by Lisa Y. Henderson
Thomas Day—who was born in 1801 in Greensville County, Virginia, to mixed-race parents, John and Mourning Day—moved with his family to Warren County, North Carolina, in 1817. When he moved to Hillsborough in the early 1820s, it appears that he became friends with members of the Jeffreys family who, although listed as “mulattos” in official records, were actually of Indian origin. The Jeffreys were part of a larger group of Occaneechi people from Virginia who had settled in the northwest section of Orange County, which became Alamance County in 1849. As with the Day family, the Jeffreys family had originated in Greensville County, Virginia. In 1830 Uriah Jeffreys served as a bondsman for Thomas Day when he married Aquilla Wilson. A bondsman was usually a close family member (such as a father, brother, or uncle) who assured the court that the couple should be married, and that the groom would not change his mind and leave the bride at the altar. Uriah Jeffreys must have been a close friend of Thomas to agree to be his bondsman. Historic records make it clear that both men were cabinetmakers, and it is possible that Uriah and his brother Nathan worked with Day for a short time. In 1828 Uriah decided to move. He advertised in the Hillsborough Recorder that he had a variety of furniture from his cabinetmaking business for sale, including “Bureaus, Bedsteads, Tables.”
Uriah moved to Ohio with two of his brothers, Parker and Augustus. Unfortunately, they experienced the same type of prejudice in the North that they had tried to leave behind. The law required free blacks entering Ohio to pay a bond of $500 to county officials. Whites thought this would guarantee that only free blacks of “good character” would settle and be able to support themselves. Parker Jeffreys refused to pay, insisting that his blood was a mixture of Indian and white, and not black. The case went to the county court, where he lost. Jeffreys persevered, and the Ohio Supreme Court heard his case in 1842. In Parker Jeffreys v. Ankeny et al., the supreme court justices ruled that he was an Indian with no African ancestry and did not have to pay the bond. Members of the Jeffreys family continued to make furniture near Xenia, Ohio, well into the twentieth century.
Nathan Jeffreys lived the rest of his life in North Carolina. It seems that he continued to work as a journeyman cabinetmaker, because in 1834 he is listed as such in a court document. However, in the 1850 and 1860 censuses, he is listed as a farmer owning $500 in property. Many cabinetmakers supplemented their incomes by farming. Day clearly considered Nathan a close family friend, because in 1851 in a letter to his own daughter, Mary Ann, he mentions the death of Nathan’s daughter, Safroney.
Fine furniture made by Nathan Jeffreys between 1845 and 1855 is known to exist in a private collection. The construction techniques that he used are similar to those found on the bureaus made in Day’s Milton shop, indicating that the two men probably worked together at one time. Jeffreys and other members of the Indian community passed on their woodworking skills. His great-great-grandson, William Bill Jeffries, learned woodworking from his father. He built houses as well as chairs during most of the twentieth century.
Adapted from Dr. Patricia Phillips Marshall, “Indian Cabinetmakers in Piedmont North Carolina,” www.ncpedia.org