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 »
In November of 1860, executor William F. Smith was in a pickle. Charged with settling the estate of Elizabeth P. Via of Augusta County, he had recently been a defendant in both a chancery and a judgment suit from seven of Via’s heirs that challenged the validity of her will. The heirs objected to the provisions that Via made for her slaves, namely that they all be emancipated. Additionally, she left $4,000 to transport them to a free state and set them up in homes there. The remainder of her estate was to be distributed amongst Via’s heirs who were not pleased by this and thought it in their best interest to have the will invalidated so that they could get everything, including the slaves that were left at Via’s death. The will was upheld, however, and then it was time for executor Smith to get on with the business of carrying out Via’s wishes. But there were some questions that he struggled to answer about his job as executor.
At issue were several points. Did children born since Via’s death have an interest in the money left to the slaves? What should happen to the residue of the $4,000 after the will’s provisions were carried out? How should title to any house or land purchased for the emancipated slaves be done? The slaves had … read more »
“It was a hot summer day on August 5, 1865, when George Kiner and Diana Bumgardner arrived at the courthouse in Augusta County, Virginia, to apply for a marriage license. They brought with them an order from Capt. John Collins, Provost Marshall, directing the court to issue the license as ‘they being in all respects entitled to such license.’ While there were other couples that day applying for marriage licenses, George and Diana were the only couple with such an order. This was indeed a historical event as they were the first African American couple to be issued a marriage license in Augusta County.”
-African American Marriage Index 1865-1899, Augusta County, Virginia
At first glance the story of George Kiner and Diana Bumgardner is one of love triumphing over the tragedies of slavery and war. But documents found in the Augusta County Chancery Causes reveal not a lovely wedding born of true love, but a shotgun affair with a groom forced to the altar at gunpoint. In his bill for divorce filed in the Augusta County courts in February 1866, George Coiner (the predominant spelling in court documents was Coiner, but Kiner and Koiner were also used) painted a less than idealistic picture of his wedding day. George Coiner, a former slave, was working in a field when two armed soldiers, one white and the … 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 »
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 »
“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 »
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 »