Timing seems to be everything when it comes to genealogy. You can search and search for clues to mysteries for ages. And then *BOOM*, out of the blue, something amazing can happen.
I’ve been engaged in deep research on ancestors who lived in early 19th Century Northampton, Warren, and Halifax Counties in North Carolina. Out of the blue, Fontaine, a Sheffey cousin, forwarded a video to me. He’d had no idea I’d returned to researching these North Carolina counties. He’d forwarded it to me in the hopes it might have some answers when it came to his father’s maternal lineage. At that point, we had no idea that we were related in any other way besides the Sheffey family of Wythe County, Virginia. It turns out, we share some North Carolina lineages too.
The video below is the one he brought to my attention. The video didn’t specifically, help me in my research with his father’s maternal line. However, it certainly answered some questions about what became of some of my own maternal ancestors who had seemingly vanished into the ether. The families involved were: Bass, Byrd, Scott, Stuart/Stewart, and Walden/Waldron.
The answer to what happened to them was pretty simple in the end. They had removed themselves from North Carolina to settle in Indiana. I won’t spoil the video. Their journey is a remarkable story.
I’ve been making one discovery after another when it comes to my ancestral kin who were both people of colour and American Revolutionary War veterans. I’ve found records for hundreds of kinsmen who were fpoc within my extensive ancestral extended family who served in many different capacities during the American Revolution.
Moses Byrd, born around 1745, is another interesting discovery. Moses was a musician in Lewis’ Company of the North Carolina Continental Line in Halifax County, North Carolina, in 1776. He seems to have disappeared from active duty in January 1778.
He mustered again in Taylor’s Company for 2-1/2 years in January 1779. [Clark, The State Records of North Carolina, XVI:1012, 1024, XVII: 192]. As a fpoc, he was legally obliged to register in his home county. He was a “Mulatto” taxable in Southampton County in 1802 [PPTL 1792-1806, frames 156, 183, 261, 311, 373, 407, 509, 546, 615]. There is usually a brief physical description fo the free person of colour in question included in the registration records. Sadly, I haven’t been able to find such a description for Moses.
He was taxable in Southampton County from 1782 to 1803: taxable on a horse and 4 cattle from 1782 to 1787, taxable on Asa Byrd [believed to be Moses’s nephew] in 1788, taxable on Thomas Byrd [Moses’s son] in 1795, called a “Mulatto” in 1802 [PPTL 1782-92; frames 508, 544, 634, 655, 705, 755, 812, 869; 1792-1806, frames 156, 183, 261, 311, 373, 407, 509, 546, 615].
He was living in Northampton County, North Carolina, before 2 January 1807 when he made his Northampton County will, proved March 1808 [WB 2:362]. He left most of his estate to his wife, whose name remains unknown.
This is his life, as it’s currently known, in a nutshell.
Musicians in the Revolutionary War
I was curious about the exact nature of his war service. Naturally, I did some digging. I know he was a musician. However, the records don’t specify what instrument or instruments he played. I did, however, manage to unearth accounts of what army musicians did during the war.
It turns out that Moses was probably a part of the Fife, Drum, and Bugle Corps. 18th Century Army musicians had a dual role. The first was as a communication channel. There were no walkie talkies, radios, or quick forms of mass communication on the 18th Century battlefield. Musicians were a practical means of long distance communication. Anyone who lives within a mile of a sports arena today can attest to how far the sounds of drums, fifes (think flutes), and horns can carry!
The second apart of a musician’s service during the was was providing entertainment for the army camps. In other words, morale boosters.
The fife was used because of its high pitched sound and the drum because of its low pitched sound. Both instruments can be heard from great distances and even through the sounds of a battlefield. Fifers and drummers would provide the music for all of the things that soldiers would need to do throughout the day. They would play tunes in the camp, on the battlefield, or for a march…
On the battlefield, musicians had the responsibility of helping keep order in battle and make sure the soldiers functioned well as a unit. Drummers would play beatings telling the soldiers to turn right or left as well as to load and fire their muskets. There was a tune called Cease Fire that fifers and drummers would play to tell the soldiers to stop firing at the end of a battle while a tune called Parley was used to signal to the enemy that a surrender or peace talk was desired.
Now that I had a very basic understanding of the service Moses provided during the war, I wanted to find out more about the battles he would have been a part of. It turns out, he was involved in a quite a few.
Micajah Lewis, Captain of the 1st and 4th North Carolina Regiments
The first half of Moses’s war service was under Capt. Micajah Lewis (yep, another kinsman from my extended family) as part of the 4th North Carolina Regiment. This speaks to an important historical fact where Moses’s genealogy is concerned: he had already left Southampton, Virginia for North Carolina when he joined Maj Lewis’s regiment. Established on 15 April 1776, this means Moses was resident in North Carolina by 1776.
What’s interesting to me is that he was taxable in two states during an over-lapping period between 1790 and 1802: Halifax and Northampton Counties in North Carolina and Southampton County in Virginia. While he would ultimately come to permanently reside in Northampton, North Carolina…he was clearly going back and forth from North Carolina to Virginia. He is far from being alone. I have swathes of ancestral kin who were fpoc moving back and forth from North Carolina and Virginia before permanently residing in North Carolina. I remain mystified as to why. What was happening in the early decade of the American Republic that caused thousands of fpoc to ping pong between these two states for two to three decades? I digress, but only in the name of genealogy!
The website The American Revolution in North Carolina (http://www.carolana.com/NC/Revolution/revolution_nc_fourth_regiment.html) has an excellent overview about the Regiment and its war activities. In its early stages, the Regiment was moved from place to place. In the Fall of 1778, the 4th NC Regiment was re-organized at Halifax, NC. This fits perfectly with when Moses enlisted. Halifax, NC was one of the ancestral centres for the extensive fpoc Bird/Byrds.
At this point, judging by the battle lists for 1778 in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, it appears that Moses may have been involved in skirmishes in South Carolina and Georgia…but saw no major action.
Moses was granted a land patent for his war service. The patent included a 274 acre land warrant granted in 1783 for his service in the American Revolution; evidently the tract of land was never claimed. It was returned to the State in 1821.
Roll #4, Book B-2, pg. 112-113, TN State Library & Archives State of North Carolina, No. 2332,…..granted unto John Gray Blount and Thomas Blount assignees of Moses Byrd a private in the Continental Line of said state 274 acres of land in County of Davidson on the South side of the Harpeth River…..the upper part of Millers Bend?…..James Robertson’s West boundary… dated 20 May 1793. (The rest of the deed is very difficult to make out)
For whatever reason, this land grant doesn’t appear to have been claimed by Moses, or his wife, or his children. I have no record of him or his direct family members having any connection to Davidson County. To-date, they are associated with only two North Carolina Counties: Halifax and Northampton.
This land grant, however, is beginning to paint a picture of how some of my ancestral kin who were either poor whites or free people of colour came by medium-sized tracts of land after the Revolutionary War ended. Land that would have been out of their reach to purchase, was a form of payment and/or reward for services rendered. Even better, some of these land grants are still held by these families to this very day.
Updated 23 Sep 2016 with additional Bird/Byrd family groups
Reuben Byrd of Petersburg, Virginia and Orange County, North Carolina isn’t the first Colonial-era black ancestral family member I’ve found who served in the American Revolutionary War. However, he is the first black kinsman whose war records I’ve been able to access.
Finding those records was exhilarating, empowering, and bittersweet.
I’ve been researching four different Colonial-era Virginia Byrd families for quite a while in an effort to see if they were different branches of the same family, or unrelated families who shared the same surname. Just a note that this surname is also spelt Bird. However, I’m using Byrd, the variant most seem to have adopted. Each of these groups are my kinsmen and women via both of my parents’ ancestral lines in Virginia and the Carolinas.
The first group of Byrds are the descendants of Col William Evelyn “The Immigrant” Byrd I and Maria Horsmanden. This family group (relations through a nexus of marriages with Carters, Braxtons, Baylors, and Claiborn(e)s, in Virginia’s Tidewater region) are my kin via my paternal Roane line. They resided at the very apex of Virginia society.
The second group of Byrds are descendants of John Byrd and Margaret Dean of Augusta County – whose descendants were also resident in Wythe County and Grayson County in Virginia. This line is a combination of European, African and Native American. They are kinsmen via my paternal Sheffey line.
The 3rd group of Byrds are descendants of a white (presumably English) indentured servant, Margaret Bird, and an unknown enslaved African man. Margaret’s story begins in York County. Her descendants would come to reside in Petersburg, Essex County, and Southampton County in Virginia – as well as Northampton County, Halifax County, and Orange County in North Carolina. Reuben is a descendant of this line. This line connects to my maternal Lassiters, Joseys, Outlands, Peel(e)s, and Smallwoods in the same North Carolina counties.
The 4th group of Byrds were resident in Wythe County, Virginia. They were descendants of John Dennis Byrd and Senah Rachel Porter. It was previously assumed that Dennis and Senah were enslaved. This is an assumption that is now being reviewed and researched. This line of Byrds has connections via marriage with Byrd Group #2 and also shows Native American results in their DNA analysis.
The 5th group of Byrds were resident in Hillsborough, Virginia.Dr James Henry Byrd (a member of Byrd family group #2) married Alice Fravell Byrd of Hillsborough, Virginia. Alice was the daughter of John Henry Byrd I (of North Carolina and Indiana) and Rebekah Ann Hamilton White. Alice and a number of her siblings would settle in Hillsborough.
There is a much smaller group of Byrds in Colonial Powhatan, Virginia. Again, a combination of European, African, and Native American. To-date, my research for this ends around 1715. They simply seem to disappear from all official records.
So back to Reuben.
Like all free people of color in Antebellum Virginia (including the Colonial period), Reuben was required to register with his local court house. These registration records are a goldmine. They provide crucial family and vital records information, such as place of birth and place of residence. They also provide descriptions of the individual who was registering. Without paintings or sketches to go by, these descriptions are, in so many cases, the only means to catching a glimpse into what an ancestor looked like. In Reuben’s case, he was an Essex-County born head of a Petersburg household of 5 “other free” in 1810 [VA:121b]. He registered in Petersburg on 9 June 1810: a brown Mulatto man, five feet seven inches high, forty seven years old, born free in Essex County, a stone mason [Register of Free Negroes 1794-1819, no. 576]. He’s alternately cited as being a carpenter. Either way, he was a skilled craftsman.
In the course of researching Reuben, I came across two petitions he made for a pensions due to his service in the American Revolutionary War. In summary, he applied for a pension in Powhatan County on 15 June 1820 at the age of fifty-six years. He testified that he enlisted in Hillsborough, North Carolina, and served in Captain James Gunn’s regiment of dragoons under the direct command of Lieutenant William Gray.
Both battles were pivotal in the southern theatre of the Revolutionary War. The Battle of Guilford Court House in North Carolina was a contributing factor to the defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown.
Benjamin Sublett testified that he met Reuben, a sixteen or seventeen-year-old “Mulatto boy,” while serving in the Revolution in May 1780. Gabriel Gray testified that Reuben served as “Boman” (military slang for valet) to his brother Lieutenant William Gray [NARA, S.37776, M804-243, frame 0362].
Transcription of the Pension Application of Reuben Bird S37776 NC Virginia, Powhatan County
(Scans of the original appear after the transcription):
On this 15th day of June 1820 personally appeared in open court in the county court of Powhatan, in the state aforesaid, being a court of record Reuben Bird aged about fifty six years, according to the best estimate that can be made, who being first duly sworn according to law, doth on his oath make the following declaration in order to obtain the provision made by the acts of Congress of the 18th March 1818 and the 1st May 1820. that he, the said Reuben Bird enlisted for and during the war of the American Revolution in April or May in the year 1780 in Hillsborough in North Carolina in the Company commanded by Captain James Guinn in the Regiment of Dragoons commanded by Col. [Anthony Walton] White of Virginia; that he continued to serve in the said Corps until the peace came, when he was discharged from service in Culpepper [sic: Culpeper] county in the state of Virginia; That he was in no battle, he being a colored man, and kept as a Bowman, although he was very near the ground where several [battles] were fought, and that he has no other evidence now in his power of his said services except the certificates of Benjamin Sublett and Larkin Self [pension application S38363] herewith exhibited.
And in pursuance of the act of the 1st of May 1820 the said Reuben Bird solemnly made oath that he was a resident citizen of the United States on the 18th of March one thousand eight hundred and eighteen, and that he has not since that time, by gift, sale, or in any manner disposed of his property, or any part thereof, with intent thereby so to diminish it as to bring himself within the provisions of an act of Congress, entitled “An act to provide for certain persons engaged in the land and naval service of the United States in the Revolutionary war”, passed on the 18th day of March one thousand eight hundred and eighteen, and that he has not, nor has any person in trust for him any property or securities, contracts, or debts due to him, nor has he any income other than what is contained in the Schedule hereto annexed, and by him subscribed, to wit; Real and personal property none; he is by trade a Brick layer, and is not very able to pursue his trade in consequence of a Rupture, which obliges him to wear a Truss of Steel; his family consists of his wife, who is about 37 years old, and one child, a female about seven years old; his wife is healthy, and by her industry somewhat contributes to support the family.
(signed) Reuben Bird (his X mark)
16th October 1819. Powhatan County, to wit,
I was a Serjant in Captain William Mayo’s Company at the time of General Gates’ defeat at Campden in South Carolina [sic: Battle of Camden (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Camden) where Gen. Horatio Gates was defeated, 16 Aug 1780], and in the same company a mulatto boy appeared to be about the age of 16 or 17 years, by the name of Reuben Bird, who I believe enlisted under Captain James Gun [sic], in the town of Hilsbury, as we were on the way of our march to the South, and that for during the war; which I think was in the year
1780 sometime in May. (signed) Benjamin Sublett
Map of the Battle of Camden courtesy of http://www.britishbattles.com
Octo. 2nd 1818
I do herby surtyfy that Rubin Bird did inlist at the same time that I did at Hilsburrow in North Carlina before Gates defeat in the the month of April about the 15th 1780.
(Signed) Larkin Self
Virginia, to wit;
At a Court of Monthly Sessions holden for the county of Powhatan, in the state of Virginia aforesaid, at the Courthouse of the said County (being a Court of Record) on the 21st day of September 1820 Reuben Bird, a soldier of the Revolution, who made a declaration of his services in the Revolutionary War, in this court, on the 15th day of June last, under the acts of Congress of the 18th of March 1818 and of the first of May 1820, providing for certain persons engaged in the land and naval service of the United States in the Revolutionary war, in order to obtain a pension under the said acts of Congress, and a transcript of whose declaration, and of the evidence in support thereof, has been forwarded to the department of War of the United States, and returned for want of sufficient proof, this day again appeared in Court, and together with the said transcript, produced in Court an affidavit of Gabriel Gray [S8590], given before the Justice of the peace for the county of Culpepper, which affidavit was ordered to be entered of record, and is as follows, to wit; “I do hereby certify that the bearer Reuben Bird was Boman for my brother William Gray [BLWt1486-200] while he was Lieutenant in the horse service under the command of Col. White in the Southern Campaign of 1780 and 1781. Given under my
hand this 26th day of July 1820. Gab. Gray”
Click each image below for a larger image (each courtesy of the National Archives, Washington D.C.):
The last image in the sequence was my bittersweet moment. His petition was denied at first. I’m still working through my feelings on that. It does explain, however, why his name doesn’t appear in either the Daughters of the American Revolution database nor the Sons of the American Revolution Database. However, that first image, with Dollar amounts, seems to suggest that, in the end, he won the argument. I’ll need to track down the last parts of his file to know for certain.
So what did a wartime valet do?
I was curious about what a wartime valet actually did during this period. So I asked Tony, a war historian who specializes in 18th Century warfare (I love my British mates and contacts).
He would have been a jack of all trades. His duties apparently would have been quite varied:
Attending to the care of his officer’s uniform and non-military wardrobe;
Ensuring his officer’s firearm(s) and other weaponry were in good working order;
Ensuring the safekeeping of his officer’s personal and battle-related correspondence;
Coordinating his officer’s meals;
Running crowd control in his officer’s tent;
Occasionally delivering important messages;
Attending to his officer’s horse(s);
Attending to his officer during battle;
Ensuring that his officer’s belongings were packed, secure, and ready for removal to wherever his officer needed to be;
Attending to his officer’s privy (a very nice way of saying emptying Lieut. Gray’s chamber pot);
Any other duties his officer saw fit.
Tony went on to say that a valet wasn’t as easily as dismiss-able a position as I initially thought. As Tony put it, no one had closer access to a commanding officer than his valet.It was a position of unquestioned trust. Everyone in camp would have known exactly who Reuben was and the officer he served. Those seeking to advance themselves through Lieut. Gray, or seek his favour, or arrange appointments with him would have tried to get on Reuben’s good side in order to gain access to Lieut. Gray. Reuben would have been right in the thick of things, privy to planned activities by dint of close proximity to Gray. He would have also been Gray’s eyes and ears in camp.
All the while remember this: he was a teenager at the time.
He may not have received the recognition he deserved by his peers. I, for one, couldn’t be prouder of an ancestral kinsman.
Hands down, this is the most painful and challenging post I’ve written. If you’re easily upset, it’s perhaps best if you skip over this one.
I’m well versed in the horrors of lynching in the United States. It’s not a subject that was ever broached in school. However, it’s a subject that I imagine every African American is familiar with. Much in the same manner that the Irish are well versed in the inhumane treatment they were subjected to through English colonialism and the horrors of The Troubles. While I may have been familiar with lynching I never thought in a million years that it would have a direct impact on my family. A message received through Ancestry.com changed that.
Raymond Arthur Byrd was born in Speedville, Wythe County, Virginia on 2 April 1895 to Stephen C. Byrd (a Sheffey himself through his mother Lenah M. Sheffey, origins unknown) and Josephine V. Sheffey, a descendant of Jacob Sheffey and Elsey George. Raymond spent his life working as a farm labourer from his early teens. By the time he was 24, he had met and married Tennessee “Tennie” Hawkins in 1919. The pair quickly established a small family in Rural Retreat, Wythe Co. before moving to Wytheville. Daughter Edith M Byrd was born in 1919. Edith was followed by Lillian Josephine Byrd in 1921 and Hazel Beatrice Byrd in 1924.
While the exact date is unknown, Raymond worked for the white Grubb family in Wytheville, VA in 1925. It’s here that his story takes a dark and barbaric turn. He fell in love with Minnie Grubb, the daughter of his employer. It’s worth remembering that inter-racial relationships were actively discouraged in the 1920s. Marriage between the races was illegal. It was an anathema not solely restricted to the southern states.
Rumour and legend has it that Minnie kept a diary which, unfortunately, hasn’t been found. If it ever existed, her diary would shed a light on the progression of the relationship she had with Raymond: from first meeting him as an employee of her family through to the acknowledgement of feelings and the progression to an initiate relationship. Their relationship would have been problematic on two fronts: the first being Raymond’s colour, the second the fact that he was married man with a family. Despite being in love, the relationship was doomed from the outset. I can’t help but wonder what both of them must have felt about this.
In 1925, Minnie fell pregnant with Raymond’s child. I can only imagine the range of emotions both must have felt. Biology, being what it is, could grant them only so much time before her condition would become apparent, leading to Minnie inevitably telling her family. She must have informed her family at some point as the wheels that were set in motion afterwards would have consequences for Raymond and Minnie’s respective families and the State of Virginia itself.
Raymond was jailed in Wytheville, accused of forcibly attacking Minnie, a charge she strenuously denied at the time. Whilst in jail, a mob formed with the knowledge of the authorities and ‘stormed’ the jail on 15 August 1926, shooting Raymond in the head multiple times. The men mutilated his remains before dragging his body behind a truck and hanging it in a tree near to the Grubb property. The body would be discovered by 16 year-old John Henry Davis who was on his way to milking his father’s cow.
Raymond would officially be the last person to be lynched in Virginia. The crime against him was so horrific, so brutal and evil that it made the national news in the US. Along with a series of Virginian lynchings between 1920 and 1925, the nature of Raymond’s lynching prompted the Virginia State Senate to pass The Virginia Anti-Lynching Law of 1928. He and his family received a full posthumous pardon from the Governor of Virginia.
The tale of Minnie and Raymond didn’t end there.
Minnie gave birth to a daughter on 23 July 1926 whose name is believed to be Geraldine Johnson. Geraldine was born in Abingdon, VA. Originally named Willie, the child was sent to live with the Johnson family elsewhere in Virginia. From there, she was taken by persons unknown. It’s believed that she was taken to Ohio. Ohio isn’t that much of a stretch of the imagination. Raymond had African American Sheffey and Byrd kin living in Ohio. As I’ve mentioned a number of times, the blood connection within the Sheffey family ran deep. To me, it seems entirely probable that either the Ohio-based Sheffeys or Byrds (or both, as these two families were related to one another) could have taken the child out of a hostile Virginia to a secure life in the more moderate Ohio. To-date, this child of Minnie Grubb and Raymond Byrd remains a mystery. She has never been found.
One things really drives Raymond’s story home to me. My first marriage was to a classic ‘English rose’. My second to a woman of Brazilian and Israeli heritage. Neither raised any eyebrows in 1990s UK. I’ve dated the daughter of an earl and a daughter of a viscount, again, without any eyebrows being raised within that august British entity known as ‘The Establishment’. I took something for granted that directly led to the death of Raymond, my second cousin twice removed. I was congratulated and my marriages celebrated. His love relationship led to an unforgiving and brutal death.
Alongside the family successes I’ve uncovered along the way, this is a tale that will remain with me always.
As I read in the press how the states of Texas and Tennessee want to whitewash slavery and the eras that followed, stories like the one above – no matter how uncomfortable they may be – should never be forgotten. I remain firm in the belief that the only way the country of my birth can address where it has fallen short of the ideals upon which it was founded is through open and honest dialogue. If the English can actively engage in this process with its former colonies and with the Irish, the US can do it too with the different ethnic peoples which bore the brunt of its shortcomings. From this lays the roots of healing and moving forward as a collective people.
In loving memory of Raymond Arthur Byrd, 1895 – 1926
Most of my family research activity is quite specific. I tend to spend a great deal of time tracking down specifics about an individual or a particular family group. My time is usually spent tracking down individual dates and county of birth, dates and county of deaths, marriage dates, maiden names of mothers, etc. However, just to shake things up from time to time, I’ll do a general search using the broadest search terms available.
Armed with an increasing list of mothers’ maiden names, I’ve started to do broad searches on marriages between two family groups. So how does this work? Page 1 in the document below is an example.
While Ancestry.com is an amazing resource for intricate and detailed searches, I find (for me) that Familysearch.org is an amazing resource for broad searches.
The surname Byrd/Bird was a name which cropped up in connection with the Sheffeys in Wythe and SmythCounties in Virginia. I had spotted a few marriages between the two families from the 1870s through to the turn of the 20th Century. So I was naturally curious to see how many marriages occurred between the two families.
I decided to search for all the individuals born in Virginia with the surname Sheffey (no first names are used in this kind of search) who had a spouse with the surname Byrd (again, no first names used). The record shown above gives a glimpse (death certificates and baptism records provided more). You’ll also see that alternate spellings for each surname are returned in the search results (Sheffy, Bird, etc). Each record that this search returned also gave details about parents – Page 2 in the document above shows the mother of Dennis Byrd (Josephine Sheffey’s husband) was a Sheffey.
I could (and have) made the search even broader at times by omitting the state of birth. And the results were no less illuminating…showing direct marriages between the Sheffeys and Byrds between 1920 and 1935 occurring in Delware, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland. And, as to be expected, there were also marriages between both families via their shared Richardson, Hill and Carpenter cousins.
It’s a brilliant family history exercise to do – but definitely one where you have quite a bit of time to process the results! The results from this search kept me busy updating the family tree for the best part of a week!