Saturday, June 4, 2011

Researching at the Library of Virginia: A Tale of Slaves & Bacon

1st President, Liberia
Following my several days of intensive research at the Library of Virginia after the Virginia Genealogical Society’s conference in Richmond late last month, I’ve been spending much of the past week transcribing pre-1850 deeds, wills and estate settlements from Madison County, Virginia. I’m up to my neck in piggins, gruntels, hilling hoes and shovel ploughs – all things that rural Virginians left behind as parts of their estates.

Years ago, I learned the importance of not just looking stuff up, but rather of actually reading will and deed books, even when the entries didn’t directly relate to the people I was investigating.  Yes, it’s labor-intensive, but it’s hardly a waste of time.  In the process of random reading about those other friends and neighbors, you often learn a lot about your own ancestors’ lives and times.

Tonight, let’s consider Joseph Early, whose will was directly after the one I needed to solve a relationship problem.  Early was a neighbor who called upon a member of the family I was researching to witness his will. Finding it was entirely serendipitous. Here are the high points.

(From Madison County Virginia Will Book 9, pages 421 -422)

I Joseph Early of the County of Madison in the State of Virginia do make this my last will and testament in manner and form to wit:
My will is that my executors hereafter named send my Negroes that I know1 have to Libery2 give each of the men 3 in number fifty dollars each and Verindy and all her children one hundred dollars to take with them besides getting them out, and bacon enough to last them six months after they get to Libery.
                                                                    1. i.e. “…that I now have…”
                                                                    2.  “Libery” is Liberia

Early, a well-to-do farmer with $8,000 in real estate holdings listed in the 1850 census, then directs that his land be sold and that the proceeds from the sale be divided among his 25 nieces and nephews, who are not named in the will.  His will (dated 22 December 1852) was proved in Madison County Court on 24 August 1854 on the testimony of the witnesses Joseph Good, Willis H. Carpenter, and William J. Sparks.

In the course of several days researching in the Madison County will books, I came across a number of references to slaves being freed upon the deaths of their owners, but none as fascinating as this.  
Not only was Early directing that his slaves be freed upon his death, but that they be given cash and passage money to Liberia, along with enough bacon to tide them over upon arrival in Liberia. 

Liberia is one of those places we learn about in high school history class and then promptly forget about.  Chances are, most Americans would be hard pressed to say much about Liberia, other than it was a country somewhere in Africa established by freed slaves and their descendants from the United States and that its capital (Monrovia) was named after US President James Monroe.  The photo above is of Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the first president of the Republic of Liberia, born free to a former slave mother in Norfolk, Virginia.  His father was believed to be a Welsh immigrant planter who was his mother's former owner.

Most present-day Americans probably think that most present-day Liberians are descendants of freed American slaves. In fact, the freed slaves and their descendants, known as “Americo-Liberians”, established their American-style communities with their American-style government mostly along the coast, keeping their distance from the inhospitable inland areas and from the indigenous people already living there.  

Those indigenous tribal people called the newly arrived freed slaves “white men”, both because of their ante-bellum southern American values and because many new arrivals were classed as mulattos in Virginia. Today, the descendants of those original settlers from America make up only about 5% of Liberia’s population and are looked upon as the “elite” class.

The story of Liberia is long, complicated and not the focus of tonight’s tale.  And actually, most Americans couldn’t find Liberia on a map if their lives depended on it. 

Tonight, the issue is: whatever became of Joseph Early’s slaves after his death in 1854?  Are they identifiable?  Are they findable? Did they ever get sent from Madison County, Virginia to Liberia with their bacon?

I thought I'd try to find out.

From the 1850 slave schedules, we learn that Joseph Early owned six slaves: three males aged 27, 22, and 15 as well as a 21 year old female – who is likely Verindy -  and a five year old female and 2 year old male, who are most likely Verindy’s children.  None of those people are actually named in the 1850 slave schedules, and only Verindy was named in the will.  No last names were given in either document. The ages given are likely only “best-guess” estimates to get the census taker on his way.

At first blush, it might seem that tracing these folks out of Madison County in 1854 could be an almost impossible task, an exercise in futility.

There’s a good chance that this is a resource you may never have heard of, but it’s an example of one of the best genealogy PLUS history PLUS internet combinations that you’ll find anywhere.  The website is a collaboration of the Afro American Historical Association of Fauquier County, the Virginia Center for Digital History and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. 

Here you’ll find detailed information about approximately 3,700 freed slaves from Virginia who went to Liberia.  And, to make it simple, a search engine, found under the heading "Resources".

The search engine lets you search on one or more key data points relating to the freed slave: Last name, first name, county or city of origin, name of former owner, destination in Liberia or ship name.  You can also search by the name of the emancipator, the emancipator’s county of residence and the year of emancipation.  You’ll also find a timeline about the Virginia – Liberia experience and a helpful bibliography. A vast amount of the data comes from the American Colonization Society papers in the Library of Congress and other primary sources.

So, what can we learn about Joseph Early’s slaves from the database?

By searching on “Early” in the “Emancipator” box and on “Madison County”, we learn that six of Early’s former slaves sailed on the ship “Cora” to Buchanan, Liberia in 1855.  They were: Leroy Early, age 28 and the Walden family, consisting of Viranda Walden, 25, Cora Walden, 11, Thaddeus Walden, 8, Susan Walden, 5, and Henry Walden, 3.  Viranda Walden is obviously the “Verindy” mentioned in Joseph Early’s will. 

We also learn that another of Early’s former slaves, George Garth, age 28, sailed on the “Euphrasia” the year before.  We further learn that $240.00 toward the “Cora” passage for the Walden family was paid for by Capt. J. A. Early of Madison County, Virginia, who I’ve learned from other sources was one of Early’s nephews as well as his business partner and executor.

A few years ago, before the advent of the “Virginia Emigrants to Liberia” website, few people would have pursued this kind of research because of its difficulty.  Now, the story of thousands of former Virginia slaves has much more richness and detail.  Finally, many of those formerly anonymous inventoried slaves have real names and histories.

Final thought:  the amount of Virginia bacon – enough to last the family of “Virindy” Walden for six months – that was sent along to Liberia is not mentioned anywhere in the “Emigrants” database or in Joseph Early’s estate settlement.  

I guess some things will have to remain a mystery, at least until the cargo manifests for the “Cora” can be located. 

Still, I wonder about how much bacon would be considered a six-month supply.

That’s the fun of genealogy: no matter how much we know, there’s always more to learn.


  1. This is truly fascinating. I know how much bacon it would take me to get through six months, and also how much bacon the doctor would like me to eat. The idea of bacon is clear, it was salted and/or smoked and would keep. I wonder what they cooked with it?

  2. Exactly the point! Your question is illustrative of all the things that we just don't know. How easily did the Virginia emigrants to Liberia adapt to the available local foods? Was the bacon a key protein source or a flavoring agent? Was the Americo-Liberian diet something that morphed over time to resemble a typical West African diet, or did it stay essentially the same as the pre-Civil War Virginia slave diet? Every time we find an answer to questions like these, a couple of new questions pop up to lead us down new paths of exploration.

  3. I love stories of following a research trail to unexpected places - truly a fascinating tale!

  4. Thanks for dropping by, Greta. That's the fun of it all - when you start on something, you never quite know where the documents are going to take you!