Saturday, February 11, 2006

Azariah Graves or Giles Mebane?

This investigation began when two people questioned whether the above framed portrait labelled Bartlett Yancey, Jr. at the Richmond-Miles History Museum in Yanceyville, North Carolina, was identifying the wrong person. These two people did not know of whom the portrait was, but were certain that it was not an image of Bartlett Yancey, Jr. As both of these people had grown up in Yanceyville and were related to Bartlett Yancey, they were secure in their positions. Click on any of the images for a larger view.

Here (to the right) is a known image of Bartlett Yancey, Jr. (1785-1828). It is a photograph of his portrait, which was passed down through the Yancey family, beginning with the will of his wife. Several prominent historians also have attested to the fact that this is an image of Bartlett Yancey, Jr. It should be obvious that these two portraits (the framed one above and the one here, above and to the right) are of different men. And the curator at the Richmond-Miles History Museum agreed but did not know the identity of the person incorrectly identified as Bartlett Yancey, Jr.

In an effort to discover the identity of the person in the incorrectly labeled portrait, the CCHA posted the mystery to this weblog and to the CCHA message board/mailing list (and passed the matter by several people knowledgeable in these matters). A descendant of the Caswell County Graves family immediately responded and provided the above image. This is a well-documented portrait of Azariah Graves (1768-1850) that had been identified many years ago by another Graves descendant, John Motley Morehead III. Compare this image to the framed one above. Most are certain that these images are of the same person, and an art historian came to the same conclusion.

These findings were taken into account by the Richmond-Miles History Museum. However, in rearranging portraits for a new display, museum personnel discovered that the mislabelled portrait (the framed one shown above) had marked on the back: Giles Mebane. Some research in the museum's donation files seemed to confirm that the portrait had been given to the museum by descendants of Giles Mebane (1809-1899) of Alamance County. Further adding to the confusion is the fact that Giles Mebane married Mary Catherine Yancey, daughter of Bartlett Yancey, Jr. And, to further scramble matters, Azariah Graves was the granduncle of Mary Catherine Yancey (brother of her grandfather, John Herndon Graves).

Thus, was the mystery portrait Azariah Graves or Giles Mebane?

The CCHA and Richmond-Miles History Museum were fortunate to have several good friends who realized that we needed an undisputed image of Giles Mebane to compare. The University of North Carolina had such an image, and these good friends obtained a copy, which is to the left. This is a well-documented image of Giles Mebane, and those associated with this image are as certain as one reasonably can be that it is indeed an image of Giles Mebane.

Does this image match any of those shown above? Compare it to the image that the Richmond-Miles Museum concluded was Giles Mebane (the framed portrait). Many have now done this, including an art historian. The unanimous concensus is that the men in the two portraits are not the same. Thus, the framed portrait that the Museum has labeled as Giles Mebane is, once again, incorrectly identified.

Accordingly, we now have (1) a known image of Bartlett Yancey, Jr., (2) a known image of Giles Mebane (from the University of North Carolina), (3) a known image of Azariah Graves, and (4) a portrait hanging in the museum that is identical to the image of Azariah Graves. Thus, unless additional information is forthcoming, we are considering the mystery solved and the matter closed.

The image set forth below is a portrait of Azariah Graves (1768-1850):

If you have anything to add, please share it.

In late February 2008, the person who donated to the Richmond-Miles Museum the portrait at issue here visited the Museum and identified the portrait as that of Azariah Graves. This donor, Dr. Giles Yancey Mebane, dismissed the possibility that the portrait was of Giles Mebane. Hopefully, this finally resolves the matter.

References and Links

From Jamestown Onward - History & Genealogy of Thirty Lines Plus, Marie Adele Kirksey Darron (1980)

When the Past Refused to Die: A History of Caswell County North Carolina 1777-1977, William S. Powell (1977) at 142

The Morehead Family of North Carolina and Virginia, John Motley Morehead (1921)

John Motley Morehead III (1870-1965)


1. While the identity of the portrait of Bartlett Yancey, Jr., started this investigation, that identity no longer is in doubt. However, it is interesting to note that it was the wife of Giles Mebane, Mary Catherine Yancey, who inherited the portrait of her father (Bartlett Yancey, Jr.) in the will of her mother, Ann (Nancy) Graves Yancey. And, it is very possible that the portrait Mary Catherine Yancey Mebane inherited hangs today in the Richmond-Miles History Museum. Thus, Mary Catherine Yancey was involved in this matter from two directions!

2. Why the portrait of Azariah Graves was marked on the back "Giles Mebane" continues to cause head scratching. It may be because the donor, Dr. Giles Yancey Mebane, is called "Giles Mebane."

3. While not really relevant to the issue at hand it nevertheless is interesting to note that the mother of Giles Mebane was a Graves. Actually, she was a step-mother (the second wife of James Mebane). She was Mary (Polly) Graves the sister of Ann (Nancy) Graves who married Bartlett Yancey, Jr. Thus, Mary Catherine Yancey Mebane's aunt became her step-mother-in-law.

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