Morgan’s Swamp

So, I wanted to find the answer to how many generations of my ancestors owned slaves in the 19th century and earlier. I did not know how much earlier than the American Revolution that they began the practice of enslaving other humans. Still, I had assumed that only four generations were involved in the trade and ownership of human property. Starting with my great-grandfather, James Monroe Dobbs, Sr., I knew that he was the last generation who participated in the peculiar institution. He was only a child when the Civil War ended. I figured I would go back to the generation that fought in the Revolution, to the age of my great-grandfather’s great-grandfathers, and maybe find a bill of sale of the first slave purchase made by an ancestor of mine. Yet my research took me back further than that, and I discovered that I could go back seven generations before James to the earliest ancestor I can identify as a slave owner. Her name was Jane Knea Morgan. When I found her, little did I know, but I was entering a place called Morgan’s Swamp.

Jane Knea Morgan was born in 1650 in Berkley Parish, Maryland. She and James Morgan were married by a magistrate in Maryland on 12 October 1673, and they later moved to Perquimans, Albemarle County, North Carolina. James died intestate; however, Jane did leave a will when she died in 1742.

When Jane Knea Morgan died in 1742, she left most of her property to her daughters and granddaughters. Some of the property that she bequeathed to her heirs was human property.

To her granddaughter, Mary Morgan, she bequeathed one “Negro wench called and known by the name of Pegg.” The instructions given in the will are that the woman is to be sold, and the proceeds are to be given to Jane’s son so that he might buy another slave for Jane’s granddaughter. To her other daughters and granddaughters, she gave cows, linen, and petticoats. There is no explanation for why she wanted to sell the woman and use the proceeds of the sale to purchase another slave, so it is left to our imagination to ponder this 18th-century oddity. And so, I have found the earliest reference of an ancestor of mine who owned and traded human beings as personal property, and I am left puzzled by what I found.

Some background is in order here, my great-grandfather, James Monroe Dobbs, Sr., was born on the eve of the Civil War in Marietta, Cobb County, Georgia. His grandfather David Dobbs was an early settler in the county where he owned a cotton plantation on land that he won in the 1832 Cherokee Land Lottery. James’ maternal grandfather owned a plantation in Barnwell County, South Carolina, where he also raised cotton. Both families owned slaves and had been plantation owners since before the Revolution. Their slave ownership was documented in census and probate records from the first half of the 19th century. I wanted to answer how far back my family’s involvement in that peculiar institution went. For one thing, I wasn’t quite sure what documentation was available from the colonial days.

I began by looking at the ancestors of my fourth great-grandparents, Evan “the Patriot ” Prothro (1742-1822), a veteran of the American Revolution, and Elizabeth Morgan, both of whom were born and raised in South Carolina. Her parents, William Morgan and Frances Hendricks were both born in North Carolina. And so, I followed the Morgan branch to North Carolina to see if I might find someone’s last will and testament.

The Morgans lived in the far northeastern corner of North Carolina, and their plantation was not too far from the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. In fact, I found the will of William Morgan’s brother James Morgan in which the Morgan lands were described as being in the vicinity of an area known as Morgan’s Swamp. In the will probated in Perquimans County, North Carolina, in 1741, James leaves property to both his sons and describes the land given to one as such: “I give and bequeath to my son Jacob Morgan my land lying on the south side of the great swamp known by the name of Morgan’s Swamp to him and the Heirs of his Body lawfully begotten forever.

What is also interesting about the will of James Morgan, brother of my ancestor William, is that there is no mention of slaves.

I looked for but could not find a will for William, his wife Frances, or his father, William, the son of Jane Knea Morgan. The same was true for William’s wife, Sarah Fletcher. Nevertheless, I could locate a will for Sarah’s father, Ralph Fletcher, or as he was known, Capt. Ralph Fletcher.

The last will and testament of Capt. Ralph Fletcher is dated February 1726/7. In the will, he bequeaths to his son, Ralph Fletcher, Jr., his manor house and Plantation on which he now lives, and then to his son George, he grants his “other” house and Plantation. That is pretty much it. What is missing from Capt. Fletcher’s will is any mention of slaves.

Looking a little further at Capt. Ralph Fletcher, I learned that he was called Captain because he was elected as Justice of the Peace of what was then called Albemarle County. I further discovered that Capt. Fletcher was a Quaker, and his religious affiliation might be a possible answer to why he might not have been a slave owner. That is not to say that Quakers were not slave owners. According to Wikipedia, during the 1740s and 50s, anti-slavery sentiment took a firmer hold. A new generation of Quakers, including John Woolman, Anthony Benezet, and David Cooper, protested against slavery and demanded that Quaker society cut ties with the slave trade. They were able to carry popular Quaker sentiment with them. Beginning in the 1750s, Pennsylvanian Quakers tightened their rules, by 1758 making it an act of misconduct to engage in slave trading. The London Yearly Meeting soon followed, issuing a ‘strong minute’ against slave trading in 1761. On paper, at least, global politics would intervene. The American Revolution would divide Quakers across the Atlantic.

Quakers, a nearly puritanical sect, were in the Albemarle Sound region of North Carolina as early as the 1670s. When George Fox, a leader in the Quaker movement, traveled to America in 1672. He visited the only known Quaker settlers at that time in the Albemarle region. As early as 1680, monthly meetings were established around the Albemarle Sound. The establishment of a yearly meeting in North Carolina dates from 1698. I was in search of the earliest slaveholders in my family. Instead, I found a generation that opposed slavery on moral grounds before later generations decided it was okay to own other people.

At this point, I figured that I had found what I was looking for, and I was ready to close out the case. Jane Knea Morgan would be the winner, or perhaps the loser depending on how you look at it.

2 thoughts on “Morgan’s Swamp

  1. I think it’s important to know where we come from: the good, the bad, the ugly. Our ancestors are our ancestors and we own their lessons all, the ones that elevate us and the ones that threaten to crush us under the reality of their lives.

    Liked by 1 person

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