Pioneer Life: Bass Family Migration from North Carolina to Free States

Thomas Weaver
Thomas P. Weaver (1841-1922) Click his name to read his autobiography along with this post.

Paul Heinegg’s website is frequently used as a genealogical reference but it also contains a collection of invaluable narrative history. Recently I stumbled upon the autobiography of Thomas P. Weaver, born in Guilford County, NC in 1841. The awe-inspiring account of his life as a pioneer from North Carolina to Indiana covers more than eighty years of American history. While Weaver’s experiences were unique, I was fascinated by their similarity to those of several of the Basses of Camden County, NC.

Weaver gave a human voice to many of the stories I have pieced together with simple primary sources. This post will explore the lives of two Bass sisters whose children lived pioneer lives much like Weaver’s and I will use his sentiments to reveal how they might have felt as they followed parallel paths.

Lydia & Polly Bass (b. 1797)

Lydia and Polly Bass were born in Camden County, NC in 1797. They were the daughters of William Bass and Ann (Nancy) Sammon and it is possible that they were twins as their ages were always exactly the same. They were recorded in their parents’ household through 1810 but, after the death of their father (between 1816 and 1820), they were recorded in their brother Thomas’ household (possibly the same location) in 1820.

Although Lydia and Polly lived most of their lives undocumented, later records reveal details about their youth. Some time around 1820, Lydia met Armor Leary, who was enslaved. It was illegal for free people to marry slaves but it was common for relationships to form. This left enslaved fathers as invisible influences on many families. In the early 1820s, Lydia and Armor had two daughters: Lydia (b. 1820) and Alcia (b. 1824). After their daughters, they had three sons: John (b. 1827), Willis (b. 1831), and George (b. 1840). Although there is no record of his name, Polly also appears to have had a relationship with an enslaved man. She had three sons: James (b. 1820), Thomas (b. 1823) and Louis (b. 1824).

This is an important part of the story. Lydia and Polly Bass were free women of color. In 1820, there were only 117 free people of color in Camden County, NC compared with 4,565 whites and 1,749 enslaved people (note that 54 of the 117 free people of color were under the age of 14). This meant that when Lydia and Polly were of age, their chances of pairing with an enslaved partner were significantly higher than their chances of finding an unrelated, adult, free man of color to marry.

1820 Federal Census of Camden County, NC WhiteSlaveFree Colored

This social dynamic continued and may have been part of the reason why Lydia’s daughter, Alcia, and Polly’s son, James, ended up marrying in 1841 despite being first cousins. In 1847, Lydia (still an unmarried female, referred to as a “feme sole” under the laws of coverture) purchased 100 acres of land for $400 from David Pritchard. The parcel was described as lying in the upper part of the county on the south side of Joy’s Creek bounded by the property of Fanny Edney, Lemuel Edney, Samuel Edney, and Dr. Ferebe.

David Pritchard Lydia Bass 1847 Deed.png
Lydia Bass’ Land Purchase from David Pritchard (Deed Book Y, Page 292)

It is unclear how Lydia got the money to buy this land but in the 1850 Federal Census she was the head of her household with her three sons and sister Polly living on her land. James (32) and Alcia (26) were living nearby with their children Fanny (7), Armor (5), Oliver (3), and Caleb (0). Polly’s son Thomas (27) and his wife Mariah (32) were living next to James’ family with their children Eliza (12), Levi (4), and Lydia (2). In the neighboring household, another of Polly’s sons, Louis (26), and his wife Mariah (23) were living with their children, Wilson (15), Andrew (13), Cason (11), and Nehemiah (5).

1850 Federal Census Lydia Bass
1850 Federal Census of Camden County, NC (Note: Nancy Cartwright, the white neighbor of Lydia and Polly Bass, also had children by an enslaved man. His name, Josep, was revealed when Theophilus Cartwright named his parents on a marriage certificate.)

The following year, on December 2, 1851, Lydia made a deed of gift for all of her land to her oldest son John. This was Lydia’s last transaction and it appears she passed away shortly thereafter. After receiving his mother’s land, John Bass made a number of transactions—on January 7, 1853 he sold the land his mother gave him for $550 to Elizabeth and Polly McCoy (Deed Book Z, Page 449) and on the same day he bought 27 acres for $700 from Henry Chamberlain (Deed Book Z, Page 440). Two years later, on August 13, 1855, John sold this newly acquired land to his two cousins, Thomas and Louis Bass, for $250.

Lydia Bass John Bass 1851 Deed.png
Lydia Bass’ Deed of Gift to John Bass (Deed Book Z, Page 296)

According to family accounts, life became increasingly difficult in Camden County, NC with the impending Civil War. Though Lydia and Polly were free, their close relationships with enslaved people gave their children a dual perspective—they were free but their families were not free. Some time after 1855, John Bass left South Mills in Camden County, NC for Xenia in Greene County, OH where he was recorded in the 1860 Federal Census in the household of Francis Ritter, an Austrian musician.

Floatboat on the Ohio
Travel could be extremely dangerous for people of color. Thomas P. Weaver shared this traumatic experience from his journey: “…A very serious thing happened just after we had crossed a river by ferry boat. A man was chopping wood a little ways from the ferry, and he came down to our wagon train and demanded Hardy Evans to show his free papers, to which Hardy objected, and without further words he struck Hardy on the cheek with the pole of his axe and smashed his cheek bone into his mouth and throat, a happening that caused us to have to stop there one week, and if the people had caught him that afternoon they would certainly have killed him…” (Image Artist: Alfred R. Waud)

This was the first common point of migration I noticed between the Weavers and the Basses. Wilberforce in Xenia was a community established on progressive principles. It offered better living conditions and job opportunities that attracted people of color and white abolitionists throughout the south. In 1856, Wilberforce University was founded through a conference of African American religious leaders and state government officials to support advanced education for people of color.

TPW Deliverance
Weaver’s Comments Traveling from Xenia, Ohio to Richmond, Indiana

Those Who Left & Those Who Stayed

John’s siblings, Polly, and all of her children were recorded in South Mills in the 1860 Federal Census but several soon joined John in Xenia to escape the rising social and political tension in the South. They did not want to leave, and considered returning to be with their family, but they ultimately decided that it was safer in the North. Of the original South Mills cohort, Lydia’s children, Alcia and John, relocated to Xenia while Lydia (the younger) and her two youngest children, Willis and George remained. Polly and her two oldest children, James and Thomas, also relocated while her youngest, Louis, remained.

Elizabeth Cosby & Franklin Brinson
Elizabeth Cosby (b. 1865, right) was the daughter of William Cosby (b. 1839) and Frances Bass (b. 1843). Frances (Fanny) was the daughter of James Bass (b. 1820, the son of Polly Bass) and Alcia Bass (b. 1824, the daughter of Lydia Bass). Elizabeth was part of the first generation born in Xenia, OH after leaving Camden, NC.
TPW The Rebellion
Weaver’s Comments About Joining the Military

Although Weaver was free from slavery in Ohio, his story reveals that his life was still wrought with struggle. When the Civil War began, he did not hesitate to volunteer. John Bass also joined the military in 1863 as a private in Company A of the 16th Regiment U.S. Colored Infantry. He was a single carpenter at the time and was described as 5’5″ tall with a yellow complexion, black hair and black eyes. John’s brother George, who remained in North Carolina, also enlisted. He was a private in the 36th U.S. Colored Infantry and was described as 5′, 4″ tall with a brown complexion, black hair and black eyes. There is no record of Thomas Bass having served in the military but he passed away at the age of 41 in 1864.

Civil War Draft John Bass
U.S. Civil War Draft Registration Records, 1863-1865, John Bass

By the 1870s, the Civil War was over and the Reconstruction Era was underway. Polly was a domestic servant for a white woman named Sophia Parry in Xenia. James and Alcia were living with their children nearby, as were John and his wife Eliza and Mariah, Thomas’ widow. They each owned a considerable amount of real estate at this time. In Camden County, NC, Louis remained on the Bass family land and owned $1730 in real estate as did his oldest son Wilson.

TPW The Unknown
Weaver’s Comments About Moving Without His Family

Polly appears to have died some time around 1875. While many of the Basses remained in Xenia, James and Alcia continued their pioneer journey to New Garden in Wayne, Indiana where they were recorded in the 1880 Federal Census. Weaver wrote of his migration to the same town which was home to a large group of Quakers who provided a significant amount of support to free people of color. Early Meeting records document Quakers providing food, clothing, employment assistance, and even paying the legal expenses of free people of color who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. Interestingly, when James and Alcia arrived in their new home they went from being labeled as “Mulatto” to “White.”

TPW The Quakers
Weaver’s Comments About Quaker Support of People of Color

James and Alcia, the children of Polly and Lydia Bass, ended their pioneer journey in Arlington in Van Buren, Michigan, 900 miles away from where they were born. They left a number of essential records that shed light on their journey, including the 1900 Federal Census which recorded that they were married in 1841. Their 61 year marriage and migration through four states covered several important locations and moments in American history.

James Franklin Bass 1948
1948 Obituary of James Franklin Bass, son of James and Alcia Bass

The 1948 obituary of James and Alcia’s son, James Franklin Bass, provides a testament as to why their family left Camden County, NC in the 1860s. It reads, “Bass was born in Zenia, O., the son of James and Alcia Bass. His parents, born in slavery in North Carolina, had made their escape through the underground railroad to Ohio.” Although it is historical fact that neither James nor Alcia was born into slavery, their fathers were enslaved and this statement reveals how they felt living in the South.

There is much more to discover about the lives of the pioneer Basses and their relatives who remained in South Mills through the 1900s but one thing is clear—regardless of being born free, people of color lived through grave dangers. Their freedom could have been stolen at any time and countless families moved from place to place to avoid the threat of being enslaved. These shared experience formed many communities of white abolitionists, African Americans, and people of mixed race who banded together to survive.

Thomas P. Weaver’s words about the pioneer life resonate to this day:

…may God lay out for me a more beautiful pathway than I have traveled, beaten about from post to pillar as a cast away far from home and in a strange land and with strangers, perhaps to the end of my days. After going through the dangers, trials and tribulations, I can only say, praise God that He has brought me safe thus far…

Primary Sources Supporting Lydia Bass’ Story:

  • Federal Census Records
  • 1847 & 1851 Camden County, NC Land Deeds
  • John Bass’ Military Service Records
  • Alcia Bass’ 1902 Michigan Death Certificate
  • John Bass’ (Son) 1918 Obituary

Primary Sources Supporting Polly Bass’ Story:

Additional References

The Complications of Liberty: Free People of Color in North Carolina from the Colonial Period through Reconstruction

Massies Creek and Cherry Grove Cemeteries: A Reflection of Greene County, Ohio’s African American Community and Their Contributions to the World

“A Great and Good People” Midwestern Quakers and the Struggle Against Slavery

7 Comments on “Pioneer Life: Bass Family Migration from North Carolina to Free States

  1. Hello!
    I have recently learned that I am descended from the Nansemond people, via Keziah Bass. This is a wonderful account that is helping me deduce my heritage. Thank you for sharing.
    Melanie Garvin Gregory
    Chester, SC


  2. I have just discovered that my mom, Cora Esther Bass, was descended from free people of color. What an interesting story. We’re enjoying this discovery so much. Thank you!


  3. Fascinating results of your hard work researching your family history. Thank you for sharing it.


  4. I believe I descend from this family too – amazing and interesting history- thank you!!!!


  5. Well done, Nikki. Your rendition is founded on solid documentation. I have been researching my Evans-Anderson-Bass line, inquiring into my DNA connections with living descendants from this line. This inquiry has led me from Charles City County, VA to Granville County, NC to Vigo, IN (i.e., the Lost Creek Settlement there). Concentrating on Captain John Fulcher’ s manumission of my enslaved Anderson forebears, namely Lewis Anderson, Sr. (1713-1785) and Jr.(1743-1805), I am discovering Anderson-Bass intermarriages that explain why I have African European Native American DNA relatives who carry these surnames. Indeed, I thought that you and I might also be related, but so far I have not identified our Common (Saponi?) Ancestor.


  6. Beautifully done. I am a descendant of the Bass family and Elizabeth Cosby is my 10th cousin. It hurts to the core when you don’t know who you are, only to find out, and then the Organized Tribal Organization is so busy denying melanated family members. Thanks also for the beautiful family photo.✨


  7. Hello,
    Elizabeth Cosby is my great grandmother. I would love to contact Aminal. Hopefully it will allow me to expand the number of individuals and their histories asscociated with this portion of my ancestral line. Please feel free to share my name and e-mail adress. Thanking you in advance.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: