I have often noted the importance of oral history. No matter how vague a story may be, it can be an invaluable genealogical clue. Recently, this fact was reaffirmed when I was contacted by a cousin with oral history about my third great grandparents (William and Lydia Bass) that led to an explosion of new information. So many new relationships have materialized from what was shared that I will likely have to write a number of articles to capture it all.
The first thing my cousin shared was that my third great grandmother, Lydia Bass (b. 1820), went to work on Connor Farm when she was a teenager (around 1839). Connor Farm was the subject of many family stories and I even visited the farm on my first trip to Camden County, NC so this was not too much of a surprise. I was surprised, however, to learn that while working on Connor Farm Lydia began a relationship with a man named Phineas Sanborn Conner (b. 1813) that resulted in the birth of a child—my second great grandfather, John Bass (b. 1840).
Despite my excitement over this new information, I was momentarily stunned. Was this story true? Was I not a Bass? Had I spent all of this time researching a false lineage? The following is an overview of how I processed the information that was shared which I hope will provide some insight to others who are confronted with similar surprises.
Verifying Oral History
Before I did anything else, I immediately went to my AncestryDNA account and searched for the surnames “Conner” (also spelled “Connor“) and “Sanborn.” These were names I had never seen in my lineage and, before expending effort documenting this oral history, I wanted proof that the relationship was real. “Conner” is a common family name so I had a number of DNA matches with this surname with no apparent pattern in occurrence. “Sanborn,” on the other hand, is a less common family name and I had a number of DNA matches with this surname and an immediate pattern in occurrence.
Out of 10 Sanborn descended distant cousins (all in the 5th – 8th cousin range), almost all of them traced their lineage to the Sanborn family of Rockingham County, New Hampshire. Lucky for me, there was a well referenced profile for Phineas Sanborn Conner on WikiTree revealing that his mother, Hannah Sanborn, was from exactly this area. I knew from this moment that the oral history had to be true (in part if not in whole).
Once my Sanborn/Conner lineage was supported by genetic evidence, the biggest question on my mind was, “What was Lydia’s maiden name?” According to my cousin, he believed (based on accounts from multiple relatives) that Lydia—despite being married to a Bass—was born a Bass. I had seen other cousin marriages in my research so this was not implausible but I still wanted something to support this hypothesis. Thankfully, my cousin (who is two generations closer to our shared Bass ancestor) also had AncestryDNA results that provided invaluable insight.
At the 4th – 6th cousin range (with extremely high confidence), my cousin matched a Slocum. This user did not have an accessible family tree; however, I knew from previous research that the Slocums were descendants of Chris Slocum (b. 1867) and Hannah Bass (b. 1867, daughter of James Bass and Alcia Bass). There is a remote possibility that this user could be a descendant of another Slocum family but given the close range of the relationship and my past correspondence with other descendants of this branch of the Bass family, I feel confident that the oral history suggesting that Lydia was born a Bass is also true.
Documenting Oral History
Once I established some validity to the story, I was able to move forward with collecting documentation. Details about the life of Phineas Sanborn Conner were accessible all over the Internet. He was born in Westfield, MA, the son of Dr. Gideon Conner (of Newburyport, MA) and Hannah Sanborn (of Kingston, NH). At the age of 26, Phineas married his first cousin Eliza Sanborn, who was the daughter of Dr. Phineas Sanborn (of Kingston, NH) and Keziah Pritchard (of Camden, NC), in Westchester, PA.
This map depicting locations of families is a perfect pairing to this story. “Dr. Sanburn” is Phineas Sanborn—the uncle, namesake, and father-in-law of Phineas Sanborn Conner, “Pritchards” is the homestead of Keziah Pritchard’s family—the mother-in-law of Conner, and “Basses Lake” is the homestead of Lydia Bass’ family. Phineas and Eliza bore one son, Phineas Sanborn Conner, Jr., in Westchester, PA before moving to South Mills, NC around 1839.
It was at this place and time that Phineas, a young white doctor from a well-established New England family, and Lydia, a young free woman of color from a tri-racial family, formed a relationship. It is difficult to describe their relationship without bias but oral history from both families (meaning white descendants of Conner and mixed race descendants of Bass) says that the relationship was consensual and that Lydia was known as Phineas’ mistress.
Based on the 1840 Federal Census for Camden County, NC, it appears that Lydia was already married to William Bass (who was head of a “white” household of 3 with 1 male 20-29, 1 female 20-29, and 1 female under 5). Lydia gave birth to John Bass around 1840 so his true paternity may have been hidden by the fact that she was married to William but oral history says that it was clear from his appearance that Phineas was his father.
Phineas and Eliza had one son, Charles Stevens Conner, in Camden County, NC in 1843 before moving to Hamilton County, OH where they bore their last son, John Sanborn Conner, in 1844. The Conner family was incredibly successful and both Phineas Sanborn Conner Sr. and Jr. were nationally respected medical doctors while John Sanborn Conner was a distinguished attorney and judge.
Phineas Sanborn Conner, Sr. died at an early age in 1854 and it is not currently clear if he left a will (though it appears that he did not). There was an inventory of his estate (Case # 2036, Bk Inv, Vol. 3, Page No. 131) and James M. White was granted administration of his estate after his widow, Eliza S. Conner, declined.
Despite leaving Camden County, NC for Hamilton County, OH, the family appears to have retained their property in South Mills. In the Fall of 1865, John Sanborn Conner returned to his mother’s family property to protect it during Civil War battle. Later, Eliza S. Conner made her son Charles S. Conner her power of attorney in Camden County effective 1 March 1870 (Deed Book CC, Page 468). I have not yet sorted out all of the relationships, but I strongly believe that Eliza’s family (as the daughter of Keziah Pritchard) was the same Pritchard family I have written about previously while exploring oral history leads.
According to oral history, John Bass was left a life estate for Connor Farm. If this is true, it would be a compelling piece of recorded history to corroborate his paternity and/or relationship to the Sanborns and Conners. Phineas seems to have died intestate so this gesture may have been made by one of John’s half-brothers. John continued to work on Conner Farm throughout his life and traded cotton at the Monticello Hotel in downtown Norfolk, VA. Family members said that John was able to live as a white man while some of his siblings (presumably fathered by William Bass) appeared colored and did not have as many liberties.
Effects on Genetic Research
While my autosomal DNA results still contain clues about my Bass ancestry (through Lydia Bass), my paternal haplogroup (R1b1b2a1a2f*) is not representative of a Bass male and is therefore not relevant in the Bass surname study (at least not to anyone outside of my direct lineage from John Bass). At this point, it appears this haplogroup is associated with Gideon Conner. I have not been able to locate other descendants of Gideon Conner in the Conner surname study but information about this haplogroup is consistent with what is known about the Conners (as people of Western European descent).
Despite the differences in age in their photos, the resemblance between Phineas Sanborn Conner and John Bass was immediately apparent to me. The resemblance has carried over through many generations Bass/Sanborn Conner males. My goal from this point is to collect as much documentation as I can (specifically, estate records for the Sanborn Conners) to support what has already been revealed through oral and genetic history. I have reached out to my Sanborn descended DNA matches to see if they have uploaded their results to GedMatch for further comparison and analysis. I also hope to learn more about Lydia’s life and lineage which remains a mystery (with a number of outstanding clues).
I would like to note my DNA cousin, Andre Kearns’, talk “African American History Etched in my DNA” as an inspiration for this story. In his talk, Kearns discusses how advances in DNA testing can offer African Americans the possibility of leapfrogging brick walls created by slavery by analyzing family history documented within DNA. In my case, the brick wall was created through illegitimacy rather than slavery but the same principles apply. You can hear more on this talk this Thursday, June 29th at 9:00 PM on Bernice Bennett’s Blog Talk Radio.