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 »
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 »
The Library of Virginia has completed the digitization and transcription of the last of the cohabitation registers in its possession, the Henry County Cohabitation Register, 1866. Others have already been transcribed and are available in the cohabitation register digitization project via Virginia Memory. For African-American genealogical researchers, the names contained herein provide priceless clues to retracing their ancestors. Cohabitation registers imparted legal legitimacy to African-American marriages and children. This was also the first time many of these individuals would appear in public record under their own names.
Naming under the practice of slavery was fraught with power dynamics. The enslavers often gave names to the enslaved. The amount of input the family of the child would have in his or her name varied, but journals of slave-holders indicate they specifically assigned names to slave children on a regular basis. Newly enslaved Africans were often issued a new name by their captors, causing their identities to become yet another site of colonization. Naming was a powerful tool for enforcing cultural assimilation and denigrating African cultural identity.
When viewed simply as data, the set of names used for slaves seems to have been larger and more varied than the set of names used for free people. Slave names tended to fit within five categories: diminutive versions of English names (Jim, Bess), place names (London, Kingston), … read more »
Posted in Local Records Blog Posts
Also tagged in: African Americans, circuit court records, Circuit Court Records Preservation Program, cohabitation register, Digital Projects, digitization, Free Negroes, Henry County, marriage, slavery, slaves
While watching the February 2012 episode of NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? featuring actor and Petersburg native Blair Underwood investigating his family history, Library of Virginia staff could not help but notice that one of the original volumes displayed on the show was not in great shape. The Amherst County Register of Free Negroes, 1822-1864, was used on the show to prove that one of Underwood’s ancestors had been a free person prior to the Civil War. The front and back covers of the volume had become detached from the spine, pages were loose, and overall it did not look like the book could withstand much handling without sustaining further damage to its fragile pages. This led to a reevaluation of the existing conservation priority for the 30 free Negro registers in the Library’s holdings. Previously it was thought that since all of the free Negro registers were microfilmed, the original volumes would not be handled by the public any longer, thus conservation money would be better spent on other items. However, the resurgence of interest in African American genealogy, the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and related issues, and interest in the registers for display in exhibits clearly indicated that a change was necessary. A conservation inventory was done for all of the volumes and the ones that require treatment will … read more »
In November of 1860, executor William F. Smith was in a pickle. Charged with settling the estate of Elizabeth P. Via of Augusta County, he had recently been a defendant in both a chancery and a judgment suit from seven of Via’s heirs that challenged the validity of her will. The heirs objected to the provisions that Via made for her slaves, namely that they all be emancipated. Additionally, she left $4,000 to transport them to a free state and set them up in homes there. The remainder of her estate was to be distributed amongst Via’s heirs who were not pleased by this and thought it in their best interest to have the will invalidated so that they could get everything, including the slaves that were left at Via’s death. The will was upheld, however, and then it was time for executor Smith to get on with the business of carrying out Via’s wishes. But there were some questions that he struggled to answer about his job as executor.
At issue were several points. Did children born since Via’s death have an interest in the money left to the slaves? What should happen to the residue of the $4,000 after the will’s provisions were carried out? How should title to any house or land purchased for the emancipated slaves be done? The slaves had … read more »
The colonial era Northampton County court records tell a fascinating story of a woman named Jane Webb. Born of a white mother, she was a free mulatto, formerly called Jane Williams. In 1704, Jane Webb had “a strong desire to intermarry with a certain negro slave … commonly called and known by the name of Left.” Webb informed Left’s owner Thomas Savage, a gentleman of Northampton County, of her desire to marry Left and made an offer to Savage. She would be a servant of Savage’s for seven years and would let Savage “have all the children that should be bornd [sic] upon her body during the time of [Jane’s] servitude,” but for how long the children were to be bound is not clear. In return, Savage would allow Jane Webb to marry his slave, and after Jane’s period of servitude ended, Savage would free Left. Also, neither Savage nor his heirs could claim any child born to Jane Webb and Left after her period of servitude. Savage agreed to Jane Webb’s offer, and an agreement was written and signed by both parties.
Jane Webb fulfilled her part of the agreement and served Savage for seven years. During that time, she had three children by her husband Left—Diana or Dinah Webb, Daniel Webb, and Francis Webb. After she completed her term of service in 1711, … read more »
Posted in Chancery Court Blog Posts, Local Records Blog Posts
Also tagged in: African Americans, chancery, Chancery Causes, criminal causes, freedom suits, Judgments, mulatto, Northampton County, slavery, slaves, women
A small slip of paper on display in the Library of Virginia’s latest exhibition You Have No Right: Law and Justice in Virginia, running 24 September 2012-18 May 2013, was of immense importance to twelve people. It discloses, even though it does not state the fact in so many words, that on 2 May 1772 they gained their freedom after being held in slavery since each of them was born. The piece of paper and the fates of those Virginians illuminates a disturbing and little-known part of Virginia’s history, the enslavement of American Indians.
The paper came into the possession of the Library of Virginia in 1988 when it acquired a copy of volume two of John Tracy Atkyns, Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the High Court of Chancery in the Time of Lord Chancellor Hardwicke . . . (London, 1765–1768) that had once been in the library of the colonial government in Williamsburg. One of the librarians in the cataloguing section showed it to me, knowing of my interest in that library. When she lifted it from her desk to hand it to me, a piece of paper that had been slipped between leaves in the middle of the volume fell out and fluttered to the floor. We were surprised, and I was even more surprised when I saw what … read more »
Posted in Uncategorized
Also tagged in: African Americans, chancery, Chancery Causes, Chancery Records Index, Free Negroes, freedom suits, Judgments, Lynchburg, Native Americans, Powhatan County, slavery, slaves