Milly’s Mary Ann?

by Lisa Y. Henderson

Fanshaw v. Jones, 33 NC 154 (1850).

Henry Britt found an infant mulatto child at his doorstep in Currituck County. He took the baby in, named her Mary Ann, reared her as a free child and, at his death, left her $200.  Britt’s wife dissented from the will, asserting that Mary Ann was in fact a slave.  The purported evidence: about 1829, one Wilson, a Caswell County “negro-trader,” sold to one Willis a pregnant slave named Milly. Milly ran away from Willis to the house of a widow who lived near Britt, “bringing with her a female infant, perfectly naked and apparently not more than a day old.”  The widow told Milly that she and the baby would die if they remained exposed in the woods and advised her to return to her owner.  Milly left, and a few days later an infant, Mary Ann, was found at Britt’s.  The widow could not swear that Milly’s baby was Mary Ann, but Mary Ann was a “bright mulatto” and resembled Milly.  Britt and his wife were childless and brought the child up “tenderly,” becoming much attached.  After about four years, Willis showed up to claim Mary Ann, but Britt refused to give her up without valid title and asserted his belief that she was the child of a white man and a colored woman.  After Britt’s death in 1836, Mary Ann lived with his administrator, William Jones, who did not claim as part of Britt’s estate.  The lower court found that whether or not Mary Ann was the child of a slave, the verdict was in favor of Jones, the administrator.  The Supreme Court, however, deemed the jury instructions invalid and ordered a new trial.