Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Thomas Pattillo Bigelow (1802-1873)

A few months ago, the following item was posted to the CCHA Message Board by CCHA Archivist and Webmaster Rick Frederick:

Thomas Pattillo Bigelow (1802-1873)

Dear Folks:

I write with respect to a Caswell County native of some importance about which not enough is known. This is Thomas Pattillo Bigelow (1802-1873). The birth year is not certain, but one source indicates it was 1802. In any event, he was born around 1800.

One difficulty in researching him is that his legal name was Thomas Pattillo. He was the son of a Pattillo and a mother named Elizabeth, neither of whom have been satisfactorily identified. His mother Elizabeth was widowed and married as her second husband Roderick Bigelow. Thomas Pattillo took the surname of his stepfather, as apparently did the sisters of Thomas Pattillo Bigelow, Mary Pattillo Bigelow and Elizabeth Pattillo Bigelow. Thus, in Caswell County the subject of this message was known as Thomas Bigelow (sometimes Bigalow).

His stepfather Roderick Bigelow originally was from Isle of Wight County, Virginia, and then moved to Warren County, North Carolina. And, the Pattillo family from which Thomas Pattillo Bigelow is believed to descend by blood originated in Dinwiddie County or Prince George County, Virginia.

I realize the above is a bit confusing, which has contributed to the overall confusion about the Bigelow family of Caswell County.

Those who grew up in and around Yanceyville undoubtedly will be familiar with the large African-American Bigelow family. A recent Caswell County telephone book contained several dozen individual Bigelow entries. However, this is part of the difficulty:

Thomas Pattillo Bigelow was white, a lawyer, a wealthy planter, and a slave owner. The African-American surnamed Bigelows of Caswell County may have (and probably did) descend from slaves once owned by Thomas Pattillo Bigelow who took the Bigelow name. These are not the blood descendants of Thomas Pattillo Bigelow.

A further complicating factor is that the "wife" of Thomas Pattillo Bigelow and the mother of his children and descendants was at one time his slave. Her name is Elizabeth or Betsey. Family tradition teaches that she was American Indian (or possibly mixed blood) and, while apparently legally a slave, certainly was not treated as such. Laws and social mores of the time prevented a formal marriage between Thomas Pattillo Bigelow and Betsey, but their relationship was as husband-and-wife.

The union of Thomas and Betsey Bigelow produced twelve (possibly thirteen) children. All technically were mulattoes, but some could (and did) pass as white. Many were well-educated, with several attending Shaw University. It appears that those who could pass as white departed Caswell County. Actually, most of the children of Thomas and Betsey Bigelow moved away. The descendants of these children are researching their Caswell County roots.

That so little is known (or at least has been written) about Thomas Pattillo Bigelow is surprising. He was a very successful Caswell County lawyer whose name can be found in scores of legal documents. In 1871, he was one of the founders of the Bank of Caswell (along with John B. Blackwell, George Williamson, James Poteat, and Thomas D. Johnston). He was among the earliest members of the Caswell County Agricultural Society (with such prominent men as William Long, James Mebane, Abisha Slade, Calvin Graves, John Kerr, Allen Gunn, John L. Williamson, John G. Lea. G. P. Womack, H. C. Cobb, and James Poteat). Thomas Pattillo Bigelow was appointed to a committee of leading men of Caswell County responsible for the first Caswell County Agricultural Fair in 1854.

When a railroad was proposed to run from Milton to Yanceyville and on southward, Thomas Pattillo Bigelow was appointed one of the Commissioners to sell stock. Among his co-commissioners were John Azariah Graves (lawyer), Samuel P. Hill (lawyer), Thomas D. Johnston (president of the Bank of Yanceyville), and George Williamson (prominent plantation owner).

The real property holdings of Thomas Pattillo Bigelow were significant. It may be that he owned much of the land south of Yanceyville that became the North Carolina State Wildlife Refuge. This would be in the Burton Chapel Road area. Note two roads intersecting with the Burton Chapel Road are: Old Bigelow Road; and Mary Jane Bigelow Road.

Some remember a Bigelow "mansion house" in this area that purportedly was at some point purchased by a Johnston/Johnson and subsequently burned. Also, there have been reports of a Bigelow family cemetery in the area. The 1868 Caswell County School Districts Map recently discussed here identified what apparently were significant land holders. Among these, south of Yanceyville, is "T. Bigalow."

More about this family can be found at the Caswell County Family Tree:

There, along with other records, you will find his 1873 will.

Also, Bigelow family photographs and documents can be found in the Bigelow Family Set that is part of the Caswell County Photograph Collection:

Any information about this family would be welcome, but particularly

1. Identity of the Pattillo father of Thomas Pattillo Bigelow.
2. Identity of Elizabeth, the mother of Thomas Pattillo Bigelow.
3. Anything about Betsey, the "wife" of Thomas Pattillo Bigelow.
4. The Thomas Pattillo Bigelow "mansion house."
5. The burial location of Thomas Pattillo Bigelow, who died in
Caswell County.

Thanks and best regards,