It’s often repeated that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I’m starting to think I misunderstood that quote. It seems to be less about the literal repetition of an act, as I once believed, and more about repetition of evaluation. In other words, we react as if it were the first time every time. Winston Churchill warned that this would usher in “the most thoughtless of ages. Every day headlines and short views.”
While processing different types of records, archivists often come across something that ties the past a bit closer to the present. It might be a graphic description of an adulterous affair in a nineteenth century court document that would make Perez Hilton blush, or a rant on bureaucratic red tape from early twentieth century governor’s correspondence that still rings true today. It is both surprising and oddly reassuring to read a historical document with subject matter that could have been pulled from today’s headlines. The story of the Payne family is just such a tale.
Joseph E. Payne, a prosperous Frederick County farmer, and his wife, Sarah, had eight daughters. The Paynes were one of the oldest families in the area and, according to some newspaper accounts, well respected. Joseph’s death in 1864 and the post-war economy struck a financial blow to the family. While … read more »
The Washington Monument is finally reopening on 12 May 2014 after undergoing restoration for damage caused by an earthquake in August 2011. I was curious what the Library of Virginia had in its collections relating to the monument and discovered an interesting footnote to the history surrounding its construction. The Washington National Monument Society, a private organization formed in 1833 to fund and build the monument, solicited donations and designs for more than a decade before construction finally began in 1848. In 1854, the Society went bankrupt, leaving a partial structure that stood unfinished until Congress assumed the duties of funding and construction on 5 July 1876. Arlington County Judgment Samuel Harrison Smith vs. Thomas K. Beale, dated October 1838, sheds some light on why the Society found itself bankrupt.
The judgment concerns the work of James M. McRea, an agent for the Society sent to Alabama to solicit donations “for the erection of a great national monument to the memory of Washington at the seat of the Federal Government.” Included in the case are three letters sent by McRea during his travels in Alabama. In the first, dated 2 April 1836 and sent from the then state capitol, Tuscaloosa, we discover that McRea did not travel alone but took along his family, causing a delay in his journey when his children were “attacked … read more »
In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I wanted to bring a bit of romance to Out of the Box, but when one spends her day working with historic court records, it’s rare to find evidence of a happy couple. In fact, I am convinced that there may never have been a sighting of connubial bliss in Virginia’s circuit court records. Divorce cases, however, are abundant, and this Petersburg couple never even made it to the altar before heading to the courthouse in 1916.
A recently widowed Permelia F. McKinney, born in Connecticut around 1880, met grocery store owner Frank Roberts while visiting friends in Petersburg. Little is known about their initial meeting, but after her return to Connecticut, the two commenced a courtship conducted entirely through letters, with correspondence dating from 4 January 1915 through 26 July 1916. During their year and a half courtship, one would hope for a steamy love affair conducted in the written word, but the couple’s correspondence was tame, with most letters filled with longing to see each other while making plans for Permelia to head south. On 7 March 1915, Frank wrote, “I for one would like to see you here among us,” but first it was too cold for Permelia to travel, then too hot. It seemed that Permelia would never make her way back to Petersburg.… read more »
While examining the James City County/Williamsburg court records recently, I came across a civil suit titled Gatewood vs. Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Company that contained two oversize exhibits. The first was a plat, which is not unusual since plats are commonly found in court records; however, the second oversize exhibit was unusual. It was an illustration of the engine boiler of a steam locomotive. The sketch included numerous tiny arrows showing the direction of air flow in the boiler. The exhibit piqued my curiosity so I read the suit to determine its purpose.
The plaintiff, R. E. Gatewood, filed a civil suit against the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Company in James City County Circuit Court on 3 November 1884. In his statement to the court, Gatewood blamed C&O Railway for a fire that caused extensive damage to his property on 14 October 1884. Greenwood claimed that a C&O steam locomotive passing through his property did not have a spark arrestor or, if it did, the spark arrestor was not working properly. (A spark arrestor was a wire netting designed to prevent sparks or other tiny flaming debris from escaping the locomotive’s “balloon stack.”) As a result of the “careless negligence” of the defendant, the plaintiff’s property was set on fire by sparks emitted from the steam locomotive. Valuable timber including oak, chestnut, walnut, and pine … 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, Free African Americans, freedom suits, mulatto, Northampton County, slavery, slaves, women
In May of 1883, H. W. Gray, president of the Schomacker Piano-Forte Manufacturing Company, brought suit against Bettie L. Payne in the Frederick County Circuit Court for a debt of $500. Bettie had purchased a piano from the company via one of its agents, William H. Manby. After delivery, she refused to pay based on her belief that the piano was not of the quality that she had been promised. She claimed to have purchased the Schomacker in part due to statements made in promotional materials about honors and prizes that the pianos had received at the International Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876—claims she now believed to be false and misleading. In particular, she objected to the Schomacker being much inferior in tone and touch than she had been led to believe by the advertising.
The Schomacker Piano-Forte Manufacturing Company was established in Philadelphia in 1838 by John Henry Schomacker of Vienna, Austria. In 1855, he built a large piano factory at the corner of Catherine and Eleventh streets thanks in part to his success after his pianos won big prizes at various fairs and exhibitions in the United States. The factory made upright, grand, and “square” grand pianos of high quality woods that were heavily carved in a Germanic style. A big selling point was that the wires of the pianos were electroplated … read more »
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 African Americans, Free Negroes, freedom suits, Lynchburg, Native Americans, Powhatan County, slavery, slaves
All eyes in the horse world may be directed towards Churchill Downs this week for this year’s Kentucky Derby, but Kentucky isn’t the only state with a rich horse history. Horses have played an important role in Virginia history ever since the first horse arrived in Jamestown. Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner and arguably the greatest horse to ever race, was born on Meadow Farm in Doswell, Virginia. Genuine Risk, one of only three fillies to win the Kentucky Derby, called Virginia home. Robert E. Lee rode the well-known Traveller into battle. And, Misty of Chincoteague is one of the most beloved horses in children’s literature.
Here in Local Records the horses we find aren’t always as famous or majestic. Horses are left in wills and deeds, argued over to settle debts, objects of theft in criminal cases, and even causes of death in coroners’ inquisitions. Two instances of horses being caught up in matters of debt were found in the Fredrick County Judgments and Frederick County Chancery Causes. The judgment, Colmes vs. Ford, 1858, contains a broadside advertising the stud services of Young Dread, a “celebrated young Stallion” said to be the “noblest specimen of the horse kind ever known.” A beautiful blood bay in color said to have excellent movement and an exceedingly gentle temper, Young Dread, with the English … read more »