Updated: Apr 6, 2022
CAUTION: SPECULATION INCLUDED!
When searching at Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org, not a lot of information seems to exist telling the life story of John Thomas Dearing, to whom Robert Jefferson was bequeathed in his uncle Asa Dearing’s 1826 will. Estimates found in some poorly documented Ancestry.com family trees put the year of his birth around 1818; so far, I have found no documents to provide evidence of when he was born.
However, I have a working theory that John Thomas (hereafter referred to as J.T. in this piece) was born closer to 1810, based on Robert’s claim that they grew up together when Asa Dearing purchased Millie and Robert. When I contemplate this further, I find it may also be that Robert was born a couple years after 1803, which he had told the reporter was when he was born at the Christian home. Otherwise, it seems odd that Robert would describe himself as “but a child” when he went to live on the Dearing plantation, then growing up as J.T.’s friend and companion. If he was born in 1803, Robert would have been about 15 or 16 by the time they met. That, to me, would seem to be an age when an enslaved male would more likely be considered almost a man, rather than a child. (Something else to research, I suppose.) J.T. would have still been in diapers, if he had been born in 1818; it doesn’t seem likely that he and Robert would have been close to J.T., considering that sizable age gap.
The only thing we know for sure is that Robert and Millie were sold to the Stovall man, and then to Asa Dearing, around June 1818, according to the mortgage in which they were used as collateral to repay Edward Christian’s debt of $325 to John Dixon back in Jefferson County, Virginia.*
It makes more sense that J.T. would have been born closer 1810 and before 1815. Traditionally, men in those days married women younger than themselves. According to an entry on FindAGrave.com, his wife, Emma Frances Stone, was born in 1815. Records indicate they were married in 1836, when John would have been just 18 and Emma 21. Not impossible, to be sure, but is it likely?
A Merchant, a Lawyer, and a Politician –– As Well as a Planter and Slave Owner
Newspapers.com and NewspaperArchive.com have proven to be the best source of information regarding J.T.’s life, at least when he was in Mississippi, found online. While I had assumed, based on information I found from other family trees, that J.T. died in 1849, it turns out he died 15 December 1839 – ten years earlier. Along with the Ancestry trees, I had found a notice from 29 December 1849 announcing an Administrator’s Sale published in the Canton, Mississippi, newspaper, The American Citizen.
The administrators of his estate, Jesse Heard and S.D. Livingston, were preparing to sell J.T.’s plantation, located about five miles north of Canton, according to the notice. The property included 680 acres – 380 of which had been cleared for planting, along with “a dwelling-house, negro cabins, mill and gin.” On the surface, one might think it safe to assume that this close to the date when J.T. died.
Further searches on both websites unearthed many other notices relating to J.T., who, by these accounts had, indeed, established for himself much wealth and property. Items published in the Mississippi Creole, another Canton newspaper, include a notice for an administrator’s sale for J.T.’s estate published 5 June 1841. For sale: J.T.’s home and the lot where his law office was located “on the public square in the town of Canton,” along with five acres of land outside of town. In August 1840, two large tracts of land – one totaling at least 123 acres, the other only presented in a description without the acreage total. Additionally, in Canton, a lot J.T. purchased from Silas Catchings (a name we will discuss in future posts) where a store owned by J.T. and Jesse Heard was located, as well as “the new brick house” J.T had built for himself and his family on a large lot on North Street, also were put up for sale.
Being a wealthy southern planter, J.T., not surprisingly, was a member of the Whig Party and was very active in politics. In fact, on 3 November 1839 – just six weeks before his death – several newspapers reported that J.T. had been elected to represent Madison County in the Mississippi state Legislature. A notice published 27 December 1839 states: “The Governor has ordered a special election in the county of Madison, to supply the vacancy occasioned in the members of the House of Representatives by the death of Mr. Dearing, to be holden on the 1st and 2nd days of January, 1840.”
The year prior, on 9 August 1839, South-Western Farmer, reprinted a Madison Whig newspaper report of the formation of the Madison County Agricultural Society at the end of July, to which J.T. was named chairman and Thomas J. Catchings (also to be discussed in future posts) was named secretary. A notice published the following February announced a meeting was to be held to elect a new chairman to replace the deceased J.T.
Sadly, it appears that Emma was pregnant when J.T.’s died. Their daughter, Margaret “Maggie” Dearing, who never married, is shown to have been born in 1840. She and her widowed mother apparently returned to Augusta, Georgia, to live with Emma’s parents, where the two were living when the 1850 census was taken. Emma never remarried and died on 20 February 1896; Maggie died on 28 October 1906, according to FindAGrave.
In business with Jesse Heard, J.T. was a merchant; the two were partners in a firm that had a store in Canton and later in New Orleans. Additionally, in April 1839, J.T. and O.R. Singleton – who would later be elected to the U.S. Congress (after having served in the Confederate Congress during the Civil War) and who was reported in the 1879 article to have signed the manumission documents freeing Robert Jefferson – announced that, as partners in law, would “attend the several Circuit Courts of Madison, Attala, Leake, Rankin and Hinds counties, and also the several Superior Courts holden at Jackson.”
While I’ve learned much through the newspapers about portions of John Thomas Dearing’s life, there is still much more I hope to find. I am hoping to find a will or anything that would indicate who Robert belonged to after J.T. died. It could be a relative, but also could have been any of the men mentioned in the articles. Thomas J. Catchings, in fact, owned Robert’s enslaved wife, Celia, whom Robert had married prior to 1839, when their eldest daughter Lucy was born. A likely scenario is that Robert went to live on that plantation with Celia when J.T. died. Wherever he was, it would be nearly 14 years after J.T.’s death that Robert would finally gain freedom for himself, Celia, and their daughters, Lucy and Georgianna.
* Virginia’s Jefferson and Berkeley counties became part of West Virginia, when it became a state in 1864.
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