Nestled along the James River, Varina is a remote and quiet part of Virginia. Its vast tracts of rich farmland provide no indication that this region was once the epicenter of early colonial Virginia. Nor are there any hints that three cultures – British, Native American, and African – did more than play out parts of a deeply troubled history. They merged. That these cultures met and mixed is not in question. History books are filled with accounts of skirmishes between British immigrants and the Native American tribes who called this land home. History books also tell us of the 20-and-odd Africans who were brought to this area in 1619.
History has been, and remains, silent about how these three cultures mixed in the primordial Virginia colony of the early 1600s. This part of their shared history has yet to be told.
Genealogy Adventures aims to correct that omission.
A little bit of history first
Varina was named for Varina Farms, a plantation John Rolfe, the husband of my 12x great grandmother Pocahontas, established on the James River. It sits approximately an hour’s drive north from the settlement of Jamestown. It sits across the river from the settlement known as the Cittie of Henricus, which was wiped out by a Native American attack.
Varina had the distinction of being the county seat of Henrico in 1634 when the area was formed as one of the eight original shires of Virginia. It held that distinction until a courthouse was built in Richmond in 1752.
Richmond would emerge as a major community and port by the 1750s. An investment in land transportation in and around Richmond enabled it to eclipse Varina as a colonial epicenter. The isolated and rural Varina slipped primarily into agriculture use.
My link to Varina
A number of men in my family achieved great and notable things. Patriots, entrepreneurs, inventors, explorers, businessmen, legal geniuses, and politicians – they excelled in those things the world of men hold dear. However, it has consistently been the women in my family tree who have delivered the most genuinely jaw-dropping, totally unexpected, surprises. May I have a shout out to the ladies in our trees please!?
What I am about to relay is perhaps the most jaw-dropping moment in a pantheon of jaw-dropping moments from my family’s ancestry.
From left to right: my paternal grandmother, Susan Julia Roane Thomas Sheffey, and her parents, Julia Ella Bates and Leonard Wilson Roane, Sr
My connection to Varina is via my paternal grandmother, Susan Julia Thomas Roane. Both of her parents were born in Varina.
Granny Susie had already provided a huge reveal many years ago when DNA testing proved she was the 4x great grand-daughter of Patrick Henry. Yes, that one.
The Roane line is the oldest part of my tree. It was one of the earliest lines I research many years ago. It was a fairly straightforward line to research. Julia Bates’ line, however, was far from straightforward. I hit an impasse…and then my mother’s Old Ninety-Six, South Carolina ancestry took over, leaving Julia’s line, on my dad’s side of the tree, to languish – until a week or so ago. That was a good thing.
I had met a group of amazing South Carolina researchers who were my cousins. It was, and remains, a thrill to work as part of an active genealogy research group. And trust me, when it comes to the area formerly known as the Ninety-Six District of South Carolina, you need a group of seasoned genealogists to work with. It’s a place that throws every kind of research difficulty at you:
- Endogamy (excessive cousin marriages down the generations) on steroids;
- A handful of commonly used first names that were used over and over again in many lines within an extensive, inter-connected family;
- Family spread over a vast region of a state;
- Family that spans race and/or ethnicity;
- One name ancestors;
- Ancestors who seem to disappear from the face of the earth;
- Unbelievable numbers of surname spelling variations;
- A thorough understanding of how to research enslaved people;
- Incredibly complicated and complex inter-relationships between every family in the region;
- Knowing how to utilize a vast array of records to do the research work on enslaved ancestors – and where/how to access and find those records;
- An intermediate (at the very least) understanding of genetic genealogy; and
- Finely honed critical thinking skills.
South Carolina made me the genealogist and researcher I am today. I couldn’t even begin to think about tackling Varina without that experience and expertise. All of the above-listed points would come into play.
Susie Roane Thomas Sheffey’s roots run deep within Henrico, Charles City, Goochland, Chesterfield, and Powhatan Counties in Virginia due to complicated, multi-layered inter-connections within her white and black ancestry in this area, collectively referred to as the Northern Neck of Virginia.
When everything seems connected
Old Ninety-Six is a demanding mistress when it comes to genealogical research. After five steady years focused in this one place, I needed a break. So I decided to delve into my white Bolling ancestry in Goochland County, Virginia. Prior to removing themselves to Goochland, this line of Bollings, descended from Pocahontas and John Rolfe, were located in…Varina.
Truthfully? I was called to them.
I came across a series of Bolling lawsuits, referred to as Chancery suits in Virginia law, involving my Bolling ancestors and/or Bolling relations. The suits had to do with the disposals of various Bolling estates as part of their probate. These suits were a treasure trove of names for those my Bollings had enslaved.
It took me weeks to add the names of literally hundreds of enslaved people on my family tree in order to research them. To-date, I have traced roughly a tenth of some 500+ enslaved people down to the 1940 U.S. Federal Census. Certain surnames from the various enslaved mulatto family groups immediately lept out at me: Bolling (For obvious reasons. They were bound to be related to their white enslaving Bolling family), Pleasants, Harris, Page, Cocke, and Woodson. These surnames were threaded throughout my grandmother’s family in Varina, as well as her family in nearby Charles City County, Virginia. I asked myself an obvious question: what were the chances that these enslaved families were part of Julia Bate’s and Leonard Roane’s families?
You see, Julia’s father’s place of birth was in Goochland County…right where my Bollings were. Did they go back to Varina? Time and further research will tell.
Her mother’s people, however, had deep, deep roots in Varina. As did Susan Price, my grandmother’s father’s mother. In short, my grandmother had a double dose of Varina. Her two ancestral mulatto connections to Varina ran deep. Indeed, it looks like the Bateses and the Prices had roots in Varina for as long as there has been a Varina.
My inner bloodhound catches an exciting scent
I had one thing left to finish before I could swing my full attention to Varina. That involved researching the enslaved people freed by John Pleasants III (1698-1772), and his son Robert Pleasants, as well as looking at enslaved people freed by other members of the Pleasants family in the middish 1700s. In all, there were over 500 enslaved people who were set free by the Quaker Pleasants family, which included the Quaker Jordan family.
It took weeks to add all of the freed individuals to my family tree before I could begin to research them properly. Again, like the Bollings, certain surnames just lept out at me, particularly for those described as mulattos: Pleasants (for obvious reasons again), Woodson, and Fleming. However, this time, there were new surnames that were of interest: Crump (I had seen this name among some of the families enslaved by the Bollings), Ligon (a noted free family of colour), and Goins/Gowen/Goings (another noted free family of colour). Ligon and Goins were also names threaded throughout my grandmother’s ancestry.
These individuals are a mere fraction of the enslaved people who were to be freed by John Pleasant III’s Will. Note some of the surnames.
All of these families were living near each other from the time they were freed. This can be seen in late 18th Century tax lists in Henrico and Charles City Counties. Julia Bates’ enslaved ancestors were right there among them, and marrying them, by the time of the 1870 U.S.Federal Census.
I actually had chills. The hairs on my arms and the back of my neck literally stood up. And yes, I had goosebumps too. I was on to something. I had actually caught a whiff of something exciting.
It was Varina or bust.
Genealogy CSI Cold Case style
Something pulled me back to the Woodson family. The reason why took less than a day to materialize. I found a Dr. John “The Immigrant” Woodson who arrived in Jamestown around 1622. John and his wife, Sarah, would first reside at Flowerdew Hundred on the James River. After surviving an attack by neighboring Native Americans, who attacked after men from Flowerdew Hundred tried to steal their corn supplies, John and Sarah would go on to build a house known as Curles Neck further up the James.
In 1623, John and Sarah were documented as having six unnamed Africans in their household.
Six Africans in 1623. Why is that significant? The first Africans to arrive in Virginia, 20+ of them, arrived in 1619. There are no other known Africans arriving in Virginia between 1619 and 1623. Hence academics believing that six of the twenty-and-odd Africans were in John Woodson’s household. Others were with John Rolfe, the Piersey family, the Yeardly family, and the West family.
DNA, enter stage right
I apologize that has taken some time to get to this point. I had to step you through the various stages, from the beginning to this point, in order for what follows to even begin to be credible or plausible…much less believable.
My next step was to dig around in and amongst my DNA matches.
Due to extreme endogamy on the white side of my tree, I am already connected to the Pleasants, Woodson, Yeardly, Rolfe, Piersey, West, and Ligon families. If I had any doubts, DNA matches with descendants of two more families – Farrar and Michaux – sealed the deal. Those last two additional families are closely allied with my Pleasant and Woodson lines.
Very short snippets of shared DNA suggest that neither the Michaux or Farrar lines were among my direct ancestral lines. These two families were cousin lines. I share less DNA with them than I do with all the others listed. Nor do I share DNA with all Michaux or Farrar descendants. So far, I only share DNA with descendants of those who married Woodsons, Pleasants, and the families these two families married into.
To kick things off, I poked around my AncestryDNA matches. I had a set criteria list of what I was looking for:
- People with at least the Pleasants AND the Woodson surnames in their tree;
- Multiple people with each of these surnames in their direct ancestry (1, 2, or 3 people in their tree with these surnames wasn’t going to cut it);
- Direct ancestors from these two lines who were in and around Varina during the time period in question;
- People who were direct descendants of Dr John Woods and John “The Immigrant” Pleasants;
- Well researched trees: everyone on these lines had to be thoroughly documented as per established best practice; and
- Had no African DNA showing in their results (this last one was harder than I thought. It turned out that around 20% of my matches who met the first five criteria had trace amounts of sub-Saharan DNA).
I had 14 matches who met all 6 criteria. My Dad? He had 23!
Here is one of my matches:
In terms of my tree to-date, the Woodson and Pleasants families should also be cousin lines. I have no known direct ancestors from either family. One approach to investigating this was analyzing centiMorgans (cMs) with people who identify as white and were descendants of both families. cMs denote the size of matching DNA segments in autosomal DNA tests. Segments which share a large number of cMs in common are more likely to be of significance and to indicate a common ancestor within a genealogical timeframe.
Based on the length of centiMorgans (cMs), DNA strongly suggests a shared common ancestor between me and a group of people who were kind enough to share their DNA information with me. Caveat alert: I used the very unscientific Gedmatch.com to do an initial analysis. What I am suggesting requires a full scientific study in order to disprove or prove what I have initially found.
On average, excluding Farrar and Michaux descendants, the others and I share between 2.0 to 3.3 cMs on an average of 7 chromosomes. Yes, those are small shared DNA lengths. Some may very well be false positives (something you have to be mindful of when working with small lengths like these). Interestingly, while small, our shared DNA overlap in the same chromosomes within the comparison group of people. I am the only one showing African DNA, the others come up as European. For the real DNA eggheads out there, our SNPs run between 234 and 640. Again, this is small, but not easily dismissible. The amount of shared DNA aligns with a timeframe between 1630 and 1690, which suggest either children and/or grandchildren who carried both African and European DNA from this community.
There are any number of reasons why I might have these matches. Too many to go into here. Whatever you can think of to ask, trust me, I have pondered it and asked both myself and others. In the end, it boils down to the most straightforward answer: while we may never know all of the names of the Africans who arrived in Virginia in 1619 – we can begin to identify their DNA. That, in and of itself, would be awesome.
So what am I left with?
At this stage, there is nothing definitive that I can say. This requires a robust and controlled scientific study.
But I am not surprised at what I think my DNA is pointing to. There were 20+ Africans who were either indentured servants, enslaved, or a combination of the two – meaning not all 20+ Africans were one thing or another.
Note: Colonial Virginia plantations along the James River. Julia Bates’ family has connections with the majority of them, all up and down the river.
Their story and fates were tied to those of the white families they were held by, either temporarily or permanently. Like the white households they were a part of, they went up and down the James River during this early period of colonial Virginia’s history. Which means the DNA of these Africans also went up and down the James River. And mixed with that of the British who held them…And the Native Americans who were also enslaved by the British during this time period.
Everything in my being is saying to me that the mulatto Pleasants, Woodsons, Wests, Flemings, Harrises, Pages, Cockeses, and Ligons in this part of Virginia are a mixture of some of the Africans who arrived here in 1619, the white families who settled this regions, and some of the Native Americans who were also enslaved by the same families.
A whole lot of Americans will be genetically linked to this mix of people, this ghosted chapter in our collective history.
Now all I need to do is intrigue the right scientists out there to undertake the mother of all American genetic studies. Little old Varina is hiding one heck of a bombshell when it comes to amazing historic discoveries.
The Genealogy Adventures team has always believed in one fundamental idea: that as a society increases its understanding of its collective history, it might be able to get past the constructs of race, ethnicity, culture, and so on – all of the man-made constructs that divide us – and begin to realize that through our innumerable life stories and shared experiences/histories…that we we just might have more in common than we think.