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William Breedlove

WILLIAM BREEDLOVE (ca. 1820–1871)

William Breedlove, Pardon Papers, 19 December, 1863, John Letcher Executive Papers, Record Group 3, Accession 36787. Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

William Breedlove was a free African American who served as a member of the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868. Breedlove was born in Essex County, the son of James Davis, a white man, and Polly Breedlove, a free African American. While little is known of Breedlove's early life, on the 1850 census he was identified as a blacksmith by trade and as being literate. With his wife Susan Breedlove, he had at least two sons and a daughter, but only one of his sons survived into adulthood. Susan Breedlove died of typhoid fever in December 1857, and Breedlove married another free African American, Eliza Ann Davis a year later. They had at least two sons and two daughters.

Breedlove was relatively successful, accumulating real estate and personal property in the antebellum years. He also operated a ferry service across the Rappahannock River. After the Civil War began, Breedlove and other free African Americans had to keep a low profile because of a number of laws that regulated the behavior of African Americans and the risk of being impressed into working for the Confederate forces. Breedlove and an employee were arrested for ferrying an African American across the Rappahannock in November 1863. Breedlove was under the impression the man had an authorization to travel, but the man was actually attempting to escape slavery. The punishment facing both men for attempting to help a runaway slave was that they be sold into slavery.

The prosecuting attorney, some of the convicting justices of the peace, and other local dignitaries, including Lieutenant Governor Robert Montague, recommended both men receive gubernatorial clemency. They described Breedlove as an honest and industrious blacksmith, a man of good character, and a valuable member of the community. Governor John Letcher pardoned Breedlove on December 19, 1863.

Breedlove was politically active following the Civil War. In October 1867, he was elected to the state constitutional convention. During the convention he served on the Committee on Taxation and Finance and voted consistently with the Radical majority. In 1869 Breedlove was appointed one of six new justices of the peace for Essex County. He also served on the town council for Tappahannock and for one year as the local postmaster, to the outrage of many of the local whites. He died of “Brain Fever” near Tappahannock on June 15, 1871.

Suggested Reading:

“Breedlove, William.” Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Edited by Sara B. Bearss et al., 2:212–213. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1998– .

Related Links:

Notable African Americans 2007: William Breedlove

This Day in Virginia: December 18