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 (http://www.newsleader.com/story/news/history/2015/12/04/staunton-mixed-bag-progress-problems/76801420/ ), 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 (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-DRQG-R4?cc=1596147&wc=9LMK-923%3A1078522902%2C1078525001 : 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 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Codes_(United_States ). 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 (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:FPGR-7WY : 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.

 

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Ancestry.com DNA test answers one fundamental question

In my previous post Using the right DNA testing tool to answer the right ancestry question (https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/2014/05/28/using-the-right-dna-testing-tool-to-answer-the-right-ancestry-question/ ) I cover the importance of being clear about what you want to achieve through DNA testing.

For me, I have persistent gaps in my genealogy. Ancestry.com’s DNA test is the second DNA I’ve taken. I did it in the hopes that it would help solve some of these persistent gaps in my family’s genealogy.

Well…my Ancestry.com DNA test results came in the other day! And to say it answered one fundamental question is a bit of an understatement. That question was whether or not my family were Sheffeys by blood or by close ties with their former slave masters. I am going to put my hand up and say that over the past three years I had my doubts that we were Sheffeys by blood. It wouldn’t change my outlook on being a Sheffey if we weren’t. It’s just a thing that would be nice to know.

Jemimah Sheffey, born around 1770 in Virginia, is my earliest discovered African-descended ancestor on the Sheffey side of the family. I knew she wasn’t a Sheffey by blood. It all came down to the identity of the father of her children. It’s still not 100% clear which German-descended Sheffey owned her. The German-American Sheffey family history in Virginia made it very easy to narrow down the possible candidate for the potential father of her children – born between 1800 and 1815 – if indeed any of them were. It could only be one of three second generation German-American Sheffey brothers: Daniel Henry Sheffey, Major Henry Lawrence Sheffey and John Sheffey.

image of Johann Adam Sheffey family group

Johann Adam Sheffey family group

Daniel Henry Sheffey seemed the most likely candidate at first. He was a slave-owner. And, after all, my 2 x great grandfather, Daniel Henry Sheffey, was named for him by his father, Jacob Sheffey (Jemimah’s son). He was also a slave owner. Daniel was my strongest contender. His brother Henry, also a slave-owner, was just as viable a candidate. I always discounted Henry, however. I can’t explain it. For whatever reason, in my mind and in my gut, he was out of the frame.

Last up was their younger brother John. I always discounted John. While he’d been (and remains) difficult to track through digitized records, he never owned slaves. That much I did know. Other than that, I knew that John just up and left either Frederick, Maryland (the home of his) or Virginia (the home of his brothers) for Greene County, Tennessee. I can’t even tell you when, exactly, he left for TN. All I can say with any certainty is that he left MD or VA for TN sometime between 1820 and 1828, the year he married Margaret O. Thompson in Greene County, TN.

There was another problem with John…his date of birth. In innumerable family trees, his marriage certificate and on his tombstone, his year of birth is given as 1804. Jacob Sheffey, my 3xgreat-grandfather, was born in 1800. So you can see the problem. However, I always knew John’s attributed year of birth was incorrect.

imageof John Sheffey's resting place in Greene County, TN

I’d already found him in the 1790 census as a minor living with his parents and two of his sisters.

image of ohann Adam Sheffey household in Frederick, Maryland in 1790

Johann Adam Sheffey household in Frederick, Maryland in 1790

His father, Johann Adam Sheffey, died in 1793. His mother, Maria Magdalena Loehr Sheffey, would have been 65 years old in 1804. Basic math and the laws of time and biology makes the year of 1804 impossible as the year of his birth. Yep, another mystery on how that year became his ‘official’ year of birth!

I don’t know how close John was to his brothers. The deep, brotherly affection shared between Daniel and Henry is well-documented. The letters, public accounts and biographies I’ve read for both men never mention John. Never. Their three sisters – Catherina Sheffey Brengle, Elisabeth Sheffey Geyer and Mary Sheffey Guyton – also have easily discoverable profiles online. They were written about and their family histories and genealogies are covered in great detail. John? It’s as though he simply didn’t exist from the family’s perspective.

So, I always discounted John. Well, I shouldn’t have. As it turns out, he is my 4 x great-grandfather.

Ancestry.com breaks down your cousin matches by generation. As it turns out, I have 30 or so 4th to 6th cousins who have also taken the same DNA test. Out of that number, 18 or so have made their family trees publicly accessible. After the first dozen or so glimpses at these distantly-related cousins and their family trees, I came across a small group of people who had ancestors from the Sudwestpfalz, Rheinland-Pfalz region of Germany. This is the same region where Johann Adam Sheffey (Scheffe) – the father of John, Henry and Daniel – left to come to America. However, I didn’t recognize any of the surnames in these cousins’ trees (I’ll have to work that out later!)

Nonetheless, I started to get excited. That specific region of Germany was indicating that there was indeed a blood-link to the German-American Sheffeys. However, I needed more proof to seal the deal.

That proof I needed came with cousin matches 23, 24 and 25. I saw the names Cochran, Susong and Thompson in these family trees. And there’s only one Sheffey lineage where those names appear: John Sheffey’s. These were his descendants. Indeed, among all of my many branches on both sides of my family, there is only one place where these names converge – in association with John.

The combination of factors that led to this discovery are mind-blowing to me. For one, it relied on John’s descendants joining Ancestry.com and building comprehensive family trees. Secondly, that they made those family trees public (too many people don’t!). Lastly, that a handful of these descendants went on to take the ancestry.com DNA test. The combination of these three random factors was so perfect that they easily could have never happened.

It was a jaw-hitting-the-floor moment.

It figures that my 4x great-grandfather would be the one son of Johann Adam Sheffey that I knew the least about. His public profile was on a different scale from his brothers. His life isn’t that well document. I also haven’t met many of his descendants online…although I hope that will change. I’d love to know more about his life. And hopefully answer the question of why he so abruptly departed for TN. Although I now have a pretty strong suspicion. 😉

Interestingly, James Frank Sheffey Sr, an African American Sheffey born in Virginia around 1840, was resident in District 1 of Greene County in 1880 with his family. A coincidence? Or did he know? Of all the counties in Tennessee, why Greene County? James stubbornly refuses to find his place in the Sheffey family tree. I can’t find his parents’ names for love nor money. It does raise the interesting prospect that my Sheffey ancestors had full knowledge of their Sheffey roots. Knowledge that somehow got lost over time.

I’d love to know if there are any images of John. The African-descended Sheffey men tend to all bear a remarkable similarity with one another. I mean it’s uncanny how much we look alike. No matter which branch of the family that descends from Jacob Sheffey…there is an instant recognition and we and our families end up saying the same thing: “Yep, you’re a Sheffey”. Will we see ourselves in John?

For now, I’m basking in the afterglow of discovery and confirmation. And I am SO grateful that the year’s I’ve spent researching the Scheffe family in Germany wasn’t for nowt!