The Bobo Family: Antebellum Ancestors

Part 1.

Cornelius and Emma are ghosts.

Every good family history mystery begins with chasing shadows. Flitting from one dark corner to the next, peering through the darkness with the light of research and genetic genealogy, most corners turn out to be empty, but sometimes in the inky blackness, you perceive a presence. Someone is staring back at you from beyond the veil.

My great-great-great-great grandparents’ names are Cornelius Bobo and Emma Brown, and those names appear just once in the entire public record to date. On the 1917 Dallas, Texas death certificate of my 3rd great-grandfather John Bobo, Cornelius and Emma are noted as his parents, information given by his daughter-in-law, and my great-great grandmother Bessie Fredonia Demmings-Bobo. Bessie Bobo didn’t know my 4th great-grandparents Cornelius Bobo and Emma Brown’s birthplace, but she knew her father-in-law John was an “expressman” who drove a wagon. Bessie knew her father-in-law was also probably born in Mississippi even though John spent most of his life in East Texas, first in the rough and tumble prairie town of Navasota on the banks of the Rio Brazos, before violent racial terror drove his family to Dallas in 1902. I have written about John Bobo’s life in Navasota before in The Bobo Family: Mama Bessie and in all my years of research, Cornelius and Emma have ghosted me, until now. Almost certainly enslaved, I have finally uncovered the story of their lives in the dark past of an enslaver who I discovered was also my ancestor, and in the fertile river floodplains of the Mississippi River, on the Natchez Trace and rolling cotton fields of Bastrop, Louisiana.

Death certificate of John Bobo, listing Cornelius Bobo and Emma Brown as parents, 1917.

John Bobo, my 3x great-grandfather is actually quite well-documented during Reconstruction after the Civil War, and into the early 19th century. He appears in newspaper articles, tax rolls (John was a property owner between 1869 – 1917 in Navasota and later Dallas), census documents, and voter registrations, but his parents Cornelius and Emma are decidedly not. And my living relatives have no knowledge of them either. Years of research in state archives and historical databases have not produced a single record for either of them. Given John’s age range, I knew that they were both more than likely born enslaved, likely in Mississippi or Louisiana and probably before 1835. Examining John’s records, he wasn’t certain whether he was born in Texas, Louisiana, or Mississippi, listing all those places as potential birthplaces in his life. John’s last two years of life were spent on Flora Avenue in Dallas, not too far from his son Dave “Lee” and daughter-in-law Bessie. Bessie guessed he was 60 years old when he died, but differing records show he could have easily been 10 years older than that or more.

Turn of the century, Navasota, Texas.

If they can trace their roots far enough, African American families often lose their ancestors in records before emancipation in 1865. It can be enormously frustrating to see your ancestors literally disappear in front of your eyes as the census records fade and Black people are reduced to hash marks or names with dollar figures next to them signifying their value in the inventories of dead enslavers. Titanic movements of enslaved and free people during and after the Civil War, people without formal education, also meant information was often lost, dates and places were confused. The record becomes a shadow, or better yet, a hieroglyph speaking a dead language. You have to become an interpreter of Black life before and during America’s earliest days, plantation culture, free Black culture, and the laws and documents that bound enslaved people as property to their master’s wills. That doesn’t mean the formerly enslaved were without agency or foresight about their position in history. They left breadcrumbs in their naming conventions, and post-emancipation records, useful for breaking down what we commonly refer to as “the brick wall” of slavery.

The Bobo lineage is revealed.

With a general place of origin for John Bobo, I sought to break through the brick wall of 1865 and the Civil War with the newly indexed Freedmen’s Bureau Records and my own census of every antebellum Bobo family in Mississippi from 1850 – 1880. The uniqueness of the Bobo surname was a significant advantage in identifying and researching my antebellum ancestors. Almost every White (Anglo) Mississippi Bobo family living then held enslaved people and seemed to be concentrated in either Panola, Coahoma counties in the Delta further south in Claiborne county. 

This research began years ago, and I spent several of them chasing down a line of Bobos from Panola and Coahoma, but records of formerly enslaved Black Bobo’s lead to dead ends. I had one DNA match cousin discovered through that linked back to Bobo’s in South Carolina, but we weren’t able to make much of the lead. Only that there was a connection between Black and White Bobos many generations ago. It led me to the general idea that in the distant past, my ancestors were descended from the first Bobo’s to arrive in America. And there were countless “Emma Browns” in Mississippi, a name just too common to generate useful leads by itself.

Stepping back, I knew that finding Cornelius and Emma would mean answering some challenging questions.

First, where did John Bobo come from and how did he wind up in Texas?

Who else was in John’s family? Was any of his family identifiable among my DNA match trees? 

Turns out, thinking about John’s arrival in Texas would be the key to unlocking my Bobo-lineage. Putting my mind on the open road, I dove deep into the tumultuous history of the Civil War, learning about the post-Louisiana Purchase towns built by the enslaved and planter class in Mississippi, and of course, conducted detailed genetic genealogy. Persistence and tools like Ancestry’s genetic pedigree tool, Thrulines, WikiTree, and MyHeritage finally revealed to me John Bobo’s “family” and place of origin. I learned John had a White grandfather who was well-documented. I also uncovered the genetic “friends, acquaintances, and neighbors” group, known as a FAN Club in genealogy jargon, that my 5x great-grandmother, Emma Brown belonged to and even connected with her sibling’s descendants.

Along the way, the surnames of influential Mississippi planters on the Natchez Trace road became waypoints. Bobo, Truly, Booth, Clark, Kilcrease, and Dorsey. They all featured prominently in the history of Claiborne County, Mississippi along Bayou Pierre, a tributary to the Mississippi River, and just about 30 miles North of Natchez. These planters are central to my story, from the 1790s from the Natchez Trace’s earliest days as a French, then Spanish outpost, to an American slave market and more through Emancipation.

Among my DNA matches, I discovered my rather unique family surname connected me to White “Bobo” descendants in Virginia who spread to South Carolina first, then on to Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi, and further. The Bobo clan is a vast diaspora of American families, with French Anglo roots in Europe, that later gained African branches in America. Since their earliest arrivals in Colonial Virginia, many Bobo’s were enslavers and naturally, I wondered if Bobo was more than an adopted surname. Pedigree triangulation, DNA research, and detailed published records quickly revealed White Bobo ancestors all appeared to descend from a common ancestor – a refugee and French Huguenot named Gabriel Beaubeau. Beaubeau was a French Protestant immigrant to the Virginia colonies of America around 1700 who fled the persecution of the French Catholic “Sun King” Louis XIV and his government. Beaubeau in French means “very beautiful.”

If John Bobo and his parents were enslaved in Mississippi, then I asked myself, might I find them in the records of Africans who were forcibly brought West by a Beaubeau descendent? Perhaps my ancestors descended from the enslaved Blacks taken in the tens of thousands from Virginia, Maryland and the East to cultivate cotton in new territory stolen from the Choctaw Tribe of First Peoples in Spanish Louisiana or acquired in the Louisiana Purchase around the turn of the 18th century?

Fortunately, using genetic genealogy, I could look into the past beyond the written record. With the clues I had, the Bobo surname, genetic networks and records in Claiborne County, Mississippi, and later Morehouse Parish, Louisiana, I was finally able to lift Cornelius Bobo and Emma Brown out of obscurity, ghosts no longer.

Refugees in Texas.

In earlier research into my 3x great grandfather John Bobo’s life in Navasota, Texas, I learned that he was among tens of thousands of enslaved Blacks who were forcibly relocated from slave states like Louisiana and Florida to Texas by planters terrified by the threat of rebellion, mass revolt, and emancipation foretold by the election of Abraham Lincoln to President in 1860. Soon after, slaves were force-marched West by White masters on the run from the war between the states from as far away as Virginia. Thousands more were refugees, self-liberated, runaways, freemen, who gathered in large “contraband” camps around Union encampments. The Civil War wreaked havoc on the planter class. As Union armies made their way up the Mississippi, they split the Confederacy from the inside out. As young White men enlisted in droves, their family plantations were left unguarded and without overseers. Blacks self-liberated from farms, factories, even mines. Whites were in a panic. It was against this backdrop, and decades of gripping fear of slave revolt, that planters gathered up their wealth and possessions (in the case of slaves, both) in vast caravans and high-tailed it West. They ventured across the Mississippi, Red, and Brazos rivers to the “safe” strongholds of Eastern Texas where the Confederacy had a firm grip on power.

Through the fascinating research of historian Andrew Torget I learned that enslavement was a longstanding critical and driving force that actually shaped the very existence of the Republic of Texas and later adoption of Texas as the 28th state. Slavery and the desire to make and hold the first American slave state was behind the Mexican-American war (1846 -1848) and the Texas Revolution (1835 – 1863). Anglo slaveholders who immigrated to Texas colonies on the cotton boom from 1820 – 1836 rejected Mexican edicts to give up slavery. Between 1830 and 1835, Torget reports cotton exportation grew from 450,000 bales to 3.15 million. Anglos resisted and shaped local politics and laws to support slave-based agriculture, which in turn built tremendous antipathy and resistance from Tejano leadership in Texas that led to secession and violent skirmishes. In 1836, the Republic of Texas was founded as a “slave republic” with about 30,000 Anglos, 5,000 enslaved Blacks, and 3,500 Tejanos (culturally descended people from the Mexican population of Tejas and Coahuila that lived in the region prior). Indigenous numbers are unavailable, but many were driven further West and North by President Mirabeau Lamar (the Republic’s second president).

I already had this Texas story in my blood and knew it well. In 1841, my great-great grandmother Bessie Fredonia Demings’s own White paternal grandfather Aaron Turner Sr. (1783 – 1851) migrated from Georgia to Texas with his family, which included his enslaved “mulatto” daughter, Ann “Rebecca” Turner. Torn from Mexico unwillingly, Texas as an independent slave-nation was a beacon to American planters in the Southern states who wanted to maintain White supremacy through “agro-profiteering.” Planters poured in, but the government was in constant disarray and unstable. At that time, the British also did not want the cotton trade dominated by Texas. England was already considering abolition. American abolitionists saw Texas as an aberration, but the US government was persuaded into annexation in 1845 by Texas lobbyists as a bulwark against rising British interests in support of Mexico. The Mexican-American war resulted in half of Mexico’s original territory being handed over to the US. 

Planter culture flourished in post-war Texas right up to the 1861 secession of Texas from the United States. Torget writes, “…we can find within the Republic of Texas of the 1830s and 1840s much of the same ideology that drove the formation of the Confederacy during the 1860s.”

With this history in mind, I began to explore my paternal DNA connections in Texas using traditional and genetic genealogy. Studying close surname Bobo matches with roots in Central Texas, and excluding matches on my grandmother’s Turner line (already in Texas), it did not take long examining family trees on Ancestry, MyHeritage, and genealogy forums like Rootsweb, to zero in on a White man named Andrew Jackson Bobo, otherwise known as “A.J.” or “Jackson” Bobo.

While there were various “Bobos” in Texas between 1840 and 1860, Jackson Bobo appeared to have arrived near beginning of the Civil War (I use A.J. and Jackson interchangeably). Born on September 12, 1815 in Christian County, Kentucky, A.J. Bobo died at the age of 47 in 1863 in Madisonville, Madison County, Texas. Turns out, Madison County directly borders counties my 3rd great grandfather John Bobo is associated with; Grimes, Brazos, and Leon County. A.J. Bobo’s proximity to John Bobo’s first recorded appearance was a clue that could not be ignored.

Pedigree triangulation among DNA matches on Ancestry Thrulines for Andrew Jackson Bobo.

With pedigree triangulation, the Ancestry Thrulines tool and traditional records as waypoints, I experimented with placing A.J. Bobo into my family tree as Cornelius’s father, Uncle, and Grandfather. Almost immediately, several triangulated matches seemed to predict A.J. Bobo was probably Cornelius’s father, and my 5th great grandfather. Several DNA match cousins, each White and direct descendants of A.J. Bobo, matched my paternal grandmother within four generations. I confirmed Jackson’s location in my genetic tree by examining additional DNA matches with A.J. Bobo’s parents’ lines, identified as Absolom H. Bobo Senior and Agnes Goode-Hawkins. Dozens of DNA match cousins who descend from the Goode and Hawkins lines further seems to confirm that A.J. Bobo (or one of his male siblings) was John’s grandfather.

A Rootsweb page about A.J. Bobo’s son William T. Bobo revealed that A.J. Bobo, his wife Harriet, and his two White sons and two daughters migrated to Texas over 300 miles from Louisiana between 1861-1862. The account also firmly proved A.J. Bobo brought his enslaved people with him.

Jackson Bobo, 41,  was still an enslaver when he died without a written will in Madisonville, Texas, a year later in 1863. At that time, his wife Harriet, maiden name Brooks, took a $15,000 bond in Ellis County, became the executor of his estate and in August 1864, inventoried his estate for the probate record. The inventory included two wagons, two buggies, two horses, $3,500 in Confederate money and other sundries, and 6 enslaved people.

The enslaved inventoried in 1863 were identified by name, age and value to the estate:

  • Sally, age 45 years appraised at $800
  • Mary, age 24 appraised at $1000
  • Laura, age 19 appraised at $1000
  • Jim, age 18, appraised at $2000
  • George, age 13, appraised at $1000
  • Digs, age 7, appraised at $500

“All of the above were property of the deceased,” reads the document. It’s painful to see values next to their names in inventories like this, but the value also helps to understand if the person’s age was generally accurate. Enslaved men and women in their prime were simply worth more.

Inventory of enslaved, A.J. Bobo Probate Record, 1862, consisting of $5500 worth of enslaved, $3500 Confederate money, and other items.

This illuminating record provided valuable details about A.J. Bobo’s life at the time of his death in 1863. A.J. was generally wealthy up until his death, and the Bobo family’s wealth evaporated when the Confederacy fell, and their enslaved became free. Frustratingly, neither Cornelius Bobo or Emma Brown are among the inventory, yet there’s still information to glean from their not being listed too. At the time, I thought Cornelius and Emma may not have been directly enslaved by A.J. I surmised that they might have been on nearby plantations in Louisiana, they might have been sold away before A.J. ‘s death, or perhaps they died before the migration West. All are reasons they would not appear in the 1864 inventory.

John Bobo is also not directly named. More mystery to be sure, but Madisonville is just 40 miles from Navasota, and John Bobo’s voter registration shows he arrived in Texas about 1861, the same time as A.J. Bobo. Since John Bobo is estimated to be between 12 – 18 years old at the time, it’s possible John was “Jim” or “George” on the inventory and he changed his name. Another interesting record found by Bobo family chroniclers show A.J. and Harriet Bobo’s slaves were composed of family members.

Information Wanted.

John Bobo more than likely arrived in Texas with his White grandfather A.J. Bobo in 1861 as an enslaved man. We don’t know if Cornelius or Emma made the trek. Family history and probate records show A.J. Bobo and his family first arrived in Ellis County, Texas, then made a series of moves over several months, ultimately settling in Madisonville by 1863. The family came by wagon according to family oral history, but the actual route the Bobo’s took is discussed in an 1867 “Information Wanted” ad placed by Sally Harvey, formerly enslaved by the Bobos. Harvey may have been a maiden, married, or adopted name.

After the war closed, Sally worked with another former slave, Reverend J.R. Fenner of Monroe, Louisiana, to post a notice in the New Orleans Advocate asking for any information about her family, taken away to Texas.

Sally Harvey, concerning her son James who was owned by Jackson Bobo, who took James from Bastrop [Louisiana ] to Ellis County, Texas, in 1862, and Mrs. Bobo [Harriet Brooks, wife of Jackson Bobo – notation my own], took him from there to Milligan [actually Millican, in Brazos Co. – my notation] on Brazos River. Any information may be sent to his mother, care of Rev. J.R. Fenner, Monroe, La., also about her son Thomas who was in the Union Army, and in 1862 passed through Bastrop – write to her in care of Rev. J.R. Fenner, Monroe, La.”

Information Wanted Ad by Sally Harvey, New Orleans Advocate, 25 May 1867.

“Information Wanted” or “Lost Friends” ads were posted during and after the Civil War throughout Reconstruction by formerly enslaved people searching for families broken up by slavery or the war. They were published through Methodist newspapers printed in New Orleans and distributed across Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. There are several databases of these ads useful to historians and genealogists. Lost Friends contains advertisements from the Southwestern Christian Advocate, and Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery are two such databases. One source says The New Orleans Advocate published the Harvey-Bobo notice on 25 May, 1867 but I have not yet acquired the original document.

It’s unclear how all of the enslaved listed in Jackson’s probate are related, but the letter reveals at least Sally Harvey and her 18-year-old son James “Jim” were. Sally’s letter discusses another son, “Thomas”, a soldier in the US Colored Troops who passed through Bastrop in 1862. Sally’s familiarity with the route the Bobo’s took to Texas suggests she was also a refugee there. The inventory also supports this as such sworn testimony was only given after physical examination against a bond. The letter suggests Sally returned to Monroe, the capital of Ouachita Parish (adjacent to Morehouse Parish where the town of Bastrop is found), after emancipation and was likely in Rev. Fenner’s congregation.

Examining the inventory ages further, there is the tantalizing possibility that “George” is John Bobo, and that he changed his name to John after emancipation.

Bastrop, a location in Morehouse Parish, Louisiana revealed where A.J. had come from, became a new clue to search for hints of Cornelius Bobo and Emma Brown. Thus, I knew I had to expand my search for Cornelius and Emma to Louisiana, starting with the most basic of records, slave schedules. 

As an enslaver A.J. Bobo had to pay taxes on all his property assessed usually by Sheriffs (also tax collectors), so his enslaved are listed on the 1860 US Slave Schedule for Bastrop, Morehouse Parish, Louisiana by gender and age. Slaves were never listed by name in federal slave schedules, except in a few rare cases. The 1860 schedule shows he enslaved 7 people at this time, and some ages do align with my expectations based on the slave inventory and John’s reported age ranges of Cornelius, Emma, and John.

  • Female, 36, Black (probably Sally Harvey) (would be 40 in 1864)
  • Male, 26, Black (probably Cornelius)
  • Male, 22, mulatto (probably Thomas Harvey)
  • Female 20, Black (probably Emma)
  • Female 16, Black (probably Laura) (would be 20 in 1864)
  • Male 14, Black (probably Jim Harvey) (would be 18 in 1864)
  • Male 9, mulatto (probably George who became “John”) (would be 13 in 1864)

The 26 year-old male and 14 year-old male are missing from the 1864 inventory. If A.J. and Harriet Bobo did indeed own Cornelius and Emma, and they were living at this time, then I believe the 26 year-old on the 1860 census is Cornelius Bobo. It’s likely the 16-year-old is Emma. Bearing in mind that estimated enslaved ages have wide swings, as much as 5-10 years, the timing aligns around this proposed family unit.

In 1869, Sally Harvey appeared in the Freedmen’s Bureau Records of Monroe, Ouachita Parish, Louisiana, estimated age 60, suffering from “vertigo.” James R. Fenner, who wrote the ad on Sally’s behalf, was also a school teacher with the Freedmen’s Bureau in Monroe from 1867 – 1868. 

However, I can find no further records for Sally after that, and I have not been able to locate any of the other enslaved on the Jackson Bobo inventory using Harvey or Bobo as a surname in Millican (Brazos County), Navasota (Grimes County), Monroe or Bastrop, Louisiana. I had gained a lot of valuable information, but more dead ends too.

The information wanted article does illuminate the path the Bobo’s took in Texas. They likely caravanned in a wagon train on the Old East West Road, going west past Shreveport, then south into Ellis County near Dallas, then A.J. took the family further south to Millican along the Brazos River, then finally arrived northwest in Madisonville (Madison County) by July of 1863 when he passed away.

1882 map of Grimes County Texas. Navasota, Millican, and Madisonville highlighted, are all within 45 miles of each other but in three separate counties.

Not coincidental, Millican is just 10 miles northwest of Navasota where John Bobo first appears living in the Freedmen’s town known as “Camp Canaan” in 1870. 

Did John Bobo self-liberate in Millican between 1862-63 from A.J. Bobo and Harriet Brooks? 

Did John do it with his parents Cornelius Bobo and Emma Brown? If so, where were they?

Dale Baum’s excellent study, The Fate of Texas – The Civil War and the Lone Star State, provides an in-depth assessment of how refugee slaves bolstered the tax rolls of central Texas counties. Between 1860 and 1864, Brazos county saw their enslaved population more than double to 2,013 taxed slaves. Grimes county, where my 3x great-grandfather John Bobo first appears in the historical record, grew from 4,850 to 7,005 taxed slaves.

During the 1860s, the end of the Houston and Texas Central railroads was in Millican in Brazos County, making it the largest town north of Houston and south of Dallas. Many White planters brought their slaves to Millican along the Brazos River. After the Civil War, the town was predominantly Black freeman, but yellow fever decimated the population in 1867. Whites and Blacks fled the fever. White politicians were removed because they were Confederates and Whites became the minority. Still the Arena of Civil War: Violence and Turmoil in Reconstruction Texas, 1865 – 1874reports that Brazos County was the most violent county in all of Texas at that time, leading in murders, lynchings, and crime. Grimes County was not too far behind. Racial tensions rose in Millican as Blacks became elected leaders in the town and registered to vote. The KKK marched through the streets sparking a series of events resulting in the Millican massacre, a race riot leaving hundreds of Blacks dead.
Millican’s Freedmen’s Bureau records are full of letters about the violence. Were Cornelius and Emma among the victims of violence in Millican, with only John surviving? It seems doubtful that A.J. Bobo and his White sons would have not pursued Cornelius, Emma, and John relentlessly because of their value to them in a strange land. I also don’t believe A.J. Bobo hired them out, a common practice among slaveholders. As valuable property generating income in an unstable time, they would have appeared in the 1864 probate inventory, with Harriet trying to claw-back the proceeds of their labor from any debtors to the estate. Did the Bobo’s sell Cornelius and Emma in Texas between 1862 and 1863? Could A.J. Bobo have sold his own flesh and blood? Absolutely. Children of slaveholders did not hold a special status. There’s also the sad possibility that Cornelius and Emma simply didn’t take the journey West.

Refugees from the Sun King.

Though I have not found Cornelius Bobo and Emma Brown anywhere else in the historical record other than John Bobo’s death certificate, I have had to imagine and reconstruct them in the liminal spaces of the life of Andrew “Jackson” Bobo, my 5x great grandfather. A.J.’s “FAN CLUB” or his friends, acquaintances, and neighbors, being mostly White planters in Bastrop Louisiana, and earlier in Claiborne County, Mississippi, have detailed records like land patents, bills of sale, wills, even articles about their lives in local newspapers and other histories. They also have descendants who have written family histories and taken DNA tests – a genetic fan club of descendants if you like.

So far, I knew A.J. Bobo was likely Cornelius’s enslaver and biological father. He was a Mississippian, Louisianan, and briefly a refugee in Texan, a farmer, a planter, a Sheriff, and a family man – and the source of my “Bobo” family surname. The fact that Jackson was married twice though would prove critical. With knowledge about his first wife’s family, I was able to identify where and when Cornelius’s own enslaved mother lived. Understanding the lives of the people of Port Gibson, Mississippi and A.J.’s early life also helped me identify the family of John Bobo’s mother, Emma Brown, and her living descendants.

A.J. Bobo’s family took part in the western expansion, riding a wave of settlement as cotton planters along the famed Natchez Trace, the ancient overland route from Tennessee into the Mississippi river valley. I’ve learned that all of A.J.’s parents and siblings were one-time enslavers as well, cashing in on the cotton boom with forced labor. Genetic and traditional research also shine a light on Cornelius’s biological mother. Even the curious and violent life of A.J.’s Anglo children reveal something about the life Cornelius and Emma must have led. While A.J. Bobo spent a significant portion of his life enforcing the law, two of his own children became violent criminals in post-Civil War Texas. In understanding A.J. Bobo ‘s life, his family and contemporaries, Cornelius and Emma can move from the margins of the page to the center.

But first, what are the origins of the surname Bobo? And who were the early french Huguenot Beaubeau family?

Andrew Jackson Bobo was the great-grandson of Gabriel Beaubeau II (later Baubau, then anglicized to Bobo). Gabriel was born about 1651 in Southwestern France, 120 KM north of Bordeaux in Saint-Sauvant, Charente-Maritime, Poitou-Charentes, France to Gabriel Beaubeau I and Catherine Rivault, and by 1700 emigrated to the English colonies. Gabriel Beaubeau II is found in the Abstracts of Virginia Land Office which include numerous references to land patented by “French refugees,” the Protestants (Huguenots) who fled France after Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes. The word Huguenot combined the Flemish ‘Huisgenooten’, meaning House fellows, with the German ‘Eidgenosen’, meaning a group bound together by oath. The Edict of Nantes of 1598 established and ensured the peaceful coexistence of Catholics and Protestants and brought a stop to 36 years of what was basically, a religious civil war in France. The Edict guaranteed freedom to worship by both religions, and declared “all men stood equal before the law.” The reversal of the Edict devastated the peace; it forbade religious practice for the Protestant Reformed Church and stipulated that all Protestant churches be destroyed or torn down. Pastors recanted or went into exile. Of the 800,000 oppressed Huguenots in France, nearly one-fourth left the country, starting colonies all over Europe, British America, and even South Africa.

Historians of Gabriel Beaubeau II (1651-1720) say he traveled to England and then to the English Colony of Virginia. Extensive research on Gabriel can be found in the Blakenstein Genealogy, and in the Bobo Newsletter, which is well cited. Other family history blogs like the Bobo Branch by Lynn Yantis has attempted to connect the family to their modern descendants. Upon arrival in Virginia, Gabriel married Elizabeth Spencer White (1682-1704) of Jamestown. Elizabeth was the daughter of Thomas Spencer and Anne Susannah Perry, and widow of Captain James White.  

From Blankenstein, “Elizabeth and James appear to have been involved in the importation of immigrants to the colony, and had received at least one land grant (23 Oct 1703) for that reason. It is unclear what their role was in this endeavor, but it was common practice among the early settlers to pay for passage of immigrants in exchange for working their plantations, and often granting land in exchange for their labor.”

Gabriel “Baubau” appears on the record in the Colony of Virginia for the first time on November 7, 1700 in a land grant to Robert Nash, listed as being one of seven people transported into the colony by Nash according to the New Kent County, Virginia Patent Book. Researchers tracked Gabriel Beaubeau’s brief years in the Colony, where he had at least one child before his death. Land records, patents and taxes, mainly around his wife Elizabeth, are found in the King William County, Virginia Patent Books.

“It appears likely that Gabriel Baubau came to Virginia from England circa 1700 and settled about two miles south of present day Beulahville [now in King William County], on Herring Creek. He married Elizabeth Spencer White, widow of James White, before 23 Oct 1703.

While there is no further record of Gabriel, Elizabeth’s name continues to appear in several land records until 1724. At least one of these refers to land that can be identified as being about 10 miles west of Gabriel’s homestead, in Caroline County., that county being divided from King William Co. in 1728.”

In a remarkable coincidence, my father, Richard Johnson, the 8th grandson of Gabriel Beaubeau II lives a fifteen-minute drive from Beulahville outside Richmond.

Gabriel Beaubeau’s Timeline in the British Colony of Virginia

  • 1700 – 1703 – Gabriel Beaubeau II arrives in Jamestown, Virginia. He doesn’t appear to make it to the French Huguenot settlement of Manakin (northwest of Richmond) and settles in Beulahville, VA area, just south of the Mattaponi River, and Northeast of Richmond.
  • 19 Feb 1703 – Elizabeth White makes a gift of 1300 pounds of tobacco, a horse and 100 acres (“about a quarter mile below BUBBOES’s house”) to each of her sons Thomas and James (by late husband James White). “The land being 200 acres of land given me by my father Thomas Spencer of King and Queen Co.” Witnessed by “Gabriel Baubau”. See King William Co.,VA Patent Book 5, page 17.
  • 23 Apr 1703 – Samuel Williams and Daniel Coleman granted 600 acres in King William Co., “between Williams and Bubboe’s plantations.” (King William Co., VA Patent Book 9, page 549).
  • 23 Oct 1703 – James White and ELIZ BUBBOE, (Late ELIZ White), 250 acs. King William County bet. the Herring Cr. about 1/4 of a mile below BUBBOE’s house; a long run of the dividing br.; p. 552 Trans. of 5 pers. Hugh Allen, Eliz Penny, John Snipe, James Turner, Anne Darrington. (King William Co., Patent Book No. 9, page 75.)
  • 1703 – Gabriel Beaubeau is married to Elizabeth Spencer White.
  • 23 Oct 1703Elizabeth Bubboe, widow of James White, receives a grant of 250 acres in King William Co. for transporting 5 people into the colony. (King William Co., VA Patent Book 9, page 552).
  • 1704 – Elizabeth Bobo rented 200 acres.
  • 1704Francis Spencer Bobo Sr. son of Gabriel Beaubeau and Elizabeth Bobo is born. Gabriel Beaubeau dies.
  • 1704 –  “Elizabeth Bobo” is listed as a widow (Gabriel Beaubeau is not listed so has presumably died) in King William City, Va. Quit Rent Rolls. During the colonial period all landowners in Virginia paid to the King an annual “quit rent” of one shilling for every. This is the first time “Bobo” is spelled in this way in the written record.
  • 1 Apr 1717 – “Elizabeth Boboe” and Thomas Cartwright purchase 400 acres in King William Co. (King William Co., VA Patent Book 10, page 313).
  • 1719 – Elizabeth Bobo received a land grant in King and Queen County, Virginia.
  • 8 Jul 1724 – William Eubank purchased 400 acres in St. John’s Parish. King William Co. adjoining land of Thomas Cartwright and “Elizabeth Boboe.” (King William Co., VA Patent Book 10, page 346.)

Elizabeth and Gabriel had one son about 1704, Francis Spencer Bobo Sr. (1705-1764). Francis was married twice, first to Mary Taylor (birth and death date unknown) and then to Jane Wofford (1702 – 1737). Francis Spencer and Jane had 6 children whose first names would carry on in their children’s names creating a hall of mirrors of Bobo descendants sharing many first names repeating generation after generation, stretching from Virginia in the late 1600s to South Carolina, Kentucky, and Mississippi in the 1800s. Spencer and Jane’s last son, Sampson Bobo (1737-1805) married Sarah “Sally” Simpson (d. 1816) and by 1737 moved to Bute, North Carolina, then to Spartanburg, South Carolina by 1776. He purportedly served under Col. Brandon during the Revolutionary War. Sampson Bobo and Sally Bobo nee’ Simpson had 13 children, including Absolom H. Bobo Sr., the father of Andrew Jackson Bobo. Sampson Bobo died in 1806 in Spartanburg, leaving 10 enslaved people inventoried in his probate, and when his wife Sally Simpson-Bobo died in 1816, she had one enslaved person in her will.

“Last Will and Testament of Sally Bobo of Spartanburg District; rec. 26 Dec 1816; to son Burrel , $100; to son Absalom my colt; to son Cheney, one negro girl Marsey; to son Jeremiah, one negro Lynda; to son Simpson’s five children, vis. Polley, John, Nancy, Betsey & Salley, $500; my son William Wilder, my son Spencer Bobo, my son Baram; my son Absalom, my son Cheney, my son Hiram, my son Jeremiah, my son Willis, my dau. Lovina, my dau. Polley, my dau. Betsey, my dau. Nancies children Salley, Rachel and Samuel Simpson; sons Cheney and Hiram Executors, 20 January 1813.” Witnessed by A. Casey, M. Casey. Proven by Aaron Casey, 26 February 1816.”

“Chaney Bobo exr. of Sally Bobo decd came forward with the advancements to the legatees of Samson Bobo decd…to Wm. Wilder , George Roebuck, Spencer Bobo, Sampson Bobo Jr., Absalom Bobo Senior. Chaney Bobo, Matthew Patton, Barram Bobo, Absalom Bobo Junior., Anthony Foster, Hiram Bobo, Jeremiah Bobo, Willis Bobo & Burrel Bobo, there being fourteen legatees…31 October 1818″

In the book McCall-Tidwell and Allied Families aspects of the Bobo Family history are captured but incomplete. The French Huguenot ancestry is correct, but when, and who among the family arrived in the Colonies is quite muddled. So it’s hard to declare the rest of the information about Sampson Bobo as fully accurate, but it claims Sampson had 450 acres on the Tyger River in Craven County, North Carolina before serving in the Revolutionary War. It is accurate that Francis Spencer Bobo Sr. later moved to South Carolina and lived in Cross Keys in Union County. His son Barrum was a prosperous businessman who owned the Cross Keys Plantation and Stagecoach Stop, now on the South Carolina Registry of Historic Places. There is a large Bobo cemetery in Cross Keys.

In some public family Bobo trees on Ancestry and WikiTree, Absolom Humphrey Bobo Sr. also known as “Ab” (1765 – 1831), son of Sampson Bobo and Sallie Simpson, is often misidentified. 

First, Absolom H. Bobo Sr. is often confused with his first cousin “Absalom Bobo” (spelled with an “a” – which was often interchanged with “o” in records), son of Spencer Bobo Jr. (1728-1817) and Judith Foster, who married his first cousin Mary “Polly” Bobo, a daughter of Sampson Bobo. If you follow the Blankenstein tree, Sampson and Spencer Jr. were brothers. Their children married their first cousins, not uncommon for those times.

Second, details about Absolom H. Bobo Snr. are also mistakenly attributed in some trees to the life of his uncle, Absolom Bobo (1730-1811), another son of Francis Spencer Snr. (1705-1764).

It was easy for early genealogies to contain these mistakes as generation after generation named their children after uncles and aunts.

We know Absolom H. Bobo Sr., son of Sampson Bobo and Sallie Simpson, is indeed the correct father of A.J. Bobo, based on Senior’s birthplace of Bute, North Carolina, where several of his siblings (Levinah, Burrel/Burwell, Spencer, Nancy) were also born to Sampson and Sally. Sampson Bobo appears on the 1773 tax rolls there in Bute County. Later, both Absolom H. Bobo Sr. and his son Absolom H. Bobo Jr. appear in the 1818 probate of Sally Simpson-Bobo.

Another source of insight is the pamphlet Bobo Cousins by the Dozens, by Herbert M. Novell, Jr. and Jeanie Patterson Newell written in 1968. Much of Novell and Newell’s work informs the 2005 pamphlet The Bobo Family. The Descendants of Gabriel Bobo by Catherine Reuther. The lives of Bobos in South Carolina have also been detailed in the blog, The Forgotten South.

Finally, the Bobo Roots Cellar, an email newsletter about the Bobo family history, also contained valuable information shared by Bobo descendants through decades of research.

The details of the young life of Absolom H. Bobo Sr. are scant. He was 10 years old when the colonies became the United States of America, but in 1806 at the age of 41, Absolom married Agnes Goode-Hawkins in Hopkinsville, in Christian County, Kentucky. They had the permission of Agnes’s mother Elizabeth and her brother James Hawkins testified. The Hawkins hailed from nearby Rutherford County, North Carolina.

Earlier, in 1803 in Rutherford County, Benjamin Hawkins became guardian of Agnes Goode-Hawkins and Benjamin Hawkins, upon the death of their father John. Benjamin Hawkins then relocated to Christian County. Agnes’s father John was born in Mecklenburg County, Virginia and died at age 36 in 1758. His will was probated in Orange County where his wife Mary Howard died in 1787.

A.J.’s father Absolom H. Bobo “Ab” Sr. was in Christian county for the land and fortune when he met Agnes. A 1807 Kentucky Land Grant shows Ab Bobo gained 200 acres on the Sinking Fork branch of the Little River in Western Kentucky. Apparently, Christian county was settled by many former soldiers in the Revolutionary War with their land pensions. Until then, Kentucky was a hunting-ground used by the Delawares, Wyandots, Shawnees, and other tribes from beyond the Ohio River, and the Catawba, Cherokee and Creek tribes. The tribes cooperatively hunted deer, elk and buffalo before being driven out by Anglo settlers.

In 1810, Ab Bobo Snr. had 2 enslaved people in his home in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, alongside Agnes and one boy under the age of 10, presumably a first son. I have not been able to identify Ab’s first son’s name and if he survived. Their boys (probably twins), Absolom Bobo Jr. and Andrew Jackson Bobo, were born five years later in the same county.

The Bobos on the Natchez Trace.

When Ab Bobo Snr. moved south from Western Kentucky to Mississippi around 1817 to develop land under grants, he most likely took the Natchez Trace, a prehistoric, pre-Columbian road used by Indigenous tribes for hundreds of years between present-day Nashville Tennessee and Natchez in Mississippi.  France controlled this road and most of the territory west of the Appalachian mountains (named Louisiana in honor of the French King) from about 1700 to 1763 until it was lost in the Seven Years War to the Spanish. The network of “Indian trails” ended in the vitally strategic town of Natchez which sat on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi. In 1803, Thomas Jefferson successfully negotiated with Napoleon Bonaparte for all of France’s holdings west of the Mississippi in the Louisiana Purchase. With an incredible amount of new territory available for Western expansion, Americans rushed in, often taking the Trace. Treaties with the Choctaw and Chickasaw did not stop travelers from being preyed upon by bandits. Large caravans often traveled for safety, and inns known as “stands” soon sprang up to give travelers a safe place to stop.

1911 map of Claiborne County, highlighted are Port Gibson (county seat), Grand Gulf, Willow (Willow Springs), Rocky Springs, Hermanville, and Brandywine, areas associated with the planters in the Bobo, Kilcrease, Truly, Booth, and Dorsey families.

Along the central Mississippi river, a string of small villages and cities attracted a new wave of American settlers. Port Gibson in Claiborne County, was founded on a bend in Bayou Pierre in 1788 by the planter Samuel Gibson, south of the Big Black River. It was first visited during La Salle’s exploration of the Mississippi River in 1763. La Salle’s party came across a bountiful alluvial plain, fertilized with Black muddy soil from the time when the Ohio River and Mississippi’s confluence was actually much further South than present day, in the area between Vicksburg and Natchez. The English held the territory between 1763 and 1781 throughout the Revolutionary War. Then the Spanish took the claim by treaty from 1781 to 1798. 

A key source of information about the earliest settlers in the area, some of whom are my ancestors, The Spanish Natchez Court Records chronicles the period between 1781 – 1798 going into great detail about the lives of the inhabitants of the area at that time. Sureties, bills of sale for land and slaves, inventories, appraisals, wills, and land claims (1767-1805) deals with British land grants in the Natchez District and is based on abstracts of land titles submitted to the United States for confirmation of land ownership.

Natchez Trace Parkway, Mississippi

Claiborne County lies on the unceeded ancestral lands of the Natchez tribe that purportedly had up to 60 villages along the River. They were wiped out in colossal acts of genocide by the French in retaliation for skirmishes that resulted from encroaching Anglo settlers. The Choctaw, Chickasaw and Tensas tribes moved in during the vacuum and had a better relationship with the French and Spanish. The Choctaw later ceded the land to the British in the 1801 Fort Adams treaty.

By 1776, when the Natchez region was under English rule, there were only 78 families. Briefly, the English “Lyman Colony” settled the area between 1774 and 1776 but the Lyman colony failed after troubles with the Spanish. The 1792 Spanish Census recorded a population of 4,630 settlers in the district with nearly half being mostly enslaved Blacks. Bayou Pierre had a population of just 343, about 81 families, 254 Whites (109 of these females and 100 Negroes) according to Katy McCaleb-Headley’s deeply-researched history, Claiborne County: The Promised Land.

1822 land patent to Absolom Bobo for 27 acres in the Washington district in Claiborne County.

Ab Bobo and his family arrived around 1817 and he got his first land patent 5 years later in 1822 for forcing his enslaved to improve 79 acres along the North Fork of Bayou Pierre, a Mississippi tributary in Rocky Springs, Claiborne County. His family appears in the 1820 census with 5 enslaved people. Ab and Agnes’s children included Elizabeth Foster Bobo (b. 1812), Andrew Jackson Bobo (b. 1815), Absolom Humphrey Bobo Jr. (b. 1815 and perhaps A.J.’s identical twin). His eldest boy was not on the census. Ab and Agnes would go on to have three more children in Mississippi; Harriet (b. 1817), Jane (b. 1820), and John M. (b. 1822).

By 1826, it was clear the Bobo’s move to Mississippi was not without risk. In June, Ab placed an ad in the Natchez Newspaper offering to “sell my land and some negroes.” He tried to spin it, “the situation is known to many as an advantageous one, and extremely healthy.” He was 61 years old, and his children were quite young.

Ad placed by Absolom Bobo Snr., to sell land and slaves in the Natchez Newspaper and Public Advertiser, June 13, 1826.

By 1830 Ab Snr. held 11 slaves, so his fortunes had shifted. His sons, Absolom Jr., Jackson and John were now old enough (15 to 16 years old) to manage the plantation as farmhands and overseers of their enslaved laborers.

Nearby Port Gibson was just a few miles away. Port Gibson was an elegant little inland town with antebellum homes and stately churches. During the Civil War, General Ulysses spared the city’s destruction following the Battle of Port Gibson. General Ulysses S. Grant is supposed to have declared that it was “too beautiful to burn.” The area directly west across the river in Louisiana was being cultivated and the home of several large wealthy plantations also owned by Port Gibson and Natchez planters.

In a 1855 letter to the New Orleans Daily Delta, one traveler to Port Gibson waxed lyrical about the city, “Landing at the waning and dilapidated town of Grand Gulf, which is but the piraeus or landing place of the real city, I was whirled, in some ten minutes’ time, over a fast and substantial railroad, some eighteen miles, right into the centre of a beautiful city, of which I had no previous conception. The wide, regular streets, cutting each other at right angles, lined with elegant mansions embowered in a perfect sea of evergreen shrubbery, showed me an Arcadian vision of spring in bloom even while winter was reigning monarch of all the rest of the world.  The site is most unique and romantic.”

In 1831, Ab Snr. died and his will was probated in Port Gibson. His wife Agnes administered the probate. As was required, Ab’s estate was inventoried and debtors invited to make their claims against the estate. 

In 1833, 13 enslaved people were appraised as inventory of the Absolom H. Bobo Snr. estate.

  • Abram $600
  • Litey $600
  • Lucy $400
  • Milly $450
  • Betty $350
  • Rhoda, Bytha, Susan, Willoughby & Child, $850
  • Arnold $600
  • Ben $600
  • Jack $300

Note the names, Rhoda, Willoughby, and Jack – they’ll turn up later. Much of Ab Bobo’s estate was put up at auction due to insolvency. The minors were ordered tutored and the widow Agnes Goode-Hawkins-Bobo remained mistress of the plantation. By 1840, she was  wealthy, having secured two land patents herself for about 150 acres in total, and holding 18 slaves, 12 “employed in agriculture” or working in the cotton fields. It’s unclear when she died, but it was likely before 1850. I have not found her will.

In 1836, A.J.’s sister Elizabeth “Eliza” married Dr. Thomas Turpin. The Turpins had 140 acres in Ouachita Parish, Louisiana in 1838 but remained in Claiborne County until at least 1850. Not surprisingly, the Turpins were also part of the same wagon train from Kentucky that brought the Bobos.

Jane Bobo, A.J.’s younger sister, lived with her older sister Harriet and her husband Walter Rossman for a time. She married an overseer, lived for a while in Madison Parish, Louisiana, but was widowed by 1860 and returned to Port Gibson, with 8 slaves of her own.

A.J.’s twin brother Absolom H. Jr. “Ab Jr.” was an entrepreneur who married Eliza Mississippi Robinson in 1838. He lived in Rocky Springs to the west of Port Gibson. In the 1840 census, he enslaved 7 people.

Ab Jr. became the charismatic owner of “Washington Hall” also known as the “Bobo House” hotel in Port Gibson, Mississippi. The lively tavern and inn was one of two in the town at the time according to The Southern Business Directory and General Commercial Advertiser published in 1854.

Advertisement for Bobo House (formerly Washington Hall) in the Port Gibson Reveille, January 1854. It advertises the hotel’s cleanliness after use during a yellow fever pandemic.

Ab Jr. was a Captain, most likely of a local militia or vigilance committee, though it’s unclear if he actually served. For several years, Ab Jr. was the Sheriff and Jailor of Claiborne County between 1849 and 1854. He was listed often as a point of contact in runaway slave ads he placed in Louisiana and Mississippi newspapers.

1851 runaway slave ad placed by Sheriff A.H. Bobo (Absolom Bobo Jr.).

When Absolom Jr. died in 1854, he had a lengthy probate full of the inventory of Bobo House worth $8,400 (a parlor and 17 rooms according to the inventory). It also included the following enslaved who were to be sold at public auction in 1856 to pay his debts.

  • Everett, a negro man, $1200
  • Fanny (& infant), a negro woman, $1000
  • Egbert, a negro boy, $900
  • Hano, a negro boy, $600
  • Kate, a negro girl, $200
  • Emily, a negro woman, $1200
  • John, a negro man, $500
  • Lucy, a negro woman, $600
  • Ben, a negro man, $1200
  • Sam, a negro man (very old), $0

Its possible Lucy was the same woman listed in his father’s probate. His wife Eliza administered the estate and by 1860 retained $2,000 in real estate and $4,000 in personal wealth.

Harriet Bobo, the second daughter of Ab Snr. and Agnes Bobo, married Walter Rossman, a Jewish doctor, in 1836. Harriet clearly inherited several of Ab Snr.’s slaves. In 1846, a “Schedule of Property” belonging to Harriet Bobo-Rossman included:

  • Jack, a negro man
  • Willoby, a negro man
  • Sandy, a boy
  • Rhody, a woman
  • Mary, a woman
  • Alice, a girl
  • Elizabeth, a girl

Jack, Willoughby, and Rhody (Rhoda) are clearly the same slaves appearing on Ab Snr’s inventory. Most likely, Harriet bought them from his estate. I think we can presume more of Ab Snr.’s enslaved may have gone to other children.

Part 2.

The 1840s in America were dominated by the idea of western expansion and modernization. Captain Charles Wilkes’ expedition circumnavigated the South pole, claiming it for the United States in 1840. The world was shrinking at the dawn of the Victorian age but America was growing. The end of the Mexican-American War saw America’s borders expand vastly to include California, sparking the gold rush. News and culture was on tour as circuses, carnivals, circuit riders and preachers toured from town to town, and the Irish potato famine drove immigrants across the Atlantic to America. The political scene was dominated by the Democrats and Whigs – the Whigs were focused on promoting industrial conformity and progress, big sweeping commercial enterprises that improved infrastructure like railroads, education and public education. The Democrats were busy defending slavery, denounced nationalization and continued to promote state’s independence.

Not long after his father Ab Snr. died, A.J. “Jackson” Bobo was now a man in his prime, 25 years old, he can be found living in Willow Springs, 6 miles east of Port Gibson near Hinds County in 1840. He had his horse stolen that year and placed an ad in the South Western Farmer of Hinds County.

Notice of stolen horse placed by A.J. Bobo in May 1840 in the South-Western Farmer in Hinds County, Mississippi.

I speculate that A.J. was either an overseer on a plantation in the area or helping his widowed mother Agnes manage hers. At 27 years of age, in 1842, A.J. Bobo met, courted and married Eliza Ann Truly (age unknown), daughter of John Harrison Truly and Lydia Booth (1795 – 1845). Eliza Ann had two sisters, Amanda, and Charlotte – she was likely the middle sister. She also had several step-siblings from her mother’s second marriage. In a remarkable arrangement, two of those step-siblings would also become the spouses of the Truly daughters, and Eliza Ann had already been one of them.

Eliza Ann’s mother Lydia was the daughter of John Booth (1745 – 1825) and Hester Kilcrease (1785 – 1840). John Booth arrived first in the region when it was under Spanish control, first passing through Alabama where he was listed under “Spanish inhabitants”according to May W. McBee’s abstracts of the Spanish Natchez Court Records, 1767 – 1805. 

John Booth is listed as living on the north branch of Bayou Pierre April 2, 1790 where he received a grant of 640 acres on January 1, 1793. He also appears on the Spanish Census of 1792 as “Juan Bouth.” John was a planter but also served in the War of 1812 as a Private in Hind’s Battalion of Cavalry. His wife, Hester Kilcrease (d. 1840), may have been first married to Robert Kilcrease in Edgefield, South Carolina, but migrated west through Tennessee. For reasons that are unclear, Robert left Hester in Georgia where they first met. Alice Tray Welch writes in Family Records Mississippi Revolutionary Soldiers, that Hester Kilcrease (maiden name unknown) met John Booth there and married, then Hester and her two children William (1780 -1845) and Parmelia “Lilly” (1792 – 1846) moved back to Port Gibson with John. A “William Kilcrease” received a Spanish land grant in 1806 for clearing 390 acres on Bayou Pierre in the Natchez Court Records in 1797. It’s possible it was Hester’s son, with the aid of slaves. The plantation became known as “Pleasant Hill.”

“Pleasant Hill was located about three miles north east of Hermanville on property adjoining Talbot…It was built on a Spanish grant to John Booth of Maryland and Georgia, a Revolutionary soldier in 1793. It is not known what the original house was like, but in the early 1830s, John Booth Jr., built a two-story columned home on the site of the older home. He named it Pleasant Hill because it was there that the rolling land made a sharp drop into the lowland of Bayou Pierre and thus made possible a view of many acres.”

Claiborne County, Mississippi: The Promised Land. United States, Claiborne County Historical Society, 1976.

Hester (Kilcrease) Booth’s 1838 probate records indicate her second marriage to John Booth produced six more children. Hester’s daughter Lydia was married twice, first to John Harrison Truly, producing three daughters, Amanda, Charlotte, and Eliza Ann. When John Truly died, Lydia remarried the widower Elijah L. Clark, Snr. (1786 – 1847) in 1833 who was ten years her senior. 

Elijah L. Clark, Snr. lived along Tabor Creek and was the son of the wealthy settler Gibson Clark Snr. Elijah’s father Gibson had been in the District since 1781 according to the Spanish Natchez Court Records and owned land on Stoney Creek (an earlier name for Bayou Pierre) in 1786. He had patents for 600 acres. Elijah’s uncle was John Clark whose lands adjoined John Booth’s plantation. Gibson sold some of his Bayou Pierre lands for $5000 in 1806 and holdings in Concordia Parish, Louisiana before he died. Gibson left his children sizable estates, and his son Elijah half of the ownership in a mill valued at $1000 in 1820.

Elijah had also been married once before and lost much of his family and four enslaved people in a hauntingly tragic ferry boat accident on the Mississippi earlier in 1833. Elijah, his son Gibson (named for his grandfather), and daughter-in-law, Matilda Coursey and their child, another son John B. Clark (named for his granduncle) and his wife and child, and Matilda’s younger sister set out to cross the Mississippi back to Grand Gulf from the Louisiana side at Chittaloosa. They had several horses and were accompanied by 4 enslaved people. 

The June 21 edition of The Natchez Weekly Courier reported, that the ferry “got into an eddy of the Gulf, and in the confusion that ensued, the horse became frightened, and rushing to one end of the flat, tilted it under water; the eddy at the moment seizing it, drew the end downwards, until the boat almost stood perpendicular to the water. The motion was so sudden that everything was precipitated into the stream. The horses swam to shore, but everyone drowned.” 

Only Elijah Clark, the ferryman, and his grandson survived. In all, 10 people drowned and the remaining bodies were never recovered.

Death of Elijah L. Clark family in ferry accident, Natchez Weekly Courier, June 21, 1833.

Elijah and Lydia’s July wedding, just a few weeks after, must have been a sad and subdued affair – and driven entirely out of convenience. Such a tragedy must have gutted the tight knit planter community on Bayou Pierre where many of the families were intermarried over several generations. Their sons married their available daughters, their enslaved community intermixed, and their children often inherited complex legacies. Death was a constant companion on the Mississippi for settlers, planters, enslaved and free people. Besides the dangers of the Mississippi which flooded regularly, yellow fever was a near constant epidemic that struck indiscriminately too. If a person got a mild case of yellow fever, they would recover from a fever and chills within a few weeks appearing jaundiced with a yellow complexion, hence the name “yellow fever.” However, a severe case would lead to “Black vomit” as the infected person’s kidneys and other internal organs failed leading to death. In 1841 Natchez authorities appointed a temporary board of health to combat yellow fever but it could not be stopped. The worst case thirty years later caused over 4,000 deaths. The Civil War, flooding, tornados, and yellow fever literally turned places like Willow Springs, Grand Gulf, and Rocky Springs into ghost towns after 1865.

The area’s peak was in 1860 with numerous prosperous plantations, inhabitants and slaves. Yet after the Civil War, one inhabitant reported, “My slaves, horses, and mules are carried off, my fences torn down, and my crops destroyed.” Discovering where these formerly enslaved inhabitants would migrate to during Reconstruction would actually be instrumental in later identifying the family of my 4x great grandmother Emma Brown.

Bobo origins and more surprises in the Bayou Pierre families.

While Cornelius Bobo was descended from Africans, his Anglo origins can be found in the genetic network of the Bayou Pierre families, whose blood and DNA also run through my veins. A.J. Bobo’s first marriage to the daughter of Elijah L. Clark and Lydia Truly-Booth, Eliza Ann Truly created the opportunity to prey upon Eliza Ann’s enslaved women. It was a common tragedy forced upon African American women already deprecated by slavery.

The November 1842 wedding made A.J. Bobo a planter “prince” and son-in-law to the powerful and wealthy Elijah L. Clark. Since Ab Snr. had gone bankrupt in 1840, the union presented an incredible opportunity for A.J. to shake off the Bobo misfortune. 

The Clark and Bobo planter families grew further entwined when two years later, John M. Bobo (A.J. ‘s 22 year-old brother), married Eliza Ann’s 19 year-old sister Charlotte. John and Charlotte, following a land patent, then moved near Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana, about 15 miles west of Vicksburg across the Mississippi. On the bend, John and Charlotte had one son, Asa, and operated a tavern. They also enslaved 5 people according to the 1850 census.

Eliza Ann Truly’s family also included her older step-siblings, and in fact, Eliza Ann was married first to her own step-brother Gibson “Robinson” Clark in 1835. Robinson was the second son of Elijah L. Clark Snr., and his first wife Nancy Robinson. Robinson had died sometime between 1835 and 1842 of unknown causes.

From Rocky Springs, Robinson’s father, Elijah, wrote a letter granting permission for this convenient union to the clerk of Hinds County stating, “I will inform you that he is my son, and the young lady my step-daughter, my wife and myself consent to the marriage and wish you to grant license…”

Eliza Ann’s older sister Amanda Truly, sixteen at the time, also married her step-brother, Charles Booth Clarke, one year later in 1836. For Elijah, the marriages of his three daughters-in-laws were clearly part of a calculus to manage his estate. He had lost his oldest and youngest two sons, John and Gibson in the tragic ferry accident in 1833. Elijah needed more sons to replace the loss of three dead sons who would have inherited much of his fortune. Elijah needed heirs.

Marriage was a tool of wealth management and less a tool of love. Lydia brought three available young daughters to Elijah’s doorstep. Some time before 1840, Lydia most likely passed away for Elijah remarried a third time to Martha Bolls-Erwin. Martha was a widower of William Erwin of Jefferson County, Mississippi, where Elijah already had large holdings (Elijah had 40 slaves working land in Jefferson County according to the 1830 census). Elijah L. Clark died in 1847 and is buried in the Lum cemetery next to his last wife.

Yet among the growing number of wills, probate records, church and cemetery records, census docs and land patents, I could not find Cornelius Bobo. Even an exhaustive search of slave records in Brenda Terry’s invaluable abstract, Slaves 1: Claiborne County, Mississippi, did not turn up Cornelius. So once again, I turned to DNA to see if my paternal Bobo line had living cousins who matched as descendants of either of the interconnected Truly, Booth, or Clark families. Understanding this complex intermarriage of families could reveal more clues. 

My eldest DNA tester, my paternal grandmother who lived to age 93, had no obvious DNA cousin matches descended from the Truly, Booth, or Clark lines out of Mississippi. I decided to go back a further generation and then Eliza Ann’s grandmother’s unusual Scottish surname, Kilcrease, lit up with several matches! The DNA matches were all descended from a Kilcrease who appeared in Ancestry’s pedigree triangulation tool, Thrulines. Matches indicated the common ancestor was likely about 5 generations back from my grandmother.  With close verification of the match trees and my own research of traditional records on individual Kilcrease lines, I discovered that William Kilcrease, son of Hester Kilcrease, was very likely the common ancestor, and the father of Cornelius’s mother.

Knowing that Eliza Ann Truly’s uncle had fathered an enslaved mulatto woman likely in the possession of the Truly-Booth family, it became far easier to imagine the grim scenario. 

Cornelius’s mother was probably a dowry slave belonging to Eliza Ann Truly who would go on to become A.J. Bobo’s property by marriage. This is how my grandmother gained DNA attributable to both Bobo and Kilcrease lines. We are descended from A.J. Bobo, and an enslaved woman, my 5th great grandmother, who lived in the Truly household and was the biological daughter of William Kilcrease. She was biologically, Eliza Ann’s second cousin, and a granddaughter of Hester Kilcrease, the mistress of Pleasant Hill plantation.

Unfortunately, I can not identify Cornelius’s mother by name, and have no further evidence of her existence – no birth or death date, no record of her life, she fills the space only in the genetic record.

Could Cornelius’s mother, my 6th great-grandmother, have been originally enslaved by Hester Kilcrease? In 1840 when Hester died, she willed several of her slaves to her children. Her son, William Kilcrease inherited two women.

“I give unto my son William Kilcrease one negro woman Lucy, and negro woman, Nancy, and also my gray horse,” wrote Hester. There were 4 other enslaved women listed in the will as well.

Neither Lucy nor Nancy appear by name in William’s probate after his death in 1845 in Claiborne County. They either died, were sold away or perhaps given to his children or heirs.  I have only the knowledge that Cornelius’s mother was assaulted by A.J. Bobo, and that her mother suffered the same awful, horrific act by William Kilcrease. Thanks are due to genetic genealogy and the brave descendants who took DNA tests and shared the results with the world. DNA shined a searing light into the dark and downright evil that surrounded Cornelius Bobo and his kin.

Discoveries of Anglo ancestors among my formerly enslaved ancestors though common, is always difficult. It is impossible to become numb to the repeated abuses and horrors of slavery. Every apologist and lost cause advocate can not fathom how this trauma has been passed down generation-to-generation, and how hard each subsequent generation has had to work to dispel it. For Black women in particular, the laws of slavery planted seeds that are born today in every anti-abortion law. Their bodies were governed by a state-sanctioned and regulated apparatus designed to give White men supremacy over female reproduction. Today, those who attack a woman’s sovereignty over her body, water the seeds of slavery yet again, refusing to let the wounds heal from over 400 years of terrible abuses.

Newlyweds on Bayou Despair.

Chattel slavery’s chief purpose was to produce more free labor. Jackson Bobo would have been quite pleased to learn that Eliza Ann’s enslaved woman was now pregnant. It didn’t matter that he was the father, because there was no law to be held too in respect to the woman or child. They simply had no standing as property, and ownership of Cornelius was his. While it’s not clear how many enslaved people Jackson and Eliza Ann held in 1842, adding more slaves would increase their wealth and their chances of success as planters. The Mississippi Black Codes, a set of laws that governed how planters controlled a slave’s life, made it clear a child of a slave, despite the father, was the property of the enslaver.

Cornelius may have gotten his name from an unidentified and unproven sibling of William Kilcrease. In a public family tree I found breadcrumbs around a man named Cornelius Kilcrease, born in Mississippi about 1830, lived in Tennessee and Arkansas, fought as a Confederate and died in Vian, Oklahoma on Cherokee Territory sometime after 1895. He purportedly was a son of William Kilcrease and Jane Thomas. In all records his name is referred to with the initials C.R. and I have not found the original reference to C.R. being Cornelius Kilcrease. This Cornelius is clearly not Cornelius Bobo, born too soon, but he may have been his Uncle.

Land patents and bills of sale reveal that A.J. Bobo and his family crossed the Mississippi river to find their own fortune as farmers in Madison Parish, Louisiana, taking their enslaved with them sometime in 1848. The delta lowlands parish was named after President Madison formed from lands taken from Ouachita and Concordia Parishes. Madison parish was booming with land grants provided by Louisiana homestead patents. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 precipitated a tremendous transfer of land as Indians moved west in unfavorable exchanges of land, known as Choctaw Scrip. From 1830 through 1841, more than 60,000 native peoples were removed in a campaign of ethnic cleansing from lands east of the Mississippi to Oklahoma and further.

A.J. and Eliza Ann’s father-in-law already held a land patent here in Madison Parish near the town of Tallulah on Roundaway Bayou – and it’s possible that it was the very land the newlywed Bobos had gone to work. Eliza Ann’s brother-in-law Charles Booth Clark also held land patents adjoining Elijah’s 107 acres on Roundaway Bayou acquired earlier in 1838.

In 1848, A.J. conveyed his Louisiana land that he owned “north of Red River” in Madison to a man named John T. Cochran for $500. The land was “improved” meaning he and his enslaved people had worked it for several years before. But something strange took place between 1842 and 1848 while Jackson and his enslaved toiled to make cotton bloom in the swamps.

1848 survey map of Madison Parish, Louisiana, highlighting Bobo land in accordance with the later land patent in the sale to John T. Cochran.

Surprisingly, Eliza Ann’s name does not appear on the bill of sale between A.J. and Cochran for the Madison land in ‘48. Spouses were almost always included on bills of sale so they could forfeit or deny any claim on the property before it was sold. The likely reason was that Eliza Ann had died.

Was it yellow fever? Had the scourge also killed the enslaved, maybe Cornelius’s mother? I cannot find any further records for Eliza Ann, no final resting place, nor a probate in Madison Parish records. She vanishes.

The purchaser of Jackson’s lands, John T. Cochran, became an incredibly wealthy planter worth $95K and had 34 slaves in 1860 in the Western District of Madison Parish. An 1885 tax on Cochran’s plantation reveals its location and name as “Avoca Plantation” at the coordinates 17 N 11E (which describes the area A.J. sold to him in 1848) between Tallulah and the Tensas River near the aptly named Bayou Despair.  

It’s impossible to know A.J. Bobo’s feelings about the matter, but clearly his plantation failed and his family had pid a dear price. He had to move on. By 1848, A.J. had remarried a woman named Harriet Brooks and had a child in the parish. It’s a mystery as to where Eliza Ann Truly-Bobo is buried or how A.J. met and courted Harriet Brooks but tragedy continued to plague Jackson. I found the following in the Madison Parish, Louisiana Cemetery Archives. 

“Located South of the town of Monticello on 579, turn left or East on  the Donaldson Road when first discovered a brass fence surrounding it, later in the 1980’s it was disturbed by somebody who almost destroyed it. Turn left at Tensas bridge down a logging road about a mile. The inscription on the solitary headstone reads: This child father was A.J. Bobo and Mother being Brooks Bobo.”

Madison Parish Cemetery Records, The USGenWeb Project, Louisiana Archives.

A.J. sold his stake in the parish and moved his family and slaves further West. By 1849, at the age 33, Jackson Bobo and Harriet Brooks-Bobo had moved to Morehouse Parish, and where after about a year, he was quickly elected Sheriff of the town of Bastrop. A.J. and Brook’s infant son William T. Bobo and Brook’s seventeen year-old sister, Parisade, also lived with them. The value of his farm was $1,500 by the time of the 1850 census. The Bobos also enslaved 4 people at this time; a 26 year-old woman, 13 year-old girl, and two boys, 7 and 8. Very likely, the eldest enslaved boy on the farm was A.J.’s son, Cornelius, born around 1840-1842. Another family joined A.J. in Morehouse Parish – his sister Eliza Foster Bobo-Turpin and brother-in-law Dr. Thomas Turpin moved to Oak Ridge in Morehouse between 1850 and 1860 according to the census. Dr. Turpin became a major planter there with 16 enslaved people working his lands.

Ad for John Bobo’s stable business in Grand Gulf, Port Gibson Reveille, March 2, 1853.

In 1849, A.J. ‘s brother John also acquired 159 acres in Ouachita Parish, Louisiana through the Choctaw Scrip. At Milliken’s Bend, just a few miles from the Roundaway Bayou, John and Charlotte owned and operated a tavern in 1850, but he moved his family back to Grand Gulf before February 1853 when he took over ownership of a livery business (stables) in town. Tragically, not long after, Charlotte died from yellow fever in August. In 1860, John became an overseer in the county.

Absolom H. Bobo Jr., A.J. and John’s older brother, also experienced a wave of loss on the frontier. Ab. Jr and his wife Eliza Mississippi Robinson’s son Absalom lived less than 2 years and died in 1843. Their third son Amos died at age 7 in 1849 and their third Florence died at age 2 in 1850. Ab Jr. died himself in 1855. Eliza Robinson managed the estate but had to sell many of her enslaved. In an 1846 personal inventory, Eliza detailed that she personally owned as much as 523 acres, a negro woman Ellen and her two children Bill and Raney, all conveyed by Agnes Bobo to her, but that wealth had dwindled. In 1860, she lived in Port Gibson with her 16-year-old daughter Amazon and 10-year-old son William. She was worth about $4,000 and her real estate $2,000.

By the 1850s the lives of Absolom and Agnes Bobo’s children were very changed, and thus the lives of their enslaved. A rising sentiment of abolition was shifting perceptions about slavery across the United States, hardening resistance to giving up the “real estate” that gave Anglo settlers an incredible advantage and head start in a physically challenging environment. The application of the Black codes of Mississippi and Louisiana became more important as Anglos found themselves increasingly outnumbered in their own communities, often many times over. A.J. Bobo would become the central figure of the law as it applied to the citizens of Morehouse Parish, numbering over 3,900 people in 1850. And by 1860, the number of inhabitants would nearly triple to 10,350, made up of 3,784 Whites, 4 “free colored” and 6,569 slaves. A.J.’s new status would embroil him in law suits, local disputes, but also give him access to new business ventures.

The Law of Bastrop.

Amidst the turbulent political battles of slavery that preceded the Civil War, according to the Andrew Jackson Bobo became Sheriff in the town of Bastrop, in the northern Louisiana parish of Morehouse. A.J. Bobo was wealthy, worth about $30,000 and with $5300 in his personal estate. He was also a small-operation planter and merchant there as well, in partnership with one Abel Edward Evans, probably in the cotton trade. 

Numerous records reveal scintillating details about A.J.’s life and what kind of man he was, including public disputes with his neighbors that led to two well-documented lawsuits. First, to learn more about A.J., it’s worth considering perhaps why he wound up in Bastrop to begin with.

In 1860, The New Orleans Daily Crescent published an account of life in Morehouse Parish in a series called “Louisiana in Slices” that places A.J. Bobo in the center of a thriving cotton frontier town.

“Bastrop, the seat of the rich and growing parish of Morehouse, is twenty-eight miles north of Monroe, and is a very pleasant little town…a flourishing business is done at Bastrop, and the own wears a lively aspect at all time. Its population is about four hundred and fifty, and its principal merchants are Messrs. Bobo & Evans…The Mayor of the town is R. A. Phelps, Esq., and the present officers of the parish are A.J. Bobo, Sheriff…more than forty thousand acres are being cultivated in corn and cotton…The population of the parish is between nine and ten thousand…three-fifths of the population are slaves, and the assessed value of property is about five and a half millions of dollars.”

Bastrop was incorporated February 24, 1852, and the first mayor was a democrat named William Prather.  Bastrop had a store, public school, private schools, Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal and Catholic churches, and a Jewish congregation.  Nearby Mer Rouge became a town when the railroad was built. 15,000 acres were under cultivation contiguous to the town according to Biographical And Historical Memoirs of Louisiana, Vol. II.

By 1857, A.J. Bobo was elected Sheriff (and a whig) when the state Democrats declared a victory in the parish and published their celebration in the Daily Advocate out of Baton Rouge. 

“From Morehouse,” Daily Advocate, 1857, celebrates a Democrat victory in Morehouse the “banner Whig parish.”

The same year, in a case that stunned the nation, Dred Scott v. Sandford (argued 1856 and decided 1857), the Supreme Court ruled that all Blacks in America, free or slave, were not American citizens and had no standing to sue in federal court. The Court also ruled that Congress lacked power to ban slavery in the U.S. territories. The Missouri Compromise became unconstitutional and now slavery (and slaveholders) could expand West. The Republicans were against expansion, but Southern slaveholders (then Democrats and Southern Whigs) were in favor of it. The Whigs were not strictly anti-abolitionist but generally opposed to expansion. The Whig party collapsed as Northern and Southern Whigs split over the issue. Disillusioned democrats like Abraham Lincoln became Whigs of the Northern kind – seeking to keep slavery off the national agenda and as a state issue.

A.J. Bobo was reelected in December 1858. His sheriff duties included tax collection, running the parish prison, and keeping the peace. He also acted as executioner in the case of William Hash who was convicted of murdering a workmate. In 1857, the Parish defaulted on its taxes due to a flood in the previous year and death of the last Assessor. Bobo sought and got relief in 1858, but defaulted again in 1860 to the tune of $8,802. His name was listed with other parish sheriffs from St. Mary, Union, Washington parishes and more in the Daily Advocate.

Why did A.J. Bobo chose to run for sheriff? I speculate that his attempt and failure in Madison Parish may have made the idea of becoming a planter less than attractive to him. His brother Absolom Jr. had been a sheriff. Perhaps though the A.J. and Absolom were radicalized to become lawmen. In 1835, John Murrell’s violent gang of thieves and criminal network stretching from Memphis to Texas, famous for stealing slaves off plantations, was at the center of a widespread panic over an alleged slave revolt in Mississippi. Murrell published a sensational pamphlet alleging a slave uprising in order to sell his own book. 

The panic started around July 4th 1835 and lasted through Christmas resulting in the lynching of several White men as co-conspirators, and several dozen Black slaves. The lynchings came in waves at different times and locations around central Mississippi, in Madison and Hinds County adjacent to Claiborne County. So-called “vigilance committees” consisting of White planters and overseers rounded up slaves en masse and interrogated and tortured them. Because the allegations were false, and slaves had no standing to resist it, the torture drove many of them to give false testimonies which further incited the panic. They named names, including White men. Accused White men caught in the crosshairs were no different, casting enemies in the net of doubt. A.J. and Absolom Jr. would have been 20 years at this time, and likely part of that minority group of White men suddenly organized to police and monitor Blacks non-stop for months, Blacks who vastly outnumbered them. Though the panic abated after the lynchings, it left race relations tattered in Mississippi and no doubt made an impression on the Bobo boys.

Besides, sheriffing was good for business. Bastrop made A.J. Bobo’s long-sought after fortune. By 1860 he was worth $5300 personally and his property valued at $30,000 according to the US Census. He also enslaved 7 people, employed two deputy sheriffs, and often leased out enslaved prisoners which on at least one occasion, got him into trouble when he “borrowed” the services of his enslaved prisoners.

In 1860, John H. Callaway sued A.J. Bobo in 1860 in district court. It seems that three enslaved people self-liberated from Callaway’s plantation – one woman and two men – were caught and placed in the Morehouse Parish Jail under Sheriff Bobo’s charge. When Callaway went to claim his property – he could not pay all the costs, only procuring the woman. One of the enslaved was sick and A.J. called a physician who took both men to his own farm. Bobo refused to turn them over to Callaway unless he paid up, which he did months later. In that time, Bobo hired the slaves out, as was his prerogative as Sheriff. Slaves were hired out to cover the cost of imprisoning them and penalize the owner for losing them in the first place. Callaway sued for $500 for the proceeds of the hire-out, and cost of housing the slaves. Bobo lost but appealed to the Supreme Court of Louisiana which voided the judgment and ruled in his favor in November.

“Where a party in the capacity of Sheriff has the custody of slaves, the more fact of his removing them from the Parish Prison, to his own place, will not make him Liable for their hire. He only becomes responsible for their forthcoming and for the value of such services as he might derive from their labor.”

from “Callaway V. Bobo”- Louisiana reports : cases argued and determined in the Supreme Court of Louisiana, 1811 – 1973.

It was not his first trip to New Orleans and the Supreme Court. Earlier in the year in July, Bobo was sued by the Parish’s only newspaper owner and editor, William Prather. Sheriff Bobo had seized Prather’s printing presses, horse and other materials illegally contended Prather. Prather was in debt, but also a Democrat and likely at odds with Bobo. His paper, the Morehouse Advocate, had to suspend operations. Was it political retribution? The materials and press were worth $800 but the Supreme Court of Louisiana ruled that Sheriff Bobo could not take them because his trade “as a printer and editor for means of support, his printing press and materials necessary for the exorcise of his trade are exempt from seizure under.” 

In the same year, in the 1860 US census, the Bobo’s are enumerated as follows:

  • A.J. Bobo, 45
  • Harriet Bobo, 29
  • W.T. (William T.) Bobo, 11
  • R.H. (Robert Hawkins) Bobo, 9
  • Mary Bobo, 6

A.J. reported on the slave schedule of the 1860 Census that he enslaved 8 people:

  • Female, 36, Black (very likely Sally Harvey who appears in the 1863 probate)
  • Male, 26, Black (unknown, possibly Thomas, Sally’s son)
  • Male, 22, mulatto (possibly Cornelius, my 4x great-grandfather)
  • Female 20, Black (possibly Emma, my 4x great-grandmother)
  • Female 16, Black (possibly Mary, Sally’s daughter)
  • Male 14, Black (possibly Jim, Sally’s son)
  • Male 9, mulatto (possibly John, Cornelius and Emma’s son)

While not conclusive, the 22 year-old mulatto man’s age matches that of Cornelius’s and his birthdate fits the time period when A.J. Bobo and Eliza Ann Truly would have courted and married.

Could Sally Harvey (likely the 36 year-old Black woman on the slave schedule) been Cornelius’s mother? It’s a possibility, but to me it seems doubtful. Of course, Cornelius would not have been mentioned in Sally Harvey’s “Information Wanted” article if he had died in Texas, but he probably also would have shown up with Sally in the late 60s if he lived, or in John Bobo’s homestead in Texas. More likely, Sally Harvey and her family were purchased by the Bobo’s either in Claiborne County or Morehouse Parish.

The Cooperationist.

So what drove A.J. Bobo to abandon his land holdings, and hustle his family and enslaved family over three hundred miles West to Texas? 

Louisiana’s Whigs, of which A.J. was one of them, did not support small government and state’s rights like other southern Whigs being closer to the Northern Whigs views on slavery’s expansion. After years of tensions, John Brown and his gang’s fateful 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln to president, fierce arguments in Congress in defense of slavery that led to failed attempts to enshrine slavery in the constitution enraged Southern statesmen. States began to secede. The secession of South Carolina in December of ‘60 was swiftly followed by the secession of Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and then Louisiana on January 26, 1861. Secession lit the long smoldering embers of Anglo planter-class outrage into full-blown war. After secession, Morehouse Parish formed four military units and began drilling. They knew war with the Union was inevitable. Secessionist government in Louisiana took over the US Mint in New Orleans. President Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated in April and the first battle broke out at Fort Sumter in South Carolina.

“White male Louisianans quickly volunteered for service in the Confederate army. In the first year of the conflict, as many as 25,000 men enlisted, and eventually through a combination of volunteering and conscription, between 50,000 and 60,000 Louisianans would serve in the Confederate army,” according to 64 Parishes.

Back in Port Gibson, Mississippi, at 40 years old, John Bobo and his son Asa enlisted in 1862. John became a private in Company 6, 16th Regiment, Mississippi, but he didn’t serve very long. He committed suicide on the Tennessee front during his first few months of deployment with the Claiborne Rifles. Two years later, John and Charlotte’s son Asa Bobo, now a private in Company G, 15th Regiment, Mississippi was just 16 years old when he was killed at the Battle of Cold Harbor, fifteen miles northeast of Richmond, Virginia.

A.J. Bobo did not enlist in the Confederate Army, he had much to defend in his wealth and position in Bastrop based entirely on the institution of slavery. And he was after all a Southern Whig, and did not provide full-throated support for secession. In fact, A.J. Bobo was what was called a “Co-operationist,” a group of Southerners in slave states who did not support immediate secession from the United States, but instead felt their hand would be better played if all the remaining slave states seceded together en force. They felt independent secession would cause economic ruin. Sheriff Bobo became one of the states’ secession delegates, nominated by planters of Morehouse Parish to attend Louisiana’s Secession Election of January, 1861. In tables of the official vote reported by various New Orleans newspapers like the Picayune, A.J. Bobo’s name is listed with a “C” co-operationist next to it. The Parish’s votes were split with Cooperationists in the minority. Statewide, Secessionists beat out Cooperationists.

1861 Louisiana secession vote by parish, featuring A.J. Bobo casting votes for “cooperationists” of Morehouse Parish.

Morehouse’s planter class may have retained their apprehension overall. In 1863, the parish planters made a resolution expressing concerns about having one-third of their enslaved male negroes impressed by the Confederate Army to fortify Harrisonburg, Louisiana. Though the parish remained a confederate stronghold for several years, hundreds of young White men joined the Louisiana 3rd Infantry of the Confederate Army, Companies B & F in ‘61 and the 12th Louisiana Infantry in ‘62. Waves of recruitment had emptied out the parish. White planters were left with hundreds of slaves, small families, and a lot of fear. They were terrified the people they beat, whipped, bought and sold, raped, pilloried, would murder them. Imagine that. Actually, slaves seizing the opportunity, just picked up and left the plantation in many cases, especially when they learned the United States had adopted Colored Troops to fight the ‘rebs.

Sacher continued to write in 64 Parishes, “The end of slavery was only one of the many striking changes to the home front in Louisiana. The absence of military-age White males, the disruption of the sugar and cotton trade, rampant inflation, lack of credit, and the presence of an occupation army—and some Confederates as well—all contributed to tremendous suffering for the civilian population. For many Louisianans, starvation was a real threat, as armies either seized or destroyed food crops. Some planters, who possessed the means to move, fled to Texas, often taking enslaved people with them.”

Oddly enough, neither A.J. ‘s sons William T. Bobo, nor Robert Hawkins Bobo, who would have been of age, joined the Confederate army. Did he forbid them too? Jackson, Harriet and their sons packed up their horses and wagon, stuffed with confederate cash, and dragged seven enslaved souls with them, one of them, my great-great grandfather John Bobo.

As to the fate of Cornelius and Emma, John’s parents, I do not know and it seems their shades do not want me to know. I count that their time on Earth, despite their toil and troubles was somehow a beautiful brief struggle in its own way because John lived and became free, and I am here.

Part 3.

Juneteenth arrives.

As I documented Cornelius Bobo’s origins, I became deeply torn. Cornelius’s father Andrew Jackson “A.J” / “Jackson” Bobo (1815 – 1863) was the paragon of American white supremacist doctrines such as the false narrative of “the self-made man.” From cradle to grave, my White 5x great-grandfather was entirely dependent on the enslaved labor of my other ancestors, and on the bounty of stolen Native land in Mississippi and Louisiana. His parents Absolom Humphrey Bobo Senior and Agnes Goode-Hawkins-Bobo too were reliant on slave labor to tend their cattle and hogs, hew the landscape plain, tend the cotton fields, and the cooking fires, and probably even to suckle their children. A.J. and his siblings learned the constant lesson that to be successful on the frontier was to subjugate everything around you, the land, the people, to deny your own humanity and that of even your own kin. I’ll be honest, I detested Jackson Bobo and it was further hardened by the knowledge that he was also probably a bully as a sheriff, certainly a rapist, and that his terrible example would also produce a White son who became a murderer on the Texas plain.

After Reconstruction, as A.J.’s widow Harriet tried to rebuild her life in Madisonville, Texas, she only had her sons William “Bill” and Robert to rely on. Her daughter Harriet Ellen was only 2, Molly just 9. The $3000 Confederate dollars her husband had at the time of his death were rendered useless by the collapse of the Confederacy. Her wealth in slaves evaporated in 1865. In June 1864, she made a full probate for her husband and listed her formerly enslaved as property in the inventory. On June 19, 1865, almost to the day, 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston, the source of Juneteenth celebration of emancipation. Major General Gordon Granger read out Order No. 3.

At that moment over 250,000 enslaved Blacks in Texas became free. My third great-grandfather John Bobo, living in Navasota, was among them.

By 1867 Jackson’s Anglo son Bill Bobo met and married Martha Barrett the daughter of an innkeeper and dry goods store owner, John Whitten Barrett who also served as a Justice of the Peace in Madisonville. Bill turned to driving cattle but eventually became lawless. He was arrested and often in and out of prison. It was reported that he’d murdered a man named “Wainwright” in McCulloch county in 1873. The governor put up a $300 reward for his arrest but somehow he evaded arrest for almost another decade. He and his wife continued to have children, and in 1879 though it seemed like he was ready to settle down on land he’d applied for in Madison County, Texas. In 1882, the law caught up with him. Bill was arrested for the San Saba murder. He apparently escaped by dressing up as his wife and remained at-large for another 6 years.

William Bobo wanted, Austin Weekly Statesmen, July 3, 1873.

By 1888, Bill had joined a gang of outlaws in Madison which had committed theft, arson, and murder. The townspeople were fed up and settled on some Texas-style vigilante justice. According to biographer and fellow Jackson Bobo descendent, Janet Barrett Walker, a mob hunted down Bill’s compatriots, hung one, shot and killed Bill in front of his mother, while another outlaw escaped.

“Reliable news reaches here from Madison Co., thirty miles west of here, that a mob of 200 or 300 men went to the town of Madisonville yesterday and shot down one Will Bobo on the public square in presence of the sheriff. The mob went from there to the house of one Red Page and took him out and hanged him. Also, shot Alf. Whiting, it is supposed, fatally. Killed one other party, name unknown…”

Family lore says Harriet Bobo tried to put the pieces of Bill’s head back together after being blown off with a shotgun. Bill’s devious life had widowed his wife and four children under 10. 

Contrast Bill Bobo’s life with that of his Black nephew John Bobo’s life as a new freeman at about the same time in East Texas. Presumably without parents, possibly self-liberated, he’d changed his name and begun a life in Navasota that was driven, yet honest. In the rough and tumble railroad and river town of Navasota, John was keen to use his new found identity as a citizen. In 1867, just after the war, John was found on the voter registration list. He was married not long after and worked as an expressman earning enough to purchase two lots of land in town, one for him and the other for his son Lee’s family in Camp Canaan. As I have shared in a previous article, “His ownership of his labor and political will was no doubt instrumental in establishing a foothold in the town that would pay off for the Bobo family.”

John Bobo made different choices, despite the pain and suffering his family went through as enslaved people. For John, Juneteenth was like the doors to the promised land being swung wide open. For Bill, it meant that his family’s generational meal-ticket had been yanked away. Looking back at my search for Cornelius Bobo and Emma Brown, I wondered if I could find evidence of the choices their descendants may have made in the genetic record

Finding Emma Brown’s family.

It occurred to me that I was neglecting Emma Brown. I had been dismissive of her, knowing it would be a challenging task to find details about an enslaved woman with such a common name. Fortunately, the techniques I applied to identifying Cornelius’s mother had given me new hope and a new strategy. Find the genetic FAN Club, note the surnames in the club, then identify where family members may have moved from near-by or adjacent plantations. Accept that you’re going to have to commit to then research every single plantation family member’s individual line (their lives, their holdings, their descendants) paying close attention to spouses and the potential dowry slaves they brought to marriage.

First, I began searching and sorting my grandmother’s paternal DNA matches, looking for clusters with common roots in Mississippi broadly, then narrowed it to Claiborne County, and adjacent counties like Adams and Hinds. I of course began with surnames Bobo, Truly, Booth, and Kilcrease, but expanded that to other prominent plantations nearby. I pushed down the feeling that I was being foolish, looking for a needle in a haystack. After all, Natchez was a notoriously busy slave trading post with dozens of traders and thousands of enslaved people being shuttled through en masse each year. I despaired that Emma could have easily been purchased from one of these traders by A.J. Bobo or his kin, had the child, John, and just as easily been sold away before ever having a place in the record.

I searched for more surnames associated with A.J. Bobo and Eliza Ann Truly’s early life around the Port Gibson-area, from Rocky Springs and Willow Springs to Grand Gulf. One cluster appeared with a familiar surname that I had come across often living here in Maryland, that of Dorsey. The Dorsey name is associated with a very large and prominent White family from Annapolis that were part of Maryland’s earliest history. They were enslavers and their plantations outside Baltimore were in the news here often as historians and descendants grappled with the Dorsey legacy of slavery. However, this cluster of Dorsey descendants in Mississippi I uncovered was Black.

Without knowing how I might be connected to this surname, I searched for Anglo Dorseys living in Claiborne County between 1800 and 1865 and found several. I also found Black DNA matches with Dorsey surname with roots in Claiborne County, and nearby Tensas Parish, Louisiana across the river from Port Gibson. I assumed they were descendants whose ancestors had adopted the surname Dorsey from their former enslavers.

From the public trees on, among a cluster of Dorsey DNA matches, the name “Osborne Dorsey” stood out as a common ancestor of the matches. Born about 1850 in Port Gibson Mississippi, he was also married to a woman named Laura (1851 – 1928). They had several children, but one son, Lewis, had lived close by them throughout the years, and even with his widowed mother Laura in St. Louis, Missouri at the turn of the century. I jolted right out of my chair when I read Laura’s maiden name on her marriage certificate. It said “Brown.” And it was repeated on her 1928 death certificate.

Death Certificate of Lara/Laura Dorsey nee’ Brown, 1928.

Even more shocking, her parents were William Brown (1820 – 1880) and Betsy Brown (1834 – 1880) was listed and her birthplace as Port Gibson. And there were records for Laura’s parents in Claiborne County that began in 1870 after emancipation. In fact, her mother Betsy lived right next to Osborne and Laura in 1880 according to the census in Port Gibson. Next door was a young woman named Cora Brown, old enough to possibly be Laura’s sibling or first cousin. Laura’s parents’ names are also on her 1928 death certificate as reported by her son Lewis Dorsey. While the age is misreported, that is a common issue on informant death certificates of people born before emancipation. Lewis declared himself to be Laura’s son with his statement on his own social security application.

Naturally, I wondered, could Laura Brown be related to Emma Brown?

I eagerly reached out to one of the matches identified as a Dorsey descendent and shared my research question. We’re related, who do you think is our most common recent shared ancestor? Looking at the strength of our DNA relationship – and the other DNA matches who descend from Laura Brown who triangulate across pedigrees on Thrulines (based on information they claim in their family trees and our genetic relationship), it became clear the common ancestor was likely 5-6 generations back, a 4th or 5th great-grandparent, or 5th or 6th great-grandparents. It aligned well with William and Betsy Brown, Laura’s parents. With this in mind, I was more confident in the possibility that William and Betsy Brown, or both, were Emma Brown’s biological parents, and that my Dorsey DNA match cousin was also descended from William and Betsy, but through another daughter, Laura. The genetic evidence seemed to support the traditional evidence, and frankly, a number of the genealogical standards of proof, a code of minimum tasks and questions genealogists should use in presenting their evidence as credible.

If I had finally found Emma Brown’s family, then Laura was a sister, and at least one of her parents had survived the Civil War!

In phone conversations, my new-found Dorsey-Brown DNA match cousin confirmed that after the war, some of the Dorseys and Browns had moved north to Bolivar County, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, while some stayed in Port Gibson and the surrounding area. One of Osborne and Laura’s children settled in nearby Hinds County. Through my own research, I have since found that during Reconstruction, more Dorsey descendants settled in the towns of Clarksdale in Coahoma County and Cleveland in Bolivar County, and around the towns of Pace, Alligator, Duncan and Rosedale. Around 1910, Osborne Dorsey and Laura Brown had also settled in Bolivar. Just down the street lived their son Lewis. While I can’t verify it, it is possible Osborne may have been the same “Osborne Dorsey” who was a buffalo soldier between 1880 and 1910, stationed in Kansas and Nebraska. This could explain my inability to find Osborne or Laura on the 1900 census or state censuses for over 20 years, but I will keep searching for firmer evidence.

Dorseys and Browns on Bayou Pierre.

So where did the Dorsey and Brown surnames come from? And would it be possible to find William and Betsy Brown’s enslavers leading to Emma? From my Dorsey cousin, I learned Osborne Dorsey’s parents’ names were Dickerson “Doss” and Lafayette “Ann” Dorsey. They lived in Brandywine Springs about 10 miles southeast of Port Gibson in 1870. While they didn’t have much of a record, I had plenty of oral family history to rely on. So, could I find Dorsey’s perhaps in the records of an Anglo planter with the same surname in the area? 

Doss and Ann Dorsey had at least five children and I identified Osborne as the eldest. Doss was born as early as 1825 and Ann was much younger, born in 1842, meaning it was unlikely she was Osborne’s biological mother. I went back to census records in search of other Black Dorsey’s on the plantations of White planters with the surname Dorsey, and looked for connections to the Bobo, Kilcrease plantations. Turns out there were strong connections before and after the Civil War between formerly enslaved and free people around these plantations all living within just a few miles of each other, from Port Gibson to Hermanville to Brandywine and north to Rocky Springs.

In 1870 in Pattona near Hermanville (where Osborne and Laura are found at their earliest on the record), lived other Black Dorseys including Solomon Dorsey (b. 1804) and Rhoda Dorsey (b. 1820). Astonished, I found Solomon and Rhoda were living in the same household as the widow of my 6th great-grandfather William Kilcrease Sr., Jane.

Jane “Jenny” Kilcrease was 78 years old and had been widowed since 1845, living with her daughter Lydia and her children.

Recall William Kilcrease Sr. had fathered an enslaved woman that I theorized was in Eliza Ann’s dowry to A.J. Bobo. As I shared in earlier parts of this account, it is my belief that A.J. sexually assaulted this woman producing Cornelius Bobo. William Kilcrease was the uncle of A.J. Bobo’s first wife, Eliza Ann Truly-Clark. Eliza Ann died between 1842 and 1848 and A.J. Bobo remarried and moved to Morehouse Parish in Louisiana. 

I don’t believe it was a coincidence that Solomon and Rhoda wound up in the home of A.J. Bobo’s former family. Either Solomon and Rhoda (or one of them) had a prior relationship with the Kilcrease family, most likely as William and Jennie Kilcrease’s slaves. Solomon was 66 and Rhoda was 50 in 1870. Rhoda was of age to possibly consider her as Cornelius’s mother. Could it be the same Rhoda in the Bobo family who was listed in Ab Bobo Snr.’s 1833 will and later in his daughter Harriet Bobo-Rossman’s 1846 schedule of property? 

I don’t think we’ll ever know, enslaved people sometimes had several masters in their lifetime. It’s not even clear if Solomon and Rhoda Dorsey were married. And there’s no additional connections I can find between Solomon, Rhoda, and Dickerson Dorsey for the moment.

Right next door in 1870, in the same area of plantations is a Black family unit with the surname Brown. Another nearby Black family unit in Pattona included both Dorsey and Browns. Pattona was a plantation according to the historian McCaleb-Headley. Clearly, the formerly enslaved people of the Dorsey, Brown, Kilcrease (Booth – Truly – Clark), and Bobo families were part of a large interconnected community with families living on plantations before and after the Civil War.

In the Port Gibson area, the Anglo planter families with the surname Dorsey originate from one Dr. Samuel Dorsey. Dr. Samuel Dorsey was born in 1768 in Anne Arundel, Maryland to parents Nathan Dorsey and Sophia Owings, part of the prominent Dorsey family of Maryland. After serving as a surgeon on a Spanish Outpost in Louisiana, he then moved to Concordia Parish on land that became part of Tensas Parish. Because of flooding he moved his family across the Mississippi to Port Gibson and founded Elk Ridge plantation.

“…Owing to overflows, etc., he [Dr. Samuel Dorsey] soon after removed to Port Gibson, Miss., and named his plantation there Elk Ridge, after the old Dorsey homestead in Maryland… His last years were devoted to planting, etc.”

Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Louisiana; Chicago; The Goodspeed Publishing Company, 1892.

According to Claiborne Court Records, Dr. Samuel Dorsey bought 556 acres on the South side of the North Fork of Bayou Pierre near the Clarks and Booths, and an additional 200 acres on the North side of Bayou Pierre, in 1815. Records vary, but he may have had as many as 16 children. In 1840, according to the census, Dorsey had about 40 slaves with 32 employed in the field. Samuel’s slaves were never fully inventoried in his 1849 probate record so I could find no connection among them to Dickerson Dorsey, Solomon or Rhoda Dorsey. I also could not find connections in the probate inventories of Samuel’s sons, who were also enslavers. Yet I do have DNA matches with Dorsey roots in Tensas Parish – perhaps connecting me to Samuel Dorsey’s earliest enslaved people there.

I remain convinced there is a connection to Osborne Dorsey or his parents to Samuel Dorsey or his children, I just need to research this lead more completely, perhaps in-person in the Mississippi and Louisiana state archives. However, I did learn that the Dorseys were also connected by marriage to the Kilcrease family. Phoebe Francis Dorsey, born 1831, perhaps a granddaughter of Dr. Samuel Dorsey married David Daniel Kilcrease in 1852. David was none other than William Kilcrease’s son. David joined the Confederate army and died sometime after 1862.

Turning to the Browns, I learned a family of planters with the surname Brown also lived along Bayou Pierre near the Dorsey, Kilcrease and Bobo families. Thomas W. Brown (1814 – 1903) married Ann Regan, both of Claiborne County. By 1860 the Browns kept in human bondage an enormous number of people – 90 in all – on the Brown plantation known as “Oak Ridge,” north of Rocky Springs. The old townsite is located at mile marker 54.8 on the Natchez Trace.

The Browns were founders of Rocky Springs Methodist Church in 1836. The Regans who married into the Browns, were also founders. I was not surprised to learn that Bobos were closely tied to Rocky Springs. Jackson’s brother Absolom Bobo Jr., his wife Eliza, and two of his children are buried in Rocky Springs Church cemetery. They clearly were church members and perhaps founders themselves. The enslaved on the Brown and Bobo plantation clearly had occasion to intermix across plantations and at the church, just as their enslavers did. Here in this hallowed place, the Bobo and Brown names finally connected.

Did A.J. Bobo and Eliza Ann Truly’s wedding take place here in 1842 or in a similar church nearby? Was Cornelius’s mother, the daughter of William Kilcrease, waiting on Eliza Ann here?

I am eager to search the Rocky Spring Methodist Church records to further understand the early members’ lives. Were there any colored members on the rolls as was the case in many churches at the time? It could be quite challenging to find and explore these questions in church records as Rocky Springs became a ghost town after Reconstruction. If the records survived, it would be a miracle.

Rocky Springs Methodist Church, Rocky Springs, Mississippi, founded in 1837. Early founders included the Bobo and Brown family.

In 1863 during the Civil War, General Grant used Rocky Springs Church as a base on the way to Vicksburg. Over 50,000 troops foraged the land around Bayou Pierre. They quickly confiscated and used up all the community’s reserves of food and stock. When the army advanced North, many of the enslaved left with the Union so by 1863, Blacks in the area, including Thomas W. Brown’s 90 slaves, and dozens of former slaves on plantations held by the Kilcrease, Clark, Booth, and Bobo families were effectively freed. Those that left became contraband. I believe this is how some of the formerly enslaved Dorsey and Brown family arrived eventually in Bolivar County, in the heart of the Mississippi delta.

Conclusion – the sunrise of awareness.

I now have a foundation to explore the Browns, and who knows, I may yet find Emma or more of her siblings, and hopefully descendants. I have a pretty good idea where to look. The Browns are also associated with another Port Gibson family during Reconstruction with the surname Jennings. Another line to study! And the Kilcrease and Dorsey lines hold yet further intrigues. There’s more to Jackson Bobo’s time as a refugee. I may yet discover in some dusty Texas tome what happened to John Bobo’s parents.

In many ways, conducting family history is really a study of the choices we make in life, and how they impact people and future generations. Those choices show up in the record. They become the record. Understanding first that our ancestors made choices – to marry, buy or sell property, move to another town, have a child, to self-liberate – and the historical conditions when those choices were made, tell us something about our own inner fortitude, and what we ourselves are capable of. I have also learned some of our ancestors were also capable of brutality, and inhumane and immoral perspectives on life, while others were capable of bravery, compassion and self-determination.

Port Gibson in Claiborne County after Reconstruction remained in the vice grip of Jim Crow until the 1960s when the Port Gibson Movement occurred. Led by long-standing community members, blacks joined the NAACP and registered to vote after several coordinated campaigns. The historically-black Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College was not an ally – its President actually blocked movement involvement by faculty and students. Over 2600 registered African American voters increased to their electoral majority by 1966. White resistance was encrusted and violent, but merchant boycotts broke the back of the systemic racism in town.

“African Americans challenged entrenched white power—through voter registration, boycotts, aggressive armed self-defense, and the persistent, determined insistence that whites treat them as equals—and the ways whites clung to power and privilege By 1975 blacks won twenty-three of thirty-two county elective offices, including a majority on the board of supervisors and every countywide position except sheriff.”

Mississippi Encyclopedia

Generational trauma, epigenetic trauma, passed down year-after-year is quite real and pervasive in the African American community today. But so is generational progress. Knowing our own history, who and what we’re made of, is a powerful salve to heal the ever-lasting soul. In that light, finding Cornelius Bobo and Emma Brown always meant having to find A.J. Bobo and developing a deep understanding of antebellum life and history, from the plantations of the Natchez Trace to the frontier towns of Civil War Texas. It always meant that I would have to accept that though our ancestors made their choices, we are also the ones who must interpret them. Today, the interpretations of our history is volatile and still under the threat of White Supremacy, as evidenced by attacks on African American history in public schools, particularly in the South, politicization of critical race theory, and the recent decision to overturn Affirmative Action, led in part by Justice Clarence Thomas, a Black man descended from slaves.

Clarence Thomas once shared with his staff at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that he managed in the early 80s, “God only knows where I would be today” if not for the legal principles of equal employment opportunity measures such as affirmative action that are “critical to minorities and women in this society.”

Justice Thomas would do well to study epigenetic trauma further in his own genealogy. We all would do well to understand further the enslavers and enslaved in our families, and how their choices have impacted the opportunities of generations of descendants to live free and equal.

As for me, I have chosen to no longer be haunted by A.J. Bobo. The light and the dark reality of history go hand-in-hand. Though I do not yet know all the details of Cornelius and Emma’s life and death, I have come to realize that they were never really shadows. They were more like the refraction of light across a growing sunrise of awareness. Cornelius and Emma were like rays of dawn, reflecting a path forward for John Bobo, and for me.

I know that the greatest detail about all of these ancestors lives, Jackson, Cornelius, and Emma, became a source of goodness, that their choices brought John Bobo into the world, and that against the odds, he survived.


The Riggs Family: Visiting the Historic African American Willow Hill School

As I drove through southern Georgia on the way to Savannah, I noticed fields of soybeans and corn. I was startled by other fields blooming with large flowers reminiscent of hibiscus, white and pink. Of course, being a Northerner, I had never seen blooming cotton. I pulled the rental car over and got out to stand on the edge of a field and catch the setting sun. I was on my way home after two remarkable days in Statesboro, Georgia, home of the Riggs and Parrish clan, meeting new family, kin, and exploring a new found heritage.

Cotton fields outside Statesboro, Georgia.

My visit began with a stop at the Statesboro public library, and the Brannen room, where I met Lillian Wingate, a talented young genealogist and employee of the library. She introduced me to my cousin, Tonya Donaldson, a firecracker of a woman, who was quick to interrogate and discuss our relationship and talk shop. Tonya and I are both descended from Jacob Nevils Snr. (1769 – 1862). His daughter Harriet was my 4th great grandmother, born enslaved and kept enslaved by Jacob’s daughter and her half-sister Dicey for most of her life, until emancipation. Tonya is descended from Dicey Donaldson-Mikel-Riggs. See The Riggs Family (Part 2): Harriet Riggs – the Matriarch.

Well, we shook hands when we met, but we hugged hard we I departed. Through the many well-organized files and shelves, Lillian, Tonya, and I discussed life in old Bulloch County, the wealth of records at the library, and the uncanny journey that led me there. As I have written previously, I’ve only recently discovered my Riggs Parrish lineage through traditional and genetic genealogy. Sharing my story led to an invitation by Dr. Alvin Jackson, Board Chair of the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center, to the Willow Hill Festival, and to speak at a joint event with Telfair Museums as part of their Legacy of Slavery in Savannah Initiative.

But first, Lillian had something to share. She had come across Struggle and Progress – Tonya tipped her off – and curious, looked into the life of my 4x great grandmother Harriet Riggs. She emailed me before my trip asking a provocative question, how had I arrived at Harriet’s death date of 1874? She had intriguing information to share…

Comfortable in her busy office, surrounded by stacks of books and files, Lillian opened the minutes of the Lott’s Creek Primitive Baptist Church and shared several notations made in the minutes about one Harriet Riggs and Sister D. (Dicy) Donaldson. This interesting information shows that Harriet was introduced to the church by her half-sister and enslaver Dicey (in 1843).

Harriet Riggs, 1843, received at Lower Lott’s Primitive Baptist Church.

However, less than a year later, by a complaint made by Dicey, Harriet was excommunicated in 1844. Jacob Nevils Sr., Dicey and Harriet’s father, and a member of Lower Lott’s is also mentioned on several instances as struggling with drinking and being “in passion” which likely refers to infidelity. It’s no surprise Jacob was forgiven – often – for his transgressions. More importantly, the minutes reveal Harriet was also re-admitted in 1882, after her suspected death date of 1874. And in 1884, she “called for a letter” to leave the church, necessary to be admitted to another in good standing, according to Ms. Wingate.

Harriet Riggs, 1844, excommunicated at Lower Lott’s Primitive Baptist Church.

Of course enslaved blacks were in many cases members of the church of their enslavers in antebellum America. Ansel Parrish (1789-1865), son of Henry Jackson Parrish (1740 – 1800), enslaver of my 4th great grandparents, Cain Parrish and Isabella Donaldson, was also a deacon at Lower Lott’s. Not incidentally, genetic genealogy also reveals Ansel Parrish was also Cain’s half-brother. Ansel was my 3rd great-grandmother Audelia’s last enslaver. Audelia married Harriet Rigg’s son Daniel Riggs. See The Riggs Family (Part 1): New Kin.

This remarkable information placed Harriet Riggs’ birthday after 1884 and opened a whole host of questions. When did she die exactly? What church did she move to? Would she be in that church’s minutes or cemetary? Some of Harriet’s children moved from Bulloch County south to Irwin County to the town of Fitzgerald, and further out of town to Blitch. This was another breadcrumb to finding her final resting place, and it shed light on the complex interrelationship between enslaved and enslaver, family, friend and foe.

One critical question I have is why would Harriet return to Lower Lott’s in 1882, almost twenty years after emancipation, when her son-in-law, Elder Washington Hodges (who married her daughter Eliza Saturday Riggs) had with other black community members, founded a separate black primitive baptist church, Old Bethel Primitive Baptist Church, in 1882? Perhaps it was just too far to travel too on a weekly basis in her advanced age, certainly, the first black church in the area founded during Reconstruction, Banks Creek Primitive Baptist Church, was a long journey from Lott’s Creek too. Perhaps Harriet considered Lower Lott’s her family church, after all, she had black and white family members there.

Eliza Saturday Riggs-Hodges (1857 – 1910), daughter of Harriet Riggs. There is no surviving image of Harriet, but I imagine Eliza looked like her mother.

I shared these new findings, thanks to Lillian Wingate’s talents, with an audience of “cousins by the dozens” at Willow Hill in a presentation, “Many Nice Things – Discovering a Georgia Lineage” that weekend, as part of Archival Silence: Closing Gaps in African American History in Bulloch County, Georgia. The presentation captures my journey of discovery and explores the wider diaspora around Willow Hill – indeed, former teachers and students and their families have spread far and wide beginning with the great migration of blacks North in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In my case, five brothers, the sons of Daniel Riggs and Audelia Parrish, moved from Statesboro, GA , 750 miles north to Chester, Pennsylvania. See: The Riggs Family (Part 3): Finding Fathers.

Many Nice Things: Discovering a Georgia Lineage

“Many Nice Things: Discovering a Georgia Lineage” by Joel R. Johnson, part of Archival Silence: Closing Gaps in African American Research, September 2022.

Highlights of the weekend include meeting Dr. Alvin Jackson and his family, board members at Willow Hill, as well as listening to other presentations, including one by Rev. Bill Parrish, a cousin, who presented his remarkable story of a line of Parrish family that migrated to Cincinnati, Ohio and there attended and led the preservation of the historic Eckstein School which served the African American community from 1915 – 1958. Read more about the Eckstein School.

The Archival Silence presenters and Team, Sept. 2022.

We also heard from Rev. Steve Taylor, who is a descendant of the Lester and Everett families, some of the earliest white settlers of Bulloch County. His Lester ancestor, James Lester, enslaved Vilet Lester. Vilet wrote one of the few known letters, by an enslaved woman, during the era of slavery. She wrote to her former enslaver in North Carolina, seeking information about her daughter and family. It is a heartbreaking letter, but one that demonstrates the agency that enslaved people took when the opportunity presented itself. It’s not clear that she actually wrote the letter, she may have just dictated it, but it is a masterclass in enslaved-enslaver diplomacy, in that it created the rare opportunity to see her daughter purchased by James Lester.

Vilet’s letter is archived in the Special Collections of the Duke University Archives, but a copy is available to read at the Statesboro Public Library in the genealogy collection. Steve Taylor is searching for descendants of Vilet Lester and actively researching to learn whether Vilet’s wish to be reunited with her daughter ever took place.

The weekend was a family reunion in many ways – I also met with another Riggs Parrish family historian I was in correspondence with, Dr. Brenda Hagan Malik, a Holland Riggs descendant. Her own research into the historic funeral homes owned by the Riggs family in two locations shines a light on black entrepreneurship during Jim Crow.

Willow Hill School, early 1900s, (enhanced) Georgia State Archives.

While I was jubilant to finally visit Bulloch County, I was haunted by the words of Bill Parrish’s brother who shared with the audience his own deep realization, that he was “visiting the plantation.” This is a out-of-date term that present generations of African Americans aren’t really familiar with, but I heard it often growing up because my Mother’s family, despite growing up in urban Cleveland, was from Greenville, SC, the place of their enslavement. It was a term for visiting family in the homeplace, and seeing kin, usually from the South, who everyone understood was only one or two generations away from enslavement.

“Visiting the plantation.” The words are loaded like a gun, ready to go off, simultaneously protecting and simultaneously harming. The words announce that one is undertaking a journey home to family from the North to the South that will produce a reckoning with the past. And there can be dread in knowing you will be exposed to the trauma of enslavement.

Fortunately, the diaspora of the Willow Hill, overflows with examples of our people overcoming adversity through Jim Crow to present day. The school was a beacon, a fortress, a launching pad, for so many, black and white. It wasn’t lost on me that there were fully four or five generations of family attending the Willow Hill festival that weekend. As I walked the halls and visited the one-room school house on the site, Bennet Grove, I felt a gentle spirit on my shoulder. Dr. Nkenge Jackson calls it, “the Willow Hill spirit.” And I certainly felt the spirit chase away the dread, as a growing feeling of peace washed over me.

Instead of “visiting the plantation,” I came to realize that I was “visiting the school,” and I am forever grateful, that the ancestors revealed this lineage to me.

Explore my Riggs journey:

 The Riggs Family (part 1): New Kin

The Riggs Family (part 2): Harriet Riggs the Matriarch 

The Riggs Family (part 3): Finding Fathers

The Riggs Family: Forced Labor During the Civil War


  • “Lower Lott’s Primitive Baptist Church Minutes.” Statesboro Public Library.
  • Hendrix Hope, Dorothy. “The Story of Bulloch County.” 1996. Bulloch County Historical Society Publications.
  • Brannen, Dorothy. “Life in Old Bulloch: The Story of a Wiregrass County in Georgia, 1796-1940.” 1992. Statesboro Public Library.
  • Bonds, Charles et al. “From Aaron to Ivanhoe.” 1988. Bulloch County Historical Society Publications, pg. 36.
  • “US Census, Bulloch County, GA. 1820, 1830, 1840, 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890, 1900.”
  • “US Census, Slave Schedules, Bulloch County, GA. 1850, 1860.”
  • The Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center., accessed March 2020.
  •, accessed March 2020.

Joel R. Johnson to speak to ‘Discovering Riggs’ lineage at Telfair Museum/Willow Hill Heritage Event

I’m delighted and honored to announce that I’ve been invited to speak at the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center (WHHRC) on September 3rd, in Portal, GA, northwest of Savannah.

“Archival Silence: Closing Gaps in African American History in Bulloch County, GA” is day-long event, led by Dr. Alvin Jackson, historian, Board President and co-founder of WHHRC, in association with the Telfair Museum in Savannah.

Telfair Museums explore Savannah’s place in “our collective American past through art, history, and architecture,” including the historiography of the Owens-Thomas House, and the enslaved in Savannah, among other sites.

My own history is deeply intertwined with the WHHRC, as I’ve discovered in the last several years. The founders of Willow Hill include my 3rd great-grandparents Daniel Riggs and Audelia Parrish-Riggs, and 3rd great uncle Isaac Riggs, and aunt Harriet Lanier-Riggs. I will present on my journey to “close the archival gap” and discoveries that led me to discover my Riggs Parrish heritage, through archival research, oral history study, and DNA research.

Students of SE Georgia genealogy and history, won’t want to miss this event! It is free and open to the public.

Learn more and register.

Explore my Riggs journey:

 The Riggs Family (part 1): New Kin

The Riggs Family (part 2): Harriet Riggs the Matriarch 

The Riggs Family (part 3): Finding Fathers

The Riggs Family: Forced Labor During the Civil War


The Riggs Family: Forced Labor During the Civil War

Abraham “A.B.” Riggs (1816 -1886) listed 14 enslaved souls in the 1860 census, among them my 4th great-grandmother Harriet Riggs (1820 -1874) and her family. Harriet and her children were enslaved by Abraham Riggs from 1849 – 1865, prior to that by Dicey Nevils-Donaldson-Mikell (as dower slaves) and formerly belonging to Jacob Nevils, my white 5th great-grandfather. Abraham Rigg’s enslaved labor increased by marriage by 9 since the 1850 slave census. Dr. Alvin Jackson, a historian, and director of the Bulloch county-based Willow Hill School Heritage & Renaissance Center, has shared that Harriet may have had another son named “William.” William Riggs does not show up in records connected to Harriet, but a recently added collection of documents to Ancestry reveals an enslaved man named William labored for the Confederacy against his will in Savannah – loaned out by Abraham Riggs to support white supremacy.

I’ve shared previously, Abraham Riggs was a large planter in Statesboro, Georgia, about 55 miles west of Savannah. in 1860, Abraham Riggs land was worth $400, but his personal estate was worth, $13,564 (wealth tied up in slaves that would be over $450,000 today). In 1870 after the war, his personal estate was just $150.

In January 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued and signed the Emancipation Proclamation declaring “all persons held as slaves,” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward, shall be free.” The proclamation was anticipated in advance by the black community (free and enslaved) as Lincoln made the promise in the fall over a hundred days earlier and word had spread it was coming. As ambitious as the proclamation was, it meant nothing to the Confederates except further provocation to battle to keep the institution of slavery, and their wealth.

Ever the profiteer of misery, Abraham Riggs sent one of his enslaved, William Riggs, to labor for the Confederacy in December 1863, just under a year after the proclamation. William worked for just over 3 months. Abraham earned about $80 for William’s toil. Abraham’s recognizable signature can be found on the payroll listing the enslaved and amounts he was paid.

“We, the Subscribers, acknowledge to have received of Captain John McGrady, C.S. the sums set opposite our names respectively, being in full for the service of our Slaves at Savannah, GA during the months of Aug. Sept. Oct. Nov. Dec. 1863 having signed duplicate receipts”

US, Confederate Payrolls for Enslaved Labor
US, Confederate Payrolls for Enslaved Labor, source:

Throughout the Civil War, Savannah was well-fortified by Confederate forces. Fort McAllister lay along the Ogeechee River to the South and guarded entry from the South through the Ossabaw area. To the North of the city, Fort Jackson protected just a few miles upstream on the Savannah River. However, the Union army was a constant and ever-present threat. Since 1862, Union forces occupied Fort Pulaski in Tybee just 18 miles south on the Savannah River. The Commander of the South was Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, infamous for leading the attack on Fort Sumter that started the war in 1861. He approved the evacuation of Savannah when General Sherman’s fateful march arrived with 62,000 Union soldiers. Several naval battles took place between raiders and ironside vessels in the rivers and seas around Savannah.

“Rebels Evacuating Savannah,” Harpers Bazaar, 1863-64.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis toured Savannah in October 1863 and surely admired the fortifications that stolen labor created to buttress white supremacy. He couldn’t realize that a little more than a year later, Fort McAllister would fall ahead of Sherman’s siege of Savannah.

What was life like for William while he was in Savannah those short three and a half months? First, Savannah was a porous city, where Confederates, enslaved blacks, free blacks, Irish and German immigrants, intermixed relatively freely. Union spies traveled through Georgia’s largest port where cotton was exported throughout the war. In fact, Savannah exported over $18 million dollars of cotton in 1860, nearly half a billion in today’s dollars. Rice, lumber, indigo were other common exports. Savannah’s population was about 23K with about 7.5K enslaved souls in 1860 but the number swelled throughout the war with refugees, enslaved forcibly brought into the city to dig trenches and battlements, and of course soldiers. William was in all likelihood, a fish-out-of-water in the city where urban enslaved understood how to navigate the customs, laws, and city life. Blacks worked on riverboats, hotels, grocers, with most at the railyards where the Central Railroad or Savannah, Albany, and Gulf Railroad intersected.

Perhaps William took spiritual refuge in the church? The First African Baptist Church in Savannah pre-dated emancipation and was constituted in 1777. The oldest black church in North America was home to free blacks and enslaved, and even whites attended sermons by black pastors. There is evidence that the First African Baptist Church was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.

After the war, Abraham Riggs returned to his plantation in Bulloch County where he eventually signed a Reconstruction Oath to the United States in August 1867 in order to participate in a vote to send delegates to the Georgia Constitutional Convention. In all 33 African Americans attended and 137 whites as delegates. At the desk of the Freedmen’s Bureau, Riggs signed contracts with his formerly enslaved to pay them for the labor on his farms. Eventually, the formerly enslaved Riggs became landowners themselves.

What happened to William? It is unclear whether William returned to the Riggs plantation or slipped away to freedom. Or perhaps he died there among the hundreds of enslaved who became sick and ill. His service lasted three months and twelve days, until mid-March, according to the payroll. William Riggs can not be found in the record afterward. We don’t know how old he was when he went to Savannah, nor if he was buried by family. William is a ghost, a cipher in payroll account, and yet, we knew that he was likely loved and missed by the 14 enslaved souls on Abraham Rigg’s plantation. He was lost, but had a life, even if it was a miserable one.

Harriet’s grandson William Henry Riggs was born in 1868 to Daniel Riggs and Audelia Parrish-Riggs. “Willie” Riggs may have been named for the man who labored against his will in Savannah in defense of slavery. But what a difference a generation makes. My great-great-granduncle William Henry Riggs graduated from Morehouse College and went on to teach young blacks during Reconstruction.


  • “US, Confederate Payrolls for Enslaved Labor.”, accessed June 2022.
  • “The Riggs Family (Part 2): Harriet Riggs – the Matriarch.”, accessed June 2022.

The Riggs Family (Part 3): Finding Fathers

“Do you want me to search for your father? I think we can find him, together,” I told Dad. He paused, a long while.

It had taken me several years to feel competent and confident to ask Dad that question. Since the early aughts, I had been building my skills as an amateur genealogist and family historian of the Johnson – Bobo family, my paternal line. The question of my grandfather’s identity is the source of a many decades-old gulf between my father, his sisters, and mother, and now deceased stepfather. They all love each other dearly, and that’s both a source of joy, but also part of the divide.

My father Richard B. Johnson was born in Chester, Pennslvania in 1947. He grew up there and attended Wilberforce College in Ohio before being drafted into the army and sent to Vietnam. He left behind a wife and young son and that marriage ended before he could return. He remarried, adopting a son, and had three more children with my mother Carol Mays Johnson (b. 1941 – d. 1999).

The fact is my Dad’s biological father was unknown to him but was also a very public secret. While he was certain that at least one or more of his sisters knew the identity of his father, that his mother and step-father knew, no one would divulge it for fear of causing pain. To who? To everyone, to him, but especially my grandmother. Even my father had only ever asked his mother once. Grandmom said it was a long time ago and difficult to recall, so Dad was rebuffed with half-answers and half-remembrances and told to let sleeping dogs lie.

Clues, however, came in fleeting conversation and memories over the years. In the many genealogy discoveries I made about my father’s maternal line (the Johnson and Bobo family), I quietly and consistently blew on the embers of his desire to know until it became a flame.

Two summers ago while the family was at our annual vacation in Chincoteague, while we sat around the beach house, I shared with him his High School Yearbook. The pictures triggered many fond memories. After many conversations, like a veil lifting, Dad recalled being told once not to play with a certain kid on the playground when he was just a boy. It may have been because the boy was his half-brother, and his father was “no good.” After a long silence, Dad recalled the boy’s name was Jimmy Hall, and he was close in age. We searched the yearbook. Jimmy and my Dad may have played on the same High School baseball team.

Richard Johnson 4th from the left, kneeling. Signature from Dave Krause. “Ricky, Good luck to a smooth guy.” Chester High School Yearbook, 1963.

Maybe something truly terrible happened to my Grandmother when she was 18 years old? I had come to believe that they were all just too young and not ready. The question has been dormant some seventy-five years, waiting for people to get old or die so the secret could die with them. Aware the facts could be difficult and painful, but less interested in the how than the who, I believe the truth is healing, no matter how you come by it. By adopting the role of family historian, my generation was coming to a crossroads. Would we also take responsibility for not knowing too? Would we accept the burden, the trauma? The secret itself had become a malignant force, and it was spreading.

To even talk about unraveling the mystery caused my father to choke up, which the grizzled Vietnam-vet and hardened former-civil rights activist rarely did, but he said, “Son, yes, let’s do it.”

The Riggs Brothers Come to Chester.

By the late winter of 2018, I had Ancestry DNA tests gathered from my father, myself, and my grandmother to identify and separate family lines at the genetic level. This was namely for my own work, it’s easy to tell which line a DNA match is on if you have older family members test. But I could apply it to this research question too. By sorting the thousands of DNA cousins who matched my father but not my grandmother, a large group of matches on Ancestry revealed themselves. They all had deep roots in Bulloch County, Georgia. These paternal cousins were the Riggs, Parrish, Hall, and Love, families by surname. Several family trees posted by these DNA cousins led back to a family matriarch named Harriet Riggs (b. 1820 – 1874). I spent several months researching them. Fortunately, they were already well-documented. This work on the early Riggs in Georgia informed The Riggs Family (part 1): New Kin and The Riggs Family (part 2): Harriet Riggs the Matriarch of this series. I’ve focused the next chapter of this series around finding my grandfather’s identity.

I couldn’t help myself and so got started without much of a research plan. With some basic info in hand, I searched for Riggs in Chester through US Census Records and quickly identified four of Harriet’s grandsons living in Chester with their families. I even identified other surnames from Bulloch County in Chester. In the Great Migration, many Bulloch families had come North, including the Riggs. They included William Henry Riggs, Thomas Jefferson Riggs, Nathaniel Riggs, and Solomon H. Riggs. Each family had migrated around 1920. They were all the children of Daniel and Audelia Riggs. Now I had a big lead and I would need to thoroughly research each family. Developing a plan, I used the FAN method (researching all known “friends, family, and known associated”) of the Riggs. I intended to use Ancestry, FamilySearch, and archives, public and private info.

Outside the census records, the first major document I found was the obituary of William Henry Riggs which showed that he attended Morehouse College, taught in Fitzgerald, GA, and later in Chester. I would come to learn that he also taught at The Willow Hill School in Statesboro. Began during Reconstruction, it was the first black school in the county according to Dr. Alvin Jackson, the foremost scholar on the black history of Statesboro and a founder of The Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center, a preservation society dedicated to the school’s history. Dr. Jackson knew the Riggs story well and shared that Daniel Rigg’s store in Statesboro was right across the street from the Willow Hill School.

Obituary of William H. Riggs, Chester Times, January 1963.

Willie worked at the store because he didn’t want to return to the field after attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, according to an interview conducted with his sister Rosa Riggs several years ago when she was 100 years old. I later learned Willie would have seen first hand how the white people had treated his uncle Isaac Riggs, who was brutally beaten by a white mob for having the audacity to educate the area’s black children. It’s clear now these four brothers went North to escape racial violence and find new economic opportunities. Willie’s obituary included the names of his kin which further helped me uncover and track the lives of the four Riggs families in Chester in the early 1900s. I was on my way to identifying my father’s Riggs line in Chester. But which line of the four brothers was it? It was time to buckle down and dig.

Which brother?

Daniel Samuel Riggs (b. 1842 – d. 1895) and Audelia “Delia” Parrish (b.1858 – d. 1935) had twelve children.

  • Nathaniel (b. 1865 -d. 1946)
  • William Henry (b. 1868 – d. 1963)
  • James R. (b. 1871 – d. 1953)
  • Agnes (b. 1872 – d. 1956)
  • Martha (b. 1876 -?)
  • Solomon H. (b. 1878 – d. 1952)
  • Emma (b. 1879 – ?)
  • Benjamin (b. 1883 – d. 1917)
  • Rose (b. 1890 – ?)
  • Pearl R. (b. 1892 – d. 1972)
  • Thomas Jefferson (b. 1894 – d. 1962)
  • Maude (b. 1895 – ?)

Nathaniel, William, Solomon and Thomas went to Chester between 1900 and 1920. While today, Chester Pennsylvania is little known, at the turn of the 20th century it was a booming industrial port on the banks of the Delaware River. For at least a half a century before that it was the one-time seat of government for Pennsylvania before it transferred to Philadelphia, and it was well known for it ship-building and garment factories and Quaker citizens. Chester was booming in the early 1900s, producing hundreds of the largest iron vessels and steamships in the Sun Ship Yards alongside steelmakers Penn Steel, and paperworks, Scott paper. Chester became home to the first public art gallery in the Eastern US, the Deshong Museum, and a Ford Motorworks factory.

The African American community was large and swelled during Reconstruction with blacks from Maryland, Virginia, and further south. It became a center of black life and culture and the country’s burgeoning black elite stopped often there to preach, sing, and entertain. Stimulated by World War I, the population swelled between 1900 and 1920 from 38,000 to 58,000 with newly created jobs. The population peaked at about 66,000 in the mid-50s and since then has been in steady decline. Sadly, the city has been in serious decline these last 70 years as industry dwindled and went off-shore, and whites moved to the suburbs. In the shadow of Philadelphia, without adequate resources, without support from the State, Chester suffers.

In 1888, Nathaniel Riggs (b. 1865 – d. 1946) married Anna Moore (b.1870 – d. 1941) in Screven County, Georgia. Census records show they lived in Statesboro, Georgia until 1900 then moved to adjacent Irwin County. At this time, they had their first and only daughter Harriet “Hattie” in 1890. Their first and only son Jesse Riggs was born on August 7th, 1908 in Fitzgerald, GA. By 1920, they had moved to Rahway, NJ (Hattie Riggs married Oscar Hippert there). Nathaniel and Anna Riggs can be found in the census living in Chester, PA between 1920 and 1925. In 1936, they sold their house to their son Jesse. Nathaniel was a railroad worker and lived a long time in Chester.

Obituary of Nathaniel Riggs, Chester Times, October 1946.

In 1903, Solomon H. Riggs (b. 1878 – d. 1952), married Mary Tucker in Irwin County, Georgia. Census records show they lived in Statesboro, Georgia. By 1920, Solomon and Mary were living in Chester, Pennsylvania. Solomon was a builder, working on the Roxy Theater, and several stores in Chester. He worked in several factories in Chester, including Penn Steel and Scott Paper. Solomon died in Atlantic City, NJ. It’s unclear if Mary Tucker is in fact Mentoria, his wife, or if she is a second wife. Solomon and Mentoria did not have any children.

Obituary of Solomon Riggs. Chester Times, May 1852.

Like his brothers, William “Willie” Henry Riggs Snr. (b. 1868 – d. 1863) got married in Irwin County, Georgia in 1906 to Lula Whitfield (b. 1873 – ?). All three of their documented children were born in Georgia before the family arrived in Chester by 1920.

  • Daisy b. 1896 – d. 1947
  • William H. Jr. 1903 – ?
  • Willamina “Willie Mae” b. 1911 – ?

Willie Sr. didn’t teach in Chester, his occupation was listed as “Carpenter” in the 1940 census. By the time Willie Sr. passed in 1963, Willie Jr. was his last surviving child and living in New York according to his obituary. Willie Jr. married Cora Fleming in New York in 1930. His sister Daisy was married twice and died in Chester.

The last of Daniel’s sons who moved to Chester was Thomas Jefferson Riggs (b. 1894 – d. 1962). Thomas married Laura B. Gaffrey (b. 1898 – d. 1945) in Irwin County in 1916. By 1919, their family too was living in Chester. Thomas and Laura had five children.

  • William Riggs III b. 1916 – ?
  • Willie Mae b. 1917 – ?
  • Rosalee b. 1919 – d. 1946
  • Lillian Rebecca b. 1919 – d. 1989
  • Thelma b. 1922 -?

William III and Willie Mae were born in Georgia, the remaining three girls were born in Chester. Thomas was a laborer in one of Chester’s many steel mills for more than twenty years.

source. Obituary of Thomas Jefferson Riggs, February 1962.

So what evidence can we use to determine which line my grandfather is on?

Clue 1. – We Are Riggs Parrish People

Through pedigree triangulation on Ancestry, and using a documented paper trail, I concluded that Daniel Riggs and Audelia Parrish were my father’s 2nd great-grandparents. An examination of several Ancestry DNA matches (second, third, and fourth cousins) matched with other family tree info and public records, shows that Daniel and Audelia were the most recent common ancestors (MRCA) these matches shared. These matches are the descendants of Thomas Riggs or their siblings (but not Solomon, Willie Jr., or Nathaniel Riggs so far).

Pedigree triangulation on Ancestry ThruLines,

Clue 2. – Not Solomon

We can probably eliminate the line of Solomon Riggs – he and his wife had no documented children.

Clue 3. – Not Thomas

We can eliminate Thomas Jefferson Rigg’s line. A recent DNA match of a well-documented 4th cousin who descends from Thomas Jefferson Riggs shows we are related through great-great-granduncle and aunt thus we are not on the same line.

Clue 4. – Moore DNA Reveals Which Riggs Brother

Turns out, my father and I match several descendants of the mother and father of the wife of Nathaniel Riggs, Anna Moore (b. 1870 – d. 1941). Jackpot!

Two of my DNA cousins descend directly from Anna Moore’s mother Harriet Kent. Recall, Nathaniel Riggs and Anna Moore had two children, Jesse, and Harriet “Hattie.” Could Jesse or Harriet be one of my father’s grandparents? Seems increasingly likely.

Let’s dive into Anna Moore’s own line for a moment.

I first learned of Anna Moore’s mother Harriet when her name appeared on the death certificate of Anna Riggs as “Harriet Kent.” The name of her father “William Moore,” was listed, along with a birthplace Dover, Georgia.

Anna Riggs, nee’ Moore, death certificate,

The death certificate states Anna Moore had been living in Chester for 20 years at the time of her death. Harriet Kent had a death certificate registered in 1930 in Dover, Screven County, Georgia that provided more detail. Harriet Kent was born 1848 in Emanuel County, Georgia (close to Statesboro and adjacent to Bulloch and Screven Counties), and lived in Dover for at least 50 years. She was 82 when she passed, a widower, and her husband’s name was “Aaron Kent”. From this document, I gleaned that “Kent” is a married name and not her maiden at all. Her parents were not named.

Harriet Kent Humphries death certificate,

Harriet Kent’s death certificate led me to uncover that she had at least one other husband or partner, Peter J. Humphries (b. 1851 – d. 1890). Harriet had at least four children with Peter. The 1880 census lists the family.

  • Peter J. Humphries, age 17
  • Harriet Humphries, age 25
  • Anna, age 9
  • Frank, age 7
  • Miles, age 5
  • Amy, age 3
  • Laura, 11 months

However, Anna Moore’s death certificate lists “William Moore” as her father. On the 1870 US Census, a “William Moore”, black, age 18, can be found living in a boarding house in Dover, Screven County, working as a railroad hand. The name and age fit making this William a likely candidate.

Further DNA research in Screven and Emanuel counties shows I am related to several white Moore descendants (5th-6th cousins) that lived in Emanuel, Georgia since at least the late 1700s. It’s likely “William Moore” was enslaved and had a white Moore ancestor (a 5th or 6th great-common ancestor).

So there are at least two DNA connections to Emanuel County and Screven County, to the Moore family and descendants of Anna Moore’s mother Harriet (two half-cousin relationships).

Clue 5. – Enter The Davis Family

While researching Thomas Jefferson Riggs’ family, I came across his child Rosalee Riggs (b. 1919 – d. 1949) and her spouse Thomas Davis (b. 1915 – ?). I happened upon a family tree in Ancestry for the Davis family. Because I was researching the friends, family, and acquaintances (or the F.A.N. Method), I immediately started to explore the Davis family and dug into the connection. Little did I know the twists and turns would weave a thread to some surprising revelations.

I won’t go into the details, but the rabbit hole of Rosalee Riggs led me to new cousins but no answers. So I turned to the family of Thomas Davis. Thomas had three siblings, all born in Chester, their parents were born in Chatham, in Pittsylvania County in southern Virginia. Thomas Davis’s oldest sibling, his sister, Alice Faye Davis (b. 1911 – d. 1983), had conflicting or little information on her husband but the public profile happened to have pictures of her and her son. Alice looked vaguely familiar, deep smile, high cheekbones, dimples for days, but it was the picture of her son, George Davis (b. 1927 – d. 1986) that took my breath away. He looked so much like my father that I simply froze. I couldn’t move. I had to force myself to breathe.

George Davis Hall Sr., Davis Family Tree,

I knew I had found something significant. Examining George Davis’s records, I learned he listed his father’s name as John Hall on his own marriage certificate to Carrie Badgley (b. 1929 – d.2016) in March 1946 when he was just 18. However, there was no marriage certificate between Alice Faye Davis and John Hall. In fact, Alice, 19, was single in the 1930 US census with a 2-year-old son. George, it appeared, was something of a rolling stone. He was married at age 18 in 1946, and then three more times in his life, fathering several children with three different women. He had his first child when he was just 15 years old with Gladys Harris (b.1927 – d. 1975), also 15. He had no children with Carrie, but when he settled down in the third marriage to Alice Geraldine Parker (b.1928 – d.1988), he had at least 6 more children by my count.

My gut told me there was a connection, but I could not puzzle it out. The timeline fit, but who was John Hall, and how the heck could he have been a Riggs? Why did this guy look like my dad? My grandmother and George Davis were contemporaries in 1946 Chester, just a year apart in age. The information was incomplete, but I had to share the intriguing picture and what I had with my father.

Of course, upon seeing the photo, Dad was as shocked as I was at the resemblance and had many more questions. He was now, feeling driven to get answers. When my father saw his sister not too long after I shared the picture he resolved to ask her if she recognized the name.

Who knows how it feels to withhold something so precious to someone for so long, what the burden might be, the rationalizations, the fear, the pain? Whatever demons my aunt had to face, she met. Whatever decision my aunt had to make, she made.

“George Hall! Your father’s name is George Hall,” she exclaimed before my father could even utter a word.

From Clues to Evidence

Clue 6. – Davis DNA Matches

None of the Davis descendants have tested with Ancestry. My sole contact in that family did not appear interested in exploring the theory or testing, so I began to look among my DNA matches for connections to Alice Faye Davis’s parents using Ancestry and Genetic Affairs’ Autocluster tool.

Jackpot (again)! I soon found a cluster of several matches with common ancestors on Alice Davis’s maternal line with the Davis surnames in Chatham, Pittsylvania County in Virginia about 4 – 5 generations back. Pedigree triangulation on Thrulines on Ancestry also identified a distant cousin on the same Davis line as Faye Davis, George’s mother. I could now connect the dots on my pedigree chart.

Pedigree triangulation on Ancestry ThruLines,

Recall the story about Jimmy Hall, the boy my father was warned away from, his “half-brother?” James Davis is the name of one of the documented sons of George Davis in the same public family tree I found.

Without a DNA test of another descendant of George Davis, I could not definitively say George Davis was my biological grandfather. I did make contact with descendants of Hattie Riggs, the first child of Nathaniel Riggs and Anna Moore. At that stage, the clues were fast becoming evidence…hearsay, distant Davis DNA relationships… A preponderance of evidence connected my father to Alice Faye Davis, George Davis, and pointed to George Davis’s father as being a Riggs.

Will George’s father please stand up?

My hypothesis at that point was that Jesse Riggs (son of Nathaniel Riggs and Anna Moore) was the father of George Davis Hall, unknown or unrecognized to him, and George Davis was my biological grandfather.

Obituary of Jess Riggs, Chester Delaware County Times, June 1952.

Jesse Riggs was the only documented son of Nathaniel and Anna Moore (recall clue 4, we have both Riggs and Moore DNA). We’ve eliminated the other Riggs brothers’ lines in Chester (clue 2 and 3). So did Jesse Riggs have a relationship with Alice Faye Davis (clue 6), which resulted in George Davis’s birth in 1927? Probably.

Could “John Hall” have been a pseudonym for Jesse Riggs or just an adopted father? Did George Davis really know his biological father’s true identity?

The Riggs and Davis family would later be connected by marriage when Alice’s brother Thomas married Rosalee Riggs after Alice and Jesse’s speculated tryst. Jesse and Alice were likely in the same circle as teens (Alice was 17 years old when she had George).

While there were a couple of John Hall’s living in Chester in 1927, I can find no record of a John Hall in a relationship with Alice Faye Davis, and I’ve become a pretty good sleuth of this particular period in Chester. Hall is a Riggs family name, but not on Daniel and Audelia Rigg’s line. Though it can be misinterpreted, the DNA doesn’t lie. It just wouldn’t make sense that John Hall was George’s father (AND the undocumented son of Anna Moore and Nathaniel Riggs).

Go for it.

In April 2021, my father texted me a picture of an envelope. The elegant cursive handwriting revealed it was addressed to the Department of Health, Division of Vital Records in Pennsylvania. My enthusiastic response – “Go for it!”

But we were both skeptical. Pennsylvania law allows birth parents to redact the names of birth parents. The only birth certificate my father carried for 75 years was a “Notification of Birth Registration” that listed his adopted father, Garland H. Johnson (b.1925 – d. 2011), and his mother.

Birth records of adopted children in Pennsylvania were sealed to protect the privacy rights of birth parents (my father was adopted by his stepfather), but we didn’t know the law had changed in 2017.

A few days ago I got another text from my dad.

“It’s official, George Davis was my biological father.”

The accompanying picture was a noncertified copy of the original birth record listing my father’s two parents – both 18.

“Parent” George Davis, Richard Barry Bobo. Non-certified Copy Birth Certificate, State of Pennsylvania.

My father shared that it was the “ultimate 75th birthday present.” I told him, now we have to find the record that connects George Davis to Jesse Riggs.

More time.

As I write this, my grandmother is 94 years old, and her life, vast, beautiful, tragic, and interesting in its own way is sunsetting. She did what she was put on this Earth to do. My father Richard is now a great-grandfather. How will this new knowledge and insight about his father impact the rest of his life and that of his children? He has said not knowing the identity of his biological father was never an impediment, he had a loving adopted father, but not knowing is still trauma. Unlike his mother, he has more time left to heal it. That’s what I wanted for him from this project, for all of us. More time to heal.

My father is a Riggs, a Davis, a Bobo, and a Johnson. He has been a soldier and recipient of the Bronze Star, law student, husband, teacher, carpenter, educator, civil rights investigator, and school board member. He has six children, each with graduate education, 17 grandchildren, and 2 great-great-grandchildren.

It was my father who kindled my passion for genealogy. Before the internet, he roamed the stacks of the National Archives in the 1980s with my mother, and his yellowed notes in beautiful cursive his own mother, a teacher, drilled into him, was the starting point for my journey. Of course, fathers aren’t perfect beings, no one is, but he always encouraged us to leave no stone unturned, to keep digging and pushing against the status quo, and to never let sleeping dogs lie.


  • “1963, Chester High School Yearbook.” Chester High School, Chester, Pennsylvania.
  • “The Riggs Family (Part 1): New Kin.”, accessed May 2021.
  • “The Riggs Family (Part 2): Harriet Riggs – the Matriarch.”, accessed May 2021.
  • Riggs, Anna, nee’ Moore. Death certificate., accessed May 2021.
  • Humphries, Harriet Kent. Death certificate., accessed May 2021.
  • Obituary of Solomon Riggs. Delaware County Daily Times, May 1952.
  • Obituary of Thomas Jefferson Riggs. Delaware County Daily Times, Chester, Pennsylvania, February 13, 1962.
  • Obituary of Nathaniel Riggs. Delaware County Daily Times, October 5, 1946.
  • Obituary of Jess Riggs. Delaware County Times, June 21, 1972.
  • Davis, George, and Bobo, Richard Barry. “Parent.” Non-certified Copy Birth Certificate, State of Pennsylvania.

Talking Family History with Flying Carpet Theater Co.

John Brown, THE John-Brown-goes-marching-on-John Brown, is one of the reasons I got into documenting my family history. I am a sometimes writer and nearly fifteen years ago I wanted to write a play about John Brown. I was in love with his wild story, and the team of free and enslaved comrades that fought alongside him in his daring raid on Harpers Ferry to free enslaved people in 1859. As you probably know, Brown’s freedom fighting was one of the last sparks to ignite the Civil War. But after many attempts, outlines, and false starts I just couldn’t tell the story. I zeroed in on Emperor Shields Green, said to be the son of a prince, formerly enslaved, one-time valet to Frederick Douglass. Another compelling story, but nope, I had writer’s block. Finally, I realized it was my own family’s story I wanted to tell during this pivotal moment in history and so I dived into genealogy headfirst.

I tell that story at the end of my time on the Flying Carpet Theatre Company’s latest podcast, “Family History Discussion Series,” which centers around the exploration of family history and genealogy. The podcast includes talks with “amateur genealogists” with the goal of discovering common themes that unite different groups of people. I joined my fellow Swarthmore College alum and FCTC Artistic Director Adam Koplan and Pete Candler for episode 4 last week.

Why is the Atlanta-based theater company investigating family history? Because the FCTC team are exploring “conversations about oppressors, bystanders, victims, the hidden, the brash, the loud, the hard work, the racism, the brave exodus, and everything else that makes up the our American patchwork quilt…Because it’s all in our family stories…”

Show description:

“In the fourth episode, series hosts Adam and Pete interview Joel Johnson. Joel Johnson is a Black writer and veteran ad agency executive. He has worked in agencies in New York, Chicago, and London and currently co-owns Admirable Devil, an agency in Washington, DC. He’s researched his family lineage since 2005 and recently began telling the stories of his ancestors on his blog, Struggle and Progress. He is primarily interested in researching the lives of his free and enslaved Black ancestors prior to and throughout emancipation, and during the period known as Reconstruction. His research has identified his biological European ancestors as well. Joel is a graduate of Swarthmore College, Goldsmiths College in London, and Northwestern University.”

Sharing Harriet Riggs Story on BlogTalk Radio

Recently I was a guest on RESEARCH AT THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES & BEYOND, a podcast on Blog Talk Radio with professional genealogist and author, Bernice Bennett. I’ve long been a fan of her genealogy podcast, and have frequently worked with Bernice to conduct research in the National Archives. In our brief discussion, I shared my 4x great-grandmother Harriet Riggs’ story. I explained how traditional and genetic genealogy led to a deeper understanding of my enslaved ancestor in Bulloch County, Georgia. I discussed how research into county records revealed Harriet and her family had five enslavers, all in the same town of Statesboro, GA, and their transition to freedom from clues within two key documents, an estate sale in 1847, and a labor contract with the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1866. You can read Harriet’s story here.

The Bobo Family and Spanish Flu A Century Ago

Just over 100 years ago, the “Spanish Flu”, an especially virulent 2nd wave of influenza swept the planet. Transmitted by soldiers from Europe after World War I ended to the US, South Africa, and Latin America. The flu claimed millions of lives between 1918 and 1920. Sadly, the flu’s spread through the military was kept secret and under wraps, because there was an active theater of war. Only Spanish journalists could report on it, hence the name. So many were caught up by a widespread lack of knowledge and deliberate ignorance. Today, Covid-19, a hundred years later, is marching across the planet, but we’re fortunate to have a more widespread knowledge, and increasingly, a coordinated effort to flatten the curve of transmission.

Naturally, the recent news made me think about my family their lives during a pandemic. There is at least one documented victim of the flu on the Bobo line of my family, my 2nd great-aunt Annie Bobo-Thomas. In 1920, Aunt Annie Bobo-Thomas was living in Los Angeles with her husband. She was 26 years old, and a court stenographer. She had been there for less than a year when she abruptly returned to her family’s home in the Booker T. Washington Addition neighborhood in Dallas, Texas in May. The Booker T. Washington Addition in Precinct 1 in Dallas was near Flora Ave and McKinney Ave just a few blocks north of downtown Dallas. Anna was very ill, as reported in the Dallas Express (a black newspaper published from 1892 – 1970). The Dallas Morning News reported that the flu had burned itself out by the end of 1919, so was it the Spanish flu?

The Dallas Express, 29 May 1920, Annie Bobo Thomas.

During this period, Anna’s father Dave “Lee” Bobo worked at the Central Christian Church in Dallas as a Sextant and custodian, her mother Bessie Demings-Bobo was a maid at nearby Southern Methodist University. Annie, the namesake of her grandmother Annie Turner Demings, was the oldest child, one of nine (six survived). None of her family or siblings appear to have caught the flu.

In 1918, World War 1 ended in November and returning troops from Europe brought the Spanish Flu with them to a number of American cities. When the Spanish Flu hit the Dallas, Texas area particularly at Army Camps like Fort Dick, that were full of young men who had been training to fight in the War. The second wave of Spanish Flu was a mutation that hit young men and women hard, with some victims dying within 24 hours. September saw it’s first quarantines. Dr. A.W. Carnes, Dallas’s health officer at the time underestimated the flu, and local officials waffled against his recommendations to start taking action. The Mayor and Chambers of Commerce argued and eventually kept cinemas, churches, and schools open, ultimately worsening the effects of the impact until mid-October when several deaths and hundreds of victims pouring into emergency rooms threatened to overwhelm the city’s health infrastructure. Dallas only had 150,000 people living there at the time. Over 456 people died in the city by year’s end. Ultimately, more U.S. soldiers died of Spanish Flu (63,114), than in combat during the war (53,402).

Dallas Morning News headline, October 1918.

Annie’s death certificate shows that she had contracted pulmonary tuberculosis, “TB”, while living in Los Angeles. She suffered from the bacterial infection from May to July in 1920, but complications from the flu hastened her to her death. Perhaps it was during her work as a stenographer, that she contracted TB. She would have been exposed continuously to people as she transcribed notes into shorthand, in a Los Angeles County Court. While recovering in Dallas, she got the flu, and as we’ve learned more recently, viruses tend to target the most vulnerable among us. While it’s not precisely clear that the strain she had was Spanish Flu, the timing aligns.

Annie Bobo Thomas died on July 14, 1920, and was buried on Dallas’s southside in the Woodlawn Cemetery. Her grandfather John Bobo was previously buried there in 1917. Later, her father Dave, grandmother Alice, and uncle A.K. Bobo would also be buried at Woodlawn.

Annie Bobo-Thomas death certificate, 1920, Dallas, Texas.

According to another report in the Dallas Express, before she died, my great-grandfather, David Newton Bobo, 21 years old and married, traveled from Chester, PA in June, home to Dallas. Likely, he was called by his mother to see his older sister, in anticipation that they might lose her.

The Dallas Express, 12 June 1920, David Bobo Jr.

The lessons of the Spanish Flu were profound. Studies by the CDC about how over 40 American cities responded to the 1918 pandemic lead to the creation of pandemic protocols and policies that protect us today. Key was the many insights learned about social distancing as a communal effort to stop the spread of a virus. During the Spanish Flu pandemic, where one city shut down, lives were saved, where another went ahead blindly, like Dallas or Philadelphia, far more lives were lost.

The point of understanding history, even family history is not to drum up nostalgia or melancholy for the past, but to learn from it. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Los Angeles had shut down the courts during the pandemic? What could have happened had the greedy Mayor and myopic Chamber of Commerce in Dallas had heeded their health officials? Or if Anna was able to recover in isolation. Would she have survived or was it already too late?

What we are presented with today is not exactly unprecedented, though it may feel that way to us. We have history and its lessons to draw upon. We know it takes a community, not just the government to fight a pandemic. We don’t have to wonder what might have been. We have to act now for what could be.

Please, stay home, stay safe, and help flatten the curve of Covid-19.


  • Dallas County Death Certificate, Annie Bobo Thomas, 1920.
  • “Annie Bobo Thomas.” The Dallas Express, 29 May 1920.
  • “David Bobo Jr.” The Dallas Express, 12 June 1920.
  • The Dallas Morning News, 1920.
  • Tarrant, David. “100 years ago, the deadliest flu of all time devastated Dallas as it swept through the world.” The Dallas News, October 2018.
  • “US Census, Dallas County, Dallas, 1910, 1920.”

The Riggs Family (Part 2): Harriet Riggs – the Matriarch

“Before the Courthouse Door”

It is April 1847, in Statesboro, Georgia in the low country.

On an unpaved dusty street in front of a two-story log building, the rough and tumble courthouse of Bulloch County, not far from wiregrass fields and endless rows of rice. Below a longleaf pine, a 27-year-old enslaved black woman named Harriet clutched her children close to her in a throng of indifferent white men and women covered in red clay dust.

Could no one sense her dread but her children? Daniel, 5 years old cried softly into the folds of the roughspun woolen dress. He didn’t know what was wrong, just that something had his Mama scared. Isaac stared off into the distance, his face simmering with anger and defiance that belied a 10-year-old’s age. Peter hid behind his mother while she clutched her infant, Susan, to her breast. The girl was silent, staring into her mother’s face with a depth of curiosity and wonder only known to babies as if she were asking, “what’s next?”

Indeed, my 4x great-grandmother well understood what happened next in these situations. Her name was Harriet, and she and her children stood outside the front door of the Bulloch County on the auctioneer’s block. Beside her, the auctioneer likely conferred with her present owner and enslaver, Dicey Mikell, age 41, formerly Dicey Donaldson, and before that, Dicey Neville. Dicey’s first husband was James Donaldson, farmer, and son of a local preacher born in Scotland who founded several Primitive Baptist Churches in the county. Her second husband, David Mikell, had recently died and she was in dire need to get her business affairs in order. A two-time widower, her second marriage only lasted three years, and now she had children from both marriages to care for, and an enslaved family. At the same place, and three months later, Dicey Mikell would sell the entirety of David Mikell’s estate as well. But now, she was faced with how to get cash, and to get it quickly. She was going to sell off her enslaved.

The auctioneer would have called for order, as a small press of local farmers and merchants from Bulloch county, and perhaps a slave trader or two would begin the bidding. Harriet and Dicey both noticed an eager man step forward in the crowd. Sharing a look, tears began to stream down Dicey’s face for it was her salvation, her brother, Thomas Neville. Harriet knew him. She did not beg, but she stared Thomas in the face and uttered a few simple words, “my children…my children.”

Despite fierce rounds of bidding, again, and again, Thomas Neville outbid the surrounding crowd. First, he bid on Harriet and her child, packaged together, winning at $797, a stunning figure for this small Georgia backwater deep in the low country. Then, in turn, he bid on Isaac, $493. Next came Daniel, $421. Finally, he began to bid for Peter, but either he was running low on cash, resolve or both. Zachariah Bennett, a wily old farmer kept going and won Peter for $450. I imagine Harriet shrieked and Dicey gasped in defeat. Isaac pulled on his Mama’s hand and whispered that old Zach’s farm was not far away, she might still get to see him at Christmas. Then the auctioneer sold off more land in the estate of James Donaldson, Dicey’s first husband. The morning produced $2,308 in sales, of which Dicey kept a large portion.

Thomas Neville b. 1808 – d. 1870. Source unknown.

Thomas Neville stepped forward to whisper something to his sister Dicey. Then Dicey turned to Harriet ordering her and children, without Peter, to follow her home. Harriet kissed and hugged her boy, and then watched as Zachariah lead the screaming child away. Thomas turned to Harriet and told her to continue to be attentive and subservient to his sister Dicey, but that she and her family now belonged to him, now and forever, and walked away.

But Thomas would be wrong. Dead wrong, for history had already set in motion the impending conflict that would free Harriet and her kin, and begin to set the scales of injustice right. A year before, Dred and Harriet Scott initiated a suit for freedom in the St. Louis Circuit Court. Under Missouri statutes, the suit was allowed based on their previous residence in a free territory (Wisconsin) before return to the slave state of Missouri. The same year, Frederick Douglas, himself a self-emancipated man, had founded The North Star to further spread his eloquent brand of abolitionism. And Liberia, on the west coast of Africa, was founded by free and formerly enslaved black men and women.

The remarkable account of the estate sale of Harriet, my 4th great-grandmother, once buried in the courthouse records of Bulloch County reads as follows:

“To Account of a Sale held on the sixth day of April 1847 before the Court House door in Bulloch County by Dicey Mikell, Administrator on the Estate of James Donaldson, deceased

Harriet, a woman +

Susan, a child……..Thomas Nevill $797.00

Isaac a Boy…………Thomas Nevill 423.00

Peter a Boy………..Zacarahia Bennet 450.00

Daniel a Boy………Thomas Nevills 421.00″

Estate Sale of James Donaldson, Sr. Administrator Dicey Mikell, 6 April, 1847, Bulloch County, Georgia

Why did Thomas Neville step in? To bail out his sister? To secure a good investment? At this time, enslaved people often made up the majority of the wealth of enslavers, more valuable than land or nearly any other item they could own or purchase. They were useful for obtaining credit as they could be mortgaged. They brought labor and status and more.

As I shared in The Riggs Family: New Kin (Part 1), I believed Harriet’s first enslaver was James Donaldson, however, further research produced the bill of sale that led to the discovery of the Neville family’s deep involvement in Harriet’s life, and to a stunning revelation about Harriet’s parentage through genetic genealogy.

Harriet in slavery, a Timeline

  • 1790 – John Oliver Neville, age 46, (formerly of Beaufort County, NC) gives to son Jacob Neville Sr., age 21, 200 acres of land in Nevils Creek in Burke County, Georgia. John also donates land for Nevils Creek Primitive Baptist Church.
  • 1796 – Bulloch County is formed out of Burke, Screven, and St. George’s Parish.
  • 1803 – John Neville dies, age 60.
  • 1806 – Dicey Neville born (this date is probably earlier), daughter of Jacob Neville Sr. b. 1769 and Nancy Henderson, in Bulloch County, GA.
  • 1810 – 1820 – Harriet (my 4x great grandmother, enslaved) is born in GA, likely on the Neville (51 – 61 y.o.) plantation on Lotts Creek.
  • 1814 – March 17, Dicey Neville, a child bride, is married to James Donaldson (son of Robert  Donaldson according to tax receipt). Both Dicey and James are mere children. Harriet moves to the Robert Donaldson plantation.
  • 1814 – Abraham B. Riggs was born to Stephen Riggs and Rachel Martin in Bulloch, County Ga.
  • 1815 – Frances Ann Mixon-Neville (wife of John Neville) dies, age 63.
  • 1830 – Jacob Neville Sr. owns no slaves on the 1830 census.
  • 1840 – James Donaldson has 3 slaves on the 1840 census (likely Harriet, Isaac, Daniel, and Peter). David Mikel owns no slaves on the 1840 census.
  • 1831 – April 21, Dempsey Riggs b. 1808 (brother of Abraham) marries Frances Neville (daughter of Jacob Neville and Nancy Henderson).
  • 1834 – Nov 6, Abraham B. Riggs marries Nancy Cannon.
  • 1837 – 18 Dec, Harriet’s son Isaac (enslaved) is born. Sometime after, Peter and Daniel are born.
  • 1840 – James Donaldson dies. In his September estate inventory appears the following enslaved ancestors: Harriet, and inferred children Isaac, Peter, and Daniel (order appears to be an age order, Susan and Eliza are not yet born).
  • 1844 – March 24, Dicey Neville Donaldson marries David Mikell. Harriet is living on the Mikell plantation.
  • 1847 – David Mikell dies and his entire estate is sold to pay debts.
  • 1847 – April 6, Dicey Neville Donaldson sells her enslaved on the Statesboro courthouse steps: Harriet, Susan, Isaac, and Daniel are sold to Jacob Neville’s son, Thomas Neville. Peter is sold to area planter Zachariah Bennett (Bennett has one 45 yo male slave in the 1860 census). Thomas Neville is Dicey’s brother. Thomas Neville technically owned Harriet and her family but clearly let them continue to live with Dicey.
  • 1849 – Sept 5, Abraham B. Riggs marries 2x widow Dicey Neville Donaldson (presumably Nancy died). Dicey likely lived between 1847 and 1849, with her brother Thomas Neville.
  • 1850 – Abraham B. Riggs has 5 slaves on the Slave Schedule (probably Harriet and her family), his wife Dicey is 44 yo. 
  • 1850 – Thomas Neville has 4 slaves on the Slave Schedule. Male 30, female 30, female 12, male 1 (doesn’t appear to be Harriet and her family).
  • 1860 – Abraham B. Riggs (44) has 14 slaves in 2 cabins on the Slave Schedule. Dicey Riggs is 55 yo.
  • 1865 – April, Nathaniel Riggs is born to Daniel Riggs and Audelia Parrish, my great-great-grandfather in District 1209 on Ansel Parrish’s plantation.
  • 1865 – Last Confederate troops in Georgia surrender on May 12, 1865. Harriet and her family are freed. Take the surname Riggs.
  • 1872 – Jacob Neville Sr. dies age 104.

Harriet Riggs by name, Neville by blood

The white Riggs family and Neville family of Bulloch County, Georgia were close by marriage and proximity. The area that John Neville (father of Jacob Neville Sr.) settled in Georgia, after moving from Nevil’s Creek in Beaufort, NC, was at one time several different counties. They included St. George’s Parish, Burke County, and Screven County. The area was carved from the said counties and became Bulloch County in 1796. John Neville is in the records of these various counties, however, he never actually moved.

In two plats from 1804 and 1819, show Jacob Neville and his family (and enslaved) resided on nearly a thousand acres along Boggy Branch and Lotts Creek in Bulloch. Along with the other Neville’s, this is likely where Harriet was born.

Property of Jacob Neville 1804. Source: Bulloch County Records.

Jacob Neville 1769 – 1863 married Nancy “Nissy” Henderson 1780 – 1889

  • Thomas Neville 1808 – 1870
  • Delilah “Lilly” Neville 1806 –
  • Jacob “Jake” Neville Jr. 1812 – 1880
  • Phoebe Ann Neville 1825 – 1903
Jacob Neville Sr. b. 1769 d. 1863. Enhanced. Source unknown.

In 1849, Dicey Neville, daughter of Jacob Neville and Nancy Henderson, married A.B. Riggs (it was her 3rd marriage and produced no children). Abraham’s brother, Dempsey Riggs, son of Stephen Riggs and Rachel Martin, married Dicy’s sister Frances Neville. I believe Dicey Neville had dower slaves when she married James Donaldson in 1814. The 1830 census shows James owned no slaves prior to marrying Dicey. As I shared, after James Donaldson’s death Harriet and 3 of her 4 children were sold to Thomas Neville, Dicey’s brother. However, Harriet and her family stayed on with Dicey in the Riggs household. Wealthy, Abraham Riggs had 400 acres of land in 1860 and an estate worth $13,564, including 14 enslaved people living in two slave cabins, among them Harriet and her family.

Using genetic genealogy, I have uncovered several distant DNA matches who are direct descendants of Jacob Neville Sr. including his parents John Oliver Neville (Beaufort, NC clan) and Frances Ann Mixon (Effingham County, SC clan). Triangulation through Ancestry’s Thrulines tool shows these cousins confirm common ancestry. Not surprisingly, Jacob was Harriet’s biological father, no doubt her mother was a victim of rape in bondage. This DNA evidence further supports the timeline that Harriett and her children were dower slaves…originally enslaved by Jacob but given to James Donaldson’s estate as part of his daughter’s marriage to his future son-in-law.

And so now we know that Thomas Neville wasn’t just purchasing Harriet and her family. He was purchasing his father’s daughter, and his own nephews and niece, as well as bailing out his sister, and keeping the wealth of the family, in the family.

Some realizations occur to me. 1) Dicey had for several years, her enslaved half-sister Harriet waiting on her and her family. This reminds me of the story of Thomas Jefferson’s wife Martha Skelton. Martha’s marriage to Jefferson included dozens of dower slaves, including Martha’s half-sister Sally Hemings. 2) Jacob Neville, though still living, did not come to Dicey’s rescue. Were they estranged? 3) Thomas Neville technically owned his half-sister Harriet and her family but clearly wanted them to continue to live with Dicey. 4) I can see now why Harriet and her family took the Riggs name instead of Dicey’s surname or the Donaldson’s. It wasn’t out of convenience. Would you take the surname of the woman and men who split up your family?

Next, freedom and prosperity

After the Civil War swept through southern Georgia, Harriet and her family found themselves, like many recently freed people, pondering “what’s next?” But they did not wait long. They had been working the Riggs plantation for nearly twenty years now. They knew how to farm corn, rice, wheat, and tobacco. They knew how to manage a household. They knew animal husbandry. They just needed a foothold to get started.

By February 1866, the Freedmen’s Bureau was on the ground in Georgia, probably sending representatives from the nearby Savannah Station, to counsel the people of Bulloch. Harriet Riggs (and two children, presumably Susan and Eliza), Isaac Riggs, Paul Riggs (probably Peter), along with Tom Williams, and Doris Hall (and her two children enter into a one-year labor contract in Bulloch County with the Freedmen’s Bureau to continue to live and work on Abraham B. Riggs plantation. Isaac was to receive $13 a month, food and clothing, Tom and Paul were to receive $8 per month, and Harriet and Doris food and clothing.

Labor contract between Harriet Riggs and her family and Abraham B. Riggs, Feb. 6, 1866, administrated by The Freedmen’s Bureau, Savannah Station.

Paul Riggs likely dies soon after and is not present in the record afterward. Tom is probably not the same Tom (col, 21 y.o.) who also worked on Neville’s plantation. Tom Neville’s (col) birth date is derived from his voter registration in 1867. His surname is also Neville according to the 1866 poll tax.

Harriet in Reconstruction, a Timeline

  • 1866 – Feb 6, Harriet Riggs, Isaac Riggs, Paul Riggs (probably Peter), along with Tom Williams, and Doris Hall enter into a labor contract with the Freedmen’s Bureau to continue to live and work on Abraham B. Riggs plantation.
  • 1866 – Thomas Neville and Tom (colored) sign a labor contract in Bulloch County with the Freedmen’s Bureau to work Neville’s plantation. Witnesses include James Donaldson Jr.
  • 1867 – Aug 15, Isaac Riggs and Tom Williams register to vote in Bulloch County. Isaac Riggs pays the 1867 poll tax.
  • 1869, Feb 4, Eliza Saturday Riggs, Harriet’s daughter, marries Washington Hodges.
  • 1869, Jun 1, Daniel Riggs applies for tax exemption on land he owns engaging a lawyer.
  • 1870 – Oct 21, Thomas Neville dies.
  • 1870 – Dec 4, Isaac Riggs purchases from Benjamin Wilson 100 acres.
  • 1874 – Jun 25, Harriet Riggs dies. She is between 64 – 74 y.o. Her burial place is unknown.
  • 1874 – The Willow Hill School is established on Daniel Riggs’s land
  • 1876 – June, Isaac Riggs is threatened and beaten for opening and teaching at “Willie Hill”.
  • 1879 – July 16, Elder Washington Hodges (husband of Eliza Saturday Riggs, daughter of Harriet) purchases from W.E. and Henry Parrish 229 acres. 
  • 1879 – Oct 28, Daniel Riggs purchases from David Bell 180 acres.
  • 1883 – Sept 22, Elder Washington Hodges (husband of Eliza Saturday Riggs, daughter of Harriet) purchases from James Parrish 20 acres.  
  • 1885 – Jan 5, Daniel Riggs purchases from David Bird 115 acres.
  • 1886 – Jul 12, Abraham B. Riggs, dies.
  • 1895 – March, Daniel Riggs dies at age 53.
  • 1897 – Jul 22, Isaac Riggs dies at age 59.

Harriet’s life during Reconstruction was markedly different.

Now, she chose when to rise in the morning, and when to sleep. No longer suffering under the yoke of Dicey and Abraham Rigg’s lash or order, she could breathe, cry, celebrate, even laugh whenever she wanted. She was reunited with her son Peter and watched her family begin to flower and flourish in freedom.

In just three years after emancipation, the Riggs family got access to capital through their PAID labor on Abraham Rigg’s plantation. Harriet’s sons purchased land of their own. They got credit, and mortgages and began to build their lives as free people. Her sons and daughter married and started their own families. In 1867, Isaac voted on the new Georgia Constitution, a requirement by the federal government that each Confederate state had to write and ratify a new state constitution. The military held massive voter registration drives and for the first time, black men and white men appeared alongside each other on voter rolls. The Georgia Constitution Convention had 33 African American delegates and 137 white delegates.

In 1869, my 3x great-grandfather Daniel Riggs was either given or acquired land which was obviously intended to be used for tax-free purposes like education or a church. He applied for a tax exemption that was published in the paper. He and his wife Audelia Parrish, brother Isaac Riggs and his daughter Georgiana would found The Willow Hill School in 1874, the same year that Harriet passed away.

Nevils Creek Primitive Baptist Church, Bulloch County. Source unknown.

Harriet’s final resting place may be on or near the grounds of the Nevils Creek Primitive Baptist Church where there is a single headstone, that of her white grandfather John Neville. The black congregants of Nevils Creek eventually left in 1879 when Aaron Munlin and several elders formed Banks Creek Primitive Church. Wherever she is buried, her blood and toil infuses the soil of Bulloch County and mixes with the descendants of so many.


I am an exceedingly lucky descendent of Harriet, and especially grateful for one David Beasley who lived in Statesboro in 1866. General Tecumseh Sherman’s march to the sea on the wain of the Civil War in Georgia destroyed several county courthouses and their records. According to The True Story of the Bulloch County Courthouse, “David Beasley, the Ordinary (lawyer), was aware of the approach of Sherman’s Army, and had heard that the soldiers were burning both private homes and public buildings. Mr. Beasley had the Bulloch County records removed from the courthouse and concealed near his home where they remained until the danger had passed.”

Without Beasley’s foresight, I would not have been able to tell Harriet’s story. Furthermore, I am deeply grateful to Dr. Alvin Jackson who told me in an interview in 2019 that he knew of a document that mentioned Harriet’s sale on the courthouse steps.


  •, accessed March 2020.
  • Banks, Smith Calloway et al. “Old Bulloch Personalities.” 1993. Bulloch County Historical Society Publications.
  • Blitch, Parris. “The True Story of the Bulloch County Courthouse.” 2004. Bulloch County Historical Society Publications.
  • Deed, Bulloch County, Jacob Neville to James Donaldson, 1833, pg. 154.
  • Bonds, Charles et al. “From Aaron to Ivanhoe.” 1988. Bulloch County Historical Society Publications, pg. 36.
  • Estate Sale of James Donaldson Sr. Administrator Dicey Mikell, 6 April 1847, Bulloch County, Georgia.
  • Estate Inventory of James Donaldson Sr., 1840, Bulloch County, Georgia, pg. 124.
  • Freedmen’s Bureau, Savannah, Roll 82, Labor Contracts; Harriet Riggs, Isaac Riggs, Daniel Riggs, Paul Riggs, Tom Williams, Doris Hall, Abraham B. Riggs; Feb 6, 1866.
  • Georgia Returns of Qualified Voters and Reconstruction Oath Books, 1867 – 1869, Bulloch County.
  • Hendrix Hope, Dorothy. “The Story of Bulloch County.” 1996. Bulloch County Historical Society Publications.
  • Brannen, Dorothy. “Life in Old Bulloch: The Story of a Wiregrass County in Georgia, 1796-1940.” 1992. Statesboro Public Library.
  • “US Census, Bulloch County, GA. 1820, 1830, 1840, 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890, 1900.”
  • “US Census, Slave Schedules, Bulloch County, GA. 1850, 1860.”
  • U.S. Find-A-Grave Index, Bulloch County, Georgia., accessed March 2020.
  • Will, Henry J. Parrish, 1800, Bulloch County, Georgia.
  • The Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center.
  • “The Riggs Family (Part 1): New Kin.”, accessed May 2021.

The Riggs Family (Part 1): New Kin

What is family? Is it a blood tie? Is it kinship? Though I have had no relationship with my ancestors (I didn’t know them) they are my family because I have found a connection with them through my feelings. When I learn about their lives, for better or for worse, I can’t help feel a bond with them. I count my living family now as extraordinarily tight, but in my life have seen how the relationships that make family come and go. Family is impermanent and often what we define.

Growing up in the industrial waterfront town of Chester, Pennsylvania, my father had a large and loving family, and yet he did not know his biological father, and his father’s kin, despite the fact that they were all around him, hidden in plain sight, his whole life. His biological father’s identity was a mystery. But he has always wanted to know more, as did I, and so we set out to use traditional and genetic genealogy to uncover what we could. In our research, we learned my biological grandfather had died in the 80s, and so while we could never know him personally, we did find his people, from their roots in the deep south to the lives they made in Chester after the great migration. And now, for the better, we have a relationship with them. Does that make them family?

Looking for Harriet

The white planter Abraham B. Riggs was not the first enslaver of my fourth great-grandmother, Harriet Riggs, and her children. **See The Riggs Family: Harriet Rigg’s Story (Part 2)** for an update on Harriet’s remarkable life. Despite this, she took Riggs as her surname after emancipation when she could have any she liked. Like many enslaved blacks in the Lowcountry of Georgia, Harriet faced the cruel chattel slavery system that traded human life like a gold watch or a prized axe, a valuable commodity to be passed along after death to provide wealth to those left behind. Harriet and her kin were victims of legacy-based enslavement, passed on paper as well as on the auction block of Statesboro, Georgia. Her first enslaver was an Scot by the name of James Donaldson, whose father followed the Ogeechee River south to Statesboro in the late 1700s. In 1834 Donaldson married a local girl Dicy Neville. When James died, Dicey Donaldson remarried in 1844 to David Mikell, and then when David died, Dicey once again remarried to Abraham B. Riggs on September 8, 1849. Through each marriage, Dicey inherited land and more enslaved people, and so Abraham and Dicey became Harriet’s last enslavers before emancipation.

Harriet, b. 1820 – d. 1874, my 4th great-grandmother had four known children all born before the Civil War with an unknown partner:

  • Isaac Riggs b. 18 Dec 1837 d. 22 July 1897
  • Daniel Samuel Riggs, b. 1842 d. 1895
  • Susan Riggs, b. 1846, death unknown
  • Eliza Saturday Riggs, b. Jan. 1857 death unknown

Harriet’s children’s father may have gone by the surname Saturday, as her daughter Eliza listed her surname as Saturday on her 1869 marriage certificate to Washington Hodges.

One of Harriet’s enslavers, James Donaldson can be found in the 1830 Census for Bulloch County, between 15 and 19 years old at the time. In the 1840 Census, James has three slaves, one is a female between 10 and 23 years. In the 1850 and 1860 Census his son, James Donaldson Jr. b. 1829. James Jr. is in the 1870 and 1880 census so we can conclude it was James Donaldson Sr. definitely died sometime around 1840.

In the 1850 Slave Schedule for Bulloch County, Abraham Riggs is found enslaving five souls, Harriet almost certainly among them. Abraham was born in 1814 to Stephen and Rachel Riggs in Statesboro. He was married first to Nancy Cannon, then remarried Dicey Donaldson at age 35. He had several children with Nancy, none with Dicey. Abraham Riggs owned Riggs’ Old Mill and his house still stands on Cypress Lake Road across from the lake’s dam according to his descendent Rebecca Riggs Boone. Harriet and her family no doubt lived on the Mill grounds until emancipation. Abraham’s parents sold to their neighbor Jordan Lewis 500 acres of land in two transactions in 1817. Upon Abraham’s death in 1884, he willed his land, some 200 acres between Big Lotts Creek and Big Branch Creek to his sons Abram Jr. and Thomas Riggs. Abraham is buried in Lower Lotts Creek Church Cemetery along with several of his family members.

In 1870, Harriet is found living with her daughter Eliza (16) and son-in-law Washington Hodges (19) and a relative Dina Munlin (25). Her occupation was as a seamstress. In 1880, Harriet (60) is still living with the Hodges and her four grandchildren. The consensus on her death date is June 25, 1874, though her burial place is unknown. Just eight years after her death, her son-in-law Washington Hodges became Elder Washington Hodges and founded the Old Bethel Primitive Baptist Church in Statesboro. Several Riggs descendants are buried in the church cemetery.

How did I find my biological grandfather’s great-great-grandmother Harriet? Her identity, as well as that of an entire clan of intertwined families, began to emerge in dozens of DNA matches and my father’s DNA matches in the last several years. In 2019, I was finally able to isolate my father’s DNA from his mother’s (my grandmother), and it became clear the African American Riggs were the ancestors of my biological grandparents. Several surnames merged in Statesboro with two sets of common ancestors, Harriet Riggs, and Cain Parrish and his wife Isabella Donaldson. Statesboro, about an hour West of Savannah Georgia has a rich history and is well-researched. Fortunately, the Riggs and Parrish family histories are well-documented in family trees by numerous family historians and amateur sleuths like myself. In particular, the remarkable work of Dr. Alvin Jackson, also a descendant of Harriet Riggs, has become a useful guide to antebellum Statesboro’s black community. Dr. Jackson’s remarkable life’s work has been to educate, research, and preserve the story of the legacy of his family and community. He has collected thousands of obituaries and funeral programs of black elders (read them here) from Statesboro, conducted hundreds of interviews that have resulted in digital collections at the Georgia Southern University And he has worked hard to preserve the cultural history of one of area’s seminal colored school founded by Harriet’s children during Reconstruction, the Willow Hill School.

A willow bends but does not break

The Willow Hill School was founded in 1874 by former slaves, initially on land donated by my 3rd great-grandparents Daniel Riggs and Audelia Parrish (Daniel was my fourth great-grandmother Harriet Riggs’ son). The school was in existence for 125 years; the longest for any school in Bulloch County, Georgia. In 2005, concerned citizens of Statesboro and several trustees founded the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center to preserve The Willow Hill School. A fount of knowledge, Dr. Jackson is the Chairman of the Center.

“A little history – Sometime after the “Great Surrender,” a group of former slaves, lead by Moses, Andy and Sam Parrish, Andy Donaldson and his sisters, Mary, Dorah and Isabelle and Moriah, along with their sons, good friends and in-laws, saw a great need for their children to get an education. The group established the first community/family school (1874-1999) for colored children in Bulloch County, GA and called it the “Willie Hill School” in 1874 after the son of Daniel and Audelia (Parrish) Riggs. The school grew, moving from the farm of Daniel and Audelia, Moses and Isabelle to its final location. It became officially known as Willow Hill School and was sold to the Bulloch County Board of Education for $18.00 in 1920 by Moses Parrish. In 1930 Julius Rosenwald of Sears & Roebuck donated a large sum of money to construct a new building on the school which served as the main academic building for about 20 years. In 1965 the Courts ordered the integration of the Bulloch County Schools and in 1969 Whites forced the closing of the Willow Hill school and other black schools because they refused to integrate. The Willow Hill was was reopened in 1971 but officially closed in 1999. There were more that 40 Colored/Negro community/family schools through Bulloch County but as the schools were integrated into the public school system, they were closed or lost their identity. “

from the website of Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center
Willow Hill School Historical Marker, Statesboro

The history of the Willow School has been covered widely in Georgia, accompanied by archival documents and photographs of the Riggs, Donaldson, Love, Parrish families who were instrumental to its founding.

Aaron Love (left) and Dora Donaldson Love (right), two of the founders of the Willow Hill School. Source. Dr. Alvin Jackson, Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center.

Nathania B. Miles, a Riggs descendent has also researched The Willow Hill School and published in several forums and genealogical magazines.

“The Willie Hill school grew rapidly and in 1890 moved to Handy and Agnes (Parrish) Donaldson’s farm for five (5) years where it grew to a two room building. Then, 1895 the school moved to its final location on land donated by Moses and Isabella (Donaldson) Parrish, in Portal, Georgia. The Willie Hill School would evolve three times during its lifetime and become the only community/family school to become a part of the Bulloch County Board of Education in the 1920s. In 1999, the school officially closed its doors.”

Nathania B. Miles, Afrigeneas

The first teacher at the school was Georgianna Riggs, b. 1859, the daughter of my 3rd uncle Isaac Riggs and Harriet Lanier. Harriet Lanier was said to be the mulatto child of “old lawyer Johnson” according to Dr. Jackson. Georgianna was only 15 years old when she began to teach her cousins and community. A former slave herself, and the granddaughter of Harriet Riggs, she learned to read and write during a time when African Americans were outlawed from education.  Dr. Erik Brooks, the author of Defining Their Destiny: The Story of the Willow Hill School, writes, “Most likely, Georgianna Riggs learned how to read from the slave owner’s children as they ‘played school.’ She was too young to carry out the duties of plantation work as a slave. The other possibility is that she was educated at one of the underground schools in the Bulloch County or Savannah area.” 

Georgianna Riggs, first teacher at The Willow School. Enhanced. Source. Dr. Alvin Jackson, Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center.

Georgianna taught the children to read and write, math and bible-reading. Her father Isaac Riggs was also a teacher at the school, as well as her cousin Willie Riggs. Willie Riggs was the son of Daniel and Audelia (Parrish) Riggs. Willie later traveled to Atlanta and there graduated from Atlanta Bible College (later Morehouse College) in 1894 before returning to teach at Willow Hill.

Unfortunately, the prejudices of the white community of Bulloch County were vast and emboldened by the rise of the Klu Klux Klan. Throughout Reconstruction, colored education in the south came under fierce attack. Whites wanted the black population of the South docile, their station reduced, and back under the heels of racist politicians. At the Willow School, Harriet’s son Isaac was targeted for terror in 1876.

“School Teacher Whipped in Bullock County” Colored Tribune, Savannah, GA. June 3, 1876.
Isaac Riggs, late-1800s. Colorized. Source. Dr. Alvin Jackson, Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center.

Despite the compromise of 1877 that withdrew the last federal troops from the South to protect recently emancipated blacks and free black communities, blacks would not bend against the onslaught of terror. The Willow School persisted even as the violence escalated throughout the south.

The Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that provides legal counsel to the poor, calculates that there were 3,959 lynchings in the South from the end of the Reconstruction era in 1877 to 1950. However, Captain Robert Smalls, later Representative Smalls of Charleston, SC, a black Civil War hero and public figure, stood up in the state capitol Columbia in 1895 and proclaimed that nearly 53,000 African Americans had been killed since Emancipation…in just thirty years. This staggering number included Paul Reed and Will Cato of Statesboro.

There are at least four documented acts of terror in Statesboro between Reconstruction and the turn of the century, not including the infamous lynching case of Paul Reed and Will Cato, in retaliation for the alleged murder of four members of the Hodges family (a white family) in a house fire in 1904. With over 1000 white onlookers (including men, women, and children) Reed and Cato were burned alive without mercy in a forest in Statesboro. After the lynching, four more blacks were murdered in the aftermath. Black citizens were routinely attacked, beaten and whipped. It is reported that many black families left Statesboro soon after for nearby Portal. Many left the state. Not a single person was brought to justice for the lynchings.

It was against this backdrop of racial terror, the sons of my third great-grandparents began to pick up their families and leave town. Perhaps, like blues singer Blind Willie McTell, they got the Statesboro Blues.

Delia on the Parrish Plantation

Audelia “Delia” Parrish whose family is well established in Statesboro, was born in 1858. She married Daniel Samuel Riggs, Harriet’s son. My third great-grandmother Audelia was formerly enslaved by Ansel Parrish a prominent slave owner in Bulloch Co, the son of Henry Parrish and Nancy Williams. Records indicate Delia Parrish was born to Cain Parrish b. 1810 and Isabella b. 1822, all in Bulloch County. On Ancestry, I have a few 6th – 7th cousin DNA matches who have in their trees the white Parrish family. This means we share an ancestor, and very likely Cain Parrish was the mulatto son of Henry Parrish.

Audelia Parrish Riggs, late 1800s. Enhanced. Source. Dr. Alvin Jackson, Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center.

Cain Parrish m. Isabella children:

  • Lucinda b. 1834
  • Hannah b. 1840
  • Moses P. b. 1842
  • Samuel b. 1844
  • Andrew b. 1850
  • Agnes b. 1856
  • Audelia b. 1858
  • Cain Jr. b. 1864

Henry Parrish received two grants of land in what is now Candler County, and on one built a millpond in Statesboro where Bay Branch Creek and Lotts Creek come together in early 1800s. His son Ansel built his own home a mile west of the creek on a road that branched off Monk’s Ford. He also built a large millpond there. Ansel married on March 3, 1814, and ultimately had 18 children. Audelia lived with her seven brothers and sisters, and parents on the Parrish settlement.

“By Bulloch County standards, Ansel was a very large slave holder. He housed them in a long string of cabins stretching back on a quarters road toward the mill. But rather than having them cooking in their individual cabins with resulting deficiency diseases such as scurvy and pellagra, he provided for them in common, feeding them in a big dining shed back of his house where two responsible women presided. By the time of the Civil War this population had grown so large it took a beef a week to feed them, as well as hogs, goats, game, fish, corn, potatoes, vegetables, rice, syrup and molasses, all produced on the place. He produced rice in large quantities on an island between the forks of the creek where he could raise and lower the level of the water with the sluice gates of the pond. When word came of Sherman’s approach (during the Civil War), old Ansel, then seventy-six years old, sent his people to secure the stock in the swamps and hummocks of the creek. How well they succeeded can be seen by his inventory when he died the following July. That inventory counted 5 horses and mules in addition to the fine saddle horse stolen by his black sheep son the night he died, cattle, hogs (and outlying hogs) sheep, goats, fowls.”

Rita Turner Hall, “Lest It All Gets Away From Us.”
Ansel Parrish, Audelia’s likely biological father, mid-1800s. Source unknown.
Ansel Parrish House 1814. Credit. Rita Turner Hall
Ansel Parrish Settlement 1814. Credit. Rita Turner Hall

Audelia who may have also gone by Emma lived on the rice plantation during enslavement, and later with her husband and children in an area described as swampy and full of briars and pokeweed in Statesboro after emancipation. Given that Ansel cultivated rice, and the proximity to the Georgian coast and Ogeechee river, the enslaved Parrish family may have been Gullah Geechee, though there is no direct evidence of this.

Audelia Parrish and Daniel S. Riggs had 12 children including:

  • Nathaniel b. 1865
  • William Henry b. 1868
  • James R. b. 1871
  • Agnes b. 1874
  • Martha b. 1876
  • Solomon H. b. 1878
  • Emma b. 1879
  • Benjamin b. 1883
  • Rose b. 1890
  • Pearl R. b. 1892
  • Thomas Jefferson b. 1894
  • Maude b. 1895

In 1864 when General Tecumseh Sherman’s army came marching into Statesboro, during their infamous March to the Sea, they found a pretty pitiful sight while foraging for supplies. No large buildings, a couple of whiskey and turpentine shacks, barren fields, a log courthouse which they promptly burned, and empty farms. Sherman’s men raided several farms mercilessly for supplies. With no railroad, Statesboro was a somewhat impoverished area and didn’t start to prosper until the late 1890s as a town, becoming a large producer of Sea Island Cotton and mules.

Remarkably, by 1869, just three years after emancipation, Daniel Riggs and his family acquired land according to tax assessments. Clearly, they were busy working their farm, and perhaps under contracts with Ansel Parrish’s family coordinated by the Freemen’s Bureau. In an article in the Milledgeville Federal Union newspaper, Daniel’s lawyer, C. A. Sorrier, sought an exemption status from taxation on his land.

Daniel Riggs (colored). Source, Milledgeville Federal Union, June 1, 1869

In 1882, the state assessed that the total value of Daniel Rigg’s property, which included a farm, 115 acres of land, and various animals to be worth $376. His brother Isaac had 105 acres assessed at $750.

Many nice things

Several remarkable things took place in 1889, the Eiffel Tower opened, Vincent Van Gogh painted Starry Night, the great land rush created Oklahoma City, a city of 10,000 – in a single day. Montana, South and North Dakota and Washington became states showing just how very young indeed the country really was. And on a sunny but crisp Tuesday morning in March, Agnes Riggs and Johnson Rozier were married by Rev. Washington Hodges. Agnes, the 17-year-old daughter of Daniel and Audelia Riggs, was waited on by her cousin Henry, brother Willie, Sarah Parrish, and Maggie Riggs. In the afternoon they took a fine buggy ride about the neighborhood of Blitch, about 10 miles north of Statesboro.

Agnes Riggs marries Johnson Rozier. Source, Savannah Tribune, April 4, 1889.

This remarkable bit of news made its way to the Savannah Tribune and was published in April. Unfortunately, sometime between the wedding and Christmas, Daniel Riggs passed away. Daniel lived long enough to see his daughter marry the man who was already the father of Agnes’s son John born in January. Agnes and Johnson would go on to have 11 children, and Agnes would live a long life, passing away in Coffee, Georgia at the age of 83.

By the time of the census in 1900, Delia Riggs was widowed. Over the next 10 years, the escalating violence, racism and lack of opportunity drove some of Delia’s children to pack up and head North.

It’s unclear why Chester, Pennsylvania, and not Atlanta or any of the other major cities along the mid-Atlantic coast became the preferred destination of four of Delia’s six sons and their families. According to Dr. Jackson, Willie Riggs, the namesake for the Willow Hill School, was known to be a “traveling person” and in the club scene in Chicago, perhaps as a musician. Willie already had a taste of travel and freedom from his time in Atlanta. Uncle Isaac had traveled to Savannah after his terrible beating. Perhaps the reality became that there was more to life than the oppression of Bulloch County, maybe even a better life. After all, with their growing education and literacy, they must have asked themselves around the kitchen table and on the walk home from church, what more could they do, what more could the Riggs family become, somewhere else?

In Part 2: The Riggs Family: Harriet Riggs Story I’ll explore the life of Harriet Riggs, including a timeline for her life enslaved and free. I’ll share some surprising revelations about her biological father.

In Part 3: The Riggs Family: New Kin I’ll share how the Riggs who came to Pennsylvania, their lives and families in Chester, and how using traditional and genetic genealogy, I’ve identified my father’s grandfather among them.


  •, accessed February 2020.
  • “Agnes Riggs Marriage Announcement.” Savannah Tribune, Savannah, GA, April 4, 1889.
  • Bonds, Charles et al. “From Aaron to Ivanhoe.” 1988. Bulloch County Historical Society Publications.
  • Bulloch County Tax Assessment, 1882 – 1888.
  • “Daniel Riggs (Colored).” Milledgeville Federal Union, Milledgeville, GA, June 1, 1869.
  • Brooks, F. Erik. Defining Their Destiny: The Story of the Willow Hill School. Savannah: The Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center Publishing Group, 2011.
  • Hall, Rita Turner (illustrations). Lest It All Gets Away From Us. Bulloch County Historical Society Publications.
  • “Negroes Shot Flogged In Georgia Statesboroughs Double Lynching.” The New York Times, New York, NY, 1904.
  • “School Teacher Whipped in Bullock County.” Colored Tribune, Savannah, GA, June 3, 1876.
  • “US Census, Bulloch County, GA. 1840, 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890, 1900, 1910.”
  • “US Census, Delaware County, PA. 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940.”
  • Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center, Statesboro, Georgia.