John Henry Clay Pryor: A Free African-American in Pre-Civil War Virginia

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I stumbled upon a Pryor death record in Virginia for an African-American who was born before emancipation. Most notably the death record named both the mother and father of the subject. I wondered if they could be identified in records and documented.

The Death Record

John Henry Clay Pryor* was 76 years old (born about 1841) when he died on Christmas Day 1917 in King George County, Virginia. The death record (available on Ancestry.com) states his parents were Colvert Jones [sic] and Mary Pryor, both born in King George County, Virginia. The informant was Mary Bombrey. Another death record for George Pryor born 2 February 1868 and died on 6 March 1933 in King George County states his parents were Henry Clay Pryor and Anna Liza Bumbrey from King George County, Virginia. This second death record helps to not only ID one of John Henry Clay Pryor’s children but the name of his wife and the informant on Clay’s death record as a possible in-law.

Marriage and Family

Clay H Pryor age 34 (born about 1846) was found on the 1910 US Census in King George County with wife Anna L. Pryor age 62. There were no others living in the household. Pryor was identified as “mulatto”. The head of household recorded before the Pryor’s was Richard Bumbrey age 50. He was further recorded as a farmer who could neither read nor write, and that he as well as his parents were born in Virginia.

In 1880 J H C Pryor age 33 (born about 1847) with wife Ann Eliza age 31 were recorded on the US Census in King George County with five children, including his son George T. Pryor age 14 (born about 1866). Also in the household was Madison Bumbry age 23, recorded as a nephew.

Henry C. Prior age 24 (born about 1846) and Angelica age 22 were counted in Chotank, King George County in 1870. Was Angelica the same person recorded as Ann Eliza? It appears they were the same person because Virginia, Select Marriages, 1785-1940 [database on-line] found on Ancestry.com states Ann Eliz. Bumbrey married Clay Prior shortly after the end of the Civil War on 24 October 1865. This database states Ann/Angelica’s parents were Thomas Bumbrey and Betsy Bumbrey. One might think that Clay married upon gaining his freedom from slavery, however Clay Prior age 16 was recorded on the 1860 Census in King George county as a free mulatto in the household of Louisa Bumbrey– Louisa Pryor Bumbrey was also counted in the household of Mary Prior on the 1850 Census (see below).

His Mother and Siblings

John Henry Clay Prior appeared on the 1850 Census in the same county in the household of Mary Prior, born about 1821. He was recorded as Clay Prior, age 5. The census was taken in August 1850 so Clay would have already had his birthday if he was born on March 1 as reported on his death record, making his year of birth 1845, and making him about 72 years old at the time of his death.

Mary and all the Priors in her household were recorded on the 1850 census as mulatto. Relationships were not recorded on the 1850 census, so there are several possibilities of the how these Priors were related: this woman may be the Mary Pryor named as Clay’s mother on his death record, or a different Mary Pryor. If Mary was the mother of all the children, including Clay and Louisa, the ages of the children (17 through 3) hint that she began having children in 1833 when she was about 12 years old and possibly ended with her last child in 1847. The possibility that all of the children were not her offspring arises when we note there were two young girls named Mary (age 12 and 7). There are instances where parents name children using the same name multiple times, however those are rare events.

Calvert Jones: Clay Pryor’s Father?

Finding Clay’s father leads to a multitude of questions rather than a clean precise answer. There two men named on the 1840 census in King George County.

Calvert Jones Jr, a white head of household. The household was comprised of a male age 20 to 29 years (born between 1811 and 1820), a white female of the same age range, and a young white female child under five years old. There were 10 African-Americans counted as slaves in his household, making a total of 13 persons in the household.

There was also a senior Calvert Jones living in King George county and counted on the same census. Calvert Jones senior was age 50 to 59 years old in 1840 (born between 1781-1790). He was the only white person living in the household, he had one slave, and 13 free “colored” people: 12 African-Americans under 24 years and one female age 24 to 34 years. There were no adult free black males in the household.

The elder Calvert Jones died intestate in 1844. A chancery court case filed by his son John N. Jones states his father, Calvert, died in the same year and was filed over distribution of the estate: one slave named Harry. It also names the six heirs to Calvert’s estate:

  • Charles G. Jones, also the administrator of the estate.
  • John N. Jones, who filed the suit and was Calvert’s son.
  • Sarah C. Jones, Calvert’s granddaughter and the daughter of his deceased son Calvert B. Jones.
  • And the three children of Calvert’s daughter Hanna Jones Pollard (Hannah’s death is inferred because she is referred to in the past tense): Cordelia, Haseltine, and Ryland.

Evidence is weighted towards Calvert Jones Sr. as the father of Henry Clay Pryor.

  • The key piece of evidence to identify Clay’s father is the death record that provides his father’s name.
  • Clay’s death record indicated he shared his mother’s surname, not his father’s surname. This issue indicates that his parents weren’t married and there was an issue with legitimacy.
  • Clay Pryor was recorded as “mulatto” which may be indicative of lighter skin color inherited for a more distant white ancestor (the census taker looked at him and made a judgment of what to enter in the race box on the census) or the description revealed knowledge that he was born of both white and African-American ancestry.
  • Family trees on Ancestry.com state Calvert Jones Jr. died in 1840, at least six years before the birth of John Henry Clay Pryor.
  • No African-American man was located in records available on Ancestry.com (census, marriage, death records) who used the name Calvert Jones (or other variations of the spelling). However, if an African-American man went by this name and fathered Clay, then he may not have lived to see freedom after the Civil War or adopted another name.
  • Calvert Jones Sr. had free people of color living within his household in 1840 and as far back as 1830. Calvert Jones Jr. had no free people of color recorded in his household on the census.

Further Research

Calvert Jones Sr. died intestate which led to the chancery court case to divide his estate. His heirs acknowledged (viz. the chancery case) that he had only one slave named Harry. Therefore, confirming the 1840 census that recorded all the other people of color on his property as free people.

How were the free African-Americans freed? The 1782 Manumission act in Virginia gave guidelines of how to free slaves in Virginia. The primary emancipation document would be a will, however the the blacks in Calvert’s household were free in 1840 and there was no mention of them in his will. The next option was any other written document during the slave holders lifetime. A requirement was that the document had to be sworn to in court or sworn to by two witnesses. The slave holder had to pay a fee to the clerk of the county court. There could be court minutes or fee schedules that contain the record of when Mary Pryor was freed.

Another piece of history should be considered. There were 5 Pryors counted as free people of color and heads of household on the 1820 census in King George county, perhaps hinting that Mary Pryor was a free woman at the time of her birth in the 1820’s.

I’m wondering if anyone from the line of John Henry Clay Pryor has done autosomal or male YDNA testing. Did they connect with other Pryors? Did they connect with the Jones line through YDNA?

* John Henry Clay Pryor as “Clay” through out this post to simplify his name and to reference the name that was used on records.