Where’s Felicity?: What’s Not in a Name in Colonial Virginia

Every so often, a historian gets an intellectual itch that needs to be scratched, an irksome question that just won’t go away, so off to the side goes the current project until something of an answer might be found to temporarily satisfy the curiosity.  And so it happened to me yesterday, after writing a blog post about #SaveSweetBriar.  In it, I referenced Felicity Merriman, the principal character of one of the most beloved American Girl books, created by my friend, Valerie Tripp, about a young woman who lived in Virginia during the age of the American Revolution.  Having a keen scholarly interest in the way that young people develop passions for the past (mine started with The Mystery of the Old Musket), I’m especially curious about the role that Young Adult and related fiction plays in that process and have been rather surprised by the number of adult women, whom are now themselves historians, interpreters, archivists, and at least one award-winning journalist (my wife), who can trace their interest directly to Valerie’s Felicity. (I’ll share a guilty secret and reveal that I own and have read all of the books, including “Felicity’s Mysteries,” and find them utterly charming.)

Except there is a problem.  As a historian of colonial Virginia, I could not recall having once come across anyone named Felicity.  Not one.  In fact, I couldn’t remember having ever seen any name like it in correspondence or ledgers or on a gravestone or anywhere else.  Given names like that are common enough in New England records and graveyards, deriving as they do, I believe, primarily from a sort of Puritanism fueled by hefty doses of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, which resulted in such permanent reminders of the virtues that one should pursue to lead a good Christian life.  Consequently, names like Charity, Prudence, Mercy, and, yes, Felicity, can be found throughout 17th- and 18th-century New England.  But I could not think of one in colonial Virginia.

So, knowing that my loyalists will wait, I decided to take a look.  I just happen to have built up, over the last ten years, a sizable prosopographical database (using Zotero) that focuses on the men and women, free and enslaved, who lived in and around the Chesapeake between 1600 and about 1820 (that later chronological edge keeps slipping further and further into the 1800s).  Having already completed a broader study on male (free and enslaved) naming practices in the Chesapeake (to map birth legitimacy traits), I already had a model ready into which, in my search for Felicity, I could plug the female names and see what came out the other end, in a somewhat scientific analysis.

And I couldn’t find Felicity.  Or Charity.  Or Prudence.  In fact, the only, for lack of a better way to describe them, “New England” name in our entire household belongs to our dog, Mercy Otis.  Of 483 free females in my database whom had anything to do with the Chesapeake in the 17th and 18th centuries, only one — Fortune Randolph (a first cousin of Thomas Jefferson’s) — had a given name even close, and she had to be excluded in the end because she actually lived in Bristol, England, and never saw America.  Interestingly enough, a full 45 percent of them were named Elizabeth (which is actually the name of Felicity’s best friend in the books and comes from a family of good loyalists), followed closely by Mary (33 percent).  The next closest was a version of Anne (including Ann and Anna) at 12 percent.  The remainder are a wide variety of Susannahs, Lucys, Sarahs, Janes, etc.

Of course, the next question occurring to any historian is “why?”  Why such a tremendous difference in naming practices and, honestly, why so many named Elizabeth and Mary (more than three-quarters of the total)?  The easy and quick answer is also the most interesting: it’s a fantastic illustration of the striking cultural differences between the different parts of colonial America.  Religion is the most obvious difference, as my sample was comprised almost entirely of Anglicans, rather than Puritans or their Congregational successors.  There are other issues to go into–the use of diminutives, for example, such as Betsy and Molly, which seems to me to be a class matter–but they will have to wait.

As my loyalists are beckoning me, I’ll leave you with my findings, in descending order of occurrence.  Ladies and gentlemen, as Train would sing, meet (colonial) Virginia:

Elizabeth, Mary, Ann/Anne/Anna, Lucy, Martha, Susanna/Susannah, Jane, Sarah, Frances, Alice, Rebecca, Hannah, Maria, Margaret, Isabella, Charlotte, Dorothy/Dorothea, Ariana, Winifred, Judith, Catherine, Ursula, Priscilla, Ellen, Joanna, Christina, Agatha, Clara, Letitia, Edith, Amy, Eleanor, Lydia, and Pauline.       

Stout Fellows and Fine Girls: Williamsburg, Virginia, and the Book of Negroes

In an recent exchange about the stellar new Canadian television series “Book of Negroes,” based on a novel, which is itself based on a set of historical documents listing former slaves, and soon to be broadcast as a miniseries on BET, an acquaintance on Facebook asked me about the men and women from Williamsburg, Virginia, whose names appear it in.  This post is by way of an answer.

They don’t look like much.  At first glance, one might dismissively confuse them as 18th-century merchant ledgers of some sort, listing goods and services rendered rather than people.  But the fact that the pages do mark people who were once goods, but returned to being individuals again by a British government that kept a promise made in 1779 for freedom to all enslaved men and women who made it to their lines during the war against the American patriots, makes the manuscript ledgers that make up the “Book of Negroes” nothing short of remarkable.

The books were created in 1783, during the British evacuation of New York City, the last royal hold on what had become the United States of America.  At the time, the city was teeming with former slaves who were fearful for their tenuous liberty and their former owners whom were keen to have them returned to a lifetime of servitude.  A few slaveowners, such as Carter Braxton–a reluctant signer of the Declaration of Independence–sent agents to seek them out and attempt to return them.  When Braxton’s agent, Williamsburg merchant Robert Prentis, found a few and attempted to leave New York with them, another Virginian told him not to bother.  Beverly Robinson, the brother of a former speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses, was in Manhattan, too, but in another capacity–as a British officer, the commander of the largest loyalist regiment raised in the American colonies.  Robinson, who had lived in the Hudson Valley for a time before the war, warned Prentis that the British high command would stand behind the Philipsburgh Proclamation, issued by Henry Clinton in June 1779.  Clinton, the commander-in-chief of British forces in North America, made it official British policy that no one could claim another person as his property within British lines and all former slaves were free to seek whatever occupation, choose whatever life, they wanted to.  Robinson informed Prentis essentially what Charles Cornwallis had told Virginia governor Thomas Nelson in 1781: slaveowners could enter Yorktown to look for slaves and former slaves were free to leave with their former owners, but only if the former slaves chose to.  Otherwise, they weren’t going anywhere they did not want to go.  Prentis left New York empty-handed, and Braxton admitted that independence might have been a hasty mistake.

The books themselves were generated in 1783, after the terms of the Treaty of Paris were agreed to, granting American independence.  In it, an important provision, insisted upon by the Americans in Article VII, was that “any negroes or other property of the American inhabitants” would not be taken away by the British when they left.  To the Americans, that meant slaves would be returned, of course.  But to the British, the key words in the treaty were “other property,” and because of Clinton’s proclamation, the former slaves were people, not property at all, and therefore not covered by the article.  No matter how many times George Washington appealed to Clinton’s successor, Guy Carleton, for the return of the slaves, the answer was always the same: No.  But what to do with them?  Thousands had found their way to New York City, along with loyalists and what was left of the British army.  So the decision was made to evacuate them, along with everyone else, to other British colonies in Canada and the Caribbean.  Some went to Britain.  Most went north, to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.  Others were less fortunate and sent south, to the Bahamas and other islands in the Caribbean.

As the books record a striking amount of information about each individual, we know that almost 1000 Virginians were among them.  Clerks listed each of them as they boarded their assigned vessels to leave.  Consequently, we know what they looked like, how old they were, where they had lived, whom had once owned them, and when they left.  We know that some took their liberty in 1775, at the very beginning of the conflict, when then-governor Lord Dunmore issued his famous proclamation offering freedom to slaves whom would fight the patriots.  A number of others went in 1779, during a major, but brief, British invasion of the Chesapeake, not long after Clinton’s proclamation was issued and became widely known.  But most seem to have joined the British armies of Robinson, Cornwallis, and Benedict Arnold in 1781, when many free and enslaved Virginians thought the war lost by the patriots as much of the Old Dominion was returned to royal control.  Lord Dunmore had even been ordered back across the Atlantic to resume his old post (he was on a ship headed to Virginia when Cornwallis surrendered).  And we know that several, such as 20-year-old Deborah–“stout wench, thick lips, pock marked,” had belonged to George Washington.

At least 14 came from the old capital of Williamsburg, including one owned by George Wythe.  Their entries from the Book of Negroes are transcribed below.  Of their fates, we know almost nothing, but their names deserve to be remembered and their stories to be told.  And like all good history, the sources beg more questions than reveal answers.

Williamsburg in the Book of Negroes

Isaac, 21, squat stout mulatto. Formerly slave to John Henderson, Williamsburgh, Virginia; brought off by his parents 5 years ago by proclamation [1778].
John Jones, 40, slow, well sized man, M. Formerly slave to Richard Jones, Williamsburg, Virginia; left that with Lord Dunmore in 1776. 
Peter Prentice, 32, squat, scar on right wrist, (Engineer Department). Formerly slave to John Southern, Williamsburg, Virginia; left him 3 years ago [1779].
Jupiter King, 24, stout fellow. Formerly slave to Col. King, Williamsburgh, Virginia; left him 3 years past [1779].
Sally Dennis, 20, stout wench. Formerly the property of [Lewis] Burrell of Williamsburgh, Virginia; left him 2 years ago [1781].
John Gustus, 19, stout fellow. Formerly the property of John [Tazewell] of Williamsburg, Virginia; left him 4 years ago [1779].
Hannah Jackson, 12, fine girl. Formerly the property of William Holt of Williamsburgh, Virginia; left him 4 years ago [1779].
Nancy Dixon, 30, sick at present with a girl her daughter, 6 years old. Formerly the property of John Dixon of Williamsburgh, Virginia; left him 3 years ago [1780].
Simon Johnson, 16, likely lad, (Trumpeter, American Legion). Formerly slave to John Cooper, Williamsburgh, Virginia; joined the army with General Arnold in 1781.
James Rea, 24, ordinary fellow without legs. Formerly slave to George [Wythe], Williamsburg, Virginia; left him in 1779.
Robert Holt, 24, stout fellow. Formerly slave to William Holt, Williamsburgh, Virginia; left him in 1779.
John Gray, 28, stout fellow. Formerly slave to Captain Howard Harrand, Williamsburgh, Virginia, who put him in the Army from whence he deserted. [UNK]
Nancy Moody, 14, fine girl. Formerly the property of Henry Moody of Williamsburgh, Virginia; left him 5 years ago [1778].
Peggy Minton, 22, likely wench, Quadroon. Formerly slave to William Black, Williamsburgh, Virginia; left him in 1779.

For more on the historical context of the Book of Negroes, I highly recommend Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution.  For a terrific website that offers considerable access to a number of primary sources, including the Book of Negroes, visit Black Loyalist.  There are two copies of the original texts, one set in Canada and the other in Britain.  It is from the latter copy that I made the above transcriptions.

Feet of Clay: Benjamin Harrison, Founding Father…and Smuggler?

Berkeley PlantationNot many people know much about Benjamin Harrison (c1726-1791), one of the patriots’ “principal & most violent Leaders” (according to an anonymous loyalist observer), a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a governor of Virginia.  According to Edmund Randolph, writing long after the American Revolution, Harrison was a “favorite of the day” and “scrupled not to utter any untruth,” although his frankness was “sometimes tinctured with bitterness.”  Not that you’ll get much reliable information about him if you visit the impressive but poorly interpreted Berkeley Plantation, his home on the James River between Williamsburg and Richmond, he did lead an interesting life, that bespeaks, as my grandmother used to say, “something rustling behind the curtain.”  His father and two sisters were killed by lightning strikes in 1745; his mother died the same year, leaving him, at about 19 years old, and fresh from the College of William & Mary, in charge of his surviving family and hundreds of enslaved men and women.  Even in those circumstances he was a complicated figure: Benjamin Rush reported that pleasure was his ultimate goal, so it makes sense that his favorite book seems to have been Fanny Hill, yet he was also responsible for what might have been the first and largest mass inoculation against smallpox, including his enslaved families, in early American history, when the pestilence threatened his own daughters.

And he was also a smuggler.  Like John Hancock, he was one of those patriots who inveighed against the tightening of the Navigation Acts because it meant more British warships patrolling the Chesapeake Bay and, consequently, threatened his own bottom line.  How do we know this?  Well, we could just say that the apple fell not far from the tree and leave it at that.  Both his father and grandfather were accused of, and investigated for, smuggling dating back to the late 1600s.  But Harrison made it easy for historians by simply telling us.  Hardly an Israelite without guile, documents now at the Houghton Library of Harvard University spell out his schemes in letters with his primary accomplice, a Boston merchant and Son of Liberty.  In the late 1760s and early 1770s, they kept their eyes peeled for any opportunity at all to skirt import restrictions, especially when it came to illicit cargoes of dried fish and wheat from New England.  In 1772, for example, he wrote a letter to his Boston accomplice, complaining about the effectiveness of the officer in command of the British warship then on the Virginia station–the crew of which could have also included Francis Otway Byrd, a Royal Navy Midshipman and son of Harrison’s neighbor, William Byrd III.  Any illegal effort, Harrison wrote in January, “will Depend on the lookout that is kept here by the Men of War,” but “at present there is no doing any thing in the smugling [sic] way.”  But if they were to find their way to rid themselves of the troublesome naval captain, “I shall carry my former Scheme into Execution.”  “[T]wo or three successful Voyages of this sort,” Harrison observed, “would make a fortune.”

I write this not to besmirch the memory of a celebrated American “founding father” (a rather meaningless label that I try, and often fail, to avoid).  After all, passing judgment on people of the past–even of the present, for that matter–isn’t my job as a historian (although I will confess to a sincere hatred of Alexander Hamilton and William Byrd II).  Instead, the point is a useful reminder that these people were, like all people, hopeless flawed and very messy, which is what makes studying and reading about their real lives and experiences so terribly interesting.  Getting them right is especially important now, with shows like “Sons of Liberty” and “Turn” taking our Revolutionary history and throwing it into a multimedia grinder on a weekly basis.  Yes, Benjamin Harrison was a smuggler, which almost certainly influenced his political behavior on behalf of the patriots.  Political economics had an enormous and complicated influence on the course of the American Revolution, which is the subject of my next book.  But, like it or not, those are the kind of persons who made America, men and women with feet of clay whom, in the end, created an extraordinary work of art.

A Colonial Virginia Tale of Sex and Betrayal: Bartholomew Dandridge Sets a Trap

Amongst the miscellaneous manuscripts of Robert Bolling (c1730-1775) is this practically picaresque “anecdote” regarding two friends who were Bolling’s contemporaries: Bartholomew Dandridge (the brother of Martha Washington) and Richard Johnson.  It was never published and is, in fact, crossed out rather heavily by a later hand, but not so desperately as to render it unreadable.  Written in the 1760s, it probably says more about the author’s perspective on gender, culture, and morality among male elites in the late colonial period than it does the subjects’ points of view given that Bolling–a prolific writer of exceptionally bad poetry (with all apologies to the late, great Leo Lemay) that was heavily tinged with misogyny and an almost Gothic sensibility–was one of the more curious figures of his time and place (which, for colonial Virginia, is saying quite something), and not known as a “particular Friend” to any of the parties involved.

Barthol: Dandridge Esqr having lost his wife first Wife married second of the name of Burbridge: After a few years of Marriage he began to suspect an attachment between his Lady and his own particular Friend Dick Johnson one of the gambling horsejockey gentlemen so common in this Country; devoid of Honor Faith & all Generosity of Sentiment. Tis easy to believe their Intimacy cou’d not subsist with such Suspicion in the Breast of Mr Dandridge: The latter left Newcastle where they both resided & went to [blank] in [blank] [where it was] confirmed tis said, by a Letter intercepted in what before was surmised: He forged a Letter from his Wife to Johnson inviting him to a Stable at some Distance from the Mansion House about Twilight on a certain Day.  Johnson went with all the Ardor of a keen Lecher, tying his Horse huriedly to the Stable to taste those Embraces which he knew by Experience to be so ravishing. Poor Fellow he found himself closely embraced but not by Mrs Dandridge. An Overseer & his Negroes secured and carried him to the injured Husband. Mr Johnson being stripped & tied received the mosaical Law. His Fortitude was not Proof against [damaged] thinking besides, that Mrs Dandridge realy writ the Letter of Invitation to betray him: he made a general Confession corroborating the scene by a Token of a very delicate Nature. Near Mrs. Dandridge’s offending Member was a Scar. Johnson mentioned & described it. He declared she had told him by what accident twas occasioned. Dandridge a clever worthy young Gentleman was more to be pitied than Johnson: Convinced beyond a Doubt of his Wrongs his Heart became a Prey to Melancholy & his Family most miserable. Husbands shou’d beware principally of their best Friends, & take Care that those Friends be Men of Honor, two Precautions which are very friendly to that tender fragil Existence or Fancy called Chastity.

[Source: Misc. Mss, Brock Collection, Huntington Library]

“An accursed Violation of the most sacred Right of human Nature”: The Somerset Case in Williamsburg

If I was Counsel for Somerset the Negro, (says a Correspondent) I would take up the Matter higher than any of his Counsel have yet done.  I would urge, and I think I could prove, that he neither now is, nor ever was, the Property of his Master; that the original Vendor had no Right to sell, nor the original Purchaser to buy him; that all Mankind, as they are born, ought to live, equally free; and that the Slave Trade, whatever the mercantile World may urge to the contrary, is an infamous bartering of human Flesh and Blood, an accursed Violation of the most sacred Right of human Nature.

This strenuous opinion is remarkable not that it was printed at all–it first appeared in the London Public Advertiser of 16 May 1772–but that it was reprinted in the Virginia Gazette of Alexander Purdie and John Dixon just over two months later, on 23 July.  Regardless of the actual holding in the case of James Somerset, which held that slaves were servants under a 1679 statute and not chattel property, which did not actually make Somerset, or any other slave, legally free, the perception was quite different.  Somerset himself was said to have reported to a relative that he told the servants that “Lord Mansfield had given them [slaves in England] their freedom.”  The news spread across the Atlantic. In late 1774, one planter advertised that an enslaved man in Virginia had run away, probably to get to England, based on “the Knowledge he has of the late Determination of Somerset’s Case.” It certainly stands as a strong reminder of the power of perception to shape opinion and behavior, rather than the actual facts of the case, of the difference between rhetoric and reality, especially when it comes to our understanding of the personal and constitutional tensions involved in the struggle for independence.

“I will make the shores of James River an example of terror”: The nature of war in 1781 Virginia

British forces under the command of William Phillips (with Benedict Arnold) occupied Williamsburg from April 20 to April 22, 1781.  By many accounts, they were treated well, even warmly, by many of the inhabitants, much to the chagrin of more committed patriots.   As a result, a number of citizens were arrested and charged with “disaffection to the interests of their country,” prompting this remarkable statement from Phillips, written on April 29 to the Marquis de la Fayette.  It is all the more notable because Phillips was well-known and respected by many Virginia leaders, including Thomas Jefferson, as a reasonable, even moderate, officer, from the time Phillips spent as a prisoner of war in Charlottesville as part of Burgoyne’s “convention army.”  Clearly tensions on both sides were reaching a peak, given that the Revolution in Virginia was hanging increasingly in the balance.

When I was at Williamsburg, and at Petersburg, I gave several inhabitants and country people protections for their persons and properties.  I did this without asking, or even considering, whether these people were either friends or foes, actuated by no other motive than that of pure humanity. I understand, from almost undoubted authority, that several of these persons have been taken up by their malicious neighbours, and sent to your quarters, where preparations are making for their being ill treated; a report which I sincerely hope may be without foundation. I repeat to you, sir, that my protections were given generally from a wish that, in the destruction of public stories, as little damage as possible might be done to private property, and to the persons of individuals. …I am obliged to declare to you, sir, that if any persons, under the description I have given, receive ill treatment, I shall be under the necessity of sending to Petersburg, and giving that chastisement to the illiberal persecutor of innocent people, which their conduct shall deserve. And I further declare to you, sir, should any person be put to death, under the pretence of their being spies of, or friends to, the British government, I will make the shores of James River an example of terror to the rest of Virginia.

“We are in confusion beyond parallel”: Nation-building in Revolutionary Virginia

Edmund Randolph's signature on a piece of Virginia currency issued in 1775.On June 21, 1776, Edmund Randolph was caught in a whirlwind in Williamsburg.  A member of the 5th Virginia Convention, he had already voted for the resolution for independence from Great Britain and adopted the Virginia Declaration of Rights.  But then the hard work had to begin.  Randolph was at the center of building a new nation, with everything that tends to entail, from political infighting to fighting a war to constructing a whole new government.  And meanwhile, the remains of the old nation–of everything that Lord Dunmore and his family had left behind, including slaves, when they fled Williamsburg a year before–had to be dealt with.  It’s no wonder that the 22-year-old saw “confusion beyond parallel” in the opening months of the American Revolution, on this date 237 years ago.
We are in confusion beyond parallel: no government is in existence but such as is vested in the hands of the Convention. This august body yesterday elected delegates for Congress, and rejected Colonels Harrison and Braxton. It was first determined we should have only five. The fortunate candidates were Wythe, Nelson, Jefferson, R. H. Lee, and T. L. Lee. We are engaged in forming a plan of government. God knows when it will be finished. It is generally thought that the contest will be between President Nelson and Mr. Henry, who shall be governor. Hunter’s gun manufactory has turned out twenty or thirty excessively fine guns, upon which the Convention made a contract with him for all the guns he can make in the course of a twelvemonth, at the price of 6 each. I know not what to add, except that Lord Dunmore’s estate is ordered by Convention to be sold.

SOURCE: Edmund Randolph to George Baylor, 21 June 1776, printed in Moncure Daniel Conway, Omitted Chapters of History Disclosed In the Life And Papers of Edmund Randolph (1888), 29.

“Let the Gentlemen Look To It”: The Tea Act and “the Vulgar” in Virginia

ImageOn this date in 1774, a doctor returning from a public meeting in the Northern Neck of Virginia had this report for his friend, Landon Carter. While the question of class consciousness, or even awareness, in revolutionary America has been vastly overstated by some historians, this snippet of political life suggests the divided interests between “the vulgar” and “depraved” on the one hand and “the Gentlemen” on the other, and makes clear that the revolutionary experience was far from a common one.

“The meeting at Farnham last Saturday, I believe, was a very usefull one—Many People who came there with an opinion, too comon among the vulgar, that the Law affecting Tea alone, did not concern them, because they used none of it—had yr prejudices removed—indeed many of the more depraved have said, let the Gentlemen look to it.”

[Source: Landon Carter Papers, University of Virginia]

“Are not the Gentery Lords and the common people vassals”?: Abigail Adams Takes Stock of the Virginians (1776)

In the year of American independence, as representatives of the colonies in Philadelphia were still considering whether they could–or even should–become united, people elsewhere were wondering the same thing.  One thing we tend to forget these days is just how different and disconnected each American colony had been from each other from the very beginning.  They were separated by religion, ethnicity, political history, and, it should not be gainsaid, political economics.  In March 1776, the venerable Abigail Adams wondered:

What sort of Defence Virginia can make against our common Enemy? Whether it is so situated as to make an able Defence? Are not the Gentery Lords and the common people vassals, are they not like the uncivilized Natives Brittain represents us to be? I hope their Riffel Men who have shewen themselves very savage and even Blood thirsty; are not a specimen of the Generality of the people.

She was happy to give them credit for producing someone such as George Washington, already an icon of patriotic virtue (and Abigail had not yet met him), but something about the Virginians troubled her more: their commitment to freedom.

I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for Liberty cannot be Eaquelly Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs. Of this I am certain that it is not founded upon that generous and christian principal of doing to others as we would that others should do unto us.

The representatives in Congress were able to set aside their qualms, even if the presence of slavery in Virginia engendered regional distrust for decades to come–and charges of hypocrisy to this day.