John Bembry: the Plot Thickens

John Bembry, oldest son of Miles Bembry, was a colorful character. In 1831 he stabbed a cousin, Littleton Bryan, to death, apparently over some kind of property dispute. Wanted notices were were posted all over Georgia and Florida by Littleton’s father, Moses Bryan, who offered a substantial reward for his capture. However, there is no record that he was ever captured, imprisoned or hanged for the crime.

Samuel H Andrew Jr, a cousin to the Bembry family, wrote an unpublished family history that was quoted in “Descendants of Captain John Wiggins of Martin County, North Carolina” written in 2000. He had a theory that it was possible that the Bembry family had faked John’s death, and that he continued to live with his wife, Maria Wiggins Bembry as “Charles D. Burton.”

I cannot say whether that theory is correct or not, but I can now say that there were definitely some fishy things going on around then with the Bembry family.

I have known for many years about an 1847 Georgia court case which mentions a “conveyance” by Miles Bembry of certain slaves: Dinah, Dick, Alice, Saline, and Dinah’s children, Berry, Jacob, Eleanor and Oran to the children of his son, John Bembry.

Yesterday, I found the original conveyance. It is a Pulaski County deed dated 14 Sep 1832.

Miles Bembry of Pulaski County to Penelope L Bembry, Sarah Ann Bembry and John Bembry Junr, Kenneth Bembry the Daughters and Sons of John Bembry Senr all of the State and County above named…

..for and in consideration of the Love and affection he bears unto the said Penelope, Sarah, John and Kenneth and also in consideration of the sum of One Dollar to him in hand paid…

…doth grant and convey unto the above Daughters and Sons of the said John Bembry Senr also if any of the said children should depart this life for any increase the Balance of said four names Daughters and Sons to heir said property as follows…

…four negroes to with: Dick a boy 19 or 20 years of age, Diner a woman 30 years of age, Mary about 28 years of age, Sabre a girl 14 years of age…

…said property to stay together till Kenneth Bembry Junr becomes of Age then it is my wish for them to be Equally divided between said Daughters and Sons of John Bembry Snr.

Miles Bembry

Wits: Thos Bembry [Miles’ son], James L Carruthers, J P 

Entered 30th April 1833

The names were not quite right in the 1847 court case. This deed mentions Dick, Dinah, Mary, and Sabre/Sabry. (Dinah’s listed children in 1847 must therefore have been born after 1832.)

It is interesting that the enslaved people were to be kept together until Kenneth II reached the age of 21. He was only five years at the time of the deed, so that would be another 16 years. At first I thought that this was “special consideration” (and it might well have been) but then it occurred to me that this was also a way to keep all four of them with Maria Wiggins Bembry for some time to come. Which seems more likely, because they are apparently not, as I had earlier thought, a mother and her children.

But, it gets more interesting.

I found another deed yesterday, recorded in 1848, but theoretically written in 1834, by John Bembry himself. It is described as a disposition of property in the Wiggins family history mentioned above, but that is a bit of “whitewashing.” It was a deed dividing enslaved people among John’s children, no other property is mentioned. Dinah, Dick, Mary, and Sabry are listed again, along with several other people.

15 July 1834

John Bembry of Dooly County

…to my beloved daughter Fanny Martha one negro woman by the name of Mary

…to my dear daughter Penelope Louisa one negro woman by the name of Dinah and the child Hellen a female [and $100]

…unto Sally Ann Bembry I give two negro girls by the name of Sabry the other Harriott

…unto my much beloved son John B I give one negro boy by the name of Peter

…unto my dear and beloved son Kenneth one negro boy by the name of Jerry

…unto my dear and much beloved wife Maria Bembry during her life all those negros known by the names of Jacob + Dick men, Cate a woman and her child by the name of Emily and after her death (the woman Cate and her increase to be equally divided by the Boys John + Kenneth) to be equally divided between my children.

John Bembry

Wits: Charles D Burton, David Scarborough [Miles’ son-in-law]

Charles D Burton and David Scarborough both attested that they saw John Bembry write the above conveyance. Scarborough was also a beneficiary, being the husband of Penelope Louisa Bembry. In fact, their marriage took place the very same day, which leads me to believe that was the reason for either writing the conveyance on that date, or retroactively giving it that date.

Charles D Burton does not appear to exist anywhere other than as a signature on this deed, but there is a white man aged 30-39 living with Maria on the 1840 census. He is not (at least officially) her husband, because he would be listed as a head of household. It seems logical to believe this must be “Charles D Burton.” Or was it John Bembry, aged 30-39 in 1840, thinly disguised as an overseer or relative?

Later documents make clear that most of these enslaved people stayed with Maria Wiggins Bembry until at least ten years later. She mortgaged several of them in 1841, and put Jacob, Dick, and Cate up for sale in 1843. (There is no record that the sale was actually completed. I have seen this happen several times with the Bembrys, it seems likely another family member, perhaps the wealthy Kenneth Bembry, bailed her out.)

Maria was supposed to have died about 1848: she is not found on the 1850 census. I have a theory about what eventually happened to John Bembry which I wrote about here.

So, did the enslaved people belong to Miles in 1832, or to John in 1834? What was the story here??

It looks to me like John and Miles Bembry were each independently trying to make sure that the enslaved people mentioned would stay with Maria for a number of years, then be passed on to John’s children. In the mean time, if the enslaved people technically belonged to the children, they could not be sold to settle debts. This is an arrangement that would work out particularly well if John Bembry were still around to reap the benefits!

I know that Dinah did go to Penelope and lived until at least 1847 when the above-mentioned court dispute took place listing her and her children.

I know that Dick eventually went to John B Bembry, from the slave schedules, and because he is found living next to him and working for him in 1870 as Richard Bembry, matching Dick’s birthdate. He was born in North Carolina, so may well have been held by the Bembry family since birth. Given that he is described as “mulatto,” he may in fact be a relative.

It appears that Jerry and Jacob went to Kenneth Bembry II, because they are found on his estate inventory in 1863. Both are found living with the Bembry surname in Dooly County after 1865. Jacob Bembry was also born in North Carolina, while Jerry Bembry was born in Georgia.

I have no record of Sally Ann Bembry after 1834, she may have died young. So, I do not know what happened to Sabry and Harriott.

Frances (Fanny) Martha Bembry married a William Bryan in 1830, but seems to have died some time before 1850. So, Mary remains a mystery, although with a little more research on William Bryan I may find her in documents.

These deeds which mention so many people were useful both in establishing facts about both the white and the enslaved Bembrys, a good demonstration of why it is helpful to include enslaved people in collateral research to complete the picture!

I cannot say for sure exactly what happened to John Bembry, but I will say that there was definitely some funny business going on and that there is some evidence that he was protected from hanging by the rest of the Bembrys (and perhaps by other members of the community–it could be that Littleton Bryan just “needed killin.”)

There is a widespread assumption on many genealogies that Miles Bembry was “John Miles Bembry.” I have tons of documentation on Miles, and he never once signed his name as John Miles or even John M. He and John Bembry are clearly separate people, and clearly father and son. This pernicious, largely fictional, biography, which refers to Miles Bembry as “John Bembry, an English shipmaster” seems to be one source for the broadly repeated error. Perhaps these deeds, and/or other potentially misleading stories and documents from the time, contributed to the original mixup.

I’ve written before about the shipmaster story bears a remarkable resemblance to that of the prominent McKenzie family of Halifax County, who employed Miles as an overseer. Now that I know that the Bembrys were willing to obfuscate facts when it was convenient for them, I also wonder if perhaps the misleading information about Miles’ origins was intentional on their part. Miles Bembry, upstart overseer and father to a murderer on the run, making a fresh start late in life by moving to Georgia, may have deliberately dropped hints that he was connected to the McKenzie family. Or, given all our many otherwise unexplained McKenzie DNA cousins, he may have actually been connected with the McKenzies and couldn’t resist adopting their story.

One day, that brick wall will fall!



5 thoughts on “John Bembry: the Plot Thickens

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s