(The following editorial is reprinted here courtesy of the Smyth County News & Messenger. It originally ran 28 July 2010.)
HUMBLING CHAPTER OF OUR STORY
In some ways it is difficult to read. Just the title “Register of Colored Persons of Smyth County, State of Virginia, Cohabitating Together as Husband and Wife on 27 February, 1866″ speaks of discrimination so powerful that the institution of marriage between a man and woman was not recognized. As you read across the columns and come to “Last Owner,” the reality of slavery existing in Seven Mile Ford, Rich Valley, Marion and Rye Valley takes hold.
The names of those registered and their last owners resonate as familiar: Campbell, Carter, Fowler, Heath, James and Tate among many others.
As news of this register’s existence was announced this week, Circuit Court Clerk John Graham reflected, “When you see this document, you’re reminded that slavery was not just an institution somewhere in the South. It was a way of life right here in Smyth County. This remarkable document brings history home.”
Despite the challenges it presents us, this register is a national treasure of incalculable value.
Prior to this document recording and formalizing their marriages, which Virginia law didn’t recognize before the Civil War ended in 1865, the existence of many of these individuals had never been listed in a public … read more »
When I found an unopened envelope labeled “Exhibit A” among the papers of a Rockingham County Chancery cause, I was curious to see what could be inside. Curiosity quickly turned to excitement when I opened the envelope to find a genealogical gem.
These tattered pages of a family Bible were used as an exhibit in Dorman L. Smith, etc. v. S. K. Wine, etc., 1903. It was a complicated land inheritance case made more difficult by the destruction of court records during the Civil War and three generations of Smith family land dealings.
Interestingly, the answer and depositions record an attempt by some war-weary residents of Rockingham County to settle in Bartow County, Georgia, around 1863. In 1901, Caroline Smith, of Lytle, Georgia, gave a deposition detailing the Smith family genealogy. She read from these pages during the deposition and later either gave or loaned them to the court to be used as an exhibit.
These pieces of the Smith family Bible have since remained as part of the court record. The Bible is dated 1722 and was printed in Edinburgh, Scotland, by James Watson, “Printer to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty.” The earliest entry records the birth of Abraham Smith on 29 December 1792.
The Rockingham County Chancery collection is housed in more than 530 Hollinger boxes and 14 oversize boxes. It spans … read more »
When Mary Walker Cabell died in 1862, a series of chancery suits were filed in Nelson County by her numerous descendants in an attempt to settle her estate. Such complicated cases could not be remedied by courts of law and were usually decided according to fairness by courts of equity, called chancery courts in Virginia.
In 1863 this hand-drawn family tree was entered into the case to note the lineage on Cabell’s father’s side. Cabell was the paternal granddaughter of Charles Hill Carter (1733-1802) of Shirley Plantation. Charles Hill Carter was the grandson of Robert “King” Carter (1663-1732) one of the richest men in 17th century colonial America. His parents, John Carter and Elizabeth Hill, built Shirley Plantation in 1723. The home, a private residence in Charles City County, remains in the family today.
This family tree serves as a reminder that chancery court cases are often invaluable to genealogical researchers because courts frequently sought to determine heirs and family connections. Though this example is of the powerful Carter family, most suits concerned ordinary Virginians and some even document the lineage of the enslaved.
This large chancery cause, Executor of Mary Walker Cabell, etc. vs. Peyton H. Skipwith, etc. & Representative of Charles Carter Lee, etc. vs. Executor of Mary Walker Cabell, etc., 1882, is part of the Nelson County Chancery Collection and … read more »
Genealogists researching enslaved African Americans face serious challenges. Records that exist for the free population do not exist for the enslaved since slaves were considered property and were prohibited from reading, writing, owning land, or even legally marrying. This is why Virginia’s few surviving cohabitation registers are so important.
The Library of Virginia recently conserved the Register of Colored Persons of Smyth County, Virginia, cohabiting together as Husband and Wife on 27th February 1866 at the request of John Graham, Smyth County Clerk of the Circuit Court. It is one of only twenty one cohabitation registers known to exist and is included in the Library’s cohabitation register digitization project. This project aims to digitize, transcribe, and make available via the Virginia Memory website the images of all known Virginia cohabitation registers and the related registers of children whose parents had ceased to cohabit.
Prior to the Civil War, Virginia law provided no legal recognition for slave marriages. What is certain and what documents like the cohabitation registers reveal is that slaves did marry and consider themselves to be married in spite of the lack of legal protection and recognition. In 1865, Commissioner Oliver Otis Howard of the federal Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (commonly called the Freedmen’s Bureau) directed the assistant commissioners of the states to order the county clerks to … read more »