Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Many Rivers to Cross - MY Priscilla

     Ever since the first episode of the PBS series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, which was created by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., I’ve been pondering this blog post.  I’ve wanted to write, but each time I’ve tried, the words seemed stifled because of the lack of information I have about the subject of this essay.  You see, in Episode 1, Dr. Gates shared with viewers the story of Priscilla, a young girl who was purchased at a South Carolina slave auction by rice planter, Elias Ball.  In response to this episode, many in the blogging community have written beautiful, expressive posts about “their Priscilla”.  But, for me, doing so presented an awkward challenge.  Why, you might ask?  Well, because I have a real-life Priscilla, and she has been one of my most challenging ancestors to research.
    Prescilla Yarborough was my great-grandmother.  She was born in May of 1844, reportedly (by Census) in North Carolina (although one document, my grandfather's death certificate, says she was born in Virginia), and she died after 1900, but before NC began recording death certificates in 1913. She was a slave. She had at least two granddaughters who were named for her: Priscilla Yarborough (my father's half-sister), and Evelyn Precilla Yarborough (daughter of Calvin and Prescilla's youngest son, Eugene). That's all I know about MY Prescilla.
     I list Prescilla in my family tree as Prescilla SHAW, because that is how her name is given on the cohabitation record for her marriage to my great-grandfather, Calvin Yarborough.  However, I have also seen her maiden name given as Eaton, on one of her children’s death certificate, and White, on another.  All others either give her name as Shaw, or unknown.
My grandfather's death certificate, showing that my grandmother gave Prescilla's name as White, and said she was born in Virginia.  I have noticed, though, that these two items appear as though they were added by someone after the orginal was written.  I've pondered this with folks at the NC State Archives. So far, no one has any answers.
     On August 25, 1866, Prescilla and Calvin recorded their marriage date as December 27, 1860.  By that time, they’d had the first three of their 11 children together.
Cohabitation Record for my great-grandparents, Calvin and Prescilla Yarborough

Although I don’t know anything else about Prescilla, she is the ancestor whom I believed most purposefully, and pointedly left me a genealogical gift for my research.  This gift, I believe, was in the naming of her children.  You see, many of Calvin and Precilla’s offspring have middle names that are the surnames of local families in and around Franklin County, NC, where they lived.  I believe that Precilla was most likely separated from her family, and my sense is that she may have never seen them again, once that separation took place.  I also, believe that she, like Calvin, may have had a series of owners, and she wants me to know who they were, so that maybe I can find her (my) family. 
These are the (known) children of Calvin and Prescilla YARBOROUGH, with their middle names capitalized:
  •             Louis NEAL Yarborough (1862-1931) - Calvin was owned for most of his slave years by the Neals, and I believe that his father may have been, also, but I haven’t been able to prove that the Louis in the inventory was actually his dad. He became a Yarborough slave by marriage, just a few years before emancipation
  •      Samuel EATON Yarborough (1864-1922) – The EATON family was prominent in Franklin and surrounding counties.  I believe Precilla may have been owned by one of them, perhaps William Eaton, whom I’ve written about in earlier posts, re: Letters from Louisburg.
  •      Sarah H Yarborough (1866-1870) – Sarah was “burned” and died at age 4, according to the 1870 Mortality Record for Franklin County. I believe that Precilla may have been once owned by Sarah Helen Shaw, and that she may have named her first daughter after her.  However, I also often wonder if she may have been named Sarah after either Priscilla or Calvin’s mother.
  •      Thomas W Yarborough (1867 -?) – I’ve never seen what the W stands for in Thomas’ name, but I have to wonder if it might be, “White”, since one of the children gave that as Precilla’s maiden name
  •       Henry KING Yarborough (1872-1936)  – The King family was also prevalent in Franklin County.  Sarah Shaw, who I believe may have once owned Precilla, married Joel KING.
  •      Quinea A Yarborough (1874 -?) – I don’t know what the A stands for in this name.
  •        Caroline or Carolina B Yarborough (1876-1914) – Again, I don’t know what the middle initial stands for.
  •      Jose -phine S Yarborough (1878 -?) – I have no way of knowing, but could this be SHAW  
  •      Mattie Louise Yarborough (1879-1919
  •      Calvin Roy Yarborough (1882-1929) – This is my GRANDFATHER. There are ROYs in the area, but I’m not sure if there is any connection
  •      Eugene CARTER Yarborough (1864-1954) – This is the most vague (to me) of all the middle names.  The CARTER surname doesn’t appear in Franklin County until 1880, but because I don’t know where Precilla came from, originally, I won’t rule anything out.
*  I’ve noticed that (if my naming theory is correct), Prescilla seems to only use it with her sons, and not so much her daughters.  I wonder if the daughters were named for particular people?

     Nothing remains of my great-grandmother, Prescilla, except for my belief that she left me these clues in the naming of her children.  There are no family stories about her, nor heirlooms which belonged to her. Nothing.

     Thank you, Great-Grandma Precilla, for giving your children these names.  I promise not to ever give up trying to follow the trail you’ve left for me to explore.


Yarborough Family bible, owned by Susie Yarborough Hawkins, Louisburg, NC
Cohabitation Records, Franklin County, 1866: North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, NC
Franklin County Death Certificates: Franklin County Register of Deeds, Louisburg, NC


  1. Great post Renata!So glad you made the decision to share your story.

  2. Lots of mysteries and lots of clues here.

  3. Well written and an interesting analysis of Priscilla and her origins. Have you had the chance to study the history of the Civil War in the local area? You might learn more about the enslaved people that way. Were some taking leave, did some remain? Find the Freedom story and you might be able to learn more, hopefully. Enjoyed reading this piece.

  4. Interesting post and your Priscilla left you clues to work with. I have noticed in my research where there are several surnames, it does appear to be multiple owners.

  5. Renate,

    I want to let you know that your blog is listed in today's Fab Finds at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2013/11/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-november-22.html

    Have a great weekend!

  6. So amazing, Renate. I love all you've been able to find about Priscilla. And how great to have that connection to Dr. Gates' work.

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. Wonderful post about your Prescilla. You know I'm a firm believer in things like this

    And I never did get anything written during this series. In fact, I've yet to even view all the episodes. Have them recorded to watch one day, perhaps during the holidays.