[Directly below is an extract of the introduction from Paul Heinegg's book, "Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware." Following the introduction is a 5-generation genealogy of descendants of Elizabeth OWELL or Martha HOWELL, one of whom is suspected to be the mother of Dorothy HOWELL.]

These genealogies, comprising the colonial history of the majority of the free African American families of Virginia and North Carolina, reveal several facets of American colonial history previously overlooked by historians:

Most families were the descendants of white servant women who had children by slaves or free African Americans.

Many descended from slaves who were freed before the 1723 Virginia law which required legislative approval for manumissions. [Some families] who were free in the mid-seventeenth century had several hundred members before the end of the colonial period.

Very few families descended from white slave owners who had children by their slaves, perhaps as low as 1% of the total.

Many free African American families in colonial North Carolina and Virginia were landowners who were generally accepted by their white neighbors.

Free Indians blended into the free African American communities. They did not form their own separate communities.

Some of the light-skinned descendants of free African Americans formed the tri-racial isolates of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Louisiana.

Virginia Origins

Most of the free African Americans of Virginia and North Carolina originated in Virginia where they became free in the seventeenth and eighteenth century before chattel slavery and racism fully developed in the United States.

When they arrived in Virginia, Africans joined a society which was divided between master and white servant - a society with such contempt for white servants that masters were not punished for beating them to death [McIlwaine, Minutes of the Council, 22-24]. They joined the same households with white servants - working, eating, sleeping, getting drunk, and running away together [Northampton Orders 1664-74, fol.25, p.31 - fol.31; McIlwaine, Minutes of the Council, 466-7; Hening, Statutes at Large, II:26, 117; Charles City County Orders 1687-95, 468; Westmoreland County Orders 1752-5, 41a].

Some of these first African slaves became free[.]

A number of African Americans living on the Eastern Shore gained their freedom in the seventeenth century. There were at least 33 taxable African Americans in Northampton County in the 1670s who were free, later became free, or had free children. They represented one third of the taxable African Americans in the county.(1)

Free African Americans were beginning to be assimilated into colonial Virginia society in the mid-seventeenth century. Many were the result of mixed race marriages[.]

As the percentage of African Americans increased, so did tension between free African Americans and slaveholders. [As] more and more slaves replaced white servants, the Legislature passed a series of laws which designated slavery as the appropriate condition for African Americans:

In 1670 the Virginia Assembly forbade free African Americans and Indians from owning white servants [Hening, Statutes at Large, II:280].

In 1691 the Assembly prohibited the manumission of slaves unless they were transported out of the colony. It also prohibited interracial marriages and ordered the illegitimate, mixed-race children of white women bound out for 30 years [Hening, Statutes at Large, III:86-87].

In 1705 the Assembly passed a law which all but eliminated the ability of slaves to earn their freedom by ordering that the farm stock of slaves shall be seized and sold by the church-wardens of the parish wherein such horses, cattle, or hogs shall be, and the profit thereof applied to the use of the poor of said parish [Hening, Statutes at Large, III:459-60].

In 1712 all fifteen members of the Anderson and Richards families were freed and given 640 acres in Norfolk County, Virginia, by the will of John Fulcher, creating such a stir that the Legislative Council on 5 March 1712/3 proposed that the Assembly provide a Law against such Manumission of Slaves, which may in time by their increase and correspondence with other slaves may endanger the peace of this Colony [McIlwaine, Executive Journals of the Council, III:332].

In 1723 the Virginia Assembly prohibited the freeing of slaves except in cases where they had rendered some public service such as foiling a slave revolt. Also in 1723, the Assembly amended the 1705 taxation law to make female free African Americans over the age of sixteen tithable [Hening, Statutes at Large, IV:132-3].(2)

Despite the efforts of the legislature, white servant women continued to bear children by African American fathers through the late seventeenth century and well into the eighteenth century. From these genealogies, it appears that they were the primary source of the increase in the free African American population for this period. Over 188 of the families in this history descended from white women. Many of these women may have been the common-law wives of slaves since they had several mixed-race children.(3) Thirty-seven families descended from freed slaves, eighteen from Native Americans, and nine from white men who married or had children by free African American women.(4) It is likely that the majority of the remaining families descended from white women since they first appear in court records in the mid-eighteenth century when slaves could not be freed without legislative approval, and there is no record of legislative approval for their emancipations.

The replacement of white servants with African slaves, begun in earnest in 1660, continued for more than a century. African slaves had still not completely replaced white servants by 17 October 1773 ...

Racial contempt for African Americans did not fully develop as long as there were white servants in similar circumstances. It was during this period, as late as the end of the eighteenth century, that free African Americans were accepted in some white communities.

In 1782 Virginia relaxed its restrictions on manumission, and thereafter manumitted slaves contributed to the increase in the free African American population.

By 1790 free African Americans were concentrated on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, the counties below the James River, and the northeastern part of North Carolina [Heads of Families - Virginia, 9]. This was a pattern of settlement similar to that of newly freed white servants. Land was available in Southside Virginia and in the northeastern part of North Carolina at prices former servants could afford [Morgan, American Slavery, 227-30].

[37 Howell families show in the households of families in the 1810 Census of Virginia and North Carolina who had been free during the Colonial period.]

Migration to North Carolina

The family histories of over 80% of those counted as "all other free persons" in the 1790-1810 federal census for North Carolina indicate that they were descendants of African Americans who were free in Virginia during the colonial period.

Free African American immigrants were of sufficient number in 1723 that the North Carolina General Assembly received complaints of great Numbers of Free Negroes, Mulattoes, and other persons of mixt Blood, that have lately removed themselves into this Government, and that several of them have intermarried with the white Inhabitants of this Province... [Clark, State Records, XXIII:106-7].

Relations With Whites

While some North Carolina residents were complaining about the immigration of free African Americans, their white neighbors in Granville, Halifax, Bertie, Craven, Granville, Robeson and Hertford counties welcomed them. Their neighbors may have been accustomed to living among free African Americans in Virginia; they may have moved from Virginia in company with them; or perhaps they were drawn together by the adversities of the frontier. Neighbor depended heavily upon neighbor, and whites may have been more concerned with harsh living conditions than they were with their neighbors' color.

The slave population on the frontier was much lower than in the settled areas of Virginia, so the presence of free African Americans would not have posed a threat to most settlers.

And several of these free African Americans owned slaves of their own. However, land ownership was more likely the social equalizer for them and their white neighbors.

On 9 November 1762 many of the leading residents of Halifax County petitioned the Assembly to repeal the discriminatory tax against free African Americans, and in May 1763 fifty-four of the leading citizens of Granville, Northampton, and Edgecombe Counties made a similar petition. They described their "Free Negro & Mulatto" neighbors as persons of Probity & good Demeanor (who) chearfully contribute towards the Discharge of every public Duty injoined them by Law.

In March 1782 a Continental officer observed a scene in a local tavern at Williamsboro, North Carolina:

The first thing I saw on my Entrance was a Free Malatto and a White man seated on the Hearth, foot to foot, Playing all fours by firelight: a Dollar a Game [Journals of Enos Reeves, March 13, 1782, Manuscript Department, Duke University, cited by Crow, The Black Experience in Revolutionary North Carolina, 32].

By 1790 free African Americans represented 1.7% of the free population of North Carolina, concentrated in the counties of Northampton, Halifax, Bertie, Craven, Granville, Robeson, and Hertford where they were about 5% of the free population [Heads of Families - North Carolina, 9-10]. In these counties most African American families were landowners, and several did exceptionally well.

Discriminatory Taxation and Indentured Apprenticeship

In mid-eighteenth century North Carolina we find wealthy mixed race families counted in some years by North Carolina tax assessors as "mulatto" and in other years as white.

While some free African Americans owned slaves and were accepted in white society, others married slaves and socialized with slaves.

However, the majority were small farmers owning a few hundred acres who married other free African Americans. Their marriages can be identified from colonial wills and tax lists, and they were recorded in the county marriage bonds starting in the late eighteenth century. They suffered under the discriminatory North Carolina tax law enacted in 1749 which described taxables as all and every White Person, Male, of the Age of Sixteen Years, and upwards, all Negroes, Mulattoes, Mustees Male or Female, and all Persons of Mixt Blood, to the Fourth Generation, of the Age of Twelve Years, and upwards, and all white Persons intermarrying with any Negro, mulatto, or Mustee, or other Person of mixt Blood, ... shall be deemed Taxables... [Leary & Stirewalt, North Carolina Research, Genealogy and Local History, chapter 13].

Thus, free African American and Native American households can be identified by the taxation of their female family members over twelve years of age. Some light-skinned people would claim to be white to avoid this discriminatory tax, and they would be listed by the tax collector with the notation, "Refuses to list his wife" [Thomas and Michael Gowin in the 1761 list of John Pope, CR 44.701.19]. It was in the interest of the tax collector to classify those of doubtful ancestry as "Mulatto" since he received a portion of the tax.

In addition to the discriminatory tax, poor and orphaned African American children were bound out until the age of twenty-one by the county courts just like their poor white counterparts.(8) In July 1733 the General Assembly received complaints from "divers Inhabitants" that divers free People, Negroes, Molattoes residing in this Province were ... bound out until they come to 31 years contrary to the consent of the Parties bound out. The said comittee further report that they fear that divers Persons will desert the settlement of those parts ...

The General Assembly ruled that those illegally bound should be released and the practice of binding out children to thirty-one years of age instead of twenty-one was to cease [Saunders, Colonial Records, III:556].(9)

The children were bound as apprentices in various crafts. Some apprentices were bound "to learn the art, trade, and mystery of farming" which may simply have meant working as an unpaid field hand; others were trained as coopers, blacksmiths, cordwainers, or other useful occupations.

Sale Into Slavery

Free African Americans were also in danger of having their children stolen and sold into slavery.

Stealing free African Americans to sell them into slavery in another state was not a crime in North Carolina until 1779. However, free African Americans were afforded some protection under the law.

Service in the Revolutionary War

Many of the families in this history have at least one member who fought in the Revolutionary War. Several moved to South Carolina in the eighteenth century, and their names appear in the musters of the South Carolina Militia in the 1759 Cherokee Expedition [Clark, Colonial Soldiers of the South, 701, 883, 892, 894].

The Free Negro Code

Many free African American families sold their land in the early nineteenth century and headed west or remained in North Carolina as poor farm laborers. This was probably the consequence of a combination of deteriorating economic conditions and the restrictive "Free Negro Code" laws.

Beginning in 1826 and continuing through the 1850s, North Carolina passed a series of restrictive laws termed the "Free Negro Code" by John Hope Franklin. Free African Americans lost the right to vote and were required to obtain a license to carry a gun.

Tensions arising from Nat Turner's slave rebellion in nearby Southampton County, Virginia, played a major role in the passage of these laws.(13) It is also possible that moves against the African American population helped to divert the attention of poor whites from their worsening economic conditions in the 1830s.

With the whole state literally up in arms over Nat Turner's rebellion, delegates to the General Assembly from Newbern called on the Assembly "setting forth the incompetency of free persons of color exercising the privilege of voting." Edmund B. Freeman, editor of the Roanoke Advocate, a Halifax County Weekly, boldly came to their support in the January 5, 1832 issue:

It cannot be denied that free negroes, taken in the mass, are dissolute and abandoned -yet there are some individuals among them, sober, industrious and intelligent - many are good citizens; and that they are sometimes good voters we have the best proofs ... We do think that too much prejudice is excited against this class of our population... -but, at the same time, there is a class of white skinned citizens, equally low and abandoned, whose absence whould be little regretted [N.C. Archives, Microfilm HaRA-2].

Many of those who left the state were enumerated in the 1840-1860 censuses of Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan. Some went to Canada and a few to Haiti and Liberia.

By 1870 many of those who remained behind were living in virtually the same condition as the freed slaves. In the 1870 census for Northampton County, North Carolina, the most common occupation listed for those who were free before 1800 was "farm laborer," the same occupation as the former slaves. Some married former slaves, and by the twentieth century they had no idea their ancestors had been free.

Native American Ancestry

Native Americans who adopted English customs became part of the free African American communities. There were no Indian communities separate and distinct from the free African American communities. In order to have established a separate Indian community, Indians would need to have had a strong preference for marriages and relationships with other Indians. However, no such preference is evident in the marriages of families with Indian ancestry. They appear to have made no differences between themselves and African Americans.

There were no complete nuclear Indian families (both parents, plus children) among Indian slaves mentioned in seventeenth century Accomack and Northampton County records, while there were many among African slaves [Deal, Race and Class, 75]. I did not find any nuclear Indian families in the eighteenth century Virginia and North Carolina tax lists.(16)

Prior to the Civil War, free African Americans in Robeson County attended white schools and churches, voted, and mustered with whites. However, relations between the white and free African American communities deteriorated rapidly after 1835, and by the end of the Civil War they were strained to the breaking point.

A total of about 300 Tuscarora men, women, and children were living on 40,000 acres in Bertie County between 1752 and 1761 [Saunders, Colonial Records, V:161-2, 320-1]. The tribe never gave up its Indian customs. When the 1766 lease was signed, their numbers had been reduced to 260. One hundred and fifty-five members of the tribe moved to the state of New York after the lease in 1766, and the remainder joined them in 1802 [Swanton, Indian Tribes of North America, 87].

Since they left the Southeast, it is difficult to determine the extent to which they mixed with the free African American population of Bertie County. Many of their names were recorded in the deeds of 1766 and 1777 by which they leased over 8,000 acres of the land in the southwest corner of Bertie County between the Roanoke River and Roquist Pocosin to the Attorney General:

[Among many others] Senicar Thomas HOWELL

 Families descended from white women whose histories are included in this work include [among many other names] HOWELL.


Elizabeth Owell, born say 1678, was the servant of Mrs. Mary Timson in York County in 1695 when she admitted to having a bastard child by a "Negro" for which she had to serve her mistress an additional two years. She also agreed to serve her mistress an additional two and one-half years for paying her fine [DOW 10:107, 121, 152]. And a woman named Martha Howell confessed to the Princess Anne County Court on 2 November 1699 that she had a "Molatto" child. She received twenty-five lashes and was ordered to serve her master Robert Thorowgood an additional year [Minutes 1691-1709, 225]. One of them was probably the mother of




Dorothy, born say 1707.


2. Dorothy Howell, born say 1707, a "mulatto Servt to Mr. Sherwood Lightfoot, was living in St. Peter's Parish, New Kent County, in 1725 when the birth of her daughter Judith was recorded [NSCDA, Parish Register of St. Peter's, 91]. She was the mother of




Lucy, born about 1723.




Judith1, born in 1725.




?Samuel1, born about 1732, 5 feet 10 inches tall, a twenty-five year old "mulatto" sawyer from Charles City County, Virginia, listed in the 1757 size roll of Captain Robert Spotswood's Company in Fort Young [Clark, Colonial Soldiers of the South, 570].


3. Lucy Howell, born about 1723, was a "free Mulattoe" living in Goochland County on 7 March 1756 when her daughter Elizabeth was baptized [Jones, The Douglas Register, 348]. She was called a "Mulatto ... bound until the age of 31 years" in February 1757 when the Cumberland County Court bound her sons Sam and Simon, "Born during her Servitude," to Wade Netherland [Orders 1752-8, 447]. Lucy was head of a Henrico County household of 7 "other free" in 1810 [VA:1015]. Her children were




Samuel2, born about 1742.




Simon, born say 1744, described as "5 feet 8 or 9 inches high, thin visage, and sharp chin" in the August 1770 issue of the Virginia Gazette which also identified him as the brother of Samuel Howell [Purdie & Dixon's edition, p. 3, col. 3].




Elizabeth, born October 1748.




?Charles, born say 1754.




Judith2 (Judah), born 10 June 1755, daughter of Lucy Howell, was baptized 7 March 1756 in Goochland County [Jones, The Douglas Register, 348]. She registered there as a free Negro on 17 September 1804: a free born Black person aged about fifty three years, about five feet seven inches high [Register of Free Negroes, p.1, no.2].




?Isaac, born say 1760.




?David, a Revolutionary War soldier from Powhatan County [Jackson, Virginia Negro Soldiers, 38]. He married Nancy Moss, 24 April 1786 Powhatan County bond, and second, Patsy Moss, 30 May 1793 Powhatan County bond.




?Peggy1, born say 1774.


4. Judith1 Howell, born in 1725 in St. Peter's Parish, New Kent County, complained to the Amelia County Court on 26 March 1752 that she was "kept and detained as a slave" by John Thomas. On 25 May 1753 the court ordered the churchwardens of Nottoway Parish to bind out her son Matthew Howell. She was taxable that year in the Nottoway Parish, Amelia County household of Abraham Cocke [Orders 1751-55, 29, 47; 95-96, 98; List of Tithables, 1753]. She was the mother of




Matthew1 (Matt), born say 1752.


5. Samuel2 Howell, born about 1742, and his brother Simon (no surnames) were bound as apprentices to Wade Netherland in Goochland County in 1748 [Orders 1744-49, 496]. They were bound again to Netherland in Cumberland County in February 1757 [Orders 1752-8, 447]. He ran away in October 1765 according to an ad placed by Netherland in the 2 May 1766 issue of the Virginia Gazette: a likely young Mulatto man named SAM HOWEL, 23 years old, about 5 feet 9 inches high ... He was bound for 31 years, according to the condition of his mother, who was to serve until that time; his pretence for going away was to apply to some lawyer at Williamsburg to try to get his freedom, though he had a trial in the county court, and was adjudged to serve his full time [Windley, Runaway Slave Advertisements, 1:39]. Samuel appeared in Cumberland County Court on 27 October 1766 and agreed to serve Netherland an additional year for absenting himself from his master's service for six months [Orders 1764-7, 351]. In the August 1770 edition of the Virginia Gazette he was called Samuel Howell, a "mulatto servant man," who had run away from Wade Netherland of Cumberland County, the master to whom he was indentured until the age of thirty-one. He was described as twenty-eight years old, well set, 5 feet 8 or 9 inches high, and his brother Simon Howell, who ran away with him, was described as 5 feet 8 or 9 inches high, thin visage, and sharp chin. Samuel had brought an unsuccessful suit in the General Court for his freedom just prior to running away [Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon's edition), p. 3, col. 3]. In this case held in April 1770 he had claimed that his grandmother was a "mulatto begotten on a white woman by a negro man after the year 1705." His mother was born in 1723, and he was born in 1742 [Catterall, Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery, I:90-91].


6. Charles Howell, born say 1754, married Abbie Scott, "Mulattoes both," on 18 June 1775 in Goochland County [Jones, The Douglas Register, 347]. He was the father of




i. Betsy Ann, "daughter of Charles Howell," married Martin Banks, 11 March 1812 Goochland County bond, William Howell surety.


7. Isaac Howell, born say 1760, was a Revolutionary War veteran from Goochland County [Jackson, Virginia Negro Soldiers, 38]. He was living in Goochland County in 1800 when two of his daughters were married. His children were




?John, born about 1779, registered in Goochland County on 15 August 1808: about 29 years of age ... yellow complexion [Register of Free Negroes, p.22, no.47]. He was head of a Goochland County household of 4 "other free" in 1810 [VA:694].




Junior, born about 1781, registered in Goochland County on 15 August 1808: about twenty seven years old, light complexion ... free born [Register of Free Negroes, p.22, no.46].




Betsy, born say 1782, "daughter of Isaac Howell," married Charles Scott, 3 June 1800 Goochland County bond, consent for Betsy by (her aunt?) Judith Howell, Junior Howell surety.




Judith3, born say 1784, "daughter of Aise (Isaac) Howell," 6 November 1800 Goochland County bond, Junior Howell surety, 7 November marriage [Ministers Returns, 76].


8. Peggy1 Howell, born say 1774, a "Mulatto," was living in Charlotte County on 7 April 1794 when her daughter Peggy Howell was bound to William Childrey [Orders 1792-94, 174]. She was a "Free Negro" head of a Charlotte County household of 8 "other free" in 1810 [VA:1002]. Her child was 




Peggy2, born say 1792.


9. Matthew1 (Matt) Howell, born say 1752, son of Judith Howell, was bound an apprentice by the Amelia County Court in 1753, and the court ordered him bound out again on 25 February 1762 [Orders 3:29, 95-96, 98; 1760-3, 223]. He may have been the Matthew Howell, no age, race or parent named, who was bound an apprentice to Abram Martin of Mecklenburg County, Virginia, on 10 June 1765 [Orders 1765-68, 34]. Perhaps his wife was Susanna Howell, nee Banks, who was a widow by 22 February 1796 when she was named as one of the heirs of Matthew Banks who left her one fourth of 75 acres in Surry County, Virginia [Deeds 1792-99, 344]. They may have been the parents of




Matthew2, born about 1784, registered in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, on 19 June 1820: a Man of dark Complexion, five feet Eleven and 3/4 Inches high about thirty six Years old, a ditcher by trade [Free Person of Colour, no.7, p.16]. He was head of a Mecklenburg County household of 12 "free colored" in 1820.




Allen, head of a Mecklenburg County household of 9 "free colored" in 1820, one of whom was a woman over forty-five years old.




Freeman, head of a Mecklenburg County household of 8 "free colored" in 1820.

Members of the Howell family counted in the 1810 census for Virginia were

i. Robert, 2 "other free" in Henrico County [VA:1013].

ii. Jacob, 3 "other free" and 1 white woman in Petersburg Town [VA:330a].

iii. Thomas, 6 "other free" in Richmond City [VA:345].


10. Aaron Howell, born say 1749, purchased 100 acres in Northampton County, North Carolina, near the "old Line" and a spring branch on 6 March 1770 from Hopkin Howell and his wife Elizabeth [DB 5:11]. Later that year on 21 September, his mother Elizabeth Howell made a deed of gift to him of 100 acres near the Spring Branch of Cypress Swamp [DB 5:58]. He was taxable in Northampton County on an assessment of 877 pounds in 1780 [GA 46.1]. On 1 December 1785 Aaron and his wife Martha sold 85 acres of the land he purchased from Hopkin Howell and sold the remaining 15 acres on 26 February 1798 without a dower release. On 31 May 1787 Sarah Howell, perhaps Aaron's aunt, gave to "Martha wife of Aaron Howell" furniture and to Aaron a cow and yearling. On 2 June 1792 Aaron and Martha mortgaged 50 acres of the land he received from his mother and sold the remainder to John Boykin for 50 pounds without a dower release on 24 December 1794. He repaid the mortgage a year later on 1 January 1796 and sold 15 acres on 26 February 1798 [DB 7:356; 9:175; 10:237, 238, 360]. Aaron was head of a Northampton County household of 6 "other free" in 1790 [NC:75] and 6 in 1800 [NC:449]. He may have been the father of




Joseph, head of a Halifax County household of 2 "other free" in 1800 [NC:316].


Abbreviations used in the above:


North Carolina Archives stack file number


Deed Book


Deeds, Wills


Journal of Negro History


Loose papers at the county courthouse

M804, 805

Microfilm of the Revolutionary War pension files at the National Archives


Maryland Hall of Records


North Carolina Genealogical Society Journal


North Carolina Historical Review


Order book for the county court of pleas and quarter sessions


Orders, Wills


Secretary of State records at the North Carolina Archives


Treasurer and Controller's files at the North Carolina State Archives

VA:, NC:, etc.

Federal census records for the state. Page number is for the printed version of the census in 1790 and the microfilm of the original for all other years.


Virginia Magazine of History


Will Book


Wills, etc. Orders


Source: "Free African Americans of Maryland and Delaware and Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina," by Paul Heinegg. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2000.

To view the references for these works, please visit here.

As stated at the beginning of this page, this is an extract. Parts of the book's introduction, the abbreviations, and the sources are used here for no other reason than to help build on the HOWELL generations presented here. To view the book in its entirety, and hopefully find more names to help in your search, please visit Paul Heinegg's site at .


Submitted by Rebekka Stanley [25Dec01]



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