Fourth Generation Inclusive

Historical Documents of Genealogical Interest to Researchers of North Carolina's Free People of Color

Thomas Sheridan.

Thomas Sheridan (ca. 1787-1864) was an emancipated mulatto carpenter active in Bladen County during the antebellum period, whose only documented building is the Brown Marsh Presbyterian Church (1828) in that county.

“Thomas Sheridan’s family background illustrates the complexities of race and status in his era. Probably born in Bladen County, he may have been the son of Nancy Sheridan (a woman of color who was emancipated after his birth) and Joseph R. Gautier, a wealthy Bladen County planter and merchant of French Huguenot background. Gautier, who was frequently listed among the leading men of the Cape Fear region, was a political figure in Elizabethtown, a state senator (1791), and an early supporter of the University of North Carolina noted for having left his library of some 100 volumes (mostly in French) to the university’s library. Gautier was the owner of several slaves, including Thomas Sheridan and his brother Louis Sheridan, and probably Nancy Sheridan. Circumstantial evidence also indicates that Joseph Gautier and Nancy Sheridan had a long-term domestic relationship: many white men who had such relationships with their enslaved women often freed their enslaved family members and provided for them (although emancipation became increasingly difficult in the early and mid-19th century).

“In 1799, Joseph Gautier of Elizabethtown petitioned the North Carolina General Assembly to emancipate “two mulatto boys belonging to him.” Gautier explained that, “as their childhood would render fruitless a recourse to the county court, he prays the aid at the Legislature to establish by a law the freedom of said boys.” (Laws governing emancipation by county courts required demonstration of meritorious service, which a child could not have earned; thus Gautier appealed to the legislature. No matter what the status of the father, a child born to an enslaved mother was born a slave.) Gautier’s petition succeeded, and the legislature enacted a law that “the said mulatto boys be emancipated and set free from slavery, and henceforward be called and known by the names of Thomas Sheridan and Louis Sheridan.” In 1799, Thomas was about twelve years of age and Louis was about six. In the 1800 census of Bladen County, J. R. Gautier was listed as head of household with one white male, three “other” free persons–probably Nancy, Thomas, and Louis–and seven slaves. His will of 1800 left his plantation “at the marsh,” his household and plantation utensils, and five slaves to Nancy Sheridan, “my emancipated black woman” (suggesting that he himself had freed her, though no record has been found). He left three slaves to “her child” Louis Sheridan, a small amount of property to his (presumably white) nephew, Joseph Gautier, Jr., and £500 to Thomas Sheridan, no relationship specified. The terms of the will make it uncertain as to whether Thomas as well as Louis Sheridan was the son of Nancy Sheridan: Thomas might have been the son of Gautier with another woman, or even of Nancy and another father. In any case, Gautier freed and provided for young Thomas. Gautier died in 1807.

“Louis Sheridan (ca. 1793-1844), probably Thomas’s brother or half-brother, gained a good education and became an important merchant and large property owner in Elizabethtown with business connections throughout the state and even the nation. He owned as many as sixteen slaves. He also acquired many town lots in Elizabethtown, including those he sold as sites for the courthouse and for the Presbyterian and Methodist churches. Probably because of his father’s position and connections, Sheridan was aided by former governor John Owen and other leading men of the region and traveled widely for business to Philadelphia, New York, and elsewhere. Although he had initially opposed colonization, after the state placed tighter restrictions on free people of color in the 1830s, Louis Sheridan joined the Liberian colonization movement. He sold his slaves and moved with his family to Liberia in 1837, where he found a situation far less rosy than he anticipated and wrote (often negative) reports back to the United States. He remained there nevertheless and died there in 1844.

“Thomas Sheridan pursued the carpentry trade and remained in Bladen County. Although he doubtless built other structures, he is remembered chiefly as builder of Brown Marsh Presbyterian Church. The plainly finished, weatherboarded building is one of the few intact examples still standing of the state’s once numerous simple frame churches. A board in the church ceiling retains the chalked signature, “Thos. Sheridan,” and the date, probably 1828, possibly 1818. Within several years, in 1834, the Presbyterians in the county seat of Elizabethtown built a more substantial church on land deeded to the congregation by Louis Sheridan. Possibly the congregation employed Thomas Sheridan to build it, but this is not documented.

“According to the United States census of 1850, unlike his brother Thomas Sheridan did not become wealthy. He was listed as a mulatto carpenter, aged 62, with $30 worth of real estate. He headed a household that included his wife Agnes and their adult daughter, Martha. They lived in a rural neighborhood among primarily white farmers, plus a few other free artisans of color. In 1851 Sheridan remarried, to Lucy Oxendine of Robeson County, of a large Native American family. In 1860, Thomas Sheridan was listed as a farmer with a farm worth $200 and personal property worth $170, with his wife Lucy, aged 55. In his will of 1863 (probated in 1864), Sheridan left his farm, livestock, and household goods to his wife, then to his daughter Martha. He specified that his gun (for which in most areas a man of color had to obtain a special license) and his carpentry tools should be sold to pay for his funeral; and he left the lumber in his shop “to make my coffin.”

Author: Catherine W. Bishir. Published 2009.

As published in North Carolina Architects and Builders: A Biographical Dictionary,  (All rights retained.) This web site is a growing reference work that contains brief biographical accounts, building lists, and bibliographical information about architects, builders, and other artisans who planned and built North Carolina’s architecture.  

Notice of petition to emancipate.

Notice.  Is hereby given, that the subscriber will petition the next General Assembly of the North Carolina, to emancipate slave ELI, belonging to the estate of Godwin Cotton, dec’d.  EPHRAIM DICKEN, Executor of Godwin Cotton, dec’d.  Oct. 22d, 1838.

Tarboro’ Press, 17 Nov 1838.

Surnames: Henderson County, 1850.

The following surnames are found among free people of color in Henderson County:


It gets worse.

To the worshipful the Justices of the County Court of Edgcombe. The Petition of your Petitioner Harry McClennan humbly sheweth that your Petitioner is a freeman that for some time past he hath been held and claimed as a slave by William Leigh late of this County that a suit if now depending in this Court before your Worships against George Brownriggs wherein the said George at the instance of your Petitioner hath pleaded that your Petitioner is a freeman & not a slave your Petitioner further sheweth that he hath been informed that the said William Leigh, apprehensive that the said issue will turn out against him designs to seize upon the body of your Petitioner & remove him to some foreign Country beyond the jurisdiction of this Worshipful Court by which means your Petitioner would be utterly deprived of the benefit of the law and of those natural & Civil Rights to which the Citizens of this Country are entitled.

Your Petitioner further shews that impressed with the truth of the above design of the William [sic] he is hampered and impeded in preparing himself in his defence and without the interposition of your Worships to take his Care into consideration & give such Relief as to you in your Wisdom may seem proper.

Miscellaneous Slave Records, Edgecombe County Records, North Carolina State Archives.

“It was always my intention to free the child.” — the road to hell.

The worshipfull the County Court of Edgecombe May Term 1796: Approving me to take the Deposition of George Ogg in a matter Depending in our said County wherein William Leigh is Plaintiff and George Brownrigg is Defend’t. In Obedience thereto I have attended at the house of Solomon Sessums and taken said Ogg’s Deposition.  It is as follows – The Deponant after being Duly Sworn on the Holy Evangelist of Almighty God Deposeth and sayeth that he had oftimes heard Mr. Robert Bignall sens Dec’d say that a Certain Yellow or Mulatto Boy Named Harry now in the Possession of George Brownrigg was the son of William McClellin formerly a merchant in Tarborough and was at a certain Age (Twenty one years he Believ’d) Intitled to his Freedom and Further this Deponant sayeth not.  Given under my hand and seal this 30th day of May 1796.  /s/ Exum Philips JP

Records of Slaves and Free Persons of Color, Edgecombe County, North Carolina State Archives.

Neither purchase the horse nor harbor the boy.


RANAWAY from the subscriber, on Friday morning, 2d inst. About 2 o’clock, a bright mulatto boy named John Murray, aged about 20 or 21 years, 5 feet 7 or 8 inches high, square built.  He had on when he left, a white hat with a broad brim, drab colored close bodied coat, and white pantaloons.  Said boy is free and has free papers, but was hired by me – he stole from me when he left, A Gray Horse, 4 years old, nearly 5 feet high, very well set, and on his wethers he has saddle marks and a small lump.  I will give $20 reward for the apprehension of said boy and horse, if taken within this State – or $50 if without the State, and secured so that I get them again.  All persons are cautioned against purchasing the horse or harboring said boy.  DAVID McDANIEL.  Tarboro’, N.C. Nov. 6, 1838.

Tarboro’ Press, 17 Nov 1838.

Look out for him.

A Villain – Look out for him. – A fellow of quite an ordinary appearance, arrived here on Saturday night last in the stage and registered his name at the Edenton Hotel, “J.C. Martin, South Mills” – He was recognized, however, on Sunday, by the Captain of a Canal Boat from Norfolk, as being the individual who broke jail in Richmond not long since, where he was confined for kidnapping and selling a free negro, and whose real name is James Cox.  On Monday morning, after some delay, it was determined by the citizens to arrest him; but he had, no doubt, by this time been apprized of the fact, and he left town immediately, by jumping a few fences in the rear lot of the tavern.  As soon as it became known that he had disappeared, a posse of men proceeded in search of him, and once got sight of him, but by keen dodging (at which no doubt he is in full practice,) he succeeded in evading them.

The rascal, having left his trunk at the tavern, had the audacity to send for it, (by remitting the money to pay his tavern bill,) on Tuesday night by the stage.  It was not sent, but broken open, and found to contain a bowie knife, a dirk, a pistol well charged, some cotton cloth torn in slips and tied together, two or three small ropes, a few articles of clothing, several letters from his wife in Norfolk, and a brief statement of his villainous acts since his escape from the Richmond jail, written and signed by himself.  – Edenton Sentinel.

Tarboro Press, 5 Oct 1844.