Martha Ann Fowler Hill: Smashing genealogy walls with the correct maiden name

Martha Fowler Hill is an important linchpin in my black Wythe Sheffey family story in the township of Speedwell, Wythe County, Virginia. And while this post is really about her daughter, Martha Ann, Martha certainly had her role to play in this interesting discovery.

Image of map location for Speedwell Township, Wythe County, Virginia

The red pointer marks the location of Speedwell, Wythe County, Virginia. It is a very, rural and sparsely populated area of southwest Virginia.

Two of her daughters had children by two of my 2x great grand uncles. Mary Ellen Hill married Iazwell Sheffey. And her sister, Martha Ann, had William Royal Sheffey Hill with Iazwell’s brother, James Zachariah Mitchell Sheffey.

Martha Fowler Hill’s son, John Joseph Hill, also married a Sheffey cousin, Laura Elizabeth Carpenter.

Suffice to say that roughly half of Martha Fowler Hill’s children married Sheffey family relations in Speedwell. Discovering her ancestry shed some interesting light on the Sheffey story in that part of Wythe County,

When it came to researching one Martha Ann Hill, I kept coming up against one very formidable wall. I just couldn’t find any information about her. Not for love nor money. And there was a very good reason for that. Her maiden name wasn’t Hill. It was Fowler. That Fowler name was like a sledgehammer, no, more of a battering ram, which obliterated that wall of silence…and allowed me to sprint past 1849 (the year of Martha Ann Hill’s birth) back to 1760, the year her grandfather, Granville Fowler, was born.

So why had I spent years looking for a Martha Hill? That was how she was listed on two of her children’s marriage certificates. And a child’s death certificate. Her children weren’t wrong. Far from it.

image of William Royal Sheffey Hill's marriage index record

William Royal Sheffey Hill’s marriage index record. His mother is listed as Martha Ann Hill. Source Information Virginia, Select Marriages, 1785-1940 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc, 2014.
Original data: Virginia, Marriages, 1785-1940. Salt Lake City, Utah: FamilySearch, 2013.

And this is pretty much where I remained with her for the past five years. Thanks to the ceaseless efforts of Angela, a distant cousin of mine, she uncovered additional marriage certificates which shed some light on Martha Ann. It all had to do with her mother, who was another Martha (just to make things that touch more confusing).

Martha Fowler gave Martha Ann her rightful maiden name – Fowler.

I had long suspected, but had no proof, that Martha Ann Fowler was a free woman of color. Armed with her correct maiden name, there she was in the 1860 census (although the name is spelled incorrectly) with her mother, her siblings, an aunt and two cousins.

An image of the 1860 Census with Mary Ann Fowler

Mary Ann Fowler in the 1860 Census. Source Citation Year: 1860; Census Place: District 68, Wythe, Virginia; Roll: M653_1385; Page: 968; Image: 327; Family History Library Film: 805385 Source Information 1860 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.

Mary Ann most definitely started life as a Fowler. And a child of a free woman.

While Martha Ann is absent in the 1850 census (which leads me to question her actual year of birth), her mother, Martha Fowler, is certainly accounted for.

An image of Martha Fowler in the 1850 Census

Martha Fowler in the 1850 Census.
Source Citation Year: 1850; Census Place: District 68, Wythe, Virginia; Roll: M432_982; Page: 251B;      Image: 99 | Source Information 1850 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.

The image above shows Martha Fowler (Martha Ann’s mother), with her mother Rosanah Dicy Fowler, as well as her siblings (Martha Ann’s aunts and uncles) and her oldest children.

Martha Fowler’s mother, Rosanah Fowler, born around 1792, had also been born free.

Martha Fowler would come to marry Joseph James Hill from Cripple Creek, Wythe County, Virginia. Whether they were married or we common law husband and wife is unclear. I can’t find a marriage certificate for them. However, with African American genealogy, that doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t married. It only means that if they were officially married, it wasn’t registered. Or the record simply became lost over time. or hasn’t been digitized. This presents an issue.

All of Martha Fowler’s children were born with the surname of Fowler. However, at some point after 1860 and before 1870, all of her children took the Hill name.  Was Joseph Hill their biological father? Or did he unofficially (or even officially) adopt them?

He appears on more than one marriage certificate for Martha Fowler’s children. Below is the marriage record for daughter Malvina Hill:

Marriage details for Malvina Fowler-Hill.  Source Information Virginia, Select Marriages, 1785-1940 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc, 2014. Original data: Virginia, Marriages, 1785-1940. Salt Lake City, Utah: FamilySearch, 2013.

Marriage details for Malvina Fowler-Hill.
Source Information Virginia, Select Marriages, 1785-1940 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc, 2014.
Original data: Virginia, Marriages, 1785-1940. Salt Lake City, Utah: FamilySearch, 2013.

If he wasn’t the biological father of Martha Fowler’s children – or at least the father of all of them – her children certainly thought of him as their father. Only a DNA test from this family line can confirm a biological link.

So now I have Martha Ann’s family tree:

Martha Ann Fowler Hill's family tree

Martha Ann Fowler Hill’s family tree

I had to laugh at this point. Black American genealogy is difficult enough. Name -swapping to this degree made a challenging task even more challenging. I’m happy I stuck with it. And I’m even happier that I have cousins just as keen as I am in unraveling family history…and sharing their discoveries. I owe Angela quite a bit for this stunning lead.

The story of these women didn’t end there.

What I soon discovered was a history of generations of free mulatto women who, while not married to them, raised children with white men. It’s been kind of interesting to see these men listed in one census return with their wives and children – and then listed again in another census return for the same year with their mistress and the children they had by them.

Uncovering Martha Fowler’s correct maiden name is also shedding light on the community of free people of colour in and around Speedwell, Wythe, VA. At this stage in my research, it looks as though this community had been long established by the 1790s. Within it were names from other branches of my Sheffey family tree that I knew very well: Carpenter, Brown, Robinson, and Gannaway. All of these families were free people of color and had been since at least the 1750s (for the Browns and Carpenters) and the 1680s (for the Gannaways).

At this stage in researching this line, I do have one fundamental question. How did a relationship between a free woman of color and enslaved men work?  Iazwell and his brother James were both enslaved. Mary Ellen Hill and Iazwell Sheffey married in 1870, a few years after the close of the Civil War. However, there are hints that they had a relationship before the outbreak of the Civil War.

Her sister Martha Ann Hill had one child with James ZM Sheffey before the end of the Civil War – William Royal Sheffey Hill (born 1864). With a free-born mother, William would not have been born a slave, unlike the majority of his half-siblings. James ZM Sheffey had a number of children with women who were also slaves. All of these children were born enslaved.

It was a situation that must have made for a challenging family dynamic. And this was by no means a unique situation. It was a family dynamic repeated throughout the southern states.

How would a relationship between a free woman of colour and an enslaved male work? Did they have visitation rights? Probably so, if the years of birth of their children are anything to go by. I also suppose it was completely at the enslaved person’s owner whether or not these visits could happen, as well as their frequency and duration. How much access to their fathers did the children of such unions have? And what did they think of the situation? Did it shape how they viewed their fathers?

Did it really matter? Given the number of mulatto children with absentee white fathers, would it have been materially any different to have had a father who was absent due to his slave status?

I have a lot of social as well as practical questions where this arrangement is concerned. As if you couldn’t guess. 😉

My take-away is this: Finding women’s (true and correct) maiden names can be tricky but essential. It’s worth bearing in mind that the name you see for a female relation on a child’s marriage or death certificate may be a name by a new marriage – and not her maiden name. Ultimately, a woman’s death certificate and/or marriage certificate will (hopefully!) provide the necessary details about her parents.

Family mystery: African American Wards of Wythe County, VA. (republished with an update)

Post updated 15 December 2013

update follows at the bottom of this post

This is a wee mystery that’s been simmering on the proverbial back burner for the past few years.  The mystery involves three women with the surname of Ward who married into the Sheffey family. Every blue moon, I trot this mystery out and spend a week or so attempting to solve it. It’s one heck of a stubborn mystery.  While I usually avoid giving inanimate things human characteristics…this mystery is definitely reluctant to give up its secrets.

First up is Angeline Ward who was born around 1832.  Her birthplace is cited as Selma, Alabama. She was the wife of Godfrey Sheffey, born around 1836 in Virginia (he’s another mystery). There is a small group of us working on the Angeline and Godfrey family group. The working assumption was Angeline and Godfrey were the slaves of Dr Lawrence Brengle Sheffey (26 Nov 1818 , Wythe, VA – 1866, Huntsville, AL) . He’s the only slave owning Sheffey we’ve found who moved from Virginia to Alabama.  This assertion is given further credence in the 1860 Slave Schedule for Huntsville, Madison Co, AL. Angeline and all her children born before 1860 are found in this document. There is a question mark over whether the 41 year old slave male in this census is Godfrey Sheffey.

imageshowing Angeline Ward, Godfrey Sheffey and their children

Angeline Ward, Godfrey Sheffey and their children

Descendants of Angeline Ward and Godfrey Sheffey

Descendants of Angeline Ward and Godfrey Sheffey

At some point between 1870 and 1880, Angeline returned to Wytheville with most of her children.  She did so without her husband Godfrey who presumably died between the census of 1860 and the census of 1870. Her son Lewis returned to Wytheville with his mother, however, made the trip back to Huntsville, AL where he died in 1919. What’s interesting is her grand-son William T Turner of Wytheville married my great-aunt, Callie Sheffey (daughter of Daniel Henry Sheffey III and Jane A White). In previous posts I noted that Angeline returned to Wytheville, one of the Sheffey’s Virginia strongholds, as part of a post-slavery Sheffey family reunion process. What I hadn’t considered is this homecoming could have been twofold. There are a handful of black and mulatto Ward families with a long history in Wythe County too. As yet, I have been unable to connect her to any of the Wythe-based Ward families I’ve found. In my opinion, it’s more than mere coincidence.

Dicey Ward (21 Dec 1847, Wythe Co, VA – ?) was the wife of James Zachariah Mitchell Sheffey and resided in Marion, Smyth Co., VA.

image showing Dicey Ward and James Zachariah Mitchell Sheffey and son Charles Sheffey

Dicey Ward and James Zachariah Mitchell Sheffey

Sarah Ward (1845, VA – ?) was the wife of Perry Cloud (1840, VA – ?) and was resident in Fort Chiswell, Wythe Co., VA.  Their daughter Mary (1860, Fort Chiswell, Wythe, VA – ?) married Godfrey Sheffey, Jr. (1852, Huntsville, Madison Co., AL – ?), the son of Angeline Ward and Godfrey Sheffey, Sr.

Image showing Sarah Ward, Peter Cloud and their descendants

Sarah Ward, Peter Cloud and their descendants

Angeline Ward, Dicey Ward and Sarah Ward were contemporaries.  Whilst older, Angeline is of the same generation as Dicey and Sarah.

If our educated hunch is correct, and Angeline is indeed connected by blood to Dicey Ward and Sarah Ward, this provides an interesting insight into the wider family relations. It would mean that one of Angeline’s sons married one of her Wards relation while one of her grandsons married one of her husband’s Sheffey relations. In other words, her descendants re-connected with both sides of their family through marriage, strengthening those bonds.

Is there an association among these 3 women and the slave owning Ward family of Wythe County, VA? Some initially intriguing results may yet shed some light on this. One of the names which keeps cropping up is Ballard Ephraim Ward, born on 1 Dec 1828 in Cripple Creek, Wythe. The Wards of Wythe County are connected to various branches of the white Sheffey family through marriages with the Edwards, Stewarts, Dobyns and Bland families. Ballard himself was directly connected to the Sheffeys through his marriage to Amelia Gwyn Nuckolls, a relation of Cena Nuckolls, Lawrence Brengle Sheffey’s step-mother and the mother of Lawrence’s half-brother, Ezra Nuckolls Sheffey.

One question which has us thinking hard is this one: did marriages between their slaves further cement familial ties between slave owning families also united through marriage? Naturally, I asked THE awkward question:  If slave families mirrored the marriage aspirations of their owners, and there were blood ties between slaves and white masters, did this influence the treatment slave families received from their owners?  In other words, how deep did these blood ties go? Unravelling this particular mystery might go some way towards shedding some light on this subject.

Just like some of the other family mysteries, the answer to this particular mystery is tantalizingly close. Cracking it will illustrate the close ties between the African American Ward and Sheffey families living in Wythe and Smyth Counties, Virginia.

15 December 2013 update

Jane Ward

Isaac Taylor Sheffey & Laura Ann Woodson family tree

Isaac Taylor Sheffey & Laura Ann Woodson family tree- click for larger image

I stumbled across yet another Ward lady while doing some additional research on Taylor Sheffey (son of Angeline Ward and her husband, Godfrey Taylor Sheffey). Taylor has been a bit frustrating to research as all traces of him cease after the 1880 Census. I had a feeling that this had something to do with him using a different name – and I was right…kind of.  I knew that his widow, Laura Ann Woodson Sheffey, had moved to Washington DC with their daughters. So I concentrated on trying to find any evidence of Taylor Sheffey residing in Washington DC. This included finding a death certificate. It seemed the most sensible and logical thing to do.

What I found was death certificate for his widow, Laura Ann:

Transcription of Laura Ann Woodson Sheffey's death certificate, courtesy of

Transcription of Laura Ann Woodson Sheffey’s death certificate, courtesy of – click for larger image

original record:

And there it was. Taylor’s full name was Isaac Taylor Sheffey. I got excited. I thought I’d found the vital key to unlocking more of Taylor’s story. As with all things genealogy-related, it did and it didn’t. What it did yield was more evidence that his first name was Isaac.  This came in the form of his daughter Stella’s marriage record:

Stella Sheffey's marriage certificate

Stella Sheffey’s marriage certificate – click for larger image

And here the trail for Isaac Taylor Sheffey runs cold. despite extensive searching I’m unable to find further documents for him.

I’m going to take a wee step back and return to his wife, Laura Ann Woodson. Her death certificate threw up a nugget of gold in the form of her mother’s name. Her name had been unknown until this point: Jane Ward of Wythe County, VA. She is another member of the African American Ward family. All I know of her history is that she was born around 1834, died on 20 October 1869 and was the first wife of Frederick M. Woodson. It’s not much, perhaps, but is more than I knew two days ago. So for now, she is another member of the Wythe County based Ward family clan with a Sheffey family connection who warrants further research.

Getting closer to the ancestors: Marriage Certificates

There are times when serendipity serves up a little something that’s extra special. An old marriage certificate doesn’t seem like a thing to get excited about. It’s just a piece of paper with some basic information on it after all. But here I sit with a broad smile on my face as I (once again!) peruse the document below:

James Zachariah Mitchell Sheffey Marriage Certificate

I am grateful to Anthony Q, a distant relation through marriage, who email me this marriage certificate. His wife is a direct descendant of James Zachariah Mitchell Sheffey (primarily known as Mitchell Sheffey) and the holder of this precious document.

As I mentioned in the post Mystery#1: Getting to grips with James Z Mitchell W Sheffey [Mitchell Sheffey] , Mitchell is quite the enigma. On paper, his life before the Civil War was unlike any other Sheffey of colour I’ve ever come across.  As I’ve said many, many times, I’m interested in putting flesh on the ancestors’ bones; in other words, turning a string of names and dates into a real person who lived, loved, breathed and had any number of hopes and ambitions for the future. The “A begat B who begat C who begat D” kind of genealogy has never held much interest for me. It’s kind of cool to be able to chat about my grandfather the racing jockey or my great uncle the buffalo soldier or my great-grandfather who heroically saved town buildings from the flames as parts of Wytheville burned in the Civil War. These are people I never knew existed before embarking on this journey.  The details may be tiny, almost insignificant, but it’s what make these ancestors real for me.

And when you have a relation as enigmatic as my 2nd Great Grand Uncle Mitchell, I’ll take anything I can get.

James Zachariah Mitchell Sheffey – Overview

Before emancipation, Mitchell was associated with a number of women who all bore him children. Of the five women known to have borne him children…it was Dicey Ward he married when slavery ended.

In one way or another, marriage is something many can relate to. [Forgive me if that sounds more than a little insensitive to those who don’t have the legal right to marry.  I can’t think of another way to phrase it]. I may have made the journey down the aisle twice in my life but I still remember the excitement of going to the registry office, being in thrall standing at the altar waiting for the bridge, the butterflies in the stomach, the sense of hope, excitement, anticipation and yes, a smattering of fear too. A zillion thoughts running through your mind about the past, the present and the future. I know I thought about who was going to drink too much at the reception and make a prat of themselves or who was going to recite a funny but inappropriate story during the toasts  😉  It’s this that puts me so in touch with Mitchell and Dicey. As newly freed people, what thoughts went through their heads on their wedding day? I can only imagine! The affirmation of a legal union before family and the community must have been palpable and powerful.

Just imagine knowing that your marriage partner was the person of your own choosing…and a person with whom you could expect to grow old and raise a family with without the fear of them being arbitrarily taken away, never to be seen again.  You’re just like everyone else. That notion, that ideal, is a powerful thing.

I may not have pictures of either of them, much less wedding photos, but this document puts me right there at the wedding with all the heady mixture of emotions which come as standard at weddings. It doesn’t get more ‘real’ than that.

Thank you Anthony for your generosity and for sharing the experience.

Mystery#1: Getting to grips with James Mitchell Zachariah Sheffey [Mitchell Sheffey]

Mitchell Sheffey and his children

Mitchell Sheffey, the women associated with him, and their children

James Mitchell Zachariah Sheffey, Dicey Brock, Jersey (or Judy) Clark, Emily Cook, Martha Ann Hill and Dicey Ward.  On the face of things this just looks like a simple, straightforward and perhaps boring list of names.  The story that links these names together is anything but straightforward….and far from boring.

For a family tree showing Mitchell Sheffe’s descendants, please see the post below:

The first mystery regarding the gentleman in question involves his names. The official birth record for him names him as James W Sheffey.  And this is one of only two document to surface thus far that assigns him this name.  The marriage certificates of his children, and their death records, cite him as Mitchell Sheffey.

There are four people working on unravelling the mystery behind this man. At first, we weren’t certain if we were actually faced with two men who were brothers: a James Sheffey and a Mitchell Sheffey.  One census record led us to believe that James W Sheffey and Mitchell Sheffey were one in the same person. The 1870 Census names him as James ZMW Sheffey.  The only other document to cite him as James W Sheffey is the marriage certificate for him and Dicey Ward. His name alone gives him a certain laurel within family lore – so far, his is the longest name of any Sheffey I’ve come across.

As he was typical referred to as Mitchell Sheffey, this is the name I will use for him for this post.

While his name provides one mystery, his relations with a number of women at the same time certainly raises an even larger mystery.

Prior to his marriage to Dicey Ward on 31 October 1867, Mitchell Sheffey had relations and fathered a number of children with 3 women during the same Pre-Civil War time period.  All 3 women were contemporaries of each other.  That is to say they were of the same generation .  So what was going on?  Therein lays the mystery.

The four of us researching Mitchell have come up with two theories.  Each is credible.

Theory #1: Slave Breeding.  In the latter years of slavery, when the import of slaves was illegal, there was a slave breeding industry.  And Mitchell could have been hired out to father children for families within Wythe County, Virginia.  There are two arguments against this.  Slave children born under ‘salve farming’ were typically sold to masters far from their place of birth. This was done to sever any bonds between parents (particularly mothers) and children. This lessened the chances of slaves either finding and their children and running away.  It also lessened the chance of slave revolts. The other argument against it is that slave owning Sheffeys haven’t been recorded as breeding slaves for sale.  From what the records show, the Sheffey’s seemed to prefer maintaining multi-generational, stable slave family groups on their farms and estates.   While they may have sold some of their slaves, they tended to sell them to neighbours.  Or slaves went to their relations and heirs. And this probably goes some way to explaining how African-America Sheffeys in Virginia were able to sustain such strong and close family ties before and after the end of slavery.

Theory#2: Worker for hire.  At the moment, we don’t know if these women belonged to the Sheffey family or to neighbouring families. For the following theory to be viable, it requires that the women be owned by different white Sheffey neighbours or by their kin. Before the end of slavery, it was common practice for a slave owning family to hire out slaves for labour. If Mitchell was hired out, then, like a sailor having a woman in very port, he had a woman on the farms where he worked as hired labour. Whether this was encouraged, or the farm owners merely turned a blind eye, we can’t say.

His relations with Jersey / Judy / July Clark ended years before the outbreak of the Civil War. With so many women bearing these names born around the same year, it’s been difficult to find her in the records to see what became of her.  Either a Clark by birth or by marriage, it is likely that she married another and her surname changed.

Relations with Martha Ann Hill and Emily Cook ended with the onset of the Civil War.  Martha Ann Hill was a Hill by birth, so we’ve been able to trace her history post civil-war.  She doesn’t appear to have re-married. Emily Cook, like Judy/July/Jersey Clark was either a Cook by marriage or by birth.  She too shares a similar name with a number of women born around the same year.  So it’s been difficult tracing her in the records to see what became of her.

Mitchell’s relations with Dicey Brock, mother to the majority of his children, continued for some years after the end of the Civil War.  Presumably their relationship ended upon her death.  Her year of death is uncertain as we haven’t found any death records for her. However, given the gap in children’s birth years between Dicey Brocks last child and Dicey Ward’s first child, the little group of researchers working on this tend to agree that Mitchell remained with Dicey Brock until she died.

So far, there is only one official marriage on record for Mitchell –and this was to Dicey Ward, the woman who he spent his remaining years with.
The word “many” springs to mind when I think ponder over Mitchell.  Here we have a man with many names, associated with many women and definitely the father of many children. A great number of African-American Sheffey’s are his descendants.

Oh yes, and a man with more than a few mysteries attached to him as well. Mysteries that can hopefully be solved by perusing some old, probably dusty, long-forgotten records.