enslaved people

The David Williams house.

David Williams is best known for his work in the state legislature with General Joshua Barnes create Wilson County from parts of Edgecombe, Nash, Johnston, and Wayne Counties. Williams’ house was in Edgecombe County during his lifetime, but a boundary adjustment in 1883 shifted it into Wilson. His enormous plantation sprawled into both counties, however.

The David Williams house, 1980. It has since been demolished.

Per the National Register of Historic Places Inventory — Nomination Form for Upper Town Creek Rural Historic District, prepared by Kate Ohno in 1982, the house was built between 1845 and 1860. “This square two-story double-pile Greek Revival house is typical of the kind of plantation house popular with the prosperous planters of this area during the fifteen years before the Civil War.

Detail of ceiling medallion, 1980. “The most outstanding feature of the interior is, however, the elaborate plaster ceiling medallions and cornices. The hall boasts the most elaborate round medallion, while the parlor has a simpler round one and an elaborate plaster cornice.”

Despite the dozens and dozens of number of people David Williams enslaved, I have only been able to identify a handful by name. The 1830 will of Drewry Williams, which entered probate in 1831, included bequests to son David of a “Negro girl by the name of Rose one Negro boy by the name of Amos and one Negro man by the name of George.” David Williams was also bequeathed a one-third interest in three enslaved people — Pink, Nan, and Peter — after the death of his mother.

In the 1850 federal slave schedule of Edgecombe County, North Carolina, David Williams is listed with 17 enslaved people.

In the 1860 federal slave schedule of Edgecombe County, North Carolina, Williams reported an astonishing 128 enslaved people, making him one of the largest slaveholders in the area. The quarters on his plantation included 20 houses, none of which was standing at the time the house was nominated for the historic register.

On 13 August 1866, Preston Williams and Betty Petteway registered their 15-year cohabitation with a Wilson County justice of the peace. W.D. Petway was a close neighbor of David Williams, and the couple may have been enslaved on their adjoining plantations.

In the 1870 census of Joyners township, Wilson County: farmer Preston Williams, 46; wife Bettie, 34; and children Samuel, 17, Warren, 14, Rose, 11, William, 6, and Virginia, 2. On 18 August 1870, Dicey Petway, daughter of Bettie Williams, married Red[mond] Braswell, son of Preston Wilson, at Joyners township. [Braswell was the surname of another slaveholder who lived near Williams and Petway.]

A Google Maps aerial showing the former site of the David Williams house at A. (William D. Petway’s house was located at B. The Edgecombe County line runs parallel to and a couple of hundred feet east of Orchard Road.

Rules and regulations for patrollers.

Prior to Wilson County’s formation in 1855, much of its present-day territory lay in Edgecombe, including everything east of a line running a couple of miles inside present-day Interstate 95 and north of Contentnea Creek. In 1844, the¬†Tarboro’ Press published “Rules and Regulations to be Observed by the Patrollers of the several Districts in the County of Edgecombe.” Slave patrols, known as patrollers or patty rollers, were government-sanctioned groups of armed men charged with monitoring and enforcing discipline upon enslaved people.

Edgecombe County patrollers operated under a set of comprehensive and precise rules. Tasked with visiting ever house inhabited by enslaved people at least once a month, they rode at night. They searched for firearms and “seditious publications” and kept a sharp lookout for any enslaved person out and about more than a mile from home. They could beat people — up to 15 lashes — for having too much fun. On Sundays, their job was to make sure enslaved people were not “strolling about” enjoying their one day off or selling trinkets for pocket change. Patrollers ran down runaways and, if met with “insolence,” could drop a whip 39 times across a black back. They were compensated for their services.

Tarboro’ Press, 9 March 1844.

Stith’s hostlers.

Wilson Ledger, 28 April 1858.

In the spring of 1858, Buckner D. Stith placed an ad in a Wilson newspaper to tout his spacious new livery stable — fifty horses at a time! Stith offered horses for hire — Davy Crocket, Bullock, Fox, Bill, Spitfire and General Walker — as well as hostlers on duty. Tom, Butler, and John, surely enslaved, fed, curried, and otherwise cared for horses left at Stith’s stable.

The William D. Petway house.

We’ve met William D. Petway here (advertising the sale of several enslaved people) and here (placing an ad for a runaway enslaved man). His home and plantation lay near and across the boundary with present-day Edgecombe County in Wilson County’s Upper Town Creek Rural Historic District.

William Davis Petway house, 1980.

Per the National Register of Historic Places Inventory — Nomination Form for Upper Town Creek Rural Historic District, prepared by Kate Ohno in 1982:

“The oldest house in the district is the William Davis Petway house. Petway was born on October 1, 1799, and was the son of Major Micajah Pettaway, a veteran of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, and Mary Sugg. Major Pettaway was a prominent planter and in July 1819, he deeded 435 acres on the north side of Poplar Branch to his son. It seems likely that this tract formed the core of Petway’s holdings and was most likely the tract upon which he built his home. He married Cinderella Cromwell, daughter of Elisha Cromwell, prior to 1823. Petway continued to add to his landholdings in the 1820s, receiving 112 acres from the division of his father-in-law’s estate and other tracts adjacent to his property. By the time of this death on October 18, 1858, he owned in excess of 2,270 acres.

The parlor mantel of the Petway house.

“Petway was involved in business and civic matters as well as in farming. He served as sheriff of Edgecombe County from 1835 until 1851. He was also associated in the mid 1850s with W.M.G. Sharp and John T. Sharp in a mercantile business which also sold liquor at Joyner’s Depot [Elm City]. By 1850 Petway was in the turpentine business. He employed four male laborers and produced $800 worth of turpentine and other pine products annually. Petway was an extensive farmer as well. In 1836 he purchased the real property in his father’s estate amounting to 1,364 acres. By 1850 he owned 2,400 acres of which 500 acres were cultivated. Although his real property was valued at only $7,381 he owned forty-eight slaves in 1850. … [Petway’s listing in the 1850 slave schedule of Edgecombe County actually credits him with 49 slaves. Curiously, 43 were reported as women or girls, and only six as men or boys (and none of these above age 18). This is an improbable ratio that suggests a recording error.]

“Petway died intestate in 1858 leaving his widow and seven children ….

“The home tract thus came under the managements of Cinderella Petway for nearly 13 years. At first the plantation prospered; in 1860 Mrs. Petway is listed as a sixty-year old farmer owning real property valued at $25,000 and personal property valued at $16,000. She owned only fifteen slaves due to the division of her husband’s slaves among his heirs. Six slave houses (no longer extant) were on the property. Her son Oliver, age twenty, lived with his mother as well as Ezra Bullock, a farm overseer, and a white female domestic servant. Oliver’s personal property, including slaves, was valued at $18,000 and his slaves were probably used to cultivate and maintain the home tract occupied by him and his mother. …” [Senda Petway appears in the 1860 census of Edgecombe County with women and girls ages 50, 40, 28, 27, 18, 7, 2, and 1, and men and boys ages 70, 45, 28, 19, 8, 7, and 4. Son O.C. Petway claimed women and girls ages 40, 25, 18, 5, and 5, and men and boys ages 50, 13, 8, 8, and 1.]

The Petways enslaved dozens of people, but the surname is now uncommon in Wilson County. I have not been able to identify by name any of the enslaved except freedom-seeker Miles.

The historic district nomination form includes a map pinpointing the Petway house on State Road 1414.

That road is now White Bridge Road, and the Petway house and its outbuildings have been demolished.

A close-up of the site:

Photos courtesy of nomination form, above; aerials courtesy of Google Maps.

$20 reward for Miles, who was “quite intelligent.”

Tarboro Free Press, 5 December 1834.

$20 Reward.

RAN AWAY from the Subscriber, about four weeks ago, a mulatto fellow by the name of


He is tolerable well built, full round face, when interrogated generally frowns and looks down — his father belongs to Major Whitmel K. Bulluck, and he has some relation at Charles Wilkinson, Esq’s. He is about 21 or 22 years old. It is probable he may attempt to pass as a free fellow, being quite intelligent. I will give the above reward to any person who will deliver him to me, or secure him in jail so that I can get him again, and pay all reasonable expences. W.D. PETWAY.

Town Creek, Edgecombe County, N.C.

Sept. 12, 1834.


A year and-a-half after advertising the sale of a dozen enslaved people, William D. Petway posted an ad seeking the return of an enslaved young man named Miles, whose intelligence was acknowledged and sense of self-worth implied in the wording of the notice.

Both Whitmel K. Bullock, who enslaved Miles’ father, and Charles Wilkinson, who held additional relatives, were farmers in the Town Creek area of what is now southwestern Edgecombe County.

A love story.

Samuel Farmer stayed chasing runaways. Two weeks after disappearing into the inky darkness of a winter night, Davy slipped back into Farmer’s quarters to steal away his wife Malvina.

Tarboro Free Press, 19 February 1833.

$60 Reward.

RAN AWAY from the Subscriber, on Tuesday night, 22d January last, negro man


Aged about 27 or 28 years, 5 feet 6 or 7 inches high, well built, dark complexion, has a scar about an inch and a half in length on the forehead near the hair, and several scars on his head. Davy came home clandestinely on Tuesday, 5th Feb. and took off with him his wife MALVINA, aged about 21 or 22 years, dark complexion and well grown. A reward of $50 will be given for Davy, and $10 for Malvina, if both or either of them be delivered to me, or secured in any jail so that I get them again. All persons are forewarned harboring, employing, or carrying off said negroes under penalty of the law. SAMUEL FARMER.

Edgecombe Co. Feb. 12, 1833

Tapping pines for turpentine.

Harper’s was not the only illustrated periodical. Ballou’s Pictorial had a short run the decade before the Civil War and on 12 May 1855 published a feature on North Carolina. The illustration above and description below depict a scene — other than the ship — that would have been commonplace in Wilson County:

“The yeoman with the axe has been engaged in ‘tapping’ these pines to obtain the crude turpentine, which exudes in great abundance. The negro hands are busy in directing its flow into the bung-holes of the barrels rolled against the trees for the purpose. A negro in the middle distance is making an incision in the hole of a pine tree with an axe. In the distance we behold a loaded ox-team with its driver, and far off a vessel laden with the exports of the State, under full sail. The turpentine in the form of tar and pitch is exported in great quantities and gives employment to between two and three thousand men.”

Reward for George, who may be headed home.

Tarboro Free Press, 22 September 1827.

$25 Reward.

RANAWAY from the Subscriber, on the 23d of July last, a Negro boy named GEORGE; he is about 17 or 18 years of age, 5 feet 6 or 7 inches in height, dark color, a pert lively look, and in speaking is apt to stutter a little; he has lost most of his fore teeth, and has two or three distinct scars on his throat, occasioned by a rising some time since. Said boy was purchased about eighteen months since, from Mr. Matthew Cluff, of Norfolk, at which place he was raised, but has frequently been to Elizabeth-City, in this State, and the boy said that he had been several times at sea. I expect that he will attempt to get either to Elizabeth-City or Norfolk. A reward of Twenty-Five Dollars will be given to any person who will apprehend said boy and lodge him in any jail, so that I can get him again. Masters of vessels and all other persons are hereby forbid harboring, employing, or carrying off said boy, under the penalty of the law. SAMUEL FARMER.

Edgecombe County, N.C.  Septem. 4, 1827.

The Norfolk Herald and Elizabeth-City Star will please give the above three insertions, and forward the account to this office for collection.


In September 1827, Samuel Farmer, who lived in the area between Hominy and Toisnot Swamps, placed this ad seeking the return of an enslaved teenager who had run away in July. George was believed to trying to make his way back to Norfolk, Virginia, where he had grown up, or Elizabeth City, North Carolina, which he had often visited. (Four and a half years later, Farmer was chasing another young man, John.)

10 or 12 likely Negroes for sale.

Tarboro’ Press, 29 January 1833.

William Davis Petway’s plantation was well east of Elm City just inside what is now the boundary of Wilson and Edgecombe Counties. His father Micajah Petway lived nearby. In the winter of 1833, as trustee for a loan that his father, presumably, had failed to pay off, W.D. Petway advertised the sale of 10 or 12 enslaved people to satisfy the debt.

Will trade land for young Negroes.

Tarboro Free Press, 2 August 1831.

In 1831, William Knight prepared to join the exodus of white farmers from the tired soil of North Carolina to the newly opened lands of the Deep South. He offered his 800-acre plantation on White Oak, in what is now eastern Wilson County, for sale for cash, credit, or “young Negroes.”