I’ve recently uncovered several wills relating to the Harris family, Thomas Bembry’s in-laws. They seem to have been a pretty hard-nosed lot, being very specific about property in their wills and selling enslaved people without thinking twice about it.
I had known for some time that the second Nathan Harris’ will had resulted in a series of lawsuits over “negroes,” however, I had never seen the actual will before. It reveals that old Nathan, my 6th great-grandfather, clearly didn’t think much of his son-in-law, Richard Dicken, my 5th great grandfather! He specifically states that his daughter Polly’s inheritance was to stay out of her husband’s hands, and makes very specific provisions for his granddaughter Frances Dicken as well as her future siblings (Matthew, Ephraim, William and Martha).
Later court documents show that Richard Dicken was jailed “for debt to Nathan Harris” in 1815. This must have been a debt to Harris’ estate, as Harris was dead by then. Perhaps Richard Dicken was an alcoholic: his imminent death appears to be anticipated by Nathan in his will, and in fact Richard was dead by 1819, as evidenced by a lawsuit in that year referring to him as deceased.
Polly Harris and Richard Dicken were the parents of Martha “Patsy” Dicken first wife of Thomas Bembry and my 4th great grandmother.
The will also reveals that Nathan had a good-sized farm with a “House and out Houses (outbuildings),” an apple orchard and cider still, and part ownership of a mill on White Oak swamp.
Some of the enslaved people named in the will show up later in court documents dating 1819-1821. See below.
Edgecombe County Will Book D
In the name of God Amen.
I Nathan Harris of the county of Edgecombe + State of North Carolina, being of of sound mind and memory, calling to mind it is appointed for all men to die, do make, constitute + ordain this to be my last Will and Testament in manner+ form following.
First, I give my loving wife Molly (Mary) Harris during her life or widowhood the following negroes (viz) Bob, Beck, Jordan, Isam + Cherry also my black Horse Butler (?) + sorrel Mare. Likewise one third part of my stock of every description, Horses excepted, with one third part of my Kitchen and household furniture + plantation utensils also my Cider still. I also lend my said loving wife Molly the House and out Houses wherein I now live + land within the following bounds during her life or widowhood as aforesaid,
beginning at the mouth of the Branch above the houses where it enters the White Oak swamp then running to the think (?) Pond near the back line so as to include all the cleared lands below the branch that lies above the House thence to More (Moore) swamp then running to the lower corner of my young Apple Orchard then running the fence and course of the fence to the run of White Oak swamp to the beginning.
2nd I give and bequeath my friend William Exum my negro girl Charity with her increase with the provision that in case of my said friend William Exum dies leaving no lawful heirs of the body then in that case I give the said negro girl Charity + increase to my Executor hereafter named to be divided as my other property is divided hereafter.
3. I give my daughter Polly Dicken during her life one hundred acres of land lying on the watery branch where Richard Dicken lives.
4th It is my will + desire that all the residue of my estate that is neither lent nor given away both real and personal be vested in my Exr.s hereafter named or either of them should one die or refuse to act, and for my daughter Polly + grandchildren to be supported at the discretion of my Exrs or either of them, until such time as my Grand daughter, Franky Dicken, arrives at the age of Twenty-one years, or until my son in law Richard Dicken dies,
my will and desire is that when either of the above cases should happen (either the coming of age of said granddaughter or the death of said son in law then my Exrs or Executor devise or cause to be divided and not before) all my negroes as well as every other species of my property including the personal property lent my loving wife provided she be dead + otherwise as regard the property lent, land excepted between my daughter Polly Dicken + her children that she may have hereafter as well those she has at the _____ of this _______ share and share alike between them their Heirs and assigns
only it is to be remembered and kept in mind that I have given my grand daughter Frankey Dicken two negroes + their increase by the names of Patty and Jordan and that my will is that she the said Frankey is not to draw any part of my Estate before the other legatees mentioned in this the _____ of my will are made equal in property to what I have already given her, after that should there be any of my Estate left she is to divide with the rest, that is with her mother and any living Brothers and Sisters.
4th I will and devise that all my land be sold after the death of my loving wife by my Exrs or their acting in Credit + the money arising from the sales thereof to be equally divided share + share alike between my daughter Polly + her children as well those may have hereafter as those she has at this present time.
5th My will further is that my Exrs hereafter named be vested with full power to act at their discretion and good judgement for the benefit of the Estate to work the negroes + land or to hire out the negroes + rent the land + sell the perishable property + my part of the Mill in White Oak as it may appear best in their judgement and if in their judgement think it best to sell any part of said Mill or any part of my perishable estate they are hereby empowered to so by this my will at any time when they deem it necessary.
6th My will and desire is that in case of said son in law be alive at a time when it will be necessary to divide my estate that the part apportioned to my daughter Polly if living to be kept in the hands of my Executors or Executor for the support of said daughter during life not being my will that said son in law Richard Dicken should ever have any of my estate get into his possession.
I hereby constitute + ordain my friends, Elias Bryan + David Coffield my hole and sole executors of this my last will and Testament and guardians of my daughter Polly Dicken and her children ____ more than one designated in this my will as far as regards the property that I have willed them and in case my Executors should both be dead or refuse to act before my Estate is settled then in that case I appoint my friends Frederick Phillips + Exum Lewis ___________ revoking + replacing all former wills by me made. In witness whereof I havd my seal to be affixed + set my hand this 30th day of November 1809.
Signed sealed and attested to be the last will and testament of the Testator in presence of ______Bembry (?), Levi Denton + Harrison Pitman
Will proven May court 1810
1821 court documents, show that the Jordan and Patsy mentioned above were (presumably) a couple, and their children’s names were Ben, Wilson, and Lucinda. Isam, Bob, Beck and Cherry also appear again, with named children.
The names of the negroes belonging to Frances Dicken arguably to the last Will + Testament of her Grand Father Nathan Harris is Jordan, Pat + her children (viz) Ben, Wilson + Lucinda—also the negroes remaining in Stock + belonging jointly to Matthew. Ephraim + William Dicken are Isam, Cherry + her child Offy, Willis, Bob, Beck + her two children Mary (?) + Penny, George, Arthur, Davison (Dawson?), Ben, King, Ned + Frank.
In addition, Patsy Dicken inherited Isaac, Jerry, Allen, Norfleet and Edie from the estate. As she was a minor at the time, these people were held by Thomas Bembry her husband and legal guardian.