Tag Archives: Alexandria County

- A Wedding, a Death, and a Pension: Charles and Sarah Butler’s Story

Commemorative stamp based on painting, dated 1892, by J. Andr_ Castaigne (painting courtesy of the West Point Museum, United States Military Academy, West Point, New York).

Portsmouth, Virginia, occupied by the Union army, was the scene of a wedding in November 1863.[i]  The happy couple was Charles “Charley” Butler, a private in Company E, 1st Infantry Regiment, United States Colored Troops (USCT), and Sarah Smith.  Butler’s service record at the National Archives shows that he joined the Army on 17 June 1863 at Mason’s Island (now Theodore Roosevelt Island) in the District of Columbia, and that he was a nineteen-year-old farmer born in Prince William County, five feet seven inches tall, with “Very Black” complexion, “Black” eyes and hair, and “scars on right foot and breast.”  His next of kin was listed as a brother in Alexandria.[ii]  Sarah later stated that she and Charles “married by consent of our respective parents, being both free born.”[iii]  Sarah appears in the Norfolk County Register of Free Negroes in 1853 as a sixteen-year-old with “dark” complexion, height four feet eleven and a half inches, “born free in this county,” daughter of Nancy Smith.[iv]  Charles has not been located in antebellum records but may have been the son of Flora Butler, who was listed in the 1860 census as a 55-year-old free black washerwoman in Alexandria.  Living with her was 20-year-old blacksmith Alonzo Butler, who was presumably the brother mentioned in Charles’s service record.[v]

Charles had … read more »

- Anatomy of a Marriage

Residence of Nannie and William Shelley, circa 1900s, Arlington County Chancery Cause Nannie R. Shelley vs. William C. Shelley, 1907-055.

Divorces reveal much about the inner-workings of a family, usually much more than outsiders should ever discover. While processing the Arlington County chancery causes, I came across a divorce case that filled two whole boxes. That’s .90 cubic feet of possible scandal and mayhem! The case Nannie R. Shelley vs. William C. Shelley, 1907-055, was quite the interesting case featuring interracial relationships, mental institutions, and an overly dramatic, possibly unstable daughter.

In 1907, Nannie Shelley sued for divorce, alleging infidelity and physical and mental abuse. She claimed William Shelley treated her not as a wife but as if she were a “despised and hated slave.” He forbade her any social relations and made her religion a “matter of scorn and ridicule.” He choked her and dragged her across the floor and finally threatened to kill her saying he would “try the McCue act on her.” (At the time of this divorce case, former Charlottesville mayor J. Samuel McCue’s alleged murder of his wife and subsequent trial was much in the news.)

Nannie suffered a nervous condition, supposedly as a result of her husband’s cruel treatment, that William used as an excuse to incarcerate her for three months in a “private mad house.” Although not declared legally insane, three doctors examined her and determined she suffered from paranoia. Nannie believed she ought to have been … read more »

- Mr. Christmas and his Flights of Fancy

The front-side view of the Christmas Bullet prior to its lethal first and only flight in 1918. (Image public domain/Wikipedia)

Former Local Records archivist Catherine OBrion was given the task of processing the chancery causes of Arlington (formerly Alexandria) County.  Perhaps the most interesting case that she discovered was a suit entitled Creed M. Fulton versus the Christmas Aeroplane Company, Inc. et al. The day after Christmas in 1910, Mr. Fulton, a lawyer from D.C., filed suit against the Christmas Aeroplane Company, the company’s founder William W. Christmas, and two other individuals—Lester C. McLeod and Thomas W. Buckey.  In the bill for the suit, William W. Christmas is described as the inventor of a heavier-than-air machine for the purpose of aerial navigation.  According to the document, Mr. Christmas informed the complainant that the aircraft “had been actually tried and was successful and that said machine had remained in the air for sometime.” 

In need of money to procure a patent and to build a practical machine for the purpose of “demonstrating the values and practicability of said invention,” all parties entered into an agreement on October 26, 1909, in Washington, D.C that would create the Christmas Aeroplane Company.  According to the agreement, money for the patent would be advanced and the others would aid William Christmas in raising funds to cover the actual cost of building a machine. After $1,200 was given for the patent, it became necessary for some of the parties to advance … read more »

- Mapping segregation in Virginia’s early public schools

Before the Civil War, Virginia did not have a comprehensive public school system. Lawmakers passed various measures to fund public schools, but these measures were directed primarily toward schools for a small segment of the population, the children of indigent white families. These schools were known as “free schools” or “charity schools,” and only the very poor attended. African Americans, free and enslaved, were excluded from these schools because it was illegal to teach them. With the end of the Civil War and ratification of a new state constitution in 1869, lawmakers established in 1870 Virginia’s first public school system for all children, in order to “prevent children growing up in ignorance, or becoming vagrants.”

As local officials complied with the new state law, they set about drawing school districts segregated by race. This could be a challenge, however.  While cataloging Alexandria/Arlington County school records recently, I came upon this hand-drawn map of Jefferson Township (in what was then Alexandria County, part of present-day urban Arlington), which shows white and African American families living closely together. To create two districts segregated by race, the map-maker drew what looks like a badly gerrymandered voting district. The map was attached to an 1870 census of school-aged children in Jefferson Township. Each dwelling is designated W (“white”) or C (“colored”).

Jefferson Township was located near what is now Crystal City and the 14th Street Bridge connecting Virginia and the District of Columbia. The Jefferson Township Board … read more »