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.”

Charlotte and the Mercury Pills

As part of our ongoing effort to research the enslaved communities that once lived and worked at Historic Kenmore and George Washington’s Ferry Farm, we recently came across some very unusual information pertaining to a young enslaved woman named Charlotte who resided at Kenmore.

Charlotte, unfortunately, is a somewhat enigmatic figure. We know only a few things about her. She was about 11 years old in 1781, when Fielding Lewis died – her name appears as “Sharliot” in his probate inventory. She is also listed (along with her age) on a document called the Divvy List created by Betty Lewis shortly after her husband’s death and listing which slaves were to stay with her at Kenmore and which ones would eventually be given to her three youngest sons. Betty chose Charlotte to stay with her at Kenmore. Sixteen years later, Charlotte appears again on a list of slaves from the Lewis properties who were to be sold at vendu (public sale or auction). This document indicates that Charlotte worked as a seamstress in the Lewis household, and that she had both a young son named George, and a baby (although the baby was not identified by name or gender). One final reference to Charlotte in Kenmore’s manuscript collection is a notation that she was among 21 enslaved persons receiving textile rations sometime around 1796 (she received 5 yards of linen).

enslaved seamstress

Enslaved seamstress in the 18th century. Credit: Historical Images

As often happens in this kind of research, we can have very sparse detail about a subject’s life until we find a new document that provides incredible detail about a very specific moment in that person’s life. Such is the case with Charlotte. The new document is a list of charges for medical examinations and treatments “to Charlotte” submitted by an “R. Wellford”, a doctor, to Betty Lewis’s estate sometime after Betty’s death in 1797. It shows that from April through November of 1796, Betty Lewis paid over £10 to treat Charlotte’s unidentified ailment.

ms 850

Transcription of MS 850, Charges for Medical Expenses [1]

The Estate of Mrs. Betty Lewis
Dbt. To R. Wellford

1796
April 15th Examining Charlotte’s throat & advice for do . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.10.0
22nd Visit from the Courthouse to Charlotte . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.10.0
Twelve Mercl. Alt. pills for 12 doses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.12.0
Volatile discutrent Liniment @ 32 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.9.0

May 10th Visit from Frdbg. To Charlotte . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.10.0
Ings. For one Galen of Sudorific decoction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.6.0

July 9th Volatile Linament @3, Charlotte . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.4.6
30th Visit from Fredbg. To Charlotte . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1.0.0
31st Fifteen Alt. Merc. Pills for 15 doses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.15.0

Aug. 2nd Visit to do from Courthouse . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.10.0
Ings. As before for 1 Galen of decoction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.6.0
24th Visit refd. From Fredbg . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1.0.0
Twelve Mercl. Alt. pill as before . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.12.0
Ings. for decoction repeated . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0.6.0
Sugar of lead for 4 discontent poultices . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.3.0
Strong vitriolic astringent gargle @3 or . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.6.0

Novr. 10th Fifteen Alt. Merc. Pills . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0.15.0

£10.11.2

What can this new document tell us about Charlotte’s life? First, we can take a look at the medications prescribed to treat what we assume to be a respiratory ailment…

To begin her treatments, Charlotte was given 12 doses of mercury tablets on April 15, 1796. When ingested mercury causes the body to sweat and salivate and, as was incorrectly believed at that time, to rid itself of excess moisture and any toxins causing the sickness. In reality, mercury is a poison and the sweating, salivating, and intense diarrhea is actually the the body trying to rid itself of the deadly mercury. Mercury can also stimulate the mucous membranes thus increasing congestion and actually making it more difficult for the body to expel the mercury.

In the 18th century, much of medicine was still heavily based on a theory dating back to ancient Greece when it was believed that an imbalance of the body’s liquids or humors (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood) caused illness. While there were many medical voices in the 18th century who questioned the humors theory of illness, the idea persisted deep into the 19th century. Similarly, mercury in a drug called ‘calomel’ was still prescribed by doctors well into the 20th century.

On April 15, Charlotte was also prescribed a ‘Volatile discutrent Liniment’. This was basically ammonia suspended in some kind of oil that was spread on her chest or face to open up her airways. Think of this liniment as a very early form of Vicks VapoRub that smelled of urine. This probably would work pretty well to temporarily ease congestion if you had a nasty cold.

Then, on May 10, Charlotte receives a ‘sudorific decoction’ that, like the mercury tablets, was supposed to make her sweat a lot. If she had a fever, profuse sweating could possibly help bring down her body temperature by spurring the body’s natural cooling process of evaporating sweat from skin. The doctor may have been once again been trying to purge her body of supposed excess moisture. Regardless, with repeated purgings, Charlotte was in real danger of dehydration, a significant problem when you are ill.

On July 9 and 31, Charlotte is given even more ammonia liniment and mercury. By now, you can’t help but wonder if these treatments were making her feel far more terrible than her underlying disease.

Twice more in August, Charlotte is given more heroic amounts of mercury in addition to the ‘decoction’ to purge her system further. She is also given an ammonia gargle, probably for a sore throat, that would have tasted incredibly vile. For the first time, she is given sugar of lead poultices, which were placed on skin to dry up conditions that were ‘weepy’. Charlotte probably had some kind of sore that her doctor was trying to dry up. Perhaps it was a bed sore from being laid up for long periods by her treatments and by what we assume to be a prolonged respiratory condition?

Finally, on November 10, long suffering Charlotte is dosed once again with mercury. Presumably she still has some excess moisture in her respiratory system but as this is the only treatment given on that day and the last of the treatments recorded, she must have been recovering somehow.

Beyond the course of treatment that Charlotte underwent and clues to her what underlying illness may have been, the document also answers a few longstanding questions about the fate of many in Kenmore’s enslaved community at the end of the Lewis era. We have always wondered how many enslaved people Betty Lewis took with her when she left Kenmore and moved to Millbrook, the small farmhouse on the Po River south of town. It’s never been clear whether or not Millbrook was a large enough house to require much labor to keep it running, nor has it ever been clear how much of a farming operation Betty undertook on that land. And yet, the enslaved population that once worked at Kenmore went somewhere in 1795, when Betty left (a document in Kenmore’s collection shows that Betty paid tax on 17 slaves for the year of 1795[2]).

The bill submitted to Betty’s estate by Dr. Wellford answers at least a bit of that question. Charlotte was with Betty at Millbrook, showing that Betty felt she needed the services of a seamstress in her new home, which may indicate that Betty intended to keep up a robust household. Additionally, we know that Betty’s financial situation was precarious by the time she moved to Millbrook. The £10 that she spent on Charlotte’s medical treatment was a sizable sum for her at the time. The willingness to pay out so much money for repeated treatments may indicate that Charlotte held favored status in the household, perhaps because of her particular skilled trade, but also perhaps because she had been in the Lewis household since she was just a small child.

Interestingly, this document also tells us about the doctor prescribing Charlotte’s treatment. The “R. Wellford” shown at the top of the list of charges was almost certainly Dr. Robert Wellford, who was an interesting figure in American history. During the Revolution, Wellford began the war as a doctor in the British army, assigned to the care of American prisoners. Apparently, he was so moved by the plight of these prisoners, that he began advocating for more resources to better their living conditions. When his superiors refused, Wellford more or less “allowed” himself to be captured by the Continental Army. He informed his captors that he would provide intelligence on British movements if they sent him back to the British, which they did. Over the course of a year, Wellford spied for the Americans, smuggling out information to them, before he eventually fled to the American lines after his superiors began to question his loyalties.

Following the war, Wellford chose to stay in America, although as a former British officer he had difficulty in attracting patients to his practice in Philadelphia. George Washington eventually recommended that he move to Fredericksburg, where Washington’s family and friends would be happy to have his services. Washington even wrote a letter of introduction for him to some of the leading citizens of the area. Wellford and his family remained in Fredericksburg for the rest of his life, and he continued to be a family physician to all of the various Lewis and Washington households in the area.

Along with being a well-known physician to some of the most prominent families in Fredericksburg, Wellford seemed to take a special interest in the healthcare of the enslaved community in the area, as well. In addition to making the trip south of town to Millbrook to see Charlotte seven times over the course of his treatments, Wellford kept a diary detailing his treatments of various enslaved persons in Fredericksburg. One such treatment included a cranial surgery performed to relieve pressure on the brain of young man who had suffered a severe fall. [3]

Healthcare for the enslaved in the antebellum south is a complicated topic. While lack of proper nutrition and housing, as well as harsh working conditions, plagued enslaved communities, slave owners often thought of their enslaved workers as significant investments of money, and therefore had a vested interest in keeping them at least healthy enough to work. It was often the plantation mistress who provided the majority of healthcare to the enslaved people on the property. She mixed medicines, provided first aid, birthed babies and directed the re-housing of those affected with contagious disease (outbreaks were a constant worry in the crowded confines of slave quarters). Actual physicians were only brought in when an injury or disease was beyond the mistress’s skill. The receipt for Wellford’s services in treating Charlotte shows us that this was indeed the case on Lewis properties.

Remarkably, Charlotte survived both her ailment and the agonizing treatment for it. Unfortunately, in the 1798 document showing the final disposition of the Lewis family slaves put up for sale, we learn that Charlotte had to face another all-too-common occurrence in the lives of the enslaved. Charlotte was sold to Charles Carter for £103, while her son George was sold to Howell Lewis for £55. Carter resided in present-day Frederick County, Virginia at the time, while Lewis was still a resident of Fredericksburg, meaning that mother and son would probably see very little of each other again, and no mention is made of the listed baby. At the age of only 27, Charlotte had endured far more than horrendous illness and questionable 18th century medical treatments.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Surpervisor

[1] Account, 5 April, 1796 – 10 November, 1796. Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 850.

[2] Receipt, 5 September 1796.  Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 423.

[3] Diary of Robert Wellford (Mss1 W4599 a6), Wellford Family Papers (1794-1940), Virginia Historical Society.

Abraham and The Ropewalkers: Finding Large Stories in Small Details

The staff of Historic Kenmore & George Washington’s Ferry Farm regularly conducts research into the enslaved communities that existed at both Kenmore and Ferry Farm during the Lewis and Washington family occupations.  Most of the surviving information about the enslaved is of a statistical nature – numbers, ages, locations, and luckily, names.  In comparison to the amount of documentation surviving about the Lewis family at Kenmore, however, the records pertaining to that site’s enslaved residents are scant.  And yet, Kenmore’s enslaved community is remarkably well-documented in comparison to other historic sites.  At Kenmore, we started our project with four known primary documents which survive in our manuscript collection:

  1. “The Probate” – Fielding Lewis’s probate inventory, conducted in 1781
  1. “The Divvy List” – a list written by Betty Lewis, outlining the division of slaves between her children as directed by Fielding Lewis’s last will and testament (list is dated 1782 and provides the age of each enslaved person listed, as well as some familial relationships)
  1. “The Vendu List” – a page from an account book that lists the names of enslaved people, as well as the skill or trade for some, and some familial relationships, on the Kenmore property that are to be sold at vendu (public auction or sale) following Betty Lewis’s death in 1797 (list is dated 1798, the author is unknown)
  1. “The Final Disposition” – a similar page from an account book that lists the names of slaves who were actually sold at the vendu in 1798, as well as the price paid for each and in some cases, the person who purchased them (the author is unknown)

Initially, these documents provided us with a timeframe for slavery at Kenmore, and a way to calculate the number of people owned by the Lewis family (in total, we believe that Fielding Lewis owned approximately 132 people in 1781, spread between his two primary plantations in Fredericksburg and in Frederick County, Virginia).  But, as we began to read the documents with a more critical eye, other details began to emerge – tiny notations and symbols, words crossed out by an unseen hand 200 years before, and abbreviations with an unknown meaning.  We noted every single one of these pen strokes.  There was actually a great deal of information hidden in plain sight on these documents – we just had to decipher it.

Abraham RW

Portion of The Divvy List showing Abraham with an “R.W.” after his name.

One such mysterious notation appeared on the document we refer to as the Divvy List.  One name, Abraham, appeared in the column for enslaved persons going to Robert Lewis.  Abraham was listed as being age 25, and the letters “R.W.” were written after his name.  What did R.W. mean? No other name in the document showed the same notation, and there didn’t appear to be any other clues in the Divvy List, so the mysterious “R.W.” was simply noted in Abraham’s file (we have developed a file for each enslaved person identified in the project) and we moved on.  But Abraham’s odd notation would come up again, with some interesting significance.

In the Vendu List, we were presented with unambiguous, cut and dry information.  Names of the enslaved, their skills, and children identified with their mothers.  It didn’t require a great deal of interpretation.  However, there were three enslaved people who showed some rather unusual skillsets.  Bob, George, and Randolph were all listed as being “ropemakers.” While ropemaking was certainly an important trade in the 18th century, having three people with that skill in a group of 25 adults seemed somewhat unusual.  Again, the information was noted in each individual’s file and we made a mental note to come back to it at some point.

Bob 2 and 3

Portion of The Divvy List showing Bob #2 with “Fredbg” after his name and Bob #2 with “Ropewalk” after his name.

The enslaved individual named Bob in the Vendu List was one of three Bobs who showed up throughout the four original primary documents, but only in the Divvy List did all three Bobs show up at the same time, which afforded us the chance to distinguish between the three individuals.  Bob #1 was age 27, Bob #2 was age 50 and Bob #3 was 23 years of age.  Bob #2 and #3 were listed as going to Lawrence Lewis, while Bob #1 was to stay with Betty.  Using a device that she employed throughout the Divvy List to differentiate between people with the same name, Betty added a word after each Bob.  Bob #1 had “(long)” written after his name, probably referring to a physical characteristic as “long” often meant “tall.” Bob #2 had “Fredbg” after his name. Obviously, this is simply an abbreviation for Fredericksburg where Bob lived (as opposed to the Lewis property in Frederick County). Bob #3 had “ropewalk” written after his name.  Initially, we thought it was a misprint and that Betty had intended to write “ropemaker”, since one of the ropemakers on the Vendu List was a Bob.  But, what if it wasn’t a misprint? What if, like “Fredbg”, “ropewalk” indicated the place where Bob 3 lived? And if that was the case, what if the notation of “R.W.” following Abraham’s name also indicated a place? What if that place was a “ropewalk”?

Prior to the invention of steam power, ropewalks were quite literally the places where rope was handmade throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.  They were most often found in port cities, like Liverpool, England, Norfolk, Virginia, and Boston, Massachusetts (where the earliest colonial ropewalk is documented in 1642)[i], to serve the endless need of maritime vessels for incredible lengths of rope (the British Navy required that a single rope be no less than a 1,000 feet and the HMS Victory required 26 miles of rope).[ii]  Once the American Revolution was in full swing, and the fledgling American Navy had come into existence, the colonies were on their own for producing enough cordage to supply the fleet, and smaller ropewalk operations began popping up in river towns and military supply centers.

Wright's Rope Walk, 1770

Wright’s Rope Walk in Birmingham, England about the year 1770.

Large commercial ropewalks, like those in Boston, were comprised of low, one-story, incredibly long sheds (Gray’s Ropeworks in Boston was 934 feet long – more than 3 football fields), usually with only a roof.  These structures housed a ditch in the ground, in which long hemp fibers were laid out and twisted together by “spinners” who had to walk the length of the building, backwards, while twisting and pulling hemp fibers, hence the name “walk.”  A ropemaker could walk the equivalent of 20 miles in one day’s work.[iii]  Spinners wore bundles of hemp fibers wrapped around their waists, which they fed into the twisting rope in front of them.  Spaced at regular intervals along the ditch were wooden posts, with hooks mounted on them.  The spinners would loop the freshly spun rope over the hooks as they proceeded down the ditch, to keep the tightly wound fibers from snapping backwards or coiling in on itself.  Ropewalks were also known as incredibly dangerous places, as the air was filled with the fine dust of hemp fibers which easily ignited and could cause uncontrollable fire.

This back breaking work was done mostly by free tradespeople in northern cities.  In fact, one of the first three men killed in the Boston Massacre was Samuel Gray, a ropemaker at Gray’s, who had been involved in several street fights with British soldiers, along with a gang of his fellow ropemakers, in the days leading up to the Massacre.  Ropemakers were known agitators for the revolutionary cause and fomented sedition in the ropewalks of Boston.

In a complete contrast, in southern ports, ropemaking was performed almost entirely by enslaved labor.  In Virginia, there were at least 18 ropewalks in operation by the end of the war.  Three of them were government-sponsored and used public funds to purchase hemp from local farmers.  The rest were private ventures, run by merchants and entrepreneurs who saw the growing need.[iv]  The largest of the public operations was the Public Rope Walk in Warwick, near Richmond.  It had become the primary rope producer for the Continental Navy after the British destruction of their own ropewalks at Norfolk, which had been confiscated by American forces after the war began.[v]  At its height, Warwick employed 28 enslaved laborers.  In 1781, Benedict Arnold led British forces against Richmond, with one of their main objectives being the destruction of the Warwick ropewalk, which they achieved.  Fifteen of the enslaved workers were captured (or perhaps chose to leave with British forces).  The Virginia government sold the remaining 13 ropemakers to private ropewalks around the colony.[vi]  The catastrophe at Warwick was a huge blow to Virginia naval forces and for the duration of the war it was up to the smaller ropewalks to meet demand.

So, if Fielding Lewis owned enslaved persons who appeared to be living at or employed in a ropewalk, was there a ropewalk in Fredericksburg? Fredericksburg was a primary depot for supplies being shipped out to the Continental Army and to the Virginia militia.  Fielding Lewis himself oversaw many supplies distributed out of Fredericksburg and, of course, he was one of the two owners of the Fredericksburg Gunnery, which manufactured and supplied weapons to the Continental Army.  Additionally, Fielding owned several transatlantic trade ships, which he converted into naval patrol vessels once the war broke out.  Those ships required rope before and during the war. Perhaps ropemaking was another war-time activity that Fielding participated in?

Ad for Atkinson & Hanewinkel, Virginia Gazette, September 1776

Advertisement for “dressed FLAX and HEMP” placed by John Atkinson and Alexander Hanewinkel in the September 6, 1776 edition of Purdie’s Virginia Gazette.

It turns out that there was indeed a local ropemaking industry with three separate ropewalks documented in the Fredericksburg area.  According to an ad placed in the Virginia Gazette in September of 1776, Alexander Hanewinkel and John Atkinson had opened a hemp and flax factory that made textiles, sail cloth and rope, and included a school to train laborers to break and dress hemp for rope.  It read, in part, “Gentlemen may have their negroes, etc. instructed in Flax Dressing, for six months of their labour.”[vii]  However, it appears that Hanewinkel and Atkinson ran out of money for their venture by the end of the year and petitioned the House of Delegates to provide them funding.  Hanewinkel and Atkinson specifically mentioned the high wages charged by laborers skilled in ropemaking and weaving as being among the reasons they were running short of money.[viii]  Another ad in the Virginia Gazette in 1777 indicates that another ropewalk had been set up in nearby Falmouth by John Richards and James Long, who were seeking to hire a manager, but almost no record of this ropewalk exists beyond the ad.[ix]  Lastly, John Frazer started the Fredericksburg Ropewalk, which appears to be the largest of all the local ventures.  In fact, the Fredericksburg Ropewalk is documented as sending cordage north to supply the rope merchants in Alexandria, despite the presence of several ropewalks in that city.[x]  Additionally, James Hunter (Fredericksburg merchant and business rival of Fielding Lewis) purchased 11,000 pounds of cordage from the Fredericksburg Ropewalk in 1779, indicating a rather large operation.[xi]

Likely because of the chaos of war and the ad hoc way in which the Americans were trying to supply the war effort, documentation for these ventures is hard to find, and therefore we don’t even know where in Fredericksburg the ropewalks were located.  The smaller ropewalk operations begun to help the war effort were usually much less formal than their pre-war counterparts, like Gray’s Rope Works in Boston.  Instead of actual sheds or roofed buildings, most were just the long, straight ditch in the ground, bordered by occasional wooden posts on either side, situated on flat stretches of land, like fields or flood plains.  With so little actual structure, archaeological evidence for these sites is sparse.  The Jones Point Ropewalk site in Alexandria, Virginia has been excavated, but archaeology revealed only post holes in long rows, with a stained stretch of ground between them (the stain may have been caused by the tar that was poured over the rope to make it resistant to rot).[xii]  Such a site would be hard to locate without any indication of where to look.

The Fredericksburg Ropewalk probably did not have actual sheds or roofed buildings. It was most likely just a long, straight ditch in the ground, bordered by occasional wooden posts on either side, situated on a flat stretch of land similar to this Dutch ropewalk.

The likeliest candidates for the places where the Lewis family’s enslaved ropewalkers Abraham, Bob, George and Randolph were employed are either the Hanewinkel & Atkinson factory and school, where Fielding might have sent them to learn a profitable (for him) trade, or the Fredericksburg Ropewalk, which was clearly the largest operation in the area.  But, the petition for funds put before the House of Delegates by Hanewinkel seems to indicate that he and his business partner were having no luck in attracting owners to provide slave labor to their ropewalk.  On the other hand, would Fielding have been willing to supply labor at his own expense to business rivals like James Hunter and John Fraser?

Interestingly, it may be that a major clue about enslaved ropemakers at Kenmore was right in front of us all along.  Among the “odds and ends” of assets and instructions for their disposition listed at the very end of Fielding Lewis’s will is “my share in the Chatham rope walk in Richmond” (which Fielding directs to be sold and the proceeds divided between his sons).  Prior to learning that three, and possibly four, of the enslaved persons at Kenmore were ropemakers, this reference seemed to be just one of many rather insignificant business matters.  But suddenly it became a more important notation.  What was the Chatham ropewalk? Obviously it was in Richmond, but could we learn anything more about it? In fact, we could.

The Chatham ropewalk (sometimes called the Chatham Rope Company, sometimes the Chatham Rope Yard, and also the Chatham Ropery) was owned by a consortium of businessmen led by Archibald Cary, who also had part ownership in one of the ropewalks destroyed by the British at Norfolk in 1776.[xiii]  It didn’t take him long to regroup however, and less than a year later, in August 1777, Cary and associates were advertising in the Virginia Gazette for trained spinners to work at the Chatham site, which was located on Shockoe Hill.  Fielding Lewis is not mentioned as one of the founding investors in the venture, but he certainly knew Cary, as they served in the House of Burgesses together and both were tasked with procuring military supplies in central Virginia.

Rope, or line, was an 18th century essential, rather on Atlantic sailing vessels or a Virginia farm.

There appears to be some debate about the fate of the Chatham ropewalk.  In January of 1781, when Benedict Arnold and his British forces raided Richmond, many industrial buildings were intentionally destroyed, aimed at critically injuring the American war machine.  Arnold identified a ropewalk as being among the facilities that he and his men destroyed in Richmond (in addition to the ropewalk at Warwick, outside of Richmond), and since most of their destruction took place in and around Shockoe Hill, some historians maintain that the Chatham ropewalk seems the likely candidate.[xiv]  However, the Marquis de Lafayette apparently quartered his troops inside the ropewalk “on the east side of the city”[xv] (which would also describe the location of the Chatham ropewalk) when they marched through Richmond a few months later, which would seem to indicate that the ropewalk structure was still standing.  And of course, Fielding Lewis seemed to feel that his share in the Chatham ropewalk was still worth something when he wrote his will in October of 1781.  No additional family documents shed any light on whether or not the share was sold as directed.

So, the question now becomes, did Fielding Lewis send Abraham, Bob, George, and Randolph to work and possibly live at the local Fredericksburg ropewalks or did he send them all the way to Richmond to work and live at a ropewalk in which he had a financial stake? Arguments for both can be made, but at the moment we haven’t found any documentation to conclusively say which it was.  One final clue, although its meaning is still unclear, was discovered in a fragmented receipt in the Kenmore archival collection.  The receipt, dated 1794, shows that Betty Lewis paid off her account with the Fredericksburg general mercantile store Callender & Henderson by hiring out the labor of Bob, George, and Randolph for one year to David Henderson.[xvi]  As all three were ropemakers, we have to assume that Henderson was interested in them for that skill and was aware that they had it.

As to the ultimate fates of Abraham, Bob, Randolph, and George, we know some things.  Abraham was intended to go to Robert Lewis when he came of age, and so we assume that he did.  However, estate records for Robert Lewis show no Abraham on his property at the time of Robert’s death.  Bob was apparently intended to go to Lawrence Lewis, but instead he must have stayed with Betty Lewis, as his name and occupation of ropemaker appear on the Vendu List in 1797.  However, his name does not appear on the Final Disposition, so we do not know with any certainty who purchased him at the sale.  Randolph also stayed at Kenmore and is listed on the Final Disposition document as being sold to George Lewis for £121.  As property of George Lewis, he would have gone to Marmion Plantation on the Northern Neck.  Interestingly, George was also sold to George Lewis in the Final Disposition, for £122, meaning that Lewis had purchased two of the three ropemakers listed.

Abraham’s mysterious “R.W.” notation was initially just a fragment of information to be cataloged as part of the larger project to research the enslaved communities at both Kenmore and Ferry Farm.  While we know almost nothing else of this man, that tiny two-letter notation revealed a story that he was a large part of – what trade he may have had, where he may have lived, and which members of his community he may have been closest to.  We will continue to search for these larger stories in the smallest of details.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[i] Samuel Gray.  Boston Massacre Historical Society. http://www.bostonmassacre.net

[ii] HMS Victory, The National Museum of the Royal Navy. https://web.archive.org/web/20120501012634/http://www.hms-victory.com

[iii] The Long Story of the Jones Point Ropewalk, 1833 – 1850. National Park Service Historical Marker. https://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=127774

[iv] Swenson, Ben. Hemp & Flax in Colonial America. Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Winter 2015.

[v] Ward, Harry M. and Harold E. Greer, Jr. Richmond During the Revolution: 1775 – 1783. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA. Pg. 136.

[vi] Herndon, G. Melvin. A War-Inspired Industry: The Manufacture of Hemp in Virginia During the Revolution. The Virginia Magazine of History & Biography, Vol. 74, No.3 (July, 1966).  Pg. 309.

[vii] Ibid, Pg. 305.  Virginia Gazette, September 5, 1776.

[viii] Journal of the House of Delegates, Anno Domini 1776. Library of Virginia. Pg. 8.

[ix] Herndon, 307.  Virginia Gazette, June 6, 1777.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] John Frazer to James Hunter, August 25, 1782. ALS. Hunter Family Papers, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, VA.

[xii] The Long Story of the Jones Point Ropewalk, 1833 – 1850.

[xiii] Ward, 136.

[xiv] Ibid, 137.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Receipt, January – December, 1794.  Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 716.

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