John Fips: Wilkes Co., North Carolina Planter

A typescript book of Wilkes County, North Carolina court minute abstracts from 1789-1793 is included among the online pdf books in Family Search. This is Wilkes County, North Carolina Court Minute Abstracts, Volume III (1789-1793), abstracted by Mrs. W.O. Absher (North Wilkesboro: Wilkes Genealogical Society, 1795). This is a pdf file which might take a while to download.

The first page includes an abstract of a record from 26 January 1789, which concerns overseeing several roads. One of those roads was from Prater’s Creek to Franklin’s road.

A very recent post discussed Prater’s Creek, today known as Prathers Creek, as a recurring place name in Phips- or Phipps-related records. “All hands” below William Pennington’s and John Fips were to work on this road, and John Fips was ordered to be the overseer.

Then on 24 July 1791, a deed was acknowledged in court by the oath of William Nall, Esquire. This was for 100 acres deed from John Fips and Elender Fips to Alex Smith. (“Alex” was probably intended as an abbreviation rather than a nickname.) William Nall appears at various points in the book as, apparently, a magistrate or justice.

William “Boid” (presumably Boyd) was appointed road overseer in the place of John Fips, who had resigned, according to a record dated 23 April 1792.

Alexander Smith, mentioned above, was likely the one who is mentioned in the 1781 Wilkes County will of Hugh Smith as a son. Hugh Smith is referred to in that will as a planter. Something that is not in the book mentioned above is the deed itself – not just the acknowledgement – from John and Elender Fips to Alexander Smith.

There, Elender is identified as John’s wife, and Smith’s name is given as Alexander. Further, John is referred to as a planter. What was a planter? And what was the difference between a planter and a farmer?

The term “plantation” was linked to the word “planter.” From the beginnings of early Virginia society, planters tended to depend heavily on the labor of slaves and indentured servants. Unlike the common everyday farmer, Virginia planters were among the wealthiest of colonial society.

At least some of the Phipps or Phips or Fips family of the Ashe-Grayson-Wilkes-Montgomery-Surry area in southwest Virginia and northwest North Carolina (where Fips and Phips seemed to generally be the preferred spellings, early on) appear to have probably migrated there from southeastern Virginia.

In that context, perhaps what is implied by the reference to John Fips being a planter is that he brought that aspect of colonial Virginia with him. The term “planter” was common in earlier Virginia, but planters, per se, seemed to be a dying breed by the time John was identified as such, at least in North Carolina.

Of course, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries there were large planters and there were small planters. Some planters owned more than one plantation in more than one location simultaneously.

Occasionally one plantation would be used in order to service another plantation somewhere else, owned by the same planter. Food and cottage industries from one plantation could be used in other location.

Different people did and do define “planter” a bit differently. Some historians only use the term in the strict sense of someone who owned a plantation which employed at least 20 slaves.

Other sources note that by the end of the colonial period, small planters had typically a small number of slaves. By the end of the colonial period 50% of slaveholders only owned 1 to 5 slaves.

This would seem consistent with tax lists and census records we’ve seen for some late 18th-century Fips or Phips or Phipps families. Remember that the John Fips deed is dated 1790 – nearly a decade after the Revolution was over.

The family was also, by this point, far removed from southeast Virginia culture. This was the time and the place, evidently, for the small planter. In some places, the concept of the planter would persist. For northwestern North Carolina in 1790, however, the term seemed to already be something of a rarity.

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