Wills, Slavery, and Freedom in Augusta Co.

Map of Franklin County and Columbus, Ohio, 1872. (Image used courtesy of Historic Map Works.)

In November of 1860, executor William F. Smith was in a pickle.  Charged with settling the estate of Elizabeth P. Via of Augusta County, he had recently been a defendant in both a chancery and a judgment suit from seven of Via’s heirs that challenged the validity of her will.  The heirs objected to the provisions that Via made for her slaves, namely that they all be emancipated.  Additionally, she left $4,000 to transport them to a free state and set them up in homes there.  The remainder of her estate was to be distributed amongst Via’s heirs who were not pleased by this and thought it in their best interest to have the will invalidated so that they could get everything, including the slaves that were left at Via’s death.  The will was upheld, however, and then it was time for executor Smith to get on with the business of carrying out Via’s wishes.  But there were some questions that he struggled to answer about his job as executor.

At issue were several points.  Did children born since Via’s death have an interest in the money left to the slaves?  What should happen to the residue of the $4,000 after the will’s provisions were carried out?  How should title to any house or land purchased for the emancipated slaves be done?  The slaves had been hired out since 1859 due to the dispute over the will, so did the money earned by their hire belong now to them or to the estate?  Smith sought the court’s guidance on how to answer these thorny questions and fulfill his duties as executor.  He then filed accounts with the chancery suit to prove that he had properly carried out his tasks.

Included in the accounts is a two-page document written by Smith titled “Account for removing and settling slaves in a free state.”  Beginning 28 January 1861, and ending 7 February of the same year, this master account reads like a travel journal of Smith’s trip to Columbus, Ohio, with his assistant, Mr. Larew, and Via’s 18 newly emancipated slaves.  Line by line, one can follow the party as they get train tickets and meals in Staunton, look at land in Franklin County, Ohio, buy the land and have it surveyed, purchase livestock and household goods, and finally return home to Staunton via train and omnibus.  Accompanying this master account are individual vouchers for goods or services provided that reveal more details about the items purchased to set up the farm and housekeeping in Ohio.  Included in other accounts are receipts for registering Via’s former slaves as free negroes in Augusta County prior to their departure for Ohio.  One of the final items on the master account is $14.00 for “cash paid negroes,” Via’s final bequest for their new life of freedom.

Through the lens of estate accounts, this chancery suit offers a rare glimpse of what followed emancipation.  It is common enough to find evidence of slaves freed in deeds and wills, but what happened after that is usually a mystery, especially if the freed persons then left the state.  The Franklin County, Ohio, Recorder’s Office has digitized their early deeds, and the deed for the sale of 110 4/10 acres of land from Edwin W. Warren to Elizabeth Jane and others (Elizabeth P. Via’s negroes) can be uncovered easily enough.  What happened to these eighteen people after 1861?  Did they stay together on their new land in Ohio?  Did they drift apart to other parts of Ohio or the country?  Did any of them return to Virginia after the Civil War?  This the records do not show.

Read the entire chancery suits that are filed together on the Chancery Records Index as Augusta County 1860-016, James W. Bishop, etc. vs. Administrator of Elizabeth P. Via, etc. and Executor of Elizabeth P. Via vs. James W. Bishop.  The judgment that decided Via’s will, James W. Bishop, etc. vs. William F. Smith, Exr. of Elizabeth P. Via, ended June 1860, is at the Augusta County courthouse; although a copy of the final order was used as evidence in the chancery suit.

-Sarah Nerney, Senior Local Records Archivist

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  1. [...] Nerney, “Wills, Slavery, and Freedom in Augusta Co.,” Out of the Box: Notes from the Archives @ the Library of Virginia blog, posted 20 February [...]

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