“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 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
- Ancestry.com, 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. Findagrave.com, 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.” StruggleandProgress.com, accessed May 2021.