Clara Mabry of Hicksford, Greensville County, Virginia is a fascinating person to learn about. She is worthy of more in-depth research, and I hope that sharing what I have found so far, will yield more amazing facts about her life. She’s truly a boss lady.

In 2016, I joined a then-new, now-defunct genealogical research service, AncestorCloud. I connected with a genealogist who kindly answered my query about my earliest known female line ancestor, Emeline Potts, of Greensville County, Virginia. The genealogist provided a news clipping that they believed might connect to my ancestor. This is how Clara was introduced to me:

The Belvidere Standard
Belvidere, Illinois
14 Oct 1856, Tue • Page 1

Solely for genealogical purposes, this is an unbelievable treasure trove of information, even without the names of all of the subjects. Deeper than that, the story itself is so riveting, yet moving and reminiscent of the 1848 success story of William and Ellen Craft.

So many questions. Still, some glaring facts would do the job of directing me to Clara. Number one, Capt. John W. Potts was the clerk of Greensville County Court, and the man who held my fourth great-grandmother, Emeline Potts, enslaved. Secondly, the newspaper article reported that there was a deed of trust involved with this situation. That meant that I would need to look at court records to find out more. Let’s add that the article referenced that the main subject was an emancipated woman who was a property holder. Again, an indication that court records needed to be checked.

But who was I searching for? As it turned out, I would be taking on this mystery by myself. The first thing that I did was to check for additional news write-ups for the 1856 escape attempt.


Weekly Raleigh Register
Raleigh, North Carolina
20 Aug 1856, Wed • Page 4

One might think that the above two articles are duplicates, but they are not. The second article includes even more incredible information. Not only did the eldest daughter of our mystery subject attempt to escape, “another woman belonging to Capt. P. simultaneously with the disappearance of this girl also clandestinely left Greensville with her three children, and set off for the North by land; but returned in a few days——under what circumstances we have not heard.”

The Daily Journal
Wilmington, North Carolina
18 Aug 1856, Mon • Page 2

Both of the first two posted articles include the name of the man who identified a would-be Ellen Craft to be the enslaved of Capt. Potts, a man by the name of “Dr. Johnson or Johnston.” He is worthy of focus because to me it seems that there may be more to the story, as it relates to him, specifically. This escape mission, beginning in Weldon, NC, traveling through Portsmouth, VA, and destined for Baltimore, MD, is a well-documented Underground Railroad route. Was Dr. Johnston a conductor who aborted his mission because the scrutiny of this mishap was too much to bear? That’s another mystery for another day.

Concerning the story of the other 1856 Greensville County, VA attempted escape, a mother with her three children, it is as real an indicator as anything of the conditions that enslaved people faced. These were conditions that would lead a mother to leave with her THREE CHILDREN, to find a better life—some kind of life—-life, through treacherous terrain. Hell, the condition of slavery itself was reason enough to run. I was so inspired by these events, that I created a poem to commemorate this story. Who were these brave souls?

I searched for more news articles:

The Greensboro Times
Greensboro, North Carolina
21 Aug 1856, Thu • Page 2

The girl’s mother, who is an emancipated slave, some time ago, conveyed her children by deed of trust to Captain Potts and other gentlemen, as security for a large amount of money advanced by them in payment of her ‘depths.’” While the text reads depths instead of debts, it’s aptly fitting, because the girl’s mother was surely in the depths of debts to be forced into such a horrific arrangement.

So there we have it, the lay of the land to determine just who are these mysterious set of folk who connect to my ancestor, Emeline.

My next stop was to search for free persons of color in the 1850 U.S. census record in Greensville County, Virginia. The news articles mentioned that the principal subject was an “emancipated slave.”

After gathering about a dozen possibilities, I put the names on the shelf and checked Greensville County court records via inter-library loan microfilm. I searched the court deed book microfilm for deeds of trust that were around the year 1856 (the year of the news articles) and for deeds that included the name of John W. Potts.

And there it was.

Greensville County Deed Book, No. 9, 1848-1862 Microfilm Title Page, Courtesy : Library of Virginia

This deed made the 1st day of December A.D. 1855 between Clara Mabry of the first part and Joseph Turner of the other part

Witnesseth: That the said Clara Mabry doth grant unto the said Joseph Turner the following property to wit: The house and lot now occupied by the same Clara on the road from Hicksford to Meherrin River adjoining the lots of James W. Cook and Wm. H. Walker also three negro slaves named Malinda Irvena + George

In trust to secure the payment of a bond due to J.R. Chambliss executed by the said Clara Mabry on the 1st day of December 1855 for the sum of nine hundred and ninety dollars also a debt due by spring account to the estate of Orris A. Browne dec’d. for the sum of one hundred and twenty two dollars with interest from October 1st 1855

And the said Clara Mabry for herself her heirs + ? covenant? to warrant + defend the title to the said property against the claims of all persons

Witness the following signatures and seals


Clara X Mabry {seal}


Jos: Turner {seal}

Greensville County To Wit:

I John W. Potts a Justice of the peace for the county aforesaid in the State of Virginia do certify that Clara Mabry whose name is signed to the paper above witness bearing date on 1st day of December 1855 has acknowledged the same before me in my county aforesaid. Given under my hand this 1st day of Dec. 1855

And just like that, on a late November day in 2016, on the second floor of Decatur library, I found Clara, who was on my list as a person of color, according to the 1850 U.S. Census. There she was on pages 343 and 344 of the Greensville County Deed Book No.9.

Clara, described by those intriguing news articles as an “emancipated slave,” had gone and gotten herself in the deepest trenches of debt. Just like the articles stated, according to the December 1, 1855 deed of trust, there were souls held in the balance. However, the articles stated that there were four and that they were Clara’s children. There’s no mention of these being Clara’s children in the deed and more pointedly, there are three rather than four souls named: Malinda, Irvina, and George. Still and nevertheless, this is harrowing.

I had a feeling that there had been a great deal to go on between December 1, 1855, and the summer of 1866 that would be traceable via a paper trail.

The hunt was on and there’re important questions to consider. Just who was this Clara Mabry and how was it that she’d received so much consideration from these “benevolent gentlemen” that she was now placing her children as security for her massive debt to them? How was all of this connected to my ancestor, Emeline?

Indeed, we have a situation. Stay tuned to The Genealogy Situation Room to learn more about Clara Mabry, who is despite it all, and as you’ll come to see, a boss lady.

6 thoughts on “THE BOSS LADY: CLARA MABRY Part I

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