Lisa Y. Henderson, on her blog, Fourth Generation Inclusive, posts this information about Negroe Dick found in Pasquotank County, NC in 1788.
The Petition of Negroe Dick at present confined in the Common Gaol of the County: — by the next friend John Smith.
Most Humbly Sheweth That your Petr. has been taken up by Sundrey Persons supposing him to have been a Slave the property of John Smith one of the people called Quakers and illegally liberated by him.
That your Petr. Is at present confined in Gaol under the acts of Assembly 1777 and 1779.
Sheweth that your Petr. Grandmother, Betty was an Indian, a free woman by the Laws of Nature.
What can we tell from this information?
First, I wanted to see if I could find any hint of Negroe Dick in the 1790 census. I browsed the entire Perquimans County 1790 census, and there are only five free families of color, four by the surname Overton and one by the surname Ashburn, and none of them having a first name of Dick or Richard.
There are several families that are white that include some free people of color. Of course, there is no way to know who those people are. Many of these families also include slaves, so they could be “free” wives or husbands.
An interesting aspect of this record is John Smith, the “next friend” of Negroe Dick. John Smith is further identified as being a Quaker. The Quakers were known to oppose slavery. They often purchased slaves. They freed them until that became illegal, and after that, the Quakers still “owned” their slaves, but treated them as free. That indeed maybe what was going on with Negroe Dick and why he was “taken up” and presumed to be a runaway. He was simply acting “too free.” John Smith in Pasquotank County does in fact own slaves, but a John Smith, Jr. does not.
The Quakers first arrived in Perquimans County in 1672. Of course, we don’t know if John Smith was a Quaker before arriving n Perquimans, became a Quaker after the Meeting House was established there, or if John brought Negroe Dick with him from elsewhere, probably Virginia where most of the people who settled in this part of North Carolina were from. Research on the family of John Smith might reveal more. Some of the Quaker families from Perquimans County moved from Nansemond and Isle of Wight Counties in Virginia.
What else can we tell about Negroe Dick? We know that his grandmother was an Indian, and a free woman. We also know that this had to be his grandmother on his mother’s side, because that was how legal status, that of free or slave, was determined. The children’s status followed that of the mother, so if Negroe Dick has the right to be free, it was because his mother did as well and someone in his maternal line had to have been free.
We don’t know how old Negroe Dick was in 1788, but let’s say he was age 30, so born about 1758. If his mother was age 25 when she had him, and his grandmother the same age when she had his mother, his Indian grandmother would have been born about 1708. Of course, there is a lot of room for error here.
In Perquimans County, the Yeopim Indians were the original Native tribe. In 1661, the Indian Chief, Kilcocanen, who took the English name George Durant after his white “brother” George Durant, sold “Durant’s Neck” to European settlers. The Yeopim didn’t just leave, they lived in Indian town and then they assimilated. Indian Town was still mentioned and on maps as late as 1778 and 1784 and still on a map in 1808.
It’s also obvious that something inappropriate happened to the children of either Negroe Dick’s grandmother Betty, a free Indian woman, or Dick’s mother. If Betty was free, then Dick’s mother should have been free, and Dick should have been as well. Someplace, something went wrong. It was very common during that time, especially if Betty or Dick’s mother had children by a black man, for those children to be either stolen and enslaved or simply enslaved, without anyone asking any questions. The only recourse was in court of course. This was legally available to slaves, but not necessarily practically available. One can only imagine the bravery it would have taken for a slave to file a suit against their master and the repercussions that might well follow. This did happen, although rarely, and we know from depositions that often slave owners would then move, or move the slave in question, to a distant location so the slave could not pursue the suit. Sometimes you were better simply to suffer through.
We also know that Negroe Dick either knew or knew of his grandmother, so he was not entirely disconnected from his family. This means likely that Dick’s grandmother was a ‘local Indian” and he was not the product of an Indian slave captured and sold. Of course, the question is, “where was local?”
But sadly, that is all we know about Negroe Dick and his Indian grandmother, Betty.
I wonder if Betty has any descendants today that descend from her through all females. If so, I wonder if they were from enslaved people, so today, would likely be found among the African American population. Sometimes people test their DNA and find a surprise, like a Native American haplogroup. In this case, DNA testing might be the only way that Betty’s descendants might ever know they had a Native American ancestor. Of course, they would never know her name was Betty, nor her history. But finding her DNA would afford them a little glimpse into the past, allowing them to connect with an unknown heritage, and making Betty just a little more real, resurrecting the only memory they can ever have of her.