Buckingham County, in central Virginia, is known for nothing more than its picturesque countryside: rolling hills, green pastures cleared from virgin woodlands. Two-lane roads dip up and down through those woods, over creeks and past historical markers. Towns are small and infrequent. No doubt Buckingham County was even more beautiful in 1860, the year the last U.S. Federal Census - Slave Schedule was recorded. I know some of the names on that schedule well. I know the owners that is, not the slaves, because the slaves were not named.
I descend directly from three owners listed on that schedule: my great-great-grandparents Jane Rebecca Stinson (née Spencer), Thomas A. Norvell, and Thomas H. Hudgins. Between them they owned twenty-two slaves. I’ve been aware of this fact for many years.
Because I inherited her husband’s surname, Jane Stinson has been the object of my greatest curiosity. She was widowed in 1857 when my great-great-grandfather, John Stinson, succumbed to measles. Jane was left with a 125-acre farm, five horses, four cows, two oxen, five other cattle, 14 sheep, 16 pigs, and eight slaves. She was not rich, but I think by standards of the day she was well off.
Her slaves, a 34-year-old black woman, a 29-year-old black woman, a 28-year-old black man, a 23-year-old black woman, a 20-year-old mulatto man, a 14-year-old black girl, and two eight-year-old black girls (possibly twins) contributed mightily to her fortune, comfort and status. Their comfort, however, must have been minimal, as the Slave Schedule reports that all eight were housed in a single dwelling.
Jane, seven of her nine children (the two youngest being of no use on the farm) and those eight slaves worked 12 months-a-year shearing the sheep, slaughtering the pigs, milking cows, churning butter, planting and harvesting corn and oats, and, of course, raising and processing tobacco.
Now, if you think I’m aiming to justify the ownership of those slaves as an economic necessity or a cultural norm, you are very wrong. There is no justification for what my ancestors did.
However, if I were transported to the Stinson farm in District Two in Buckingham County in 1850, with my Twenty-First Century sensibilities, I’d be hard pressed to advise John and Jane what to do. Sell the farm? Free their slaves?
I hope -- but I'm not sure -- I would beg my ancestors to do the right thing. If they refused, I hope I would run, fierce and determined, to that one slave house crying out loud that everyone there was free. I hope I'd bridle those five horses and give one to each man and woman, and throw in a pig, too. I hope I'd point to the gate at the end of the dirt lane where the Stinson farm ended and tell them they better leave while they still could.
My family historian dream is to discover manumission (freedom) documents for all eight slaves, dated in 1861. But the Buckingham County Courthouse, where those documents would have been recorded, was burned to the ground by an arsonist in 1869. So it remains my fantasy that those slaves walked away free before Emancipation by my great-great-grandmother’s good will.
Although it’s not obvious, I know my good fortune today is, in part, born on the backs of those slaves who worked the Stinson farm 170 years ago. I continue to wrestle to reconcile that fact.
I’ve tried to find their descendants in the census records, but without success. Either they did not take their mistress’s name as was the custom, or they fled the county for parts unknown. I don't know if I'm disappointed or relieved.
None of Jane’s children finished school. None did anything other than farm. If she left a will it burned along with all the other records in the Courthouse fire. Her oldest son died from typhoid the first year of the Civil War. Her second son, David, my great-great-grandfather, made it home. He was present at Appomattox, and when it was over he walked home to Buckingham to his mother's farm.
This essay is not the end for me. There’s more work to do. More mining to reveal my own prejudices, how the seeds were planted and how they germinated.
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