Cuffy Pleasants: A journey from slavery to freedom in 1772

An essential aspect of genealogy is the acceptance, more than understanding, that the ancestors will not let us be. It is as though the very act of researching the ancestors is akin to approaching a still lake with a serene and undisturbed surface which provides no inkling or clues to its depth.

Diving into that pool, and disrupting that flat surface, sends ripples and rings that flow outward in all directions. That act of disruption, and the tandem ripping rings, act as calling cards to the ancestors. Once you begin the research, and the names, histories, and stories of unknown or long-forgotten ancestors are re-remembered (I say re-remembered for they were known and loved before their names were lost to us), that act of discovery shoots out like those ripples across a pond. They are a calling card, an invitation to ancestors and kin keen to have their names spoken once more; keen to have their stories told.

You never know which ancestor or kinsperson will answer that call.

Julia Ella Bates Roane of Varina, Henrico County, Virginia

Julia Ella Bates Roane, my paternal grandmother’s mother, pulled me in to researching my Varina, Henrico County, Virginia roots. This research now encompasses the part of Henrico County along the James River, as well as neighboring Charles City and Goochland Conties.

Julia’s Bates ancestry is inextricably entwined and connected to the major estates dotted along the James River: from Chatsworth in the northwest quadrant; down to Curles Neck, Varina, Bermuda Hundred, Flowerdew Hundred and Bremo in the centre quadrant; over to Turkey Island in the eastern quadrant; and finally down Shirley and Westover to the south.

Julia’s Bates line, it would seem, were always in Varina – going all the way back to Piersey’s Flowerdew Hundred and John Rolfe’s Varina in the 1620s. A combination of records and DNA matches confirm this. This is the part of her history I am currently tackling.

Enslaved, her family’s history is linked to that of their enslavers: a complex, multi-layered succession of marriages between the enslaving Quaker Bates, Price, Jordan, Fleming, Woodson, and Pleasants families. The Bolling, Tarl(e)ton, and Crump family also feature in her Bates family history. Her ancestors and kin were passed between these closely inter-related families up and down the James River, into Goochland County, Charles City County, Prince Edward County, and Chesterfield County. DNA has provided ambulance evidence these families were not just the enslavers of Julia’s family. They were also her family’s blood relations. However, as the saying goes, that’s another story for another day.

My embarkment into this odyssey of discovery led me to a rather poignant discovery.

I had traced one of Julia’s kinsmen’s group to John Pleasants III (1698-1772) – the Quaker convert whose Will rocked Virginia’s elite. He freed nearly 1,000 enslaved people in a Will due to an act of religious conscience. To be clear, only those enslaved people who were 30 years old, or older, were immediately freed from the bondage of slavery. All those under the age of thirty had to wait until they were of that age to be freed. I have no idea, at this point in my research, why thirty years of age was the magic number. It was, and that’s kind of that.

Researching some of the newly liberated people brought me to Cuffy, a man whose descendants I share DNA with on a number of chromosomes. His line was one of the first I have successfully traced down to the present day.

Freeing so many enslaved people, many of whom were in the possession of John Pleasants’ immediate family, was bound to be problematic. In this case, his dying wish led to a court case: Pleasants vs Pleasants (https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/VIRGINIA_In_the_High_Court_of_Chancery_MARCH_16_1798) This court case has been the only place where I learned the names of the enslaved people held by John Pleasants, as well as their age and/or year of birth.

It is where I found Cuffy:

Cuffy Pleasants, listed with some of his known siblings and extended family members. Aged 26 in 1799, we can determine his year of birth was around 1769. Since he was over the age of 30, at the time of John Pleasants’ death, he was freezing immediately. The lawsuit also states where he was at the time of John’s death: with John’s son, Samuel Pleasants, in Henrico County, Virginia. Click for larger image

I can’t explain what it was about Cuffy that called out to me. Was it because he was the only Cuffy in a staggering list of enslaved people’s names? Perhaps. Something did call out to me…and I followed.

I had a distinctive name to research. I knew where he was around 1799/1800: with Samuel Pleasants in Henrico County. I also had an approximate year of birth for him: 1769. Let’s face it, for those of you who have followed my work over the years, I’ve had far less information to work with than this, and made some remarkable discoveries. I didn’t just jump into the proverbial lake: I did a cannonball.

Armed with what I knew, it didn’t take me long to find Cuffy.

The natural place to start were the 1790s and early 1800s tax lists for Henrico County. It was the logical place to begin my search. It was the county of his birth. It was the place he knew intimately. It was where his roots were – as well as his family.

In the image above, Cuffy (Cuff) was counted as a tithable (taxable, in other words) adult in 1783.

In 1801, Cuffy is once again a free landholder, and paying taxes in his own right. At this stage of my research, his one tithable is his son, Cuffy Pleasants, Jr.

As of 1801, Cuffy is now known as Cuffy Peasants. DNA strongly suggests he was a Pleasant by blood. By which he didn’t take the name because he was enslaved by the Pleasants family, or liked the name. He took the name he was biologically entitled to take.

He is also living near some of his siblings and their children.

In 1803, Cuffy’s taxable estate includes a horse. Cuffy, Jr was the head of his own household at this point. The other Pleasants listed in the image above were his brothers.

1813 is the last time I see Cuffy in the Henrico tax list. However, this isn’t the last record for him.

The 1810 US Federal Census for Henrico County. Cuffy is the third name up from the bottom of the list. Click for a larger image

Cuffy’s online record turns cold in 1813. It will take a trip to Virginia to access the records for the Free Negro and Slave Records, 1789-1865 Henrico County (Va.) records. As a free person of color, Cuffy would have been legally obligated to formally register as such. These records will (hopefully!) have more information about him, his children, and his extended family.

My “go to” resource for researching free people of color, Paul Heinegg’s superb Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina: From the Colonial Period to About 1820 is quiet on the Pleasants family. They are a family he either hasn’t researched, or hasn’t published information about.

I’m not going to lie. I became more than a little emotional with Cuffy’s journey. Tears started to well up when I saw that 1803 tax list. He was taxable on a horse…but it was his horse, which he had on his land. Which was more than he would have ever had had he remained enslaved.

He toiled on his land, and reaped the benefits of his own labor – rewards which wouldn’t automatically go to anyone else. He could put his hands into the rich earth and know that it was his, and would be the land of his descendants. He could have been as poor as a church mouse financially, but he was rich in ways I won’t be able to fully, really grasp. He was free – something that he couldn’t have ever envisioned or for seen for himself throughout his life, until a Will probated in 1772 said he was.

In this regard, he must have felt as rich as the ancient king, Croesus.

3 thoughts on “Cuffy Pleasants: A journey from slavery to freedom in 1772

  1. I am so glad Cuffy was free! And with a horse and some land. I know when I read my 2x great grandfather’s ag. census for 1880, it gave me such a feeling of… I don’t even know how to describe it.

    • I’ve thought about my reaction for quite a while. It dawned on me that what moved me so much about Cuffy was those early tax lists showed he’d claimed his slice of the American promise. It didn’t matter that his was a very modest slice. It was his, and he wouldn’t have had it had he remained enslaved.

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