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 »
The wool of Merino sheep was highly prized and for centuries the flocks were not allowed to be exported from their home in Spain. One of the few individuals to get Merinos into the United States was U.S. minister to Spain David Humphreys, who imported twenty-five rams and seventy-five ewes to his home in Connecticut in 1802. The Library of Virginia has a copy of Humphreys’s 1804 book The miscellaneous works of David Humphreys, late minister plenipotentiary —to the court of Madrid, which contains an essay on Merino sheep. Thomas Jefferson was also particularly interested in the improvements of sheep herds and by 1810 had acquired his own herd of Merino sheep. The demand for Merinos soon reached manic proportions, a bubble was created, and like all bubbles there was a crash. (For more on this subject see Monticello’s article on sheep.)
Amongst the Cowling Papers found in the City of Richmond records is a letter dated 14 August 1827 from William DuVal (1748-1842), a Virginia lawyer, legislator, and planter, to Willis Cowling (1788-1828), a Richmond cabinetmaker. Enclosed in the letter is a sample of Merino wool. DuVal wrote to ask Cowling if he would sell two hundred pounds of Merino wool to buy material for slave clothing. Cowling was a good choice for carrying out DuVal’s request as he regularly dealt with merchants … 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 »
Guest contributor Tricia Noel joins us to share an interesting disovery left by an anonymous artist on some New Kent County church records.
Although they can provide valuable genealogical and historical information to researchers, poring over church records can be dull and tedious work. The records of Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church in New Kent County (Accessions 30117, 19729, and 19740), however, are anything but boring. The vestry books and register, which cover 1685-1801, are heavily adorned with drawings and sketches. These drawings, which occupy many of the records’ margins and blank spaces, are mostly amusing depictions of horses, dogs, people, and a building or two. Some drawings of most interest to the historian include several of people with clear depictions of contemporary clothing, including a man in a knee-length, cut away coat, and another in a long, curly wig. The faces were drawn with an attention to expression, and many, with their large noses, huge feet and messy hair, are not flattering. There are a few depictions of symmetical, Colonial style houses. There are several dogs, one of them labelled “Rover,” many horses and deer, and one unknown creature, covered with bristles and with a mouth full of dangerous-looking teeth. Several of the images include odd captions, such as “Give me an apple.” It is not known who the anonymous artist was, but one can … read more »
The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce that digital images for Franklin County chancery causes, 1787-1912, are now available on the Chancery Records Index. Digital images are available for the years 1787-1912. The complete index covers the years 1787-1929, and original records 1913-1929 are available at The Library of Virginia. Additional post-1913 records are available at the Franklin County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office. Following are a few suits of interest found in this collection.
Franklin County chancery cause 1873-050 includes a detailed report on the division of slaves (image# 10-12), including the ages of the slaves. There are suits such as 1836-009 and 1885-027 that involve Franklin County native son and Confederate General, Jubal A. Early, who practiced law in Franklin County before and after the Civil War. Chancery cause 1867-005 is a sad but scandalous divorce suit between James C. Smith and Lucy F. Smith. James Smith returned home from fighting in the Civil War only to learn that his wife had been unfaithful while he was away (image# 2-3). The suit includes depositions given by Mrs. Smith’s paramours describing their secret getaways. Chancery cause 1870-006 gives details on the many difficulties women encountered while managing estates. The plaintiff, Nancy B. Ferguson, entrusted the defendant, her nephew Thomas B. Ferguson, with running the day to day affairs of her estate which included … read more »
The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce that the Accomack County chancery causes, 1727-1805, and Fluvanna County chancery causes, 1779-1882, are now available on the Chancery Records Index. The Accomack County material consists of chancery suits recovered from court records found in the attic of the clerk’s office in 1996. Additional chancery from Accomack County will be added at a later date. The Fluvanna County chancery causes were separated from court records housed at the Library of Virginia. Additional Fluvanna County chancery records are available at the Circuit Court Clerk’s office.
A number of the Accomack County chancery causes for this date range concern the division of slaves. An example is Accomack County chancery cause 1799-019. This suit includes a report of a division of slaves (image # 7) among the heirs of William Taylor. Accomack County chancery cause 1783-013 (image # 13) contains a September 1777 letter that references British losses at the Battle of Brandywine. Accomack County chancery cause 1801-005 is a freedom suit filed by a slave named Mary claiming freedom on the basis of her mother’s Native American ancestry. She argues that her mother, Mall Cook, was “one of the native aboriginal Indians of this country” (image #2).
The latest images from the Augusta County Chancery Causes are now available on the Chancery Records Index. With this addition, one hundred boxes of Augusta County chancery covering the time period from 1867 to 1879 can be viewed online.
Following are a few suits of interest found in this latest addition. Augusta County Chancery Cause 1876-058 includes a letter (image# 252-253) written by one of the plaintiffs when he was a soldier in the 25th Virginia Infantry during the Civil War. In Augusta County Chancery Cause 1876-072 (image# 20), a liquor manufacturer sued the city of Staunton claiming the city had no right to tax its liquor. Augusta County Chancery Cause 1877-029 (image #11-15) involves a dispute between a group of former slaves and the executor of the estate of their former master. A genealogical chart of the Dull family can be found in Augusta County Chancery Cause 1879-042 (image#1765).
These cases are representative of the over ten thousand found in the Augusta County Chancery Causes collection that document the rich heritage of Augusta County and western Virginia. This project is made possible by a partnership betweeen the LVA’s Circuit Court Records Preservation Program and Augusta County Circuit … read more »
Located among the odds and ends of Accomack County court records is this 1758 advertisement from Landon Carter of Richmond County for his runaway slave Will. Landon Carter was one of the sons of Robert “King” Carter of Lancaster County and a rich man himself. The advertisement is typical of runaway ads in that it seeks to provide as much information as possible about Will in order to facilitate his recapture: looks, personality, friends and family, residence(s), and conjecture as to possible destination. The ads are always interesting for what questions they provoke: What was this “ill-Behaviour” that caused Will to be moved five counties north from Williamsburg to Richmond County? What characteristics did he possess that would cause his owner to call him “sensible for a slave” (presumably a compliment)? Were Will and Sarah particularly close, so much so that after his escape he risked fetching her so that she, too, could be free of slavery and the Carters? Did Will, Sarah and Peter make good their getaway?
(Citation: Accomack County, Free Negro & Slave Records Box 1, Barcode 1138011.)
-Sarah Nerney, Senior Local Records Archivist… read more »