A mystery illustrates how an 18th-century family became caught up in Virginia’s laws around race, sex and freedom.
Dear Professor Gates:
My book about the triracial “redbones” of the 18th century, My Bones Are Red, came out in 2005 from Mercer University Press. I’d like to pick up where I left off in my research and go beyond the identification of Esther Perkins as the mother of Joshua Perkins, my fifth great-grandfather on my maternal side.
I do not know who Esther’s consort was, but it may have been Thomas Blair, in Accomack County, Va. I have had my DNA done by the Human Genome Project, 23andMe and Ancestry.com. All reports consistently confirm that I am 3.4 percent African. (My father’s family all came from Mecklenburg, Germany.)
I am writing to you hoping that you could direct me in my journey to identify Joshua Perkins’ father and Esther’s origins. —Patricia Waak
My Bones Are Red focuses on your exploration of your “redbone” heritage (a term referring to people of mixed African, European and Native American ancestry—“triracial isolates” who tended to intermarry and live apart from other people). In the book you put forth the mystery surrounding Esther Perkins and her possible children. You have identified her as the mother of your ancestor Joshua Perkins, but her ethnicity and the father of her children are unknown.
Much of the information about Esther and her children you have gathered from Accomack County, Va., court records. The first record you have for your known ancestor, Joshua Perkins, dates to Aug. 13, 1734, when “Joshua Perkins orphan aged two years & Darky Perkins orphan aged six years be bound to James Gibson he teaching the Boy the Trade of Weaver … ” You also located a record from July 1730 in which Thomas Blair, a gentleman, paid the fine for Esther Perkins “for having a bastard child,” but the record makes no mention of Esther’s race or that of her child.
You have observed an assumption that Esther was a white servant woman who had a child with an African slave. You note that it could have been a free black man, but that Esther’s union with him would not have been recognized by Virginia law. Others examining these court records have also drawn the conclusion that Esther Perkins was the mother of Joshua and Darky (in other documents referred to as Dorcas). Paul Heinegg, in Free African Americans, suggests that Esther Perkins actually was the mother of six children in Accomack County, Va., from 1726 to 1748, inclusive of Darky/Dorcas and Joshua, and that these children were all recorded in records as being “mulatto.”
You have indicated some inconsistencies with that timeline, pointing to a court document dated Aug. 13, 1734, describing Darky/Dorcas and Joshua as “orphans.”
If they were orphans in the sense that both parents were deceased, it would mean that Esther could not have mothered three younger children that Heinegg attributes to her. However, as genealogist Robert Baird notes, the term “orphan” was mostly applied to fatherless children, regardless of whether the mother was still living. This would also be the case for children whose fathers are unknown or are not free themselves to be the guardian of their child. With this in mind, the term “orphan” used in these documents is likely not indicating that their mother is dead but, rather, that either their father is dead or he is not in a position to be their guardian and they are therefore the wards of the church.
To help address some of these questions, you’ll want to look at the people associated with the Perkins family, and also be cautious about making the assumption that all of the Perkinses in these records are connected. You will also want to be aware of the laws of Virginia at the time regarding slaves, free blacks and women—particularly white women having children out of wedlock.
As Professor Gates and NEGHS researcher Nancy Bernard noted in a previous column addressing similar laws in neighboring Maryland, during that time in American history, “the customs and laws governing free, indentured and enslaved status were shifting in order to address unions between people of mixed status—particularly those between black men and white women, and the children that resulted. At stake were the property rights—as in human property—of white men who owned slaves or held indentures.”
The original document in question, dated July 8, 1730, reads “Thomas Blair Gent. Came in to court & assumed to pay the fine of Esther Perkins for having a Bastard Child.” The entry does not state that the child was mixed-race, though the fact that she was required to pay a fine to the church wardens for having the child may suggest that Esther was white and the child was born of a black or mulatto man—a scenario the law penalized.
The laws in Virginia stated that the status of the child (whether he or she was free or enslaved) followed that of the mother, so it’s of little surprise that there were no such punishments for black women having children out of wedlock with white men. For more context, we suggest you pick up Kathleen M. Brown’s book, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia.
The laws of Virginia at the time (see pages 417-418 of “Virginia Bastardy Laws: A Burdensome Heritage” in the William and Mary Law Review, Vol. 9, Issue 2) required that if a servant woman had a child with a free man, the father had to give security to the church wardens to maintain the child. If the father was also the woman’s master, the master would have to pay for the upkeep of the child and the mother would “be sold for one year after the expiration of her indenture or by order of the court made to pay 1,000 lbs. of tobacco … to the use of the parish.” The laws were stricter for a woman, both servant and free, who had a child with a black or mulatto man, that she should pay “15 pounds current money in Virginia, or by them sold for 5 years to the use of aforesaid.” In these cases, the child was also to be punished, since the churchwardens had the power to bind out the child to be a servant until the child reached 31 years of age.
It seems probable that since Esther Perkins was required to pay a fine for her out-of-wedlock offspring, the child was mixed-race. The record four years later indicating that Joshua and Darky Perkins were bounded out to James Gibson also follows this law that the children should then be bounded out for the benefit of the church. All of this suggests that Esther Perkins was a white woman who had mixed-race children.
You’ll want to turn your attention, then, to some of the people associated with Esther and her children in these records. Who was Thomas Blair, and why did he pay Esther’s fine? Who was James Gibson, who appears to have taken in all the Perkins children? The database Early Colonial Settlers of Southern Maryland and Virginia’s Northern Neck Counties includes an entry for Thomas Blair, born before 1705 at Accomack County, who died there in 1739. With his death date, you could search for a probate record to see if it mentions Esther Perkins or her relationship to Thomas Blair. The probate records for Accomack County, Va., are available digitally through FamilySearch, though they are viewable only at a Family History Center.
Likewise, you could search for more information on James Gibson. Records in the Order Books place James Gibson in Accomack County as early as February 1728. Again, you will want to search for any land or probate records relating to James that may mention any members of the Perkins family. It may also be telling if you could locate a connection between James Gibson and Thomas Blair. Both men appear to be white, so it is unlikely that either of them was the father of Esther Perkins’ mixed-race children, though she or the father of her child may have been a servant to one of them. Your best bet for finding more information would be to search any papers related to these men for mention of the Perkins family. If you find them, note any black men described in association with the household.
We also took the time to look at Jacob Perkins, who was born about 1746 and is listed by Heinegg as a child of Esther Perkins. A June 8, 1748, record records Esther Perkins as his mother. However, a record of June 28, 1748, states that Jacob Perkins was the son of Darky/Dorcas Perkins, deceased, and that he was to be bound to James Gibson to learn the trade of shoemaking. Since both records state that Jacob was born two years prior at Christmas, it seems likely that they are for the same person and that the mother was recorded incorrectly in one of them. You’ll note here that the record latter expressly states that Darky was deceased, whereas the previous records for the Perkins children make no such claims for Esther.
You also note that the courts dropped a debt against Dorcas Perkins on Jan. 27, 1746, because she had died. This would be consistent with her having an out-of-wedlock child around Christmas, for which she would have incurred a fine. It seems reasonable that she died shortly after her son, Jacob, was born and that her son would have been bound out to James Gibson, to whom she herself was bound 12 years earlier. This seems a likely scenario, but if true, she could not then be the mother of the children Paul Heinegg attributes to her, all born on or after 1748.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.
This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, Ph.D., a senior researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 1 billion searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today about researching African-American roots.