Free black families in Colonial America: The Bugg (Doss) family

Every genealogist, regardless of experience levels, has a family line that makes him or her want to rip their hair out. Seeing as how I cropped mine, I don’t have that luxury. I have to content myself with double face palms.  The Bugg family of Halifax and Mecklenburg Counties in Virginia – as well as its descendant lines in the former Old Ninety-Six region of South Carolina (including the present day North Atlanta, Georgia), plus Warren, Northampton and Halifax Counties in North Carolina – is just that kind of family for me. ‘Difficult to research’ doesn’t even begin to describe the trials and tribulations this family has presented me with.

It all began with Rebecca Bugg, born around 1798, in Edgefield, South Carolina. Rebecca is on my mother’s side of the family tree. The earliest record I have for her is the 1850 Census when she is about 56 years of age:


Rebeca Bugg’s household in 1850.  Click for larger image.                                                                      Source: 1850 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.
Original data: Seventh Census of the United States, 1850; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M432, 1009 rolls); Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

The image above shows her as a free woman of colour…and the head of a household that was comprised of her dependent children.  Her husband, and the father of her children, was George Quarles. George was an enslaved blacksmith who lived not too far from his wife and his children. What initially interested me about Rebecca was a pretty remarkable accomplishment. She, along with the aid of her daughter Clarissa, and Edward Settles, bought George Quarles’s freedom from one Ralsa M Fuller, also of Edgefield.

george quarles

The sale that would lead to George Quarles’s freedom. Click for larger image. Source: Lucas, Gloria Ramsey. Slave Records of Edgefield County, South Carolina. Digitized book and electronic index. Edgefield, South Carolina: Edgefield County Historical Society, 2010.

No value is given against George’s name.  As a man in the most productive and able-bodied part of his life, I can only imagine that the sum of money Rebecca and Clarissa had to gather in order to purchase his freedom would have been considerable. Nevertheless, George was a free man around 1851. I have to admit that I gave Rebecca and Clarissa a “You go girls!”

The family is all together in the 1860 census:

george quarles 2

George Quarles as head of household in 1860. Click for larger image. Source: 1860 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.
Original data: 1860 U.S. census, population schedule. NARA microfilm publication M653, 1,438 rolls. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.

Rebecca had me intrigued.  Who were her people? Where were her ancestral roots?

The magical mystery tour began. It’s a tour that remains magical…and mysterious.

Research is showing that the Buggs were an old free family of colour with roots in Halifax County, Virginia. And this is where the hair pulling – or in my case, double face palms – comes into play.

For starters, I cannot find any details regarding the names of Rebecca’s parents. So…while I know that she is a descendant of the Halifax Bugg family, I have no idea which line she descends from. The names of some of her children provide tantalizing clues. However, at this stage, that’s all they are…clues.

A compiled list of Buggs in the 1850 Census for South Carolina has 3 pages of Bug(g) family members. Any one of them en born around 1778 and earlier could be her father. The 3 pages below are courtesy of Free Blacks and Mulattos in South Carolina 1850 Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2006 and Original data: Motes, Margaret Peckham. Free Blacks and Mulattos in South Carolina 1850 Census. Baltimore, MD, USA: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2002.


All of the Bug(g)s listed in the pages above are related to one another.  I’ve pieced together how roughly a third of the Bugg family groups cited in the 1850 Census are related to one another.  The other two-thirds are anybody’s guess. From there, it was a matter of tracing various lines back to the 1790 Census. 1790 seems to have been a pivotal year. It was just prior to this that a number of Buggs quit Virginia for Newberry and Edgefield in South Carolina.

The problem with earlier census records is a simple one: only the head of the household is listed by name. At this stage I can only trace male heads of households back to the 1790 Census. The names of their wives and children aren’t given. Exasperating is pretty close to what I’ve been feeling when working with these early census records. However, a handful of Wills for some of these men have provided the clues I needed regarding the identity of some of the Bugg family wives and children.  I’m hoping that other Wills still exist that cover this family in Newberry and Edgefield, South Carolina. These will be my last, best hope for compiling a more complete family tree for this family in South Carolina.

I struck a bit of gold dust while doing a general online search on this family.  I came across a Silvester Bugg, a man who will be my key to solving some of the fundamental mysteries regarding this family’s origins.

Silvester Bugg was free born in Halifax, Virginia around 1743. Born an illegitimate child, Robert Turner (the man Silvester’s free born mother was indentured to) sold him to a George Hoomes Gwinn (Gwyn). Silvester sued to extricate himself from his indenture to George Gwinn in 1769 (Virginia General Court, October 1769. He won his suit but lost when Gwinn appealed. Silvester was forced to serve 5 years of indenture before he was finally freed.

silvester bugg

Excerpt of Silvester Bugg’s first court case against George Gwinn. A full account can be read via’s%20Reports%20of%20cases%2C%2087%20(1769)&pg=PA48#v=onepage&q=bugg&f=false. Source: Google Books. Original: Virginia Reports, Jefferson–33 Grattan: 1730-1880 … Annotated Under the Supervision of Thomas Johnson Michie, Volume 1, Michie Company, 1903

I’ve read a few of the case summaries.  They provide some very interesting details: namely the name and the history of his mother, Elizabeth “Betty” Bugg (who also went by the surname Doss). They also provide a tantalizing clue about his maternal grandmother. This clue is excruciating. Betty Bugg’s mother, it transpires, was a “white Christian woman”. That’s all any of the summaries will say about his maternal grandmother. None name her. Was she a member of the Halifax, Virginia Bugg family?  Was she a Doss? I have European-descended DNA matches for bother Doss and Buggs on AncestryDNA, FamilyTree DNA and Gedmatch.

Silvester’s case was an important one. Important enough for Thomas Jefferson to write about. Silvester’s case was heard during a time when Virginia was doubling down on its slave laws, further codifying its system of chattel slavery. Nor was colonial Virginia happy about the increasing number of free people of colour within its borders. The background to all of this is too lengthy to cover here.  An excellent legal overview of this is covered in the book Reports of Cases Determined in the General Court of Virginia: From 1730, to 1740; and from 1768, to 1772, Virginia. General Court by Thomas Jefferson, published by F. Carr, and Company in 1829 (from Page 87 onwards): )

My hope of hopes is that there is some colonial record that still survives that will name my unknown ‘white Christian woman” ancestor. Her daughter Betty was born from a union with an unidentified enslaved man. I very much doubt his name will appear anywhere.  An enslaved man who was either African or of African descent, he would have been a non-entity. And yes, there is more than a little bit of cynicism in those words. A handful of my family lines that were free people of colour were the result of a white indentured woman having children with an enslaved man.  While these women have been named, and I could read about their respective fates and/or punishments, I have never – not once –seen the name of the man who was the father of their children. Apparently, these fathers were worthy of mention. Each one remains the most stubborn kind of brick wall.

Additionally, where there are court cases, there are affidavits and witness testimonies. Silvester had two court cases.  If said affidavits and witness statements still survive, it is my hope that his white grandmother is actually mentioned by name. A bonus would be confirming the name of his father.

Betty’s mother is a first for me when it comes to colonial women giving birth to mulatto children.  She remains unnamed.

I have searched for her name in all of the usual places: Church Warden Records, Bastardy Bonds, and Burgess Records from Halifax, Virginia. If it still exists, an account in one of these records should have Betty’s mother’s name. As the record below shows, Betty, a natural born child herself, was indentured to Robert Turner, presumably in Halifax County, where Silvester was born. Which begs the question, was Robert Turner the father of Silvester? Another mystery.


Excerpt taken from Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina from the Colonial Period to about 1820, Volume 1. Paul Heinegg, Genealogical Publishing Com, 2005 via

The other mystery is around the Doss-Bugg surname.  Betty used both before settling on Bugg. Why she ultimately chose Bugg remains unanswered. It was the surname her descendants would use. So how the Doss surname come into the picture? How am I related to my Doss DNA cousins? It’s mystery after mystery after mystery with this line.

I’m curious about the Bugg family for a few reasons. They were a family of landowners as well as skilled tradesmen and craftsmen. From what I have seen so far, most were literate and could write. In a time when quite a few non-elite and non-middle class colonials weren’t either of these things, well, this makes this family something special. Naturally, I’d like to learn more about them.

And, of course, this is a family that married into other branches of my mother’s and father’s families. Among others, they married into the following free families of colour who are in my family’s tree in Virginia, South Carolina and North Carolina: Chavis, Gowens/Goings/Goines, Barbour, and Drew.

This is a mystery I will continue to return to from time to time. Yes, I am that stubborn 😉

In the meantime, below is the family tree for the oldest generation I’ve been able to research thus far.  One of Betty’s children will be Rebecca’s parent:

betty bugg family tree

The known children of Betty Doss-Bugg. So far, only Samuel Bugg’s line has been traced to any great extent. The other lines remain a complete mystery. Nothing further is known of Betty’s brother, Frank Bugg.


The indenture of former slaves in the early Reconstruction Era

I have been blessed to have found a wealth of American and European family history information and documentation online. No doubt the pace in which historical archives have been digitized and made available online has been fueled by the family history and genealogy boon. There’s still a way to go in terms of information that is available. However, the breadth of volume of materials that have been digitized has led to discovery after discovery with regards to my overall family tree.

There will be a time when I have to begin making trips to the areas in the US that are associated with my parents’ ancestors to access materials that haven’t been digitized. The document below is a perfect example why. This document is valuable on a historic as well as a family history level.

The Reconstruction Era.  I know what it is, this period in the American South that followed the end of slavery after the Civil War ( I know the that the Reconstruction Act formally established it. And I know that, as a period of time, it lasted until 1877. Overall, the Reconstruction Act was envisioned to bring the southern American states to ‘normalcy’ in terms of their inclusion in the Union. It was also an Act which sought to protect the rights of newly freed African American slaves. So while I am by no means a scholar on reconstruction, I have a broad-strokes grasp of what it was about. The successes and failures of Reconstruction aren’t the focus of this post. I merely cite it as a reference point and as contextual background.

So what did I already know about Reconstruction?

I knew that freed slaves who remained in the south were to be paid for their labor (again, a point that has been debated since the end of Reconstruction). I never really thought about how that newly introduced system worked. I never thought about the intricacies or the semantics of it. I vaguely recalled the term ‘indentured’ being applied to the newly free African American workforce. While I didn’t have a romantic notion of what that meant, I thought it largely similar to the indenture of immigrant peoples arriving in the early American colonies. OK so the history classes at the high school I attended romanticized the lives of European indentured servants, those who were more than likely to go on to become America’s early pioneers. This would be territories like Kentucky, Tennessee and the Carolinas. As a more informed adult, I know the plight of European indentured servants was far from easy.  Many were forced to become pioneers due to socioeconomic and sociopolitical reasons. I guess the cold hard truth of it was deemed too difficult for teenagers to understand 😉

Be that as it may, I knew that the system of European indenture was a very formal and very legal arrangement. It was a system that was rife for abuse by indentured servants’ masters/employers. Just Google the number of lawsuits between indentured servants and their masters and you’ll soon get the gist of the common abuses perpetrated by masters – and the common complaints masters had about their indentured servants. But I digress. It was a formal system of employment. For whatever reason, I thought the system between newly freed slaves and their former slave masters was less formal. Or, indeed, an informal arrangement between former slaves and their new employers too. To be brutally honest, I just didn’t think people would go to the effort of formalizing employment matters with freed slaves. I thought it would be like any other form of manual type labor employment: there’s a job, you could do it, you were hired and then paid. In my mind, I envisioned it confirmed on a handshake.

And then I read the below (which was sent to me courtesy of Bernice, who found this in her local library in Edgefield County, South Carolina – and I’m so grateful that she did!):

Indenture of Eliza and Ellen Cramer to Simpson Matthews - Page 1

Indenture of Eliza and Ellen Cramer to Simpson Matthews – Page 1- click for larger image

Indenture of Eliza and Ellen Cramer to Simpson Matthews - Page 2

Indenture of Eliza and Ellen Cramer to Simpson Matthews – Page 2- click for larger image

Indenture of Eliza and Ellen Cramer to Simpson Matthews - Page 3

Indenture of Eliza and Ellen Cramer to Simpson Matthews – Page 3 – click for larger image

The above is a very formal agreement. Every aspect of Eliza and Ellen Cramer’s service is covered, including their general conduct. Simpson Matthews/Mathis would have been a cousin to my enslaved 3 x great grandfather, Lewis Matthews (If I’ve identified the correct white Matthews gentleman as his father. I need to see another document before I’m ready to disclose the name).

My first reaction upon reading this agreement was that the girls were so young. Eliza was nine years old and her sister Ella only seven at the time this agreement was struck. Then I remembered that it was common practice at the time for young children from poor families from any background to go to work. All around the world. What would Dickens have written about if not this very thing? 🙂

The one line that really struck me was “…Eliza and Ellen shall faithfully serve the said Simpson Mathis, keep his commands and obey in all things everywhere.” This whey would have to do until they reached the age of eighteen. They could not cause damage during the term of this indenture, nor could they waste goods or allow goods to be damaged or wasted by others. Nor could they marry without Simpson Mathis’s consent during the period of their indenture.

On his part, Simpson was bound to train the girls properly on all aspects of house work. He was also bound to teach them to read, write and, specifically, how to spell. Food, lodging and clothing were also part of the agreement.

Now I refer to the terms given above as indenture for a reason. Historically speaking, parents and/or guardians were paid a sum of money for any children or charges placed under an apprenticeship. This payment could either be aid in a lump sum or in smaller amounts annually. Remuneration isn’t mentioned in this agreement, which is a striking omission. I don’t know if the girls were paid, or if what they did receive (a basic education, a trade, clothing, etc) was in lieu of payment. Nor is there any mention of their father Watts Cramer receiving payment or any payment in kind, apart from his daughters gaining a basic education and a trade. I suppose in the larger scheme of things he would have two less children to provide for and some measure of comfort that his daughters would have the means to provide for themselves in the wider world until they married. Perhaps this doesn’t seem like much in our modern age. I have an inkling that this meant a great deal 145 years ago.

I haven’t really researched this period of American history. As a result, I don’t know if this kind of document and agreement is common or rare. Nor can I assess whether the terms and conditions outlined in it were common or rare for the time in which it was written. If it is rare, does a document like this hint at a pre Civil War relationship between Simpson Matthews, Watts Cramer and Watt’s daughters? Was he their former master? Or was Simpson making a point of doing the right thing for the times they lived in? It would be brilliant if US historians specializing in this time period could drop me a line or post a comment and let me know.

Naturally this document has me thinking about what other nuggets of gold are lurking in archives which haven’t been digitized and made available online – documents that not only give a glimpse into my family’s past but also a glimpse into America’s past. So it’s definitely prompting me to make some trips to libraries and document archives in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina to find out more about my ancestors.

For every person who finds a document like this, more light is shed on the experience of newly freed slaves during early days of the Reconstruction Era.

It reminds me of that saying that genealogy / family history is history in microcosm.

Free blacks in Virginia: A reader’s comment

I received such an excellent comment to my “Free blacks in Virginia: The Drew Family” post….that I decided to feature it as a guest post. It’s a great overview covering free blacks in Virginia. It also arrived at the perfect time. I’m currently drafting a blog post about the long-standing community of free African-American community which lived (and thrived) in Charles City County, Virginia in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Thank you Aubrey for providing such a considered comment:

from Aubrey:

As a descendant of free people of color from Virginia I decided to respond to the above post ( in an effort to share some of what I have learned. I learned that I am a descendant of one of the original Africans brought to Virginia.  Not all Africans were subjected to permanent slavery but were indentured servants,  much the same as their European counterparts. After completing their indenture, they received their “freedom dues” which generally consisted of a certain acreage of land plus tools and a years worth of food clothing and possibly seed for planting.

These formerly indentured servants frequently intermarried and formed the basis for the community of free people of color in Virginia. This population grew as a consequence of natural expansion by birth and emancipation (for various reasons including emancipation of children by their white fathers or through slave owners’ Wills). It should be pointed out that in the early period of the colony, Native American in Virginia were frequently enslaved much the same as their African counterparts.

The legal status of emancipated people in Virginia changed around the early 1800′s as a response to the revolt of Gabriel Prosser. A state constitutional convention, held a few years later, made changes to the Virginia state constitution.  These changes enabled the enactment of laws that required emancipated people to leave Virginia within a year of emancipation or suffer re-enslavement. It is likely that those that did not leave, remained because of family who were still enslaved.

Furthermore, it is also like that in some cases free born people of color retained family members who had been purchased or otherwise were legally considered slaves (such as the the children from a wife who had been purchased from enslavement.  The children of enslaved mothers were legally classified as slaves). The slave status was maintained because if they were emancipated these family members would be required to leave the state.

Frequently emancipation in such cases happen by wills or other legal mechanisms. It should be noted that in Virginia free born people of color who were descendants of those free born or emancipated prior to the change in Virginia law were not required to leave the state. Petitions to the Virginia General Assembly could result in permission to remain in the state.

Additionally, free born people could be subject to life time slavery as a consequence of convictions for certain crimes.

Genealogy Adventure additional note: Emancipated and free born blacks could also be kidnapped and sold into slavery.

The decline of historic homes: Does history have a value?

I stumbled across a Washington Post  article depicting the plight of American historic homes (Struggling to attract visitors, historic houses may face day of reckoning

Are there business models historic houses could adopt to safeguard not only their futures but the historic artifacts and information they contain.  It boils down to the question “what is the price of history?” I’ll tackle business models first.

In economies on the verge of tanking, how can historic houses – in any country – safeguard their future? If they can no longer rely on school trips, tourists or selling merchandise, what can they do?

Historical Document Databases

If a historic home contains documents, especially documents stretching back centuries, these documents can be digitised. Once digitised, they can be made available under license either as a collection or as part of an online database, for a fee, to:

  • Historians
  • Scholars
  • historical documentation databases
  • genealogists and genealogical enthusiasts
  • Genealogy websites and service such as, etc
  • Historical novelists
  • Screenwriters undertaking research for historical films, television productions, etc

On the surface, a 17th Century household budget ledger might appear meaningless, trivial or boring.  Not true. It is a snapshot in time of how daily life was lived by a certain segment of society. It has a value. There is a marketplace for it.

Plantation Houses and Agricultural Estates (Indentured Servant & African American Genealogy)

Plantation houses in the American South have the potential to hold a wealth of genealogical material, particularly for African Americans researching family histories. The 1860 Census is a difficult barrier for many African Americans tracing their family history if their ancestors included slaves. Rarely are the names of slaves included; just their gender, approximate age and whether they were black or mulatto. With some time and care, such plantation houses can be cross referenced against the 1860 Census, pre-1860 tax records and any slave documentation still in possession. Careful cross referencing can begin to reveal identities. Again, this information can be provided for a fee to cover the costs entailed in research and then transcribing this information and making it available online. Other related documents could be of interest to historians, scholars and historical databases.

America was also founded upon the labours of indentured servants; pre-Revolutionary War immigrants who were bound for a period of time to employers who paid their passage to the New World. While not as anonymous as slaves, their stories are equally difficult to trace in the official records. They remain in the background of history and, in my research, typically only come to the fore in arrest and prosecution records. Similarly to slaves, they did not tend to leave a written personal history. This makes documents containing information about indentured servants all the more important. Such pre-revolutionary war era documents could literally be the only evidence that a person who was an indentured servant ever existed.

There are a number other business models these historic homes could adopt. The two given above are the most straightforward. Success relies above the will to do the work and thinking out of the box. For every historic house that is lost we lose another glimpse into the past. We lose a historical context.

The value of history

So why is the past important? What’s its value? We didn’t arrive to this modern age in a bubble. America, for instance, did not pole vault from the War of Independence straight to the present day. We’ve been shaped by all that has gone before.  Understanding what’s gone before helps us understand how we arrived at our current destination.  And hopefully, understanding the mistakes of the past helps us avoid repeating them in the future.

I was fortunate to have attended an excellent high school. History classes, however, were never very interesting.  It wasn’t a race or ethnic thing – although minorities made up less than 1% of the town’s population. Very few of my classmates seemed inspired by or interested in history.  It was a very, very dry and dusty affair – an endless litany of dates and events.  There was little to no insight. Added to this was the fact that I was African American and, as such, apparently denied a history. It was never said outright (this was New England after all, where subtlety rules) but it was there nonetheless. The subtle message was that American blacks might have a history but that it would be impossible to trace. Nothing was included about black Americans’ achievements or contributions. This made me even less interested in American history. It wasn’t my history, it was someone else’s history. Indeed, it was only when I went to university that I realised that not all blacks had been slaves. Some had been free, and remained free, throughout the pre-Civil War era.

Younger generations – regardless of colour or ethnicity – seem even less inclined to be interested in history. How can one have a pride in one’s country without knowing its history – both the good and the bad?

Genealogy has inspired in interest in history in me. Knowing that every single family line I have traced were in American long before the Revolutionary War makes American history interesting to me. Black or white, in their own way, they shaped it – be they congressmen, renowned lawyers, lauded judges, farmers, shoe makers or slaves. I have a vested interest in the country of my birth. I have a connection to it.  Its history has a meaning for me that it never had when I was in high school studying it. Understanding this history helps me better understand the world my ancestors inhabited. This will have to suffice since it doesn’t appear that many of my ancestors left a written record of their lives and experiences. If they did, their writings have been lost to time. Understanding the times they lived in makes my ancestors more than just names, dates of birth and dates of death.

Genealogy can be a great tool to connect students in particular and people in general to history.  It lifts history from the dusty dry reams of facts and being merely a list of events to be memorised without any surrounding context. Genealogy can give history meat, bones and substance. It’s a relatively easy, and very inexpensive, activity to introduce into the classroom.

It also gives history value.