My foray into family history and genealogy initially began with researching my Sheffey ancestors. Five years down the line and I feel as though I have a good understanding of the relationship that existed between my African American Sheffey ancestors and their white Sheffey masters and mistresses. Not the least of which was the fact that both sides of this family were related and that relationship was at least tacitly acknowledged by the white side of the family…if not outright openly acknowledged.
As I’ve written previously, the strength of the connections between these two sides of the family can be shown in their migration patterns after the Civil War. Black and white relations left Virginia together, living very close to one another in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois.
However, I kept returning to one essential question. If the black and white sides of the family were related, and had good relations, why weren’t the black members of the family freed upon the death of their master of mistress? Given the times they lived in, the Sheffeys appear to be a progressive family. This isn’t the place to broach the institution of slavery and its ills. All I can say is that, with only a few exceptions, the Sheffey family were unusual in the practice of slavery. Many of their slaves were taught to read and write, regardless of whether they were kin or not. It’s worth remembering that this was an illegal act in the Antebellum South. They don’t have a track record of splitting slave families apart. In many of the wills I’ve read, every effort was made to ensure that the black members of the family were kept together in family groups. These black Sheffey family groups kept these family connections alive prior to the end of slavery. White or black, this was a tight knit family in regular contact with one another.
And yet, this question around emancipation continued to simmer at the back of my thoughts.
Previously, I’d only found an old record of one free African American Sheffey from Virginia. Abraham Sheffey, born around 1810, who left the US for Canada in the 1840s. Whether he escaped and emigrated, or was freed, it appeared he was the only free African American Sheffey prior to the Civil War. His trail in the records runs cold after he emigrates to Canada.
And then I stumbled across Rhoda Sheffey and her family. There isn’t much in the way of information about this Sheffey family group. However, what little there was enough to begin answering my question.
Rhoda wasn’t a Sheffey by birth but a Sheffey either through marriage or a partnership. There is precious little information about her husband. He’s simply known as S Sheffey in the marriage record of their daughter Jane. Without a full first name and a county of birth, it’s difficult finding any further information about him.
By 1850, a free Rhoda was resident in Lynchburg without her husband. It’s an interesting locale as the white Sheffey family didn’t really have a presence in Lynchburg until the arrival of Edward Fleming Sheffey (1865 – 1933). In other words, it appears that Rhoda established residence here before members of the white Sheffey family. Naturally, I’ve asked myself why here and not Wythe or Smyth Counties where her daughters had relations in abundance. At the moment, I haven’t the foggiest.
The 1860 Census shows her daughters still reside in Lynchburg. Further research showed that Veto died in 1851 at the age of 11 from smallpox. Closer examination of the census return threw a curve ball for Rhoda’s daughters Kitty, Mary George and Martha Ann. Under occupation, each is recorded as being a prostitute. In their death records, Rhoda, Kitty, Mary George, Martha Ann and Martha Ann’s daughter Jane are all described as “sporting women” – the polite term for their profession in those days. Amazingly, there are burial records for them: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=89581017 Frustratingly, the headstones are so worn through age, and the image too small, to be able to read the inscriptions. It’s a shame as the inscriptions might provide more information about these women.
Incidentally, baby Jane married young and established herself as matriarch of the Robards family of Lynchburg.
And, of course, there’s another mystery. Lucy W Sheffey (1865 – 1869). Lucy is buried near to Rhoda and her children. Born after Rhoda’s death, presumably Jane, Martha Ann or Martha George is her mother.
There’s also a mystery around Willie Jones. There are two William Jones born in Lynchburg in 1866. One survived to adulthood and married. The other died in 1872 at the age of 6. Given the tragedy which seems to have surrounded this branch of the family, my hunch is that the William Jones who died so young is Rhoda’s grandson.
I keep myself grounded in the times they lived in. Life for the poor was hard, regardless of race. I recalled my research on the free black Drew family of Virginia and how they struggled to pay their taxes. Whether it was though death, divorce or desertion, there is no sign of Rhoda’s husband from 1850 onward. As a single black woman with children, there weren’t many options available to Rhoda. Harder still, there wasn’t a black family network of free Sheffeys for her to fall back on for support. She was a on her own.
There is the argument that she and her family could have left Virginia for a better life. However, if Virginia was all she knew, and was the state where all of her black relations resided, it would take a fiercely brave woman indeed to leave the known and familiar for the unknown. Rhoda’s story is markedly different from what I’ve found on the Drew and Roane families. The Drews had been free prior to the Revolutionary War. A number of Roanes, freed from the 1830’s onward, also had established a family network of free Roanes which embraced and supported newly freed family members.
The white Sheffey clan of the 19th Century were noted for two things: strong political beliefs that were ahead of their times in many ways…and strict moral conduct. This was a very religious family.
It’s conjecture at this point, however, I believe that Rhoda and her husband were one of the first of the black family members to be freed from slavery by the Sheffeys. Given the hardships faced by Rhoda, and the path she, her elder daughters and Martha Ann’s daughter Jane, travelled; the Sheffey family very well may have decided not to emancipate more members from the black side of the family. Jane’s marriage either came too late or wasn’t enough to change opinion.
A friend and fellow genealogy buff added a different interpretation. He makes a good point. His observation was that if enslaved black members of the family knew of Rhoda’s circumstances, and were familiar with the hardships and tragedies that she faced on her own, they may well have opted not to be freed.
To-date, no other free black Sheffeys appear in the records. Is it coincidence or is there a connection? Time and further research will tell.
While not plainly evident, Rhoda succeeded in one respect. Despite the hardships and sorrows she faced, Rhoda kept her remaining children together, as is shown in later census records. She persevered.