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Category Archives: Chancery Court Blog Posts

- “We Were Residents of Loudoun County”

Editors’ Note: This article originally appeared in the January 2019 Loudoun County Office of the Circuit Court Clerk Historic Records Newsletter, “Little Gems.” We are grateful to Gary M. Clemens, Clerk of the Circuit Court, for permission to publish this post. Individual names of enslaved people from this indexing project have been added to the Chancery Records Index for Loudoun County.

 


Map of Loudoun County,  ca. 1854, Philadelphia : Thomas Reynolds & Robert Pearsall Smith. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In the June 2018 newsletter I wrote about a project I was tasked with to compile a spreadsheet that listed the names and cases involving enslaved people in Loudoun County’s early chancery records. It took the whole of 2018 to complete the index, comprised of 3,990 lines in an Excel spreadsheet. Those 3,990 entries represent 3,990 names of enslaved people who were included in chancery cases from the years 1757 through 1866.

In this project, I reviewed 3,028 chancery cases, 550 of which involved a dispute over enslaved individuals. I documented names and case details in relation to each enslaved person. Chancery cases for this time period encompassed disputes over things such as land, crops, houses, estates of deceased individuals, tobacco, and just about anything of monetary value. It was interesting to notice trends in the number of cases in certain years.

From 1831-1835 there were 101 cases out of a total 487 cases filed that involved enslaved people. In those … read more »

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- The Cost of Freedom: A Campbell County Story


 Illus. in: The Child's Anti-Slavery Book..., New York, [1860], frontispiece. Library of Congress.

The Campbell County court ordered the sale of Louisa Alexander and her daughter, Eliza, because as enslaved persons, Virginia law considered them part of Louisa’s deceased husband’s estate. After William Alexander, Sr., a free person of color, died, John P. White sought payment of a debt that he claimed Mr. Alexander owed him. The Campbell County chancery cause Louisa Alexander & etc. vs.  John P. White, 1852-017, lays out the Alexanders’ tale.

Louisa told a different version of her life story. She called White’s claim of a debt owed by her husband fraudulent. She said that for many years she and Eliza had also been free persons of color. Louisa claimed that she and William had moved to Maryland, lived there for a while, and then moved back to Wythe County, Virginia, before his death. Louisa and Eliza then moved to Campbell County. The Campbell County sheriff, on White’s word, had already advertised their sale to the highest bidder at auction. Establishing their freedom became an urgent matter.

An injunction was filed on her behalf to halt the sale until the suit could be settled. Louisa further claimed that she had never been her husband’s property, but had been sold to William Alexander, Jr. Young William then carried her and her daughter into the state of Maryland and sold them to James Selden, contrary … read more »

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- What a Difference a Day Makes: Serendipity in the Reading Room


1834 woodcut depicting the kidnapping of a freeman, Library of Congress.

The Library of Virginia employs both reference archivists and processing archivists. Reference archivists work exclusively with the public—the Library’s front line. Processing archivists work behind-the-scenes to arrange, conserve, and describe the collections—whether private papers, state records, or local government materials. Large-scale gatherings such as conferences afford the Library’s archivists an opportunity to work together, as it is all hands on deck for major events.  In October 2015, the Afro-American Historical Genealogical Society (AAHGS) held its 36th annual national conference in Richmond.  The Library of Virginia hosted AAHGS members for several formal and informal events during the conference.

While volunteering with the reference staff during the conference, I had a chance meeting with one of the Library’s long-time patrons, James Bundick.  Mr. Bundick resides in Philadelphia but is researching his family in Accomack County, Virginia.  He traveled for years to the Accomack County courthouse for his research, but now he and his wife are happily ensconced at the Library. While making copies of chancery related documents for his research, I introduced myself. I then proceeded to tell him about a story that I had discovered a few weeks earlier while processing Accomack County chancery causes. Given the coincidence of the same last name, I felt that there was a relationship between him and the individual in the story.

There is a debt suit, Jacob Warner read more »

- A Greensville County Fixer Upper


Fowler, T. M. Birds eye view of Emporia, Virginia. Morrisville, Pa, 1907. Map. https://www.loc.gov/item/75696640/.

Greensville County Chancery Cause Pierce R. Farley VS Benjamin D. Tiller, etc., 1886–007 tells the tale of a business deal gone sour. With echoes of the comedy film The Money Pit, which would follow a century later, this attempt at live-in renovations goes predictably badly.

The Cato House was a hotel located in Hicksford, Virginia, on the corner of Brunswick and Halifax Streets. It was an old building, even in 1882. The hotel contained eight rooms and was in bad condition. Stables and a lot of land extending along Brunswick Street, from Halifax Street to the Petersburg Railroad line, went along with the hotel property.

Benjamin D. Tiller, president of the Upshur Guano Company of Norfolk, owned the hotel and hoped to find a renter for it. After lengthy negotiations by letter and in person, Pierce R. Farley agreed to rent the hotel after Tiller showed him plans for the enlargement of the building, which would add twenty-four rooms and a second story. At the contract signing in January 1882, Mr. Tiller promised that he would complete the addition by 1 June 1883. Tiller also promised that the roof would remain on the existing building until the addition was completed.

In February 1882, after Farley moved into the Cato House with his wife and six children, six carpenters began framing the addition. Three bricklayers … read more »

- Early 20th Century Entertainment Comes to Virginia in a Most Unusual Way


Boer War Spectacle program, ca. 1904. Courtesy of https://www.bidsquare.com/online-auctions/potter-potter/the-great-boer-war-spectacle-926042

In the spring of 1905, a half-mile from the Norfolk city limits, the Boer War Spectacle (also called the Transvaal Spectacle or Anglo-Boer War Historical Libretto) was set to commence. First, however, there was the matter of some local government fees. Norfolk County chancery cause, 1907-055, Boer War Spectacle] v. S.W. Lyons, etc, details the ensuing conflict.

Chartered as a corporation in Missouri, the historical reenactment troupe was under the direction of Frank E. Fillis, a famous South African organizer and showman. Fillis sold this ambitious exhibition as “the greatest and most realistic military spectacle known in the history of the world.”

The idea was born near the Boer War’s end. While sitting around camp discussing news of the upcoming world’s fair, Major Charles Joseph Ross originally came up with the idea for the spectacle. A Canadian scout serving with the British, Ross hoped to capitalize on the fair’s expected popularity. As general manager, he hired artillery captain Arthur Waldo Lewis, who assembled British and Boer veterans to restage the pivotal battles of Colenso and Paardeberg. An advertisement appeared in Johannesburg’s Rand Daily Mail on 1 March 1904, entitled “Boer War Exhibition A chance for the unemployed!” Over 600 veterans, including a contingent of native black South Africans from various ethnic groups, in particular the Tswana, and a pair of notable generals … read more »

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- A Will without a Way: An Amherst County Freedom Suit


Title: Personal recolletions of the war, Illus. in: Harper's Weekly, v. 33 (1866). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Sometimes a will is not worth the paper it’s written on. Too often, people go through the trouble of creating a formal last will and testament only to have their desires ignored. The chances for dispute or contestation are even greater when there is opportunity for financial gain, as was the case of a 19th century man who wanted a better life for his slaves.

Samuel Gist listed in his will specific instructions for how his enslaved people should be treated after his demise. The will filed in the City of Richmond noted that Gist’s land would be sold and the enslaved people emancipated and taken to Ohio. In all, between 80 and 100 enslaved men and women gained freedom in 1819 and relocated with the assistance of William Hickman as dictated in the Gist will.  The men and women affected must have been overjoyed as Gist’s will created a way to escape from bondage. Yet all did not share the enjoyment.

At the time the move to Ohio, an enslaved women named Sarah was away from the Gist estate, living with her husband’s owner, George P. Luck. Luck had sold Sarah’s husband, leaving her with eight children between the ages of 18 months and 19 years, and a ninth baby on the way. To make matters worse, Luck was in debt, and unbeknownst to … read more »

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- It’s a Tram Shame: A Spotsylvania County Petition


Streetcar traffic jam. Courtesy of BBC News in Pictures.

In 1906, Thomas M. Henry of Sewickley, Pennsylvania, had a grand idea. He would build a road to carry an electric tram from Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville. Henry put this idea in motion by filing a petition with the Circuit Court in Spotsylvania County to get the proper authority to build the “Electric Tram Way,” Petition of Thomas M. Henry 1906-047. Henry assured the court that he could build the road without interfering with existing public transportation and without violating “proprietary” rights of “parties along the proposed tram road.”

Adding strength to his case, citizens along the proposed route petitioned the court in support of a roadway. The proposed tramway was to be “six feet in width along the right of way of said Plank Road from Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville and thence along the right of way of the “Turnpike” from Chancellorsville to the Orange line near the Wilderness Store, where the said turnpike connects with the road leading to Germania Bridge.” To show their support the signers of the petition declared, “the construction of the said tram road will not only prove a convenience to our people but will also increase the value of the land along the route.” They concluded, “We earnestly request that the petition of Mr. Henry be granted.”

The Spotsylvania County Board of Supervisors petitioned the court to be party … read more »

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- Warren County Chancery Causes Digitized


Warren County courthouse. Courtesy of Tracy Harter.

The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce that digital images for Warren County chancery causes, 1837-1912, are now available online through the Chancery Records Index on Virginia Memory. Chancery suits are useful when researching local history, genealogical information, and land or estate divisions. They are a valuable source of local, state, social, and legal history, and serve as a primary resource for understanding a locality’s history.

The following are a sample of causes of interest for researchers of African American genealogy and history found in the Warren County chancery collection. In John J. Johnston vs. William A. Mitchell, etc., 1845-006, Johnston accused one of the defendants, James C. Mitchell, of secretly carrying enslaved people from Fauquier County to Washington, D.C., under cover of darkness and selling them to the infamous slave trader Joseph Bruin. Guardian of James R. Ash vs. James R. Ash, etc., 1850-007, involves a dispute over expense payments related the capture and sale of a runaway enslaved man named Tom. The chancery causes Duskin, an enslaved person vs. Admr. of Henry Self, etc., 1850-001, and John R. C. Reed vs. Admr. of Mary Shambaugh, etc., 1859-003, describe the forced migration of African Americans from Virginia to free states such as Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa in the pre-Civil War era.

The social and economic impact of the … read more »

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- “No home defendant”: Liberian Emigrants from Prince Edward County


Birdseye view, Cape Mount [Wah Kohno], Liberia. Courtesy of http://sylomun.blogspot.com/

Often, researchers will utilize several collections or sources housed at the Library in order to get to the truth of a matter, or to gain a better understanding of the complexities of an issue. The Prince Edward County chancery cause Executors of John Watson vs. Dosha, etc., 1862-001, tells part of the convoluted story of 66 enslaved people emancipated by the will of John Watson, who died in 1856, and the efforts of his executors to distribute the funds remaining from his estate to them.

Some of the gaps in the story are filled in by a second chancery cause, Dosha, etc., vs. Executors of John Watson, 1873-001, as well as documents in the Dupuy Family Papers, 1810-1866, which are also housed at the Library. In his book Family Bonds: Free Blacks and Re-enslavement law in Antebellum Virginia, author Ted Maris-Wolf devoted almost an entire chapter to the story of the Watson emigrants, drawing heavily from LVA’s collection.

According to the bills in both chancery causes, Watson’s executors, Joseph Dupuy and Robert Smith, had been instructed to send Watson’s emancipated slaves to Liberia through the American Colonization Society. The original bill included the names, ages, and relationships of 66 emancipated people who boarded the Mary Caroline Stevens, a ship owned by the American Colonization Society, in Norfolk on 12 November 1857, … read more »

- Virginia Untold: The Cullins family of Powhatan County


Original courtesy of Library of Congress.

Two years ago, the Library of Virginia launched Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative, a digital collection aimed at helping researchers break through the “roadblock” that has long impeded African American genealogical and historical research. Virginia Untold, along with other digital collections already available at the Library of Virginia such as the Chancery Records Index Virginia Chronicleand the Legislative Petitions Digital Collection, have brought to light the pre-Civil War experiences of African Americans once hidden in bundles of administrative, estate, property, and court records stored in courthouses, state agencies, attics, basements, and libraries. One example is the narrative of an African American family who resided in Powhatan County in the mid-19th century.

In 1833, John Cullins’s last will and testament was recorded in Powhatan County court. One of the terms listed in the will was the emancipation of a family of enslaved people: a mother, Nancy, and her five daughters, Jane, Sally, Ann, Judith, and America. However, their emancipation was not immediate. Cullins’s will stipulated that the family would remain enslaved until the deaths of John’s two daughters, Polly and Henley. Following their deaths a decade later, Nancy and her daughters finally gained their long awaited freed … except for Jane, who died before receiving her emancipation.

Once emancipated, Nancy and her daughters acquired the surname of their … read more »