Stories that Demand to be Told: Fielding Lewis and the Bray School for Educating Enslaved Children

During the 18th century, the city of Fredericksburg was described as “a considerable town of trade, furnishing the country around.”[1] As such, it was deemed a rather important town and was the site of one of two schools for enslaved children established in Virginia during the Colonial period. The school was located somewhere downtown, likely near St. George’s Church. Two of the trustees in charge of operating the school were the Reverends James Marye, Sr. and later his son James Marye, Jr. Another trustee was none other than Historic Kenmore’s own, Fielding Lewis.

The school was funded and established by a group of English clergymen and philanthropists known as the Associates of Dr. Bray. Thomas Bray was an Anglican minister who had grown up without wealth. Due to his family’s financial situation, Bray found certain doors, specifically education, closed to him. Through his time in the ministry, however, he was able to gain the knowledge needed to become a great influence and practitioner of philanthropy. Towards the end of his life, he established The Associates of the Reverend Dr. Bray. Its eventual goal was to create avenues of religious and secular education for black children. While never condemning slavery, Bray felt that the souls of enslaved people needed to be saved in the Anglican faith. In order to be able to worship properly, they would need to be able to read and write. By the end of the 18th century, the Bray Associates had founded 41 libraries, donated over 22,000 books to different Anglican parishes in the colonies, and established a handful of schools across British North America.

Thomas Bray as depicted in The Founders: Portraits of Persons Born Abroad Who Came to the Colonies in North America Before the Year 1701; With an Introduction, Biographical Outlines and Comments on the Portraits. E 187.5 .B69. Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va. Credit:

The first Bray Associates colonial school was established in 1758 in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania’s Quaker population was decidedly anti-slavery even in the 18th century so Philadelphia already had a sizable population of free blacks. By 1780, the state of Pennsylvania completed the process of gradual emancipation and did not allow slavery, though there were loopholes in the law, one of which allowed President George Washington to use enslaved men and women at the executive mansion situated in Philadelphia. Slavery in an urban setting like Philadelphia looked different than on plantations in southern colonies. Most urban enslaved people typically performed domestic labor. This meant different expectations for enslaved people in cities, i.e. knowing how to read and write was more important. Due to these circumstances, the Bray school in Philadelphia operated quite successfully. A location for the school was procured without much effort, and a schoolmistress was also easy to come by. The school’s trustees reported full enrollment to the Bray Associates throughout its operation. The school was so successful that it reopened after the American Revolution, and the Bray Associates opened two additional schools in Philadelphia during the 19th century.

After the school in Philadelphia was established, the Associates were eager to create additional schools in the colonies. At this time, Benjamin Franklin was in London and became an Associate. He suggested several potential locations and even trustees for the next school. This second school was established in 1760 in Williamsburg. The Associates sought an enrollment number of 30, and the school opened with 24 pupils. The trustees deemed this quite successful and thought the number was a fair amount for one schoolmistress to manage. In fact, the trustees had a difficult time finding a schoolmistress at all. Their solution was that the Associates would provide additional funding for a few years but, in turn, the Associates encouraged the trustees to find charitable citizens in the town to help supplement the endowment.

The Bray-Digges House in its original location on Prince George Street, c. 1928
Credit: Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
. Credit: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation [PDF]

Another issue at the Williamsburg school was that pupils, even those who belonged to the small free black population in town, were unable to attend regularly. They often stayed for no longer than it took to gain basic reading and writing knowledge. The goal of the Bray Associates, however, was to bring black children to the Anglican faith. This could not be realized if they left school too soon. The trustees attempted to draw up formal rules and a desired curriculum that would encourage the children to remain in the school longer, but it didn’t help the situation.

The Williamsburg school operated for a little over 13 years and was closed in 1774. The closure likely stemmed from the financial difficulties of securing a new schoolmistress after the first one had passed away as well as from the frustration over the lack of returning students year-to-year. There was not an overall lack of students, however, because a report in 1769 said the school still had a full 30 enrolled.

Due to the measured success of the Williamsburg school, the Associates began to search for other southern towns in which to continue their mission. Fredericksburg was suggested by a local minister and the supplies for the school were sent in 1764. From the start, Rev. James Marye, Sr., and Fielding Lewis were pessimistic about the school’s outlook. When the idea was presented to prominent members of the town, there was no enthusiasm. Nonetheless, in September of 1765, Fielding Lewis sent a letter to the Bray Associates informing them that the school had been opened the previous April.

There are three letters (14 September 1765, 31 October 1768, and 1 February 1772) written by Fielding to the Bray Associates that survive. They provide what little information we have about the Bray school in Fredericksburg. It appears that Fielding followed the rules and curriculum that the Williamsburg school had established. It also seems as though he faced similar problems to the Williamsburg school. He had a difficult time securing a schoolmistress for the low wages offered. Unlike Williamsburg, the Bray Associates did not offer additional money. Again, enslaved children were only permitted to attend until basic literacy was obtained, and then they were removed back to work by their owners. The school in Fredericksburg struggled with enrollment numbers. It opened to 16 pupils and dropped to nine by 1768 with only four of those attending in summer. A smaller population of black children (whether enslaved or free) and even less support from local slave owners probably affected the school’s attendance more than Williamsburg. In Fielding’s final letter to the Associates, he stated “learning them to read is rather a disadvantage to the owners, we having had some examples of that sort.” These concerns hint at what led to Virginia passing extremely restrictive ‘slave codes,’ which included a law forbidding enslaved people to be taught to read and write, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

Virginia historical marker W-109 at the original site of the Bray School. Credit: Virginia Department of Historic Resources

It is unfortunate that more information regarding the Bray schools throughout the colonies did not survive. What is clear though is that these schools led to the literacy of a significant number of enslaved and free blacks throughout the colonies. Recently, Colonial Williamsburg determined that the building that housed the school is still intact and had been moved to William & Mary’s campus. They added a historical marker honoring the school and the children who attended it. As we gain knowledge and rediscover the past, stories like those of the enslaved and free children who gained a new foothold in a literate world are stories that demand to be told.

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

[1] Oscar H. Darter, Colonial Fredericksburg and Neighborhood in Perspective, (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1957), 62-63.

The Christmastime Escape of Stephen and Guile

“My Dear Brother, I wish you to give Howell some advice how to Proseed in regard to two Negroes that Runaway from me a few days before Christmas…”

With those words in the early spring of 1794, Betty Lewis informed her brother, George Washington, of a difficult situation.  She also provided us with a few clues about the identities of two more members of the enslaved community at Kenmore during the Lewis era, and a larger story of resistance and survival.

Betty wrote the letter quoted above from Kenmore on February 9, 1794.  By that time, Betty’s financial situation was precarious at best.  Her land was not producing a crop that could support her, her debts were mounting, and although all of her grown children were living on their own, she was caring for at least two grandchildren and one niece, all living under her roof.  Her youngest son, Howell (mentioned in the letter) actually lived on his own property in Frederick County, and handled much of his mother’s farming and land affairs on occasional visits to Kenmore.  Betty would only remain at Kenmore for another two years before moving to a small farmhouse outside of town, much to the relief of her children.  Her letter goes on to describe the runaway slaves as “the Principal hands on the Plantation,” and continues, “…the hole Crop I made the last year was thirty Barrils of Corn and a Hundred and tenn Bushels of Wheat, if I am so unfortunate as not to get them (the runaways) again, I have no chance to make any thing the insuing year.”

Who were these two men, and what can we learn about their situation? It turns out that the letter from Betty to George is only the first of several surviving documents connected to this story.  On March 25, 1794 – more than 3 months after the men ran away from Kenmore – Betty placed an ad in the Virginia Gazette, offering a reward for their return.  The ad provides us with their names: Stephen and Guile.  Stephen’s name is not in any of the four original primary documents that began our Enslaved Community Project (click here to read more about these documents and our research into other members of the enslaved community), which tells us he was likely acquired by the Lewis family after Fielding Lewis’s death in 1781, and may have been rather new to the community at the time of his escape.  Guile, on the other hand, was listed in Fielding’s probate inventory as “Guyle” and valued at £50.  The 1782 Divvy List, written by Betty Lewis after her husband’s death to show which enslaved persons were to go to each of her children, shows that Guile was 9 years of age at that time (so he was approximately 21 years old at the time of his escape).  He had most likely been at Kenmore for his entire life. 

As is often the case with runaway slave advertisements, which were incredibly detailed, this document also provides the only physical descriptions that we have of any enslaved person at Kenmore during the Lewis era.  Stephen is said to be a “black fellow,” about 24 years old, around 5’8” tall, and could play the violin very well.  Betty also described him as “very impertinent and talkative.” Guile was said to have a “yellowish complexion,” about six feet tall and “large in proportion.”  He also had a long scar under his right eye Betty added that he had a “down look and very little to say.” Betty summed up her thoughts on the two men by saying Stephen “…is an artful fellow and I am inclined to think he has induced the other fellow Guile to accompany him.”[1]

Newspaper advertisement placed in the Virginia Gazette on March 25, 1794 by Betty Lewis offering a $20 reward for the returned of runaways Stephen and Guile.

Apparently sometime between writing to her brother in February about the escape, and placing the advertisement in March, Betty had learned a bit more about the two men’s plans.  In her letter to George, Betty speculates that they were most likely headed for Philadelphia, where they probably believed they could gain their freedom.  When Pennsylvania enacted The Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in 1780, Philadelphia became a center of abolition and activism as well as a major hub for the Underground Railroad.  Many enslaved persons who made the risky decision to flee the South headed for Philadelphia, so Betty’s speculation was justified.  However, in her newspaper ad, Betty changed her opinion, and stated that she had, “reason to believe that they are on the way to Maryland, if not already there – Stephen was formerly the property of Mr. Sprigg, in the neighborhood of Annapolis, and may now be lurking about his negro quarters.”[2] How Betty came into this information is unknown, but it suggests that Stephen may have had a reason beyond freedom for running away.  By choosing to head for Maryland instead of Philadelphia, Stephen indicated that there might be something at his old home in Annapolis drawing him back, possibly a wife or other family members who he was separated from when he came to Kenmore.  The Mr. Sprigg mentioned in the advertisement was most likely Richard Sprigg of Strawberry Hill, near Annapolis.  He was an associate of George Washington’s and frequently corresponded with him, usually about breeding cocker spaniels and mules, and wildlife for game parks.  No apparent connection has been found between Sprigg and Betty Lewis, but evidently Betty acquired one of his enslaved workers. 

If you’ve been following along with the dates of these documents thus far, you might have noticed that a rather long period of time elapsed between the time the men supposedly ran away, and the time Betty first mentioned taking any action on the matter to her brother.  According to the newspaper ad, Stephen and Guile made their escape just before Christmas on December 20,1793.  Betty didn’t mention it to her brother for more than a month, on February 9.  That seems a long time to wait, when she was supposedly so concerned for the future of her property without the labor of the two men.  What could account for it?

There’s actually a fairly good chance that Betty wasn’t aware of the escape for quite some time after it had happened.  The Christmas season was a popular time among the colonial enslaved population to attempt escapes.  To understand why, we have to take a look at what exactly the Christmas season was like for enslaved communities.  First, it is important to understand that there was no one common practice or tradition for the Christmas season amongst the enslaved population in 18th century America.  Customs and rules varied greatly by region, by town, and even from one plantation to the next.  Generally speaking, most masters gave their workforce some time off during the holiday season.  In most written accounts from the period, it seems the amount of time varied between 1 day and a full week, with the most common allotment being 3 days.[3]  During that time, enslaved people were often granted unusual amounts of personal freedom.  They could sometimes be allowed to travel to visit friends or family members on neighboring farms, they could plan their own gatherings or celebrations, and they could take part in gift-giving and receiving, even with the master’s family.[4] 

However, time off wasn’t equally distributed between members of the same community.  Because of the winter season, field hands and manual laborers got the bulk of free time, as there was simply less for them to do at that time of year.  House slaves, however, saw their workload double and triple with the holiday influx of visitors, household preparations, meals, etc.  This was the case for people like Billy and Charlotte, two enslaved individuals at Kenmore who we’ve met in this post and this post.  As the household butler, Billy’s work was nearly unceasing during the season, overseeing all of the food procurement and preparations, taking care of the needs of any visitors staying in the house, and coordinating all of the arrangements for holiday parties and balls, including the culminating celebration on Twelfth Night.  Charlotte, a seamstress, was most likely inundated with making, remaking and repairing all the Lewis family clothing needed for the season’s many special occasions.  Other enslaved individuals at Kenmore known to us from this post and hired out to other farms or businesses, like the rope makers Abraham, Bob, George and Randolph, could anticipate a return to Kenmore at the Christmas season.  Most of the agreements Betty Lewis and her sons made for the hiring out of their enslaved workers were for up to a year and often terminated at Christmastime.  For those workers, there might have been some joy in the prospect of returning to a familiar home, family and friends.

In Betty Lewis’s letter to her brother George, she refers to Stephen and Guile as the “principal hands” of her farming operation, indicating that they were not house slaves and therefore were probably among those granted more free time during the Christmas holiday of 1793.  Because of this free time, and because owners and overseers were otherwise occupied, Stephen and Guile may have had their best chance during the year to escape.  And because they weren’t expected back on the property or to be performing specific jobs for quite some time, their departure might go unnoticed, giving them a sizeable head start.  It may have been several weeks before Betty knew that she had lost two important assets to her income, and it was obviously several months before she had enough information to place an ad for their return in the newspaper.

So what became of Stephen and Guile? Did they make it to freedom in Philadelphia? Was Stephen reunited with family in Maryland? As it happens there is one more document in the Kenmore archives that may provide a clue as to how their story ends.  On June 4, 1793, about three months after Betty placed her ad in the Virginia Gazette for the return of Stephen and Guile, she entered into an agreement with her step son John Lewis.  According to a fragmented bill of sale written in John’s hand, he agreed to sell Betty two of his slaves – Reuben and Lewis – for the bargain price of £140.[5]

Fragmented bill of sale from John Lewis to Betty Lewis selling two slaves – Reuben and Lewis – for £140.

The two men were among a group of ten enslaved people originally gifted to John Lewis as a wedding present from his father many years earlier.  It is the only documented occasion on which Betty purchased any enslaved person following her husband’s death, and the only time such a purchase was made from one of her children, most likely indicating that it was a rare occurrence, perhaps made necessary by an emergency situation.  The timing of the transaction seems to suggest that John sold Reuben and Lewis to Betty to help her make up for the loss of Stephen and Guile.  Neither of the runaways’ names show up in the list of enslaved people sold at vendu following Betty Lewis’s death, and no further mention of the incident was made in Betty’s correspondence with her brother George.  Taken together, all of this evidence strongly supports the conclusion that Stephen and Guile were never recaptured, and they never returned to Kenmore.  Perhaps their Christmastime escape was a success.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] Advertisement, Virginia Gazette, Purdie and Dixon. 25 March 1794.  Copy in Kenmore Manuscript Collection, PH677.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Bigham, Shauna, and Robert E. May. “The Time O’ All Times? Masters, Slaves, and Christmas in the Old South.” Journal of the Early Republic 18, no. 2 (1998): 265.

[4] Ibid, 263-88.

[5] Bill of sale, Lewis, John to Betty Lewis, 4 June 1794.  Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 385.

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

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


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.

[ii] HMS Victory, The National Museum of the Royal Navy.

[iii] The Long Story of the Jones Point Ropewalk, 1833 – 1850. National Park Service Historical Marker.

[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.