My Last Will and Testament, Part II

Joel Cannon, my fourth great-grandfather, was a farmer in Caswell County, North Carolina. His wife, and mother of their five children, died before he signed his last will and testament in 1829. Joel had the means to leave something for all of them. Each of his three daughters, however, received an extra gift. To his daughter Sally, he bequeathed “One Negro Boy named Patrick,” and to his daughter Dorcas he bequeathed “One Negro Boy named Wilkes.” In each of those cases, his instructions were very clear: After the death of their respective mistresses, the enslaved person was “to be sold and the profits equally divided among all the children of the said [daughter] or their legal representatives.” The rest of his estate was to be sold and equally divided among his children, “except Anne Powell, to whom property has heretofore been advanced.” Anne, the youngest of his three daughters, is my great-great-great-grandmother and had married a man named Thomas B. Powell.

Anne’s father had established for her “sole and separate use” a trust, which owned three enslaved Africans — Peggy and her two children, Milly and John. Anne was supposed to receive the proceeds from hiring them out. For the most part, that didn’t happen. So the proceeds held by the trust grew to about $1,500 by the 1850s. Additionally, after her death, these enslaved persons and any children they might have were to be divided between Anne’s children. Samuel M. Cobb, a distant cousin of mine, became the administrator of Anne’s estate after she died in 1855 without a will. He was also one of her sons-in-law and sought legal advice together with Anne’s other two sons-in-law. The opinion of the lawyer they hired was that Anne’s children were owed not only Peggy, Milly, and John but also the accrued funds in the trust.

Nevertheless, out of an abundance of caution, the lawyer thought it would be best to have Anne’s widower sign a deed to clarify this. So a legal document to that effect was taken by Samuel from the courthouse to the home of a witness about ten miles away. And there Samuel got both his father-in-law Thomas and the witness to sign the deed Old Testament-style, as if reenacting a story about the patriarchs from the pages of Genesis, because “it being night, and there being no light at hand, they were not able to read the paper, and it was never read to or by [his father-in-law] at all.” Truth be told, it didn’t really matter for Thomas. He could neither read nor write.

There would eventually be conflicting testimony in court about who said what to whom that night. In addition to summarizing for his father-in-law the legal opinion that had been given to the children, Samuel thought that, completely separate from the contents of the legal document, he probably told his father-in-law that Peggy would be able to work for him some to do housekeeping. But the witness heard Samuel say “that if he signed that paper he would sign away all of his interest in the estate finally and forever, and we have all agreed to give you the old Negro woman Peggy.” The witness went on to say that Thomas was fine with that because “he only wanted her to cook and wash for him” and that Samuel told his father-in-law that Peggy would have to come back to the children after his death. That was agreeable to Thomas, so he signed the paper, stating his belief that the lawyer would never harm him. The children would later repudiate the way Samuel obtained that signature.

Once it became evident to Thomas that Peggy would not be given to him, he sought out legal counsel, whereupon he came to believe he was entitled to the $1,500 or so which had accrued in the trust. Then, claiming that his signature on the deed had been obtained improperly and that the trustee should have paid him the money anyway, Thomas sued the trustee, his four children by his late wife, and his three sons-in-law. The case went all the way to the North Carolina Supreme Court, which invalidated the deed in 1856, awarding the money to Thomas and declaring that his children from Anne were entitled to Peggy, Milly, and John as their  property.

That was the legal side of things, which was pretty straightforward. But there was a darker side to this story beyond the unseemly fact that it was about profits earned from the labor of enslaved Africans and the movement of human beings from one household to another as property. These details are known only because the North Carolina Supreme Court made another ruling in this case, which was referenced in legal footnotes as late as 1961 in Rules of Practice in the Supreme Court of North Carolina, about the striking of “scandalous, impertinent, and irrelevant matter.”

The four children of Anne Powell believed there were other reasons why their father should not be entitled to the possession of Peggy, Milly, and John. They claimed:

. . . that he had abandoned his family and taken up with women of ill-fame; that at one time he had left his wife and children for eighteen months and gone to Louisiana, not having made any provision for them; that [he] was dissipated, careless and wasteful, and was a spendthrift; that he had beaten his wife with a horsewhip, and that a certain negro woman, named Peggy, had often protected her mistress from the brutal violence of [their father].

They also said that their father was never dissatisfied with the arrangement until:

. . . [he] had married one of his kept mistresses, when he became very anxious to get a negro to wait on his wife, and her children who had the misfortune to be born out of wedlock.

At the beginning of 1856, Thomas had married a woman named Mary Ann Combs, who was 30 years younger than his first wife. The 1860 United States Federal Census shows them living in the same household with an eight-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter. Those children were born before Anne’s death, and both of them had been given the surname of Powell. Also living with them was a 16-year-old “idiotic” boy named William Poteat. While I don’t know what happened to the eight-year-old boy, the daughter, Donna Versa Powell, was definitely alive when Thomas signed his will in April of 1862. In that will, Thomas provides for his second wife Mary to use his property for the rest of her natural life, with everything eventually going to his daughter Donna. He then states the following, as if contrasting his hopes for Donna with his disappointment in his “lawful children,” as he describes them elsewhere:

I wish my Daughter Donna Versa to be respectful, obedient & kind to her mother & that with the assistance and advice of my Brother John to give her such advantages as my circumstances will allow. Now in regard to my children from my first wife . . . I leave them and their heirs nothing more than I have left them before.

I can’t help but wonder, of course, if my great-great-great-grandmother Anne Powell was murdered as a direct result of domestic violence. And I imagine that Peggy, and perhaps her two children, also experienced brutality at the hands of a man who wasn’t really their master but merely the spouse of their mistress. In her book Our Common Affairs: Texts from Women in the Old South, historian Joan Cashin notes the bond between Anne and Peggy because of “a common enemy in the household” and that such an alliance, although created out of shared trauma, was rare for the time.

Thomas signed his will less than three weeks after enlisting to serve North Carolina as a Confederate soldier in the cavalry. Less than two and a half years later, he died in Virginia as a patient in a Confederate hospital during the Siege of Petersburg. My great-great-great-grandfather is one of about 30,000 Confederate soldiers buried in Petersburg’s Blandford Cemetery, and his grave is among the minority of those burials that are known and identified. Would that the graves of Anne, Peggy, Milly, and John were also known so that I could visit them to pay my respects, grieving their suffering in this world and praying for their consolation in the world to come.

Click here to read all of the reflections in this series.

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