I’ve spent a whole lot of time trying to figure it out, but I still don’t know much. I can tell you this: that Martha Henderson, better known as Patsey — and my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother — was desperate. That she could not adequately feed her children. That children like hers could be claimed by any passing scoundrel. That she needed to make the first move. So she made her way to Wantland’s Ferry, to the Onslow Courthouse, and implored the justice to place her boys with the white man of her choosing. They were to serve as apprentices until 21, to learn a trade, and maybe, if lucky, how to read and write. The year was 1821.
Patsey’s children were freeborn, as was she. She was likely a dark twig on the family tree of the white Hendersons who lived in Onslow, having arrived by the mid-1700s from Scotland via Maryland. She was nearly white herself, as were her children, but not so nearly as to confuse the court, which duly recorded them as free people of color and laid down the applicable laws, one of which dictated that “baseborn” children would not run the countryside, but would be made available to ambitious, cash-poor whites as short-term labor. Not slaves, but not free labor either. Apprentices.
Patsey could not escape this game, but she could try to work it, to play it, to squeeze from it what benefit she could. The reality was that there was not much work for free colored women in a slave society – she could never sew or clean or mammy cheap enough to compete — and in sparsely populated rural areas like Onslow, there was even less call for other skills. She may have been sickly to boot. Patsey’s children faced real threats to their well-being by every measure of need. So she struck some deals and went into court and pled that James and Bryant Henderson find shelter with a master she had selected. Was he their father? Another relative? Simply a neighbor? Her request was granted and, mission accomplished, she died.
From the minutes of Onslow County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, February term, 1821 —
“Patsey Henderson a free woman of color in Onslow County came into court and desired her two sons (viz) James Henderson and Bryan Henderson be bound to Jesse Gregory agreeable to law and give Jason Gregory and Hezekiah Williams for securities in the sum of $1000 each.”
One thought on “She desired that her sons be bound.”
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