Mystery Mystically Unmasked

My favorite part about research is the unexpected discovery. This comes in many forms and is always exciting, but what happened last week was exceptional.
I lost my mother in September. I am not ready to write about this yet, except in the context of this ironic occurrence. While we are South Carolinians now, Mom spent her first fifty years in New Jersey. Last weekend (just days before the devastation to our home county by Superstorm Sandy) a memorial service was held there in her honor.
Although I did not make the trip, the very day before the service, I was connected to Mom through a distant cousin’s email who found me through Ancestry.com. This lovely woman wrote to ask me about my mother’s family and to see if I could identify the people in an old photo she had.
I certainly could. Front and center stood my six-year-old Mom making her First Communion. I have seen very few childhood photos of her, so this is a great treasure.
Beside her is her younger sister, Margie, my aunt and godmother. The taller girls are their cousins. My grandfather, Luke Pryor, is the dapper gentleman on the right and the tall man is his older brother, John Benjamin Pryor III. Both are grandsons of John Benjamin Pryor, the trainer of the legendary racehorse, Lexington, and his ex-slave wife, Frances Bingaman. The older woman is my great-grandmother, Luke and JB III’s mother.
Long-time readers will know that I have been trying for some time to definitively determine the parentage of Frances Bingaman. That’s where the unexpected discovery comes in. This distant cousin, a genealogist extraordinaire, has copies of the death certificates of Frances and her sister, Cordelia. Both list their parents as Adam and Amelia Bingaman.
This answers two questions. Yes, I am the descendant of the colorful plantation owner, Adam Lewis Bingaman of Natchez, Mississippi, but not his New Orleans placee, Mary Ellen Williams. I had determined that Mary Ellen Williams was too young to be Frances’s mother, but another descendant found “Millie” listed in their family Bible. “Millie” is obviously short for Amelia, mother of Frances, Henrietta, Amelia, and Cordelia—all mixed-race daughters of Adam Bingaman.
Mystery solved in a remarkable way at a most significant moment.

Another Roadblock, Another Lead

It’s been eating at me. Am I a descendant of Adam Bingaman and his consort, Mary Ellen Williams? I love to watch Finding Your Roots on PBS and wondered if matching a DNA test with a known descendant was possible. Like I’ve got that kind of money.

There are many people who list my known ancestor, Frances Bingaman Pryor, as one of the couple’s children, but more academic investigations do not. So I decided that if it could be verified chronologically, I would make the leap of faith that we are descended from her.

According to census records from England in 1861 and 1871, Frances was born in Mississippi around 1826. Her sister, Cordelia Bingaman, lived with her in England and died in New Jersey at the age of 63. I found her obituary in the old Red Bank Register of 1891. Therefore, she was born around 1828.

But when was Mary Ellen Williams born?

Looking for evidence of Cordelia’s earlier life, I discovered that both her name and Mary Ellen’s were listed on the New Orleans Register of Free People of Color. This information has been bound in a book published by Le Comité des Archives de la Louisiane. I had to have a copy.

When it arrived in the mail, I boldly ripped open the envelope. The answers to my questions lay inside. I flipped to page 126 and there it was.

Mary Ellen Williams registered as a free person of color in April of 1857 following an act of the legislature allowing her move from Natchez. This I knew from previous investigations where her protector, Adam Bingaman, had appealed to his legislative cronies to act on Mary Ellen’s behalf. At that time she was thirty-eight years old.

That puts her year of birth at 1819. She would have been seven years old when Frances was born. Mary Ellen Williams is NOT my ancestor.

HOWEVER, Cordelia Bingaman is also named in the register. To my surprise, she was listed in 1857 as the three-year-old daughter of Amelia Bingaman. This was not my great-great aunt, Cordelia. But it says that her mother, Amelia, was born in Natchez in 1827. Could she have been another sister to Frances and Cordelia? Did she name her daughter after her own sister?

On Ancestry.com, a descendant of Amelia Bingaman lists her mother as the child of Adam L. Bingaman and a woman named Millie. Could Millie also be the mother of Frances?

Stay tuned as I delve into this possible link.

"Left-Handed Marriages"



New Orleans placee*

Researching my great-great grandfather’s nineteenth-century world, I came across a curious practice called plaçage. Mariages de la main gauche, or left-handed marriages, were common in New Orleans and other French and Spanish colonies. Within this system, prominent white, and later Creole, men could enter into common-law type marriages with African, Indian, or Creole women, thus evading the law prohibiting mixed unions.

My ancestor, John Benjamin Pryor, was a prominent horse trainer who worked for Adam L. Bingaman, a rich Natchez planter and well-known racing aficionado of the day. Pryor married Frances Bingaman, my great-great grandmother. She was a woman of color, very possibly Adam Bingaman’s daughter, but my research is not definitive on that.

If so, she was also the daughter of Mary Ellen Williams, Bingaman’s concubine. Sources conflict as to her status. Was she a free woman of color or a freed slave of Bingaman’s? I wonder if she was a placée, a woman “placed” with him through this curious system.

Female Quadroon

It worked like this: A wealthy white gentlemen might attend a Quadroon Ball for the steep price of two dollars. There he could mingle with teenaged quarteronnes or quadroons and their mothers. A quadroon was one whose father was white and mother was mulatto, therefore one-quarter black. These girls and their mothers were free women of color and this was their ticket to a good life.

The young girls were dressed in the best Paris had to offer, at great expense to the mothers, and were guaranteed to be virgins. Once a man made his selection, he requested the girl’s “hand” from her mother and a contract was negotiated.

Through this agreement, the girl and her mother were placed in a clean white cottage near Rampart Street, the edge of town, where the man could stop in each evening on his way home from work. Any children from the union were to be recognized, well-kept, and were often educated in Europe.

Asher Moses Nathan and his son

The mistress promised to be faithful throughout his or her life. She became part of a separate class of people–not raised to the status of her white counterparts, but above the lowly slave. She may even have had her own servants.

This practice was also prevalent in Natchez and surrounding cities, which leads me to wonder if Mary Ellen Williams was a placée. She and Adam Bingaman actually lived together openly in New Orleans in his declining years.

New Orleans is an exotic place with an exotic history, and the practice of plaçage only adds to its mystique.

*This portrays Marie Thereze Carmelite Anty Metoyer. It and the Nathan portrait were done by free black painter Jules Lion.

The Diary: A Window into the Life

Lexington: trained by my great-great
grandfather, J.B. Pryor
In an online newsletter from The Reading Room, I found a good explanation of why I write historical fiction.
It asks, “Are you inquisitive, investigative and interested in almost everything? Are you looking for facts as answers?” YES
“If so chances are that you are an avid non-fiction reader.” ABSOLUTELY. IN BOOKSTORES, I ALWAYS MAKE A BEELINE TO THE NONFICTION SECTIONS.
“Do you want to know how it would feel to be in someone else’s skin? Do you want to imagine what they would smell, hear, feel, see or say?” SURE DO.
“If so you are probably more of a fiction reader.” I DO ENJOY A GOOD STORY. 
“And what about readers who like the mix of both questions and answers? If you fall into this last category you will really enjoy…historical fiction…a very demanding genre [that] requires extensive research and great imagination.”
YESSS! THAT’S ME!
This research can include genealogy, a great source of ideas. I have written a good bit about how I stumbled onto the premise of my story, Aroon, but through family tree investigations, I have found a story that could write itself. (See sidebar, Pryor Knowledge) It seems I come from far more fascinating stock than I ever imagined. 
One of my favorite ancestors is my maternal great-great grandfather, John Benjamin Pryor. A prominent horse trainer, he was best known for his work with “Lexington,” the premier racehorse of the 1850s and the leading thoroughbred sire since pre-Revolutionary days. Pryor worked for Colonel Adam L. Bingaman of Natchez, Mississippi, and married Frances Bingaman, who may or may not have been the colonel’s daughter by his black mistress, Mary Ellen Williams. The plot thickens.
Which brings me back to why I love writing historical fiction. I am very curious about people’s lives in the past—their hopes, their dreams, what made them laugh, what made them cry. But usually, we know little more than their dates of birth and death. Fiction can fill in the gaps.
UNLESS—someone writes a diary or journal. Yesterday in the mail, I received a copy of William Johnson’s Natchez: The Ante-Bellum Diary of a Free Negro. It is the “lengthiest and most detailed personal narrative authored by an African American during the ante-bellum era in the United States” according to the introduction. And my ancestor, John B. Pryor, is mentioned seven times. Mary Ellen Williams, possibly my ancestor, is noted three times. And if Adam Bingaman is Frances’s father, another ancestor is mentioned seventy-seven times!
This book covers fifteen years of the day-to-day lives of free African-Americans in the pre-Civil War South. Through William Johnson’s eyes, I’m hoping to peek in on my forebears, symbolically tap them on their shoulders and ask, “Who are you?”