A Case Study in Problem Solving: The Basses & The Pritchards

When I first fell in love with genealogy, I seemed to discover something new every day. My family history was full of hidden treasures and that motivated me to keep searching because rewards were so frequent. Over time, big discoveries decreased and eventually even a small discovery was a surprise. This is a discouraging yet normal part of research and I have come to learn that hidden treasures are always out there they just require increasing expertise to find.

In this post I will present a complex family mystery and my approach to solving it as a case study for others who may face similar struggles. I considered waiting to write this story until I had all of the answers but I realized that the process itself is as valuable as outcome. This post will be of specific interest to anyone researching intergenerational relationships between whites, free people of color, and slaves in the antebellum era.

Step 1: Problem Overview (What is the question?)

One of the first things I did as a new genealogist was collect oral history from living relatives. I filled journals with notes from conversations and documented every detail—regardless of how clear or confusing. Despite the challenges they presented, the most captivating stories were always those related to family secrets that our ancestors carried to their graves.

Pritchard Family Horse Farm
A foal on the Pritchard Family Horse Farm (photo by my mother from a visit in the 1980s).

One such story was related to a relationship between the Basses (a family of mixed ancestry) and the Pritchards (a family of European ancestry) who lived along Old Swamp Road together. Today, interracial families are a social norm but generations ago this was a secret that would never be shared publicly.

My great uncle Kenneth Bass (b. 1910), who remained in South Mills after many others moved away, and Linwood Pritchard (b. 1917) referred to each other as “cousins.” They were good friends and the Basses frequently spent time on the Pritchard family horse farm. According to the story, one of our Bass ancestors was able to buy land neighboring the Pritchard family because “they were related.” Given the ambiguity of such a statement, I was always curious but had low expectations of being able to find this relationship.

Step 2: Record Inventory (What records exist to justify the search?)

My first trip to the Camden County Register of Deeds unexpectedly provided evidence toward solving this mystery—an 1847 deed between Lydia Bass (b. 1797) and David Pritchard (b. 1807). In the deed, Lydia purchased 100 acres of land lying in the upper part of the county on the south side of Joys Creek for $400 from David.

David Pritchard Lydia Bass 1847 Deed
Deed Book Y, Page 292

I was overwhelmed with excitement the day I found this deed because I had a tangible piece of the story—Lydia Bass, a possible ancestor of Kenneth, was able to buy land from David Pritchard, a possible ancestor of Linwood! I could not yet confirm my relationship to Lydia or Lydia’s relationship to David BUT oral history was finally merging with recorded history which justified the search.

The excitement of this finding fueled over a year searching for connections in both directions. I wrote and re-wrote the story of Lydia’s life with all of the records I could find. I researched the Pritchards across the state of North Carolina (of which there are MANY) and I learned just about every circumstantial detail but I still did not find an answer to my question.

At the point of exhaustion, I realized that my search was far too broad and I had no focus. My research on Lydia’s life was worthwhile but my research on the Pritchards across county lines (or even cross the road for that matter) was wasted. The methodological error I made was a failure to map the relationships that were actually relevant to my search.

Step 3: Relationship Mapping (Which relationships are relevant to the search?)

Notes from the Jodie Pritchard Bible (North Carolina Bible Records, Page 179) revealed some new clues. David Lurry Pritchard (b. 13 February 1807), son of Joseph and Chloe Pritchard, married Elizabeth Lamb (b. 15 March 1818), daughter of Abner and Dinah Lamb, on 4 March 1841. This was the couple that sold the 100-acre tract of land to Lydia Bass (b. 1797) and the intersection of these three people formed the crux of my search.

I was able to use this Bible record and more recent records related to Linwood Pritchard’s family to establish lineage connecting him to David L. Pritchard (who was the brother of his great grandfather). I then made a parallel lineage from Kenneth Bass to the earliest Bass settler in Camden County—William Bass (b. 1755).Pritchard-Bass Relationship Map

Developing this relationship map revealed that the search for the connection between the Basses and the Pritchards is more than just a search for the origin of Lydia Bass’ land. This effort is fundamental to filling a missing generation in my family tree and completing my Bass lineage within Camden County. I had no sense of the importance of this search until I structured my approach.

Step 4: Search Strategy (Which scenarios are possible?)

After stating my question, doing a record inventory (with the Bass-Pritchard deed as the focus but including the full set of records related to Lydia Bass’ life), and mapping the relevant relationships, I came up with a hypothesis. To be clear—a hypothesis is “a supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation.”

In genealogy, hypotheses can be dangerous because many people get excited and accept them as facts. Fear of this behavior leads many cautious researchers not to share information until every detail has been verified. In this case, I have opted to share my hypothesis as an example and a placeholder but I am determined to update this post in the future as I gain clarity.

HYPOTHESIS:

  • Lydia Bass (b. 1797 d. 1852) was the daughter of an unmarried Bass female and a Pritchard male.

EVIDENCE:

  • Lydia Bass had 4 children by Armor Leary (a slave)—Alcia (b. 1824), John (b. 1827), Willis (b. 1831), and George (b. 1840).
  • 2 of Alcia’s children recorded her maiden name as “PRITCHARD.”
    • Joseph (b. 1862) listed his parents as “James Bass” and “Elsie Pritchard” (Michigan, Marriage Records, 1867-1952).
    • James Franklin’s (b. 1865) parents were also listed as “James Bass” and “Alcia Pritchard” (Michigan, Death Records, 1867-1950).

  • During slavery, children inherited their status (free or enslaved) from their mother. In Camden County, NC (early 1800s) Lydia and all of her children used the name Bass but once they moved (and slavery ended) the name “Pritchard” emerged in family records.
  • If Lydia Bass (mulatto) was the child of a white (free) Pritchard, she likely would have been given her mother’s surname because marriage between whites and free people of color was illegal. Likewise, if Lydia Bass was the child of a black (enslaved) Pritchard, she still would have been given her mother’s surname because marriage between free people of color and slaves was illegal.
  • In both scenarios, Lydia’s father’s surname would have been hidden—especially in Camden County, NC. Nonetheless, Joseph and James Franklin (Lydia’s grandsons) ended up all the way in Michigan and their words about the Pritchard family matched the oral history that was shared by the Basses AND Pritchards who remained in North Carolina for generations.

Clearly this mystery is far from being solved but there is a significant amount of information (crossing multiple generations and multiple states) that has now been integrated into the story that was not coherent before. In addition to the relationship leads I shared, there are numerous land leads that I have not been able to integrate yet.

Bass Pritchard Deeds
Camden County, NC Deed Books

From here, my plan is to continue to collect records related to the Old Swamp Road Basses, Lambs, and Pritchards. I am specifically searching for deeds that fill the data gaps related to the land that Lydia Bass purchased. I also hope to focus more on how Lydia Bass (b. 1797) and William Bass (b. 1812) may have been related because of their closeness and their ultimate possession of (seemingly) the same family land.

————————————————————————————————

For those hoping to progress through research questions faster, here is a summary of pointers I shared in this post:

4 Steps to More Efficient Genealogical Problem Solving

Step 1: Problem Overview (What is the question?)

This seems like an obvious first step but it is incredibly easy to go crazy collecting records without clearly stating the question. Only after I exhausted myself searching all over the place did I put serious effort into defining the scope of my search. I learned a lot doing that but it was very inefficient. If you want to save time, clearly state one important question and keep your research geographically and chronologically focused on it.

Step 2: Record Inventory (What records exist to justify the search?)

Do not spend time exploring ideas without at least one record to support them. There are cases where something is true and there are no records to support it but it is best to act as an observer and let the records lead you before acting as an analyst. AFTER you have collected multiple records you can begin to speculate.

Step 3: Relationship Mapping (Which relationships are relevant to the search?)

You can waste a lot of time chasing around every person by a surname of interest if you do not focus in on the exact people who are relevant to your question. Some surnames are rare and you can get away with this but other surnames are extremely common and you will waste a significant amount of time if you do not keep identities straight.

Step 4: Search Strategy (Which scenarios are possible?)

Establish a hypothesis using the information you have. It does not have to be right but it creates a construct for further investigation. If you prove yourself wrong, you still proved something and the time you spend developing feasible hypothetical scenarios develops your mind as a historian and genealogist.

I leave these pointers here for others but also leave them here for myself. It is easy to focus on the outcome rather than the process and good research habits—like everything else—require deliberate practice.

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I am a Washington, DC-based genealogist, tribal citizen of Nansemond Indian Nation, and published member of both the Family Research Society of Northeastern North Carolina and the North Carolina Genealogical Society. I am an advocate for the Genealogical Proof Standard and I am also interested in environmental influences on historical communities and migration. Questions, CORRECTIONS, and connections are always welcome. Thank you for reading!

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