Tag Archives: slavery

- “Nat’s War”: The Southampton Slave Rebellion of 1831

Discovery of Nat Turner: wood engraving illustrating Benjamin Phipps's capture of Nat Turner. p. 154 of 1894's

On 23 August 1831, Governor John Floyd received a hastily written note from the Southampton County postmaster stating “that an insurrection of the slaves in that county had taken place, that several families had been massacred and that it would take a considerable military force to put them down.” Fifty-seven whites died, many of them women and children, before a massive force of militiamen and armed volunteers could converge on the region and crush the rebellion. Angry white vigilantes killed hundreds of slaves and drove free persons of color into exile in the terror that followed.

Early newspaper reports identified the Southampton insurgents as a leaderless mob of runaway slaves that rose out of the Dismal Swamp to wreak havoc on unsuspecting white families. Military leaders and others on the scene soon identified the participants as enslaved people from local plantations. Reports of as many as 450 insurgents gave way to revised estimates of perhaps 60 armed men and boys, many of them coerced into joining. The confessions of prisoners and the interrogation of eyewitnesses pointed to a small group of ringleaders: a free man of color named Billy Artis, a celebrated slave known as “Gen. Nelson,” and a slave preacher by the name of Nat Turner. Attention focused on Turner; it was his “imagined spirit of prophecy” and his extraordinary powers of persuasion that … read more »

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- Willis M. Carter Journal and Research Collection Donated to the Library of Virginia

Title Page, A Sketch of My Life and Our Family Record, Willis M. Carter Collection, ca. 1896-2016. Accession 51546. Personal papers collection, The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

Author and researcher Deborah Harding recently donated to the Library of Virginia a rare, firsthand account of slavery and its aftermath written by Willis M. Carter, a once influential but now little known 19th century civil rights pioneer. “A Sketch of My Life and Our Family Record” was acquired by African American historian Cuesta Benberry in the mid-seventies and entrusted to Harding to research and authenticate in 2005. It is the centerpiece of a larger collection of material on Carter compiled over ten years of research on his life and work. The Willis M. Carter Collection, ca. 1894-2016 (accession 51546), also includes the only surviving copy of Carter’s newspaper, the Staunton Tribune dated 1 September 1894 (donated by Jennifer Vickers of Staunton, VA); a handwritten memorial tribute written at Carter’s death by his fellow teachers in Staunton; 18 boxes of supporting research that include depositions from the family that once owned Carter and their views on the Civil War, as well as additional material on slavery, education, and early civil rights in Virginia; a cross referenced manuscript by Harding summarizing Carter’s life and work; and a companion finding aid. The journal, newspaper and memorial tribute have been digitized and are available to researchers online.

Willis McGlascoe Carter was born into slavery in 1852 in Albemarle County, Virginia. He achieved a formal education at … read more »

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- Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative Digital Collection

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 »

- Virginia Untold: Deeds of Emancipation and Manumission

This is the fourth 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.

The Petersburg Deeds of Manumission from April 1822 relate the tale of James Dunlop and his slave, John Brown. Dunlop, suffering from an unspecified illness, traveled between Virginia’s resort towns seeking treatment. Many considered the natural springs in Hot Springs and Lexington, among others, sources of healing for numerous maladies. Dunlop decided to free or “manumit” his slave John for “John’s great and unusual attention to me while under a very severe illness.”  While the pair was visiting Lexington, the local doctor was absent for some days in the country. Dunlop experienced a spell “brought on by exposure to the rain while on a trip to the Natural Bridge, after visiting Hot Springs and using freely the hot baths.” He felt that his life “was in imminent danger.” The only person Dunlop knew in Lexington was John Brown. During Dunlop’s illness, Brown took care of him. Recalling this experience years later, Dunlop wrote:

“[without Brown’s] close and extraordinary attention in watching over my disease, administering medicines and nourishment to me, agreeable to the best of his skill night and day, it is more than probable I

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- 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 »

- Virginia Untold: Freedom Suits

This is the first 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.

Detail. Published by the American Anti-Slavery Society,

Enslaved African Americans in antebellum Virginia attempted to secure their freedom in many ways. The violent, armed uprisings led by Nat Turner and Gabriel loom large in historical memory, and the historical record is littered with stories of runaway slaves stealing off in the night to seek freedom with the help of the Underground Railroad. However, the narratives of enslaved individuals who used the law to secure their freedom are frequently missing from this dialogue. The Library of Virginia’s collection of freedom suits helps to illuminate these stories.

Enslaved Virginians could petition the court for their freedom “forma pauperis” based on a few different claims. Since free or enslaved status in antebellum Virginia was based on the status of the mother, petitioners often sued on the basis that they were born of a free woman. In many cases these suits involve individuals claiming descent from a Native American. After 1788, slaveholders who brought slaves to Virginia when resettling from another state were required to register their slaves with the county court and sign an oath stating that they had not brought them for the purpose of … 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 »

- Sometimes You DO Find a Needle in a Haystack: The Augusta Co. Cohabitation Register

Augusta County courthouse, ca. 1910.

Cohabitation registers are among the most important genealogical resources for African-Americans attempting to connect their family lines back through the murky past to their enslaved ancestors.  The registers date from 1866 and provide a snapshot in time for the individuals recorded therein and provide a wealth of information that may otherwise be impossible, or at least very difficult, to uncover.  Historians are also interested in the registers because of what the registers might say about a particular community of people at a time when great changes had come about as a result of the Civil War and the end of slavery.  Locating the complete Augusta County Cohabitation Register took persistence, determination and luck.  The concerted effort of the circuit court clerk’s office and the Library of Virginia’s Local Records staff working together solved this nearly 150 year old mystery.

In 2007 Augusta County Circuit Court Clerk John Davis informed LVA staff that four cohabitation sheets had been discovered in his office . Officially titled the Register of Colored Persons of Augusta County, Virginia, Cohabiting Together as Husband and Wife on February 27th, 1866, a cohabitation register was the legal vehicle by which former slaves legitimized both their marriages and their children. The information about an individual person contained in the cohabitation register is literally priceless as it is often the first time … read more »

- Remaking Virginia: A New Labor System

This is the third in a series of four blog posts concerning post-Civil War Virginia and the lives of freedpeople after Emancipation. The posts precede the Library of Virginia exhibition Remaking Virginia: Transformation through Emancipation opening 6 July 2015.


Glimpses at the Freedmen - The Freedmen's Union Industrial School, Richmond, Va. / from a sketch by Jas E. Taylor. Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper, v. 23, 1866 Sept. 22, p. 5. Library of Congress.

In the months following the end of slavery, a new system of labor emerged under the direction of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The new system forced former slave owners to recognize former slaves not as property but as employees with whom they would have to negotiate terms of employment. The Freedmen’s Bureau administered the negotiations to ensure that the former slaves, now Freedmen, were treated fairly. The new labor system was spelled out in written contracts that in some localities were stored at the local courthouse and remained there after the Freedmen’s Bureau ended in 1872.

The contracts usually specified the dates of the expected employment, obligations of the employee to the employer, and vice-versa. The following example found in the Lunenburg County (Va.) Freedmen’s Contracts, 1865-1866, offers the usual obligations found in freedmen’s contracts. A freedman named Archer Lewis made an agreement on 2 January  1866 with A.L. Davis to be a laborer on Davis’s farm. Davis would pay Lewis one quarter of the corn, oats, wheat, and tobacco that Lewis produced from his labor. Davis agreed to furnish Lewis with the animals and farm … read more »

- Jacob Yoder and Educating Virginia’s Freedpeople after the Civil War

This is the second in a series of four blog posts concerning post-Civil War Virginia and the lives of freedpeople after Emancipation. The posts precede the Library of Virginia exhibition Remaking Virginia: Transformation through Emancipation opening 6 July 2015.


The Freedman's Spelling-Book  (Boston, 1865).

“It is too plain that this people still love Slavery with some blind Madness.” Jacob Eschbach Yoder (February 22, 1838–April 15, 1905), a transplant to Virginia from Millersville, Pennsylvania, had lived in Lynchburg for only a month when he noted this observation in his diary on April 28, 1866. The Civil War had ended the Confederacy’s dream of a slaveholding nation, but Yoder perceptively feared that white Southerners had “only accepted the result of this war, because they must.” A teacher who had come to Virginia after the Civil War to help educate the freedpeople, Yoder perceived that many whites “hate every measure that is intended to elevate them. Education is their only passport to distinction. Therefore the whites so bitterly oppose it.”

Shortly after the Civil War began, African Americans of all ages, both free and enslaved, quickly took advantage of any chance to gain the education that had been denied to them under slavery. Despite widespread and often violent opposition from white Virginians, opportunity came from a variety of sources. During the war, numerous religious and private organizations began sending people to Virginia to … read more »