Camden County was formed from the northeastern section of Pasquotank County in 1777. The county seat was originally located at “Jonesborough” (in present day Courthouse), a waterfront settlement on the Camden side of the Pasquotank River. The name was in reference to Joseph Jones, a local statesman who was the primary advocate for the creation of Camden County. A stagecoach route from Princess Anne County, VA to Chowan County, NC changed horses at Jonesborough where there was a ferry owned by Gideon Lamb (“Lamb’s Ferry,” established in 1779 at the Narrows of the Pasquotank) to cross the river. The town also had a landing for the storage and shipment of timber from nearby swamps and a “port of entry” at Sawyer’s Creek for use by importers and exporters. With a tavern at its center and the confluence of statesmen, traders, and laborers, Jonesborough was a popular attraction for travelers of all sorts.
In addition to development at the center of the county, in the late 1780s and early 1790s, the upper end of Camden County began to transform in response to the construction of the Dismal Swamp Canal (which was authorized by the Virginia legislature in 1787 and by the North Carolina legislature in 1790). Investors throughout the mid-Atlantic bought shares in the Dismal Swamp Canal Company in anticipation of profits to be gained from connecting the Elizabeth River (in Norfolk, VA) to the Pasquotank River (in Camden, NC). Despite the project spanning both states, company leadership and investment was dominated by Virginians. Benjamin Jones was the only Camden County-based company director (out of five) and Joseph Jones, Isaac Gregory, Michael Ferrell, John Mason, James Pearce, Fred B. Sawyer, Isaac Stokelie and Polly Stokelie were the only early investors of Camden.
This economic development drew many Virginians across the state line—including William Bass (b. 1755), a free man of color and planter, who became the first documented Bass in Camden County. In 1786 he married Ann Sammon and his brother, Willis Bass, married Jemima Nickens (while also acting as William’s surety). Both men’s marriage bonds were filed on the same day and the fact that they were able to marry in Virginia suggests that they were perceived to be of the same race as their wives.
In the 1790 Federal Census, “Will” (and presumably Ann) were recorded in a household of 2 free other persons in Camden County, NC. It is unclear where they were living at this time (given that William did not lease or own land in the county yet) but some of his direct neighbors were Elizabeth Sikes, Rebecca Relfe, Benjamin Ferrell, and William Evans. William Bass was taxed in the 1792 Tax List on 0 acres and 1 poll and in the 1795 Tax List on 0 acres, 1 white poll, and 0 black polls (Camden County Extant Tax Records 1782-1890 By Sharon Rea Gable).
William signed his first contract in the area on September 15, 1793 in a six-year lease (January 1, 1794 – January 1, 1800) with John Jones, Sr. (a wealthy planter). The lease was for a 60-acre plantation located on the east side of the Pasquotank River adjoining John Jones’ own land and the land of Robert Gray. The contract included land, a plantation, houses, outhouses, and all commodities and advantages of the property (including getting rail timber and fire wood for personal use). Rather than paying rent in cash, the lease stipulated that William Bass was to pay John Jones 1/3 of all produce from the plantation. Due to instability in currency following the Revolutionary War, this was a common arrangement for lessors and lessees.
Despite being listed as a free negro in 1790, the 1800 Federal Census listed William with a household of 7 free white persons—one male over 45 (born before 1755), one female 26-44 (born between 1756 and 1774), one male 10-15 (born between 1785-1790), and four females under 10 (born between 1790-1800). This suggests that William was living with his wife (Ann Sammon), one son, and four daughters. Some of his direct neighbors’ surnames were Jones, Cartwright, Burham, and Old.
A year after the end of his lease, on April 10, 1801, William purchased 125 acres of land (formerly owned by Thomas Gordon) from John Sikes. William witnessed John Sike’s purchase of the land from Thomas Gordon on March 16, 1800 (Deed Book I, Page 142) as well as an earlier land purchase on June 3, 1797 (Deed Book H, Page 79) suggesting that he was living on land neighboring the tract he bought. This land was also located on the east side of the Pasquotank River, directly opposite of Richardson’s Landing, and bounded by the land of Pharaoh Sawyer, David Hall (land that was formerly owned by Thomas Overton), and Joel Sawyer. As a planter, William likely grew similar crops on his new plantation which was double the size of the one he leased for six years.
William sold 15-acre and 50-acre tracts of his land to Pharaoh Sawyer in 1804 and 1806. Though William was listed in the 1810 Federal Census, genders and ages for “all other free persons” were not recorded that year. His household remained at seven so it can be assumed that the same family members were present in 1810 as in 1800. His direct neighbors were E. Sawyer, A. Hwet, J. Farrall, and J. Cartwright. William’s last recorded contract (which was also the last of his land) was a 60-acre land sale to Joel Sawyer in 1816. William likely died between 1816 and 1820 because he was not listed in the 1820 Federal Census.
|15 September 1793 (Book F, Pages 238-239)||60 Acres Leased from John Jones, Sr.||Jeremiah Sexton, Caleb Jones||0|
|10 April 1801 (Book I, Page 148)||125 Acres from John Sikes (Formerly owned by Thomas Gordon) for $275||125 Acres|
|22 October 1804 (Book K, Page 326)||15 Acres to Pharaoh Sawyer for 16 Pounds and 12 Shillings||Edward Old, John Wilkins||110 Acres|
|5 January 1806 (Book K, Page 483)||50 Acres to Pharaoh Sawyer for $100||Hollowell Old, John Wilkins||60 Acres|
|26 April 1816 (Book R, Page 112)||60 Acres to Joel Sawyer for $35||George Ferebee, James Davis||0 Acres|
William’s widow, Nancy (a diminutive form of Ann) Bass, was first documented by name in Camden County in the 1820 Federal Census with a household of nine including one female over 45 (born before 1785), three females 26-44 (born between 1776-1794), two females 14-25 (born between 1775-1806), one female under 14 (born after 1806), and two males under 14 (born after 1806). Her household included her four daughters (and perhaps some grandchildren) while her son, Thomas, lived in a separate household. Some of Nancy’s direct neighbors were Joseph Jones, Samuel Sawyer, William Foster, and Hollowell Old (many of the same people referenced in William Bass’ deeds).
William’s son, Thomas Bass (b. 1785), was first documented by name in Camden County in the 1815 Tax List (Treasurers and Comptrollers Papers, Camden 1791-1815, NC State Archives). He was taxed on 1 Free Poll and was a part of Captain Jones’ District Number 7 (Returned by George Ferebee, Esquire). At the time North Carolina taxed all free males over 16, so this record supports that he was born before 1799 and that he was not a property owner yet. In the 1820 Federal Census, Thomas Bass‘ household of five included one male over 45 (born before 1785), one female 26-44 (born between 1776-1794), one male 14-25 (born between 1775-1806), and two females 14-25 (born between 1775-1806). Some of his direct neighbors were Pool Smith, Gray Barry, Thomas Linton, and William Williams.
It was clear by the 1830 Federal Census that the William and Ann (Nancy) Bass’ children had begun families. In my early research, I was confused to see several of their daughters unmarried with children. Fanney, Lovey, Nancey, and Salley were all over 30 years old, had children, and there were no male heads of household among them. Where were the men? The explanation for this pattern reveals an important dynamic in the community—many of these women had relationships with enslaved men. Despite being free, landless free people of color frequently lived and worked on plantations with enslaved people. Marriage between free people of color and whites was illegal, yet so was marriage to enslaved people. Nonetheless, they were part of the same communities and formed strong families together.
In the 1830 Federal Census, Thomas’ household had increased to 8 free colored persons with one male 36-55 (born 1775-1794), one female 36-55 (born 1775-1794), two males 10-24 (born 1806-1820), one female 10-24 (born 1806-1820), two males under 10 (born after 1820), and one female under 10 (born after 1820). Some of his direct neighbors were Fanny Edney, John Spence, Sr., Dolley Sawyer, and Lovey Sawyer (note that Dorothy “Dolly” (Riggs) Sawyer was the wife of Pharoah Sawyer who bought William Bass’ land).
|Name||Household Size||Location in 1830 Federal Census||Neighbors|
|Fanney Bass||4||River Bridge||Jesse McCoy, Elizabeth McCoy, Allen B. Jones, Samuel Proctor (James P. Marchant was also living nearby and Fanny was later documented with a formerly enslaved woman named Caty Marchant in her household.)|
|Lovey Bass||3||River Bridge||Directly next to Fanny Bass—Jesse McCoy, Elizabeth McCoy, Allen B. Jones, Samuel Proctor|
|Nancey Bass||4||Upper Woods||John Baker, William Culpepper, Willoughby Price, William Smith, Washington Brite, Grandy Sawyer, John Overton, James Beel|
|Salley Bass||4||Basses Lake||Anne Lurry, Joseph G. Hughes, Mary Gray, Luke G. Lamb, Redding Brocket, William Taylor, Edmund J. Barco|
|Thomas Bass||7||Basses Lake||Lydia and Polly Bass were likely living here—Luke McCoy, Joab Overton, Fanny Edney, John McPherson, Dolly Sawyer (Pharoah Sawyer’s Widow), Lovey Sawyer, Willis Ferral, John Sawyer|
An 1837 estate record for John Spence, Sr. (one of Thomas’ neighbors) contained a May 24, 1834 judgment against Thomas Bass for a debt of $2.16 (to be collected by John’s administrator Thomas P. Hinton). It appears that Thomas did not pay his debt because there was a warrant for his arrest dated August 22, 1840. John’s estate record contained a number of judgments against people in the area which suggests that he may have owned a store at Canal Bridge (which was located at the south end of the Dismal Swamp Canal).
The 1840 Federal Census is missing a significant amount of information and none of the Basses were enumerated that year.
In 1841 Thomas P. Hinton petitioned the court for direction in the division of John Spence, Sr.’s estate. He stated that there was more than $15,000 cash to be divided and that the will was not clear. The court gave $1,037.46 each to Ira Jones and wife, Benjamin Jones and wife, Edward Spence, Silas Spence, James Spence, Anderson Brite and wife, Joseph Edney and wife, William F. McPherson and wife, Doctor J. Burnham and wife, Miles Sawyer, Mathias Sawyer, John Sawyer, Isaac Sawyer, Mariah Sawyer, Willis Powers, James Powers, Henderson Abbott, Edwin Abbott, William R. Abbott and John Whitehurst. (Camden County Estate Record Notes, Carolina Trees & Branches, Volume XIX, Number 4, October 2010, Page 102)
In the 1850 Federal Census, Thomas was a part of “E Simmons” (45, female, white, of Pasquotank) household which included “Thos Bass” (57, male, mulatto), “Willoughy Bass” (14, male, mulatto), “Hol Bass” (21, male, mulatto), “J Griffin” (25, male, mulatto), “N Bass” (21, female, mulatto), and “Polly Bass” (1, female, mulatto). Some of their direct neighbors were H James, W Saywer, H Nosay, and Alson Brothers. Thomas and ‘E’ may have been the parents of Hol, N, and Willoughby Bass. N Bass and J Griffin—also unmarried—may have been the parents of Polly Bass, Thomas and E’s presumed grandchild.
In the same year, several members of the Bass family were living next to Silas Spence (a nephew and heir of John Spence, Sr.—recorded with $1000 in real estate which is the amount he inherited). John Bass (b. 1840) was recorded as part of the same household as Silas and his family. This indicates that John Bass, a son of Lydia Bass (b. 1820) (Thomas Bass’ niece), was living among the same neighbors as Thomas Bass (and supports the hypothesis that Lydia Bass (b. 1797) was living with Thomas Bass).
Later records reveal more information about Thomas’ probable sons. Holloway Bass enlisted in the Navy in Norfolk, VA in August 1856. He re-enlisted in August 1859 and was described as a mulatto, 5’9” tall, landsman in the African American Civil War Sailor Index (1861-1865). Willougby Bass was recorded in the 1860 Federal Census in Camden with a child named John Bass (5 years old) in his household. He was also recorded as an attendee of McBride Church on the 1858-1860 church roll. Thomas Bass was not recorded in the Federal Census for Camden County after 1850 and likely passed away some time between 1850 and 1860.
This article is a brief introduction to William Bass as a patriarch for many Basses in the area. His legacy and relationships continue to unfold as I access new record collections and integrate them into the story.