This is part one of a two part post on a fascinating freedom suit discovered during the Montgomery County Circuit Court Records Project. Part two of the story will be published next week.
Women had more to lose in the system of slavery. Saying this is not in any way meant to downplay the pernicious effects of slavery on the lives of men. However, at least in the slave system of the U.S. South, women ensnared within slavery saw their children and, if they lived long enough, their grandchildren caught in a chain of matrilineal descent predicated on the bondage status of the mother. Conversely, if one could prove that a woman was unjustly or illegally forced into slavery, she and her descendants had much to gain. The story of Flora and her daughters, Cena and Unis, makes public the double bind experienced by female slaves in the antebellum South. Their story also reveals the ongoing claims to freedom made by Flora and her family over sixty years, across three states, and throughout multiple counties in Virginia.
Flora, an African American later held as a slave in Montgomery County, Virginia, was born in the late 1750s in either Massachusetts or Connecticut. In the late 1770s Flora married “Exeter, a Negro man of Southwick” [MA], a marriage recorded by Reverend John Theodore Graham on 26 … read more »
Dr. Paul Parker, medical examiner of Elizabeth City County, Virginia, wrapped up a 19 April 1935 coroner’s inquest by ruling that “Dorothy McGaha Reeves came to her death on April 15th, 1935, of general peritonitis and perforated uterus as a direct result of a criminal abortion performed by Dr. N[elson]. F[rederick]. McNorton, of York County (Yorktown), Virginia, on the 9thday of April, 1935. Death occurred at the Dixie Hospital, Hampton, Virginia, on April 15th, 1935, about 12:20, A. M.”
Dr. McNorton was arrested on 15 April but charges were not disclosed. Authorities were led to him based on a deathbed statement given by Reeves, as well as Dr. Parker’s inquest findings. The Danville Bee reported that Reeves purportedly went to Dr. McNorton’s office for the illegal operation on the evening of 9 April in the company of Nellie Frye. Five days later, without ever having returned to work, Reeves was taken to the hospital where she died the following morning. In addition to Dr. McNorton’s arrest, later revealed to be on charges of second-degree murder and performing an illegal operation, Frye was also arrested. She was held as a material witness and also on the charge of being an accessory to the illegal operation.
Dr. McNorton belonged to a noted and influential African American family in Yorktown. His father, … read more »
Processing of the Montgomery County chancery began in August 2013, and one of the early finds was Chancery Cause 1848-016, Letitia Floyd vs. Executors of Elizabeth Madison, which involved two locally well-known Virginia families, the Prestons and Floyds. While much of the history of these families revolves around the military, economic, and political exploits of the men, this particular suit reveals great politicking among the females as well. Additionally, this case permits researchers to evaluate changes in women’s economic and social status over several generations.
William Preston, an Irish immigrant who arrived in Virginia in 1737, moved to western Virginia and became a surveyor in Augusta and Botetourt Counties. He fought in the French and Indian War, became an officer in the colonial militia, and eventually served in the House of Burgesses and as a sheriff and surveyor in Fincastle County. In 1775, he signed the Fincastle Resolutions and helped to recruit soldiers for the militia, ultimately serving as a colonel in the newly-created regiment mustered from Montgomery County. Preston and his friend and fellow surveyor, John Floyd, (among others) advanced land claims for prominent Virginians by surveying tracts (legally and illegally) in Kentucky.
Numerous local and area histories celebrate adventurers and pioneers but few of these accounts consider the experiences of the women who carved out a home for their families in the … read more »
Seventy years ago in Greene County, Virginia, civilian volunteers began to look toward the skies and record their observations in a log book, a simple black and white composition book. Somehow this log book ended up at the Greene County Courthouse and found its way into the Library of Virginia collections. Greene County residents, mostly women, sat for hours at a time watching the skies and recording the number of planes that passed overhead. Just how common was this practice during World War II?
Similar individuals, in observation posts up and down the East and West Coasts of the United States, used these logs while acting as airplane spotters. As a defense against a potential German or Japanese air attack in World War II, the United States War Department established the Aircraft Warning Service (AWS) in May 1941. The AWS combined volunteer observation posts and secret volunteer information and filter centers (largely staffed by women from the Aircraft Warning Corps) and was the civilian service of the Ground Observer Corps, a civil defense program of the United States Army Air Forces.
Along the East Coast from Maine to Florida and inland 400 miles, American Legion Posts set up observation posts six miles apart, in proximity to telephone lines and roads. However, in most places, observers worked from any site that offered a clear and unobstructed … read more »
Divorces reveal much about the inner-workings of a family, usually much more than outsiders should ever discover. While processing the Arlington County chancery causes, I came across a divorce case that filled two whole boxes. That’s .90 cubic feet of possible scandal and mayhem! The case Nannie R. Shelley vs. William C. Shelley, 1907-055, was quite the interesting case featuring interracial relationships, mental institutions, and an overly dramatic, possibly unstable daughter.
In 1907, Nannie Shelley sued for divorce, alleging infidelity and physical and mental abuse. She claimed William Shelley treated her not as a wife but as if she were a “despised and hated slave.” He forbade her any social relations and made her religion a “matter of scorn and ridicule.” He choked her and dragged her across the floor and finally threatened to kill her saying he would “try the McCue act on her.” (At the time of this divorce case, former Charlottesville mayor J. Samuel McCue’s alleged murder of his wife and subsequent trial was much in the news.)
Nannie suffered a nervous condition, supposedly as a result of her husband’s cruel treatment, that William used as an excuse to incarcerate her for three months in a “private mad house.” Although not declared legally insane, three doctors examined her and determined she suffered from paranoia. Nannie believed she ought to have been … read more »
The romantic landscape may seem ambiguous in 2013, but courtship in 19th-century Virginia was no different. Think those text messages are hard to decipher? Try reading an 1850s love letter full of rigid social etiquette. Dating and its inherent potential for rejection have always been hard. A letter found amongst chancery papers from Middlesex County attests to the fact that romantic rejection can happen to anyone, regardless of the time period.
One woman who had no use for ambiguity when it came to rejecting a would-be suitor was L. B. Powers. On 26 September 1849, she responded to Henry Sears’ letter requesting the “privilege of waiting on” her. She was to the point, not bothering to spare feelings, and offered up her reasons for refusing his courtship:
“I have no objection of your waiting on me but as you are in a hurry for a wife I think it is best for you to dispense with your conversation as I think there is no earthly chance of my agreeing with your proposal for it is something I never intend to give my consent to marry a man without I love them therefore I think it is best for us both to dispense with our writings and conversation as I cannot love you.
I do not think that my age will suit yours not
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 »
The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce that digital images for Lee County Chancery Causes, 1857-1912, are now available on the Chancery Records Index. 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, and legal history. The Lee County chancery collection offers a glimpse of life in Lee County during the 19th and early-20th centuries by documenting the African American experience, women’s history, Southern business and labor history, and the impact the railroad’s arrival had on a region. Following are a few suits of interest found in the collection.
Lee County chancery causes contain several suits illustrating the experiences of women in the westernmost part of the commonwealth. In Mary V. Pennington by etc. vs. M. C. Parsons, etc., 1887-019, Mary Pennington sought to gain control over land gifted to her by her father. The land was being sold by her husband, William Pennington, who had become “indebted and greatly embarrassed.” In 1907, Elizabeth Smith faced a similar dilemma. Elizabeth R. Smith vs. J. K. P. Legg, etc., 1907-045, protested the sale of Smith’s land sold for a set of blacksmith tools. Elizabeth Smith did not agree to the sale, but her husband, Samuel L. Smith, “commenced … read more »
The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce the completion of the Petersburg chancery causes digital project. The scanning project was funded by the Circuit Court Records Preservation Program along with a $155,071 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The collection has been digitized from 1787 through 1912 and the images added to the Chancery Records Index. The most recently added suits cover the years 1889-1912.
The following are a few suits of interest found in the newly added Petersburg chancery digital images.
In chancery cause 1907-055, George E. Fisher, for, etc. vs. Virginia Passenger & Power Company, etc., the plaintiffs ask the court to take over the floundering Virginia Passenger & Power Company in order to protect their financial stake in the business. The suit contains numerous exhibits including plats (images 616, 2030, 2032), minutes from board of directors’ and stockholders’ meetings (images 1878 and 1673). In 1908-034, John F. Crowder, etc. vs. Eli Tartt, etc., the suit stems from the unhappiness of the First Baptist (Colored) Church members with their pastor Eli Tartt. The plaintiffs wanted the court to remove Tartt as pastor of the church and their bill of complaint gives an account of a church meeting that became so uncontrollable that local police had to be called in to restore order (image 7). Crowder, … 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 numerous … read more »