Franklin County, North Carolina: Dennis Foster, German carp, and an elusive ancestor

The contemporary road to an 18-century plantation. Franklin County, North Carolina. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, 2014. All rights reserved.

Just shy of one hundred and fifteen years ago, Dennis Foster, an elder resident of Franklin County, North Carolina, caught a large fish, a German carp, to be exact. The feat was significant enough to make the local news.

A German carp, measuring three and a half feet in length and weighing thirty-two pounds, attracted considerable attention in the neighborhood of Weathers beef market last Saturday morning. The fish was caught with hook and line by uncle Dennis Foster, who claims to be a ‘professional’ in his line. It was the largest fish ever caught out of the river here. Uncle Dennis says he was fifteen minutes getting him out of the water after handing him. He cut the fish in pieces and sold the meat out at ten cents a pound

The Franklin Times, November 3, 1905

Thirty-two pounds (over five hundred ounces) is a pretty big fish, but I honestly didn’t understand the fuss. However, I’m not a fisherman (fisherperson?), and of all the fish I do eat, carp’s not among them. But beyond the carp, Dennis Foster intrigued me. Of course, I noticed his first name, as my father’s name is Dennis. But Foster, along with Edwards, are two of the names in my maternal family tree that represent some of our oldest ties to Franklin County. Was Dennis Foster a relative? Could he add another chapter to our family story? And what was the big deal about German carp anyway? Could North Carolina seafood history assist a genealogy quest?

In the article, Dennis was referred to as “Uncle,” a derogatory term often used by white southerners to address African American men. In 1880, he was documented in Cedar Rock township as a fifty-five year old farmer. Dennis lived with his wife, Roberta, aged forty-eight, daughter Roberta, aged ten, and sons George, aged six, and Buddie, aged seven. A nephew, Edmond Davis, aged fifteen, also lived with the family.1

Detail of Franklin County map, showing Dennis Foster’s neighborhood, and Walnut Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Cedar Rock Township. North Carolina State Archives

Soon after the Civil War’s end, Dennis acquired a certain level of prominence in Franklin County. In 1876, he was selected as one of three poll holders in Cedar Rock Township, and served as a juror for Franklin County Supreme Court. Dennis also became a significant property owner. In 1875, he purchased a one hundred acre tract in Cedar Rock for one-hundred and thirty dollars, on the former “Louisburg Road,” (now NC-56), near the current Walnut Grove Missionary Baptist Church.2

It was during this period that the German Carp was introduced to North Carolina waterways. Brought to the United States in 1877 by Dr. Rudolph Hessel, of Bremen, the German carp were propagated by the U. S. Fish Commission. A hardy, adaptive, and highly prolific species, various elected officials soon began sending batches of carp back to their respective states by 1880.

The Norfolk Virginian, December 9, 1882

This information helped to clarify the German carp’s celebrity status on display in Dennis’ article. The species was the new kid in local waterways, and everyone was curious to see how well it adapted. Franklin County news agencies kept a close eye on the carp, and often reported on those who’d had a successful catch. Prior to Dennis’ famous catch in 1905, Arispa J. Gupton Leonard (wife of William F. Leonard), caught three carp, ranging from seven to ten pounds, and John Ruffin Mitchiner (1854-1934), caught a twenty-three pound carp in 1897.3

Of special interest to me was the story about Bob Neal. Neal is another surname in our Franklin County family tree.

The Franklin Times, March 18, 1892

Sadly, Bob Neal passed away only two months later, having succumbed to pneumonia on May 10, 1892.4

Having solved the German carp question, I wasn’t seeing a connection between Dennis Foster and our ancestors in Franklin County. That said, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the study of his life had something to tell me about my own ancestry. With mental fingers crossed, I continued to dig.

By 1900, Dennis and Roberta lived with extended family in their home in Cedar Rock Township. Dennis, aged seventy-one, was listed as a farmer, while Roberta, aged sixty-four, kept house. The census indicates that Dennis and Roberta’s children, Roberta, George, and Buddie, all passed away prior to 1900. The household included young nieces Anna Davis, aged nine, Delia Davis, aged eight, and nephew Dennis Hedgepeth, aged twenty-five.5

Dennis passed away in 1909, four years after his prized catch. At the time of his death, he was still the owner of over one hundred acres in Cedar Rock Township. I consulted his will to see what happened to the property.6

I Dennis Foster of the County of Franklin and State of North Carolina being of sound mind and in full possession of all my faculties do make publish and declare this my last will and testament as follows, that is to say,

It is my will that in case I may owe any money at my death, that all legal debts shall be paid out of my personal property.

I give and devise to my beloved wife Roberta Foster all of my land except one half acre (1/2) A of the tract on the east side of the Louisburg & Cedar Rock road known as my home tract containing about (100) one hundred acres more or less; for and during the term of her natural life; I also give to her all of my personal property of all kind, except what it may take to pay any debts that I may justly owe or cause to be owed.

After the death of my wife, I give and devise to Anna Davis and Delia Davis, daughters of Joseph and Roberta Davis all my land on the East Side of Cedar Rock & Louisburg rad except the ½ acre before mentioned in this will to be equally divided between them in value; and after their deaths to be equally divided among their children. It is also my will that if either Anna Davis or Delia Davis dies without children then their portion shall go to the one alive and to her children; and in case both dies without children then it is my will that the property given to them in this will go to my nearest relation. I also give after the death of my wife, all my personal property to be equally divided between the said Anna and Delia Davis.

I do nominate and constitute Joseph Davis executor to this my last will and testament given under my hand and seal the day and date above mentioned. – Signed Dennis Foster

Will of Dennis Foster, 1909, Franklin County, North Carolina – North Carolina State Archives

Dennis’ wife, Roberta, passed away in 1916, and was interred in Walnut Grove Missionary Baptist Church cemetery.7

As Dennis’ story came to a close, I was a little disappointed in not finding the family history information I was looking for. Desperate, I reread Dennis Foster’s real estate transactions. My zeal to find a family connection wasn’t going down without a fight. Finally, in the first paragraph of the last deed, I found the link.

In 1873, Dennis Foster entered into an agreement with William Debnam and Abram Neal, and together, purchased an acre of land for a church in Cedar Rock Township. Abram Neal! My great-great-great-grandfather! Abram was born about 1840 on the Cascine Plantation, the home of Col. Jeremiah Perry, just south of Louisburg, Franklin County. Dennis, William, and Abram’s land purchase was recorded in 1881, though I’m not sure if the land was the same property on which Walnut Grove Missionary Baptist was built.

Cascine Plantation, Louisburg, Franklin County, North Carolina. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, 2014. All rights reserved.

I learned about Abram over fifteen years ago, but had little information with which to flesh out his personal story in Franklin County. I had the opportunity to share some information about Abram in Raleigh at the North Carolina Museum of History’s African American Cultural Celebration this past January. I wish I could’ve made this connection between Abram and Dennis Foster just a little sooner.

Abram Neal, mentioned in the estate file of Leonidas W. Neal (1828-1855), grandson of Col. Jeremiah Perry, 1855, Franklin County. North Carolina State Archives.

in the estate file of Leonidas W. Neal (1828-1855), grandson of Col. Jeremiah Perry, my third great-grandfather, Abram, is listed along with thirty other enslaved men and women as chattel. But I also noticed another name, one to which I’d previously paid little attention. It was “Bob,” the second name on the list. Could this “Bob” be the same Bob Neal, the celebrated fisherman profiled in 1892? The Bob listed along my ancestor was first mentioned in the will of Col. Jeremiah Perry, in 1838. In 1852, he was named in the will of Chloe Crudup Perry Neal, daughter of Col. Jeremiah Perry, and given to Willie Perry, Chloe’s brother, and son of Col. Jeremiah Perry. As of now, there is not enough evidence to show that the two “Bobs” are one in the same, but it would certainly be a most interesting coincidence.

I’m rather glad I took the time to explore Dennis Foster’s story, if briefly. While not entirely ruling out the possibility of a family connection, the research provided more details about an elusive ancestor. Thanks to a fish I’ve never eaten, and an elderly gentleman with the surname “Foster,” who had a flair for fishing. It wouldn’t be the first time a random clue, whether a rare document, photo, or gravestone, helped illuminate the life of a distant relative. However, I can definitively state that its the first time a fish helped point the way.

The years have not been kind to the German Carp. It’s prolific nature proved to be its downfall, and its exponential growth over the decades has somewhat dimmed its star status, though it remains popular. A fisherman recently caught a record-breaking, two-hundred plus pound German Carp in Thailand. Although that particular specimen looked like an extra from a 1970s B-movie, I have new respect for the species. I mean, really, who knew a scaly fish, whose taste is often panned, could help shed light on a family mystery? A visit to Walnut Grove Missionary Baptist Church, Louisburg, is our next road trip. Perhaps we’ll pick up some fish on the way home. But it probably won’t be carp.


  1. Ancestry, “U. S. Census 1880,” Ancestry (https://ancestry.com : accessed July 2, 2020), North Carolina, Franklin County, Cedar Rock, dist. 091, p. 30, citing “Year: 1880; Census Place: Cedar Rock, Franklin, North Carolina; Roll: 963; Page: 588B; Enumeration District: 091.”
  2. The Franklin Times (Louisburg, North Carolina), 27 October 1876, 3, c. 2; image copy, Newspapers (https://www.newspapers.com : accessed 2 July 2020); The Franklin Times (Louisburg, North Carolina), 8 March 1895, p. 3, c. 2; image copy, Newspapers (https://www.newspapers.com : accessed 2 July 2020).
  3. The Franklin Times (Louisburg, North Carolina), 26 October 1894, p. 3, c. 3; image copy, Newspapers (https://www.newspapers.com : accessed 2 July 2020; The Franklin Times (Louisburg, North Carolina), 26 Marc 1897, p. 3, c. 1; image copy, Newspapers (https://www.newspapers.com : accessed 2 July 2020).
  4. The Franklin Times (Louisburg, North Carolina), 18 March 1892, p. 3, c. 3; image copy, Newspapers (https://www.newspapers.com : accessed 2 July 2020).
  5. Ancestry, “U. S. Census 1900,” Ancestry (https://ancestry.com : accessed July 2, 2020), North Carolina, Franklin County, Cedar Rock, dist. 0038, p. 34, citing “Year: 1900; Census Place: Cedar Rock, Franklin, North Carolina; Page: 17; Enumeration District: 0038; FHL microfilm: 1241195.”
  6. The Franklin Times (Louisburg, North Carolina), 6 August 1909, p. 8, c. 3; image copy, Newspapers (https://www.newspapers.com : accessed July 2, 2020).
  7. Ancestry.com. “North Carolina Death Certificates, 1909-1976” database (https://www.ancestry.com/search/collections/ncdeathcerts/ : accessed July 2, 2020), entry for Roberta Foster, certificate no. 244, citing North Carolina State Board of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics. North Carolina Death Certificates. Microfilm S.123. Rolls 19-242, 280, 313-682, 1040-1297. North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.

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