored, and ultimately Black. This man did not change his looks, it was society who changed his ethnic designations. His son, my grandfather had the same thing happen to him.

    The Richardsons were from Halifax County, NC and like many Melungeons were descendants of Native Americans and the Locusts as well. I do have a small amount of Native American chromosomes along with my British, Basques, French, Irish, East African chromosomes. In America individuals spent so much time running away from their diversity attempting to escape abuse and mistreatment that true ancestry was suppressed out of necessity.



  23. I am a Morris from Clark County Virginia. I was always told by my father that we had white blood in us, and later found our Morris family history that led me to Gloucester County, Virginia. I have tracked our family from Gloucester to Chesterfield and later to Clark County. Please look at our website!!!! I do not want anything just finding our Morris family history. Thank You!!!!!


    • Hi, I also have ancestry from Gloucester County, Virginia, my great great grandmother was a Morris her father was George Morris born in 1832, her mother was Susan Ann Berry before marriage, I’m still researching trying to go further back also researching my Culley lineage


  24. Hi,
    I have been doing research of my Morris lineage and hit a brick wall with George Thomas Morris. i have found records for George Thomas going back to 188o and unfortunately have not found anything of him prior, which lead me to believe he was either orginially from a neighboring county. You story suggest to me that i may be correct. Can you point me to other information about the Thomas Morris in you stroy? Any help would be greatly appreciated.
    thank you
    Kennard Greene


    • Thanks for writing, Kennard. I will check my records, but I’m in Texas right now and most of my research files are back in Missouri. It may be a while before I can access them, unfortunately.


  25. Hi Vikki,
    I enjoy reading this site. I’ve been intrigued by the term, “free persons of color” for some time. I’ve came across this term so many times in research. Have you ever read a book by Mary Kegley, entitled, “Free in Chains” the story of Rachel Findlay. It follows court cases in Virginia of her family trying to gain their freedom because they were descended from a captured Native American and put into slavery. They eventually won their freedom, though it took so many years, I think at least 40, and did not achieve their freedom until just before the Civil War. It’s a fascinating case in that some of the records of her freed children call them free persons of color. It brings up another dynamic of the relationships between those Natives that gave up or were forced out of tribal status and where did they go? Records daily are being discovered to tell that story and the relationships formed with former slaves and indentured servants.

    With the Pamunkey Indians gaining their federal recognition recently, it also brings to mind some of their ancestors were listed as “free persons of color”. In your opinion do you think this term is used only for free blacks or a mixture of races or were they predominantly free black and white? In the last 40 years, I am so please that the records have been combed to pull out the information, to take note of any mention of people of any color other than white to tell the true stories of ancestors enslaved and/or marginalized in this country. I think we have much more to comb to discover the relationships and true stories of all people. I think combing the records is still lacking though to tell the story of the Natives in the east and their place.

    In helping to research a local history of a black community to help keep it from being destroyed by power lines, (they were going to put the lines practically over their 100 year old church), I discovered many of the residents were in Virginia for generations and they claimed Native Ancestry as well as black ancestry. One man’s ancestor we found Charlotte Co. Va. was a slave named Indian John. He could have just chosen the name because he liked it but I tend to believe Rachel Findlay’s family wasn’t the only natives enslaved. Thank you again for all your work and such a wonderful site. I am truly enjoying reading your articles.


  26. Hi there,

    I’m another Morris from Virginia. I’ve hit a brick wall researching my earliest known ancestor, Tom Morris. The earliest record I can find for him is the 1850 census from my grandparents’ hometown.

    Beyond that, I have a y-DNA match with Thomas Jefferson on my paternal line.

    It’d be great to connect and share if you’re open to it.



    • Hi Ashton,

      The Morris side of my family has been traced back to Francis Morris who lived in Mathews County, Virginia from the late 1700s to sometime around the 1830s, The only historical record I have been able to find mentioning Francis is the 1820 US census in Mathews County, He had 3 children: Catherine who married an Iverson, Edward and my ancestor William Henry (1816 -1896). Sometime in the 1830s the family moved to Portsmouth, Virginia and their lives are well documented from that point. Francis’ wife Ann died in the Yellow Fever Plague of 1855 as did Catherine.

      My dna has been analysed by 23andme and

      I suspect that Francis is related to an early settler in Gloucester County named William who can be traced back to the indentured servant migration to Virginia in the late 1600s – early 1700s, but have yet to find a direct connection.




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