Was a Slave-Owning Politician My Ancestor?

Tracing Your Roots: Conflicting information in historical records shouldn’t derail your search for the truth.

A portrait of Stephen Cabarrus in the old Cabarrus County Courthouse in North Carolina
A portrait of Stephen Cabarrus in the old Cabarrus County Courthouse in North Carolina Public Domain

Dear Professor Gates:

I wonder if I am related to a slave-owning politician in North Carolina, Stephen Cabarrus. One of my maternal great-grandfathers was named Lawrence Cobbaris (also spelled Cabarrus or Cabarras). He was born in or about 1832, enslaved in North Carolina. He purchased land in Emantha, Fla., in 1892, according to a homestead certificate I am sending to you. His death certificate doesn’t list his mother or father’s name. However, I found several people with the surnames Cobbaris or Cobbarrus in Eaton, N.C., which led me to the politician Stephen Cabarrus. At one point, he owned 77 slaves. I also know that many of the slaves took his last name, but we’re not related to the ones I have identified.

I cannot find any records of Lawrence Cobbaris prior to 1892 or a connection to Stephen Cabarrus in North Carolina, but I believe there is a connection. I hope to confirm it for the benefit of my mother, Elma Cobbaris-Hart, who will be turning 90 years in May. —Betty Hart Johnson

You can approach the problem of determining whether or not your ancestors have any connection to Stephen Cabarrus of North Carolina in three concurrent ways:

First, you can research the estate of Stephen Cabarrus and find out what happened to the slaves after his death and see whether he lists any of them by name in his will.

Second, you can continue to search for records of your ancestor to piece together the details of his life to see whether he ever lived near Stephen Cabarrus’ planation or is of any relation to slaves known to have been held by the Cabarrus family.

Third, you can track down descendants of Stephen Cabarrus, ask them to have their DNA tested, and then compare the results to those of descendants of Lawrence Cobarris.

Researching the Records of Stephen Cabarrus

Stephen Cabarrus was born in France in 1754 and immigrated to America during the Revolutionary War. He settled in Chowan County, North Carolina, and served two terms as the Speaker of the House of Commons in North Carolina. His first term was from 1789 to 1793 and the second term was from 1800 to 1805. In 1792, the newly formed Cabarrus County was named after him, as he cast the deciding vote to establish the county. He spent most of his life in Edenton, Chowan County, North Carolina where he owned land and held many slaves. He died in 1808 at the age of 54.

What Happened to People Enslaved by the Cabarrus Family?