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 it … read more »
The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce the addition of Surry County to the cohabitation register digitization project. This project, via the Virginia Memory website, aims to index, digitize, transcribe, and provide access to all known Virginia cohabitation registers and the related registers of children whose parents had ceased to cohabit.
The Surry County register contains some of the most delightful names that one may have had the opportunity to run across in a historical document. Could one of these fine folks be an ancestor of yours?
Cohabitation registers are among the most important genealogical resources for African-Americans attempting to connect their family lines back through the oftentimes murky past to their enslaved ancestors. The registers date from 1866 and provide a snapshot in time for the individuals recorded therein and a wealth of information that may otherwise be impossible, or at least very difficult, to uncover. Cohabitation registers were the legal vehicles by which former slaves legitimized both their marriages and their children. The information about an … read more »
“In the time worn and musty old folios long since filed away in our public offices, there is many a fact recorded that has occured [sic] under the personal observation of no one now living; and which if placed within the reach of the public, would go farther to give us a knowledge of the manners, customs, and character of the pioneers of Augusta County than all the histories that have been written on our native state.”
These words were written by a young lawyer who was researching court records filed in the Augusta County courthouse in the early 1830’s. He was amazed by the amount of history found in the old court papers. He discovered stories about the first settlers of western Virginia and the many obstacles they encountered in their efforts to start a new life in an untamed wilderness. He read about events that happened during the French and Indian War and Revolutionary War. The young lawyer came across suits in which the litigants talked about their migration down the Shenandoah Valley from western Pennsylvania to Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia. Mesmerized by what he was reading, the young lawyer wanted to make his discoveries in the court records available to the public, and so, he wrote a letter to the editor of an unidentified newspaper requesting a weekly column in which he … read more »
In the years following the Civil War, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (commonly referred to as simply the Freedmen’s Bureau) provided assistance to former slaves still living in the South, helping them transition from a society based on slavery to one allowing freedom. Established as part of the War Department by an act of Congress on 3 March 1865, the Freedmen’s Bureau, operational until 1872, helped introduce a system of free labor, provided food and clothing, helped locate families and legalize marriages, promoted education, supervised labor contracts, and provided legal representation.
One of the Bureau’s most important roles was to help safeguard the rights of African Americans and ensure they received justice from the court system. Following the Civil War, several southern states, including Virginia, enacted a series of laws commonly known as “black codes” that restricted the rights and legal status of freedmen. African Americans were often given harsh sentences for petty crimes and were sometimes unable to get their cases heard in the state courts. In September 1865, Freedmen’s Bureau courts were established to adjudicate cases involving freedmen. By February 1866, Virginia had amended her laws and the Bureau courts were discontinued by May of that same year, but because of the failure of many local court officials to administer equal justice, the Bureau courts were reestablished in certain areas … read more »
In the fall of 1805, John Alcock, a Fredericksburg, Virginia, cabinetmaker, relocated to Richmond and opened a cabinetmaking shop. By 1807 he had expanded his business to include the making of Windsor chairs. In that same year, Alcock purchased James Harris, a “mulatto” chair painter, from Alexander Walker, also a Fredericksburg cabinetmaker, for $450. Alcock would later attest that Harris was agreeable to the sale because he could be nearer his mother, who lived in Richmond and from whom he had been separated at some previous time.
Very soon Alcock became dissatisfied with Harris’ work and described him as “idle,” a “thief,” and a “drunkard.” By 1808 the situation had worsened, and Alcock, who had business in Georgia, took Harris with him in the hopes of selling him. Unable to accomplish a sale in Georgia, Alcock sold Harris in Charleston for $375. He claimed he spent $90 to $100 in trying to sell Harris. Alcock, believing Alexander Walker had knowingly deceived him, demanded restitution. In an attempt to get to the truth, depositions were taken from the men who worked for Alcock and Walker. The information from the depositions, part of Henrico County Chancery Cause 1811-001, John Alcock vs. John Brockenbrough, provide a detailed description of Walker’s shop, who worked there, and Harris’ role in the shop.
James Harris, born circa 1790, had been … read more »
Three Highland County Commonwealth Causes (Barcode 0007281802) reveal a tangled web of conspiracy, murder, and secret affairs. The cast of players includes Elizabeth Sheridan, wife of the deceased; Mary Ann Wily, Elizabeth’s daughter from a previous marriage; Sam, a slave; and Ellen, a slave and Sam’s wife. Commonwealth vs. Sam (slave), 1856 August; Commonwealth vs. Ellen (slave), 1856 August; and Commonwealth vs. Elizabeth Sheridan and Mary Ann Wily, 1856 November concern the murder of Mr. Francis W. Sheridan by Sam, a slave hired by Sheridan from William Wilson. Sam’s wife, Ellen, was also charged with being “concerned in the murder,” while Elizabeth Sheridan and her daughter Mary Ann Wily were charged as accessories. The cases contain assorted court documents including depositions and statements from various neighbors and acquaintances of the accused and the murder victim.
A document entitled “Evidence in Support of Prosecution” offers a wealth of information. Notes from the coroner’s inquest give revealing physical facts about Francis Sheridan. He was described as a small man about the age of 21 or 22 years whose body displayed visible signs of trauma due to strangulation. The report reveals that the body was found lying face down in a drain twenty or thirty feet away from the public road and gives a detailed forensic account of Sheridan’s bedroom, where the murder actually took place.… read more »
The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce that Nelson County Chancery Causes, 1808-1912, are now processed, indexed, and conserved; and the index is now available on the Chancery Records Index. These records contain considerable historical and genealogical information. Because the records rely so heavily on testimony from witnesses, they offer a unique glimpse of the people of Nelson County from the early 19th century through the First World War. Following are a few suits of interest found in this collection.
In chancery cause Tobias~ vs. Heirs of John Campbell, 1816-005, Tobias, a free Negro, sues for the payment of a judgment won against the administrator of John Campbell. In chancery suit Eliza A. Figures vs. Christopher T. Estes, 1838-035, Eliza Figures was hired by Estes, a tavern owner, to take care of the house business and culinary affairs, and she sued for lack of compensation. In Eliza Ann Figures vs. Dr. Matthew Figures, 1840-013, the same individual is the plaintiff suing for divorce from her husband citing cruelty, abandonment and repeated acts of adultery. Daniel M. Harris, trustee vs. Christopher T. Estes, etc., 1846-017, includes a typical item found in many of Nelson County’s pre-Civil War chancery causes – a cash valuation of slaves. The effects of the Civil War are noted in Elijah R. Walker vs. … read more »
The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce the addition of records from Fluvanna, Goochland, and Montgomery Counties to the cohabitation register digitization project. This project, via the Virginia Memory website, aims to index, digitize, transcribe, and provide access to all known Virginia cohabitation registers and the related registers of children whose parents had ceased to cohabit.
The cohabitation registers were the legal vehicles by which formerly enslaved couples legitimized their pre-slavery marriages and the children of unions that no longer existed in 1866 due to death or other circumstances such as the wife being sold away. These records are invaluable resources for genealogists and historians alike.
Goochland and Montgomery have to date only uncovered their cohabitation registers. Fluvanna, however, includes both the cohabitation register and the register of children whose parents had ceased to cohabit by 1866. The registers, transcriptions, and searchable indexes are available online along with the other registers from Virginia localities in the Cohabitation Register Digital Collection in Virginia Memory. To find it use either the link provided or go to Virginia Memory, choose Digital Collections, then Collections A to Z, and finally Cohabitation Registers.
For more information on the cohabitation registers, see an earlier blog post Solid Genealogical Gold, about the Register of Colored Persons of Smyth County, Virginia, cohabiting together as Husband and Wife on 27… read more »
At one o’clock in the morning on 1 September 1859, Milly T. King arrived at the home of James Clary and found his slave Hannah “lying on the hearth gasping for breath, and I thought dying.” When King saw Hannah an hour later, she was dead. The following day Brunswick County coroner William Lett arrived to examine the body. With him were twelve men, none of whom had a medical background but rather were chosen as upstanding men and representatives of the county. The office of coroner held inquisitions in cases when persons met a sudden, violent, unnatural, or suspicious death. In this case Hannah had certainly met a sudden and suspicious demise.
Hannah, owned by the late Elizabeth H. Harwell, had been in the possession of James Clary, who adamantly maintained that the marks found on her feet and legs and the wound on her head were not from anything suspicious but came as a result of a fall from a window occurring a few weeks before her death. The coroner and his jury of white men were left to decide if Hannah had suffered an accidental death or if her death had been caused by something more malicious. Clary’s wife, Eliza, backed up her husband’s statements and claimed to know nothing of Hannah’s death, maintaining that her wounds were caused by the fall. … read more »
The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce that the first installment of images from the Petersburg chancery causes digitization project have been added to the Chancery Records Index. This project has been funded, in part, through a $155,071 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Images for the first forty-four boxes of chancery suits have been added to the index (circa 1803-1845). The boxes are not strictly chronological, so not all images for a given year are available. Additional images will be added periodically as the project progresses. Be sure to check back!
Here are some interesting suits that archivists found while processing, indexing, and conserving the collection. Many other fascinating and complex stories will surely be uncovered once the project is complete and the collection is studied by students, scholars, and family historians.
Petersburg chancery cause 1827-003 involves a dispute over a runaway slave named Davey, alias Davey Smith. Exhibits found in the suit include a notice published in a local newspaper describing Davey’s physical appearance, occupation, and his escape (image 22). The suit also contains letters from Benjamin W. B. Jones of Alabama claiming that he was Davey’s owner (image 27).
Also in the newly released images there are two suits that involve an African American … read more »