William S. Morris of New Bern’s will provides instructions to emancipate “my negro woman and three mulatto children”

by | Apr 8, 2014 | 2 comments

William S Morris

Before offering the transcription of this will, first it seems appropriate to provide some context.

In 1808 the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves became effective. Even before that, however, North Carolina never played as big a role in slave importation as Virginia and South Carolina, largely due to the lack of suitable ports. The exception was Wilmington. Due to a variety of factors, and an apparent fear by slavery proponents of decreasing the stock of the available “workforce,” it was exceedingly difficult to emancipate a slave. It wasn’t simply a matter of the slave-owner saying, “I emancipate you.” No, there were laws in place to not only keep slaves in bondage (and therefore keep their “increase” in the supply of available slaves), but unfortunately, many slaves who were freed by their masters, were later captured by unscrupulous, evil men and then sold back into slavery.

The following is an excerpt from Slavery in the State of North Carolina by John Spencer Bassett (1899, Johns Hopkins Press)

In 1830 (chap. 9) it was made more difficult to emancipate. Now, the petitioner must notify his intention at the court house and in the State Gazette six weeks before the hearing of the petition; he must give bond with two sureties for $1000 that the said slave should conduct himself well as long as he or she remained in the State, that the slave would leave the State within ninety days after liberation, and the said liberation should invalidate the rights of no creditor. Executors of wills by which slaves were directed to be liberated must secure consent of the courts and take steps to send the negroes out of the State and guard against the loss of creditors. A slave more than fifty years old might be liberated for meritorious conduct to be approved by the Court without subsequently leaving the State, provided that the master swore that the emancipation was not for money and that he gave bond that the negro would conduct himself well and not become a charge on the county. No slave was to be liberated except by this law.

All considered, it makes the following will all the more touching, written in March of 1831, as it seems to reflect a genuine love by this man, William S. Morris, for his “negro woman Patty (he never refers to her as a slave) and her three mulatto children Harriet, Albert and Freeman” in his desire to see them not only removed to a state where emancipation is more easily achieved, but also that money be put aside towards their “education, improvement and comfortable subsistence.”

My guess is this enslaved woman, Patty, was William’s wife — even if the State of North Carolina would not recognize her as such — and Harriet, Albert, and Freeman were likely his children. A note on the reverse of the will reads that a copy of the will was mailed from Virginia to New Bern in 1934, which makes me wonder if that’s where where Patty and her children eventually lived.

In the name of Almighty God Amen! I William S. Morris of Newbern North Carolina being in bad health and solicitous to arrange my worldly affairs in the event of death, do make publish and declare my last will and testament to the effect and in the manner following.

I appoint John Snead and if he should die before executing the trusts herein after declared or decline to qualify I then appoint Hardy B. Lane, Executor of this my last Will and testament.

I give devise and bequeath unto my Executor all my estate of whatever nature or kind in trust for the following purposes that is to say:

In the first place that my Executor as soon as conveniently may be done after my death shall collect the debts due me and sell in such manner and on such terms as he shall judge most expedient all my property except my money and debts due me and except my negro woman Patty and her three mulatto children Harriet, Albert and Freeman.

Secondly, that my said Executor shall as soon after my decease as practicable and at all events within a year thereafter remove beyond the limits of this State with with the intent of a permanent residence to some State or Country where emancipation is unrestricted by law the said Patty, Harriet, Albert and Freeman and tehre cause the same to be entirely emancipated.

3dly That my Executor shall apply one half of the net amount of my money debts due me and proceeds of the sales herein before directed as a fund wherewith to effect the removal and emancipation as aforesaid of the said Patty, Harriet, Albert and Freeman or such of them as may be alive at my death and to provide for them after emancipation in such form and manner in such portions and with such limitations and restrictions as my Executor shall judge best the means of education improvement and comfortable subsistence.

And lastly that out of the other half of the net amount aforesaid there shall be paid unto William Morris Green, son of my brother David Green, what the said David owes or may owe me at my death and the residue be divided into two equal parts one of which to be paid to Marth Ann Arnull the daughter of my deceased sister Elizabeth and the other to the children of my brother Joseph Green deceased.

In witness of all which I have published the foregoing as my last will and testament and hereunto set my name and seal at Newbern aforesaid this 15th day of March 1831.

Signed, sealed, published and declared by William S. Morris as and for his last will and testament before us who have subscribed the same in his presence and in the presence of each other:

John S. Morris
Alex Fraus? Gaston

{{{ William S. Morris { Seal } }}}

[Inscribed at the bottom]

Compared with the original & found a true copy Nov 11 1848
El? S. Attmore
J.E. Morris

William S MORRIS, New Bern p1 William S MORRIS, New Bern p2 William S MORRIS, New Bern p3


  1. Anthony Bryan

    There are similar instructions in the will of Lewis Bryan (1814) of Craven County, NC.

    “And I do hereby liberate my negro man old Ephraim and his wife Amey in consequence of meritorious service rendered me, and my desire is that my Executor should apply to the County Court of Craven to confirm their freedom, and that he shall allot off twenty acres of tilable land apart or adjoining where they now live, also one horse and plough and gear, one club ax and one grubbing hoe, two weeding hoes, one cow and calf and one sow and pigs with grain and provisions enough to sustain until the next crop comes in, all of which to remain to their use or benefit during their lives”

    • Sara Whitford

      I found this last night on Newspapers.com. I wonder if the William BRYAN mentioned is the brother of Lewis.

      Joseph Hatch advertises runaway slave. Accuses the slaves of Craven County residentsWilliam Bryan, Guilford Murphey and a Mr. Patrick of harboring said runaway.


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