John Chavis (1763-1838) is often credited as being the first black man to become an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church and credited for being the first black man to attend a university or college in the United States. After completing his missionary work among enslaved people, John Chavis opened a school in antebellum Raleigh, North Carolina where he taught both white and free black pupils. These are just some of the fascinating details about the life of John Chavis, a man whose name and legacy continues to inspire people today.
The purpose of this blog post is not to retell the biography of John Chavis, but rather is about correctly locating John Chavis in the historical archives. Having a name like “John Chavis” in antebellum Virginia and North Carolina is akin to having a name like “John Smith”. That is, there were many John Chavises who were contemporary to John Chavis (1763-1838). As a result, the records for these other men who happened to share the same name, have been confused and incorrectly attributed to John Chavis (1763-1838). In 2001, scholar Dr. Helen Chavis Othow published a biography titled: “John Chavis: African American Patriot, Preacher, Teacher, and Mentor.” In her book, Dr. Othow wonderfully recounts the life of John Chavis, however some key biographical details are not correct. Dr. Othow wrote her book before Paul Heinegg published his seminal genealogical research: “Free African-Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, and Delaware”. In his book (which he continues to update and correct online with the new research), Heinegg has an entire section dedicated to the Chavis family, including John Chavis (1763-1838). (John Chavis 1763-1838, is number 39 in the Chavis family sketch that can be accessed here). Heinegg does correct most of the outdated information in Dr. Othow’s book, but there are still some minor inaccuracies in Heinegg’s summary of John Chavis (1763-1838). This is why as more records and research becomes widely available, it is crucial to revisit and update older work.
John Chavis (1763-1838) Timeline
In this section, I will present a timeline of John Chavis’ (1763-1838) life from the primary source records found in the historical archives. Creating timelines is something I emphatically encourage researchers to do because it helps to avoid common genealogical mistakes such as conflating the identities and records of people who share the same name.
For example if John Smith (1750-1804) is documented with a wife named Betsy and residing in Warren County, NC through land deeds and census records, then he cannot be the same man also named John Smith (1760-1797) who is documented with a wife name Rebecca and residing in Cumberland County, NC where his will and estate records are located.
So even if John Chavis (1763-1838) is not relevant to your research interests, I still encourage you to read this blog post so you can see the benefit of creating timelines.
1763 – Lunenburg Co, VA (now Mecklenburg Co, VA): John Chavis was born to “free colored” parents Jacob Chavis (1736-1808) and Elizabeth Evans (1745-1818). His birth year is an approximation based upon his age reported in later documents, so it is possible he may have been a year before or after 1763. His father Jacob Chavis is documented through land deeds and court cases in Lunenburg (now Mecklenburg) during these years, so this is undoubtedly where John Chavis was born.
20 Dec 1778 – Mecklenburg Co, VA: John Chavis swore an oath of allegiance to enlist in the Revolutionary War. This information comes from an article in the Raleigh Register on 27 Oct 1835 in which John Chavis showed his oath of allegiance to prove that he was a Revolutionary War veteran.
1786 – Mecklenburg Co, VA: John Chavis is taxable on one tithe (himself) and one horse.
1787 – Mecklenburg Co, VA: John Chavis is taxable on one tithe (himself) and one horse
22 May 1787 – Mecklenburg Co, VA: John Chavis is named in the will of his maternal grandfather Thomas Evans (1723-1788).
1788 – Mecklenburg Co, VA: John Chavis is taxable on one tithe (himself) and one horse.
1789 – Mecklenburg Co, VA: John Chavis is taxable on one tithe (himself) and one horse.
1789 – Mecklenburg Co, VA: John Chavis was employed to tutor the Greenwood orphans of the late Robert Greenwood according to this source. This is a key detail because it shows that John Chavis was not only literate but educated enough to be entrusted to teach white children. It may have been this experience and others like it that propelled him to become a minister and teacher.
1790s – I have not located John Chavis in any records in the 1790’s until 1799 (see next entry). He is not listed as a tithable in the Mecklenburg Co tax lists as he had been in the 1780’s, which means that he moved outside of the county. One possible explanation is that he was a student at Princeton during these years. There are reports that he took private classes at Princeton University under Dr. John Whitherspoon and there is a 1792 board of trustees report that the university accept a a free black man named John Chavis of Virginia. John Chavis is not listed as an official alum of Princeton. Perhaps because of his race, John Chavis was an “unofficial” student at Princeton.
1799 – Lexington, VA: The first time John Chavis appears in the records of the Presbytery of Lexington when he attends their meetings.
1800 – Lexington, VA: The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church grants John Chavis a license to be a missionary.
1801 to 1807 – Lexington, VA: John Chavis begins his missionary work among enslaved people of Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina.
6 April 1802 – Rockbridge County (Lexington is the capital), VA: John Chavis’ free papers are recorded which refer to him as a former student of Presbyterian Washington Academy (now Washington and Lee University) and that he completed the regular course of studies.
8 November 1802 – Rockbridge County (Lexington is the capital), VA: John Chavis’ free papers refer to him as a free black man of 40 years of age.
August 1805 – Chatham County, NC: While doing missionary work in North Carolina, his conversation with an educated black woman was reported in the August 1805 issue of the The Association Missionary Magazine of Evangelical Intelligence.
15 May 1806 – Wake County, NC: John Chavis purchased 233 acres adjoining Mine Creek and Haw Branch in Wake County for $700 from Joshua Eastland of Chatham County. This is the first record that show John Chavis as a resident of North Carolina.
11 July 1806 – Mecklenburg Co, VA: John Chavis’ father Jacob Chavis gives him power of attorney to recover a debt from William Stewart (born circa 1715) of Wake Co, NC. William Stewart formerly lived in Mecklenburg Co, VA and owed money to Jacob Chavis from when Jacob Chavis successfully sued his own father-in-law Thomas Evans. William Stewart had agreed to pay Thomas Evans’ court costs but left the state for Wake Co. Because John Chavis had just relocated to Wake Co, it would make sense that his father Jacob Chavis would ask him to recover this debt.
26 August 1808 – Wake County, NC: In an article in the Raleigh Register, John Chavis provides details about classes in a school he recently opened.
1809 – Wake/Orange/Granville County, NC: John Chavis joined the Orange Presbytery while residing in Raleigh (capital of Wake Co), which serviced Wake, Orange, and Granville counties.
28 June 1815 – Wake County, NC: John Chavis purchased 111 acres on the south side of the Neuse River on Laurel Creek.
3 December 1827 – Wake County, NC: John Chavis wrote to his friend Senator Willie P. Mangum about a deed of trust for land adjoining Tignal Jones and Job Rogers in Wake County which was given to him and his wife Frances during their lifetimes. This record confirms that John Chavis was the same John Chavis who owned land in Wake County and establishes that John Chavis’ wife was named Frances. I have found no record of their marriage nor records that help to identify her maiden name or birth year.
18 December 1827 – Wake County, NC: John Chavis wrote again to his friend Senator Willie P. Mangum inviting him to attend the next examination at his school in Wake County at Revises Crossroads.
22 April 1830 – Wake County, NC: It is reported in the Raleigh Register that Joseph Gales (editor of the paper), had recently attended an examination “of the free children of color” at the school and “seldom received more gratification from any exhibition of a similar character”.
8 July 1831 – Granville County, NC: John Chavis made a quit claim deed relinquishing any right to the estate of his brother Isaac Chavis (1766-1831). Isaac Chavis had moved from Mecklenburg Co, VA to Granville Co, NC in the early 1790s and is well documented in the Granville census records and tax lists until his death. He had no living children which meant that his estate would be divided among his siblings.
1831 – Wake County, NC: The Orange Presbytery assigned Samuel Smith Downey and William McPheeters of Raleigh to take care of John Chavis and his wife Frances.
27 October 1835 – Wake County, NC: In 1835, North Carolina passed a new state constitution which stripped away the voting rights of free people of color, including John Chavis. During a debate at the state convention it was argued that no free men of color took the Oath of Allegiance. In an article from the Raleigh Register that was republished in the Fayetteville Observer on 27 Oct 1835, it was noted that an “old colored man” named John Chavis a resident of Wake County who was a licensed Presbyterian Preacher, showed the crowd his Oath of Allegiance from 20 Dec 1777 signed by James Anderson of Mecklenburg Co, VA.
15 June 1838 – Wake, Orange or Granville County, NC: John Chavis’ died on this date according to an obituary published in the Watchman of the South, Obituary Notice by Virginia Genealogical Society Quarterly. There is conflicting information on the location of his death. John Chavis was documented as a resident and land owner in Wake County up through 1835, so it would stand to reason that he died at his residence. However a Richmond Presbyterian paper reported that his death was in Orange County. A 28 Sep 1880 (over forty years after his death) article in the Oxford Torchlight, reports that John Chavis died at his residence somewhere between Oxford and Williamsboro (Oxford is in Granville and Williamsboro was in a part of Granville that became Vance County in 1881). It is believed that John Chavis is buried on the plantation of his friend and former student, Senator Willie P Mangum in Rougemont in Durham County, NC.
Discussion On John Chavis’ Timeline
By sequencing John Chavis’ life events in a timeline, we can begin to draw out a broader narrative of his life. John Chavis was born and raised in Mecklenburg County, VA and lived there until he went away to study to become a minister in the 1790’s. His formal education took place in Lexington, VA at the Presbyterian Washington Academy and probably in New Jersey at Princeton University. By 1800, he was a practicing Presbyterian preacher and traveled throughout the region doing missionary work.
John Chavis then settled in Wake County, NC by 1806 where he was licensed to preach by the Orange Presbytery and also opened a school where he taught both free black and white students. He was not only well known in Wake County but also known in neighboring counties such as Granville and Orange. Land deeds show that he owned property in Wake County yet I have found no records of him selling his land. It’s possible he lost the land due to taxes and other debts. In 1831, North Carolina forbid men of color from practicing ministry and in 1835, North Carolina disenfranchised all free people of color. As a result, this may have put John Chavis in a bad financial situation. This is evident when the Orange Presbytery assigned caretakers for John Chavis and his wife Frances. I have yet to find estate records for John Chavis, therefore I have no records of surviving children or heirs. John Chavis’ widow was apparently receiving financial assistance from the Orange Presbytery until April 1842 when it was reported she went to live with friends. I cannot confirm her in any later census records and I have not found a record of her death. It’s quite possible the couple had no surviving children given that widow Frances went to stay with friends and not with any of her children (if she had any).
Records and Family Relationships That Are Not Attributed to John Chavis (1763-1838)
In this last section, I will discuss the many records and family relationships that have been incorrectly attributed to John Chavis (1763-1838). Frequently on Ancestry and other on genealogy websites, I have noticed researchers attaching just about any “John Chavis” record to John Chavis (1763-1838) which has added to the confusion about his identity. So all of the records discussed in this section are NOT for John Chavis (1763-1838) and instead I explain who these records should be attributed to.
On 27 July 1801 in Mecklenburg Co, VA, John Chavis married Sally Blair with Thomas Cypress as security. This marriage record is for John Chavis (born 1780) who was the son of a Revolutionary War soldier also named John Chavis (1755-1787). As we can see in the timeline established above, John Chavis (1763-1838) did not reside in Mecklenburg Co, VA in 1801. Instead he was living in Lexington, VA where he had recently completed his studies and received his license from the Lexington Presbytery to preach.
On 8 June 1815 in Granville Co, VA, John Chavis married Sarah Anderson with Abraham Anderson as the bondsman. This marriage record is for John Chavis (1790-before 1840) who was the son of Jesse Chavis (1766-1840) of Granville County. Sarah Anderson (1798-1820) was the daughter of Lewis Anderson Jr and Winnie Bass of Granville County. Bondsman Abraham Anderson was a brother of Sarah Anderson. John Chavis and Sarah Anderson had two children together: Anderson Chavis (born 1816) and Joyce Chavis (born 1816) who were named legatees in the 1844 will of their aunt Patience (Reeves) Anderson (1776-1844). Patience was the widow of Augustine Anderson (1776-1827) who was a brother of Sarah Anderson and died with no living heirs. As a result, Augustine Anderson and wife Patience, left their estate to their orphaned nephew and niece Anderson Chavis and Joyce Chavis. Sarah Anderson was deceased by 1820, when her husband John Chavis remarried a woman named Nancy Harding on 19 July 1820 in Granville County. John Chavis was deceased sometime between 1830 ad 1840. I believe the reason why Patience (Reeves) Anderson left her estate to her nephew and niece was because they were orphaned and she wanted to ensure that they were financially taken care of. We know that the John Chavis mentioned in these records are not John Chavis (1763-1838) because his wife’s name was Frances and she lived to at least the year 1842.
As stated in the timeline, there are no estate records for John Chavis (1763-1838) or his wife Frances, which makes identifying any possible surviving children extremely difficult.
Charlotte “Lottie” Chavis (born 1803) was the wife of Littleton Taborn of Granville County. Paul Heinegg incorrectly guesses that Lottie Chavis was a daughter of John Chavis (1763-1838). This comes from the fact that her marriage record to Littleton Taborn on 14 April 1818 in Granville County, shows the bondsman as a John Chavis. However this bondsman was John Chavis (1790-before 1840) who was discussed above. Moreover, there is an apprenticeship record for Lottie Chavis which identifies her as a daughter of Mary Chavis. On 8 November 1815 in Granville County, Charlotte Chavis, aged thirteen, was called the daughter of Mary Chavis when she was apprenticed out to Richard Lemay. John Chavis (1763-1838) was alive and well in 1815, married to Frances and living in Wake County where he ran a school, so there is nothing that connects him as the father of Lottie Chavis.
Revolutionary War Records
John Chavis (1763-1838) was not the only John Chavis from Mecklenburg County, VA to enlist in the Revolutionary War. We know that John Chavis (1763-1838) enlisted on 20 December 1778 with James Anderson signing his Oath of Allegiance. This is the certificate that John Chavis presented to the North Carolina state convention in 1835 when they voted to disenfranchise all free people of color. Another John Chavis (1755-1787) who lived in Mecklenburg County is also a documented Revolutionary War soldier.
In March 1783, Captain Mayo Carrington certified that John Chavis (1755-1787) had “faithfully fulfilled [his duties] and is thereby entitled to all immunities granted to three year soldiers”. This is consistent with a July 1778 payroll which shows a John Chavis in Captain Mayo Carrington’s Company. We know that these records are for John Chavis (1755-1787) because his heirs on 20 April 1818 filed suit to be compensated for their late father’s war service. According to a letter from William O. Goode on 12 January 1836, John Chavis (1755-1787) and his brother Anthony Chavis (1757-1831) were both wagoners in the Revolutionary War. His letter further states that John Chavis (1755-1787) was issued a certificate for public debt for 89 pounds signed by Captain Mayo Carrington. So this confirms that the John Chavis who enlisted in Captain Mayo Carrington’s Company was not John Chavis (1763-1838) but rather John Chavis (1755-1787).
Chatham County Land Deeds and Census Records
The following records from Chatham County have been attributed to John Chavis (1763-1838) by Paul Heinegg. However, the timeline shows that there is ample evidence that John Chavis’ place of residence during this time period and his school were in the city of Raleigh located in Wake County. I think the reason why Heinegg attributed the Chatham County, NC records to John Chavis (1763-1838) was from when a conversation between John Chavis and an educated black woman was reported in 1805. However John Chavis did missionary work in Chatham County which is probably why he was recorded there. These records of a John Chavis residing in Chatham County are actually for John Chavis (born 1775) who was the son of the above mentioned Anthony Chavis (1757-1831) and his first wife Betsey Evans.
9 November 1804 in Chatham County, John Chavis purchased 100 acres of land on Weaver’s Creek.
In the 1810 census for Chatham County, John Chavis is enumerated as the head of household of five “free people of color”. In this census he is enumerated next to his brother Peter Chavis (born 1772 – after 1850) and his uncle-in-law Charles Evans (born 1783). Peter Chavis (1772-born 1850) is a confirmed son of Anthony Chavis (1757-1831) and his first wife Betsey Evans from the Revolutionary War pension file on Peter Chavis. Charles Evans (born 1783) was the apparent brother of Richard Evans (1772-1855) who gave a deposition for Anthony Chavis’ pension application in which he stated that his wife Lucy Evans was the sister of Anthony Chavis’s first wife Betsey Evans. These families moved together from Mecklenburg Co, VA and neighboring Nutbush township (split between Granville and Warren counties, NC) to Chatham County, NC in the early 1800’s.
23 July 1811 in Chatham County, John Chavis purchased another 100 acres of land on Weaver’s Creek.
28 April 1817 in Chatham County, John Chavis sold 100 acres of his land on Weaver’ Creek for 100 pounds.
7 March 1818 in Chatham County, John Chavis sold his remaining 100 acres of land on Weaver’s Creek for $650.
In the 1820 census for Chatham County, John Chavis is enumerated as the head of household nine “free people of color” (household looks consist of husband, wife, and seven children).