Rockbridge County, Virginia
by Oren F. Morton, B. Lit.
The McClure Co., Inc.
THE NEGRO ELEMENT.
SLAVERY IN VIRGINIA - GROWTH OF SLAVERY IN
ROCKBRIDGE - MAINTAINING ORDER AMONG THE NEGROES -
EMANCIPATION EFFORTS - THE NEGRO IN THE WAR OF 1861 -
NEGRO OF TODAY.
| African slavery
was almost as unfamiliar to the British people in their own
land as it was in the whitest county of the Old Dominion.
It was not legalized in Virginia until more than fifty years
after the founding of Jamestown. White servants were
preferred to colored ones until after 1700. Negroes of
American birth were more satisfactory laborers than those
coming direct from Africa. Slavery grew in favor, and
when American independence was declared, the negro
population of Virginia was already so large that it seemed
likely to exceed the white at an early day.
The more far-seeing of the ruling class in Virginia
perceived the undesirability of this inundation. The
House of Burgesses repeatedly asked the British government
to cease bringing negroes to the colony. All these
efforts were set at naught by the greed of the mercantile
classes of England. On the eve of the Revolution, Lord
Dartmouth said England "cannot allow the colonies to check
or discourage in any degree a traffic so beneficial to the
nation." This forcing of slaves upon Virginia was one of the
grievances named by Jefferson in his original draft of the
Declaration of Independence. It must be conceded,
however, that slaves would not have been brought to Virginia
unless there was a willingness to buy them. A stern
boycott would have ended the traffic. No British
ministry would have dared to break down a weapon by sheer
The fact that the summer climate of Virginia is
considerably warmer than that of Britain had a very little
to do with the importation of slaves. Black slaves as
well as white servants were purchased because the society of
Tidewater was essentially aristocratic. Where there is
an aristocracy, there is inevitable a menial class.
The Tidewater was a land of tobacco plantations, and these
could not be carried on without a large class of laborers.
It is interesting to note that above the Tidewater and below
the Blue Ridge, slaves were fewer than in the former
section. In the Valley they were still fewer, and in
many of the counties beyond the Alleghany Divide they were
almost non-existent. Slaves and large farms grew fewer
and yet fewer as one journeyed toward the Ohio.
There never was a time when the opponents of slavery in
America were not numerous. The institution was
vehemently denounced by the delegates from Virginia to the
Federal Convention of 1787. A Virginia law of 1784
encouraged to freeing of the slaves. In the same year
the Methodists of America became an independent church, and
one of their first official acts was to petition against
slavery, although most of their membership was then in
Virginia and Maryland. Slavery tended to make manual
labor discreditable unless it was performed by slaves.
It thereby degraded the lower classes of society and
contributed to idleness in the higher. It was a
Southern man who tersely described slavery as "a curse to
the master and a wrong to the slave." It was another
who defined it as "a mildew which has blighted every region
it has touched from the creation of the world."
Colonial Augusta was almost a white man's country.
In 1756 it had only about eighty slaves; perhaps not more
than one per cent of the population. But thence
forward they became increasingly numerous in the better
agricultural districts of the Valley. In Rockbridge
they were few prior to the Revolution, and they were
confined to a small number of the wealthier families.
When the iron industry arose and made a demand for labor,
negroes were hired from masters east of the Blue Ridge.
"By 1861," remarked Colonel Preston, "we were
quite a slaveholding people; a few more years, and we would
have had to undergo much that Tuckahoe did on that score.
It was well the unpleasantness came as soon as it did."
So completely have the outward vestiges of the reign of
slavery passed away from Rockbridge, that only a few of the
original negro quarters remain. A notable exception in
the Weaver estate at Buffalo Forge, where the houses for the
slaves were of an uncommonly substantial and comfortable
kind. The institution was milder in Virginia than in
the cotton belt, and the relations between master and slave
were as a rule kindly. The main highway to "the
darky's heart was down his throat." The slave was
given a holiday week at Christmas time and he enjoyed it as
much as his master did. He was in his element when
playing banjo and bones and patting his knee.
But since the African came to Virginia as a child-race,
and was not used to any softer argument than brute force,
it was felt that slavery could not be maintained by treating
the negro in the same manner as a white man. The slave
was supposed not to carry a gun or to go outside his
master's premises without a pass. Poisons might not be
put into his hands, and this restriction was necessary.
In 1849 a Rockbridge slave attempted to poison several
persons. He might not be taught to read or write.
But between himself and his own slaves the master did not
think the law had any claim to interfere. Accordingly,
if he saw fit, he taught a favorite slave to read and write.
The patrol system was one means of keeping the slaves
in order, and it occasioned a good deal of expense.
Captains were appointed by the county court, each having a
force of some six or eight men. A captain and his
squad were to patrol a specified area at specified times.
For this service the patrolman was paid thirty-three cents a
night in 1782. In 1822, he was paid six cents an hour.
The penal code was not the same to the slave that it was to
the Caucsaian. His ears could be cropped.
He would be hanged for burning a barn, or for stealing, and
the county court was empowered to decree the death penalty.
But before the negro was hanged, his valuation as a slave
was determined, and this sum was paid by the county to the
A considerable share of the crime in Rockbridge has
been committed by the negro. The first civil execution
of a white man in this county took place August 3, 1905.
It was preceded by the legal hanging of five negroes at five
different times. York, a slave of Andrew
Reid, was adjudged guilty December, 1, 1786, of killing
Tom, another of Reid's slaves. It was odrered
that he be hanged one week later, that his head be severed
from the body, and that it be set on a pole at the forks of
the road between Lexington and John Paxton's.
Rape was not at all unknown before emancipation. An
execution for this crime took place in Rockbridge in 1850.
For assaulting and beating Arthur McCorkle, Alexander
Scott was ordered to be hanged April 5, 1844. The
master was to be paid $450.00. Cyrus, a slave
of Robert Piper, was ordered to hang in 1798 for
burning his master's house. In 1840, Nelson, a
slave, was ordered to be hanged for burglary. Outlaw
slaves might be put to death with impunity. But the
penalty for burglary was sometimes changed to transportation
to Liberia. Whipping was administered in less serious
matters, as when thirty-nine lashes were ordered for
Peter, a slave of John Hays, in 1800. He
had stolen leather worth $3.25. In 1804, Jinny,
a slave of John Dunlap, threatened his wife,
Dorcas. The woman was ordered to be kept in jail
until her child was born, and thirty lashes, well laid on,
were to be given. A negress was occasionally guilty of
Before 1861, and particularly before 1830, there were
somewhat frequent instances of manumission. But
restrictions were imposed on the freedman. He was
registered as to height, color, markings, etc., and a
duplicate of the paper given him. Registration had to
be repeated every five years. To live in the county he
had to have the white people. It was the policy of
Virginia to discourage the free negro from remaining in the
state. He was too frequently idle and worthless, and
his presence tended to make the slaves restless and
demoralized. Yet a request to remain, if by a freedman
who stood well with the whites, was not likely to be turned
In 1830 the desire to get rid of the institution of
slavery had become very strong in Virginia. The state
was declining in wealth, and emigration to the West and
South was very heavy. About this time, 343 women of
Augusta county signed a petition for immediate emancipation.
A petition to the Assembly, dated 1827 and sent from
Rockbridge, asks the removal of free negroes from the state,
and favors manumission and colonization. It goes on to
say that "the evils, both political and moral, which spring
from the difference of color and condition in our
population, are great and obvious. The blacks, in
proportion to their number, are a positive deduction from
our military strength, an impediment to the wealth and
improvement of the country, and to the general diffusion of
knowledge by schools; a source of domestic uneasiness and an
occasion of moral privileges and social respectability, and
untouched by the usual incentives to improvement, the must
be our natural enemies, degraded in sentiment and base in
morals." Another Rockbridge petition exhibits the
contrast between 1790 and 1830, with respect to the section
of the state east of the Blue Ridge. The whites had
increased from 314,523 to 375,935, but the blacks had
increased from 288,425 to 457,013, being now in a large
majority. The tendency toward an Africanization of the
Eastern District was causing much emigration of the whites.
It was prophesized that a race war would result and cause a
blotting out of the negroes. The petition asked for a
special tax to create a fund to remove such blacks as were
willing to go, and to purchase some others to send with
them. It also asked that private emancipation be
followed by removal.
In 1832 a bill for a general emancipation passed the
lower house of the legislature, and lacked only one vote of
going through the senate. The Western District of
Virginia was almost unanimous for the measure. The
value of the slave property was about $100,000,000.
Shortly after the defeat of this bill came the tragic
insurrection in Southampton, whereby sixty white people lost
their lives. An anti-slavery feeling spread in the
North, and the many anti-slavery societies in the South were
disbanded. The institution was given a new lease of
life, and yet there was still a strong economic opposition
to slavery in the Western District, this name being given,
until 1861, to the portion of Virginia west of the Blue
A petition from this county in 1847 ways it is believed
there are 60,000 of the free colored in the state, and it
asserts the opinion that there will be 250,000 of them in
the year 1900. It recommends deportation to Liberia,
and says that with few exceptions the freedmen are idle,
worthless, and increasingly injurious to the slaveholders
and the slaves. Henry Ruffner, himself a
slaveholder, put forward a plan the same year. He
found that slavery was driving away immigration, driving ont
(out) white laborers, crippling agriculture, commerce, and
industry, imposing hurtful social ideals upon the people,
and that it was detrimental to the common schools and to
popular education. His plan was to divide the state
along the line of the Blue Ridge, eliminate slavery on the
west side and on the east side to introduce a policy of
gradual emancipation, deportation, and colonization.
John Letcher was also in favor of eventually keeping
slavery out of the Western District. In the course of
an interview at Washington College, General Lee said
he had always favored gradual emancipation. He had
considered the presence of the negro an absolute injury to
the state and a peril to its future. He thought it
would have been better had Virginia sent her negroes into
the cotton country.
In 1860, the imminence of civil war depreciated slave
values and gave a stimulus to a ore active selling of them
in the cotton states. In the Gazette for
January 24, 1860, William Taylor advertises for 1,000
negroes for the Southern market. Another
advertisement, dated May 10, 1860, reads thus: "I wish to
purchase 500 likely young negroes of both sexes for the
Southern market, for which I will pay the highest market
prices in cash. My address is Staunton or Middlebrook,
Augusta County, Va. J. E. Carson." About
this time advertisements of runaway slaves were somewhat a
regular feature of the newspapers.
During the war of 1861 the conduct of the negroes was
highly creditable to the race, and there were few
misdemeanors among them. Many of hte slaves showed
great fidelity in staying with the families of their masters
and working the farms. In one instance a master was
about to join the Confederate army and had to leave five
children behind him. His man-slave told him to go on
and he would himself see that things at home were attended
to. The master was killed in battle, but the negro was
faithful to his trust, and the children were enabled to go
to school. A monument marks the grave of hte old
servant in the Timber Ridge burial ground.
American slavery was doomed by the war of 1861, no
matter which side might triumph. The Federal
government resorted to emancipation as a war measure, and it
was made permanent by a constitutional amendment. Yet
it is not generally known that an emancipation act was
passed by the Confederate Congress in the closing days of
The slave was commonly known by a single name,
instances of which are Mingo, Will, Jerry, Jude, Pompey,
Dinah, Daphne, Rose, Jin, Nell, Let, Phoebe, Phillis and
Moll. One effect of emancipation was to ensure him
a surname, which was often that of a family in which he had
An interesting exception to a general rule was that of
the Reverend John Chavis. In 1802 it is
certified that he was free, decent, orderly, and
respectable, and had taken academic studies at Washington
College. Another was Patrick Henry, for whom
Thomas Jefferson built a cabin on his land at Natural
Bridge and left him in charge of the property, so that it
might be adequately shown to visitors. Jefferson
convened some land to him in fee simple and he lived on it
till his death in 1829. Henry's will is
on record at Lexington. He had the unique distinction
of being a colored slaveholder, as the following document
Be it known to all whom these presents may come, that
I, Patrick Henry, of the County of Rockbridge and
State of Virginia having in the year of our Lord one
Thousand eight hundred and fifteen purchased from
Benjamin Darst of the town of Lexington a female slave
named Louisa, and since known by the name of
Louisa Henry; now, for and in consideration of her
extraordinary meritorious zeal in the prosecution of my
interest, her constant probity and exemplary deportment
subsequent to her being recognized by my wife, together with
divers other good substantial reasons, I have this day in
open court in the county aforesaid, by this my public deed
of manumission determined to enfranchise, set free, and
admit her to a participation in all and every privilege,
advantage, and immunity that free persons of color are
capacitated, enabled, or permitted to enjoy in conformity
with the Laws and Provisions of this Commonwealth, in such
case made and provided. And by these presents I do
hereby emancipate, set free, manumit, and disenthrall, the
said Louisa alias Louisa Henry from the
shackles of slavery and bondage forever, for myself and all
persons whomsoever, I do renounce, resign, and henceforth
disclaim all right and authority over her as, or in the
capacity of a slave. And for the true and earnest
performance of each and every stipulation hereinbefore
mentioned to the said Louisa, alias Louisa Henry,
I bind myself, my heirs, executors, and administrators
forever. In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my
hand and affixed my seal this second day of December in the
year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixteen.
In 1910 the negroes of this county were sixteen per
cent. of the population, and paid taxes on land and
personalty assessed at $237,505. The gregariousness of
the race is indicated in the fact that of the aforesaid
amount, $155,653 belonged in Lexington town and district.
It is worthy of mentioned that Amy Timberlake,
daughter of a negress brought from Africa, lived to a
greater age than any other resident of Rockbridge, so far as
our information goes. She died in 1897 at the age of
In the middle course of Irish Creek is a considerable
community sometimes known as the "brown people." They
live the simple live in their little log cabins which dot
the valley and the bordering hillsides. In the veins
of many of them is the blood of the Indian as well as that
of the African, but the Caucasian type is dominant.
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