50 years a slave: the Findley family’s battle for freedom in Virginia

Update 1 May 2014: More information about how Rachel’s story came to light can be found here: 50 Years a slave: Rachel Findley’s story continues to receive media coverage http://wp.me/p1fqOP-jR

UPDATE 16 April 2014:  A search in Google Books yielded some possible answers as to how Henry Clay came to possess the two Choctaw children, Chance and James. Basically, the likelihood of finding one definitive answer is exceedingly remote. The book Kentucky Clay: Eleven Generations of a Southern Dynasty by Katherine R. Bateman covers this subject (http://books.google.com/books?id=ZxScKF_nkyUC&pg=PT45&lpg=PT45&dq=henry+clay+kidnaps+choctaw+children&source=bl&ots=p-0KypKNMf&sig=DzN1ZQLf8I2yTXJt899KMwK5qUs&hl=en&sa=X&ei=_oxNU_C5GOrNsQSkz4D4Dg&ved=0CCgQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=henry%20clay%20kidnaps%20choctaw%20children&f=false from Page 28 onwards) . The possible answers to this mystery the book provides have been compiled from witness testimonies and depositions in the various Findley court cases. Taken decades after the actual kidnappings of Chance and James, no two explanations as to how Henry Clay came to acquire the children are the same. Given this was a time before the Choctaws wrote their history down, it is unlikely there is an oral story that has been passed down through the centuries within that tribe. We would first need to know which Choctaw group the children belonged to and what part of the Choctaw territory they lived in. We’d also need to know their Choctaw names, which would not have been Chance or James  those were the names given to them by Henry Clay. Given this pivotal period of Choctaw history (the tribe’s dealing with Europeans) the story of two stolen children would have easily been lost.

Once again it’s the ladies in my family’s tree who provide an incredible detour and a truly remarkable, if not disturbing, tale. The story of Chance Findley and her descendants in Wythe County, Virginia is a multi-generational saga of the fight for freedom from an illegally imposed enslavement.

An email from Rob F, a distant relation through marriage, sent me down another rabbit hole of discovery. His email introduced me to the story of Rachel Findley, an ancestor of Mary Drew, my great-grandfather Daniel Henry Sheffey’s first wife (I’m a descendant of his second marriage to Jane White).

The family tree below charts my line’s connection to the Findley family. Please note, the Findley (aka Findlay) family is too large to include a full family tree featuring all of Chance Findley’s descendants. I’ve traced the direct line of descent for Mary Drew, noting the other children born within each generation of the Findley family for illustrative purposes.

Malinda Findley Cleaver Drew's family tree

Malinda Findley Cleaver Drew’s family tree – click for larger image

 

Rachel Findley: 12 years a slave – and then some.

So how did I come to learn about Rachel Findley?

Mary Drew’s great grandmother, Rachel Findlay, was recently honored by the Library of Virginia as part of their “Women in History” programmes. This is what Rob F wrote to me about in his email. Each year the Library of Virginia develops and distributes educational resources for Women’s History Month. The Library uses this occasion to honor women who have made significant contributions to Virginia’s history and culture. The Library honored Rachel Findley this month as one of those women. Rob F was kind enough to share the award ceremony information with me as well as particulars about the award evening.

Virginia's Women in History 2014

Why did Rachel Findley warrant such recognition? She was among a number of Findley’s descended from an illegally enslaved Choctaw Native American woman, Chance Findley, who successfully sued the Commonwealth of Virginia for their freedom.

Virginia's Women in History 2014

The hows and whys of Chance Fielding’s enslavement remain a mystery. All is known is that in the early 18th Century, one Henry Clay of Virginia brought back a Choctaw girl he called Chance and a Choctaw boy he named Frank. He enslaved both regardless of the laws of the land which prohibited the enslavement of Native Americans.

While other Findley’s legal fights for freedom were more or less straightforward – they sued the Commonwealth of Virginia, they won their cases and they were freed – Rachel’s road to freedom was a bitter one.

Rachel Findlay was born into slavery in the early 1750s in Virginia in an area that would later become Powhatan County. Her maternal grandmother Chance was an illegally enslaved Indian woman. Which meant that Rachel’s mother, Judea Findley, was also illegally enslaved. It’s presumed that Rachel’s father was an African descended slave. His name is not known. Virginia law dictated that the children of enslaved women were also slaves, so Judy Findlay and her children were born enslaved. Rachel Findlay, her brother Samuel, and her young daughter Judy sued their owner, Thomas Clay, on the grounds that because their grandmother’s enslavement was illegal, they were also illegally enslaved.

This suggest to me that Chance remembered who she was and where she’d come from in her early childhood in order to convey the injustice of what had been done to her, and her children, and her ever-increasing family. How her children and grandchildren arrived at the decision to sue for their freedom is unknown. Nor do I know what legal advice they were given or who counselled them. The General Court ruled in May 1773 that they were free. In a turn of events worthy of a Hollywood movie, the Clay family sent Rachel and her daughter Judy west before the court reached its verdict in 1774. The Clay family cynically sold them to John Draper. Draper and his family held Rachel and Judy in slavery in Wythe County.

Bill of sale for Rachel Findley and Judy Findley

Image

Rachel Findlay again filed suit in the Wythe County Court in 1813. Her suit was to obtain the freedom to which she had been legally entitled but had never known much less enjoyed. After seven years of delays and difficulties – and the transfer of the case to the Powhatan County Court- Rachel once again won freedom for herself on 13 May 1820.

Powhatan court verdict for Rachel Findely

The decades of the injustice of illegal enslavement was undone with a simple sentence. This single sentence freed Rachel Findley and Judy Findley. Image courtesy of Rob F.

Chance Findlay’s approximately forty descendants- which included her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren – were therefore legally entitled to become free too. Freedom was not automatically granted to them even in the face of the illegality of their enslavement. Several of Chance Findlay’s descendants successfully sued for their freedom. Others may have never known about the suit and its outcome, or were prevented from also suing for their freedom; regardless, they remained enslaved.

Summaries of the numerous Findley suits against the Commonwealth of Virginia can be found here:

Image

http://books.google.com/books?id=JcF6E75ZAeUC&pg=PA487&dq=rachel+findlay,+indian,+virginia&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Ml9FU9D7D8O-sQS58YGwBw&ved=0CDkQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q&f=false

Malinda Findley Cleaver Drew: 19th Century Virginia adds insult to injury

There is another side of Virginia’s history of slavery, one that further impacts on the Findley family’s history. According to Virginia law, slaves freed after May 1806 were required to leave the state within one year or face re-enslavement. Newly emancipated slaves could petition the State to remain, however, approval for such petitions was by no means guaranteed. Virginia simply did not want a large population of free blacks.

And so it came to pass that Malinda Findlay Cleaver, the grand-daughter of Rachel Findlay’s daughter Judy, was sued by Virginia for not leaving the state upon the attainment of her freedom. It’s worth noting at this point that many from the extended Findley family had left Virginia for the mid-West when they won their individual freedoms from the courts. Rachel, Judy and Malinda chose to remain. Malinda’s full case paper is available for review here:

Image

http://books.google.com/books?id=VvGRAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA238&dq=malinda+cleaver,+virginia&hl=en&sa=X&ei=NFtFU7jZDNWwsQTSy4GwDg&ved=0CC0Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=malinda%20cleaver%2C%20virginia&f=false

In the end it wasn’t the illegality of her childhood enslavement that saved Malinda from either imprisonment, re-enslavement or a fine. It was the fact that the 1806 Act, which decreed that freed slaves must leave Virginia within a year of their freedom, wasn’t ratified until many years after she’d already been freed. In other words, it wasn’t ratified until after she had been freed. Therefore, she was not bound by its conventions. She remained in Virginia where she would marry Lewis Drew, son of an old, established family of free blacks, and presided over her family.

The court proceedings didn’t serve to further enlighten me on the nature of slavery nor the injustices or corruption that were rife within it. Nor its fundamental inhumanity. I’ve been well schooled on such things already. These court proceedings, as unfortunate and as unnecessary as they were, provided invaluable genealogical information. I would go as far as to say I wouldn’t have been able to construct the Findley family tree without them. I would have known by the family name that various Findley’s were connected to one another. These papers and proceedings told me exactly how the various family groups were related to one another.

More interestingly still is the emphasis on the women. Nowhere have I been able to find information about them men who fathered four generations of Findlay women’s children. It’s not surprising if my assumption that they were enslaved men of African descended slaves is correct. These men, the sons of enslaved African women, could never have their status as slaves overturned and, as such, would be irrelevant to any court proceedings. So their existence is as much a void in the court papers as they are in the Findley family tree I’ve researched.

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5 thoughts on “50 years a slave: the Findley family’s battle for freedom in Virginia

  1. Pingback: Legislating Slavery in Virginia: Understanding William Henry Roane | Genealogy Adventures

  2. I am trying to make a full tree of Chance’s descendants. As I am going through Court Records they read that Chance was from the Catawba Tribe. Also Rachel’s Mother was Nan, daughter of Chance. It appears that the family tree in the article is somehow also derived from alternate sources than the Court Records I am finding the last couple weeks.

    • Hi Shawn,

      Its a tricky family to research. The surname spelling variations alone made it interesting, to say the least. I’ve only ever seen Chance referred to as a Choctaw. Can you send me the info you’re seeing that described her as being from the Catawba tribe?

      The other challenge is conflicting info from different sources about parentage. Some have said Nan was Rachel’s mother, others that it was Judea/ Judy. In the end, I went with the info in Malinda’s case. Happy to chat about it if you like

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