One odd thing about my timeline for Miles Bembry has always been his appearance on the 1800 census in Bertie County as Miles “Benbory,” the “owner” of 69 slaves. It is the only time that he appears in that county. It is also very strange that he goes from 1 slave in 1790, to 69 in 1800, then back down to 18 slaves in 1810.
It is, of course, possible that I have found the wrong Miles. However, everything else matches up: his age, his wife’s age, and having four sons under the age of 10.And he is definitely not found where he “should” be, in neighboring Martin County.
So, I decided a couple of weeks ago to look further into this.
I was not able to find enumerator instructions for the 1800 census. But I did find instructions for the 1790 census which state that the enumerators should produce:
…accurate returns of all persons, except Indians not taxed, within their respective divisions, which returns shall be made in the schedule, distinguishing the several families by the names of their master, mistress, steward, overseer, or other principal person therein
If I read this correctly, Miles could indeed have been counted as the “head of household” for a plantation if the owner were not present. Given that I already know that he worked as an overseer for David Clark from 1813-1818, it is fair to assume that he might also have been working as an overseer in 1800.
But which Bertie County planter employed him? I asked that question on a Bertie County genealogy group, and someone helpfully pointed out that Lewis Thompson listed 67 slaves on the same census. That is a very close match, especially considering that I know Miles already held one slave, Hannah, in 1790. If she had a child, or if Miles acquired just one more enslaved person, then that would be the difference between 67 and 69 people right there.
I then starting digging up information on Lewis Thompson. Bertie County deeds show that he purchased six tracts of land in quick succession in 1798 and 1799. These deeds, as well as other information that I found online about the Thompson family, revealed that they lived in Woodville, Bertie County, near the Martin County line, and that Lewis’ newly acquired lands lay just across the Roanoke river from where Miles was living in Martin County.
As Lewis Thompson greatly expanded his holdings just before the 1800 census, it stands to reason that he would need someone to manage these plantations on which he did not live. Miles lived nearby and was hired as an overseer. The enslaved people were counted twice because both Lewis and Miles answered the question correctly as far as each enumerator was concerned. There was, after all, no database program in existence at that time to catch such an error.
Still, it seemed odd to me that Miles would have been hired by a man who appears nowhere else in my Bembry records. (I do have Thompsons in my tree, but they are a completely different line.) It was all about family connections back then. What was I not seeing — and how could it be useful to me in knocking down my most persistent brick wall?
And so, I kept digging, looking at Thompson deeds and probate records. I didn’t find any Bembrys, but guess who popped up once again. The McKenzie/Clark family.
There were many connections, particularly between Lewis Thompson’s family and William McKenzie, brother to Kenneth McKenzie, and both uncle and adoptive father to John, William, Kenneth and David Clark, the four sons of sea captain Colin Clark whose family story was somehow acquired by the Bembrys (along with the name Kenneth.)
To cite just a few of the connections: Kenneth Clark was executor to Lewis Thompson’s will. His brother, William Clark, had extensive business dealings with Lewis Thompson Senior and his son, Lewis W M Thompson, who also married William Clark’s daughter, Margaret and was the executor of his will. And David Clark, Miles’ future employer, and William Clark were not only siblings, but frequent investment partners, signing off on many deeds together.
And so, it was not actually so strange that Miles Bembry was hired as an overseer by two families that clearly knew each other well. I think I can now say with a great deal of certainty that I have the right Miles on the 1800 census and that he was working as Lewis Thompson’s overseer just across the river in Roanoke County.
This discovery also pushes back Miles’ association with the McKenzie/Clark family back more than a decade, to at least 1800. Clearly, a direction for further research.