Sheridan, Thomas (ca. 1787-1864)
Thomas Sheridan (ca. 1787-1864) was an emancipated mulatto carpenter active in Bladen County during the antebellum period, whose only documented building is the Brown Marsh Presbyterian Church (1828) in that county.
Thomas Sheridan’s family background illustrates the complexities of race and status in his era. Probably born in Bladen County, he may have been the son of Nancy Sheridan (a woman of color who was emancipated after his birth) and Joseph R. Gautier, a wealthy Bladen County planter and merchant of French Huguenot background. Gautier, who was frequently listed among the leading men of the Cape Fear region, was a political figure in Elizabethtown, a state senator (1791), and an early supporter of the University of North Carolina noted for having left his library of some 100 volumes (mostly in French) to the university’s library. Gautier was the owner of several slaves, including Thomas Sheridan and his brother Louis Sheridan, and probably Nancy Sheridan. Circumstantial evidence also indicates that Joseph Gautier and Nancy Sheridan had a long-term domestic relationship: many white men who had such relationships with their enslaved women often freed their enslaved family members and provided for them (although emancipation became increasingly difficult in the early and mid-19th century).
In 1799, Joseph Gautier of Elizabethtown petitioned the North Carolina General Assembly to emancipate “two mulatto boys belonging to him.” Gautier explained that, “as their childhood would render fruitless a recourse to the county court, he prays the aid at the Legislature to establish by a law the freedom of said boys.” (Laws governing emancipation by county courts required demonstration of meritorious service, which a child could not have earned; thus Gautier appealed to the legislature. No matter what the status of the father, a child born to an enslaved mother was born a slave.) Gautier’s petition succeeded, and the legislature enacted a law that “the said mulatto boys be emancipated and set free from slavery, and henceforward be called and known by the names of Thomas Sheridan and Louis Sheridan.” In 1799, Thomas was about twelve years of age and Louis was about six. In the 1800 census of Bladen County, J. R. Gautier was listed as head of household with one white male, three “other” free persons—probably Nancy, Thomas, and Louis—and seven slaves. His will of 1800 left his plantation “at the marsh,” his household and plantation utensils, and five slaves to Nancy Sheridan, “my emancipated black woman” (suggesting that he himself had freed her, though no record has been found). He left three slaves to “her child” Louis Sheridan, a small amount of property to his (presumably white) nephew, Joseph Gautier, Jr., and £500 to Thomas Sheridan, no relationship specified. The terms of the will make it uncertain as to whether Thomas as well as Louis Sheridan was the son of Nancy Sheridan: Thomas might have been the son of Gautier with another woman, or even of Nancy and another father. In any case, Gautier freed and provided for young Thomas. Gautier died in 1807.
Louis Sheridan (ca. 1793-1844), probably Thomas’s brother or half-brother, gained a good education and became an important merchant and large property owner in Elizabethtown with business connections throughout the state and even the nation. He owned as many as sixteen slaves. He also acquired many town lots in Elizabethtown, including those he sold as sites for the courthouse and for the Presbyterian and Methodist churches. Probably because of his father’s position and connections, Sheridan was aided by former governor John Owen and other leading men of the region and traveled widely for business to Philadelphia, New York, and elsewhere. Although he had initially opposed colonization, after the state placed tighter restrictions on free people of color in the 1830s, Louis Sheridan joined the Liberian colonization movement. He sold his slaves and moved with his family to Liberia in 1837, where he found a situation far less rosy than he anticipated and wrote (often negative) reports back to the United States. He remained there nevertheless and died there in 1844.
Thomas Sheridan pursued the carpentry trade and remained in Bladen County. Although he doubtless built other structures, he is remembered chiefly as builder of Brown Marsh Presbyterian Church. The plainly finished, weatherboarded building is one of the few intact examples still standing of the state’s once numerous simple frame churches. A board in the church ceiling retains the chalked signature, “Thos. Sheridan,” and the date, probably 1828, possibly 1818. Within several years, in 1834, the Presbyterians in the county seat of Elizabethtown built a more substantial church on land deeded to the congregation by Louis Sheridan. Possibly the congregation employed Thomas Sheridan to build it, but this is not documented.
According to the United States census of 1850, unlike his brother Thomas Sheridan did not become wealthy. He was listed as a mulatto carpenter, aged 62, with $30 worth of real estate. He headed a household that included his wife Agnes and their adult daughter, Martha. They lived in a rural neighborhood among primarily white farmers, plus a few other free artisans of color. In 1851 Sheridan remarried, to Lucy Oxendine of Robeson County, of a large Native American family. In 1860, Thomas Sheridan was listed as a farmer with a farm worth $200 and personal property worth $170, with his wife Lucy, aged 55. In his will of 1863 (probated in 1864), Sheridan left his farm, livestock, and household goods to his wife, then to his daughter Martha. He specified that his gun (for which in most areas a man of color had to obtain a special license) and his carpentry tools should be sold to pay for his funeral; and he left the lumber in his shop “to make my coffin.”
- Catherine W. Bishir, “Black Builders in Antebellum North Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review, 61.4 (Oct. 1984), reprinted in Catherine W. Bishir, Southern Built: American Architecture, Regional Practice (2006).
- Bladen County Records (Deeds, Estates Papers, Wills), North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- James Howard Brewer, “An Account of Negro Slavery in the Cape Fear Section Prior to 1860,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pittsburgh (1949).
- “Brown Marsh Presbyterian Church,” National Register of Historic Places nomination (1975).
- Wanda Campbell, Abstracts of Wills: Bladen County, North Carolina (1984).
- Wanda Campbell to Catherine W. Bishir, telephone conversation (May 1984).
- Elizabethtown Bicentennial, 1773-1973 (1973).
- John Hope Franklin, The Free Negro in North Carolina (1943).
- Nash A. Odum, “Louis Sheridan: Early Nineteenth Century Black Leader,” undated typescript.
- William S. Powell, “Louis Sheridan,” in William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 5 (1994).
- Contributors:Thomas Sheridan, carpenterDates:1828 [or 1818]Location:Bladen CountyStreet Address:SR 1700, Clarkton vicinity, NCStatus:StandingType:ReligiousImages Puslished In:Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Eastern North Carolina (1996).