The varied experience of the African American residents of Montgomery County, Virginia, reveals itself in many documentary sources, but perhaps none as unexpected to some researchers as in the chancery causes. As a preview of the upcoming workshop “Researching Your African American Ancestors: Genealogy to 1870” scheduled to be held at the Christiansburg Public Library on 19 July 2014, here follow five examples from the Montgomery County chancery causes highlighting different facets of African American life over the span of 100 years.
Whether as slaves or free persons of color, African Americans arrived in the western parts of Virginia as soon as the area began to be settled by easterners. The earliest chancery suit with an identified free person is suit 1819-016, Lewis Garner vs. Peter Hance. Peter Hance executed a bond to Garner, “a man of color” for $49.75 in 1813. Garner then lost the note and Hance refused to honor the debt. Garner filed suit against Hance to clarify the circumstances of the debt, the loss of the note, and to collect what he was owed. The suit was dismissed at the request of the plaintiff in 1819.
Slaves appear throughout the chancery suits in many different situations, most commonly in an estate settlement suit when the slaves are divided among heirs or sold to pay debts. Chancery cause 1847-015, Ann Trigg, … read more »
Prior to the abolishment of slavery, the idea of landownership was an impossible dream for most African Americans, but in the years following the Civil War, African American landowners began to appear in Virginia’s chancery records. Unfortunately, these new landowners most often came to court because they were in danger of losing ownership of their property, or they felt they had been cheated out of the true value of their lands. With little support to aid in their pursuit of landownership, many minorities lost their property in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Two such examples were found in the Patrick County chancery causes.
In 1872, Enoch Wilson, an African American, sold a parcel of land to Gabriel Hylton, a white man, at a price that was much lower than it was worth. Hylton, regarded as a shrewd man and apparently not averse to taking advantage of others, vowed to pay Wilson $1.25 per acre for 217 acres of land. The transaction even included an offer to allow Wilson to continue to reside on the property until his death. Unfortunately for Wilson, the agreement was simply verbal and no money or documentation was ever exchanged.
Wilson’s grandson lived with him and was unaware of the verbal agreement with Hylton. As the assumed heir to the property, he decided to grow and sell … read more »
The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce that digital images for the King William County (Va.) Chancery Causes, 1868-1913, are now available online through the Chancery Records Index on the LVA’s Virginia Memory site. Because they rely so heavily on the testimony of witnesses, chancery causes contain a wealth of historical and genealogical information and are especially useful when researching local, state, social, or legal history. Chancery causes often contain correspondence, property lists (including slaves), lists of heirs, and vital statistics that are especially helpful in documenting the African American experience, family history, women’s history, and Southern business and labor history. Following are a few suits of interest found in the collection.
The King William chancery causes contain several suits which illustrate the experiences of Native Americans in the Tidewater region. The Mattaponi Tribe is represented in Chancery Cause 1895-002, George F. Custalow vs. James S. Robinson, Trustee. In the case, two members of the Mattaponi Tribe, Custalow and Austin Key, dispute ownership over a piece of land. In Chancery Cause Walter Miles vs. Alice Miles, 1907-006, two members of the Pamunkey Tribe, living in Indian Town, head to the King William County court to seek a divorce. Walter Miles claimed that on 15 November 1904 he was called before the chiefs of the tribe to face a charge … read more »
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. 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.
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 … read more »
The release of the film 12 Years a Slave had us talking here at Out of the Box. Discussions on slavery are a common occurrence at the Library of Virginia, but it is an entirely different experience to see the brutality and violence of slavery on screen. Based on the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free African American living in Saratoga Springs, New York, kidnapped in Washington, D.C., and sold into slavery in Louisiana, the film offers an unflinching portrayal of slavery in the United States.
12 Years a Slave never pulls back from the brutality of its subject matter, and most importantly the film gives a human face to slavery—a system characterized by its dehumanization. So many of the records here at the LVA do the same, putting a name to those who suffered, and telling their stories. In addition to an original 1857 edition of Northup’s narrative, the experiences of slaves can be found in the state, local, and private records held at the LVA. Some of those stories have already been recounted here on Out of the Box. Unfortunately many of these stories end as tragically as they began.
After 12 long years, Northup managed to escape slavery, but for a young woman wrongfully enslaved in Alexandria, Virginia, that would not be the case. The details appear in the … read more »
Digital images of Legislative Petitions to the Virginia General Assembly, 1776 to 1865, from Bath County through Essex County are now available on Virginia Memory, the Library of Virginia’s digital collections website. The list of localities added includes present-day West Virginia counties such as Barbour, Berkeley, Boone, Braxton, Brooke, Cabell, Calhoun, and Doddridge Counties. It also includes numerous localities classified as Lost Records Localities such as Bland, Buckingham, Caroline, Charles City, Dinwiddie, and Elizabeth City Counties. With this addition, the number of legislative petitions available for viewing online currently number over 5000.
For researchers of African-American history and genealogy, the legislative petitions are an invaluable primary source on the topics of slavery, free African-Americans, and race relations prior to the Civil War. One will find petitions from slave owners seeking approval to import their slaves into the Commonwealth from another state; free African-Americans seeking permission to remain in the Commonwealth; heirs of slave owners seeking to prevent the emancipation of slaves freed by their parent’s will; free African-Americans seeking divorce from their spouse. The following are specific examples of the research potential on African-American history and genealogy that can be found in the collection.
John S. Harrison of Berkeley County petitioned the General Assembly in 1810 asking for permission to import three slaves, named Paris, Letty, and Daniel, from Maryland to Virginia. Harrison … read more »
The Surry County Chancery Causes, 1785-1922 (bulk 1806-1917), contain valuable biographical, genealogical, and historical information and document a broad spectrum of citizens of Surry County—rich and poor, black and white, slave and free. Following are a few suits of interest found in the collection.
Chancery Cause 1830-037, Mary Pettway, etc. vs. Admr. of John Pettway Judkins, etc. is an estate settlement suit. John Pettway Judkins died without a will; therefore, the court had to determine who all was related to Judkins in order to ensure they received their fair share of his estate, including slaves. The suit contains a list of Judkins’ relatives showing how they were related to him.
Chancery Cause 1869-002, Enna (or Rosenna) Rowena Messersmith by etc. vs. Joseph M. Messersmith is a divorce suit that had its origins in the Civil War. Joseph served in a local Surry County unit attached to the 13th Virginia Regiment. He and Enna were married on 23 September 1862 in Surry County while Joseph was on a short furlough. Emma rarely saw her husband over the next two years. Enna informed the court that she last saw her husband in January 1864 in Petersburg. She learned from someone who served with Joseph that in the spring of 1864 Joseph went AWOL and was believed to have fled to western Virginia. Enna told … read more »
Once a neglected subject, the role that African American slaves played in Southern colleges has become the focus of new research. Virginia being no exception, our oldest and most established institutions of higher learning such as the University of Virginia, William and Mary, and Hampden-Sydney College all relied on slaves for providing the colleges with necessary services. Often, the slaveholders in neighboring areas allowed their own slaves to be hired out to the colleges as servants. The slave’s master was then paid a salary, typically at a yearly rate, for the services that his slave provided to the college. These African Americans worked to construct buildings, provide general upkeep and maintenance of the college grounds, and act as servants to faculty, students, and staff.
Found in the Library of Virginia’s Local Records Collections is a City of Lynchburg judgment, A. D. Dickinson vs. Hampden-Sydney College, which sheds light on this often under-studied type of Southern slavery. In this case, A. D. Dickinson sued Hampden-Sydney College for not paying him the proper amount of money for the services that his slave, David Ross, provided the college. Charles Martin, the college curator, and A. D. Dickinson agreed that Hampden-Sydney would pay Dickinson a yearly sum of $150 for Ross’s work. The tasks that Ross was expected to fulfill were specified in the deposition given by Martin … read more »
In court documents from Lunenburg County Chancery Cause 1856-042, the petition of Araminta Frances reveals an interesting and life-changing request. On 10 March 1856 Araminta Frances, a free woman of color, petitioned the court asking to be enslaved.
Araminta was once the slave (along with at least two others) of James G. Richardson. Richardson’s last will and testament, probated 9 December 1850, left the majority of his estate, including finances, property, and slaves, to his daughter, Sarah A. Richardson, two nephews, and friend John L. Coleman. The provisions for the slaves were clearly spelled out. One negro male slave, Cezar, was to go to James G. Richardson’s nephew, James R. Walker, and John L. Coleman “to be taken care of by them and to be paid to him [Cezar] yearly by them the full amount of his yearly value.” Richardson also stipulated that “my negro child Virginia and Minty’s [presumably Araminta] child yet unborn” should be emancipated and receive the sum of $500 each or $1,000 if his daughter Sarah should die without issue. Minty (or Araminta) would be emancipated should his daughter, Sarah, die without having married. A copy of James G. Richardson’s will was included with the petition as supporting documentation for Araminta’s case.
Also included in the case was a bill passed by the General Assembly on 20 December 1855 allowing Araminta … read more »