Horse Thieves, Slave Thieves, and Autonomous Territory

The legal notices transcribed below represent the type of document which Phipps family researchers a few decades ago would have dismissed as clearly irrelevant, with hardly more than a glance. But as has been suggested in earlier posts, important clues as to the origins of the Phipps or Fips or Phips etc. family in Virginia might come through variant spellings. That could be the case even with variant forms as troublesome as Phelps and Phillips or Philips.

A series of evidently paid advertisements appeared in the Virginia Gazette, published in Williamsburg. Following the paper’s ploddingly slow pace of publication, three notices appeared in succession, all of them dated 1777. Although the wording and alleged circumstances are sometimes confusing, and although it was largely a matter of two sides accusing each other of the same offense, the gist appears to have been something like this:

  • 30 Apr 1777 (published 23 May 1777): Richard Phillips or Philips of Louisa County accused Joseph Cocke or Cook of Pittsylvania County of stealing his slave and of taking him to the Watauga settlement, where the slave was under Cocke/Cook’s associate Thomas Shoat.
  • 15 Aug 1777: Joseph Cocke or Cook took issue with Richard Phillips or Philips, who claimed that Julius Deane or Dean or Deen and John Dyer, in cahoots with Richard Phillips or Philips, had stolen a slave from him. Joseph Cocke/Cook called Deane and Dyer “notorious” horse thieves who had kept the slave in the Watauga settlement.
  • 17 Sep 1777 (published 24 October 1777): John Dyer of Halifax County took issue with Joseph Cocke or Cook’s earlier notice in which he defames both himself and Richard Phillips or Philips. In this later notice, Dyer suggests that Joseph Cocke/Cook and — Mason stole a slave from Mrs. Elizabeth Bibb, a relative of Richard Phillips/Philips.

As already stated, a notice appeared in the Virginia Gazette (Purdie edition, 24 October 1777, p. 2), published in Williamsburg and dated 17 September 1777. That notice comes from a certain John Dyer in Halifax County. Dyer publicly complains that an earlier notice, which appeared in August, defamed both himself and a certain “Mr. Philips.”

Something that’s of immediate interest here, in case you’re not convinced of the extremely common phenomenon of variant surname spellings during this period, has to do with the name of the writer of the August notice. In the earlier notice, he is referred to as Joseph “Cook,” and his name is signed as such. When John Dyer answered his charges in October, however, Dyer calls him “Cocke.” Cocke is a name we’ve encountered repeatedly in Phips etc. research and which we’ve commented about on multiple occasions.

From the Virginia Gazette, Williamsburg, Virginia, Purdie edition, 24 October 1777, p. 2:

HALIFAX, Sept. 17, 1777.
A PIECE appeared in Dixon & Hunter’s paper in August last, by Joseph Cocke, wherein he endeavours to fix an odium on Mr. Philips’s character, and my own, as being persons of evil fame. I apprehend the reason why the said Cocke (whose vile character is too notoriously known to need any explanation to the publick) made this attack on characters, out of his power to defame, was this: That a certain Julius Deane informed me that Joseph Cocke, and one Mason, in conjunction, had stolen a negro man slave from Mrs. Elizabeth Bibb. I therefore, in order that Mrs. Bibb might recover her slave, and detect the villains, informed her of these circumstances by letter. – Some time afterwards, Mr. Philips, a friend and relation of Mrs. Bibb’s, applied to me for information. I sent for the aforesaid Julius Dean [sic], who made the information to Mr. Philips himself, which is a true state of the matter, as far as came to my knowledge. Mr. Philips is a stranger to me, but supports a character amongst all his acquaintance unexceptionable. As to my own, I challenge Mr. Joseph Cocke, or any of his vile emissaries, to stand forth, if they can, and make good his false charge; though, at the same time, I am sure a person of his infamous character is not to be thought of but with contempt. I only mean to have my character set in a fair light to the impartial publick. I am, sir, your humble servant,

The earlier notice had appeared on 15 August 1777. There, “Mr. Philips” (with one L in the later notice) is identified as Richard Phillips (with 2 L’s). From the Virginia Gazette, Williamsburg, Virginia, Dixon and Hunter edition, 15 August 1777, p. 7:


FINDING my Name mentioned in an Advertisement by one Richard Phillips, of Louisa County, with Circumstances of Disgrace, which the Circulation of your Paper may publish beyond the Limits of his or my immediate Acquaintance, or the Reach of any personal Satisfaction his audacious Fallacy may entitle me to take of him, I am compelled, in my own Justification, to make this Appeal to the Public. Some Months ago, being sick in Bed, I received a most abusive and insulting Letter from Phillips (whose Name as well as Person I was an entire Stranger to) requiring me to meet him at Bedford Courthouse with a Negro of his, who he said was in my Possession; though the Behaviour of Mr. Phillips on this Occasion merited Nothing but Disregard and Contempt, yet, desirous of knowing on what Foundation he could claim any Negro I had, I wrote him a true Account of my Situation, and how impossible it was for me to meet him at that Time, and appointed him a Day to meet me at Mr. John Brown’s, in Cumberland County, a Place much nearer his own Home, and more convenient to me, on Account of other Appointments. For what reason Mr. Phillips did not think proper to meet me there I know not; but from a Discovery of some of his previous Manoeuvres, a very shrewd Conjecture will immediately occur: Mr. Phillips, it seems had been some Time in Confederacy with Julius Deane and John Dyer, two notorious Horse Thieves; many Letters and Consultations passed, which at Length ended in a most notable Plan, to steal a Negro they heard I had in the Watauga Settlement, and with this Laudable Resolution they set out under the Conduct of Deane, but, unfortunately for them, the Leader of this Virtuous Triumvirate before they reached their Place of Rendezvous was seized by the Hand of the civil Magistrate and committed to Salisbury Gaol, for endeavouring to live by the Practice of his Profession. Had Phillips and Dyer been honoured with the same Notice, the public Prints might have brought us something more worthy of Notice than the base and wicked Calumnies of so atrocious a Slanderer. If I should be thought to have departed in any Degreef rom [sic; Degree from] the Line of common Decency, let the Provocation I have received be my Excuse. I am sorry to recriminate, but Mr. Phillips’s unjust and unprovoked Attack upon me, has made it necessary. For aught I know, his Reputation may have been formerly respectable; if so, he must excuse me for applying to him, the homely old Proverb, “Birds of a Feather, &c.” The World will judge him by the Company he keeps. That he may have been told what he thus confidently asserts, is possibly true; but if his Author be worthy of the smallest Credit, I ought to be called to a stricter Account, than having it published in a Gazette, and to such I am always ready to answer. But let Mr. Phillips beware of thus publicly defaming Characters, upon the Information of such Men as he has of late associated with. The Bare-faced Inconsistency of his Performance may not be thought to deserve so elaborate an Answer; but the bare-faced Audacity of Mr. Phillips deserves much severer Treatment; and I trust the Public will excuse me for thus breaking in upon their Amusements, by holding up the base and malicious Slanderer as an object of general Execration.


Joseph Cook or Cocke attempted to distance himself from Richard Philips or Phillips, claiming that he didn’t know him. He says, regarding Phillips,”whose Name as well as Person I was an entire stranger to.” Since each side is accusing the other, however, it’s unclear how to separate fact from fiction.

In addition, other factors are present which might suggest that we should look at this further. For one, the notice by Cook or Cocke places this Phillips or Philips as living “much nearer” to a specific location in Cumberland County than in Bedford County. This suggests that although Philips or Phillips was living in Louisa County, he must not have been far from Cumberland County.

In fact, at the time only one fairly tiny sliver of land separated Louisa County from Cumberland County, and that was Goochland County. We’ve referred to Goochland County repeatedly in recent posts.

Cumberland County, which was formed in 1748 from Goochland County, is situated right in an area we have turned to repeatedly in past posts. In fact, multiple past posts have focused specifically on Cumberland County. There we have encountered various individuals, probably related, who appear in records with the variant spellings Phips, Phelps, Phipps, and Fips.

In the 1770s Cumberland was also located between Goochland and Amelia Counties, which are counties that have figured prominently in various earlier posts. Could Philips or Phillips simply have been another one of those variant surname forms?

One especially intriguing comment in the earlier of the two notices seems to suggest that Philips or Phillips was regarded by at least some as a horse thief. Joseph Cook or Cocke asserts, “Mr. Phillips, it seems[,] had been some Time in Confederacy with Julius Deane and John Dyer, two notorious Horse Thieves.” Why might this be especially significant?

One segment of the Phips (as generally spelled, later Phipps) family of Ashe County, North Carolina, which earlier came from Virginia, appears to have engaged in horse thievery at least by the time they migrated to Owen and Clay Counties in Indiana in the 1830s.

Could some of this type of activity have occurred among some family members earlier? Dyer claimed that Philips or Phillips “is a stranger to me,” but was that really the case?

We’ve already discussed the fact that a Tabitha or “Tibitha” Phipps or Phips or Fiphs in Cumberland County, Virginia, probably related to the Phelps family in the same county, had her sons bound out in the 1750s. We’ve discussed the fact that she appears to have been the wife of a Lewis Phips or Phipps or Fips, who appears to have died by 1750. Tabitha then received money from the county as a poor person.

We also discussed the fact that in 1760, the sheriff of Cumberland County was on the lookout for a Samuel “Phelps” in that county, but that Samuel appeared to have moved outside of his “bailiwick,” or jurisdiction. Could this possibly have been the elusive Samuel Phips, Sr.?

That Samuel Phips, Sr. shows up with Samuel Phips, Jr. in an undated (about 1781) militia list in Montgomery County, Virginia. Samuel Phips, Jr. in that list would clearly be the Samuel Phips who then died in 1854 in Ashe County, North Carolina (apparently the same location, but just redefined due to boundary changes).

In the two newspaper notices, we really don’t know who’s telling the truth. Obviously, not everything being asserted in these two inflammatory notices is correct. Who is lying, and who is telling the truth? Are these people really as distant from each other as they’re claiming? The Cocke name in particular comes into question, since we’ve noted the Cocke name over and over in research.

One also has to wonder about Julius Dean or Deane who figures in the notices. The enigmatic Matthew Phripp, sometimes Phips etc., of Williamsburg had dealings with Elkanah Deane, the famous carriage maker of Williamsburg.

And a John Dyer, probably the same one above, witnessed a 1765 will of a Cockerham (Daniel Cockerham) in Halifax County. We’ve noted Cockerham connections that go back to early Surry County, Virginia and to John Phips, the orphan son of Elizabeth Harris. The Cockerhams appear to have later moved into Caroline County, Virginia, where John Fips appears to have died about 1768.

And what of this Joseph Cocke or Cook? Some secondary info on the Internet seems to connect a Halifax County family (with multiple Harris connections) with a Joseph Cocke – perhaps the same one – who is said to have died in 1820 in Warren County, North Carolina.

That Warren County, in turn, is the same location where records show a Thomas Poythress serving as bondsman to a wedding in 1781. That was perhaps the same Thomas Poythress who sold land in 1787 to a Phipps in Brunswick County, Virginia.

Lest it sound far-fetched that it could be the same Thomas Poythress, it should be noted that the extremely short-lived Bute County, North Carolina was essentially absorbed into Warren County. It is in Bute County that we have extremely strange records showing land sales around this same time (1770s) involving Phipps or Phips individuals who were described as “of” Brunswick County, Virginia. That was, of course, the same Brunswick County where Thomas Poythress was living.

Regarding that information which seems to associate Joseph Cocke with a Halifax County family, another page in the same website abstracts a petition from Joseph Cocke and his wife Winifred that specifically refers to a Deane, in this case Thomas Deane.

Recall that Julius Deane figures prominently in one of the newspaper notices. The name Deane also appears in records as Dean and Deen. We’ve noted the connection between Cocke, on the one hand, and Pleasant/Pleasants and Burton on the other, with direct connection from there to the Reeves family which has figured so prominently in Phips or Phipps research. We know from the pension records of Julius “Deen” from Halifax County, Virginia (who later lived in South Carolina) that a good friend of his while in Revolutionary War service was a Richard Burton.

The petition abstract notes that this Thomas Deane died in 1778 “possessed of a number of Negroes.” Slave ownership seems to be a recurring theme throughout the newspaper notices and throughout an awful lot of recent Phips/Fips research.

Further, the same document refers to what must evidently have been some sort of fraudulent sale of “certain Negroes” to Philip Alston “late of” Warren County, North Carolina – that same Warren County, North Carolina. As noted in earlier posts, the Phips or Fips family seems to have highly mobile. Could it have been due to the theft and sale of slaves and horses, with fraudulent sales tied in?

We also know from testimony in an 1853 court case in Mississippi that a Joseph Cocke family which moved from Virginia to Mississippi, with that Joseph having died in 1806, entered into a controversy over slaves. Part of the testimony reads “The slaves were removed from Virginia without the knowledge or consent of complainants.”

Hmm… Slaves and slave theft. Fraudulent sale. Horse thievery. This is beginning to sound highly reminiscent of documents pertaining to some of the Phips family in Ashe County, North Carolina and Owen County, Indiana.

William Phips, son of Samuel, was accused in Ashe County, North Carolina of having fraudulently sold land just before migrating from North Carolina to Indiana. His brother Jesse was the father of the twins John Meshack and Eli Shadrack Phips, both of whom were involved in the Long-Phips outlaw gang which was engaged in stealing horses.

Blanchard’s 1884 history of Owen County, Indiana asserts that Jesse “kept a house,” whatever that means, which “for a number of years was the general resort of a class of roughs who set at defiance the laws of both God and man.” Is there any reason to assume that Jesse’s father Samuel Phips of Ashe County, North Carolina had to have been completely different?

Blanchard pointed to what he believed were “three grown sons” of Jesse, saying that “all three . . . gained considerable notoriety on account of their many daring acts of lawlessness.” Those three were identified by Blanchard as “Mashach or ‘Shack,’ Shadrach and Troy.” Troy was actually Jesse’s nephew and was a son of the William who was responsible for the fraudulent land sale.

This family was so cunning that merchant Mathew Phips, who was a brother of John Meshack and Eli Shadrack Phips, appears to have faked his own death in 1841 after close relatives robbed a nearby store of a competitor. They were so cunning that their gang left an underground horse stable for stolen horses near St. Joseph, Missouri, found later by a farmer after the farm had changed hands. They were so cunning that they evaded capture for a number of years, until a clever detective infiltrated the gang.

They were so cunning that they bought town lots in the Mormon settlement of Nauvoo in order to evade apprehension by law authorities. They were so cunning that they were said to be a part of a huge outlaw network that extended over much of the upper Mississippi Valley. They were so cunning that they may have been responsible for the widespread thefts which were attributed, instead, to early Mormons, and which appear to have led to the ouster of the Mormons from Nauvoo.

Joseph Cocke or Cook, in the earlier of the two notices transcribed above, refers to a yet earlier notice. That would appear to be the one which appeared in the Dixon and Hunter edition of the Virginia Gazette on 23 May 1777, on p. 3:

LOUISA County, April 30, 1777.

STOLEN, some Time in November 1775, a Negro Man named ABRAHAM, Virginia born, about 28 or 29 Years old, 5 Feet 10 or 11 Inches high; he is a black Negro, with large Calves to his Legs, his upper fore Teeth incline out rather more than common, and has an Impediment, or Stammering in his Speech when he speaks hastily; he is a well proportioned Fellow, and can saw very well, but was brought up chiefly to the Planter’s Business. I am informed he was stolen by one Joseph Cook of Pittsylvania County, who, to prevent his Owner’s getting or hearing of him, conveyed him out to Watauga, within 6 or 7 Miles of the Great Island on Holstein River, and, through a Blind, put him under one Thomas Shoat, an Inhabitant of that Place, where I went in Pursuit of him, and understood by the said Shoat that it was the same Negro that I described to him, but was brought there by the said Cook, and put under him to make a Crop of Corn, and that he intended to move into those Parts to live; but I have sufficient Reason to believe that the said Shoat is in Confederacy with Cook, and that Shoat had Intelligence of my being in Pursuit of said Negro before I could get there, and concealed him, telling me that Cook had sent for him four or five Days before, and he was gone to him. Upon which I returned to Bedford Courthouse, and sent Word to Cook to meet me there with the Negro, which he failed to comply with, but sent a Letter in Retaliation for the Negro. I have likewise been informed, that if ever Cook should understand that I have heard of his stealing the said Negro, he intended to convey him to New Orleans, where he expected the Owner would never get him. I will give twenty Pounds to any Person that will deliver the said Negro to me, and on Conviction of the Thief forty Pounds. The said Negro has changed his Name to WILL, and, by Promise of Cook, was to have his Freedom after a Year or two, and in all Probability may now pass for a free Man.


A Thomas Shoat appears in various references pertaining to Pittsylvania County. (The surname also appears as Shot.) Notice that here Joseph “Cook” (Cocke) is called “of” Pittsylvania County. Louisa County is adjacent to present-day Goochland County, the county we’ve referred to repeatedly.

Notice also the references to the Watauga settlement. This settlement, sometimes called the Republic of Watauga, and which eventually became known as the Washington District, operated under its own semi-autonomous government and was formed in 1772. If one engaged in slave stealing or horse stealing, this would have very clearly been the ideal place for operations.

The location was past the frontier in northwestern North Carolina and what became Tennessee. This was near what became Ashe County, North Carolina, where Samuel Phips and other family members show up beginning with the 1800 census.

When Ashe was established in 1799, the border between North Carolina and Tennessee had not yet been clearly defined. What became Ashe was a part of the State of Franklin in the 1780s, also known as the Free Republic of Franklin. This was evidently even more autonomous than the Watauga area.

One published historical atlas appears to show Samuel as living in a spot which is exactly just barely past the legal frontier. He was living in an area that yet another source says was commonly inhabited by outlaws and by those evading the law for whatever reason.

With regard to the Watauga settlement, Lord Dunmore, who we’ve mentioned a few times, called it a “dangerous example.” That was because it involved the establishment of a government which was “distinct from and independent of his majesty’s authority.”

For a time, until “proper” government could be imposed, Watauga was, essentially, the extremely wild, wild west. The area was characterized by what has been termed “perfect anarchy.” John Preston Arthur noted in 1915 that Watauga was the home of “frequent crimes of murder and robbery.” Further,

Citizens refused to appear as jurors, and if court was held to try such crimes, not one was present. Prisons were broken open and their inmates released. Most matters were decided by blows. But the county courts were regularly held, and whatever belonged to their jurisdiction received the customary attention.

Arthur further notes that some of the Watauga settlers

were refugees from justice, had fled from debt, or had left wife and children elsewhere – or, possibly, to escape the penalty of some crime. Horse thieves infested parts of this section.

Note the specific reference to horse thieves. The 1776 Watauga petition of some inhabitants of “Washington District” who wanted to see organized government spoke out against the fact that, as they put it, “we have (no doubt) been many times represented as a lawless mob.” They petitioned that,

It is for this very reason we can assure you that we petition; we now again repeat it, that it is for want of proper authority to try and punish felons, we can only mention to you murderers, horse thieves and robbers and are sorry to say that some of them have escaped us for want of proper authority.

They expressed hope that this “will not long be the case.” Their description and John Preston Arthur’s description sound remarkably like the situation in at least Grayson Township, Owen County, Indiana, according to multiple sources. That was the case until the outlaw element was run out and the name of the township was changed to erase their memory.

We’ve dealt in past posts with the near-riot conditions in Owen County and the presence of, apparently, outlaws in positions in local government. Did Phips family members and some of their relatives there pick this up from experiences earlier in Watauga and the Republic of Franklin?

And, if the story about a Phips having to leave Virginia for North Carolina because of some sort of scandal or crime is true, did he head directly for Watauga or Franklin? If so, could his move later account for the Ashe County presence of the family?

John Sevier is a legendary frontier hero who served as a pioneer leader in this same general area of what became Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee. Sevier is referred to in sources as having become disgusted with a certain man in the Watauga settlement named Shoate, described as a notorious horse thief. That was when Sevier witnessed Shoate, apparently in 1772, taking a horse from a passing stranger, Shoate claimed that he had won the horse in a bet.

Various sources refer to this Shoate without providing his first name. One online source asks whether anyone knows the given name of this Shoate. One would think it was far more than likely that it was the Thomas “Shoat” mentioned above, as referred to in the Virginia Gazette notices.

The place fits exactly, the time frame fits exactly. In the documents above, Cocke or Cook claims he was innocent, but at the same time he was described as an associate of Thomas “Shoat.” At the same time, the Shoate who Severe encountered is described as “a noted horse thief.” One printed source asserts that “This Shoate became a noted horse-thief, and was pursued and killed about 1779-80.”

Again, Joseph Cocke or Cook called Julius Deane and John Dyer “two notorious Horse Thieves.” He also claimed that “it seems” as though Richard Phillips or Philips “had been some Time in Confederacy” with them. At the same time, it appears that Cocke or Cook was, himself, accused of being a slave thief.

Even in their era, when individuals freely made such statements in the press, there must have been some sort of reputation that Cocke or Cook was referring to. Otherwise, why would he have made such a bold statement?

By the way, Richard Phillips, who Joseph Cocke or Cook identifies as being from Louisa County, would presumably be the person mentioned in the following, notice, which appeared in the Virginia Gazette (Dixon and Hunter edition), 28 March 1777, p. 2:


FOR securing the under-mentioned Deserters, enlisted under me for the 15th continental Battalion, . . . RICHARD PHILLIPS of Louisa County, . . . I will give up the above Reward for said Deserters, or twenty Dollars for each, if brought to Williamsburg, and delivered to the commanding Officer of that PLACE.


Other references in the Virginia Gazette make it clear that there was a Richard Phillips or Philips, Sr. and a Richard Phillips or Philips, Jr. The younger of the two advertised that a “pale yellow steer” showed up at his plantation in Louisa County in the fall of 1769. Richard Phillips, Sr. advertised in 1772 and 1773 that he found a “fleabitten mare” in Louisa County.

In 1776, Louisa was separated from Cumberland by only a fairly thin sliver of land. That sliver was the Goochland County we’ve referred to repeatedly. The Bedford County mentioned above, which was suggested as a meeting place, was formed in 1753 from part of Lunenburg County. The county is today adjacent to Pittsylvania County, a county we’ve been discussing extensively. Lunenburg was formed in 1746 from Brunswick, another county we’ve referred to repeatedly.

All of the above might be nothing but coincidental circumstances. It’s possible that Richard “Phillips” or “Philips” might not have been connected to the “Fips” or “Phips” or “Phipps” or “Fiphs” etc. family at all. But one has to wonder. Everything seems to fit.

The main characters in this saga, then, are as follows:

  • Bibb, Mrs. Elizabeth: Related to Richard Philips or Phillips
  • Cocke or Cook, Joseph | apparently Pittsylvania County, Virginia
  • Deane or Dean or Deen, Julius
  • Dyer, John | Halifax County, Virginia
  • Mason, —
  • Philips or Phillips, Richard | Louisa County and in or near Cumberland County, Virginia: Related to Mrs. Elizabeth Bibb
  • Shoat, Thomas, and probably the “Shoate” referred to by John Sevier | Watauga settlement and, apparently, Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Slave thieves and horse thieves. Does this explain whSee also:


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