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Tag Archives: Norfolk County

- The Remarkable Hodges Family of Princess Anne County and Norfolk


Caricature of Willis A. Hodges published in Richmond Southern Opinion, December 21, 1867.

During the night of 23 April 1829, six African American men made a daring escape from the Norfolk County jail. One of them was William Johnson Hodges, a free man suspected of forging free papers and passes for enslaved Virginians. In this case, he had been convicted of changing the amount owed on a bill for another man and sentenced to five years imprisonment. He fled to Canada and later settled in Brooklyn.

 The Hodges family of Princess Anne County and Norfolk played an important role in Virginia’s postbellum political landscape. Four members of the family are included as part of the Library of Virginia’s Dictionary of Virginia Biography project in collaboration with Encyclopedia Virginia to document the lives of African American legislators and members of the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868.

William Johnson Hodges was the eldest son of Charles Augustus Hodges and his second wife, Julia Nelson Willis Hodges, free African Americans of mixed-race ancestry. Julia’s father was a white man who reportedly served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. The family was one of the more prosperous of the free black families in Princess Anne County. Charles Hodges purchased three farms and his own father’s freedom, and arranged for his children’s education. At some point, almost every member of the family moved to New York to avoid the discrimination and … read more »

- Early 20th Century Entertainment Comes to Virginia in a Most Unusual Way


Boer War Spectacle program, ca. 1904. Courtesy of https://www.bidsquare.com/online-auctions/potter-potter/the-great-boer-war-spectacle-926042

In the spring of 1905, a half-mile from the Norfolk city limits, the Boer War Spectacle (also called the Transvaal Spectacle or Anglo-Boer War Historical Libretto) was set to commence. First, however, there was the matter of some local government fees. Norfolk County chancery cause, 1907-055, Boer War Spectacle] v. S.W. Lyons, etc, details the ensuing conflict.

Chartered as a corporation in Missouri, the historical reenactment troupe was under the direction of Frank E. Fillis, a famous South African organizer and showman. Fillis sold this ambitious exhibition as “the greatest and most realistic military spectacle known in the history of the world.”

The idea was born near the Boer War’s end. While sitting around camp discussing news of the upcoming world’s fair, Major Charles Joseph Ross originally came up with the idea for the spectacle. A Canadian scout serving with the British, Ross hoped to capitalize on the fair’s expected popularity. As general manager, he hired artillery captain Arthur Waldo Lewis, who assembled British and Boer veterans to restage the pivotal battles of Colenso and Paardeberg. An advertisement appeared in Johannesburg’s Rand Daily Mail on 1 March 1904, entitled “Boer War Exhibition A chance for the unemployed!” Over 600 veterans, including a contingent of native black South Africans from various ethnic groups, in particular the Tswana, and a pair of notable generals … read more »

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- Bessie Miller’s Sad Summer Composition


Compostion book cover, dated December 1902. Brooks-Ellis Family Photo Collection, Visual Studies Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Va.

The Library of Virginia recently acquired a family photograph collection identified as belonging to the Brooks/Ellis families. A composition book labeled “Bessie Miller December 1902” accompanied the photos in the acquisition. The notebook mostly contains essays on topics such as Julius Caesar and “The Seven Wonders of the World,” along with occasional transcriptions of letters to friends or relatives. One particular entry caught the attention of staff, a melancholy view of summer vacation.

 

 

 

 

The undated entry reads:

Vacation

Vacation which always comes after a long tiresome spell at school as most children think it is most here[.] To most children it is a joyful time, but to me there is nothing sadder than the last day of school. This year most especially not knowing whither [sic] I’ll ever be at school again or not. Vacation always comes in the warm summer months when children need the most rest from study. During this time we visit our friends sometimes we spend evenings reading beautiful stories. It is during vacation that our flowers are in their most beautiful state and that our fruit trees are laden with the most luxurious fruit and our shade trees giving the most pleasant of shade. We will visit the beach and seashore[,] go on many pleasant picnics[,] have our childrens [sic] day and revivals[,] have our friends

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- “Persecuted By His Race”: The Norfolk County Chancery Causes, 1718-1913


Mikro Kodesh synagogue, Berkley, built 1922. Now home to the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Coutesy of Wikicommons.

The information contained in the Norfolk County Chancery Cause 1893-022, Berkley Hebrew Cemetery Association v. Abraham Liebman, et. al., makes for a highly charged and drama-filled story. More importantly, however, the cause provides insight into a diverse community beginning a more organized transition within a region. Jewish immigrants began settling in the Tidewater area in the late 18th century– according to Irwin M. Berent, author of Norfolk, Virginia: A Jewish History of the 20th century. The home of the first Jewish resident of Tidewater is found in Portsmouth, which was established in 1752, incorporated as a town in 1836 and then as a city in 1858. Jacob Abrahams came first to Maryland as a convict from London. He was part of the Ashkenazic faith (a follower of the German/Eastern European ritual of Judaism). Thousands of Jewish families came to London from Germany, Lithuania, and Poland.

The first permanent Jewish resident of Norfolk, Moses Myers, settled in the Berkley section in 1787 and began an immensely successful import-export business. Soon after, the Jewish community in Berkley became known for two significant developments:  the site of the first cemetery for Norfolk-area Jews and the beginning of the “most close-knit Orthodox Russian-Jewish community in all of Tidewater.” Berkeley (sometimes spelled Berkley) is one of the oldest communities in Virginia. It was the county … read more »

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- A Collection Within A Collection: Bounty Warrants Found In Chancery Causes


Encampment of the convention army at Charlotte Ville in Virginia. Etching from 1789. Library of Congress.

Military bounty land warrants, given by individual states or the Federal Government to reward military service or encourage enlistment, have long been a useful resource for the genealogist, providing proof of service and establishing a person’s whereabouts during a particular time. The Library of Virginia’s chancery causes offer a little known but excellent avenue of exploration on this topic. By providing additional context, the chancery suits concerning bounty land create a broader understanding of the subject. Causes fall into three categories:  contract disputes, estate disputes, and debt.

The interested parties were prominently mentioned in any disagreements where the land rights of the claimant were assigned, or sold. Heirs of the claimant were principal figures in chancery actions when the original claimant died and his heirs filed suit in Virginia for a fair distribution of the claimant’s real property. Much like causes involving debt, these suits resulted in the sale of the disputed property. Examples of both federal and state lands are noted—stretching well beyond the years of the original warrants—in Augusta, Fluvanna, Greensville, Halifax, Middlesex, Norfolk, and Prince Edward counties. Warrants include lands granted during the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, and the War of 1812.  In order to acquire the land, the federal warrant had to be surrendered for a patent—usually at a federal land office. With the establishment of a state … read more »

- Virginia Untold: Certificates of Importation

This is the second 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.


American Anti-Slavery Society.

Around 1811, a young girl named Ellsey was born on a plantation in Montgomery County, Tennessee. She had brothers and sisters. Her mother died sometime before Ellsey turned 11 years old. Ellsey was not a healthy child. She was “much troubled from rumitisem (sic),” a disease marked by inflammation and pain in the joints and muscles. In 1822, Ellsey made a seven hundred mile journey from Montgomery County to the Greenwood Mills plantation in Frederick County, Virginia. For a young child suffering from rheumatism, it could not have been an easy trip. Why did she do it? Was it to seek medical attention for her illness? Did her family move to Virginia to start a new life? The answer is that Ellsey had no choice but to move to Virginia. Ellsey was a slave owned by John McAllister, a wealthy landowner and businessman. He brought young Ellsey from his Tennessee plantation to his Virginia plantation “for his own use.”

Soon after bringing Ellsey to Frederick County, McAllister was required by Virginia law to sign an oath in the local court stating that he did not bring … read more »

- Not Black and White, But Different Shades of Gray




With examples dating back to the 1750s, Norfolk County chancery causes offer an interesting set of solutions to some of the myriad problems associated with a growing county, especially in the form of injunctions. These were legal remedies filed by plaintiffs hoping to stop or halt a particular action.  The resulting court order would enjoin and restrain the defendant from committing the action. During this process, the plaintiff filing the injunction was required to post a bond, although monetary relief was not usually the end result. Instead, injunctions helped to preserve the status quo in the community and prevent possible injustice. Failure to comply with an injunction resulted in punishment for contempt of court.

The chancery cause Bernard (Barnard) O’ Neill v. Lewis Warrington, et. al., 1840-007, filed in Norfolk’s Circuit Superior Court of Law and Chancery on 27 June 1838, highlights the sometimes complex issues involved in an injunction. Barnard O’ Neill alleged title to 55 ½ acres of land around the town of Portsmouth.  His bill of complaint states that he received a patent for this land from the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1826.  An adjoining property owner sold 60 acres of his property to the U.S. Government in 1828. According to Richmond C. Holcomb, M.D., writing in 1930, the western boundary between O’Neill’s property and this government property had been … 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 »