Tag Archives: Free Negroes

- Old Plats of Pocahontas


Taber Andrew Bain from Richmond, VA, USA - Pocahontas Island (Source: WikiCommons)

Pocahontas Island is a peninsula in the Appomattox River incorporated as part of the City of Petersburg in 1784. The small town became home to a large free African American population following the Revolutionary War. The Petersburg chancery causes contain plats showing lots of land in the Town of Pocahontas. The plats show changes to the town during the early 1800s, as the early African American community developed.

A 1993 tornado had a significant impact on the historic fabric of Pocahontas. However, archeology, historical research, and oral history projects continue to uncover information about this unique community. Plats and documents from the Petersburg chancery causes contribute to that documentation.

Other plats and maps can be found in the Chancery Records Index for Petersburg showing other parts of city, as well as plats for land in Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, Greensville, and Prince George Counties.

–Louise Jones, Local Records Archivist… read more »

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- Virginia Untold: Requisitions for Public Use

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.


African Americans impressed into Confederate Army service. Library of Congress.

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 »

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


Illustrated London News, A Slave Auction in Virginia (February 16, 1861).

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 »

- 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 »

- Elizabeth City County Chancery Causes Online


Broadside for sale of land in Hampton, 1886, Elizabeth City County chancery causes, 1889-008, James D. Winnie & wife &etc. v. Milton R. Muzzy & wife &etc., Local Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce that digital images for Elizabeth City County (Va.) Chancery Causes, 1747-1913, are now available online through the Chancery Records Index on LVA’s Virginia Memory website.  Traditional wisdom has always held that not many pre-1865 chancery suits managed to survive the burnings of Elizabeth City County (now the City of Hampton) in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Civil War, and the great 1865 Richmond evacuation fire that consumed many locality records sent to the capital for safekeeping.  While not all of the records that should have existed still survive, it is fortunate that 366 suits from Elizabeth City County dating 1865 and prior were discovered as part of this processing project allowing for a richer portrait of the locality to emerge.

The earliest surviving suit is that of John Hunt and wife vs. William Hunter, 1747-001, and concerns the estate of William Hunter.  Hunt’s wife was one of Hunter’s children and as such the couple sued for their portion of her father’s estate, which consisted of four slaves: Moll, Diana, Jemmie, and an unnamed child.  The suit, which commenced in 1744, was continued for several years until it was finally sent on to the General Court in Richmond in 1747.  The General Court papers burned completely in Richmond in 1865 so the ultimate disposition of this … read more »

- Henry Co. Cohabitation Register and African-American Naming Practices


This visual representation of the names of the mothers found in the Henry Cohabitation Register illustrate the frequency of use by the size of the name.(Word images created using wordle.net)

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.[1] 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.[2]

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 »

- History Restored: Free Negro Registers Conserved


Amelia County Free Negro Register, 1855-1865, with original boards. Volume also contains Freedmen's Marriage License Book, 1865-1869 (Barcode number 1138338).

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 »

- “hundreds of the descendants of Indians have obtained their freedom:” Freedom Suits in 18th & 19th Century Virginia

 

Thomas Nast's celebration of the emancipation of Southern slaves with the end of the Civil War, circa 1865.

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 »

- Freedmen’s Bureau in the Local Courts


The Freedmen's Bureau -- illustration from 25 July 1868 edition of Harper's Weekly. (Image public domain/Wikipedia)

In the years following the Civil War, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (commonly referred to as simply the Freedmen’s Bureau) provided assistance to former slaves still living in the South, helping them transition from a society based on slavery to one allowing freedom. Established as part of the War Department by an act of Congress on 3 March 1865, the Freedmen’s Bureau, operational until 1872, helped introduce a system of free labor, provided food and clothing, helped locate families and legalize marriages, promoted education, supervised labor contracts, and provided legal representation.


14 February 1866 letter from the Freedmen's Bureau found in the Commonwealth vs. Alexander McCray, Highland County Commonwealth Causes.

One of the Bureau’s most important roles was to help safeguard the rights of African Americans and ensure they received justice from the court system. Following the Civil War, several southern states, including Virginia, enacted a series of laws commonly known as “black codes” that restricted the rights and legal status of freedmen. African Americans were often given harsh sentences for petty crimes and were sometimes unable to get their cases heard in the state courts. In September 1865, Freedmen’s Bureau courts were established to adjudicate cases involving freedmen. By February 1866, Virginia had amended her laws and the Bureau courts were discontinued by May of that same year, but because of the failure of many local court officials to administer equal justice, the Bureau courts were reestablished in certain areas … read more »

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- The Gingaskins of Virginia


Gingaskin Indian reservation historical marker located near the site of the reservation in Northampton County. (Photo by Bill Pfingsten, 4 May 2008/used courtesy of Historical Markers Database.)

November is Native American Heritage Month, a month set aside to recognize the significant contributions the first Americans made to the establishment and growth of the United States. Here at the Library of Virginia we have documents that tell the story of the Gingaskin Tribe. In 1641, the Accomac Indians, an Algonquin-speaking tribe located on the Eastern shore and part of the group collectively referred to as Powhatan Indians, became known as the Gingaskins when they accepted a patent from the English government for the remaining 1,500 acres of their ancestral lands on the ocean side of Northampton County. Various legal and boundary struggles with their English neighbors over the years reduced the lands reserved for the Gingaskins to 650 acres, which was patented again in 1680.


Investigations of people, including free negroes, living on Gingaskin lands, 1785.  (Northampton County Land Records, 1785-1815. Barcode 1168316)

Over the years, Indian lands were often leased to outsiders by the state and county governments in order to help support Gingaskin members, most of whom chose to maintain a traditional lifestyle and not farm the lands. Great concern was exhibited by white neighbors about the Gingaskins intermarrying with free negroes and charges were made in petitions to the General Assembly in 1784 and 1787 that there were no more “real” Indians left on the reservation and therefore the land should be given to whites who could better protect it, by which they meant farm it in … read more »