Perry Sheffey: snippets of a life played out in the early years of Reconstruction

The Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records (1865-1872) has come up trumps again.  Okay, so I was looking for records for a Perry Commodore Sheffey in Wythe County, Virginia. And, of course, came across story snippets for a Perry Benjamin Sheffey in neighboring Augusta County, Virginia. Yes, both were cousin. Genealogy works that way sometimes. You want to focus on one person in particular…and another person jumps to the front of the queue. I’ve learned to roll with it.

A brief bit of Sheffey genealogy background context

My early Sheffey ancestors in Virginia have been relatively easy to research and trace. First, there were so few Sheffeys to research. Second, my Virginia Sheffey ancestors primarily resided in one place: southwestern Virginia.

On the less-melanated side of the family tree, there were 3 brothers who were the children of German immigrants: Congressman Daniel Henry Sheffey, Maj. Henry Lawrence Sheffey, and John Adam Sheffey. Only two of these brothers – Daniel and Henry – would go on to have enslaved people. This made researching my melanated Sheffeys a more straightforward task. I knew where to look for them.

Genealogy always has exceptions. My 4x great grandfather, John Adam Sheffey, is one. Typically, my melanated ancestors who were enslaved were the results of European descended slave owners fathering children with African-descended women.  My Sheffey ancestry is an exception.  John Adam Sheffey never had slaves.  Yet, of the three brothers, he is the one who had children with an enslaved woman, Jemima. Indications suggest Jemima was part of his brother Henry Sheffey’s household. While I continue to search for records to verify this, I believe she entered Henry’s household with his bride, who was Jemima’s mistress. John eventually left Wythe County, Virginia for Greene County, Tennessee.  Jemima and their children remained enslaved in Wythe.

Having only three Sheffey brothers to work with, and understanding which of them owned slaves – and knowing where they were resident between 1790 and 1840 – made my research far easier than other families I’ve researched.

Map of Augusta County

To the left is a standard map of Virginia. Staunton and Augusta County are just beneath the blue arrow. To the right is an enlarged image featuring Staunton, marked with key places where Sheffeys lived within Augusta County.

Daniel Sheffey, the eldest brother, established himself in Staunton, Virginia (see ‘A’ in the above map). Henry, the middle brother, established himself in Wythe County and neighboring Smyth County.

The geographic location for Daniel and Henry made it easier to understand why African-descended Sheffeys lived in specific parts of southwest Virginia. For instance, African descended Sheffeys in Staunton, and the surrounding area, were strongly associated with Congressman Daniel Sheffey. Those in Wythe and Smyth Counties were associated with Major Henry Sheffey. Henry, whose wife pre-deceased him, died prematurely young himself in 1824. His own children were parceled out among his family. His enslaved nieces and nephews, who are part of my direct Sheffey line, were also parceled out among the wider family. However, without a Will, I have no idea to whom they went, nor the provisions he made for them. This remains a stubborn and frustrating mystery I would dearly love to solve.

The only fly in the ointment has been a distinct lack of probate records for either Daniel or Henry. If either of these men made Wills, they haven’t been digitized, and remain in some dusty and unexplored corner…or they were lost/destroyed. Finding these Wills, and related probate records, will answer a multitude of questions.  An important genealogical question is how their African descended kin became dispersed among the European-descended Sheffey descendants and allied families in Wythe, Smyth, Staunton, and Augusta Counties between 1815 and 1850.

Back to Perry Sheffey

Perry Benjamin Sheffey was born in 1837 in Mint Spring, Augusta, Virginia (see ‘D’ in the map above) to Robert Sheffey and Esther Bates (possibly Harper – her children cited different maiden names for her on their marriage certificates). I call his family group the Mint Spring Sheffeys. They were the only Sheffeys to reside in this part of Augusta County. And, given where they lived, I presume their story began with Congressman Daniel Sheffey.

My first port of call was the 1865 Cohabitation Register for Augusta County. I found Perry, who was living on his own.  This still strikes me as strange.  He had 2 children by this point. His children and wife’s whereabouts in 1865 remain unknown. I also found his parents along with his siblings. However, unlike the cohabitation registers for Wythe and Smyth Counties, no last owner was cited for Perry or his parents. There are no further clues to be gleaned from this source.

My other go-to resource, the Freedmen’s Bank Records, also had nothing for this family.

So, as you can see, there remains quite a bit of work to do on Perry Sheffey and his family.

Freedmen’s Office Records

Perry’s story really picks up in the early days of Reconstruction in Virginia. The Freedmen’s Bureau Archives has three records for him. Each record is insightful, providing a glimpse into everyday life for freedmen and women played out against the backdrop of Reconstruction

The first record is dated 7 June 1866:

silver watch cropped

Transcript: Patrick Corbin (F) vs. Wyatt Smith (F) claims $10 is due him for which friend of Smith’s, Perry Sheffey (F), wishes to leave as security a silver watch to be forfeited if the debt is not paid in ten days from June 7, 1866 – Rec’d the watch [CB] 63323-7 (incident/Claim number).
June 19 – Watch delivered to Pat Carter – Witness O. Morris

Perry strikes me as a likable chap. He’s just the kind of mate you’d like to have if you’re in a tight spot. Here he is putting up a presumably prized possession as collateral for a friend’s debt. It’s not important whether or not the watch was expensive. Nor is it really important whether or not it held sentimental or practical value to Perry.  At the end of the day, it was his watch.

Naturally, I was curious about historical backdrop this small event played itself out against. A short article, Staunton a mixed bag of progress, problems in 1865 ( ), provides an excellent overview of Staunton, Virginia in 1865. Suffice to say Staunton, and Augusta County, were in a bad way in 1865. Swathes of Augusta County had been destroyed during the Civil War. Economic hardship was keenly felt. And, according to the article, there was a degree of lawlessness that made me think of the old Wild West. These were challenging times – and few were immune from deprevation.

$10 was quite a bit of money in 1865.  Adjusting this for 2017, $10 in 1865 would be worth around $140.00 in 2017. That puts the debt of Perry’s friend, and the value of Perry’s watch, into perspective. While it cost him in the end, Perry went out of his way to help a mate. I have to wonder how he felt about Wyatt Smith afterwards.

The second record is dated 25 April 1867:

Land complaint cropped

“Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 25 June 2014), Staunton (assistant subassistant commissioner) > image 58 of 195; citing NARA microfilm publication M1913 (College Park, Maryland: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

Transcript:  Perry Sheffey (c) lives at Stuart’s Drift, Augusta Co., complains that he rented by verbal agreement from Zachariah McChenney, a house and about 25 acres  of land then occupied by Thomas Parnell at an annual rent of $25 at 1/3 of the part possession of house to be given in March 1867 at the latest. That Parnell has not removed and says he shall not move out until the coming Fall and that meantime Perry Sheffey has been compelled at great inconvenience and loss to live in a room in Z McCherney . [Signed by McChenney] 

Note at the bottom: Directed Sheffey to notify McChenney that he required place vacated by Parnell and to report all of this office result.

I was curious about who this Parnell was. Why was he causing Perry a bit of a headache? A search in the 1860 and 1870 Census didn’t place a Parnell in Stuart’s Drift, or Augusta County. He remains a mystery.

I can appreciate Perry’s frustration.  You are freed from the bondage of slavery. You have a family you want to provide for. And, you want your slice of the American Dream – a slice you never thought you would live to see. He was free…and he planned on making the most of it. Whatever the situation was between Zachariah McChenney and Parnell, it had nothing to do with Perry. Putting myself in his shoes, I would have felt pretty salty about the situation.

It appears that Perry and McChenney knew each other very well. McChenney’s name appears in more than one of these accounts about Perry.

There is something that isn’t very obvious in this account. Yet, it’s important.  Zachariah McChenney filed this complaint on the behalf of Perry. There’s an easy answer why. Virginia’s Black Codesof 1705 and 1866 forbade people of color from filing complaints or law suits against European-descended people ( ). You were free…but with some fundamental limitations.

Freedmen Bureau records meticulously recorded racial designations. An ‘F’ appearing next to a person’s name designated them as a Freedman or Freedwoman (i.e. a formerly enslaved person). In other words, they were black/mulatto. So too the letter ‘C’ next to someone’s name to designate ‘colored’ – which also included free people of color. An absence of any letter, or the letter ‘W’ designated someone who was white. From my experience, ‘white’ was a default setting, hence it not appearing very often. Using the record above, the absence of any code letter indicates that Parnell and McChenney were both white. While Perry has a ‘C’ for colored.

Perry was a fighter. Farming was his livelihood and he didn’t seem inclined to just let things work out for themselves.  I was liking him already. I don’t know how this matter was resolved.  However, I do know that Perry can be found in South River Township in Augusta County in the 1870 Census. He’s listed as a farm laborer. That census told me a little bit more about Perry. He couldn’t read or write.

Perry Sheffey in 1870

Perry Sheffey’s household in 1870

By 1880, Perry is still a farm laborer.  However, by this Census, he can read and write.

Perry Sheffey in 1880

Perry Sheffey’s household in 1880

I have to admire his tenacity. Somehow, some way, after a day of physically grueling work, he learned how to read and write. I picture him rising before sunset to face a day of farming and all that entailed. Anyone familiar with farming knows it’s a long and grueling work day. I know I, for one, would be inclined to go home, eat, and put my feet up. Not Perry.  Bit by bit, hour by hour, he became literate. That determination is something I admire.

It’s the last Freedmen’s Bureau record that I found for him, dated 9 June 1866, that had me laughing out loud:

Perry Sheffey complaint

“Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 24 December 2014), Perry Sheffy, ; citing NARA microfilm publication M1913 (College Park, Maryland: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); FHL microfilm 2,414,653.

Transcript: Elick Johnson (F) vs. Perry Sheffey (F) lives near Bardy Brook – complains that Sheffey has two wives and one is a white woman, the other is in the County – is a public nuisance as they often live together – Mr Adam McChenney told him to mention the case.

Oh to have been a fly on the wall while this conversation was happening. It’s the writer in me. I can just imagine the hushed, scandalized, urgent tone of the person’s voice relaying this complaint to the Union officer.

Perry, it seems, was going to live his life the way he wanted to without apology. In fairness to him, the basis of this wasn’t exactly unheard of. The 1850, 1860, and 1870 Censuses for the area show quite a few households headed by women of color with multi-racial children. These were the second, “hidden” families of the European descended men in the area. I can only surmises that Perry thought if it was good enough for them, then it was good enough for him. At least he was open and honest about it. If they were all living together, as the complaint states, then it was probably a harmonious arrangement. I get it though.  It was not the done thing. And it certainly wasn’t the done thing for a man of color. Still, the cheekiness of it makes me smile.

Three tiny snippets of bureaucratic record keeping provided some depth to someone who was previously just a name among many names. Story snippets like these are worth their weight I gold precisely for that reason.



Tobias Roane: The Dark Side of Emancipation

As I mentioned in my previous post George Henry Roane: the new Freedmen’s Bureau databases on FamilySearch are incredible research tools, the various Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records databases on FamilySearch have provided a wealth of information about people from the various branches of my family. The previous post about George Henry Roane featured his fight to claim the legacy left to him in his former owner’s will.


Emancipation wasn’t something that was really covered in my history classes. It was barely mentioned. It was presented as something of a 10 minute after-thought. A footnote to the American Civil War. My classmates and I were never taught about its implementation or its repercussions, which still echo down through the ages to the present day. My history classes never discussed what it was to be enslaved for generations – for centuries, actually – and then freed overnight. Or how persons born and raised in the centuries old institution of slavery coped. It wasn’t as if this was a bad school. Far from it. It was one of the best schools in the state. Which makes this even more of a lost learning opportunity.

The way it was presented kind of ran like this: President Lincoln freed the slaves, slaves were free overnight, everyone was happy. The proof of the latter were the brief mentions of freed slaves becoming congressmen, senators, academics, businessmen and businesswomen, etc. It never really occurred to me to question just how good things were after emancipation – or what percentage of the newly freed black population it was good for.

Born at the tail end of the Jim Crow Era and segregation –I knew those good times of freedom hadn’t lasted. While I grew up in a middle class home, I knew there was a portion of the American black population who didn’t.  That’s not to say I had it easy. There are overt signs of inequality – and then there are the subtle yet equally pernicious forms of inequality. I grew up experiencing the latter. Somewhere in my teenage brain I knew there was a fundamental disconnect, a huge part of the story that was missing in terms of the post-Emancipation black experience in America. But I didn’t know what it was. I couldn’t put my finger on it. And then I stopped thinking about it altogether. Living abroad for most of my life, far away from the racial hurly burly of America, I didn’t have to think about it. An American homecoming has only served to throw this into exceedingly vivid, sharp relief.

Using the Freedmen’s Bureau database for my research, and reading hundreds of its documents, I’ve come back full circle to that disconnect in terms of American history. As a habit America doesn’t like re-visiting the dark chapters of its history. Somewhere, somehow, it was collectively agreed that ‘if we don’t talk about those things, they’ll go away. It’ll all just work itself out. We can ignore it – and it just won’t matter any more’. If I’ve learned anything, even in my time abroad, dark histories cause pain that is carried down through the generations – for the descendants of the victims as well as the descendants of the perpetrators. Just ask the Irish, the English and the Scottish. Dark chapters in history never go away. It’s 2014 and look at the race-related topics that remain in the American headlines.


So I find myself thinking of Emancipation. I find myself thinking about all those millions of newly freed people, the children of generations who had dreamed of freedom. I’ve gained an understanding that dreaming of freedom – and facing the realities of freedom head-on – are two very different things.

Just look at current world events in North Africa, the Middle East and to events in a post-Communist Eastern Europe. It’s not as though there’s a Freedom 101 course that people can take. Nor does it seem possible for there to be anything like a planned transition period for people to grasp the concept and responsibilities of freedom. Freedom for formerly oppressed and suppressed people, it would seem, is a messy business. That’s not to diminish freedom. It is a basic human right. It’s a comment on the mechanism by which a people become free. I’ve yet to find evidence of a smooth transition from a state of oppression to the state of being free and entirely responsible for one’s self and one’s actions.


Tobias “Tobey” Roane of Essex County, VA and his wife, Ainsley, are perfect examples of those lost in the chaos of Emancipation. In 1868, Tobey and Ainsley were in their Eighties. They were old. They were crippled, presumably from a life of toil as well as old age. They were also the primary care givers for their three young grandchildren. At the moment, the names of their grandchildren are unknown. Nor do I know what happened to the children’s parents.

an image of a letter mentioning Toby Roane with his family in 1866

Early correspondence about Toby Roane with his family in 1866. Citation: “Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872,” index and images, FamilySearch (, Toby Roane, ; citing NARA microfilm publication M1913, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland; FHL microfilm 2413570.

At the close of the Civil War, Toby, Ainsley and their grandchildren were forced out of their home. Presumably, their former master had no further use for them and felt no obligation towards them. As the letter below will show, this family of children and the elderly came to reside in a derelict old stable on the periphery of  land owned by John A Parker. It’s unclear if Toby and his family had a connection to Parker or to the McGuire family, Parker’s white tenants who lived in the house on the property and worked the land. Parker clearly wasn’t happy about Toby and his family residing in the disused stable.

image of letter outlining John Parker's complaint against Toby Roane

Letter dated 9 Nov 1866 outlining John Parker’s complaint against Toby Roane. Citation: “Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872,” index and images, FamilySearch ( ), Tobey Roane, ; citing NARA microfilm publication M1913, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland; FHL microfilm 2414655.

The indignity of their plight did not end there.

Parker began court proceedings to have them evicted from said derelict stable, their only refuge. Correspondence about the case follows below:

In desperation, Toby applied for relief to the local poor house via the local office for the Freedmen’s Bureau.  The letters below show how Toby and his family were turned away from the poor house solely based on race.

Toby Roane petition to enter the poor house

Toby Roane’s petition for admittance to the poor house. Letter dated- 9 Nov 1866. Citation: “Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872,” index and images, FamilySearch (, Tobey Roane, ; citing NARA microfilm publication M1913, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland; FHL microfilm 2414655.

Toby Roane's petition for admittance to the poor house. Letter dated 10 Dec 1866 -

Toby Roane’s petition for admittance to the poor house. Letter dated 10 Dec 1866Citation: “Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872,” index and images, FamilySearch (, Toby Roane, ; citing NARA microfilm publication M1913, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland; FHL microfilm 2413680.

Toby Roane's petition for admittance to the poor house. Letter dated- 24 Dec 1866 -

Toby Roane’s petition for admittance to the poor house. Letter dated- 24 Dec 1866.Citation: “Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872,” index and images, FamilySearch (, Tobey Roane, ; citing NARA microfilm publication M1913, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland; FHL microfilm 2413683.

This short series of correspondence gives a sense of the bureaucracy involved in cases like Tobey’s. The letters also evidence the prejudice he and his family faced. And, ok, I’ll say it – I don’t find any decency, much less any Christian behaviour, anywhere in this story…with the exception of Second Lieutenant Watson Wentworth. Whoever his descendants are, they should feel proud of the work their ancestor did and the personal dangers he faced in executing his duty.

I don’t know the ultimate outcome of their story. I don’t know if the local poor house came to house this family. I hope so, even it was due to being ordered to do so. It was certainly ordered to do so in the end.

I guess the obvious question would be ‘where was Tobey’s extended family?’ It’s a good question. I’m still trying to place Toby in the Roane family tree. He was of the same generation as other African-American members of the Roane family in Essex County: Spencer Roane (b. 1795), Nelson Roane (b. 1810), George Roane (b. 1810) and Randall Roane (b. 1815). The families of these men were also resident in Essex County at this time. Research hasn’t provided information about the exact nature of the kinship between these men. In the end, I think, the answer is fairly straightforward: these men had their own families to provide for in an uncertain and challenging environment.

The saddest part of this story isn’t Toby and Ainsley’s poverty, infirmity or struggle. At this point in their story they were 80 years old.  80 years. And the only part of their story I know anything about is this one sad episode. Nothing of the joys in the births of their children and their grandchildren. Nothing of their joys in being together. Just a story filled with pettiness, viciousness, uncharitable actions and rather unchristian behavior.

I’ve poured through innumerable records provided by these databases. There are uplifting and positive tales. And a few humerous ones (I’m sharing one of these in my next post). There is the other side of the coin, however – dark stories, poignant tales and tales that are simply tragic. If you were black, elderly, a child or a single woman with children, infirm or not fully physically able – freedom presented new challenges, cruelties and humiliations to be faced. There are pages and pages of petitions for relief, ledger sheets showing food and clothing being given to people who fell within the above groups. There are letters requesting travel fares to enable former slaves to leave the places where they had been enslaved in order to re-join family members in different cities, towns and states. There are also plenty of petitions to the Bureau for assistance in securing wages from employers who either couldn’t or wouldn’t pay for the labor of their black work force. And petitions for the care of newly freed orphaned children.


I’ve come away with three primary thoughts. The first is the sheer scale of the endeavor the Freedmen’s Bureau was tasked with – assisting millions of people who experienced freedom for the first time, with all the fears, challenges, hardships, institutional inequities – and hopes – that entailed.

My second thought is that a subjugated and oppressed people didn’t give up. They persisted and they fought. While freedom was far from being easy, freed slaves clearly grasped it with both hands.

The last thought is around educational opportunities. It’s the academic in me. The digitized versions of these original records are invaluable teaching tools. They come from people who experienced emancipation from all sides – freedmen, their former owners, local peoples and communities as well as the US government’s viewpoint and the viewpoint of its official representatives. Written in their own hand, their words transform Emancipation from a concept into the reality that it was. Collectively, these documents form an eloquent and articulate road map showing the journey of how the ghosts of emancipation still haunt America to this very day.

 UPDATE: dated 1 Oct 2014

It never ceases to amaze me how random events connect strangers. I received an email from Lt Watson Wentworth’s 3x great grandson, Sam N., who found this post.  He was kind enough to share some of Watson Wentworth’s history, which I’m sharing here.

“Watson was born in 1844 and orphaned by the age of 12. His father died when he was about 6 years old. He and his sister seem to have been left with relatives when his widowed mother and his three youngest siblings were all drowned in a shipwreck en route to Chicago via the Great Lakes. Perhaps the experience of insecurity stemming from these early tragedies somehow informed his work with the Freedman’s Bureau as a young man. “

George Henry Roane: the new Freedmen’s Bureau databases on FamilySearch are incredible research tools

UPDATED: 15 July 2015.  Thanks to a distant cousin, whom I’ll refer to as Mia, more information about this story has come to light. Mia spent the day in the Library of Virginia ad made some amazing discoveries.

The digitized Freedmen’s Bureau records just keep throwing up surprise after surprise. Some of these surprises have answered some questions I’ve had over the years – like how some individuals in a locality were related to one another. Other surprise record finds have relayed experiences that were tragic, poignant and, occasionally, humorous. I can’t stress this enough – if you’re an African American researching your southern Emancipation Era ancestors…the Freedmen’s Bureau records and databases are tools you need to familiarize yourself with.

As a quick re-cap, the records held by the Freedmen’s Bureau’s national office – as well as its regional and local offices throughout the American south – were produced from 1865 to 1872. I’ve seen a handful of records pertaining to people who were 100+ years old when they were freed (meaning they were born roughly around 1765) who mention their parents and grand-parents by name. One record like that can push your family’s genealogy and history back to the 1690s and the first decades of the 1700s.

These databases don’t just cover freed slaves, either. They are treasure troves that also have records for blacks who were free men and women during the time of slavery.

I’ve heavily researched the Freedmen’s Bureau’s banking records database. These were the records produced when emancipated blacks opened up bank accounts with the Bureau. In numerous cases, the names of the account holder’s parents, siblings and children appear. This is invaluable information if that ancestor’s family were split up and sold to separate owners throughout the south. This information allowed me to connect tangent lines to my family tree.

I’ve stumbled across a new Freedmen’s database on which has offered some stunning finds. The database I’ve discovered is called the Records of the field offices for the state of Virginia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands: NARA, RG105, M1913, 1865-1872. True, the database I used is specific for Virginia (here’s the link For other southern states, please see the link provided at the bottom of this post.

What can you find?

Lists, ledger entries, notes, reports and letters related to:

  • Rations for freedmen and women who were ill, incapacitated, infirm/crippled and those without employment and incapable of providing for themselves (this is a dark aspect of Emancipation I’ll be covering in my next port)
  • Medical relief to both freedmen and white refugees
  • Supervised labor contracts between planters and freedmen
  • Administered justice involving freedmen
  • Petitions to and work with benevolent societies in the establishment of schools and poor houses
  • The opening of several hospitals for the sick and infirm, schools and places of worship

My 3x great grandfather, George Henry Roane (1796-1876) is going to kick things off.


Even though he was a recognized member of the aristocratic slave-owning Virginian Roane family, George was sold to Edmund Christian in Henrico County, Virginia – and not his son-in-law, John D Warren, as previously believed. Mia is hoping to find the deed record of George’s sale to Edmund Christian.  Both of us are hoping this will provide the elusive link to the Scotts-Irish Roane who owned him. It will, we hope, shed some light on which Scots-Irish Roane was his father (March 2016 update: we now know that William Henry Harrison Roane was George’s father via 2 DNA tests).

Language around slavery is tricky to use. Americans haven’t had an honest and open discussion about slavery, its ramifications, much less its aftermath. So forgive me if I use terms which may appear inappropriate.

George was thought of very fondly by his second owner, Edmund Christian. In a Codicil of his March 1851 Will, Edmund willed George an annuity of $30 per annum for the remainder of George’s life. 1851 – a decade and a bit before the civil war. In other words, George was still a slave when Edmund left him this annuity in his will. He received the annuity due to the manner in which he had served Edmund. I’ve yet to come across anything remotely like it.

In this will, George’s children are mentioned. I knew of three children: Patrick Henry Roane (my direct ancestor), Anthony Roane and Edmund Roane. Edmund Christian’s will provided three more names: Priscilla, George and Joseph. Mia’s message about the previously unknown children was an exciting piece of information – one I was so happy that she shared with. She shared it with me pretty much as soon as she made the discovery. The will also confirmed the name of George’s wife, Eliza.

You can read a digital copy of Edmund Christian’s will and codicil below (courtesy of cousin Mia) – click the thumbnail to see the larger image.

Upon Edmund’s death, as per the terms of his will, his daughter, Edmonia, became the mistress of George and his family. When Edmonia married John D Warren, the ownership of George and George’s family appears to have transferred to him.

The relationship between John Warren, his wife Edmonia Christian Warren, George and George’s family also appears to have been a close one. Both sides seem to have held the other in high esteem. The relationship was close enough for Patrick Henry Roane, George’s son, to name his only daughter after Edmonia Warren when his daughter was born in 1871.

From what I can gather from the court documents, Edmund Christian Sr’s son William, one of the executors, died insolvent. His son, William Christian Jr, was  left to handle his grandfather Edmund’s estate. George’s payments ceased. Whether George knew this or not is unclear.  He pursued the matter of his legacy through a petition lodged with the Freedmen’s Bureau’s Richmond Field Office.

It’s worth bearing in mind that, although free, those of African descent (including those who had always been free people of color) could not bring a lawsuit against someone of European descent. Not directly. An intermediary was required. The Bureau’s Richmond Office was George’s intermediary.

Here’s one record about the case. It’s the Freedmen’s Bureau record that sparked off this whole journey of discovery about George’s case:

image for George Henry Roane's lawsuit against Christian estate

Freedmen’s Bureau, Richmond Office, correspondence re: George Henry Roane’s suite against the executors of Edmund Christian’s estate. Citation: “Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872,” index and images, FamilySearch ( : George Ronn, ; citing NARA microfilm publication M1913, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland; FHL microfilm 2414642.

My initial hunch that George won his suit was, in the end, wishful thinking. It transpired that he lost his case. The Codicil, which had bequeathed him the annual annuity, was deemed to be invalid. The documents are a bit hazy about why. It’s interesting that the defense counsel for the Christians didn’t use an insolvency argument.  That would have been the logical, the understandable, route to take. No, not a bit of it.  Instead, the Christian’s counsel went with something almost surreal: that the Codicil and annuity to George were only applicable if George were still a slave. In other words, that the annuity  had been Edmund Christian’s way of a moral reparation to a fondly remembered slave. Now that George was free, there was no longer a moral obligation to carry out the deceased’s wishes.

You can click on the images below (courtesy of Mia) to see the larger image.

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Still, what a prized find! And it all began with the discovery of one digitized record.

I was curious about how much $30 from 1868 would be worth in 2014. The answer? Approximately $750.00. I’ve used a historic standard of living value of income or wealth as a comparison. A Historic Standard of Living measures the purchasing power of an income, or wealth, in its relative ability to purchase a (fixed over time) bundle of goods and services such as food, housing, clothing, etc that an average household would buy. I feel it’s the best economic comparator to use. No matter how you cut it, $30 was a nice chunk of money in 1868.

One hint when searching these databases…use every variation of names you’re aware of. For instance, when researching the Roane side of my family, I got the best results for the whole of the family when I searched on: Roane, Roan, Rone, Rhone, Rowan, Rowen and Rowand.

Here’s a link to other vital Freedmen Bureau databases: