Miles Bembry as Plantation Overseer

In researching my brickwall ancestor and 5th great-grandfather, Miles Bembry (1766-1838), I have been researching his FAN (Friend Associate Neighbor) club in depth for some time. However, recently, I consulted with a professional genealogist, and this caused me to realize that I needed to be more systematic in my research and develop more visual aids to help me understand patterns.

To that end, I decided to create the Mother of All TimelinesTM in Google Sheets. I included most events in Miles’ life along with the FAN club members (Friends Associates Neighbors) for each event. I also researched the FAN club members, to varying degrees. And sure enough, this exercise helped me to see a pattern. Before about 1820, Miles’ neighbors on censuses bore very little relation to his neighbors on land deeds. This would indicate that he was not actually living on his own property until he was middle-aged.

So, how did that work?

I already knew that Miles had worked as an overseer on David McKenzie Clark’s “Albin” plantation near Scotland Neck, North Carolina, from about 1813 to 1818. It seemed likely that he had worked as an overseer during other periods as well. Does this make sense, that an overseer would be working for others for decades, living on the plantations of his employers, while gradually accumulating property of his own?

Well, yes, in fact, it does. Thanks to a surprisingly interesting book, The overseer: plantation management in the Old South, by William Scarborough, I learned that the job description of overseer varied depending on the location and the time period. The stereotype of the lazy, cruel, disreputable overseer derives from a population of transient workers that floated around the large plantations of the deep south. By contrast, in the “upper south,” which would include North Carolina, during the period when Miles was working (1790-1820), overseeing plantations was a trade, and one of the few routes for financial (if not social) advancement for working class men. (There were even some free black overseers, which was news to me.)

Note: this is not to gloss over the fact that overseers were in charge of exploiting slaves, including whipping and other punishments. Scarborough simply explains, through data and first-hand accounts drawn from letters and other historical documents, that while some overseers were ignorant slave drivers, many more were experienced farm managers, the management of enslaved workers being one part of this larger job description. Though the book was written in 1966, and some of the language and attitudes are what you might call dated, it is still a great resource for anyone wanting to learn more about antebellum plantation life. It is available for free at the Internet Archive.

In North Carolina, most plantations were nowhere near as large as in the deep south. An overseer was usually employed to fully manage a farm and workforce of twenty or thirty enslaved people, often for an absentee owner. A reliable and productive overseer received a good salary as well as free housing and other benefits, all of which made it possible for a working man to accumulate enough savings to purchase his own farm. Many overseers also invested in their own slaves and then “hired them out” to the plantation owner, thereby banking the enslaved workers’ wages.

It seems that this was Miles Bembry’s trajectory. And here is how I developed this working theory.

Beginning at the beginning

The first reference to Miles that I have found is on the 1790 census for Martin County. Research showed me that his neighbors were all men with little to no property. Some are identified on later documents as tradesmen: a carpenter, a mason, and so on. For this reason, I think they probably lived in a settlement, possibly Williamston.

I have not found any property for Miles at all before 1797, when his wife, Ann Bryan, inherited 100 acres and one enslaved woman (Hannah, “now in her possession”), from her father, Needham Bryan. As Miles witnessed a document for one of Ann’s relatives, Lewis Bryan, in 1795, it seems likely that he was working for Lewis, Needham, or another nearby Bryan when he met Ann.

Jumping ahead to 1810

Going back to my insanely detailed timeline, I noticed something interesting: many of Miles’ neighbors in Martin County in 1810 are identical or very similar (descendants) to FAN club member William McKenzie’s neighbors in 1790 and on subsequent deeds. Furthermore, deeds show that this group of people lived in or near Williamston. William McKenzie’s primary plantation, inherited from his deceased brothers John and Kenneth, was located at “Skewarkey” an area on the western edge of Williamston. So, it certainly appears that Miles was living on McKenzie’s property in 1810.

I therefore believe that it is very likely that just before Miles worked for David McKenzie Clark in Scotland Neck, he was working for Clark’s uncle (and adoptive father), William McKenzie at Skewarkey. McKenzie died in 1810, at which point Miles began to work for Clark. It all fits.

Extrapolating backward to 1800

In 1800, Miles and Ann are found in adjoining Bertie County. Miles did not own any land there, so he must have been living and working on someone else’s plantation. I first thought he may have been working for Lewis Thompson, who owned a similar number of slaves on the 1800 census. However, the genealogist that I consulted with pointed out that the lopsidedly written figure of 69 slaves could be an error–perhaps it was either 6 or 9, which would be more likely, given that this was not an area with a lot of huge plantations (or even a 5 and a 9.)

The second page of Miles Bembry’s census entry for 1800 in Bertie County.

While William McKenzie lived in Martin County for most of his life, he also owned tracts in Bertie County, as evidenced by two 1789 deeds and his widow, Margaret’s, 1817 will in which she leaves all her lands “in Bertie and Martin counties” to her surviving nephews, David and William M Clark. Unfortunately, the 1800 census is alphabetical rather than sequential, so I cannot tell where Miles was living in relation to McKenzie deeds in Bertie. However, it seems logical and likely that Miles was also working for William McKenzie in 1800, on his Bertie County property.

(William McKenzie reported 9 slaves in 1790, and 14 slaves on the 1800 census. Perhaps the lopsided “69” on Miles’ entry reflects 9 slaves living in one location, and 6 in another, for a total of 15. Or it could be 9 McKenzie slaves and 6 Bembry slaves working at that location.)

More property acquisition

By 1810, Miles had saved enough to pay $3,600 for 728 acres in Edgecombe County on the Indian Branch, which forms the border with Martin County. A few months later, he sold his original Martin County tracts, acquired between 1797 and 1805, to John Williams Mayo, father-in-law of his son, William, for $1300 and “divers good causes.” It seems likely that that the “good cause” could be that the wealthy Mayo fronted him some of the money to move to Edgecombe and was later paid with a discount on a land sale.

In 1818, after working for David Clark for several years, Miles paid $3,500 for another 900 acres in Edgecombe, which he deeded to his two oldest sons, John and William.

Completing the journey

By 1820, Miles appears to be living on his own land, with 20 slaves. He had achieved exactly what most “yeoman,” or working-class overseers were trying to achieve: financial independence, his own mini-plantation, and legacies and “good” marriages for his two oldest sons. Social acceptance was another matter, by the standards of the day, he would never be able to call himself a “planter.” However, it was after this point that Miles began to appear on jury lists, as court witness, dividing estates, and in other roles occupied by a man of property. He was probably considered what we would call today middle-class.

Those McKenzies again

I can’t say that I am surprised that this trail appears to have led back to the McKenzies. The adoption of the McKenzie “origin story” by Miles now appears to be due to his decades-long association with the family. He may have believed himself to be related to them, though the jury is still out on whether or not he actually was.

Once again, I have to wonder about the slave named Miles on the Reverend John McKenzie’s 1775 inventory, who was inherited first by Kenneth McKenzie and then almost certainly by William McKenzie or his four adopted nephews. (If it weren’t for the fact that Miles consistently identified as white, I’d call it a slam-dunk.)

Kenneth McKenzie died unmarried, and relatively young, in 1789. Might he have had an illegitimate son that William agreed to take on as a resident employee along with inherited property?

It’s worth noting that John McKenzie, William’s oldest brother, also died young and unmarried, in 1773. Given that William McKenzie adopted his sister’s four orphaned children, might he have also apprenticed an orphaned illegitimate nephew? Or perhaps apprenticed an unrelated orphan, given that he had no children of his own until his sister died in 1778?

While this remains a working theory, I think it’s a pretty good one. There are a number of ways in which Miles could be connected to the McKenzies. Martin County court records do not exist for this crucial period, however, as John McKenzie lived in Bertie County and Kenneth McKenzie owned a lot of property there, my next steps will be to look for any records regarding their estates. I will also research in any district court records that might include a mention of William McKenzie apprenticing or becoming guardian to a boy named Miles.

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