In 1820, Rachel Findley won freedom for herself and more than 35 of her descendants in a Powhatan County court in a law suit dating back to 1773. Hester Jane Carr, a free African American, was tricked into leaving her home in New York City in 1836 and sold as a slave in Petersburg. In 1860, Dennis Holt, a free African American living in Campbell County, petitioned to be re-enslaved so that he could remain with his enslaved wife. The stories of these lives and many more can be found within historic Virginia documents.
Researchers have long lamented the scarcity of primary sources for information about the pre–Civil War lives of African Americans. Noted historian and host of the PBS genealogy series Finding Your Roots, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., referred to the Civil War as “a roadblock for many when researching their African American heritage.” Documents recording the pre–Civil War experiences of African Americans, enslaved or free, either do not exist or have been mostly inaccessible.
The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce the initiative Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative, a new digital collection of records that will help the public break through the “roadblock” that has long impeded African American history research. The project will bring to light the pre–Civil War experiences of African Americans documented in the Library’s … read more »
Tags: African Americans, Digital Projects, Emancipation, Free African Americans, freedom, Local Records, manumission, petitions, Primary Sources, slavery, VaUntold
This is the fourth in a series of blog posts on the record types found in the forthcoming Library of Virginia research database: Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative. The initial database release will be on 1 February 2016.
The Petersburg Deeds of Manumission from April 1822 relate the tale of James Dunlop and his slave, John Brown. Dunlop, suffering from an unspecified illness, traveled between Virginia’s resort towns seeking treatment. Many considered the natural springs in Hot Springs and Lexington, among others, sources of healing for numerous maladies. Dunlop decided to free or “manumit” his slave John for “John’s great and unusual attention to me while under a very severe illness.” While the pair was visiting Lexington, the local doctor was absent for some days in the country. Dunlop experienced a spell “brought on by exposure to the rain while on a trip to the Natural Bridge, after visiting Hot Springs and using freely the hot baths.” He felt that his life “was in imminent danger.” The only person Dunlop knew in Lexington was John Brown. During Dunlop’s illness, Brown took care of him. Recalling this experience years later, Dunlop wrote:
“[without Brown’s] close and extraordinary attention in watching over my disease, administering medicines and nourishment to me, agreeable to the best of his skill night and day, it is more than probable I
… read more »
This is the third in a series of blog posts on the record types found in the forthcoming Library of Virginia research database: Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative. The initial database release will be on 1 February 2016.
During the Civil War, Virginia enacted legislation to force African Americans, both slave and free, into “public service” supporting the Confederacy. Their primary responsibility would be to erect “batteries, entrenchments or other necessities of the military service,” which could include working in mines and factories, preparing meals and washing clothes for Confederate soldiers, or driving supply wagons.
Legislation to impress free African Americans was passed shortly after Virginia’s secession from the Union. In July 1861, the state convention that had approved secession passed an ordinance “to provide for the enrollment and employment of free Negroes in the public service.” This ordinance was amended and re-enacted by the General Assembly in February 1862. The legislation authorized local courts to enroll for “public use” all able-bodied male free African Americans between the ages of eighteen and fifty. They would not serve more than 180 days and would be fairly compensated for their services.
When a commanding officer of the Confederate Army had need of the services of free African Americans, a local board would select from the list of free African Americans “such number of laborers as in … read more »
This is the second in a series of blog posts on the record types found in the forthcoming Library of Virginia research database: Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative. The initial database release will be on 1 February 2016.
Around 1811, a young girl named Ellsey was born on a plantation in Montgomery County, Tennessee. She had brothers and sisters. Her mother died sometime before Ellsey turned 11 years old. Ellsey was not a healthy child. She was “much troubled from rumitisem (sic),” a disease marked by inflammation and pain in the joints and muscles. In 1822, Ellsey made a seven hundred mile journey from Montgomery County to the Greenwood Mills plantation in Frederick County, Virginia. For a young child suffering from rheumatism, it could not have been an easy trip. Why did she do it? Was it to seek medical attention for her illness? Did her family move to Virginia to start a new life? The answer is that Ellsey had no choice but to move to Virginia. Ellsey was a slave owned by John McAllister, a wealthy landowner and businessman. He brought young Ellsey from his Tennessee plantation to his Virginia plantation “for his own use.”
Soon after bringing Ellsey to Frederick County, McAllister was required by Virginia law to sign an oath in the local court stating that he did not bring … read more »
This is the first in a series of blog posts on the record types found in the forthcoming Library of Virginia research database: Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative. The initial database release will be on 1 February 2016.
Enslaved African Americans in antebellum Virginia attempted to secure their freedom in many ways. The violent, armed uprisings led by Nat Turner and Gabriel loom large in historical memory, and the historical record is littered with stories of runaway slaves stealing off in the night to seek freedom with the help of the Underground Railroad. However, the narratives of enslaved individuals who used the law to secure their freedom are frequently missing from this dialogue. The Library of Virginia’s collection of freedom suits helps to illuminate these stories.
Enslaved Virginians could petition the court for their freedom “forma pauperis” based on a few different claims. Since free or enslaved status in antebellum Virginia was based on the status of the mother, petitioners often sued on the basis that they were born of a free woman. In many cases these suits involve individuals claiming descent from a Native American. After 1788, slaveholders who brought slaves to Virginia when resettling from another state were required to register their slaves with the county court and sign an oath stating that they had not brought them for the purpose of … read more »
Season’s Greetings from all of us at Out of the Box. We’re taking a holiday break, but enjoy the photos below from the U.S. Army Signal Corps Photograph Collection, part of the Print, Photograph & Original Art Collections. These and other Digital Collections from the Library of Virginia can be found here. You can also check out this holiday post from Fit to Print, the blog of the Virginia Newspaper Project. We’ll see you in the new year!
Many a modern day love rat has been outed by a spouse’s discovery of telling photos posted to Facebook or illicit text messages. But what about the cheaters of yesteryear? Were they just as foolish about leaving evidence of their adultery lying around as are the two-timers of our era?
In February of 1920, Edna Wright filed her bill of complaint with the Staunton chancery court requesting a divorce from Frank W. Wright. Edna stated that for the last 18 months her husband had been infatuated with a married woman named Mabel Duffey. The previous year, Mr. Duffey had caught Frank in Mabel’s bedroom; at the time, both admitted to the charge of “criminal intimacy” or adultery. Edna agreed to take her husband back after he promised to cease his activities with Mabel. However, the lure of Mabel as forbidden fruit was apparently just too strong. At some point between being caught in the act and Edna’s filing for divorce, Frank “appears to have cast aside all restraint in regard to his marital obligations and to have abandoned himself to a sexual desire for said Mrs. Duffey and makes no denial and makes no excuse for his connection with her.” At this point Edna played her trump card: she had written and photographic evidence.
The deposition of Staunton police chief S. B. Holt relates the … read more »
What does it mean to be free? Some might define freedom as having no obligations to a particular thing or person. A free person cannot be owned by anyone, or forced to do anything they do not want to do. However, in Patrick County, Virginia, amid the conclusion of the Civil War, freedom had an entirely different meaning.
The dispute in the chancery cause William A. Burwell vs. Adms. of Richard Pilson, 1871-011, concerns two slaves in Patrick County who were sold as part of the estate of the late Richard Pilson. The purchaser, William A. Burwell, used an estimated $2,800 secure bond to purchase the slaves at a public auction in June 1865. The bond signified a promise to pay before the end of a 12-month period. Burwell’s transaction was not uncommon. Slaves were often bought and sold as part of estates, even throughout the Civil War. However, the interesting part of this transaction was that the war was quickly coming to an end.
Confederate troops under General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Union forces in April 1865—two months before Burwell’s purchase. This surrender afforded enslaved men and women the right to freedom under President Lincoln’s historic Emancipation Proclamation and the document known as the “Alexandria Constitution,” which governed Virginia during the early years of military occupation. These actions had … read more »
As a holiday, Thanksgiving has a long history in Virginia. Arguably the first Day of Thanksgiving intended to serve as an annual holiday was celebrated at the Berkeley Hundred plantation on 4 December 1619, although thanksgiving services were a commonality in all areas settled by Europeans. George Washington issued the first proclamation of a day of Thanksgiving under the new national government in 1789, following up with a second Thanksgiving proclamation in 1795. It was under President Abraham Lincoln that the day became a true federal holiday; Lincoln was prompted by a series of editorials and letters written by Sarah Josepha Hale to proclaim the final Thursday in November 1863 as the national Thanksgiving Day.
In the years following 1863, presidents followed Lincoln’s example and proclaimed the final Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day. State governors would also issue Thanksgiving proclamations for their individual states. The Library of Virginia has several examples of proclamation issued by Governors McKinney, O’Ferrall, and Tyler between 1893 and 1898. In these proclamations, governors encouraged citizens to gather with their friends and families, do “some good deed,” and to help those less fortunate by “brining comfort and happiness to homes and hearts that have been darkened by adversity.” The governors reference national events such as the Spanish-American War and the Panic of 1896, praising the “wonderful courage and firmness” of … read more »