Billy at the Door

In our ongoing series of investigations into the lives of Historic Kenmore’s enslaved community during the Lewis era, we recently uncovered another full identity behind what was once just a name.  Once again, close examination of long-forgotten documents and analysis of hidden clues revealed this man’s story, and in a rare turn of events, gave us some extra details about his life. 

If you read the previous posts in this series, you know that our hunt for information began with four basic primary documents – 1) Fielding Lewis’s 1781 probate inventory, 2) the 1782 Divvy List written by Betty Lewis, 3) the Vendu (public auction) List compiled in 1798, and 4) the Final Disposition list also written in 1798.  Each provides a list of enslaved persons associated with the Lewis family at key moments in their history (for further discussion of these documents click here).

One of the first quirks we noted in these four documents was that each began with the same name: Billy.  The rest of the names are often in similar, but not quite the same, order from document to document.  But, Billy is always the headliner. What could that mean? Did it really mean anything?

1781 Probate Inventory of Fielding Lewis’s property showing Billy listed from amount the enslaved people.

The obvious assumption is that Billy’s position as the first named indicates importance – the top of any list is usually someone of importance.  However, different people wrote these four documents, and importance may not mean the same thing to all of them. For example, the Divvy List written by Betty Lewis was her account of which enslaved persons were to stay at Kenmore and which were to be divided among her sons following her husband’s death. As the mistress of the house, Betty was aware of  who she felt was most important to the operation of her household and who she preferred to keep.

Conversely, the person conducting a probate inventory might not be familiar with the enslaved people on a property and might not know their comparative significance.  We know the 1781 probate inventory was written to follow the inventory-taker’s path through the house. It starts with the chamber (immediately inside the entrance door), proceeds through the passage into the dining room, then into the drawing room and ends in the office, which is the last room you encounter before leaving the house through the side door.  Perhaps the inventory-taker was listing the people on the property as he encountered them, just as he was doing with the contents of the rooms.  Therefore, perhaps Billy was the first person he came across when entering the house.

On both the Vendu List and the Final Disposition, Billy is listed first and is valued at £99, suggesting he had skills or traits that were valued by auction bidders. While the Vendu List recorded the trade for some people, Billy was shown simply as a “house servant.”  Any of these reasons could explain Billy’s primacy on the documents.

Without further clues, divining why Billy was always listed first was all speculation.  The odd repetition of Billy’s name at the head of every list was noted in his file, and we moved on.

As our project progressed, we found more references to Billy in other documents and fragments in Kenmore’s manuscript collection.  The Billy that is the focus of this particular research was 38 years old in 1782. (There were actually three people named Billy living on the Lewis properties, but we were able to separate the references based on age.  Betty Lewis recorded ages next to every name in the Divvy List.)

One of the earliest references to Billy may indicate how he came to be in the Lewis household.  In 1755, Fielding and Betty Lewis made a land purchase from Fielding’s brother Charles.  In addition to 1,800 acres, the purchase also included 40 enslaved individuals.  The names of those individuals were listed in the land deed, and Billy appears among them.[1]  He was approximately 11 years old.  Because this land purchase was made only a year after Fielding’s father died, it is possible that Billy and the other enslaved people on the property originally belonged to Fielding’s father at Warner Hall in Gloucester, meaning Billy was owned by the Lewis family for his entire life.

Charles Calvert and his Slave (1716) by John Hesselius. This portrait is particularly evocative because it depicts a relationship that might have been similar to Billy and young George Lewis. Credit: Baltimore Museum of Art / Wikipedia

The other reference to Billy occurred during the Lewis era at Kenmore and was on a fragmentary list of textile rations allotted to enslaved individuals.[2]  Bundles of either cotton or linen yardage were distributed to 26 people.  As with the four main enslaved community documents, Billy is again at the top of this list of rations.  He is one of only two people to receive both cotton and linen, and the amount of yardage distributed to him is more than for any other person on the list.  The list is undated, but by process of elimination we have placed it between 1786 and 1797. Billy was between 42 and 53 years old.

Portrait of a Youth in an Embroidered Vest (1785) by Marie-Victoire Lemoine shows a young enslaved man wearing an example of the fancy livery often worn by the house servants n wealthy households like the Lewis one. Credit: Cummer Museum

 Interestingly, all other references to Billy found in Kenmore’s manuscript collection deal with his post-Kenmore life.  The Final Disposition document shows that Billy stayed within the Lewis family after leaving Kenmore. He was sold to George Lewis, Betty and Fielding’s son.  George Lewis owned Marmion plantation in Westmoreland County, and so Billy went to live there, along with the 8 additional people George purchased from his father’s estate at the vendu.  Prior to the vendu sale, perhaps after Betty’s death in March of 1797 but before her estate was settled, it appears that actually Billy was already working in George Lewis’s household.  In that year, George paid for rather expensive shoes to be made for Billy, as well as for two other men he would eventually purchase at vendu.[3]  Billy also appeared to be trusted to handle money and run financial errands for George. In 1797, he delivered payment for George’s debt with merchant Clement Burrass.  Burrass referred to him as “Old Billy” on the receipt.[4]  These references in 1797, prior to the vendu sale, may indicate that George Lewis already had a significant relationship with Billy and knew that he would bring him into his household once his mother’s estate was settled. 

Taken together, these fragments of information found throughout the manuscript collection on Billy seem to indicate that he was a man of significance among the enslaved community at Kenmore.  His name at the head of every list of individuals on the property, his comparatively large textile ration, his high value at vendu, his association with the Lewis family from a very early age, his early and trusted relationship with George Lewis, and the notation that he was a house servant all combine to indicate that Billy was among the enslaved people who lived and worked within the Lewis house itself. In fact, he was probably the head of that enslaved household staff, a position we know today as a butler.  He is now one of only three people positively identified among Kenmore’s house slaves.

But Billy’s story doesn’t end there.  The next references leap ahead to 1803, when shoemaker Jessee Davis requested George Lewis  send payment on his account “by way of Billy.” Apparently, by this time it was accepted practice among local merchants for Billy to act as George Lewis’s representative.[5]  This continued through 1809, when an account ledger from the shop of William Johnston shows cash paid out to “Old Billy” on George’s account.[6]  Unfortunately, no additional references to Billy were found in the manuscript collection until sometime shortly after George Lewis’s death in 1821. That’s when an already interesting story gets even more interesting.

Although George Lewis died in November of 1821, a probate inventory of his home at Marmion was not conducted until 1823.  That inventory, filed with the King George County court, survived and shows “Billy, Old” in the list of enslaved persons on the property. His monetary value is listed as zero, indicating that he is past the age of useful labor.[7]  However, Billy’s name is enclosed in a bracket with three others – Kizzey, Fanny and Bob.  In fact, there are several other groupings of people enclosed with similar brackets in the inventory. All were labelled to indicate the relationship, such as “James and Sylvia’s children,” except for Billy’s bracket.  Luckily, another document explained it. 

Apparently sometime before his death in 1821, George Lewis spent considerable time putting his affairs in order and making lists of various personal assets.  One such list was written on a page from a ledger book, divided into three columns headed “Names,” “To Whom Sold,” and “Price.”  It was a list of enslaved persons at Marmion that were to be sold at vendu.  Although only the first column –“Names” – was filled in, the page provided some crucial information.  The names were divided into lots.  Billy shows up in the 2nd lot as “Old Man Billy”, along with Kizzey, Fanny and Bob.  Billy isn’t listed for sale, however. His name is in a note written under the lot that reads,

“In this lot, Old Man Billy must be attached.  Whoever purchases this lot, Old Man must be supported as he has always been the balance of his life – that is, to be indulged in having one of his grandchildren to wait and attend on him, the old man to be well clothed with one good suit of clothes compleat every year so long as he may live.”[8]

That sentence both confirms Billy’s special status in the Lewis family, and reveals a huge piece of information: evidently, Kizzey, Fanny and Bob are Billy’s grandchildren.

Portions relevant to Billy of an 1821 list of enslaved people drafted by George Lewis.

The revelation that Billy had grandchildren is a rare bit of information not often found when researching the lives of the enslaved.  Among those individuals living on the Kenmore property, references to family relationships are almost always made from mother to child. Fathers and husbands are never noted.  It wasn’t until George Lewis set up his household at Marmion, that he began to occasionally note male family members among the enslaved community there.  Billy was the only holdover from Kenmore to receive such attention.  Of course, if Billy had grandchildren, he must have also had at least one child of his own, and that most likely means that he had a wife, as well.  Who could these missing members of Billy’s family tree be?

Unfortunately, this is probably the end of the documented trail for Billy – anything further we can surmise about his family is complete speculation.  In the 1823 probate inventory of George Lewis’s estate – the one that initially showed Billy’s name in a bracket with Kizzey, Fanny and Bob – there is a couple, Tom Brown and Becky, enclosed in a bracket, listed directly above Billy.  They are the only people on the list that don’t have an identified family relationship.  There is no notation to explain this couple, but it is possible that they are related to Billy and his grandchildren in some manner – possibly their parents?[9]

Another possibility involves the group of people who George Lewis purchased from his father’s estate.  The only female among the group was Nanny, a woman who we know very little about from her time at Kenmore.  We do know that her mother was named Fanny.  Is it possible that Nanny was Billy’s wife, and that his grandchild Fanny carried on a family naming tradition?

In any case, by the time George Lewis was arranging for Billy’s sale at the age of 79, neither his wife nor a child was identified or likely existed among the Marmion enslaved community, indicating that Billy had likely been separated from them at some earlier time.  Although we don’t know when the actual vendu for the George Lewis’s estate took place, or who purchased the individuals on the list, we do know that by 1830 Billy and his grandchildren were gone from the Marmion property.

If you were to visit Kenmore as a guest between the years of 1775 and 1796, the first face you encountered at the door was Billy’s. He was a daily visitor to the bedchamber, where he received the day’s menu and instructions for the household from Mrs. Lewis. He oversaw the setting of the table. He was silently present in the dining room during meals. He served the madeira in the drawing room after dinner. He oversaw the turning back of beds and laying of fires at night.  If you were an overnight guest, Billy might have been the last person you saw before retiring for the night.  Billy had his own life, too – a wife and family living somewhere on the property. Friends and neighbors within his community who also followed his instructions in the house. When running daily errands in town, he was a recognized figure walking on Fredericksburg’s streets.  Eventually, he even had his grandchildren with him, when all others were gone away.  Billy is now one more name and one more life made less mysterious by our ongoing research into Kenmore’s enslaved community.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations


[1] “Indenture (Deed of Sale), Charles Lewis to Fielding & Betty Lewis,” October 9, 1755; Spotsylvania County Deed Book E, Pg. 299.  Photocopy from the original, Kenmore Manuscript Collection (PH 707).

[2] “List (fragment),” Kenmore Manuscript Collection (MS 1073).

[3] “Account with Major George Lewis,” October 30, 1794 – January 2, 1797; Kenmore Manuscript Collection (MS 868).

[4] “Account, Major George Lewis in Account with Clement Burrass,” 1797; Kenmore Manuscript Collection (MS 866).

[5] “Account, Major George Lewis to Jessee Davis,” 1803; Kenmore Manuscript Collection (MS 892).

[6] “Account, William Johnston in Account with George Lewis,” 1807 – 1809; Kenmore Manuscript Collection (MS 924).

[7] “Inventory and Appraisement of the Estate of George Lewis, D’sd,” February 7, 1823; King George County Will Book, Pg. 296.  Photocopy from the original, Kenmore Research Files (Wills and Inventories of Lewis Descendants).

[8] “List of Negroes” by George Lewis, ca. 1821; Kenmore Manuscript Collection (MS 1049).

[9] “Inventory and Appraisement of the Estate of George Lewis, D’sd.”

Between the Lines: Teasing out Tame’s Story

In this day and age, it is easy to discover the particulars of someone’s life simply with the click of a button.  Phone number, age, home address, professional resume and more can easily be obtained by searching through public records on the Internet or at the library. A treasure trove of current primary and secondary resources awaits the present-day researcher trying to uncover the facts of someone’s life in the 21st century.

But what do you do when the person lived over 250 years ago? What public and private historical records are available that will tell us who a person was, how they lived, when they died, and who their family was? Time, circumstances, and the natural decay of paper all take a toll on the sources we use to study the history of the people who came before us.  But the amount and quality of available information about a person also depends on the status and role they played in their own time.

In 1750, an enslaved person living at George Washington’s boyhood home, now called “Ferry Farm,” was murdered.  His name was Tame and he was killed by Harry, another enslaved man owned by the Washington family.  These bare facts were recorded at a King George County Court of Oyer and Terminer, with no further explanations given of the crime or of the motives involved.[1]

What led to Tame’s death? For that matter, who was Tame? How old was he? Where did he come from? How long was he with the Washington family and how does his fateful story figure into the daily operations of the farm and household? Answers to these kinds of questions are hard to come by because the stories of the enslaved population in the historical record are limited, in many cases, to just a few documents spanning their lifetime.

Excavated by archaeologist at Ferry Farm, this broad hoe, also known as a “weed hoe,” was used sometime in the mid-1700s by enslaved people to remove weeds and loosen soil around crops. Older slave children joined adults in the fields to do this difficult task.

Discovering Tame’s story begins with finding him in the written records.  Augustine Washington, George’s father, died on April 12, 1743, seven years before Tame’s murder.  His will, written a day before his death, lists by name some of the slaves that belonged to him and to whom he gave them. Tame is not among those mentioned.[2]  The subsequent July 1, 1743 probate inventory of Augustine’s estate details the property and personal items he owned and their value, including a list of the enslaved population, but Tame, again, is not listed.[3]

Since he was not mentioned in either of these two historical documents relating to Augustine’s property, it’s possible that Tame was acquired after Augustine died,  either by his estate, his heirs, or by his wife Mary and sometime between 1743 and 1750.

There is another scenario to consider, however.  Perhaps Tame does not show up in the court documents surrounding Augustine’s death because Tame was actually the property of Mary, Augustine’s wife, instead.

To burn efficiently and ensure a clean flame, the cotton wicks of candles needed to be trimmed frequently. This tool, known as a wick trimmer (above and below), was used for this purpose. Due to the mundane and constant nature of the task, household slaves were often charged with maintaining candle wicks.

To burn efficiently and ensure a clean flame, the cotton wicks of candles needed to be trimmed frequently. These tools, known as wick trimmers (above and below), were used for this purpose and discovered during excavations at Ferry Farm. Due to the mundane and constant nature of the task, household slaves were often charged with maintaining candle wicks.

FF20-325-1-2590-Wick Trimmer

Mary Ball, who married Augustine Washington in 1731, was born to Mary Johnson and Joseph Ball in 1708 in Lancaster County, Virginia.  When her father Joseph died in 1711, he willed to her a young slave:   ”Item: I give to my daughter Mary my negro boy Tame…” (Lancaster County Will Book 10:88). Since Tame is described as a “boy” in the document, he could be roughly any age between 5 and 16 years.

Is this boy, willed to Mary when she was but three years old, the same person who was murdered 39 years later in 1750 at Ferry Farm? As Mary’s property, the boy Tame would have been part of her household wherever she lived: with her mother in Northumberland County following her father’s death, with her as Augustine’s wife at Pope’s Creek, Westmoreland County, and then, finally, at Ferry Farm, where she lived mostly as a widow.  As Mary’s property, Tame would not have appeared in the will or probate lists of her husband.  What is also interesting is that both Tame and the man accused of murdering him were described in the 1750 court proceedings as “belonging to Mary Washington of this county widow.”

Exactly what role Tame played on the Washington farm and within their enslaved community is unknown. If Tame is the same boy Mary received when she was 3, he would be in his 40s or 50s when at Ferry Farm, and thus someone Mary had known well her whole life. Did he work in or around the main household for the family or as a field laborer?  Did his age and long term relationship with Mary relate in any way to his unfortunate murder in 1750? What was his status within the slave community? Even Tame’s name adds an interesting aspect to his story that separates him from the other Washington slaves on the farm. “Tame” is a name of West African origin and is unlike the usual Anglicized names of contemporary Washington slaves, such as Jack, Ned, Tim, Steven and Adam, as recorded in Augustine’s will and probate inventory.

Recent research shows cowry shells were used as currency as part of the slave trade. The modifications to our cowries facilitate stringing them into groups of 40. These shells, originally from the east Indian Ocean, traveled to Virginia with their enslaved owners. Evoking memories of their African homeland and heritage, such familiar emblems helped comfort those who remembered a life of freedom and helped them to maintain elements of their culture.

Recent research shows cowry shells like this one were used as currency as part of the slave trade. The modifications to cowries discovered at Ferry Farm facilitated stringing them into groups of 40. These shells, originally from the east Indian Ocean, traveled to Virginia with their enslaved owners. Evoking memories of their African homeland and heritage, such familiar emblems helped comfort those who remembered a life of freedom and helped them to maintain elements of their culture.

Tame’s existence in the historical documents is brief and mysterious. It may always remain a mystery but further research may yet illuminate this man’s story and his long association with Mary Washington. History is indeed an unending journey.

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Lab Supervisor

[1] King George County Order Book 2, p. 670

[2] King George County Order Book 2, Part 1, p. 333

[3] King George County Inventory Book, 1721-1744, p. 285