In this blog post, I closely examine the lives of several white women who lived among, married into, and had children with Native Americans in Granville County. I find these examples quite interesting because they dispel the notion of “white” as a static racial category. Though these women were “biologically” white and born into white families, because of their close association with “free people of color”, they themselves at various times in their lives were also considered “persons of color”. These examples should help other genealogy researchers understand the social constructiveness of race.
Historical Context and Background
In an earlier blog post, I discussed the writings of local historian Oscar W. Blacknall (1858-1918) who also used the pseudonym “David Dodge”. His articles provide an interesting inside look into the identity of Granville’s Native American population because he explains that although the people were called “free colored”, they were actually Native American. For example in an article from 31 Oct 1895 in the News and Observer, Blacknall states:
“Excepting Wake county, I found them far more numerous in Granville County as well as much more characteristic of the type…I found that many of the families denied that their ancestors had ever been slaves. This denial I naturally attributed to their pride or ignorance. But it turned out they were right. An investigation as far as practicable of their genealogy SHOWED THEM TO BE LARGELY OF INDIAN BLOOD……Their prejudices against the slaves were so strong that nearly all the affinity of the free negro was with the lowest class of whites. As this exclusiveness still prevails, many known as free negroes probably have not one drop of negro blood.”
So according to Blacknall, members of Granville’s Native American community mostly socialized among themselves and viewed themselves as distinct and separate from the white and black populations. But in the above example, you see that he admits that the community did have some relationships with the “lowest class of whites”.
In another article, Blacknall explains that it was mostly “low white women” who had lived among and had relationships with members of the Native American community. For example in his article “The Free Negroes of North Carolina” published in January 1886, Blacknall says:
After their own immediate class, they associate almost wholly with the poorest whites, though not quite as equals.
And in the same article, Blacknall explains some more:
Hardly a neighborhood was free from low white women who married or cohabited with free negroes. Well can I recollect the many times when, with the inconsiderate curiosity of a child, I hurriedly climbed the front gate-post to get a good look at a shriveled old white woman trudging down the lane, who, when young, I was told, had had her free-negro lover bled, and drank some of his blood, so that she might swear she had negro blood in her, and thus marry him without penalty.
You are probably aware that marriages between whites and “free colored” people including Native Americans were legally forbidden in the South during this time period. However according to Blacknall, this did not stop lower class white women from intermarrying with the community. And some would even try to pass as “colored”.
What is also important to notice in Blacknall’s writing on this topic, is his tone. These interracial unions were not socially acceptable which is why horrifying rumors such as a white woman literally drinking the blood of her “colored” lover so that she herself could be considered “colored”, were passed down over time.
Blacknall’s articles provide us with an important understanding of the social status and hierarchy of Granville Co. At the top were wealthy whites, next came poor whites, next came the “free colored” Native American population, and next came enslaved (and later freedmen) peoples. The distance in social status between the poor whites and the “free colored” Native American population was not so distant which allowed for some socialization between the two.
In my own in depth genealogical research into the Native American population of Granville County I have observed much of what Blacknall wrote about. And in the following sections, I will chronicle the lives of several lower class white women who lived among and had children with members of the Native American community. Milly Wilkerson, Virginia Jackson and Rovella Tanner are just three examples of many women that I know about.
Milly Wilkerson (1810-1879)
Milly was from the large Wilkerson family of Granville County. I don’t know much about her early life or who her parents may have been. The first record for Milly Wilkerson is in May 1835 when she filed a “bastard bond” in Granville County. Burton Cousins from the large “free colored”/Native American Cousins family was the father of her child. Allen Cousins (apparent brother of Burton Cousins) and Collins Pettiford (from the “free colored”/Native American Pettiford family) paid the bond.
Though the child is not named in the “bastard bond”, we know the child was born on or before May 1835. Burton Cousins went on to marry Elizabeth Mayo in 21 March 1835 and moved out to Forsyth Co, NC.
The first time we find Milly Wilkerson listed in the census is in 1850, when she resided in the household of my 3rd great-grandfather Freeman Howell (1777-1870). They lived in the Abrams Plains District of Granville County, and Milly Wilkerson is listed as “white”. Also note that the child she had with Burton Cousins is not living with her which would indicate that her child was “bound out” or had reached adult age and married out.
I have not located Milly Wilkerson in the 1860 census. In 1870, she is the head of her own household in Granville Co. What is very interesting here is that Milly’s race is listed as “mulatto”. Though Milly was a white woman, the fact that she lived among the Native community and had at least one child with one of the men, seems to have made her socially accepted as “non-white”.
The last record I located for Milly Wilkerson is her death recorded in the federal census “mortality schedule”. She died in July 1879 in Granville County. In this record she’s listed as “white” again.
So what became of her child with Burton Cousins? Milly’s daughter was named Arabella/Isabella Wilkerson born about 1832. On 8 Nov 1848, Arabella Wilkerson married a “free colored” person named William Fain. Alexander Howell, son of Freeman Howell (the man who Milly resided with in 1850) was the bondsman. In the 1870 census shown earlier, Milly Wilkerson was listed as head of her own household but in the same dwelling as her daughter Arabella Wilkerson with husband William Fain and children.
Virginia Jackson (b. 1825)
Another white woman who lived in the Native community was a woman named Virginia Jackson. I don’t know who fathered her children and she appears to never have filed any “bastard bonds”. However because she lived in the community and her daughter Arimetta Jackson married within the community, I’m certain that a man from the Native community fathered Virginia’s children.
Virginia Jackson first appears in the 1850 census in the Oxford district in Granville County. She is listed as “white” and her two daughters Arimetta Jackson and Emily Jackson are both listed as “mulatto”. Virginia and her children were residing in the household of another white woman who lived in the Native community named Lucy Mangum. They are surrounded by the Native American/”free colored”Anderson, Taborn, Richardson, Day, Evans, Harris, Bass and Tyler families.
In 1860, Virginia Jackson is shown living with her daughters Arimetta and Emily again in the Oxford district of Granville County surrounded by the Anderson, Taborn, Bass, Richardson and Chavis families. Virginia is enumerated again as “white” but this time her daughters are also enumerated as “white” and not “mulatto”.
I was unable to locate Virginia or her daughters in the 1870 census. Emily Jackson I lose after the 1860 census. Arimetta Jackson on the other hand married James Anderson on 6 Sep 1864 in Granville Co.
In the 1880 census we find Virginia Jackson still living in the Oxford district in the household of her daughter Arimetta and her husband James Anderson. This time Virginia is enumerated as “mulatto”, reflecting her socially accepted inclusion within the Native community.
Arimetta Jackson divorced her first husband James Anderson and remarried Silas Harris on 2 March 1893 in Granville Co. In the 1900 census we find Virginia Jackson again in the Oxford district residing with her daughter Arimetta and her new husband Silas Harris. In this census, Virginia is enumerated as “black” (“mulatto” was not an option in the 1900 census). That is the last time Virginia appears in the census, so she likely died a short time afterwards. Though she was married twice, Arimetta Jackson did not have any children.
Rovella Tanner (1855-1915)
This brings us to our last example: Rovella Tanner. Rovella was the last “wife” of Baldy Kersey (1820-1899): one of the most infamous residents of Granville’s Native American community. In a recent conversation I had with an elder cousin named Robert Tyler, he relayed to me that the relationship between Rovella and Baldy was considered quite scandalous and he confirmed with me that Rovella was a white woman. I previously discussed Baldy Kersey in my blog post about the Kersey family and their tribal origins with the Weyanoke Indians. Baldy had a lot of run ins with the police and certainly did much to evade the law. So the fact that he had a relationship and children with a white woman, comes with little shock, because Baldy showed no restraint with the law and with what was considered socially unacceptable.
The first time we find Rovella Tanner is in the 1870 census, where she is enumerated as “mulatto” and living in Baldy Kersey’s household. Baldy’s first wife Frances Tyler had recently passed away so Baldy was newly widowed. The two “Kersey” children living with Baldy named “Hawkins” and “Manda” were actually the children of Frances Tyler’s sister Martha Tyler. Baldy and his wife Frances had adopted them. Also listed in Baldy’s household is a woman enumerated as “white” named Rovanna Russell. Because her first name is nearly identical to that of Rovella Tanner’s and from additional clues, I suspect this Rovanna Russell was of some family relation to Rovella Tanner. Rovanna Russell was consistently enumerated as “white” but never married. Yet on her death certificate, she was listed as “colored” and the informant of the death certificate was Rovella Tanner’s son Henry Lyon Kersey.
Because Rovella Tanner was white and Baldy Kersey was not, they could not legally marry so it is hard to know exactly when their relationship started. But by 1880 Baldy Kersey had remarried to a woman named Sarah (last name not known), yet he had already fathered 3 children with Rovella Tanner. In the next household from Baldy Kersey, Rovella Tanner was enumerated as “white” and with one unnamed baby. In addition, several households above Baldy Kersey, we find the previously mentioned Rovanna Russell with two children in her household: George W Tanner and Henry Tanner. These two children along with the unnamed baby with Rovella Tanner, were all children that Baldy Kersey fathered with Rovella Tanner. George and Henry Tanner’s surnames would soon after be recorded as Kersey and remained that way.
Baldy Kersey and Rovella Tanner had at least 8 children: George, Henry, Sally, Archibald/”Baldy”, John/”Buck”, Martha, Elbert, and Sam. Baldy Kersey died in 1899 and though the children he had with Rovella Tanner were legally “born out of wedlock”, he made sure they were included in his will as well as Rovella herself. Baldy even included Rovanna Russell (family relative of Rovella Tanner’s) in his will.
In the 1900 and 1910 censuses, Rovella Tanner is enumerated as “Rovella Kersey” and listed as “black” and “mulatto” respectively. Even though she never could legally marry Baldy Kersey, her children were Kerseys and that is likely why she was also listed with the Kersey surname.
Rovella Tanner died on 21 Feb 1915 in Granville County. Her name on the death certificate is listed as”Rovella Kersey” and she is listed as “black”. Rovella’s son Baldy Kersey Jr was the informant listed. Also noteworthy is that Rovella was buried at Olive Grove Baptist Church. This was a church that serviced the Native community and had mostly a “colored” congregation. Rovella’s family relative Rovanna Russell was also buried at Olive Grove which is consistent with both women being considered members of the community.
The other interesting information provided on Rovella’s death certificate is the name of her mother. No father is listed but her mother’s name is listed as “Mary Ladd”. I did find a white women in the 1850 and 1860 censuses in Granville Co with the name “Mary Ladd” (born in the 1830s) but I’m unable to verify that she is indeed Rovella’s mother.