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.

Ghosts in the DNA: The lost diversity of early colonial Virginia

Source: Charles Cittie, AKA: City Point, Hopewell by Carol Tyrer via https://www.flickr.com/photos/22616393@N04/6770731109C

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:

  1. Endogamy (excessive cousin marriages down the generations) on steroids;
  2. A handful of commonly used first names that were used over and over again in many lines within an extensive, inter-connected family;
  3. Family spread over a vast region of a state;
  4. Family that spans race and/or ethnicity;
  5. One name ancestors;
  6. Ancestors who seem to disappear from the face of the earth;
  7. Unbelievable numbers of surname spelling variations;
  8. A thorough understanding of how to research enslaved people;
  9. Incredibly complicated and complex inter-relationships between every family in the region;
  10. 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;
  11. An intermediate (at the very least) understanding of genetic genealogy; and
  12. 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.

Source: County borders of Goochland County, Virginia, USA, on a map of Virginia. via https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/File:Vagoochland.jpg

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:

  1. People with at least the Pleasants AND the Woodson surnames in their tree;
  2. 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);
  3. Direct ancestors from these two lines who were in and around Varina during the time period in question;
  4. People who were direct descendants of Dr John Woods and John “The Immigrant” Pleasants;
  5. Well researched trees: everyone on these lines had to be thoroughly documented as per established best practice; and
  6. 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.

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 FamilySearch.org 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 https://familysearch.org/search/collection/1596147). 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.

GEORGE HENRY ROANE vs THE EXECUTORS OF MAJOR EDMUND CHRISTIAN’S ESTATE

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 (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/FPLQ-RYC : 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: https://familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/African_American_Freedmen%27s_Bureau_Records

In search of Leonard Wilson Roane (1874 –1912): death in the shipyard

image of Leonard Wilson Roane

Leonard Wilson Roane, circa 1900

I’ve been pretty fortunate tracing Leonard Wilson Roane, my paternal great grandfather’s, life through a rich array of digitized records. His brothers’ and sister’s descendants have also kindly provided snippets of information about his parents and his siblings. I have been blessed in that regard. Until I began this journey, I knew nothing about the Roane side of my father’s family. I’m glad to say that’s not the case any more!

So, I’ve been fortunate to uncover knowledge about my great-grandfather in a wider context. What I have found next to impossible to uncover are the circumstances of how he died.

But first thing first.

Life in Varina, Henrico County, VA

image of the Immediate family tree for Leonard Wilson Roane

Immediate family tree for Leonard Wilson Roane

Leonard was the youngest child born to Patrick Henry Roane, Sr (1833 – 1907) and Susan Price (1832 – 1892). He came from a very close and respected family who lived in in Varina, Henrico County, VA. This respected part was no mean feat considering his parents were freed slaves and his family were ‘coloreds’ living in Virginia in the Jim Crow Era. All the same, his family were respected members of the community.

His family were educated (i.e. could read and write) in a time when, regardless of ethnicity, not everyone was. By all accounts, the family lived up to the ideals the Roane surname instilled in them.

image of 1880 census return for Patrick Henry Roane

Caption: Patrick Henry Roane, Sr’s household in Varina, 1880 (Group 194) with Leonard, aged 6. Patrick’s brothers Anthony and Edmund Roane are living on the same property shared by their Smith, Allen and Waring relations. Citation: Census Year: 1880; Census Place: Varina, Henrico, Virginia; Archive Collection Number: T1132; Roll: 24; Line: 17; Schedule Type: Agriculture.

It’s only when Leonard left the family fold between 1896 and 1899 that he became somewhat tricky to find in the records. This is partly due to there being another Leonard Roane, on the white side of the family, who was born a few days before my great-grandfather – and who died a few days after my great-grandfather (bizarre or what?!).

Tricky though it may have been keeping records for these two men straight, I’ve been able to piece together a fairly straightforward narrative for Leonard.

Leonard’s Adult Life

Leonard married Julia Ella Bates, also a native of Varina, on 1 April 1896. They married in their hometown.

This part of Leonard and Julia’s story ignites my writer’s imagination. Had they been childhood sweethearts?You know, that young couple who had always known one another, grew up together, with a growing fondness for each other and deepening of feeling as they grew older. Did they exchange secret glances every Sunday at church? Did they blush when those looks were noticed by others? Were they teased by their siblings? I mention this because I can’t recall ever hearing stories of – or reading about – romantic accounts for African Americans in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. It’s very rarely broached in television shows or in Hollywood films. It’s just not part of the 19th and early 20th Century African American iconography. To be fair, it’s not an idea or ideal associated to any working class peoples, regardless of ethnicity.  Such sensibilities have more been associated with the wealthy and the elite.

I know, from the descendants of his brothers and sister, that Leonard’s parents had been childhood sweethearts. The marriages of his brothers and sisters indicate the same. I digress..

Not long after Leonard and Julia married, they moved to Newport News, VA. In the 1900 Census, Leonard is shown working at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newport_News_Shipbuilding_and_Dry_Dock_Company as a general laborer. His elder brother, Bacchus Roane, was already employed there, as were a number of their Essex County and King & Queen County Roane cousins.

The image below is a pretty fair representation of a large shipyard in the early 1900s. It certainly was a far cry from Leonard’s rural roots:

image of US shipbuilding yard, circa 1900

US shipbuilding yard, circa 1900

One of Leonard’s brothers, Wyatt Roane,  was a carrier for the Daily Press newspaper in Newport News and and didn’t live all that far from Leonard and Julia. Another brother, Patrick Henry Roane, Jr., was a nearby grocer. Leonard and Julia were pretty much surrounded by both immediate and extended family members. Again, the Roanes were a close-knit bunch.

These Roanes were part of that great early 20th Century migration which saw huge numbers of people trade their rural farming way of life for work in the industrial cities. Just like their cousins who left Virginia behind for cities in the north.

Leonard and Julia set up house at 2312 Jefferson Avenue:

image of 2312 Jefferson Ave  Newport News VA today

Sadly, the original house at 2312 Jefferson Avenue doesn’t exist any longer. The old properties were pulled down and replaced with a condominium community.

This would remain their home for the next decade. This is one of the great befits of using City Directories in your research. Here’s one of many that I’ve found for the period of 1902 – 1911 which shows Leonard and his Roane relations in Newport News:

Image of the Roane family in Newport News, VA in 1903 via City Directory

Roane family in Newport News, VA in 1903. Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.

Directories like the above, when matched to census records, can be a great help in family research and genealogy – especially when there are popular names used within a family over many generations.

My grandmother, Susan Julia Roane, arrived in 1896. She was followed by her sister Ella Bates Roane in 1899.

image of 1900 Census return for Leonard Roane's houshold

Leonard’s name misspelled and given as Lemuel on the 1900 Census. Citation: Year: 1900; Census Place: Newport News Ward 2, Newport News City, Virginia; Roll: 1735; Page: 29A; Enumeration District: 0077; FHL microfilm: 1241735.

Julia Bates Roane passed on 16 December 1901. I haven’t located a death certificate to learn the cause of her untimely death at the age of 25. Given the family dynamic of the Roanes, I am certain that Leonard and his young daughters had plenty of support from their surrounding family members.

In 1906, Leonard married Abigail “Abbie” Smith of Varina, VA. I can almost image the family conversation: ‘You need a wife and your daughters need a mother. You remember little Abbie Smith, Pleasant’s daughter? Well, …’ The 1880 Agricultural census shows Abbie and her family lived next door to Julia’s family. Talk about a small world!

Image for 1880 census return showing Ella Bates householed

Ella [maiden name unknown] Bates’s household in 1880. Citation: Census Year: 1880; Census Place: Varina, Henrico, Virginia; Archive Collection Number: T1132; Roll: 24; Page: 36; Line: 29; Schedule Type: Agriculture.

Taking another look at the 1880 Census for Leonard’s family, Abbie Smith may have also been a Roane family relation. In other words, Leonard and his family had known Abbie for years.

There were two accounts, one by my grandmother and another by my great aunt Ella, that the relationship between them and their step-mother were strained and far from cordial.

image for Leonard Roane's household on the 1910 Census.

Leonard Roane’s household on the 1910 Census. Citation: Year: 1910; Census Place: Newport News Ward 2, Newport News (Independent City), Virginia; Roll: T624_1637; Page: 4B; Enumeration District: 0081; FHL microfilm: 1375650.

Leonard made advancements at the shipyard where he became an outdoor ship machinist at some point around 1908. I was a bit curious about what, exactly, this entailed. While it required skill and acumen, it was also dirty, sweaty and very dangerous work. If you’re interested in such things, here’s a training manual I found online: http://hnsa.org/doc/machinist/index.htm . While the manual is dated 1942, I can’t imagine the trade had changed much from Leonard’s day. Reading through it was a great way to connect with my great grandfather.

image for Leonard Roane's burial

On or about 20 December 1912, Leonard died. This would have a profound effect on his two daughters.

Whether she was incapable of looking after her step-daughters, or simply didn’t want to, my grandmother and her sister were split up. My grandmother, it would seem, went into service with a prominent white family in Richmond, VA at the age of 14. Her sister Ella, aged 11, was sent to Henrico County to live with Roane relations. Evidence would suggest Ella grew up in Harrison. Five years later, Ella married into the Christian family of Harrison, Charles County, VA.

Abbie would go on to marry widower Richard Lacy, a Harrison town resident, on 15 April 1917. They married in Harrison and that is where she seems to have remained. Yes, this is the same town where her former step-daughter Ella Roane, who by this time had married Thomas Matthew Christian, also lived. I can only imagine that must have been awkward for both. It was (and remains) a small place. They were bound to have seen one another more regularly than not when in public.

Search for a death record & accident report

Naturally, I’ve asked my father how his grandfather died. All he could say is that it was a shipyard accident. It was something his mother just couldn’t bring herself to talk about.

So I decided to do some sleuthing. Three years later and I have zilch. I’ve thrown everything I could think of at solving this one and have come up empty handed. But I can tell you just about everything about how the other Leonard Roane died. Family research does that sometimes.

I’ve put Ancestry.com and FamilySearch through their paces using all manner of esoteric search tricks….and nothing.

I’ve searched using every online news archive service available…and nothing. I figured a shipyard death would get at least a few lines in the local press. And then, when I thought about how many men died at shipyards at the turn of the 20th Century, I did feel kind of naïve.

I’ve used every combination of:  his name (including variations) + machinist death(s) + shipyard death(s), December 1912 +Newport news + Virginia + Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company that you could think of…and nothing.

Google Books…nothing.

And nothing on the online vital records service sites.

So I’ve had two last rolls of the dice. Both of them longshots. I’ve emailed the Clerks Office in Newport News enquiring if his death certificate exists, and, if does, how to obtain a copy. This is the most likely of the two options to return a result.

As a backup, I’ve emailed the Newport News Shipyard enquiring whether there is an accident report and/or company account of Leonard’s death. OK, so the likelihood that 1) a report/enquiry was done, and 2) that a 102 account or record still exists in the company archive is remote. Very remote. But I’m a big believer in ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’.

So we’ll see if either of these avenues provides any answers.

This information vacuum is all the more interesting in light of the obituaries for his brothers, which follow below. Again, it’s worth bearing in mind that obituaries for African Americans at this time were rare:

Patrick Henry Roane, Jr

image of Patrick Henry Roane Jr obituary

7 February 1907 obituary for Patrick Henry Roane, Jr.in the Daily Press. Courtesy of The Library of Virginia http://www.virginiachronicle.com Original available via http://virginiachronicle.com/cgi-bin/virginia?a=d&d=DP19070215.1.3&srpos=1&e=——190-en-20-DP-1–txt-IN-roane—-1907

Wyatt Roane

image for Wyatt Roane's obituary

22 March 1907 obituary in the Daily Press. Courtesy of The Library of Virginia @ http://virginiachronicle.com Original available via http://virginiachronicle.com/cgi-bin/virginia?a=d&d=DP19070322.1.3&e=——-en-20–1–txt-IN—–

Josephine Roane (sister-in-law, wife of Bacchus Roane)

image for Josephine Roane's obituary18 February 1909 obituary for Josephine Roane in the Daily Press. Courtesy of The Library of Virginia @ http://virginiachronicle.com Original available via http://virginiachronicle.com/cgi-bin/virginia?a=d&d=DP19090218.1.3&e=——190-en-20–1–txt-IN-josephine+roane—-#

In closing, I can’t help but note that Leonard, Wyatt and Patrick, Jr. all died tragically premature deaths. Leonard was dead at 38, Patrick at 44 and Wyatt at 38. Bacchus was 50 when he died – by Roane standards that was still quite young. Like their relations in Baltimore and Philadelphia, Leonard and his brothers life expectancy was cut by a third when compared to other male Roane relations who remained in the countryside.

However, to leave on a positive note, the obituaries above illustrate just how well thought of my Roane ancestors were.

Digging deeper with Census Records: Part 2

Scanning the Census Records: The Roanes of Essex County, VA (1870)

So picking up where I left off regarding George Henry Roane and his origins in Virginia…

The slave owning Roane’s tended to keep their African-American family members close to them. While we don’t know how George Henry Roane is related to the white Roane family, he is cited as a ‘colored family member’ in their family bible. So it seems odd that he and his sons should be sold away from both the black and white Roane family. I’ve tried researching the assumption that John Warren, the man he was sold to, was related to the Roanes, perhaps through marriage. This has yet to be proven.

Putting the reasons of why he sold to John Warren to one side, where did George Henry Roane come from? The best starting point was to search for his siblings in the 1870 Census records for Virginia. To make an educated determination there were a few criteria than any county would have to match. It would need to cite the names of George Henry Roane’s siblings: Absalom, Mary, Braxton, Baylor and Charles – or have their descendants residing there. It would also more than likely have Richard Roane living there too – or his descendants if he had died.

It’s come to be accepted that my great-great-great grandfather George was born in Williamsburg, Virginia. His death certificate seems to confirms this. A scan of Williamsburg in the 1870 census didn’t show any of the names I was searching for that are associated with him. Indeed, there were only a handful of African-American Roanes living in Williamsburg in 1870.

So if his adoptive Varina, Henrico county, VA couldn’t provide clues about his missing family, and his birthplace of Williamsburg, VA couldn’t provide any clues – I’d have to check other Roane family strongholds in Virginia to find them.

I believe I have found his lost siblings in Essex County, VA.

The Essex census return for 1870 follows below:


Line 235 shows an Absalom Roane. A Baylor Roane appears in Line 268 with a Mary Roane residing in the same household (given their respective dates of birth, I believe this is a nephew and aunt). A Charles Roane appears in Line 290. Thusfar, only Braxton hasn’t been located. Given their proximity to one another, there is definite a close family relation between Absalom, Baylor, Charles and Mary. Dates of birth may provide some basic clues about the exact nature of those relationships.

Bearing in mind that George Henry Roane was born around 1805, Absalom, Baylor and Charles could either be George’s (much) younger brothers or his nephews. I’m hedging a bet that they are George’s nephews – each one named for a father who was George Henry Roane’s brother. In other words, Absalom, Baylor and Charles were cousins. Mary, born in 1815, would be George’s sister.

This census return is the only census return in 1870 Virginia that has the names Absalom, Charles, Baylor and Mary not only living in the same county…but quite close to one another. The same census also cites Richard A Roane’s children. While not definitive proof, the evidence is pretty compelling that this is the county George Henry Roane left behind when he was sold to John D Warren in Varino, Henrico County, VA…who literally lived on the other side of the state.

However, I’m not quite finished with this census return just yet. This census return raises as many questions as it potentially answers. More about that in my next post…

Digging deeper with Census Records: Part 1

Regardless of your race, if your ancestors arrived in the US and settled in a rural region before the 1900s, census records can give you new leads in researching tangent branches of your family. Why’s that? Rural areas of the pre-industrialised US were distinct communities. In some instances, they were isolated from other areas and regions. People tended to marry others from within the same community or from neighbouring communities.

A community, usually composed of a network of relations through marriage or shared experience, was a vital support system. On the whole, people rarely left – not until the early decades of the 1900s when industrialisation and manufacturing meant jobs and pay. Whether the jobs and pay were better than those offered by rural areas is arguable. Like anything, it was probably a matter of perception. Work from dawn to dusk farming and risk being prey to the weather and being one drought away from financial ruin, or work long hours for low but secure pay.

I digress!

RECOGNISING COMMUNITIES IN GENEALOGY RESEARCH

19th Century rural communities gave individuals a sense of place and a source of identity. Life in a community was a shared experience which bound the people within it together in any number of ways. For post Civil War African-Americans in the South that shared experience was slavery. Not all southern African-Americans were slaves. There was a thriving population of free blacks in America from the very early Colonial times. However, they were in the minority. For those who were slaves and remained in the communities where they had been slaves, there were tight bonds of community which were established long before their emancipation. And these ties existed and were sustained in the decades immediately following the Civil War. And this can be seen quite clearly in the Census records (more on this later).

This process of a community bound through shared experience isn’t unique. The pioneering families of the Mid West were bound by the hardships and challenges they faced on the prairie. Immigrants to New York were bound by the harrowing experiences they faced in the early slums of that city. Fishing villages and towns all along the New England coastline shared a similar bonding experience based on the hardships and loss of deep sea fishing (and previously, whaling).

There are other glues besides collectively faced hardships which bind communities together: faith/religion, beliefs and ideals.

SCANNING CENSUS RECORDS FOR AN ENTIRE COUNTY

When I first began researching my family, I was just excited to actually find specific people in the official records. It seemed amazing that I could actually sit at my desk and see a name in a census record from 150 years ago. It never occurred to me to scan a whole town’s census returns to see if they had kin nearby. That idea wouldn’t come until later. It was just exciting to find the person I was seeking and their immediate family members.

The idea to scan a town or county’s full census returns didn’t occur to me until I reached a point where I had a large number of different family groups…and no idea about whether they were related to each other or not. When I started to scan the records for an entire county  – literally starting with the first record in the series and then scanning all the way through to the last record – I noticed two things:

    1. Family groups tended to live near to one another: brother lived near to brother, sons lived near their fathers and cousins lived near to cousins. If they married, their wife’s family also tended to live nearby…which brings me to observation #2
    2. Different family groups tended to live near the same family groups. For example, the Smith, Green, Blogg and Jones families tended to live near one another decade after decade after decade. If I wanted to hazard a guess about a wife’s maiden name, I could draw from a relatively short list of neighbouring families. These were groups bound not only by shared experiences but through marriage as well.

Looking back on this now, this seems pretty obvious. But it was a thunderbolt moment for me. In the search for individuals, I had completely overlooked the context of community and the simple yet powerful ties that bound people to one another and to a place.

So let’s start with a simple example:

EXAMPLE: GEORGE HENRY ROANE (1806-?)
Through correspondence with a newly found Roane family member, we worked out that George Henry Roane had been sold to a John D Warren in Varina, Henrico County, Virginia. George wasn’t a native of Varina, he had come from elsewhere in Virginia. The question was where. But I’ll put that question aside just for a moment.

So what did we know about George? We knew he had at least 5 siblings: Absalom, Mary, Braxton, Baylor and Charles. We also knew he had at least two children: Patrick Henry Roane and Anthony Roane. We also knew that he was mentioned in the Richard A Roane family bible as being part of the “Roane colored family”. So he was associated with Richard A Roane, owner of the Plain View Plantation, and his father, Charles Roane.

Take a look at the document below. It’s an 1870 Census return for Varina, Henrico, VA:

This return shows George and his sons Patrick and Anthony living pretty much next door to one another. There’s George Henry Roane at Line 23. His son Patrick Henry Roane (Line 24) is living with him. Patrick’s wife and children are also in residence. Anthony Roane (Line 33), George’s son and Patrick’s brother, lives two door down. Living in between these two households is the Price family. Wyatt and Rose Price are the parents of Susan Price, Patrick Henry Roane’s wife.

This is a classic example of a family group living within a community.

This particular census return is interesting for a few reasons:

    • George Henry Roane’s family are the only African-American Roanes living in Varina, Henrico, VA at this time. This means, in all likelihood, that subsequent generations of Varina-based Roanes are descendants of this branch of the family. If I come across a Varina-based Roane in the official records, and can’t immediately place them within the family tree, I know he or she shares kinship with this particular family group.
    • There are family names I would come to recognise as sharing kinship with these Varina Roanes through marriage: Wyatt, Price, Braxton and Baylor.

Subsequent census returns showed that George and his sons – and their descendants – chose to remain in Varina and Henrico County. After the end of slavery, George did not return to his native county and didn’t rejoin his siblings. It’s unclear if he restored the bonds with his siblings or if there was any communication between his family and the larger family group George was separated from when he and his sons were sold.

So where did George Henry Roane come from? More on that in the next post…

The Roane Family Tree: Virginia

I’m posting the Roane Family Tree for the African American side of the family. I would love to hear from Roanes with roots in Virginia, particularly in King & Queen and Henrico Counties.

I would like to trace descendants for:

Generation 1:
Braxton Roane
Mary Roane

Generations 2 + 3:
Patrick Henry Roane
William E Roane
Wyatt Roane
Bacchus Roane
Baylor Roane’s children
James Braxton Roane
Absalom Roane’s daughters, Judy & Kate

I’m a Roane on my paternal grandmother’s side.