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

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

A brief bit of Sheffey genealogy background context

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

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

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

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

Map of Augusta County

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

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

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

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

Back to Perry Sheffey

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

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

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

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

Freedmen’s Office Records

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

The first record is dated 7 June 1866:

silver watch cropped

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

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

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

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

The second record is dated 25 April 1867:

Land complaint cropped

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perry Sheffey in 1870

Perry Sheffey’s household in 1870

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

Perry Sheffey in 1880

Perry Sheffey’s household in 1880

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

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

Perry Sheffey complaint

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

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

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

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

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



The indenture of former slaves in the early Reconstruction Era

I have been blessed to have found a wealth of American and European family history information and documentation online. No doubt the pace in which historical archives have been digitized and made available online has been fueled by the family history and genealogy boon. There’s still a way to go in terms of information that is available. However, the breadth of volume of materials that have been digitized has led to discovery after discovery with regards to my overall family tree.

There will be a time when I have to begin making trips to the areas in the US that are associated with my parents’ ancestors to access materials that haven’t been digitized. The document below is a perfect example why. This document is valuable on a historic as well as a family history level.

The Reconstruction Era.  I know what it is, this period in the American South that followed the end of slavery after the Civil War ( I know the that the Reconstruction Act formally established it. And I know that, as a period of time, it lasted until 1877. Overall, the Reconstruction Act was envisioned to bring the southern American states to ‘normalcy’ in terms of their inclusion in the Union. It was also an Act which sought to protect the rights of newly freed African American slaves. So while I am by no means a scholar on reconstruction, I have a broad-strokes grasp of what it was about. The successes and failures of Reconstruction aren’t the focus of this post. I merely cite it as a reference point and as contextual background.

So what did I already know about Reconstruction?

I knew that freed slaves who remained in the south were to be paid for their labor (again, a point that has been debated since the end of Reconstruction). I never really thought about how that newly introduced system worked. I never thought about the intricacies or the semantics of it. I vaguely recalled the term ‘indentured’ being applied to the newly free African American workforce. While I didn’t have a romantic notion of what that meant, I thought it largely similar to the indenture of immigrant peoples arriving in the early American colonies. OK so the history classes at the high school I attended romanticized the lives of European indentured servants, those who were more than likely to go on to become America’s early pioneers. This would be territories like Kentucky, Tennessee and the Carolinas. As a more informed adult, I know the plight of European indentured servants was far from easy.  Many were forced to become pioneers due to socioeconomic and sociopolitical reasons. I guess the cold hard truth of it was deemed too difficult for teenagers to understand 😉

Be that as it may, I knew that the system of European indenture was a very formal and very legal arrangement. It was a system that was rife for abuse by indentured servants’ masters/employers. Just Google the number of lawsuits between indentured servants and their masters and you’ll soon get the gist of the common abuses perpetrated by masters – and the common complaints masters had about their indentured servants. But I digress. It was a formal system of employment. For whatever reason, I thought the system between newly freed slaves and their former slave masters was less formal. Or, indeed, an informal arrangement between former slaves and their new employers too. To be brutally honest, I just didn’t think people would go to the effort of formalizing employment matters with freed slaves. I thought it would be like any other form of manual type labor employment: there’s a job, you could do it, you were hired and then paid. In my mind, I envisioned it confirmed on a handshake.

And then I read the below (which was sent to me courtesy of Bernice, who found this in her local library in Edgefield County, South Carolina – and I’m so grateful that she did!):

Indenture of Eliza and Ellen Cramer to Simpson Matthews - Page 1

Indenture of Eliza and Ellen Cramer to Simpson Matthews – Page 1- click for larger image

Indenture of Eliza and Ellen Cramer to Simpson Matthews - Page 2

Indenture of Eliza and Ellen Cramer to Simpson Matthews – Page 2- click for larger image

Indenture of Eliza and Ellen Cramer to Simpson Matthews - Page 3

Indenture of Eliza and Ellen Cramer to Simpson Matthews – Page 3 – click for larger image

The above is a very formal agreement. Every aspect of Eliza and Ellen Cramer’s service is covered, including their general conduct. Simpson Matthews/Mathis would have been a cousin to my enslaved 3 x great grandfather, Lewis Matthews (If I’ve identified the correct white Matthews gentleman as his father. I need to see another document before I’m ready to disclose the name).

My first reaction upon reading this agreement was that the girls were so young. Eliza was nine years old and her sister Ella only seven at the time this agreement was struck. Then I remembered that it was common practice at the time for young children from poor families from any background to go to work. All around the world. What would Dickens have written about if not this very thing? 🙂

The one line that really struck me was “…Eliza and Ellen shall faithfully serve the said Simpson Mathis, keep his commands and obey in all things everywhere.” This whey would have to do until they reached the age of eighteen. They could not cause damage during the term of this indenture, nor could they waste goods or allow goods to be damaged or wasted by others. Nor could they marry without Simpson Mathis’s consent during the period of their indenture.

On his part, Simpson was bound to train the girls properly on all aspects of house work. He was also bound to teach them to read, write and, specifically, how to spell. Food, lodging and clothing were also part of the agreement.

Now I refer to the terms given above as indenture for a reason. Historically speaking, parents and/or guardians were paid a sum of money for any children or charges placed under an apprenticeship. This payment could either be aid in a lump sum or in smaller amounts annually. Remuneration isn’t mentioned in this agreement, which is a striking omission. I don’t know if the girls were paid, or if what they did receive (a basic education, a trade, clothing, etc) was in lieu of payment. Nor is there any mention of their father Watts Cramer receiving payment or any payment in kind, apart from his daughters gaining a basic education and a trade. I suppose in the larger scheme of things he would have two less children to provide for and some measure of comfort that his daughters would have the means to provide for themselves in the wider world until they married. Perhaps this doesn’t seem like much in our modern age. I have an inkling that this meant a great deal 145 years ago.

I haven’t really researched this period of American history. As a result, I don’t know if this kind of document and agreement is common or rare. Nor can I assess whether the terms and conditions outlined in it were common or rare for the time in which it was written. If it is rare, does a document like this hint at a pre Civil War relationship between Simpson Matthews, Watts Cramer and Watt’s daughters? Was he their former master? Or was Simpson making a point of doing the right thing for the times they lived in? It would be brilliant if US historians specializing in this time period could drop me a line or post a comment and let me know.

Naturally this document has me thinking about what other nuggets of gold are lurking in archives which haven’t been digitized and made available online – documents that not only give a glimpse into my family’s past but also a glimpse into America’s past. So it’s definitely prompting me to make some trips to libraries and document archives in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina to find out more about my ancestors.

For every person who finds a document like this, more light is shed on the experience of newly freed slaves during early days of the Reconstruction Era.

It reminds me of that saying that genealogy / family history is history in microcosm.