My research question in this case was “Who was the correct Betty and which one could have been the mother of Henry and Allen Ferguson?” Was she the 47-year-old woman who registered on August 23, 1814, who was born around 1767 and freed by Nathaniel Mabry? Or was she the other Betty, the 60-year-old woman who registered on December 29, 1820 and was born around 1860? There is only a seven year difference between their ages, so how could I identify the correct mother? Betty #1 would have been around ages 30 and 31 and Betty #2 ages 37 and 38 when Henry and Allen Ferguson were born in 1797 and 1798.
Understand Laws of the Time
In order to understand how to possibly solve this type of genealogical mystery; a researcher must first understand the laws* of the time affecting Free Negroes in Virginia.
Beginning in 1793, the Virginia General Assembly mandated that Free Negroes or Persons of Color be required to register with the court every three years. The surviving register of Greensville County, VA was kept from 1806 to 1832.
Since there were no photograph identifications at this time, a physical description was written about each free person. This register entries indicated skin color (black, yellow), age, and any distinguishing marks or characteristics of each person. Free Negroes were required to carry a paper with them at all times documenting their freedom. Freedom was obtained from slavery by following three methods:
1. Birth (if their mother was free). Status of father did not matter.
2. Purchasing their freedom
3. By Will or Deed from slave master
The registration for Betty #1 indicates that she was freed in a will, however the registration of Betty #2 does not name the document that gave her freedom. Further research revealed that Betty #2 was freed by a deed from Dr. Jessee A. Bonner in 1820.
Establishing a Timeline
Creating a timeline is always helpful in genealogy research because it helps to see a clearer picture of a sequence of events. Documents used to generate a timeline for this case were:
- Free Negro Register entries for the two Bettys and Henry and Allen Ferguson
- Will of slave owner Nathaniel Mabry
- Deed of slave owner Dr. Jessee A. Bonner
- Virginia laws for Free Negroes
- Abt. 1760: Betty #2 is born
- Abt. 1767: Betty #1 is born
- 1793: Virginia Assembly establishes a law requiring Free Negroes to register with court.*
February 1795: Will of Nathaniel Mabry is proved in court of Greensville County, VA which included his wish for freeing his slaves including one named Betty. (Greensville County, VA Will Book 1, pages 277-282.)
- Abt. 1797: Henry Ferguson, son of Betty, is born
- Abt. 1798: Allen Ferguson, son of Betty, is born
- 1806: Beginning of Greensville County, VA Free Negro Register
- August 23, 1814: Betty #1 registers in Greensville County, VA court
- December 27, 1820: Dr. Jessee A. Bonner frees his slave Betty and her husband Sambo in a deed (Greensville County, VA Deed Book 5, page 368)
- December 29, 1820: Betty #2 registers in Greensville County, VA court
Based on the documents and information used to create this timeline, I conclude that Betty #1, the former slave of Nathaniel Mabry who was freed around 1795 was the mother of Henry and Allen. Given that Henry and Allen were born free about 1797 and 1798, Betty #2 could not have been their mother because she did not gain her freedom until 1820 and the law in Virginia dictated that the mother had to be free in order for her children to be born free.
As a result of this conclusion, I asked the question, “What was the age of Betty #1 when the will of Nathaniel Mabry was proved in 1795?” Using the Family Tree Maker 2009 Date Calculator, I typed in her estimated birth year of 1767 and the date of the known event as 1795. Before I typed in these variables, I clicked on “Age.” at the top of the dialog box in Item to calculate. The answer to this question is that she was about age 28 at the time of her slave owner’s will. Numerous other slaves were named in Nathaniel Mabry’s will and these individuals and families will be discussed in later postings.
*Note: Black Laws of Virginia : A Summary of the Legislative Acts of Virginia Concerning Negroes from Earliest Times to the Present (Paperback), Heritage Books (1936), ISBN-10: 1888265191 or ISBN-13: 978-1888265194