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Tag Archives: Emancipation

- Library of Virginia and Virginia Museum of History & Culture Merge Databases of Records of Enslaved Virginians



Detail. Emancipation / Th. Nast ; King & Baird, printers, 607 Sansom Street, Philadelphia.

 The Virginia Museum of History & Culture (VMHC) and the Library of Virginia are cooperating to provide greater access to African American history and genealogy in Virginia. In early January of 2019, the VMHC’s Unknown No Longer project (over 500 documents containing nearly 12,000 names) was merged with the Library’s Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative (over 10,000 records with more than 100,000 names), providing researchers with unprecedented access to an expanded collection of resources on the history of enslaved and free African Americans in Virginia. The combined databases are now available through the Virginia Untold web page.

“Providing easier access to these records can help researchers break through the so-called ‘brick wall’ of pre–Civil War African American history,” said Librarian of Virginia Sandra Treadway. “We are excited about this partnership, which can help tell more of these stories.”

VMHC’s president and CEO Jamie O. Bosket touted the partnership by saying, “Joining forces with our friends at the Library of Virginia will make work we’ve done even more accessible and useful. We are proud to contribute to the remembrance of so many people from our past whose names were forgotten for far too long.”

This collaboration makes it possible for researchers to access one site to discover stories like those of Peter Spain and Ann Singleton. Peter Spain was enslaved by Robert Spain of … 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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- “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 »

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- Virginia Untold: Petitions to Remain


Eastman Johnson,

As told in an earlier blog, James Dunlop of Petersburg emancipated his slave, John Brown, in April 1822 through a deed of manumission. One would imagine that Brown must revel in his freedom following a lifetime of bondage. However, his joy over being emancipated was surely tempered by the fact that his wife and children remained slaves. Worse, Virginia law required that slaves emancipated after May 1806 leave the Commonwealth within twelve months. One year after receiving his freedom, Brown would be forced to leave his family and reside in a free state where he knew no one.

Prior to emancipating Brown, Dunlop filed a petition with the General Assembly in December 1821 to permit Brown to remain in the Commonwealth following his emancipation. Dunlop asked the General Assembly “to suffer this faithful slave to spend the remainder of his days, in the enjoyment of freedom, and in the bosom of his family.” Dunlop had nearly one hundred white citizens of Petersburg sign the petition. They acknowledged Brown as worthy of emancipation and deserving of the opportunity to remain in Virginia. The committee in the General Assembly found the petition “reasonable,” drew up and reported a bill, however, the full legislature never acted on the bill.

Brown then had to apply to the local court for permission to remain in Petersburg. Before applying, Brown … read more »

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- A Last Resort: Madison County Reenslavement Petitions


Madison County courthouse.

In 1856, the General Assembly decided that free African Americans could petition their county or city court to be enslaved. These individuals had to be at least twenty-one if male or eighteen if female and they could choose their own master. Once the General Assembly accepted the petition, the only difference between someone who was born a slave and someone who was enslaved as an adult was that the children of a woman born while she was free remained free.

Why would anyone wish to be re-enslaved? An 1806 law made it illegal for a former slave emancipated on or after 1 May 1806 to remain in Virginia for more than a year after emancipation. If the individual stayed past that time, period, the government could sell them as a slave. Individuals could petition the General Assembly to remain in Virginia, or their county or city court beginning after 1837. If the government rejected an individual’s petition, the freed person had to leave the state.

On 13 May 1844, Isham Tatum of Madison County wrote his will. Upon his death, three of his slaves—French, Edmond, and Findley—were to receive their freedom. Another slave, Barber, would receive his freedom after the remarriage or death of Isham Tatum’s wife, Frances. He described four slaves as “boys”—Jeptha, William, Thaddeus, and Timothy—who were also to be manumitted upon the … read more »

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- Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative Digital Collection

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 »

- Virginia Untold: Deeds of Emancipation and Manumission

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

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- A Disregard of Freedom: Burwell versus Pilson’s Administrators


Illustrated London News, A Slave Auction in Virginia (February 16, 1861). Courtesy of Emory University.

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 »

- Sometimes You DO Find a Needle in a Haystack: The Augusta Co. Cohabitation Register


Augusta County courthouse, ca. 1910.

Cohabitation registers are among the most important genealogical resources for African-Americans attempting to connect their family lines back through the murky past to their enslaved ancestors.  The registers date from 1866 and provide a snapshot in time for the individuals recorded therein and provide a wealth of information that may otherwise be impossible, or at least very difficult, to uncover.  Historians are also interested in the registers because of what the registers might say about a particular community of people at a time when great changes had come about as a result of the Civil War and the end of slavery.  Locating the complete Augusta County Cohabitation Register took persistence, determination and luck.  The concerted effort of the circuit court clerk’s office and the Library of Virginia’s Local Records staff working together solved this nearly 150 year old mystery.

In 2007 Augusta County Circuit Court Clerk John Davis informed LVA staff that four cohabitation sheets had been discovered in his office . Officially titled the Register of Colored Persons of Augusta County, Virginia, Cohabiting Together as Husband and Wife on February 27th, 1866, a cohabitation register was the legal vehicle by which former slaves legitimized both their marriages and their children. The information about an individual person contained in the cohabitation register is literally priceless as it is often the first time … read more »

- “There is yet enough left of the old barbarism of slavery”: Violence in Post-Emancipation Virginia

This is the first in a series of four blog posts concerning post-Civil War Virginia and the lives of freedpeople after Emancipation. The posts precede the Library of Virginia exhibition Remaking Virginia: Transformation through Emancipation opening 6 July 2015.


“Burning of Churches in Petersburg. “ Harper’s Weekly, May 19, 1866.

Black assertions of personal, political, and economic autonomy and freedom after the Civil War ran headlong into white resistance. Southern whites, embittered by the war and desperately clinging to an antebellum model of race relations, violently attempted to enforce labor contracts, social mores, and claims to political supremacy. Local and state records, newspapers, broadsides, engravings, and federal records on microfilm in the Library of Virginia’s vast collection reinforce the frequency and brutality of violence in this turbulent period.

Before the Civil War, Virginia whites of all classes exerted repressive control over enslaved people through legal codes, harsh punishments, slave patrols, pass systems, and the threat of sale. Whites were especially fearful of slave rebellions. Emancipation and the occupying Federal army took away that control, and white fears of retribution became palpable. Whites openly talked of an impending “Race War,” and attempted to disarm African Americans and re-arm whites. In Louisa and Culpeper Counties, the confiscation of arms from African Americans prompted officials of the Freedmen’s Bureau to order the weapons returned.  Adjutant General William H. Richardson wrote to Governor Frances Pierpont in support of an Elizabeth … read more »