Free Black Pryor Families Before the Civil War in Halifax County, NC

Pryor Families - virginia and north carolina mapThere’s an interesting group of African-American Pryors in North Carolina. They were free-blacks 50 years before the Civil War. Joseph Pryor and Peter Pryor (also spelled Prior) were on the 1810 Census in Halifax County, NC.

Why do I think they are so interesting? Well, partially because they were free before 1865. My interest is also piqued by Dr. Henry Louis Gates and some of the observations he’s made on the PBS show “Finding Your Roots.” He has told a few of his African-American guests that despite the thought that freed blacks chose new names after the Civil War, many carried on with the surname of their white slave-holder. When I was in school history class taught us that Southern blacks made a bee-line for the North after the war, however Dr. Gates has found that many stayed geographically close to the plantations on which they had been enslaved.

One comment I’ve heard from Dr. Gates that may pertain the the Pryor Y-DNA project on Family Tree DNA (ftdna.com)– African-Americans who were identified as “mulatto” on census records may have ties in records to a white slave-holder and may not carry just the surname of the slave-holder but also their DNA.

So I’ve wondered if African-American Pryor families can shed light on the DNA mysteries of white Pryors. In the case of Joseph and Peter Pryor and perhaps some other Pryor families, the answer is a possible “yes.” If an African-American male Pryor can trace his male lineage to their father, to their grandfather, back to great-grandfathers. If their traceable lineage stops at a female free-woman or slave with the surname Pryor there still a possibility that they carry the DNA of a male Pryor. Joseph and Peter lived near a white Pryor named Ezra Pryor (also spelled Prior).

I have a theory about Ezra I’d like to share. On the 1830 Census he’s counted as the head of household in Halifax County, but I don’t think he’s the oldest male in the household. The oldest male was 70 to 79 years (possibly closer to 79 since the oldest female was 80 to 89 years). I’m guessing, but I think that the oldest male and female were Ezra’s parents: William and Nancy. His parents were alive and mentioned in his will written in September 1830 [see his will]. Ezra made his father and his wife his executor. If Ezra was the oldest member of his household at 70 years— geesh, his father would have been about 90!

Ezra’s will makes an interesting bequeath: “I loan to Negroes George and Grace the tract of Land on which they now live adjoining the Lands of Charles Isles and others during their natural lives…” This doesn’t sound like something you’d do for slaves. Were George and Grace free blacks? Were they mulattoes?

There’s a Nancy Prior on the 1840 Census. She’s recorded as a white woman age 70 to 80. Is this Ezra’s mother? She was the only white person in her household. There were 7 “free colored” people in her household and 5 slaves.  She’s possibly the Nancy Pryor age 77 on the 1850 Census with 7 mulatto Pryors born before 1840 living nearby. While the numbers match up (7 in 1840 and 7 in 1850) the mix of males and females isn’t the same.

What happened to the free-black men in Halifax? Peter Pryor disappeared after the 1810 Census and Joseph was age 55 to 100 in 1830 and disappeared after that year. I noticed there was a slave named Peter who was mentioned in John Pryor’s will signed in Halifax County in 1769 [see will] — Peter was to be sold to pay John’s just debts. I wonder if this was the same Peter.

Ezra named 3 daughters in his will, so there are no likely male Y-DNA testers available. Perhaps an African American male Pryor could help to explain Ezra’s line. There are more than 60 men who’ve tested for Y-DNA on ftdna.com. If you’re an African-American male who can trace his line to a state that was an original colony, then there’s hope that through testing you may connect with another tester and perhaps even through your test help to explain the one of the mysteries of the history of the Pryors.