John Wesley Gibson and Mary Francis Smith

Mary Francis Smith Gibson (December, 1863—1955) was not willing to talk about her origins. She would share things about her father, Dr. Darian Smith of Rockingham County, North Carolina, but she would not say much about her mother. Once when her granddaughter Vivian Pauline “Polly” Daniel pressed her for more information, Mary replied cryptically, “I was laid by the buzzards and hatched by the sun.” Polly took this to mean Mary was illegitimate, but she had a feeling there was more to the story.

Other grandchildren and great-grandchildren were told that Mary was part Native American. That seemed to explain where Mary got her darker coloring and high cheek bones. Darker skin coloring was a feature of several of Mary’s descendants. But why would Mary be so reluctant to talk about being part Native American?

Mary was Dr. Smith’s oldest child. She had three sisters ( Martha, Annie, and Cain) and three brothers (John, James “Captain”, and Darian Major, a.k.a. “Buck”). On December 2, 1886, in Rockingham County, Mary wed John Wesley Gibson (1857—1937), the son of Private Jack Gibson, a Civil War veteran, and Mahala Gibson. Mary claimed that her father kicked her out of the house when he found out she had decided to take up with John Wesley. Smith family descendant and genealogist Elvin Perkins, Jr. relays that the Smiths did not think well of the Gibsons who were from the Price area, northwest of Stoneville. John Wesley and Mary eventually left Rockingham and brought their family to Brunswick County, Virginia. Were they trying to get away from something? Was there’s an illicit or scandalous union?

Mary’s father, Dr. Smith, was the son of Drury Smith (c1796—1873) and Frances Pitcher (c1798—c1826). Drury, who owned a large plantation and about 600 slaves, drowned while trying to cross the Dan River on horseback near Danbury, North Carolina in 1873 and left a large inheritance. On Feburary 27, 1859, Darian married Elizabeth Maria Shelton (22 July 1838—6 August 1863) in Rockingham County. Darian and Elizabeth had three children: Sarah, Josephine, and Elizabeth.

Darian’s wife Elizabeth died on August 6, 1863, seven months after their youngest child Elizabeth was born. The 1870 census shows the following as household members of Darian Smith, physician, age 47: Joseph E., a white son, age 9 [this must be an error as Darian had a daughter Josephine who would have been 9 years-old at the time]; Margaret Smith, domestic servant, a mulatto female, age 22; Mary Smith, a mulatto girl, age 7; Martha Smith, a mulatto girl, age 4; and John Smith, a mulatto boy, age 2. The clear implication of this census is that Darian has started another family with Margaret Smith and now has three children. Subsequent census and other records confirm this fact.

In the 1900 census Darian’s household consisted of James D. Smith, 18, grandson, white; Margerite Smith, a servant cook, 52, black; and Darian, a farmhand, 19, black. Margerite is listed as single, but she reports being the mother of 9 children, 7 of whom are living. Darian’s marital status is “widowed.” In the 1910 census Darian, reported to be 87 and widowed, had only one other person in his household: Thenia Smith, a private family cook, age 65, black, and single.

The relationship between Darian Smith and Margaret (a.k.a. Thenia) is confirmed in the birth record of D. Major Smith who was born in Rockingham County on Feburary 15, 1882. His parents are listed as Darian Smith and Margaret Smith.

These records show that Darian and Margaret had a common law marriage by virtue of living together and having children. The reason there is no explicit record of their marriage is explained by Margaret being black or mulatto. Having a black or mixed race mother in the rural South during segregation would explain why Mary Smith Gibson was so reluctant to talk about her mother. But this raises other questions. Does this prove she was black, or could she have been of Native American stock? And what kind of relationship did Dr. Smith have with Margaret who would have been 15 when she bore her first child Mary Francis?

The work of Smith family genealogist Elvin Perkins has been most helpful in answering these questions. Perkins has published a genealogy of the Smith family and has spoken with people who knew Darian and Margaret’s family. In an e-mail to the author dated September 27, 2010, Perkins related the following about Darian and Margaret:

The old folks in Stoneville who knew Margaret called her Mog . . . I guess it was probably derived from Mag or Marg. I used the word nurse but you could also say aide or helper . . . she assisted Dr. Smith with his work. Yes she was likely born into the Smith family slaves and came to live with Dr. Smith as young woman. This information from Jamie Smith whose family knew Dr. Smith and his family. They lived near each other.


Margaret, born into slavery, was probably part of his father's estate . . . . There are several stories or legends concerning Drury who had a large plantation. Margaret could have been part of Darian's inheritance or she may have been given to Darian or purchased by him from his father.


According to the family stories Margaret and Dr. Smith were very close and she lived with him or in a home beside him until his death and she then lived with a son for a while . . . probably till she died.  Darian Smith was a popular doctor and was not prone to an abusive nature that I ever heard of . . . .


Darian Smith did try to see that his daughters were well schooled feeling that they would fare better in life than with a good education.  As to how much education they actually received I don't really know. As I mentioned above this information is from family stories as well as any records I could find. As for finding Margaret's parents . . . I expect it is a slim chance . . . . I would venture to guess that one of the Smith bunch was her father and so Darian was probably her cousin . . . typical for the times but that is just a theory of mine.


And what about that cryptic expression Mary Smith Gibson used: “I was laid by the buzzards and hatched by the sun”? A quick search on the Internet yields several stories of mixed-race African-Americans of slave descent who used this aphorism to answer those who questioned them about their mulatto coloring. For example, when slave holders asked Frederick Douglas where he was from, he is said to have replied “Turkey Buzzard Laid Me.” Douglas did not know what ethnicity he was or who his father was, and he was told that he was many different things. In Alex Haley’s Roots, the “Chicken” George, offspring of a white slave owner and a slave, is teased by dark-skinned slave children because of his mulatto coloring. His mother tells him to yell back at his tormentors, “Turkey buzzard laid me! Hot sun hatched me! Gawd gim’me dis color . . .”

The seven known children of Darian and Margaret were Mary Francis, Martha J. Smith (February 1866—after 1920), John H. Smith (c1868--), James “Captain” Yancey (13 April 1874—), M. Annie (15 February 1876—27 October 1968), Candia “Cain” (1880—after 1942), and Darian “Buck” Major (15 February 1882—after 1930).


Cain married Isaac Smith “Ike” Hilton (12 May 1882—after 1942) on July 26, 1905 in Wise County, Virginia. They lived in Pennsylvania and had three children including Raymond Leslie Hilton (18 April 1910—18 January 1990) who married Katherine Beaver, the granddaughter of Pennsylvania Governor James Addams Beaver. Raymond’s older brother Frank C. Hilton (12 October 1908—20 March 2001) was the only Pennsylvanian to serve as State Secretary of Property and Supplies under two different administrations—first under Gov. John Fine in 1953, followed by Gov. Milton Shapp in 1971.


On May 27, 1919, Dr. Darian Smith passed away at the age of 95 in Rockingham County. In the 1930 census, Margaret was living with her son James in Leaksville, Rockingham County. The race of all members of the household is listed as negro. No further records for Margaret have been found.
PART II (to be continued)
John Wesley Gibson and Mary Francis Smith on their 50th wedding anniversary in 1936. This is a color tint of the original photograph, courtesy of Jiggs and Patsy Betz.
 Mary Smith Gibson at the home of her daughter Eva Gibson Daniel (courtesy of Dorothy Crane).