Free black families in Colonial America: The Bugg (Doss) family

Every genealogist, regardless of experience levels, has a family line that makes him or her want to rip their hair out. Seeing as how I cropped mine, I don’t have that luxury. I have to content myself with double face palms.  The Bugg family of Halifax and Mecklenburg Counties in Virginia – as well as its descendant lines in the former Old Ninety-Six region of South Carolina (including the present day North Atlanta, Georgia), plus Warren, Northampton and Halifax Counties in North Carolina – is just that kind of family for me. ‘Difficult to research’ doesn’t even begin to describe the trials and tribulations this family has presented me with.

It all began with Rebecca Bugg, born around 1798, in Edgefield, South Carolina. Rebecca is on my mother’s side of the family tree. The earliest record I have for her is the 1850 Census when she is about 56 years of age:

Rebeca Bugg’s household in 1850.  Click for larger image.                                                                      Source: 1850 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.
Original data: Seventh Census of the United States, 1850; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M432, 1009 rolls); Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

The image above shows her as a free woman of colour…and the head of a household that was comprised of her dependent children.  Her husband, and the father of her children, was George Quarles. George was an enslaved blacksmith who lived not too far from his wife and his children. What initially interested me about Rebecca was a pretty remarkable accomplishment. She, along with the aid of her daughter Clarissa, and Edward Settles, bought George Quarles’s freedom from one Ralsa M Fuller, also of Edgefield.

george quarles
The sale that would lead to George Quarles’s freedom. Click for larger image. Source: Lucas, Gloria Ramsey. Slave Records of Edgefield County, South Carolina. Digitized book and electronic index. Edgefield, South Carolina: Edgefield County Historical Society, 2010.

No value is given against George’s name.  As a man in the most productive and able-bodied part of his life, I can only imagine that the sum of money Rebecca and Clarissa had to gather in order to purchase his freedom would have been considerable. Nevertheless, George was a free man around 1851. I have to admit that I gave Rebecca and Clarissa a “You go girls!”

The family is all together in the 1860 census:

george quarles 2
George Quarles as head of household in 1860. Click for larger image. Source: 1860 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.
Original data: 1860 U.S. census, population schedule. NARA microfilm publication M653, 1,438 rolls. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.

Rebecca had me intrigued.  Who were her people? Where were her ancestral roots?

The magical mystery tour began. It’s a tour that remains magical…and mysterious.

Research is showing that the Buggs were an old free family of colour with roots in Halifax County, Virginia. And this is where the hair pulling – or in my case, double face palms – comes into play.

For starters, I cannot find any details regarding the names of Rebecca’s parents. So…while I know that she is a descendant of the Halifax Bugg family, I have no idea which line she descends from. The names of some of her children provide tantalizing clues. However, at this stage, that’s all they are…clues.

A compiled list of Buggs in the 1850 Census for South Carolina has 3 pages of Bug(g) family members. Any one of them en born around 1778 and earlier could be her father. The 3 pages below are courtesy of Free Blacks and Mulattos in South Carolina 1850 Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2006 and Original data: Motes, Margaret Peckham. Free Blacks and Mulattos in South Carolina 1850 Census. Baltimore, MD, USA: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2002.


All of the Bug(g)s listed in the pages above are related to one another.  I’ve pieced together how roughly a third of the Bugg family groups cited in the 1850 Census are related to one another.  The other two-thirds are anybody’s guess. From there, it was a matter of tracing various lines back to the 1790 Census. 1790 seems to have been a pivotal year. It was just prior to this that a number of Buggs quit Virginia for Newberry and Edgefield in South Carolina.

The problem with earlier census records is a simple one: only the head of the household is listed by name. At this stage I can only trace male heads of households back to the 1790 Census. The names of their wives and children aren’t given. Exasperating is pretty close to what I’ve been feeling when working with these early census records. However, a handful of Wills for some of these men have provided the clues I needed regarding the identity of some of the Bugg family wives and children.  I’m hoping that other Wills still exist that cover this family in Newberry and Edgefield, South Carolina. These will be my last, best hope for compiling a more complete family tree for this family in South Carolina.

I struck a bit of gold dust while doing a general online search on this family.  I came across a Silvester Bugg, a man who will be my key to solving some of the fundamental mysteries regarding this family’s origins.

Silvester Bugg was free born in Halifax, Virginia around 1743. Born an illegitimate child, Robert Turner (the man Silvester’s free born mother was indentured to) sold him to a George Hoomes Gwinn (Gwyn). Silvester sued to extricate himself from his indenture to George Gwinn in 1769 (Virginia General Court, October 1769. He won his suit but lost when Gwinn appealed. Silvester was forced to serve 5 years of indenture before he was finally freed.

silvester bugg
Excerpt of Silvester Bugg’s first court case against George Gwinn. A full account can be read via’s%20Reports%20of%20cases%2C%2087%20(1769)&pg=PA48#v=onepage&q=bugg&f=false. Source: Google Books. Original: Virginia Reports, Jefferson–33 Grattan: 1730-1880 … Annotated Under the Supervision of Thomas Johnson Michie, Volume 1, Michie Company, 1903

I’ve read a few of the case summaries.  They provide some very interesting details: namely the name and the history of his mother, Elizabeth “Betty” Bugg (who also went by the surname Doss). They also provide a tantalizing clue about his maternal grandmother. This clue is excruciating. Betty Bugg’s mother, it transpires, was a “white Christian woman”. That’s all any of the summaries will say about his maternal grandmother. None name her. Was she a member of the Halifax, Virginia Bugg family?  Was she a Doss? I have European-descended DNA matches for bother Doss and Buggs on AncestryDNA, FamilyTree DNA and Gedmatch.

Silvester’s case was an important one. Important enough for Thomas Jefferson to write about. Silvester’s case was heard during a time when Virginia was doubling down on its slave laws, further codifying its system of chattel slavery. Nor was colonial Virginia happy about the increasing number of free people of colour within its borders. The background to all of this is too lengthy to cover here.  An excellent legal overview of this is covered in the book Reports of Cases Determined in the General Court of Virginia: From 1730, to 1740; and from 1768, to 1772, Virginia. General Court by Thomas Jefferson, published by F. Carr, and Company in 1829 (from Page 87 onwards): )

My hope of hopes is that there is some colonial record that still survives that will name my unknown ‘white Christian woman” ancestor. Her daughter Betty was born from a union with an unidentified enslaved man. I very much doubt his name will appear anywhere.  An enslaved man who was either African or of African descent, he would have been a non-entity. And yes, there is more than a little bit of cynicism in those words. A handful of my family lines that were free people of colour were the result of a white indentured woman having children with an enslaved man.  While these women have been named, and I could read about their respective fates and/or punishments, I have never – not once –seen the name of the man who was the father of their children. Apparently, these fathers were worthy of mention. Each one remains the most stubborn kind of brick wall.

Additionally, where there are court cases, there are affidavits and witness testimonies. Silvester had two court cases.  If said affidavits and witness statements still survive, it is my hope that his white grandmother is actually mentioned by name. A bonus would be confirming the name of his father.

Betty’s mother is a first for me when it comes to colonial women giving birth to mulatto children.  She remains unnamed.

I have searched for her name in all of the usual places: Church Warden Records, Bastardy Bonds, and Burgess Records from Halifax, Virginia. If it still exists, an account in one of these records should have Betty’s mother’s name. As the record below shows, Betty, a natural born child herself, was indentured to Robert Turner, presumably in Halifax County, where Silvester was born. Which begs the question, was Robert Turner the father of Silvester? Another mystery.

Excerpt taken from Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina from the Colonial Period to about 1820, Volume 1. Paul Heinegg, Genealogical Publishing Com, 2005 via

The other mystery is around the Doss-Bugg surname.  Betty used both before settling on Bugg. Why she ultimately chose Bugg remains unanswered. It was the surname her descendants would use. So how the Doss surname come into the picture? How am I related to my Doss DNA cousins? It’s mystery after mystery after mystery with this line.

I’m curious about the Bugg family for a few reasons. They were a family of landowners as well as skilled tradesmen and craftsmen. From what I have seen so far, most were literate and could write. In a time when quite a few non-elite and non-middle class colonials weren’t either of these things, well, this makes this family something special. Naturally, I’d like to learn more about them.

And, of course, this is a family that married into other branches of my mother’s and father’s families. Among others, they married into the following free families of colour who are in my family’s tree in Virginia, South Carolina and North Carolina: Chavis, Gowens/Goings/Goines, Barbour, and Drew.

This is a mystery I will continue to return to from time to time. Yes, I am that stubborn 😉

In the meantime, below is the family tree for the oldest generation I’ve been able to research thus far.  One of Betty’s children will be Rebecca’s parent:

betty bugg family tree
The known children of Betty Doss-Bugg. So far, only Samuel Bugg’s line has been traced to any great extent. The other lines remain a complete mystery. Nothing further is known of Betty’s brother, Frank Bugg.


15 thoughts on “Free black families in Colonial America: The Bugg (Doss) family

  1. Thanks for sharing how you put these families entwined lives together. Here’s wishing you the Most High Creator YAH’s continual guidance & blessings in your genealogy research.

  2. To make it more confusing, the husband that she bought his freedom; george last name is quarles.

    1. Are you related to the Leon Clemons from FL who was a Moragne descendant by any chance?

  3. You have conducted an impressive amount of research on this family. I have been researching this line as well for a friend. I have quite a bit of information on George Quarles. If you are interested, please contact me.

    1. Hi Tonya. Thank you for the comment. The Buggs have been such a fascinating family to research. I”m still in the midst of making the links between the Edgefield Buggs and the Newberry Buggs. While I know they are part of the same family, I’m still struggling finding critical documents, like the freedom papers they would have had to submit at the local court house, which would explain family relationships. I hope to find these one day. And I’d love to hear what you have about George. Donya and I are still unclear how he came by that surname. Feel free to email me on briansheffey (at) gmail (dot) com

    2. George Quarles is my great-great-great-great grandfather. He lived to be 104 which is amazing. My curiosity was always why at his old age was he raising his grandkids? My great great grandpa Leverette. He lived with him as a child and his father was Robert Bugg Quarles. I suspected that bugg was the slave owners name… I think I saw that he was sold for $400 as well. I’d love to see what you have on him. I have a picture of Leverette and he looks White so I’ve been told was that he was Irish. All of Quarles lines were listed as mulattos starting with George on down. I’m curious how the photo I have can be real if he was born into slavery or at the end of it.

      1. Hello cousin,

        I am not surprised about his complexion. European DNA was continually added to quite a few of our enslaved African American Edgefield lines, generation after generation after generation. My enslaved Harlings and Holloways were had very fair complexions as a result. My 3x great grandfather, Oliver Harling caused all kinds of confusion if his death certificate was anything to go by. Someone wrote “black”, which was crossed out and replaced with “white”, which was crossed out and replaced by “black”. It was like two people were arguing about it – one who knew him and one who didn’t and was going by his skin tone. Complexion didn’t determine whether one was enslaved.

        As for your Buggs, Our Butts were free people of colour going all.The way back to the early colonial period in Virginia. They descend from a white woman (name unknown) and an African descended man (unclear if he was enslaved or free).

        As for George Quarles who married Rebecca Bugg. She bought his freedom with the aid of the white Edward Settles. He has something to do with the white High Quarles. Part of George’s story is covered in the book “Comes to the Light” by Donya Williams, and is available to buy online via

      2. George Quarles is my great,great,great grandfather through his son Richard Quarles. Thats amazing that he lived to be 104!

      3. Hi Lovey, I am a Bugg descendant also. I am trying to figure out some connections. I would love to talk with you. Kellye

  4. HI,

    I have always been interested in researching my family tree since I was a child it has been a long grueling task. I am the great granddaughter of ValarieMoore-Bugg & Johnny Bugg. A few years ago we started putting together the family tree honestly its a pretty crappy copy lol but i would love to see what you have & maybe piece some of my information with it & try to make more sense of it. I love what you have put together here 🙂

  5. Hi thanks for the research about the Bugg’s family. When during my DNA matches on I was getting confused on why some family member show up on both sides of my family tree. My father’s father’ mother side were free from their owner John Mayo from Mecklenburg and Henrico Co. Va. by 1820 and my dad’s mom family is from Cherokee Co. SC. Just like Edgefield where everyone is related so is Cherokee SC if your surname is Meacham they also originated from VA. My great grand father is Josiah Quarles.

  6. WOW, what a great job. I came across the Bug/Bugg name looking page by page for members of a tree I’m working on. There was so many freed people how did this happen? So, I googled Rebecca Bugg’s name looking to see how she became free. The real story is amazing and so inspiring to just keep going. Thank you to everyone who help this happen.

    1. Thank you, Jo Ann. If you’re a regular follower of Genealogy Adventures, you know how stubborn I am :). I am determined to find the identity of that mysterious “good Christian woman”. I would also like to figure out how the surname Doss became part of this story. I’ll post any findings I come across on the Genealogy Adventures website.

  7. 1810 Newberry, SC census lists Frank Bugg as a Free Negto. The names that surround his name in the census are names of Quakers who lived in Newberry at the time. Near him on the list is a Lucy Dennis and what appears to be a Jeffrey Penn (?). Frank’s name is close to the O’Neal family. John Belton O’Neal wrote “The Annals of Newberry.” Francis Bugg’s six children were apprenticed to Drayton Waldrop of Newberry in December 1860.

  8. What a lot of information! My only regret is that my uncle died 2 years ago (Arthur Bugg) and he would have loved to talk to you. I was born in Asheville, NC. My grandfather and most of the Bugg family that I know of, came from Saluda, SC. Since my uncle died, I have been curious about how we got the Bugg name and just how far back it goes. You may have answered many of my questions. I would love to see how I connect to your family tree. My grandson is the last male in the family to carry the last name Bugg.

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