The release of the film 12 Years a Slave had us talking here at Out of the Box. Discussions on slavery are a common occurrence at the Library of Virginia, but it is an entirely different experience to see the brutality and violence of slavery on screen. Based on the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free African American living in Saratoga Springs, New York, kidnapped in Washington, D.C., and sold into slavery in Louisiana, the film offers an unflinching portrayal of slavery in the United States.
12 Years a Slave never pulls back from the brutality of its subject matter, and most importantly the film gives a human face to slavery—a system characterized by its dehumanization. So many of the records here at the LVA do the same, putting a name to those who suffered, and telling their stories. In addition to an original 1857 edition of Northup’s narrative, the experiences of slaves can be found in the state, local, and private records held at the LVA. Some of those stories have already been recounted here on Out of the Box. Unfortunately many of these stories end as tragically as they began.
After 12 long years, Northup managed to escape slavery, but for a young woman wrongfully enslaved in Alexandria, Virginia, that would not be the case. The details appear in the … read more »
The Library of Virginia, in partnership with the Frederick County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office, is pleased to announce that the digitization of Frederick County’s historic chancery causes, 1860-1912, is now complete. Both the index and images are available to researchers via the Chancery Records Index on the LVA’s Virginia Memory site.
The Frederick County chancery collection covers the years 1745 through 1926 (with digital images posted from 1860 through 1912). The chancery, or equity cases, are a valuable source of local, state, social, and legal history and serve as a primary source for understanding a locality’s history. They often contain correspondence, property lists (including slaves), lists of heirs, and vital statistics that reveal details that help tell the story of Virginia. Cases contain useful biographical, genealogical, and historical information and document a broad spectrum of citizens—rich and poor, black and white, slave and free.
Frederick County Chancery Cause 1867-007, Administrator of Hiram A. Jordan vs. Margaret Swann, etc., tells the story of how prior to the Civil War, Catherine Jordan, a free African-American, purchased her husband, Sylvester, but never technically freed him, and their son who attempted to buy his wife. Chancery cause 1899-058, Board of Supervisors of Frederick County, etc. vs. City of Winchester, etc. chronicles a dispute over whether the city or the county controlled the court house property they … read more »
One day in 1898, A.M. Scales definitely did not have Georgia on his mind.
While processing the Patrick County chancery records, I discovered a divorce case, Georgia L. Scales, by etc. vs. A. M. Scales, in which Georgia, a white woman, caught her husband, A. M. Scales, committing adultery with their African American cook. The chancery case describes Georgia as a loving wife who faithfully served her family—a stark contrast to Mr. Scales.
Throughout their ten years of marriage, according to the suit, A. M. Scales lived a carefree life filled with riotous living and degrading insults for Georgia. He even asked merchants to not provide Georgia with credit for food and supplies leaving Georgia to despairingly provide for herself and her four children. After doling out years of abuse, Mr. Scales was determined that Georgia wouldn’t amount to anything, so he decided to separate from her and their children on 24 September 1897.
Georgia was fine with the separation because, despite a lack of proof, she always suspected that her husband had an affair. One day, Georgia’s suspicions proved true when she returned home from a prayer meeting and found her husband in the kitchen committing adultery with her cook. After being caught in the act, Mr. Scales decided to contain his adulterous affairs to the privacy of a hotel.
Shortly thereafter, an African … read more »
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 »
Two types of immigrants came to America without paying their own passage—indentured servants and redemptioners. Indentured servants would sign a contract, called an indenture, before they sailed agreeing to serve for a period of years in exchange for passage to America. The term of service was typically between four to seven years. Redemptioners were a similar type of immigrant; however they made their agreement with the shipping merchant to be transported without paid passage. Upon landing in America, they were given a short period of time to find family or friends willing to pay all or part of their passage. If funds could not be secured, they then signed on as servants and their indentures could be sold in order to satisfy the debt.
The practice of buying and selling redemptioners and indentured servants can be found in Augusta County Chancery Cause James Kelzo, etc. vs. Samuel McChesney, 1796-008. James Kelzo (spelled frequently as Kelso) and James Wilson of Augusta County and Samuel McChesney of Culpeper County formed a partnership to purchase and sell indentured servants. Wilson and McChesney were to make the arrangements for selling the servants, and the partners agreed to divide the net profits equally among them.
With three men responsible for reporting accounts and divvying up profits, it wasn’t long before accusations of withholding funds landed the business partnership … read more »
The Surry County Chancery Causes, 1785-1922 (bulk 1806-1917), contain valuable biographical, genealogical, and historical information and document a broad spectrum of citizens of Surry County—rich and poor, black and white, slave and free. Following are a few suits of interest found in the collection.
Chancery Cause 1830-037, Mary Pettway, etc. vs. Admr. of John Pettway Judkins, etc. is an estate settlement suit. John Pettway Judkins died without a will; therefore, the court had to determine who all was related to Judkins in order to ensure they received their fair share of his estate, including slaves. The suit contains a list of Judkins’ relatives showing how they were related to him.
Chancery Cause 1869-002, Enna (or Rosenna) Rowena Messersmith by etc. vs. Joseph M. Messersmith is a divorce suit that had its origins in the Civil War. Joseph served in a local Surry County unit attached to the 13th Virginia Regiment. He and Enna were married on 23 September 1862 in Surry County while Joseph was on a short furlough. Emma rarely saw her husband over the next two years. Enna informed the court that she last saw her husband in January 1864 in Petersburg. She learned from someone who served with Joseph that in the spring of 1864 Joseph went AWOL and was believed to have fled to western Virginia. Enna told … read more »
In court documents from Lunenburg County Chancery Cause 1856-042, the petition of Araminta Frances reveals an interesting and life-changing request. On 10 March 1856 Araminta Frances, a free woman of color, petitioned the court asking to be enslaved.
Araminta was once the slave (along with at least two others) of James G. Richardson. Richardson’s last will and testament, probated 9 December 1850, left the majority of his estate, including finances, property, and slaves, to his daughter, Sarah A. Richardson, two nephews, and friend John L. Coleman. The provisions for the slaves were clearly spelled out. One negro male slave, Cezar, was to go to James G. Richardson’s nephew, James R. Walker, and John L. Coleman “to be taken care of by them and to be paid to him [Cezar] yearly by them the full amount of his yearly value.” Richardson also stipulated that “my negro child Virginia and Minty’s [presumably Araminta] child yet unborn” should be emancipated and receive the sum of $500 each or $1,000 if his daughter Sarah should die without issue. Minty (or Araminta) would be emancipated should his daughter, Sarah, die without having married. A copy of James G. Richardson’s will was included with the petition as supporting documentation for Araminta’s case.
Also included in the case was a bill passed by the General Assembly on 20 December 1855 allowing Araminta … read more »
The Library of Virginia’s Local Records Services branch, in partnership with the Montgomery County Circuit Court Clerk, was recently awarded a 2-year grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) to support the processing of the Montgomery County Circuit Court Records Collection, 1777-1912. The grant provides for the processing and indexing of the Montgomery County Chancery Causes with an eye toward future digitization as well as the creation of electronic finding aids for the remaining loose historical court records found in the clerk’s office in Christiansburg. The project will utilize a new strategy for the LVA in that all work will be completed by professional archivists in the clerk’s office rather than at the Archives in Richmond.
The NHPRC recognized the national significance of the Montgomery County court records as the county was ideally situated on routes west to experience the travel and migration of people seeking opportunity, land, and adventure in the West. These court records also illuminate the lives of numerous under-documented populations and have national significance for researchers interested in the African American experience, women’s history, westward migration, and southern labor and business history in the antebellum and post-Civil War periods.
In their current state, the Montgomery County chancery records are only known and utilized by a select few historians and humanities researchers. When completed the Montgomery County Chancery Causes … read more »
The Library of Virginia, in partnership with the Rockingham County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office, is pleased to announce that the indexing and digitization of Rockingham County’s historic chancery causes is now complete and available online through the Chancery Records Index on the LVA’s Virginia Memory site.
The RockinghamCounty chancery collection covers the years 1781 to 1913 and are a valuable source of local, state, social, and legal history. They often contain correspondence; property lists: including slaves; lists of heirs; and vital statistics that reveal detailed stories that help tell the story of Virginia. Cases contain useful biographical, genealogical, and historical information and document a broad spectrum of citizens—rich and poor, black and white, slave and free. (See this earlier blog post for a description of interesting suits covering the issue of slavery found in the chancery causes for the years 1781-1893.)
In addition, the economic boom of the 1880s, and subsequent bust that followed the Panic of 1893, plays out in the chancery causes. Suits 1903-128 and 1909-088 contain prospectuses laying out the grand plans of two land improvement companies that became casualties of that financial downturn. The schemes for new towns, grand hotels, and railroad lines in RockinghamCounty and other parts of the Valley collapsed along with the railroad and banking industries of the U. S., and the creditors and shareholders of the … read more »
The final images from the Augusta County chancery causes are now available on the Library of Virginia’s Chancery Records Index. With this addition, all Augusta County chancery causes covering the time period from 1746 to 1912 can be viewed online—a total of 10,268 suits and 878,490 images. The collection is one of the most significant collections of historic legal records in the nation. From 1745 to 1770, the boundaries of Augusta County encompassed most of western Virginia and what became the states of West Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois, and Ohio, and parts of present-day Pennsylvania as far north as Pittsburgh. The Augusta County chancery causes are the most voluminous of any locality in Virginia and are one of the longest and most complete continuous collections of chancery records of any locality in the country. Cases are also included from the Staunton Superior Court of Chancery, with a jurisdiction of over 28 localities, from 1802 to 1831.
Following are a few suits of interest found in this latest addition of Augusta County’s equity suits. Augusta County Chancery Cause 1818-099 is a dispute over the estate of John Edmondson that included numerous slaves. The suit contains a chart documenting the hiring out of slaves owned by Edmondson. Administrator of Andrew Moore vs. Representatives of John Stuart, etc., 1845-015, gives some perspective on the ways in … read more »