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.
In addition to the economic incentives to move across the border, many people from lower Virginia were attracted to North Carolina for its more liberal marriage laws. Despite this trend, William Bass (b. 1755)—a free man of color and planter—was already married when he arrived in Camden County, NC from Norfolk County, VA. 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 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’s first contract in the area was made 3 years later on September 15, 1793 when he signed 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 lease 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 a 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.
The location of William Bass’ land purchase was not random. He had connections to many people in the area. The Basses and Halls were intermarried in Norfolk County, VA through the family of William Bass and Naomi Hall. Willis Bass, William’s brother, was intermarried with the Nickens family through his wife Jemima. Both William Bass and David Hall had connections to the Sammon(s) family of Lower Norfolk and Princess Anne Counties through their wife and son respectively. These relationships demonstrate that William moved into a community with many extended family members.
Accounting for Land Held by Extended Family
|Deed Information||Land Description||Grantee||Grantor||Witnesses||Notes|
|April 1747||70 acres of land and swamp on the south side of the Great Swamp by the Road Side. Part of a 615-acre land grant from the Earl of Granville to Jarvis Jones||Richard Nickens of Currituck (Tailor)||Jarvis Jones of Pasquotank (Planter)||Joseph Jones, Henry Lamb, Henry Hollowell||Richard Nickens was the earliest settler from William’s extended family. Richard owned land across the border of Currituck and Pasquotank Counties.|
|6 September 1758||300 acres of land at the head of the Pasquotank River at a place called Quarter. Part of a 615-acre land grant from the Earl of Granville to Jarvis Jones||David Pritchard of Pasquotank (Planter)||Jarvis Jones of Pasquotank (Planter)||John Lowry, Thomas Leonard, Thomas Hunter||David Pritchard was named as a direct neighbor of Richard Nickens. William Bass’ descendants were closely connected to the descendants of both men.|
|Will of Richard Nickens (1774)||Land and swamp lying in Pasquotank County near the Great Swamp (Based on the description at purchase, this tract of land was 70 acres)||Rachel Nickens Hall (Daughter of Richard Nickens, Wife of Absalom Hall)||Richard Nickens of Currituck (Tailor)||Richard Nickens’ will stated that Rachel had use of the land during her life and then it was to go to his grandson Edward Nickens.|
|8 June 1780 (Deed Book B, Page 134)||50 acres of land in the upper part of Camden County adjoining the Great Swamp Road leading from Lebanon to the land of Willis Brite and Joseph Pritchard (son of David Pritchard)||Gideon Lamb||Absalom Hall and Rachel Nickens Hall||Isaac Guilford, Timothy Jones (Younger brother of Joseph Jones)||Absalom Hall remained taxable in Camden County through 1782 (he was taxed on 1 horse and 10 cattle).|
|25 January 1781 (Deed Book B, Page 174)||80 acres of land bounded by the land of Benjamin Jones, Isaac Riggs, Thomas Overton, and Mary Saunders||David Hall||William Jones||Levin Jones,
|David Hall’s relationship to Absalom Hall is currently unclear but they lived as neighbors (possibly together) for a period of time.|
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 either moved or died between 1816 and 1820 because he was not listed in the 1820 Federal Census.
Accounting for William Bass’ Land
|15 September 1793 (Book F,
|60 Acres Leased from John Jones, Sr.||Jeremiah Sexton, Caleb Jones||0|
|10 April 1801 (Book I,
|125 Acres from John Sikes (Formerly owned by Thomas Gordon) for $275||125 Acres|
|22 October 1804 (Book K,
|15 Acres to Pharaoh Sawyer for 16 Pounds and 12 Shillings||Edward Old, John Wilkins||110 Acres|
|5 January 1806 (Book K,
|50 Acres to Pharaoh Sawyer for $100||Hollowell Old, John Wilkins||60 Acres|
|26 April 1816 (Book R,
|60 Acres to Joel Sawyer for $35||George Ferebee, James Davis||0 Acres|
Nancy (Ann) Bass‘ emerged from anonymity 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 still included her four daughters (and perhaps some grandchildren) but it appears her only son, Thomas, lived elsewhere. 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).
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). Based on order in the census and the names of neighbors it appears that Thomas’ household was close to Nancy’s. Some of his direct neighbors were Pool Smith, Gray Barry, Thomas Linton, and William Williams.
It was clear from the 1830 Federal Census that the Bass children had begun families. At first glance it may seem confusing to see so many unmarried women with children. Why were there no men in the households? Fanney, Lovey, Nancey, and Salley were all over 30 years old, had children, and there were no male heads of household among them. The explanation for this pattern reveals an important dynamic in the community—many of these women had relationships with enslaved men.
Bass Children Locations in the 1830 Federal Census
|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 former slave 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|
Despite being free, landless free people of color frequently lived and worked on plantations with enslaved people. They were part of the same communities and sat together in church as all people of color were segregated from whites. Marriage between free people of color and whites was illegal, yet so was marriage to enslaved people.
When a free woman had a child by an enslaved man, the child assumed the status (and generally the surname) of the mother. In the case of the Bass daughters, several had children with enslaved men and the pattern was not revealed until records after emancipation (i.e. cohabitation records and death records for children born of enslaved fathers who were never named during the Federal Census yet were traceable retrospectively through owners’ bills of sale).
It also appears that the Bass son had a relationship with a white woman. In the 1850 Federal Census, Thomas Bass was 57 years old and living with E Simmons who was 43 years old. They 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. A similar dynamic—an interracial relationship outside of marriage—was evident here.
Following community development from the Nickenses to the Halls and the Basses—along with longstanding relationships across state lines—reveals that Camden County was a place of convergence for a number of interrelated free families of color. Compared to surrounding counties, Camden had a relatively low number of free people of color leaving those who resided there in a form of social limbo.
Establishing their exact genealogical relationships is a larger challenge (due to recurring names and deep data gaps) but their migratory patterns, shared lifestyles, and social challenges are well documented. William Bass was a patriarch for many Basses in the area and his legacy continues to unfold as new record collections are accessed and integrated into the story.