Posts Tagged ‘African Slavery’

Digitalization of Southampton County Virginia Records Opens New Doors for African American Research

Sunday, April 17th, 2011

The entire Court Order book collection of the Southampton County, Virginia Court from 1749 through the early 1880s has been digitalized. This includes 57,000 pages, involving approximately one million names.  This information is free online at:,_Virginia.  This collection is a goldmine for African Americans tracing their ancestors who once lived in Southampton County.  Many of the books that have been digitized were 300 to 700 pages.  Court Order books from the 1700s to the end of the slave trade lists the names of Africans when they were first brought to the area, their ages, owner’s names, and in a few cases the ships on which they were brought over.  Wills and estate settlements lists the names of slaves, descriptions and family relationships.  If your ancestors came from Southampton County, Virginia, you must check out this collection.  Thanks go to Southampton Circuit Court Clerk, Richard Francis, and the volunteers of the Brantley Association of America who undertook this huge project in 2009 and 2010.  

Court Case Reveals Plight of Africans During the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

The following story sheds light on the impact of the Transatlantic slave trade on the lives of native Africans.  Some of these slaves ended up on the plantations of the Blow families.


            I found this story while searching through a Sussex County deed book looking for genealogical information and noticed the names of several slaves.  What stood out most were the names of some of the slaves:  August, September, June, April, Caesar, and Quaco.  I then thought these were likely Africans.  Some slave owners gave Africans the names of the months of the year or days of the week.  Planters did not realize in some African cultures children were named for the days of the week they were born on, thereby continuing an African tradition.  Names such as Samba, meaning born on Monday, which was later, corrupted to Sambo.


  The plight of the Africans was revealed in detail in a Virginia court case that lasted eighteen years.  The story began in 1781 during the Revolutionary War.  John Wigfall owned a large plantation at Wambaw on St. Thomas Parish in South Carolina.  During this time, Wigfall was a Loyalist to Britain and was banished from the colony and had his property confiscated which included his slaves.  At the same time, Captain John Singletary was issued a commission as a privateer in his cutter Victory.  His commission ordered him to take as prize any British property.  Captain Singletary and a small crew set out in rowboats up the Santee River and landed at Wigfall’s plantation, where they captured thirty-four of his slaves: April, Will, August, Dolly, September, Wally, Philander, Philis, Caesar, Horah, Scipio, Cloey, Daniel, Santon, Will, Neppy, June, Dianah, Pegg, Binah, Jenny, Peter, Cyrus, Duke, Flora, Limbrick, Pharo, Toby, Nanny, Sabina, Rosanna, Carolina, Wallis, and Quashilla.[1][1]  The slaves at first were taken to Beaufort, North Carolina. 


Although Wigfall was to be banished, he was granted leniency because he pleaded poor health and a large family to support and was allowed to remain in South Carolina.  Thus, Wigfall made immediate application for the return of his slaves, as a Court of the Admiralty convened in New Bern and ruled that the slaves were a fair prize.  They were declared property legally condemned by the court.


            After discovering that Beaufort was threatened by the British, Singletary took the slaves to Virginia and sold them to four planters: Richard Blow of Sussex County, who was the nephew of Colonel Michael Blow, Colonel Benjamin Baker of Nanesmond County, Captain Sinclair in Smithfield, and William Hines of Southampton.


            Wigfall was informed of the whereabouts of some of the slaves and managed to steal back a few of them, although some of their names had been altered to conceal their identities.  Wigfall and his son and the plantation owners had several heated disputes over the ownership of the slaves.


            In 1792, John Wigfall gave his friend James Warrington of Richmond power of attorney to recover his property, to no avail.  In 1798 his son Joseph, who was the executor of his estate pursued the case.  The judgment in all matters of the case except the ownership of the slaves was in favor of the defendants.  However, each purchaser had to pay Wigfall for the use of the slaves during the time they were in Virginia.


            Some forty years later some of the Africans were still living on Richard Blow’s plantation in Sussex County called Tower Hill.  An 1830s register of slaves for Tower Hill lists August, Tember (September) and April, who was also called Joe, (possibly a shortened version of the African day name Cudjo) as being African Negroes.  They died in 1832, 1826, and 1829 respectively, ranging in age from 60 to 80.[2][2]  Their names first appeared on tax lists for 1784 for Richard Blow when they were purchased.[3][3]


            August probably suffered the greatest loss of all the Africans.  According to descendants of the Blows, after August learned English he and the other Africans related the story of their capture and voyage from Africa.  August informed the Blow family that his father was an African king and he was next in line to succeed him to the throne but was betrayed by a jealous uncle who sold him to slave traders so he could rule as king.  Instead of living the life of African nobility, August was condemned to a life of American servitude.


[1][1] Power of Attorney from John Wigfall to James Warrington 1792 to recover slaves taken from his Wambaw plantation in South Carolina, Sussex County Deed Book G pages 723-725.  Federal District Court case, Richmond, VA Wigfall Vs Blow 1799, Virginia State Library and Archives.


[2][2] Register of slaves on the plantations of Richard Blow 1832.  1838 register of slaves of George Blow.  Manuscripts Department of Swem Library, College of William and Mary.    Register contains the slaves’ names, parents’ names, dates of birth and death, if the slave was acquired by inheritance, purchase or gift.


[3][3] 1784 Tithables for Sussex County, VA for Richard Blow.  Virginia State Library and Archives.

Use of Surnames Among African Americans Before Emanicaption

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009
Surnames of Wessyngton Slaves

Surnames of Wessyngton Slaves

Slaves were usually known by their first names, especially on small farms with few slaves.  Plantation owners rarely recorded their slaves with surnames unless they had several individuals with the same first names.  For that reason the use of surnames by slaves was far more common on large plantations where more people were likely to have the same given names.

Due to Wessyngton Plantation having such a large enslaved population many African Americans are  listed with their previous owners’ surnames as early as the 1820s.

Slave bills of sale and other documents in the Washington Family Papers collection details the origins of many of these African American families.

The list above documents the names African Americans on Wessyngton Plantation who used surnames prior to emancipation and the date of their arrival on the plantation.

Slave Descendant Walks in Ancestors’ Footsteps on Wessyngton Plantation

Monday, November 2nd, 2009
Archaeological Dig at Wessyngton Slave Cabin Site

Archaeological Dig at Wessyngton Slave Cabin Site

In 1991, I had an opportunity that few historians or genealogists ever have; to literally walk in your ancestors’ footsteps.  In 1989 I was approached by the president of the Bloomington-Normal black history Project and director of the Midwestern archaeological research Center, about the potential investigations of the salve cabin area on Wessyngton Plantation to get an interpretation of slave life there.  Similar digs have been conducted at the Hermitage, Mt. Vernon, and Monticello. 

The actual digging at Wessyngton did not start until 1991.  The thought of actually walking in my ancestors’ footsteps and holding objects they used in their everyday lives one hundred years earlier was surreal to me.  Three sections of the slave cabin area were selected for exploration.  One site was where the cabin of my great-great-grandparents Emanuel and Henny Washington once stood.

The dig yielded fragments of pottery and dishes used by my ancestors as well as coins and arrowheads made by Native Americans. 

The photograph above shows the site of the archaeological dig on Wessyngton Plantation where my ancestors once lived.

Slave Housing on Southern Plantations

Monday, October 5th, 2009
Wessyngton Slave Cabins

Wessyngton Slave Cabins

Housing for slaves varied from plantation to plantation depending on the owners.  Most slave quarters were generally arranged in avenues or streets and located behind the mansion or ‘Big House.’  They were strategically placed to give the owner or overseer a clear view of the slaves, so their activities could be easily monitored.

The slave settlement at Wessyngton Plantation, however, did not fit this pattern.  The lack of a clustered settlement pattern at Wessyngton was somewhat unusual during antebellum times.  This was primarily due to the hilly topography of the plantation.  The scattered pattern gave the slaves at Wessyngton more freedom and made it far more difficult to keep them under constant surveillance.

Typically, slave housing at Wessyngton consisted of hand-hewn one-room log cabins measuring 20 by 20 square feet with brick end chimneys.  Some cabins were 18 by 36 square feet.  Each cabin had log flooring and a loft, where children  slept. 

Each cabin housed an average of six individuals.  Family sizes varied depending on the number births, deaths and marriages.

Colonial Documents Reveal African Roots

Friday, July 24th, 2009
Court Orders, Southampton County, VA, 1749

Court Orders, Southampton County, VA, 1749

Nero a Negro boy slave belonging to Henry Cooker is by the court adjudged to fourteen years of age.

Zingo a Negro boy slave belonging to John Warren by the court adjudged to thirteen years of age.

Douglas a Negro boy slave belonging to Thomas Westbrooks by the court adjudged to ten years of age.

Anarcha a Negro boy slave belonging to Thomas Westbrooks by the court adjudged to nine years of age.

Juba a Negro boy slave belonging to David Edmunds by the court adjudged to ten years of age.

Tilla a Negro girl belonging to Thomas Gillum the court adjudged to fourteen years of age.

Pompey a Negro boy slave belonging to John Barrow the court adjudged to ten years of age.

During the Colonial period, slave owners were required to pay taxes on their slaves from ages twelve to fifty years old. When Africans were brought to the colonies and it was evident that they were adults they were simply added to tax rolls called tithables. When small children and teenagers arrived from Africa and their ages were uncertain, the slave owners would have to take them into court and a judge would assign an age for the slave, which was then recorded in minute or court order books. Most of the slaves were assigned English names, although some retained their true African names. Some of the court orders also list the names of the ships the Africans arrived in and the dates of arrival. Many of these individuals can be traced in later documents such as tax records, wills, and estate settlements. These records can prove to be a genealogical goldmine for African American researchers.

Using Colonial Records to Trace African American Genealogy

Friday, July 24th, 2009



Virginia Gazette, Williamsburg, December 24, 1772


Chesterfield, December 15, 1772. Run away from the Subscriber, on Sunday the 22d of November, a new Negro Fellow of small Stature, and pitted with the Smallpox; he calls himself BONNA, and says he came from a Place of that Name in the Ibo Country, in Africa, where he served in the Capacity of a Canoe Man; his Clothing is a new Felt Hat, new Cotton Waistcoat and Breeches, and new Shoes and Stockings; his Stockings were knit, and spotted black and white.  Whoever secures him so that I get him shall have TWENTY SHILLINGS  reward, besides what the Law allows.  

                                                                                                                                         Richard Booker


A great source of tracing early African and African American ancestors is the Virginia Gazette.   Slave owners ran ads describing in great detail their runaway slaves, apprentices and indentured servants.  Many of these ads list native Africans, their ethnicities, country of origins, their owners, how long they had been in the colonies, and the ships they came on.  These records are online at