Friday, December 31, 2010

From the Potomac to the Mon

Yesterday was a very successful day at the National Archives and I’m still processing what I found but here are some highlights. First, I wasn’t sure if I would end up going – so much to do at home, nothing there I really had to have anytime soon. But since I was off from work and I had offered to get a Civil War pension application for a friend, I decided to go for it. Traffic was very light and I was across the Potomac River and at Archives in just 15 minutes.

National Archives

While waiting for the pension application, I wanted to see what I could find out about David Hughes. I had found a David Hughes living in Washington, D.C., in the 1870s and 1880s, and suspected he might be a former slave named Davy whose family I have been working on.

I knew a David Hughes was listed in the NPS Civil War Soldier and Sailor Index as serving with the Unassigned Company A with the U.S. Colored Infantry, which was organized in Alexandria near where Davy had been enslaved. I had checked on Ancestry to see if David Hughes or his widow had filed a pension application but didn’t find one in the Washington, D.C., area. So I decided to focus on the Unassigned Co. A, which is very hard to find in records because, as its names suggests, it was never assigned to a larger regiment. It had been known as the Virginia Colored Guards but records after the war use Unassigned Co. A. Despite being listed on a finding aid, the regimental book for Virginia Colored Guards was “not found.”

I expanded my search for a pension application and in Footnote, found one for a David Hughes with Unassigned Co. A. It was a widow’s application filed in Pennsylvania but her name did not appear on the record. A staffer checked their index and found the widow’s name was Frances Richardson. The David I was looking for had a wife named Frances so perhaps this new last name indicated she had remarried and moved to Pennsylvania.

About 90 minutes later, I signed for the record, opened the brown envelope and quickly scanned the pages for confirmation that this was for the David Hughes from Alexandria – and it was! But was this David Hughes the former slave who had been known at Volusia as Davy? I kept scanning the yellowed pages as I carefully moved them one at a time. Then, about midway through, I saw the single document that had all the proof I needed to be sure that this soldier was indeed Davy! (Pretty sure I did a double fist pump before the chills set in and my eyes started tearing up.)

Page from Civil War pension application #485519, National Archives

David’s widow had identified the Macrae family who owned him and the farm Vallusia as the place where he lived and worked. Frances had also been enslaved at Volusia, though she was born in Fauquier County. They had been married in 1851 in a ceremony at the Theological Seminary, just a short distance from Volusia. The full record revealed many other details, like the names and birthdates of their fourteen children and David’s death date and burial place.

I photographed every page before turning in this precious record. I was so excited that I could forgive myself for not considering the possibility that a widow might have actually moved away, as far away as western Pennsylvania. The funny thing was that a week earlier I was recalling an old friend from college I hadn’t thought of in years. Laurie was from Charleroi, Pa., and last week I actually asked another friend from college about her. Laurie was the only person I knew from Charleroi, but guess where Frances Hughes Richardson was living when she filed her pension application? That same little regal-sounding town along the Monongahela River.  

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Lost in Norfolk

Since I had planned to spend the holidays with my in-laws in Hampton Roads, I thought I would add a day to my trip so I could visit the local history library in Norfolk and work on my Aunt Delia research. Of course, when I made my plans a month ago, I knew to check ahead to be sure the library would be open when I was here – and it was. I also planned, in the month before Christmas, to gather and organize all my notes so I would know in advance exactly what to work on once I got into the library. And that’s where I failed!

Old City Hall building, now home to the Norfolk Library. Courtesy Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

So today I set off to the Sargeant Memorial Room in the Norfolk Library (above) with practically nothing. I knew where my family was living in 1880 when the photo was taken, and I knew the names of the people in their household and on their street. But that was pretty much it. And since I don’t know Delia’s last name, the usual indexes and directories weren’t that helpful.

Once I got there, I found a link to some great online information, like lists of people buried at several city-operated cemeteries. The helpful SMR staff told me which cemeteries were for African Americans, so that will narrow my search and hopefully keep me from spending time on white American Delias. But again, had I done my advance work, I would have had that already.

So unlike me to be so unprepared for a research outing.

But I will suggest this resource to anyone looking for their people in Norfolk and Portsmouth. The SMR has digitized dozens of city directories and put them on their website. The OCR recognition is pretty good so try searching with a specific name.

Cover of 1877-78 city directoy for Norfolk and Portsmouth. Courtesy Sargeant Memorial Room.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Wedding Wednesday: Orange Blossoms in the Big House

When Julia Hughes died in 1902, a lengthy obituary in the Akron Daily Democrat described her as a “Typical Southern Mammy” and recalled her life in slavery and in freedom. Some information was accurate and easily verified, like the fact that she was from Alexandria and had been owned by a family named McCrea (well, actually Macrae). But other details I questioned and could have easily dismissed.
The obit stated that Julia, “the belle of the plantation,” had her wedding in the “big house” and wore “a white gown and orange flowers.” What a beautiful scene! How I would love to imagine that this cherished servant at Volusia would have been permitted to celebrate her wedding in the same manner as those who owned her. But the skeptical historian in me thought she knew better and I initially discounted it as a post-slavery attempt to sanitize the readers’ memories.
But simply writing off this part of Julia’s obituary was unfair of me and unfair to Julia. While I might not be able to confirm Julia’s exact experience, I wondered if it was even realistic. I consulted the first person accounts in the WPA Slave Narratives for clues, and also Eugene Genovese’s chapter on weddings in Roll, Jordan, Roll.
What I discovered, after reading more than thirty narratives that had details and descriptions of weddings, was that weddings of enslaved people were generally held on the property where they lived and, as Genovese also found, some were married in the big house.
The celebration of a slave wedding in the yard of a Franklin County, Virginia, plantation. Courtesy of Wilma A. Dunaway. "Slavery and Emancipation in the Mountain South: Sources, Evidence and Methods," Virginia Tech, Online Archives, Illustration, 11.1

According to the narratives, Ida Rigley’s free father and enslaved mother married in the dining room of her mother’s master, and Nancy Washington was married in her master’s yard. Tom Singleton, who grew up near Athens, Georgia, said that if the weather was bad, a wedding would be held in the hall of the house, but if it was a nice day, the ceremony was held in the yard.
Wedding day attire varied but at least two brides – Nancy Washington and one in Georgia who Ellen Campbell recalled – wore white dresses. Genovese included Judith Page Rives’ account of a wedding of Pauline, her family’s slave in Albemarle County, Virginia, in which she described the bride wearing a veil and a “wreath of orange blossoms.”
So while I can’t be sure that Julia wore a white dress and orange flowers or even married in the big house, I can no longer discount it.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Funeral Card Friday: Bill for Sarah Gray

When Alexandria teacher Sarah Gray died on January 8, 1893, B. Wheatley, a longtime Alexandria undertaker, submitted this bill to Alfred Peters for her funeral expenses. The bill, included in the chancery case of Michael B. Harlow v. Administrators of Sarah A. Gray, etal, reveals interesting details, like use of the “best hearse” and even how much it cost for her grave to be dug. If only it said where the grave was dug!


After undertaker Benedict Wheatley died in 1900, Josiah S. Everly became the director. The Everly-Wheatley funeral home is still in business today.